The Alchemical Dojo

Being at war with myself in a world I didn’t understand, I got tangled into a dark world of addiction and destructive behavior at a very young age. In a fatherless household, I grew up as a ball of directionless anger. Underneath it all was an inner spirit, waiting to be uncovered. All I needed was a guide, a “wise man” to show me the way. The wise man appears to people in various forms and in a variety of settings.

“The ultimate aim of the Art of Karate lies not in victory or defeat,” saidGichin Funakoshi, “but in the perfection of the character of it’s participants.” The message may have been surrounding me my whole life, but it never broke through until I heard it in a martial arts dojo. My quest for spiritual growth transformation began for me the day I began training.

Martial arts symbolized self-discipline, focus and purpose. The Sensei or Sifu (Master) represented the mythical philosopher sage and the dōjō was a Hall of self-discovery. If anyone is under the illusion that to begin martial training requires one to be in a healthy sate of mind or body, I’m here to dispel that misconception. I walked into train the first day burned out from extreme drug and alcohol abuse – full of self-loathing and anger. Situations were going from bad to worse in my life and the torment of my mind was becoming unbearable. I hid it as I was accustomed to doing, but it was writ large in my eyes. At my lowest, they accepted me and brought me in.

The first thing the Sifu asked me was why martial arts? I was in awe of the man immediately, his presence alone commanded respect. The question was a quick way to expose the true nature of an aspiring student’s intentions. The man wasn’t looking to poison his carefully crafted environment with tourists looking to bolster their ego by cracking heads. Before I was allowed to train, he let me know he wasn’t interested in merely making me a great technical fighter. There were plenty of other places to find that. This school was more interested developing students who could gain mastery over their minds and respective lives. It was also made known that the dojo had an at “will policy,” in place to protect the integrity of the program.

“Karate is the battle against one’s self and a means of the way of one’s life, not to defeat others or to die.” – Gōgen Yamaguchi

Unlike many dojos I’ve visited, here was a large and thriving adult program. Sure, we were getting great physical workouts rooted in practical martial philosophy but that was not the entire explanation for the nightly packed classes. The truth is, modern society is starving for motivation and meaning in their daily lives. By honoring the pre-Westernized tradition of providing an environment that stressed ethics, philosophy and spirituality alongside physical training, the school was answering that call.

Generally, the spiritual philosophy was meted out in five-minute installments at the end of each training session. Our Sifu had a masterful way of poignantly integrating inner-truths with ancient martial insights gleaned from masters like Morihei Ueshiba and Gichin Funakoshi. He stressed meditation as a non-negotiable aspect of training. To master the body, one must achieve mastery over mind. By teaching me the basics of meditation, I was initiated onto a path that led me to researching religions and spiritual systems of all kinds. All of my current metaphysical pursuits have their origins in the seated silence learned in that dōjō.

I was about two years into the training before I was freed from my addictions. Martial training alone didn’t produce that result but I believe that it played a crucial role. As I was instructed to seek the higher aid of the cosmos for my inner-freedom, it was the description of “God” I had heard about at the dōjō that I grasped onto. Having plenty of trepidation towards organized religions, the non-judgmental, all loving, universal truths Sifu spoke of opened me up in a way nothing else could have at the time. He made spirituality approachable, sensible and practical. He did it in a way that wasn’t forceful or authoritative. I’m sure he sent many students running for the doors with his insistence on etiquette and philosophy. For me, it was the awakening I was yearning for.

As I showed my interest and need for deeper spiritual direction, I was presented with a secret doctrine of sorts. I was still quite lost at the time and looking for direction. The first book I was handed to satisfy my curiosity was Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramahansa Yogananda. Through my reading of the book, I began to understand a vital source of my Sifu’s teachings.

Before this, I had never read any sort of spiritual texts, and there I was coming across psychic phenomena, levitation, visions, and other occult manifestations. It was like going from 0 to 100 but I digested it as best I could at the time.

When it came to disseminating these books, it was done in a very low-key manner. It was as if I was exposed to the inner teachings of the dōjō, reserved for those in need of them. This was just one example of the school making information and resources available to the student body.

Aside from Kung-Fu and Tai-Chi classes, the Sifu held weekly meditation nights, open to the public. It was in that forum that he went into greater depth and detail about the philosophy and history of martial training as a vehicle for spiritual attainment. This man, who was a child dyslexic with cerebral palsy and no formal higher education, had doctors, lawyers and people of all religious backgrounds enthralled by his lectures. It was quite a powerful thing to witness as a young man. Every day, individuals were being inspired to get serious about their goals and live with conviction and purpose.

“To commune daily with God in deep meditation, and carry His love and guidance with you into all your dutiful activities, is the way that leads to permanent peace and happiness.” – Paramahansa Yogananda

Today, I see traditional dōjōs as akin to alchemical laboratories. Academies of transmutation, from the rough and coarse, into the polished and refined. Yes, the physical body can be made faster and stronger but real martial arts provide so much more. The focusing of the mind, developing concentration, strengthening the will, acquiring formal etiquette, overcoming physical limitations. The list of transformations a practitioner can undergo is extensive.

While the roots of Karate, Kung Fu and other martial systems originated in the East, I have come to find theoretical and practical overlaps in the Western occult practices I later embraced. The world of martial training also opened me up to esoteric concepts like the qi, pranayama or life force energy of the body. For practitioners of mystical arts, these teachings are crucial for implementing proper magic technique. It goes without saying that the Western spiritual path, owes a large debt to the wisdom of the East.

A tool like visualization, used for “seeing” a physical attacker is just as useful when visualizing archangels or balls of light energy. The most profound parallel between the occult and martial arts is a shared purpose of reaching the heightened states of Mushin, Samyama, Cosmic Consciousness, Oneness, Samadhi, Knowledge and Conversation of our Holy Guardian Angel and so on.

Through different forms of physical rituals, the student of either path is aspiring towards the same peak awareness. In both cases, the aspirant must be committed to constant practice without constant reward. The fruits of martial art and occult devotion are measured by the years, not the days. I for one am not in a position to claim the highest of those fruits, but it’s the demonstration of those who have come before me that encourage and light my way. None is ever so lost that the path cannot be found.

Jeff Wolfe is a practitioner of Okinawan Shidokan Shorin Ryu Karate and the artist/writer of the blog, Secret Transmissions.
Jeff Wolfe is a practitioner of Okinawan Shidokan Shorin Ryu Karate and the artist/writer of the blog, Secret Transmissions.

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