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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Budo: The Art Of Living



I was watching an otherwise excellent documentary by NHK called “Real Samurai” about modern practitioners of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. It’s a very nice look at the modern practice of a great koryu budo. One thing bothered me though. The narration kept referring to budo in general and Katori Shinto Ryu in particular as the “art of killing”. I think this may be the biggest misconception about budo as it has been practiced since the Pax Tokugawa took effect in 1604.

The documentary repeatedly talked about Katori Shinto Ryu as an “art of killing” and emphasizing the potentially lethal aspects of what is taught and studied. It seemed unable to deal with the  contradiction offered in nearly every frame and comment by the practitioners themselves, that Katori Shinto Ryu practice informs and transforms their way of life.

For me, the fact that the skills we study can result in killing is outshone by their usefulness in living, and living fully. I find it hard to imagine that even during wartime the focus of bujutsu study was killing. Despite a few folks like Yamamoto Tsunetomo who were obsessed with dying, budo has always been about living.The reason for studying these arts, even five hundred years ago, was less focused on killing than on surviving horrible circumstances and going on living. Perhaps budo is not really an art of killing. If it’s not an art of killing though, then what is it?

Without the constant threat of warfare, there would be little reason to study arts of killing. Peace encourages us to consider not just living, but how to best live. Budo as an art of killing isn’t relevant to a life of peace. But budo is just as  much about living. Life is filled with conflicts of all sorts, and all forms of budo are intense studies of conflict, both physical and non-physical.  Methods of dealing with  conflict can also be applied throughout life.

 In budo, the first things you practice are things you’re already doing all the time. You learn how to hold your body, breathe well and move powerfully. What’s more essential to living than breathing? The building blocks of good budo turn out to be the same ones used to build the foundation of a good, healthful life. 

Enjoy the blog?  Get the book!
Enjoy the blog?  Get the book!
 
Budo reminds us, every practice, of our limits. We stare death in the face with every kata we practice. Most koryu budo kata are paired, and being off just a little for either person can result in a nasty whack that would be deadly with live weapons. Crucially, someone always loses in these kata, and losing equals dieing. In the paired kata we learn to see just how narrow the difference between success and failure, life and death, really is. Learning this is solid preparation for life outside the dojo. The lessons about moving enough, but not too much, emphasize the need to respond appropriately to whatever happens. I can think of many kata in Shinto Muso Ryu where action is essential to not getting hit in the head with a weapon, but where overreacting is nearly as bad as failing to act. When uchitachi thrusts during Sakan, if you don’t act you will be stabbed in the gut. If you overreact you block the thrust but leave yourself open to a number of follow-up attacks that flow smoothly from your excess movement. If you do everything right, you move when uchitachi has committed to the thrust and you deflect the sword tip just enough to miss but not so far that the sword can come in through a new opening. Action must be appropriate to the situation.

I’ll say this again and again. Breathe well.  

Remain calm and relaxed. Budo practice emphasizes this. It doesn’t matter if someone is trying to throw you across a room, split your head open, or choke you. You still have to be calm and keep breathing. It’s amazing how often people in the dojo have to be reminded to breathe. Under stress they start holding their breath. It happens so often I have to wonder that people aren’t passing out right and left in their everyday lives. Budo practices teaches us to relax into stress.

Tightening up only makes things worse.  Stiff arm a judoka and the result is a beautiful throw or an elegant armbar. Tense up while holding a sword and you’ll be much too slow to respond to whatever your partner chooses to do. A lot of practice is required to overcome our bodies’ natural tendency to tense up under stress so we can relax into difficult situations. Someone yells at us at work. A deadline gets moved up. Our uncles get into an argument over politics at the family dinner. Things that can cause us to tense up are everywhere.

Breathe. If you find yourself getting tense, let go of the tension. Don’t cling to it. Budo practice is the only place I’ve found that practices the essential art of relaxing into stress. Having someone try to throw or choke or hit you is stressful. If you can learn to stay relaxed and calm under this pressure, you can do it anywhere. When life tries to hit you over the head, relax, breathe, and move just far enough to avoid getting hit, but not so far that you can’t hit back.

As a kid, I always thought that being “grown up” meant that you were finished becoming you. Budo has a way of reminding me that I will never be finished becoming myself or becoming a better person. I’ve been at this budo stuff for over 30 years and every day I make new discoveries about myself and how much I can improve. It is often said, and always true, that budo is a path, not a destination. We’re never done learning. We’re never done polishing ourselves.

It’s easy to forget that we’re never done changing, so the opportunities for improving never cease. We can keep working on our technique, and ourselves, until we die. My iaido teacher is 94. My jodo teacher is in his 80s. When Real Samurai was filmed a few years ago, Otake Sensei was 88. One of the saddest things I hear people say is, “That’s just the way I am,” as an excuse not to change and improve. It’s the way you are today. Whether you want to or not, you will change and be a little different tomorrow and each day after that.

The difference that budo makes in my life is that it teaches me over and over again that I don’t have to be satisfied with what I am today. I can influence how time changes me. I can passively receive the way life molds and shapes who I am, or I can actively participate, choosing how I want to change and who I become. This is the art of living that budo teaches us.

I’m not finished. My teachers aren’t finished. They still practice. They are still changing and improving. That time spent refining my kirioroshi and my hikiotoshi uchi is not just time spent learning an obscure skill with an archaic weapon. It’s also about refining who I am. That practice breathing calmly and deeply is useful wherever I am, whatever I am doing. Teaching myself that my default condition is calm and relaxed even when someone is actively attempting to throw me across the room, and especially when they succeed in throwing me across the room applies to dealing with “all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Budo is not an art of killing.  Budo is an art of living.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Being Senior In Japan

 
Iseki Sensei in his dojo.  Photo Copyright 2016 Peter Boylan

I was in Japan in November to take my 5th dan test in jodo. I arrived a week before the test so I could prepare. My friend Bijan had come along to take his 4th dan test. There are so many people who’ve been training for decades in the dojos in Japan that I’ve never really had to think about what seniors have to to.

Bijan and I had arrived at Iseki Sensei’s dojo and we were ready to go. The regular class has a variety of students; from 5th dan-holders like Mr. & Mrs. Fujita all the way to unranked beginners. I’m still not really used to being on the senior side of the room in the dojo in Japan, but that’s where I am.

Matsuda Shihan visits a few different dojo around Osaka that look to him for leadership and teaching.  Iseki Sensei’s Yoshunkan Dojo is one of them. Hotani Sensei’s dojo in Shonai is another.  Both Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei are 7th dans who were highly ranked before I started jodo.  The nafudakake (name boards) in their respective dojo are loaded with senior students ranked 5th, 6th, and 7th dan. All these high ranking students in a dojo where they aren’t the teacher. What are they doing?

Traditional dojo, especially koryu bugei dojo, aren’t run the same way dojo for modern arts like judo, kendo and aikido are. The teachers don’t demonstrate techniques and have everyone try/copy/follow along. They don’t run them like drill sergeants with the teacher barking commands and all the students leaping to do what is called out. All those high ranking students are wonderful resources that traditional dojo make frequent use of.

Practice in the dojo may start out looking familiar. In Iseki Sensei’s and Hotani Sensei’s dojo we start with the basics, but it’s once we’re warmed up and past the basics that things start to change from the more well-known models of practice. We pair off, each junior with a senior student, never two juniors together.  In traditional dojo one of the key responsibilities of senior students is working with beginning and junior students.  Developing good fundamentals is too important for the dojo and the future of the art to allow beginning and junior students to flounder without strong, experienced supervision.

Even in a small dojo, the teacher can’t be everywhere. Senior students are responsible for a lot of the learning that happens in a traditional dojo. In traditional dojo like Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei lead, the seniors have a lot of responsibility. They aren’t there just to polish their own skills. Being a member of a koryu bugei comes with a broader responsibility than just paying your monthly dues and getting your lessons from sensei.

During my last visit, when we lined up to bow in, it was clear that I was well into the deep end of the dojo. I can’t pretend to anyone that I’m one of the juniors anymore, not even to myself.  The juniors get embarrassed if I try to line up below them, and the seniors don't wave me away anymore when I offer to help take care of things in the dojo. After the warm-ups, the seniors lined up one side of the dojo and the juniors lined up on the other side of the dojo.

We worked our way through the paired kihon practice, with the seniors acting as uchi tachi (as uke is called in Shinto Muso Ryu). Iseki Sensei called out the techniques and the seniors guided and directed the juniors’ practice by adjusting the spacing and offering the correct opening for each attack being practiced. As the juniors practiced honte uchi and hikiotoshi uchi and maki otoshi  and the other fundamental techniques, the seniors were responsible for helping them learn the spacing and range of each technique.

After working through the kihon, we moved on to the kata. The Kendo Federation’s standard jodo is made up of 12 kata done as a pair with jo and tachi. For this part of the practice, each junior was again paired with a senior. This time the senior’s responsibility was to guide the much more complex application of the kihon  techniques in the kata themselves. For this the senior had to know both the jo and tachi side of the kata deeply.

This, for the seniors, meant not just going through the motions of the tachi side correctly. The senior had to adjust the speed and intensity of the attacks to match the lessons the junior was learning. Too slow or gentle would have resulted in  the junior not being challenged. Too fast or hard and the junior would have simply been crushed under the power of the senior’s attack. Either way, the junior would not have had  the opportunity to learn anything from the practice.   

The junior I was partnered with only knew the first 7 kata, so when we got up to the eighth one we cycled back to the first kata and worked through that again. Sensei will decide when a student is ready to learn a new kata. On the senior side, I had enough work adjusting the way I performed the tachi’s role to suit the learning level of the particular person I was working with.

My technique was challenged when it was time for the seniors to practice with each other. Then my partners pushed me to the edge of my skills and made me reach for a little bit more. The week  before the godan test, Fujita San, one of Iseki Sensei’s godan students, worked with me almost every day, acting in the role of senior so I could learn the lessons Iseki Sensei, Hotani Sensei and Matsuda Shihan wanted me to learn. Fujita San kept the intensity and power of the practice at a high level so I was always challenged to do just a little bit better.

The responsibility of being senior in the dojo doesn’t end with helping juniors learn to practice. In Japan, the seniors make the dojo function. Sensei doesn’t worry about taking care of the dojo or introducing new students to the routines and jobs around the dojo. At the end of practice, it’s not the newest students who are running to grab a broom and sweep the dojo.  It’s the seniors. Just as we are training in a martial way, each dojo has its own way of cleaning up, taking care of the dojo, and running practice. It’s not Sensei’s job to introduce new students to customs and rhythms of the dojo. That’s the job of the seniors.

When I go to Hotani Sensei’s dojo in Shonai, it’s the seniors who run to get the covering for the tatami mats unrolled and secured before class. After the class the seniors run to roll it up and put it away. When a new student starts, the seniors quietly explain the proper formalities of bowing in to the dojo, and the starting and ending formalities for practice. The seniors help new students figure out what sort of equipment they need, and give advice as to where to get it.

Often someone will have brought some omiyage (souvenir or treat from a trip), or some other treat to share with the dojo. After practice is over, it’s the senior students who get the cups out, pour the drinks and distribute the treats, not the beginners. When it’s all done the seniors make sure everything is cleaned up and put away.

One of the signs that you’re really a member of the dojo is when people start letting you help out with a lot of these things. There’s no hard and fast rule about this, but until you’re allowed to help, you’re sort of on probation with the members of the dojo. You can offer to help, but more often than not your assistance will be politely declined.  When people start letting you help, it’s a good sign that you’ve been accepted. When people start looking at you like you know what you’re doing and they are looking to you to lead something, you know it.

Helping out and taking care of things for Sensei is one of the best ways of saying “Thank you. I appreciate you teaching me.” Being part of a dojo in Japan is not simply an economic exchange. All budo in Japan, not just koryu budo, have a significant social and cultural aspect that may be quite foreign to someone who trains in a commercial dojo where you simply pay your dues and come to class. When you join a dojo or a ryuha, you’re joining a living group with traditions and ways of doing things that you are expected to learn and contribute to. Everyone takes care of the dojo, sweeping and cleaning and washing. Everyone finds ways to take work out of Sensei’s hands so she doesn’t have to worry about all the details of running the dojo.

Just as the seniors are the ones that Sensei relies on to help the juniors get the most out of practice, they are also the ones Sensei relies on to keep the dojo running smoothly. The seniors in the dojo don’t get to rest on their rank and seniority. Instead they are expected to assume more responsibility, whether that is by guiding junior students’ practice by being effective partners, or helping clean up after practice, or coordinating an enbu (demonstration) or some other dojo activity. I’ve been around Iseki Sensei’s and Hotani Sensei’s dojo for so long that I really am one of the seniors. Now I have to live up to that responsibility.



Monday, January 9, 2017

Practice In Japan


Yoshunkan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

 Practice in Japan has a different feel from training in the U.S.. In Japan, everyone is quietly intent on the training. There is no chatter, and not even much in the way of questions to Sensei about how things should be done. Keiko proceed with a smooth regularity. Everyone except the newest students knows how practice in their dojo operates, and they all work to make sure everything goes smoothly. This is not to say that everyone is already perfect - far from it. Everyone in the dojo is there to learn and train hard. Training time lacks the social element that is often present in dojo outside Japan. There is no extraneous conversation while training is going on. Before and after practice? Of course. During breaks? Sure. While actual practice is going on? Not at all.

It’s not that anyone is yelling or enforcing silence. Everyone is there for a reason and a purpose, and during practice they focus on it. No one has to tell them to focus. It’s not like the pseudo-military atmosphere I’ve seen in some dojo outside Japan, with the instructor acting as a drill sergeant, yelling at anyone who isn’t exactly in line. In most Japanese dojo, the discipline comes from within the students themselves, not from the teachers. I would be mortified if I were to be so out of line that anyone, fellow student or the teacher, felt a need to say something to me about my behavior.

Everyone who comes into the dojo has to learn the dojo routine, but no one is harassed while they are learning. New students are as quiet as senior students, maybe quieter, since they don’t want to risk offending anyone. Beginners are busy trying to learn the dojo routines and etiquette, so they don’t have much time to say anything.  Senior students are comfortable and at home in the dojo, so they they don’t need to say much.

Practice moves along at a rapid clip. Dojo in America often have a lot of chatting and talking among students, or at the other end, a rigidly enforced atmosphere of silence. Traditional dojo in Japan are quiet and focused, but lack the authoritarian feel of many large, modern dojo. You don’t see a lot of external discipline. Students are expected to know how to behave politely while they figure out the dojo customs. Teachers expect to be able to be heard and lead class without yelling.

For example, Iseki Sensei leads the jodo class, and everyone takes turn in the counting of technique repetitions while we’re working through the kihon (fundamentals) at the beginning of class. Sensei speaks loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the dojo, and no louder.

Kazuo Iseki Sensei. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016

Once we finish with the kihon, Sensei splits us into senior and junior members so the seniors can act as partners for the junior students. This is something I don’t see enough of in modern dojo. The seniors use their understanding of timing, spacing and control to help the juniors get the most out of their technique and kata practice. The senior adjusts her speed and intensity to a level where the junior can practice and learn. The senior doesn’t spend much time talking to the junior; they are both focused on the training. If significant corrections need to be made the senior will make a brief comment, but that’s all that’s needed.

The teacher lets the students practice without a lot of interruption. Rarely will the whole class be stopped to make a point. The teacher will correct individual issues individually, and the rest of the class will wait for the pair being corrected to get back on track, or continue working on kata if the correction is taking more time than usual. Working with the juniors is not a sacrifice for the senior students. They are also working on the spacing, timing, and control for the tachi side.

Practice gets more interesting when Sensei has the junior members of the dojo sit down to watch while the seniors work together. This practice is intense, with the seniors working at the edge of their skill. The juniors don’t chatter while watching. They’ve learned well how to quietly observe somewhere else. They don’t have to learn that here. The seniors will all be working on different parts of the curriculum, as directed by Sensei. Sometimes Sensei will step in and act as the partner so the student can focus her  practice on a particular point. 

Traditional Japanese Swordsmanship


Through all of this the only time Sensei will yell is when he calls for a break. Most corrections are made at a conversational tone by Sensei. If one senior is helping another, the corrections are usually made at a whisper so as to not disturb anyone else’s training. The whole atmosphere is one of intensity and focus on learning. Even the juniors sitting at the side are quiet and focused on picking up as much as they can from watching the seniors practice. There is plenty to learn that way about footwork, timing, rhythm, and all the other details of the art. There is room for smiles and quiet laughter at mistakes and accidents.  Then it’s back to practice.

Talking would disturb everyone else in the dojo, and the last thing anyone in Japan wants to do is bother someone else. This doesn’t mean the dojo isn’t friendly and social, because all of the traditional dojo I’ve been in have been friendly and social. The students just recognize clear distinctions between training time and social time. The “friendly” is always there. People are genuinely concerned about their partners’ well-being. When training is over, people are very social. There are questions about how people are doing, jokes and laughter.  Often there is time for a drink together after training.

That’s after training. During training everyone trains. No one chatters or talks other than necessary. They just train. The focus is quite different from dojo I’ve been to elsewhere. Everyone shares the focus.  This is something I need to bring to the dojo where I train outside Japan.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Sweat The Small Stuff. And It's All Small Stuff.


What details do you look for when you see a photo like this? Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis



We had a really good keiko on Saturday.  It was a regular Saturday practice.  That is to say it we worked hard, sweat a lot of details, had great fun, and occasionally overloaded someone’s mind..
Sweating the details is the essence of practice. Sometimes it’s the same detail over and over. When you see that, you know you’ve got something fundamental to work on.

I jokingly told Rolf that I was going to give him the same correction on everything he did and then I nearly did it. We started talking about grip while practicing kihon waza (fundamental techniques), and it just snowballed from there.

We always start practice by reviewing the fundamental techniques of jodo. There are only 12 of them, so this serves as a good way to get our muscles warmed up and loose, while putting in some practice on the most essential techniques. Shinto Muso Ryu is a weapons art, so the connection between the practitioner and the weapon is critical.  As in so many things in budo, there are a million ways to do it wrong, and one way to do it right.

In jodo, power is transferred from the practitioner to the weapon through their connection at the hand using the last two fingers of the base hand.  The jo is a deceptively simple looking weapon.  That simplicity makes using it very complex, because you can move your hands anywhere along the weapon and even switch them around. Because the grip is mobile, it’s easy to start well and finish badly.

The grip is integral to every technique, and it’s easy to mess up. Holding and swinging a jo doesn’t look complicated. The grip is a small thing, like the tiny hinges on a huge door. If the hinges are just a little out alignment, good luck moving the door. Just as the hinges connect a door to its frame and allow it to move smoothly and easily, the grip is the connection between your body and the jo. In addition, it is the conduit by which power is transmitted from your body to the jo and from there into your training partner.

The grip is based, not in the thumb and forefinger as you might guess, but in the 5th and 4th fingers. The ones we think of as being the weakest, when used properly are the strongest. Using them properly is the trick. Using your fingers and palm properly is a complex task, and it’s one that you have to do unconsciously. If you have to think about the proper position and use of your fingers, you will be in trouble as soon as your attention is pulled in some other direction.

These small details have to be at the level of unconscious mastery before you can really begin working on the larger elements. Fortunately, most problems with grip are easy to identify when you see them being made. Using the thumb and forefinger instead of the 5th and 4th fingers. Or having your arm perpendicular to the line of the jo. Gripping too tightly. Bending your wrist too much. Thumb out of place.

You may have heard the saying “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” In budo we sweat the small stuff.  The longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s all small stuff.  All of the big problems have their origins in small details like the grip. That’s why we find ourselves coming back time after time to the small stuff. What angle should my foot be for the entry to harai goshi? How do I squeeze the sword with my little finger for kiri oroshi? What angle should my hips be when doing kaeshi tsuki? How do I grip the jo for honte uchi? These are all part of building a good budo structure, but each is such a small detail we easily look past it when trying to understand what is happening.

Big techniques look impressive and grab our imagination. Harai goshi is a huge throw.


But it’s built on many small details. How you grip is as important for harai goshi as it is for doing anything with a jo. The angle of your feet as you enter and set your body. The position of your hands and arms in relation to your chest can determine the success or failure of the technique. Are you on your heels, or the balls of your feet. Each is a relatively small detail, and yet each one is critical enough to ruin the technique if done wrong.

When I started judo and jodo, I saw the big techniques, the huge throws and powerful strikes. They were thrilling to watch. Through practice, my eyes have learned to see the details that make up the big techniques, and it’s the small things that amaze me now. These days I may not notice which throw someone does because I’m focused on the subtle way the are disrupting their partners structure. When I watch jodo, I know where the strike is going.  What I am trying to steal when I watch senior teachers is how they are generating the power for the strike and how they are controlling it.

The small details have big effects. So when we train, we sweat the small stuff. Of course, it’s all small stuff.

http://www.budogu.com/Default.asp