Showing posts with label koryu budo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label koryu budo. Show all posts

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fine Martial Arts Equipment, Books and Videos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

You could try breathing through your eyelids.


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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, March 31, 2016

Better for what?






A friend of mine asked about swords.  He was wondering which was a better investment for iaido practice, a sword made of high quality modern steel or one made in the traditional fashion. I think he may have been surprised at my answer.

"Best for what?" For iai practice, you don't even need a sword made of steel. A well-balanced, well constructed iaito made of zinc-aluminium alloy will do just fine. The problem with many modern “samurai swords” is that they have the balance of crow bar. For classical Japanese sword training like iaido, the most important thing is the construction and balance of the sword. Bad balance or poor construction makes it impossible to learn good technique and can actually injure your arms. Poorly balanced swords put stress on your arms in ways that can damage them..

The best Japanese swords are still the ones made by classically trained smiths. This is because the classically trained smiths understand sword design, geometry and balance in depth. They've studied hundred of great blades and know what shapes are good for different applications and uses. Western made "samurai swords" look vaguely like a Japanese sword, but they generally lack the real character and traits that make a sword of a particular style or era that was designed for real use.

It's less about the particular steel than the geometry and balance. Modern steels are great. They are strong, resilient, inexpensive and rust resistant. Classically made, folded steel is expensive, strong, resilient and rusts if you look at it wrong. The real difference for practice is what the smith does with it. For that, the classically trained smith is hands down the best.  Good iaito are made to mimic the weight, geometry and balance blades made by traditionally trained Japanese smiths, which is why they make the best investment for immediate practice.

This sword discussion reminds me a lot of my thoughts whenever someone asks me what the best martial art is. “Best for what?”  What you want to do with the martial art will determine where the answer goes. Martial arts have as many differences as they do similarities. What’s best is going to depend on what you want out of it. Unfortunately, becoming an unbeatable super warrior isn’t something any art can give. Give some realistic thought to what you want. Is it unarmed or armed skills? Primarily physical or more mental? Do you want to sweat heavily, or only moderately (not sweating is not an option when learning martial arts)?  Lots of contact or not?

While I am an unabashed fan classical Japanese koryu budo, they aren’t best for everyone. One reason is related to why my friend was asking about the difference between swords made with modern steel and those made by classically trained smiths: the cost to acquire one!

Genuine koryu budo are rare, even in Japan. In the USA where I live, they are exceptionally rare.  I can count the number dojo teaching real koryu within a 2 hour drive of my home on my fingers. There are a couple of iai dojo, a jujutsu and kenjutsu ryuha, and my dojo with iai and jo.  That’s it, and in a lot of places there aren’t even this many dojo. What this scarcity means is that learning real koryu budo is expensive.  It means investing a lot of time and money just to get to someplace where you can learn one.  Even then, there’s a good chance that what’s available isn’t exactly what you’re looking for.

Iai is great, but if you’re looking for kenjutsu or bojutsu or jujutsu, it’s not going to do you much good if the only things around are iai dojo. To really study something, you are probably going to have to travel a lot further than 2 hours.  I teach Shinto Muso Ryu and Shinto Hatakage Ryu, but if I want to get instruction for myself, I have to go to where my teachers are. Japan. That’s the only real solution, and it’s not cheap.  I’m lucky enough to be able to do it once or twice a year.

What happens if you can’t afford to travel an hour or more each way to practice, or worse, have to fly somewhere to receive hands on instruction? Koryu budo doesn’t look like a great option. On the other hand, the faux koryu stuff floating around is kind of like the faux “samurai swords.” It may look vaguely like the real thing, but under close examination it will lack many of the characteristics of a genuine koryu budo, and when you try to pick it up and use it, you may discover that it has the balance of a crow bar.

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


I love koryu budo, but good quality gendai (modern) budo is great too. The metaphor above breaks down a little here, because gendai budo isn’t an attempt to mimic koryu budo the way an iaito mimics a shinken. Gendai budo were created to suit the ages of their founding, and have evolved since then.  They aren’t koryu budo. Good gendai budo don’t try to be.  Good gendai budo are honest about their age and qualities and history.  Judo or aikido or kendo will teach a lot of the same things that you learn in a koryu budo. You’ll learn good structure, breathing, movement, spacing and timing. It won’t have the history or breadth of koryu budo, but it still has a huge amount to teach you.

If you want to learn good budo, do something that will teach you good fundamentals.  I’m fond of saying there are no advanced techniques. There aren’t, and anything that is too specialized, too focused on a particular precise application, won’t be broadly applicable in new situations. A good foundation of understanding your body, structure, breathing, spacing and timing can be quickly adapted and applied to any new situation or study.

Koryu budo are still rare. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near where one is taught, then it’s probably not the best budo for you. I love koryu budo, but if nothing is available, then the best budo for you is probably something that is. I’ve found old Japanese swords in antique shops in the middle of nowhere, but they usually aren’t very good and often have fatal flaws such as deep rust or, worst of all, cracks that make the blade useless. Good judo or karate or aikido or kendo, whatever you can find, go in with eyes open. Just because someone has high rank or a teaching license, there is no guarantee that they are good teachers.

It’s better to learn good quality basics from a relatively low ranked and effective teacher than it is to learn poor quality advanced technique from a highly ranked person who has no teaching skills. It’s better to learn good fundamentals from a good, local, budo teacher than it is to bemoan the fact that you can’t afford to travel to where the art you dream of is taught. Start with an iaito and learn the fundamentals while you save to buy a shinken. Learn good budo fundamentals in a local dojo while you can. When you finally save enough for that beautiful shinken, all the training with the iaito will mean that you can handle it with confidence and safety. All that training in the fundamentals of structure and spacing and timing in the local budo dojo will mean that when it becomes possible to start studying the art you’ve been dreaming of, you’ll already have a solid foundation to build on, instead of having to start completely from scratch.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Budo Is An Anachronism In The 21st Century


Budo in the 21st century is an anachronism. Whether we are talking about koryu budo from the before 1868, or the gendai budo, the modern arts founded since the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, budo doesn’t have much to do with the worlds most of us live in. Sword, naginata, bo; these don’t have a place in the world we live in.

The samurai who created the koryu budo were professional soldiers and police. The tools of the modern soldier and police long ago surpassed the tools of budo. Even the modern arts of judo, kendo, and aikido don’t really relate to the world around them. They are amusing sports and hobbies, but they do really offer anything beyond other sports and hobbies? What can they offer to the average practitioner, much less to professional combatants like soldiers and police that can’t be found anywhere else?

The weapons may be archaic, but the fundamental skills taught by gendai and koryu budo are as valuable now as they were 400 years ago. People see the particular techniques of a ryuha and make the mistake of thinking they are seeing the fundamental teachings of the ryuha. Just as in Chuang Tzu’s parable, they are mistaking the finger pointing towards the moon for the moon itself. The martial practice has always been somewhat separated from the real conditions of combat. This is an inescapable fact. Training conditions that too closely resemble real combat will result in the same sort of injuries and death as real combat. Training has to prepare students for combat without crippling or killing them in the process.

 
Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

This means that kenjutsu kata are practiced using wooden swords. Sojutsu (spear) kata are practiced with padded tipped weapons. Jujutsu throws are done without the final turn that would break uke’s neck. For all this, warriors and soldiers recognized the value of this training 400 and 500 years ago. Wooden swords are very different from steel: different weight, different balance, different grip. For all those differences, the things learned from training with them were still valuable in the age when people still fought regularly with steel.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


As Ellis Amdur points out in his excellent book about koryu budo, OLD SCHOOL, people in Japan in those ages grew up doing lots of sumo. From the rise of the Ashikaga Shogunate in 1336 onward, Japan was rife with conflicts and wars. These culminated in the Sengoku Era starting in the 1467 and running until Tokugawa Ieyasu won the Battle Of Sekigahara and unified brought the whole nation under his rule by force in 1604. People were less interested in sparring than in practice for realities they knew too well.

People sought out teachers who would train them with wooden weapons instead of steel, and whose jujutsu training didn’t include any free sparring. That training was valuable enough to seek out in the Sengoku Era, and in the decades after the Tokugawa’s came to power before everyone became complacent with the realization that peace and not war was the new status quo. What of value could be learned from all this mere training without sparring? As it turns out, quite a lot. It’s still valuable. Humans haven’t changed noticeably since long before we learned how to write down our adventures, and not at all in the last 500 years.

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
Those classical methods for teaching students the big, obvious things like a solid physical structure, how to read spacing and a good understanding of the timing involved in using various weapons are still effective. Whether we call them kata or forms or training drills, they still work.  No one can train for every possible eventuality, that’s why “what if” games are so pointless.

Instead, the good systems focus on teaching the principles of movement and encounter, of understanding effective spacing versus spacing where you can’t do anything, good timing and the consequences of bad timing. These are the fundamentals of budo. They aren’t the only things that have remained relevant from the 16th century to the 21st.

Many koryu budo train with weapons of varying lengths, weight and make-up. Schools like Takenouchi ryu include everything from unarmed to tanto to tachi to naginata and bo. That covers the reaches and ranges for most handheld weapons in any time.  Even in the age when Takenouchi Ryu was founded, they didn’t teach every possible weapon. There wasn’t time to learn every weapon.  However there was time to learn the principles of spacing and timing at all the various ranges you could encounter weapons.

Late in its history, Shinto Muso Ryu added kusarigama to its curriculum. Shinto Muso Ryu covers the use of most lengths of stick and sword, but a chain weapon like the kusarigama seems like a leap away from the core of the art. If you think about studying this weapon so you can be familiar with the properties of chain weapons though, it makes a lot of sense. Shinto Muso Ryu covers sticks and swords. With the addition of kusarigama, the Shinto Muso Ryu student can grasp the principles underlying chain and rope weapons so those can be effectively faced as well.

Hmm. Sticks, knives, swords and chains. That covers most of the range of possible handheld weapons even in the 21st century with the exception of firearms.

Photo Copyright Grigoris Miliaresis 2014
I’ve been surprised at some of the other lessons found in various koryu that are appreciated even now. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu contains kata about performing surprise attacks. These are lessons not just about how to make a surprise attack. They are also lessons about when and where we are vulnerable. If we can do something to someone, they can do it to us.  

500 years of technological progress haven’t made a dent in that truth.

There are lots of little lessons in budo that get overlooked while we focus on the big combat techniques. These little details that seem like decorations on the combative techniques are often the bits that I can apply in the parts of my life where I’m not actively engaged in a fight. Someone recently pointed out a whole list of lessons that are embedded within the kata of various koryu.

Mugendo Budogu: Fine Martial Arts Equipment


There are lessons about taking advantage of lighting or position for an ambush that also teach what conditions are dangerous for us, and what we should be aware of. At night if someone can draw our attention to lighted space, it’s easy for them to attack from a shadow we’ve ignored. Lessons about securing clothing and equipment are as applicable today as they were in the Sengoku era.  Learning to be aware of our surroundings is always a good lesson.

Koryu budo in particular are not just collections of discrete fighting techniques. They are whole schools of thought and behaviour. They teach how to handle and care for tools and weapons. There are lessons about places and situations to beware of. It’s surprising how much the lessons of good budo are simple, solid, good sense.

Which makes me wonder, are koryu budo anachronisms after all? Their lessons about structure and posture and spacing and timing are just as relevant to in the 21st century as they were 500 years ago. The length and variety of weapons available hasn’t diminished any in the last 500 years.  The principles governing how those weapons can be used and what sort of spacing and timing is important are still the same. The places situations we have to beware of haven’t really changed either. It seems I was wrong. Koryu budo aren’t anachronisms.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Organizing The Body For Budo


The fundamental skill of budo is not particular kata or even special techniques. Those are built on something else. The techniques and kata of a budo ryuha, ancient or modern, are the teaching syllabus and the textbook. The practice of those techniques and kata are the way one acquires the fundamental skills of the ryuha. 

If the techniques of a ryuha aren’t the fundamental skills being taught, what are they? The fundamental skills of a ryuha are all the things that make the techniques and kata possible. The essence of any ryuha is how the body and mind are organized. These are the fundamental lessons driven and learned through the practice of all those kata.

The kata provide a framework for learning to organize our bodies and minds. Kata only happen when the fundamental techniques are solid. Techniques are solid when the body is properly organized. That organization is what makes everything happen. How do you grip the weapon (or your opponent if it’s unarmed)? That’s a start. If the structure of your grip isn’t good, if the bones and muscles of the hand and arm aren’t well organized, the grip will be weak and the techniques ineffectual.  

How the feet, legs, hips, torso and head are organized is the true foundation and the fundamental teaching of any art. In koryu arts, this is a core secret. For Kodokan Judo though, this is open knowledge, though not even everyone who practices judo understands it. The majority of people doing judo do competitive judo and rarely train in the kata, where Kano Jigoro and his senior students encoded the essential lessons of the art.

In contrast to the low, solid, heavy stances common to in judo competition, the body is organized higher and lighter in the kata. This reflects the fact the Kodokan Judo kata are intended to teach how to handle a variety of combative situations including grabs, strikes, and weapons, as opposed to the narrow range of attacks permitted in the competitive arena. How do you organize the body to handle all of these different possibilities?

The way the body is organized for competition is optimal for conditions in a tournament where attacks come from the front. No one ever tries to strike you, No one carries any weapons. The problem I had initially with training in the kata was that the body is organized quite differently than for competition. The low, stable, immovable stance that is so ubiquitous in randori is exchanged for an upright, light, mobile posture that can quickly adjust and react to the wide variety of attacks presented by the kata.


With so many more possible ways to be attacked, and from so many more distances and angles, the body has to be organized differently. Instead of organizing my legs and hips to be able block out a throwing attack and then counter it, I have to be prepared to move to a new location quickly to avoid a punch, kick or weapon, or to enter inside the attack to deal with it. The knees will be slightly bent and the core engaged to take on the weight.  Instead of energy and strength being focused forward to meet an incoming throwing attack, the focus is more diffuse to allow quick movement in all directions.

Contrast this with way the body is organized for ZNKR Kendo and Seitei Iai. Instead of the low, solid posture common to competitive judo, or the light, upright posture of classical Kodokan Judo, for iai the posture is very upright, but with the body pressing forward, ready to surge into action the moment a foot is released. There is tension between the legs, so that movement happens the instant a foot is lifted. No time is wasted shifting weight, everything is ready. The koshi is kept engaged to provide a solid platform while the arms are light and relaxed to swing the sword quickly and effectively.
Beyond competitive martial arts, every koryu has its own way of organizing the body, and this is a core secret of the art. Historically, keeping information about this secret was one reason members of a ryuha would avoid training with anyone outside their ryu. If you understand how someone organizes their body, you know a lot about what they can and cannot do. Modern systems like judo and ZNKR Seitei Iai lay everything out in the open.

The way an art conceives combat, the situations envisioned, and the strategies employed all come together to determine how the body is organized. For something as specific as competitive judo or kendo, very specialized postures and organization develop. Budo that assume many more options have to organize that body differently. Rather than very specialized techniques only applicable to one situation, they require physical organizations flexible enough to adapt to the myriad of situations that can develop.  A good competitive bodily organization will maximize the potential within the narrow confines of the arena. Sogo budo 総合武道 (general budo) have far broader potential applications and need a body that isn’t organized for one specific match.

The more specialized the art, the more apparent it is in your body.  I was visiting a friend’s judo dojo for the first time a few weeks ago, and as I walked up to a young man I said “You’re a wrestler, aren’t you?” The way a body is organized for wrestling is a bit different from that of judo, enough that I could see that he was a wrestler even before we started working together. Karateka and competitive judoka are easy to spot too. The way we learn to organize our body is something we carry with us everywhere. It’s not something that turns off when we leave the dojo. It’s so apparent that we can learn to see it in the way other martial artists stand and walk.

How we organize the body for action is at the heart of every budo. It is basic, fundamental, and very difficult to get right. Mastering the body mechanics of an art is literally half the battle. Until the body is properly organized and moving in accord with the basic principles of the art you’re studying, none or the rest will be correct. No technique, no punch, no cut, no strike, no throw can be done correctly until the body is organized to create the platform upon which the technique occurs. Until the techniques are right, the kata don’t stand a chance of coming together with the right spacing and timing.  It all starts with how the body is organized. ( I might deal with organizing the mind another time, but that’s more difficult to describe.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Classical Budo Connects The Past And The Future



Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


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

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

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

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis


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

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


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

Fine budo gear from budoka for budoka.



Saturday, November 22, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 1

Musha Shugyo 武者修行is an old Japanese term for the practice of leaving one’s home and traveling around the country to learn from people, engage in challenge matches, grow, and perhaps even establish oneself. Rennis Buchner has a great article on musha shugyo over on Acme Budo. The past few weeks I’ve been on a modern version of the musha shugyo, visiting Japan, training with some great teachers in different dojo, and getting my butt thoroughly kicked along the way.

Even in the old days, musha shugyo were not endless rounds of intense duals. They were as much or more about learning and trying to find a job as anything else. Buchner’s references from various Hoki Ryu records provide a much more balanced and realistic view of what was happening than the popular myths. Sadly, my journey was not about finding a job teaching budo somewhere in Japan. There just aren’t many jobs for staff budoka anymore. Today a musha shugyo is a journey of hard training, deep learning and mental and spiritual development. For these purposes, our journey was a wonderful success.

I set out with a friend and one of her students to attend a private gasshuku sponsored by the teacher of one of my teachers, as well as to visit several dojo of my sword and jo teachers. Along the way we also squeezed in a few sites and experiences from around Japan. Budo is not just what happens in the dojo, and we didn’t want to miss the rest of the experience that is Japan.

Our first destination was the Shinto Muso Ryu gasshuku, sponsored by the teacher of my Jodo teacher. This private gasshuku is a regular event, held at an incredible dojo space in Kashima Japan, next to the grounds of one of the largest and most famous Shinto shrines dedicated to budo. The Shinbuden is a privately operated dojo space that anyone can rent. The dojo space is vast, with enough floor space to run at least 3 kendo competition areas and 2 judo competition areas simultaneously. Walking into the vast hall the first time is intimidating. It’s huge and the room echoes with your voice. There are couple of enourmous taiko drums used to call people to order, mark the start and end of meditation, and to beat out the rhythm for group practice. When the dojo is filled with budoka screaming out their kiai the sound is incredible.



Shinbuden interior during practice. Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2014


This year the head teacher couldn’t join us due to health issues, so we had to settle for three of his top students, all of whom are not just menkyo kaiden in Shinto Muso Ryu, but are also highly ranked seniors in other arts including iaido, aikido, and judo. No one was really settling for anything. We had more instructor power than we could handle.

The training was not the harsh, brutal training often depicted in movies. We trained hard, but thoughtfully, with an emphasis on really grasping and understanding what we were doing. The goal was to establish a solid base of knowledge in each participant so they could continue to grow and polish what was learned during the gasshuku after they returned to their home dojo. Training was katageiko and we drilled one set of kata for three days. Contrary to what you might think, this wasn’t abusive or boring.  It was fascinating. After going through the same group of kata so many times, and being able to see even the most senior student in attendance getting corrected on numerous fine details, I have pages of notes to implement into my training when I finally get home.

We lined up in two rows, with senior students closest to the kamiza and wielding bokuto (bokken). Sensei called out the kata and we did it to the best of our abilities. Then the three teachers corrected people on various errors, and we did it again. I received plenty of correction on everything from foot placement to timing to fundamental positions. It was great. The teachers would come over, take my partner’s place, and then we’d do the technique. They would show me quite clearly where my flaws lay. One teacher in particular took great, good-humored, pleasure showing how he could cut off your leg or head with his bokuto to demonstrate to you just how weak your position was.

The training wasn’t just in the techniques of ryuha however. We learned a lot about being members of the ryuha as well. A ryuha isn’t just a set of techniques and kata. Ryuha are ancient traditions. The youngest of the koryu budo are a mere 150 years old.  The oldest go back to the 15th century. With more than 400 years of history, being a member of Shinto Muso Ryu is much more than just learning a few techniques. The ryuha really is a sort of family society, and the gasshuku emphasized this for all of us. The hotel we stayed at was much more traditional than modern. Meals were traditional Japanese style, and we helped with everything. Members would show up early and serve the rice, tea, and miso soup for each other, preparing the table in an exercise that emphasizes each person’s membership in the group.  This is part of how the group bonds. Since this was our musha shugyo, we made sure to be there and help out. We traveled halfway around the world to be a part of this group, and working together supporting each other is part of the shugyo.

A word about shugyo 修行 might be in order. Shugyo can be anything from simple training done sincerely to ascetic exercises performed for spiritual or religious purposes.  Within budo, practice is viewed as both training in the techniques of the system and developing students spirit, heart and mind. For my friends and I, and for everyone at the gasshuku, both aspects were fully present in our training. The technique training is clear, but the spiritual side was there too. We learned to not be put off by failure, as the teachers had us repeat techniques until we could get them right. We learned to endure fatigue and sleep deprivation because the socializing with the teachers could go late and cut into the amount of sleep we got. Sleep was already a precious commodity for my friends and I because we were suffering from jet lag. In previous years I’ve gone to the February gasshuku and learned to endure the suffering of training in the huge, drafty, unheated dojo, so the November chill felt like a warm spring by comparison. By the end of the third day we were also battling sore, achy muscles and a few bruises from strikes that missed their targets and thrusts that were a little too successful. At the gasshuku though, none of this was anything to complain about. That too was part of the shugyo.

The last couple days of the training we covered some less frequently emphasized pieces of the curriculum, which was as much fun as it was frustrating.  Because these parts of the system don’t get practiced as often, you were likely see someone (like me) stop in the middle of a kata because he couldn’t figure out how to get from where he was to where he needed to be. The fun came as we laughed at our mistakes and felt great when we finally got something right. I actually managed to do kusarigama without hitting myself in the face with the fundo consistently for the first time. I also got it to wrap around the sword correctly a few times.  Now I just have to practice it several million times more to get it down.

Katageiko 形稽古 training is not the harsh, abusive training you sometimes see depicted in stories of old Japan. It’s a cooperative effort. The attacking side provides just enough speed and energy for the learning side to be able to learn.  Sometimes this means we seem to be moving in slow motion, and sometimes it means we stop with a laugh as we make a really silly blunder.

As I mentioned, the Shinbuden Dojo is next to the grounds of the largest and most famous Shinto Shrine related to budo in Japan. Outside Japan the Katori Shrine is better know because of Donn Draeger’s books, but inside Japan Kashima Shrine is far more famous and popular as a pilgrimage site.  Kashima Shrine is old and huge.  The grounds are filled with a forest dominated by massive cedar trees that range up to 600 years old and over 2 meters in diameter.

Headed Out Kashima Shrine Gate Copyright Peter Boylan 2014


During the gasshuku, we took a morning to visit the shrine, received a blessing and performed a hono enbu 奉納演武, or demonstration presented as an offering. There is a fabulous old dojo on the grounds of the shrine where we all demonstrated our skills. The dojo is magnificent. It dates from the late Edo period, with beautiful cedar pillars surrounding the dojo floor. On one side is a statue of the Meiji Emperor, who once visited the dojo. The floor is lovely, pale wood, polished smooth the by feet of everyone who practices at the dojo, and those who come only for hono enbu.

This hono enbu was a demonstration by the ryuha, so we all took part, from the newest student demonstrating kihon waza to the senior teachers demonstrating kata at the highest level of skill and ability. It was a honor to be able to view the demonstration, and an even greater honor to be able to take part. The ryuha is more than 400 years old, and joining it is not like taking up Judo or Aikido. You don’t just show up at the dojo, pay your dues and become a member. Like many ryuha, you start training, and at some point the teachers and senior members may decide that you are worth accepting into the ryuha. Membership is less a privilege and more a responsibility. At any enbu, the responsibility is to represent the ryuha in a dignified manner appropriate to the situation and to demonstrate one’s best technique and behavior. Sometimes this means sitting in seiza until your legs fall asleep. If that’s what’s required, you do it and you don’t complain.

Following the enbu, we got into the hotel bus for a short ride to the grave of Tsukahara Bokuden, to whom many of the most famous martial ryuha in Japan trace their roots. Born in 1489, he lived during one of the most tumultuous eras in Japanese history. Warlords were tearing the country apart in their quest to become lord of all Japan. Everyone had an army and skilled warriors were in high demand. He is said to have learned Katori Shinto Ryu and then founded Kashima Shinto Ryu.


Tsukahara Bokuden's gravesite.  Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Tsukahara was born in Kashima, and our hotel was nearby his reputed birthplace. His gravesite lies a little ways out of town 50 feet up the side of a mountain. A recent landslide caused the hillside below the grave to collapse and the town reinforced the hillside. We walked quietly past the graves below and climbed the steps to Tsukahara’s grave. I still find it remarkable that the grave of someone so influential in the world of martial arts remains a peaceful, unspoiled place of quiet and repose. As is customary during a visit to a grave in Japan, we each lit a few sticks of incense and said a quiet prayer. Tsukahara is one of the most significant and influential people in the development of Japanese sword arts, and the chance to pay respects to someone who had such influence on something as important in my life as my budo practice is a quiet wonder.




Offering Incense at the grave of Tsukahara Bokuden Copyright Peter Boylan 2014


After the gasshuku wrapped up, as part of our musha shugyo, my friends and I went back to Kashima Shrine to learn a little bit more about the shrine and it’s history. Kashima Shrine dates back to before the Heian Period (784CE to 1185CE) and has a rich budo history. The deity of the shrine is Takemikazuchi No Kami, who is a kami of martial arts. In Japanese legend, earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish under the earth, and Takemikazuchi No Kami is said to subdue the catfish and prevent earthquakes. His shrine covers acres and acres. It takes a good 20 minutes to walk from one end of the shrine to the other, down wide forest lanes surrounded by the massive cedar trees. The greenery is remarkably peaceful, and it is easy to imagine the Japan of a thousand years ago when most of the country was forested like this.

The path at Kashima Shrine. Copyright Deborah Klens-Bigman 2014.
Yes, those little specs are people!


Kashima Shrine Guardian Copyright Peter Boylan 2014









You’ll notice that the Shrine Guardians in the
Kashima Shrine Guardian Copyright Peter Boylan 2014
pictures  are holding large Japanese bows. This is because the bow was the chief weapon of the samurai for at least a thousand years. The sword didn’t become the primary weapon until the Tokugawa government enforced peace on the nation and made the wearing of two swords the prerogative and symbol of the warrior class.

Although there are two wooden shrines, the forest seems to be the real shrine, dedicated to the natural spirit of Japanese kami. Of the shrines, one is quite old, and was the main shrine until about 100 years ago, when it was relocated and a larger shrine dedicated in its place.

Old Kashima Shrine Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan
The setting around this shrine is quiet and dark, even during the day. The forest blocks out most of the sunlight. The roof is covered with bright green moss, and you feel its age. People walk up to the front of the shrine, toss a few coins in the offering box, clap, bow and make their prayer.

The new shrine is beautiful, but it feels new. This was where we had received the shrine’s blessing a few days earlier. Receiving the blessing can be a tough experience because you have to sit in seiza for about 20 minutes during the ceremony. Even for many Japanese this is difficult, since they spend their days sitting chairs in now too.




New Kashima Shrine building Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Though we hear much of wabi-sabi, the old shrines in Japan were brightly painted, and that tradition is still visible under the eaves of the main shrine at Kashima. The bright orange and green wall surrounds the Inner Shrine, and the bright colors used to paint the Inner Shrine are clear under the roof.

After spending a peaceful couple of hours wandering around Kashima Shrine, we gathered up our luggage and headed for the Kansai region of Japan for the next stops on our musha shugyo.