Friday, February 19, 2016

Upcoming seminar February 27 & 28 in NYC

I'm going to be in New York City teaching Jodo.  If anyone is interested, there are still a couple of open spaces.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Am I Really Practicing Budo?

We go to the dojo regularly.  We practice hard.  We listen and try to follow sensei’s direction when she says “Cut with your hips” or “More extension” or the all-purpose direction “Relax.” We do these things.  We learn to do o soto gari or nikyo or kiri oroshi or whatever the technique is. Are we really practicing budo though?  Is budo what the samurai did in Japan? If that’s the core of what budo is, how is it possible for us to do budo now, in the 21st century?

Of course, if budo is what the samurai did in ancient Japan, then the next question is, which samurai in which period of Japanese history? The samurai of the 14th century were quite different from those of the late 16th century, who differed tremendously from those of the 17th century, and who might not have recognized all of the attitudes and behaviors of the samurai in the 19th century.
In the 14th century, samurai armies were often paid in loot. As for budo, the first of the ways, cha no yu or sado (tea ceremony, the way of tea) was just beginning to form.  Such a thing as “budo” wouldn’t be envisioned for several hundred years. The idea of forming bugei ryuha wouldn’t become common for another 200 years.

Katori Shinto Ryu only stakes its founding in the 15th century, while Kashima Shinryu and Kashima Shinto Ryu both date to the 16th century, as does Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. In that era the term “budo” hadn’t been coined yet, in part because the idea of discrete Ways, michi, 道 was still being formed in the teaching and practice of tea ceremony. What people did when training in these early ryuha was bugei 武芸. That second character is the same as in geisha 芸者 and means an artistic skill, technique, or performance.

It’s only in the 17th century, with the establishment of peace throughout the Japanese islands by the Tokugawa shogunate, that we begin to see a flourishing of discrete bugei ryuha.  Prior to this soldiers would be training together in armies moving and fighting all across the country.  Skills were constantly practiced, applied and evaluated in battle. After the the Pax Tokugawa was established in 1604, the armies were disbanded and skills were no longer used and tested.

With peace, there came time to codify and systematize teachings. People saw a genuine need for bugei schools where samurai could train in skills that were no longer applied on a regular basis. Over time, being able to show certification of training became important for samurai to earn promotions and to gain increases in their stipend.

Iaido schools flourished in the peaceful world of Tokugawa Japan

As the Tokugawa peace continued, townspeople who couldn’t wear the two swords of the samurai began to train in various bugei, and jujutsu systems flourished. With an emphasis on unarmed techniques and a variety of weapons besides the sword, these styles were well suited to the interests and legal limitations of merchants, craftspeople and wealthy farmers as well as samurai.

Over centuries the weapons changed as well. The famous samurai sword was originally little more than a backup sidearm for when the mounted archer ran out of arrows. The skills a samurai practiced were known as kyubajutu 弓馬術, “bow horse skills” since the primary role of the samurai was as a mounted archer. The sword might only be drawn when the battle was finished to collect the heads of defeated opponents for presentation to the winning lord so the samurai could get his reward.

Over time, pikemen armed with yari grew in importance on the battlefield and tactics for countering the speed and power of the mounted archers developed. Then in 1543 Portuguese merchants sold matchlock rifles to a Japanese lord and within 20 years these weapons that could be used by anyone with minimal training had transformed the battlefield. 65 years after they entered Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu used firearms to decisively take control of the country and bring the age of warfare to an end in Japan.

Under the reign of the Tokugawas, firearms were secured for the sole use of the Tokugawa and regional daimyo forces. Following in the path of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, only members of the samurai class could carry swords. The samurai for the most part ceased to be soldiers and warriors as they transformed into the bureaucratic class responsible for running the country.

As government officials in a peaceful nation, members of the samurai class practiced swordsmanship. Without battles to test themselves in, challenge matches with bamboo weapons proliferated and styles such as Itto Ryu, whose tactics and techniques were well suited to this sort of dueling, grew in popularity along with the matches. Non-samurai also began studying and styles emphasizing unarmed skills such as Tenjin Shinyo Ryu flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Following the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868, the reopening of Japan to the world and the abolishment of the samurai class, the martial practices changed along with the world. Competitive displays flourished as the old martial skills lost their role in society. These competitive displays mixed with new ideas about sports from western culture and the modern arts of judo and kendo emerged. Instead of being used in battle, or being a part of a class and role expectation, the arts became educational and recreational activities.

Kano Jigoro 1860 - 1938
Kano Jigoro lead the way by molding his Kodokan Judo into a system that could be incorporated into the physical education curriculum of the new government’s national education system in Japan and by instituting a clear tournament system. Leading swordsmen in Japan soon followed Kano’s example and did the same, taking elements from numerous forms of kenjutsu and creating a standardized system for national use that was incorporated into the public education system in Japan.

In the 21st century, all of these are called budo.  Are they all budo though? Is the modern study of judo and kendo the same budo, the same spirit, that the samurai in the 15th and 16th centuries learned in Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinryu and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu? Of all the experiences of budo through the centuries, which one is the true budo?  The guys who fought for loot and collected heads for reward? Perhaps the true budo was practiced by the samurai of the Tokugawa era, who might go their whole life without needing to use their martial skills. Or is it only the modern budo, with the influence of Kano Jigoro in judo and the great kendo teachers like Nakayama Hakudo in the 20th century that is true budo? Is it only budo if you’re using it professionally as the samurai did? Do you have to be a soldier, guard, or law enforcement officer to truly do budo?

Nakayama Hakudo 1873-1958

A mistake we often make when encountering something from a different culture is to force it into a pre-existing category from our own culture. We try to draw the same lines between things that we are used to. There are many people who maintain that any art or way that seeks to promote individual development cannot be a true martial art. I’ve also encountered people who maintain what they do is superior because exponents explicitly talk about peace and harmony while bending joints and tossing people around the room.

One of the most difficult things to wrap my head around when I first moved to Japan was that things do not have to be clearly differentiated black or white. People there are generally not Buddhist or Shinto. They are Buddhist and Shinto who might well get married in a Christian ceremony, exchange chocolate on Valentine’s Day and check the calendar for auspicious and unlucky days from Taoism.

It is not Japanese culture that draws sharp lines between things. There is no need to call one the budo of one era “the true budo” (though you do run into people in Japan who claim that things in modern Japan have deteriorated and degenerated badly and need to be infused with the spirit of some previous age. Mishima committed suicide while making just that claim).  Ways are paths, roads, and roads can go long distances through wildly different terrain, all while changing from concrete to asphalt to gravel to dirt and back again.  It’s all still the same road.

If we stop trying to fit things into the discrete categories that our culture tries to fit everything into, and adopt a lesson from the home culture of budo, it might be easier to see that we are all on the same road. It’s a lesson that never tires of slapping me in the face from different angles. The beginner who just walked in the door is on the same road as the 90 year old master who’s been training for 80 years.  They are on very different stretches of road, but it’s the same road none the less.

The same idea applies to the people who have practiced budo in all those different eras.  They were on the path, practicing the Way. They weren’t where we are. They were on other sections of that road. The bits that are “relevant” keep changing. Armored warfare with bows, arrows, spears and swords dominated the fight for centuries. Firearms transformed things and made armor obsolete. Technology moved forward and somehow armor is back.

The immediately applicable bits and the historical scenery change, but the fundamental lessons that form the foundation of the budo Way never seem to. I’ve written about what I consider fundamental to budo. Whatever else it does, budo has to teach how to move with good structure, an understanding of the effective ranges of movement, how to use time, and it has to be concerned with making practitioners not just better fighters, but better people.  If it’s doing those 4 things, it’s probably budo.

Those 4 essentials haven’t changed   since some samurai in ancient Japan first started putting together a budo curriculum. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, those essentials have to be there. Whether it is unarmed jujutsu, kenjutsu, kyudo or modern firearms, you have to understand structure, spacing and timing to be effective, and those ancient samurai teachers recognized that bullies and jerks need to be grown into decent human beings if they are also going to be entrusted with martial skills. If those items are the basis of everything else going on in your training, then what you’re doing will still be budo, whichever century you’re in.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ukemi Skills, Flow and Counters

In my last post I wrote about ukemi 受身, or receiving techniques. Proficiency in ukemi is important in arts like judo and aikido where practitioners are thrown around the room and have to be able to land safely. How you receive attacks is critical in arts like karate and kenjutsu as well.  

How you receive techniques is fundamental. When we start we are all a least a little stiff and scared. Whether it’s fear of falling and hurting ourselves, or the fear of getting hit with a stick or a fist, we react by tensing up. Relaxing when you know someone is going to pick you up over their head and throw you at the floor is tough.

The mental states of mushin  and fudoshin are essential for doing good budo. I’ve written about the mental states, but these are reflected in the body and impact how we deal with attacks.  If you’re afraid of getting hurt, if your mind is stuck on the possibility of pain, you’re not going to be able to respond properly. You’re going to be stiff and worried.  Your state of mind translates very directly to your body.

Basic ukemi, whether they be breakfalls, blocks, or other methods of receiving attacks, have to be practiced until they are smooth and until we are so sure of them that we can relax when our training partner attacks and just focus on our partner. Our bodies have to have to be emptied of anticipation in the same way our minds are in mushin. Only then can we really relax into whatever needs to happen to receive a throw or other attack.

If you wonder about the use of the word “relax” in the last sentence, I use it because you can’t stiffen up for an attack.  The Tao Te Ching nailed this one more than 2,500 years ago:

The living are soft and yielding;
the dead are rigid and stiff.
Living plants are flexible and tender;
the dead are brittle and dry.

Those who are stiff and rigid
are the disciple of death.
Those who are soft and yielding
are the disciples of life.

The rigid and stiff will be broken.
The soft and yielding will overcome.
Tao Te Ching Chapter 76

If you have any doubts, just try taking breakfall ukemi when you are tense and stiff.  It hurts, and you’re quite likely to break something.  Relax and be soft, yield to the energy instead of trying to resist it.  I’ve seen people in their 70s and 80s safely take big falls in judo and aikido because they know how to be soft and pliable instead of stiff and brittle.

Once you get comfortable with the fundamentals of receiving attacks, and learn to relax into them, you’re ready to begin working on the fun stuff. When you can take falls casually, easily and without thinking about them, then you can start working on interacting with the attackers energy.

In aikido, uke (the person receiving the technique) and tori (the person doing the technique) are always clearly defined.  In judo randori on the other hand, one of the things determined through the randori is who is uke and who is tori. Both people are working to destabilize and throw their partner. This is when the fun begins. There is nothing that states that because someone begins to throw you that you have to simply accept being thrown. I’m rather fond of kaeshiwaza, or counters.

The current rule in competitive judo is that for a counterattack to score a point, the initial attack must be clearly stopped before the counterattack occurs. Frankly, this is lousy judo. I cannot imagine a good reason why anyone would want to stop all that lovely attacking energy and then start from scratch. To me, the best counters flow seamlessly from the attack to the counter.

Nice kata of counters.  Shows the attack, then the counter slowly, then at speed.

Take the energy that is attacking you and flow with it. When you are confident you can handle fully receiving the attack, then you can start playing with it. Every attack has a counter. Some have several. I’m fond of a version of tani otoshi against big hip throws and yoko guruma is often available when receiving kote gaeshi and other popular aikido techniques.  The key is flowing with the attack and transforming tori into uke during their attack.

Tani otoshi is beautiful in its simplicity.  It’s little more than applied sitting down yet is wonderfully effective against big hip throws.  As tori attacks you drop your hips under their attack off-balancing them to the rear. At that moment, they cease to be tori and become uke. As you continue dropping your weight until you are on the floor you hold uke to you and turn a bit to make sure they land on the floor and not on you (OK, there might be more to it, but that’s what a good one looks like).

Not very fluid, but you get the idea.

Counters, kaeshiwaza, are advanced ukemi skills. Being able to do counters is a critical skill for anyone teaching budo. Students are stubborn. They will keep doing things wrong, giving away their balance and energy while attacking, unless there are consequences for doing so. Counters are the consequence. If tori sets up the technique properly then it’s not possible for me to counterattack. If tori leaves any sort of opening though, I’ll take it.

When a student gets to a level where their ukemi can handle an unexpected throw, they should start getting countered occasionally when they leave an opening. This avoids all arguments about whether or not an opening was real. If I attack, and I end up on my back, I know I left a juicy opening for someone. There’s no need to counter every time someone makes a mistake during practice.  Just the knowledge that counters can happen tends to make people stand a little better and pay attention to not bending over at the end of a technique.

Counters are also fun on the folks who like to replace good kuzushi and technique with raw strength. It’s a concrete way to demonstrate the weaknesses of raw strength. Take all that raw strength that’s making you twist or bend and go with it. If someone is pushing or pulling that much, a counter of some sort will be available.

Yoko wakare is a lovely, flowing counter.

Attacks have weaknesses. If those are never demonstrated students won’t know where they are. Teaching people counters and how to find them does something else. It teaches them to see the openings in their own techniques, which is the first step in closing them.