Interviewing sensei Velibor Dimitrijevic


Velibor Dimitrijevic

Part 1

When a Master of the art passes on, the karate community loses a treasure, an essential link to the past. Their presence is gone, and students and observers alike mourn the terrible loss. 

 This does not always necessarily mean the energy of the Master has been lost however. Energy is intangible. You cannot always see it, but we know it’s there, like the air we breathe. Inspiration is a manifestation of this energy, inspiration is energy.

 When Sensei Taiji Kase died, the international karate community lost one of its guiding lights, its budo sat nav. When we think about all he did however, the lives he touched and inspiration he gave and continues to provide, we realise that he hasn’t died at all. His physical presence is no longer here, but all he stood for and hoped to achieve remains and continues to prosper and develop.

 Velibor Dimitrijevic is one such example of Sensei Kase’s energy continuing to living on.

 Unknowing to Sensei Dimitrijevic, I have been in pursuit of this interview for a long while. I had read about him, and heard a great deal about him (all very positive) and was fascinated by this man’s story. Here is a detailed exploration of Sensei Dimitrijevic’s experiences, firstly discussing his beginnings in the art in the 1970s. He then goes on to speak, at length, about his study under Master Taiji Kase, sharing anecdotes, impressing upon us the impact Sensei Kase had on his understanding and dedication to Budo. I sincerely hope you love this interview as much as I do, as you get a real sense of this man’s love for the art and his teacher; furthermore, I have no doubt that this interview will be a source of inspiration in itself for you all. Shaun Banfield 2009

 Questions byTHE SHOTOKAN WAY.

(Shaun Banfield)     Thank you very much Sensei Dimitrijevic for giving us this interview. I am very much looking forward to putting my questions forward to you!

(Velibor Dimitrijevic)     Thank you for giving me the chance to share my thoughts and experiences with you, I appreciate that.

(SB)     You started karate in 1969, under Sensei Takashi Tokuhisa. Can you please tell us why you first decided to start karate?

(VD)     Actually, I met Takashi Sensei a few years later, in 1974 to be exact. However, by that time I had several contacts with some of the senior karateka and teachers in Serbia. Therefore, by that time I was sort of self educated.

(SB)     Sensei Tokuhisa was one of Sensei Taiji Kase’s assistants. Can you please tell us a little about him as readers of The Shotokan Way may know only a little about him?

(VD)     Takashi Tokuhisa sensei came to Europe in 1970. Primarily he was in Paris for a couple of months training with Kase sensei, and later on with Shirai sensei. He was finally invited to teach in Ljubljana, Slovenia, which is still his place of residence.

In my opinion, he was technically the most advanced young Japanese instructor at that time. For couple of years he was even involved in the preparation of the National Team of the Former Yugoslavia, as an assistant to Kase sensei, who at the time held the position of the Technical Advisor of the Karate Association of the Former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, his karate level was considered a “threat” for the leaders of the Association and soon enough he was isolated to Slovenia. In 1980 the same people, also interrupted their cooperation with Kase sensei.

(SB)     You mention that his level was considered a “threat”. Why do you think people responded in this way to him, and what were they threatened by?

(VD)     The interest for karate during the 1970’s in Serbia and in all republics of the former Yugoslavia was incredibly huge. The Official Karate Association of Yugoslavia was run by the people who managed to actually create a real karate empire. They did everything possible to maintain absolute political control but above all they enunciated in being venerated as karate idols. The extraordinary karate style of Takashi sensei was a huge threat which could easily question and even ruin the image they had begun to create among their followers. Actually any potential “opponent” was isolated and even eliminated.

(SB)     And what was the training like under Sensei Tokuhisa? Can you please give us an insight into the training you experienced under him?

(VD)     Prior to 1974 I had followed a few of his courses, but in 1974 Takashi sensei was one of the instructors for the Yugoslav National Team preparations for the European Championships in London. I asked for his permission to come to his dojo in Ljubljana and train with him. He accepted, and I spent ten days there.

I think that the proper way to describe those ten days would be that I simply managed to survive. I just had come from the European Championship, where I was a member of the Kumite and Kata team as well as individual Kata. The reason that I mention this is mainly because I could not understand what had happened during those ten days where I barely touched Takashi sensei’s karategi. We had three hours training in the morning and I also joined two of the classes which he taught in the evening. We did all aspects of practice, from Kihon and contact training on makiwara and sack, to Kata practice, as well as all kind of kumite, ranging from prearranged to free. His technical perfection was amazing. He could equally punch and kick with incredible sharpness and (fortunately) with perfect control. He had an amazing speed and fluency.

For me, it was really demanding and hard. After two days, the skin on my knuckles was gone. I even started bandaging my hands every day. We did a lot of prearranged forms of kumite, perfecting blocks, counter attacks. Even when I knew the attack he would deliver I could hardly manage to block or escape. But in free kumite, I was not so lucky. It was a real struggle. As you can imagine, during preparations with the National team, I fought with different opponents. That was difficult, but nothing in comparison with the hell I was going through during those ten days. I was really on the edge!

The harsh training made me wonder whether I was actually capable of doing karate. Physical pain was not the biggest problem, but my personal struggle to reconsider everything I had in mind about practising karate generally. Upon my return home I even stopped training for a month. I needed time to deal with dilemmas in my karate attitude.

Six months later I went again, and everything changed to the right direction. Taka san was an extraordinary master, but what impressed me even more was his character. He was an honest and good person, and above all, a real friend who stood for me during many difficult years I had later in my career.

(SB)     Can you please elaborate on how he stood for you during the difficult years in your karate career?

(VD)     Somehow, from my first steps in karate, I did not follow the “official association style”. I was kind of a rebel. My connection with Takashi sensei just helped to create even greater distance. Though I had won 22 medals from the Yugoslavian Championships and even more from the Championships in Serbia, I had to struggle for my position in the national team.

Since I was in disfavour from the official karate line in the country, my karate style and even my competition results were often disputed. The paradox was that although, for a decade I was winning medals at the European level, and those who were proclaimed as the “untouchables” within the country did not even manage to pass the preliminary rounds.

Besides my friend Dragoslav Bozovic, who was one of the best karateka we had in the National team, I trusted only Takashi sensei’s advice. I did not have many opportunities to train with him on the regular basis since we lived almost 800km apart, but just the thought that someone you trust is always on your side was enough.

(SB)     In what year did you first meet Sensei Kase?

(VD)     Like thousands of young karateka in Serbia and in former Yugoslavia I heard the name of Kase sensei beginning with my first steps in karate. In the beginning of the 1970’s he was coming to teach, mainly in the Adriatic coast, and there were hundreds of karateka attending. But in 1974 at the European Championship in London it was Kase sensei who selected me for the National kumite squad. The next year he attended the Yugoslav kumite championship in Sarajevo. I took second place in the middle category, but his comment was that I was the best at the whole tournament. You can imagine what that means to someone when they are 22 or 23 years old.

 (SB)     Prior to meeting him and training under him in person, what had you heard about Sensei Kase?

(VD)     Everything concerning karate was a mystery in those days, and he was already a legend. My first course was at the Adriatic coast in 1970, I was only 17. After two weeks of hard training on the sea shore I asked the teacher to tell us something about Kase sensei. He said that Kase sensei is so great that he has no right to speak about him.

(SB)     And upon meeting him, what was your first impression of the man?

(VD)     I have to tell you that he changed over the years. I remember him when he was 45-50 years old, and I knew him during the last 15 years of his life. For many years, an aura of a samurai was a picture I had in my mind, and still I do. When you saw him in the dojo you could sense the danger, but you could not tell where it was coming from. On the contrary, out of the dojo, he was a person you could easily approach, which was not a case with other Japanese instructors. Kase sensei had a smile which could disarm anyone.

(SB)     Sensei Kase was very different from the other JKA instructors you trained with, am I correct? Can you please explain in what ways he was different?

(VD)     Even though I had seen various Japanese instructors during the course of my European and World Championships, Kase Sensei was the only Japanese instructor who visited the former Yugoslavia. What you notice immediately in Kase sensei’s appearance is his spirit. Though he was also member of the JKA, it was obvious that his style and training method were different. You could be impressed with technique and power of course, but his kime and spirit were something else. While teaching he was completely devoted to pass the message to his students.

(SB)     Would you describe his karate as Shotokan or is it more in line with Shotokai do you think?

(VD)     He always expressed his gratitude to his teachers from the Shotokan Dojo prior and just after WWII, but Yoshitaka Gichin actually sealed his karate approach. He said he followed the Shotokan line. I think that his style is unique. Basic concept comes from Shotokan which includes technical curriculum and Kata but the most distinguished difference which makes his approach unique is where the power is derived from.

(SB)     In what year did you get onto the National team?

(VD)     In 1974.

(SB)     How did your relationship with Sensei Kase change when you got onto the National team?

(VD)     Not much actually. As I mentioned earlier, he was invited to teach seminars a couple of  times a year in former Yugoslavia.

(SB)     You had a very long and successful competitive career. What competitions stand out in your mind as particularly important?

(VD)     From 1974 up until 1987 I took part in 3 World and 11 European Championships. It is difficult to say which stand out, but maybe the World Championship in Bremen in 1980, and the European Championship in Manchester in 1981. The first one was important because I got a chance to compare my level among the best from all over the world. The second one stands out because I won my first Championship title in Kata.

(SB)     Throughout your long competitive career, you must have some wonderful memories. Would you please share some stories from your competitive years with our readers?

(VD)     There were many but maybe one from the Championship in Manchester in 1981. The previous year I missed the Championship because I served my Army duty, and it was just two months since I had returned. I trained while I was in the Army but I was not feeling as fit as I used to be.

The preliminary rounds both in Kata and Kumite were as usually held in the morning, in a sports hall. But the finals which were held in the evening, for the first and only time, I believe, were held in the theatre! I have to admit that it was nice environment, but it was an unusual atmosphere for an athletic event. Though there was not much space, I tried to warm up behind the theatre curtain. I did my best not to make much noise, when a man appeared warning me to stop immediately. He said no one is allowed to do anything but wait for its turn. He said he was in charge of “his show” and we were just a part of it. He was really serious about that, but I told him that I came to compete at the European Championship and not to be a part of his show.

I had to face the unexpected circumstances. Of course I was upset, I tried to concentrate since there was not much time left. I just stood completely motionless for a couple of minutes trying to suppress my emotions. And it actually worked; I did my final kata like never before which led me to my first title. I doubt anyone expected such an outcome. Everyone was betting on Frank Brennan who was the previous year’s champion and he had the home court advantage since it was taking place in Manchester.

(SB)     And who would you describe as your toughest opponent?

(VD)     It is difficult for me to answer that question, however, since it is asked at this time I must say that for five consecutive years only Frank Brennan and I were taking first and second place. In that respect Frank Brennan was the toughest opponent.

Allow me to mention that during the seven year period from 1977 until 1984 I was first twice, second three times and third two times.

However, I must insist on stating that I have always considered Kata as a core in Budo practice. It is a great concept, first to face and fight all your weaknesses and also to improve endlessly all your physical and mental potentials. Of course, when you compete then you try to compare with the best ones.

(SB)     Prior to the war, you travelled and attended many courses held by Sensei Kase. How different was the karate you experienced at these seminars to the more personal tuition you shared with him?

(VD)     As I said earlier, Kase sensei was coming to former Yugoslavia a couple of times a year, when he was invited. I was a young karateka, and like many others at that time I was just dreaming of having more personal opportunity to meet and train with him. By 1979 I passed my Shodan, Nidan and Sandan examination to Kase sensei. My next examination was 15 years later in the WKSA when I met him again.

 Unfortunately, people who were in power in the Karate Association of the former Yugoslavia interrupted cooperation with Kase sensei in 1980. These same people had me in disfavour from the beginning of my practice and even more when I established connection with Takashi sensei. Those were not easy years to survive in the world of karate, in the country where it was believed that almost 300.000 people practiced karate. But that is history now.

My relation with Kase sensei from the time he established WKSA is something completely different. He was not just teaching me; he was reliving and sharing the smallest details and secrets of his karate approach and his life philosophy.

(SB)     How did the war hinder your karate training if you don’t mind me asking as I know it meant that you were not able to train under Sensei Kase as regularly as you had been?

(VD)     I had my last European Championship in Glasgow in 1987. After that I was invited to teach in Athens. In 1988 I moved there. The collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the war started four years later. Therefore, travelling was not easy since I had to apply for the visa anytime I wanted to go for a course in another country.

Maybe it is not relevant but for better understanding let me explain also that in my native Serbia, in town Nis, I had a club with around 400-500 members, and I was working as a Mechanical Engineer in the company which I had designed. It was destiny that in 1988 I left all this and went to Athensto start everything from the beginning. I quit my job, and I devoted myself only to the study of the Kase’s approach to Budo Karate.

 It was from Athens that I got in touch with Kase sensei again. I became a member of the WKSA and very soon one of his closest assistants. Until the end of his life I had many seminars all over the Europe including some personal courses.

(SB)     Not necessarily a karate issue, but could you please tell us a little about life during the war?

(VD)     I was not directly affected by the unpleasant developments during the brake up of the former Yugoslavia since I was living in Athens at the time, but I was very closely involved in what was going in Serbia during that awful time. And then later during the NATO airstrikes which took place in 1999.

It is a very thin line that separates everyday life from the horror of war. It is unbelievable how many of the usual values lose any meaning in the presence of fear that someone close to you might be killed. Besides my relatives, some of my students and friends were at the areas where the war operations were held and I tried to be in touch with them. Regardless of the circumstances during those troubled years I was regularly going to Serbia.

It is a fact that I held courses for the Academy of Serbia during the proclaimed wartime and almost all of the members participated for every held course. Since you are asking questions from the past, let me tell you that the first event to break embargo imposed on Serbia was a course with Kase sensei, which I had organized in my town Nis, in 1993.

We were having one of the WKSA courses in Italy at the end of 1992 when I asked him to come with me to Serbia. Of course he was reluctant at first, saying that there was a war going on over there. I told him that it was the propaganda and media exaggeration, and that things were far from what the western media claimed. Since he was still not convinced I told him that it was very important for me if he could come under such circumstances, after all it was him who had war experiences, not myself.

It was not an easy atmosphere and not an easy choice for him to make, so in the end I had to use the last argument at my disposal. I reminded him that it was he who chose the GI ideogram as our Academy’s symbol. Gi is a moral obligation and it is the highest honour to help and support a fellow Academy member during difficult times.

His reply was short and resolute: “Ok Vebo, we go”.

On June 12th, 1993 we came to Nis in the afternoon, just before the training was scheduled. When we entered the town hall, there were over 200 karateka in line and almost 3000 people, all standing and applauding for ten minutes.

They patiently observed a two day course showing respect to the teacher who returned after 13 years and who had taught the first letters of the karate alphabet almost 30 years earlier.

Even a samurai like Kase sensei was moved by this event. He did not expect such a warm welcome and admitted that he was truly emotionally moved by such an event. We returned two years later to both Nis and Belgrade proceeding with the courses.

After that, Kase Ha Academy of Serbia was formed.

(SB)     In 1991 Sensei Kase formed the WKSA. Why did he form this group?

(VD)     It was his way to express his disagreement with the modern development of the Japanese karate. He said that separating from Budo, karate lost its soul. He deeply believed that it is possible to reach the level beyond technique and physical power, which was his life goal. By establishing WKSA he wanted to share his achievements with all those who shared the same vision.

WKSA was supposed to be a school for the highest education in Budo approach to karate. Competition in karate must be considered just as a phase in development. It is happening in artificial reality with many restrictions, from the rules to the referee’s objectivity. Budo emphasises freedom of mind, so it is a natural step in development after the competition level. He was so much affected by samurai’s tradition and I believe he was dreaming of creating a concept which will be a modern resemblance of those ancient times. Most of the Budo aspects were neglected, distorted or had been entirely lost as karate took a  completely athletic form. Establishing WKSA Kase sensei managed to teach and preserve those valuable aspects showing with his personal example incredible potentials of the human mind and body when led by faith and devotion.

(SB)     And did you immediately join Sensei’s group, and why did you decide to do so?

(VD)     Yes, I did. For me there was no other alternative.

(SB)     You are a part of the Shihankai, and were a very close assistant to Sensei Kase for a long time. Can you please tell us a few stories of your time with him?

(VD)     From the first courses we had in the WKS Academy I realized Kase sensei was not the same person I knew ten years ago. His style was remarkably different. I sensed that “something” was completely different but I could not tell what that was. Of course there was not a doubt about the efficiency of his techniques but I could not realize where the power was coming from. Soon after joining the WKSA I asked Kase sensei to come to Athens for a course. He accepted and in the beginning of 1992 he came. At that time he was 63 and I was 39.

There were participants from all Shotokan schools since that was the first time that Kase was in Greece. Everybody in the world of Martial arts knew his name but that was the first time to see him in the flesh. I was supposed to help him with the language translation, but with demonstrations too. Though I really did my best to offer a decent resistance, with each contact he would toss me left or right with unbelievable easiness and often I found myself on the floor. All participants were adults and many of them experienced karateka. They could not believe what they were witnessing. Their sensei was like a kid in front of “an old man. They thought that everything was show and simply acted by Kase Sensei and myself. Only I knew that it was exactly the opposite.

I was shocked much more than the first time I met Takashi sensei. I could not believe what was happening. I was 24 years younger, I was really fit, but still I could not withstand any of his blocks. He tossed me left and right with such ease. Every contact caused extreme pain, and he did everything with no visible effort. I tried to stay calm, I did not say anything but sensei understood everything and at the end of the course he touched my shoulder saying: Vebo, you were champion, you have very good technique and excellent kime, and it is now time for you to start practising karate”! I was almost 40 years old. Like history was repeating itself again, just this time it was much harder. I was simply devastated. Twenty years ago I was young and my experience with Takashi sensei was actually the driving force to enter the world of Karate-do. Now, after all those years of competitions, after 15 medals from the European and World Championships, he was telling me that it is now the best time to start practicing karate. Like it was in vain what I have done in my karate career by then.

What actually amazed me was the fact that it is possible to extend human potential much higher than it is logically comprehended. That was exactly what had attracted me to start practicing karate when I was 16, and now I could feel on my body and see with my own eyes.

I could not resist a challenge; the only choice was to start again from the beginning. However, I believe the following story you’ll find more interesting. In June 1992 WKSA hadGasshuku in Sweden. The Official program finished onSunday, but we asked Kase sensei to stay a couple of days longer and he accepted. There were four of us. We stayed for two days in a cottage near the lake in the South of Sweden. The first day we practiced a bit outdoors and he would simply correct our mistakes. Since it was in the beginning of the WKSA Academy we were very keen to learn about the future plans and further development in practice. I was a bit reluctant at first, but as time passed by I asked more questions about forgotten and neglected aspects of Budo and how to deal with matters concerning the mind development.

The next day we went on a short boat ride on the lake. Due to the rapid change in weather we had to return to the shore. The path leading to the cottage was with a mild ascent and went through the forest. Kase Sensei and I were walking and did not find the need to talk while doing so. He was going slowly, as if he was counting his own footsteps. For me, the pace that he was going at was far too slow. After a while a thought crossed my mind. I thought to myself, that Kase Sensei may be great in karate but if I start running I will leave him behind 50 meters.

However, I decided not to run and leave Kase Sensei behind and therefore our silence persisted for next couple of minutes. That’s when I heard Kase sensei speak and say, “Vebo, I do not run, but I can andvery fast for a matter of fact.

The silence lasted until we came to the cottage. I thought that this was happening to someone else. Such things only happen in the movies. But I was wrong, it was happening to me right then and there. That was proof that the level beyond exists.

Kase sensei used to speak very often about another dimension in karate development, and I was convinced about that fact. I tried to give some answers but these answers did not make any sense.

I think in Serbian – which he doesn’t understand, and he thinks in Japanese – which I don’t understand. We spoke English with each other; therefore it was yet another language which he “spoke.” In the years to come, I had experienced a few more similar moments with him but that event in Sweden sealed my destiny. Today, seventeen years later I’m still trying really hard to learn the language which he didn’t speak orally but mentally.

I honestly do not care whether I’ll ever reach the level of another dimension but it’s something I’ll never stop searching for.

(SB)     How would you describe his personality?

(VD)     What do you say about a man who always smiled, like he had no problems in life? His profound affection with samurai’s Bushido code was deeply embodied in his character.

Integrity of his character was reflected in his devotion, loyalty and in his deep sense for honour and justice. He was easy to approach and always extremely patient when teaching regardless the students’ level and age.

On the other hand it was amazing how, in a split of a second, he was able to convert himself into another being, almost like an alien being. His demonstration of absolute energy control, manifested through incredibly explosive kime could only be considered as metaphysical phenomenon. In the next moment he would be again just like everyone else. It was difficult to understand those changes. But this is what great personalities are distinguished by; they look and behave like ordinary people.

(SB)     Can you please talk me through the finer points and details of his karate? I know this is a very broad question, but I would like to gain an idea as to the main points of his karate?

 (VD)     The main issue in all Martial Arts is where the power is generated from. The ultimate goal in Kase Ha Shotokan Ryu Karate-Do is to reach the level beyond technique and physical power.

It is based on the ancient Budo approach to martial arts and spirits. Unlike orthodox Shotokan line where the kinetic energy of the hand or leg movement is the only source of power, in the Kase Ha approach, the ultimate level of development is achieved when poweris derived from the flow of Ki throughout the body. I can mention some of the basic mental and technical principles of the style:

Specific breathing, concentration and visualization are crucial means in mind’s development. Different forms of Ibuki breathing lead to a higher spiritual level and to the finest energy control.

Kase’s approach is based on extremely strong and effective defensive system. A variety of closed and open hand blocks are practiced from respective kamae positions.

The use of Fudo dachi stance gradually developed from the basic stances, to satisfy equally defensive and offensive requirements, as well as to insure ultimate stability and body control, is one of the style’s distinguished characteristics.

Unique use of offensive and defensive open hand techniques developed from the use of Japanese katana.

Timing principles of Sei-te and Hen-te are clearly and effectively implemented.

Developed moving system to straight, diagonal, semicircular and circular directions.

Unique concept of Kata practice, including four execution directions (Omote, Ura, Go, Go-no-ura) and respective application system based on the reality and not formality.

(SB)     You mention Sei-te and Hen-te and their timings. Can you please elaborate on this, and explain what these are, as many readers may be unfamiliar with these concepts?

(VD)     Sei-te is when we block with one arm and deliver a counter attack with the other. This is the usual way of connecting defensive and offensive techniques and also the way of developing basic bodycoordination while turning the trunk and pelvis. This is of fundamental importance in order to create stability, stance rooting and develop distractive kime, equally for blocks and for punches.

Hen-te is when both the block and the counter attack are done with the same hand.It can be developed after the Sei-te concept is mastered. Hen–te requires much more kime. The counter attackfollows the block with almost no interruption, so the body must be extremely rooted in order to offer required support for the hand. This can be managed with proper abdominal breathing which helps to keep the body intact.

While in Sei-te timing there are two exhalations, one for each kime; in Hen-te there are two kimes with one exhalation. This is not very easy to achieve and it’s the main reason why this timing concept is practiced at the higher level.

(SB)     Fudo-dachi is a stance cleary favoured by Sensei Kase.  Why did he favour it and what does Fudo-dachi offer that the other stances do not offer?

(VD)     In classical Shotokan style there are two grave mistakes in regard to the leg position in stances, particularly in Zenkutsu dachi.

Simple biomechanical analysis confirms that the front leg position is wrong. The front foot is turned to the inside of the stance, the knee is also bending over the foot and such position creates excessive pressure on the knee joint. At the same time, the back leg is straightened, which causes continuous pressure and impact on the back of the pelvis, more specifically, in the lumbar area of the spinal column.

At first sight, it seems like the locked position offers great stability, but the truth is that it is a deceiving feeling. Basically, the stance must have an ability to absorb the body’s shocks caused by many movements, as well as, muscular contractions and to transfer them to the ground.

Such a stance is rigid with no flexibility and with a lot of latent but dangerous threats for the entire body structure. The catastrophic consequences are unfortunately very well known. Examples range from minor frequent knee injuries to the more radical meniscus removal and crucial ligament operations which unfortunately often occur.  The back leg knee joint suffers similar problems as well as the back of the body. Discomfort and severe back pain often are a result of the lumbar vertebras dislocation and can cause even severe discus hernia.

In most of the cases further karate practice had to be abandoned due to the distorted body stability, permanent structure distortion or unbearable pain. Let me stress again by saying that the Fudo dachi stance is well balanced biomechanically.

The straight forward position of the front foot and front knee bending in the foot’s direction in connection with the bended back knee, create a kind of frame. Such a frame is able to absorb and transfer all of the body’s impacts and oscillations to the ground.

Shifting the body’s centre of gravity in any direction is easy in Fudo dachi, that’s why it satisfies equally the offensive and defensive requirements.

Part 2 follows in the next edition

 

VELIBOR DIMITRIJEVIC

Part 2

 

When a Master of the art passes on, the karate community loses a treasure, an essential link to the past. Their presence is gone, and students and observers alike mourn the terrible loss. 

This does not always necessarily mean the energy of the Master has been lost however. Energy is intangible. You cannot always see it, but we know it’s there, like the air we breathe. Inspiration is a manifestation of this energy, inspiration is energy.

When Sensei Taiji Kase died, the international karate community lost one of its guiding lights, its budo sat nav. When we think about all he did however, the lives he touched and inspiration he gave and continues to provide, we realise that he hasn’t died at all. His physical presence is no longer here, but all he stood for and hoped to achieve remains and continues to prosper and develop.

 

VeliborDimitrijevic is one such example of Sensei Kase’s energy continuing to living on.

Unknowing to Sensei Dimitrijevic, I have been in pursuit of this interview for a long while. I had read about him, and heard a great deal about him (all very positive) and was fascinated by this man’s story. Here is a detailed exploration of Sensei Dimitrijevic’s experiences, firstly discussing his beginnings in the art in the 1970s. He then goes on to speak, at length, about his study under Master Taiji Kase, sharing anecdotes, impressing upon us the impact Sensei Kase had on his understanding and dedication to Budo. I sincerely hope you love this interview as much as I do, as you get a real sense of this man’s love for the art and his teacher; furthermore, I have no doubt that this interview will be a source of inspiration in itself for you all. Shaun Banfield 2009

 

Questions by THE SHOTOKAN WAY.

(SB)     What is your interpretation of Ki and does it exist do you think?

(VD)     Of course I believe in Ki existence, otherwise I wouldn’t be on this path. Ki is an inherent fundamental energy that is beyond mental (intellectual) comprehension. In seeing the world around us we are dependent on our senses. Due to the limitation of the human senses, what we experience around us is not an absolute but a limited reality. Though we cannot see or smell air we believe it exists, why? Because, our lives depend on it.

So, in that aspect why should the Ki existence be questioned at all?

We tend to think of our bodies as flesh and bones supplied by blood and directed by the brain and nervous system, but that description is very superficial. We are much more complex than that, with ultimate in complexity being our consciousness consisting of thoughts and emotions. Despite the advance in medicine, we still haven’t figured out how human consciousness works. The human body functions through multiple layers of systems, some physical, some chemical, some energetic, and some might say spiritual, but all divinely aligned and integrated. As a mechanical engineer I know from physics that everything in the Universe is energy and for that reason, the energy that human beings possess should be no different.

I believe that one way to access Ki is through the body or through physical intelligence.

Breathing cultivates this physical intelligence and transmits the Ki energy throughout the body. Because humans can control their breathing individually, they can develop physical intelligence. Cultivating Ki means, to intertwine two fields of the human existence, mental and physical. However, everything I mentioned above begins with the simple act of faith.

(SB)     Emphasising the hara is of paramount importance to your karate am I correct? How should it be used as the source of power when delivering techniques?

(VD)     I’ve mention earlier that outer, mechanical movement is basically the main source of power in all sports disciplines and many of martial arts. What concerns me is possibility to avoid inevitable loss of energy caused by any mechanical motion. This is possible when there is an effort to centralize mental and physical efforts to one point. The human body possesses 206 bones, 100 joints and around 650 muscles. Can you imagine how much energy is dispersed while we partially move or do any karate technique?

On the contrary, what will happen when we try to centralize all our efforts to one point in our body? Hara, or more specifically its centre Tanden, which is also the body’s physical centre of gravity is that precise point. All our conscious efforts should be focused to this point in order to reach the level of aroused Ki energy. Once that ability is achieved it is like electric current. Even the slightest kime from Hara will be felt at the same moment on the periphery. When you block or punch it is important to make a sudden “Tanden kime” and you’ll realize it on the contact surface of the hand or the fist. It’s like a button, which instantly responds when you switch it on and off.

(SB)     Why does this Tanden Kime have this affect do you think?

(VD)     Tanden kime is not just a result of the abdominal muscles contraction. Tandenkime occurs when correct Ibuki, abdominal breathing is applied. The strain or the pressure which is exerted when the air is suppressed to the Hara affects the whole body reaction in a different way thanwhen bare muscles are being contracted.

It is important to remember that the breathing initiates the movement and not vice versa. In other words, breathing is not to support the movements but to initiate the movements. Muscular contraction is of second importance.

The feeling is really something else. With practice, this way becomes an instinctive reaction, and it happens just at the moment you had thought about it.

(SB)     Sensei Kase was very interested in the Samurai tradition. What did he teach you about this tradition and how it relates to Karate-Do?

(VD)     I’ll always remember Kase sensei as the last samurai. He was profoundly affected by the samurai’s tradition and by the end of his life he lived deeply respecting Bushido code. That was obvious in his behaviour, in his determination to the way he has chosen to follow, and in his loyalty to his honest followers. He never broke his word and respecting the honour and dignity was his life ideal. His ideas about another level in karate based on the ancient samurai’s principles, of the unification of mind and body through the rigorous Budo practice, were seldom understood even by his Japanese colleagues.

Today, since the most of the karate instructors from the first generation belong to history, it is obvious that Kase sensei left a heritage which is ahead of its time. Never cease fighting your own self; it is the most important ideal to bear in mind.

It is nicely explained in Budo progression, where from Bu-jutsu (martial technique) one should advance to Bu-do (martial way) in order to reach the final stage of Bu-shin (martial spirit). The techniques (jutsu) themselves are vehicles that allow the practitioner to approach the two higher levels of ethical behaviour and spiritual insight. Of course, the inseparable part of Budo practice is the philosophy of Zen which helps to set the proper frame of mind. From the dawn of the human history, the grandest desire for human beings was to be strong and wise at the same time. I believe Budo Karate is one way to achieve it.

(SB)     How did Sensei Kase’s passing affect you?

(VD)     Kase sensei and I often had discussions about the human mind, as well as life and death. That helped me understand the importance of Zen mind, or everyday mind. His life journey is an example of how a warrior is dealing with death. He had faced death twice in his life and he spoke about that as inevitable part of the life. First, during the end of the WWII in the kamikaze camp, and again four years before he died when he suffered a heart attack.

Everybody was shocked when he appeared in the dojo not even a year later. He was defying death. Knowing him I could not imagine other behaviour of a samurai. Just a month before his death we talked almost half an hour. He was ill and I had called to ask how he was. I tried to be supportive but eventually it was him giving me advice on how to continue practice. He was at the end of the life but still he spoke about life. He reminded me not to forget that physical practice is important, but as he used to say it is just a tad bit above zero.

He insisted that breathing is the most important aspect. I tried to convince him by saying that I was doing just that, but he persisted that I have to do it even more, because above all, it is the mental development which is the ultimate goal. As usual we were laughing. I feel honoured that I had chance to share a part of his life. We all have to die. Understanding that and accepting as a part of the life journey will help you enjoy life fully.

(SB)     You mention that you spoke with him about the time(s) he faced death at the Kamikaze camp. Would it be possible for you to share what he told you about this?

(VD)     Please allow me not to go into very deep detailshowever; everything had to do with austere discipline to which body and mind were imposed.

He also told me some of his impressions from the time he had suffered a heart attack. His almost miraculous recovery also has to do with mind activity. He mentioned the concentration and the way of directing the train of thoughts. He also said that he never stopped having faith in the Budo approach he followed and that was helping body to respond to such mental and spiritual stimulations.

 

(SB)     Sensei Shirai was very close to Sensei Kase. Did you have much contact with Sensei Shirai, can you please tell us about him?

(VD)     I remember Shirai sensei from the days I trained with Takashi sensei because he had a great respect for him. I knew him from the Championships when he was leading the Italian team, and I liked his style. Later when he was actively involved in the WKSA we had a much closer relationship, but I didn’t actually have many courses with him.

 

After Kase sensei’s funeral some of his closest students, friends and family had a memorial gathering where some of us recalled some events from the past referring to the great teacher. I appreciated Shirai sensei saying that Kase sensei was an enigma even for them, the Japanese. It really shows the great respect and appreciation which he cherished for Kase sensei.

(SB)     What role does kata have to you?

(VD)     It is of the paramount importance not to see Kata as it appears at the competitions! When you perceive just the outer form of the Kata, paying attention to the aesthetic then it is nothing more than bare gymnastic exercise. Repeating kata over and over again without higher goal but to keep fit or not to forget it, has no meaning to me.

Kata is the core in Budo practice. You do Kata alone, so you have the opportunity to practice all important aspects in continuous effort to harmonize outer and inner body potentials. Once the techniques of Kata become automatic, like acquired reflexes – almost like second

nature – all your attention should be focused to the inner’s body and mind potentials.

Visualization is very important. First to imagine opponent’s attacks and reactions, but also to imagine kime, movement and distance before the technique is done. In this way, the mind is leading all bodily functions like breathing, stance rooting and Tanden centralization.

Kata must be a reflection of the inner state. Kata must be a message from the soul, emotional and spiritual, not a mechanical exercise. When approaching Kata practice, I think like an artist who is facing his blank canvas. You won’t be impressed from the shape of the canvas, but from the scene which has been depicted on it. It is similar when you approach

Kata practice. Doing Heian shodan, Bassai Dai or Unsu is just like choosing the size of canvas, what matters is the message that is coming from it.

(SB)     What is yourfavourite kata and why?

(VD)     If you had asked me this question 25 years earlier I would probably mention that during my seven year period in Europe, I won ten medals in Kata competition, seven individually and three with a team kata. It is really hard to say which kata was a favourite one. I did Unsu, Sochin, Kanku Sho, Gojushiho Sho and Gojushiho Dai, but also Bassai Sho, Chinte, Nijushiho, Enpi, Hangetsu.

I always believed, and I still do, that extreme, explosive kime is the most important quality in practice. While I was competing, my style was describe as a wild one. I remember that Takashi sensei told me once I should try not to lose it. I believe I did not. After all these years I really have no preference among all Kata. However, there are periods when I like doing some more than others; and probably it has to do with my mental and emotional state. Like sometimes you are in the mood for Bach, other time for Vivaldi, while sometimes you could be in the mood for U2.

(SB)     Studying kata under Sensei Kase must have been an extraordinary experience. Do you remember any sessions in particular where you studied kata under Sensei Kase? Could you share your memories and what did you learn?

(VD)     In my opinion, Kase Ha Shotokan Ryu style has the most methodical approach to the Kata practice. Apart from the common Omote way of performing Kata, Kase sensei introduced Ura or opposite and Go, and Go no ura (backwards to the left and right). Apart from the obvious benefit in achieving equilibrium of both, left and right body sides, it improves strategic approaches in Bunkai analysis. Just try to do any Kata to the opposite direction and you’ll realize how confusing and difficult it is, mainly because you are trying to coordinate the movements in backwards order.

It was in the course in Germany when I was his assistant. I never did any of the Kata Ura or Go. First, we all tried and with some confusion completed Heian Nidan Ura, and also the Go direction. Then all participants made a circle and he wanted to explain why doing Kata backwards (Go, or Go no ura) is closer to the real fighting circumstances, since it is normal to retreat when you are attacked.

Without previous notice he asked me to come forward and do Bassai Dai Go but in Bunkai form. One hundred people were expecting to see what he said. I was taken by surprise. I did not have time to ask anything since the other instructor was in front of me ready to attack. The strange thing was that with some slight mistakes I managed to demonstrate the whole Kata backwards in Bunaki form with the opponent. The fact that I did it from the first attempt just proved how deeply Kase sensei studied and analysed this new concept before presenting to the students. It was conceived for the real improvement of the martial abilities, and now after almost 20 years of such experience I can say it is really a great concept.

 

(SB)     Today in 2009, sport karate is very popular. How are you, and the rest of the Shihankai working to ensure the continued development of Sensei Kase’s karate?

(VD)     During 50 years in Europe, karate has changed. More athletic approach is the result of the competition. It is logical that the rules of competition determine the training method. In order to win in competition, you have to score points by punching, striking or kicking. You don’t get points for blocking, so there is no need to study them. The most effective techniques for scoring are straight punches. If you use kicks, then those circular or semicircular are the most appropriate. Those and other restrictions on the other hand directly determine the training requirements. No need to spend years practicing all stances, variety of defensive techniques, Kata, etc. The power resulting from the kinetic energy of the hand or leg movement is enough to hit and score. If you become the champion then that is all, that is the ultimate. Why would anyone strive to search for what is beyond?

I had such an experience. I believe that Budo practice is for those who have urge to create and search over and over again. Japanese say “DOKAN” or, “the way is a circle”, so the way never ends. I believe I had to try to improve my knowledge and experience in the neglected aspects of Budo in order to achieve deeper understanding of the mind and body potentials.

I had Kase sensei as living proof of that. I can’t afford or choose to afford doing anything less.

My colleagues from the Shihanki share the same opinion, and we are doing our best to protect and to further promote Kase sensei’s teaching.

(SB)     What are the most important aspects of Budodo you think and how should we incorporate Budo into our karate study?

(VD)     Without accepting the principles of centralization it is impossible to speak of advanced karate practice. Try not to emphasize what you see with eyes, anyone can do that. Try to grasp the meaning of things which are beyond our senses’ reach. Ones we can turn towards our inside world, I think we are entering into the Budo practice.

(SB)     Sensei Kase often spoke about going from Zero to Maximum energy in the shortest amount of time possible. What are the most important factors that you should concentrate on in order to achieve this?

(VD)     I often refer to his approach as “The way beyond thelimits” and I’m trying to stick to this idea too. At the more superficial level he used to say: “never cease looking for morekime and more speed …”

Actually it is based on the Yin-Yang concept of harmony between two opposites. So, we have to try to go beyond our own limits.

In the beginning it is how to withstand pain from physical exercise and how to overcome the fear of the contact and injury and later how to overcome our desires, egoism, and negligence. When speaking about real practice then it is crucial to find the equilibrium between the hard way and soft way.

The hard way is manifested in the outer form of kime in karate technique. Soft way, or inner form is expressed in the softness of the body. Both conditions can be achieved through the different forms of abdominal breathing.

I have mentionedearlier when I spoke about “Tanden Kime” that the feeling is like switching an on/off button. Extreme kime is achieved during the air exhalation, when the suppressed air is released suddenly with extremeabdominal contraction. It is important prior to that to visualize that the body becomes intact, as one solid piece, like a huge stone for example.  Such breathing is called Haku, which means to throw out or to vomit because it happensso suddenly.

In the very next instant, just after being exerted to such extreme strain, the whole body should be “switched off”, released instantly from any tension. Imagine something soft, as soft as cotton.

This completely opposite body condition is possible because, during Hakubreathing the body’s diaphragm is pushed downwards. This as a result has a creation of the under pressure in the lungs, so after the exhalation, the air is immediately sucked in the lungs again.

In that way, when we do anything with extreme/explosive kime, we should control only exhalation; inhalation follows automatically because of the created vacuum in the lungs.

Before we attempt doing it in practice, we have to imagine such a condition in our minds first. That is why visualization is very important. Creating a picture in the mind is essential before attempting to harmonize other potentials and materialize them through the form of the karate techniques. Finally, it is the consciously controlled breathing which enables to achieve Zero or Maximum body conditions.

(SB)     What are the differences do you believe in long range and short range fighting?

(VD)     Generally war is about deceivingthe opponent. Think not how to win but rather, how not to lose.

In that way you’ll never underestimate the opponent and you’ll avoid silly mistakes which in real war may cost a life. Of course, in the war, there is no victory without infantry, which at some point must enter the battlefield and prevail at the end.

In karate practice it is primarily important to develop an effective arsenal of weapons as well as ways for short range fighting. This must be done in order to learn how to deal with emotions and the mental tension caused by the opponent’s presence in your vicinity.

After that you can analyze the changes and differences caused by the change of the distance and develop the most appropriate weapons and ways respectively. We all first secure our home door with locks and alarms and then the yard around the house.

(SB)     And what was Sensei Kase’s approach to jiyu-ippon kumite and jiyu-kumite, and what methods did he use to instil the samurai mentality in his students?

(VD)     Doing jiyu-ippon kumite is very important.The fact that attacks, blocks and counter attacks are mostly prearranged doesn’t make the exercise easier.

On the contrary, it helps to improve the stance, the rooting and it sharpens timing and distance. It also helps to create the mind and breathing posture as well as the attitude.

Kase sensei insisted that during hard but controlled kumite sessions it is of great importance for reality to prevail. Instant release of the focused Ki energy was the ultimate goal.

First is important to develop the most distractive defensive techniques and ways to neutralize opponent attacks. Then, later, to develop more sophisticated ways to disarm the opponent using less power, or even using opponents’ impact of power to defeat him.

Good and correct techniques and physical strength are just the basic conditions before starting to search for more advanced abilities.

(SB)     Do you now consider yourself a samurai?

(VD)     Does the fact that I do respect the code of honour and I believethat dignity and loyalty should be life ideals make me a samurai?

My cultural and historical backgrounds are different from Kase sensei. I find a lot of inspiration in the history of Serbia. Some things are even very similar with those of the samurai in Japan. There are so many examples of the dignity, honour and sacrifice during the vast Serbian history which is alike to those of the greatest samurai. In the medieval Serbia in the beginning of the XV century Despot Stefan Lazarevic, was one of the most educated monarchs in that time in Europe. He had established a school for knights and those who successfully completed martial and often literature studies received official certificates. Those “holy warriors” were even depicted on the Manasija monastery’s icons, which is very rare to see.

In today’s world being different from the social norms will make you strange in the eyes of society, however, if you are determined to pursue the way beyond the limits in any field of the human endeavour, being that science, medicine, technology or Budo you have to accept the fact that at the very end you might be alone.

I think some of the ancient Greek philosophers said that, one that can be alone iseither a wild animal or a god.

(SB)     And what mindset did he ask you to adopt?

(VD)     He never askedme to do or to adoptanything.

He was an open minded person and insisted that everybody must find his own way. He even said it himself, “I’ve taught you everything I know. Please set your own direction and try to discover with your mind and feel with your body the things I did.”

I was not surprised at all by his words since in my karate life I was pretty much a loner. After all he generously shared his experience with me and helped me to stand firmly on the ground. It was time for me to mature with my own discoveries of the body and the mind.

(SB)     How important is the concept of ‘Mu’ and ‘Zanshin’? in karate and how do they work together do you believe?

(VD)     There is no advanced level in karate practice without centralization. Focusing all our conscious mental and physical effort to the Tanden, is the way. Conscious and controlled breathing is the bridge that connects physical and mental aspect of the body.

When this is achieved the mind is being cleared up from our everyday thoughts. Then, everything we consider as ourselves, physical body, as well as our mental and spiritual being must be merged, must become one entity.

Only then it is possible to speak about Zanshin or prolonged alertness and Mushin, or no mind, or absence of the conscious mind.

In the process of learning, we use our conscious mind in order to remember the sequence or movement and then with countless repetitions we try to store this information in our subconscious mind.

The main idea in Budo practice is to reach the level of the instinctive, intuitive response under any dangerous or unexpected circumstances. That can be possible only if martial techniques were completely acquired and absorbed becoming almost like inborn reflexes.

Years of hard conscious training leads to the level when everything becomes like ones second nature. Such a condition is depicted as Mushin state, or No mind condition. As if there is no presence of the conscious mind, almost like the mind is absent.

When such a level has been achieved the reactions are completely instinctive. We can be amazed by the perfection of a performance and the impression that will be gotten would be that it had occurred by chance.

That’s why the highest level in Budo development is void or emptiness. Physical drill is not enough to reach such depths in the mind development, higher sense of spirituality is required.

(SB)     You obviously are promoting Sensei Kase’s karate. Do you also incorporate your own ideas and developments in the karate you teach?

(VD)     Yes, I do. You could not go to the Kase’s courseand expect to simply use thecopy-paste” way of learning. It just doesn’t work that way. Only when you consciously try to process the information you’ve got through your own software (mind), and then further apply to your own hardware (body), it makes sense.

Kase sensei was a unique karate expert in the world of Martial Arts and his contribution in the area of the mind and body development based on the ancient Budo concept is a great heritage much ahead of his time.

For me Kase sensei is a great example of what a human can achieve when devotion and vision are stronger then time and people. Trying to imitate him is ridiculous. Following his principles is the right approach, but also following your own way. Though we had some common characteristics, I consider myself a different personality and I have my way of expressing the ideas and the vision of Kase Ha style based on my education, tradition, and my level in karatedo as well as my life experience.

In my opinion Karate-Do must have a more profound impact on the participant’s lives. It  must be presented and practiced like life philosophy and not just as a superficial sport mainly based on bare physical power.

I do follow traditional approach but I do not neglect biomechanical, medical and scientific knowledge. Science and medicine today can explain some of the mind and body phenomenon which, some decades ago were considered supernatural. It is possible today to give explanations why abdominal breathing is beneficial for the human body, as well as to prove that emitting Ki energy is one of the latent human potentials.

To reach approximately the level of 3rd dan, what is required is mostly of the technical and physical nature. Of course it is demanding but more or less almost anyone with strong determination can achieve it. Such karate practice, which is actually based on the examination curriculum, does not lead to Budo dimension!

In my teaching I’m trying to systematize the method which leads from the technical development to the sensitive area beyond. I find it far more important to lead the student to the point when his intuition and his very personal inventive vision will become his objectives in practice.

(SB)     How important was/is etiquette in the dojo to Sensei and to you also?

(VD)     He did not insist on the artificial etiquette. Many times he explainedthat real etiquette is in the heart of the karateka, which must behave in such manner everywhere, not only in dojo.

I absolutely agree.

A real person stands upon his word. I myself appreciate discipline much like the Japanese however discipline is not very much part of western culture. Without discipline it is very easy to lose the strings during the training session. Discipline is important, however not to scare people but to create the atmosphere which helps to concentrate on the mental movements. Though, it doesn’t mean that we have to be gravely serious at all times.

If we truly believe in the Yin-Yang concept then we need the opposite from seriousness, and that is laughter. It is of the vital importance to laugh, which is a source of the positive energy we all need.

Great human ability is to distinguish when and how the mind should be directed. Humans are emotional and energetic beings. In order to be able fully and truly to enjoy the life they can and should try to find harmony between serious and happy moments.

(SB)     How would you describe yourself as a teacher?

(VD)     Someone who is a step ahead is also themeaning of the word Sensei. It is different from the usual meaning we have for a teacher. In Budo approach it is not enough just to explain theoretically what is the task or the purpose of the exercise.

The Sensei must demonstrate. Some aspects of the advanced practice, like breathing, centralization, Ki control most of the times could be completely understood only when seen in practice. One picture is like a thousand words, so you have to show what you mean by saying or explaining something.

I think I’m kind of strict and demanding in my teaching approach.Though I must say that instead of giving orders, like do this or do that, most of the times I prefer saying, follow me.

(SB)     Can we please say thank you for all of your time and willingness to beinterviewed for our magazine. I hope you have enjoyed being interviewed and may I wish you continued success in the future?

(VD)     Allow me to express my gratitude for offering me this opportunity. The pleasure was all mine.


Acerca de Martín Fernández Rincón

Martín Fernández Rincón,
7º Dan de Karate RFEK / Entrenador Nacional / Juez del Tribunal de Grados.
Instructor KSK-Academy.
Diplomado en Educación Física UCLM.
Director Técnico de los Clubes Deportivos Fuji-Yama (Albacete) – Karate-Do (Hellín) – Escuelas Deportivas de Elche de la Sierra.
Email: info@senseimartin.es

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