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

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

 
Tamahagane, traditional steel, is filled with impurities and requires repeated heating and hammering just to get the impurities out. Only after that can you start shaping a sword.


精神 - mind, soul, heart, spirit, intention
誠心 - sincerity
清心 - “bright, clear” & “mind”
正心 - correct mind, righteous mind

These are just some of the 14 meanings that come up when I type in “seishin” ”せいしん” into the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary. Japanese is a wonderful language. It’s possible to write the word phonetically and thereby imply any or all of the above, or sometimes meanings diametrically opposed to the above meanings. 成心 is also pronounced “seishin” but means prejudice. This can make Japanese a tricky language to say things in; profound but filled with pitfalls.

I’m thinking about seishin because I was visiting with a friend and discussing all things budo over a pint in a Dublin pub. He was wondering how to get from the mindset of destroying one’s opponents to a more wholesome attitude; one that doesn’t require destroying his opponents to achieve goals and mastery.

There are lots of different mindsets that we can take in budo. When we start though, we almost have no choice but to be concerned with winning, with dominating and destroying teki, our opponent. As a beginner in judo, I had to really focus on attacking my training partners and throwing them down. If I didn’t, I was so quickly dominated and thrown down myself that I couldn’t learn anything from the practice.

There are many ideas about states of mind. Fudoshin and mushin are great to talk about, but how on earth does one get from being a beginner who is just trying to not get crushed to becoming, first,  somewhat technically proficient, and then all the way to a point where you are relaxed and acting without prior intent, just moving in harmony with the situation as it develops?

The koryu bugei seem to offer the most time-tested path to these special mental states. The journey is not exciting. Like most practices undertaken to develop the mind/spirit, a lot of effort has to be put into just keeping up the practice.  It’s not generally exciting, especially in the early stages and late stages.

Japanese has long used the phrase seishin tanren to talk about the real nature of training, budo training in particular. “”Tanren” is 鍛錬 and means “forging”. Forging is not exciting work, whether it is making swords or martial artists. In Japan it means repeatedly hammering and folding the steel for the blade until all the impurities have been beaten out of it.  

The Japanese equate budo training with this kind of forging. Seishin tanren or “spiritual forging” is a good way to describe koryu budo training.  It can be harsh, repetitive and boring, but if you don’t drive out the impurities first, the final product will break easily.

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Koryu budo training is built around kata practice rather than sparring.  Sparring is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t build the skills or the mind in the ways necessary for spiritual training.  Look at how a boxer or an Olympic judoka or an MMA fighter trains.  They mostly train kata as well. Oh, I know they don’t call what they do “kata,” but that’s what training drills are. Kata are training drills, pattern practice for techniques, skills and mindset.

You can’t effectively spar until you’ve attained a certain level of technical and mental skill, and that is nearly impossible to get from sparring alone. There has to be a reason that paired kata training remained the dominant training methodology in koryu budo from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The reason is that paired training drills, pattern practice, kata, or whatever you want to call them, are the best effective way of mastering physical technique and developing a quality mental state.  

Beginners are overwhelmed by all the details of learning a new art. The best they can do is pick a couple of points and focus on them. As a beginner, one has to focus intently just to approximate what a journeyman practitioner does without thinking. This is the first step on the path to the mental states of mushin and fudoshin. It’s only when a beginner has advanced far enough that they don’t have to focus on each step of a given movement that they can begin working on the rest of the staircase.

Partnered kata practice gives a student a controlled environment in which to to experiment and develop. The teacher can adjust the intensity of the regimen to the student’s technical level so they get the most from training.  Early on this might mean walking through the kata slowly and without any pressure.  As the student becomes proficient at performing the outer shape of the kata, the teacher can increase the pressure, go faster, attack more strongly, and then add new kata that emphasize different lessons about timing, spacing or technical application.

Over thousands of repetitions the student polishes her fundamental techniques and learns to move without focusing on the details of movement. Now the teacher can begin to vary not just the intensity but also the timing of the kata. One potential danger of partnered kata training is that it may become nothing more than a choreographed dance wherein you know how and when your partner will move or attack. This can lead to empty forms and stagnating mental development.  The teacher’s responsibility is to continuously manipulate the timing and spacing so no two repetitions of the kata are identical. It is at this point that  mental development really begins for the student.

At first a student reaching this level may try to anticipate her partner’s movement.  She knows what her partner is supposed to do next in the kata, and she responds to what her partner is supposed to do. The thing about training in koryu budo is that your partner is teaching you, and koryu budo teachers can be harsh. If my student anticipates my action and moves first, I’m going to attack the opening she gives me rather than do what the kata says I should. One of the lessons of budo is to act in accord with that is suitable for the situation, not just do what the script calls for. If she anticipates my movement, she’s already left the kata and I’m free to attack however I wish.

This is when students really start developing their minds, forging their seishin. It’s also when I, as a student,  was most likely to come home from practice with whacked knuckles and bruised wrists. At this stage, I was  still thinking about when to move and how fast to move. This meant I was often moving too late to get out of the way of the attack. When you’re late, sometimes sensei will let the strike land so you learn how vulnerable you are.

The kata hasn’t changed, but the timing and intensity have. As the student gets more comfortable with the mechanics of the kata, she learns to watch and not move until the right moment, neither too early nor too late. Students who want to dominate and control everything in order to crush their opponent are eager to move and easily drawn into moving before it is safe to do so. Students who are thinking too much will wait to long and get whacked. Through forging,  hammering and folding, through countless repetitions of the kata, the teacher drives out excess thought that gets in the way of quick, clean movement. The tendency to anticipate your partner, thereby creating gaping openings, is slowly forced to the surface of the mind until it is sloughed off like slag being hammered out of piece of tamahagane steel.


In my case, I was so prepared to defend against an attack that I knew was coming that I was often incapable of waiting until it actually happened.Alternatively, whenever I became too anxious to move, like a spring that was overloaded with tension, my teachers would hesitate a moment and draw me into moving. It’s the teacher’s job to provide learning experiences, to change the timing just a little, or maybe a lot.  As I learned to quiet my mind and stopped trying to outguess my partner, I learned to see what teki was really doing.

The student keeps up the repetitions, working the impurities out of her mind. One day it will happen. She’s doing a kata at a high intensity level without thinking about it, without reacting. She’ll be calm and relaxed and act in accord with her partner’s speed and timing. It will be beautiful. The next repetition will be disastrous. She will consciously try to duplicate the previous kata and utterly fail. My experience was much the same..

Fudoshin and mushin are states of mind that involve getting out of your own way. The irony in this is that if you are trying to get your mind out of the situation, your mind is already actively in it. Mushin is all about just being there and not forcing your conceptions on the situation. But - If actively trying to quiet your mind is guaranteed to not get you where you want to be, how do you get there?

You could try breathing through your eyelids.


In Bull Durham, Annie tells LaLoosh to “breath through your eyelids.”  It’s a great tactic. He’s been overthinking everything he does, and as a result can’t pitch well. His mind is wound up and in the way. He can’t do anything right. By distracting his mind with the impossible, Annie frees the skills he’s acquired to act smoothly and naturally. With koryu budo, we don’t tell students to breathe through their eyelids. We forge their minds in the furnace of paired kata practice (and if you don’t think paired kata practice is a furnace, let me introduce you to a couple of people).

Good teachers and training partners gradually turn up the heat. When a student starts, she is busy worrying about the mechanics of the kata. Over time, the teacher pushes a little more and a little more until she’s not worrying about the mechanics. Now perhaps she’s worrying about not getting hit. With enough hammering in the right places at the right moments, fear of getting hit is also driven out of her mind.

Over time, the repetition and gradually increasing intensity levels hammer out other mental impurities. Too much intention is a common stumbling block.Having an attitude that you are going to dominate and destroy your partner is problematic, whether you are doing kata or sparring. It creates unnecessary intent, which is a stumbling block on the path to mushin. With enough practice, enough forging, the student will no longer need to convince herself that she will dominate and control.  She becomes confident that she can handle what’s out there, and doesn’t need intent. Now she’s ready to just relax and take whatever her partner has to throw at her, without any particular intent.

Now she’ll begin to touch mushin and fudoshin. It will be a rare thing at first, a happy accident that can’t be repeated intentionally. With more practice, this student will learn to let go of intentions and expectations. She’ll be able to take a breath in and let her worries, fears and mental noise go out with the exhalation. Mushin will happen more often now and the worries, fears and mental noise will grow weaker and quieter, until they are almost gone.

At this point she’s not a student anymore. She’s a senior helping other students travel the path. I doubt anyone ever reaches a perfect state where they maintain fudoshin and mushin 100% of the time, but the great teachers get so close that the rest of us never notice the lapses.  Seishin tanren is all about forging the mind. It’s not a quick or easy process. Just as forging a sword requires hundreds of repetitions through the process of heating and hammering to get rid of the impurities found in tamahagane steel, and then further heating and hammering to shape the blade, the raw ore of a student is heated and hammered in the furnace of kata practice until mental impurities have been forged out of her and she is a calm, relaxed budoka. Seishin tanren is simple. It’s definitely not easy.


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Better for what?






A friend of mine asked about swords.  He was wondering which was a better investment for iaido practice, a sword made of high quality modern steel or one made in the traditional fashion. I think he may have been surprised at my answer.

"Best for what?" For iai practice, you don't even need a sword made of steel. A well-balanced, well constructed iaito made of zinc-aluminium alloy will do just fine. The problem with many modern “samurai swords” is that they have the balance of crow bar. For classical Japanese sword training like iaido, the most important thing is the construction and balance of the sword. Bad balance or poor construction makes it impossible to learn good technique and can actually injure your arms. Poorly balanced swords put stress on your arms in ways that can damage them..

The best Japanese swords are still the ones made by classically trained smiths. This is because the classically trained smiths understand sword design, geometry and balance in depth. They've studied hundred of great blades and know what shapes are good for different applications and uses. Western made "samurai swords" look vaguely like a Japanese sword, but they generally lack the real character and traits that make a sword of a particular style or era that was designed for real use.

It's less about the particular steel than the geometry and balance. Modern steels are great. They are strong, resilient, inexpensive and rust resistant. Classically made, folded steel is expensive, strong, resilient and rusts if you look at it wrong. The real difference for practice is what the smith does with it. For that, the classically trained smith is hands down the best.  Good iaito are made to mimic the weight, geometry and balance blades made by traditionally trained Japanese smiths, which is why they make the best investment for immediate practice.

This sword discussion reminds me a lot of my thoughts whenever someone asks me what the best martial art is. “Best for what?”  What you want to do with the martial art will determine where the answer goes. Martial arts have as many differences as they do similarities. What’s best is going to depend on what you want out of it. Unfortunately, becoming an unbeatable super warrior isn’t something any art can give. Give some realistic thought to what you want. Is it unarmed or armed skills? Primarily physical or more mental? Do you want to sweat heavily, or only moderately (not sweating is not an option when learning martial arts)?  Lots of contact or not?

While I am an unabashed fan classical Japanese koryu budo, they aren’t best for everyone. One reason is related to why my friend was asking about the difference between swords made with modern steel and those made by classically trained smiths: the cost to acquire one!

Genuine koryu budo are rare, even in Japan. In the USA where I live, they are exceptionally rare.  I can count the number dojo teaching real koryu within a 2 hour drive of my home on my fingers. There are a couple of iai dojo, a jujutsu and kenjutsu ryuha, and my dojo with iai and jo.  That’s it, and in a lot of places there aren’t even this many dojo. What this scarcity means is that learning real koryu budo is expensive.  It means investing a lot of time and money just to get to someplace where you can learn one.  Even then, there’s a good chance that what’s available isn’t exactly what you’re looking for.

Iai is great, but if you’re looking for kenjutsu or bojutsu or jujutsu, it’s not going to do you much good if the only things around are iai dojo. To really study something, you are probably going to have to travel a lot further than 2 hours.  I teach Shinto Muso Ryu and Shinto Hatakage Ryu, but if I want to get instruction for myself, I have to go to where my teachers are. Japan. That’s the only real solution, and it’s not cheap.  I’m lucky enough to be able to do it once or twice a year.

What happens if you can’t afford to travel an hour or more each way to practice, or worse, have to fly somewhere to receive hands on instruction? Koryu budo doesn’t look like a great option. On the other hand, the faux koryu stuff floating around is kind of like the faux “samurai swords.” It may look vaguely like the real thing, but under close examination it will lack many of the characteristics of a genuine koryu budo, and when you try to pick it up and use it, you may discover that it has the balance of a crow bar.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp


I love koryu budo, but good quality gendai (modern) budo is great too. The metaphor above breaks down a little here, because gendai budo isn’t an attempt to mimic koryu budo the way an iaito mimics a shinken. Gendai budo were created to suit the ages of their founding, and have evolved since then.  They aren’t koryu budo. Good gendai budo don’t try to be.  Good gendai budo are honest about their age and qualities and history.  Judo or aikido or kendo will teach a lot of the same things that you learn in a koryu budo. You’ll learn good structure, breathing, movement, spacing and timing. It won’t have the history or breadth of koryu budo, but it still has a huge amount to teach you.

If you want to learn good budo, do something that will teach you good fundamentals.  I’m fond of saying there are no advanced techniques. There aren’t, and anything that is too specialized, too focused on a particular precise application, won’t be broadly applicable in new situations. A good foundation of understanding your body, structure, breathing, spacing and timing can be quickly adapted and applied to any new situation or study.

Koryu budo are still rare. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near where one is taught, then it’s probably not the best budo for you. I love koryu budo, but if nothing is available, then the best budo for you is probably something that is. I’ve found old Japanese swords in antique shops in the middle of nowhere, but they usually aren’t very good and often have fatal flaws such as deep rust or, worst of all, cracks that make the blade useless. Good judo or karate or aikido or kendo, whatever you can find, go in with eyes open. Just because someone has high rank or a teaching license, there is no guarantee that they are good teachers.

It’s better to learn good quality basics from a relatively low ranked and effective teacher than it is to learn poor quality advanced technique from a highly ranked person who has no teaching skills. It’s better to learn good fundamentals from a good, local, budo teacher than it is to bemoan the fact that you can’t afford to travel to where the art you dream of is taught. Start with an iaito and learn the fundamentals while you save to buy a shinken. Learn good budo fundamentals in a local dojo while you can. When you finally save enough for that beautiful shinken, all the training with the iaito will mean that you can handle it with confidence and safety. All that training in the fundamentals of structure and spacing and timing in the local budo dojo will mean that when it becomes possible to start studying the art you’ve been dreaming of, you’ll already have a solid foundation to build on, instead of having to start completely from scratch.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Budo Is An Anachronism In The 21st Century


Budo in the 21st century is an anachronism. Whether we are talking about koryu budo from the before 1868, or the gendai budo, the modern arts founded since the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, budo doesn’t have much to do with the worlds most of us live in. Sword, naginata, bo; these don’t have a place in the world we live in.

The samurai who created the koryu budo were professional soldiers and police. The tools of the modern soldier and police long ago surpassed the tools of budo. Even the modern arts of judo, kendo, and aikido don’t really relate to the world around them. They are amusing sports and hobbies, but they do really offer anything beyond other sports and hobbies? What can they offer to the average practitioner, much less to professional combatants like soldiers and police that can’t be found anywhere else?

The weapons may be archaic, but the fundamental skills taught by gendai and koryu budo are as valuable now as they were 400 years ago. People see the particular techniques of a ryuha and make the mistake of thinking they are seeing the fundamental teachings of the ryuha. Just as in Chuang Tzu’s parable, they are mistaking the finger pointing towards the moon for the moon itself. The martial practice has always been somewhat separated from the real conditions of combat. This is an inescapable fact. Training conditions that too closely resemble real combat will result in the same sort of injuries and death as real combat. Training has to prepare students for combat without crippling or killing them in the process.

 
Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

This means that kenjutsu kata are practiced using wooden swords. Sojutsu (spear) kata are practiced with padded tipped weapons. Jujutsu throws are done without the final turn that would break uke’s neck. For all this, warriors and soldiers recognized the value of this training 400 and 500 years ago. Wooden swords are very different from steel: different weight, different balance, different grip. For all those differences, the things learned from training with them were still valuable in the age when people still fought regularly with steel.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


As Ellis Amdur points out in his excellent book about koryu budo, OLD SCHOOL, people in Japan in those ages grew up doing lots of sumo. From the rise of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336 onward, Japan was rife with conflicts and wars. These culminated in the Sengoku Era starting in the 1467 and running until Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle Of Sekigahara and unified brought the whole nation under his rule by force in 1604. People were less interested in sparring than in practice for realities they knew too well.

People sought out teachers who would train them with wooden weapons instead of steel, and whose jujutsu training didn’t include any free sparring. That training was valuable enough to seek out in the Sengoku Era, and in the decades after the Tokugawa’s came to power before everyone became complacent with the realization that peace and not war was the new status quo. What of value could be learned from all this mere training without sparring? As it turns out, quite a lot. It’s still valuable. Humans haven’t changed noticeably since long before we learned how to write down our adventures, and not at all in the last 500 years.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
Those classical methods for teaching students the big, obvious things like a solid physical structure, how to read spacing and a good understanding of the timing involved in using various weapons are still effective. Whether we call them kata or forms or training drills, they still work.  No one can train for every possible eventuality, that’s why “what if” games are so pointless.

Instead, the good systems focus on teaching the principles of movement and encounter, of understanding effective spacing versus spacing where you can’t do anything, good timing and the consequences of bad timing. These are the fundamentals of budo. They aren’t the only things that have remained relevant from the 16th century to the 21st.

Many koryu budo train with weapons of varying lengths, weight and make-up. Schools like Takenouchi ryu include everything from unarmed to tanto to tachi to naginata and bo. That covers the reaches and ranges for most handheld weapons in any time.  Even in the age when Takenouchi Ryu was founded, they didn’t teach every possible weapon. There wasn’t time to learn every weapon.  However there was time to learn the principles of spacing and timing at all the various ranges you could encounter weapons.

Late in its history, Shinto Muso Ryu added kusarigama to its curriculum. Shinto Muso Ryu covers the use of most lengths of stick and sword, but a chain weapon like the kusarigama seems like a leap away from the core of the art. If you think about studying this weapon so you can be familiar with the properties of chain weapons though, it makes a lot of sense. Shinto Muso Ryu covers sticks and swords. With the addition of kusarigama, the Shinto Muso Ryu student can grasp the principles underlying chain and rope weapons so those can be effectively faced as well.

Hmm. Sticks, knives, swords and chains. That covers most of the range of possible handheld weapons even in the 21st century with the exception of firearms.

Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2014
I’ve been surprised at some of the other lessons found in various koryu that are appreciated even now. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu contains kata about performing surprise attacks. These are lessons not just about how to make a surprise attack. They are also lessons about when and where we are vulnerable. If we can do something to someone, they can do it to us.  

500 years of technological progress haven’t made a dent in that truth.

There are lots of little lessons in budo that get overlooked while we focus on the big combat techniques. These little details that seem like decorations on the combative techniques are often the bits that I can apply in the parts of my life where I’m not actively engaged in a fight. Someone recently pointed out a whole list of lessons that are embedded within the kata of various koryu.

Mugendo Budogu: Fine Martial Arts Equipment


There are lessons about taking advantage of lighting or position for an ambush that also teach what conditions are dangerous for us, and what we should be aware of. At night if someone can draw our attention to lighted space, it’s easy for them to attack from a shadow we’ve ignored. Lessons about securing clothing and equipment are as applicable today as they were in the Sengoku era.  Learning to be aware of our surroundings is always a good lesson.

Koryu budo in particular are not just collections of discrete fighting techniques. They are whole schools of thought and behaviour. They teach how to handle and care for tools and weapons. There are lessons about places and situations to beware of. It’s surprising how much the lessons of good budo are simple, solid, good sense.

Which makes me wonder, are koryu budo anachronisms after all? Their lessons about structure and posture and spacing and timing are just as relevant to in the 21st century as they were 500 years ago. The length and variety of weapons available hasn’t diminished any in the last 500 years.  The principles governing how those weapons can be used and what sort of spacing and timing is important are still the same. The places situations we have to beware of haven’t really changed either. It seems I was wrong. Koryu budo aren’t anachronisms.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Organizing The Body For Budo


The fundamental skill of budo is not particular kata or even special techniques. Those are built on something else. The techniques and kata of a budo ryuha, ancient or modern, are the teaching syllabus and the textbook. The practice of those techniques and kata are the way one acquires the fundamental skills of the ryuha. 

If the techniques of a ryuha aren’t the fundamental skills being taught, what are they? The fundamental skills of a ryuha are all the things that make the techniques and kata possible. The essence of any ryuha is how the body and mind are organized. These are the fundamental lessons driven and learned through the practice of all those kata.

The kata provide a framework for learning to organize our bodies and minds. Kata only happen when the fundamental techniques are solid. Techniques are solid when the body is properly organized. That organization is what makes everything happen. How do you grip the weapon (or your opponent if it’s unarmed)? That’s a start. If the structure of your grip isn’t good, if the bones and muscles of the hand and arm aren’t well organized, the grip will be weak and the techniques ineffectual.  

How the feet, legs, hips, torso and head are organized is the true foundation and the fundamental teaching of any art. In koryu arts, this is a core secret. For Kodokan Judo though, this is open knowledge, though not even everyone who practices judo understands it. The majority of people doing judo do competitive judo and rarely train in the kata, where Kano Jigoro and his senior students encoded the essential lessons of the art.

In contrast to the low, solid, heavy stances common to in judo competition, the body is organized higher and lighter in the kata. This reflects the fact the Kodokan Judo kata are intended to teach how to handle a variety of combative situations including grabs, strikes, and weapons, as opposed to the narrow range of attacks permitted in the competitive arena. How do you organize the body to handle all of these different possibilities?

The way the body is organized for competition is optimal for conditions in a tournament where attacks come from the front. No one ever tries to strike you, No one carries any weapons. The problem I had initially with training in the kata was that the body is organized quite differently than for competition. The low, stable, immovable stance that is so ubiquitous in randori is exchanged for an upright, light, mobile posture that can quickly adjust and react to the wide variety of attacks presented by the kata.


With so many more possible ways to be attacked, and from so many more distances and angles, the body has to be organized differently. Instead of organizing my legs and hips to be able block out a throwing attack and then counter it, I have to be prepared to move to a new location quickly to avoid a punch, kick or weapon, or to enter inside the attack to deal with it. The knees will be slightly bent and the core engaged to take on the weight.  Instead of energy and strength being focused forward to meet an incoming throwing attack, the focus is more diffuse to allow quick movement in all directions.

Contrast this with way the body is organized for ZNKR Kendo and Seitei Iai. Instead of the low, solid posture common to competitive judo, or the light, upright posture of classical Kodokan Judo, for iai the posture is very upright, but with the body pressing forward, ready to surge into action the moment a foot is released. There is tension between the legs, so that movement happens the instant a foot is lifted. No time is wasted shifting weight, everything is ready. The koshi is kept engaged to provide a solid platform while the arms are light and relaxed to swing the sword quickly and effectively.
Beyond competitive martial arts, every koryu has its own way of organizing the body, and this is a core secret of the art. Historically, keeping information about this secret was one reason members of a ryuha would avoid training with anyone outside their ryu. If you understand how someone organizes their body, you know a lot about what they can and cannot do. Modern systems like judo and ZNKR Seitei Iai lay everything out in the open.

The way an art conceives combat, the situations envisioned, and the strategies employed all come together to determine how the body is organized. For something as specific as competitive judo or kendo, very specialized postures and organization develop. Budo that assume many more options have to organize that body differently. Rather than very specialized techniques only applicable to one situation, they require physical organizations flexible enough to adapt to the myriad of situations that can develop.  A good competitive bodily organization will maximize the potential within the narrow confines of the arena. Sogo budo 総合武道 (general budo) have far broader potential applications and need a body that isn’t organized for one specific match.

The more specialized the art, the more apparent it is in your body.  I was visiting a friend’s judo dojo for the first time a few weeks ago, and as I walked up to a young man I said “You’re a wrestler, aren’t you?” The way a body is organized for wrestling is a bit different from that of judo, enough that I could see that he was a wrestler even before we started working together. Karateka and competitive judoka are easy to spot too. The way we learn to organize our body is something we carry with us everywhere. It’s not something that turns off when we leave the dojo. It’s so apparent that we can learn to see it in the way other martial artists stand and walk.

How we organize the body for action is at the heart of every budo. It is basic, fundamental, and very difficult to get right. Mastering the body mechanics of an art is literally half the battle. Until the body is properly organized and moving in accord with the basic principles of the art you’re studying, none or the rest will be correct. No technique, no punch, no cut, no strike, no throw can be done correctly until the body is organized to create the platform upon which the technique occurs. Until the techniques are right, the kata don’t stand a chance of coming together with the right spacing and timing.  It all starts with how the body is organized. ( I might deal with organizing the mind another time, but that’s more difficult to describe.)