I’ve never been someone who covets personal possessions and always favoured a minimalist approach to material wealth. One of the original attractions of karate was the lack of any need for equipment or expensive clothing; all that was required was a plain white karate gi (karate uniform affectionately known as pyjamas), an open mind and willing heart.That said, the karate and wider martial arts world, like most sports and leisure activities, have its fair share of accessories and adornments. Gi’s costing many £100’s if not more, gi’s of every colour and design, belts of quality and symbolism, medals, cups, badges, patches, weapons, weapon cases, the list is endless and manufacturers are quick to seize a marketing opportunity and tap into the popular culture of materialism and tribal identity.But for me none of this held any value and I revelled in the simple bliss of a plain white karate suit and belt. Nothing special, cheap but comfortable, and suitable for my needs.
After over 25 years of regular practice, in 2009 I was fortunate to be invited to a karate camp near Mount Fuji in Japan. My hosts were men who I respected enormously and held in the highest esteem, not only for their undoubted karate wisdom, but as human beings they possessed all the qualities I hold most dear, integrity, warmth, humility and an open, giving nature.
During my stay, I felt honoured to be ceremonially presented with an unusual, personalised black belt. The kanji recorded my name and the occasion and was thoughtfully handed to me by Tetsuya Koibuchi Sensei and Isao Ariga sensei, men whose karate skill and wisdom is only eclipsed by their personal virtues.Japanese culture has a unique approach to quality; well made items such as the katana sword are appreciated, treasured and sometimes even revered. So it was with my new belt. Purchased from a reputed supplier in Tokyo, traditionally made using a rare thread weaved carefully to form a belt which oozed quality. Wrapping it around my waist one could almost sense the craftsmanship and hours of labour needed for such a fine item.
For the first time in my karate career I possessed something I valued and my emotional investment was intensified when news of the untimely death of one of the men who had passed it to me. Rest in Peace Isao Ariga sensei.
|A handshake from the wonderful Isao Ariga Sensei|
After nearly ten years, the constant tying and untying began to have an impact and the threads were becoming increasingly prominent. For many karate practitioners this overt display of use advertised their experience for all to see but for me thoughts of retiring such a precious object started to become louder.
Each year I lead a residential weekend of karate training. Situated in the peaceful and scenic Gloucestershire countryside, the seminar allows for intensive and concentrated training for all those attending. I decided that after the 2018 event I would retire my belt and preserve it for the future. Of course I would wear it on special occasions but I didn’t want to risk degrading the weave to such a point that the kanji and overall integrity of the material was compromisedOne Sunday evening, a week prior to the annual Gloucestershire retreat, I taught my normal class of teenage students. The dojo for this particular Sunday was a school gymnasium; a regular and convenient location for many of the classes delivered by our club instructors.By 7pm the last student had departed and I gathered my belongings and headed for the door. It was an unusually warm and humid night but as usual I gave a last look around the room to ensure nothing had been left by students, parents or instructors.
Two days later I prepared for my regular evening class. Packing my bag I was surprised my belt was not in its usual place. Time was against me so with no more thought I grabbed a spare and left for my class. I have a young family and I was fairly sure one of the children had found daddy’s belt and used it as a slide or lasso or just thought it would be fun to hide it.
The next morning the continued absence of the belt spurred me into action and I began searching the house. One by one (I have four), I asked my son and daughters “have you seen or moved daddy’s karate belt?” They had not. At this point my concern became real. Could I have left it in the Sunday evening hall? The school caretaker, Martin, is a particularly helpful and friendly character. Still doubting the belt was truly lost and believing it was somewhere in my house I contacted him and requested he check the school for me.Twenty minutes later Martin called with bad news.My belt had been found on Monday morning by the school cleaner. She had handed it to a Physical Education teacher who had in turn left it in the school’s PE Office. Unfortunately a member of staff had little regard for the worn and threaded belt and threw it in the bin. In desperation I told Martin I would be willing to search the school bins to recover my precious item only to be told the bin had been emptied by the local authority and contents on their way to land fill.
And so my love affair with a piece of black cloth had come to an ignominious end and my dream of handing down a meaningful family heirloom was over. I was desperately sad and disappointed in the actions of the school staff who demonstrated little or no regard or empathy to the possibility the belt may have a value, financially or otherwise, but I guess one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. My seven year old daughter enquired why I was sad. After explaining she said, “don’t worry dad I’ll make you a belt.” The love from a child can never be underestimated and if she presented me with a piece of string to tie my trousers, I would treasure it, but I know nothing will replace what is lost. Life goes on but my karate life is a little poorer.
At my moment of greatest disappointment I’m reminded of the Buddhist creation and subsequent destruction of beautiful, complex and labour intensive Mandalas, an ancient Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving ritual geometric patterns made from coloured sand. After careful and intensive work by three or four monks, the sand is ceremonially swept up symbolising the impermanence of all that exists.
Emotional attachment to inanimate objects is endemic in our society. There is much wisdom to be found in the sand mandala.