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?