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.