In Memory of Sensei Dennis Sammartino

dennis_sammartinoIt is with regret that I write about the passing of Sensei Dennis Sammartino (12-7-09) at his home after a prolonged battle with cancer. Dennis and I trained with Sensei Dale Jenkins, starting in about 1973.  He was a fine man who taught Isshinryu for many years at his dojo in Boonton, NJ. His desire to teach his understanding of Isshinryu was passed to his students, whom I hope will continue his legacy.

A viewing will take place this Friday (12-11-09) from 2-4 PM and from 7-9PM at: Iliff-Ruggerio Funeral Home in Newton, NJ. The web site is: for further information

Thought of the Week #23

Self-confidence is either a petty pride in our own narrowness or the realization of our duty and privilege as God’s children.
by Phillips Brooks

December, 2009: Zen and Strategy

A former black belt of our dojo, Gene Feller, passed away November 24th. He was a local artist and a gentleman. There will be a memorial service for him Saturday, December 5th at St. Mary’s at 10:00 AM. Because of this there will be NO CLASSES at Fit Happens on Saturday, December 5th.

There will be no classes at the Hackettstown or Fit Happens dojos on December 24, 25, 26 & 31. Please plan ahead and make up these classes.

Zen and Strategy

zenZen philosophy and its strategic insights optimized fighting strategy and taught Samurai to deal with fear and death to obtain victory. The benefits were proven during hundreds of years in situations where the penalty for failure was not loss of a “point”, but death. Today Zen is rarely taught in fighting, and the focus of martial arts classes are usually all physical despite the fact that the mental component is the most important attribute in any fight – tournament, or real life.

Asian strategy (e.g. the classic “Art of War” by Sun Tzu) and Zen are not religions but provide systems for understanding the ‘self’, optimizing technique and performing at one’s best. Some of the principles taught by sport’s psychologists mirror that of Zen in the martial arts and other things taken from Zen are more specifically directed towards combat. The modern term of putting oneself in “the zone” is directly related to the Zen mind state of mushin – one Zen principle, which can be related to kumite, is discussed in more detail below.

“Like a full circle, the mind must be empty, yet complete.” The Japanese term often used in karate, which is loosely translated as “empty mind”. This term does not strictly imply “no thought”, but rather no attachment to any one thought, emotion or strategy. To obtain this state of mind fears, doubts, ego, and any preconceived thoughts of action (strategy) must be removed, or the mind will not react openly. When we apply mushin to certain techniques and kumite strategies many karate athletes often miss the point at first glance – it revolves around the assumption that the mind must be trained to know all these strategies innately and that at any moment in kumite the right one for the situation is released without thought. This creates the required speed (i.e. no delay) and enables dynamic adaptive change in the strategy after the opponent begins to react (which enables another innately trained technique/combination to emerge as soon as it is needed). There are drills, combinations and training methods to enhance this heightened mind state.

A simpler conceptual analogy for mushin, which removes the complexity of strategy, is the following: imagine fighting someone who truly has the ability to strike with any one of their 4 limbs at any time. These people are always tricky fighters due to the fact that any limb can come out at any time i.e. no attachment or predisposition to any one thing (mushin). As one works on kumite this is one physical-mental approach, which can be drilled.

There is a famous Zen saying “mizu no kokoro” which translates to “a mind like water.” Everyone understands how the water of a pond can be calm and clear. In this state, it will reflect all around it truthfully & accurately, much like a mirror. In karate and in life we strive to have a calm mind that reflects everything around us accurately. Therefore, the mind must be clear like the glass surface of a still pond, reflecting everything accurately and without distortion. If the mind gets attached to any thoughts, this is analogous to throwing a stone into the tranquil pond. The ripples that the stone creates (or thought in the mind) will interfere with the smooth surface of the pond making the reflection (perception) distorted. If the mind is cluttered with thoughts, how can it possibly react quickly in stressful situations? Only when the mind is clear and calm will we act instantly without hesitation or fear.

The term “void” (kara in Japanese) has very real implications for strategy, Zen mind set and accessing weak points in an opponent’s technique and body. The use of “void” as the first character in Karate-Do was later consolidated in 1935 by Funakoshi sensei (founder of Shotokan) publishing the book “Karate-Do Kyohan”. The link between “voids”, or “emptiness”, has obvious similarities to mushin, however, its mental implications for strategy go further than that. The mind is just one component of a “void” approach used in fighting. Other cumulative uses of the “void” concept include:

  1. Technique combinations which open an opponent enabling the scoring of a “point” (pre-determined opponent response strategy which occurs following a particular combination)
  2. Furthering the first two points by striking a cavity, or anatomical void, to most damage/upset the opponent.

Therefore, fighters can chose to train certain combinations that provide a three-pronged approach of creating mental voids, physical opening voids, which are then followed by impact on an anatomical void. The emphasis here is to use all three “void” approaches in a cumulative fashion. The goal here is to not only score points but also mentally optimize one’s position of confidence and strength relative to the opponent’s physical and mental state.

Although this article mentions just two karate related Zen concepts a number of others exist which are highly relevant to kumite performance. All such concepts can be worked on as part of one’s training to optimize tournament fighting. Other Zen-based lessons can include:

  • Centering in a bout (physically and mentally) – upsetting your opponents “centered confident state”
  • Striking voids (mental and physical combinations)
• Progressing through the stages of Zen as one’s fighting improves
  • Reading your opponent
  • Dealing with fear and anxiety to perform at your best
  • Use of Aiki and Kiai to upset your opponents mind game, and at the same time create physical openings for standard technique scoring


Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After 3 minutes: A middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later: The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. Several other children repeated this action. Every parent, without exception, forced his or her children to move on quickly.

45 minutes: The musician played continuously.  Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace.  The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true story (you can read it here, at the Washington Post). Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. 

The questions raised:

  • In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • Do we stop to appreciate it?
  • Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: 
 If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made. How many other things are we missing?

In Memory of Gene Feller

gene_promotionGene Feller – November 3, 1940 to November 17, 2009

He was a friend of 26 years, an artist and Second Degree Black Belt at our dojo. Gene loved to train. He lifted weights with the best of them and he loved to expand his Isshin-ryu skills and knowledge.

His sense of humor would light a room.
gene-gorillaThis gorilla outfit was worn at one of our black belt testing sessions, causing those being tested to doubt their fearlessness when attacked during our night training.

His artwork is displayed at the dojo and on many of our benefit tournament t-shirts.

His friendship, inner drive and humor will be missed.

Thought of the week #22

“I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any fellow creature let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it for I shall not pass this way again.”
Author:Stephen Grellet, Quaker missionary

Thought of the Week #21

“The center of human nature is rooted in ten thousand ordinary acts of kindness that define our days.”
Author:Stephen Jay Gould

November, 2009: You Reap What You Sow

The man slowly looked up. This was a woman clearly accustomed to the finer things of life. Her coat was new. She looked like she had never missed a meal in her life. His first thought was that she wanted to make fun of him, like so many others had done before. “Leave me alone,” he growled… To his amazement, the woman continued standing. She was smiling — her even white teeth displayed in dazzling rows.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“No,” he answered sarcastically. “I’ve just come from dining with the president.. Now go away.”

The woman’s smile became even broader.

Suddenly the man felt a gentle hand under his arm. “What are you doing, lady?” the man asked angrily. “I said to leave me alone.

Just then a policeman came up. “Is there any problem, ma’am?” he asked..

“No problem here, officer,” the woman answered. “I’m just trying to get this man to his feet. Will you help me?”

The officer scratched his head. “That’s old Jack. He’s been a fixture around here for a couple of years. What do you want with him?”

“See that cafeteria over there?” she asked. “I’m going to get him something to eat and get him out of the cold for awhile.”

“Are you crazy, lady?” the homeless man resisted . “I don’t want to go in there!” Then he felt strong hands grab his other arm and lift him up. “Let me go, officer. I didn’t do anything..”

“This is a good deal for you, Jack,” the officer answered. “Don’t blow it.” Finally, and with some difficulty, the woman and the police officer got Jack into the cafeteria and sat him at a table in a remote corner. It was the middle of the morning, so most of the breakfast crowd had already left and the lunch bunch had not yet arrived.

The manager strode across the cafeteria and stood by his table. “What’s going on here, officer?” he asked. “What is all this, is this man in trouble?”

“This lady brought this man in here to be fed,” the policeman answered.

“Not in here!” the manager replied angrily. “Having a person like that here is bad for business.”

Old Jack smiled a toothless grin. “See, lady. I told you so. Now if you’ll let me go. I didn’t want to come here in the first place”

The woman turned to the cafeteria manager and smiled. “Sir, are you familiar with Eddy and Associates, the banking firm down the street?”

“Of course I am,” the manager answered impatiently. “They hold their weekly meetings in one of my banquet rooms.”

“And do you make a goodly amount of money providing food at these weekly meetings?”

“What business is that of yours?”

I, sir, am Penelope Eddy, president and CEO of the company.” “Oh…”

The woman smiled again.. “I thought that might make a difference.” She glanced at the cop who was busy stifling a laugh. “Would you like to join us in a cup of coffee and a meal, officer?”

“No thanks, ma’am,” the officer replied. “I’m on duty.”

“Then, perhaps, a cup of coffee to go?”

“Yes, ma’am. That would be very nice.”

The cafeteria manager turned on his heel. “I’ll get your coffee for you right away, officer.”

The officer watched him walk away. “You certainly put him in his place,” he said. “That was not my intent… Believe it or not, I have a reason for all this.”

She sat down at the table across from her amazed dinner guest. She stared at him intently.

“Jack, do you remember me?”

Old Jack searched her face with his old, rheumy eyes. “I think so — I mean you do look familiar.”

“I’m a little older perhaps,” she said. “Maybe I’ve even filled out more than in my younger days when you worked here, and I came through that very door, cold and hungry.”

“Ma’am?” the officer said questioningly. He couldn’t believe that such a magnificently turned out woman could ever have been hungry.

“I was just out of college,” the woman began. “I had come to the city looking for a job, but I couldn’t find anything. Finally I was down to my last few cents and had been kicked out of my apartment.. I walked the streets for days. It was February and I was cold and nearly starving. I saw this place and walked in on the off chance that I could get something to eat.”

Jack lit up with a smile. “Now I remember,” he said. “I was behind the serving counter. You came up and asked me if you could work for something to eat. I said that it was against company policy.”

“I know,” the woman continued. “Then you made me the biggest roast beef sandwich that I had ever seen, gave me a cup of coffee, and told me to go over to a corner table and enjoy it. I was afraid that you would get into trouble. Then, when I looked over and saw you put the price of my food in the cash register, I knew then that everything would be all right.”

“So you started your own business?” Old Jack said. “I got a job that very afternoon. I worked my way up. Eventually I started my own business that, with the help of God, prospered.” She opened her purse and pulled out a business card. “When you are finished here, I want you to pay a visit to a Mr. Lyons. He’s the personnel director of my company. I’ll go talk to him now and I’m certain he’ll find something for you to do around the office.” She smiled. “I think he might even find the funds to give you a little advance so that you can buy some clothes and get a place to live until you get on your feet. If you ever need anything, my door is always open to you.”
There were tears in the old man’s eyes. “How can I ever thank you?” he asked. “Don’t thank me,” the woman answered. “To God goes the glory. He led me to you.”

Outside the cafeteria, the officer and the woman paused at the entrance before going their separate ways. “Thank you for all your help, officer,” she said.

“On the contrary, Ms. Eddy,” he answered. “Thank you. I saw a miracle today, something that I will never forget. And thank you for the coffee.” Have a Wonderful Day. May God Bless You Always and don’t forget that when you “cast your bread upon the waters,” you never know how it will be returned to you. God is so big He can cover the whole world with his Love and so small He can curl up inside your heart. When God leads you to the edge of the cliff, trust Him fully and let go. Only 1 of 2 things will happen, either He’ll catch you when you fall, or He’ll teach you how to fly!


A Note about the weather