Friday, December 26, 2008

Budo and the unflinching gaze

In most Japanese classical budo, the vast majority of training is done with a partner, and in the modern budo there is generally some form of randori . Training with another person with whom you have to demonstrate the effectiveness of your technique forces you to be honest aobut your technique. Unless your training partner takes a dive for you, you have to be honest about how well you are doing a technique and what needs work.

When using a live blade in iaido, it's difficult to find sensible people who are willing to act as training partners. You have to train solo. Solo training means you don't have independent input on your technique. The most difficult thing about iaido training is that you have to look at yourself and decide if you're doing things correctly. I don't know about anyone else, but I have a nearly limitless ability to convince myself my technique is great. Without the check of a partner, I can tell myself all sorts of stories about how fine what I'm doing is. Good iaido demands that you look at yourself without flinching. I have to think about what I'm doing very carefully so I can't let little self-deceits slip in.

I have led myself down some disasterous dead ends, even when people whose opinion I should know enough to listen too have told me how wrong I was. Even looking at myself on video didn't help much. My river of training started flowing backwards for a couple of years while I listened to the lovely lies I was telling myself. It was only when I started to look at myself without consideration of how good or bad I was did I begin to fix things. I had to stop telling myself that this or that works better for me, and only ask "How close is what I am doing to ideal iaido?" When I started doing that and looking at my iai without flinching I started making progress again.

Looking at myself like this has been really hard on my ego. As much as I try to convince myself critizism from others isn't quite right, it really hits hard when it is coming from own mouth.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Kiyama Sensei called

Kiyama Sensei called me early one morning last week. I'd sent him a letter about some training, and a link to pictures of a seminar I had taught. He emphatically told me to just teach folks the shoden set and drill them on that. The pictures included lots and lots and lots of pics of folks doing tameshigiri, even though that had been a little bit tacked on at the end of the day. From the ratio of tameshigiri pics to everything else, I can see how he thought we did mostly cutting that weekend. It's funny, to an American, I'd try to justify what I taught and what we did. To Sensei, I just said "Thank you for the instruction on teaching" and started thinking about reasons why he is right. I've learned to approach things differently with my teachers in Japan, in ways I have trouble applying to my relationships with Americans, even when I really want to.

Oh, for the tameshigir, I just told him it was an aikido dojo and they wanted to do tameshigiri for their aikido. Now I need to send him another letter with some training questions and other things that have come to mind since the last letter. The problem is that I write Japanese so slowly, and I'm embarrassed by my poor Japanese. It communicates, but it's not pretty.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

What's important

Martial arts, by themselves, are worthless. Any conflict art can only gains particular value by what it protects and preserves. The really wonderful thing is that most often, the skills can protect and preserve without ever being applied in a physical manner. That they are present is sometimes enough. Even when they are brought to bear, arts of conflict can be applied in ways that are not physical. Being able to apply physical conflict skills to other realms doesn't seem like a huge leap to me, but for many people who practice various forms of budo, it seems like a huge leap.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Budo and "The Way"

In every system of budo in Japan, there is one, and only one, correct way of doing things. This seems arrogant, but it's not. A large subtext of Japanese culture is the simple idea that there is a best way to do something. That's not controversial. Clearly, for any activity, there is a best way to do it. To get there though, you have to decide what that way is. In each system of budo, in fact, in pretty much any group in Japan, there is an accepted best way to do things. This "best way" can be different for every group that does something similar. That's not the point. The point is that if you don't have an ideal to try and achieve, you can't advance. By having a "best way" each group, each budo, each ryu, each tea ceremony group, each flower arranging group, has an ideal they are trying to approach. With an ideal method and technique in place, they can work to polish and improve their own technique. The potential pitfall is to blind yourself to the possibility that someone else's ideal may actually better than yours for accomplishing you goal. The balance is to have an ideal and work to improve yourself so you get closer and closer to that goal, without becoming so attached to the ideal that you feel threatened by anyone who does it differently, and begin to attack or belittle them. If you do that, you betray the goal above your ideal, which is to become as good as possible. If you discover a flaw in your goal, the true Way is to improve and refine your goal, and then continue refining yourself. Sadly, most of the people I encounter are too busy proving that their way is the best, the one true way, and they never look at how much finer they could become by being open to refining their ideal technique as much as they are to refining their personal technique.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Kiyama Sensei

Last summer, I visited my iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi Sensei, in Japan. Kiyama Sensei is one of the last of the men who fought in World War II and he continues to actively train and teach kendo and iaido.
I'm learning Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho from him. He is the last teacher of this small art. It's not one of the big schools that includes a huge curriculum, but it is a coherent system with plenty to teach someone who is willing to study it. Years ago Sensei wrote up his notes on Shinto Hatakage Ryu and he has given a copy of them to me. Unfortunately, the notes are in hand written Japanese, one of the most difficult mediums imaginable. He kindly went over several pages of the notes with me, helping me to understand what I was reading and making clear the characters my poor Japanese couldn't decipher.
We spent one afternoon together at an annual iaido tournament in Shiga. It's a wonderful gathering of iaidoka from all over the prefecture. The only drawback is that it's held during one of the hottest, most uncomfortable times of the year in Otsu, and the gym is an old school building with no ventilation other than opening the doors and windows and praying for a breeze. I love it though, because I get to see lots of old friends from all around the prefecture that I wouldn't get to see otherwise. We all show off our iai for each other, and who wins or loses really isn't important. Over the years I've managed a few 2nd and 3rd place finishes, but mostly I'm thrilled to be there to see and talk with everyone. It's also a great chance for instruction. All of the seventh and eighth dans walk around giving advice on weak points in your technique they have noticed. There is nothing like this chance in the US.
The embu and competition are a chance to see a variety of styles besides the omnipresent Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu. There was also Muso Shinden Jushin Ryu, Suio Ryu and Shinto Hatakage Ryu.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sport versus Budo

I just finished a long discussion of sports judo versus Kodokan judo. I find it amazing that someone can argue that sport judo is a superior form of self defense to Kodokan judo. Sport judo trains to win in a narrowly defined arena where strikes and weapons aren't a consideration and your opponent has to hold on to you. Kodokan judo trains from a variety of combative distances, assumes that opponents may have a variety of hand held weapons, and assumes all attacks are possible. Which one sounds more like a sensible approach to combative training?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Cage fighting

Last week I went to my first cage fight. It was an interesting experience. The first fights weren't really fights. They were all match-ups with first time fighters. The fighters weren't very good, but they there was nothing horrible about them. The crowd though, they were scary. They got most excited when a fighter went down and wasn't really able to defend themselves. When this would happen, the crowd would leap to their feet and start cheering as the downed fighter was pummeled until the referee stopped the fight. The crowd wasn't interested in the skill of the fighters at all. Their only interest was in seeing someone get pounded bloody and senseless. The crowd's demands for blood and destruction were genuinely frightening. Most of these people weren't there to see a fight. They were there to see someone beaten and damaged. We haven't advanced a step beyond the Romans and the coliseum.

Monday, July 28, 2008

This is my teacher, Kiyama Sensei. He was the watching the enbu at the beginning of the Shiga Taikai. It was 35C (~95F) that day. I was genuinely worried he would get sick from the heat while wearing the full, formal montsuki.

Yeah, the picture is dark, but I haven't figured out how to lighten photos yet. (Chuck fixed it for me. Thanks Chuck). It is a demonstration of Muso Shinden Jushin Ryu. Yes, you've never heard of it. Yes, it is a branch of Muso Shinden Ryu. No, it is not just like MSR. It is quite different, with some unique kata of their own, and a chiburi I have never seen anywhere else.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Power scares people

A lot of people are intimidated by the idea of the martial arts, some seem to be downright scared of them. I used to think that this was because the martial arts (all of them, western and eastern) deal with conflict, and conflict makes people uncomfortable. I've decided that idea was going in the right direction, but missed the target.

Martial arts frighten people because they're about power. Personal, physical power. People are also scared of knives and guns, but at least a knife or a gun can be taken away from someone and then they are the same as everyone else. Martial arts skills can't be surrendered at the desk when you check in. They can't be detected by metal detectors or chemical analysis or even the new back-scatter radiation scanners. You can't take them away from the artist. That scares a lot of people. The idea that a person can have this power that can't be seen or detected or surrendered is frightening to many people. I've had bosses and co-workers treat me very differently from everyone else around, and the only reason I can come up with is the martial arts.

I've been doing martial arts for so long now that I have difficulty remembering what it's like to not do them. I keep trying to imagine how non-martial artists view me, but it's difficulty. The only ways I can imagine it is to think about how I react to someone who carries a visible weapon like a bowie knife or a pistol. It's rather unnerving to imagine that people who know I do martial arts think about me the same way. Do I scare people? Or better, are people scared of me?

Saturday, June 28, 2008


I saw "Wanted" at the theatre last night. It's a nice movie action movie about a guy who's recruited into a secret society of assassins. This poor cubicle dweller is plucked out of a wholly unpleasant life and dropped into intensive training as assassin. Believe it or not, the only thing that bothered me was the idea that this guy could master fine combat skills in a few weeks.

It takes a least a year to go from raw talent to world class, if you have the talent to begin with. We all talk about how it takes years to master a martial art. I don’t think that’s true. George Foreman walked into a boxing gym in 1967 and year later was good enough to be considered for the Olympics. 18 months after he walked into that gym he was good enough to win the gold medal at the ’68 Olympics. 18 months from raw talent to gold medal. So much for the idea that it has to take years or even decades to master a martial art.

For those of us who don’t start with the necessary raw talent, I’m pretty sure we can train for decades and never reach that pinnacle.

Does that mean we shouldn’t do it?

To not make the effort is to eternally be less than we can be, to walk through life as a shadow of our potential. The vast majority of people I meet go through life as shadows. Whether we remain shadows because we are afraid, or lazy, or we believe there is nothing more to be aspired to than TV on weeknights and beer and movies on the weekends, or for some other reason, the shadows I meet every day terrify me. The idea that I could end up living like that scares me far worse than dying.

I have the potential to do a lot of things. What scares me is that I could make excuses to not avoid them. Like a lot of people I know, I have done things that the shadows consider amazing, though why they are amazed I can’t fathom. I’ve traveled to Asia and spent years living in a country whose language I didn’t speak when I arrived, learned the language, found masters of the arts I was interested in, became their students, and learned as much as I could. For those who have done something similar, it’s no big deal. The idea that I find amazing is to not do something similar. To drift through a series of soul-suffocating jobs in the place where I was born and never know anything else. To do so little with my potential, that’s amazing to me.

Now that I realize how little time it takes to get really good (since it is clear that I don’t have that world class potential I have to settle for being really good) at just about anything, the excuses for not trying seem even weaker than they were before. I just have to choose a path and start down it. I’ll get there.