Thursday, March 31, 2016

Better for what?

A friend of mine asked about swords.  He was wondering which was a better investment for iaido practice, a sword made of high quality modern steel or one made in the traditional fashion. I think he may have been surprised at my answer.

"Best for what?" For iai practice, you don't even need a sword made of steel. A well-balanced, well constructed iaito made of zinc-aluminium alloy will do just fine. The problem with many modern “samurai swords” is that they have the balance of crow bar. For classical Japanese sword training like iaido, the most important thing is the construction and balance of the sword. Bad balance or poor construction makes it impossible to learn good technique and can actually injure your arms. Poorly balanced swords put stress on your arms in ways that can damage them..

The best Japanese swords are still the ones made by classically trained smiths. This is because the classically trained smiths understand sword design, geometry and balance in depth. They've studied hundred of great blades and know what shapes are good for different applications and uses. Western made "samurai swords" look vaguely like a Japanese sword, but they generally lack the real character and traits that make a sword of a particular style or era that was designed for real use.

It's less about the particular steel than the geometry and balance. Modern steels are great. They are strong, resilient, inexpensive and rust resistant. Classically made, folded steel is expensive, strong, resilient and rusts if you look at it wrong. The real difference for practice is what the smith does with it. For that, the classically trained smith is hands down the best.  Good iaito are made to mimic the weight, geometry and balance blades made by traditionally trained Japanese smiths, which is why they make the best investment for immediate practice.

This sword discussion reminds me a lot of my thoughts whenever someone asks me what the best martial art is. “Best for what?”  What you want to do with the martial art will determine where the answer goes. Martial arts have as many differences as they do similarities. What’s best is going to depend on what you want out of it. Unfortunately, becoming an unbeatable super warrior isn’t something any art can give. Give some realistic thought to what you want. Is it unarmed or armed skills? Primarily physical or more mental? Do you want to sweat heavily, or only moderately (not sweating is not an option when learning martial arts)?  Lots of contact or not?

While I am an unabashed fan classical Japanese koryu budo, they aren’t best for everyone. One reason is related to why my friend was asking about the difference between swords made with modern steel and those made by classically trained smiths: the cost to acquire one!

Genuine koryu budo are rare, even in Japan. In the USA where I live, they are exceptionally rare.  I can count the number dojo teaching real koryu within a 2 hour drive of my home on my fingers. There are a couple of iai dojo, a jujutsu and kenjutsu ryuha, and my dojo with iai and jo.  That’s it, and in a lot of places there aren’t even this many dojo. What this scarcity means is that learning real koryu budo is expensive.  It means investing a lot of time and money just to get to someplace where you can learn one.  Even then, there’s a good chance that what’s available isn’t exactly what you’re looking for.

Iai is great, but if you’re looking for kenjutsu or bojutsu or jujutsu, it’s not going to do you much good if the only things around are iai dojo. To really study something, you are probably going to have to travel a lot further than 2 hours.  I teach Shinto Muso Ryu and Shinto Hatakage Ryu, but if I want to get instruction for myself, I have to go to where my teachers are. Japan. That’s the only real solution, and it’s not cheap.  I’m lucky enough to be able to do it once or twice a year.

What happens if you can’t afford to travel an hour or more each way to practice, or worse, have to fly somewhere to receive hands on instruction? Koryu budo doesn’t look like a great option. On the other hand, the faux koryu stuff floating around is kind of like the faux “samurai swords.” It may look vaguely like the real thing, but under close examination it will lack many of the characteristics of a genuine koryu budo, and when you try to pick it up and use it, you may discover that it has the balance of a crow bar.

I love koryu budo, but good quality gendai (modern) budo is great too. The metaphor above breaks down a little here, because gendai budo isn’t an attempt to mimic koryu budo the way an iaito mimics a shinken. Gendai budo were created to suit the ages of their founding, and have evolved since then.  They aren’t koryu budo. Good gendai budo don’t try to be.  Good gendai budo are honest about their age and qualities and history.  Judo or aikido or kendo will teach a lot of the same things that you learn in a koryu budo. You’ll learn good structure, breathing, movement, spacing and timing. It won’t have the history or breadth of koryu budo, but it still has a huge amount to teach you.

If you want to learn good budo, do something that will teach you good fundamentals.  I’m fond of saying there are no advanced techniques. There aren’t, and anything that is too specialized, too focused on a particular precise application, won’t be broadly applicable in new situations. A good foundation of understanding your body, structure, breathing, spacing and timing can be quickly adapted and applied to any new situation or study.

Koryu budo are still rare. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near where one is taught, then it’s probably not the best budo for you. I love koryu budo, but if nothing is available, then the best budo for you is probably something that is. I’ve found old Japanese swords in antique shops in the middle of nowhere, but they usually aren’t very good and often have fatal flaws such as deep rust or, worst of all, cracks that make the blade useless. Good judo or karate or aikido or kendo, whatever you can find, go in with eyes open. Just because someone has high rank or a teaching license, there is no guarantee that they are good teachers.

It’s better to learn good quality basics from a relatively low ranked and effective teacher than it is to learn poor quality advanced technique from a highly ranked person who has no teaching skills. It’s better to learn good fundamentals from a good, local, budo teacher than it is to bemoan the fact that you can’t afford to travel to where the art you dream of is taught. Start with an iaito and learn the fundamentals while you save to buy a shinken. Learn good budo fundamentals in a local dojo while you can. When you finally save enough for that beautiful shinken, all the training with the iaito will mean that you can handle it with confidence and safety. All that training in the fundamentals of structure and spacing and timing in the local budo dojo will mean that when it becomes possible to start studying the art you’ve been dreaming of, you’ll already have a solid foundation to build on, instead of having to start completely from scratch.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Budo And Who We Are

Kiyama Sensei emboides budo for me. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2006

We start budo for a lot of reasons. Some people want to learn how to fight better. Others are looking for a form of exercise that’s more interesting than the treadmill or aerobics class. Some are looking for a challenge. Some are looking for an active form of philosophy (don’t laugh, a few of us really did start because we wanted an active philosophical practice).  Once we’re in the dojo though, we get all of budo, not just the bit that brought us through the door.  The tough guy who wanted to learn to fight better gets doses of budo philosophy. The lady looking for an exercise class more interesting than what was happening at aerobics learns to fight better. That geeky guy who was looking for arcane Asian philosophy? He learns how to exercise and to fight.

Whatever our motivation for starting, we all get the same things when we start, a heavy dose of kihon. We practice improving our structure and posture.  We do endless paired exercises to develop mastery of spacing and sense for timing.

Once we understand some basics, we’re attacked with hands, sticks, chains and other weapons, thrown across the room and choked unconscious. We become accustomed to being attacked.  We know where our center is, and it’s a lot harder to knock us off it. As our understanding and mastery of spacing and timing increases, we learn the difference between when someone is posturing, and when they are actually in a position to attack.

If we are doing our budo right, we are also learning about ourselves. It’s fine to learn physical techniques and how to control spacing, but if we don’t learn to master ourselves, our minds and emotions as well, we are still weak.  It does no good to have incredible physical balance if someone can destroy our mental balance with a word or two.

Practicing technique is great, but we cannot forget to practice being the person we want to become as well.  Budo is more than just physical technique because it has to be. The mind directs and controls the technique. If the mind isn’t trained to have a good structure and balance, any opponent who can off-balance you mentally can defeat you, regardless of the quality of their physical technique.

In Japanese budo circles, you’ll often hear about seishin tanren 精神鍛錬, or “spirit forging”. The goal is to develop mental strength and balance. Scenes of martial artists standing under waterfalls in winter, calmly chanting in the freezing cold are a staple of samurai movies in Japan. This is an obvious form of seishin tanren. Buddhist monks, Shugendo ascetics and budoka all use this as a means of learning to transcend physical limitations through mental and development

Over time, budo has to go deeper than just something we play with. If it’s going to be budo, it has to be more than just a sport or game we play. It has to soak into our core and change us. The physical changes are usually visible to everyone. Those lessons about structure and movement change how you move outside the dojo. You get annoyed when you find yourself slouching forward or leaning back on your heels. People can see the effect, even when they aren’t sure what it is.

As we practice budo, the mental effects sink deeper and deeper into us as well. One day it stops being enough that you can hold your temper and ignore your frustration during sparring so you don’t make an emotional mistake. You start letting go of the pride and things that opponents in the dojo use to off-balance you and create frustration and anger. You’re sparring gets better as your mental state remains calmer and smoother. You let things come and go without clinging to them. You start to touch fudoshin from time to time.

As you travel along the budo path, the lessons sink deeper and deeper into your being. You start noticing things outside the dojo. That’s when your training starts happening all the time. What your mental state is at home, at work, on the freeway and everywhere becomes important to you. The quality of your mental state becomes important, and you start letting go of things that hurt it. Letting other people’s actions influence your mental state become increasingly unacceptable.

The clear focus and imperturbable, fudoshin, mind of the dojo is your goal all the time. My daily commute provides one of the finest venues for practicing this I can imagine. Detroit freeways are filled with people who are grumpy, grouchy and angry, and take out their unhappiness at having to go to work like everyone else on the road.  Being tailgated and cut off by aggressive drivers and then being blockaded by oblivious drivers in the fast lanes is great mental training. It’s easy to get angry at people who are rude, dangerous drivers, or at people who toddle along without paying attention to the effect they’re having on the world around them.

It’s easy to get hung up on the bad behavior around us, especially on the freeway where that bad behavior is dangerous. We learn to let go of the stupid, aggressive, foolish things our partners do in the dojo rather than holding on to them and the emotions they engender. When the guy in the black sedan roars up on our bumper, then swerves around us on the left and forces us to brake as he cuts across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit, getting angry and focusing on the other guys idiocy is all too easy.

Good budo is hard to learn. Remaining calm and present and focused on the action at hand isn’t just something nice in the dojo when you’re sparring. If you don’t let go of the idiot that nearly wrecked your car cutting across three lanes of traffic you might miss the fact that the guy in front of you just swerved to miss debris in the road and run straight over it. Or miss the guy braking suddenly just ahead of you and plow into him.

The more our budo practice seeps out of the dojo into the rest of our world, the better we get at not holding onto the things that upset and off-balance  us. Really successful, old, budoka have calmness about them that seems impossible. Nothing seems able to upset their mental stability. They’ve learned the lessons in the dojo and practiced applying them everywhere. They don’t hold onto things that hold them back. They don’t lose their temper and they aren’t impressed or upset by people who do.

When we are open to the lessons of our training, they seep out the door of the dojo and show up all over our daily lives. That’s really the point. Budo isn’t like basketball, where the practice stays on the court. Budo is supposed to change how you perceive and interact with the world. Getting accustomed to people trying to hit, choke and throw you should change you. Especially when your friends succeed from time to time in hitting, choking and throwing you.

After some time practicing budo, socially aggressive folks shouldn’t seem like much of a problem. The pushy ones don’t seem as pushy anymore. The more you practice, the more those special, strong postures for the dojo show up at the office or in the mall. Turns out good, solid budo posture is useful for turning down the enthusiasm of pushy salesmen and obnoxious coworkers. It’s downright amazing what a zanshin filled stare will do.

The longer you train, the more natural and unconscious budo kihon becomes. You stand more solidly. People will notice that you move differently. They may even comment on how gracefully you move, particularly when you’re not thinking about budo. These are signs that you are absorbing your budo practice and it is becoming a part of you.

All that  practice breathing and staying relaxed while people attack you with big sticks turns out to be useful for maintaining mental and emotional balance during those sorts of attacks too. As budo practice is absorbed deeper, you notice when your emotions are making you tense and unbalanced. That’s when you discover that the same breathing exercise and other practices used to control physical tension are effective on mental and emotional tension as well.

Long before you are aware of the changes, people around you will notice the effects of budo practice working on you. You don’t get as worked up about things. As long as no one is actively trying to hit you with a stick or choke you, they cease to be threatening. You stay relaxed even as pressure mounts.  All because you’ve learned to dislike being tense because it ruins your budo, and you’ve learned how to breathe to control some of the tension.

Budo lessons sneak up on us. Budo practice doesn’t transform you into a master of calm and peacefulness in an instant. Early on, the lessons and practices of the dojo show up in the rest of your life as a surprise when you’re not looking. Over time the strong posture, steady movement and calm, clear mind becomes more and more normal for you.

As you absorb your budo practice into yourself, step by step, repetition by repetition, it becomes less something you practice, and more something you are.  That’s what budo does.

Monday, March 14, 2016


Kyoto Butokuden Dojo.  Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2015

 Something happens when I take off my shoes, stick them on the shelf by the door, bow and step onto the dojo floor. For me, it’s like coming home after long trip, even if I was there yesterday. My stomach relaxes and my feet feel like they extend deep into the floor. My breathing deepens, and a smile seeps out from the corners of my mouth and flows all across my face.  The dojo is my favorite, happy, peaceful place.

Dojo 道場、is an old word borrowed from Chinese Buddhism. When Buddhism entered China, the Chinese language was already rich with Taoist and Confucian spiritual terms. Buddhism borrowed freely from this trove of language to describe ideas from sanskrit. Terms related to “way” 道,  “michi” in Japanese are frequently used for Buddhist ideas.  Dojo is one of them. Written with the characters for “way” 道 and “place” 場, the term came to mean the spot under the bodhi tree in India where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. From there it was applied to halls where the  Buddhist teachings, sutras, are studied and where monks chant and meditate.

Somewhere in the early Edo period (1604-1868) people began calling martial arts practice halls “dojo.” The Edo period was preceded by several hundred years of fractious war in Japan. During that time martial arts training related to military activity and generally took outdoors. Martial arts instructors traveled with the armies, which didn’t tend to have long term barracks. Training happened in the field.

It was only with the establishment of peace that permanent training halls became a practical option. The armies were mostly decommissioned, and the much smaller forces that remained were serving in peacetime. Troops were based in the castle towns and weren’t likely to experience the battlefield. Under these circumstances, troops, officers, and anyone who claimed the status of bushi, would need to train somewhere.

Instructors connected to the local daimyo, or lord, became established in most castle towns. It was probably not uncommon for training early in this period to take place in the dojo of Buddhist temples. These would have been the largest indoor spaces available initially. When purpose built budo training halls started to appear, they were built in a similar manner and carried the name with them.

The tradition of the temple dojo doubling as a martial arts dojo didn’t end when people started building dedicated martial arts dojo. The temple dojo hall, much like a church hall in the West, served as a sort of community hall, and would be used for many things in the community. The most famous instance of a temple dojo serving as a martial arts dojo is the place where Kodokan Judo was founded in 1882 in at the tiny, neighborhood Eisho Temple in Tokyo.

It doesn’t matter what the dojo is like, or even if it’s just the parking lot in back of my first jodo teacher’s house. When I bow to show my respect for entering the special space, even if the only thing making it special is my bow, I transform that space for myself. That bow I do before stepping into the training space marks it off from the rest of the world. The dojo is special because we make it special.

The dojo is a wonderful place where people are encouraged to grow and push themselves, to develop themselves as much as possible. Much of what happens in the world isn’t concerned with who we are or what we become. That’s not the world’s fault. Mother Nature is a tough lady, and sometimes personal development seems like a luxury when there are immediate needs of meals and mortgages.

For me though, that time I spend in the dojo is essential to being better at fulfilling those requirements of food and shelter so I can work on other things. The dojo is the place where working on myself, becoming better at being me, is allowed and encouraged. I know it doesn’t always look like that, especially when Hotani Sensei is yelling at me, but it is.

Sensei can yell at me all he wants, because he has proven that I can trust him. Training with him is as hard and as fierce as it gets, but not abusive. The dojo is filled with people I’ve learned to trust through the experience of training with them. That sense of trust makes the dojo a uniquely comfortable setting for me. I go to judo and people throw me around the room and try to choke me. I go to jodo and everyone tries to hit me with sticks. It’s odd, but, this makes these dojo more comfortable and secure to be in, not less.

That trust shows up in the respect everyone feels in a good dojo too. I respect people for overcoming their fears and worries and coming through the door. It takes a lot to decide you want to do something where getting banged and bruised is less a distant possibility and more a near certainty. Budo hurts sometimes, but so does life. Learning to handle it and distinguish between hurt and harm is one of those budo lessons that is useful all the time. It isn’t a fun lesson in the learning, though learning it makes you seem tough to people outside the dojo.  The respect is simple. If you have have what it takes to show up and bow in, we respect that.

Stepping onto the mat in a good dojo isn’t like going home.  It is going home. Everyone there wants to improve themselves and they want to see everyone else in the dojo improve too. The amount of care and concern is remarkable for something the world usually sees as just a hobby or pastime. These people will push me and pull me and drag the best out of me, and I’ll do the same for them.

When I first moved to Japan, and spoke about 10 words of conversational Japanese, I asked the people I worked with to introduce me to where I could practice judo. I’d been doing it for 4 years in the college before I moved to Japan and had a brown belt. One of the junior high teachers made some calls and got me introduced to the judo coach at the local high school, Sakashita Sensei.  I was invited to come over and join the practice. I could barely introduce myself in Japanese, but it turns out I spoke fluent judo. I knew how to bow properly. I knew nearly all the general dojo terms and commands. In a land where I didn’t speak the language or know the culture, I discovered a place where I was welcomed and where it turned out I knew the rules, the etiquette and the language! 

Yokaichi High School Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 1991

9,000 km (6,000 miles) from home, and I am welcomed into a dojo and invited to practice. That means these people invited me to try to throw them around the room, pin, choke and arm lock them. What wonderful hospitality! Of course, I offered them the opportunity to do the same to me, and believe me, they did. It really was a homecoming for me. As soon as I bowed in I was treated like every other player on the mat.  They weren’t sure what a brown belt meant, since they only use white and black for adult ranks in Japan, but they were happy to throw me around and assure themselves I could take it while I got a feeling for just how far into the deep end I had jumped.

It really doesn’t matter where the dojo is, or what it looks like.  Once I’ve bowed in, the air becomes sweeter, I stand a little better, and my step becomes more comfortable. When I’m in the dojo, I’m where I belong.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Budo Art by Brian Hanlon

My friend Brian Hanlon is painter and graphic artist who does some wonderful budo artwork. Brian practices Shinto Muso Ryu jo and Kung Fu.  He has also trained in Aikido and Judo. His artwork reflects his real understanding of the budo technique.

UCHI MATA Copyright Brian Hanlon 2016

He's doing a project to turn the above work, UCHI MATA, into a t-shirt over at teezily

TAI OTOSHI Copryright Brian Hanlon 2016

The originals are available at his Etsy Store KORYU ARTS.

There just isn't enough good budo art around.  Please take a look at Brian's, and support his efforts.