Friday, April 12, 2013

Will Budo make me a better person?

Will budo make me a better person? Not necessarily. Maybe. If you want it to. If you train properly..  There is an old idea that training in a Way (budo, sado, kado, etc) will make you a better person.  It’s wonderful story.  A lifetime of training has made the grizzled old teacher wise, kind and gentle.  If we study the art we too will be transformed in wise, kind, gentle people as well.  

If only it were so.

You will become what you train.  It is entirely possible to study and master the techniques of an art and completely miss it’s essence.  This is perhaps most visible in international Judo.  If you watch international Judo competitions you can see some spectacular and subtle application of judo techniques and physical principles.  The throws and techniques are incredible.  The  behavior of the contestants is no better than in any other sport though.  There are good competitors who treat everyone with respect.  There are bad sports who throw temper tantrums when they don’t like the referee’s calls.  There are glory hounds who dance and shout and put on displays when they win.  There jerks who are disdainful towards everyone around them.

With as many years of Judo training as it takes to becoming a competitor at the international level, if just training in Judo was going to make you a better person, all of these people should be fabulous human beings with grace, kindness, respect and dignity for everyone, especially when on display in an international event.  Instead the behavior you see is no better than at any other sporting event.  We can see clearly that spending years practicing a form of budo will not automatically transform you into a great person.

The focus of training in the dojo is usually on technique.  It is entirely possible to study the techniques of an art, become extremely good at the techniques, and never touch the rich principles that animate the art and make it applicable throughout life and not just in the dojo or in a fight.    Focusing on technical practice is appropriate, since the techniques are there to point you in the direction of the principles.  

Chuang Tzu talks about the finger and the moon.  The pointing finger directs us to the moon, but once we have found the moon we forget about the finger.  If we fixate on the finger we will never move beyond it, and we will never find the moon.  In budo, the techniques are like the finger.  They point us towards the principles, but it easy to become fixated on the techniques and miss their connections to deeper principles and ideas.

We train techniques.  That’s how we learn budo.  Techniques and kata teach us the fundamentals of the art and how to apply them.  The techniques of an art are powerful.  In Judo, the throws, joint locks and strangles are powerful and impressive.  In other arts there are strikes and weapons to study and be fascinated by.  It’s easy to get caught up in learning these techniques.  The deeper, more subtle principles that make the techniques work can be forgotten in the race to master the techniques.  This is especially true in something like Judo, where victory in competition can become a goal that eclipses and outshines everything else.

The techniques alone can seem powerful.  Victory in competition brings glory and personal satisfaction.  But these are not the principles of the art being studied, and they have nothing to do with becoming a better person.  In fact, they more often lead in the opposite direction.  The techniques of budo dangerous and powerful.  It’s easy to get caught up with learning how to be dangerous and powerful.  Knowing those dangerous and powerful techniques can give a person confidence.  On the other hand, a person can become focused on that sense of power and become obnoxious and bullying because they have some power.  In arts with a competitive side, such as Judo and Kendo, the focus on winning competitions can consume a person’s focus, so they forget all the other parts of the art.  They can stop respecting anything but victory, and cheerfully ignore and belittle any aspect of the art that doesn’t directly contribute to victory in competition.

In both cases, a person can study an art for a lifetime and that study will never make them a better person.  It might even make them less of a person.  They can become proud, arrogant, rude and unpleasant to been around.  Pretty much the opposite of what a well-developed budoka should be.

So the first step to becoming a better person through budo practice is to avoid the pitfalls.  The pitfalls are inherent in the practice.  Fortunately, the lessons for becoming a better person are there too.  If you are willing to work at them to learn the principles the techniques point us towards, you can do a lot with yourself.  You have to be willing to work at applying these lessons not only to how you fight, but to how you live.

Each art has a few principles that drive it and give it unique characteristics, but they all have some unavoidable similarities as well (the optimal use of the human body being something that doesn’t change).  In any budo you develop stamina and endurance and the ability to suffer through tough training in order to improve.  These are certainly not bad character traits.  But they are more like a foundation, since they can also support all of the negative traits mentioned earlier.

The big questions are what do you want to get out of your training, and who do you want to become?  Budo training will make you a better person if you actively direct your training and apply it to being becoming a better person.  If you leave your training at the dojo door every day it won’t have much effect on you.  If you take it with you, look around and see the similarities between budo and the rest of life and apply the dojo lessons about dealing with conflict to the conflicts in life, then you budo can be tool for becoming a better person.  

Budo isn’t passively effective.  You have to actively work at it.  It will make you more patient, and less liable to lose your temper, more peaceful, and much calmer, if you work with it.  These are all lessons you can pick up in the dojo.  You know you can’t tense up when practicing with someone who is attacking you with a big stick.  It just creates opportunities for her to whack you and slows you down.  Now, can you apply that lesson when you are being attack verbally?  Can you keep calm and choose the best response, rather than tensing up and girding for a fight?  Can you breathe calmly and peacefully?

Keeping your balance and maintaining a solid foundation from which to act is critical in budo.  Keeping those physical lessons in front of you, can you teach yourself to maintain a good mental balance and not go rushing into arguments and not reel back from non-physical aggression?  Can a judoka learn to apply the lesson of ukemi and roll with the attack and not stiffen up?  Can the aikidoka remember to get off the line of attack and realize that a counterattack may not even be necessary?  Can the kendoka lightly deflect the incoming attack so it goes off into unoccupied space?

When you can start to do these things, you’ll be on the path to applying your budo lessons to life and becoming a better person.  Learning to apply these fundamentals can lead to the discovery of other budo lessons that you can train at in everyday life.  

One of the lessons of budo training is that you become good at what you practice.  So, will budo training make me a better person?  It will if that is what I train myself to be

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

How hard should you train? How good do you want to be?

I really like Rory Miller's stuff.  He's a former prison guard, judo man, and koryu jujutsu teacher.  Here he talks about how hard you have to train to be good.  I wish I had said it.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Practice Easy and Hard

There are lots of things about practice I don’t like.  I don’t like cleaning up afterward.  I don’t like all the little nit picky preparations.  I don’t like getting up earlier than would be otherwise necessary.  I used to hate practicing the boring old fundamentals.  I still hate practicing the parts that I’m not good at.  Those are the parts that I need to be practicing though.  

As with everything, we like to do the parts that we are good at, and we tend to avoid the parts that we aren’t so proficient at.  I do train in budo in large part because I enjoy it, I like how it makes me feel, and because I like what it teaches me.  I don’t always enjoy the lessons though.  I hate discovering that I’m really bad as some aspect of practice.  I hate learning that my ego is bigger, more involved in what I’m doing, and has more influence on me (I love to tell myself that I’m beyond that, but practice keeps teaching me a different lesson).

It’s easy when we start.  We’re lousy at everything, so all aspects of training are tough.  As we progress though, we don’t progress at all things at equal speeds.  Of the various style of budo that I practice, I’ve been doing Kodokan Judo the longest.  I’ve gotten reasonably good at certain aspects of it, such as groundwork, especially chokes and arm bars, while my standing techniques have not improved nearly as fast.  This creates situations that my ego is all too happy to exploit, but when I let that happen, I don’t learn anything.  

My groundwork is much better than my standing techniques, so in Judo randori (grappling sparring), I can “win” much more often and more quickly by taking things to the ground. Unfortunately, if I do this, I’m not practicing and improving my standing skills, and those need the most work.  This is one of the traps of ego.  It’s more fun to do stuff we’re already good at.  I’ve been doing judo for a while now, so it takes a little bit of courage for me to say, “Hey, there’s this whole section of judo that I really need to work on.  Will you help me?”    I’m used to being the sensei, the guy in front with all the answers, and climbing down off that pedestal can take some work.

I learn a lot more when I work on the parts that I’m not good at though.  Lately, my personal focus at Judo has been Uki Otoshi.  It’s probably the most difficult and least used throw in the entire Kodokan Judo curriculum.  It requires perfect balance taking, timing and execution. That might make it the best throw to practice.  I also noticed that Kano Shihan and the other greats who created the Nage No Kata put right there are the front of the kata, so you can’t miss it.  My theory is that I will learn much more from studying something that is extremely difficult, than I will from practicing the more popular, and frankly, easier throws.

To do uki otoshi, you have to do everything correctly, so when I practice it, I become more aware of my partner’s balance and of the timing and space connecting us.  I’m forcing myself to extend my abilities and my understanding and my awareness.  And as these skills expand with practice at something I’m still really bad at, I find that my awareness and understanding of balance taking, spacing and timing are better when I’m doing other things where I’m not as inept as when I’m doing uki otoshi.  That’s improving my Judo as whole.

This practice is just about anything but fun though.  I can’t begin to count the ways of not doing uki otoshi that I have discovered so far.  Every one of these inept variations teaches me something.  I’m slowly dialing in on my target, a smooth, clean uki otoshi.

As I’m writing this, I had a small epiphany.  This is the throw my teach Hikkoshiso Sensei used to toss me around with the first few years I was in Japan.  He would wave his arms a little and I would go flying.  I’ve always felt that I started to get good at a Judo when he couldn’t throw me with that technique anymore (it didn’t stop him from throwing me around like a rag doll, it just meant that he wasn’t doing it with uki otoshi).  I still can’t execute a decent uki otoshi, but I can see already I’ve learned something, because suddenly I understand what he was throwing me with all those years ago.  Of course, if I had focused on the tough stuff sooner, I would have understood this that much sooner..

I’m never going to be a great judoka, I know that.  But if I only ever do the parts I’m already proficient at, I’ll never get any better than I am now.  If I just want to have some fun at practice a couple times a week at practice, I guess that’s ok.  Judo offers so much more than just a some fun exercise, that if I don’t work at learning something every practice I feel I’m wasting a great opportunity for learning, improvement and growth.

Practicing the hard stuff is frustrating, tiring, annoying and sometimes disappointing because I don’t achieve the results I think I should.  It is also far more gratifying over time.  Doing what I’m good at is a reliable bit of fun, but that feeling doesn’t last. Practicing hard things isn’t fun, but it is so much more satisfying every time I figure out something new or discover that I can do something I couldn’t do at the last practice.

It really doesn’t matter what art you are studying, it’s always easier and more fun to do the bits that you are best at.  If you can set your ego aside though, and give up on the fun of being good at something for a while, you’ll learn far more, and make more progress by working at the bits you don’t understand yet.  Unfortunately, we rarely make huge improvements by repeating things we already know how to do.  The leaps in understanding and skill come when we work on something we can’t do yet.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Do we know what "self-defense" really means

Most of the techniques we teach in budo, whether it is karate or judo or aikido or anything else, are not simply dangerous.  They are extremely violent.  Many of our students want to learn budo for self-defense.  For a long time I didn’t think about the meaning of self-defense.  The term was thrown around so much everyone in the dojo just assumed we knew what it meant.  I’m quickly coming to realize that I don’t have a clear enough understanding of what self-defense means legally to be sure I won’t get myself in trouble if I’m ever in a situation where knowledge of exactly where the line is drawn is important.

I’ve been doing a little bit of reading by a couple of different writers and one term that comes up is “the Monkey Dance”.  This is used to refer to the social dance that revolves around social violence, which usually falls outside the circle that includes self-defense.  Part of learning the skills of combat, is learning when it is appropriate to use them and when it isn’t.

I’ve heard too many people say “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6.”  This seems to demonstrate a willful ignorance of the law.  If you know the law, it’s not too hard to figure out what the appropriate response is.  If you don’t know the law, you’re likely to get yourself in a lot of trouble.  Even the military has rules of engagement.  

The best resources I’ve found so far for understanding the rules we operate under are

Teaching budo means we are teaching skills that people can apply in life.  If we teach these skills, we have the responsibility to teach people when it is ok to use them, and when using their skills could land them in jail.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Artist and the Artwork

My friend and colleague, The Rogue Scholar, did me the honor of responding to my post about Creating A Work Of Art.  I had argued that we are each a work of art that we are crafting, and her very well considered reply argues that we are the artist, not a work of art.  I hope I am not misrepresenting her view when I say that she sees the martial artist as expressing herself through the performance of the kata.  She also makes a good point about self-improvement by itself not making one a work of art.

There are a lot steps along the way, and I may be using the idea of the self as a work of art more broadly than the term can support.  I’ll try to unpack my meaning and intention and see where that leads.  I agree that that are many paths to self-improvement, but I would argue that the goal of budo training is not simply moral improvement, but refinement of all aspects of one’s self.  Developing one’s moral understanding of the world is a fine, but limited goal.  Budo 武道 teaches, as do the Daoists, a goal of refined simplicity.  It is not just a moral refinement, as Cook Ting demonstrates.  The Way transcends the physical, but is manifest in physical action.  The Way of Budo is not merely moral improvement.

I have to admit that my use of the term “art” runs very closely towards what the Rogue Scholar is talking about when she describes the classical artist.  The Rogue Scholar says “a classical artist creates something that is unique but also serves her tradition.”  My view of what is happening with budo training is very much in this line of thought.  We are creating a work of art in the service of our tradition.  To me, the work each of us is creating is our self.  

No matter how beautifully we can perform the kata, no matter how expressive we can be within the boundaries of the kata, this is not the art of budo.  The kata are like the finger pointing at the moon in Zhuangzi’s writing.  It is a tool that directs us where we want to go, but if we focus on the finger, we will never see the moon.  If we focus only on the kata, we may never understand what they are pointing us towards.  The kata teach us proper breathing, posture and movement.  Budo practice also teaches us to relax our minds and bodies and to respond to the world as it is rather than as we want it to be.

Mastery of the kata, no matter how beautifully it can be demonstrated, should not be the goal of budo training.  The kata are teaching tools.  The question then is, what are they tools for teaching?  Kata are tools at the most basic level for teaching us skills useful in a particular sort of combat.  They are not tools for learning to do kata, though I admit, simply learning to do the kata well is a wonderful experience and feeling.  The skills necessary to perform the kata well should be the same skills necessary for success in that particular type of combat. They are also skills that are wonderful to have in regular day-to-day life.  It is not what we express when performing the kata that is goal for me.  

For me, the goal of budo training is to be able to express what budo teaches in the kata in everyday life.  At the physical level this means that I move in a manner that expresses the principles of my budo all the time, not just when I am in the dojo.  I want to move with the same control over every bit of my action, with the same fine balance and controlled, relaxed power that I use when I am in the midst of a Shinto Muso Ryu or Shinto Hatakage Ryu kata.  I want to eliminate the unnecessary tension from my body and present the world with a presence that expresses and displays all that my budo is.

At a mental level, I want my everyday mind, my heijoshin 平常心, to be as relaxed as my body.  I don’t want to meet the world with a mind that is stiff with preconceived ideas and expectations,  rigid with assumptions of how things are.  I want a mind that is calm and peaceful as a forest stream.  I want there to be not a ripple the surface of my mind that will distort how I perceive the world.  My goal is to be as peaceful and calm in my readiness to greet the world as I am standing in tsune no kamae as I await the actions of my partner in the dojo.  

I don’t want to keep my budo in the dojo.  The dojo is where I practice what budo is.  Outside the dojo is where I actually perform it.  I know I’m not very good at it, but I try to express my budo in my everyday life.  Most of the time I don’t need the extreme level of readiness that I train at in the dojo, but there are times when even in everyday life I reach moments of intensity similar to the levels I reach when I am training in the dojo.  I’ve been in intense negotiations with people pounding on the table and trying to intimidate me.  I’ve had to deal with crying and screaming and yelling.  If I can draw upon my budo training at these times, and keep my mind calm and body relaxed, then my budo training is showing signs of success.  If I lose my temper, or become rigid with tension and stress and aggression, than my budo training hasn’t been successful yet, and I need to spend more time working on it.  

For me, what we do in the dojo is always practice, even the big demonstrations.  Budo only happens when I am outside the dojo, moving in the world.  It is in the world that I think of myself as a work of art.  In the dojo, The Rogue Scholar is entirely correct.  In the dojo, I am an artist, working to craft my heart, mind and body into something beautiful.  In the dojo I am working on learning to calm my mind, to respond as things really are rather than as I would like them to be.  I am training my body to stay relaxed under the pressure of having someone far more skilled than I am trying to hit me with a really big stick.  The dojo is the place to practice and refine, just as the ballet dancer practices and refines in the dance studio.

The difference between a classical Western artist and an artist of the Way is that the art of the Way is what we do all the time.  It’s how we sit down and how we talk to people and how we eat dinner and how we are gracious and gentle to someone who is verbally attacking us and how we walk down the street and how we eat breakfast and how we deal with that unpleasant fellow at work and how we treat our family even when we aren’t feeling very nice and the million other things we do throughout the day, every day.  Budo is the martial way, but it is only really budo when it informs and transforms every aspect of who we are and how we interact with the world.  If it doesn’t do that, then it’s not budo.  It may still be bu, martial, but it lacks the Way.  This is what I mean when I talk about being a work of art.  Since this is a Way, and not a destination, we are always works in process, but hopefully we become more refined and more polished with each day.

We go into the dojo to train.  What are we training? Our self.  We are using budo to train and refine and polish our self.  In the dojo we sculpt and and polish and refine ourselves.  Outside the dojo that incomplete work of art that is us is on display for the world to see and interact with.  The better the our budo, the more beautiful the mind and body we show to the world.  We are the artist and the artwork.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Creating A Work Of Art Part 2

2 hours on a flower marble and my arms are about to fall off... let's hope the kiln gods are kind... I kinda don't think i nailed this one, but maybe... if you wonder why great marbles are worth the prices they are fetching, this is part of the reason... I can't tell you guys how much work I do that you never see... try... try again... tweak this... ponder a solution to that... try again... repeat as necessary... it truly is a journey through numerous processes to get things dialed in... great marbles and glass doesn't just happen... every single one of us has to put in the blood, sweat and tears... the best part is, once I dial something in, I get to start the grueling process all over again with something new my brain has conjured up... I don't need bondage in the bedroom, because I torture myself all day long in the shop... and I wouldn't have it any other way! LOL
Brent Graber

In my last post, I talked about adding on to ourselves, adding techniques and skills.

The other side of all of this I find more difficult to describe.  It’s the process of taking away, of removing that which isn’t necessary and may actually be a hinderance.  A sculptor removes material to make a sculpture, chiseling and polishing, and in budo we do the same.  We are constantly refining our technique to remove all the unnecessary movement.  It’s interesting that when learning a new skill, we engage all sorts of muscles that aren’t necessary to do whatever it is we are trying to do.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to pull my shoulders down away from my ears when I’m learning something new in the dojo (or even when I’m having trouble figuring out how to write something well).

Around the dojo the admonitions to “relax” and “use less muscle” are so common that everyone expects them.  What are we doing when we relax and use less muscle?  We are refining our technique, removing what is unnecessary.  On the first day we learn what the technique is and how to do it.  After that becoming good at it seems to be mostly a matter of removing the excess effort and unnecessary inputs.  

This goes for the rest of what we are as well.  Most of us have images of what we want to be, but getting there is awfully hard.    

Just like in budo, we have to work on removing that which is unnecessary.   We all have traits we’ve picked up that are unnecessary or prevent us from being what we want to be.  Just like all the practice that goes into making a good sword cut or a nice tsuki or a beautiful throw, it takes practice.  Learning to swing a sword is a good example.  On the first day we grip the sword hard with all ten fingers.  Sensei says to do all the work with the last 2 fingers of the left hand, but just because we know what he said, convincing those other 8 fingers to relax and let the remaining 2 do all the work doesn’t happen on the first day.  Each day we get  a little better at relaxing 8 fingers and not putting all that excess energy into the technique.  This is good because that excess energy put into the sword at the wrong place throws the angle, speed and effectiveness of the cut out the window.

As a person, there are lots of places in life that I put energy and effort into that would undoubtedly be better if I would just relax and not work so hard at it.  My ego is a huge example.  It gets all worked up over whether I’m right or wrong on minor issues, and I can put a huge amount of energy into a discussion (I’m trying to convince myself that I’m above mere arguing) that doesn’t need to happen at all.  I can grip my opinion so hard that my knuckles turn white even though I’m not holding anything.  

Over the years I have run into many people who say “That’s just the way I am.  I can’t change it.”  I admit to being unable to understand this way of thinking.  Who we are is constantly changing.  Each day we are a tiny bit different from the day before, and when enough days and their changes have piled up, we are a very different person indeed.  I look back on myself and can’t believe some of the ways in which I have changed.  The question is, do we take an active part in shaping what we become, or do we passively let the world change us?  If we passively let the world change us, we may not like who we become.  We always have the option of choosing what changes we want to make in ourselves.

In an earlier post I wrote about adding to ourselves. For all that,one of the most important ways we refine ourselves, transform ourselves into more wonderful people is by removing parts of ourselves that hold us back or prevent us from improving.  In iaido practice, I am working to let go of some bad habits that prevent my budo from being as good as it could be.  I am trying to carry less with me in my budo so that I can be better.  Outside the dojo I have a host of habits that I would be better off without as well.  The trick is to continue refining myself as a person in the same way that I refine myself as a budo practitioner.  I want to let go of the unnecessary tension and effort and bad habits that color the way I live and act.  Many of these habits make me less of a person than I would like.  As a budoka, I know that I’m never finished practicing, that I can always be better.

This applies both within the dojo and outside of it.  The lesson is learned in the dojo, but the lesson has truly been learned only when it is applied in the world outside the dojo.  I am never finished becoming me.  I am responsible for who I become from here.  As we are are growing up we don’t always have a lot of input into what lessons we are exposed to.  As budoka though, once we have learned the lesson of continual practice and refinement, we aren’t truly treading the Way until we start applying the lesson to our lives.  

Many of the lessons we learn growing up are negative lessons.  Sometimes we learn to be rigid and always fight when challenged.  Sometimes we learn to protect our ego.  Sometimes we learn to be cynical or bitter.  Sometimes we learn to be angry.  There are any number of negative lessons we can learn and apply to our lives.  Just like learning to relax our grip on the sword so that only unnecessary fingers don’t get involved, we have to learn to take the energy out of these lessons and let go of the bad habits they engender.

This isn’t any easier than learning to do things properly in the dojo.  In fact, the training time frames for budo give a good perspective of how refining ourselves will work.  We have a point we know we need to work on, so we start working on it.  Over weeks and months we show improvement on that point.  Then we start working on some other point and slip back a little on the first point.  Eventually we come back around to working on the first point.  By now at least a year has gone by since we started the process, and we’re just in the middle of it.  We’ll keep coming back to the same point, refining how do it, removing some of the tension and relaxing into the technique more and more, until we do it in a relaxed, easy way every time.  This will take years.

Improving ourselves and getting rid of excess and wasteful energy in our day-to-day lives is similar.  We focus on some aspect of ourselves, a habit that we need to stop wasting energy with. Perhaps we want to stop treating everything as a challenge that must be fought.  We’re not going to fix that right away.  At first we’ll be doing well when we realize we got stiff and tense over something that didn’t deserve all the energy that getting stiff and tense took.  With a little effort, we’ll begin to notice when we are getting stiff and tense unnecessarily while we are doing it instead of after that fact.  With more time and effort we can learn to not tense up so much in those situations.  Gee, does this sound like budo practice?  We identify a problem, and the usual goal is to relax and not tense up during the technique.  We do this in a constant cycle.  Over time what was a good level of relaxation will become unacceptable and we target further improvement.

This is part of improving ourselves and treating our whole being as a work in process.  We’re unfinished.  Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we’ve stopped learning and growing and refining ourselves.  It’s really the opposite.  As children we are growing and being molded by those responsible for us, parents, teachers, religious leaders and others.  It’s only when we have learned enough to choose what sort of person that we want to be that we can really start developing ourselves.  Until then we are being developed.  Taking responsibility for who we are is a huge step, and perhaps more than a little scary.  If I say, I’m not the person I want to be, and I am responsible for becoming that person, from that point we have to accept the responsibility every time we do something that doesn’t live up to the person we want to be.  It’s a lot easier to say “That’s just the way I am.  I can’t change who I am.”  

The process of crafting ourselves is never ending.  It may be worse than budo practice in that sense.  At keiko, we can rely on teachers and fellow students to help us spot our issues and find ways to correct them.  Outside the dojo we rarely get that kind of feedback, especially if we’re doing something that really puts people off.  In life, we most often have to rely on our own evaluations, though if we are lucky we have some good friends who will help us be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings.

Every day I try to be a better person than I was yesterday.  I’m happy to report that the feedback from my family and friends is that over the years I have improved and that I’m a much nicer person to be around than I was.  Over the years I’ve had to let go of a lot of things that at some point I was proud of, but eventually realized made me less than wonderful to be around.  I’m still working on that.  The same stillness, the same sense of accepting the world as it is, the same relaxed confidence that my teachers display in the dojo is what I’m working on.  I would like to have that as the basic face that I show to the world, and let things go from there.  I’ve identified the goal, now I have to relax a lot of habits (I’m sure my friends can make quite a list as to which ones need to go).

Budo is a Do 道 because it challenges us to apply the lessons everywhere, not just in the dojo or in a conflict.  Part of the challenge is to learn the skills and practices that make us better.  The other half is to get rid of the things that inhibit good action in the world.  We’re both adding to ourselves and stripping things away at the same time.  The challenge is to put as much effort into being a finer, nobler, more wonderful person as we do into a swinging our sword correctly or making that throw effortless or the strike absolutely precise.  Only then do we begin to become a work of art of our own creation.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Creating a Work Of Art: Part 1

2 hours on a flower marble and my arms are about to fall off... let's hope the kiln gods are kind... I kinda don't think i nailed this one, but maybe... if you wonder why great marbles are worth the prices they are fetching, this is part of the reason... I can't tell you guys how much work I do that you never see... try... try again... tweak this... ponder a solution to that... try again... repeat as necessary... it truly is a journey through numerous processes to get things dialed in... great marbles and glass doesn't just happen... every single one of us has to put in the blood, sweat and tears... the best part is, once I dial something in, I get to start the grueling process all over again with something new my brain has conjured up... I don't need bondage in the bedroom, because I torture myself all day long in the shop... and I wouldn't have it any other way! LOL
Brent Graber

A friend showed me this quote, and my first thought was, this is how budo training should feel.  After all, the piece of art you are working on in the dojo is yourself.   What we are doing in the dojo is working on ourselves.  We are are refining and perfecting what we are.

Budo training is a process of both adding on, and taking away.  From the first day in the dojo, we are adding to ourselves by actively trying to learn new skills, ideas and ways of thinking.   We are creating a new, better self by adding skills and confidence, strengths and flexibility, and we are acquiring power.  When you learn a martial art, you are literally learning ways of power for dealing with the world.  Some budo, such as judo or aikido or karatedo are clearly about forms of power that can be immediately applied to the world around us if we wish, while others such as iaido or kyudo are more distant from the world outside the dojo.  They are all about the use and application of power.  

Each day in the dojo, especially in the early years of training, we are working to add to our store of techniques, our ways of dealing with physical conflict.  We have to work really hard to get the steps for the technique down, to overcome ingrained instincts and reactions and to train new instincts and new reactions in their place.  At the end of a good practice, the body should be sweating, sore, and exhausted from the work learning and polishing new skills.  The mind should be just as sore and exhausted from working on new ways of thinking, and from pushing itself to learn lessons that sometimes require giving up old ideas and beliefs so we can grow beyond them.

Early on we are learning to respond fluidly to a threatening situation rather than with blind instinct.  We learn to move out of the way of a strike calmly and smoothly, instead of flinching away.  We spend time learning proper footwork and posture for best moving out of the way, and then we practice putting our hands in the proper position for receiving the strike depending on how we want to deal with it.  This takes time and sweat.  It also takes restructuring how we see the world.   If we are used to being strong and unmoving and letting the world crash into us and standing against it’s force, we have to learn to be soft and pliant and let the things go flying past us.  On the other hand, if we are accustomed to ducking and avoiding conflict, we have to learn to be strong enough to stay close so that we can actively deal with the conflict.  

In the dojo, we should be constantly working on lessons like this.  And it should make us tired.  It should also prepare us to practice these lessons outside the dojo in the world where we live.  It is here that the practice is the most difficult.  We have all learned many lessons about how to act in the world.  Some of us are very good at letting the world crash into us without being moved, like a huge boulder on the seashore.  Some of us are good at diving out of the room or giving in at the first sign of conflict.  Others push too hard, or attack when it’s not necessary, or any of the other traits and strategies that can be taken to an extreme.

Training in the real world is really hard and takes a level of effort that can make training in the dojo seem easy.   These are the attempts that no one realizes you are making as you develop yourself.  So you’ve learned to get out of the way of the attack without fleeing or giving up your own position of strength in the dojo.  You are strong, but you’ve learned that you don’t have to meet every attack head on.  Or you are not strong, but you have learned that you don’t have to avoid conflict by fleeing, but that you can control how you move and where you go.  Now that you can do that in the dojo, can you do it in life?  When the office bully comes looking for a fight, and knows that you are always ready to stand unbending and give him one, can you flex enough to not meet him head on, but to let his arguments go rolling on past you without expending any more effort than it takes to step to the side?  Or, can you have the strength to stick around and not be driven away or simply acquiescing in order to get him to leave?  Can you learn to move to a position that he can’t easily attack, and to push back at his weakness?

This is the tough stuff, and this is the training that counts.  Because this is the training that applies every day at every level.  Conflict is all around us, at all different levels.  In budo we are learning to deal with conflict in the most fundamental way possible, with someone trying to hit us.  But it’s budo, bu-DO.  We are training ourselves for life, not just some sort of physical fight.  This is why it’s so hard.  We’ve got patterns and ways of doing things that we have learned, but one of the fundamental lessons of any Way is that we can always be better than we are now.  My teachers still train, they still work to polish their technique and themselves.  They haven’t stopped learning and improving themselves.  Just because Kiyama Sensei is 88 years old, don’t think that he is only teaching and not learning anymore, only training others to become better and not training himself.

We are working on perfecting ourselves and the lessons go on and on.  Once the strong and stiff has learned to be more flexible and mobile his training may circle back.  He may find himself working hard at learning to apply his strength as effectively as possible.  And the timid one may develop enough skill and confidence that he has to work on not deploying that skill every time, and sometimes just get out of the way and not connect with the conflict.

I spent the morning alone in the dojo today.  I’m trying to polish some techniques that require more patience and less speed.  Part of me always wants to fly through these techniques because, well, this is budo, combat, and if I don’t move fast, I’ll be defeated.  My teachers have shown me over and over though, that speed is not the key to great technique.  The point I am struggling with is that the key is not strength or speed.  The key is to do the right thing at the right time.  I’m work on being aware enough, calm enough, relaxed enough, and confident enough that I don’t rush in, but wait and fill the opening as it occurs.   I’m sweating through this, swinging the sword, swinging the staff, pushing my legs until they quiver with effort so that I can do this without effort.

Now I’m applying this same effort to being me.  There are things that I want to do better.  I want to interact with people in a better way.  I used to have a deep seated need to be right, even when being right was wrong thing to do.  I had to learn to let go of the argument, let the conflict fade away by not holding on to it.   This is something I’m still working on, though I believe I’ve gotten better at it over the years.  One of the lessons of budo is that you can lose by putting too many of your resources into one course of action.  You might even succeed in that action, but then lose because you don’t have any resources for anything else.  I have been working practicing and applying this lesson to myself, learning a new skill, and hopefully I am a better person, a nicer work of art to be around than I was.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Budo Etiquette and Courtesy

I was reading a piece about Emily Post, the great master of etiquette, and the profound effect her book, Etiquette: In Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, has had over the decades since it was first published in 1922. Generations of people have used it’s advice and principles to become more adept at negotiating society’s and life’s difficult situations.  Etiquette is fundamental to everything we do, even, or perhaps especially, how we handle conflict.  Many people imagine etiquette to be ritualized and stuffy, but etiquette done well can express everything from great honor and respect to cutting disgust, all while being impeccably proper.

In budo we often hear this phrase 礼に始まり礼に終わる (Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru).  “Begin with rei, and end with rei”.   Rei often gets translated as “bow”,  perhaps because budo practice literally does begin and end with bowing.  In this case though, “bow” is not the best translation.  The Kenkyusha Online Dictionary gives the following meaning, “etiquette; decorum; propriety; politeness; courtesy; civility”.  A better translation would be to use the first word there, giving us “Begin with etiquette and end with etiquette.”  This is still pretty stiff though.  I think a more useful, clear, and faithful translation is “Begin with courtesy and end with courtesy.”  Courtesy can encompass good etiquette, but as I noted before, you can express all sorts of negative feelings while still having proper etiquette.  Courtesy though implies an entirely positive activity, and I believe that is what is intended with this aphorism.

Robert Heinlein noted that “An armed society is a polite society” and this is certainly true of medieval and early modern Japan.  There were layers and layers of etiquette classical Japan, and even the language has layers of formal etiquette.  What you wore, and how you talked to people were all covered by detailed rules of etiquette.  There were different ways of conjugating verbs depending on your relative social rank to the person you are talking with, or even the person you are talking about!  In a society awash in weapons (Japan up to the 1600s), or where a significant portion of the population was pretty much required to be armed (Japan from about 1600 to 1868), being overly polite wouldn’t have just been about social rules, it would have been about not upsetting someone who could hurt you.

A lot of this formal etiquette continues to hold sway in modern Japan.  The number and variety of formal verb conjugations to express relative social rank and respect have dwindled so now there are only 4 or 5 forms that are used with great regularity, but many of the social rules are still there.  In Japan, etiquette is not a rigid system for keeping people in their place (there are other social mechanisms for that).  Etiquette is communication.   How you bow to someone communicates a host of information to the recipient of your bow and to everyone who sees it.   The depth of your bow and how long you hold it express your respect for the person you are bowing to, and their bow to you expresses the same thing.  The bows also express your relative social positions.  This makes reading the meaning and intent of a bow in Japan both important and complex, and the act of bowing becomes both important and subtle.

A properly done bow expresses respect and humility.  A bow that is too shallow or quick can express arrogance or thoughtlessness.  A bow that is too deep and slow can look sarcastic and insolent.  All this comes from a simple bow.  I have been honored by elite teachers when they have given me the briefest of nods that sincerely recognized me, and insulted by people who gave me a deep bow that implied I had no idea what a real bow meant and really didn’t deserve one.

These expressions of respect are the first level of communication in the etiquette we use in the dojo.  “An armed society is a polite society” is a wonderful description of a dojo. In a martial arts dojo everyone is armed, whether the weapons are visible or not.   You almost never see a weapon in a judo dojo, but everyone there is armed with martial knowledge and skills.  In dojo for other martial arts, there are likely to be lots of weapons around to go with the knowledge and skill.  You really don’t want to antagonize anyone in such a situation, even inadvertently.  There are always those who have acquired dangerous weapons without acquiring the emotional control and wisdom to know when not to use them.  Etiquette gives us a tool for communicating respect and politeness.

All that bowing in the dojo communicates a lot more than just respect and politeness though.  In the dojo the etiquette also lets us know when it is ok to use our weapons and when not use them.  It tells those around us what we are going to do and when we are done with it.  We bow at the start of class to express respect for our teachers and our fellow students and for the art we are studying.  We bow when we begin practicing with someone, and we bow when we are finished training with that person.  We bow to seniors and teachers when we want their attention and when we are done speaking with them.  We bow at the end of class to show respect and thanks again to our teachers, our fellow students and the art we are studying.

That’s a lot of bowing.  It can become very stiff and formal, I will admit.  It is possible to take all this etiquette and make it as stiff and rigid as military unit on formal parade.  There really isn’t any need to though.  The bowing is there for many reasons, all of them good.  It’s really helpful to be able to know by just looking that someone is about to start an intense bit of training with a partner, and to be able to tell when they are finished.  This is true whether you are teacher waiting to give them some correction, or a junior who just wants to get past them to the bathroom at the other side of the dojo.  In Japan, bowing is usually only stiff and formal at stiff, formal events.  To quote a lovely little piece on bowing, “Firstly, bowing should be natural.”  

This goes for all etiquette, not just bowing.  It should be natural.  In the dojo, the bows to our partner when we start practicing together are not rigid salutes.  They are invitations to train and study together, to share something that you all enjoy.  If you are rigid and formal when you bow, what does this say to your partner about what you are about to do?  礼に始まり礼に終わり。 What if we stop calling it etiquette, and start calling it courtesy?  Think of your bows when you start practice with someone as a way of expressing courtesy to your partners and a way of welcoming them into your practice and saying “Let’s share this wonderful training.”  

We are being courteous when we use good etiquette.   People who are really good at it move so naturally and easily in whatever they are doing that they are make those around them comfortable.  A big part of being courteous is being sincere.  If you are doing something mechanically, just because “that’s what you’re supposed to do” that feeling will be clearly communicated to everyone who sees you.  Doing it because it is a good thing to do, and because you are expressing your respect and care for those around comes through to the people who see you as well.   If your etiquette makes people feel stiff and formal, maybe you should give some thought to why you are doing it that way.

I travel a lot, so I’ve been in a lot of different dojo for different arts and styles in a variety of countries.  Etiquette really is courtesy.  By acting with courtesy and sincerity, even if the details of your form are not exactly what people expect, they will still understand your intention.  This got me through many events when I first moved to Japan.  I was a typical Westerner, bowing far too deeply all the time and not really understanding what I was doing.  I had learned a little about bowing at the judo dojo I trained at in America, but most of our bows were very deep and very formal because none of us had any experience in Japan.  The dojo was the only place we used it.  This wasn’t bad, it just meant that there was a lot more that I could have been communicating than I had been.

I came to Japan expecting everyone to be very formal and always bow deeply like I saw in movies and in the dojo.  I thought the etiquette would be very stiff and formal and difficult and cold and all about how proper and correct you could be.  I was wrong on every point.  The social courtesies are fluid and relaxed and simple and warm and about making sure you fit into the social situation properly.    The bows, once I learned to read them, told me when I was welcome, when it was a bad time to talk with someone, when someone was unhappy about something and if that something was directly related to me or not, and they gave me a sense of where I belonged in the social environment.

In the dojo we can learn a lot of things, and while I didn’t learn all about bowing in Japan while I was in the judo dojo in Kalamazoo, I did learn enough about basic etiquette and courtesies that I was able to make a generally good impression on the people I dealt with.  I knew the proper way of sitting in seiza and getting up and down, so that at formal events I didn’t feel out place, even if I was often clueless about much of what was going on around me because my Japanese was still quite weak.  I knew enough to be sincere and to show my appreciation with a proper bow.  At first, like most Westerners, I bowed too deeply.  This was actually bad etiquette, because the deep bow showed excessive respect and formality and made my Japanese hosts feel unusually formal.  The excessively formal bows also expressed a degree of social distance between my hosts and myself that didn’t exist.  Instead of the Japanese being overly formal and stiff, here I was the one being rigid and coldly formal.  The irony makes me laugh even now.   More quickly than I expected, friends and experience taught me how to interact with people using the appropriate courtesies.  Deep bows are mainly in the dojo, and for outside the dojo I learned to adjust the depth and length of my bow to the situation so my friends and colleagues would feel at ease with me.

The etiquette, I discovered, is a courtesy for everyone.   It welcomes people and lets them know that they belong, that they are in the right place.  Dojo courtesy is just the same.  My actions in the dojo should speak eloquently of my respect for my teachers, my fellow students, and the art we are studying.  My actions should speak just as eloquently of the warmth of my love for my teachers, my fellow students and the art we are studying.  By being appropriately courteous, I can also express humor, regret, joy, appreciation, anger and all of the other emotions that might come up.

In the dojo, where we are learning a Way, is a wonderful place to learn courtesy.   I’ve been in overly formal, rigid dojo, but these have all been outside Japan.  In Japan the etiquette is much more an art of courtesy.  We all bow deeply to Sensei, and we bow to each other.  There are a million little courtesies that take place in the dojo that could be stiff formalities, but in a healthy dojo are joyous ways of saying to each other “We appreciate you and want you here.”  When I come in the bows I receive are welcoming, making me feel at home.  When we bow to Sensei at the start of class it is with a genuine feeling respect and affection.  Not only are we learning something from him, but we really like him as a human being, and our etiquette expresses this.

There is a lot of etiquette in budo, numerous courtesies that are there for politeness and safety in arts that are frankly, dangerous if not practiced in a careful environment. The etiquette of a dojo will tell you a great deal about the rest of the training. In the koryu dojo I am familiar with, the etiquette is quite veried. The opening bows are deep and respectful. Bows to training colleagues can be inviting and welcoming. But some of the bows are quite different. In many koryu arts, there are bows between partners at the start of certain parts of training that give you the chance to practice the less positive aspects of etiquette as well. In styles like Shinto Muso Ryu and Tendo Ryu, the bow can also express deep suspicion and distrust. The bow at about 0:25 here shows a very brief bow that expresses distrust and dislike and very intense connection, which is quite appropriate given the seriousness of the exchange between the two well armed people that follows. All of this is part of etiquette.

The etiquette, the formal courtesies of Japan are the courtesies of budo.  The etiquette can’t be separated from budo without destroying both. Etiquette and courtesy get their meaning from the context in which they are used. Good budo training teaches a lot about how to behave and treat people with honor and respect. The etiquette and the courtesies learned are just as much lessons of budo as the techniques and skills of combat. They are very real parts of the Way you study.
I’ve seen dojo with stiff, militaristic atmospheres, but always outside of Japan, and always in modern martial arts.  This stiff formality is not a characteristic of the budo in Japan that I am familiar with. Budo teaches a way of living. That way must be flexible enough to adapt to any situation. If the etiquette is stiff and rigid, it dead and cannot be used for anything. If the etiquette if relaxed and fluid, it can be adapted to any situation.

礼に始まり礼に終わり. Begin and end your practice with etiquette. Begin and end your practice with courtesy. Make not just your bows, but all of your greetings sincere. Show your respect for everyone in the dojo. Let your etiquette express your appreciation for the kindness and teaching that you are receiving from your teachers and fellow students. Let your actions speak of your joy at being able to train together. Not just the scripted courtesies of bowing in and out of the dojo and to your teachers and partners. Let your courtesies include the unscripted actions as well. Courtesy and etiquette aren't just the scripted activities. Real courtesy and etiquette about about those unscripted parts of life where we decide how to treat one and other. The scripted parts of practice in the dojo are just that, practice. They are lessons in how to treat people all the time. The various courtesies of bowing, serving drinks to seniors, cleaning the dojo, and a hundred other little things, are lessons in being courteous throughout life.

Rei ni hajimari, rei ni owari. Courtesy is how we begin, and how we end.