Showing posts with label koryu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label koryu. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Budo, Bujutsu and Spiritual Development

Whatever else it does, budo teaches how to move with good structure, develops an understanding of the effective ranges of movement and how to optimally use time.  Budo is also concerned with making practitioners not just better fighters, but better people.  If a practice is  doing all of these four things, it’s probably budo.

Those four essentials haven’t changed since some bushi in pre-Tokugawa Japan first started putting together budo curricula. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, those essentials have to be there. Whether it is unarmed jujutsu, kenjutsu, kyudo or intercontinental ballistic missile warfare, you’re going to need to understand the structure involved, and how the weapons involved function in both time and space.  And you can be darn sure I want anyone involved in handling intercontinental ballistic missiles to constantly seek to be a better person.  If you have power, and that’s what martial training gives you, then you should work on being a better person. Even with as limited a budo form as judo, no one should develop those skills without also learning to be a good person.  There are enough dangerous jerks in the world already.

Look at the requirements for keppan in the old systems of koryu bugei.  They include injunctions against bad behavior and exhortations to students to behave not just correctly, but wisely.  I know people who proudly proclaim that they don’t do budo; that they are focused on real fighting technique, “bujutsu” they say.  THEY don’t water their training down with that budo nonsense of individual development!. I can’t count the people who have ridiculed budo as being some sort of ineffective, watered-down nonsense because it aspires to teach not just how to fight, but how to live.

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There is a popular impression that focusing on developing the heart as well as the technique suddenly came into vogue after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1604-1868); that Kano Jigoro not only developed Kodokan Judo to be useful in public education but that he invented the idea of martial arts training as a form of moral and spiritual training. I have read and heard people ridicule Ueshiba Morihei as being nutty for his emphasis on Aikido as a means of achieving world peace.

In fact, martial ryuha in Japan have been mixing technical training with personal development for as long as there have been ryuha. Karl Friday, in his great volume Legacies Of The Sword(1997), introduces the physical, psychological and spiritual training of Kashima Shinryu. The system dates to the mid-1500s and included aspects of all these areas of training from its origin.

Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu dates from the 1400s and it too includes spiritual development within its curriculum. This can come as a surprise to people who would denigrate any martial art that teaches personal or spiritual development as being weaker than one that focuses on powerful technique alone. As an art that traces its origin to divine inspiration, there should be no surprise that it includes practices and teachings intended to improve not just the fighting spirit of the student, but their not-fighting spirit as well.

Katayama Hoki Ryu has a completely different lineage. Thanks to the work of Yuji Wada, Costantino Brandozzi, and Rennis Buchner many of the early writings of Katayama Hoki Ryu are now accessible. Katayama Hoki Ryu is a kenjutsu and iai system dating from the late 1500s. Originating in the war-filled Muromachi period, if any art should be focused solely on technique, this is one. Instead, the headmasters of Katayama Ryu wrote volumes about the mental and spiritual aspects of their art.

It should be clear that focusing on mental and spiritual development isn’t anything new in Japanese martial traditions. It’s been going on since the earliest days of of organized bugei training. The people who try to extract the techniques from all the rest and say what they are doing is somehow a “purer” form of bujutsu have, in my opinion, missed the whole point of the traditional ryuha.

From the earliest traditions in Japan, bugei ryuha 武芸流派 (martial arts school) teachers understood that just learning how to fight was not enough. Creating strong fighters is great, but if they lack the wisdom and maturity to know when and when not to fight, they pose a greater danger to society than any benefit they can bring. To teach a student was to take on responsibility for how your student behaved. If your student went out and injured or killed someone, the authorities would likely end up asking you some pointed questions. Even if your student was fully justified in their actions, there would be an investigation. If the investigation found that the justification was lacking, punishments in old Japan were brutal.

Whether you call it character development, or spiritual training, or just making mature adults, budo practice in Japan has contained a healthy dose of mental discipline since long before it was generally known as budo.  There are many ways of training students for this kind of development. Various bugei arts include chants, mantras and meditation practices borrowed from Shinto and Buddhist traditions. It’s not just Ueshiba Morihei who was talking about world peace and enlightenment. The idea that individuals can achieve self-perfection through study is a core concept of Neo-Confucian thought and can be found in the teachings and writings for many koryu bugei dating as far back as the 15th century.

In Japan, the philosophers of the samurai class took the Neo-Confucian ideal and expanded the subjects to be studied to become a “profound person” or 君子 (kunshi in Japanese, junzi in Chinese) to include the martial arts. They went so far as to coin the phrase 文武両道 (bunbu ryoudou) or roughly “Scholarly arts and martial arts are both of the Way”.  Within the Confucian traditions, anyone could become a kunshi through study and sincere effort. The Japanese just expanded the circle of things that should be studied beyond those of the fine arts, morality, literature, ritual and etiquette to include what were known in the Japan during the Kamakura, Muromachi, and Tokugawa eras most commonly as 武芸 (bugei) or literally “martial arts”.  The gei 芸 here is the same as in geisha 芸者, literally “an artistically accomplished person”.  

In addition, the word for “morality/morals” in Japanese is written 道徳 (doutoku) with the characters for way 道 and virtue 徳. These are also the first two characters of the work known in English as the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) 道徳経. Anything that talks of individual development or what is often lumped under the phrase “spiritual development” in the English-speaking world, was likely to be, and still is, included in the concept of a “Way” 道. Like The Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching is concerned with what traits make the sage (聖人seijin) and the “profound/superior person” ( 君子 kunshi). Neither one was enamored of war or violence.

Neither were the Japanese of the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Period), the period from about 1467 until the victory by Tokugawa Ieyasu at Sekigahara in 1604. This was a period of uncontrolled civil war throughout Japan.  The Tao Te Jing says in Chapter 31 “Wherever a host is stationed, briars and thorns spring up.” Nearly 150 years of constant warfare had proven this to the thoughtful in Japan. The ideal of the bushi class was the profound person, the sage, as this idea was expounded Neo-Confucianism, Taoism and even in Buddhism. Hard experience had taught the Japanese to place the study of the arts of conflict on the same level as the fine arts, ethics, morality, etiquette and virtue.  

Conflict can come at any moment, and the profound person is ready for it when it comes. In order to be prepared for conflict, one must understand ethics, morality, etiquette and virtue. The great thinkers going back to Confucius and Lao Tzu recognized that one who understands only war is not even good for that. Even war has limits. In every society there are actions and behaviors that are beyond acceptable. In Japan, learning appropriate action, etiquette, ritual, ethics and morality was considered essential for anyone learning bugei.  

This is why ethics and etiquette, morality and individual spiritual development are so important in the classical bugei.  The Japanese didn’t want people trained in violence who didn’t have the maturity, self-control and spiritual development to handle the abilities that training gives. They included things like meditation, right behaviour and spiritual development in their bugei systems from the beginning.  A profound person has many characteristics we associate with someone who has a high degree of spiritual development.  She has self-control, doesn’t become angry easily, has the wisdom to discern right action and to not be baited by others. She is patient, kind and discerning. She doesn’t employ violence unless it is the most appropriate option for dealing with the situation.

Far from being a watered-down version of the classical arts, budo forms contain the ethical and spiritual center that has guided classical budo in Japan since before the term “budo” came into wide use. The idea of seeking mastery of martial technique without achieving mastery over your self was anathema to the founders and teachers of old. It should be anathema to teachers and students now as well.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Utility Of Jo-Ha-Kyu


Photo – Kyu – the conclusion of a cut. Photo by Rick Frye, 2014

 Today I have the pleasure of introducing a guest blog on jo-ha-kyu by my colleague and friend, Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D. There are many concepts  that came into budo from other areas of Japanese culture. The idea of jo-ha-kyu is one of them. Klens-Bigman Sensei's background as a Jun Shihan in Shinto Hatakage Ryu as well her expertise in Japanese dance gives her an excellent position from which to examine this crucial concept. 

The utility of jo-ha-kyu
Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

If you have spent time training in Japan, or your teacher is Japanese, sooner or later he/she will mention a concept that is as essential to the study of koryu as any other practical aspect. That concept is jo-ha-kyu.
If you look up the kanji (序破急), you get a set of straight-up definitions. Jo () means beginning. Ha () means middle in this particular context, but it can also mean, interestingly, to break or destroy, the same kanji found in shu-ha-ri (a subject for another essay). Kyu () means a fast pace, and appears most familiarly to visitors to Japan as designating an express train. But, just as looking up the roots of words in English only hints at their current or contextual meaning, those simple definitions don't begin to describe the depth of the meaning of the idea of jo-ha-kyu, nor its importance to the study of any traditional movement form, including koryu budo. As I mentioned above, jo-ha-kyu is a practical aspect, essential to achieve a level of understanding beyond just the mechanical movements of a given kata or waza.
There is a lot of discussion of the application of strength or not, but less about the speed (or lack thereof) in applying given techniques. Generally speaking it seems that we like speed. We learn the elements of waza and look forward to using them “at speed.” However, in koryu budo training, speed is a relative thing, to be used judiciously. Simply put, once a student understands the mechanical aspects of a form or technique (properly learned at a glacial pace), the teacher should begin a discussion as to how the student performs the movements of the form.
In its simplest aspect, jo-ha-kyu suggests rising acceleration. When drawing a sword for a nukitsuke cut, the iaidoka begins the draw slowly, and with a relaxed grip. As the sword is drawn, the speed increases, and the grip becomes more firm (but not tight) until the sword is free. Once free, the iaidoka snaps the monouchi of the sword towards the target by tightening her grip to the utmost. The iaidoka’s grip then relaxes as she re-positions her sword for the second cut of the kata, and the process of acceleration begins again.
Simple enough, yes? And easily seen, though perhaps not as easy to do. But jo-ha-kyu does not only refer to the elements of a given kata. The entire kata exhibits jo-ha-kyu. Let’s go back to our iaido example. The nukitsuke cut is a small cut. Depending on the style, it may be given as a warning to a would-be opponent to back off, theoretically making the balance of the kata unnecessary. The kata assumes, though, that that a second cut is necessary, and so the follow up to the nukitsuke is a much larger, and more lethal, cut. Afterward, if the bunkai of the kata only involves one opponent, the iaidoka performs chiburi and noto and the kata is finished.
http://iaikai.com/

Weapons kata seem to make the understanding of jo-ha-kyu pretty obvious (though I can state from experience it’s much harder to learn how to do properly), but the same sense of timing can be seen in empty-hand forms as well. Grab your opponent too fast or too hard, and your technique will in all likelihood, fail. In techniques for Daito ryu, the defender often has to wait for the attacker to do something before he can react. And the timing of his reaction and the execution of his technique depends very often on a sense of acceleration, not a sudden movement.
Jo-ha-kyu works in layers, starting with the individual elements of a given kata or technique, then to the design of the kata overall. But jo-ha-kyu doesn’t stop there. Sets of kata also reflect jo-ha-kyu. For example, the shoden set of Shinto Hatakage ryu consists of six kata. In the process of learning the six kata, the iaidoka learns how to: draw and cut in a shallow, rising diagonal, kirioroshi (straight down) cut, nukitsuke in a rising reverse-diagonal cut, a straight-on thrust, downward kesa (diagonal) cut, tsubame-gaeshi (reverse diagonal followed by downward diagonal; literally “barn swallow [and] return” because it resembles a swallow’s forked tail) cut, ko-(or yoko-) chiburi , simple noto (resheathing of the sword) and kaiten chiburi, in which the sword spins in the iaidoka’s hand, followed by a reverse-hand noto. The first form in the set is straightforward, followed by increasingly complicated bunkai of the subsequent forms. After that, it gets complicated.
Regardless of the style, shoden sets of forms always teach – well – basics. The second set of forms assumes this basic set of skills and applies them in different (sometimes radically different) ways. Some teachers have suggested the shoden set is like playing scales on a musical instrument – learning how the instrument works and what it is capable of. In koryu budo, the practitioner learns how the weapon works, whether a sword, a stick, or his own body. Over time, techniques increase in complexity.
Now, everyone knows that levels of training involve beginner, intermediate, and advanced forms. But considering a ryuha in terms of jo-ha-kyu gives more depth to the utility of a layering of rising acceleration. And I don't mean speed. I mean depth of understanding. Once a practitioner begins to see jo-ha-kyu in the techniques, kata, and overall ryuha, the utility of the concept can be seen practically everywhere, even in aspects of everyday life.
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Author’s Note: I would like to thank Ismael Franco Sensei of Tora Dojo and Peter Boylan Sensei Of Michigan Koryu Kenkyukai for vetting portions of this post.

Monday, August 29, 2016

So You Wanna Cross-Train?

My friend and colleague, Deborah Klens-Bigman is an accomplished martial artist and respected scholar of Japanese classical dance. She often does me the honor of serving as a sounding board for ideas, and generously edits my posts to make them polished. This time Klens-Bigman Sensei responded to my ideas with an essay of her own, which I 'm proud to be able to publish here.

Deborah Klens-Bigman  Photo Copyright Iaikai 2016

So you wanna cross-train?


Previously,  two posts considered cross-training in other budo.  The first set out the benefits as a means to deepen understanding of your primary art.  The subsequent post looked at another side of the issue - that some martial arts teachers might forbid their students to seek training at another dojo.  That post also suggested that students caught up in such an arrangement may have picked the wrong person to train with in the first place, and speculates on such teachers' selfish motivations.

So - here we have two solid arguments in favor of "cross-training."  It seems like a good idea, right?  Find a different (though maybe related) art form, and go for it, right?  Not so fast.  There's a right way, and a wrong way, to train at a different dojo.  If done right, you can obtain benefit for yourself and do credit to your home dojo.  If not, well - read on.

Let's first assume that you are a student in good standing, who is also not a raw beginner.  A very-beginning student who seeks training in another art form gives a teacher the impression that you are not serious in your practice in the first place.  The term for this (at least in English) is "dojo-hopper."  The sense is that the student is in some sort of martial arts shopping mall, with various things on offer.  Come in, poke around, try a couple things on, and go on to the next store.  This is definitely how to shop for a prom dress, but most budo teachers take their practice seriously, and expect students to do likewise.  

Next, let's consider motivations.  I am not talking about jumping ship and looking for a new teacher - that's a different subject altogether (see above).  And I seriously doubt you would look around and think to yourself, "I'll bet I could deepen my understanding of the principles of [fill in name of current practice] by trying out [something else]."  More likely you saw something on YouTube or even (shockingly, but it does happen) at a live demo and you thought it looked cool and would be fun to try.  NYC is a veritable feast of martial traditions, both Asian and Western, old and new (and even theatrical and cinematic!).  It's easy to feel like a kid in a candy store.  There is nothing wrong with this motivation.  But there is a proper way to go about it.  So I am offering a list - from smartest to dumbest - ways to go about cross training in a different budo form.

1.  Talk to your teacher and ask for permission to try something else, and ask for her suggestions as to where to find another dojo.  For example, you could say, "I was thinking about trying a jujutsu class.  I wanted to run the idea past you first.  Do you have any suggestions as to who I could study with?"  Believe it or not, even in a place as huge as the Big City, many budo teachers at least know each other by reputation, if not personally.  Moreover, we know who the crank teachers are; or, at least, we have the means to find them out.    Asking for permission, along with asking for advice, accomplishes several goals - it shows the teacher you respect her, and that you respect her opinion.  It also puts you in line for a good recommendation with one of her colleagues.  Having been recommended and accepted for cross-training in another dojo also shows respect with regard to the other teacher, who then has a clear idea of who you are and may have a sense of what you might be able to accomplish by training with him.

 2.  Ask your teacher for permission only.  This is not as smart as suggestion number 1, but it at least shows enough respect to your teacher that she won't throw you through the nearest wall.  Most teachers will say yes (and if she doesn't agree, there is probably a reason, as in she doesn't think you are ready to branch out.  If you respect the teacher, you will respect her opinion and ask again later).  Some may volunteer advice if they think you might be interested in hearing it; others may just say it's fine, and you are then free to roam.  

 3. (Moving to less-smart ways).  Go somewhere else and don't tell either the primary teacher or the new teacher what you are doing.  I don't recommend this, but it can actually work, as long as you exercise some discretion.  Don't do what one of my students once did: blow off a request to perform at a demo by explaining that you have a tournament with another teacher that weekend.  Just say you're sorry and you can't make it; and you hope to be able to perform with the group at another time.  Being so up front about your conflicted schedule may send a teacher the message that you are so enamored with the new style that you are not as interested in what she has to teach (even if that isn't strictly true).  Moreover, not supporting the dojo when it asks for your help also makes you look less serious about your practice, unless it involves work or family issues.  Your perceived lack of interest may result in the teacher's attention being directed a little bit more to other students instead.  Tangentially, if the second teacher learns about your primary art form by other means than your telling him about it, you may find yourself getting the same treatment.  I'm jus' sayin'.  We like to think that our teachers have better tempers and more wisdom than lowly students (and they might), but they are also human beings (with a lot more experience than you) and they have feelings, too.  And those feelings should be respected if you are serious about your art form.

 4.  Declare that you are going "budo shopping" for other stuff to do - you say you may come back to the home dojo someday, but then again you may not.  Believe it or not, this has actually happened.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the student has given the impression that the teacher (and her art form) are interchangeable; with one practice being not any better or worse than another.  The now-former student in question was fortunate to have done this via email and not in person.  Needless to say, this person is no longer welcome (except, just *possibly* as a guest, and paying the guest mat fee).  Unless you really intend not to come back at all, I don't recommend this method.  

 5.  Just show up at a new place and disparage your primary teacher to gain favor with the new one.  As I said, we all know each other, by reputation if not personally.  Remember the six degrees of separation?  In the budo world, it's more like one or two.  You won't be accepted once the truth comes out.

 As my colleague the Budo Bum has said, there are many benefits to cross-training, and most of them won't be revealed until you have spent months (or even years) training in another form.  In my budo career, though my primary art is iaido, I have also done some training in naginata, kyudo, kendo, some empty-hand, and I am currently studying jodo as a rank beginner.  I also train in Japanese classical dance; an art form that developed in the Edo period that shares many principles of movement with koryu budo forms.   Many of my colleagues and teachers both in the U.S. and Japan also cross-train.  For the most part, all of their teachers know and respect each other, and are cross-trainers themselves.   My teacher, Otani Sensei, when I spoke to him specifically about working with another teacher, interrupted my carefully-rehearsed permission-asking speech by saying, "That's okay, that's okay.  Once you know the principle, the technique doesn't matter."  I still can't say, all of these years later, that I fully understand his point, but I knew then I had the freedom to figure it out.

Bio Note: Deborah Klens-Bigman is Instructor at Iaikai Dojo, in New York City.   The dojo website is www.iaikai.com
Deborah Klens-Bigman Photo Copyright Iaikai

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cross Training



What is the value of cross training?  Why do I consider it essential to development as a budoka?

There are tremendous benefits to getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that are new and different. Every art is built on assumptions about the armament, training and intentions of your imagined opponents.  Judo is great against the kind of attacks that are assumed. Judo training against weapons is pretty lousy. Shinto Muso Ryu is fabulous against guys with swords. We’re a little less sure of what to do against spears and grapplers.  

Classical Japanese systems originated in an era when people were assumed to be armed, and wearing armor was common.  For both reasons, empty hand striking arts never got started.  It wasn’t until Okinawan empty hand arts were brought to the main islands of Japan that empty hand striking was seriously considered. By the time that happened in the early 20th Century, armor was mostly relegated to history and Japanese society was peaceful enough that few people went about armed.

Martial arts developed to solve specific problems. The great sogo budo 総合武道 of Japanese history - arts such as Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinto Ryu and Kashima Shinryu - all evolved in a particular era with very clear needs. In the centuries before the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and enforced peace, war was the norm. Warriors were not specialists, but generalists, learning a variety of weapons in systems where the fundamental principles were applied to everything, whether they were armed or empty handed. Combatants were most worried about surviving battles where they would be armored and facing a variety of weapons and foes.

After the Tokugawa forces brought peace to Japan with musket barrels, martial arts continued to be practiced. New arts arose to suit the new conditions with different expectations. The concern was no longer armored foes on the battlefield, but duelists, angry drunks, thieves and rebellious peasants. The arts that developed in this period reflect very different expectations about the sort of violence people would face.

Every art makes assumptions.  Sometimes we don’t even notice them. When I first started judo, a friend who was doing an art that makes different assumptions showed me some of my assumptions about what people would and would not do. I then learned that competitive judo’s assumptions about the opponent’s face don’t travel well. It’s a good thing to have your assumptions challenged.

Competitive judo has a polite rule about not attacking the face.  It’s a nice rule, particularly for all the randori (grappling sparring in judo) that we do. Going to work and going on dates with a face covered in bruises all the time would be less than ideal.  When you train like that all the time though, It’s easy to forget that not attacking the face is nothing more than a polite agreement between practitioners.  My friend Paul didn’t train in an art with any such agreements, so he casually reached up and moved my face.

Forgetting that these sorts of assumptions are made for the safety and comfort of long term practice is simply and quickly corrected by training with folks who have different standards of what is polite and respectful practice. Being a judo guy, training with a friend who does TKD does wonders for exploding unconscious assumptions on both sides. Judoka don’t have an aversion to getting a hit a few times if that will allow them to close and throw. Strikers will be happy to make a mess of your face long before you get close enough to throw them.  Strategies that work well in the narrow confines of your home art can become disastrous as soon as you step out of the dojo.

A little cross training can open up whole vistas of realizations. Judoka make all sorts of assumptions for training purposes that are silly outside the dojo but are perfectly reasonable from the perspective of making regular training safe.  For example, we don’t make an assumption about when the fight is over.  It’s over when both people agree it’s over, especially in dojo randori where you’re not competing for points. That became interesting for me when I started training with aikidoka  from time to time.  Many people in aikido assumed that once uke was off balance and being thrown, the action was over. I didn’t know about that assumption, so I surprised quite a few people when I  counter attacked while being thrown or even as I was being slammed into the mat. That’s not a problem with aikido, it’s a problem with training. Since then I’ve gotten to know some great aikidoka with exposure to judo. They enjoy my attempts to counter attack in the middle of their techniques, and the challenge of finding ways to stop me.

Another eye opening experience was when I took up jodo. I’d played with some methods of taking weapons in judo and aikido. I thought I understood something. Then I started training with jo and sword. I quickly came to a new understanding. I understood nothing about weapons, spacing with weapons, or timing.  Unarmed spacing and timing is a different beast from armed spacing and timing. My teachers could reach me at distances where I was sure I was safe. That staff was in my face before I was even aware they were moving.

You don’t have to go so far as to take up another art to gain significantly from cross training. I’ve learned loads from getting thrown around by my friend Chuck (yes, that’s really his name). Chuck does an interesting style of jujutsu, and he was happy to test all of my assumptions and preconceptions. I would say brilliant things like “You can’t do that.” and Chuck would promptly do it to me. I’ve been rolled, pinned, mashed and chucked all around the dojo, learning the whole time. I haven’t taken up studying Chuck’s style of jujutsu, but I’ve learned loads from playing with him.

Just doing something outside your specialty can open your eyes and clear out myths. Kim Taylor used to host the best cross-training event I’ve ever been to.  He invited all sorts of senior teachers from various koryu to Guelph, and we’d each teach a 2 hour introduction to some aspect of our art. Then we’d go try everyone else’s stuff. In one weekend I got to do jujutsu and naginata, a couple of styles of iai, maybe some jutte or spear, and a little kyudo. Afterwards we’d all go out for dinner and quiz each other about everything we’d seen and try to get answers to some of the million or so questions that leapt into our minds while we were trying all of this new stuff.  I saw experienced aikidoka go from thinking they knew something about swords to deciding that they really needed to take up a sword art. I saw sword people conclude that some of those “dinky” weapons weren’t so silly after all. Lots of people from all sorts of arts developed an interest in jodo.  A particularly thick-skulled judoka who was sure he’d seen pretty much all there was to see in Japan got schooled in just how limited his experience really was. For three days we’d train and ask questions and then train and ask questions some more. No claims of superiority, just loads of honest curiosity and a willingness to have all of our assumptions and preconceptions shattered.

I believe cross training is critical to fully developing your understanding of budo. If you only do one thing, that’s fine. If you only know about one thing though, that’s not. Get out of the safe zone of your dojo and go play with folks who do something different. We all look great at home where everyone moves and reacts the way we assume they should. What happens when people don’t move and react as we expect? Does our art fail us, or do we fail our art? If we don’t get out and challenge our own assumptions by cross training from time to time, we fail our art.

Having preconceptions and making assumptions about what will work and why is unavoidable as long as we’re human. Not doing anything to challenge those preconceptions and assumptions though is is a sad failure of our duty to our arts and ourselves. It’s especially sad when it’s so easy to find a way to check our thinking. Sign up for an open seminar with a different martial art. If you do empty hand stuff, try a weapons art. If you only do weapons, try an empty hand art. Step out of your safe zone and do something completely different. You may be amazed at what it can teach you about your art.







Monday, April 11, 2016

Budo Isn't About Technique




Budo is about traveling a path.  It’s not about being stuck in one place.  The road is always there, time is always moving and the world is always changing, even when we are still.  Budo is about maintaining balance and integrity (physical, mental and emotional) whether we are in movement or stillness, and having a calm, imperturbable center whatever is happening around us and however we are moving.

The world is dynamic, so attempts to remain perfectly still are doomed, rather like trying to stand perfectly still on a sailboat in a storm.  You can be stable, quiet and calm, but these must be within a dynamic world where you are constantly making adjustments, and sometimes your overall and ongoing stability is only maintained through large, dynamic movements on your part.

Budo is not static. A lot of people seem to think that great budo has already achieved perfection in some previous age. Whether it’s classical judo, or Ueshiba’s aikido, a great koryu like Takenouchi Ryu or Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, or one of the famous iai styles like Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, people craft an image of a budo that was perfect when the founder or great teacher lived, and that they are trying to recreate the perfection that is contained in the kata and teachings.

I’ve run into aikido practitioners who look back on Ueshiba or Shioda or Tomiki as having achieved budo perfection. For many years of my judo practice I felt that way about Mifune’s judo.  Among koryu budo people, the idea that the founder of their ryuha was the paragon of ideal budo is common.  The thought that there was one, perfect budo that we are trying to emulate or recreate is an attractive one.

It’s also a trap. Budo is a way, a path. In Japanese, the styles are called “ryu” 流. It comes from the word 流れる meaning “to flow, to stream, to run (as a river)”. The road we travel is always changing. Every step we take along the way takes us to a different place. Rivers and streams flow through space and time and are even more dynamic, transforming the world as they move through it.  Even if Ueshiba or Shioda or Tomiki or Mifune or Yagyu or Hayashizaki achieved budo perfection, it was perfect for that point in time and space.

Budo isn’t a technique or even a collection of techniques.  It’s a Way. As we travel the path, as the world moves through the ages, budo has to adapt to new times and places in which it is practiced.  What was great budo in one situation may be completely unsuited to another. The thing about any great budoka is that their budo is always fresh.  They don’t try to force the same response, the same solution, onto different situations. They apply the principles of their budo afresh to each situation.

Budo can only ever be perfect for the moment it’s expressed in. What made the great founders and teachers of budo truly great was not only their ability to manifest budo that perfectly suited the situations they found themselves in.  What made them great was that they could also pass along a way to learn the same principles that they applied.

Budo is something that is practiced without end. It’s a path that doesn’t stop. If we’re doing it right, we’re not really learning techniques. We’re learning the fundamental principles that make the myriad techniques work.  Great budoka reach up and find a way to manifest those principles in training, in conflict, and in life. The greatest figure out a way for others to learn to manifest those principles.

The ideal is that anyone can reach up and touch perfect budo. With practice, I’m convinced we can. That thing about budo being a path and a stream is important though. I think I may have touched perfect budo a few times over the decades I’ve been training. These are times when I somehow manage to perfectly express the principles of budo that I study and practice spontaneously in life.

It happens and then it’s past. It never lasts. For a moment you manage to express your budo perfectly. It’s not a continuous condition though. We reach that peak moment, and it passes. As we get better, so does the chance that we will touch that perfect budo. For judoka, the first time we come close to perfect judo is that day we’re standing there, staring down at some poor uke as we demand “Why did you jump! Don’t jump for me! I want to earn my throws!” The poor uke looks up at us and says something along the lines of “Jump? You buried me with that throw. There was no way I was stopping it!”  When we did that throw, the universe aligned in our favor. The timing and kuzushi were perfect. Uke had no choice and no chance to do anything but fly, and because the timing and kuzushi were perfect, it felt like we didn’t do anything. For a moment we touched perfect judo.

Unfortunately, those moments don’t last. As soon as the moment happens it’s over. Uke stands up, randori continues and uke feels like a boulder every time we try a technique. Nothing seems to work. Touching perfection is momentary, but those moments are wonderful and inspire everything else we do. Once we’ve touched perfection we want it again. Then we try to force it, and the more we try to force the further away perfection becomes.

Those moments of perfection feel incredible, but they are moments. We’re not perfect. We can’t maintain a state of perfection. Any time we touch perfection it’s wonderful and incredible and momentary. It doesn’t last. It can’t.

It is perfect in that instant, under those precise conditions. We express the principles of our art in a way that suits that moment. If we try to cling to it, whatever it was we were doing will cease to be appropriate as the moment passes and the situation changes. The goal of training is to become better and better at expressing the principles of what we study in a way that suits the moment.

The journey of life never ceases. Every step is new. The real lessons in budo are not static techniques, but the principles that animate the techniques. It’s ironic that the main way we learn budo is through repetition of prescribed exercises when the goal is to be able to spontaneously express the principles in any situation.

We practice a limited set of techniques and kata that are like the finger pointing at the moon in the story from Chuang Tzu. The finger points to the moon, but if you remain fixed upon the finger you’ll never see the moon. The techniques and kata are the finger pointing to the fundamental principles. If you cling tightly to exactly the way a past teacher did the kata, you’ll never get to the principles beyond the kata. If you insist there there is only one way to do a technique, you’ll miss the million other ways and situations that technique can be used to express the principle.  I have books of judo technique in which the entire book examines just one technique, but looks for as many ways to express that technique as possible. Each technique is animated by underlying principles. Our job is to figure out what the principles are and learn to apply them.


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If we only study the technique, it becomes a matter of chance that we will pick a technique that is perfectly appropriate for the moment. If we follow the direction of the techniques we study, we begin to understand principles, and when we follow the principles, the technique will develop naturally out of the action of the principles. No two techniques will ever be exactly the same when they flow from the principles, but they will be appropriate to the moment. It’s like the judoka in randori who does a beautiful throw, then comes off the mat and asks the spectators “What technique did I do?” The judoka was working with the flow of energy from her partner and worked something that smoothly flowed with that energy. Working with their partner’s energy and letting the principles guide her, she ends up with a technique based on the principle.

That’s the ideal. It doesn’t happen as often as any of us would like. If we cling to techniques it will never happen. Go into a situation with the intent to do a particular technique and you have to force the moment to fit the technique. Go in with principles of movement, balance and flow, and the moment will guide you to the appropriate technique.

The more we practice, the more we internalize the principles, the easier it is to touch perfection. We can never hold on to it, but we can learn to get out of our own way and let perfect budo happen more and more often. We progress along the Way one step at a time. We learn to breath and to walk. Then we start learning some techniques. It’s only when we begin to understand what animates the techniques and makes them effective that we get close enough to touch perfection from time to time.

Perfect budo is a constantly moving target though. What worked yesterday won’t work at all tomorrow. Each step along the Way takes us to a different place. Each morning we awake and the world has changed a little. We can’t force the world to stay still any more than we can force the sun to stop in the sky. If we cling to things as they were our budo cannot advance.

Each day we have to find new ways to apply the lessons of the Way that we learn from studying the kata. The better we get at it, the easier it is to adapt to the whirling of the world around us. A novice sailor leaps and tumbles and is thrown around the deck of the boat by the gyrations of the waves. A seasoned sailor calmly walks the same deck, adjusting to each shift and jump of the boat calmly and smoothly. A master can sit calmly meditating on the deck while the ship pitches wildly, adjusting with muscle changes so small no can see them. The master is calm when the seas are calm, and when the seas seem to be enraged.

The world keeps changing, but the principles don’t. Budo gives us a Way to continually adapt. Classical iaido ryuha would be worthless relics if their techniques were what they are really teaching. No one has carried swords like that in 150 years. The principles that classical ryuha teach haven’t changed though, and learning to express those principles in life is what gives classical ryuha their value.


Photo Copyright 2013 Peter Boylan


We don’t study techniques and kata in order to learn techniques and kata. We study techniques and kata to learn the principles that animate them. The conditions under which a judoka can do uchimata are limited. The conditions under which they can apply the principles of kuzushi, timing and movement that they learn from studying uchimata are endless.

When teachers talk about forgetting technique, this what they are getting at. The Way is infinite and no one can learn a separate technique for every set of conditions. Each place along the way, every new morning, presents new conditions. We have to learn to see beyond the techniques we study to the principles. Then we can apply the principles in ways that work with the conditions we have rather than try to find conditions that suit the technique we want to do.

Through great effort you might be able to hold your place in the world still and unchanging, but that won’t help. The world will continue changing around you. Even to stay still takes continuous adjustment, just like the master meditating on the deck of the ship. Walk the path. Learn the techniques. Transcend the techniques and learn the principles. Apply the principles and let the principles create new techniques to suit moment.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Am I Really Practicing Budo?



We go to the dojo regularly.  We practice hard.  We listen and try to follow sensei’s direction when she says “Cut with your hips” or “More extension” or the all-purpose direction “Relax.” We do these things.  We learn to do o soto gari or nikyo or kiri oroshi or whatever the technique is. Are we really practicing budo though?  Is budo what the samurai did in Japan? If that’s the core of what budo is, how is it possible for us to do budo now, in the 21st century?

Of course, if budo is what the samurai did in ancient Japan, then the next question is, which samurai in which period of Japanese history? The samurai of the 14th century were quite different from those of the late 16th century, who differed tremendously from those of the 17th century, and who might not have recognized all of the attitudes and behaviors of the samurai in the 19th century.
In the 14th century, samurai armies were often paid in loot. As for budo, the first of the ways, cha no yu or sado (tea ceremony, the way of tea) was just beginning to form.  Such a thing as “budo” wouldn’t be envisioned for several hundred years. The idea of forming bugei ryuha wouldn’t become common for another 200 years.

Katori Shinto Ryu only stakes its founding in the 15th century, while Kashima Shinryu and Kashima Shinto Ryu both date to the 16th century, as does Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. In that era the term “budo” hadn’t been coined yet, in part because the idea of discrete Ways, michi, 道 was still being formed in the teaching and practice of tea ceremony. What people did when training in these early ryuha was bugei 武芸. That second character is the same as in geisha 芸者 and means an artistic skill, technique, or performance.

It’s only in the 17th century, with the establishment of peace throughout the Japanese islands by the Tokugawa shogunate, that we begin to see a flourishing of discrete bugei ryuha.  Prior to this soldiers would be training together in armies moving and fighting all across the country.  Skills were constantly practiced, applied and evaluated in battle. After the the Pax Tokugawa was established in 1604, the armies were disbanded and skills were no longer used and tested.

With peace, there came time to codify and systematize teachings. People saw a genuine need for bugei schools where samurai could train in skills that were no longer applied on a regular basis. Over time, being able to show certification of training became important for samurai to earn promotions and to gain increases in their stipend.


Iaido schools flourished in the peaceful world of Tokugawa Japan

As the Tokugawa peace continued, townspeople who couldn’t wear the two swords of the samurai began to train in various bugei, and jujutsu systems flourished. With an emphasis on unarmed techniques and a variety of weapons besides the sword, these styles were well suited to the interests and legal limitations of merchants, craftspeople and wealthy farmers as well as samurai.

Over centuries the weapons changed as well. The famous samurai sword was originally little more than a backup sidearm for when the mounted archer ran out of arrows. The skills a samurai practiced were known as kyubajutu 弓馬術, “bow horse skills” since the primary role of the samurai was as a mounted archer. The sword might only be drawn when the battle was finished to collect the heads of defeated opponents for presentation to the winning lord so the samurai could get his reward.

Over time, pikemen armed with yari grew in importance on the battlefield and tactics for countering the speed and power of the mounted archers developed. Then in 1543 Portuguese merchants sold matchlock rifles to a Japanese lord and within 20 years these weapons that could be used by anyone with minimal training had transformed the battlefield. 65 years after they entered Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu used firearms to decisively take control of the country and bring the age of warfare to an end in Japan.


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Under the reign of the Tokugawas, firearms were secured for the sole use of the Tokugawa and regional daimyo forces. Following in the path of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, only members of the samurai class could carry swords. The samurai for the most part ceased to be soldiers and warriors as they transformed into the bureaucratic class responsible for running the country.

As government officials in a peaceful nation, members of the samurai class practiced swordsmanship. Without battles to test themselves in, challenge matches with bamboo weapons proliferated and styles such as Itto Ryu, whose tactics and techniques were well suited to this sort of dueling, grew in popularity along with the matches. Non-samurai also began studying and styles emphasizing unarmed skills such as Tenjin Shinyo Ryu flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Following the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, the reopening of Japan to the world and the abolishment of the samurai class, the martial practices changed along with the world. Competitive displays flourished as the old martial skills lost their role in society. These competitive displays mixed with new ideas about sports from western culture and the modern arts of judo and kendo emerged. Instead of being used in battle, or being a part of a class and role expectation, the arts became educational and recreational activities.

Kano Jigoro 1860 - 1938
Kano Jigoro lead the way by molding his Kodokan Judo into a system that could be incorporated into the physical education curriculum of the new government’s national education system in Japan and by instituting a clear tournament system. Leading swordsmen in Japan soon followed Kano’s example and did the same, taking elements from numerous forms of kenjutsu and creating a standardized system for national use that was incorporated into the public education system in Japan.

In the 21st century, all of these are called budo.  Are they all budo though? Is the modern study of judo and kendo the same budo, the same spirit, that the samurai in the 15th and 16th centuries learned in Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu? Of all the experiences of budo through the centuries, which one is the true budo?  The guys who fought for loot and collected heads for reward? Perhaps the true budo was practiced by the samurai of the Tokugawa era, who might go their whole life without needing to use their martial skills. Or is it only the modern budo, with the influence of Kano Jigoro in judo and the great kendo teachers like Nakayama Hakudo in the 20th century that is true budo? Is it only budo if you’re using it professionally as the samurai did? Do you have to be a soldier, guard, or law enforcement officer to truly do budo?


Nakayama Hakudo 1873-1958


A mistake we often make when encountering something from a different culture is to force it into a pre-existing category from our own culture. We try to draw the same lines between things that we are used to. There are many people who maintain that any art or way that seeks to promote individual development cannot be a true martial art. I’ve also encountered people who maintain what they do is superior because exponents explicitly talk about peace and harmony while bending joints and tossing people around the room.

One of the most difficult things to wrap my head around when I first moved to Japan was that things do not have to be clearly differentiated black or white. People there are generally not Buddhist or Shinto. They are Buddhist and Shinto who might well get married in a Christian ceremony, exchange chocolate on Valentine’s Day and check the calendar for auspicious and unlucky days from Taoism.

It is not Japanese culture that draws sharp lines between things. There is no need to call one the budo of one era “the true budo” (though you do run into people in Japan who claim that things in modern Japan have deteriorated and degenerated badly and need to be infused with the spirit of some previous age. Mishima committed suicide while making just that claim).  Ways are paths, roads, and roads can go long distances through wildly different terrain, all while changing from concrete to asphalt to gravel to dirt and back again.  It’s all still the same road.

If we stop trying to fit things into the discrete categories that our culture tries to fit everything into, and adopt a lesson from the home culture of budo, it might be easier to see that we are all on the same road. It’s a lesson that never tires of slapping me in the face from different angles. The beginner who just walked in the door is on the same road as the 90 year old master who’s been training for 80 years.  They are on very different stretches of road, but it’s the same road none the less.

The same idea applies to the people who have practiced budo in all those different eras.  They were on the path, practicing the Way. They weren’t where we are. They were on other sections of that road. The bits that are “relevant” keep changing. Armored warfare with bows, arrows, spears and swords dominated the fight for centuries. Firearms transformed things and made armor obsolete. Technology moved forward and somehow armor is back.

The immediately applicable bits and the historical scenery change, but the fundamental lessons that form the foundation of the budo Way never seem to. I’ve written about what I consider fundamental to budo. Whatever else it does, budo has to teach how to move with good structure, an understanding of the effective ranges of movement, how to use time, and it has to be concerned with making practitioners not just better fighters, but better people.  If it’s doing those 4 things, it’s probably budo.

Those 4 essentials haven’t changed   since some samurai in ancient Japan first started putting together a budo curriculum. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, those essentials have to be there. Whether it is unarmed jujutsu, kenjutsu, kyudo or modern firearms, you have to understand structure, spacing and timing to be effective, and those ancient samurai teachers recognized that bullies and jerks need to be grown into decent human beings if they are also going to be entrusted with martial skills. If those items are the basis of everything else going on in your training, then what you’re doing will still be budo, whichever century you’re in.