Monday, June 20, 2016

The Growth Of Budo

I was listening to NPR the other day on the way to work and they had an interview with Takagi Kikue, an 83 year old survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Takagi San’s openness in sharing her experience with Americans, and her ability to grow beyond the nationalism she grew up in and to embrace the world without seeming bitter even after the horrors she lived through brought back memories of my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei. He was a grand gentleman when I met him. Tall for Japanese, particularly of his era, he was already in his seventies when I first met him.

He was leading an iaido demonstration at the Minakuchi Castle ruins, It was quite the display. I remember that Suda Sensei had borrowed a suit of armor and was wearing that for the demonstration. 20 or so people swinging swords and a guy in full armor before a castle turret and gate makes for quite a site. I wish I’d taken more pictures. I was there because I’d heard there would be an iai demonstration. I started looking for iaido after I got to know the swordsmith Nakagwa Taizoh because I wanted to be better able to appreciate the incredible swords I was always seeing and handling when I visited him.

I somehow got myself introduced to Takada Sensei and asked about studying iai. At the time I lived 5 minutes from the castle, but I was planning to move to Yokaichi soon. Luckily for me, Takada Sensei was teaching in Eichigawa, just 2 train stops and a 5 minute walk from where I would be living.  They held practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the half of the community gym not being used by the local kendo club at the same time. It turned out that Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were both senior members and teachers of the kendo club as well as teaching iai.  

Both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were Japanese Imperial Army veterans. In 1993 there were still a lot of veterans of The Great Pacific War around. Takada Sensei invited me to come train at their dojo.. He was the senior teacher, and although both he and Suda Sensei were 7th dans in iai, and both were in their 70s, I found out later that Takada Sensei was Suda Sensei’s teacher. They were both amazing, quick and strong.  

I made the effort to go to iai practice, still a bit apprehensive about being a gaijin doing a classical Japanese martial art. This was 1993, and gaijin in classical budo were still extremely rare. The only worthwhile books on the subject that I had seen were Donn Draeger’s, and they didn’t fill me with confidence that someone showing up, gaijin or Japanese, would be automatically welcomed into the family.
Takada Shigeo Sensei

Fortunately for me, Takada Sensei was a grand, warm, outgoing human being who was delighted to have someone interested in the art he taught. He had me practicing the first night when I arrived to ask if it might be ok to learn iaido. I was expecting every myth and legend about starting a traditional martial art that you can imagine. Anything was possible in my active imagination, and I envisioned scenarios from having to sit outside for a number of classes to having to perform outrageous demonstrations of my sincere desire to learn (having seen what kindergarten and elementary students in Japan often had to go through with wearing shorts all winter for school to toughen them, and some of the gatsu (guts) training that junior high and high school sports teams go through (thousand fungo drill anyone?), I was more than a little worried about what I might have to do to prove I was serious.

It turned out my biggest concern was how soon I could get an iaito, hakama and keikogi. At first, Takada Sensei lent me an old one the dojo had, but I needed to get a hakama and keikogi right away. That called for a quick trip to Kyoto. I’m always up for a trip to Kyoto, and an excuse to browse through all the budo shops around the Budo Center is always welcome.  So I found a beautiful indigo, cotton hakama. It cost more than I could afford while buying an iaito though, so I saved money by asking my sister-in-law to sew ties on an old judogi and turn that into a keikogi. Takada Sensei seemed ok with that.

Budo such as iai were born in a place and time where anyone who wasn’t Japanese had no rights in Japan, and in fact just being from somewhere else and being in Japan was a crime punishable by death. In that time and place, to be Japanese was to be sure you were the finest flowering of human accomplishment. The rest of the world was filled with barbarians who would surely benefit from the civilizing influence of Japanese culture, but were probably too barbaric to really appreciate it.

Less than a hundred years after that world came to a violent end, torn apart from within, Japan was at war with much of the world, driven in part by a firm belief in the superiority of the Japanese culture and spirit.. Takada Sensei and Suda Sense both served in that war in their youth. The budo the studied in their youth had a frighteningly nationalistic bent to it. People like me were clearly barbarians utterly incapable of appreciating the subtlety and profundity of budo and other aspects of Japanese culture.

Takada Sensei could have carried the ideology and prejudices he was raised in with him throughout his life. Instead he transcended that. Budo, which when he began it had been co-opted as a tool for indoctrinating and preparing people for military service, became much more than that. Oddly enough for things that are called “martial arts,” budo like iaido managed to grow by shedding their militaristic accretions. Takada Sensei, who started budo while being prepared for life as a soldier, transcended his early lessons. He gave up his prejudice and grew.

His budo grew with him. When I met him, he was thrilled to be able to share his iaido with me. He really loved teaching me, and all of his students. I was his first non-Japanese student, but not the last one. Even in the very rural corner of Shiga Prefecture where we were, international students started to find the dojo as both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei made a point to let people know that international students would be warmly welcomed.

Takada Sensei enjoyed pointing to his sword, a beautiful 450 year old blade that still had the military mounting he put it in when he went off to war. He would take it out and say “This was for killing Americans, but now it teaches them.” He was very happy and proud that he, his sword, and his art, had grown beyond the limits and prejudices of his youth. Instead of an instrument of war, his sword had become a tool for bringing people together in a shared journey of growth.

Budo is not a static idea, and Takada Sensei understood this well. What budo means, the reasons for practicing it, the goals to be achieved along the path of practice are not stuck in one age or ideal. People argue about what constitutes “real budo” as if there was some point in history when budo was pure, pristine and perfect. Happily for us, that day never was.

Budo is not a something anyone can possess.Takada Sensei, with his sharply ironic comments about the change in the status of his sword understood and embodied that better than many. Budo started out as a very practical aspect of training soldiers to fight. This training blended with Neo-Confucian ideas and the influence of sado, tea ceremony practices, after the establishment of peace during the Tokugawa era. For 250 years the idea of what budo is was blended with ideas from all over Japan. With the opening of Japan new ideas flooded in. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a backlash developed against the seemingly overwhelming tsunami of new and foreign ideas. Early in the 20th century budo was swept up in the arguments about how Japan should develop any ideas of Japanese uniqueness. By this time though budo had developed too widely to be truly claimed by any one view.

Great budo thinkers and leaders from kendo, iai, kenjutsu, naginata, and judo argued and debated whether budo practice should serve the state, Japan or all of humanity. A few, like Kano Jigoro Shihan of Kodokan Judo, had sufficient status to be able to openly disagree with the militarists in power. Most teachers did not have significant status to protect them if they didn’t agree with those in power. Those who did agree gravitated to the big, national, budo organization. Those who didn’t generally kept their heads down and their opinions to themselves.

Everyone who grew up in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s grew up doing some sort of budo in school. Boys did kendo, judo, jukendo. Girls learned naginata. It was considered an essential part of the education and development of proper Japanese spirit.

Takada Sensei was a gifted and talented swordsman, with kyoshi certificates in both iai and kendo.  I can still picture him handling his family’s heirloom sword with casual power and perfect control. When he swung it looked as easy and effortless as child with a bubble wand, and when he stopped the blade it was as sudden and solid as if he had driven it deep into a tree stump.  Like his sword, he was polished and bright.  Even in his late seventies, when I met him, his budo was bright and lively, polished smooth and shining.

He didn’t get there quickly. He spent decades and decades and decades on the path of budo striving to perfect his technique and himself. He wasn’t perfect, no one ever gets there, but he was a wonderful example to me of what the journey can be and where it can take you. From a young officer in the Japanese military to a lifetime of teaching people of all ages how to be a little bit better today than they were yesterday through training with the sword, he grew and matured. Along the way so did his budo.

By the time I found my way into Takada Sensei’s dojo in 1993 he had more than 60 years of budo practice and shugyo under his wide kaku obi. He’d been thinking about what budo was, and the budo Sensei was teaching when I found my way into his dojo was greater than just something that only native Japanese could appreciate and benefit from. Budo that wasn’t limited to training medieval warriors for life in a land of endless civil war. Budo that wasn’t limited to being a finishing school for the social elites who ran pre-modern Japan. Budo that certainly wasn’t limited to developing the spirit in Japanese youth to conquer and dominate the world.

Takada Sensei taught me and showed me budo that is for the world. His sword, instead of cutting down enemies as it was surely intended to do when crafted during the Muromachi Era, performed the miracle of binding together an old Japanese gentleman and an immature, young American. Budo grew from deep Japanese roots, but it is flowering around the world.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Joy Of Being A Student

I attended a marvelous seminar over the weekend.  I’m not always a fan of seminars, but this was fabulous. There were two high level teachers, and nothing was required of me but that I be a willing student open to learning.  It is a role I don’t get to play as often as I would like.  I’ve been doing budo long enough that more often than not, I’m one of the senior people in the dojo.  I spend more time teaching students than I do as a student.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. I just happen to love learning even more. The longer I do budo though, the opportunities to be a pure student become more and more rare.  This annual seminar in Guelph is one of the best for me. The seminar was led by to two 8th dans from Japan.

The students were divided into two groups by rank. Those of us who hold higher ranks for North America (nothing exceptionally high in Japan) were training together. Nobody had to do anything but try and understand the level Morimoto Shihan was attempting to pull us up to.

I trained with people of similar skill, and with whom I shared the joy of trying to figure out the subtleties of Morimoto Shihan’s technique.  All of us are fairly experienced at Kendo Federation jodo, but he kept doing things that we could hardly imagine. Little motions with the jo that made the sword go whipping out of our hands with maki otoshi, or slight adjustments of the striking point in hiki otoshi uchi.

I love trying to work out what a teacher is doing. Just focus on the problem and go after it without any other worries. Being able to go into training and just open myself up for whatever the teacher has to offer. There is a term in Japanese that describes the ideal state of mind for a learner, shoshinsha 初心者。It’s a wonderfully descriptive term that is often translated as “beginner’s mind.”  The characters for “mind” and “person,” kokoro and mono 者、 are pretty straightforward. “Sho”  is a little more unusual. It’s the same character as in shodan 初段, which is usually incorrectly translated as “1st degree black belt.” In shodan, the “sho” is more like “beginning” as is “beginning step.”  In shoshinsha, the feeling is even more subtle.  It’s not just beginner, but it strongly harkens to the meaning of as a stand alone word, when it is read as “ubu” and has connotations of “artless; innocent; naive; unsophisticated.”

I wish I could always suspend my preconceptions and my prior learning and my ego so I could stand before any teacher as an artless, innocent, unsophisticated student absorbing the lesson without first filtering it through my preconceptions.. All too many times I drag all my preconceptions about what an art is and how it should be practiced with me.  I assume that my experience means that I know something of value, and my ego insists on putting its spin on everything. My ego wants to make everything complex and sophisticated.

It’s so much better when I can let go of my ego and be a beginner again. Morimoto Shihan is so much better than I that my ego looked around and said “I’ve got nothing to offer here. Call me when you’re dealing with someone who’s down in our league.” With my ego checked out, I could relax and make any mistakes I could find to make and not feel the least bit ashamed.  I completely blew the transition in one kata, and it didn’t bother me at all. I just thought “Wow, he is really smooth. I’m going to need a lot more practice to be able to keep up with him.” None of the usual excuses or rationalizations came flying to the front of my mind. It was perfectly clear to me and my ego that I was completely outclassed and that what training with Morimoto Shihan calls for is a whole lot more practice on my part.

In my college judo days our club motto was “Mada heta desuまだ下手です, or“still inept” as we liked to translate it. At this seminar I could say I am “mada heta desu” without any self-consciousness and without any false humility.  This was a wonderful and freeing feeling. I could see how little I know, and how far I have to go before I can start to believe I know anything about this art I claim to study.

As we progress along the path of budo, we pick up ideas, knowledge and habits. Budo is a journey down a path that extends further than we can travel in a lifetime. There are endless discoveries to be made. The irony is that more we “learn” and the more we “know” the slower our progress becomes. The more “knowledge” and “skill” we accumulate, the heavier the pack of our learning becomes. The more we are burdened by what we already know, the more difficult it becomes to move forward, the easier it becomes to be satisfied with wherever we are along the path.

The tragedy of this is, if we can just let go of what we already know, we can move forward along the path of budo very quickly. Letting go of what we already know requires uncurling our grasp upon hard earned gems of knowledge, skill and understanding. Having reached one level in jodo, it’s been difficult for me to recognize that the skills, techniques and understanding that have gotten me this far will not get me to the next level. The ranking system in Japan is not based on degrees of black belt, though even the Japanese will ask if you have a kuro obi or “black belt.” It’s based on the idea of steps, and the steps seem to have been borrowed from the ten steps on the Bodhisattva path in Buddhism.  The first step is just the starting step, the shodan 初段。

The final stage, the tenth step, is perfection in the path. To be a tenth dan implies perfection. That no one can be perfect is the reason the major budo organizations in Japan rarely (or never in some cases) award a tenth dan. No one is perfect. If we can’t let go of the learning and skills we’ve acquired, there is no way to move beyond our current level.  Invariably, whatever it has taken to get to my current level, will act as a dead weight holding me back from getting to the next level until I let go of it, let go of what I “know.”
Buddhism makes that point that our attachments are the cause of our suffering. Budo has taught me that our attachments are also the cause of our inability to improve and advance. Any time I become attached to a technique, a way of doing something, or a way of conceptualizing a principle, I stop progressing. It’s only when I look at something and wonder “What’s a better way of doing this?” that I start moving forward again. Just because what I am doing works better than my students technique, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a method superior to the one I’m using.

That can be a tough pill to swallow. My ego really seems to believe my technique is already fabulous. When I start listening to my ego, I find it difficult to hear more reasoned, more experienced voices that could teach me something. If find it difficult to hear my teachers telling me what I need to do to improve, when I’m busying listening to me ego tell me how great I am.

A more useful outlook than dwelling on what we “know” is those t-shirts from my judo club days at Western Michigan University that say まだへたです mada heta desu. “Still inept.” No matter how good you are, there is always something more to learn. I try to remember that and ignore my ego so I can return to that wonderful state of being a clean slate for whatever the teachers have to share with me.

I find that when I can keep in mind that I’m “still inept” and just learn from the teachers without letting my ego talk, training is a joyous experience filled with discovery. Purely being a student, open to everything and making new discoveries with nearly every step is as wonderful an experience as any I can think of. I’m grateful to Morimoto Shihan and Tsubaki Shihan for a wonderful weekend of learning and discovery.