Showing posts with label Kodokan Judo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kodokan Judo. Show all posts

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Budo Then and Now

I was reading where someone was saying  they are working to preserve the spirit of budo as it had been 500 years ago.  That sounds nice on the surface, but when I think about it, I’m not so sure this is really a desirable thing.  Budo is a way, a path, a journey.  If we try to keep it exactly as it was, it is no longer a journey, and it loses its relevance to the present.

I can understand the urge to preserve a martial art without allowing anything to change the art and the tradition.  The people who created these arts were geniuses, and what they created has great value.  That value can be destroyed when people who lack sufficient depth of experience and understanding start playing around with the techniques and kata which make up the art.  It would be too easy to lose the core of a martial art by trying to constantly update it and make it attractive so as to compete with every new fad that comes along.  One look at what modern competitive judo has become will show what a mistake this path can be.

Kodokan Judo includes everything that can be included under these two fundamental principles: “Maximum efficiency, minimum effort” and “Mutual benefit and welfare”.   Competitive judo no longer has guiding principles.  It is about being popular, easy to understand and putting on a good show.  To these ends, the rules get rewritten based on whatever seems likely to increase the sport’s popularity this year.  In order to make competitive judo more popular, the International Judo Federation recently banned an entire range of throwing techniques.  No good explanation has been given by the International Judo Federation (IJF) for why they did this, but the strongest speculation seems to be that this will remove wrestling and modern BJJ elements from the sport.  Judo grew strong accepting challenges from other jujutsu styles and learning from defeats.  Modern judo is just running away from the challenges posed by other grappling systems, becoming weaker and less worthy of respect in the process.

Worse than this, in a recent press release, the IJF said that the new rules are “to promote beautiful and spectacular judo, where ippon becomes the ultimate goal again”.  Except that the aim of Judo is not scoring ippon (full point win) in a competition.  The aim of Judo is to develop an understanding of the principles of “mutual benefit and welfare” and “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”.  Those are the principles of Judo.  Modifying rules to make Judo more exciting for spectators but less effective in teaching the essential, foundational principles of Judo and making it a less effective martial art is a betrayal of the spirit of Judo.  This is chasing popularity for the sake of being popular.  It is also the destruction of Judo.  I predict that if Judo continues down this path, it will disappear in just a few generations as people switch to arts that remain effective and based on good principles.

If we only preserve budo as it was, without ever letting it change though, it becomes a museum piece.  Nice to look at, but not really something that belongs in our day to day lives.  In the past, budo systems were referred to as “ryu” .  This is a character that tells a lot about the nature of budo traditions.  Read “nagare” when it stands alone, means “stream, current, flow”.   This gives the idea that these teachings are flowing  through time.  Not static like a fossil, but alive, moving, changing, growing, as they pass through the years.  A great ryuha should not be weathered down and worn away by time like a rock, but it should grow mighty as water flows from a narrow stream in the highlands and gathers other streams into it and becomes a river.

Budo is a living way.  If we try to preserve it unchanged forever, it loses its value and relevance to the world around it.  Just as one’s individual understanding of Budo and its principles evolves as one grows in the art and deepens their understanding, Budo schools have to evolve and grow as the world they exist in changes.  This change can happen in variety of ways.  One of the most common is for a teacher to become dissatisfied with the art they are practicing to found a new art, which we can see around us abundantly in recent years.

Another possibility is for an art to actively grow and evolve, to remain suited to the world around it by making changes or additions that keep it up-to-date with the world.   An example of this is happening can be seen in the art of Shinto Muso Ryu.  Shinto Muso Ryu was founded on the use of a 128 cm staff, called a “jo”.  When the art was founded early in the 1600s, it was just the art of the staff versus the sword, with  some sword vs.  sword  techniques taught alongside,  so students could become proficient in the sword, both to better understand the art of the staff, and to understand the most common weapon in the world of Japan at that time, the sword.

As decades and centuries went by, the kata for jo were expanded to include more and more scenarios against the sword.  Over the decades, other weapons were added to the curriculum as well.  Jutte, a common police weapon in Tokugawa Japan, and the tying and binding art of hojojutsu  were added late in the 17th century as Shinto Muso Ryu became associated with the police force of the Kuroda-Han in southern Japan.  In the 19th century, a school of kusarigama (a short sickle with a ball and chain attached) was added to the curriculum, expanding the practitioners understanding of weapons and of longer spaces.  At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a period when walking sticks became quite fashionable, and since they were readily available, and similar to the core weapon of Shinto Muso Ryu, one of the senior practitioners developed a curriculum for the walking stick.  

Shinto Muso Ryu now offers a student the opportunity to learn weapons that function at a variety of ranges and that operate on principles of striking, cutting and flexibility.  The art has not stopped growing and adapting.  During the second half of the 20th century, a group of techniques for dealing with unarmed attackers who grab the jo were developed.  These have not been included in the official curriculum yet, but they are taught to students as kuden, or verbal tradition of the art.  I know that leaders of some lines of Shinto Muso Ryu are also developing additions to the art that they see as beneficial to their students.  The most common of these are iai forms, but it is perfectly reasonable to imagine a senior teacher deciding that Shinto Muso Ryu should also offer a set of empty hand techniques to go with the art’s weapons training.  It hasn’t happened yet, but Shinto Muso Ryu is only 400 years old.  There is lots of time for the art to continue to grow and adapt.

Living arts change, grow and adapt.  Dying arts have pieces of themselves worn away by time and are eventually forgotten.   This phenomena can be seen as well.  Some styles of iaido that once encompassed not only solo kata but also paired weapons work with multiple weapons have lost all or nearly all of their paired kata and they are down to just 1 weapon.  These are fading arts, because in losing their paired kata and many of their weapons, they don’t get just a smaller curriculum, they also lose a huge amount of knowledge about timing, spacing and combative distances.  You can’t learn how to judge spacing and timing from solo practice.  You also cannot learn to read a person’s body cues to understand what they will do next, or what lines of movement they have committed themselves to.  Without a variety of weapons, they are limited in understanding the distances necessary for a variety of weapons lengths and types.  It is possible that by letting these paired practices fade, they arts in question have lost the majority of their knowledge, utility and applicability to the world.  This can be seen in Judo as well.  The rule changes mentioned are the elimination of attacks and defenses.  The art is shrinking and losing some of its strength.  It is fading, and if this continues, it will die.

It’s possible for an art to revive, especially if there are multiple lines of transmission.  Then lines that have lost aspects can learn them anew from lines that have maintained their tradition.  This is tough though, and takes some brutal honesty on the part of the line looking to recover it’s full breadth and depth.  The leaders of such an art have to be willing to admit that their art is less than what it was, and could be, and go to someone else and humbly beg to be taught what has been forgotten.  That takes true humility, which is often especially difficult for someone who has become senior in an art.  

It has happened though.  Members of Kashima Shinto Ryu recognized that a part of their art had slipped away at some point and was no longer known.  However, they also knew of related arts that still taught similar practices to those they had lost.  Being more loyal to their art than to their own ego and status, the leaders of Kashima Shinto Ryu went humbly to one of these other arts and asked to learn what had been lost by previous leaders of their own art.  For all that you hear of jealously guarded secrets in the martial arts, there is a lot of openness also, and the leaders of the art approached by Kashima Shinto Ryu agreed to teach what had been lost.  By doing this, the leaders of Kashima Shinto Ryu strengthened their art and gave it new vitality.

There is no reason to assume that once an art has been around for a couple of generations in one form, that it can never change.  In truth, the opposite assumption should probably rule.  That once an art has been around for awhile, it will change.  The question then becomes “How much change is a good thing.”  I have to admit that I tend to think that less change is more successful.  Changes need time to be tried out and examined for robustness.  Those changes that aren’t robust enough should never be formally included in the art. If they do prove worthy over time, then they should certainly be included in the formal curriculum.  These changes and adaptations take time, decades rather than years, to become fully embedded into a living art.   

Most of the senior teachers in classical ryuha that I have met are extremely conservative about their art.  I used to suspect that they were ignoring the world around them striving to keep their art in the past.  As a spend more and more time training with them, my understanding and appreciation of their decisions grows.  They aren’t trying to make their arts wildly popular. They don’t want to be the next big thing.  The next big thing is always quickly replaced some other big thing.  They value their art and want it to be strong, with solid enough foundations that it will survive the changes around it and be able to absorb them instead of being broken by the changing world.  They do make changes.  As I look at classical ryuha, I see that they are adapting to the world.  They have changed the way they take on students and how they share their arts.  Many things are no longer hidden away in scrolls.  In some arts that have grown large enough, the art is presented in books and on professional videos!

It is the student’s responsibility for discovering how their art relates to the world they live in.  I once thought the teacher should show the student how it relates, but I’m realizing that I don’t live in quite the same world my students do, and I can’t make all the connections for them.  Each generation of students is responsible for understanding how their art is relevant to the world around them.  The world changes, but a koryu budo with solid principles will continue to be relevant without frequent changes, because what the ryuha is really teaching are the principles.  The techniques are just a means to that end.  Each generation has to do the work of learning the principles and applying them.  

I practice koryu budo.  I practice living arts.  I hope the arts my students practice will be subtly different than the arts I practice, as the art flows down through time, adds new knowledge and understanding, and adapts to new circumstances and challenges.