Showing posts with label student. Show all posts
Showing posts with label student. Show all posts

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

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Joy Of Being A Student



I attended a marvelous seminar over the weekend.  I’m not always a fan of seminars, but this was fabulous. There were two high level teachers, and nothing was required of me but that I be a willing student open to learning.  It is a role I don’t get to play as often as I would like.  I’ve been doing budo long enough that more often than not, I’m one of the senior people in the dojo.  I spend more time teaching students than I do as a student.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. I just happen to love learning even more. The longer I do budo though, the opportunities to be a pure student become more and more rare.  This annual seminar in Guelph is one of the best for me. The seminar was led by to two 8th dans from Japan.

The students were divided into two groups by rank. Those of us who hold higher ranks for North America (nothing exceptionally high in Japan) were training together. Nobody had to do anything but try and understand the level Morimoto Shihan was attempting to pull us up to.

I trained with people of similar skill, and with whom I shared the joy of trying to figure out the subtleties of Morimoto Shihan’s technique.  All of us are fairly experienced at Kendo Federation jodo, but he kept doing things that we could hardly imagine. Little motions with the jo that made the sword go whipping out of our hands with maki otoshi, or slight adjustments of the striking point in hiki otoshi uchi.

I love trying to work out what a teacher is doing. Just focus on the problem and go after it without any other worries. Being able to go into training and just open myself up for whatever the teacher has to offer. There is a term in Japanese that describes the ideal state of mind for a learner, shoshinsha 初心者。It’s a wonderfully descriptive term that is often translated as “beginner’s mind.”  The characters for “mind” and “person,” kokoro and mono 者、 are pretty straightforward. “Sho”  is a little more unusual. It’s the same character as in shodan 初段, which is usually incorrectly translated as “1st degree black belt.” In shodan, the “sho” is more like “beginning” as is “beginning step.”  In shoshinsha, the feeling is even more subtle.  It’s not just beginner, but it strongly harkens to the meaning of as a stand alone word, when it is read as “ubu” and has connotations of “artless; innocent; naive; unsophisticated.”

I wish I could always suspend my preconceptions and my prior learning and my ego so I could stand before any teacher as an artless, innocent, unsophisticated student absorbing the lesson without first filtering it through my preconceptions.. All too many times I drag all my preconceptions about what an art is and how it should be practiced with me.  I assume that my experience means that I know something of value, and my ego insists on putting its spin on everything. My ego wants to make everything complex and sophisticated.

It’s so much better when I can let go of my ego and be a beginner again. Morimoto Shihan is so much better than I that my ego looked around and said “I’ve got nothing to offer here. Call me when you’re dealing with someone who’s down in our league.” With my ego checked out, I could relax and make any mistakes I could find to make and not feel the least bit ashamed.  I completely blew the transition in one kata, and it didn’t bother me at all. I just thought “Wow, he is really smooth. I’m going to need a lot more practice to be able to keep up with him.” None of the usual excuses or rationalizations came flying to the front of my mind. It was perfectly clear to me and my ego that I was completely outclassed and that what training with Morimoto Shihan calls for is a whole lot more practice on my part.

In my college judo days our club motto was “Mada heta desuまだ下手です, or“still inept” as we liked to translate it. At this seminar I could say I am “mada heta desu” without any self-consciousness and without any false humility.  This was a wonderful and freeing feeling. I could see how little I know, and how far I have to go before I can start to believe I know anything about this art I claim to study.


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


As we progress along the path of budo, we pick up ideas, knowledge and habits. Budo is a journey down a path that extends further than we can travel in a lifetime. There are endless discoveries to be made. The irony is that more we “learn” and the more we “know” the slower our progress becomes. The more “knowledge” and “skill” we accumulate, the heavier the pack of our learning becomes. The more we are burdened by what we already know, the more difficult it becomes to move forward, the easier it becomes to be satisfied with wherever we are along the path.

The tragedy of this is, if we can just let go of what we already know, we can move forward along the path of budo very quickly. Letting go of what we already know requires uncurling our grasp upon hard earned gems of knowledge, skill and understanding. Having reached one level in jodo, it’s been difficult for me to recognize that the skills, techniques and understanding that have gotten me this far will not get me to the next level. The ranking system in Japan is not based on degrees of black belt, though even the Japanese will ask if you have a kuro obi or “black belt.” It’s based on the idea of steps, and the steps seem to have been borrowed from the ten steps on the Bodhisattva path in Buddhism.  The first step is just the starting step, the shodan 初段。

The final stage, the tenth step, is perfection in the path. To be a tenth dan implies perfection. That no one can be perfect is the reason the major budo organizations in Japan rarely (or never in some cases) award a tenth dan. No one is perfect. If we can’t let go of the learning and skills we’ve acquired, there is no way to move beyond our current level.  Invariably, whatever it has taken to get to my current level, will act as a dead weight holding me back from getting to the next level until I let go of it, let go of what I “know.”
 
Buddhism makes that point that our attachments are the cause of our suffering. Budo has taught me that our attachments are also the cause of our inability to improve and advance. Any time I become attached to a technique, a way of doing something, or a way of conceptualizing a principle, I stop progressing. It’s only when I look at something and wonder “What’s a better way of doing this?” that I start moving forward again. Just because what I am doing works better than my students technique, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a method superior to the one I’m using.

That can be a tough pill to swallow. My ego really seems to believe my technique is already fabulous. When I start listening to my ego, I find it difficult to hear more reasoned, more experienced voices that could teach me something. If find it difficult to hear my teachers telling me what I need to do to improve, when I’m busying listening to me ego tell me how great I am.

A more useful outlook than dwelling on what we “know” is those t-shirts from my judo club days at Western Michigan University that say まだへたです mada heta desu. “Still inept.” No matter how good you are, there is always something more to learn. I try to remember that and ignore my ego so I can return to that wonderful state of being a clean slate for whatever the teachers have to share with me.

I find that when I can keep in mind that I’m “still inept” and just learn from the teachers without letting my ego talk, training is a joyous experience filled with discovery. Purely being a student, open to everything and making new discoveries with nearly every step is as wonderful an experience as any I can think of. I’m grateful to Morimoto Shihan and Tsubaki Shihan for a wonderful weekend of learning and discovery.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Who Is Your Teacher?

 
Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

Who is your Teacher? Is she a friend? Is he a mentor? A capable guide? A hired hand whose job is to teach you techniques you’re paying for?  An athletic trainer? A mystic? A sports coach? A philosopher? A drill sergeant?

Budo teachers come in a lot of shapes and sizes, styles and roles. It doesn’t matter what title we use for them; teacher, sensei, sifu, coach, or simply Ma’am or Sir.  The exact title isn’t the important thing. The important thing is what they do and who they are.

What a teacher does seems pretty straightforward. They instruct us in the techniques of our art. At first they teach us the basic stances and then the movements and techniques that make up our particular style of budo. They train us and drill us in the exercises that will polish and help us master our martial art. What makes a great teacher though? Not just the person who leads the beginners class, but the teacher who inspires and supports us and becomes a model of the kind of martial artist and person we want to become. What makes a Teacher?

From a purely technical standpoint, especially early on in practice, what we really need are coaches with a touch of drill sergeant in them.  And a bit of saintly patience if you are the poor soul trying to teach me anything subtle for the first time. Beginners’ classes tend to share a lot of similarities across arts. They have a narrow focus on a few fundamental building blocks of the art.  Whether the art is primarily about throwing or striking or locking or weapons, the beginners’ class spends their time on the basic movements that you have to know cold and then know so well you forget that you know them.

Teachers for these beginners classes have to drill the same things over and over and over until you’d swear they would go crazy with boredom.  Somehow the good ones never do. The good teachers are patient coaches and drill sergeants pushing us, sometimes dragging kicking and screaming, towards the goal of absorbing the fundamentals so deeply into our muscles and bones that we can forget that we know them, forget that they are even there so we can learn the techniques that are built upon them.

I’ve had a number of teachers who were great at this.  Kiyama Sensei excels at being a patient drill sergeant. He will take a bokken and stand at the front of the dojo, yelling “Mo ichi do!” and banging the end of the bokken on the floor to indicate when to start. He stands there, 90 years old and with still perfect posture, watching us practice with a focus even sharper than his sword. After an hour or two of driven practice under this intense gaze, you’re wrung out, dripping from exertion, and quietly thrilled to have absorbed another practice with him.

Great teachers aren’t just coaches and drill sergeant. Kiyama Sensei always seems happy and eager to run a practice, whether he is drilling a group of beginners in the fundamentals, or working with a high ranking student that he’s trying to lead to discovering subtle understanding of the myou 妙, the mysteries of the art. The really great teachers are able to adjust what they are doing, and shift their presence from that of an implacable drillmaster to a guide leading you along nearly undetectable forest paths.

The really high art doesn’t start until we’ve soaked our bones in the essence of the budo we study so that we express the fundamentals without thinking about them, and even when we are actively distracted from them. Our teacher then needs a very different approach from the one that marinated us in the fundamentals. Now we need a teacher who can guide us towards the delicate mastery that looks like magic to beginners. This takes a different sort of patience.

It also takes a teacher who doesn’t feel threatened when a student begins to understand their art at a deep level and begins to shift from being a student of the teacher to a colleague. I’ve seen a lot of people who couldn’t handle that transition. Teachers with insecure egos or hang-ups about control seem to feel threatened when their students begin to approach same level that they are on. Sadly, seeing a technically excellent teacher whose ego can’t handle having anyone close to his level around is not uncommon.  There are plenty of dojo where there always seems to be significant gap between the senior student’s level and the teacher.


Fine Budo Equipment from Mugento Budogu LLC


Great teachers relish having someone grow from being simply a student of the basics into colleague they explore ever deeper and more subtle aspects of the art with. Just as in any academic field, great budo teachers are thrilled when students surpass them. Only poor fools are jealous and upset when a student surpasses them. One of a teacher’s responsibilities is to pass on their art to a new generation. It is a lucky teacher who inspires a student to discover more in the art than the teacher knows.

As we spend more time in budo, our teachers become our friends. In something like budo, that we will can study and grow in for 50, 60, 70 years and more, I sincerely hope that we become friends with our teachers. We’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. Great teachers are comfortable with shifting relationships and shifting roles. They can be the teacher in the dojo, and a friend at dinner. I’ve written about the trust we develop with the people we train with, and that is even more true for our teachers.  Great teachers don’t take that trust and build themselves a pedestal to stand on. They return it, sharing their discoveries and their missteps along the journey we share in budo.

Early in my budo journey I had a teacher admonish me not to put him, or any teacher on a pedestal. He seems to have known himself well, as he was an excellent teacher for me in that moment, but he knew how tragically flawed he was. As we mature along the way, we sometimes have to learn that not all of our teachers are great. Some of them we surpass as human beings very quickly.  The great teachers may become our friends and colleagues along the Way, but they remain teachers and inspirations.

Budo is not just about the techniques of the art we study. Budo is about how we approach and deal with the world we encounter while walking life’s path. Great teachers are great not just in the dojo. Takada Sensei had incredible iai. He also had a wonderful joy in life, and respectful manner for everyone that I someday hope to emulate. Kiyama Sensei’s budo is awe inspiring in its power and ferocity, but his mastery means that most people think he is a sweet, gentle grandfather. He doesn’t have to show off his budo to anyone. You can always see it if you know what to look for. His posture is so perfect I’m embarrassed by my own even while typing this. Sensei’s focus and control never leave. Nor does the respect he gives everyone, from the 5 year old beginning kendo student to the most senior instructors and ranking swordsmen.

I don’t think there is room in most people’s lives for a lot of Teachers. I’m lucky that I have known several, and have a  couple that I can call “my Teacher.” They don’t come along often. If you find one, cherish them. The greatest honor and award I’ve received in my budo career is when they tell someone that I am their student. No rank will ever mean as much to me.

Who is your Teacher? Is she your coach? Your drill sergeant? Your guide? Your fellow explorer along the Way? Your friend? All of these and more? If not, you haven’t found your teacher yet.  Keep looking. She’s out there.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Student Responsibility



The responsibilities of teachers gets a lot of discussion, but I rarely see anything about the responsibilities of students.  As adult students of the martial arts, what are we responsible for?   Are we as students responsible for something more than showing up, being respectful and doing what is taught in class?  
   
    Yes, we are. Students’ first responsibilities start the moment they walk into the dojo.  They are responsible for being aware and paying attention to what the dojo is like. What is the atmosphere in the dojo?  How does the teacher treat the students?  Does he treat them with respect and dignity?  Or does he belittle and demean them?  Does he yell at them?  How do the students treat the teacher?  Is he treated with respect, or is he treated like some sort of princeling, with students groveling and debasing themselves before him?   Do the students seem afraid of the teacher?  Does the teacher seem to take advantage of his position?

    Being aware of things like this and checking on them are part of our responsibility even before the we join the dojo and become students..  These are things we should be looking at when evaluating whether or not to become a student somewhere.  When you join a dojo and begin studying, you will learn not just the physical techniques that are being taught, you will also learn from the way people interact with each other.  Do you want to learn how to be disrespected, verbally and possibly physically abused?  Do you want to learn how to stand and absorb yelling?  To learn how to accept being demeaned and belittled?  You are responsible for what you are learning.  If it looks like this is part of what is being taught, your responsible for making the decision to not attend classes where abuse is part of the lesson.

We, as students, are responsible for ourselves.  Teachers and sempai have responsibilities, but the ultimate responsibility for what we learn resides with us.  We have to go in with our eyes open and our minds alert.  This remains true after we’ve found a teacher and school that we feel we can trust.  Students’ responsibilities don’t end just because they found someone they are comfortable learning from, can respect and who offers them respect in return.

I was in the Judo dojo on Tuesday, my first practice after being away for several weeks because I’d been traveling in Japan (practicing other stuff) and then I was sick.  As a student there, I’m responsible for being aware when I’m sick and contagious and not exposing the teacher and my fellow students to whatever crud I’ve got.  I stayed away for a week until I was better.  I wasn’t 100% yet though, and it was my responsibility to be aware of my condition and adjust my training appropriately.   I knew I didn’t have my usual stamina or strength that night.  In one way, this was a great training opportunity for me, because when we did some newaza drills, I had to do them correctly.  I didn’t have the strength or stamina to muscle my way through the practice with weak technique and a lot of muscle.  In the other direction, I had to be aware of my physical limits and know to say “enough” if I got too close to those limits.

Towards the end of the evening we did some newaza randori, and I got through that without getting too winded or worn out.  A little later though, we started some standing randori sets.  When Sensei offered one set to me, I passed on the chance. I could have gotten out there and mixed it up with some of the strong young guys, but I didn’t.  Not because I didn’t want to; I love randori.  There is little in life that has the intensity, immediacy and complete mental and physical involvement of judo randori.  I’m first in line, though, to be responsible for my safety and my training partner’s safety.  I knew that without adequate stamina, I wasn’t physically strong enough to safely work with my partner.  If I can’t count on my own strength, I can’t protect myself or my partner.  Randori is high speed, high intensity, free fighting.  If I get tired and make a mistake because of exhaustion at a critical moment, I can easily get hurt.  I’ve seen it happen to people in the past.  They push themselves too far, and when they need to protect themselves with a good fall or a quick reaction, they are too tired to do the technique properly, and they end up with an injury.  This hurts their partner too.

Every person training should feel some responsibility for their partner’s well being.  I know that I do, and on the couple of occasions my partner has been injured, I have felt horrible that it happened.  Afterward I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I could have done to prevent the injury.   The partner of nearly every person I have seen injured during practice has felt the same way.  We are working together, so part of my responsibility is to see that you don’t get hurt.  The few times I have run into people who truly don’t care about their partners, I’ve stopped working with them.  The only time I ever saw my first judo teacher truly furious was when a guy was condescending and uncaring towards a partner’s well-being.  That guy didn’t stick around very long.  One of the fundamental principles of Kodokan Judo is “Jita Kyoei” 自他共栄 or “mutual benefit and welfare.”  If someone can’t be bothered to concern themselves with his partner’s well-being, I don’t want them training with me or anyone I care about.  My teacher at the time felt the same way, and let this guy know it.  The guy couldn’t be bothered to care, and ended up leaving instead.  

We train together and we have to take care of each other.  If for any reason you aren’t certain you can train safely, it’s your responsibility to stop.  Any responsible teacher will respect that decision.  

Students are responsible for the dojo. Yes, the teacher leads.  We often say that it is “Sensei’s dojo,” but without students, there is no dojo; there’s just a guy in the corner practicing by himself.  In any good dojo I’ve been in, whether in Japan or the United States or Europe, the students have taken a lot of responsibility for the dojo. It’s their place and their practice as much as the teacher’s.  As a student,  before and after practice I run to make sure I get to a broom Sensei does.  We make sure the dojo is a safe, clean place to train.  This means a few minutes of care before and after practice, and keeping an eye out for things that could go wrong during practice.  Everyone is responsible for making sure there is nothing out of place in the dojo.  A belt or a bokken in the wrong place can trip someone doing paired practice and have all sorts of unhappy consequences.  We students are responsible for keeping an eye open for things out of place.

I also help make sure new people in the dojo understand the etiquette and expectations of our dojo.  As part of the dojo, as a member of the dojo, I’m partly responsible for the atmosphere in the dojo.  I’m one of the people whose job it is to make sure people don’t do anything that could be dangerous. Nearly every time I’ve had to say something to someone, they’ve apologized and thanked me for telling them they were doing something potentially dangerous.  People, including me, don’t always realize we’re about to be in the way.  A polite, respectful word of safety is part of everyone’s responsibility.

We students are responsible for our training, for what we learn and for how well we learn.  This is a tough one, and comes back around to the first part.  We are responsible for choosing our teachers and the group we will train with.  We remain responsible for our training every second after that as well.  As my high school English teacher used to say “I can lay out the banquet for you, but I can’t force you to eat it.”  She was talking about the beauty and wonder of English literature, but it’s just the same with budo.  

My teachers have all sorts of wonderful things to offer me.  It’s up to me to study what they offer, practice it, and internalize the lessons so they are a part of me.   The first thing this means is that practice doesn’t end when class does.  It is my responsibility to think about, study and practice the lessons outside of class.  Even in Judo, which is all about working with a partner, there are plenty of things for me to practice and study outside class.  I can work on individual movements.  I can read books about applying techniques and about the principles of Judo.  Today, unlike the dark ages when I started training, there are millions of videos of good martial arts available for free, 24 hours-a-day on Youtube.  For any popular martial art, and a surprising number of very small ones, the biggest problem a student has who wants to study something on video is wading through the bad budo videos to find the good ones.  There are plenty of great videos of Judo, Karate, Aikido, Iaido, Jodo, Kendo, Jujutsu, and nearly any other art you’re interested in.  If obscure koryu budo is your thing, you’re still in luck.  Go check out Gudkarma’s Youtube channel and you’ll find stuff on obscure arts you didn’t know existed.

There are plenty of books on budo out there too.  There is a lot of really bad misinformation around, but it’s still our responsibility to educate ourselves about our art.  If Sensei recommends a book, that’s a clear sign that we should read it.  The book might help us put things that we do in class in perspective.  It might teach us something of the history of our art or maybe help us figure out techniques on our own.  Sensei can’t do it for us.  We have have to read the book and find out.  It’s also our responsibility to read more than just the stuff our teachers recommend.  There are lots of good books out there.  If you’re not sure, ask Sensei and other students.  They might even be able to loan you a few books.  I know my wife would be thrilled to have me loan out two or three hundred books and not be able to get them back.  Read.  Learn.  Get some additional perspective on your training.  Additional perspective and information will help you ask better questions during class.  

As a student, it’s my responsibility to learn.  Sensei teaches stuff; he puts it out there, but I have to learn what he’s offering.  I have to go home and practice.  I have to work at what I’m studying.  If I go to class and I haven’t practiced during the week, Sensei can see that.  It’s my responsibility.  If this is important enough for me to show up to class regularly, it’s important enough for me to take some time and practice at home.  Whether using the sword or the jo or tying a belt to a post so you can practice throws or whatever point that needs work, it’s the student’s responsibility to work on it.  My big thing right now is engaging my koshi.  Kiyama Sensei says I’m not using my koshi as effectively as I should be at my level.  So that’s what I’m working on.  I know I look silly when I’m practicing, because it’s just me slowly moving across the basement focusing on keeping my koshi under my shoulders.  Sometimes I’m doing it from my knees.  Sometimes I’m standing up.  This is what I work on.  Sensei fulfilled his responsibility.  He identified my biggest weakness for me and told me what I need to do.  After that, all of the responsibility is mine.

If my problem is a lack of stamina or upper body strength, you’ll see me in a gym working on that.  I mention those, because they have both been issues for me in the past.  If a student recognizes a weakness, her job is to start correcting it.  Sometimes a teacher or senior student will alert us to a point that needs special attention.  Sometimes we can identify those on our own.  Either way, our responsibility is to give those points attention and make the improvements ourselves.  That way, when we go to class, Sensei can teach us something new instead of repeating herself for the 900th time.  

Our training is our responsibility, not our teachers’.  We are responsible for choosing our teachers and fellow students wisely.  Once we’ve done that though, our responsibility doesn’t end.  We are still responsible for the dojo, the safety of ourselves and our fellow students, and what we learn.  That means that we help in the dojo, we watch out for each other, and when class is over, we go home and work on our weak points.  We don’t stop learning because someone said “Class is over.  Have a good night.”  That’s when the real learning begins.  Don’t abandon your responsibility for yourself and your learning.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Is Martial Arts Rank?

I got involved in the another discussion about the real importance and value of rank again.  This conversation has been around since at least Kano Shihan establishing the now popular system using black belts and ten steps of rank (known as dan 段 in Japanese).  You’d think I’d be over this discussion, but I can’t seem to let it go by without taking another whack at it.  I’m sure there were huge discussions within the Kodokan, because the rank system there evolved over several decades before it was finally settled in the form we are all familiar with.   


The question of what does a particular rank mean can be an interesting one.  People are constantly asking “ What is a black belt?" and “What does rank really mean?”  These questions need to be looked at in connection with a couple of other questions.  Those are “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”  


In the world of classical Japanese martial arts, the koryu bugei, these questions don’t seem to exist.  It might be because people are not evaluated in comparison to each other’s level of attainment.  They only give scrolls that correspond with the portion of the system you have learned, and teaching licenses that lay out what you are qualified to teach.  This only leaves one question to ask if you are talking to a possible teacher, and one to ask anyone you are training with.  The question for possible teachers is “Are you licensed to teach?” and the question for training partners is “Can you do this technique or kata?”   


For me, part of the issue is that I’ve been in the iaido and koryu worlds for a long time.  I started in judo, and I still train, but I spend a lot of time in other arts.. The Kendo Federation (where I got my iai and jo dan ranks) has ranks, but there are no symbols of rank. Everyone in the room dresses alike, from the guy who just started, to the 8th dan who's been at it for 80+ years. The koryu dojo I'm in are even less about the ranks and such. Yeah, you get some paper sometimes, maybe a license, but that's pretty much it. There are even fewer signs of rank there than in the Kendo Federation. The fascination with belt colors is only in judo and karate systems, and something that is big outside Japan. In Japan, you get a black belt comparatively quickly, and all it tells people is that you are a real member of the club who can take the ukemi.


This leads back to the initial questions: “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”  These seem obvious.  A sensei is someone who teaches, and a student is someone who learns.  Those answers work fine in a standard school classroom setting where most questions have right and wrong answers, the kids sit in the desks and the teacher stands in front of the white board.  They don’t work so well in dojo where everyone mixes, the teacher might be in his 30s or 40s and the students are anywhere from 9 years old to 91, and even the teacher is working to improve her understanding of the art.


The student’s role seems straightforward.  The student is there to learn the art.  To do that, that the student is responsible for showing up healthy and ready to learn, with a good attitude.  The student is responsible for herself.  That was quick and easy to write, but it’s not very satisfying.  Showing up healthy is pretty simple.  Budo is practiced in close contact with other folks, so please take responsibility for yourself and don’t expose your training friends to every illness you get.  Stay on the sidelines when you’re sick.  This might not be a complete answer, but what is a sensei needs to be considered before we can go any further.


So what is a sensei, and what is she responsible for?  I’ll start by disappointing everyone who wants to break down the Japanese word 先生 and define it by it’s parts.  We don’t understand the modern meanings of English words because their original German, Greek or Latin roots meant something a thousand or two thousand years ago.  We define them based on how they are used today, and the same goes for Japanese.  In Japanese today, ”sensei” is used to address a teacher, doctor, lawyer, politician or other important person.  Most commonly, it just means teacher.  Nothing more.  It has no fancy, special, abstract or mystical meanings.  It just means teacher.  The word doesn’t help us.


In a budo dojo though, the sensei doesn’t do a lot of classical talk and chalk teaching.  Keiko in a budo dojo is a different situation from teaching an academic subject in a classroom, with different concerns, conditions and goals.  The teacher has responsibilities to the students and to the art she is teaching.  I’m partial to the modern version of koryu budo instruction rather than the military style instruction that became popular in Japanese and Okinawan during the 1930s and 1940s in militarist Japan, and which continued and was spread worldwide afterwards in gendai budo like karate.  Koryu is generally done in smaller groups, with more personal instruction and less regimentation.  This reflects what sensei is responsible for.


Sensei is responsible for students’ having a safe training environment, that should go without saying, but it doesn’t, so I say it often.  This is koryu bugei, and one significant difference I’ve found between koryu bugei thought and practice and nearly every other teaching situation I’ve seen is that in koryu bugei the sensei has no responsibility for making sure students learn anything.  Sensei is responsible for making sure students can learn if they make the effort.  If someone doesn't make any effort and doesn’t learn anything, that’s the student’s issue.


In both koryu bugei and gendai bugei, the sensei is not only responsible for teaching the student.  The budo sensei is responsible for the art as well.  They are responsible for passing on the entirety of their art to the next generation.  They are not responsible for popularizing the art and teaching to as many people as possible.  In fact, many senior members of koryu bugei systems  view trying to spread an art as being an abdication of their responsibility to the art.  Trying to spread an art quickly risks having poorly or incompletely trained people teaching and not doing a good job of teaching, and worse, corrupting the art because they don’t understand it well enough.


The lessons of any good budo system, koryu or gendai, are far more complex, and deeper than just the movements.  In addition to the physical movements there are strategies and tactics for controlling the spacing between you and your opponent.  There are techniques and concepts for controlling yourself and your mind.  Most of a budo system is beyond the physical movements, and these are the real heart of a system.  WIthout a proper understanding of these aspects, an art cannot truly be taught or learned.  The sensei’s responsibility to the ryuha includes making sure that only students with an adequate understanding of all parts of the system are teaching.  It is better to remain small and obscure and pass along the entire system than to grow into a huge, globe straddling organization that is teaching only the merest shadow of the original art.  The teacher’s responsibility to the art is greater than to any individual student.


Interestingly, it’s strange how quickly most students begin to see and understand this. The art, the system dates back generations, particularly for koryu bugei ryuha which can be more than 500 years old, but even Kodokan Judo, the exemplar of gendai budo, is over 130 years old.  The ryuha (system, school, art) has it’s own priorities and requirements and benefits. These outweigh the needs of individual students.  As students develop an understanding of the deeper nature of the ryuha’s teachings, they also understand that the ryuha will continue long after them, and that their responsibility is to learn the system to the fullest of their ability so that those who train with them and follow them will get the full system and none of it will be lost or corrupted.  


Students who begin to understand this, also begin to see and take on responsibility for maintaining the system.  Mastering the art is no longer just about gaining personal skill.  It becomes about being part of a larger structure that stretches back into history, and pushes on into the future.  As students move from beginners to experienced students to teachers licensed to teach a portion of the system and occasionally become licensed to teach the entire system, their rank isn’t about status.  It’s about responsibility.  The higher your rank, the more responsibility you have to the system.  Students who are only interested in learning the system for themselves and who don’t take responsibility for the system should be, and usually are, slowly frozen out of the school, and sometimes even simply expelled.


This is the way it should be.  As I’ve been reading more about the early days of the Kodokan and the new rank system that Jigoro Kano Shihan implemented, and it’s evolution, it becomes clear that in the early Kodokan, rank, at least at the early to middle levels, was strictly about how well you could fight.  Students were promoted when they defeated 4 people of the same rank, instead of based on how well they knew the whole of Kodokan Judo.  I suspect that this caused a not so subtle twisting of priorities amongst the growing membership of the Kodokan.  We can see the effects today in the way the International Judo Federation values competition above all else, and downplays or ignores the other 90 percent of the Kodokan syllabus.  What has happened is that in many modern budo, rank has simply become a symbol of competitive accomplishment and not a reflection of system mastery or responsibility.


This leaves me with the sad reflection that we have two different answers to the question of rank.  The first is what should rank mean?  It should be a reflection of student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it.  The second question is what does rank actually mean?  In koryu bugei, rank is still a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it.  In gendai budo sometimes rank is a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it, and sometimes it is a recognition of the student’s competitive accomplishments.  Figuring out which is which usually isn’t too difficult.