Showing posts with label Koryu Bugei. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Koryu Bugei. Show all posts

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

 
Tamahagane, traditional steel, is filled with impurities and requires repeated heating and hammering just to get the impurities out. Only after that can you start shaping a sword.


精神 - mind, soul, heart, spirit, intention
誠心 - sincerity
清心 - “bright, clear” & “mind”
正心 - correct mind, righteous mind

These are just some of the 14 meanings that come up when I type in “seishin” ”せいしん” into the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary. Japanese is a wonderful language. It’s possible to write the word phonetically and thereby imply any or all of the above, or sometimes meanings diametrically opposed to the above meanings. 成心 is also pronounced “seishin” but means prejudice. This can make Japanese a tricky language to say things in; profound but filled with pitfalls.

I’m thinking about seishin because I was visiting with a friend and discussing all things budo over a pint in a Dublin pub. He was wondering how to get from the mindset of destroying one’s opponents to a more wholesome attitude; one that doesn’t require destroying his opponents to achieve goals and mastery.

There are lots of different mindsets that we can take in budo. When we start though, we almost have no choice but to be concerned with winning, with dominating and destroying teki, our opponent. As a beginner in judo, I had to really focus on attacking my training partners and throwing them down. If I didn’t, I was so quickly dominated and thrown down myself that I couldn’t learn anything from the practice.

There are many ideas about states of mind. Fudoshin and mushin are great to talk about, but how on earth does one get from being a beginner who is just trying to not get crushed to becoming, first,  somewhat technically proficient, and then all the way to a point where you are relaxed and acting without prior intent, just moving in harmony with the situation as it develops?

The koryu bugei seem to offer the most time-tested path to these special mental states. The journey is not exciting. Like most practices undertaken to develop the mind/spirit, a lot of effort has to be put into just keeping up the practice.  It’s not generally exciting, especially in the early stages and late stages.

Japanese has long used the phrase seishin tanren to talk about the real nature of training, budo training in particular. “”Tanren” is 鍛錬 and means “forging”. Forging is not exciting work, whether it is making swords or martial artists. In Japan it means repeatedly hammering and folding the steel for the blade until all the impurities have been beaten out of it.  

The Japanese equate budo training with this kind of forging. Seishin tanren or “spiritual forging” is a good way to describe koryu budo training.  It can be harsh, repetitive and boring, but if you don’t drive out the impurities first, the final product will break easily.

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Koryu budo training is built around kata practice rather than sparring.  Sparring is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t build the skills or the mind in the ways necessary for spiritual training.  Look at how a boxer or an Olympic judoka or an MMA fighter trains.  They mostly train kata as well. Oh, I know they don’t call what they do “kata,” but that’s what training drills are. Kata are training drills, pattern practice for techniques, skills and mindset.

You can’t effectively spar until you’ve attained a certain level of technical and mental skill, and that is nearly impossible to get from sparring alone. There has to be a reason that paired kata training remained the dominant training methodology in koryu budo from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The reason is that paired training drills, pattern practice, kata, or whatever you want to call them, are the best effective way of mastering physical technique and developing a quality mental state.  

Beginners are overwhelmed by all the details of learning a new art. The best they can do is pick a couple of points and focus on them. As a beginner, one has to focus intently just to approximate what a journeyman practitioner does without thinking. This is the first step on the path to the mental states of mushin and fudoshin. It’s only when a beginner has advanced far enough that they don’t have to focus on each step of a given movement that they can begin working on the rest of the staircase.

Partnered kata practice gives a student a controlled environment in which to to experiment and develop. The teacher can adjust the intensity of the regimen to the student’s technical level so they get the most from training.  Early on this might mean walking through the kata slowly and without any pressure.  As the student becomes proficient at performing the outer shape of the kata, the teacher can increase the pressure, go faster, attack more strongly, and then add new kata that emphasize different lessons about timing, spacing or technical application.

Over thousands of repetitions the student polishes her fundamental techniques and learns to move without focusing on the details of movement. Now the teacher can begin to vary not just the intensity but also the timing of the kata. One potential danger of partnered kata training is that it may become nothing more than a choreographed dance wherein you know how and when your partner will move or attack. This can lead to empty forms and stagnating mental development.  The teacher’s responsibility is to continuously manipulate the timing and spacing so no two repetitions of the kata are identical. It is at this point that  mental development really begins for the student.

At first a student reaching this level may try to anticipate her partner’s movement.  She knows what her partner is supposed to do next in the kata, and she responds to what her partner is supposed to do. The thing about training in koryu budo is that your partner is teaching you, and koryu budo teachers can be harsh. If my student anticipates my action and moves first, I’m going to attack the opening she gives me rather than do what the kata says I should. One of the lessons of budo is to act in accord with that is suitable for the situation, not just do what the script calls for. If she anticipates my movement, she’s already left the kata and I’m free to attack however I wish.

This is when students really start developing their minds, forging their seishin. It’s also when I, as a student,  was most likely to come home from practice with whacked knuckles and bruised wrists. At this stage, I was  still thinking about when to move and how fast to move. This meant I was often moving too late to get out of the way of the attack. When you’re late, sometimes sensei will let the strike land so you learn how vulnerable you are.

The kata hasn’t changed, but the timing and intensity have. As the student gets more comfortable with the mechanics of the kata, she learns to watch and not move until the right moment, neither too early nor too late. Students who want to dominate and control everything in order to crush their opponent are eager to move and easily drawn into moving before it is safe to do so. Students who are thinking too much will wait to long and get whacked. Through forging,  hammering and folding, through countless repetitions of the kata, the teacher drives out excess thought that gets in the way of quick, clean movement. The tendency to anticipate your partner, thereby creating gaping openings, is slowly forced to the surface of the mind until it is sloughed off like slag being hammered out of piece of tamahagane steel.


In my case, I was so prepared to defend against an attack that I knew was coming that I was often incapable of waiting until it actually happened.Alternatively, whenever I became too anxious to move, like a spring that was overloaded with tension, my teachers would hesitate a moment and draw me into moving. It’s the teacher’s job to provide learning experiences, to change the timing just a little, or maybe a lot.  As I learned to quiet my mind and stopped trying to outguess my partner, I learned to see what teki was really doing.

The student keeps up the repetitions, working the impurities out of her mind. One day it will happen. She’s doing a kata at a high intensity level without thinking about it, without reacting. She’ll be calm and relaxed and act in accord with her partner’s speed and timing. It will be beautiful. The next repetition will be disastrous. She will consciously try to duplicate the previous kata and utterly fail. My experience was much the same..

Fudoshin and mushin are states of mind that involve getting out of your own way. The irony in this is that if you are trying to get your mind out of the situation, your mind is already actively in it. Mushin is all about just being there and not forcing your conceptions on the situation. But - If actively trying to quiet your mind is guaranteed to not get you where you want to be, how do you get there?

You could try breathing through your eyelids.


In Bull Durham, Annie tells LaLoosh to “breath through your eyelids.”  It’s a great tactic. He’s been overthinking everything he does, and as a result can’t pitch well. His mind is wound up and in the way. He can’t do anything right. By distracting his mind with the impossible, Annie frees the skills he’s acquired to act smoothly and naturally. With koryu budo, we don’t tell students to breathe through their eyelids. We forge their minds in the furnace of paired kata practice (and if you don’t think paired kata practice is a furnace, let me introduce you to a couple of people).

Good teachers and training partners gradually turn up the heat. When a student starts, she is busy worrying about the mechanics of the kata. Over time, the teacher pushes a little more and a little more until she’s not worrying about the mechanics. Now perhaps she’s worrying about not getting hit. With enough hammering in the right places at the right moments, fear of getting hit is also driven out of her mind.

Over time, the repetition and gradually increasing intensity levels hammer out other mental impurities. Too much intention is a common stumbling block.Having an attitude that you are going to dominate and destroy your partner is problematic, whether you are doing kata or sparring. It creates unnecessary intent, which is a stumbling block on the path to mushin. With enough practice, enough forging, the student will no longer need to convince herself that she will dominate and control.  She becomes confident that she can handle what’s out there, and doesn’t need intent. Now she’s ready to just relax and take whatever her partner has to throw at her, without any particular intent.

Now she’ll begin to touch mushin and fudoshin. It will be a rare thing at first, a happy accident that can’t be repeated intentionally. With more practice, this student will learn to let go of intentions and expectations. She’ll be able to take a breath in and let her worries, fears and mental noise go out with the exhalation. Mushin will happen more often now and the worries, fears and mental noise will grow weaker and quieter, until they are almost gone.

At this point she’s not a student anymore. She’s a senior helping other students travel the path. I doubt anyone ever reaches a perfect state where they maintain fudoshin and mushin 100% of the time, but the great teachers get so close that the rest of us never notice the lapses.  Seishin tanren is all about forging the mind. It’s not a quick or easy process. Just as forging a sword requires hundreds of repetitions through the process of heating and hammering to get rid of the impurities found in tamahagane steel, and then further heating and hammering to shape the blade, the raw ore of a student is heated and hammered in the furnace of kata practice until mental impurities have been forged out of her and she is a calm, relaxed budoka. Seishin tanren is simple. It’s definitely not easy.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Classical Budo Connects The Past And The Future



Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis



I was reading one of Ellis Amdur’s essays his excellent book Old School, in which he was discussing the Higo Ko-Ryu, an ancient system of naginata. Towards the end of the essay he talks very briefly about how “dedicated practice would allow one to ‘become’ someone from the 14th or 15th century.” 

Can you really learn to embody not just movements, but something of the thinking and feeling of a different time through studying a koryu budo? Few koryu budo go back to the 14th century, but arts that may teach you how to think and move and embody the spirit of a person of the 16th and 17th century are not difficult to find.

Ellis Amdur's Old School
Ellis Amdur's "Old School" is just about the best book there is on classical Japanese budo. 
Koryu budo have always been intended to train practitioners to embody a particular spirit. It is a world far removed from the idealized images of honorable samurai that comes to us through stories and movies. The various ryu and styles were created at many different points in history, and many still maintain the spirit of the world when they were born. The most commonly practiced tradition, Eishin Ryu (whether you train the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu branch or the Muso Shinden Ryu branch, it’s Eishin Ryu), goes back to the 16th century.   Mastering the art requires embodying a way of thinking and moving that hasn’t been “appropriate” for at least 200 years. Some of the Oku Iai kata probably haven’t been considered appropriate for more than 400 years.

It’s not easy to imagine a time when hiding under a porch to ambush your enemy was so common and acceptable that someone was teaching important points for how to do it in a kata. Yet this is exactly the world that Eishin Ryu evokes through its kata. The Oku Iai kata are the oldest in the system. They strongly evoke the rawness of a century filled with civil war, double-crossing factions, assassination, and simple murder. Actions that don’t seem very honorable to us now.

This is the world we are trying to connect to when we train, though. One of the core benefits of training in these old styles is that they take us out of the world we live in and and give us the chance to look at ideas and actions from a very different vantage point. This is as true for Japanese students of koryu as it is for anyone else. The world has changed so much in the intervening centuries between the founding of the koryu and our entry into the schools that they represent worlds where we are all strangers.

Each koryu comes from a different time and place in Japanese history, and this contributes to the very different flavors and feelings they each have. Through study and practice we get to taste those places and times. This is an easy thing to say, but doing it takes dedication and effort. What we experience reaches back to what the founders of the arts felt was important and critical enough to pass on.

Through practice we can discover the elegant and subtle philosophy of Yagyu Munenori’s Shinkage Ryu kenjutsu. Yagyu Munenori was a ranking nobleman who taught kenjutsu to the highest levels of Japanese society, and his art reflects this. His book, Yagyu Heiho Kadensho is still read and studied.  Arts like Eishin Ryu and Araki Ryu were the work of low level soldiers, samurai who quite often were as much farmer as warrior. Their brutal, rugged arts reflect their world and way of life. Between these extremes are all the other koryu arts created over the 500 years from founding of Nen Ryu (roughly 1368) until the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


What are you interested in learning? What do you want to experience? The art you choose will teach you about a lot of things, and bring you face to face with ideas and experiences that may shock you. Some iai sword systems include kata for acting as kaishaku, the person who stood by when someone had to commit seppuku (ritual suicide as penance). The kaishaku’s job was to insure that person died quickly and cleanly after he cut his belly open. Could you imagine doing this for a friend?

The lessons koryu teach about the world they came from are rich and deep, and sometimes disturbing. The lessons taught in koryu are not just martial skills. Within the kata are embedded clues and ideas about the nature of the world their creators lived and fought in, and the things they felt were important to teach.

Koryu budo are replete with little lessons like how to move through a crowd while wearing swords, how clothes can entangle and encumber. How to address and behave towards your seniors and your juniors. All the details of practice serve to pull you back to the world of the people who founded the art you study.  It takes courage to face everything a koryu bugei offers. Students have to work and push themselves beyond the world they live in, and the journey is not always fun. Who really wants to imagine what it’s like to behead a friend to save them from a slow, agonizing death? Or plan and complete an assassination? 

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


These activities were all part of the world these arts were born in. To practice such  a system is to partake of a living part of that world. This was how people trained themselves to live then, to organize their minds and coordinate their bodies to deal with possibilities that were too likely to ignore. As we practice, we learn not just the shapes and forms of the movements used, but the way of thinking necessary to make those shapes and forms effective.

Ultimately, budo trains the mind as much as the body. Training in a koryu means stepping beyond the way of thinking and operating in the world where we exist and reaching back to learn something of how people not only fought, but thought and acted; and what they valued ages ago. Many of the lessons seem far removed from the world of 21st Century USA that I live in. The longer I train, the better I am able to adapt my body and mind to the core of the movement, thought, and intent required to successfully execute the training. The closer I get to reaching the core of the training, the more I realize that forms of movement are hundreds of years old but the mindset and thought are alive and part of the world I live in as well.


Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for help editing and pulling the idea together. 

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How To Adapt An Art To Yourself



I often hear people talk about making an art their own and adapting the art to suit them. I hear it most often in arts like Aikido, Karate and Judo. The discussion will turn to adapting the art to suit an individual. This is a quite reasonable question. After all, every student’s body is different, with unique strengths and weaknesses. Adapting an art to suit an individual just makes sense, particularly in the modern, eclectic world we live in.

In competitive Judo, with dozens of legal throws, there is no way one person can be equally good at all of them. So people specialize in a couple of throws that they polish to perfection while giving the rest of the throwing techniques little more the cursory practice so they are familiar with what they look like and how they feel.  For a competitor, there is little use in doing a lot of techniques at a mediocre level. What they need are a few techniques they can hit from anywhere during a match. This compilation reel of people doing a number of different versions of tai otoshi gives a good feel for the ways and places one throw can be adapted for use.


I hear explicit discussion about adapting an art to individual practitioners quite often in Aikido as well. People want to make Aikido theirs. Even before the advent of Youtube, Aikido students could see many different senior Aikido teachers up close at seminars. There they could see that each of these teachers seemed to move a bit differently and have somewhat different approaches to practicing and doing Aikido. From there it’s natural for a student to want to make the Aikido they do as personal an expression of Aikido as that done by the shihan they see at seminars.

Adapting the techniques of an art to suit your particular body and personality is a reasonable idea. We all have different bodies with a variety of strengths and weaknesses, so why shouldn’t we try to optimize the techniques we study for our bodies. We can tweak and adjust the way techniques are done so they work better for us and are easier to do.  It seems reasonable that a person who is 2 meters (6’4”) tall will do their tai otoshi or kotegaeshi or iriminage differently than someone who is 152 cm (5’).


Across the spectrum of body types and shapes and sizes, students can see that they should be adapting their art to their particular body characteristics. Often they ask when they can or should start doing this. I’ve seen many comments that give a time after a student is well into dan (black belt) ranks. After someone reaches 4th dan in most gendai arts they should have a really solid foundation in the art and be able to experiment without getting into trouble by teaching themselves mistakes. They can start making the art their own, and by the time they reach 6th or 7th dan, they could have a personal style that is clearly all their own.

This is great, right? You study the art, learn it and then mold it to your body.  I used to think it was great. Lately though, I’ve begun to wonder. I do both gendai budo (Kodokan Judo) and koryu budo (Shinto Hatakage Ryu, Shinto Muso Ryu). At one time I thought that koryu budo could learn many things from the way gendai budo are taught and practiced.  Gendai budo, particularly arts like Judo with a huge global competitive aspect, constantly mine modern science for the latest training methods and techniques for improving competitor’s skills and the efficiency of their training. I don’t think anyone would argue that Ronda Rousey hasn’t done an incredible job of adapting her competitive judo training to the world of mixed martial arts and demonstrated the effectiveness of it.

Competition is an exceptionally narrow set of conditions though. Conditions that can make techniques and stances that are foolish to try in other situations into perfectly reasonable responses. A classic example is the strongly defensive posture you can see in many competitive Judo matches. It’s very bent over and committed forward to block out your grappling partner.  Outside the competitive match though, the position is rife with openings for punches, kicks or small weapons attacks. This competitive defensive posture is quite effective for blocking out sporting attacks.

It would be a huge mistake to try to apply this or any of the defensive tactics from competitive Judo to a broader practice intended for budo. If you tried to use that stance while doing any of the combative Judo kata you would discover all sorts of unpleasant general weaknesses in it.  Competitive Judo has adapted itself to the rules of competition. The International Judo Federation is constantly trying to tweak the rules to push competitors back towards a classical style of Judo that is more broadly effective than just within the limited space of the competition area. The effectiveness of their efforts may be questionable, but their continued effort is praiseworthy.

Competitors only have to be concerned with the narrow range of possibilities present within the competition arena. Those of us doing martial arts as budo have a much broader world of possibilities and consequences to be concerned with. We’ve ruled out taking ideas from the rarified world of competition, but we still want to make our budo our own and adapt it to our unique body and personality. Now we can start looking at what there is that we can change without destroying the art.

Fundamental stances are essential in any art. This might be the first place that someone could modify the art to suit them. I like to look at leading practitioners of arts like Judo and Aikido and Kendo, arts where there is more opportunity to adapt an art to oneself without major criticism.  Aikido and Judo provide perhaps the best examples, because there are plenty of high level practitioners around to look at. Kendo leaves a bit less room for personalization, but it’s still there. 

Looking at Aikido, I see people who prefer to work from hanmi stance and others who prefer a shizen (squared up, front facing, natural) stance. When they have the opportunity to reset their stance, they go back to their preferred stance. I don’t see high level teachers modifying their stances or coming up with new ones. They just have a stance they prefer to work from. 
The same is true in Judo (after we ignore all the bad defensive postures seen in judo competitions at all levels). People don’t modify the basic stances and grips. Some people prefer a right side grip, some a left side grip, some higher and others lower. What you don’t see are people inventing new grips. With millions of people doing Judo, and thousands of those practicing at elite national and international levels, if there were a new posture or grip that could be effective, I’m certain we’d have seen it. What we see are people fighting from the right or the left, or even squared up.  Some big guys like higher grips, and occasionally you’ll see someone who likes to fight with a sleeve and sleeve grip instead of a sleeve and collar grip.  That’s about the extent of stance and grip personalization you see in Judo.

The problem with modifying fundamental stances is that they are just that, fundamental. If you start modifying them, then everything in the art that follows from those stances has to be modified to fit the new version of the stance. More problematic is that the stances have been chosen and refined within the art for their strength and flexibility. In any of the fully established arts I know, whether koryu or gendai, the stances have been refined to their essentials and changing them just creates a weakness. 

What could you change in any fundamental stance that wouldn’t weaken it? Body angle, hip alignment or foot position? If you change your body angle then you’re not aligned to deal with your attacker  If you shift your hip alignment you lose the connection between your upper body, your hips, and your feet.  Change your foot position and you can’t react properly when an attack comes in.

So when you’re personalizing your budo and putting your particular stamp on the budo you do, it looks like changes to stances aren’t the way for people to go about it. Watching high level practitioners shows that me while they have stances they prefer, they don’t make significant changes to them.  I should also note that if you watch any of them long enough, they are generally quite competent in all the stances of their art, they just prefer some stances over others.

If people aren’t putting their stamp on the art by modifying the stances of the art, how about the techniques? This is a tough one too.  I can’t imagine being able to monkey around with the essence of a technique like harai goshi or shihonage and being able to make some modification that would let it work as well as the fundamental technique, at least not any modification that someone else hasn’t already thought of.


I don’t even know who the guys in the above video are. The Judo world is quite large and I know a tiny, tiny fraction of it. But clearly they have worked out a lot of different ways to attack harai goshi. I remember my first Judo teacher telling us about how proud he was of a variation on a throw he had come up with. He used it quite successfully in a tournament. After the tournament one of the old guys came over to his teacher and complimented them on the beautiful technique.  This old guy said he hadn’t seen that version of the technique in ages, not since some Japanese guy had used it back in the 1930s. So much for doing something new.

The same holds true for something like shihonage. I tried to find a nice compilation video, but no one seems to have made one yet. A search for shihonage on youtube though brought up dozens of individual variations on the technique. If someone can think of a highly effective variation of shihonage that is not already represented by a video on youtube, I would be amazed and impressed.

All the various entries for harai goshi in the video, and all the versions of shihonage on youtube, work because throughout the variations the fundamental essence of the technique has not been changed.  People can change how they enter, what movement they use for the setup, what attack they are responding to, what position they start in, and a dozen other things, but the core of what they are doing, the basic technique being applied, doesn’t change.

When we see someone doing their version of an art like Judo or Aikido, we’re not seeing a fundamentally different art. We’re not even seeing an art that has been adapted to suit a particular person. What we’re seeing is a person who has mastered the art and found particular pieces of it that they like and are most comfortable with which they use more often than other parts of the art. Their personal “style” of aikido isn’t a personal style at all. You’re seeing the parts they like and are most comfortable doing.

An Aikido teacher who usually starts from hanmi stance and does a lot of shihonage in her demonstrations has not made any modifications to Aikido to make it suit her.She’s mastered it and chooses the stances and techniques that she likes best. A judoka who specializes in tai otoshi and can do it from 15 different positions and entries is still a judoka. She’s just become particularly proficient at one technique and is most comfortable with it. She’s still a judoka and can still do the rest of the syllabus.

I started out with the question “How do you adapt your budo to yourself?” The answer is, you don’t. You study your art. You master your art. Within it, you may find particular stances and techniques that you are exceptionally comfortable with and feel best when you do them. As you use these more and more, they will be viewed by others as your particular “style” of Aikido (or Judo or whatever). You’ll still be doing the standard version or your art. You may have specialized in particular versions, but it’s still Aikido or Judo. Other people see your particular emphasis in stances and techniques mistake technical preferences as personal style and modifications to the art.

You haven’t modified the art. You do the full art, but you are especially comfortable in particular stances and you find some techniques more accessible and easier to express than others.  There’s nothing new there. That sort of thing is older than humanity. Even before Sun Tsu people studied their opponents to learn techniques, tactics and strategy they preferred. 

In fact, if you are too wedded to particular stances and versions of techniques, it makes you weaker, not stronger. People will know exactly what you’re going to do and how you will do it.  It’s very easy to catch a tiger that walks down the same stretch of trail every day.  ou just keep laying traps for him. Eventually one will work, especially if capitalizes on the tiger using those same movements and habits.

So don’t try to adapt your art to yourself. Recognize a truth that is evident in koryu bugei.  You don’t adapt an art to yourself. You adapt yourself to the art. Master the fundamental postures and techniques of the art you are studying. Make them a part of who you are so you can’t possibly do them wrong. These fundamentals are the core of the art, and they are what make everything else in the art possible. They are designed to eliminate as many openings and weaknesses as possible. If you mess with them, you will be far more likely to do something that weakens you than something that strengthens you.

So how do you adapt an art to yourself?  You don’t.  You mold yourself to the art.