Masters at work
What connects Freemasonry and martial arts? Caitlin Davies discovers how the masonic values of humility and respect have found a home in the Shotokan Karate Lodge
Sitting round a table in the corner of an Enfield pub, a group of smartly dressed Freemasons are enjoying coffee and a chat. Conversation ranges from the state of the weather to the date of the next lodge meeting. When mention is made of sweeping low blocks and rising punches, it becomes apparent that some of these masons are also black belt karate masters.
Founded more than ten years ago, the Shotokan Karate Lodge, No. 9752, is the only martial arts lodge in the world. Brothers wear a white karate suit and white belt during initiation, with the belt signifying the beginning of two journeys: Freemasonry and Shotokan karate.
Shotokan, translated as ‘hall of shoto’ (kan meaning ‘hall’ and shoto, ‘pine waves’), was introduced to Japan by Gichin Funakoshi in 1922. Lodge members believe that this martial art and the Craft are a perfect match, as both teach brotherly love, humility and respect for others, as well as tolerance and understanding.
Some of the men here this afternoon are senior in the lodge, while others are senior in karate. Michael Randall, the lodge’s Worshipful Master, is both. He studied under Dr Vernon Bell, who brought karate to Britain in 1956, and at ninth Dan, he is Europe’s top non-Japanese Shotokan karate sensei, or master.
Michael first discovered karate when he was a young carpenter apprentice. ‘An older colleague had been in the army and he’d heard about karate abroad. He asked me if I fancied doing it. I thought, wow, that looks really good.’ Michael went to the Japanese embassy to ask about karate clubs, and joined the only one in London.
A Freemason for thirty years, Michael was to meet others in the karate world who were masons. He realised that members who shared an interest often formed their own lodges, so the idea for Shotokan Karate Lodge was born. ‘Both teach the same moral lessons in life,’ he says. ‘To work hard, to train and to be a better person.’
The path to discovery
Michael picks up a copy of the lodge’s crest. In the middle is the Shotokan tiger, overlaid with the masonic square and compasses. He points to the white belt at the bottom, ‘This equals the start of the journey. It means, you come with nothing. You are innocent, a beginner.’
For Michael, karate has been a way to learn about himself, something that lodge Secretary Anthony Kirby agrees with. Anthony, also a Shotokan master, believes that karate ‘is about self-discovery’. He joined a class held at Winchmore Hill School of Karate when he was fourteen. ‘I would see Michael reading from this little blue book and I thought it was very religious. I didn’t realise then that he was a Freemason learning the ritual.’
Anthony was invited to become a mason when he was twenty-nine and joined Michael’s mother lodge, Sackville Lodge, No. 7063. ‘I knew nothing about it, I was one of the biggest cynics, and…’ he smiles, ‘I’d been brought up a Catholic and my parents were very uneasy. But then we found there are plenty of Catholics who are masons and that it’s nothing to do with religion.’
When Michael suggested forming the Shotokan lodge, Anthony became one of the founders. It started with around forty-five members, the same number it has today. ‘Some we have lost, some we have gained. We’ve had a lot of applications recently so it’s a very exciting phase,’ explains Anthony, who is proud of his lodge’s global appeal, attracting brothers from Greece, Brazil, Bermuda, Lebanon, Barbados and the US.
As members are spread across the world, the lodge meets four times a year at Freemasons’ Hall, London. But brothers bump into each other in the world of karate all the time and frequently meet socially too.
‘Karate changes your perception about life,’ says Michael Dinsdale, Treasurer both of the English Karate Federation and Shotokan Karate Lodge. ‘You become calmer, you react differently to situations in life, it brings you a greater humility and teaches you to understand other people’s issues.’
A new stance
Back in 1966, when Michael Dinsdale took up karate, he was eighteen and remembers being more inspired by James Bond than finding an inner balance. He vividly remembers one day, when he was working in a meat market, being on the London Underground: ‘I was sitting there watching the houses go by and I thought, that’s my life and I’m not doing anything with it. Then someone invited me to karate.’
Denis Dixon, a Junior Warden, discovered karate fifteen years ago when he arrived in the UK from Canada and took his two sons to a lesson. ‘I needed them to learn an art that had some discipline to it. They were new to England, had had some physical tussles, and I didn’t want them to be bullied. It gave them confidence to stand up and diffuse situations.’
Until then, Denis’s knowledge of karate came from Bruce Lee movies, but one day his boys’ instructor asked if he’d like to join in. He now runs a karate club in Colchester. Denis became a mason in 2005, after being encouraged by an old school friend and one of the lodge’s original members: ‘The principles are similar – how you carry yourself with family, with colleagues and the people you train with.’
As for how Freemasonry has changed, Anthony says things have moved on significantly. ‘It’s more relaxed and open now. When I became a mason there was still an element of being approached.
Just this morning a man who wants to join phoned me and we’re going to meet for coffee.’
Sacha Orzo-Manzonetta is one of the lodge’s newest members. As Anthony notes, ‘It’s the start of his journey,’ although Sacha actually began Shotokan karate when he was six in his native Italy. ‘The principles of Freemasonry and karate are similar – brotherhood, honesty, believing in yourself and others, and giving,’ Sacha says.
And with that, the group gets ready to go to Winchmore Hill. It’s where it all started for Anthony and is one of the oldest karate clubs in the south of England, offering classes for juniors and adults. The members change into white karate suits to begin practising preparatory positions as well as blocking and striking techniques. The physical mastery is impressive but so is the sense of camaraderie and shared values.
‘Karate changes your perception about life. You become calmer, it brings you a greater humility and teaches you to understand other people’s issues.’ Michael Dinsdale
Letters to the editor - No. 25 Spring 2014
I read with interest and fascination the recent article in Issue 24, the paper on Shotokan Karate Lodge, No. 9752. The connection and synergy between the martial arts and Freemasonry may not at first appear that obvious, but this paper clearly draws the parallels between the two. In fact, I would argue that the connection between martial arts and Freemasonry translates and has parallels in the philosophy and practice of most martial arts practised today.
Having trained in the Korean martial art of Taekwondo (to Black Belt), it is clear to me that many of the tenets described in this paper – brotherly love, humility, respect for others, tolerance and understanding – are similar to the tenets of Taekwondo, which include courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and having an indomitable spirit. Well done fellow martial artists and brothers.
Robert Ashford (Professor), University of Birmingham Lodge, No. 5628, Edgbaston, Warwickshire