Piecing Together the Karate Jigsaw Puzzle
by Paul Walker
As a young kid I used to enjoy doing jigsaw puzzles. Like any other person who has put together a jigsaw puzzle, I soon figured out that I had to create a system to understand the mass of jumbled and disconnected pieces.
The system first involved turning over all of the pieces so they were face up. Then I found the corners and the edges and started piecing those together to make the framework of the puzzle. Next I found like-colored pieces and put those together and gradually other pieces started finding each other with the help of my system and my frequent scanning of the whole jigsaw puzzle and resorting and regrouping.
Finally the jigsaw was solved and I could see the full picture that it revealed, despite already knowing what it looked like previously, thanks to the picture on the box!
I use the jigsaw analogy from time to time in my weekly Karate classes to try to show that the process of learning Karate also uses a systemized method of arranging techniques, organizing content, piecing together combinations and sets, building a framework of skills and gradually understanding the different shades of technical nuances of the general curriculum as you go through the ranks on the way to the Black Belt and beyond.
The main difference between a standard jigsaw puzzle and the puzzle of learning Karate is that there isn’t a clear picture of the Karate outcome when you first start the process of organizing the pieces of the overall puzzle. It is the job of the instructor to gradually introduce the pieces one by one, and to give hints as to where the pieces fit in to the overall picture. It is the job of the Karate student to capture those pieces from each Karate lesson and to place them in his or her personal puzzle.
The reason for this is that the ultimate picture of every individual’s Karate puzzle is different and will also change over time as details are modified and improved upon. This can be very confusing and frustrating and this is why it is important to focus on the journey rather than the destination. The journey of course is the process of solving the puzzle and the destination is the end picture that the puzzle reveals.
So what does the Karate puzzle look like? Well, like I have said already everybody’s puzzle is different and it would be foolish of me to try to explain what your personal Karate puzzle looks like. Instead, I should try to explain what the puzzle is made up of and what my own picture is beginning to show me. In very simple terms the framework of the Karate puzzle is made up of the three Ks, Kihon, Kata and Kumite. Kihon, of course, represents the punches, kicks, blocks, strikes and stances of our style. Kata are the forms within our style that show us how the basic techniques fit together in natural combinations, and kumite represents the partner work drills that show how our style can be applied in one-on-one situations and also in multiple opponent situations.
So let’s get to the picture part of the puzzle. I often thought that solving jigsaw puzzles was a little fruitless when you already know what the picture looks like, so sometimes I would ask my parents to give me just the pieces without the box so I could figure it out for myself. Maybe that’s one reason Karate is so satisfying for me because I still don’t know what the final picture of my puzzle that represents my Karate journey will look like! Yet, I have had many satisfying glimpses into the beauty of the images and checkpoints along the way.
This is the way it is supposed to be! But I still have to ask myself what does my current picture show and how does this help me improve. I believe that my current Karate picture shows a fully integrated matrix of information that represents the Shotokan syllabus as a whole, and that it shows vital cross links between individual techniques, the different kata and bunkai combinations, as well as a whole host of kumite techniques, options and arrangements that now come naturally during teaching and demonstration. However, despite the matrix that is shown to me in my mind of everything gradually coming together, I also see several weak intersections within the overall matrix. I see some unanswered questions and some dark areas that maybe I shouldn’t venture along yet. Certainly not as an instructor, maybe only as the innocent student in search of information! These gaps represent the many questions that I haven’t answered yet. They represent the missing pieces of my own Karate jigsaw puzzle that my sensei gives me every time I train with him. What I have also learned is that filling the gaps in my knowledge is not only dependent on my sensei but is also dependent on my students. The questions asked by my own students often force me to learn and improve just like a seminar with Master Kanazawa does. Which brings me to the next question, “Do you ever stop learning?” I think Master Kanazawa said it best in his book Karate, My Life, when he described his ascent up the mountain of Karate learning, “The more I know, the more I climb, yet the mountain just gets higher. The more I try, the more I focus, the depth is limitless. There is no end in sight. That is karate, my life.”
The Karate jigsaw is not meant to be solved so that there is a final outcome or final picture that we look at for a few seconds, grunt disconsolately as if to say “Is that all there is?”, and then move on. The Karate jigsaw puzzle is a living and a creative endeavor. The picture it depicts changes over time as we progress and mature and as we gain knowledge of our art and ultimately of ourselves.
Our Karate jigsaw puzzle and the problem-solving strategies that we gain from it can act as a template for our lives. It can show us how to find confidence when we need it, inner and outer strength, perseverance and endurance, compassion and tolerance, and self-belief based on honest values. If we ever see the true and beautiful picture of our Karate puzzle, then we will have mastered not only our art but also ourselves. For me, that’s enough to keep putting the pieces together and to keep training hard! How about you?