Who owns the memory of a great man?
“These two different disciplines—the training of the will and the mastery of form—are built on one and the same psychological process, because the same voluntary act is the basis for the mastery of form, just as it is for the mastery of anything else.”—From “Expressive Movement” by Sergei Eisenstein and Sergei Tretyakov
Some years ago, towards the end of my graduate work in playwriting, I began a play that took the serious illness of a martial arts teacher as the plot point that brought the characters onto the scene. The question arose in the workshop as to whether or not news of such an occurrence would realistically travel far enough and fast enough for the other characters to react to.
I answered that if anything were to happen to the man who originally trained me, someone would find a way to let me know. A few months ago and several years after that conversation, I was proven right.
The message came through social media from someone I had not spoken to directly in well over a decade: “You should call Sensei.” The news was hard. It was unlikely that he would ever teach again. He had cancer and his condition was worsening. There had also been a stroke.
Throughout my high school years and then on and off for some years after, I studied Okinawan Matsubayashi-Ryu Karate with a man named Sensei Joseph Carbonara. I am fairly certain that I was the last of his direct students who he promoted to black belt before retiring to Florida, but I was unsure if there were others from the period after he realized that retirement wasn’t for him and came back to New York to resume teaching.
I need to admit that I had some trepidation about writing about Sensei. Most of my strongest memories of him are a teenager’s memories. There are many senior black belts who had far longer and far deeper relationships with him, some of them having trained with him for several decades. Those men are able talk about him in more detail than I ever will. And I hope that they do. In deciding to write this I had to ask myself, “who owns the memory of a great man?” The answer is everyone whose life he touched. This is about a teacher who made a profound impression on my life. I am one of many who have had the privilege of training with him, and I can only hope that I speak in part for some of the others.
A memory from my early teens: Being taught to heat sake at a dojo Christmas party. I was at an awkward age at which I was too young to be seated with the kids and needed something to justify my presence at the adult table. Among the instructions delivered to me by one of the senior black belts, “Fill Sensei’s cup first, then move from there.” It’s funny, one of the reasons that my father approved of my time in Karate was that he noticed that I was learning a form of etiquette. If you understand traditional martial arts at all, this should be unsurprising. Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of my system said “Karate begins with courtesy and ends with it.” Even when learning where to pour the sake first. Michael Clarke more recently wrote that the practice of courtesy was an essential element of the teaching of awareness.
Sensei looms large in my memory. I have not studied under any other teacher in any other discipline, martial, artistic, or academic, nearly as long as I did with him. I said to someone once about my favorite teachers in college that they reminded me of my sensei, and when I studied any other martial art later in life, my measure for whether or not it was something worth continuing was if I would be embarrassed if Sensei walked into that class and saw how I was training. If it passed that test, it was something I might pursue.
Learning that he was ill was a challenge to my worldview. This was a man too tough to die. I was told to wait a few days before calling: that he had just returned home from surgery and that he would not be in any condition to talk to anyone for a while. It had been years since we last spoke. The last time was after I’d published an academic paper on Karate training. I had cited his teaching methods several times in the paper. I called him up and told him about it. I’d elected to ask forgiveness rather than permission. I didn’t get forgiveness. I got approval. That meant more to me than having had it pass academic peer review. That was several years ago, and he’d sounded much like he had when I was a teenager.
I was more afraid to dial the phone this time. This time he sounded tired: never a descriptor I would have attached to his voice before. He asked if I was still working out (which meant, am I still doing martial arts in some form). I said yes. I also told him about how he still figured into my method of evaluating classes. That amused him. I also told him that I had thanked him in the acknowledgements of my dissertation. He was pleased about that. He told me he was very sick and need to get off of the phone, that these days he got tired very easily. I said I understood, but at that the same time, he was a pretty tough guy.
He laughed and agreed: “Yeah, I am a pretty tough guy.”
When I first started training with him, I did not understand that he was a Big Deal. At fourteen I’m not sure what I would have done with the information. I knew I wanted to try martial arts, and I biked down a street near my house that had three dojos. Two were what in the martial arts world might be described as “McDojos.” One of them looked really impressive to me at the time and I was close to signing up, but I decided to bike another half mile or so further and look at a place that seemed a little different.
That dojo, the Budokan, contained a world of difference from the others. To my teenage eyes it looked more like what I expected a dojo to look like: traditional weapons on the walls (that I was told not to touch), pictures of men I would later learn were old masters, Japanese calligraphy. The teacher who greeted me was an older man with a Brooklyn accent. I was not expecting that. He struck me as somehow far more authentic than the other instructors I’d spoken to, but I could not have told you why. I signed up.
Something about traditional Karate training isn’t always made clear up front: while it is very rewarding, it’s also extremely difficult. And it often hurts. A lot. Martial arts at some level are really just physics applied to anatomy. But the anatomy needs to be strong enough in the right ways to hold the physics. The same might be said about classical ballet, but I’ve never gotten a bloody nose in ballet class. Training in a movement system changes your body, and you carry an image of your teacher, maybe your entire lineage, in your muscle memory. Even today when I practice certain movements, if I feel myself executing a technique without precision, I can feel adjustments Sensei made to my form years and years ago as I correct myself. There is a lot of writing out there about Karate being a spiritual practice. In essence I would agree, though most of the writing is crap. Conflating endorphins with spirituality is dangerous. But mind and body are linked, and martial arts are one of the greatest ways to get to one from the other.
Another memory: coming home during a college break and visiting the dojo. Asking if I could work out that night. One of the black belts showing up in street clothes. Being told that Sensei had not planned on teaching that night, but seemed to have changed his mind because I showed up. It was during college that I realized that Sensei was well-known. Instructors who I met had heard of him, and he had an impressive reputation. He was among the highest ranked Americans in Matsubayashi-Ryu. I had been told this before, but without context it meant very little.
Not all of my memories are happy. Once after a particularly rough class a senior instructor pulled me aside to tell me that Sensei was hard on me because of the potential he saw in me. Good teachers sometimes teach hard lessons. I won’t dwell on the details of those here, only to say that I am also grateful for the more difficult lessons as well.
Near the end of my time with him, while I was helping Sensei teach a children’s class (he echoed the founder of our style in saying that it was important to teach the children’s classes, not just the advanced students), one of the kids was late and complained that his mom didn’t drive fast enough. Sensei pointed to me and said, “When that kid was your age he would bike three miles in a blizzard to get to class.” When I had been biking through blizzards it never occurred to me that I was doing anything out of the ordinary. It was probably the least physically taxing thing I would have to do that night.
That play I began in graduate school later became the raw material of two other plays that I’m currently working on. None of the characters are based on anyone from the Budokan, not even the teacher figure. That said, the backdrop has a lot to do with the community Sensei created, and the understanding of martial arts that I learned from him and will always carry with me.
Sensei Carbonara died on January 26, 2013. He was among the greatest teachers I have ever encountered, and was a living treasure in the tradition of Okinawan Karate. His legacy is impossible to measure. I cannot imagine how many lives he touched.
Domo arigato, Sensei. Thank you for everything.
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Image courtesy of the author