Showing posts with label development. Show all posts
Showing posts with label development. Show all posts

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Growth Of Budo

I was listening to NPR the other day on the way to work and they had an interview with Takagi Kikue, an 83 year old survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Takagi San’s openness in sharing her experience with Americans, and her ability to grow beyond the nationalism she grew up in and to embrace the world without seeming bitter even after the horrors she lived through brought back memories of my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei. He was a grand gentleman when I met him. Tall for Japanese, particularly of his era, he was already in his seventies when I first met him.

He was leading an iaido demonstration at the Minakuchi Castle ruins, It was quite the display. I remember that Suda Sensei had borrowed a suit of armor and was wearing that for the demonstration. 20 or so people swinging swords and a guy in full armor before a castle turret and gate makes for quite a site. I wish I’d taken more pictures. I was there because I’d heard there would be an iai demonstration. I started looking for iaido after I got to know the swordsmith Nakagwa Taizoh because I wanted to be better able to appreciate the incredible swords I was always seeing and handling when I visited him.

I somehow got myself introduced to Takada Sensei and asked about studying iai. At the time I lived 5 minutes from the castle, but I was planning to move to Yokaichi soon. Luckily for me, Takada Sensei was teaching in Eichigawa, just 2 train stops and a 5 minute walk from where I would be living.  They held practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the half of the community gym not being used by the local kendo club at the same time. It turned out that Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were both senior members and teachers of the kendo club as well as teaching iai.  

Both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were Japanese Imperial Army veterans. In 1993 there were still a lot of veterans of The Great Pacific War around. Takada Sensei invited me to come train at their dojo.. He was the senior teacher, and although both he and Suda Sensei were 7th dans in iai, and both were in their 70s, I found out later that Takada Sensei was Suda Sensei’s teacher. They were both amazing, quick and strong.  

I made the effort to go to iai practice, still a bit apprehensive about being a gaijin doing a classical Japanese martial art. This was 1993, and gaijin in classical budo were still extremely rare. The only worthwhile books on the subject that I had seen were Donn Draeger’s, and they didn’t fill me with confidence that someone showing up, gaijin or Japanese, would be automatically welcomed into the family.
Takada Shigeo Sensei

Fortunately for me, Takada Sensei was a grand, warm, outgoing human being who was delighted to have someone interested in the art he taught. He had me practicing the first night when I arrived to ask if it might be ok to learn iaido. I was expecting every myth and legend about starting a traditional martial art that you can imagine. Anything was possible in my active imagination, and I envisioned scenarios from having to sit outside for a number of classes to having to perform outrageous demonstrations of my sincere desire to learn (having seen what kindergarten and elementary students in Japan often had to go through with wearing shorts all winter for school to toughen them, and some of the gatsu (guts) training that junior high and high school sports teams go through (thousand fungo drill anyone?), I was more than a little worried about what I might have to do to prove I was serious.

It turned out my biggest concern was how soon I could get an iaito, hakama and keikogi. At first, Takada Sensei lent me an old one the dojo had, but I needed to get a hakama and keikogi right away. That called for a quick trip to Kyoto. I’m always up for a trip to Kyoto, and an excuse to browse through all the budo shops around the Budo Center is always welcome.  So I found a beautiful indigo, cotton hakama. It cost more than I could afford while buying an iaito though, so I saved money by asking my sister-in-law to sew ties on an old judogi and turn that into a keikogi. Takada Sensei seemed ok with that.

Budo such as iai were born in a place and time where anyone who wasn’t Japanese had no rights in Japan, and in fact just being from somewhere else and being in Japan was a crime punishable by death. In that time and place, to be Japanese was to be sure you were the finest flowering of human accomplishment. The rest of the world was filled with barbarians who would surely benefit from the civilizing influence of Japanese culture, but were probably too barbaric to really appreciate it.

Less than a hundred years after that world came to a violent end, torn apart from within, Japan was at war with much of the world, driven in part by a firm belief in the superiority of the Japanese culture and spirit.. Takada Sensei and Suda Sense both served in that war in their youth. The budo the studied in their youth had a frighteningly nationalistic bent to it. People like me were clearly barbarians utterly incapable of appreciating the subtlety and profundity of budo and other aspects of Japanese culture.

Takada Sensei could have carried the ideology and prejudices he was raised in with him throughout his life. Instead he transcended that. Budo, which when he began it had been co-opted as a tool for indoctrinating and preparing people for military service, became much more than that. Oddly enough for things that are called “martial arts,” budo like iaido managed to grow by shedding their militaristic accretions. Takada Sensei, who started budo while being prepared for life as a soldier, transcended his early lessons. He gave up his prejudice and grew.

His budo grew with him. When I met him, he was thrilled to be able to share his iaido with me. He really loved teaching me, and all of his students. I was his first non-Japanese student, but not the last one. Even in the very rural corner of Shiga Prefecture where we were, international students started to find the dojo as both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei made a point to let people know that international students would be warmly welcomed.

Takada Sensei enjoyed pointing to his sword, a beautiful 450 year old blade that still had the military mounting he put it in when he went off to war. He would take it out and say “This was for killing Americans, but now it teaches them.” He was very happy and proud that he, his sword, and his art, had grown beyond the limits and prejudices of his youth. Instead of an instrument of war, his sword had become a tool for bringing people together in a shared journey of growth.

Budo is not a static idea, and Takada Sensei understood this well. What budo means, the reasons for practicing it, the goals to be achieved along the path of practice are not stuck in one age or ideal. People argue about what constitutes “real budo” as if there was some point in history when budo was pure, pristine and perfect. Happily for us, that day never was.

Budo is not a something anyone can possess.Takada Sensei, with his sharply ironic comments about the change in the status of his sword understood and embodied that better than many. Budo started out as a very practical aspect of training soldiers to fight. This training blended with Neo-Confucian ideas and the influence of sado, tea ceremony practices, after the establishment of peace during the Tokugawa era. For 250 years the idea of what budo is was blended with ideas from all over Japan. With the opening of Japan new ideas flooded in. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a backlash developed against the seemingly overwhelming tsunami of new and foreign ideas. Early in the 20th century budo was swept up in the arguments about how Japan should develop any ideas of Japanese uniqueness. By this time though budo had developed too widely to be truly claimed by any one view.

Great budo thinkers and leaders from kendo, iai, kenjutsu, naginata, and judo argued and debated whether budo practice should serve the state, Japan or all of humanity. A few, like Kano Jigoro Shihan of Kodokan Judo, had sufficient status to be able to openly disagree with the militarists in power. Most teachers did not have significant status to protect them if they didn’t agree with those in power. Those who did agree gravitated to the big, national, budo organization. Those who didn’t generally kept their heads down and their opinions to themselves.

Everyone who grew up in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s grew up doing some sort of budo in school. Boys did kendo, judo, jukendo. Girls learned naginata. It was considered an essential part of the education and development of proper Japanese spirit.

Takada Sensei was a gifted and talented swordsman, with kyoshi certificates in both iai and kendo.  I can still picture him handling his family’s heirloom sword with casual power and perfect control. When he swung it looked as easy and effortless as child with a bubble wand, and when he stopped the blade it was as sudden and solid as if he had driven it deep into a tree stump.  Like his sword, he was polished and bright.  Even in his late seventies, when I met him, his budo was bright and lively, polished smooth and shining.

He didn’t get there quickly. He spent decades and decades and decades on the path of budo striving to perfect his technique and himself. He wasn’t perfect, no one ever gets there, but he was a wonderful example to me of what the journey can be and where it can take you. From a young officer in the Japanese military to a lifetime of teaching people of all ages how to be a little bit better today than they were yesterday through training with the sword, he grew and matured. Along the way so did his budo.

By the time I found my way into Takada Sensei’s dojo in 1993 he had more than 60 years of budo practice and shugyo under his wide kaku obi. He’d been thinking about what budo was, and the budo Sensei was teaching when I found my way into his dojo was greater than just something that only native Japanese could appreciate and benefit from. Budo that wasn’t limited to training medieval warriors for life in a land of endless civil war. Budo that wasn’t limited to being a finishing school for the social elites who ran pre-modern Japan. Budo that certainly wasn’t limited to developing the spirit in Japanese youth to conquer and dominate the world.

Takada Sensei taught me and showed me budo that is for the world. His sword, instead of cutting down enemies as it was surely intended to do when crafted during the Muromachi Era, performed the miracle of binding together an old Japanese gentleman and an immature, young American. Budo grew from deep Japanese roots, but it is flowering around the world.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Budo And Who We Are

Kiyama Sensei emboides budo for me. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2006

We start budo for a lot of reasons. Some people want to learn how to fight better. Others are looking for a form of exercise that’s more interesting than the treadmill or aerobics class. Some are looking for a challenge. Some are looking for an active form of philosophy (don’t laugh, a few of us really did start because we wanted an active philosophical practice).  Once we’re in the dojo though, we get all of budo, not just the bit that brought us through the door.  The tough guy who wanted to learn to fight better gets doses of budo philosophy. The lady looking for an exercise class more interesting than what was happening at aerobics learns to fight better. That geeky guy who was looking for arcane Asian philosophy? He learns how to exercise and to fight.

Whatever our motivation for starting, we all get the same things when we start, a heavy dose of kihon. We practice improving our structure and posture.  We do endless paired exercises to develop mastery of spacing and sense for timing.

Once we understand some basics, we’re attacked with hands, sticks, chains and other weapons, thrown across the room and choked unconscious. We become accustomed to being attacked.  We know where our center is, and it’s a lot harder to knock us off it. As our understanding and mastery of spacing and timing increases, we learn the difference between when someone is posturing, and when they are actually in a position to attack.

If we are doing our budo right, we are also learning about ourselves. It’s fine to learn physical techniques and how to control spacing, but if we don’t learn to master ourselves, our minds and emotions as well, we are still weak.  It does no good to have incredible physical balance if someone can destroy our mental balance with a word or two.

Practicing technique is great, but we cannot forget to practice being the person we want to become as well.  Budo is more than just physical technique because it has to be. The mind directs and controls the technique. If the mind isn’t trained to have a good structure and balance, any opponent who can off-balance you mentally can defeat you, regardless of the quality of their physical technique.

In Japanese budo circles, you’ll often hear about seishin tanren 精神鍛錬, or “spirit forging”. The goal is to develop mental strength and balance. Scenes of martial artists standing under waterfalls in winter, calmly chanting in the freezing cold are a staple of samurai movies in Japan. This is an obvious form of seishin tanren. Buddhist monks, Shugendo ascetics and budoka all use this as a means of learning to transcend physical limitations through mental and development

Over time, budo has to go deeper than just something we play with. If it’s going to be budo, it has to be more than just a sport or game we play. It has to soak into our core and change us. The physical changes are usually visible to everyone. Those lessons about structure and movement change how you move outside the dojo. You get annoyed when you find yourself slouching forward or leaning back on your heels. People can see the effect, even when they aren’t sure what it is.

As we practice budo, the mental effects sink deeper and deeper into us as well. One day it stops being enough that you can hold your temper and ignore your frustration during sparring so you don’t make an emotional mistake. You start letting go of the pride and things that opponents in the dojo use to off-balance you and create frustration and anger. You’re sparring gets better as your mental state remains calmer and smoother. You let things come and go without clinging to them. You start to touch fudoshin from time to time.

As you travel along the budo path, the lessons sink deeper and deeper into your being. You start noticing things outside the dojo. That’s when your training starts happening all the time. What your mental state is at home, at work, on the freeway and everywhere becomes important to you. The quality of your mental state becomes important, and you start letting go of things that hurt it. Letting other people’s actions influence your mental state become increasingly unacceptable.

The clear focus and imperturbable, fudoshin, mind of the dojo is your goal all the time. My daily commute provides one of the finest venues for practicing this I can imagine. Detroit freeways are filled with people who are grumpy, grouchy and angry, and take out their unhappiness at having to go to work like everyone else on the road.  Being tailgated and cut off by aggressive drivers and then being blockaded by oblivious drivers in the fast lanes is great mental training. It’s easy to get angry at people who are rude, dangerous drivers, or at people who toddle along without paying attention to the effect they’re having on the world around them.

It’s easy to get hung up on the bad behavior around us, especially on the freeway where that bad behavior is dangerous. We learn to let go of the stupid, aggressive, foolish things our partners do in the dojo rather than holding on to them and the emotions they engender. When the guy in the black sedan roars up on our bumper, then swerves around us on the left and forces us to brake as he cuts across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit, getting angry and focusing on the other guys idiocy is all too easy.

Good budo is hard to learn. Remaining calm and present and focused on the action at hand isn’t just something nice in the dojo when you’re sparring. If you don’t let go of the idiot that nearly wrecked your car cutting across three lanes of traffic you might miss the fact that the guy in front of you just swerved to miss debris in the road and run straight over it. Or miss the guy braking suddenly just ahead of you and plow into him.

The more our budo practice seeps out of the dojo into the rest of our world, the better we get at not holding onto the things that upset and off-balance  us. Really successful, old, budoka have calmness about them that seems impossible. Nothing seems able to upset their mental stability. They’ve learned the lessons in the dojo and practiced applying them everywhere. They don’t hold onto things that hold them back. They don’t lose their temper and they aren’t impressed or upset by people who do.

When we are open to the lessons of our training, they seep out the door of the dojo and show up all over our daily lives. That’s really the point. Budo isn’t like basketball, where the practice stays on the court. Budo is supposed to change how you perceive and interact with the world. Getting accustomed to people trying to hit, choke and throw you should change you. Especially when your friends succeed from time to time in hitting, choking and throwing you.

After some time practicing budo, socially aggressive folks shouldn’t seem like much of a problem. The pushy ones don’t seem as pushy anymore. The more you practice, the more those special, strong postures for the dojo show up at the office or in the mall. Turns out good, solid budo posture is useful for turning down the enthusiasm of pushy salesmen and obnoxious coworkers. It’s downright amazing what a zanshin filled stare will do.

The longer you train, the more natural and unconscious budo kihon becomes. You stand more solidly. People will notice that you move differently. They may even comment on how gracefully you move, particularly when you’re not thinking about budo. These are signs that you are absorbing your budo practice and it is becoming a part of you.

All that  practice breathing and staying relaxed while people attack you with big sticks turns out to be useful for maintaining mental and emotional balance during those sorts of attacks too. As budo practice is absorbed deeper, you notice when your emotions are making you tense and unbalanced. That’s when you discover that the same breathing exercise and other practices used to control physical tension are effective on mental and emotional tension as well.

Long before you are aware of the changes, people around you will notice the effects of budo practice working on you. You don’t get as worked up about things. As long as no one is actively trying to hit you with a stick or choke you, they cease to be threatening. You stay relaxed even as pressure mounts.  All because you’ve learned to dislike being tense because it ruins your budo, and you’ve learned how to breathe to control some of the tension.

Budo lessons sneak up on us. Budo practice doesn’t transform you into a master of calm and peacefulness in an instant. Early on, the lessons and practices of the dojo show up in the rest of your life as a surprise when you’re not looking. Over time the strong posture, steady movement and calm, clear mind becomes more and more normal for you.

As you absorb your budo practice into yourself, step by step, repetition by repetition, it becomes less something you practice, and more something you are.  That’s what budo does.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Budo Is Not Competition

Shiai. Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis

Competition seems like the ideal place to test your budo. You can test your techniques against other people. Challenge your abilities. Polish your skills. See how you do under the pressure to win. Learn what it takes to be a winner. Learn how to be a winner with humility and grace. Learn to lose with honor and dignity.

Those sound like great benefits.  They are exactly the arguments used to support all competitive sports.

In martial sports competition, one person wins, and one person loses.

A problem with this paradigm that that most things in life, including conflict, are not games with clear winners and losers. There are far more situations where everyone involved can gain, as well as endless opportunities for everyone involved to lose. Life is not defined by a win/loss column.

When you see the world through the lens of competition, it’s a zero sum game. Someone wins and everyone else loses.  When you see the world through the lens of budo, it’s a non-zero sum world, just like keiko in the dojo. When we train together, you don’t have to get weaker and less skilled for me to become more skilled. We both grow in skill and strength and understanding when we train together.

Budo keiko offers many profound lessons that will not be found in the arena of competition, and defining things in terms of competition, in terms of winners and losers, misses a number of those points.  There a plenty of outcomes that aren’t covered by the idea that there is a winner and loser in every conflict.

I had this reinforced in a memorable incident.  I was teaching an evasion to a sword attack that involved stepping to the side and cutting up, under teki’s arm as it came down with the sword. I did my step to the right just fine and placed my cut under teki’s arm. I did so just at the moment her sword smacked me in the side of the head.  I had moved too early and teki was able to track me and adjust her attack.  The result was not a winner and a loser. It was two losers. Her attack would have killed me at the same moment my counter attack killed her. Not a very satisfying outcome. One fight, no winners.

That lesson that can come as a huge surprise if you’ve never focused on anything other than fighting in tournaments. Tournaments provided a very limited view of budo. They are safe, controlled duels. They follow rules. One person wins and one person loses. One of the problems with that arrangement is that in pretty much everything outside of competitive sports, nothing works out that cleanly.  Life is not clean and clear.  It’ messy and unfocused.

Mugendo Budogu: Equip Educate Inform

Remember that yin-yang symbol that is used to decorate so many dojo? Inside the black half is a drop of white. Inside the white half is a dollop of black. Things aren’t clear cut. In my example above, we both achieved the basic objective, and we both would have died doing it. Sports competition can give students of martial arts just as skewed a view of martial arts as watching action movies can. In competition, there are two options. You win and your opponent loses, or you lose and she wins.  Simple.

In real conflict there are lots more options. All parties end up so badly damaged that there are only losers. One side decides to give in for the sake of avoiding the physical conflict. All parties decide that the fight isn’t worth the risk and everyone goes off in a different direction. The police show up and everyone involved is arrested. There are a whole range of possibilities beyond “I win,” or "I lose."

Budo practice teaches a not just about fighting, but about recognizing all those other possibilities. I’m not going to say competition is entirely bad. It's great fun, and it gives people with too much energy a way to stay focused on something. I’ve seen that as a young judoka. The weakness is that we focus far too much time on competition and forget about the rest of the path. The lessons of competition seem tiny compared to all the other lessons that can be learned on the journey that is the study of budo. That in itself may be the first lesson.

It’s a journey, not a destination. Winning a match or tournament doesn’t mean much in the context of that journey.  You’re still trying to learn the lessons. When you start to study budo, and not just a martial sport, you’ll discover that there is a whole lot more to your budo than the stripped down set of techniques allowed in competition.  

I’ll start by using Judo as my example. Competitive judo prohibits strikes, a range of throws that endanger your opponent, a few throws where you can endanger yourself, gripping techniques that you can hurt yourself doing or that provide an unfair advantage, grips below the belt (don’t ask why, I still don’t understand the IJF explanation), attacks to any joint beside the elbow, throwing with an armlock, and numerous other things.

Even though these things are all banned in formal competition, most of them are part of the formal syllabus of Kodokan Judo.  Just take a look at the two videos below.

The Kodokan Goshin Jutsu and the Kime No Kata are both part of the Kodokan syllabus. Almost nothing in either kata could be used in competition. If you focus on competition, you miss all the rest. Competition presents too small a slice of the possibilities that are budo, and the possibilities that are life. In life there are lots of options beyond simple win or lose scenarios. Business people spend much of their time trying to fashion what they call win-win agreements, so that everyone involved gains something in the exchange.  They don’t always work out, but just being able to try for something like that seems a lot better than scenarios like a match where one person wins and one loses, or worse, tournaments, where there is one winner, and there are many, many losers.

Often the ideas of learning to be a gracious winner and accepting defeat honorably are mentioned as benefits of competition.  The weakness I see here is that outside of organized competitions, there are almost no opportunities to practice this lesson. Life doesn’t consist of of competitions with clear winners and losers. There are other lessons that I find useful every day though. The best people to be around aren’t the ones keeping score.  The best people to be around are the ones who don’t keep score. The ones who try to, in the words of Bill and Ted,  “be excellent to each other.”

One lesson of competition is to keep score.  The lesson of budo practice is that there is no score.  We all improve together.  I can’t improve my skills without your active support, and you can’t improve yours without my active support. If you and I are busy trying to keep score of who learns the most techniques, or who gets the most reps, or anything else, we’re not providing the mutual support necessary to truly improve our skills. That kind of practice is a lot more like life than any competition.

The other, discreet lessons of budo apply beyond the dojo as well. Budo teaches numerous lessons about ma’ai and timing. Ma’ai isn’t just for combat, and neither is timing. I haven’t gotten to all the places where an understanding of the principles of structure will serve you. Understanding ma’ai is about understanding the weakness or strength of a particular position relative to those around you.  It’s a fluid, constantly changing as the situation changes, even if you don’t move at all.  

Timing is important in whatever you do, from gardening to business. Structure too applies outside the arena of competition, mostly in place where being aware of strong, stable structures and weaknesses that can undermine them are critical to not getting hurt in physical, or not-physical, ways. Timing needs to be considered for anything you want accomplish, in or out of the dojo. Too early and you give away your objectives and strategy. Too late is, well, too late.

One of the most critical lessons of budo practice is that it’s OK if you don’t master these lessons today.  The goal isn’t to master anything thing right away.  In budo there is no illusion that we will ever perfect anything. We learn that there is no goal to reach. The point of budo is to improve a little bit every day. To be better today than yesterday, and be better tomorrow than you are today. This isn’t a goal because a goal is an endpoint, a place to get to and stop. With budo, there is no endpoint.

What you do every day is more important than what you do during any 5 minute match. It doesn’t matter what the match is.  Dr. Ann Maria DeMars is a former world champion judoka.  Let that sink in.  World champion. At some point, she was the best on the planet at what she did. Yet now she can write about how she completely forgets having done that. Whatever we do, it will quickly be in the past, and we can’t live there. Life is a journey, not an event. Each day we have to continue that journey.  With competition, we focus on the events and an artificial concept of a winner and a loser. With budo, we focus on the journey, of moving forward and improving every day. Working with our teachers and seniors and partners and juniors so we all are a bit better today than we were yesterday, and so tomorrow we’ll be a bit better than today.  We don’t stop at any event.

Competition is a limited view of the world. It’s a zero-sum game with clear winners and losers. Life isn’t a zero sum game.  Life is big and messy and so very unclear. In life, winning and losing isn’t decided by a set of rules. It’s more like a fluid range of success, and that success is much more dependent on not keeping score than it is about winning points. You have to work with the people around you, your training partners, so you all succeed and improve together. If you aren’t better today than you were yesterday, that’s probably the closest thing to a loss. You succeed when you and your partners are better people tomorrow than you were today.

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.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What Is A Good Uke, and Why Is One Important?

I’ve run across some discussions within gendai budo arts with people talking about the varying qualities of the uke they encounter as they train in different dojo.   The quality of ukes and the training people do with them is thoroughly inconsistent.  All of this brought two questions to the fore for me.  First, what is a good uke?  Second, just how important for training iis it to have a good uke to work with?

When we train in most martial arts, we have to have a partner to train with.  It is difficult to practice solo, whether you are training in an unarmed or armed art.   In arts like judo and aikido, many people seem to view uke’s role as simply being able to take the fall when we throw them.  While I agree that uke must be able to handle being thrown, I believe this is the smallest portion of an uke’s skills.  I was witness to a recent discussion of people from one art complaining about the quality of attacks their uke were performing.  The poor attacks were making good practice difficult.

When we go to the dojo to train, we need partners to train with.  Our training partner, our uke, actually determines just about everything that happens in each training encounter.  Our uke sets the spacing and speed of the encounter, as well as the determining how much energy will go into it.  This is true for judo, aikido practice, kenjutsu kata, jo kata, kendo training or any other practice with a partner.

To be a good uke is not just to be able take the fall for however hard your partner thows, or to be able to absorb the attack with the sword, jo, or naginata.  To me, being able to survive the technique is the basic prerequisite for learning how to be a good uke.

A good uke
  • understands the appropriate distances for various attacks
  • knows how to make the different attacks effectively
  • can adjust the speed and power of their attacks so tori can practice whatever element of the technique or kata they need to focus on
  • understands spacing and timing intimately so they can teach us when we are too early or too close, too late or too far.
  • can handle what tori is doing without trouble.  
  • can present new problems for tori to learn from

Being a good uke takes a lot of skill.  In places where only people who are skilled at the role act as uke the training  environment is far more intense, exciting, and most importantly, effective .   The skill of the uke means that there is never any question of them not understanding their role in the technique or kata being practiced.  They provide the optimal learning and training experience for their partner.  

Getting to the point where you can be a good uke takes time, something a lot of modern dojo don’t seem to want to give students.  The first step in becoming a good uke is learning the fundamentals on the tori side.  You really have to know the techniques and the kata from that side before you can do an adequate job as uke for someone.    Learning the tori side is where you lay a foundation of good technique, timing, maai and reading your partner.

A good uke understands the technique you are doing and can offer the right feedback to help you improve.  This feedback won’t always be verbal.  A lot of it is just not letting you get away with sloppiness in posture and positioning and energy application (some people say “force” but that is a crude an inaccurate description of what we are doing).   This level of understanding is critical.

Once someone has a solid understanding of the technical side they can start learning the uke role.  I have vivid memories of the first few times Matsuda Sensei called on me to act as uke for someone he was teaching.  I was really honored, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was there to be taught every bit as much as I was to help the other guy.  Sensei offered as many corrections and advice to me about how to make the learning experience better for my partner as he did to my partner.  

That was my first lesson in being an uke. It was not my last.  I’m still getting lessons.  And everything I learn about being uke also informs my understanding of being tori.  It all cycles around.  On the foundation of techniques you learned as tori, you then build an understanding of the various attacks and how they need to be done for each of the techniques or kata your partner is learning.  Not every attack is so hard and deep it blows through tori if they miss, nor are they all so light that there are no consequences for tori if the fail the technique.  A good uke controls that intensity and can pull the attack if they see tori isn’t going to be able to handle it.  Uke can dial the intensity up and down as needed.  

One of the things that a good uke can do is push you outside of your comfort zone.  Whether you are doing kata training or randori, a good uke can push you by making you practice what you are weakest at, and by moving things a little faster than you are accustomed to, by changing up the timing and spacing.  All of these are critical lessons.

It is very easy to get comfortable and not venture out of safe, known territory.  If you are always in a neighborhood you know well, you aren’t likely to learn anything or to improve.  You have to go out where you aren’t comfortable and where you aren’t sure your technique will work. In fact, you need to go out where your technique will fail so you can learn what is necessary there, and grow enough so that your technique will work.  Taking you to where your technique can fail safely and you can make your next steps forward is the responsibility of a good uke.

Uke controls what we learn.  Uke has to be able to take us outside our comfort zone to work on aspects of technique that need practice, whether it is timing, spacing, speed, power or a combination of all of them.

So just how important is a good uke to learning budo?  As important as having a good teacher.  The teacher leads and points the way, and your uke provides the grinding stone you shape your early technique upon, and the fine grit polishing powder that you polish it with when you understand the general shape of the art.

You can see then why I cringe when I see beginners working together so much of the time in many judo and aikido dojo.  A beginner training with other beginners will have a difficult time trying to learn anything useful.  The attacks they receive won’t help them learn distancing or timing.  They may even learn the wrong lessons.  If they learn to react to attacks that would never reach them they are learning bad distancing and timing.  The same if they think someone has to stand very close to initiate an attack.  Attacks that are too weak don’t give tori experience with appropriate energy levels, while attacks the are too energetic too early can easily injury tori, or cause them to react with energy they can’t control yet, which can injury uke.

When a beginner acts as uke for a beginner, tori can’t practice good technique.  Tori needs attacks geared to their level, and feedback from how she deals with those attacks.  That feedback is critical to making good growth and progress in the art.  If the beginner uke’s attacks aren’t teaching a good understanding of timing and spacing, the feedback they give to tori’s techniques is worse than useless.  They don’t know what a good technique is yet, so they can’t guide tori’s technique in the right direction. They are more likely to guide their fellow beginner in the wrong direction without realizing it.  These are, lessons that may take years to undo.

Good uke provide the framework within which a good teacher can work.  The teacher can’t practice with everyone all the time.  Senior students who are good uke do that.  The good uke gives their partner the chance to assimilate what the teacher shows and explains.  They provide the correct feedback immediately, and there are never 2 students staring at each other because neither one knows what they are doing. The good uke provides a great training experience, even if the teacher isn’t around.  They can train well and help tori raise her level every time they work together.

I would also say that good uke speed the learning curve immensely.  I believe a student who has ample time training with good uke will develop several times faster than one who does a lot of training with other beginners.  I’m not saying never train with other beginners.  In many dojo, especially outside Japan, there just aren’t enough seniors to go around.  But I will say that you should try to train with skilled uke as much as possible.   One of my favorite dojo in Japan doesn’t allow juniors to act as uke until they are at least 4th dan.  I was shocked by this the first few times I trained there.  Practice starts with everyone doing solo kihon, and then the seniors line up and all the juniors do paired kihon with the seniors.  Then the juniors are paired with seniors and they practice for 45 minutes together.  The final 45 minutes the juniors watch the seniors practice.  This works even more effectively than it sounds, because the juniors get the opportunity to carefully watch the kata being done at a high level of skill, so they can see how the corrections and lessons they have just received are applied.  From this watching and thinking they can get a deeper understanding of the kata for their next practice.

As dojo develop sufficient depth, I think they should switch to the older practice of junior students training with senior students.  That is the way it works in the mature dojo I have seen in Japan, both koryu and gendai. This is not just because it’s traditional.  It’s traditional because it works best.