Showing posts with label ryuha. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ryuha. Show all posts

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.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Ōn: What Do We Owe?

Ōn 恩 is a ubiquitous concept in Japanese culture. It means a debt or obligation of gratitude. This is no simple “I owe you a favor” gratitude. That’s covered in the concept of giri 義理. Ōn includes the kind of combined obligation and gratitude that we owe to our parents and grandparents for all the care and kindness they have given us. Ōn covers those areas where our obligations are so great we can never truly repay them. Within Japanese culture, this sort of obligation extends to our teachers and the creators of the arts we practice.

Kano Jigoro, found of Kodokan Judo
When I started on this journey, of course I appreciated what I was learning from my teachers. Earl and Bob were sharing their wealth of knowledge with everyone in the university judo club. It was a fabulous place to be and there was a wonderful group of people I was learning with. We were training and growing and learning all aspects of judo. It was fun, the tournaments were exciting, and I learned a huge amount. I appreciated everyone around me, especially my teachers. I didn’t feel a debt of obligation though. I’m an American.  We don’t do obligations the same way Japanese do.

The longer I’ve been on this journey and the more time I spend in Japan though, the more my sense of obligation grows. As I realize all I gain from practice, my understanding of what I owe to my teachers and their teachers and all who have travelled the path before me grows. Some days it feels completely normal to think about the fact that I’m practicing techniques, principles and ways of movement and engaging with the world that go back hundreds and hundreds of years. Other days it just seems impossible that some guy from suburban Detroit could end up training with world class teachers in these incredible traditions.

My teachers are not employees. They aren’t teaching me because I pay them money. They are teaching me out of a love of their art and their sense of obligation to their teachers and all those who went before them, back through the centuries to the founder of the school. They have their own sense of obligation to the their teachers and the art. The longer I train with them, the more I feel it as well.

My teachers have accepted me into their dojo and their art. That alone is an incredible thing. When I first moved to Japan, there really weren’t a huge number of non-Japanese training in classical traditions. In the country outside Kyoto where I lived, there weren’t any non-Japanese training in even modern traditions like Kodokan Judo. I was the first in that area. For a teacher in Japan to really accept a you as a student is a huge risk. The teacher becomes responsible for anything the student does. I didn’t understand that when I first moved to Japan. In the same way, I didn’t understand my obligations to my judo teacher.

If I messed up, my teacher would have been responsible for helping to clean up the mess and make things right. From the moment a teacher acknowledges you as their student, you assume the rather large obligation not to do anything that would embarrass your teacher, or force her to have to clean up after you. That means not getting drunk in public and causing a scene. It means controlling your temper at the office and at home (homes are close together and have thin walls. Believe it that your neighbors can hear what’s going on).
As a beginning student, the obligations aren’t too huge. Train, study, help keep the dojo clean and don’t do anything to embarrass my teacher. Eventually I stopped being a beginning student. I started taking on responsibility for my teacher. At some point everyone expected me to be able to demonstrate the basics correctly, consistently.

The obligations grow slowly but inexorably.

The dojo becomes more and more a real home where you are secure (but not comfortable). The people in the dojo become trusted friends with whom you share the treasure and joy that is training. As I grow in the art, many of the things I gain are difficult to express, and impossible to assign value to. The comfort in my own skin that grows from years and years of training is immeasurable. How do you place a value on being comfortable enough with yourself that storms of emotion and stress can blow around you without disturbing you?

The self-knowledge and understanding that good budo training develops is difficult to describe. People often misinterpret the calm, imperturbable demeanor of a mature martial artist as being self-confidence derived from their physical ability to fight. If that was the truth, that calm would be a weak and easily broken thing only prepared to deal with someone attacking with hands or weapons. It would be worthless against other sorts of stress and disturbances.

One of my jodo teachers thought to give me a lesson I really appreciate. One day shortly before I was due to move back to the US, he drew me aside at the end of practice and said “You need this experience.”  Then he pulled a steel sword out of his bag. Jodo is usually practiced against a bokuto, a wooden sword. Wooden swords hurt more than enough when you screw up and get hit with one in my opinion. I didn’t think there was any need to risk more intense pain with a steel blade. Sensei disagreed.

He named off 3 kata he wanted to do with me facing the steel sword. I noted that all three of them involve strong attacks against the jo side by the sword. I was a more than a little apprehensive about all of this as we faced off, bowed to each other and Sensei began advancing toward me with steel sword. I managed somehow to reach down inside and calm myself enough that I could deal with the attack. Sensei came in and attacked just as the kata called for, and I responded to the attack with something close to the proper timing and technique. Though my heart may have been beating a bit faster than when we usually do these kata, I managed to keep my breathing fairly steady, stay focused and remain relatively calm while Sensei tried to cut me in two.

At the time, I thought Sensei was giving me experience dealing with a steel sword. I was wrong. Sensei was giving me a lesson in how to deal with myself.  This is a much more universally useful lesson than just how to react when someone attacks with a steel sword. That lesson was identical to the lessons on what to do when someone attacks with a wooden sword. Get out of the way of the attack and then counterattack.

This lesson could be described as “How to deal with myself when something big and unexpected happens.” I’ve used this lesson in how to reach down inside myself and maintain steady breathing, a clear focus and calm mind even when people are going to pieces around me. My heart rate may go up depending on the situation, but I’m the only person who has any need to be aware of that. The rest of the world gets to deal with someone who is clear, calm and in control of himself. That’s a heck of a lesson to get from a guy with a sword.

I don’t know where else I could get a lesson like that. This isn’t a sport. This is a classical budo.
“Win or lose, it’s how you play the game” sounds nice, but in classical budo it’s often more of “Do it right or get hurt.”  The lessons are structured to get you to a place where you can deal with that. I don’t think Sensei came up with the real sword jo practice himself. I have a feeling that he had that experience and found it valuable, so he passed it on to me. How many generations of teachers and students this goes back I don’t know, but I am eternally grateful to all of them. This is a lesson that has served me well over and over.
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My budo teachers have given me the dojo as my haven, school room, and proving ground. It’s an awesome place to spend my time. They have shared their wonderful treasure, these budo traditions. It’s not something they just hand out. The senior teachers are maintainers, preservers, guardians and sometime innovators. They have absorbed all the lessons that their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers have discovered and developed, going back generations. Judo goes back about 6 generations. Shinto Muso Ryu goes back nearly 20 generations. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu goes back even further than that.

I owe an immense debt to all of the teachers and students of the arts I study. It’s a debt I cannot possibly repay. How can I possibly thank the founders of my Kodokan Judo or Shinto Muso Ryu? I know I can’t, but I am aware of how much I owe them for the physical skills of the arts, the haven and place of wonder that is the dojo, and all the other things and lessons that have come to me through the practice of their arts. That feeling of a debt that can never be repaid is a considerable part of Ōn 恩.

Just because I can never make full payment on the debt I owe to my teachers and those who went before us doesn’t mean I can’t do anything. I express that gratitude to my teachers and all those who have passed the art on to me. If you spend time in a dojo in Japan, you’ll notice that senior students and the teachers are often the first ones to grab brooms at the end of practice and start sweeping the floor. If you a lucky enough to be able to get to the dojo early before practice, you’re likely to discover the teacher quietly sweeping the floor and cleaning up the dojo for practice. Juniors have to be very early to be lucky enough to get to clean up for keiko. Getting to do it is another way of expressing gratitude for all the things you feel ōn for.

I really do worry about not doing anything to embarrass or cause problems for my teachers. It’s one of the biggest concerns I have with writing posts for this blog. Am I going to say something that causes problems for my teachers? That little editor is always chattering away at the back of my mind. I try to ensure that my behavior will never cause them any concern and certainly make sure I don’t create any messes they will have to clean up.

When I started, being on time to practice, working hard, helping clean up after keiko and not being a jerk were enough. The longer I train, the greater the size of the debt I owe that I will never be able to repay. The more of a sense of ōn I have. Now sweeping the dojo, working hard and not being a jerk don’t seem like nearly enough, but what is?

I accept responsibility. I can show Sensei how much I appreciate what he has shared with me by teaching it to others and making sure that the river of our tradition does not dry up and end with me. I share and I teach and work at growing the art. Some of my teachers are no longer here for me to thank. I teach new students and make sure they know these men and women lived and contributed so much to their being able to learn budo now.

Kodokan Judo is everywhere. I have heard it is the second most popular participant sport in the world, behind football (soccer). Koryu budo are not so widely practiced, nor are they intended to be.  They are intended to continue from generation to generation. I do what I can to make sure the ryuha grow into a new generation, and that the new generation is worthy of the treasure the great teachers have showered upon me.

This much harder than I expected because I want to be a worthy teacher of the lessons I have received. The result is that I put a good deal more consideration into what I’m doing and it takes more effort than I ever expected. Which lessons are right for each student? I know students can’t leap from lesson to lesson. They have to work on and practice and polish each lesson until it enters their muscles and bones. That doesn’t happen with one or two classes. I’ve had to develop a new sort patience while I try to make payments on this debt to my own teachers.

To my surprise, I find a special joy in seeing students grow and develop in budo, and seeing the arts flow into a new generation. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing the growth and development of a student. That’s another debt to my teachers that I will not be able to repay.

Ōn seems like a heavy burden, but it is one that is wonderful carry. How can I not be thankful for this sense of gratitude when it comes from all the wonder filled and amazing things I have received through budo practice? I even appreciate this sense of Ōn.


Wednesday, July 30, 2014

When It Comes To Training, Fast Is Slow And Slow Is Fast

In my last blog I was talking mistakes people make in practicing, and it appears I gave the impression that I think that hard training is always wrong. After rereading what I wrote, I can see how that happened. I spent most of the article talking about the problems with hard training, and only the bit that I repeat below about how to train hard properly.
There is an old saying in martial arts circles that “Fast is slow, and slow is fast.” The most vivid example I’ve seen of this was watching my iaido teacher, Suda Sensei, do kendo with high school students. At the time Suda Sensei was 80 years old. He didn’t have the raw speed or strength or stamina that these 16-18 year old kids did. If all it took was physical speed and strength, they would have blown him right out of the dojo.Instead, he totally dominated them while seeming to move in slow motion when compared to his young opponents. These are not just strong kids either.  A lot of these kids had been doing kendo for 10 years or longer, so they were pretty good technically too.  

Still, they would march out on the floor, and these strong, young guys wouldn’t be able to do anything against him. It wasn’t that Sensei was faster and stronger and crushed them. He was simply always where he should be.  You never saw him take advantage of an opening. That would have required speed.  Instead, his shinai was there filling the spot as the opening came into existence. He was slow, and he moved slowly (at least compared to 18 year high school athletes who train every day). He never rushed and he never hurried. He understood how his partner was moving, and he put his sword  just in the right place at the right time to make a beautiful cut. He didn’t have to hurry. He could move slowly because more importantly than being fast or strong, he knew how to move and where to be and always did it correctly.

You don’t achieve that kind of understanding, control and soft, effortless movement by spending all your time training hard. You get there by training right. Training right means not training any harder than you can while still supporting correct posture, breathing and movement. This is the tricky part. You do need to train as hard as you can while doing everything correctly.  If you are training so hard, and going so fast that you can’t maintain correct posture, correct movement, correct breathing, and correct technique, then you are training too hard.  The biggest problem with this is that you then teach yourself bad posture, poor movement, lousy, shallow breathing, and weak technique.

The trick is to push yourself right up to that edge where everything starts to fall apart, but not fall over it.  It’s easy to go to far, and I still find myself doing it from time to time.  Try as I might to eliminate it, I still have some ego about this stuff, and sometimes it gets the best of me.  I rely on my friends and seniors to help me avoid this, and to stop me when I start crossing the line into bad training.

One of the first keys to training as hard as you can properly, is to start slow. That whole “slow is fast, and fast is slow” thing starts here. If you try to rush your training, you will improve slowly, if at all, because you will be training in bad technique, poor posture, incorrect movement and shallow, inefficient breathing. Start slow, well below your best speed and your highest effective intensity level.  Whatever it is you are practicing, focus and do it perfectly. Then increase the intensity.  Not the strength or the speed. Just the intensity. Increase your focus, blast everything else out of your mind except what you are doing and doing 100%. Gradually increase the speed, but never so much that you lose control.

If you’ve got a partner, controlling this sort of thing is much easier.  It’s one of the reasons that koryu budo ryuha require lower level students to always work with a senior student who will act as the uke for the technique or the kata.  The senior student initiates the interaction and sets the speed and intensity level.  The goal is to always set it just above where the student is comfortable, but below the point where their technique and control fall apart.  That is a pretty narrow range for most us.  I know that my technique starts to break down fairly soon after we move out of my comfort zone.

The goal is to expand that comfort zone. Make you able to handle more and more stress without getting tense, breathing shallow, pulling your shoulders up by your ears and rocking back on your heels. Good teachers and seniors will feel where a training partner is at and adjust the training appropriately.  You want to spend plenty of time training out in that shadowy region where you aren’t comfortable, but you still have enough to control to move properly, maintain good posture, breathe well, and execute good technique.  This is where you will make the most progress.

Each time you train there, you will stretch your comfort zone a little further out, and the point where technique, posture, breathing and movement all fall apart will move a little further out as well.  This isn’t necessarily hard training as we are used to thinking about it.  It is hard though, and it will leave you dripping in sweat from the focus, concentration and control required for training out there in the shadow land between comfort and losing control.  It takes a long time to learn how push yourself far enough but not too far.

I think this is why koryu students seem, in my experience, to make more rapid progress than students of modern arts. It’s not that koryu curriculums are inherently better. The koryu training system is much better though. Beginners and lower level students always train with senior who’s job is to keep them training out past their comfort zone without going too far.  The student doesn’t have to worry about how hard or intensely to train. The senior sets the pace and makes sure the training is fast and hard, but not too fast or too hard. This way the students get the maximum benefit from their time in the dojo.

A problem I see with many modern budo is that people spend a lot of time do repetitions on their own, without enough supervision to make sure what they are doing are high quality repetitions that are training good technique into their muscles. Then the students are encouraged to spar and do randori with people of all levels, without any control as to how hard they are fighting.  Students push themselves too hard, worry about winning (or not losing), and teach themselves bad habits that they will be trying to undo for decades (trust me, I have this little bend at the waist in harai goshi I have been fighting for close to 25 years. And I won’t even mention how quickly I can fall into a bad defensive posture  Arghhh!!).

Don’t rush into training harder than you are ready for.  Also don’t rush into trying to learn techniques and kata before you are ready for them. Doing that does two things. It waters down the amount of time you have to develop each technique because you are chasing too many skills at the same time. On top of that, it makes it more difficult for you body to absorb any of the skills effectively because you are trying to absorb more than you are capable of absorbing. The result is you are studying more stuff, but learning it more slowly.  Fast is slow and slow is fast.  

Learn the most basic things really solidly before you add more stuff to it. I know well the desire to learn the advanced techniques. The secret is that there are no advanced techniques. There are only the basics applied so well that they seem advanced. Sensei Hiroshi Ikeda once said that “We teach all the secrets of Aikido in the first class.” It’s true. On the first day you learn about relaxing, moving properly and breathing. Learn the basics well and all your techniques will look like magic. I was at a seminar where Howard Popkin kept doing impossible things to me. He did no advanced techniques, nothing complicated. He did very basic techniques and applications so smoothly and effectively they felt like magic. And you know what? Even those of us doing them for the very first time could do the techniques effectively when we slowed down so we could do the movements properly. The moment we tried to speed things up though, everything fell apart. There is no way to learn the good stuff by rushing. You have to slow down and do it right. Fast is slow and slow is fast.

Learn good, powerful budo.  Learn techniques that are so smooth and effective people accuse of you doing magic and tell you they can’t imagine being able to do what you do.  Master your body and your technique so fully that you fill every opening you partner gives you before it has opened. Be so relaxed and move so slowly while completely dominating your opponents that people watching can’t understand how you do it.  The fastest way to get there is to slow down and go no faster than you can do the technique correctly.  Fast is slow and slow is fast.