Showing posts with label principles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label principles. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Most Essential Principles In Budo: Ma'ai


There is no single essential element of good budo. There are a number of elements that make up the common foundations of all good budo, whether it is empty hand, small weapons, swords, spears and naginata or even kyubado. I wrote about structure in a previous post.  Another essential principle is ma’ai 間合, often translated as spacing. This one seems simple, and turns out to be exceedingly complex and subtle.  

At it’s most basic level, spacing is the distance between you and your opponent.  That’s the most basic level.  After this it quickly gets complicated.  Ma’ai 間合 is the Japanese term, and and while it refers to distance, it also implies the proper or correct distance. The problem and complexity comes from the fact that what is the proper distance is different for every encounter.

Let’s start just with empty hand encounters to keep it simple. I’m 183 cm tall. My reach and range is longer than someone who is 160 cm tall, assuming we’re both using the same sorts of attacks. My range is longer, so I don’t need to be as close to reach out, make a connection and apply a judo technique. An opponent who is 160 cm has to come well inside my range before she can attack.   

Seems simple enough. How about this then? I’m a judoka, so I’m not big with punches and kicks.  So let’s assume my 160 cm opponent is now proficient at Tae Kwon Do. Oops! The ma’ai just changed significantly, and not in my favor. Now my opponents kicks are effective at a greater range than my grappling. On the other hand, if I get inside her effective range, my grappling is more effective than her striking.  

So good distancing,ma’ai, changes with the person’s reach and the techniques being used. It’s the combination of your effective attacking range and your opponent’s. What’s good for one is more than likely not optimal for the other.  Kendo breaks down ma’ai into several discrete ranges, which is easier in kendo because the shinai’s length is controlled to prevent major differences between kendoka.   The Kendo community has analyzed their three main ranges, toma, issoku-no-maai, chika-ma (outside of attack range, attack with one step, close enough to attack without moving).  Their analysis is focused on two very similar opponents with identical weapons.

Once we get outside the competitive arena with it’s requirement that things be “fair,” whatever that might be, ma’ai becomes a very fluid distance. In both gendai and koryu arts, kata are designed to teach the fluidity of ma’ai by setting up the student to practice against a variety of weapons and partners.  This is true in Judo in the Kime No Kata where the student must deal with everything from grabs to strikes to knife attacks to swords.  It’s true in most Aikido training as well, with a variety of tanto and sword disarms.  

Many classical bujutsu systems cover the entire gamut of weapons combinations, from both persons unarmed to one person armed, to both armed with the same weapon to asymmetrically armed training.  Many weapons arts mostly emphasize asymmetrical training scenarios.  In Shinto Muso Ryu, the only time both partners are armed alike is in a few of the okuden forms, and seven of the Shinto Ryu kenjutsu kata.  In JIkishinkage Ryu the combination is usually sword versus naginata.  Most koryu arts include a variety of weapons in their curriculum.

Once we get to this variety of combinations the terms for ma’ai become much more interesting and challenging.  If I’m holding a kodachi facing an opponent with a tachi, her issoku-no-maai is longer than mine.


 If I switch to jo, mine is now longer than hers.  If she’s got one of those giant naginata or a yari, hers is longer than mine.  And then we have the variability of some types of kusarigama, but I’m not going to go there today.  


The continually changing combination of an individual’s range and her weapon’s range makes ma’ai exceptionally difficult to master (and even more complicated to write about). By practicing with a variety of partners and in a variety of weapon combinations you can develop a good sense of maai.  I’m starting to understand some aspects of it, but I have a long way to go.  

One thing that is critical for learning learning ma’ai is that attacks have to be effective. I hear a lot about “sincere” and “committed” attacks in some arts.  I’ll be honest, I really don’t care if the attack is sincere or not, and I really don’t care if it’s committed.  I care about whether it will be effective.  A sincere, committed attack that will never reach you is worthless for training because you will never learn at what range you are vulnerable, and at what range you are effective.  The same is true for an attack that purposely misses to either side.  I can’t learn how to deal with an attack that isn’t effective.

The attack doesn’t have to be fast and hard.  It doesn’t have to be heavily overcommitted.  It does have to be on target.  That’s the key.  On any number of occasions I’ve told students to “Hit me.”  They swung their weapon and I didn’t move because I didn’t need to.  I could see they weren’t doing anything that would impact me.  I stood there and watched their weapons swing past in the breeze.  Then people asked why I didn’t move.  I didn’t move because my sense of ma’ai is strong enough that I can see when someone is attacking effectively and when he is just waving at empty air.  Waving at empty air is not effective or threatening.

Every attack, no matter how slow, has to be such that it would impact my position.  If it’s not going to do that, how am I going to learn what distance and attack is dangerous and what isn’t?  If you don’t know the difference, you will fall for every feint and false attack.  An effective attack is not one where you overcommit and throw yourself at your opponent either.  For an effective attack you move in maintaining your balance and integrity while striking or cutting so that you will impact your partner if she doesn’t move.  

As you practice kata and randori with a variety of partners and weapons combinations, you will develop a more and more sensitive understanding of ma’ai.  With an understanding of ma’ai comes awareness of the difference between an empty threat, and a position that is vulnerable to attack.  You will also be able to see  when your opponent is open to attack on the other side.  Without an understanding of ma’ai you are vulnerable to every threat and intimidating move because you won’t know the difference between an attack that will affect you and movement that cannot hurt you.

NOTE:  “Ma’ai” has 3 syllables in Japanese:  mah-ah-ee.  In English it comes out as 2 syllables “mah-eye.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Techniques Are Boring

I must be getting old.  I’m certainly getting out of touch.  I find that techniques bore me.   This is surprising because I can readily remember when techniques were the coolest thing going.  I was always ready to learn the newest cool technique or variation that I came across in Judo.  In iaido I couldn’t wait to learn more new kata, and it was clear to me that the systems with the most techniques and kata were the best ones.  After all, the more techniques you know the more situations you are prepared for and can respond to, right?

I’m sure there are a lot of people who think techniques are great too.  I’ve seen Hapkido schools advertising that they teach thousands of techniques.  I understand the attraction.  Each technique does one thing, so the more techniques you know, the more you can do.  Clear, simple math that even I can understand.  Learning techniques feels like solving a jigsaw puzzle.  Each technique you learn slips into a particular place in the martial arts puzzle.  Every time you learn a technique the picture you have of your budo becomes clearer and more precise.  With each technique you have a clear solution for more situations.

Learning new techniques doesn’t make things clearer though.  It actually makes them muddier.  The more techniques you have to choose from when under stress, the worse your reaction time becomes, so you might actually be better off with fewer techniques ( see On Combat by Dave Grossman for actual studies and statistics )   Worse, while you are busy chasing all the technical rabbits, you’re probably missing the real prize, the principles.

Techniques are really just clothing for dressing up and showing off principles.  A technique is limited in the fundamental principles it can express.  Most express one, maybe two principles if you’re lucky, and as a technique, it’s usefulness is limited to the particular situation it is designed for.  Learn a principle though, and from it you can express an endless variety of techniques.  A principle can be applied anywhere if you’re not blinded to the opportunities by a forest of techniques.

In Kodokan Judo, Kano Jigoro Shihan clearly described a fundamental principle that can be applied in any budo.  He named it kuzushi 崩し.  In English I’ve usually heard it described as “off-balancing” or “balance taking”.  The more I study and practice though, the less complete those descriptions become.  In Japanese it has feelings of “destroying the foundation” or “undermining a structure”.  The base verb kuzusu 崩すmeans “break; pull [tear, knock] down; whittle [chip] away at; divide into smaller pieces; break down; knock down” (definitions from Kenkyusha Online Dictionary) so we can see that the principle is more than just “off-balancing”.  I’ve begun to think of it as undermining uke’s foundation and destroying uke’s posture.  Looked at this way, it can be much more, and the applications become more subtle and varied. 

None of this however will come out of learning a hundred techniques, or a thousand.  You get this from studying a limited syllabus of items that let you explore the principle in depth.  Learning techniques gives one a huge range of techniques, but none of those techniques will have much depth.  The way to depth is to master the fundamental principles that drive technique.

These days I find watching people who really embody great principles far more interesting to watch than any number of “cool” techniques.   The principles are what people are talking about when they talk about “mastering the fundamentals”.  The stuff you practice when you practice basics are the stuff of principle, the principles of using the body in the best way, of kuzushi, of timing, of spacing.   

This video of Jigen Ryu’s Okuda Shihan is wonderful.  All he does is raise and lower a training bo practicing correct movement and use of the body.  The bo in this case is a good 6 inches (12 cm) in diameter and probably 5 feet (160 cm) long.  He doesn’t bend his back and use it to lift.  The power flows smoothly from his feet to his legs to hips up to his arms.  The bo rises and falls smoothly and powerfully.  His body expresses the principles of optimal structure and effective movement at an incredible level.


All this is practice for using a sword.  He is developing his body to express fundamental principles of movement and power generation.  When he raises the bo it goes up without any visible effort.  The motion is smooth and clean.  He stance is relaxed yet clearly it is also incredible powerful.  He has obviously mastered principles of posture, stability and power generation.  In a couple of shots he shows how not to swing the bow, and the difference is clear in the visible instability of the posture and the weakness of the swing. 

This is the real stuff, the real secret of budo.  It’s not some obscure technique.  It’s not knowing a thousand techniques.  It’s knowing how to be an expression of the fundamental principles as you do a technique.  In the video, Okuda Shihan is solid and powerful.  From this foundation, whatever he does with the sword will express that solidity and power.


These principles and their expression are what I find interesting now.  I was lucky enough to be invited to train with a very nice Aikido group recently.   The training was good.  What was interesting for me was seeing and feeling how people express the budo principles that I understand.  Many principles seem to be universal, whether they are named and identified or not.  I saw people working on the principles of kuzushi and controlling the center line, whether they called what they were doing by those names or not.  The particular techniques we practiced really didn’t register with me.  In each technique we did, I was still looking for how to apply the principles I have been studying.  

Once I began to see fundamental principles in my own techniques, I began to see their expression all around me in the budo world.  It’s the principles that make the techniques work.   I’m not interested in learning a lot of techniques anymore.  I’ve discovered that if I can’t apply the principles, the techniques don’t work, so I’m more interested these days in learning to apply and express the principles I’m studying in a few techniques very well, rather than learning a lot of techniques with a paper thin understanding that won’t support the technique well enough for it to be useful for anything.


I can hear people saying, “but if you don’t know a good technique for a given situation, what will you do?”  The funny thing is, in Judo randori that happens all the time.  You express the principle and something good happens.  I say “express the principle” here, because “apply the principle” suggests that there is something conscious going on.  Trust me, in randori, even friendly randori, things are happening too fast to be thinking and then doing.  Either you express something, or the moment is gone.  And things are expressed by people all the time.  They feel their partner’s foundation crumble for a moment and apply the principle of kuzushi and a throw happens.  Later they ask the people watching “What did I do?” because they were so busy doing it they didn’t have time to register what they were doing.  Sometimes what they did was identifiable as a discrete technique.  Other times it wasn’t exactly like a classical technique, but the applied principle worked as it was supposed to and uke landed on their back.


If you’ve got the principles, techniques will happen.  If you don’t have the principles, it doesn’t matter how many techniques you “learn.”  They won’t work.  They won’t work until you understand and apply the principles that govern the techniques.  Studying techniques is boring because there isn’t much to any particular technique.  Studying principles is deep and difficult and fascinating.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Budo Then and Now

I was reading where someone was saying  they are working to preserve the spirit of budo as it had been 500 years ago.  That sounds nice on the surface, but when I think about it, I’m not so sure this is really a desirable thing.  Budo is a way, a path, a journey.  If we try to keep it exactly as it was, it is no longer a journey, and it loses its relevance to the present.

I can understand the urge to preserve a martial art without allowing anything to change the art and the tradition.  The people who created these arts were geniuses, and what they created has great value.  That value can be destroyed when people who lack sufficient depth of experience and understanding start playing around with the techniques and kata which make up the art.  It would be too easy to lose the core of a martial art by trying to constantly update it and make it attractive so as to compete with every new fad that comes along.  One look at what modern competitive judo has become will show what a mistake this path can be.

Kodokan Judo includes everything that can be included under these two fundamental principles: “Maximum efficiency, minimum effort” and “Mutual benefit and welfare”.   Competitive judo no longer has guiding principles.  It is about being popular, easy to understand and putting on a good show.  To these ends, the rules get rewritten based on whatever seems likely to increase the sport’s popularity this year.  In order to make competitive judo more popular, the International Judo Federation recently banned an entire range of throwing techniques.  No good explanation has been given by the International Judo Federation (IJF) for why they did this, but the strongest speculation seems to be that this will remove wrestling and modern BJJ elements from the sport.  Judo grew strong accepting challenges from other jujutsu styles and learning from defeats.  Modern judo is just running away from the challenges posed by other grappling systems, becoming weaker and less worthy of respect in the process.

Worse than this, in a recent press release, the IJF said that the new rules are “to promote beautiful and spectacular judo, where ippon becomes the ultimate goal again”.  Except that the aim of Judo is not scoring ippon (full point win) in a competition.  The aim of Judo is to develop an understanding of the principles of “mutual benefit and welfare” and “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”.  Those are the principles of Judo.  Modifying rules to make Judo more exciting for spectators but less effective in teaching the essential, foundational principles of Judo and making it a less effective martial art is a betrayal of the spirit of Judo.  This is chasing popularity for the sake of being popular.  It is also the destruction of Judo.  I predict that if Judo continues down this path, it will disappear in just a few generations as people switch to arts that remain effective and based on good principles.

If we only preserve budo as it was, without ever letting it change though, it becomes a museum piece.  Nice to look at, but not really something that belongs in our day to day lives.  In the past, budo systems were referred to as “ryu” .  This is a character that tells a lot about the nature of budo traditions.  Read “nagare” when it stands alone, means “stream, current, flow”.   This gives the idea that these teachings are flowing  through time.  Not static like a fossil, but alive, moving, changing, growing, as they pass through the years.  A great ryuha should not be weathered down and worn away by time like a rock, but it should grow mighty as water flows from a narrow stream in the highlands and gathers other streams into it and becomes a river.

Budo is a living way.  If we try to preserve it unchanged forever, it loses its value and relevance to the world around it.  Just as one’s individual understanding of Budo and its principles evolves as one grows in the art and deepens their understanding, Budo schools have to evolve and grow as the world they exist in changes.  This change can happen in variety of ways.  One of the most common is for a teacher to become dissatisfied with the art they are practicing to found a new art, which we can see around us abundantly in recent years.

Another possibility is for an art to actively grow and evolve, to remain suited to the world around it by making changes or additions that keep it up-to-date with the world.   An example of this is happening can be seen in the art of Shinto Muso Ryu.  Shinto Muso Ryu was founded on the use of a 128 cm staff, called a “jo”.  When the art was founded early in the 1600s, it was just the art of the staff versus the sword, with  some sword vs.  sword  techniques taught alongside,  so students could become proficient in the sword, both to better understand the art of the staff, and to understand the most common weapon in the world of Japan at that time, the sword.

As decades and centuries went by, the kata for jo were expanded to include more and more scenarios against the sword.  Over the decades, other weapons were added to the curriculum as well.  Jutte, a common police weapon in Tokugawa Japan, and the tying and binding art of hojojutsu  were added late in the 17th century as Shinto Muso Ryu became associated with the police force of the Kuroda-Han in southern Japan.  In the 19th century, a school of kusarigama (a short sickle with a ball and chain attached) was added to the curriculum, expanding the practitioners understanding of weapons and of longer spaces.  At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a period when walking sticks became quite fashionable, and since they were readily available, and similar to the core weapon of Shinto Muso Ryu, one of the senior practitioners developed a curriculum for the walking stick.  

Shinto Muso Ryu now offers a student the opportunity to learn weapons that function at a variety of ranges and that operate on principles of striking, cutting and flexibility.  The art has not stopped growing and adapting.  During the second half of the 20th century, a group of techniques for dealing with unarmed attackers who grab the jo were developed.  These have not been included in the official curriculum yet, but they are taught to students as kuden, or verbal tradition of the art.  I know that leaders of some lines of Shinto Muso Ryu are also developing additions to the art that they see as beneficial to their students.  The most common of these are iai forms, but it is perfectly reasonable to imagine a senior teacher deciding that Shinto Muso Ryu should also offer a set of empty hand techniques to go with the art’s weapons training.  It hasn’t happened yet, but Shinto Muso Ryu is only 400 years old.  There is lots of time for the art to continue to grow and adapt.

Living arts change, grow and adapt.  Dying arts have pieces of themselves worn away by time and are eventually forgotten.   This phenomena can be seen as well.  Some styles of iaido that once encompassed not only solo kata but also paired weapons work with multiple weapons have lost all or nearly all of their paired kata and they are down to just 1 weapon.  These are fading arts, because in losing their paired kata and many of their weapons, they don’t get just a smaller curriculum, they also lose a huge amount of knowledge about timing, spacing and combative distances.  You can’t learn how to judge spacing and timing from solo practice.  You also cannot learn to read a person’s body cues to understand what they will do next, or what lines of movement they have committed themselves to.  Without a variety of weapons, they are limited in understanding the distances necessary for a variety of weapons lengths and types.  It is possible that by letting these paired practices fade, they arts in question have lost the majority of their knowledge, utility and applicability to the world.  This can be seen in Judo as well.  The rule changes mentioned are the elimination of attacks and defenses.  The art is shrinking and losing some of its strength.  It is fading, and if this continues, it will die.

It’s possible for an art to revive, especially if there are multiple lines of transmission.  Then lines that have lost aspects can learn them anew from lines that have maintained their tradition.  This is tough though, and takes some brutal honesty on the part of the line looking to recover it’s full breadth and depth.  The leaders of such an art have to be willing to admit that their art is less than what it was, and could be, and go to someone else and humbly beg to be taught what has been forgotten.  That takes true humility, which is often especially difficult for someone who has become senior in an art.  

It has happened though.  Members of Kashima Shinto Ryu recognized that a part of their art had slipped away at some point and was no longer known.  However, they also knew of related arts that still taught similar practices to those they had lost.  Being more loyal to their art than to their own ego and status, the leaders of Kashima Shinto Ryu went humbly to one of these other arts and asked to learn what had been lost by previous leaders of their own art.  For all that you hear of jealously guarded secrets in the martial arts, there is a lot of openness also, and the leaders of the art approached by Kashima Shinto Ryu agreed to teach what had been lost.  By doing this, the leaders of Kashima Shinto Ryu strengthened their art and gave it new vitality.

There is no reason to assume that once an art has been around for a couple of generations in one form, that it can never change.  In truth, the opposite assumption should probably rule.  That once an art has been around for awhile, it will change.  The question then becomes “How much change is a good thing.”  I have to admit that I tend to think that less change is more successful.  Changes need time to be tried out and examined for robustness.  Those changes that aren’t robust enough should never be formally included in the art. If they do prove worthy over time, then they should certainly be included in the formal curriculum.  These changes and adaptations take time, decades rather than years, to become fully embedded into a living art.   

Most of the senior teachers in classical ryuha that I have met are extremely conservative about their art.  I used to suspect that they were ignoring the world around them striving to keep their art in the past.  As a spend more and more time training with them, my understanding and appreciation of their decisions grows.  They aren’t trying to make their arts wildly popular. They don’t want to be the next big thing.  The next big thing is always quickly replaced some other big thing.  They value their art and want it to be strong, with solid enough foundations that it will survive the changes around it and be able to absorb them instead of being broken by the changing world.  They do make changes.  As I look at classical ryuha, I see that they are adapting to the world.  They have changed the way they take on students and how they share their arts.  Many things are no longer hidden away in scrolls.  In some arts that have grown large enough, the art is presented in books and on professional videos!

It is the student’s responsibility for discovering how their art relates to the world they live in.  I once thought the teacher should show the student how it relates, but I’m realizing that I don’t live in quite the same world my students do, and I can’t make all the connections for them.  Each generation of students is responsible for understanding how their art is relevant to the world around them.  The world changes, but a koryu budo with solid principles will continue to be relevant without frequent changes, because what the ryuha is really teaching are the principles.  The techniques are just a means to that end.  Each generation has to do the work of learning the principles and applying them.  

I practice koryu budo.  I practice living arts.  I hope the arts my students practice will be subtly different than the arts I practice, as the art flows down through time, adds new knowledge and understanding, and adapts to new circumstances and challenges.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do vs Jutsu. Again.


It seems like this issue comes up a lot.  I'm involved in a discussion about it on a LinkedIn discussion board right now, so I thought I would share some of what is going on over there.

The whole Do vs. Jutsu discussion only gets a lot of play outside Japan. It's something that Donn Draeger came up with. It was an interesting idea, but, frankly, he was wrong. There is no opposition between the two concepts. To have a way (Do 道) you must have skill (Jutsu 術) to build it from. In order for skills to be coherent, they must be organized in a way. 道 is founded on 術、while 道makes sense of 術。  

It not either or. It is both and. Either or is something Westerners insist on. It used to make my teachers in Japan smile at my ignorance when I pressed the conversation on them.

Both together. One without the other just doesn't make sense.

When we start, we tend to focus on the skills, because we need them as a foundation to understanding what the way is.  Beginners can talk about the big picture and the fundamental principles, but these have to be explored and experienced through the practice of discrete skills and techniques.  These provide the map to understanding the way and the principles of the way.

The "Do" idea is a really old one in Japan.  Sado 茶道 or tea ceremony has been called Sado since at least the time of Sen No Rikyu (16th century), and there are martial arts being called "Do" 道 that I have seen going back to at least the 17th century.  Even the Kano Jigoro shihan recognized that the term Judo had been used by some groups long before he started using it.

Most arts though were known simply by their name (Hayashizaki Ryu, Kashima Shinryu, Shinto Muso Ryu) without adding an adjective such as jutsu or  do prior to and during the Tokugawa era.  Names and descriptions changed often, but the organizing principles did not.  Separating a technique from the principles that make it work is, to my mind, impossible.  Having a principle without any applications or techniques that express the principle is difficult to imagine.

Ideally, the principles give rise to the techniques, and the techniques point the way to the principles.  Some great master had a deep insight into the principles of their art and developed techniques that express this principle.  It’s a great circle with the master having an insight into principle  and developing techniques based on that principle, that Way 道。  Students then study the techniques as way of learning to understand the principle behind them.  The techniques serve as road markers pointing the way to the principle Way that underlies the art.  The students master the techniques and come to embody the principles and express them spontaneously.  They then being teaching these techniques to a new generation of students.  The circle continues.

In Japanese there are a lot of terms that express the concept of Way: michi 道、houhou 方法、
kata 方 (different from the “kata” meaning form 型、形).  The goal of any art, whether it is described as jutsu or do, skill or way, 術 or 道、is that the practitioner can spontaneously express the principles of the art/school/style/system spontaneously in accordance with the situation.  If you only learn a collection of techniques, but don’t understand the principles that underly the techniques, you will only be able to use them in the exact situations in which you learned them.  If you use the techniques as tools for learning the underlying principles, the Way, then once you begin to understand the principles, you will be able to apply them to all sorts of situations, not just the specific one covered in the technique you learned.

In a fully developed martial art/martial science, the principles and the techniques cannot be separated from each other.  The techniques work because of the underlying principles, and the principles are expressed through the techniques.