Thursday, February 27, 2014

Laughter And Joy In The Dojo

                Budo practice is intense and serious business.  After all, we are practicing techniques for hurting and killing each other.  There aren’t many things that serious.  Practice is filled with opportunities for accidents where people get bashed with sticks, their arms broken from an overzealous joint lock, seriously injured or even killed by a poorly executed throw.

               The vision of grim,dour martial artists facing off with wooden swords, giant naginata and whipping kusari makes a lot of sense.  Pure focus on your training partner so you can understand her movement, and make sure you are not where the strike lands is important.  When someone is earnestly trying to hit you with a very large piece of wood, cracking a joke probably isn’t a good idea.  

               The only problem with this image is that it’s false.  Koryu budo dojo can be filled with laughter.  A couple of weeks ago I was at a big budo gasshuku, and we were working on some fairly advanced kata.  Some people had quite a bit of experience with the kata and others among us were learning them for the first time.  We were all working out details in the kata.

               This is not to say there are any huge surprises in the kata.  They still use all the same principles and techniques everyone in the group has been studying for years and decades.   The advanced part is the subtle interplay between the partners for control of the timing and spacing.  You’d expect every brow to be scrunched into furrows with the effort of concentrating on these subtle applications.

               Sometimes you’d even be right about that.  As the teachers demonstrated various points, everyone was silent and focused.  Then we’d pair up and start working through the kata, slowly at first, and gradually picking up speed as we felt more confident in the basic patterns.  That’s when the laughter started to break out.  People would be working through the kata and some bit would go sliding out of control just as the teachers had warned.  Our best efforts would result in slips and misses and we began laughing at ourselves.  We would take turns trying to do what the teachers were patiently showing for the umpteenth time, and as the kata again slipped out our control, we would begin laughing, and the teachers would be laughing along with us.

               When we are exploring something, trying to push our understanding of things, even in something as lethally serious as koryu budo, we are playing with the techniques and the principles and the timing and the spacing.  Whenever we blow the maai or the timing, especially when practicing with someone much more accomplished, that’s when the laughter and smiles will break out.  If I blow the spacing, instead of attacking the teacher with my sword, I am likely to find the tip of his sword just past the end of my nose, and a few feet behind that, a huge grin on his face.

               We’re working on figuring these things out.  There is plenty of room for playfulness in those moments.   As we try different ideas and approaches, working to grasp the points being taught, most of our ideas will fall short and it’s easy to laugh at our own attempts.  This is particularly true when an idea’s weakness becomes apparent part way through the execution and we can see why it won’t work, but it’s too late to stop.  You know you are about to blow it, and there is nothing you can do except laugh at the results as your position collapses.

               The smiles when we figure something out are big and gleaming too.  The kusarigama has bedeviled me for years, and honestly, I think it will keep bedeviling me for years to come. For all that, when I finally made a couple of mental and physical connections recently, I was laughing with joy, and my teachers were smiling along with me.  They were thrilled I’d finally gotten at least a little of what they have been patiently trying to get through my thick skull.  It was moment of happy celebration for all of us.  And then we dove back into practice and I promptly whacked myself in the face with the leather ball we use in place of an iron fundo on the end of the chain.  This time I smiled and my teachers laughed.  Not too hard though, because it seems to be a common hazard of learning to handle the kusarigama in our style. A little gentle laughter though takes some of the sting out hitting yourself in the face.

    Koryu budo is serious.  That doesn’t mean that practice has to be serious all the time.  Any good dojo, filled with solid, mature students and confident, experienced teachers, will also be as full of smiles and laughter as it is with with quite concentration and focused practice.  In fact, if you don’t see frequent smiles, and hear occasional laughter, I would be worried about the quality of the dojo.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Budo Teacher - Student Relationship

I write a lot about my teachers, how important they are to me, what they teach me and our relationship.  With a few exceptions though, you don’t see me using their names.  I wrote about a big Shinto Muso Ryu gasshuku recently, and never said who was teaching it.  I don’t usually publish my teachers’ full names either.   That makes it difficult to check and see if I really do some of these things or if I’m just blowing smoke.

In the budo I practice, the teacher-student relationship is very strong, very important and central to the nature of the budo..  The classical ideal for relationships in Japan is that of the parent and child, and many aspects of the budo teacher and student relationship resemble that.  The teacher is ultimately responsible for what the student does and says in public, just as a parent is responsible for what a child does and says, and the student is expected to look to the teacher for direction and to support the teacher publically, even when there are differences of opinion.  This is quite different from the way teacher-student relationships work in the USA, where I grew up and did my initial budo training.
Everything I say and do will be seen in classical budo circles as a reflection on my teachers. If I’m behaving badly or making ignorant or foolish comments, people in the budo world will complain to them and ask about the kinds of things they are teaching me.  It’s my responsibility to be a good representative of my teachers, and to do nothing that might embarrass them or cause them problems.  If I say something, it will be seen as being authorized and approved by my teacher.  My teachers will be held responsible for cleaning up any messes that I make.  The classical budo world in Japan is small, and you’re almost never more than a couple of degrees away from someone. 

My teachers each took a risk in accepting me as their student, but they didn’t do it lightly or quickly.   No one makes you sit for weeks by the temple gate in a typhoon before they accept you as a student, but you don’t become someone’s student just by signing the roster and paying your monthly dues.  Wayne Muromoto has a nice story about people who go to a teacher but don’t get taught the real thing.  These people aren’t real students, the teacher doesn’t trust them, doesn’t teach them genuine art, and takes no responsibility for what they do when the leave.

When I came to Japan, I joined a great local Judo dojo, paid my monthly dues and went to every practice I could.  I wasn’t a student though. I was guest.  I wasn’t a student until I had been there at least a year.  After that first year I started getting invited to dojo social events and trips, and most notable for me, my name appeared on the dojo member board.  The teachers were taking public responsibility for me.  At that moment my status went from being another guy who trains there, to Yoshikawa Sensei’s student.  Up until then, if I did something stupid in practice or at a tournament, well, I was just a guy who was passing though.  After that, I was Sensei’s student and if I did something wrong, I wouldn’t be told directly.  Sensei would get chewed out for not having taught me properly and he would be responsible for the consequences of my actions.  I would only hear about whatever pain and embarrassment I had caused after Sensei had started cleaning up the mess. 

If things work this way in a gendai budo like Judo, they are even more intensely personal in a koryu bugei.  Koryu bugei are not openly taught public entities like Judo or Aikido or Kendo.  They are more like family treasures shared with just family and close friends whom you deeply trust.  It takes a long time to really earn that, and it’s not always an easy relationship.  The responsibilities and expectations can be quite high.  I have on occasion made mistakes which my teachers have taken me to task for, whether it is something simple like doing a poor job during a demonstration (I now hate and fear youtube.  Any mistake I make in public will be preserved and broadcast for eternity!) or something more serious such as how or what I am teaching.  I learned early on to be really careful about public behavior so I don’t embarrass them.  They worked really hard to teach me the ins and outs of navigating the budo world so I won’t embarrass them or anyone, myself included.

I first entered the koryu budo world by invitation of a sword smith, an artist of the first rank.  Knowing Nakagawa Sensei lead me to my first iaido teacher, who introduced me to others, where I encountered a Shinto Muso Ryu student who introduced me to her teacher who introduced me to his teacher, who accepted me as his student and who introduced me to his teacher who graciously welcomes me into his dojo as a student of his student.    There were a lot of introductions along that path, and many people who stood to suffer if I didn’t behave well and respectably.  Now that I have been accepted as a student, everything I do reflects directly back on my teachers.

The responsibility isn’t just a one-way street though.  As I said, if I make a mistake or cause a problem, I may not hear about it until after Sensei has started cleaning up the mess.  If I’m responsible for being a good representative of my teacher, he is responsible for teaching me well and taking responsibility for any problems I may cause.  The closer the student-teacher relationship, the bigger the responsibility this becomes.  Initially this responsibility is only within the budo world, but it can grow to include all sorts of aspects of life outside the budo world.  Teachers have been known to help people find jobs and arrange marriages and secure loans.  Teachers accept a lot of responsibility when they accept a student.

Just as the teacher accepts responsibility for the student, the student accepts responsibility for the teacher.  Teachers are not ultimate paragons of humanity.  They have been known to drink too much, say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and engage in feuds, just like everyone else.  Once you have passed beyond that probationary period and are really someone’s student, that’s all your responsibility too.  If Sensei drinks too much somewhere and makes a mess, it’s his students who make sure he gets home OK and clean up after him.  If Sensei has a fight or a feud with someone, you are automatically included on Sensei’s side.

The web of relationships and responsibilities extend far beyond just the teacher and student involved in the core relationship and can have wide ranging impacts.  It’s no wonder teachers take a long time before they consider a student to really be “theirs.”  Students should really be spending that probationary period looking very closely at the person they are considering studying with as well, because the responsibility is a two way street, and just as the student’s public behavior reflects on the teacher, the student is judged by who their teacher is.

All of this is to say that, for the most part, I don’t freely publish my teacher’s names and contacts.  I have friends whose names have been used without their permission to gain access to their teachers, and I want to protect my teachers from people like that.  A fraud will eventually be discovered and treated appropriately, but it’s my responsibility to make sure my teachers don’t have to deal with one to begin with.  So if I don’t go putting my teachers’ names out there, please forgive me. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Budo Training Is Exhilarating!

Budo practice is exhilarating.  I’ve been searching for the right word to describe how I feel about practice and how it makes me feel for years.  Obviously I’m kind of slow if I’m just now figuring this out, but hey, after more than 25 years of exhilarating budo practice being thrown around, choked unconscious and beaten with sticks, maybe there’s a reason it’s taken me so long to figure it out.

People always ask if budo is fun, as if it is a game or a sport.  Some bits of it are fun, but they are an awfully small portion of my budo practice.  It’s difficult to call long practice sessions trying to master the proper swing of a sword, or the best way to unbalance someone, or the proper technique for sweeping someone’s weapon out of the way “fun.”  They are challenging and intriguing and full of learning, but fun is not the word to describe them.  That feeling when the sword flashes through the air and feels like it is doing the cutting itself and you’re just along for the ride?  Exhilarating.  The moment when you touch someone so their balance vanishes and they don’t even know you’ve done it and the throw happens as if they had jumped for you?  Exhilarating.  When you get the sweep just right and your partner’s weapon effortlessly whips around and behind them and maybe right out of their fingers?  Definitely exhilarating.

Even when I don’t make those great leaps in understanding or technical ability though, budo is exhilarating.  The focus it requires and teaches is wonderful.  Getting every part of my body and mind to act as one, coordinated whole just feels fantastically exhilarating.  Iai is certainly one of the least exciting forms of budo to watch.  When done properly it is every bit as intense as any of the paired practice forms such as kenjutsu or jujutsu.  Everything comes together and drives forward with an intensity and force that blocks out the rest of the world and leaves me panting with exhaustion in minutes.   The ability to focus like that on something, even for a short while, is an amazing feeling.    It’s certainly not fun, and it’s definitely not relaxing, although it does seem to drive the tension and stress out of my body and mind.  It’s exhilarating.

Then there is paired practice like kenjutsu or jodo or any of the other delightful weapons we train with.  You and a partner are actively trying to bash each other with big sticks, and getting hit is a real possibility if either of you makes a mistake.  There’s just no way to call this “fun.”  What it is, is fabulously focusing and energizing.  The rest of the world vanishes as you focus on your partner’s intent and your own.  There is no room for your mind to hold onto anything else.  If you try to, you’re going home with big, beautiful bruises.  All you have room for is the awareness or your partner, her weapon, the range at which that weapon is dangerous and where yours is, and how she is moving.  She attacks filled with the intent of smashing you into the ground and yet your movement is just enough to avoid being struck while your counterattack steals her space and leaves her dangerously off-balance and unable to move, all in a single heartbeat of action.  Absolutely exhilarating.

The free practices, known as randori in judo and aikido (though they are quite different) and ji-geiko in kendo, are deeply intense, energetic, powerful practices with you and your partner both giving everything to the training, whether you are focusing on developing and refining specific techniques in an unstructured situation, or going at it full-on to dominate and master your partner.  It’s not “fun” in any sense of the word that I’m familiar with, but it is wonderful.  Often it’s quite uncomfortable, especially when then bruises are tender.  Still, the feeling, from the moment someone says “Hajime!” until well after the randori has ended, is one of exhilaration.  I’m out there working with my whole body, and trust me, when those small muscles all over your body ache they next day you know you were using the whole thing.  You’re also using your whole mind trying to figure out the puzzle your partner is offering you.  Some days you figure out the puzzle in front of you, and some days you are the puzzle that is being figured out.  Either way though, it’s exhilarating.  When I take a really big fall, thrown by that 275 lb (125 kg) guy who sends me flying half way across the dojo and then lands on me, and I get up without any pain or problem because the ukemi was good, it is exhilarating knowing I can survive something like that.  It’s even more exhilarating than when I throw him, although that is a different kind of exhilaration, the exhilaration of achieving something I really wasn’t sure I could do.  When it’s all over and someone yells “Yame!” and we all bow and thank each other, the feeling of exhilaration continues.  It lasts out the door, all the way home and often well into the next day.  That feeling of doing things that are truly difficult, both throwing and being thrown, succeeding and failing, is exhilarating.  

               Budo is not fun.  Fun is too small a word for what I feel when I train.  Fun is a game of euchre at lunch, watching a baseball game with friends.  Fun is pick-up basketball or a tea party with your kids.  These are worth doing.  They are fun.  But they aren’t exhilarating.  They don’t leave your body and mind flushed with the intensity of focusing completely on one thing and directing all your energy to one target.  They don’t leave you exhausted, wrung out and relaxed from the work of gathering all your energy into one focused mass and throwing it at your target through the budo.

That’s the feeling I get from budo practice, exhilaration.  At the end of practice I’m wrung out and exhausted, with my brain dribbling out my ears from the effort to do everything well, to analyze what I’m doing to and try to improve it a smidge every time I do it.  How else can you describe the feeling of someone genuinely trying to beat you with a stick while you block and dodge and control his attacks without getting hit?  The feeling of getting that 275 lbs guy up in the air and flying, or the joy when someone makes you fly and go slamming into the ground and it doesn’t hurt is just amazing.  It’s exhilarating.  Now I know what to say to all those people who ask if budo is fun.  I tell them “No, it’s exhilarating.”

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why I Go To The Effort To Go To Japan

I am sitting in Los Angeles Airport waiting to find out if my flight is going to Tokyo today or not.  There is a budo retreat with one of the top classical budoka in Japan that I am privileged to have been invited to attend.  After deep negotiations with my family, I’m supposed to be on a plane flying there.  The opening is in just a few hours, so I’m going to miss that, but I should be there for the last 4 days of training.
                What could possibly motivate someone to spend a full day traveling to, and another very full day traveling back from, a martial arts retreat?  In the 21st century, unless you are in the military, the police, or providing security, the martial arts are basically a hobby.   So why go? Firstly, the training is incredible.  It’s not just that the head teacher is leading and sponsoring the seminar, it’s also that his senior students, who are now leaders in the art, are teaching us.   Secondly, it is the chance for me to spend several days doing nothing else, not distracted by the concerns of life (assuming work doesn’t get excited and call the international cell phone they gave me) and to stay focused on these ancient arts.  Some of the curriculum has roots that may go back 600 years.  This is a chance to immerse myself in not just the technique, but the mindset and living philosophy of the arts.
                Twenty-five years ago, these arts were difficult to find, even for Japanese living in Japan.  I first stumbled into their world by complete accident.    I was riding home after a haircut when I saw a guy grinding something on a huge grindstone.  I stopped to look at the grindstone, and realized he seemed to be grinding a sword!  About then the gentlemen looked up and invited me into his house for tea.  His name was Nakagawa, and he was a sword smith.  From there I stumbled into the world of Japanese sword arts and other classical martial arts.
                Now anyone can do a Google search and find a list of teachers and their dojo in Japan.  It still takes something extra though to get up and go to Japan, whether for a week or years.   One of the biggest reasons I go is that there are great treasures to be discovered.  These treasures are precious beyond price, and some of them disappear every year.  They are the great old teachers who have spent a lifetime studying their arts and who work hard to give what they have learned to their students.  I know plenty of  people who have 20, 30 40 years or more of training, but it pales next to teachers who have more than 8o years of active training, all of it with people who were great teachers in their time.
                On this trip I will get to spend time with a couple of these great teachers, both gentlemen of the first rank.  I visit and spend time with them whenever an opportunity presents itself.   This time I get to spend several days at a gasshuku with a great Shinto Muso Ryu teacher and his senior students, and then I will get to spend a day or two with my iaido teacher, Kiyama Sensei.  He’s 89 and has been doing budo since he was 5, when his grandfather started teaching him a branch of Yoshin Ryu jujutsu.   He’s been studying budo ever since.
These teachers aren’t teaching me just technique, though they do a lot of that.  They are teaching the deep connections among the techniques, the principles of the arts that generate the techniques, and the ideals of what the arts mean in life.  They’ve been living the budo path since long before I was born, and they are wonders at pointing out not just the path, but pitfalls along the way.  They’ve had lots of chances to make mistakes and learn from them.  If I’m lucky and wise and work hard at their lessons, I won’t have to make all the same mistakes.  I never get chewed out so badly as when they catch me making a mistake they are too intimate with because of personal experience.  I will stand and listen to them and hear the pain in their voices because they know the consequences of what I’m doing.  
                After a while at this training and studying and continually polishing what I am doing, disappointing my teachers becomes the toughest thing to endure.  These great gentlemen go to incredible effort to pass on their knowledge, skills and understanding to their students.  Once I understood how hard they worked to train me, I realized the most painful thing I could do was letting them down. Kiyama Sensei and the other great teachers I know aren’t getting rich by teaching students.  The best we as students can do to show our appreciation and take care of our teachers is to be there and help them when they will let us.  They teach out of love of their art and love of their students.  This is part of what makes them such great treasures.  
               So when I can, I get on an airplane and go visit them.  Life has moved me away from Japan but not away from them.  So I sit in airports and through delays. This time I got as far as L.A. and my flight was canceled, with no other flight available until the next morning.  I will miss a chunk of the gasshuku.  I’ve been grinding my teeth over that for 18 hours.  The training that remains will still be great, and I’ll get at least a few evenings with my teachers to talk and absorb as much as I can.  These treasures will disappear someday and I will be left with whatever I have been able to learn and absorb from them.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Judo and the Olympics

I posted a slightly different version of this on a discussion board where the subject of Judo being in the Olympics came up.  Part of the objection was that studying classical Judo would somehow transform the sport into a bloodsport done in an octagon.  The other implication was that being in the Olympics helps make Judo popular.  My response:

An essential part of Kodokan Judo is that we protect each other when we train, so I don't see where any of the desire to study the full system that Kano Shihan developed should require a blood sport octagon. Classical Kodokan Judo includes a lot of effective combative techniques, many of which we have never used in shiai. Jita Kyoei still applies when we are doing shiai. In the last 10 years though, I've seen endless changes made to competitive judo to make it more attractive to spectators and, more importantly, television advertisers. That is the only solid reason I have seen given for the vast majority of changes made to competitive judo. I have no problem with changes to improve safety. I want to be still be studying Kodokan Judo and doing randori when I'm in my 70s, like some of my teachers today. Changes just to get more television viewers though bothers me. 

I see the focus on Olympic judo as a weakness. I look around and the art that is growing by leaps and bounds, without any Olympics and without any blood sport octagon, is BJJ. In my area there are easily 20 BJJ studios for every 1 Judo dojo. Participating in the Olympics has nothing to do with Judo being a healthy, growing art and sport.   All the changes being made to competitive judo to stay in the Olympics make it weaker and weaker. It looks like we are too weak to compete with wrestlers and the BJJ crowd so we change the rules to keep them out instead of learning how to stop them with Judo.  No touching the legs in standing work.  Shorter and shorter time limits on ground work.  These just look like a way to keep out strong wrestlers and BJJ grapplers.

Judo is not a spectator sport, and I don't believe that we can change it enough to ever make it a spectator sport. Nothing we can do will satisfy the Olympic committee for very long. Their search is for the highest television ratings possible. We could ruin judo for everyone, classical stylist and modern competitor, and it still won't keep us in the Olympics for much longer. The Olympics is constantly seeking out newer, hipper, cooler, edgier sports because they get better television ratings.   Eventually they will drop us for something newer, cooler and hipper that gets vastly better ratings.  That's why this winter there will be a number of new sports stolen directly from the X Games. 

We can't compete with these sports for ratings, and we shouldn't bother trying. I think if we change the rules back to something that allows the wrestlers and BJJ grapplers to play on our terms, if we up our game so we can handle them, we will have a strong, robust art and sport that will see a lot of growth. If we continue to chase television ratings we will destroy our art and still not stay in the Olympics