Monday, March 30, 2015

Budo Isn't Life



Young lady walking through a train station in Japan with a sword across her back.
Photo Copyright 2015 Girgoris Miliaresis


Budo Isn't life.  It's training for life.  


I was reading an article about a writer who became a carpenter, but didn’t stop writing, and it made me think about the mistake I sometimes see people make with budo.  Budo is a Way, and as ways go, I think it is a great one.  You can explore strength and conflict, peace and stability, action and quietude, moving with things without being moved by them, and many other points that are important in life. For all that, budo is not life.


I’ve see a number of people over the years who become so involved with training in budo that they let the rest of their lives go to hell.  They often become fabulous martial artists, but their personal lives are train wrecks, with disasters everywhere. These are people who make the mistake of putting budo training above everything else in their life. Budo is training for life. When you let the practice become so large that it squeezes out everything else, including the application of the training to your real life, you have completely missed the point. In fact, you’ve failed as a budoka.


Budo only has meaning in the context of a complete life.  When your training gets in the way of a complete life, you should be asking what’s wrong. If your only friends are people you train with, why don’t you have time for anyone else? If budo has replaced all your recreational activities, why are you becoming so one faceted? If budo is the only thing you enjoy, why is that?


Budo is difficult. Training is hard work. That’s fine, it should be. If you are training so hard that your only relationships are with your training partners, maybe something’s wrong there.  One of the lessons of budo is not that training is hard work. The lesson is that life is hard work, and if work hard at it, you can do good things. Good relationships take hard work. If you’re spending all your time in the dojo, you’re avoiding the relationships that you need to be working on. Good relationships with friends, family, coworkers and partners takes at least as much hard work as training in the dojo.  


Letting budo training squeeze all other relationships out of your day-to-day life is a sign that there are things you need to work on. The problem can be lots of different things. You could be avoiding difficult situations that you’re not good at and you don’t feel comfortable with. You could be focusing on doing something that makes you feel good and gives you a sense of accomplishment to the detriment of maintaining healthy relationships.  I admit, maintaining healthy relationships isn’t something you can brag about. You don’t say “Yeah, I put my wife’s wishes ahead of my own and did those dishes instead of an extra set of kata last night.”  It just doesn’t sound as cool as “Dude, I pushed myself and squeezed in two extra kata sets last night.  I was completely wiped out!”  Maintaining good relationships just doesn’t work as bragging and ego building material.


Budo training is hard work and the returns are slow and difficult.  If you are letting budo training muscle everything else out of your life though, what are you really getting out of your training? If you are learning it for self defense, but you’ve given up every other part of your life to train, what’s left to defend?  Make a full life so you have something really worth defending, friends and relationships and people who love and value you. A life with nothing but dojo training in it doesn’t build anything of value, and all that training never has a chance to contribute to the world. Budo is a Way, a Do, 道, that reveals better ways to travel the path of life. You can’t travel that path in the dojo. You have to go out the door and interact with all parts of life, even the boring ones, the ones that don’t do anything for your ego, and especially the ones that are hard for you.  The lessons of the dojo aren’t really learned until you start applying them.

Girls heading to Kyudo practice in Japan.
Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis



Budo training should help us conquer our egos. Budo training is an ongoing lesson in doing the hard work that doesn’t have quick returns and isn’t glorious. I’ve been beating my head against the wall of kata that make up Shinto Muso Ryu lately.  It’s not easy to remember all those kata, and to keep each branching straight in your head so you don’t accidentally slip from one kata into another at a juncture that is similar in more than one kata. On the other hand, this is so fundamental to the art that nobody is ever going to pat me on the back and tell me “Good job Pete.” just because I remembered the proper sequence of steps. If I can’t remember those, we can’t get to the real practice.


I don’t get any ego polishing from this. It’s just part of the training.  In fact, the longer I practice, the less ego polishing I get from any of the training.  It’s something I do because of the way it informs and improves the rest of my life. Budo is about dealing with conflict in it’s rawest, most straightforward form.  The same strategies and tactics and practices apply to life though, both in the way we train in budo, and what we are training.


We go to the dojo and we train. Training feels good and I enjoy it just for its own sake.  That’s a lesson right there.  Enjoy things for their own sake. It’s something that’s easy to forget to do.


The training teaches me to deal with the discomfort and pain and exertion required to get good at budo. This is perhaps the most basic lesson we should be getting out of budo practice. It’s also the easiest to ignore. It’s a lot easier to put forth the exertion, to put up with the discomfort and the pain, for something I really enjoy doing than it is to apply that lesson to something that doesn’t have the immediate reward of being something I love to do. Having cultivated that ability to endure pain and discomfort though, it becomes an ability I need to make use of nearly every day outside the dojo.


The effort necessary to maintain good relationships isn’t easy. Sometimes it is downright uncomfortable, and even emotionally painful. If I can exert myself in the dojo, than I can put similar effort into being a good human being with those around me.  It’s not easy.  I know there are several people in my life that I would love to smash, or at least be rude to and then ignore.  



http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp



That’s not good budo though. Good budo extends those lessons everywhere in your life. You take that ability to exert yourself, and you make effort to endure emotionally uncomfortable and even painful situations and treat people well. Every practice we work on remaining calm and undisturbed while people attack us physically. Shouldn’t we be making the same effort to remain calm and undisturbed when people attack verbally and emotionally? Is it any wiser to allow someone to manipulate you verbally or emotionally outside the dojo than it is to let people manipulate you physically in the dojo?


If your focus is only on getting better at your budo so you can defeat others in competition, you’ve completely missed the point.  Budo training isn’t about defeating others in any sort of competition, it’s about improving yourself.  If your reason for training is only to defeat others in a game, you have already defeated the purpose of the training. The lessons are not lessons about winning a game.  They are lessons about life.


If you’re only applying the lessons about structure and ma’ai and timing in the dojo, you’ve missed out. All situations have structure and ma’ai and timing. A good life really requires that we apply the lessons of perseverance and endurance and continuous effort for improvement to all aspects of our lives, not just the ones that we are comfortable with. In fact, that’s probably a good clue about where you need to apply the lessons you’ve learned in the dojo. If there is an aspect of your life that you’re not comfortable with and that you keep avoiding, it might be time to apply the lessons of budo to that area of your life.


The newly revised and hugely expaned edition of Old School by Ellis Amdur
If you’re doing budo all the time because it’s what you’re good at, I’ve got bad news.  You’re going to to have to get good at other things to be a good budoka.  Even in ancient Japan people recognized that someone who is only good at budo isn’t a well-developed person.  The phrase 文武両道 bunbu ryodo stretches back to at least the Kamakura era. It means roughly “martial and academic are both of the Way.”  Even then it was recognized that a person who only mastered martial arts was not complete.




In the dojo, we train to be able to handle someone trying to crush us with their strength. We practice remaining calm as our partner is trying to hit us with their hands, a stick, a chain, a sword. We strive to remain cool and relaxed while people attack. If we can do that in the dojo, but we can’t do that in stressful, uncomfortable situations outside the dojo, we’ve completely missed the point our our training. To be true to the training of budo, we have to strive to apply the same lessons we practice in the dojo to every corner of our lives.


Budo should compliment all the other aspects of our lives, and help us improve them. It should never become so dominant that it squeezes the rest of life out. Even professional martial artists need a life beyond the dojo. It’s worth noting that one of the greatest martial arts teachers of all time, Yagyu Munenori, was known not only for his budo, but he was also known for singing and performing Noh theatre. Many budo teachers in Japan are known far outside budo circles. Kaminoda Tsunemori of Shinto Muso Ryu is recognized for the excellence of his calligraphy.


If you do budo right, it is very much that dangerous road that Bilbo Baggins told Frodo about ““It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  It will creep into every corner of your life and force you to face those parts you aren’t confident about, and work to polish them just as much or more than it demands that your polish your strikes, cuts, and throws.


If you’re serious about doing budo, you have to get out of the dojo and have life. You have to work at making that life a good one, and making yourself better in each aspect of your life. Real budoka don’t hide from the world in the dojo. Real budoka train, take a shower, and then go out and engage their life and the people in it, while applying the lessons of the dojo to all the difficult, uncomfortable parts to make them better.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Competition In Budo: A Guest Blog by Kim Taylor


Every few years I seem to go through a crisis and start looking for the benefit of budo. I read all the latest papers dealing with the ethics and psychological benefits of sport and martial art and think about it quite a bit.
My attitudes never change much, I just need the reminding I think. I'll do a bit of thinking here on the idea of competition in budo if you don't mind. 

First, kids like competition. They move from play to competition as they head toward adolescence and I think that competition is a part of their breaking away from home. It's a part of asserting themselves as individuals, a way to separate themselves from "the other" by "making their mark". 

So we do the tournament thing because the kids like it and they start and stay in the art. So the story goes at least.
Gradings are the same, a way to separate from the pack, a way to distinguish oneself. Kids love grading.
So goes the thinking, and there's me organizing gradings to go along with the seminar coming up. The thing is, I don't teach kids and I haven't been one for a couple of years now. I don't like tournaments or gradings and I find that most of the adults I teach are of the same opinion. Why is that? I think one usually grows out of competition. Adolescence doesn't last our whole lives, at least not physical adolescence. The time of serious competition also spans a very short period. Steve Nash just retired from Pro Basketball at 41. I was stunned to hear that he had still been playing. No wonder he can hardly walk. 

Competitive sport, despite the hype, isn't very good at making better people. The research says so, don't take my word for it, hit Google Scholar and read. Sport, be it martial (kendo, judo, MMA) or otherwise is about playing to the rules, beating the other guy and winning. It's really not about getting along with everyone, cooperating (except maybe with your team if it's a team sport) or dealing with real life... well maybe modern business where we must crush the competition and win that corner office. (What ever happened to being a good craftsman and selling stuff we make to people who actually need what we make?)

A martial art is, at it's heart, about life and death, it doesn't exist in a separate "playspace" like sport, it's connected to some primal stuff that goes pretty deep into our brains, fear and anxiety and stress and most of what we pay doctors to fix these days. Cooperation in the martial arts is absolute, except during the competitive parts. Training is cooperative, the attacker is the instructor, the defender is the student and the attacker never competes, only offers challenges the student can answer. Was it ever any other way in combat? We don't want to defeat our fellow soldiers, we want to have the best guy we can have at our side. If his shield collapses we pay the price too. We don't select soldiers for their fighting ability, we select for the ability to survive the training, then we train them. 

But we compete on the battlefield don't we? The politicians may think so, they may be playing the "Great Game" of empire or, nowadays, getting elected, but the soldiers only ever survive or die. They aren't playing to win they are fighting to live. There is a difference despite the confusion of metaphore and reality in the news broadcasts. 

One of the core benefits of the sword arts is the kata, and I am beginning to believe that's in the final move, the witholding of the killing blow. Kata is only ever cooperative, it's about moving together to higher levels of sensitivity and it's about the final sacrifice of the attacker (uchidachi) and the witholding of the blow by the defender (shidachi). What I guess I'm saying is that the closest sport comes to this is the coach, but coaches are focused on technique for winning. A focus on technique is constricting, not creative. You don't look for new ways to win at a sport, find one and the rules committee makes a new rule against it. You look for ways to exploit those rules, which is not very creative. Finding a new way to survive a sword strike? You have to be a pretty strict cultural-artifact type not to appreciate that. 

To make a kata-based art into a competitive sport is not something I can get behind, no matter how many kids we can attract to the classes by doing it. Performing a kata to win a medal is... a waste of good training time even if you're the most enlightened competitor out there. A full day of tournament with ten minutes of waving the sword around is not good time management. 

Kendo is a sport, let's admit it. The ZNKR spends large amounts of energy trying to fight that opinion and they declare the benefits to society and world peace, but when it comes down to it, the most expensive line item of most national kendo organizations is the team they send to the world championships. It's a real problem for the organization because the kids who are competing are driving the sport in one direction (they just wanna have fun) and the old guys are forever pushing back. I'm not alone in my concerns over competition being somewhat opposed to the benefits of budo. 

And grading? Colin Watkin sensei, Shihan of the Kage-ryu has explained the grading system to us few students. There is none. Your "grade" is survival on the battlefield.
OMG, so does 3dan mean that I "mostly" survive a fight? 

Musashi had 60 duels from age 13 to 27 and won them all. His own assessment was that he was lucky or they were kind of poor swordsmen. He spent the next half of his life trying to figure out how he could improve. 

Good enough for me, I'll leave the competition to the kids.

Kim Taylor
Mar 26, 2015
http://sdksupplies.com/

Thursday, March 19, 2015

States Of Mind: Fudoshin





A while back I wrote about mushin 無心, usually translated as “no mind” in English.  It’s an aspect of the mental development we strive for in budo.  Another aspect is fudoshin 不動心, which is usually translated as something like “immovable mind.”  It’s quite a concept, and the main source for most of us who are not Japanese is a letter from the Rinzai Zen monk Takuan Soho (1573-1645) to the sword master and daimyo (regional lord) Yagyu Munenori. The letter is known as the Fudochi Shinmyoroku 不動智神妙録, and a convenient version of it with the original 17th century Japanese and modern Japanese side-by-side can be found here. I used a copy of the translations by William Scott Wilson in the volume THE UNFETTERED MIND as the source for English translation.


The budo community has adopted the term quite strongly, but reading the actual letter reminds you that this was not a conversation between two martial artists.  Though the main portion of the letter deals with the concept of fudoshin, Takuan is giving a lesson in the value of the Buddhist teaching regarding fudoshin, and not in how to do martial arts. The letter even includes a section where Takuan is remonstrating Yagyu Munenori for being proud of his ability as a dancer and Noh performer.  For all that, what Takuan has to say about fudoshin is certainly of value to those of us who study budo. He took the term fudo, from the name of one of the Bodhisattva, Fudomyo,不動明王, literally “immovable wisdom lord”.  Lucky for budoka this bodhisattva is a fierce warrior bearing a sword for cutting through ignorance and rope for binding demons, and not a merciful, gentle bodhisattva like Kannon.

Fudomyo-o. Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2015

Takuan was a Zen Buddhist monk, so of course he had to speak in seeming contradictions.  Early in the letter he says


Although wisdom is called immovable, this does not signify any insentient thing, like wood or stone. It moves as the mind is wont to move: forward or back, to the left, to the right, in the ten directions and to the eight points; and the mind that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.


 A mind that moves as it is wont, and “that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom.”  Takuan comes from Rinzai Zen, a sect that loves koan, and this feels a lot like a koan.  It’s not, though you have to do a lot of thinking and reading of the letter to get it.  Clearly, given that he say “the mind that does not stop,” Takuan is not talking about sticking your mind on one thing and making it unmoving, even if he does call it  “immovable wisdom.” So what on earth makes it immovable?


When I read it in Japanese, immovable wisdom, or fudochi is written 不動智, which is far too close to the word for real estate,  fudosan不動産 for me to easily separate the two  Real estate implies something that not only doesn’t move, but something that can’t be moved by human power.  I got stuck on the immovable part, and had trouble grasping “the mind that does not stop at all” portion. Without both though, you can’t really grasp fudoshin.


The mind of the common man sees something and stops on whatever catches his mind’s attention. Even in English we use use words that point up this condition.  We say that something “catches our attention.” If our mind is caught, it stops.  If our mind stops on something, it is caught. Takuan uses the example of looking at the leaves of a tree to describe the effect.

“When the eye is not set on any one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”


For the budoka, this is critical. Takuan goes on for quite a while about the mind getting stuck in different things; in our hand, our sword, the opponents sword, even which attack we want to use.


If our mind can get stuck, it’s not immovable. It still seems like a contradiction. This contradiction goes away when we give up the association of unmoving with immovable. If you walk up to an M1 Abrams Battle Tank, you aren’t going to be able to move it with your body.  For you, it is immovable. But the tank itself is amazingly mobile and agile.  Immovable is not unmoving.


We don’t want our mind to be caught by any particular thing.  With mushin, we are not imposing our ideas and preconceptions on the world. Fudoshin goes beyond that. With fudoshin you are not imposing your preconceptions and assumptions on the world, as that would be one trap where your mind got stuck on something from within you. Beyond that, your mind cannot be captured by what your opponent implies, suggests, feints or does. Takuan puts it “Glancing at something and not stopping the mind is called immovable.”


Takuan Soho's Grave in Tokyo. Photo Copyright Girgoris Miliaresis 2015


You can see something your opponent does, but you’re not trapped by it. If she moves her sword, you see movement, but you don’t get caught by it and miss how she changes her footwork. You see her move to your left, but you don’t become fixated on trying to figure out what the move means.  You accept it and move on.  Your opponent cannot catch your mind and fix it in one place. Your opponent cannot move your mind.


Your mind is moving, but immovable. In kata training, even in Aikido (all those prescribed attack and response drills are kata. Really.), there are many places where the action can branch in any of several directions. If you are fixated on one, perhaps the primary action of the kata, you can get walloped by one of the other branches. This is a particular trap in any sort of training drill, whether you call it a kata or not.


It’s a prescribed drill.  You and your partner both know what you are supposed to do, and you do it. Simple. A very simple trap. Your mind gets caught on what is supposed to happen. Then your partner does something easily imaginable but not what they are “supposed” to do, and you get walloped with the floor, or a stick up side the head, or some other equally unpleasant result. One example is a common Aikido technique, iriminage. There is a point where uke is directed down towards the floor. In the drill, uke stands back up instead of staying down, and is then thrown when they rise. What if uke doesn’t stand up? What if uke scoops nage’s leg as she is going down and throws you? This option can be blocked, but you have to be aware that it exists and not get stuck on what is supposed to happen. In kenjutsu, there are plenty of feints and movements to draw your partner off balance. Koryu arts are filled with startling kiai, stomps, and motions whose main purpose is to move your mind away from the real attack and fix it on something unimportant.


If your opponent can move your mind, you have lost before she is close enough to do anything to you. This is what you want to avoid.  It’s not enough to master mushin. Mushin is only part of  the mental battle. With mushin, you aren’t trying to force your preconceptions on the situation. Mushin doesn’t stop your foe from trapping your mind with her tricks and subtle distractions from the real threat though  You want to be immune to traps that will catch your mind and stick it in one place, making you vulnerable from every other angle.


If you are doing that iriminage mentioned above, you have to do the technique, but you can’t focus on it. You have to let your mind move along each of the options for uke, and negate them. You can’t get stuck on any one of them though.  For your mind to stop moving at any point is to lose because at the next branching uke can reverse the situation and attack you at a point you aren’t defending.  


My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is brilliant at trapping my mind. He can change his stance, or adjust his balance or take an unusual breath and pull me into that action, then he attacks whatever point is open because my mind is fixed in a place of his choosing. I’m getting better. He used to trap my mind every time. I don’t know what the percentage is down to, but every once in a while I finish a kata with him and realize that I didn’t get caught by something he did. I’m making progress.


Mastery of your mind is a journey, just like everything else in budo. It is after all, bu-do 武道, martial way. We don’t get there all at once.  First we learn some physical movements, then we start adding in mushin when we can manage it, and later we begin to learn to let our mind float free in a state of fudoshin. Neither bound by our own intent, nor caught by our foe’s, our mind floats here and there, in our hands, at our sword, at our enemy’s eyes, and then upon their sword, at their feet, then back to our feet or arms or weapons. Never stopping, never caught, always moving to be aware of everything without fixating on anything. Fudoshin doesn’t happen instantly, but with plenty of mindful practice, it will grow and you will relax. Instead of being tight because your mind is focused on your legs and how you hold the sword, you’ll be loose and aware of how your opponent holds her sword, how she stands and how she moves, adjusting your sword and your stance and your position naturally without focusing on what you are doing, and without focusing on what she is doing.


Takuan said “Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well.” That is fudoshin.


The Story Of Keiko Fukudo, Judo's Only Woman 10th Dan
Mrs. Judo: The Story Of Judo's Only Woman 10th Dan







Friday, March 13, 2015

Kata's Hidden Wisdom




Practice is always good, even when it’s bad, but last Saturday was exceptionally good. There is a lot to be learned from exploring kata, even when it’s one you think you know well. This morning we were working on the kneeling kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. We had out our usual assortment of training tools and were working through the kata using swords.  Some of us have live blades and some are using iaito (unsharpened practice swords that let you keep your fingers if you make a mistake).

Iaido, unlike pretty much all other Japanese koryu bugei, is practiced solo. It’s difficult to learn essential concepts such as ma’ai (combative spacing) and timing without a partner. On the other hand, it’s tough to find new partners when you are using a live blade, or even a blunt steel weapon.  Mistakes happen.  Wooden weapons leave bruises. If you’re lucky, steel will only break things. One of the key purposes of iaido is to learn precisely how it feels to handle genuine swords. So we compromise and practice iaido solo for the most part, and do paired kenjutsu practice with bokuto (wooden swords, also called bokken).   

We had the swords and iaito out and were working our way through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. There is one kata in the set that is similar to the kata “Kesa Giri” in the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Kata. That one has always made sense to people.  There is another kata in the set that starts the same way, with a rising kiri age kesa cut, but then switches to a perfectly vertical cut, straight down the middle.

The basic scenario isn’t much different than the Kesa Giri style scenario, so what’s going on here?  Just going through the solo kata over and over again doesn’t seem likely to reveal all the wisdom and secrets that might lie embedded within the kata, but then the question becomes, how do we tease out everything there is to be learned from the kata? We can play with the kata at different speeds, but to really get at it, something more is needed.


I’ve mentioned before about learning by investigating kata, and on Saturday we decided it would be good for us to take my advice. So we put away all our metal blades and got out some bokuto and shinai (bamboo kendo swords) that I have for just these sorts of occasions. Shinai are great because the split bamboo stings if you get hit, but it won’t break anything.

We started by modeling the kata slowly and looking for openings and weaknesses in the movements.  The spacing is envisioned slightly differently from a Kesa Giri scenario, and we discovered one thing right away.  Even though the initial cut forced teki back, it wasn’t likely to injure or stop him. My partner could recover and counter attack faster than I could get my sword flipped around at the top and make my following strike. Even with shinai, getting hit in the head is no fun. At that point the first feature that Kiyama Sensei has always emphasized leaps into focus.

In this kata we don’t cut any higher than absolutely necessary.  This means the sword stops with the tip still pointing at teki’s face.  With a partner trying to counter attack this stop makes a lot more sense. With the sword tip right in front of his face, teki can’t recover and attack. He’d either impale himself in the face on the sword, or cut off his own arm trying to bring it down.  Ok, so that stalls teki.  The next move is a sweep around that moves through a uke nagashi position to a big downward cut. 

The reason for the sweep and the particular way it’s done quickly made itself clear. As soon as I lifted the pressure of the sword tip from teki’s face, he could counterattack.  If I brought the sword up past my ear as in some Kendo Federation kata, or dropped the tip too far, the counterattack landed on my head. When done properly, the sweep provides  necessary cover for my skull.  When doing the sweep, if you move the sword as if doing uke nagashi, it smoothly covers you against the counterattack.

Unfortunately, even after you do everything right your position is still lousy.  After you do the rising cut and drive teki back, hold him there with the sword tip and then sweep your blade around through an uke nagashi block to protect yourself, you are still sitting within easy range of someone who is also holding a long piece of sharpened steel and intends to use it to bisect you. This presents something of a problem.  The best you could seem to hope for is to cut your opponent at the same time he cuts you.

My partner tried cutting into me at an angle thinking perhaps he could knock my sword out of the way, but at best we still ended up smacking each other in the head.  When we went straight at each other we ended up smacking each other even harder.  This is not an auspicious way of ending a kata, so there has to be something else.

There is a technique, most famously found in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but not uncommon in other sword systems, where you cut straight through your opponent’s sword as she is cutting you. Your opponent’s sword is driven off her target and yours continues smoothly to your target. It’s not an easy technique and it takes quite a bit of work to get right. It’s subtle and looks mysterious if you aren’t familiar with it.  It works quite well in this situation.
My partner swung straight at me and I cut straight through his sword. He missed and my shinai landed on his head.  Problem solved. Expect that then we had to spend some time working on cutting through an opponent’s sword while he’s attacking with it. We work on all sorts of these things like this, and the whole time we are practicing the kata.

Kata are often derided as being outmoded learning tools. I think that comes from fundamental misconceptions about how to practice kata. People seem to think that the only way to practice them is to drill them endlessly, in what basically amounts to rote practice.  I’ve seen karate and TKD schools do this with large groups of students repeating the same kata over and over together, everyone maintaining exactly the same timing and spending more time worrying about running into their fellow students than they do about how variations in speed, timing, and spacing might make major differences in how the kata is conceptualized and imagined for practice.


Kata aren’t rote exercises. One of the keys for understanding that is realizing that there are many ways of practicing the same kata.  Whether the kata is solo or paired, you don’t want to do the kata at the same speed and visualizing exactly the same spacing and timing every time you do it. My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is great at messing me up by playing with the timing in kata. He’s as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen with a jo, so I’m always racing to keep control when he is my uchitachi (senior who takes the losing role in paired kata). Except that he’s also brilliant at putting a sudden pause in at critical points in the kata. If I’m not really sharp, I’ll move the way I need to for what I expect Sensei to do, instead of what he’s actually doing. Sensei then gently cuts me in two in as he points out my woeful lack of awareness during the kata. That’s a simple way to mix it up within a kata.


If you’ve got what is a solo kata, that’s fine. Practice it solo. You don’t have to though. I’ve never seen it written anywhere that you can’t grab a partner or two or three and work through a solo kata with them to deepen your understanding of the envisioned timing and spacing, and to understand exactly what is going on with those attacks and defenses.


Yes, I’m sure you’ll have to slow some things down. Maybe you’ll have to use different training tools. Instead of a steel swords, maybe wooden ones, or bamboo shinai, or even foam boppers if those are what’s available and most appropriate for what you’re working on. You’re training and those are all tools for training. Don’t forget that at some point in the past, bamboo shinai were the latest in high tech safe training equipment.  This is training, not a major public demonstration. It’s ok to look silly as you are figuring things out.


Take out the appropriately safe equipment for whatever you want to experiment with and start experimenting. You’ll learn a lot from the exercise, and you might surprise yourself with what you can understand about the kata without being told, just by changing the way you approach it. I can’t even begin to list all the neat tools and equipment my students and I have come up with over the years so we can work on various things without hurting ourselves, the dojo space, or some expensive piece of special equipment like a real sword or a live person.

That was the core of our practice Saturday. We practiced and studied the kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. It may not have looked like we were practicing a bunch of solo iaido kata, but we were. No, we didn’t always have metal swords in our hands, and no, we didn’t always do things solo. Sometimes we did solo practice, and sometimes we found a partner and explored aspects of the kata together. Sometimes we used bokuto and sometimes we attacked each other with shinai and sometimes we even did the kata just the way it is taught in the system. We had lots of questions about the kata, and lots of different tools for exploring those questions from different angles. We explored the kata and looked at what could be done and what happened when we did things differently.  We learned a lot about the kata and improved our understanding. That’s what I call a good practice.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Outside Seminars; or What We Don't Realize About Our Own Training


Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure to attend an excellent seminar in a martial art well outside my own practice. I do Kodokan Judo, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho and Shinto Muso Ryu Jo.  The seminar was focused on basic movements and exercises of Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu. This is an art I know next to nothing about. The movements and techniques are quite different from anything in Judo or Iai or Jo. Why would I bother spending a weekend on something so unrelated to what I train?


   I spend a lot of time focused on improving my skills at the arts I do, so it may not make a lot of sense to take that time away from my primary arts and do something I'm not planning to on doing regularly. For me though, it makes a lot of sense.


There is no such thing as a complete martial art. Is boxing or jujutsu complete? Boxing doesn't include grappling and jujutsu doesn't do much with strikes. MMA prohibits a lot of techniques that could cause permanent injury or cripple. Judo includes some strikes, but ignores joint locks except for the wrist, elbow and shoulder (and one knee lock!). Which one is most complete? There's a problem even there though. There question asks which is “most complete” and not “which is complete?” Many classical arts also teach a variety of weapons in addition to empty hand techniques. Takenouchi Ryu, Soushishi Ryu, Kashima Shinryu, and others teach a variety of weapons, including swords, spears, staves and nasty things with chains.


Even these though aren't complete. None of them teaches extensive unarmed strikes and none includes firearms. Maybe the solution is to study military or police combatives and weapons. Even then you won't get a complete system. Military combatives tend to focus on killing the enemy. Police combatives tend to focus on not doing unnecessary damage. Neither makes an pretense of being complete. Their training is highly focused for specific types of situations. Not complete, but just the opposite, they are very focused one subset of scenarios.


With all the possibilities that exist, there isn't enough room in one lifetime to become competent in everything. We have to choose what we are going to specialize in. That's OK, and it's certainly better than trying to learn everything. That would spread your training time so thin that you'd never be any good at anything. So you limit what you study intensively. Even when you put limits on what you're going to try to master, you don't have to put limits on being aware of other options.


Me, learning about a whole new way to lock up shoulders. Photo Copyright 2015 Masami Mitsusada
Going to seminars outside your art is great for learning what else Is available, and how other arts use their skills to address questions similar to what your own art addresses. A question as simple as “how do you deal with a strike?” gets complicated very quickly. Even just within Judo we have multiple options with a range of effects from simple arm bars, to counter strikes with arm bars, chokes, and multiple types of throws. That's just within in one art. The Karate guys have a number of options that Judo never even considers. Blocks and counter strikes of all sorts. We haven't even started to consider some of the koryu arts that include numerous weapons that might be appropriate.


Different arts frame the question of dealing with particular attacks and situations differently. In Judo, the first response to most attacks is a throw, and after we've explored that, then we'll think about chokes and arm bars. Karateka tend to prefer a hard block and multiple strike response to the same situation. Classical jujutsu styles often use a combination of counter strike followed by dashing their foe into the ground. Aikido might use a smooth blend with the attack followed by a wicked deconstruction of one or more joints.


Me getting an education from Howard Popkin Sens


ei. Photo Copyright Masami Mitsusada 2015.
If you only practice your own art, and never try anything else, you won't really know how broad the options are for dealing with any given scenario. Worse, you can fall into the trap of thinking whatever you do is superior. Martial arts are very Darwinian. Only the ones that have some effectiveness in real situations tend to survive. If someone else does things differently, and they continue to draw students, especially students with backgrounds in law enforcement or similar professions, they probably offer something real.


Being exposed to techniques and exercises that I don't encounter in my regular practice can aid my development.  If you don’t have any idea of what the range of possibilities are, and how they work, your own training is very incomplete. If you don’t know how things really happen, you’re training is going to reflect your best guesses.  Those guesses are likely to be wrong.  In Judo, we have a number of techniques for use versus weapons. Most judoka don’t have any idea how to use those weapons (knives, swords and sticks) effectively, so it’s impossible to train well against them. As it happens, I also do iai and jo, so I bring that experience with me to my judo training.  Swords and sticks are remarkably fast weapons, faster than most people imagine. The average judoka training against weapons in the Kime No Kata doesn’t understand just how far they have to be from the sword or stick to have a chance of reacting before it reaches them.That’s clear from watching they way they train. After years of ia i and jo, that is a mistake I don’t make.


If you’ve never experienced something, and no one you’re training with has ever experienced it, the odds of you doing that training properly approach nil. Years ago, before I really understood this lesson, I had many conversations with friend who has considerably more experience that I do in many areas. He would make a declaration and I, naively, would reject his claims. Then he’d proceed to demonstrate the narrow limits of my experience and understanding by throwing me across the room or tying me into knots. Chuck had learned his arts deeply, but also made sure he was aware of what other arts do, even if he didn’t study them.

Getting out to a seminar or two in another art can broaden your perspective on situations the arts you study are intended to deal with. Every art has a frame through which it interprets the world. It’s very easy, and quite common, to get so accustomed to seeing things through the framework of one art, that we forget there are ways of looking at things that are completely outside the frame we normally train in.  That’s something that going to seminars helps me break out of. At a seminar, looking at the world through someone else’s frame is part of the lesson for me.


The seminar this weekend was taught by Howard Popkin in the art of Daito Ryu, an art I have no background in. Being a judoka, I tend to assume that Judo has cornered the market on kuzushi (often poorly translated as “balance breaking”). This particular seminar shot a number of significant holes in that assumption. It was fascinating to see how small a motion was enough to disrupt someone’s balance, especially when the someone was me. Over the course of the weekend I may have learned even more about assumptions I am making than I did about Daito Ryu.  


I’ve had this happen repeatedly at various seminars I’ve attended over the years. I can remember a koryu sogo bujutsu teacher using me like a mop to wipe the floors with. He knew I was a judoka and could take the falls. I learned a lot about assumptions judoka make about what constitutes the end of an encounter. Judoka live in a very civilized world where an arm lock or hold down will result in a quieted adversary. Koryu arts don’t work at the level of civilization. They tend to assume a far more violent world in which more lasting and damaging measure are required. I came away from that experience with a lot of questions for myself about how to handle different types of threats beyond the assumptions made in most competitive judo dojo.


When I first took up sword and jo I had to reevaluate what I thought I knew about weapons defenses that I’d learned from the kata in the Kodokan Judo System. There are a number of nifty kata against knives and swords and sticks in Judo. The only problem was, the more I learned about how to use these weapons, the less confidence I had in my ability to handle any of them. The ma’ai that I considered safe got longer and longer. The time it takes to deploy the weapons got shorter and shorter. With greater understanding of the weapons the kata are supposed to teach one to deal with, the less appealing dealing with those weapons became.  


I’ve had the opportunity to learn about variety of arts and how they frame the world. It’s interesting, and as I get to view the world through each art’s frame, my own frame gets expanded. If we never venture outside of our own dojo, or own art, we will have a very warped view of what we can do with that art. We have to see things from other perspectives and see how people with other skill sets approach the same problems.  Until we start doing this, we can’t really understand our own art. We have to look at it from the outside occasionally to remind ourselves of all the things that aren’t within the view of our frame.



Howard Popkin Sensei demonstrating how little I know aobut nikyo. Photo Copyright Peter Kotsinadelis 2015.


One of the easiest ways to expand our frame is to attend a few seminars from other arts. I’m not recommending a steady diet of cross training. More like an occasional dessert treat. We want to understand our own arts as deeply as possible. We can’t do that if we never look at our arts from the outside. The occasional seminar helps develop a more complete understanding of what options there are beyond our regular practice and how many different ways a question can be asked and how different the answers can be.