Interview with Sunday Morning Keiko Founder Rick Hotton: Karate, Aikido, and Body Intelligence, Part III

Rick Hotton began training Shotokan Karate in the early 1970s, being one of the youngest practitioners to join the dojo. After taking responsibility for the dojo he once trained in, curiosity led him to aikido pioneer Mitsugi Saotome, who, to Hotton, is his best karate teacher. Today, Hotton discusses his karate journey, how Saotome influenced his karate, and how Hotton is making aspects of karate a spiritual/metaphysical training. This is the second part of the three part interview. Read the first part here and the second part here.

MAYTT: With the global pandemic still wreaking havoc on various social institutions and events, how do you see karate evolving and adapting to a post-Covid world?

RH: What I’ve done now I would have never foreseen, like I have a Zoom class and the kind of community that is developed. And all this came from Zoom, and as weird as it is, the vibe of the community comes through. I teach fifty or so remote students and have some weekend one-off seminars from people all over the world from Australia to Japan and Portugal. The whole technology aspect took me a bit to get used to, especially the interface. I never thought I’d use this. If Funakoshi found a way to bring karate from Okinawa to Japan, I can do the same in this new world. And it is a delight and that inspiration to make the best possible for the night.

Another thing that may have been a positive aspect from the isolation is that people got quiet with their own space again. There is a quietness to that approach; there’s an attentiveness to that. I’m guessing that people built better relationships with their animals, the people around them, their gardens, and other relationships. Sometimes there’s a silver lining in adversity; it’s finding the stillness and introspection in that adversity. As Funakoshi once said, with the doorway narrow, go deeply in. We need to utilize the technology when needed. It’s powerful to take a circumstance and the positive and meaning in it. This is what you can find in your training too. Saotome Sensei would probably call this the aiki of aiki. It’s like when you see it, you see it.

I had a conversation with him behind the dojo and I asked him about the quality of genius. You put his hands up to demonstrate connecting two and two; essentially saying that genius is connecting two and two. A genius quality of looking at something from a different angle; you’re looking at the same thing but at an absolutely different perspective. I feel and see the same things as Saotome Sensei because we are looking at the same object in some of the same perspectives. It really is all about perspective and how to continuously develop that perspective. That perspective is a much more powerful thing than most give credit for because it helps us find a greater quality of inquiry. You have to recognize that’s a thing. Pay attention to the quality of questions that drive your inquiry because it’s what makes you understand what is being taught. Because I would notice when I dispense my lesson to the class, I noticed that the students would get what I was teaching but it wasn’t what I was doing, but it was the students. I don’t know what they’re doing sometimes – it could be someone that got cut off on the ride there, or someone that doesn’t want to feel weak again, or has some physical ailment – but the students are internalizing the lesson I’m teaching. This comes back down to how powerfully can you deliver your inquiry and let that guide you.

Rick Hotton. Source: hombu Dojo Karate.

MAYTT: Furthermore, who do you see as the “rising stars” in American Karate that could help the evolution of the art or help revolutionize it?

RH: Wow. That’s a really tough question because I guess I’m trying to do that a little bit and I’m a bit of a heretic. But I don’t think I’m a heretic. I think I’m going back to, say, the original message of Funakoshi Sensei. See, when I came to karate, I was looking for a spiritual sort of experience – a warrior priest experience, not just the sporting aspect. When I read back on teachers of long ago, like Ueshiba Sensei or Kano Sensei or Funakoshi Sensei, I think that was their perspective. That it wasn’t simply about the utilitarian and I that’s been a problem in our society at large. People don’t really respect things that don’t have an obvious utilitarian benefit. I think that is why, for example, the MMA guys – and I have a lot of respect for them – but they’ve kind of taken away from the karate people. People started equating what is the most practical – what is the thing that has utilitarian value? I think people totally misjudge aikido. It does have self-defense and it should be budo, but there’s so much more there. It’s like the tea ceremony isn’t about quenching your thirst, it has other things that it’s trying to instill. What I saw as a teacher and, let’s say, an ambassador of karate, people were not seeing that anymore. They weren’t recognizing what the experience had to offer. I’m trying to bend it back in that kind of direction. When people say on the YouTube channel, “I don’t know how practical that is” or “a good Parisian street fighter would take that guy out,” I don’t really care about that. I’m not practicing my karate for those reasons. I have a totally different agenda – it’s a life experience.

How do I find a truth in one thing and if I can understand that intimately, how can I extrapolate that and see all things through that lens? I think I’m trying to do that and because of that, I’m a bit of a heretic because I don’t hear that message a lot to be honest. The problem with karate in the States, I think, is that you have this commercial aspect and people could open a dojo, or did years ago, and not really qualified to be teaching karate. I think that debased the integrity of karate in the States. When I go overseas, this is generality, the standards are higher because people that open dojo have to be licensed, maybe through the state or have a community licensing to do that. I think the karate world, in order to survive, needs a revolution – that would be my sense of it. I’m trying to step out in front of that, but the problem is I’m a huge introvert. I can’t really sound my horn because it makes me feel really weird. Even setting up the YouTube channel back in the day – I didn’t even want to do that because the last thing I want is the perception that I’m trying to tell people how to do their karate.

When I was teaching in Fredrikstad, one of the other senior instructors, when we were walking to teach our own classes, said, “Wow Rick. You’re trying to be everyone’s guru!” I said, he was missing the point. I want everyone to be their own guru. I don’t want to be anyone’s guru; I want everyone to find their own authentic experience. I think as a society, if we can get back to that and worry so much about keeping up with the Jones and everything about the utilitarian, I think we might have some salvation, not just in karate but in our culture. I’m trying to champion that cause in as subtle way as possible so that when I go out, I try to present my practice in that way. Now, I will say that there are some karateka in this country that I really think are amazing, but they’re also oddly introverted. There’s one guy that I taught with who I think is excellent and we are polar opposites, his name is Steve Ubl. What he does, he does better than anybody. But the thing is, it’s his authentic karate and he is very much the opposite hemisphere of me – I’m kind of the weird poet kind of guy and he wrote about fifty-two, very extensive academic papers on technique. He’s very empirical, it’s done this exact particular way and I love that someone is doing that. I can do the crazy mixing of the aiki and my karate is a little out there and then you have this guy who’s really grounded in his karate. I’m guessing he’s in his early seventies and he’s at the top of his game. He’s really a remarkable karateka.

I think he may be a bit of a recluse. I think he’s a little like me; I go out and teach, but it’s kind of like I have a trip planned this weekend overseas and as much as I like seeing all those people, I like staying in my house and doing my gardening and my training. [Laughs] I also have an aversion to fame or notoriety. I think people want that, but when they get it, they don’t want that and it’s awful. Everyone’s looking at you and judging you. I was thinking the other day, maybe I just quit karate and become an avocado farmer or something. [Laughs] I think Ubl Sensei is kind of the same way. He’s a private person.

What I do think, if you want to maintain the experience for future generations, it might be good that those traditional budo dojo, whether they are aiki dojo, karate dojo, or kendo dojo, they band together a little bit instead of having all our little ponds drying up, make one big lake and find the common ground. Like, when I started training with the aikido people, that’s what I found in common – the culture was common. I’m doing a front kick and you’re doing an irimi nage, but beyond that, we are martial artists, and you find that common ground. I think if there is any salvation, it is that. And also exhalating what is truly beneficial to the practice because so many people misjudge it, thinking, “Well, that reverse punch isn’t going to work a street situation.” Well, it’s not really about that. I think you have to educate people on what the experience is. I even had an access TV show years ago here because everyone equated karate with Chuck Norris doing a spinning kick. When I talk to people coming to train karate, they would say it’s not for them. “I don’t think you have the right perception of what it is,” I would say to them. If you actually did the training, it might actually be different. I went and bought time on public access television and tried to create a show that illuminated that the training is not what you see in the pop culture – it’s much deeper than that. It’s probably counterculture. I see traditional martial arts on the wane unless we figure out how to address the zeitgeist. Every moment in time has an angst or some problem that needs to be resolved and things come along that suit that, and they gain in their popularity because that’s their utilitarian value. We’re living in this culture where everyone is addicted to their devices, not really finding connection. Aiki is perfect for that. Aiki is based around this connection. What you got to do is bring those things to the forefront and show what their benefit is and just maybe you’ll build an energy that has that mystic again.

MAYYT: Going back to bring back the spiritual training or the spiritual aspect to karate, how do you implement that into your own practices?

RH: I think one thing should be an element of authenticity to your training. I tell people to find your own karate – and that’s like a heretical message. Find your own karate, who says that? People look at me like, “What are you talking about? You got to do it the way Hombu Dojo does it.” I would say what you’re doing is that you’re engaging your life in some sort of medium. What matters more is this sort of authenticity in which you approach that. Your strengths and your weaknesses, we all have our shortcomings, but they are going to be unique to each person. I think the practice is a way to address those things and their meaning. Maybe the whole life experience is about finding meaning and what you find meaning in is going to be different from someone else. I was teaching a class, what I would notice with all these people, I would be teaching the class the same way, but people were all getting a totally different experience based on what they were approaching their practice from. One guy wanted self-defense, another had some physical infirmity they were trying to overcome, somebody else was trying to live in the moment. Everybody was finding meaning through their practice. That’s what you need to do. That, to me, is a spiritual experience when it’s really connected to your hunt for epiphany, let’s say. I get goosebumps when I extrapolate what I learn in the dojo to some other sphere of my life, and it’s really powerful, that I almost tremble.

Hotton demonstrating how the technique should feel. Source: Shotokan Karate Magazine.

To me, when I say spiritual, it’s not like a godly thing, it’s slightly in the metaphysical realm because it’s in the realm of ideas and perceptions and perspectives. Living in the moment is huge. Ichi go ichi e: one life, one moment. If you can do that, I think that is self-defense because you’re fully engaged. As Saotome Sensei said to me many times, “It’s not ai body do, it’s aikido.” It’s not what you’re doing with your body, it’s about the quality of the connection. That’s what you’re really aspiring to, and you want to feel almost on an instinctual level – you just feel that connection. I think that is a spiritual experience if you can do that. You’re not distracted by all in the periphery; you’re not wrapped up in just the technique. There’s something beyond that. There is something you do learn from the tea ceremony that’s not just about quenching your thirst – that idea.

MAYTT: I can see how hard it could be to impart on people. I can see that there is a disconnect from the student to the teacher.

RH: You got to be careful too with a truly postmodern approach like that. You can just end up being fluff because everybody is willy nilly doing their own thing. There definitely has to be a balance. I think that the institution is, absolutely, a dispenser of valuable information but that is not your savior. The institution is not your savior. Your salvation is found, ultimately, in your own direct connection – that’s what I believe. What happens oftentimes is that people become invested in the orthodoxy because their identity is substantiated though the orthodoxy. Such and such an organization said I’m an eighth dan. The institution is almost self-serving, and they try to keep it that way. I say they should be more like a good parent; at some point, you have to let go and let the child become an adult. You just have to let that happen with all the right tools, but mom’s not going to be there when you’re fifty, when you’re trying to sort out something in your life. You have to sort it out.

There’s an ego thing there and that’s also a thing. You also have to let go of your own internal ego. I’m a fifth dan and I don’t want any other rank because that was Funakoshi’s last rank. The founder of my style was a fifth dan. First of all, it doesn’t really mean anything anymore. I’ve been practicing karate for fifty-two years and I don’t really care about the rank. But I do see the genius in his concept. At fifth dan level, which is about forty years of practice, let’s say, you really can’t compare people’s karate. Steve Ubl and I are totally different karateka and what we are is a manifestation of a lifelong authentic inquiry. All you can really do is say, “Wow! You’re really amazing at what you do!” Like, what you do, you do in an amazing way. I could probably learn and be influenced by that and vice versa. So, this is the beauty of it. You don’t really arrive to it; you just acknowledge everybody else’s lifetime inquiry. I also like that fifth dan as the last rank because it implies that you don’t arrive. Like when people say they are tenth dan, I don’t know, are you Jesus? I don’t get it and it kind of bothers me a little bit. What got you where you’re at was the fact that you thought you didn’t know anything. That open-mindedness really drove your practice, but when you say you know everything, don’t you see that’s adopting the wrong point of view?

I had an organization offer me such and such a rank, and I turned that offer down. The organization came back with some title offers. I was very honored that they were doing that, but if they had something with Yoda attached to it, I’d take that one. [Laughs] Then I proposed that we get a cup of coffee and move through our lives together. He said that sounds perfect. [Laughs] You got to discard your ego. I think the ego is something to get rid of because, first of all, no one is all that. My karate may have expression now, but when I’m ninety, it probably won’t. But I’m not going to base my practice on some technical prowess. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, going through my life. I think sometimes that’s tough for people because it requires letting go of the dock, kind of like swimming. You don’t have that thing behind you saying that you’re worthy – yeah, I don’t really need that. I’d probably be a pretty happy avocado farmer if I was an avocado farmer. [Laughs]

MAYTT: Thank you for a new way to look at martial arts training as a whole!

RH: Thank you for having me. I enjoyed our conversation!


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