Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why the fascination with Zen Buddhism and Budo?

I am frequently told, by people who don't practice Zen Buddhism, that there is a special relationship between Zen and Budo. The more I look at it, the less sense this makes, because I can't find any particular characteristic of Zen Buddhism that is not present in other branches of Buddhism. Can someone please tell me what is unique about Zen Buddhism that would indicate it has a special relationship with Budo?

The goals of Zen Buddhism and all the other branches of Buddhism are ultimately the same, that's why they are all forms of Buddhism. The tools they use to get there are different, but they all strive for compassion, mindfulness and an escape from the cycle of rebirth. Zen uses primarily seated meditation, other forms of Buddhism meditate on mandala, or chant sutras, or use a combination of all of these techniques. With all the forms of Buddhism that have been practiced across Japan, what makes people think that only one branch of Buddhism had significant impact on something as organic and disorganized as Budo?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Kashima Gasshuku

I had a wonderful 3 days of training in Shinto Muso Ryu at the gasshuku held by Kaminoda Tsunemori Sensei at the Kashima Shinbuden Dojo in Kashima, Japan. The Shinbuden is a public dojo in Kashima near the Kashima Shrine. It is one of the major shrines in Japan related to the martial arts. The shrine and the Shinbuden are beautiful.

Kaminoda Sensei covered a lot of ground in the 3 days I was at the gasshuku. The training itself was wonderful, and continued for 3 days after I had to leave. The highlight of the gasshuku is always a Hono Enbu held at the dojo on the grounds of Kashima Shrine. Everyone participates, and we get to see excellent demonstrations by Kaminoda Sensei and his top students. This year was no exception.

There were demonstrations of Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu, Isshin Ryu Kusarigama, Ikkaku Ryu Jutte, and Uchida Ryu Tanjo, in addition to many, many demonstrations of Shinto Muso Ryu. This isn’t very interesting to anyone who wasn’t there, but it was really cool to be there.

After the enbu, we paid a visit to the grave of Tsukahara Bokuden, one of the great founders of kenjutsu in Japan. He is remembered as the founder of Kashima Shinto Ryu and a brilliant swordsman. It’s always kind of amazing to that we can connect this way with such a legendary figure.

The training which surrounded the enbu was wonderful. With many shihan available to give instruction, and with a deep pool of senior students to practice with, the training was wonderful. Everyone was doing the same kata together, but each training partner brought individual differences in size and strength, reach and height, timing and maai. All together they made a wonderful stew of training.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Practice. This is the single most important attribute for becoming good at budo. It doesn’t matter how talented you are. It doesn’t matter how nature gifted you with strength and speed. Without regular, ongoing practice, you won’t be good. Period.

This means getting out and practicing regularly, whether you have a partner or not. It means studying your art. Martial arts are learned through the conscious repetition of fundamentals. It takes a lot of dedication to repeat fundamental drills over and over again, but that’s where progress is made. Deep in the fundamentals.

There is a basic technique in Shinto Muso Ryu called Hikiotoshi Uchi. I may be a slow learner, but I keep learning new things about the technique. I also unlearn things about it very fast. I keep practicing it and discovering new things about the technique, but if I go for a while without practicing for some reason (most likely work), then my technique gets weak and sloppy. Without regular practice, I’m no good. No one is.

This should be obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be. A lot of people have a vision of being a great martial artist. The truth is, being a martial artist is mostly the potentially boring repetition of basic exercises on a regular schedule. I say “potentially boring” because one of the keys to maintaining that regular schedule is to always be looking deeper into your technique to see what needs to be improved. This involves doing a lot of repetitions of basic techniques, which can get boring fast if you only think about it as repeating the basic techniques.

If you are really learning and improving, you should never repeat the same technique. On the theory that no one is ever perfect, each repetition has to be an attempt at perfect technique, and hopefully, every repetition is better than the previous one in some way. I wish mine were like this. Instead the quality of techniques goes up and down on a day to day basis, so I have to aim for general improvement over time, so that what was good last week will qualify as poor next year. Thankfully, there is always room for improvement. Even my teachers keep practicing, although they are so much further up them mountain than I am that I can’t see what they are working on.

This is why bujutsu practice is budo. We are always working on polishing our techniques, and in the process, we should be polishing ourselves as well. We keep practicing, and we keep aiming at perfection, even if we know we’ll never hit it. Hopefully, with a little practice, tomorrow I’ll be a little closer to the target than I was today.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Mindful practice

Kata practice in koryu is tough. Even knowing exactly what your partner will do doesn’t make it easy. Unfortunately, you don’t know precisely when or how fast or how hard or how committed your partner will be when they do the next technique in the kata. Working with a good partner who controls and varies their speed, timing strength and commitment are what bring the two-man kata of koryu bugei alive. A great deal is said about mushin, or “no-mind” as a goal in the martial arts. In order to bring kata alive as above, I think mindful training is critical.

Mushin has been described well by better martial artists and writers then I. It’s a mental state that is a goal of training. What I don’t think I’ve seen enough of is a discussion of the mental state during training. It’s good to know that the goal of training is to achieve the lofty state of mushin, but with what sort of mental state, with what mind-set should we approach training? Most of us, myself included, need more mind in our training, not less.

We need more mindfulness in our training. By this I don’t mean we need to be thinking about all the nuances and possibilities of what we are doing while we are doing it. That’s what the beer session after keiko is for. What I’m talking about is more like the zanshin that one is supposed to show at the end of kata, after the action is concluded but before the kata is officially over. In iaido, we’re always watching to make sure students don’t drop their focus after the last cut, and just saunter through the chiburi, noto, and return to the starting point. This remaining focused on the situation at hand, without letting outside thoughts or distractions move your focus is the mindfulness I’m looking for throughout practice.

It’s a lot easier to grab a students attention in jodo practice and keep them mindful through a whole kata than it is in iaido. All you have to do is change up the timing a little bit when their attention wanders and nearly hit them. Some students, like me, are stubborn about being stupid, and we actually get hit. That surprise when the senior partner comes through your defenses because you were giving him less than 100% of your attention is usually enough to keep you focused until the end of practice. The trick is to have this focus from the start of practice and to not lose it.

When I think of mindfulness, it’s not that one is full of their own mind, but rather one’s mind is full of one thing. That one thing is whatever you’re doing. In koryu bugei training, that one thing is almost always a kata. Focusing on a kata, filling your mind only with the immediate action of the kata is a lot tougher than you would think. Especially considering that the sadistic old men I train with seem to like nothing better than whacking you if your attention wanders and leaves an opening for them. With that kind of motivation, it should be easy to practice mindfully. For some reason, even with the threat of yet another whacking, it’s still difficult to stay focused on just the immediate instant.

One of the dangers of kata practice is that it can become rote. After all, everybody involved knows what’s going to happen next, and after that, and after that until the end of the kata. How much attention does it require to dance through the steps of the kata when everyone knows what those steps are? It doesn’t take much attention at all to dance through the steps of a kata. It can be done while planning dinner and a corporate takeover. To do it right though requires nothing less than your whole mind.

If your partner is good, you can’t have even one corner of your mind off thinking about dinner plans. There is a reason that in koryu bugei the senior partner is always on the losing side. That’s the teaching side. The senior’s job is to control the speed, timing, intensity and other variables of the kata so junior can learn as much as possible and stretch themselves to new levels. When the senior is good, they don’t leave any room for the junior to be anything but mindful.

Mindfulness is another one of those things in any way that can be carried out of practice and into life. The tea ceremony folks are probably the best at bringing mindfulness to ordinary life, because their training is focused on an ordinary activity. They have to learn mindfulness without the threat of getting hit with a big wooden stick. In budo practice, if we are lucky, we have the advantage and disadvantage of training with someone who will hit us if we aren’t mindful. This is useful because it can teach good focus very quickly. I’ve noticed though, that this focus can be very particular, showing up only when someone is liable to be hit, and absent the rest of the time.

Mindfulness shouldn’t require the threat of getting hit to achieve. One of the goals of training is to be able to discipline the mind to mindfulness at any time, regardless of the activity, the location, or the presence of a partner with a big stick. Watch any good budoka, and they show mindfulness from the moment they start in the dojo, not from the moment kata starts. Being mindful throughout practice at the dojo should be practice for being mindful all the time. Great budoka exude this focus all the time, inside and outside the dojo.

Mindfulness is not something that is just for the dojo. It is a skill, a way of approaching things and focusing on one activity that should extend from the dojo into everything we do. Mindfulness is one of the practices, one of the benefits of any way that should permeate our lives. My cooking is better when I’m mindful of what I’m doing in the kitchen. And I know it’s useful in the dojo when that little, old man with the stick tries to whack me.

Mushin, well, that’s a goal I’m still aiming at. Mindfulness is something I can work on right now.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Techniques and Arts

At practice last night, while we were doing iaido, there were some no-gi grappling guys using another piece of the dojo for their practice. Being a judoka, I’ve rolled around with them a little bit, and they are good at what they do. They study individual techniques for take-downs and submissions, and they can apply them in sparring quite well.

They are always talking about which techniques are the hottest, and trying to find the ultimate killer technique. There doesn’t seem to be any discussion of ideas or principles that might bind together groups of techniques, or whole strategies of movement. Watching their training, I’m always looking for the threads that tie their techniques together. Most often, I don’t see any effort to connect the various threads of their training into a few fundamental principles.

This is one of the basic things that differentiate an art form, a way, from a collection of skills. Someone can be a great technician without understanding the principles from which the individual techniques are derived, but without a grasp of the foundations on which the techniques are built, you can never go beyond the level of a technician. You are stuck with collecting techniques. A lot of what I see in the MMA and no-gi grappling fighters are technique collectors, without anything more going on.

An art, a way, has to be something more than a collection of techniques. It has to have some fundamental principles that are expressed through the techniques, but not limited to the techniques. An art, a way, must be more than just a collection of techniques, no matter how cool or effective they are individually. Judo is the easiest example of an art because its fundamental principles were so clearly stated by the founder, Jigoro Kano. The two principles are “Jita Kyoei” (Mutual benefit and welfare) and “Seiryoku Zenyo” (Maximum efficiency, minimum effort). Those are very clear. They are not simple, nor are they easy, but all the techniques of Judo point towards them and practicing the techniques can lead you to an understanding of the principles.

I say “can” because not everyone who practices an art, even for a lifetime, will understand the principles. To reach the level of principles requires a lot of work on them beyond just mastering the techniques of the art. The techniques are just techniques. They are a means to learning the principles, but they aren’t the principles. It’s very easy to get caught up with the beauty and power of the techniques and never go any further in the learning. Studying the techniques of an art does not grant automatic understanding of the principles. Even mastering the techniques of an art does not guarantee that someone will master the principles.

I’ve known very powerful judoka who had no interest in Judo beyond what takes place on the mat. They have studied the techniques of Judo for years, decades, without ever developing the least interest in how the principles of Judo might be applied to something other than competition. To me, they have missed the real beauty of the art, but they are quite satisfied with being technicians. On the other hand, I have met people who diligently practiced the techniques without ever achieving a high level of technical skill, but who were able to grasp the principles of the art and apply them expertly in whatever they were doing.

In order to make something an art, a way, we have to practice it with the idea that there is more to it than just a collection of techniques. We have to pursue the underlying principles and how we might apply them in ways beyond the techniques. This is true no matter what art we are practicing, whether it is Judo or Tea Ceremony or Flower Arranging or any of the dozens of other arts out there. Without conscious search for the principles and a will to apply them to the world, all we have are collections of techniques.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I fear I'm getting old. I went to judo last night, and was disappointed that all we did were techniques and randori, but no kata practice. Lately I find kata practice more interesting even than randori. Randori is still fun, but I'm getting a lot more out of the careful exploration of attack and counter-attack, spacing and defense that make up the kata in Kodokan Judo. It may just be me, but I find that when I do a lot of randori, I have fun, but I don't progress. When I do kata, whether they are the official kata of Kodokan Judo, or unofficial kata presented as training exercises, I learn something and my judo grows.

Lately I've been working on Nage No Kata and the Kodokan Goshinjutsu. Both are fun, and both teach me something about working at various distances that I can't get from randori. It's especially good when my partner progresses to the level of being able to really attack. Then I have to stretch my skills to keep up with the strength and speed that he can put into the kata.

It's in the kata that I can see and really feel the sense of yawara and the seiryoku zenyo. Too often in randori I find myself substituting muscle for technique. In the kata I feel more like I am focused on the essence of Judo.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

jutsu vs. do?

I see a lot of writing that suggests that arts whose names end in "jutsu" are in some fundamental way different from arts whose names end in "do." I have a hard time finding this significant difference. I want to look at the whole concept of "michi" (do) or "way" in English, and see if there really is a fundamental difference between jutsu and do, or if that is a false dichotomy.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


After judo practice last night, I got to work out with a new bjj/MMA teacher who is coming to the dojo. It was an interesting experience. The language was different, but the techniques were familiar. I'm used to learning techniques based on applying a small set of fundamental principles to a variety of situations and problems. For the bjj there didn't seem to be unifying principles, but every technique was broken down into minute steps that were easy to follow. It was great fun to be a pure student, just keeping my mouth shut and learning what he had to offer.