Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Classical Budo Connects The Past And The Future



Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis



I was reading one of Ellis Amdur’s essays his excellent book Old School, in which he was discussing the Higo Ko-Ryu, an ancient system of naginata. Towards the end of the essay he talks very briefly about how “dedicated practice would allow one to ‘become’ someone from the 14th or 15th century.” 

Can you really learn to embody not just movements, but something of the thinking and feeling of a different time through studying a koryu budo? Few koryu budo go back to the 14th century, but arts that may teach you how to think and move and embody the spirit of a person of the 16th and 17th century are not difficult to find.

Ellis Amdur's Old School
Ellis Amdur's "Old School" is just about the best book there is on classical Japanese budo. 
Koryu budo have always been intended to train practitioners to embody a particular spirit. It is a world far removed from the idealized images of honorable samurai that comes to us through stories and movies. The various ryu and styles were created at many different points in history, and many still maintain the spirit of the world when they were born. The most commonly practiced tradition, Eishin Ryu (whether you train the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu branch or the Muso Shinden Ryu branch, it’s Eishin Ryu), goes back to the 16th century.   Mastering the art requires embodying a way of thinking and moving that hasn’t been “appropriate” for at least 200 years. Some of the Oku Iai kata probably haven’t been considered appropriate for more than 400 years.

It’s not easy to imagine a time when hiding under a porch to ambush your enemy was so common and acceptable that someone was teaching important points for how to do it in a kata. Yet this is exactly the world that Eishin Ryu evokes through its kata. The Oku Iai kata are the oldest in the system. They strongly evoke the rawness of a century filled with civil war, double-crossing factions, assassination, and simple murder. Actions that don’t seem very honorable to us now.

This is the world we are trying to connect to when we train, though. One of the core benefits of training in these old styles is that they take us out of the world we live in and and give us the chance to look at ideas and actions from a very different vantage point. This is as true for Japanese students of koryu as it is for anyone else. The world has changed so much in the intervening centuries between the founding of the koryu and our entry into the schools that they represent worlds where we are all strangers.

Each koryu comes from a different time and place in Japanese history, and this contributes to the very different flavors and feelings they each have. Through study and practice we get to taste those places and times. This is an easy thing to say, but doing it takes dedication and effort. What we experience reaches back to what the founders of the arts felt was important and critical enough to pass on.

Through practice we can discover the elegant and subtle philosophy of Yagyu Munenori’s Shinkage Ryu kenjutsu. Yagyu Munenori was a ranking nobleman who taught kenjutsu to the highest levels of Japanese society, and his art reflects this. His book, Yagyu Heiho Kadensho is still read and studied.  Arts like Eishin Ryu and Araki Ryu were the work of low level soldiers, samurai who quite often were as much farmer as warrior. Their brutal, rugged arts reflect their world and way of life. Between these extremes are all the other koryu arts created over the 500 years from founding of Nen Ryu (roughly 1368) until the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


What are you interested in learning? What do you want to experience? The art you choose will teach you about a lot of things, and bring you face to face with ideas and experiences that may shock you. Some iai sword systems include kata for acting as kaishaku, the person who stood by when someone had to commit seppuku (ritual suicide as penance). The kaishaku’s job was to insure that person died quickly and cleanly after he cut his belly open. Could you imagine doing this for a friend?

The lessons koryu teach about the world they came from are rich and deep, and sometimes disturbing. The lessons taught in koryu are not just martial skills. Within the kata are embedded clues and ideas about the nature of the world their creators lived and fought in, and the things they felt were important to teach.

Koryu budo are replete with little lessons like how to move through a crowd while wearing swords, how clothes can entangle and encumber. How to address and behave towards your seniors and your juniors. All the details of practice serve to pull you back to the world of the people who founded the art you study.  It takes courage to face everything a koryu bugei offers. Students have to work and push themselves beyond the world they live in, and the journey is not always fun. Who really wants to imagine what it’s like to behead a friend to save them from a slow, agonizing death? Or plan and complete an assassination? 

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


These activities were all part of the world these arts were born in. To practice such  a system is to partake of a living part of that world. This was how people trained themselves to live then, to organize their minds and coordinate their bodies to deal with possibilities that were too likely to ignore. As we practice, we learn not just the shapes and forms of the movements used, but the way of thinking necessary to make those shapes and forms effective.

Ultimately, budo trains the mind as much as the body. Training in a koryu means stepping beyond the way of thinking and operating in the world where we exist and reaching back to learn something of how people not only fought, but thought and acted; and what they valued ages ago. Many of the lessons seem far removed from the world of 21st Century USA that I live in. The longer I train, the better I am able to adapt my body and mind to the core of the movement, thought, and intent required to successfully execute the training. The closer I get to reaching the core of the training, the more I realize that forms of movement are hundreds of years old but the mindset and thought are alive and part of the world I live in as well.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for help editing and pulling the idea together. 

Fine budo gear from budoka for budoka.



1 comment:

Draven Olary said...

It is very true. You can't do it right without the correct mindset. And against all the 21st century opinions who's saying that iai is a meditative form of sword practice I think that without understanding it's martial way you don't learn something, you are just pretending and spiritual evolution is just a cliche without realizing what you are really doing during those katas. Deep inside we changed very little from the ones who lived hundreds years ago. We lost the power of our senses - like smelling the koji oil on a blade that can trigger our reaction when attacked from behind - but not the understanding and fighting capacity.
In a way you touched a very sensitive subject. Kudos