Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forging As A Training Image In Japanese

Forging is a common metaphor when talking about training, whether it is in the martial arts, the military, or anywhere else that people learn to handle stressful encounters. This is true in Japan and the West.  We speak of forging character. In English, when we speak of forging it refers to shaping something. When we forge a knife, we are hammering it into the proper shape. “Forging character” implies developing personal character in a situation of stress and pressure.

When the Japanese talk about forging,tanren 鍛錬,  they have a somewhat more complicated image non-Japanese do. It’s not just the idea of beating hot metal into shape, and hardening the steel. There is a critical step before this in the process of forging a sword. You have to hammer and fold the steel many times before the steel is ready to be shaped. This process usually takes as long or longer than the process of shaping the blade.  

The idea is that the Japanese go through this repeated folding and hammering of the steel to create a multitude of layers in the steel. These layers of hard and soft steel make a blade that is both able to endure severe impacts and hold a sharp edge. Steel that is homogenous will either be soft or hard.  Soft steel will absorb impact without cracking or breaking, but it bends easily and a sharpened edge will dull quickly.  Hard steel will hold an edge well and resist bending, but it is brittle and liable to crack if struck hard. The ancient Japanese technique of layers of hard and soft steel makes for a blade that has hard layers that will hold an edge and soft layers that will absorb impact.

This great blending of the properties of hard and soft steel was not the reason Japanese smiths started repeatedly hammering and folding their steel though. They were driven by something else that colors the Japanese concept of forging. The steel used to make Japanese swords is probably the lowest quality, most impure and contaminated stuff to pass for steel in the world. It’s called tamahagane. It’s made by collecting iron bearing sand which is then melted in a crude earthen smelter by adding charcoal directly to the material being smelted. As in any smelting process, most of the impurities and stuff that isn’t iron melts and runs off. The classical Japanese smelter isn’t very efficient or effective though, so a lot of impurities remain in the resulting steel, as well as an abundance of unburned charcoal bits. No self-respecting smith would touch this stuff.

In Japan it was all they had, so they figured out how to make it work. Their solution is slow and takes an incredible amount of effort, but the outcome not only transforms the steel into high quality material, but creates all those layers that make for a stronger, sharper blade with the incredible patterns in the steel that contribute to making Japanese swords the most beautiful in the world. The patterns on the surface are subtle and complex, giving a picture of the complexity and beauty of the internal structure of the swords.

How does heating and folding the steel get rid of all the impurities and chunks of charcoal to leave the beautiful, layered steel with a grain like wood? The smith heats the billet and hammers it out so it is long enough to be folded in half. Every time the smith strikes the metal, glowing bits are smashed off of the billet and go flying into the air. Those glowing bits aren’t steel.  They are impurities, slage that would removed in more effective modern smelter. As the smith repeatedly hammers, folds and hammers the steel, more and more of the impurities are driven out of the steel.  Occasionally splinters of unburnt charcoal rise to the surface as well.  These pieces have to be raised up with the tip of a file and pulled out with tongs.  After 10 to 20 repetitions of hammering the billet out to the proper thinness and then folding it in half, the steel is pure and the layers have been welded together by the force of the hammer.  Sometimes you will only have half as much material as what was there before you started heating and hammering.

All of this has to happen before you can begin to shape the blade.  This image of forging, where you have to heat and hammer the metal to purify before you begin shaping it into a blade is an important one when you think about training in Japanese martial arts.  The image of tanren is one whereby the student has to be purified and have all the slag and residual garbage driven out of her before she can begin to be shaped into a martial artist is an important difference.  The western image is that we take students and they are ready for forging.  The Japanese image is one where the student has to be prepared before they can even begin to take the shape of a martial artist.

This explains a lot about some of the traditional stories of teachers having students do seemingly ridiculous things for weeks or months before they begin teaching them martial arts. These stories are about how teachers prepared their students to learn the art, in the same way that a smith prepares a block of steel to be able to take the shape of a sword.  Students rarely come into the dojo perfectly ready to learn.  I know I wasn’t ready to learn in anything approaching an optimal manner when I started, and I have seen very few students who were.  This image of tanren gives us another, and more accurate, view of the role of the teacher.  

We don’t just teach students our arts.  New students come in eager to learn budo, but most of them really aren’t ready to start learning.  I know I wasn’t.  Most people who come into the dojo don’t know how to stand or even how to breathe (unless they were lucky enough to play a wind instrument or sing in choir).  Before a student can begin learning budo, they have to learn to do things that are fundamental to all of life, but which don’t seem to be considered worthy of teaching anymore.  We have to teach them how to breath and how to stand and how to walk.  

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I played trombone for 10 years before I started judo, so I had the breathing part down solid.  I only had to learn how to stand and walk.  I worked on good posture and basic walking for months before I really got it.  Learning to counteract 20 years of bad habits acquired while slumped on the couch in front of the TV, or slouching over the desk while pretending to do your homework takes time.  These kind of habits are buried deep, so learning to break them takes work.  

This is where the idea of 鍛錬 tanren starts to make sense.  We all have habits and traits, both physical and mental, that get in the way of learning good budo.  We really can’t start learning budo until we get rid of these counterproductive habits and traits. You don’t put the foundation for a building on on sand.  You don’t form a sword from ore that is still loaded with slag.  You can’t really learn budo until you get rid of the counterproductive habits and traits you’re carrying.  You can’t learn budo if you’ve got a bad slouch or you can’t breathe fully and efficiently.  The teacher’s job is to hammer and forge you to help you get rid of these traits so you can start learning.  Once you learn how stand up and breathe, then you can start learning budo.  This preparation, that’s part of the forging process.  That's tanren.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

So you do budo? What does that mean?

So you do budo?  What exactly does that mean?   It’s some kind of moving zen right?   Or maybe Taoist philosophy?  After all, the character for “do” in budo is the same as the “tao” in Taoism.  Does studying budo mean you practice a system of killing people descended from ancient Japanese warrior arts? Does it mean we dress up in old-fashioned Japanese clothes and use a bunch of Japanese words that native Japanese don't understand? Does it mean your art has a sophisticated set of moral, ethical and philosophical teachings?  Does it mean that your regular practice of techniques for maiming and killing your fellow human beings are supposed to make you a better human being?  Purer? Holier maybe? 

For most of us, myself included, we’re doing something we enjoy.  Stop.  End of discussion.  We enjoy it.  Just like other people enjoy paddle-boarding, bird watching, and exclaiming over the latest super-hoppy beer they’ve discovered.  What we’re doing in the dojo is something we enjoy.  Unless you are involved in law enforcement or security of some sort, you’re probably doing this because you enjoy it.  That’s the main reason any of us keep doing this for 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 or 80 years.

As much as I love all the great, high-minded benefits and lofty ideals that budo training can potentially provide, I have to recognize that what keeps me and everyone else coming back year after year, decade after decade, is the fact that we really enjoy it.  Admitting that up front lets us get on to those high-minded benefits and lofty ideals honestly.

Martial arts training provides a lot of benefits.  People get out and get exercise.  We learn potentially useful fighting skills of various applications, self-confidence, and coordination.  These things you can get from any sort of martial art though, not just budo.  So what does it mean to say you do budo?

To start with, it means you’re doing a Japanese tradition.  Sorry guys, but I would say that arts from other cultural traditions shouldn’t be called budo (except in Japan when the term is being used in it’s broadest possible meaning of “martial art”).  If it’s not Japanese, it can’t really be budo.  This isn’t to say that budo is some sort of superior concept that only the Japanese have access to.  

Budo includes hundreds of years of philosophical development about individual and social responsibility and the responsibility to fully develop the oneself.  The majority of this comes from a combination of Neo-Confucian ideas and native Japanese ideas about self and society, but there are a few chunks of Buddhist philosophy, a liberal dose of tea ceremony theory and practice, and a dash of Taoist mysticism sprinkled on so lightly most people don’t even realize it’s there.  It is the presence and more importantly, the application of these Japanese cultural ideas that makes something budo.  Without them, you’re not doing budo.  You’re doing something else.

Not doing budo is not a bad thing.  Chinese arts like Wing Chun, Paqua and Hung Gar all have rich cultural traditions of their own, as do arts like Escrima from the Philippines or Pencak Silat from Indonesia.  To try to make any of these arts into Japanese budo would be an insult to the traditions, ideas and philosophy that have nurtured and developed those arts.  There is no reason to try to force other traditions into the mold of Japanese budo. Show those traditions real respect and let them be the Philippine or Indonesian arts that they are.  Respect them, don’t try to make them something else.

This brings up a reasonable question.  If Japanese budo is the result of Japanese culture, can non-Japanese truly learn it?  The simple answer is yes.  That’s part of the brilliance of these traditions.  They encapsulate so much of these philosophies and other ideas in their practice that if you train in a well established dojo in Japan, you’ll absorb most of them without even being aware that you are doing it.  You’ll learn about properly fulfilling your roles in society as you occupy a variety of different ones in the dojo.  You’ll be a beginner, a kohai, a sempai, an assistant, a leader and even a teacher as you stick around longer and longer.  You’ll learn about Confucian ideas of self-development for the betterment of society.  You’ll discover things about mental development and calm from the training.

This is not to say that you have to go out and specifically study about Neo-Confucianism or Buddhism or Taoism or tea ceremony or anything else outside the lessons of the dojo.  The lessons about these ideas are already built into the practice. In many cases these ideas are so deeply embedded in Japanese culture at this point that most native Japanese can’t tell you the origin of the specific ideas and practices.  They are just part of the cultural atmosphere of Japan.  In budo they are often contained in the expectations that surround how you train.  These ideas will show in the way lessons are taught and how members of the dojo are expected to act and treat each other.

Even in Japan it’s possible to just go to the dojo, train and go home without doing anything else, but then you won’t really be a member of the dojo, and you won’t really be learning budo.  You’ll just be practicing the physical techniques without getting anything else.  You probably won’t even be getting the real techniques.  If you aren’t showing any serious commitment to the dojo family, the real members of the dojo aren’t likely to make an effort to teach you anything beyond the surface movements of the art.

I can hear the people saying “OK, so you can learn budo if you go to Japan.  Fine, but what about those of us who can’t travel all the way to Japan and spend years living there? Are we doing budo?”  Well, if the dojo is a good one, with teachers and senior members who have absorbed the lessons and the way a dojo operates in order to maintain those lessons and ideals, then certainly it is possible to learn budo outside Japan.

The problem in many places outside Japan is that the dojo were not established by people with a rich understanding of all the facets of budo.  In the US, often dojo were established by people with enough understanding of the techniques to teach in a limited capacity, but without the depth of experience in the dojo to really grasp all the other things that go into making budo.  Budo is a Japanese cultural tradition, and even if we come from different cultural traditions (and hey, I’m a rustbelt America, it doesn’t get much more different) it is possible to learn and even internalize the ideas about relationships and responsibility and the responsibility to develop oneself so you can fulfill your duties to your fullest ability that is wrapped up in the concept of 武道.

Budo is a term loaded with cultural baggage Budo 武道 is a way, as is distinctly shown by it’s second character 道 (michi), meaning “way.”  This Budo concept implies a great way of self development, going back to The Great Learning of Confucius.  The first 4 characters in Chinese are (very roughly) “Way of Great Learning” 大學之道.  That fourth character is pretty familiar.  It’s this idea of learning and self-development that budo is an expression of, captured and built around the particular and almost contradictory practice of studying how to hurt, maim and kill our fellow members of society.  To be doing budo we don’t have to have mastered all aspects of the martial, philosophical or cultural portions of the particular style of budo we study, but we do have to be working at mastering them.  

Budo incorporates a lot more than just broad principles and specific techniques for fighting and killing. It’s build on traditions of thought that predate it by by nearly 2000 years.  It incorporates ideas about self-development and fulfilling your role in society (in this case the dojo society) grounded in 17th century Neo-Confucian teachings.  The pedagogy teaches fighting concepts specific to conditions in Japan at various times in history.  Some arts go back to the 14th or 15 centuries, some were founded in the 20th century.The arts teach and maintain traditions of fighting originating with their founding and some have additions or modifications to adapt to new features in society and fighting that may be only a few decades old.  They are all filled with Japanese cultural expectations about how one behaves, learns and grows, the role of the individual in the group and how one develops into various roles within the group.

That’s the path, the way of budo. Budo styles and traditions are Japanese traditions of combat that incorporate ideas and expectations for the development and actions of the individual members of the tradition. If we’re only learning the physical techniques, then we’re not doing budo. If we’re not trying to to learn and implement the ideas about personal development and responsibility in our lives, then we aren’t doing budo.  Dressing up in funny looking, archaic Japanese clothes and using some Japanese terms isn’t enough, or even necessary.  We have to be working at learning the ideas about self development and responsibility and seeing how they apply to our lives while learning to maim and kill people, then we are doing budo, whether we started yesterday or have been working at it for 80 years, or anywhere in between.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

You Thought Being Sensei Would Be Awesome

After hearing me comment about what a great day I’d had at Judo practice, a friend of mine lamented the fact that there is no one senior to her in her koryu budo dojo. At that Judo practice I enjoyed myself and learned a bunch. Because I’m not the most senior person in the room there, I can relax and absorb what is being taught. I don’t have to worry about how to teach a particular point or think about what we’re going to do for the entire practice. I get to learn. Yes, if someone junior to me seems ready to learn a particular point I’ll work with them, but it’s always within the framework of the class someone else is teaching. I can focus on learning and practicing as a happy student.

I understand my friend’s lament. Where I’m at, if I want partners to train iai and jo and kenjutsu with, I have to teach them. There is no one senior to me for quite a ways. I’ve known lots of people who wanted to be the big kahoona teaching martial arts. Having arrived at that position by the simple expediency of moving to a place where I’m the only option if you want to learn the stuff I do, I can let you in on a little secret. It’s not fun.

In fact, I don’t know of anyone who’s teaching that wouldn’t trade in their cold, windy, exposed position on the top of the heap for a nice, cozy spot somewhere down the side a ways. At the top, all the responsibility is on you.  You get to worry about what to teach and how to teach and and why the people aren’t catching the point of your carefully thought out lessons. Plus you get to worry about the dojo have space and enough money to cover expenses and that someone is there on Thursday night to lead practice because you are attending your daughter’s recital and gee, I thought I remembered how to do this kata, but now I’m not so sure….how did that entry go? When you’re on top, it all comes back around to you. This is a particular problem outside Japan where dojo don’t usually have decades and decades of history.

In Japan most of the dojo I train in are lead by people in their 70s and 80s. Many of them have more than 70 or 80 years of budo experience under whatever is left of their well-worn belts.  Imagine a dojo where the median rank on the floor most nights is 6th dan. That’s pretty common.  Training in a place like that is incredible. You absorb lessons without even realizing it because the atmosphere is so rich with experience. Your training partners as often as not started practicing decades before you were born and the head sensei started decades before that.  

You don’t have to worry about what teach or how to teach it. There are plenty of seniors doing that. You just go and absorb everything you can. Some of it you forget and other lessons you don’t realize you’ve learned until they bleed from your bones and muscles and heart when needed. Secure in the knowledge that whatever question you might have someone around you will be able to answer in more detail than you can handle, you can relax and just focus on your training, on improving your budo and yourself as much as possible.

When, for whatever reason, you find yourself at the top of the heap with people around you calling out “Sensei”, that security melts faster than ice cream in an Arizona summer. This is especially true if you’ve only got a couple of decades of experience under your still all too new belt.  I still have loads of things to learn about all of the arts I study, not just Judo. For iai and jo though, most of the year I’m the only teacher around for me to rely on. I don’t have all the details of every kata nailed into my head yet. This is a problem for my training. I can teach my students a lot, but they aren’t nearly ready to work on some of the things I’m doing, so I have no practice partners nearby.

I’ve got a pile of kata that I was introduced to at the most recent gasshuku. Anything I don’t remember and don’t have written down somewhere is lost until the next time I can get together with a senior student or teacher. Of course, the nearest senior for my Jodo practice is at least 600 miles away. For iai, it’s 6,000 miles. I don’t get those checks and memory enhancements nearly as often as I’d like. I can get together with a senior in Jodo a few times a year, but getting to Japan is a lot tougher.  

For my students, I hope our dojo is a great place with a good mix of juniors and relatively senior folks. This way they can learn and grow as quickly as possible. For me improvement is comparatively slower and takes more effort. It’s also lonelier.  

A big part of budo, especially koryu budo traditions, is all the stuff that is not techniques and kata.  There are discussions of history and traditions of the system. Koryu bugei traditions are not just collections of techniques. There are stories and anecdotes that enrich and enliven the tradition.  These are not supposed to be dead, fossilized collections of dried and desiccated memories from ages past. These are living traditions that flow on from the past into the future. These stories and memories provide an important part of the foundation and understanding of how the technical practice relates to the world outside of the dojo. Without seniors and peers, all the responsibility for sharing and remembering this part of the art is yours.

Being sensei sounds great. It’s a fabulous idea right up until the moment it becomes reality. Then you discover that it is lonely and stressful. Every buck stops with you. If you have any questions, there’s no one ask. You’re on your own.  If you don’t know or don’t remember something, you’re just out of luck. You never have the luxury of relaxing and letting someone else handle it. If you want to learn something then you’ve got to figure out how to do it right. You don’t get to ask anyone. You’re sensei, and you’re all alone.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Change in Classical and Modern Martial Arts

The classical arts of Japan (pre-1868) have a very different structure from the modern arts. The classical arts are entirely defined by their kata. If you take something like Suio Ryu or Shinto Muso Ryu, they have a clearly defined set of kata. Changing the kata is frowned upon, not because innovation is bad, but because it's really difficult to find anything in the kata that has not been boiled down to the essence of effectiveness.

Most koryu (again, pre-1868 traditions) kata are paired kata, always practiced with a partner. The reasons for doing the kata a particular way become vividly clear in a bright black and blue manner if you try to change things. The attacking partner is an immediate check to see if what you are doing is effective or not. And when it's not, you may well end up with a beautiful bruise as proof. Recently a friend and I spent a morning working through some kata slowly. Each time we tried to change the kata, we discovered that the kata form was the strongest way of responding for both the shitachi and the uchitachi. Each time we tried something different the openings and weaknesses of the new positions were clear. After hundreds of year of practice and examination, our forebears in the system had worked out the most effective way for things to be done. Our lesson was to understand why they designed the kata as they did.

The practice of the kata define the koryu traditions. Nearly all of the lore and wisdom that generations of teachers have accumulated is in embedded in the kata. It's up to students to tease this knowledge out. One way to do that is with what my friend and I were doing. You deconstruct the kata, try different reactions and attacks at each juncture and see if they work, or as we discovered, why they don't work.

Traditional Japanese systems, koryu budo, generally have very specific and clear pedagogy. Shinto Muso Ryu has a clear set of 40+ jo kata, as well as 12 sword kata, 12 walking stick kata, 24 kusarigama kata, 30 jutte kata, and I've forgotten how many hojo kata. These are very clearly defined. It's extremely difficult for teacher who hasn't been training for decades to make changes, and the kata themselves make it difficult. As I discussed above, we couldn't find any weaknesses in the kata we were exploring. We just learned a lot of options that don't work as well those taught in the system already. With this kind of situation, there just aren't many opportunities for innovation.

The most common way koryu arts change is that someone develops a new kata to address some situation or condition that is not considered by the existing kata. In Shinto Muso Ryu for example, they developed some new kata at the end of the 19th century to make use of the walking sticks that had become popular at the time. This is a logical extension of the principles of the stick that is the main weapon in Shinto Muso Ryu to a shorter stick. They didn't change old kata, or get rid of anything. They developed a few new kata to teach an understanding of the ranges and uses of the shorter stick. Systems do change, but they do so very slowly. With koryu, those changes are usually minor additions to the system rather than revolutions in the way things are done.

People sometimes wonder why koryu systems don't have lots of sparring and tournaments like the modern arts of kendo, karatedo and judo. Surprisingly, this is not a new question. Groups have been arguing about the value of sparring type practice in Japan for over four hundred years. When Japan was at war with itself, which was most of the time from about 1300 through 1600, there were more than enough opportunities for people to test their ideas, techniques and skills, so the question didn’t come up. Once Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country and removed the last possible source of revolution in 1615, those opportunities disappeared. Soon after that sparring and challenge matches started to appear. Arguments over the value of sparring compared with kata training began almost immediately, and have continued unabated to this day. Over the centuries though, the styles that emphasize sparring as a part of their training never demonstrated significantly better records in the many challenge matches. If the sparring faction had shown consistent success the other systems would have changed rather than lose.  The systems that emphasized kata weren’t losing, so there was no need to change. Kata remained the core of training because when done properly, it works.

Tournaments are a relatively recent phenomenon. Tournaments first showed up late in the 19th century once the Japan had reformed its government and sword teachers had no way to make a living. Some people started doing matches to entertain the public and try to support themselves as professional martial artists after traditional positions working for daimyo disappeared.. These didn't last long, but they contributed to the development of modern kendo. Modern kendo equipment dates back to that used for sparring and some challenges as early as the 17th century.

Sword demonstrations and prize matches during the Meiji Era (1868-1912) popularized and contributed to the creation of a sport form of kenjutsu done with shinai (bamboo swords). Similar matches for jujutsu schools contributed to the rise of Kodokan Judo. Kano's students won a number of noted victories and the Kodokan was invited to participate in inter-style matches by the Tokyo Police. The Kodokan did exceptionally well in most of these matches and earned an impressive reputation. These matches though also drove some significant changes in the Kodokan's curriculum.

Fusen Ryu is reported to have defeated a number of Judo representatives with strong ground techniques. At the time, Kano was not in favor of focusing on ground fighting because he felt it was a dangerous place to be in a street fight. However, these losses on the ground in public matches pushed him to develop a groundwork curriculum for Judo. One of the big surprises about this is the way he went about it. Contrary to the idea of martial schools jealously guarding their secrets, at this time at the end of the 19th century, people were much more open. Kano invited the head of Fusen Ryu to teach groundwork at the Kodokan Dojo, and he did. With the help of the head of a rival system, Kano significantly strengthened the Kodokan curriculum. Kano never became a huge fan of groundwork, always believing that staying on your feet was optimal in a fight, but the pressure of doing well in competitive matches drove him to adapt his art.

In addition, Kano changed from the classic menkyo, or licensing, system, and created the modern dan rank system based on competitive ability.  The koryu systems award licenses based on a persons level of understanding and mastery of the system, up to and including full mastery of the system.  Kano abandoned this system for one in which students were ranked according to competitive ability in matches.  If a student could defeat four other students of 1st dan level (commonly known as black belt) , then he was promoted to 2nd dan (black belt).  This resulted in tremendous changes in what is taught and how students train.  Anything that is not allowed in competitive matches is marginalized in training, even if it is effective in combative situations outside of training.  The focus narrowed to those techniques which are most effective in competition.  The up side of this focus is that it drives innovation and experimentation.  Judoka are constantly looking for innovative ways to win in competition and refining their techniques to make them more effective.  The down side is, as I describe above, that anything not useful in competition is largely ignored, even if it is highly effective in situations outside of competition.

Various pressures on competitive martial systems are still visible today. For the larger systems such as Judo and various Karate styles, two of the big pressures are popularity and money. In the last 15 years the International Judo Federation has been busy making numerous changes to the rules for competitive Judo matches in order to make Judo more television friendly to maintain popularity and keep it's place in the Olympics. The matches are seen as being too slow and difficult to follow, so changes were made to speed things up. In addition, there seems to be some reservations about how well people from other systems, such as wrestling and BJJ, do when they enter Judo tournaments. I have heard complaints that wrestlers and BJJ players use a lot of leg grabs and take downs that aren't classical Judo. The techniques work though. My feeling is that in Judo, we are reacting in the worst way possible to these challenges from wrestlers and BJJ players. Instead of inviting them into our dojo to learn from them, as Kano did, the IJF has chosen to ban the leg grabs and take downs from Judo competition. To me this only makes Judo weaker and less worthy of study.

In the Karate world, I see a lot of things in tournaments where combative functionality is not even considered. People invent kata that are flashy and athletic, but have nothing to do with the rich history and combative effectiveness of the Okinawan traditions. I have seen rules for weapons kata that require a certain number of weapons releases. This means that people are required to throw their weapon into the air! From a standpoint of combative functionality, this is ridiculous. However, to people who don't know better, this looks impressive. These Karate tournaments seem to be responding to a desire to be as popular as possible, rather than as effective as possible. It is a similar to what the IJF is doing make Judo more television friendly so the International Olympic Committee won't drop Judo from the Olympics like it tried to do with Wrestling a few years back. I won't even get into the silliness that is Olympic Tae Kwon Do.

Many of the modern arts are relatively easy to change because they are competition focused and committee governed, so changes in the rules will drive major changes in training. The koryu arts are deeply seated in kata that have been refined over centuries, and I can't really imagine any pressure big enough for them to make significant changes to their curriculums. Since the classical systems are not looking for rapid growth or tv money, they are under no pressure to change except that which they have always had; to adjust their systems to they remain relevant to the world around them. Judo and Karate both have strong depths of kata, well thought out and highly refined, but these traditional, effective and functional kata are often ignored in the race to perform well in competitions. The desire to do well in competition and to be visible on the world stage will continue to drive changes in these arts. I would love to see the pressure and focus of modern arts return to combative functionality, but I doubt that will happen when it is so easy to get caught up in the ego trap of popularity.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Investing In Failure

Up until last February, I had what I found to be a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and the way I was doing the technique.

Now I’m investing in failure.  I could keep doing hiki otoshi uchi the way I have been, which works pretty well.  Instead, I’ve abandoned my old technique as I work to develop the one this teacher uses.  The downside of this is that for now, my technique is lousy.  In order to improve my technique and try to reach the teacher’s level of smooth, effective control, I have to give up the technique I’ve developed and start working on something new.  For a while until I begin to grasp the mechanics of this new version of the technique, there are a lot of juniors whose technique will be a lot stronger than mine.  I will have to put up with personal frustration as I flub things with the new version I’m working on, things that I could have nailed with my old technique.  It’s worth the frustration and the flubs and the failures though to develop an even more subtle, effective and powerful level of skill.

If I can’t set aside what I think I know and all the ego and effort that has gone into it, I won’t progress beyond this point.  I’ll be stuck here, unable to advance.  On the other hand, if I set aside what I have already learned, take myself back to the practice yard and treat what I have done in the past as the groundwork that enabled me to see and understand what this teacher is doing, then I can make a leap forward.  First though I have to be willing to do what seems like backsliding.  At this point, progressing doesn’t just mean refining my existing technique.  It is it tearing my technique apart and rebuilding it.

To tear a fundamental technique like hiki otoshi uchi apart and rebuild it is not easy, particularly for the ego.   For a while, I know my technique is going to be weaker than my students.  I am going to be flubbing the technique and messing up kata practice with horrible and embarrassing frequency.  All of the habits developed and laid down so solidly in my neuro-muscular system are at war with what I am trying to do now.  My old technique was like an good friend.  I’d been doing it one way for so long that I didn’t need to give it any thought.  It just happened.  Now if I don’t pay particular attention to what I’m doing, it still just happens.  I don’t want it to do it that way though, so I have to pay extra attention to every movement I’m making with my head, shoulders, hands and hips, all at the same time. 

 Currently I can usually get 2 or 3 out of the 4 to do what I want.  The other one or two go back to the way I did it in my old technique, creating interesting hybrid techniques.
The one thing that is consistent about all of these new/old hybrid techniques is that they don’t work.  Trying to blend them just makes the whole thing fall apart. It will be a few months before I can integrate the new technique into my body and do it consistently.  Until I do that, I’m going to be really bad.  I expect my students to look at me and wonder if I have lost it.  I will feel foolish.  A part of me will desperately want to go back to the old way.  It’s simple. 

My old technique worked. My new technique doesn’t. Yet. For now I am investing in failure. Instead of doing what worked well enough, I’m going back to being incompetent. I’m wiping the old technique from my system and starting back at the beginning, at the slow, careful, clumsy beginning. This is the only way for me to move forward.  I can’t build a new, more subtle and effective technique on top of the powerful one I had. I have to let go of what I’ve achieved so far and become as unskilled as a beginner.  Beginners fail a lot.  That’s why they are beginners.  It’s also why beginners make such rapid progress compared to those of us who’ve been around a few years.  They haven’t accumulated a lot of technique that works well enough that they’ve become attached to them.  They don’t have ego invested in being the powerful senior student.  They aren’t worried about looking like a real teacher.  They are beginners and beginners are allowed, even expected, to fail. For me to make real progress, I have to go back to being a beginner and allow myself do a lot of failing.

It’s a check on my progress.  If I’m never failing, never making mistakes, I’m not learning anything.  Learning is done out there on the edge of our knowledge and understanding, out where we aren’t sure of anything except that we don’t know. It’s not a comfortable place to be. We can’t look cool or strong or masterly out there. We can only look like what we really are, students exploring something new that we’re not good at.  If we have problems with looking like a student, like someone who is learning and figuring out how to do things, we’re not going to want to go out and explore new areas of knowledge and understanding. If I’m not failing though, I’m not advancing.  It’s a little ironic that the best thing to do to get better is to be make mistakes. It’s only by making mistakes that I can figure out what works better and start on that next step.

So invest in failure. It pays high dividends.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

There Are No Advanced Techniques

There are no advanced techniques.  Really.  Early in my budo career, I was looking for the secret techniques and mysterious skills that would make me able to do the things my teachers did that seemed like magic. But what looks like magic is really just the basics done phenomenally well. It was hard to convince myself that Kano Jigoro's famous answer to the question of “What is the secret of Judo?” was entirely truthful. When asked about the secret of Judo, Kano replied simply “Practice, practice, practice.” This is not an inspiring answer for a kid who wants to be able to effortlessly throw people across the room.  

Sadly for all of us who are seeking the magic, it seems to be true. Whether I'm working on Judo or kenjutsu or iai or jo or my current nemesis kusarigama, careful, considered, focused and aware practice seems to be the real secret. More and more often, my own students look at something I've done with them like it's impossible, which is something I fondly remember thinking about my own teachers. It's a reaction I never have anymore though. Even when I can't begin to do what my teachers are doing, I can see how they are doing it and I can see the path to being able to do it myself.

Last week I was working on some taijutsu with an Aikido teacher and friend. Jim can do incredible things to your balance and make you fall down with the subtlest of movements. It's a very different technique than what I do in Judo, but I can feel what he's doing. The principle of what he does is clear. He is taking my balance (in Judo we call this kuzushi) and then drawing me in a direction where I can't support myself. I have to fall down. What makes it magic is that Jim does this with the least amount of movement possible. My Judo techniques have long been built on very large movements, but the principle is the same. Now I'm working on bringing a little bit of Jim's magic into my Judo.

It won't happen with mindless repetitions of techniques though. You can repeat a technique as often as you like, and you won't learn anything from the repetitions or get any better. You have to be fully engaged in your practice, and mentally looking for slight differences in your technique that will make you better. That's practice. Just doing something a hundred or a thousand times won't make you better. It will make whatever you are doing more solidly anchored in your body. If you are repeating poor technique, it will make it that much more difficult to change and improve your technique.

To get better at Jim's throws from a wrist grab, I didn't repeat what I already knew. I didn't repeat the big movement Judo techniques that I have been doing. I slowed down and focused on exactly what was happening to my partner when I moved just a little bit. I focused on feeling exactly when my partner's balance shifted from being supported by his frame to relying on me to keep from falling over. It was just a tiny bit of weight that was transferred to me, so little that I doubt my partner even realized he was using me to stay up. Once that happened though, all I had to do was turn my wrist over and he fell down, because I was withdrawing my support of his body. Jim can do this at full speed. It takes me several slow seconds to do it. By being aware of what is going on and practicing it slowly, I can develop the sensitivity to do this faster and faster over time.

One of the keys to making this work is to know what I'm looking for, and then focusing on developing that skill and sensitivity. If we just go to the dojo and quickly repeat the techniques we already know, we won't improve much. We have to be willing to slow down enough that we can focus on making changes to our technique. That's when practice really begins.

Up until last February, I had what is a fairly strong Hiki Otoshi Uchi strike in Shinto Muso Ryu. Then I had the chance to train with one of the senior teachers in our group. I was lucky enough to watch him correcting a junior and demonstrate his technique over and over for my fellow student. What a fantastic opportunity for me! As I watched, I could see small differences between how he was swinging the jo and meeting the sword and they way I was doing the technique.

The technique is the same one I’ve been working on for years.  There is no magic here, just a more subtle, smoother use of the jo that results in a powerful, inexorable technique requiring far less effort than what I’ve been doing.  It’s up to me to increase my understanding of this fundamental technique that I started learning on my first day of practice.  It’s not magic.  It’s not a special, advanced technique taught only to senior students.  It’s simply a fundamental technique done really, really well.

This is true of everything I have done in budo.  When I wrote about Hikkoshiso Sensei tossing me around the Judo mat by waving his hands, I wasn’t referring to any special, advanced technique.  What he does is an extremely effective application of the basic principle of kuzushi.   What Hikkoshiso Sensei did to me is very similar to what I’m beginning to understand in my friend Jim’s technique, and both are extensions of the first principle of technique in Judo, which has been referenced in every Judo practice I’ve ever attended in any of many different countries.  It’s not a secret.  Hikkoshiso Sensei and Jim are just applying a basic principle extremely well.  The same goes for that Shinto Muso Ryu teacher.  He wasn’t doing anything secret or arcane.  He was doing the third technique taught in Shinto Muso Ryu amazingly well.  

None of these people have any secrets.  In truth, they are doing exactly the opposite of keeping secrets.  They put what they have learned through practice out there for students and fellow budoka to see and learn from.  One of the first steps is to stop thinking of it as secret magics, and start thinking of it as an attainable skill.  Then it’s really all about the quality and quantity of your practice.  It’s easy to wish that Kano Sensei’s secret had been something beside “Practice, practice, practice.”  

There aren’t any special techniques only taught to advanced students.  We keep practicing and step by step the advanced techniques appear.  Except that they aren’t advanced techniques.  They are the basics done so well they seem advanced.

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Budo Mother's Rant

Dr. Ann Maria Rousey, former World Judo Champion and champion budo mother of Ronda Rousey (yes, that Ronda Rousey) has her own blog.  The latest post is delightful.  The whole post is worth reading here , but this bit about being a budo parent is a gem.

It was quite the opposite. I would drive her to judo 7 or 8 times a week - on Tuesdays we went to two practices, at Venice from 7-8 then hopped in the car and she worked out at Hayastan from 8:30 - 10. Every day she was somewhere, Gardena, West LA, Baldwin Park, Hollywood. Traffic in Los Angeles blows, and after working all day and driving back home in traffic, some days, the last thing I wanted to do was get back in the car and drive another two hours across town. I would say to her,
Ronda, do you really want to go to practice tonight?
And she'd answer,

Of course, Mom. Why wouldn't I want to go to practice?
On top of all of that, if there wasn't anyone her size to practice with, I'd take falls for her. See that picture up there? She is a 14-year-old brown belt and I'm a 42-year-old statistician taking dozens of falls for her because I'm the right size and I know enough to give just the right amount of resistance.

Did anyone seriously think what I wanted to do after a 14-hour day was drive in rush hour to somewhere I'd get thrown 150 times? I don't expect any medals for that - it's what millions of parents in America do every day, cart their child to gymnastics, piano lessons, wrestling practice, academic decathlon or a million other things.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Wonderful Sensei

My favorite Judo teacher, Hikkoshiso Sensei, was an impervious 55 year old 6dan when I met him. He loved randori, but most people in the large dojo wouldn't play with him because "He's too strong." I played every chance I got. He threw me all over, with power and control and finesse.  His throws were clean and perfectly controlled.  He always landed you beautifully, without pain or bruising or discomfort. To this day I can't understand why people weren't lining up to play with him.

His technique was fantastic.  Big movement hip throws are famous in Judo, as you can see here.  

Hikkoshiso Sensei could do them, beautifully.  Often though, he would use the most subtle of hand techniques, no big hip or body movements at all.  He just sort of waved his hands around while holding my collar and sleeve and my feet left the ground and I went flying through the air.  After more than 20 years of practice, I’m starting to get to the place where I can understand how he did it.  I still can’t do it on anyone who isn’t letting me practice it.  When Sensei first started doing it to me, I was solid 23 year old shodan who practice several times a week. I was young, strong, getting lots of practice, and he still tossed me around like a stuffed doll.

For some reason though, very few people wanted to train with him.  There were a few of us. All of the top guys in the dojo played with him, and me (I was so far from the top I needed binoculars to see it).  Everyone else just avoided him.  There weren’t enough of us to provide a partner through every round of randori.  I tried encouraging some of the other guys at my level, but they always said something like “He’s too strong. I can’t.”  

Yes, Sensei is strong, but that’s the reason to train with him.  He’s strong, his control is excellent, his throws are clean, and he will help you raise your art.  He will make you learn good defense without being abusive or harsh.  I learned every time we grabbed each other’s gi.  After training with him for years, one day I got good enough to stop his waving hand throw.  I couldn’t counter it or throw him or anything like that.  I could just maintain my center well enough that he couldn’t just wave his hands and make me fly.

So instead he threw me with some of those big throws like in the video above.  He threw me all over, and I loved it.  I learned more about throwing and movement and balance and defence. I knew my throws were making progress when I could break his balance enough that he had to take an extra step.  I studied Sensei when he played with other people.  After a few years of this I picked a technique and polished and polished it.  After maybe six months of work, I was playing with Sensei and things felt right.  I tried the throw and Sensei went up and over.  I had thrown him!   Sensei got up and bowed his congratulations to me.  He was happy that I had learned enough to be able to throw him.

Of course, that technique never worked again on him.  He knew it was out there, figured out the weakness I had exploited, and eliminated it.  I think he did that while he was bowing to me, because I never saw another chance to use that technique on him.  It was back to the drawing board if I wanted to throw him.  

That was great though.  I wasn’t training with him because I could throw him.  I was training with him because I couldn’t throw him.  I didn’t learn much doing randori training with people I could throw easily.  With Sensei, every step, every breath counted.  I had to constantly improve or Sensei would just keep throwing me with the same technique.  If I left an opening, he would make use of it.  It was great.  We could laugh and smile at techniques tried, failed and successful even as we were trying to throw each other around the room.

As tough as the training might be, and as much as I got thrown around, it was always with a spirit of joy.  Sensei loved training and randori, and he shared that joy with everyone who would bow to him and say “Onegai shimasu” to invite him to do randori.  He still does.  I train with him when I can bet back to his dojo in Japan.

He’s still going strong, quite strong.  He’s in his 80s now, and last year took home a bronze medal at an international tournament in Tokyo.  He’s still strong and powerful, and his technique is gets more subtle, effective and cleaner each year.  Sensei keeps training and polishing himself.  People still don’t want to train with him because he’s too strong.  They still can’t throw him unless he lets them, and that is too much of an ego breaker for them.  So now if now one asks him to train, I go over and get an extra session with him.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Spirit Of Learning

We study martial arts.  That should mean we’re here to learn.  How we approach learning, the attitude we carry with us in the dojo is critical to what we learn.  Sadly, all too often when we get advice the thought barging through our heads is not “Thank you. I will work on that.”  Instead we’re thinking “I know that. Don’t bother me with stuff I already know.”

It’s easy for me to write that we should always receive advice with gratitude, but what does that really mean?  It seems pretty obvious we should appreciate and be grateful whenever someone helps us.  That’s a lot harder to do than it is to write.  So often people, especially peers, or people who think they are our peers, will give us advice that seems pretty worthless.  

Advice and instruction can be broken down into 3 categories.  The first, and best of course, comes from our teachers.  They are giving us advice from their deep experience and knowledge.  This is usually easy to receive with gratitude and an open mind.  After all, we go to our teachers for instruction on how to do the techniques right, so whenever they share their knowledge and experience, we are happy to receive it.  Except sometimes.

Sometimes teachers are telling us something we already know.  Do we really know this stuff though?  If we really knew it, would our teachers feel the need to tell us again?  For me, the most common direction I get is to relax.  After nearly 30 years in the dojo, you might think I know I should be relaxed and that my shoulders shouldn’t be pulled up tight next to my ears.  In one, limited, sense I do know this, and it’s the correction I most often make with my own students.  In a deeper sense though, I don’t know it.  If and when I truly know how to maintain a relaxed state, it will manifest itself in my movement all the time. Kiyama Sensei won’t feel the need to remind me because I won’t be tensing my shoulders and tugging them towards my ears.

Another direction I get frequently from Sensei is to use my hips better.  Well, what he actually says is “Koshi ha yowai.”  “Your hips are weak.”   Sensei has been telling me this for years.  I’m working on it.  I have made major improvements.  I can see it in video of me training in years past compared with now.  Sensei still pushes this.  It’s something I know quite well.  Sensei reminds me often though.  Should I feel annoyed with him for always harping on this one thing?  Should I be frustrated and resentful that he never lets me forget this?  

Annoyance and frustration aren’t a part of this.  Koshi 腰 (really the whole region of the lower back and hips) are fundamental to everything we do in budo.  They are what ties together the foundation provided by our feet and legs with the floating mass of our upper body and head.  If this connection isn’t solid, my balance with be weak and I won’t be able to transfer the power of my legs to my upper body.  It’s absolutely critical.  I’ve made a huge amount of progress in this area, so why does Sensei keep coming back to it?  I’m working on it after all.   Then I watch guys like this, and wonder why Sensei doesn’t spend more time pushing on this point.

I approach anything Sensei has to say with gratitude and a desire to figure out how to apply what he is telling me.  Sometimes this is pretty tough.  I don’t always make the connections immediately, so I spend a lot of time wandering around trying to figure out what I’m missing.  I learn a lot this way.  It makes me think about things from different perspectives trying to understand what Sensei is getting at, and why it’s important at that moment.

It’s tougher to take the same advice from someone of equal or lesser skill.  Having one of my training buddies tell me to relax or to use my koshi could really annoy me. Sometimes this  annoyed me badly enough that I got busy being annoyed and I completely lost the point of my training that day.  These guys have no right to be telling me what I need to work on!  Especially someone who’s only been training that long!

Then one day a thought walked over and smacked me in the temple.  If someone with that little experience can see how much I need to improve something, maybe I should be paying attention to it.  It really doesn’t matter how skilled they are.  I can take what they say with openness and appreciation and gratitude.  If they can see it, then there may be a very obvious weakness that I need to work on.  The one thing I am 100% sure about my budo is that it’s not perfect.

I also understand that not all advice offered by juniors is good.  Sometimes I have to explore it.  I’ll ask “What do you mean?” or “Why do you see that as a problem?”  Then we can talk and explore their concern together, and if it’s a valid point, I’ve got another item to add to my already long list of things to fix, or they learn why their understanding may not be as strong as they thought.  Either way, we learn something.

If we are honest with ourselves, our budo becomes a search for improvement and not an ego building exercise related to how much more we know than someone else.  I’ve reached the point where I’ll take help improving myself from anywhere I can get it.  I’m a slow learner, so if I’m going to accomplish much of anything before I die, I’ve got to take all the help and assistance I can get.  Even if it’s from my own students.

Recently, I’ve started doing something new..  I ask my students to sit down. Then I demonstrate something.  Their job is not to look at it and think about how they can emulate what their teacher is doing.  Their job is to look at what a fellow traveler on the budo path is doing, and help him. I ask them to tell me about anything they see that I should correct.  It’s a lot of fun and we all learn something from it.  The more senior students are quite capable of telling me in detail about a lot of things I should work on.  Often these are the same points I’ve just finished bringing to their attention in their own practice.   At first it’s embarrassing to have a student call you out for the same problem you were helping them with 15 minutes before. I had to work at not being embarrassed by this and just accepting their help.  If I’ve just pointed something out to them, they are hyper-aware of it, so if I’m off by one degree they see it.  

After a few run throughs though, I’ve gotten past most of my ego issues (if I ever transcend them all, you’re invited to my investiture as a living Buddha).  At first my goal was to take advantage of my senior student’s ability and knowledge to help improve my practice.  Now I’ve begun to see some other benefits.   All my students gain from this.  They really focus on trying to see more clearly in my practice what I have been asking them to do in theirs.  Even the beginning students begin to see better because they are looking for things at higher levels and advancing their understanding based on what other students are saying and what I am doing.

Once I fold up my ego, put it in a bag, stomp it thoroughly flat, and kick it to the back of the closet, we all win.  I get progressively better and more subtle critique from my own students.  In turn, they become more discriminating about their own practice.  They begin to understand what they are trying to achieve, and they can see where they want to go.  Then we can work together to get there.  We all advance.

That’s the spirit of learning that I love to see in the dojo.  We are all there trying to improve. Ultimately, there is no perfect in budo.  There is only progress.  Once I put aside my ego, I know I can learn from everyone.  Now I’m teaching my students how to critique me so I can improve at the same time they are learning to see with clearer understanding what some of the goals of practice are.  Enter the dojo in the spirit of learning, and you can learn from anyone, not just they people you address as “Sensei.”