Shodan-ho essay: Ruby Vilkko
Updated: Aug 14, 2022
Goju Ryu karate has a complex history that started from an important need for self-defence, that has spread throughout the world. It has taught me about my true self and how to manage challenges and other difficult situations. I am fortunate that I have had great mentors to learn from and peers to grow with that all share a love for karate, and a dedication to help others understand this incredible martial art.
Karate has many meanings. The word karate or kara-te, comes from the Japanese words kara meaning “empty” and te meaning “hands”. It is a form of martial art, among many, and was invented for self defense for the Okinawan people in the 1930s by Chojun Miyagi. Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju Ryu (our style of karate), first made the Kyshu katas which he taught to many students, including Meitoku Yagi. Meitoku Yagi later became Chojun Miyagi’s successor and followed in his footsteps, making new katas of his own. I know them today as the ‘Yagi Katas’ or the ‘Meibukan Katas’. They were made because the Emperor in the 1960s, wanted Meitoku Yagi to make a few katas reflecting the Chinese style. The weapons we use in the kobudo katas came from the farming tools of the Okinawains. Since guns and other actual weapons were forbidden, the Okinawains rebelled against Japanese control with their tools which were bo’s (long pieces of wood which could either be the handle of a farm tool or just a stick), sai’s (which were farming tools used to dig rows to plant seeds), and tonfas (which came from the handles of a grindstone or a farming scythe). Weapons are used in kata to get a better understanding of the empty handed katas as well as learning to use them and learning how to ‘flow’ when you use them.
Hanshi Jay Purdy studied with Meitoku Yagi in Okinawa and brought Goju Ryu (meaning “hard-soft style”) karate back to Canada. Now, we are part of Canadian Naha-te Goju Karate (or CNGK). Kyoshi Mike Robertson also went over to learn karate from Meitoku Yagi. Renshi Barb Lamble (among other Sensei’s) learned from Hanshi Jay Purdy as well, and they continue to teach karate to students like me.
Over my (almost) 10 years of doing karate, I have faced many challenges, discovered my strengths, and met many people who have affected me. I have met many different people who have taught me life-skills and shown me friendship and support. Until recently, I have often felt like the under-dog in my classes. It might be because I have an older sister who always seemed like she got along with everybody whereas I was a little more shy. For a long time, I was the youngest or second youngest in most of my classes. Karate has helped me feel empowered, strong and brave even when I was scared or unnerved. It has helped me when performing in tournaments, piano recitals and even speeches in school. It has helped me understand taking constructive criticism more than I know. Karate has made me face many challenging situations like belt gradings, tournaments, black belt gradings, sparring matches and even people who pushed my boundaries. Every time, I take a breath and dive into handling the situation. In a way, those people who gave me a hard time, were actually doing me a favour, as they were unknowingly teaching me how to deal with different types of people and situations.
To me, karate means many things. It has been a way to meet new people, stay active, and even discover a new side of myself I never knew existed. A side where I know how to defend myself and feel strong, confident and flexible, that makes me feel like I can face pretty much anything.
And finally, I really only feel like I’ve recently started to understand karate since I’ve started thinking about kime and visualizing my opponent. I used to think it was just putting power behind your moves, but now I see it as visualizing an opponent, which is very eye-opening. Another aspect of karate that I think is important is overcoming a fear of pain. One of Kyoshi Mike’s messages that really resonates with me is: “You only really start understanding karate and being good at karate when you stop being afraid of getting hit.” He said it took him many years to understand that. This made sense to me because whenever I sparred, at least 50% of the time I was afraid of getting hit. Since he has said that, my mindset of fear, in my opinion, has started changing. I now try to think about trying to calm my mind to not be afraid as well as thinking about target areas and technique. When I was younger, even as recent as being a brown belt, I would avoid people who were older or bigger than me because I was afraid of getting hurt, which was tricky because most of the time, I was the smallest in my class. Even in black belt gradings, if the person looked scary to me (which most of them did), I wouldn’t dare stand up and face them out of my fear of getting hurt. Most recently, I feel like something inside me has changed. I have been in a class with older, taller, strong and strategic sparrers (who are also funny and nice) who have different styles and challenge me. If they were to pick me to be their partner when I was a brown belt, I would be terrified and go into (what I internally call) “super defence mode” and only defend myself, trying not to get hit. Now, I drive them back and, even if they land a few hits on me and I block a few, I counter with fury and get them right back. I now feel more confident in my ability to match their challenge.
Three key mentors have been very impactful to me through karate. Although Hanshi Jay Purdy did not grade me face to face, he still made an impact on my karate training. Whenever I heard his name from Sensei Barb in the dojo, or at tournaments, or in conversation, or saw him at black belt gradings, I was kind of in awe of him. To young Ruby, he was this scary guy who could break boards, almost like a god or an emperor, unreachable and on a different level. But he was also the kind person who shook my sister, Ava’s, hand after a tournament when we were green or blue belts. That was really when I sort of got to see him differently. Yes, I had seen him at gradings and tournaments before, but now, he was this normal guy, shaking my normal sister’s hand. And suddenly, I wasn’t as afraid of him anymore. Still in awe, but less afraid of him. So I am thankful for having known Hanshi Jay Purdy who showed me that karate is not all scary things and people, and to be proud to be part of the Canadian Naha-te Goju Karate association. He has left a lasting and meaningful impression on me and certainly a valuable karate legacy.
Sensei Barb and Sensei Mike have been my teachers as well as my mentors who have helped me in many different ways. Sensei Mike has helped me see another side of karate in seeing the meanings of moves and how to actually do the moves. When I was younger, I was a bit afraid of him, but getting taught by him has been a privilege. Sensei Barb has been part of my karate journey for many years. When I think back to when I first started kinder karate, she was always very kind, made karate fun and I enjoyed going to classes every week. Over the years, she has always been encouraging and has seen things in me even when I had doubted myself. I admire her commitment and dedication to karate and her students. She has never once missed a class, whether it was a Saturday or an evening class. Over these last few months, helping me with my grading has been really valuable. Even though COVID-19 has gotten in the way of training, it means a lot to me that she is still striving to help me prepare for my grading. She has really made an impact on my life and it is because of her persistent teaching and positive attitude toward karate and to life itself, that has helped me to get to where I am today.
In conclusion, when reading The Book of Five Rings, I found that Miyamoto Musashi’s description of the Five Rings (Earth, Water, Fire, Wind, and Emptiness), provides a great summary of martial arts. It describes strength, fluidity, ability to change, energy and almost a meditation-like state: “Earth, because it symbolized his fundamental view of the martial arts; Water, because of his own style based on fluidity and purity; Fire, or battle because of its energy and ability for quick change; Wind, the other style, because of the double meaning (“wind” and “style”) of the Chinese character; and Emptiness, because this is ultimately the place from which all other activities come.” (pg 23, xxviii) These aspects of karate also describe well what I feel I have learned from other people, what I have learned about myself, and ultimately they describe a good way of living, like the ‘guidebook to life’.