Showing posts with label Shinto Hatakage Ryu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shinto Hatakage Ryu. Show all posts

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kata's Hidden Wisdom

Practice is always good, even when it’s bad, but last Saturday was exceptionally good. There is a lot to be learned from exploring kata, even when it’s one you think you know well. This morning we were working on the kneeling kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. We had out our usual assortment of training tools and were working through the kata using swords.  Some of us have live blades and some are using iaito (unsharpened practice swords that let you keep your fingers if you make a mistake).

Iaido, unlike pretty much all other Japanese koryu bugei, is practiced solo. It’s difficult to learn essential concepts such as ma’ai (combative spacing) and timing without a partner. On the other hand, it’s tough to find new partners when you are using a live blade, or even a blunt steel weapon.  Mistakes happen.  Wooden weapons leave bruises. If you’re lucky, steel will only break things. One of the key purposes of iaido is to learn precisely how it feels to handle genuine swords. So we compromise and practice iaido solo for the most part, and do paired kenjutsu practice with bokuto (wooden swords, also called bokken).   

We had the swords and iaito out and were working our way through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. There is one kata in the set that is similar to the kata “Kesa Giri” in the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Kata. That one has always made sense to people.  There is another kata in the set that starts the same way, with a rising kiri age kesa cut, but then switches to a perfectly vertical cut, straight down the middle.

The basic scenario isn’t much different than the Kesa Giri style scenario, so what’s going on here?  Just going through the solo kata over and over again doesn’t seem likely to reveal all the wisdom and secrets that might lie embedded within the kata, but then the question becomes, how do we tease out everything there is to be learned from the kata? We can play with the kata at different speeds, but to really get at it, something more is needed.

I’ve mentioned before about learning by investigating kata, and on Saturday we decided it would be good for us to take my advice. So we put away all our metal blades and got out some bokuto and shinai (bamboo kendo swords) that I have for just these sorts of occasions. Shinai are great because the split bamboo stings if you get hit, but it won’t break anything.

We started by modeling the kata slowly and looking for openings and weaknesses in the movements.  The spacing is envisioned slightly differently from a Kesa Giri scenario, and we discovered one thing right away.  Even though the initial cut forced teki back, it wasn’t likely to injure or stop him. My partner could recover and counter attack faster than I could get my sword flipped around at the top and make my following strike. Even with shinai, getting hit in the head is no fun. At that point the first feature that Kiyama Sensei has always emphasized leaps into focus.

In this kata we don’t cut any higher than absolutely necessary.  This means the sword stops with the tip still pointing at teki’s face.  With a partner trying to counter attack this stop makes a lot more sense. With the sword tip right in front of his face, teki can’t recover and attack. He’d either impale himself in the face on the sword, or cut off his own arm trying to bring it down.  Ok, so that stalls teki.  The next move is a sweep around that moves through a uke nagashi position to a big downward cut. 

The reason for the sweep and the particular way it’s done quickly made itself clear. As soon as I lifted the pressure of the sword tip from teki’s face, he could counterattack.  If I brought the sword up past my ear as in some Kendo Federation kata, or dropped the tip too far, the counterattack landed on my head. When done properly, the sweep provides  necessary cover for my skull.  When doing the sweep, if you move the sword as if doing uke nagashi, it smoothly covers you against the counterattack.

Unfortunately, even after you do everything right your position is still lousy.  After you do the rising cut and drive teki back, hold him there with the sword tip and then sweep your blade around through an uke nagashi block to protect yourself, you are still sitting within easy range of someone who is also holding a long piece of sharpened steel and intends to use it to bisect you. This presents something of a problem.  The best you could seem to hope for is to cut your opponent at the same time he cuts you.

My partner tried cutting into me at an angle thinking perhaps he could knock my sword out of the way, but at best we still ended up smacking each other in the head.  When we went straight at each other we ended up smacking each other even harder.  This is not an auspicious way of ending a kata, so there has to be something else.

There is a technique, most famously found in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but not uncommon in other sword systems, where you cut straight through your opponent’s sword as she is cutting you. Your opponent’s sword is driven off her target and yours continues smoothly to your target. It’s not an easy technique and it takes quite a bit of work to get right. It’s subtle and looks mysterious if you aren’t familiar with it.  It works quite well in this situation.
My partner swung straight at me and I cut straight through his sword. He missed and my shinai landed on his head.  Problem solved. Expect that then we had to spend some time working on cutting through an opponent’s sword while he’s attacking with it. We work on all sorts of these things like this, and the whole time we are practicing the kata.

Kata are often derided as being outmoded learning tools. I think that comes from fundamental misconceptions about how to practice kata. People seem to think that the only way to practice them is to drill them endlessly, in what basically amounts to rote practice.  I’ve seen karate and TKD schools do this with large groups of students repeating the same kata over and over together, everyone maintaining exactly the same timing and spending more time worrying about running into their fellow students than they do about how variations in speed, timing, and spacing might make major differences in how the kata is conceptualized and imagined for practice.

Kata aren’t rote exercises. One of the keys for understanding that is realizing that there are many ways of practicing the same kata.  Whether the kata is solo or paired, you don’t want to do the kata at the same speed and visualizing exactly the same spacing and timing every time you do it. My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is great at messing me up by playing with the timing in kata. He’s as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen with a jo, so I’m always racing to keep control when he is my uchitachi (senior who takes the losing role in paired kata). Except that he’s also brilliant at putting a sudden pause in at critical points in the kata. If I’m not really sharp, I’ll move the way I need to for what I expect Sensei to do, instead of what he’s actually doing. Sensei then gently cuts me in two in as he points out my woeful lack of awareness during the kata. That’s a simple way to mix it up within a kata.

If you’ve got what is a solo kata, that’s fine. Practice it solo. You don’t have to though. I’ve never seen it written anywhere that you can’t grab a partner or two or three and work through a solo kata with them to deepen your understanding of the envisioned timing and spacing, and to understand exactly what is going on with those attacks and defenses.

Yes, I’m sure you’ll have to slow some things down. Maybe you’ll have to use different training tools. Instead of a steel swords, maybe wooden ones, or bamboo shinai, or even foam boppers if those are what’s available and most appropriate for what you’re working on. You’re training and those are all tools for training. Don’t forget that at some point in the past, bamboo shinai were the latest in high tech safe training equipment.  This is training, not a major public demonstration. It’s ok to look silly as you are figuring things out.

Take out the appropriately safe equipment for whatever you want to experiment with and start experimenting. You’ll learn a lot from the exercise, and you might surprise yourself with what you can understand about the kata without being told, just by changing the way you approach it. I can’t even begin to list all the neat tools and equipment my students and I have come up with over the years so we can work on various things without hurting ourselves, the dojo space, or some expensive piece of special equipment like a real sword or a live person.

That was the core of our practice Saturday. We practiced and studied the kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. It may not have looked like we were practicing a bunch of solo iaido kata, but we were. No, we didn’t always have metal swords in our hands, and no, we didn’t always do things solo. Sometimes we did solo practice, and sometimes we found a partner and explored aspects of the kata together. Sometimes we used bokuto and sometimes we attacked each other with shinai and sometimes we even did the kata just the way it is taught in the system. We had lots of questions about the kata, and lots of different tools for exploring those questions from different angles. We explored the kata and looked at what could be done and what happened when we did things differently.  We learned a lot about the kata and improved our understanding. That’s what I call a good practice.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 5: Saturday With The Seventh Dans

After 2 weeks of Musha Shugyo around Japan, we all wrapped up our vacation time. Deborah and Adam made their way back to the United States, while I stayed in Japan for a couple more weeks of work. Even though I was working, I was able to get back to Shiga for Saturday keiko with Kiyama Sensei and some of the other students in his dojo. On this particular Saturday evening, there was a lively aikido class going on in the matted dojo next to the kendo and iai dojo. When you’re doing something as quiet as iaido, aikido sounds remarkably noisy.

This week the class was small. It was Kiyama Sensei, a couple of his 7th dan students, and me. It’s fun, because I get to address everyone in the room as “Sensei.”  It’s intimidating because I’ve known I. Sensei since I started iaido.  He’s one of Kiyama Sensei’s students, and he was already a 7th dan back when I started. W. Sensei got his 7th dan sometime in the last few years so he’s been around a lot longer than I have too. Both of them were dressed in nice black keikogi and hakama. It was great to see them and chat as we all got ready for practice.

Just in case you think the previous keiko was unusual, this keiko was almost exactly like the one with Deborah and Adam. Kiyama Sensei stood at the front of the dojo, called out kata, banged his bokuto on the floor, and we did it. First, he had us do the Kendo Federation Seitei Kata. These are the standardized kata created by a committee of senior members of the Kendo Federation to use for doing rank testing. The nice thing about them is that everyone does the same kata the same way, so it's possible for people who train a variety of koryu iai systems to be ranked in a comparable manner. We started with number one, “Mae” and worked our way through all 12 of the kata. Sometimes we'd repeat a kata a time or two, but we moved through them steadily.

The new spin this time was that after we had been through the 12 Seitei Kata, Kiyama Sensei asked me to demonstrate the first kata in front of everyone. This was almost as stressful as taking my last rank test a couple of years ago. These guys have all been highly ranked since before I started, and they've been watching me since my first day in the dojo. They know all my bad habits. I took a deep breath, or two, possibly three, and started in on the kata. It didn't feel too bad, but I'm know I have plenty of room for improvement. When I finished I was expecting Kiyama Sensei to detail my various weaknesses and mistakes. Instead he caught us all by surprise and asked I. Sensei and W. Sensei to give their comments. I received some insightful and subtle critique of my technique. There was plenty to work on with this alone. The way it was given to me however was very different than I’ve been accustomed to being addressed. Both teachers started out by saying that what they were talking about was something they were working on. Then they told and showed me how I could apply the lessons they are working on in their own practice to my iai. Instead of it being straight teacher to student, these were more like fellow travelers on the Way sharing their discoveries and understanding. We are all Kiyama Sensei's students, but this was a first for me.

After that we worked our way through the Omori Ryu and Hasegawa Eishin Ryu kata sets from Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. I was nervous but after the previous keiko with Kiyama Sensei most of the kata came back to me quickly. For those I didn’t remember, I had two excellent models to follow. All I had to do was just slow down a little more. Sensei had us repeat each kata several times, but we didn’t stop for any long explanations or major corrections. Practice moved forward smoothly and solidly. Kiyama Sensei would say “Again” or “Next,” the bokuto would go “Bam!” and we’d do the kata.  A few times Sensei made a comment to me or to one of the other students, but mostly we just pushed ourselves along. There is something about training in such a high quality atmosphere I can’t really describe. I learn so much just from being there. I can learn without knowing what or how I’m learning.  Everyone I see is doing the kata at a much higher level, so I can absorb ideas about the iai just from seeing them practice. The atmosphere is fabulously loaded with knowledge and skill, It would be difficult not to pick up things by osmosis.

Somewhere in there I know we stopped for a short break and some tea. In case I haven't mentioned it, tea is ubiquitous in Japan. All the vending machines are loaded with green tea, black tea, sweetened tea, genmai tea, hot and cold. We all had some tea and relaxed and talked about kata we weren't quite comfortable with, or other issues we feel we are having with our iai.

The most startling thing that occurred happened after we finished working through the Hasegawa Eishin Ryu kata. Sensei asked me to demonstrate the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu for everyone. Sensei has only taught Shinto Hatakage Ryu to a couple of people who have shown great and persistent interest in it. I’m sometimes amazed that over the decades more people haven’t asked Kiyama Sensei to teach Shinto Hatakage Ryu. This treasure sits in front of them. Sensei's teacher used to demonstrate it regularly, and Kiyama Sensei has demonstrated it occasionally at embu so everyone in the area recognizes it when they see it. Yet no one asks him to teach them. It comes to me demonstrating this for students who do beautiful Eishin Ryu, but for whatever reason never asked Sensei about this.

I demonstrated the Seiza No Bu, and then Sensei told us to do it together. So I would do the kata and these two highly ranked seniors followed me through the Seiza No Bu. I was intimidated before, but nothing like this. Now there was no room for me to goof up. On the other hand, I. Sensei and W. Sensei are so good, and have such solid fundamentals that they had no trouble picking up the general shape of each kata. Once they saw the shape, they could duplicate the kata with precision. The fundamentals don’t change. You have to have great koshi and relaxed movement.  So I demonstrated and my seniors followed along.

Kiyama sensei always wraps up keiko in the same way. He takes us back to the beginning and we do the very first kata, the one we started learning iai with. We didn't finish with any of the fancy kata from EIshin Ryu, or one of the exciting ones from the Shinto Hatakage Ryu we'd just done. We returned to the simplest, most fundamental of kata. We did the Kendo Federation’s first kata, Ippon Me Mae a couple of times to close the practice. It's the simplest kata, so if there are any issues with your fundamentals, they stand out the most when you do it. The not so subtle lesson is “Don't forget your basics.”

After that Kiyama Sensei said “Owarimasho.” We all moved closer to Sensei and the the front of the dojo where the shinzen is. One thing that I had to adjust to when I started with Sensei is that he's not very concerned with all the outward signs of rank. For iaido, we don't line up in any pre-arranged order. No one runs to the right or the left so they can sit in proper rank order. We just gather in to Sensei and sat in seiza. Sensei turned towards the shinzen and we all bowed to the kamiza. He turned around and we bowed to Sensei, which was moving for me. All my gratitude went into that bow. I won’t see Sensei again for months. Then we students turned to each other and bowed our thanks to each other for the good practice.

As we were changing, caring for our swords and folding up our hakama, Sensei came over to talk. He reminded me that, on top of the other things I. Sensei and W. Sensei had commented on, I still need to make sure my koshi is correct and that I put the power from my koshi into my movement and my cuts. He had other suggestions for I. Sensei and W. Sensei. I think they have drilled proper koshi until they’ve reached the point that they would have trouble trying to figure out how to move without good koshi.

It was great training with Sensei, and as always, saying farewell at the train station is tough. I’d much rather stick around and train with him than head to back to work. I had picked up many good points and plenty of guidance for my practice, but I really wish I could have stayed longer. Every practice is great, but the ones with Sensei are treasures. That moisture on my cheek as Sensei drove away from the station was from the rain. Really.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Moden Musha Shugyo Part 2: A Day Training With Sensei

The next stop on our musha shugyo 武者修行 journey was Kusatsu City, in Shiga Japan. The gasshuku wrapped up at noon, everyone headed back to the hotel for lunch, and then it was over. After walking around Kashima Grand Shrine with our friend Watanabe-san for a while, Deborah, Adam and I got the bus for Tokyo, where we caught the Shinkansen (bullet train) for Kyoto. Traveling by high speed train has airplanes beat for many middle long distances. More leg room, walk up and get on, no one assaulting you with lousy airline food, someone coming by with a lovely food cart offering any option you might want to purchase. The best way to travel.

Because of the time we spent at Kashima Grand Shrine, we got to the hotel late. At the hotel we discovered they didn’t have a reservation for us. After some work and a phone call to the US, we figured out that the travel agent booked us into a different location of the same hotel chain than he had thought he did. 15 minutes in a taxi later we were checking in to our hotel for some good sleep.

The next day we were planning to spend the whole afternoon training Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho with my teacher, Kiyama Sensei. Sensei turned 90 this year, and we were very much looking forward to seeing him and getting his corrections.  Since this didn’t start until noon though, we decided to hop over to Ishiyama Temple, a quite old and famous temple in Shiga. Founded in 749 CE, it’s said that Lady Murasaki began writing The Tale Of Genji there. It’s also one of the stops on the Kannon Temple Pilgrimage route. In the fall, it is famous for it’s beautiful maple trees, and since it was early November, we decided to see if they were changing.

We got out of the taxi and were greeted by the Nio 仁王 or Guardian Kings. Statues of these guardians stand to the left and right of the gate to every major temple in Japan. The fearsome warriors guard the Buddha, the bodhisattvas and their teachings from harm.  The statues are magnificent. We stepped through gate and entered the temple grounds. We were lucky, since the maple trees had started to change from green to brilliant red. A week later and the temple would be a spectacle of scarlet leaves, but we were pleased to have as much as we did.  Some years the color is gone by the end of October.

Ishiayama Temple Nio Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Ishiayama Temple Nio Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

It’s a strange sensation to walk paths and see sights that were written about a thousand years ago, but these are the same sort of connections we feel when we train in koryu budo. We are doing arts that have been passed down for hundreds of years and making deep connections to ways of thinking and being that originate deep in the past. Training in old budo styles isn’t about learning the newest, the most popular or the flashiest. It’s about making connections between the past and the present, and discovering within seemingly dusty, old kata the truths and wisdom that have kept people practicing them for generations and centuries.

Color at Ishiyama Temple Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

We climbed a long set of stone steps up to the level of the main temple buildings. Like all temples in Japan it is wooden. Age and the smoke of candles and incense has darkened everything.  The smell of the incense is permeates the building. The floors are polished smooth by the action of all the feet that brush across them every day. Like most temples there is no photography inside the main temple building. We offered prayers for friends and teachers, continued through the grounds.  The main building hangs off the side of the mountain, and offers a wonderful view through the trees.

Ishiyama Temple from below. Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Ishiyama Temple through the leaves. Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Next to the main temple, is a small room decorated to show how Lady Murasaki might have looked while staying at the temple and writing her novel. The contrast of this with the modern DVD player showing a video about a Lady Murasaki robot is striking, but also emphasizes how the past continues to connect to and influence the present. 

After wandering around Ishiyama Temple for a couple of hours, we caught a taxi back to Kusatsu Station where we were to meet Kiyama Sense. We got there and didn't see Sensei yet, so we waited by the bus stop where we usually meet him.  After a few more minutes and no sign of Sensei, I decided to check a couple of other corners to be sure he wasn’t in a car waiting where we couldn’t see. I didn’t see him anywhere, and as I was heading back to my friends, on a whim I dashed upstairs through the station. There was Sensei waiting for us. He laughed when I told him where we were, and we headed down to gather up my Deborah and Adam.

Sensei asked us where we would like to go for lunch before we started training, which began a very common, and somewhat comical, exchange for Japan. No one wanted to push anything on Sensei, and he wanted to make us happy, so we all danced around with gentle suggestions for a few minutes. Eventually we settled on a tonkatsu restaurant near the station that Sensei really likes. Lunch was excellent. One aspect of training in Japan that I have gotten used to, and perhaps finally come to peace with, is that around my teachers my money is no good. If I am with Sensei in Japan, I cannot buy him lunch, I have to let him do it. Instead of me showing my appreciation for his care, and expressing my thanks, he buys lunch for me. This was no different.

Sensei quietly arranged to buy lunch for us. I’ve learned not to push and try to pay.  It’s a different social dynamic than the one I grew up with in America. Sensei is expressing his care and responsibility for us. We are his students, and he is responsible for us. In return, we are responsible for always representing him wherever we go. Our actions are extensions of his actions. If we, his students, do anything, it reflects directly on him. He takes care of us and shows his concern. We show we care by making the effort to train with him, to truly learn the lessons he is teaching, and by truly passing those lessons on to our students. It’s a much tougher way to express our appreciation for everything Sensei gives us than just buying lunch for him. We have to really work at this. Just whipping out my credit card to pay for something doesn’t cut it. Today, Deborah and I were showing it just by being in Japan and bringing along one of her students to train with Sensei, showing him that we are working to extend his care to another generation of students.

So none of us protested when Sensei paid for lunch. We said “Domo arigatou gozaimashita,” bowed deeply and got ready to show him our appreciation at practice. We gathered up all of our gear (dragging around a bunch of swords and our training uniforms can be interesting in space challenged Japanese restaurants), and headed out. It’s Japan, so we had no trouble getting a taxi to the dojo.

The dojo is a beautiful building. As an American, I’m insanely jealous. Pretty much every town in Japan has a lovely, public dojo. The Kusatsu Budokan is no exception. For 550 yen ($5.00!),  anyone can rent the matted Judo/Aikido space or the beautifully polished wood kendo/iai/kenjutsu space, or even the sumo dohyo. American cities don’t have anything like this.  This space is amazing. The Judo dojo is has two fully matted competition areas. The kendo/iai space is huge, with easily enough room for 4 kendo shiai matches to be held simultaneously. Sensei had reserved the kendo/ia dojo for the entire afternoon, so we got changed and started warming up.

Sensei said his knees were bothering him, so he hadn’t brought his sword, just a bokuto for demonstrating particular points. He dressed in a lovely black hakama and uwagi, while we put on our usual, faded, blue, training hakama and keikogi.  We bowed in, and Sensei started running us through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. We ran through each kata several times, and Sensei made some corrections. Sensei reminded me of how great a practice session can be. This was one example of classic training.
Sensei stood at the front of the dojo holding one end of his bokuto (bokken), and he’d call out a kata, or just say “mo ichi do” (once more). Then he’d bang the other end of the bokuto on the floor, filling the room with a great wooden “thunk!” and we’d do the kata. I’ve been training with Sensei for more than 20 years, so I know what he expects to see from me. If I didn’t do it, he’d tell us to do the kata again. Usually I knew what I didn’t do right, and I’d try to do it without Sensei needing to explain.  Deborah hasn’t been training with Sensei nearly as long as I have, and Adam has only been at this for a little more than a year, so Sensei stopped practice a couple of times when wanted to make a point for them.

I felt a little sorry for Adam trying to keep up with us.  Deborah and I are familiar with the whole Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho system.  Adam hasn’t been at it very long, but he worked hard to keep up with us, even as we moved into unfamiliar kata. I was busy just staying focused and doing my best for Sensei. I suspect some of the many repetitions of the kata were for Adam’s sake, so he could see Deborah and I do the kata and then do his best to recreate what we were doing.  

Just before the first break, Sensei had us doing some of the Tatehiza No Bu.  Tatehiza hurts when you first learn it, and even after more than 20 years, it’s still not what I would describe as comfortable. Adam was trying it for the first time. I remember well trying to figure out how to maintain my balance while basically sitting on my ankle. I fell over a lot then, and Adam was having similar trials now. We worked on it for a while and then took a break for for some liquids.

We were all working hard. Drilling kata non-stop is tough, so the drinks were welcome. While we were getting drinks and catching our breath, Kiyama Sensei was checking out our swords, which we had laid down at the front of the dojo while we went out to the vending machine. His curiosity about his students’ swords was clear, and we were happy to have him look at them.  Sensei is quite a bit shorter than I, but he and Deborah are about the same height, so I suggested that her sword might be a good match for him. He said “Really?” and looked at Deborah.  She said “Dozo” and he pulled it out and tried the heft.

We all backed off to give him room, Sensei raised it above his head, feeling the weight and balance. He swung it down in a great arc into a dead stop. He swung it for a while, demonstrating the big swing and powerful hips that make his iai so incredible to watch.  Even at 90, with new knees that hurt some days, his iai is relaxed and powerful. The sword doesn’t waver or falter. The cuts stop with precision, as if he were burying the blade in a block of wood. Sensei’s legs were hurting him, but he swung the sword for about 10 minutes anyway. His motion was completely natural and he smoothly transferred the power of his koshi to the sword without any tension in his arms.

Eventually his knee started to really bother him. Sensei gave the sword back to Deborah and sent us out on the floor to train some more. Since Adam was still learning tatehiza, Sensei took pity on him and had us go through the Omori Ryu set from the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu. Sensei would call “Again” and thump the floor with bokuto until he was satisfied with how we did the kata. Then he would say “Next,” bang the floor with his bokuto and we’d do the next kata in the set. There were no pauses. We trained. Occasionally Sensei would make a brief comment, and the training would continue. It was intense, but not harsh.

This is great, traditional training. We didn’t stop to talk.  We trained. Sensei didn’t have to tell us to work hard. We each put everything we had into every kata we did. The last few years I’ve been focusing on Shinto Hatakage Ryu, but I got the definite message from Sensei that he wants me to start doing Eishin Ryu again too. He didn’t yell at me, but I could tell he was disappointed that I haven’t kept it up very well. I guess I know what I’ll be adding to my training.

When we were all dripping, Sensei called another break for liquids.  After that Sensei told us to review the standing kata from Shinto Hatakage Ryu. He called out “Number one,” banged the bokuto on the floor, and off we went.  We did each kata 3 or 4 times before we moved on to the next one.  Sensei stopped after that, came out and made some comments about how we could use our koshi.  Then we were right back at it. “Do the tachiwaza again.” We worked through those and we were getting close to 5:00 PM.  Sensei said, “Do Ippon Me Mae one more time.”  

We did it, straining to make exhausted legs and hips and glutes and lower back all deliver full power. Following an afternoon of almost continuous iai we were exhausted. That’s old school training. I know I’m guilty of too much talk when I’m running my classes. I need to be more focused. One thing I should know, but was constantly reminded of, is that improvement comes from training, not from talking. Sensei made very few comments, but every one of them was crucial to doing good iai. He gave us a few corrections, and lots of chances to practice them. It was a great example of how to run keiko.

After doing Mae we lined up and bowed out, first to the kamiza, then to Sensei, then to each other. The old saying 武道は礼に始まり礼に終わる “Budo begins and ends with rei. 礼 “rei” is bow, it is manners and gratitude and etiquette. Yes, we begin and end with a bow, and the bow is good manners and proper etiquette. What I feel most strongly when I bow at the beginning and end of practice though is gratitude. I am unendingly grateful to my teachers. Takada Sensei certainly had no good reason that I can think of to take on a loud, incomprehensible, and frequently uncomprehending, American. I will eternally be grateful to him for accepting me as an iaido student.

Kiyama Sensei was an iaido student with Takada Sensei when they were beginning, and after Takada Sensei passed away, he accepted me into his dojo. He has been very patient teaching this rather slow and thoroughly talentless, crazy gaijin his wonderful iaido. His willingness to teach me, and to reach across the linguistic and cultural barriers to do it has been incredible. He has shared the core of what he does, and more, worked incredibly hard to communicate it to me.  He has welcomed me a as his student more than I could have ever hoped.

For all of this and many more things, it is with gratitude that I bow at the beginning and ending of every practice. I bow with this gratitude whether Sensei is there to receive it or not. When I’m teaching or if I’m training alone, the same feeling is there. It means a lot though to be able to do it while Sensei is at the front of the dojo.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Koryu Budo: The Long View

Practicing classical budo changes your perspective.  Yes, I train in an archaic system of combat.  Shinto Muso Ryu as a tradition goes back to the first decade or so of the 1600s.  The sword system included with Shinto Muso Ryu may go back further.  The Shinto Hatakage Ryu that I train only goes back to the 1700s, but it’s founder had studied Kashima Shinto Ryu, which has roots that stretch far back into Japanese history. Certainly the fundamentals of how to use a Japanese sword effectively have been the same since the Japanese sword first achieved the curved shape that we are familiar with.  The weapon and those principles go back about 1,100 years.  

When I started training, these were so many cool details.  They didn’t really have a lot of significance for me. The longer I train, the more I relate to the world, and see aspects of the world, through the the framework provided by the ancient traditions I’m studying. As I learn techniques and principles that go back hundreds of years I see my position in the world differently.  As I teach these same basic techniques for swinging a sword or a stick that haven’t changed in perhaps a thousand years or more, my position becomes even more fluid.

I started out solidly in the present studying about the past. Koryu budo is all about the past. Right?  We’re studying archaic weapons and fighting styles that don’t have a place in the modern world.  Everything about the modern world says that learning to fight with a stick or sword is a quaint pastime, a lovely hobby with no relevance outside the dojo where it’s practiced.  With something like a jujutsu system such as Kodokan Judo or Aikido, there is the possibility of applying it for self-defense.  Mention that you train with swords and sticks and the smile says that you never quite outgrew playing pirates.

The more I do it though, the less distant that past becomes from the present, the closer and clearer pieces of t the future become. The sword hasn’t changed in any fundamental way in a thousand years.  Sticks have been sticks since before humans figured out how to walk on 2 legs. The most effective means for handling these weapons hasn’t changed because neither the weapons nor the people handling them have changed. The epiphany for me was the realization that the centuries old practices were still relevant and effective.

The ideal postures remain ideal.  They are strong, stable and provide a base that allows quick movement and response. The cutting and striking techniques that were most effective 400 years ago have not become less effective over time. Those principles of posture and movement are available for me to apply all the time wherever I am, from the dojo to the kitchen to the office to the factory floor.

As I learn and apply these, the first lessons of any budo system, I see myself differently.  There is less and less of me and my world that is more advanced than the world where my budo originated.  Some of the technology surrounding us may have changed, but the folks wielding it have not. Effective cutting in the kitchen hasn’t changed since Cook Ting was working in his kitchen more than 2000 years ago. The effectiveness of these techniques will not be lost in another 2000 years either. We may develop new technologies, but they will continue to employ the same principles.

Though I live in the 21st century, I find myself less and less at the pinnacle of humanity. That peak sometimes looks much more like a valley with me at the bottom. I’ve learned some, and the more I learn the less advanced I become. Those ancient stances that are just for kids who never outgrew playing pirate turn out to be very effective for subtle communication with people who don’t know anything about them, but still respond to them with primal instincts.

When I delve deeper into the ways of stick or sword I am schooled again and again in the lessons of tactical and strategic thought. We may have developed new weapons, but the old lessons still apply. People don’t continue to study The Art Of War because it is quaint and amusing.  They study it because after thousands of years it is still the most concise treatise on military strategy ever written.

When I practice and learn, I pull the past up to the present. I stand in a valley surrounded by all the lessons of the arts. The accomplishments of my age come down to size. I am a part of the history and the ryuha. The past is no longer distant. Once it felt strange and unreal to think that I was practicing the same arts and techniques that have been practiced for centuries. Continued practiced has burned away the strangeness and replaced the sense of unreality with a strong bond to all those who practiced before me. I can imagine them making the same mistakes and learning the same lessons and asking themselves the same questions.

Now that I have a few students, I see them make the same mistakes I have made. I hear my questions coming out of their mouths, and I discover that the questions aren’t really mine. Those questions belong to those stages of learning.  Nearly anyone who treads that path will discover the same questions.  There are the obvious ones like, “Does this really work?” and “Can I do this?”  Later the questions get more subtle, but they follow a similar path for anyone who has trained in the art.

Because these are physical arts, verbal answers never receive more than temporary, tentative answers.  The student who is wondering if the techniques really work and if she can do them always has to answer the questions for herself. Can she really throw someone?  She trains and trains week after week wondering.  After a while she gets so busy training that she forgets to ask the question. Then one day she hears someone else ask one of her old questions and she realizes that it’s not a question anymore. That this works, that she can do it, these are solid facts burned into her muscles, bones and blood through the simple process of regular training.

Her view of the world and herself changes. She has become, not someone who might, not even someone who can, but someone who does. Like me, her view of the world has been changed by treading the path. Through practice ancient techniques and ways of being are worn into our being. We train and ancient ways of movement become modern and advanced for us. A way of moving and interacting with the world that was developed hundreds of years ago remains effective, efficient and advanced. The past becomes a part of the present, and that present can be clearly seen in the future.

Koryu budo are ancient systems. They are not out of date. Modern martial arts often fall prey to the sporting instinct, and their practitioners forego all the old lessons that can be learned there in pursuit of victory in the sporting arena.  The parts of practice that bring the deep lessons are dropped as training is modified to suit the narrow confines of the arena.

I want to continue learning. Being a sports champion at 15 or 20 or 25 is wonderful. More wonderful I think is whatever it is that makes teachers like Kiyama Sensei and Omori Sensei powerful in their 80s and 90s.

Omori Masao at the age of 85.

That’s a lesson worth learning, and a question worth asking. What is there in koryu budo that keeps people training and working at this when they are 90 years old? I’m not that old, but I can see that even after only a few decades of practice, I keep making new discoveries, learning new things. The question might be, what is that my teachers are still discovering after they reach 90 and have more than 80 years of training? I don’t know, but I also know that the answer to that question is not some discrete piece of knowledge or wisdom. The answer is that all I have to do to learn that is not stop training.

Dennis Hooker Sensei used to say that “If you don’t quit and you don’t die, you’ll get there.”  My only quibble with that is that I don’t think there is any “there” to get to.  If you don’t quit and you don’t die, you’ll keep learning, keep growing, keep going. If we don’t die, and don’t get distracted, there are infinite lessons to be learned in these ancient practices. Each time we train we learn a little more, even on those days when we feel like we haven’t learned anything. Koryu budo takes the long view. Learn the fundamentals, learn the techniques, learn the art, learn life. These aren’t arts and paths with a black belt ceremony at the end. They don’t have an end.

You keep training, learning, refining. You refine your technique and you refine yourself. Old questions become certainties. The path continues and you find new questions and you train the answers to those questions into your bones as well. Your view of the world is transformed. Old men can become enormously powerful. So can young girls who’ve never been told they could be powerful.
A lifetime grows both longer and shorter.  You begin to see all the changes and growth that can happen in a few years and the idea of what can be accomplished across a lifetime becomes immense. You see your own teachers age and pass away and that lifetime grows so short that every moment with them transforms into a precious jewel beyond price.

Working on techniques that you know a student 400 years ago was working on and traveling the path that they did. Teaching these techniques as a teacher did 400 years ago and seeing students progress and master the technique.

The past and the future cease to be separate places. We are not just connected to them, we are part of them. As I train, I age and grow younger. All in the same practice session I am teacher and student. I look to my left and can see the founder of my ryuha standing on a polished wooden floor in Japan wearing a tired and much abused hakama, swinging sticks just as I and everyone in our dojo does. I look to my right and see students in the distant future still wearing patched and faded hakama standing on polished wooden floors and swinging sticks as they train their minds and bodies. Koryu is a long path.