Showing posts with label weapons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label weapons. 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.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Budo Expectations and Realities: Know what you don't know.

Budo.  We all train different arts.  We all have expectations and ideas about what our arts teach us.  It’s easy for us to imagine that the techniques we study are applicable anywhere, and that if we practice diligently, we can use our skills against anything.  We love to believe that what we study is the greatest art in the world.  We tell ourselves how strong the techniques we study are, how effective they are, and how they will beat everything else.  It doesn’t matter if the art is Judo or Hapkido or Brazilian Jujutsu or Savate or Escrima or whatever.  We like to believe that what we study is the absolute best.

I’ve been doing this martial arts stuff long enough that I’ve learned that “best” is a highly relative concept.   A good friend, when asked if the martial art he teaches is the best martial art, replies “No, thermonuclear warfare is the best martial art.”   He makes a number of good points with that answer.  For a martial art to be “best” what does it have to do?  If you’re going to war, almost everything is better than a hand-to-(probably empty) hand martial art.

Every martial art teaches different things with a different focus.  I train in a sword art that teaches a particular way to use a sword, one that helps to maximize the range of the sword.  The sword is the core of this art.  A friend of mine trains in a different art, one that uses a different set of body mechanics to wield the sword. The way his art does it give a significantly smaller reach with the same length sword.  However, it maximizes the learning and usefulness of the core of his art, which is jujutsu.  The principles that guide the body mechanics are the same for his jujutsu and his sword work.  This makes the learning much more effective.  He doesn’t have to learn one way to move while unarmed, and a different way to move while armed, and he doesn’t risk mixing movement systems under stress.  The sword movement may not be optimal for the sword, but the movement is optimal for teaching  effective movement and action across a range of applications.  Which is “best”  then?

I have trained in judo for a long time and studied the knife defenses and counter attacks in the Kime No Kata and the Kodokan Goshin Jutsu .  I thought these were really great.  Then I started studying how to use weapons, and I became much less impressed with my skills against weapons.  I discovered there were all sorts of things about weapons that are critical if you want to be effective against them.  The first being, understand how something is really used.  When I trained techniques for use against weapons in Judo, I was training with other judoka, not with people who were skilled with the weapons in question.

When I started training in weapons arts with people who were skilled with the weapons, my understanding of the range and speed that particular weapons function at changed dramatically.  What I had been doing before turned out to have been little more than us imagining how a knife or stick or sword was used and then practicing against what we imagined.  When I started working with people who knew how to use those weapons, I discovered that their effective ranges were lots longer than I had imagined, and they were much faster than I had thought.  I had to throw out pretty much everything I had practiced and start over using actual knowledge upon which to build my training.  That’s pretty humbling.  I thought I was reasonably good, and I had to admit that I was worse off than beginner, because I had learned a lot of things that were nothing less than completely wrong.

I’m guessing that this is a not uncommon issue, especially in gendai (modern) martial arts.  Lots of modern arts teach defenses against a host of weapons, without really teaching how those weapons are actually used, so even when people do paired practice, the lessons are not effective.  This is what happened to me in Judo.  In koryu (classical, pre 1868) budo, the systems only train with weapons that they teach the use of, and the person doing the attacking is always the senior.  This takes care of two issues.  They don’t develop illusions about being able to handle weapons outside of those they teach, and their study is always directed by someone who really knows the weapons to be trained.

There used to be an incredible seminar held every year in Guelph, Ontario.  Kim Taylor would gather senior teachers from all sorts of koryu arts.  Each would teach a 2 hour introductory class about their art, and then spend the rest of the weekend learning side-by-side with you in other teachers’ classes.  It was a rare treat and a chance to get a taste of how all sorts of arts and weapons are used, from jujutsu stuff to swords to 10 foot spears.  The teachers all knew their stuff, and quickly knocked any illusions we had about how things worked out of our heads.  I vividly remember a high ranking Aikidoka saying after a sword class “I thought I knew swordwork.”  He was admitting to himself that what he had studied in the Aikido dojo about swords was very incomplete.  He certainly wasn’t the only person to walk out of one of those classes with the shards of previously held conceptions tinkling at the base of his mind.  I had quite a few ideas rendered into old junk in a jujutsu class with Karl Friday of Kashima Shinryu.  I just wish we’d been practicing on mats instead of in a dance studio.

I’ve discovered training with people who really know the weapons is critical.  It is possible to work out effective ways to deal with weapons you aren’t expert with, but I really don’t want to experience all the pain that goes with that sort of learning curve, and I can’t recommend it to anyone else because usually the only way to find out you’re wrong is the really hard way..  Working with someone who knows how to use a weapon properly means you never have a chance to develop inappropriate habits and techniques.  A teacher or partner who knows the weapon will disabuse you of any bad ideas as soon as they see them.  

I’m not saying don’t try anything new.  Just do it smart.  Work with someone who really knows the subject, so you don’t make mistakes that can have unpleasant consequences.  Train with your eyes open and try to realize the real limits of what you know. Kim Taylor’s seminars were an incredible experience because they were a chance to dive into our ignorance and find out just how small our islands of knowledge really are.