Showing posts with label swords. Show all posts
Showing posts with label swords. Show all posts

Monday, September 21, 2015

Budo Is An Anachronism In The 21st Century

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

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

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

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

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

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mugendo Budogu: Fine Martial Arts Equipment

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Swords, Budo, and the centuries

My friend Kawahara Sadachika is a sword smith in Japan (he's a Buddhist priest too, but that's an entirely different story).  I managed to squeeze in a visit to his house in the Shiga countryside during a business trip last month.  He is always a tremendous pleasure to visit.  His home is on the grounds of the temple he cares for and it is always lovely.  It's called Nenpo-ji and was built in 1712.  Here are some pictures of the temple.

Kawahara Sensei is gracious and wonderful gentleman.  I've known him for about 15 years.  Hopefully I'll get to visit him again soon when he is working in his forge.

This time though we looked as some swords he has made, as well as a beautiful Nanbokucho Period blade that he was studying.  I always enjoy looking as Japanese swords, because each one is so unique, not just in shape and history, but also in appearance.  Each has a unique hamon (temper line) and jihada (steel grain).  We looked at a couple of nice blades that Kawahara Sensei had made.  They have a wonderful, lively jihada.

It is always a pleasure to watch him work with blades, even just to clean them.  He does it with a sense of respect and honor towards the blade he is handling that is truly impressive.  In the above picture he is working on a wakizashi that he made.  It's a lovely piece, and my picture below doesn't do it justice.  I really need to take a better camera on my next visit.  The picture is fuzzy, but the blade itself is delightfully clear with a lively, active jihada.

We talked quite a bit about the beauty of the blades, and in particular about the Nanbokucho tachi that he was studying.  It's a really fine blade with a wonderful shape and general appearance, as well as beautiful detail.

As we were talking about the incredible craftsmanship and beauty of this particular blade, Kawahara Sensei commented casually that he would be satisfied if he could ever make a blade of this quality.  This stuck with me because I have heard similar sentiments from another friend of mine who is also a sword smith.  Nakagawa Sensei has said to me many times that he “wants to make a sword that someone will look at in 1000 years and say 'He made a beautiful sword.'”

At first I thought of this just as wanting make something of quality, which is in itself quite a worthwhile objective.  Later it struck me that Nakagawa Sensei and I had been looking at, appreciating and talking about swords made a thousand years or more before we were born.  Sensei has every reason to consider what someone a thousand years from now will think of his swords.  It is quite reasonable to believe that some of his swords will be around in collections in the 31st century and that people will be sitting around looking at them and commenting on the grace, power, balance and beauty of his swords.

It’s quite common to talk about future generations, but how many of us really consider the future that far out?  Who seriously considers what someone one thousand years in the future will think about their work?  Who among us has reason to think about things that far in the future?  But if we practice budo, there is a good chance that a thousand years from now people will still be practicing the arts we practice, and they will be the descendants of what we teach. 

If you practice a koryu budo, you are practicing something that is already hundreds of years old.  Ogasawara Ryu kyudo is already nearly a thousand years old.  Katori Shinto Ryu dates from the 1400s, while Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu trace their origins to the 1500s, and Shinto Muso Ryu dates from about 1610.   When we start considering our practice in the scale of hundreds of years rather than decades, that should impact how we practice and what decisions we make.  Can we think about the arts we practice with a longer view than just a few years that are easy to imagine?  Can we imagine someone a thousand years in the future doing what we are doing and benefiting from it?  Can we make decisions about how we practice recognizing that what we choose now may influence how people train in the distant future?  Should we?

So what does it mean to practice with an awareness of hundreds of years of tradition leading up to us, and of hundreds of years of practice flowing down from us?  To me it emphasizes everything that we are doing, and it explains why teachers can seem so conservative.  It places even more importance on me getting it right, so that when I demonstrate for someone, or teach someone, I’m passing on the lesson correctly.  If I’m a poor student, I can only be a poor teacher as well.

The fact that after hundreds of years and revolutions in the technology of combat the koryu arts are still practiced and appreciated by people, and people still find so many relevant lessons is testament to the depth and enduring value of the lessons they teach, and the effectiveness of the way they teach their lessons.  It also suggests that whatever imaginable and unimaginable revolutions we have in combat, the lessons of the koryu we practice will continue to be relevant.  Scary thought there. 

We are teaching stuff that will be important for someone hundreds of years in the future.  I can see it pretty easily though.  The little lessons are the techniques and kata that we practice.  Those may or may not be directly relevant to anyone.  But the big lessons about movement, posture, timing, spacing, positioning, zanshin, and rhythm, these lessons I expect to be relevant as long as there are beings in conflict.  I find the idea of being part of a stream that stretches back hundreds of years, and will flow on for hundreds more to be an incredible thing.  It makes me awfully small, but with a huge responsibility.

Knowing that these lessons remain relevant after centuries, and will continue to be relevant is also tremendously exciting.  It means I’m not just preserving a fossil.  The art is useful and alive and contributing much more to student’s lives than just preserving a memory of things long past.  As long as people are people, there will be conflict, and it will involve blunt sticks, clubs, bladed weapons, chains and ropes.  The capacity for violence is part of who we are and I don’t think any amount of wishing is going to make it go away.

I’m ok with that.  I’m also ok with training that helps deal with that capacity.  I find the idea of training in arts that have successfully helped people deal with the capacity for and actuality of violence for hundreds of years reassuring and fascinating.  I’ve been studying budo for more than 25 years and I still learn something new every time I step into the dojo.  The arts are that deep.  From talking with my teachers, the ryuha they train in are deep enough that even after training for 2 and 3 times as long as I have, they are still learning new things and discovering new depths.

This is what we take part in and contribute to when we train in koryu budo.  We partake of living lessons about how to deal with some of the most fundamental of interactions.  These lessons have been refined over centuries, and now they are very effective and efficient.  Our job as students and teachers of these arts is to pass on faithfully what has been given us, but just as faithfully, to refine those lessons where we see a need.

Koryu budo have survived, seen a decline for a few brief decades when nearly all interests in Japan turned to all things shiny, new and modern, and are seeing a resurgence as a more balanced view valuing both that which is modern and new and those things which have shown resilience and worth over time.  The growth of koryu budo internationally in the last 2 decades is easily as great, and possibly greater, than that of gendai budo in the first several decades after their introduction the world outside Japan.

Those of us lucky enough to be involved in these arts have the responsibility to maintain the high standards of practice that have come down to us.  We also have to help our arts adapt to the changing world, but we must not change the arts just for the sake of change or temporary popularity.  Arts that are well-maintained, well taught and well practiced, that adapt wisely, will surely survive many, many more centuries, and continue to have value.  We are part of the current of these koryu, and students in centuries to come may well look back and see us as having had some small part in continuing the flow of these arts into their future.  If my name is remembered a thousand years from now in some list of koryu teachers, I hope it is remembered as having served the ryuha well, and not for having tried some fancy new trick that lacked sustaining value.