Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Budo Thoughts During Jet Lag

Teacher, Friends And Peers
Photo copyright Kumiko Yamada 2015

I wrote most of this while recovering from my most recent trip to Japan.

I’ve got jet lag. I was lucky enough to spend the last two weeks in Japan visiting friends and teachers, but now I’m home and until my body adjusts to the different solar schedule, I’ve got a few hours in the middle of the night where I’ll be awake.

Jet lag gives me some time to think about things.It’s always great to visit everyone in Japan, and these past two weeks were no exception. I have been going to Japan to train for 25 years. I still see myself as the young guy who just started. All around me in Japan I can see how everyone there has aged and changed. I’m not the young guy without a clue anymore. Kiyama Sensei turned 90 this year, but he still has the most powerful koshi I know of.  Inoue Sensei hasn’t changed much. He was a 7th dan with smooth, strong iai when I started, and his technique has gotten smoother with time. There are a number of folks around who hadn’t even started iai when I moved back to the US from Japan, and they are already 5th dans.

Budo is a path that goes on and on. It’s not just a solo path. We travel the road with our teachers and the other students around us, and the journey will continue even after we no longer can. For ourselves, we journey along the road seeking skill and maturity. For our students, we are part of the road itself. My teachers have formed the bed of the road I’m journeying on. Particularly early on in my journey, they were the road. If they branched left, so did I. If they turned right, I followed. Their direction was fundamental to how I saw budo and what parts of it I was able to explore.

As I’ve gained in experience and understanding, I have more ability and freedom to explore the path of budo and all the side roads that branch from on my own.  There are exciting and flashy trends that turn out to be little more than swamp gas. You can get completely lost trying to chase them down. Of more value are the simple things. Just going to the dojo and training.  Having a partner who trusts you and herself enough to attack so that you do get hit if you don’t move properly.


These are important parts of the journey.  There are many Ways that don’t require another person. Shodo and kado (calligraphy and flower arranging) leap to the front of my mind. No on is required to make shodo or kado practice complete.  The practitioner need never share her work with another person.  The calligraphy and the flower arrangement are complete even if no one else sees it.

Budo isn't a solo path though. All budo, even iai, is about interacting with the world. Our teachers and partners are important parts of the world, often providing immediate feedback on the quality of work. Our greatest adversary is always ourselves, but it is through practice with our partners and teachers that we find the flaws within ourselves to be addressed. That’s one of the tough things about having good teachers and peers on the path. They won’t lets us ignore our own faults. They point us towards faults we would happily ignore, and help us improve beyond them. This is never fun, but it is one of the great things about good budo practice with good teachers, good partners.

Not all budo training and learning happens in the dojo. Photo copyright 2015

Learning to fight without learning anything else is a fool’s path. Along the Way of budo training, there is a lot of learning beyond just the techniques. We won’t get that without our teachers, without our training partners. One of my students, an accomplished teacher in his own field, has been critical in helping me recognize and start dealing with some of my own weaknesses. He can sense when I don’t take some aspect of training as absolutely seriously as I need to. He also happens to have a brilliant eye for spotting issues with an individual’s structure. He is a wonderful companion for all of us traveling on this particular path.

I wouldn’t have made any progress in budo without my teachers and partners. They’ve taught me, gently and sometimes not so gently, about timing and spacing and ukemi and so many other things. Budo is an endless path, but I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without my teachers and partners. Thank you.

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.

Monday, December 14, 2015

What Are You Training?

I know many people who scoff at the idea of budo for personal development. They see dojo training as strictly a means for honing technique. They laugh at all the mamby-pamby talk of personal development.  For them, Budo is strictly a place for becoming a better fighter. Which is exactly why they are completely wrong.

Marc MacYoung recently wrote

The act of physically killing someone is easy.
What is hard is having the judgment to know when to do so or when not to.

Yes, you’re learning how to use techniques. That’s fundamental to the process. You have to learn the stance and postures first. These are are your alphabet. Only after you’ve learned the alphabet can you learn to spell whole words. Once you’ve got your basic postures, stances, grips, etc, you can start learning techniques.  But learning techniques is like learning to write individual words. There are lots of people who can spell, but like many people I deal with by email, still can’t write a coherent sentence.

Budo doesn’t really start to become budo until you’ve got enough control of these basic building blocks that you can begin assembling them into simple sentences. In judo these look like the Nage No Kata, with basic attack and response patterns.

Even in the relatively simple budo sentences of the Nage No Kata, complexity starts sneaking in. There are techniques that require multiple steps to set up. Others are attacked, blocked and the defense is circumvented. Start with a simple sentence like “He attacks me with his fist.”  Learn to reply with “I drop and throw him.”  Simple budo sentences. Like simple sentences in a grammar school reader, are not very interesting.

Once you start learning to put together stances and techniques, you can have a conversation. Mark Law talks about this a little in his book FALLING HARD. Judo randori, or any kind of sparring, is a chance to have a budo conversation where questions are posed in stances and techniques, and then answered with other stances and techniques.

Just like in writing class, even after you learn spelling and basic punctuation there is a lot to learn about creating sentences and then paragraphs and stories in the language of budo. Early on we don’t have too many words in our budo vocabulary, so our sentences aren’t very subtle or interesting.

As we progress along the Way, we learn to choose more and more precisely appropriate techniques. We learn that uchimata is probably not the best technique for us to use on the goliath at judo, but that it works pretty well on the guy close to our size. Against that small, fast lady, the one who’s always catching us with taiotoshi, we’re going to need to polish up our foot sweeps.

We have to learn to recognize these things. The same is true in weapons training. The best technique against the tall, strong foe may be entirely inappropriate against the quick, light one, and the techniques that work in those situations may be utterly ineffective against someone short and solid.

Then, just like at dinner with the family, we learn that sometimes the best reaction is none at all. When we train, we have to consider that not all threats and attacks are equal.  I spend a lot of time working with students getting them to make serious attacks. Often I can see that what they think is a serious attack won’t reach me. I can stand there and watch them swing. Their bokken whistles by me. I’ve learned not just how to deal with an attack, but how to distinguish between something that will hurt me and something that won’t (I’m a slow learner, so I got hit a few times before I figured out the real difference).

Knowing the difference between an attack that is dangerous and one that can be ignored isn’t just about technique.  Most of the attacks we deal with in life aren’t physical. They are attacks on our mind and ego. If you never train anything but physical technique, how will you develop a spirit sturdy enough to ignore attacks on your ego?  Are you learning the control necessary to ignore verbal attacks that don’t need a response of any kind? That’s budo too.

What good is all this budo training if you never train anything but technique? Without training the mind and the spirit you will be a servant of the techniques, applying them without discretion (sounds like most brown belts in randori).  You have to have control and discretion about when to use which technique, and when it’s best not to use any technique at all. If all of your training is about how to apply the techniques, you risk applying one when you shouldn’t.  In the US, that can put you in jail very quickly.

Truly mastering techniques means that you control the techniques. You decide when a response is necessary, and when it isn’t. You decide what level of response is appropriate and which technique meets that requirement. You decide when a situation is escalating so you can leave before you have to decide what level of response and which technique is most appropriate.

This means you have to work on the mamby-pamby stuff too, not just the cool techniques. You have to learn to self-control, to know that some attacks can be ignored because they won’t hurt you, and that other attacks should be absorbed and ignored because the damage that reacting would do is worse than the damage the attack will do. Do you learn these things? They are part of the strategy of applying martial arts training. Learning the techniques is just the first step.  Learning when not to use them is a lot tougher.  To be able to know when not to use a technique, first you have to do the tough work of training your mind and spirit to be greater than your ego. If you thought that iriminage or uki otoshi were tough to master, try mastering your own ego.

Are you training technique? Or are you training you?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Why Are You In The Dojo?

I had my technique ripped to shreds by a teacher the other day. He pointed out every little mistake, and he wasn’t the least bit gentle. There were no attempts to soften any criticism or to protect my ego. This was the epitome of “in your face” instruction. Every little point was picked apart and corrected with almost brutal efficiency and effectiveness.
A lot of people think this sort of instruction is abusive. That a teacher who does this is harming his students. That such teacher couldn’t possibly respect his students. Such a person has to be insecure to treat other people so harshly. That a student should stay far away from people like this. This kind of teacher is just an abusive jerk, right?

Wrong. While Sensei was ruthless in tearing apart my technique, he never once came close to stepping over the boundary into abuse or even being unnecessarily harsh. It was tough, and it’s not easy being on the end of that kind of criticism, but guess what? That’s why I was there. I’m in the dojo training so I can improve. I’m not there to show anyone how great I am or to prove I can beat someone, or to convince the world of anything. I’m there to learn.

If you’re serious about learning, the best way to do it is to have a very small ego. Take your ego and pride and desire for positive recognition and leave it with your shoes by the door. These things only get in the way of learning. Worse, pride and ego can be downright dangerous. The worst injury I’ve ever gotten was because I was too proud to admit my partner was a little better than I was. I pushed too hard and got injured because of it. It certainly wasn’t my partner’s fault I ended up in that position.

I have no problem with how this teacher does things in large part because I’m there for one reason, to improve. Sensei isn’t gentle, but I learn an incredible amount in a remarkably short time. I park my ego by the door and step into the dojo with no mental distractions to get between me and Sensei’s rapid fire deconstruction of what I used to think was pretty good technique. I’m there to learn and Sensei is not there to waste any time coddling egos. He is there to train.

There are lots of reasons for being in the dojo that just get in the way of moving further along the Way of Budo.  There’s the guy who’s out to prove how tough he is. Unfortunately, these guys (they are almost always guys) are only there to prove how physically tough they are. They have no interest in showing the mental toughness required to take real, harsh, tough criticism and tell Sensei “Thank you!” with sincerity.

Then there are the folks who are there to prove they are better than someone, or everyone. These folks only want to do the things they’re already good at. If they are working on their weak spots, no one can see how great they are. Their practice is all about themselves. You have to be careful because these guys are far more concerned with looking good than with taking care of their training partners.
People who come to the dojo just to play around and have fun are annoying because they don’t want to do the hard work of growing their skills and themselves. There is plenty of time for fun, and the dojo I love are rich with smiles and laughter. For all that, the best dojo are filled with people working hard to polish their techniques and grow their spirit. The laughter in the dojo is wonderful spice added to the rich stew of effort, sweat, concentration and dedicated training. Students who are primarily in the dojo for amusement aren’t really students, and they are a distraction to everyone around them. The world is full of places to amuse yourself and pass some time, but the dojo should not be one them. Just about anything that gets you to the dojo is a good reason to me.

I do think the above reasons are perfectly acceptable reasons for going to the dojo.  The point where things change is when you step onto the dojo floor. Once you’re in the dojo, there is room for only one purpose; to learn. The dojo is a place for studying the Way, through whichever particular path you have chosen. It’s not a place ego, for power struggles, dominance games, silly games or horsing around.

The dojo is a place for learning and if you are learning to prove you are better than others, or how demonstrate your personal excellence, or how to have fun, you’re learning the wrong lessons. Leaving your ego at the door with your shoes is a difficult lesson to learn, but it’s fundamental to everything else. If I couldn’t check my ego at the door, I can’t see any way I would be able to absorb all the lessons Sensei offers. I’d likely make the mistake of taking Sensei’s critique as a personal attack instead of as the effort to hammer the weakness out of me and my technique.

After all, budo isn’t just about learning fighting techniques, its’ not even mainly about learning fighting techniques. The techniques of budo are tools, but such tools are wasted in the hands of a fool. Teachers worry more about the mind and spirit of a student than about the technique. The mind is the most effective, efficient weapon there is. If you’re not training that in the dojo, what do think you’re learning?

Learning to leave your personal baggage at the door, whatever that baggage is, is one of the most important and most fundamental lessons in budo. It’s impossible to make real progress until you can do that. When your mind is filled with the baggage of ego, or dominance, even just amusement, there’s no room left for the lessons to be learned in the dojo. If the only things you’re learning are techniques, you’re not learning budo.

At the end of practice, what’s the best compliment you can get? Sensei walks up, slaps you on the shoulder and says “You worked really hard today.” That’s as good as it gets.  The Way doesn’t have an end. The real question is how we tread the path.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Mastery and Black Belts: What's a Journeyman Budoka?

Over at The Stick Chick blog, written by Arnis teacher Jackie Bradbury, she wrote a neat essay titled I’m Really A Black Belt that got me thinking about levels of proficiency and mastery.

Somewhere along the line, black belt became synonymous with mastery. That’s not what it means in Japan, where the first level of black belt is called shodan 初段 and means “beginning step.” Many traditional arts in Japan don’t use dan ranks or belts at all. Outside Japan though, black belt implies a degree of mastery, and that’s what I’m really interested in. What is mastery in a martial art, and how do we know we’ve achieved it. I’m not talking about external recognition in the form of belts and certificates, but the mastery itself.

"Shodan"  Literally "beginning step"

I’ve been doing this budo thing for nearly 30 years. One of my teachers has been doing it for 85 years (that’s not a typo). The longer I do this, the less any of the awarded ranks mean anything.  But what Ms. Bradbury is talking about I do understand. At what point have you mastered the art? When do you stop being an apprentice who needs direction and start being a journeyman who can direct their own work and train others? When do have this level of mastery?

What is that level of mastery for a martial artist? Jackie Bradbury recognizes the critical step of being able to see the links between techniques and actions and how she can choose different paths and where they will lead.

Mastery is a very relative concept. If I compare myself with someone who has just started training with a sword, I look like I know an awful lot. My grip is good. I use my hips pretty well. I know how to breathe and how to move. Like Ms. Bradbury, I can see what is happening and what will happen in many instances, and how a partner can be locked into an unstable path.  Compared to the beginner, I’m pretty good. 

But I rarely consider comparing myself with a beginner. My personal baseline for comparison is my teacher. Since Kiyama Sensei has been doing budo for 85 years, I always feel like a beginner with him. What I do well with effort, he does beautifully without trying. His grip is wonderful while his movement is elegant, efficient and powerful. That is the skill level I judge myself against.

When I’m honest with myself, I’ll admit that I’m certainly at the journeyman stage. What is it that really qualifies someone as journeyman? I think there are several attributes.  A journeyman budoka has to be able to breathe and walk properly (I’m serious!). She has to be able to do the kihon correctly without thinking about what she is doing. She has be able to do techniques without focusing on them. She has to be able to self-diagnose faults and figure out how to correct them.  When you have all of these in place, you’re a journeyman.

I’ve already written a whole blog about breathing and walking, so I won’t repeat it here. I’ll just say that journeymen breathe from their abdomen so they get the maximum efficiency from their lungs. They walk upright, without slouching or tipping themselves, and the power their movement from their koshi.

A journeyman has mastered the kihon, the fundamentals, of an art to the point that she can demonstrate them correctly without thinking, even when being distracted. They just happen correctly.  Whether these are the strikes and thrusts of a jo or bo, the cuts and blocks of a sword, the sweeps of naginata, the strikes of karate or the throws of judo. The kihon just happen. The journeyman budoka has reached the stage where doing the fundamentals correctly is unconscious. They have to really think about what they are doing to demonstrate a mistake.

When doing full on techniques, and not just kihon, a journeyman can do the techniques while processing other information. As Ms. Bradbury described, a journeyman can be doing the techniques and processing what effect they will have and what to connect to the technique. In judo we do a lot of practice of renzoku waza, or techniques that are linked together in a continuous chain without breaks in the attack. Even as a technique is happening and your partner responds to it, a journeyman will move to another technique that takes advantage of their partner’s response to the first technique. Journeymen see these kind of linkages naturally, and find themselves explaining to students why a particular technique or attack is a bad idea. The journeyman can see the chain of consequences that follow from the technique.  The student can’t.

A journeyman has acquired enough understanding and skill to direct someone else’s training, or her own. She can generally see what needs to be corrected, whether it is in a student’s technique or in something she is doing.  She can feel when she does something the wrong way. She can see when a student does something wrong, and can see when the root of the problem with their cutting has to do using their right index finger instead of a their left little finger or when the problem with their shoulders is originating in their hips and feet.

A journeyman can do the same analysis on herself and fix problems in her own technique, which is a considerably more difficult skill. It doesn’t take long for beginners to be able to see weaknesses in their own and other’s technique. Being able to recognize a problem is not the same as being able to fix it though. When a journeyman discovers a problem with her technique, she has the depth of skill and understanding to work out what is causing the problem, and come up with a means of fixing it. Journeymen don’t just see the problems, they can see the solutions too.

There is more to being a journeyman than just mastering the techniques. Journeymen understand the principles and fundamentals behind the techniques and can apply that understanding to work out the solution to weaknesses in their students, and their own, technique. A journeyman can see that bobble in a sword cut and trace it back to a weak left hand or an overpowering right hand, and then come up with an exercise or three to start correcting it.

That’s the mastery that makes someone a journeyman. Whether you have a black belt or not doesn’t really mean much. The journeyman has internalized the fundamentals and the techniques to the point that they are expressed without conscious thought, leaving her mind available to analyze the chain of effects that doing a technique will produce. In addition, the journeyman can not only see the weakness in someone’s technique, but they understand the application of the fundamentals of their art well enough to understand what causes a particular weakness so it can be corrected.