5 Dec

Training in Shihan Thomas DeFelice’s Dojo taught me many life lessons; however one was taught particularly fast. In fact, I learned it sometime in 1971, on the very first day I removed my shoes and while still in “street-clothes” (as a new student, I had not yet earned the privilege of wearing a Gi, Karate uniform) set about barefoot onto the training floor for the first time. Although instructed to do so, I did not bow before entering the training area. To be sure I was nervous and forgot to follow this otherwise simple instruction. My error was pointed out and I corrected it. Thus I learned my first life lesson. As humans, we are fallible and will make mistakes. The important aspect to making a mistake is to recognize it, correct it and learn from the mistake. Once again, the Dojo proved to be a microcosm of the world environment.

One of the things I enjoyed in my relationship with Goshin-Do Karate-Do was the informal “fire-side chats” that Shihan DeFelice would sometimes engage us in. Here is one such “fire-side” story that will illustrate the need to make mistakes correctly.

In ancient Japan, the elephant was an unknown animal. The Shogun had heard tales of this mythical creature that lived in a far off land. Naturally, the Shogun wished to learn of this creature. He chose his three wisest ministers and dispatched them to find the animal and return to the kingdom with a description of this elephant. He instructed his ministers that time was of the essence. They should swiftly complete their task and report back to him. In a mythological twist of fate, the three wisest ministers were all blind.

The ministers arrived in the land of the elephant. Being blind, they began to feel this creature with their hands so as be able to describe it to the Shogun. The first blind minister touched the elephant’s ear and concluded that an elephant was a wide, thin and flat creature, much like an aquatic stingray. The second blind minister touched the elephant’s leg an concluded that an elephant was like a giant tree. The last blind minister touched the elephant’s trunk and describe the elephant as long and snake-like. They immediately returned to Japan and reported their descriptions to him. The Shogun was confounded by the differing reports and ordered the “incompetent” ministers to commit Seppuku (ritual suicide).

The point of this Goshin-Do Karate tale is that we should not criticize others, and also ourselves, for mistakes. If the Shogun would have only allowed the ministers sufficient time to continue touching and describing the elephant, they would have made enough “mistakes” until they finally would have accurately described this magnificent creature.

In life, we understand that mistakes are inevitable. In fact, sometimes mistakes are a signpost to great learning. It has been observed that, “A general of merit should be said to be a man who has one great defeat.” (See Endnote #1).

Further, not all lessons will be readily learned. One must persevere in his quest for knowledge so as to continue to make mistakes correctly and learn from them.

In closing, I will continue to learn, to make mistakes and to (hopefully) correct and learn from them. I hope to remember that,

Learning is something that should be studied broadly. It is like a beggar’s bag in which everything from leftover meat to cold soup is stored. (See Endnote # 2).

Sensei John Szmitkowski


  1. Asakura Norikage (1474-1555), fromWilson, William Scott, Ideals Of The Samurai, (O’Hara Publications, Santa Clarita, CA 1982), p.81.
  2. From the Daimyo-poet Hosokawa Yusai (1534-1610) from my collection of notes.

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