Please note: All misunderstandings and errors in this review are all mine!
I have collected through dint of much effort and investment of time quite a comprehensive martial arts library. Including the classic writings of such authors as Musashi, Sun Tzu, Yagyu Munenori , Gichin Funakoshi, Ueshiba and Takuan Soho as well as the more modern works of the likes of Bruce Lee, Geoff Thompson, Vernon Bell, W E Fairburn and Tomiki to name only a few. I have the great pleasure in adding Sensei Mulholland’s work to this list and not least of all because it is comprised entirely of crystal clear prose. Few living martial arts teachers are able to express themselves as articulately and it is a critical part of the pleasure found in reading Four Shades Of Black.
Here I am going to discuss the content of the writing, but I must mention that this is a brilliantly presented book. The pictures and layout of the text are lightyears ahead of 90% of most martial arts books.
“I know that Okinawan Goju Ryu contains all of these things because Chojun Miyagi Sensei told me… he did it through kata.”
Four Shades Of Black
I have heard many teachers discuss the vital nature of the katas or patterns found in their systems, but I have yet to come across such an integrated approach of using the katas to drive the lessons themselves and provide structure to the practice of the art. Goju in general and Daigaku Karate Kai in particular is able to point to a heritage that is not simply direct from the art’s source in terms of its teacher’s lineage but also direct in terms of what is actually being taught. Many arts I have been involved with in the last 15 years have either been “following the motions” when it came to kata or had modified the originals through a misunderstanding of the techniques involved through a belief that katas were essentially anachronistic. Goju Karate is different and it is this that is the main focus of the book. Sensei Mulholland contends that the katas found in Goju are a layered roadmap through which the student is led from the first principles of combat through to and advanced and subtle manipulation of the opponent. Each Kata brings the fight closer and closer in range until the kata is directly describing grappling and what to do about it. From the “attack and smash” approach found in the hard side of Go to the softer “sensitivity” that is present in the Ju katas. This is something very similar to what I had encountered in a particular Wado Ryu seminar in my teenage years and once explained to you in such explicit terms it is immediately and obviously the truth.
There is more. The map is not the territory and each kata is partnered with a complete set of one-step sparing drills and conditioning exercises that expose the “secrets” held in the kata proper. Without these vital ingredients the practice of Goju would risk ending up like so many other martial arts and only be going “through the motions” without bringing the teachings out of the kata and onto the mat.
I have had the privilege of training at the London Daigaku Karate Kai for the last 6 months and a couple of things struck immediately upon entering. Firstly, Goju is tough. Its methods forge the bodies of its practitioners by the development of a strong and indomitable will. It does this at full pace from day one and continues right through years of practice. Not here will you find the black belts relaxing at the head of the class. Here the Yudansha lead by example. The lesson is clearly outlined in the book; that the Black Belt represents the beginning of the martial instruction and not the end. This is an often repeated claim in many martial art styles but in Goju I can attest to the truth of the matter. The belt system of Goju, Sensei Mulholland writes, is the compass that the student uses and indeed needs to progress through the ‘Four Shades’. Each belt emphasises a different mental set. One thing I was immediately impressed with in the DKK club and it is reiterated here in the book is that the Goju student learns to fight from day one. He learns this not through advanced techniques, but rather through forming a martial mind set. Combat is necessarily aggressive and violent. In order to master this one must first have the capability of being violent. I have known brown belts with soft natures fail their black belts in Wado because they didn’t have the necessary aggression to fight. Goju practice and training develops that aggression needed immediately. For those with an abundance of aggressiveness or a violent past (like myself) Goju gifts the beginner controlled direction through the first stage of combat found in the very first kata; attack and smash. This “Hulk-like” language disguises what is for me the most important lesson of the martial arts; mental strength. That is it found at the beginning is another testament to Goju’s effectiveness as a system of combat. This is because it recognises the true nature of that arena.
One of the most pleasurable moments of my time at DKK Goju was when I fought a black belt for the first time. I had a 1st Dan in Taekwondo from the fantastic Master De Breton (WIF) together with 2 national and one international title to my name. That I was knocked straight of this pedestal by Akintunde Oladimeji (one of the book’s models) was a brilliantly humbling moment of clarity. I had found the previous battles against lower grades that lead up to this fight challenging but essentially straightforward. Akintunde was a whole new world that is present in all the Goju black belts I subsequently encountered. I remember thinking at the time that the only way I could step up to the plate against this guy was “to actually fight him”. This of course led to me to wonder what the hell I had been doing up until then? I wondered hard at this until reading Four Shades Of Black. It outlines how the Goju system is a controlled progression. Each junior student I had faced was essentially not yet a complete fighter across-the-board. They were in the process of being built, moulded into rounded combatives, and were all strong fighters but not there yet. The Yudansha were a different thing all together; they had rounded off all the corners of their art and thus were a much stronger force to face. This is entirely to Sensei’s plan and outlined in Four Shades.
“Think back to any fights in any format you have ever watched and try to pinpoint an act of psychological suppression’.”
Four Shades Of Black
The concept of Goju progression is best highlighted in the “Trial By Breaking” chapter. In other arts I have practiced breaking was a very common and usual part of every single lesson. In ITF Taekwondo breaking is so commonplace that for me the concept outlined in Four Shades had completely passed me by until I had read that chapter. Around Christmas 2007 I had attended a DKK Goju grading and watched as a green belt contender faced off against a single board to complete his pass. This person had already been purposely exhausted by bag work, then fought against all grades, performed katas and generally stood up to a real “shoeing” with a demonstration of a remarkably developed indomitable spirit. Yet facing that single board I could sense the tension in the air and on the body of the contender. Why was this? I had seen 10 year olds do what he was about to attempt, surely he would find this easy? Upon reading Four Shades it all became clear. Sensei had purposely setup this event in such a way that:
1) It was known about for months ahead of time.
2) The student was conditioned by bag work, press-ups, etc.
3) The student was not allowed to practice breaking.
That last number was the vital ingredient. By not being able to practice breaking the whole thing had been built up in the students mind. Could he do it? Would he fail in front of everyone? Many people were present including a master from another style. Thus the fact that breaking one board is easy was irrelevant. This student was facing a true trial of spirit and determination. Did he have the will to be a Goju green belt? Could he face the fear of the board? As the hushed audience watched he struck with confidence and will, thus banishing his fear, and succeeded. This was probably the hardest break I have ever seen because in his mind the board was probably 2 feet thick. The book explains how this was all to the sensei’s planning and this nature is present in all of Goju.
This mental aspect highlights what is perhaps the true secret of Karate and the hardest insight to teach or learn. It is often referred to as “Empty Hand” in terms of the lack of weapons. This of course doesn’t answer why there are weapons in Karate, but I have heard it enough to be a classic interpretation of the name. Others point to the link with “China Hand” and the masters who didn’t like the “non-Japanese-ness” of the art they studied and so changed it to “Empty” and this rings true. However I feel that there is another more fundamental secret to this name. When thinking of Karate as “Empty Hand”, for me, it is not the hand that is empty at all. It is the mind. It is being of “no mind”, being in “the moment” and acting. On one hand not holding back by turning away from the truth of combat and violence, and on the other hand not losing oneself in the rage of aggression and thus being blinded by the “red mist” and “tunnel vision”. It is expressing oneself at a fundamental level of being in the “moment of combat” and letting the lessons flow through you out into the world. You can only truly react and do this if it is your mind that is empty. Ignoring the pain, the complaining limbs, the bubbling brook of your thoughts and most importantly; your fears. Only relying on trained instinct are the keys to combat and the meaning of “martial spirit”. This is developed in no greater way than in the kata of Goju and in the lessons outlined by Sensei Mulholland in this book.
I think that Karate has had a large share of punishment from the press and on the internet from other more “modern” arts such as MMA and Systema. This has sometimes been accurate as all arts are simply convenient umbrella terms for a very wide range of teaching quality and methods. However, of all the “Te-based” arts that I have studied, Goju is the most complete in both its development of spirit and that it has not just tacked on the trappings of grappling as a reaction to the criticisms of the present. As Sensei Mulholland writes so eloquently these things have been part of Goju from the very beginning and the proof, maps and compass are found in the kata.
Whether new to Goju, new to Karate or crossing from another art this book is vital reading as an accessory to training. As a martial arts work on its own I proudly display it on my shelf alongside my other great works of combative writing.
If you are interested in buying this book (and you should be!), you can do so here: Four Shades Of Black