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.