Standing on the shoulders of giants: Perspectives of Karate Training and Practice

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Isaac Newton, 1676.

Isaac Newton was not the first man to recognize that while he had achieved much, he owed it to those who had gone before him. In 1159 John of Salisbury wrote that

Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to [puny] dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

Today Isaac Newton is recognized as a great figure for his work in furthering our understanding of the laws of physics. His work paved the way for further research, discovery and refinement in diverse fields by other great scientists such as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, some of which is known to (and partially understood) by laymen. The basic elements of Newton’s work are commonly taught in schools to children, and we owe a debt of gratitude not just to him but to the huge numbers of nameless teachers that have themselves gone no further for the majority of their academic careers, but stand teaching in his shadow and the shadow of his successors, creating the environment where others may climb on the shoulders of the giants, or grow to be giants themselves – whether standing on their own or on another’s shoulders.

There is nothing wrong with studying the work of Newton. It is a building block for later scientific research.

There does come a point however where studying Newton’s work becomes less a study of physics, and less about improving your knowledge of physics, than it becomes an exercise in historical research: a worthwhile and rewarding endeavour, but one of a different nature.

The world of Karate is filled with giants. It is an honour to stand in their shadow and teach what we believe they taught.

Those that do this perpetuate and further the art; they create an environment where others may grow to become giants or benefit from re-treading the steps of others. In some respects they are like the modern physics teachers in schools who give a good grounding in physics.

Both in the present and the past these karateka have created the environment where others can choose to follow the footsteps in the sand, and become great karateka teaching approximately the same material they learned, or stand on the shoulders of others.

Those karateka who choose to move on, to stand on the shoulders of others (to explore and develop other ideas gained through introspection or cross training), gain a different perspective. Through those differing perspectives and different pedagogies new karate styles have been born throughout the last century and will continue to be born in the future. This happens not because of an egotistical desire to create something new, but the very natural desire to pass on a personal perspective based on the lessons learned: it is why there is so much diversity not only in karate but in the martial arts as a whole. Those that have cross-trained know that the finer principles or ‘in depth study secrets’ of some arts are the bread and butter basics of others, taught immediately to beginners.

I am not saying that all those who have begun to teach new karate styles in the last century or more are giants, nor am I saying that those upon whom they built their study were giants: many of them are or were simply good karateka. They see differently because they stand on the shoulders of those that went before, rather than walk in the same footsteps. Like Einstein and Hawking they have the opportunity to go in a different direction because of the groundwork laid for them.

Karate is comprised of many different styles. My perspective is that different does not necessarily mean better, nor does it mean worse.

For me the descriptors of old, modern, classical, Okinawan, Japanese, western, practical or traditional do not equate to higher or lower standards, or greater or lesser worth.

Whatever our chosen karate discipline we may not all be giants, but we can all choose where we stand and what we wish to study, and we can all become better karateka.

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