Showing posts with label respect. Show all posts
Showing posts with label respect. Show all posts

Monday, August 29, 2016

So You Wanna Cross-Train?

My friend and colleague, Deborah Klens-Bigman is an accomplished martial artist and respected scholar of Japanese classical dance. She often does me the honor of serving as a sounding board for ideas, and generously edits my posts to make them polished. This time Klens-Bigman Sensei responded to my ideas with an essay of her own, which I 'm proud to be able to publish here.

Deborah Klens-Bigman  Photo Copyright Iaikai 2016

So you wanna cross-train?

Previously,  two posts considered cross-training in other budo.  The first set out the benefits as a means to deepen understanding of your primary art.  The subsequent post looked at another side of the issue - that some martial arts teachers might forbid their students to seek training at another dojo.  That post also suggested that students caught up in such an arrangement may have picked the wrong person to train with in the first place, and speculates on such teachers' selfish motivations.

So - here we have two solid arguments in favor of "cross-training."  It seems like a good idea, right?  Find a different (though maybe related) art form, and go for it, right?  Not so fast.  There's a right way, and a wrong way, to train at a different dojo.  If done right, you can obtain benefit for yourself and do credit to your home dojo.  If not, well - read on.

Let's first assume that you are a student in good standing, who is also not a raw beginner.  A very-beginning student who seeks training in another art form gives a teacher the impression that you are not serious in your practice in the first place.  The term for this (at least in English) is "dojo-hopper."  The sense is that the student is in some sort of martial arts shopping mall, with various things on offer.  Come in, poke around, try a couple things on, and go on to the next store.  This is definitely how to shop for a prom dress, but most budo teachers take their practice seriously, and expect students to do likewise.  

Next, let's consider motivations.  I am not talking about jumping ship and looking for a new teacher - that's a different subject altogether (see above).  And I seriously doubt you would look around and think to yourself, "I'll bet I could deepen my understanding of the principles of [fill in name of current practice] by trying out [something else]."  More likely you saw something on YouTube or even (shockingly, but it does happen) at a live demo and you thought it looked cool and would be fun to try.  NYC is a veritable feast of martial traditions, both Asian and Western, old and new (and even theatrical and cinematic!).  It's easy to feel like a kid in a candy store.  There is nothing wrong with this motivation.  But there is a proper way to go about it.  So I am offering a list - from smartest to dumbest - ways to go about cross training in a different budo form.

1.  Talk to your teacher and ask for permission to try something else, and ask for her suggestions as to where to find another dojo.  For example, you could say, "I was thinking about trying a jujutsu class.  I wanted to run the idea past you first.  Do you have any suggestions as to who I could study with?"  Believe it or not, even in a place as huge as the Big City, many budo teachers at least know each other by reputation, if not personally.  Moreover, we know who the crank teachers are; or, at least, we have the means to find them out.    Asking for permission, along with asking for advice, accomplishes several goals - it shows the teacher you respect her, and that you respect her opinion.  It also puts you in line for a good recommendation with one of her colleagues.  Having been recommended and accepted for cross-training in another dojo also shows respect with regard to the other teacher, who then has a clear idea of who you are and may have a sense of what you might be able to accomplish by training with him.

 2.  Ask your teacher for permission only.  This is not as smart as suggestion number 1, but it at least shows enough respect to your teacher that she won't throw you through the nearest wall.  Most teachers will say yes (and if she doesn't agree, there is probably a reason, as in she doesn't think you are ready to branch out.  If you respect the teacher, you will respect her opinion and ask again later).  Some may volunteer advice if they think you might be interested in hearing it; others may just say it's fine, and you are then free to roam.  

 3. (Moving to less-smart ways).  Go somewhere else and don't tell either the primary teacher or the new teacher what you are doing.  I don't recommend this, but it can actually work, as long as you exercise some discretion.  Don't do what one of my students once did: blow off a request to perform at a demo by explaining that you have a tournament with another teacher that weekend.  Just say you're sorry and you can't make it; and you hope to be able to perform with the group at another time.  Being so up front about your conflicted schedule may send a teacher the message that you are so enamored with the new style that you are not as interested in what she has to teach (even if that isn't strictly true).  Moreover, not supporting the dojo when it asks for your help also makes you look less serious about your practice, unless it involves work or family issues.  Your perceived lack of interest may result in the teacher's attention being directed a little bit more to other students instead.  Tangentially, if the second teacher learns about your primary art form by other means than your telling him about it, you may find yourself getting the same treatment.  I'm jus' sayin'.  We like to think that our teachers have better tempers and more wisdom than lowly students (and they might), but they are also human beings (with a lot more experience than you) and they have feelings, too.  And those feelings should be respected if you are serious about your art form.

 4.  Declare that you are going "budo shopping" for other stuff to do - you say you may come back to the home dojo someday, but then again you may not.  Believe it or not, this has actually happened.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the student has given the impression that the teacher (and her art form) are interchangeable; with one practice being not any better or worse than another.  The now-former student in question was fortunate to have done this via email and not in person.  Needless to say, this person is no longer welcome (except, just *possibly* as a guest, and paying the guest mat fee).  Unless you really intend not to come back at all, I don't recommend this method.  

 5.  Just show up at a new place and disparage your primary teacher to gain favor with the new one.  As I said, we all know each other, by reputation if not personally.  Remember the six degrees of separation?  In the budo world, it's more like one or two.  You won't be accepted once the truth comes out.

 As my colleague the Budo Bum has said, there are many benefits to cross-training, and most of them won't be revealed until you have spent months (or even years) training in another form.  In my budo career, though my primary art is iaido, I have also done some training in naginata, kyudo, kendo, some empty-hand, and I am currently studying jodo as a rank beginner.  I also train in Japanese classical dance; an art form that developed in the Edo period that shares many principles of movement with koryu budo forms.   Many of my colleagues and teachers both in the U.S. and Japan also cross-train.  For the most part, all of their teachers know and respect each other, and are cross-trainers themselves.   My teacher, Otani Sensei, when I spoke to him specifically about working with another teacher, interrupted my carefully-rehearsed permission-asking speech by saying, "That's okay, that's okay.  Once you know the principle, the technique doesn't matter."  I still can't say, all of these years later, that I fully understand his point, but I knew then I had the freedom to figure it out.

Bio Note: Deborah Klens-Bigman is Instructor at Iaikai Dojo, in New York City.   The dojo website is
Deborah Klens-Bigman Photo Copyright Iaikai

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Budo Dream

I had a get together this weekend for a bunch of friends. It’s the fulfillment of an early budo fantasy. When I started out on my budo journey, I really didn’t know anything. I’d read some articles and looked through a few books, but this was the 1980s. The internet was still 10 years away, and I’d have to wait  20 years for Youtube to be created.

Like many at the beginning of the journey, I had fantasies about what the journey would be like, where it would lead, and what I might become. You know, a powerful martial artist, strong and respected by senior teachers and masters. I started in judo, and had visions of myself as a senior teacher easily throwing strong, young men about the room. People would treat me with respect and deference, and call me “Sensei” like I called the people I respected and looked to for guidance in mastering judo.

All I really understood was that it takes a long time and a lot of practice to get there. That didn’t seem like a particular hardship, because I was having so much fun learning and playing with judo that spending time practicing in the dojo may well have been my favorite thing to do. Fortunately, the dojo is still one of my favorite places to spend time.  Training and working up a sweat with the various budo I do now (which still includes Kodokan Judo) is something I look forward to and can’t get enough of.  I spent this morning doing iaido, and hopefully I’ll do something tomorrow.

Time passed.  I graduated from college and managed to do what a lot of people say would be wonderful but few ever do. I found a way to move to Japan to live and train. I spent years living in Japan, training judo as much as I could (sometimes 4 or even 5 practices a week).  I earned a black belt, and promotions beyond that. I found new arts to train in alongside judo. Now I can confuse people by saying that I do judo and jodo.

I met genuine masters.  People who had been doing budo for more than twice as long as I’d been alive at that point. I met a swordsmith and got to work as his assistant. I learned to handle swords that were legendary in America. I cut myself more than a few times in the process. I trained in dojo that had no air conditioning in the summer and no heat in the winter. I learned that I could do judo and iaido even when my feet are numb. I also learned that I really don’t want to train when my feet are numb with cold.

At judo I got thrown around by everyone. Guests always wanted to try out the gaijin and see just how strong he was. At first, I wasn’t. They threw me all over the place. I kept coming back.  Honestly, I was still having loads of fun. As the years passed, I must have learned something, because guests kept challenging me, but I started throwing them from time to time, and then more frequently. Then one of my seniors in the dojo started pulling people aside and whispering in their ear if he saw them headed my way.

My sword teachers were more than three times my age, yet they still moved with a strength and elegance I envied. 80-year-old men who could move a razor sharp sword with ease, speed and precision. They would put on their kendo armor and totally dominate strong high school athletes who trained every day. Takada Sensei practiced with a monster blade that was 400 years old.

Eventually I moved back to the USA, but I never stopped training. I’m still training. And last weekend I realized that I had achieved the fantasy of my early judo practice.  I had a little gathering of friends. I invited martial arts friends from all over the country to come train together and share aspects of their arts with each other.  Among the guests were senior teachers from several traditions: judo, a couple of different styles of aikido, an iai teacher, and a classical jujutsu teacher.

They all came with respect for each other and for me. More than anything else I’ve done, this tells me that I’m doing something right. That so many fine martial artists would be willing to join me and share the lessons they’ve learned is amazing to the kid who started judo back in the 80s.

We had a wonderful time. Friends started arriving on Thursday afternoon and we were all like kids in the budo candy shop. We talked and explored ideas and drank beer and talked some more.  We went sailing. Friday was spent making numerous trips to and from the airport to gather up all the friends arriving that day. I became very familiar with the construction zones at the airport. No one complained that I drive like judoka, they just accepted it with a smile.

Conversations ranged all over the map. In the group are doctors, artists, scholars, world champion athletes and brilliant minds of all sorts. We talked budo, medicine, budo, science, budo, books, budo, philosophy, and more budo.

Saturday we laid out mats and started training. I’d rented two nice sized halls so we could have organized training going on in one room, and casual discussions and explorations in the other room at the same time. There were always folks playing with weapons somewhere, and there always seemed to be someone trying to grab or hit somebody else to see what would happen.

We explored some great techniques from aikido and I noticed the relationships to some Daito Ryu I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. The balance-taking and controlling are also similar to some things I do in judo. Then we had a fun round of judo.  We saw some interesting judo kata, and we got to play with something that looks completely different from anything in aikido -  foot sweeps.  Except that they aren’t completely different. The same principles of timing and controlling your partner’s center apply,  and the ukemi to protect yourself when thrown is remarkably similar.  The mindset is a little different, the strategy very different, but the principles and effects are remarkably similar. Uke goes flying. Disrupt the center, remove stability and take uke to a place where there is nothing to support them. Beautiful, simple, efficient and nearly effortless. It was great fun watching the aikido folks working out the timing and movement for something so far from the techniques they practice regularly while still applying many of the same principles. In the spirit of the weekend, they leaped into it with enthusiasm and without comments or claims. They just tried it and enjoyed the ride any time their partner got the sweep right.

After the judo, we put the mats away and got out bokuto - wooden swords. A friend of mine taught some kenjutsu kata she inherited from her teacher. During the class there was pure respect.  No cries of “Well, we do it this way.” from the class. Everyone was focused and interested in learning as much as they could from from a respected teacher in a tradition other than their own. Everyone shared the desire to learn as much as possible from everyone there.

Egos were left at the door. No one had to prove anything to anyone. We were all looking to learn and share. Each teacher was respected for what they brought to the room. This can be pretty rare in budo circles. For a practice that is supposed to help us transcend our limitations, a lot of us get trapped by our egos, worried about how good we are compared to the person next to us and busy trying to prove our way is the best. It’s a trap I know from the inside, because it’s caught me a time or two.

I’ve been blessed with some incredible teachers who’ve helped me recognize the damage ego has done to others, and to escape the trap myself. Over time, my teachers have honored me with their respect and trust. They have entrusted me with treasures of learning and knowledge handed down from their teachers and teachers before them. As I become responsible for these treasures, I discover that the gifts my teachers have given me are both an honor and a burden. These treasures are not for me to hoard and keep to myself. They are meant to be shared with people who will take the lessons to heart and use them to grow and to pass them on to others beyond themselves.

With this gathering of friends there is both the honor of being accepted as someone with gifts and skills to share, and to be surrounded by people who I know will soak up what I have to share. They will make the best possible use of the techniques, even as I’m busy trying to absorb as much from them as I possibly can in an all too short weekend.

After my friend finished sharing her teacher’s kenjutsu with us,  we cleaned up a little, went out to the courtyard, and did a little tameshigiri.  None of us are part of the Battodo Federation or any similar group that spends a lot of time on tameshigiri, so it’s a lovely treat and challenge for all of us, from those who specialize in the sword to those who may have never picked up a live blade before.  One of the big secrets of cutting with a good sword is to let the sword do the work.  It’s a great tool and will cut beautifully, if you let it.  

After we turned a stack of rolled mats into a large pile of mat confetti, spent the evening back at the house talking about everything imaginable, and playing with even more budo.  I looked in living room and there was a Yoshinkan Aikido teacher and a jujutsu teacher arm-to-arm playing with different approaches to techniques.  Out on the deck the discussion of budo philosophy had gotten frighteningly complex. In between in the family room someone had set up massage table and a couple of people were working on a third and trying to free up some range of movement.  It was definitely not a relaxing massage.  When things wound down everyone, regardless of rank, grabbed stuff and helped clean up. No egos, no expectations, everyone just pitched in and started doing whatever looked like it needed doing. Everyone was here as a student of budo and everyone contributed.

Sunday was more of the same. We studied some jodo while the weather was cool enough to be outside. Lots of fun and the occasional big smile as a light bulb went on and people connected the jo practice with things they knew from other practices.

In the afternoon we had a session with an aikido teacher from Yoshinkan. Everyone was out on the mats, the Aikikai folks, the judo guys, the jujutsu teacher all got out there and tried this stuff. The stuff that is similar is surprisingly similar.  We all emphasize correct posture, breathing and movement, even when we approach them from different directions.  I’m trying to figure out how to get some of these lessons across to my judo students now. I can see where they would benefit from some of the ideas being emphasized by the different traditions, I just have to find a way to present it that communicates in a judo framework.

The last session of the weekend was the least martial, but perhaps the most universally applicable.  One of the teachers has developed a curriculum for teaching safe falling to non-martial artists. There are lots of people who are at risk of taking a dangerous fall, and she’s worked out a way to teach them falling without having to learn the high impact ukemi of aikido or judo. It’s a brilliant application of budo techniques and principles to the wider world.

After dinner that evening, we were somber for a while. All of us have been training long enough that we have lost teachers and friends along the way. We remembered a friend we trained with last year who passed away, and we remembered teachers and friends, some gone many years, but still alive in our hearts and in our practice. A somber time, and an important one. Our budo journeys didn’t start in untraveled wilderness. We each took our first steps on pathways that had first been cleared and later paved by teachers and students long before we were born.

My first judo teacher is gone.  So are my first iaido teachers. I continue to practice their lessons and pass them on to my students. I’m sorry they can’t be here to see how I’ve developed thanks to the lessons and directions they gave me as I was starting out. I still find it hard to believe that I’m teaching their lessons to students of my own, and that teachers of other styles whom I respect seem to have as much respect for me. In an important way, these teachers I respect stand in for and represent the teachers I have lost. They help me test and grow my understanding, and they are perfectly happy to call me out when my ego gets too big or my ideas are simply foolish.

The Monday after all the training was a little quieter.  We hung around in back and talked and swapped jokes until someone had the idea to go to the zoo. If someone was thinking that this would be a safe place for us, they were very wrong. The use of humor as atemi became so strong and effective that one poor member of the group had to run away because her face was hurting from laughing and smiling so much!

One thing that came out of this wonderful weekend was the reminder of just how little I know and how much there is still out there for me to learn. Even after decades of training with empty hands and a variety of weapons, I spent much of the weekend learning new things and getting a new perspective on things I thought I understood. Aside from all the marvelous learning I was doing, it is inspiring and joyous to know that the journey is far from over.  It’s been so much fun getting to where I am that realizing the journey is still in its beginning stages makes me happy.

All these teachers and budoka came to visit and share and laugh and train together out of respect and admiration for each other. That they have as much respect for me as I do for them is the fulfilment of that young judoka fantasy. The journey has been long and the lessons learned along the way humbling and amazing. That I have earned this much respect from people I respect is a frightening thing. I often wonder what they can possibly see in me to be worthy of their respect. My teachers saw something in me worth teaching though, and these teachers see someone with something to share with them that is worthy of respect. That’s something wonderful, and great gift to someone who frequently feels like a beginner who knows nothing.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Who Is Your Teacher?

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

Who is your Teacher? Is she a friend? Is he a mentor? A capable guide? A hired hand whose job is to teach you techniques you’re paying for?  An athletic trainer? A mystic? A sports coach? A philosopher? A drill sergeant?

Budo teachers come in a lot of shapes and sizes, styles and roles. It doesn’t matter what title we use for them; teacher, sensei, sifu, coach, or simply Ma’am or Sir.  The exact title isn’t the important thing. The important thing is what they do and who they are.

What a teacher does seems pretty straightforward. They instruct us in the techniques of our art. At first they teach us the basic stances and then the movements and techniques that make up our particular style of budo. They train us and drill us in the exercises that will polish and help us master our martial art. What makes a great teacher though? Not just the person who leads the beginners class, but the teacher who inspires and supports us and becomes a model of the kind of martial artist and person we want to become. What makes a Teacher?

From a purely technical standpoint, especially early on in practice, what we really need are coaches with a touch of drill sergeant in them.  And a bit of saintly patience if you are the poor soul trying to teach me anything subtle for the first time. Beginners’ classes tend to share a lot of similarities across arts. They have a narrow focus on a few fundamental building blocks of the art.  Whether the art is primarily about throwing or striking or locking or weapons, the beginners’ class spends their time on the basic movements that you have to know cold and then know so well you forget that you know them.

Teachers for these beginners classes have to drill the same things over and over and over until you’d swear they would go crazy with boredom.  Somehow the good ones never do. The good teachers are patient coaches and drill sergeants pushing us, sometimes dragging kicking and screaming, towards the goal of absorbing the fundamentals so deeply into our muscles and bones that we can forget that we know them, forget that they are even there so we can learn the techniques that are built upon them.

I’ve had a number of teachers who were great at this.  Kiyama Sensei excels at being a patient drill sergeant. He will take a bokken and stand at the front of the dojo, yelling “Mo ichi do!” and banging the end of the bokken on the floor to indicate when to start. He stands there, 90 years old and with still perfect posture, watching us practice with a focus even sharper than his sword. After an hour or two of driven practice under this intense gaze, you’re wrung out, dripping from exertion, and quietly thrilled to have absorbed another practice with him.

Great teachers aren’t just coaches and drill sergeant. Kiyama Sensei always seems happy and eager to run a practice, whether he is drilling a group of beginners in the fundamentals, or working with a high ranking student that he’s trying to lead to discovering subtle understanding of the myou 妙, the mysteries of the art. The really great teachers are able to adjust what they are doing, and shift their presence from that of an implacable drillmaster to a guide leading you along nearly undetectable forest paths.

The really high art doesn’t start until we’ve soaked our bones in the essence of the budo we study so that we express the fundamentals without thinking about them, and even when we are actively distracted from them. Our teacher then needs a very different approach from the one that marinated us in the fundamentals. Now we need a teacher who can guide us towards the delicate mastery that looks like magic to beginners. This takes a different sort of patience.

It also takes a teacher who doesn’t feel threatened when a student begins to understand their art at a deep level and begins to shift from being a student of the teacher to a colleague. I’ve seen a lot of people who couldn’t handle that transition. Teachers with insecure egos or hang-ups about control seem to feel threatened when their students begin to approach same level that they are on. Sadly, seeing a technically excellent teacher whose ego can’t handle having anyone close to his level around is not uncommon.  There are plenty of dojo where there always seems to be significant gap between the senior student’s level and the teacher.

Fine Budo Equipment from Mugento Budogu LLC

Great teachers relish having someone grow from being simply a student of the basics into colleague they explore ever deeper and more subtle aspects of the art with. Just as in any academic field, great budo teachers are thrilled when students surpass them. Only poor fools are jealous and upset when a student surpasses them. One of a teacher’s responsibilities is to pass on their art to a new generation. It is a lucky teacher who inspires a student to discover more in the art than the teacher knows.

As we spend more time in budo, our teachers become our friends. In something like budo, that we will can study and grow in for 50, 60, 70 years and more, I sincerely hope that we become friends with our teachers. We’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. Great teachers are comfortable with shifting relationships and shifting roles. They can be the teacher in the dojo, and a friend at dinner. I’ve written about the trust we develop with the people we train with, and that is even more true for our teachers.  Great teachers don’t take that trust and build themselves a pedestal to stand on. They return it, sharing their discoveries and their missteps along the journey we share in budo.

Early in my budo journey I had a teacher admonish me not to put him, or any teacher on a pedestal. He seems to have known himself well, as he was an excellent teacher for me in that moment, but he knew how tragically flawed he was. As we mature along the way, we sometimes have to learn that not all of our teachers are great. Some of them we surpass as human beings very quickly.  The great teachers may become our friends and colleagues along the Way, but they remain teachers and inspirations.

Budo is not just about the techniques of the art we study. Budo is about how we approach and deal with the world we encounter while walking life’s path. Great teachers are great not just in the dojo. Takada Sensei had incredible iai. He also had a wonderful joy in life, and respectful manner for everyone that I someday hope to emulate. Kiyama Sensei’s budo is awe inspiring in its power and ferocity, but his mastery means that most people think he is a sweet, gentle grandfather. He doesn’t have to show off his budo to anyone. You can always see it if you know what to look for. His posture is so perfect I’m embarrassed by my own even while typing this. Sensei’s focus and control never leave. Nor does the respect he gives everyone, from the 5 year old beginning kendo student to the most senior instructors and ranking swordsmen.

I don’t think there is room in most people’s lives for a lot of Teachers. I’m lucky that I have known several, and have a  couple that I can call “my Teacher.” They don’t come along often. If you find one, cherish them. The greatest honor and award I’ve received in my budo career is when they tell someone that I am their student. No rank will ever mean as much to me.

Who is your Teacher? Is she your coach? Your drill sergeant? Your guide? Your fellow explorer along the Way? Your friend? All of these and more? If not, you haven’t found your teacher yet.  Keep looking. She’s out there.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Way Of Miyako

miyako...(enjoy in HD)i was searching for a train station. the kind you rarely see. small. countryside. we found it. and by accident, found something else. someone else. miyako. the station master. i watched her smile at each exiting passenger. then, noticed her wave at the departing one-car train. then, surprisingly, she continued waving. she waved until there was no trace left of the distant train. no one witnessed her, except, well, me. in that short span, my love and wonder of life was renewed. when i spoke to her later, she said at first she felt so shy. and hardly waved at all. slowly, over time, she began doing something she neither needed to do, nor imagined she ever would. so, this is miyako, master of a tiny station in the middle of nowhere japan who attends to every train and passenger that passes by:
Posted by Erez Sitzer on Wednesday, 30 September 2015

We say that budo is more than just techniques.  We say it is a Way. What does that mean though? Japanese culture has been steeped in Neo-Confucianism for hundreds of years. It was part of the official doctrine of the Tokugawa government for over 200 years. Neo-Confucian thought is deeply concerned with how people become exemplary, what Neo-Confucian thinkers call sages and worthies, through self cultivation.  

At a more general level, Neo-Confucian thought is about how people can develop themselves to the highest level both as individuals and as members of society.  This is the Way of the Neo-Confucians, and it is the Way that so influenced much of Japanese thought and resulted in the creation of the many formal Ways in Japan (Budo, Sado, Judo, Kendo, Kado, Sojido, etc), and a limitless number of personal Ways that have not been codified.

In the film above by Erez Sitzer, Miyako shows one of these personal ways.  Hers is the Way of being a good station master.  She started out being shy about waving to people. Over time she created a Way to develop herself as she felt she needed. Notice that her wave is very graceful and stylized. She has clearly spent time figuring out exactly how she should move when waving and then practicing that motion to point that it is gentle and perfect.  The practice helps her to better fulfill her role as the master of this station.

Instead of seeming shy, judging from the movie Miyako has become quite outgoing and relaxed with the passengers and train conductors. She smiles easily and cheerfully, and seems to chat with everyone without hesitation.

You can see from her movement and interaction with passengers that she has certainly mastered her role as the gregarious station master. Sincere practice of her Way, waving and talking and paying attention to each passenger has paid off and Miyako is able to fulfill her role as completely as possible.

If you watch, it looks like she made a kata out of the parts that were difficult, particularly the waving.  It’s a kata, a form, and yet she fills it with appreciation and concern for the passengers.

This is what we should be doing with our own practice.  Not just the technical forms, but all parts of the ways we practice.  If you’re reading this, you probably practice some form of budo, or martial way. Looked at coldly, the odds of needing martial skills on any given day are pretty low, but it is almost a given that we will need all the other things we practice.  Whether I am practicing iaido or judo or jodo, we have proper ways of greeting people, showing respect, giving honor and deference when it is appropriate.  These essential elements of politeness and respect are somewhat lacking in modern popular culture, and people are often amazed at the result that simple politeness and respect can have. This true not only in the corridors of business and polite society, but even more so when tempers flare and and inhibitions against violence weaken. The power of politeness and respect to defuse and deescalate is amazing. This part of our practice deserves at least as much attention as how strike, throw or cut.

Being polite. Showing respect. Acting with dignity. All these things are part of the Ways we practice. I hope my practice is as sincere and as successful as Miyako’s.

She has created a  marvelous Way.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Budo Vices

Budo training is often lauded for promoting virtues like self-confidence, self-control, self-respect, determination,  and resolve. It helps people stand up to bullies and be better people and to get along better in society. Budo training is actively promoted as being good for developing these valuable traits in children and adults. It’s just an all around good thing, right? Unfortunately, where there are virtues, there are usually vices as well. There are all sorts of bad lessons and characteristics that can be learned in the dojo.

As wonderful as I believe budo training can be, it is not without pitfalls, dangers and tempting looking diversions that lead to dead ends. Just looking at the list of virtues makes me think of their closely related vices. How can self-confidence be a vice? I’ve known plenty of regular folks as well as martial artists who had such an over-abundance of self-confidence that they were arrogant. These people couldn’t imagine not being capable and correct. That’s bad enough in someone you have to deal with in a business or social setting. Now picture that in someone training in a martial art with other people.

When you train with other people, you need a relatively realistic estimate of your own ability. If you are arrogant, you’re not just socially painful to deal with, you can be physically dangerous to yourself and those around you. Arrogance gets people hurt. Even people who aren’t arrogant, but just over-confident are a danger to others and themselves. If you spend enough time around the dojo, it is inevitable that you’ll hear the fateful words “Oh, I can do that.” When overconfidence is in play, the words are almost always followed by someone crying out “Ow!”  Either a technique was attempted ineptly and hurt the person it was being attempted on, or the poor guy (why is it almost invariably a guy?) failed to defend himself from an attack he was sure he could deal with easily. Not to mention that arrogance is unpleasant to be around.

Ego is another thing that causes a lot of injuries, both to people whose ego’s are too big, and to the poor folks who have to deal with us. Ego is a special risk for martial artists, because we deal in physical power. The temptation to believe that because we can do these things makes us special is huge, and anything that denies that can trip us up. Every once in a while my ego gets out of the trunk I keep it locked in and causes me problems. It’s sure that I’m better than whoever I’m doing randori with, or that I can still keep up with that 19 year old guy, or any other fantasy that is just out of my reach.  My ego is happy to convince me, and when I go along, I usually end up slumped against a wall, holding a bottle of water and wondering who took all the oxygen out of the air, because as hard as I’m breathing, I don’t seem to be getting any. This side of ego can drive us to try things we really shouldn’t.  It’s different from arrogance. Arrogant folks often can’t imagine that they might not be able to do something.  With this particular ego problem, we are denying our own limitations. It’s fine to push your limits and to stretch them.  It’s not good to deny that those limits exist.

A different problem is getting too attached to a goal. I have seen people who were blindly determined to achieve a goal. I say “blindly” because they couldn’t see clearly the obstacles and pitfalls in front of them. Someone so attached to a goal that she can’t see what is required to get there is a scary thing to see, especially in a martial arts setting. It’s easy to damage yourself and others just from training too hard. If you keep training past the point where your body can maintain reasonable physical control, it’s inevitable that you or your training partner will get hurt, just because at that point you don’t have the fine control required to protect yourself and your partner. That’s a simple judgement problem.

Additionally, when a goal becomes all someone can see, they become blind to everything but that goal. A martial artist like this can be dangerous to themselves because they will try risky or even outright hazardous training practices. When the goal becomes that big in someone’s eyes, it can get in the way seeing your training partners as anything more than tools for achieving your goal. I’m not arguing against goals, I’m just saying goals need to be kept in perspective.

Respect is critical in a budo dojo. If someone doesn’t respect the people they are training with, they aren’t going to be considerate of them. Part of showing respect for your training partners is taking care of them, making sure they don’t get hurt. People who don’t respect you aren’t likely to care if you get hurt and can’t train anymore. Without respect for you, your training partner won’t take you into consideration. When you train together in something with as many potential dangers as budo, you want your partner to respect you so you don’t get hurt.

On top of that though, you also want their respect when it comes to your training. Whatever level you’re at, you need partners who will respect that and train with you so you get what you need out of the training. A partner who doesn’t respect you is not going to bother thinking about giving you the energy and intensity that is appropriate for your training. They will just toss off whatever they feel like. If they’re feeling sloppy, you’ll get a mushy, sloppy partner. If they are feeling annoyed or upset, you could get slammed around with more energy than you can handle. Plus you get to deal with the clear impression that this person doesn’t respect you and doesn’t think you are worthy of their time or attention. There is little that annoys me faster than someone who doesn’t respect their training partners.

One vice that I see all too often, especially on the internet, is budo tribalism. The attitude that “What I do is the real thing, and everything else is weak and corrupt and worthless to practice.” I have seen this from judoka talking about BJJ and I’ve heard it from BJJ guys talking about judo, and I hear it from from folks in Karate and Taekwondo talking about each other. I hear it from MMA people talking about everyone. The most vicious of these exchanges though are usually by people in one branch of an art talking about other branches of the same art. This true whether it’s Aikido or Karate or Tae Kwon Do or Tai Chi or just about any other art.

For too many people, whatever they are doing has to be the greatest in the world. I’m not sure why this is. There is no such thing as the ultimate martial art. Every art makes it’s own assumptions about what kind of attacks to train against and what is the best way to do so. What is it about budo that brings this sort of attitude out so strongly? So many people want to knock down the training of anyone who doesn’t train the way they do. It’s sad to see, because the people who adopt these tribal attitudes cut themselves off from one of the greatest sources for growth as budoka, outside perspectives.

I train in Kodokan Judo, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai, and Shinto Muso Ryu Jo. I love getting outside perspectives. They keep me from getting too full of myself. They also help me maintain a realistic perspective of what my arts’ strengths and weaknesses are. No art does everything, and any art that claims to do everything is unrealistic.  By talking with people in other arts, and occasionally training with them, I get the benefit of their experience and perspective.  My judo has grown immensely from interacting with Aikido and Aikijutsu practitioners. My understanding of iai has been expanded, and my appreciation for the limits of my training, through the experience I’ve gained meeting and training with people who do Hoki Ryu and Suio Ryu and many other sword arts. Jo is a wonderful weapon, but like all weapons it has limits. Those become clear when I train with folks whose background is different from mine. A little yari (spear) or naginata (glaive) practice will really open your eyes.  I don’t like to think about some of the chain weapons. They’re just brutal.

The folks who go tribal and declare that everything else is inferior cut themselves off from all the things they could learn from outside perspectives. Worse, they have to continually delude themselves that all those other guys have nothing to offer them. It’s must be tough to live like that. Every piece of evidence that someone else’s training might offer something theirs does not has to be discredited and destroyed. Nothing else can ever be truly worthy of praise. Us versus them just isn’t a good way to live, and it’s certainly not a good way to train.

The last vice I’m going to talk about in this post is jealousy. This one is pernicious and sneaky. It creeps up on you. I’ve seen people get jealous over lots of things in the dojo. Some people have natural talent (I’m not jealous of them. Really. I’m not...Well, maybe just a little). Some people have cool toys. Some people just have more time to train than the rest of us. What seems to cause the worst jealousy I’ve seen is success. Whether it is success as a student developing good technique, or success in competition, or success as a teacher, all of these things can generate jealousy. In the dojo, the worst things I’ve seen have been over success as a teacher.

Teachers are the leaders in the dojo. When one teacher starts to be jealous of another teacher, for whatever reason, the dojo is in trouble. This is one of those things I really don’t understand, even though I’ve seen it. One teacher becomes jealous because another teacher is more popular with students or is able to achieve better results developing students. Instead of doing the proper budo thing and trying to figure out how to improve their own teaching, they become jealous and upset at the other person, leading to arguments, fights and almost invariably, an irreparable fracture in the dojo. The jealousy leads to fights, arguments, accusations and end in two dojos that don’t like each other, not to mention all the students who just quit because they refuse to put up with the poisoned atmosphere before the split. I hate seeing this happen, but that green eyed monster is all too much a part of us as humans, and it happens far too often. Jealousy doesn’t just hurt the individuals involved, it hurts everyone around it, and can destroy the dojo.

Just as cultivating the budo virtues makes individuals better and improves the dojo environment for everyone, letting budo vices develop hurts you and it makes the whole dojo a less pleasant place to be. Arrogance, ego, disrespect, tribalism and jealousy can ruin individuals, groups and dojo. We all have to watch out for them within ourselves with the same sort of diligence we put into developing the budo virtues of 知 wisdom, 仁 benevolence, 義 righteousness, 信 trust, and 礼 rei.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Showing Respect: In And Out Of Japan

Someone asked me about how you show respect towards your teacher on and off the mat in Japan compared with the United States. As it happens, I’m getting ready for a trip to Japan and I’ve been thinking about that bit lately. Respect should be fundamental to any relationship, and that’s particularly true in budo, where what we’re just practicing is dangerous because of the nature of the techniques. If you don’t respect you teachers and partners, or if they don’t respect you, things can get ugly very fast.  Respect is essential before you even begin training.

I see a lot of different ways of requiring and showing respect in the West. I’ve seen dojo that made me think of images of military basic training from the movies, with everyone standing rigidly at attention and screaming out their responses to the teacher’s commands and comments.  I’ve seen other ones that were so quiet it was amazing.  The students and teachers said almost nothing. The students kneel, the teacher demonstrate something a few times, claps, and everyone spreads out to practice what was demonstrated.  All without a word. The dojo I’m most comfortable in are probably a little too chatty for optimal practice, but the same can certainly be said of me. These dojo are relaxed.  The teacher leads and demonstrates but the students are comfortable asking questions frequently, both when the teacher is demonstrating new things, and when the students are working on things on their own.

In each of these dojo, the teacher is shown respect, but it feels different, and results in a different sort of relationship with the teacher. There are teachers who expect to be obeyed instantly and who seem to stand above their students. It’s tough to imagine a student doing anything that might be interpreted as questioning the teacher’s understanding or ability, in the dojo or out of it. Regardless of what sort of person the teacher really is, the feeling generated is imposing and doesn’t leave room for difficult questions.

Other teachers seem almost like priests sharing mystic secrets. Their technique is beautiful and powerful.  Everyone works to duplicate it, but asking questions just feels out of place and rude, not just to the teacher but to the other students. The attitude shown towards the teacher shades from respectful into reverential. The teacher is the leader and the guide who makes sure you don’t become lost. Questions are inappropriate.

Then there are the chatty ones. They seem more like regular folks. They are sharing their practice as much as they are teaching. The dojo is neither a place of stern external discipline, nor a peaceful place dedicated to quiet striving. These dojo often seem surprisingly laid back. The teacher sometimes seems more like the the lead student than a teacher. The teacher is including the students in his practice and taking them along on their journey along the way, whatever way it may be. Questions are freely asked. It’s entirely possible for someone to respond to a lesson with “I don’t think that will work.” The teacher probably isn’t offended though.  More likely the response will be, “OK, let’s try it.”  The teacher is further along the path than everybody else, but she’s still on the same path and the students are exploring it with her. The students look to the teacher for leadership, but the teacher isn’t very different from the students.

That’s three basic types of dojo and teachers. I know that each can run to extremes that are awful.  The stern, disciplinarian dojo can become brutal and hurtful, abusive and dangerous to anyone who doesn’t toe the line perfectly.  The quiet, peaceful, reverential dojo can become cult-like and mystical with little room for anyone who questions the leader in any way. The relaxed, friendly dojo can devolve into a bunch of friends goofing around where no one is really teaching or leading and everyone is just there to have a good time. I’m not going to focus on the extremes here though.

Most dojo aren’t really one of these. Most dojo are some mix of all of them.  These are martial arts we’re talking about, so some sort of disciplined behavior is a requirement just for safety’s sake. There is nothing wrong with good discipline in the dojo. When we talk about budo, we are talking about a Way, a means of developing the self through the practice and perfection of a common activity, in this case martial arts. A little bit of quiet, spiritual thought and atmosphere is always appropriate. Even the hardcore, super disciplined dojo I’ve been in usually start and end class with a brief period of meditation and quiet thought. Teachers are usually a mix of all these traits.

Students show their respect for teachers in and out of the dojo in many ways. I have met a few teachers outside Japan who insist on being addressed as “Sensei” both in and out of the dojo, though these are blissfully rare. Most teachers, myself included, blend the formality of the dojo and their local culture, and separate which is dominate by location. In the dojo even the chattiest of sensei have to have a little formality to prevent injuries

In the dojo, we expect students to use formal, dojo behavior, with bows and proper forms of respect. All the bows to teachers and fellow students are clear, visible actions of respect for the teacher and your fellow students. It can feel extremely stiff and unnatural for people from cultures like the US where most formalities have been abandoned. It’s a good lesson though.

This is part of a  formal bow. Not every style uses the bowing form found in Karate, Judo and Aikido  
Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

In Japan respect is built into the culture in ways that may have been true in the US 75 years ago, but it certainly aren’t anymore. Respect and politeness go hand in hand, and Americans have traded politeness for brutal honesty and the expectation that almost any sort of behavior will be tolerated. In Japan, all of those polite formalities are critical.

The closest analog to bowing is probably the military salute. The salute recognizes and pays respect to people of higher status. Bowing in Japan does the same thing, but with far more levels of nuance. Japan is a society that is obsessed with social hierarchy and everyone’s place in it. Contrast this with the American visceral dislike for hierarchy and insistance that everyone is equal and you can see that when the two mix, discomfort and confusion are guaranteed.

It may surprise some people to find out that I’ve seen all these same sorts of dojo described above, in Japan. I’ve seen a couple of other variations as well. The super disciplined, militaristic feeling dojo are often seen in modern budo styles like kendo and karate. These are dojo where everyone lines up, screams the dojo kun, and then does all the same exercises screaming and being screamed at. This is not terribly traditional. This sort of dojo behavior only goes back to the early 20th century as the modern budo were co-opted by the military government and used as means to instill samurai values in the peasants who made up the new army. Granted, the emphasis on everyone doing the same things together was an inescapable effect of trying to train hundreds of people at the same time, but many of the worst aspects of the Japanese military of the period became common in those arts well, including hazing and abuse of juniors by seniors. Over time this has been diminished, but it still is seen far too often.

The very quiet, spiritually focused dojo is probably less common inside Japan than outside. If you look, you can still find some of the most incredible examples of excess focus on the spiritual and mystical to the detriment of practical budo in Japan. In these dojo the sensei is more like a great mystical leader and guru than a budo teacher.

The koryu dojo that I have trained in are probably the most unexpected for non-Japanese. Koryu dojo don’t have nearly as much external discipline and signs of hierarchy as are found in the modern, post-war gendai budo dojo, nor are they terribly mystical, even in systems with a strong connection to Buddhism or Shinto. Usually there are few if any outward signs of rank, and the formalities are generally less formal. That doesn’t mean everyone is not aware of their relative position in the dojo, just that external expressions aren’t necessary. In contrast to some teachers who are decked out in beautiful obi, hakama and uwagi, Kiyama Sensei often has the most worn, patched and threadbare outfit in the room. Each person comes into the dojo, bows individually, and begins practicing in a corner of the room. There is nothing visible to distinguish who the teachers are until they start giving instruction to individual students.

Regardless of the style of dojo and teaching though, in Japan everyone is intimately aware of their position in the dojo’s hierarchy. People outside Japan often ask about using dojo titles outside the dojo, or how you show respect to someone outside the dojo. In Japan, a title is not just an honorific, it is a reflection of who you are in society. When a person becomes a section head in company there, everyone stops using their name. They become “Bucho.”  Literally this means “Head of the Section”.  Even his wife may start using the title to address him. When I was teaching school in Japan, everyone called me “Sensei,” including my Japanese mother-in-law. In Japanese culture, your role in society is who you are, so yes, in Japan you call your teacher “Sensei” everywhere, inside the dojo and outside. 

Respect isn't just shown by bowing and using titles. Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis.

Another aspect of showing respect is something people who don’t speak Japanese will completely miss. In Japanese, every time you say something, you are also emphasizing your position in the social group relative to the person you are talking to, and the people you may be talking about. In Japanese, you can’t say anything without expressing your relationship to the person you are talking to. It’s not just the words you use. To conjugate a verb correctly, you have to know whether the person you are talking to is above or below you in the hierarchy. Even if you don’t call your teacher by name or title, everything you say in Japanese makes clear your relationship.

In Japanese it’s very easy to show respect just by using verb conjugations and forms that emphasize someone’s high status, or conversely, expresses your lower status. On the other side of the coin, you can be incredibly rude simply by using the wrong verb conjugation. Instead of using a form that indicates whomever you are talking with is of high status, you can use one that indicates they are of low status. Japanese doesn’t have many swear words of the sort common in English because if you want to insult someone, you can do just by conjugating your verbs differently and implying your target far beneath you.

In the dojo and out, everything about Japanese culture expresses your relationship with your teacher. How deeply you bow is important (Americans always bow too low to just about everyone). A student always wants to bow lower than their teacher. In Japan you address your teacher by his role as a teacher, so she is always “Sensei.”  This can be confusing.

When I taught in Japan, I was usually addressed as “Sensei.” Even my budo teachers would refer to me as “Sensei” or “Peter Sensei”. The confusion came as people who didn’t know me tried to figure out my role in the dojo. Once they understood that was my job, they also understood that I wasn’t teaching in the dojo. The first few times this happened though, no one was more confused than I was. Later on, Takada Sensei referred to me as “Peter Sensei” to some new students and I went into shock while my brain tried to process. He was placing me in the dojo hierarchy for them. This way the new student knew to listen to me if I said something.

When we were just talking alone, I went back to being “Peter Kun.” Kun is a honorific that is used when adults talk to children, when someone senior wants to express a certain friendliness and affection towards the junior. This happens a lot in business relationships between senior managers who will take a young colleague under their wing and mentor him. It express a certain familiarity and warmth. When Takada Sensei called me “Peter Kun” he was saying he liked me. It wasn’t a put down. He was exaggerating the social distance between us and suggesting the closeness of a teacher/parent to child relationship. In our budo relationship, this was exactly what it was.

To maintain distance with someone, the easiest way is to stick to calling them “So-And-So San” This is the bland, standard, generic form of polite address. There is no particular emotion attached to it, and the formality is fine with strangers. The generic form doesn’t connect you with someone, so it holds them out at a distance. It’s not rude, but it doesn’t invite you in either. This is how strangers address each other. It’s how colleagues at work talk to people they know a little bit but have no strong connections to. It’s also how you talk to someone you don’t like but have no reason to be rude to.

The key in all of these is “in Japanese culture.” Japan is a different culture, and different cultural rules apply. If you don’t want to be rude and make people uncomfortable, you do things according to the local culture. If your teacher is culturally Japanese, call her Sensei all the time, inside the dojo and out. If your teacher is from the US or Europe, that’s probably not a great idea and will likely make the teacher feel uncomfortable outside the dojo.

Showing respect is about letting someone know you appreciate them and hold them in high regard. It’s not about slavishly following them and praising them. In the dojo do what is appropriate for that dojo. Call your teacher “Sensei.” Outside of practice use the forms of respect that are appropriate in your culture. If you’re in Japan, call her “Sensei” all the time. If you’re in Chicago though, Ms. or Mrs. or her first name, depending on how she prefers to be addressed. Just like you do with everyone else. Don’t go overboard with the titles and trying to be more Japanese than the Japanese when you don’t even live there. Relax.

One more thing. If you really want to let your sensei know how much you appreciate her, show up for class on time or a little early, and ready to train. Train hard. Help clean up the dojo after practice. Then buy her a drink. Teaching budo is thirsty work. I can’t think of any of my sensei who don’t appreciate a cold drink after practice. 

Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis.