From Samurai to Tengu...:
Shihan Roland Habersetzer,
almost half-century of pilgrimage
following the Way of Karate-Do

A meeting with one of the pioneers of Karate in France, and Europe, who became an international reference for the Martial Arts of the Far East, and who has just defined the fundamentals of his pure "Tengu Way"... It happened during his last School of the Executives organized annually for the leaders of his association, September 2005 in Alsace, where also was celebrated the 10th birthday of the Tengu Institute.


When a Samurai becomes Ronin....

"A time comes when it is necessary to determine the precise choice of one’s life. There is a chance (to still be able to do it), a right (which one pays with... his age for) and a duty (to leave behind a trace of an experience which can be used by others). My choice, my option, was always to try to live by the ways of the Martial Arts without compromise, total Budo, each and every day; to discover the real spiritual meaning, behind the violent appearance. I believe this time has come, and that I am at the age, where I can try to explain what I found there, which is certainly only one part of the truth. But this is what I chose, and I think is useful to pass down... This Way, my Way, since so many variations are being practiced out there usurping the label of Karate, I ended up calling it “Tengu-no-Michi”, to distinguish it better. And I decided to assume this choice until the end of my life.”

This was expressed at the entry of Roland Habersetzer, who doesn’t need an introduction any more: his direction is known, his engagement as well, particularly through his written work (70 books and number of articles published since 1969). He gave to so many among us the desire to discover and practice!
He is a figure impossible to remain unnoticed in the Budo landscape. He began with Judo in 1957, then Ju-Jitsu, before Karate. He was 19 years old in 1961, when he passed the test for his 1st Dan in Karate with the “French Federation of Free Boxing and Karate” (license No.2778) examined by Henry Plee in the St. Genevieve Mountain. In the tread, Roland Habersetzer founded the Karate Section of the Strasbourg Club of Studies as of October 1962, the first Karate Club in the 6 departments of East France. It has been like that through his college years. He did not cease teaching with ardor and passion, and rare militancy, forming the first executives of the Alsatian and Lorraine Dojos. He did this always in addition to being a teacher of history and geography in the College of Obernai. That was a delegated Karate Section of the “French Federation of Judo and Comparable Disciplines” of the East League for ten years, spent without hope to organize any regional training courses or tournaments. Then there was a brutal awakening…

“There was this famous French Karate Cup in Paris at the end of the sixties. I came back from there with a seriously injured pupil, who had been literally beaten into the ground to the point he had to be carried out and taken away with an ambulance after the combat was stopped. It was done by an exited young person, one with 1st kyu, I will conceal his name. That same insane young man also spat at me very expressively at the time I tried to intervene (I was a central referee), and this was seen by several thousand witnesses in Coubertin. The worst thing of all was that this same fighter, who I had, of course, immediately disqualified, “was very curiously cleared out” the same evening to have access to the finals. I visited my pupil at the hospital, he was hurt badly. I have some other similar stories in my files... 35 years later it is still there - the memory of this irresponsible behavior shown by the whole system I have been part of. Behavior I fought against passionately. I could never forgive this absence of ethics among people who claimed to be “Budo”. Nauseated… So, I decided that nobody would ever spit me again with impunity, neither there, nor elsewhere, and I came up with an “emergency seed-planting drill”: Initially, I withdrew from the “official scene”. I was naive, I have been mistaken from the very beginning. I saw how misleading the system was and made me believe that it had the capacity to discover and then to live by the ways of the Martial Arts. I had gone in a wrong direction. This world, where the “sporting reason” could apparently excuse anything, was not for me. But I was young enough and was thinking passionately of leaving this Budo world. A little “shaken” at the same time, I waited until 1972 to take on… my second chance! To give up was never an option. I simply decided that I will assume nothing more then my own responsibilities and will not waste my life dealing with those of the others”.

Teaching gradually in many countries where his published work had already made him well known, Roland Habersetzer was going up in rank slowly, initially with the french Federation, to the 5th Dan in 1978 (1). Actually, something had already occurred in 1972 - year of great events. Consolidated during his first voyage to Japan with his idea of more authentic Karate-Do (he was promoted there to 5th Dan as of 1973, along with the title of Shihan, by Sensei Ogura Tsuneyoshi – 10th Dan, Kancho of Gembukan, who was himself raised by Gima Makoto, the first “black belt” handed by Funakoshi Gichin…), he decided to work hard toward a new dimension of practice and progress. From now on everything was done by deliberate choice only within Japanese framework (and within his “Budo Research Center”, C.R.B., created in 1974 as a completely independent international organization) in contact with the greatest Masters (Ogura Tsuneyoshi, Otsuka Tadahiko, Matayoshi Shinpo, Toguchi Seikichi, and some others…) who he was regularly inviting to Strasgourg, or keeping close relations with during his visits to Japan (Gima Makoto, Otsuka Hironori, Higa Yuchoku, Yagi Meitoku, Uechi Kanei, Nagamine Soshin..”). He was promoted to 8th Dan on April 25th, 1992. Always in Gembukan (Menjo No.997), at the age of 50 (the age floor for delivery of this rank in the Japanese traditional system of Menkyo). Today he is also Soke (2) of his own Budo style, “Tengu-no-Michi”. Because his “Tengu Way”, initiated in 1995 after an already long search in the line of traditional Ryu, is very well created according to the Tradition. Today this way perfectly fits in the “Martial Arts” landscape of the beginning of this century. This is totally normal after 48 years of advancing on the Ways of Budo. It is quite a long story already…

“I remember very well this April 1992 in Japan, especially the moment when my Japanese Master Ogura Tsuneyoshi (who I have known for 20 years and who promoted to 10th Dan my first Sensei Henry Plee…) promoted me to 8th Dan in his Dojo in Kofu. I had already 35 years of practice related to the sight of Mount Fuji. It was a month before my 50th birthday, and it was a great honor. I will never forget: the surprise, the immense inner joy, the recognition of so much confidence. But, I knew already that to me this was in a certain way the end of a road which seemed to become narrow in its usual conventional configuration. I estimated that I have been “Samurai” long enough as ”one who serves”: a style, a federation, a school, an idea I did not completely adhere to any more (I mean to what have become of this idea at the present time). Always, everywhere I go my little pure idea was taking shape and was reinforcing slowly in the back of my mind… I had already created my weapons, and I decided to preserve what could still be useful for the “Ronin” (3), this new person I was turning into by the concurrence of the circumstances…Thus, the delivery of this high rank could have been an end, but I felt it like a new beginning. I knew that although in some way it was an end, but not of the road I had chosen myself from a long time. It was an end partially to one of the roads which takes you to the top of the mountain, and which had always attracted me as of my adolescence. I knew that I was going to continue on a road parallel to the one I had maintained long enough without questioning. I knew that I will go alone this last portion of the Way. I finally felt that I am ready to face it, because the time had come and this is in accordance with what the Tradition had always taught. It could not be otherwise

During all this time of unbounded devotion to the Budo cause, he wrote and illustrated some historical books which include dates and techniques. This considerable work made him well known in the French speaking countries and in some others as well (where he was often plagiarized). Everyone recognized his teaching talent, the seriousness of his work, the quality of his research and his position of “no cutting corners”. He carried out all that with rare consistency in his orientation and uncompromising positions, which cost him certain opposition and worries. But even his adversaries, had to give him a recognition. He possesses the incredible will to share his passion, to place the treasures contained in the Martial Arts and his life experience at disposal of everyone, transmitted through his books as a cultural vehicle, and also through the hundreds of training courses and seminars throughout the world. A real missionary of Karate-Do… in impassioned combat, with a true obsession about the Martial Arts problems, but always with the strict concept of practicing for defense only, like a rampart of the freedom and the survival of the individuals who take responsibility for their actions, i.e. a will to return to the original direction of Bu-Do (or Wu-Shu), which was to “stop the lance” – meaning “to put an end to the violence”. This assertion of the moral dimension of the true Martial Arts goes well beyond the sporting reflection, where it is usually implied. So, this quality must remain present and recognized by the people of our time.
Bearer of a “black belt” for already 44 years, he is also an expert in Kobudo, which he practices since 1973, and an expert in the Yang style Tai-Chi as well. He has assumed the responsibilities and continued with the realization of his work which speaks for itself. All this carried without noisy publicity and official support, going toward, and against everything even through the inevitable abandonment, treasons and even sabotage attempts… Roland Habersetzer decides to get even more involved, but this time in what he personally does and offers to others. From this moment on he leaves the tracks of a “Ronin” behind, out of the system, free, and always ready to defend his freedom... The result is clear: hundreds of disciples – members of his CRB, throughout the borders between Canada and Russia, faithful followers of his passion, which confirms the obvious impact. Then come the tens of thousands more, who practice with this “certain idea” of Karate-Do which they were introduced to through one or another of his seminars or publications.
This assessment is already eloquent and just reward of the exceptional efforts during these years. From now on Sensei Habersetzer teaches only at training courses and high level seminars, now widely opened for what slowly came to realization through the practice of this “Ronin”... It is impassioned, indeed, since 1992 after this new turn toward a research, starting from the study and comparative practice of multiple types of combat with or without weapon. A research aiming for the development of a totally new concept of personal defense, much more in conformity with the realities of the current world. It is an all new field of investigation, drawing another road (this same road of Karate-Do), old and new at the same time, which will find its authentic “warlike” face in a widened educational concept in response to the true challenges of our time. A completely original concept, which he ended up naming: “Tengu-no-Michi”. So, his practice and that of his pupils will not be confused any more with one of those unspecified sporting and entertaining forms of modern Karate.


When Ronin meets Tengu...

Tengu-No-Michi is quite simply the will of one to return to the martial design of the combat with naked hand. A return to Karate with warlike dimension: a blade that one polishes and sharpens to perfection. But which should be used…for nothing, but to protect, and perhaps to polish one’s inner world. A blade directed not against the others to only serve the need of the ego… a blade to dissuade. It is a recall of the real spiritual essence of Budo!

“In fact, quite before April 1992, I had already started to enrich my practice while being in contact with other trajectories. It may seem that my course has changed suddenly (but my readers could see that I have made this turn in a very orthodox way, starting with my numerous publications) and that my life will continue with practicing only a vitalized versions of the some old Katas… I also knew that from now on this desire for living and talking would not facilitate my life. Because engagement becomes more and more tiring with age – the disappointments, the effort of re-starting again. But that did not matter: I wanted too vigorously to open the windows of the Dojo… life is short. It was time “to live” Budo my way, which suggests following the Tradition besides. I had already seen on the road, during my training courses throughout the world, quite a few different practices which were “surprising” to me in their ways… effective, unexpected, forcing me to leave the beaten paths of the conventional techniques. For years I was able to stay opened, taking a truer glance at the “real” world. I sought, appeared, reflected, without exclusions. I had the pleasure to learn, check, add, withdraw, rectify”.

Sensei Habersetzer refused to be locked up and therefore limited to the constraints of the traditional school. Constrains, which so often need to be shifted and changed to fit the realities of the present time. This is only one fresh impulse of a long carried passion in the autumn of his life… His concept: fidelity of the model (in the foundation) and sensitive realism (in the form) – nothing else could prove more that, indeed, Sensei carries out until the end the lesson of the Tradition. The right to do that has been earned, after nearly half of a century of Budo practice, which is one crowned bit of a walk… with the same militancy in favor of the Tradition in which he always believed.

“To be honest: I had undertaken at the age of 50, as always with passion, a research starting from the level of regular Karate movements, influenced strongly by what I have discovered in… everything from handgun combat shooting to fist fighting (a very realistic form of Iai-Jutsu!), and this opened to me all new horizons, perfectly compatible with what I have done for already 35 years in the Dojo and taught in my training courses and through my books. And now, of course, at 63 years of age, I still don’t rule out the repetition of traditional Katas, which are old but still quite interesting.

Yes, it is “warlike” profile… Through the “Tengu” practice one seeks to evolve without compromising in field enriched with new forms of violence, resulted by our contemporary company, in oppose to the types of violence coming from completely different sources in Japan and China hundreds of years ago. Based on experimentation, one needs to find and use new behaviors applicable in the real life of the present time, not only in the protected Dojo environment. One needs to find true answers to the needs of the modern society. Thus, he is doing nothing else, but, in fact, enriching the Martial Arts Tradition (which is always in his spirit!), keeping it alive and useful. Martial Art with most noble direction – it is to put itself in protection, as an obstacle to stop the violence, educating to exercise control, until the renouncement of the need for confrontation. Never sacrificing anything in terms of realism, situations, gestures, human intentions…

“And then, I decided that I have had enough, after all this time, to continue seeing this hypocritical obliging gestures; aesthetic without a doubt, but quite out of date; reassuring, but ineffective in the real world… From the methods of self-defense - still taking some postulates of the traditional conventional attacks, to the reactions - disproportional and in some cases completely condemnable by the ethics (and/or by the Law), sometimes ridiculous with their unrealism. This behavior can only weaken one in a real situation for great comfort of the real predator… And in the best case, just a smile on the faces of those labeled as “defense professionals”… Enough of this shaping and placing everything in one “politically correct” frame, where people practice like being put under anesthetic in this very comfortable conformism without a risk. Creating environment where they are given a false feeling for effectiveness, and therefore could endanger themselves. Enough as well, to see specifically on the level of the young people, who represent 90% of the manpower of the sporting federations, the lack of follow up and responsibility, not to mention anything more. This comes to show that nobody is really worried to teach them and put them in a position to understand what the Martial Arts could bring to them and to their lives. Teaching them some unspecified movements and gestures because of their involvement in a competition or specific demonstration, just to flatter the ego, to give pleasure to mom and dad, or to bring back a “cut” to the club. Enough hypocrisy, reduce the forgeries and fraud in a medium which claims to be precisely “martial”. This world was not my world. Just to show that I did not have anything to do with all that, I went further with the explanation of my difference. When my idea was quite ripe, I set up the Tengu Institute. I was completely aware that this may seem to be generally and resolutely against the wind of the time. So, too bad if this anchoring to the reality can seem, for the moment, a little disturbing for some, and even socially unacceptable for many others in its objectives…”.

The Tengu Institute is defined as a place for evolution (not only the one possible in the Dojo) within the “Budo Research Center” (CRB), already created by Sensei Habersetzer in 1974. With the CRB he wanted to try out and develop a new complimentary register, which is different from what usually in the Martial Arts is presented as “traditional”…

“The Tengu Institute is a structure that enables me to combine and unify the assets of fields which I considered mostly complimentary. There I am advancing in some new specifically oriented directions: one of reflection and another one of experimentation parallel. The result is a completely new concept of personal defense with bare hands, which I consider more effective. It always starts from traditional Karate techniques, but develops in a form of Bunkai adapted to our time, particularly using a rectified mental approach. Contrary of some forms of self-defense suggesting an extreme reaction (drifts I regret) my teaching is always based on the spirit of control and non-violence. This in fact is a concept completely in conformity with the spirit of traditional Martial Arts. It is not a question of new techniques, but rather of a new “policy of use” of the traditional techniques (probably to 95%). If I call this track of work the “Tengu Way” (Tengu-no-Michi), one has to see here a flash in direction of history and tradition… I am not at the age where I would grow a “big head” to the point to stick my name to it. I am just going back to the sources, quite simple and very obvious… But, today I can recognize that the orientation of many lessons of my Karate for a long time were coming from my own research (which you can see in my “Karate for Black Belts” published in 1973!), but I did not dare to make this statement at that time… Then the time came to give a final shape of everything I know and I was finally ready to assume the responsibility for that. My martial and moral concept of “Tengu-no-Michi” rests on a quite specific philosophy of life, which can also be applied outside of the Dojo. The Martial Arts lead to assuming responsibility by the practitioner, with the mean of protection and respect to the others, in understanding between what is “true” and “false”. Unfortunately, the “martial sports”, as they are presented by the media, have turned only in apology for the confrontation, violence and assertion of the ego. Thus, they lead to destruction of the individual, even if he or she believes to “gain”! For in the Martial Arts, the enemy is “inside”, in the competitive sports of “martial origin” it is “outside”. This type of sporting design directly turns its back to the Martial Arts teaching! It is just too obvious! And please, don’t tell me that it is necessary to let one compete while he is young, and then he can take the road of the real Martial Arts (just because of his age he cannot perform “better” in the ring any more…!!?? Of course, everyone can choose their type of practice, but it is necessary to cease confusing these two things, and thus allowing to slowly bring this ambiguity in the Dojo.”

So, why call it “Tengu”? A short reminder: Tengu is a mystical being, semi-men, semi-bird in old Japan. They live in loneliness in the mountains. According to the fabulous stories told among the people, they were famous for their knowledge in Martial Arts, of which they sometimes learned from the humans. In the heart of the Mid Ages in Japan, it could turn pitiless and terrible or full with kindness, according to the heart of the person, who met it on the road in the forest. Tengu was either hell or the last recourse for the braves or the stray travelers, who felt that their moment of truth is approaching when they suddenly hear its burst of mocking laughter under the foliage. Among many characteristics, Tengu was known to posses the ability to slice between truth and forgery, good and evil…

“In this direction (Tengu) I want to achieve to certain extend a technical and mental dusting, as honest as possible, without any compromising neither with the systems nor with myself. To get closer to more authentic practice, nothing more then what I thought about when I started. This is exactly the reason I opened the door of my first Dojo, this is what the old ones (the “Sempai”), form once upon a time, made me dream about… “Not to fight, not to undergo”, this summarizes my Tengu line and says enough for its direction. I am not that concerned if I am right or wrong. But I feel that I am quite on the right track with this objective, always getting better then before. I have felt the joy of being able to work with so many people who think that this direction brings them what they sought in the Dojo. I think that the “Tengu Way” is a Shin-Budo (New Budo), as other new forms that will emerge here and there with specific sensitivities to serve one or another category of people. That will be a good thing, because of the vitality and the interpretation of the concept of Martial Arts. “Tengu” is my interpretation according to my knowledge and martial experience - my modest contribution to the maintenance of this essential impulse that we must continue to deeper understand them. It is obvious that we are neither in the sport field here, nor in the entertainment. As far as it relates to me, I was never there. That was always very clear in my remarks and my written work, and I am one of those who don’t change in time. It is not my fault if the vast majority of my hundreds of thousands of readers (yes, I know this may disturb some people watching as the time passes that I am still around as always, and that can be irritating…) drew from my books only the techniques, without going through the trouble to read (and understand correctly) what I have been saying forever about the spirit… It is the understanding that technique without the spirit is nothing. Some might have forgotten this, or just talk about it, but don’t practice it… I have finally decided to only defend this position of mine in my small independent association. (Because, so was the true Tradition, with many small independent Dojos, with their Sensei, known or not on their own path, not yet standardized by blind payments which kills the richness of the difference. This is something one dreams about each time he evokes the time of the "Old Masters.”) Everyone can find his place. Let the people chose for themselves, if they can still do this, give them the liberty to do it.
After I noticed what has become a “martial circle” around the world (and the skidding is not at its end), I stopped questioning myself because I absolutely don’t feel concerned… I would just say to myself: “I don’t feel the same way, I never practiced the same thing, and I definitely do not teach the same thing.” I know that out there are still a few thousands of others, among whom some “old hands”, who think like I do. They stay in the shadow refusing to reduce the shape of their practice,but I repeat here what relates to me. My position has been always very straight and unambiguous. Why do I have to repeat myself again after I have said it so many times before…?”

What was known is confirmed again…the will of Sensei Roland Habersetzer to give a more useful direction in the present time through the practice of Karate-Do. In the Dojo, the Way it was suppose to follow, remained credible, thus he ended up developing a personal style, where Shotokan certainly remains the central piece of combat techniques, but enriched according to re-examined instructions with context which has nothing to do with the needs and the logic of sporting activity. This was done only after long practice and progress in traditional direction, with strong personal investment in contact with the most renowned combat experts, who allowed him to navigate through fields non-existing in the traditional Dojo, all that at age when he could be satisfied just to await honorary recognition, and confine himself to a place where there is nothing more for him to prove.

“I realized that I’ll never cease learning. At the age of 55 years I have faced many challenges which I could not imagine in the Dojo. I experienced a true stress for survival simply “outside”, where I was very cold, or very hot, in really hostile environment, which didn’t have anything to do with the comfort of the Dojo. There I found myself hustle in my certainty of old Budoka. I found myself in situations and got involved in activities that were not for “my age” any more. I became very modest face to face with certain people, who did not give each other the title of “Masters” (which they were in their field). I learned a lot and I am still learning and integrating this knowledge in my own Path, feeling this rare indescribable pleasure inside still rising again and again. Then it suddenly occurred to me finally… that I have ceased thinking in a “closed loop”, waiting for someone else to decide what would be best for me!”

The Budo Way

The final synthesis of the “Tengu” direction is that according to his practice, Shihan Habersetzer wanted to explain and distinguish himself from the others. His “Tengu Way” is a choice with a new objective: to acquire certain attitude (internal) and certain behavior (external). This process of acquisition of techniques means only that “Tengu-no-Michi” is a whole new approach to the Martial Arts problems today, and this is the reason that asserts its qualification to be recognized as authentic martial “education” (Bu-iku), in the noblest sense of this term. Since, at the end, it leads to the acceptance of non-violence. Of course, without cowardice, giving this new art a fundamental nuance.

“We all need a reference mark, especially our young people in particular. That should be the first concern of the Budo teachers, because it is quite educational, I do not say “trainers”. We have to create and shape our pupils, who trust us, not any stars, or champions, or some transitory heroes. Our responsibility as Sensei, those “who stand in front”, is to teach them with all our ability to become a men and women of the time they live in. Live, and then transmit the true values we have already acquired following the past. One could be inspired today by many of those old values, but re-learning them in order to live differently. One must cease participating in the creation of this wall, which will only lead to nothing, but social destruction. For all that is in the true reflection which is necessary to be carried out in the Budo practice. But from the beginning of my small course I speak about the “essence” of Budo, not the one left in the sport and the madness of generalized practice generated to satisfy some non-existing foam of illusions… Everyone should know what they want (and can ask) in their practice…I just want to remind that this freedom of choice still exists, and it is still possible to live it as a free men or women, not to lock oneself in the so-called “tradition”, which describes us as rigid and who just have a strong back... To refuse to move on or to evolve is actually an insult to the memory of the old Masters who led us to this Road… One can choose not to seize this liberty (as always, it is true that some efforts are required by the time, which runs), but then he must be satisfied with the results inside as well as outside of the Dojo! And this happens faster then many believe… For me the End of this road is a Beginning of a new one which is right in front of me… and I took it adopting this Japanese proverb: “Face the nature and the other men and learn”. And as always I just grabbed tightly my pilgrim stick”.

These remarks by Shihan certainly will not surprise any of those who have accompanied him for years on his Way. A persistent attitude, a position locked for almost half century of practice and teaching, still remains the same as his convictions were since the first moment! “Bun-Bu-Ichi”: Literary “Arts and Martial Arts are one…” If one is to carry out all the directions of engagement of the Soke of Tengu-no-Michi, he will see clearly that this specifies and illustrates each day a new contours of a way designed to make him learn, and also an attitude and behavior to face for real the “things of the life”… Much deeper, far beyond the deadly technique, the true knowledge of the sword becomes a lesson of life…Shihan Habersetzer wrote once that the Way of Budo is timeless and alive, it flows up and down, from yesterday to tomorrow, and it must remain this way. His “Tengu” concept proves beyond any doubt that he is one of those who want to live it and pass it down to his followers. One must understand well the direction of the pioneer step of Soke Habersetzer, always faithful to his initial choices, and having nothing to do with temporary fashions. This is what appeals to “persist and sign”… And “the learning never ends” is a beautiful thought which he illustrates perfectly. In fact… when a new book…? Roland Habersetzer hesitates a little, then smiles, this time without giving us an answer and walks away to his Black Belts gathered together for the School of the Executives of CRB – Tengu Institute. And continues to explain and show, bringing epic with his words, still going and going, still with this passion which definitely hasn’t worn out…


(1) He keeps in his files a letter of the Management Committee of the FFKAMA (French Karate Fédération); dated 23.10.1978, and signed by President J. Delcourt, who assure him his nomination with the rank of 5th Dan on September 29.....1978, it has been there nearly 30 years! A little correction, that could be mentioned at this moment: since the Japanese term of "Dan" was labeled (!) by the sporting federation in France, and based on this fact confiscated through a specific law of our country. Thus, the progress of the disciples taught by Soke Habersetzer was turned over to the purest tradition of Menkyo origin. With its reference from now on presented either in titles (Renshi, Kyoshi, Hanshi) or in "Dan" - in the respect of the Law, but while remaining faithful to an ethics followed for centuries.
(2) Soke: founder of a school.
(3) Ronin: Samurai who does not have a Master to serve.

(from french magazine “Dragon” N°12, november 2005, translated by Dimitre ”Mitko” Mihaylov)


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