Kenji Ushiro Shihan is one of the most preeminent instructors of Karate-do alive today. He holds the rank and titles of 8th dan / Hanshi of Soshinkan Karatedo, 7th dan / Kyoshi of Iaido in the All-Japan Kendo Federation, and Founder and instructor of the Jissen Juku in Tokyo, Japan. I met him in 2005 when he was one of the invited instructors at the annual ASU Summer Camp in the Rockies, where he introduced his insights on “ki”, centering and the essence of the Sanchin kata, spirit, tenkan (the “zero point”), and the martial intersection of Aikido and Karate-do.
I had the fortune to visit with Ushiro Sensei at some length between classes, and the conversation turned toward how one can successfully continue to learn from other arts and instructors through a lifetime of training. After deliberation, he shared a surprising metaphor – “One must learn to become a thief!”
“The thief is very deliberate. He observes his target, carefully discovers obstacles and traps. He decides what is most valuable, and what should be taken away. He considers what might be valuable, but too costly or risky or time consuming to obtain. When he moves, it is with without rushing and without hesitation, but he does not tarry or stay longer than he must. The thief does not try to become the wealthy man he steals from, he does not try to amass a similar fortune the same way the wealthy man did, because the thief only has one life to live and must use the skills he has already mastered. Instead, he must take the most valuable things from the wealthy man and make them his own.”
“The experienced martial artist must become like a thief.”
“The experienced martial artist – not the beginner – must become like the thief. A beginner mind is of course important, because one must be open to new approaches and ideas, but we each have only one life to live. If we are always a beginner, if we chase after all teachings, if we try walk exactly the paths of all of our teachers, we will die with no fortune and with gaining no greater mastery. Listening to, and exploring other instructors’ teachings is still important, as we gain insight into high level ideas and qualities for things that other teachers can do which we cannot.
However, the real skill we learn from the thief is to not be distracted by the methods of other instructors, or to become overlong caught up in the “how” they are communicating things should be learned. Their instructions are based on their own paths, their own lifetimes of building understandings. Instead, the martial artist must look at what those other teachers can do that he cannot, identify the outcomes he finds desirable, the objective abilities or attributes or accomplishments that the martial artist cannot himself yet replicate. Maybe they are techniques, maybe they aren’t.
Once the martial artist sees something can be done by another martial artist, he knows that he himself has the capability to accomplish that thing too and it is only a matter of finding a solution.
This outcome is what is to be stolen. The martial artist takes the idea, this desired outcome, and returns to his dojo, and experiments until he accomplishes the same outcome using the tools and resources he already has and can build upon. He finds a different solution for the outcome, his personal solution. His solution will not look like how it was accomplished by the person he stole it from. It might not be as subtle, or as powerful, or as complete. But the thief will have acquired a qualitative new ability, and will be able to add it to his collection of abilities.
The successful thief identifies what is most valuable to them – new skills and abilities – and is not diverted by how the other person attained them.
And this is the second secret of the thief – the thief’s horde. Every time the thief adds a priceless thing to his horde, no matter how small, his horde grows a little. (Ushiro Sensei at this point made a motion like he was picking up a small pebble and adding it to a pile). The next theft becomes a little easier. The thief’s horde provides perspective and resources and tools that make finding solutions for plundering other wealthy men easier to successfully accomplish. In the same way, the martial artist’s cumulative “pile” of abilities and complementary insights allows him to pierce and replicate the feats of other amazing martial artists more quickly.”
I believe there are several important lessons in Ushiro Sensei’s metaphor.
- I believe the value of the thief’s lesson is that it gives us permission to not set aside all of what we have learned when we are training with another accomplished teacher, whether in our own art or style or not. I believe I passed a critical point in my own training when I realized I did not have to internalize every little bit of advice from all my sensei and sempai, but that I instead could just “let techniques happen” at a certain point. That it was OK after a certain point to smile, thank the giver for their advice, relax, and let my body take over. What worked for them might not be what was best for me.
- I think the metaphor illuminates a useful conceptual process for extracting knowledge and building upon one’s own unique experiences, capabilities, and limitations. That process helps us find a way to use repetition to create improvement instead of repetition which creates a “rut” and inflexible way of thinking. “There are many ways to skin a cat.”
Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” By merely repeating what one already is comfortable with, it is very difficult to gain new insights. The longer we train for incremental improvement, the more we get diminishing results for our efforts; instead, we must entertain failure constantly and explore variations and attempting things in different, even non-intuitive ways. By observing other experts and teachers, the thief gains ideas for exploring old techniques in new ways. The thief defines progress not in terms of “more, better, faster, harder” but in terms of new abilities and approaches.
- I feel it shows how to balance between the humility of beginner mind, and having faith in and building upon what we already have learned when we are attending seminars or visiting other teachers. It is a very fine line between stubbornly doing what we have always done / not attempting the lessons shown, and treading the cautious and ambitious path of the thief; to an outside observer (or even just a purist), they both may look like a student who is rudely refusing to learn what the teacher is trying to share. The “real” thievery happens in the home dojo, but the attitude while visiting another instructor is one of “casing the joint” and redefining the goal from mimicking and absorbing what is taught uncritically to seeking the most valuable essences which can be defined and objectively measured.
This is actually very hard because it means that at every seminar we attend, we must be alert and try to evaluate the instructor with fresh eyes and from a critical perspective; what we take away might not be what the instructor is intending to offer! We must embrace the mindset and objective that we must return home having identified and deeply studied something we cannot have done before, and committing to dissecting that thing and finding different solutions with our peers and teachers in our own dojo, on our own time, without external impetus. The thief’s goal is to replicate results, not methods.
“Thievery” has negative connotations, and unlike Ushiro Shihan’s metaphor, a student who “steals” knowledge from a teacher does not deprive that teacher of anything. In fact, the “thief” student is reaching past the words to the essence of the teacher’s talents. In the context of a martial arts student, the ability to steal successfully and consistently is a positive attribute, and is the mark of an artist with a versatile skill set and a flexible, problem-solving mind.
“Every little new ability is valuable. A thief becomes rich not because of a single valuable gem, but because of a thousand small successes.”
Author’s notes – my apologies for only using the male gender in this article; I wanted to stay true to how I remember the original conversation, which I relate here from my memory and a few notes. All quotes are paraphrased, and while I elaborated I did my best to capture the spirit of Sensei Ushiro’s metaphor as I understood it and as he shared to me. I apologize for any errors or omissions, and if I misconstrued any meaning or detail. Photos of Ushiro Sensei were taken by Kelly (Rollefson) Groves.
By the way, I consider the thief metaphor to be something I successfully stole from Ushiro Shihan.