Friday, January 15, 2016

Understanding the Way: the Tao Te Ching

For anyone interested in the ideas and thinking that underpin the concepts of budo and other Ways, the Tao Te Ching is essential reading. There are numerous translations of this canonical text, each doing it’s best to bring understanding and thought to the translation. Fortunately, it’s not a long book.  You can read it in about 30 minutes.  It’s filled with meaning and ideas to explore.
Because of the difficulty of translating ancient Chinese into modern English, there can be wide differences between translations. The internet is an amazing thing. There is now a site where you can see translation of the Tao Te Ching, and explore the original Chinese character by character to improve your understanding and get a better feel for what the translators are trying to express.  The site is at


Monday, January 11, 2016

Ōn: What Do We Owe?

Ōn 恩 is a ubiquitous concept in Japanese culture. It means a debt or obligation of gratitude. This is no simple “I owe you a favor” gratitude. That’s covered in the concept of giri 義理. Ōn includes the kind of combined obligation and gratitude that we owe to our parents and grandparents for all the care and kindness they have given us. Ōn covers those areas where our obligations are so great we can never truly repay them. Within Japanese culture, this sort of obligation extends to our teachers and the creators of the arts we practice.

Kano Jigoro, found of Kodokan Judo
When I started on this journey, of course I appreciated what I was learning from my teachers. Earl and Bob were sharing their wealth of knowledge with everyone in the university judo club. It was a fabulous place to be and there was a wonderful group of people I was learning with. We were training and growing and learning all aspects of judo. It was fun, the tournaments were exciting, and I learned a huge amount. I appreciated everyone around me, especially my teachers. I didn’t feel a debt of obligation though. I’m an American.  We don’t do obligations the same way Japanese do.

The longer I’ve been on this journey and the more time I spend in Japan though, the more my sense of obligation grows. As I realize all I gain from practice, my understanding of what I owe to my teachers and their teachers and all who have travelled the path before me grows. Some days it feels completely normal to think about the fact that I’m practicing techniques, principles and ways of movement and engaging with the world that go back hundreds and hundreds of years. Other days it just seems impossible that some guy from suburban Detroit could end up training with world class teachers in these incredible traditions.

My teachers are not employees. They aren’t teaching me because I pay them money. They are teaching me out of a love of their art and their sense of obligation to their teachers and all those who went before them, back through the centuries to the founder of the school. They have their own sense of obligation to the their teachers and the art. The longer I train with them, the more I feel it as well.

My teachers have accepted me into their dojo and their art. That alone is an incredible thing. When I first moved to Japan, there really weren’t a huge number of non-Japanese training in classical traditions. In the country outside Kyoto where I lived, there weren’t any non-Japanese training in even modern traditions like Kodokan Judo. I was the first in that area. For a teacher in Japan to really accept a you as a student is a huge risk. The teacher becomes responsible for anything the student does. I didn’t understand that when I first moved to Japan. In the same way, I didn’t understand my obligations to my judo teacher.

If I messed up, my teacher would have been responsible for helping to clean up the mess and make things right. From the moment a teacher acknowledges you as their student, you assume the rather large obligation not to do anything that would embarrass your teacher, or force her to have to clean up after you. That means not getting drunk in public and causing a scene. It means controlling your temper at the office and at home (homes are close together and have thin walls. Believe it that your neighbors can hear what’s going on).
As a beginning student, the obligations aren’t too huge. Train, study, help keep the dojo clean and don’t do anything to embarrass my teacher. Eventually I stopped being a beginning student. I started taking on responsibility for my teacher. At some point everyone expected me to be able to demonstrate the basics correctly, consistently.

The obligations grow slowly but inexorably.

The dojo becomes more and more a real home where you are secure (but not comfortable). The people in the dojo become trusted friends with whom you share the treasure and joy that is training. As I grow in the art, many of the things I gain are difficult to express, and impossible to assign value to. The comfort in my own skin that grows from years and years of training is immeasurable. How do you place a value on being comfortable enough with yourself that storms of emotion and stress can blow around you without disturbing you?

The self-knowledge and understanding that good budo training develops is difficult to describe. People often misinterpret the calm, imperturbable demeanor of a mature martial artist as being self-confidence derived from their physical ability to fight. If that was the truth, that calm would be a weak and easily broken thing only prepared to deal with someone attacking with hands or weapons. It would be worthless against other sorts of stress and disturbances.

One of my jodo teachers thought to give me a lesson I really appreciate. One day shortly before I was due to move back to the US, he drew me aside at the end of practice and said “You need this experience.”  Then he pulled a steel sword out of his bag. Jodo is usually practiced against a bokuto, a wooden sword. Wooden swords hurt more than enough when you screw up and get hit with one in my opinion. I didn’t think there was any need to risk more intense pain with a steel blade. Sensei disagreed.

He named off 3 kata he wanted to do with me facing the steel sword. I noted that all three of them involve strong attacks against the jo side by the sword. I was a more than a little apprehensive about all of this as we faced off, bowed to each other and Sensei began advancing toward me with steel sword. I managed somehow to reach down inside and calm myself enough that I could deal with the attack. Sensei came in and attacked just as the kata called for, and I responded to the attack with something close to the proper timing and technique. Though my heart may have been beating a bit faster than when we usually do these kata, I managed to keep my breathing fairly steady, stay focused and remain relatively calm while Sensei tried to cut me in two.

At the time, I thought Sensei was giving me experience dealing with a steel sword. I was wrong. Sensei was giving me a lesson in how to deal with myself.  This is a much more universally useful lesson than just how to react when someone attacks with a steel sword. That lesson was identical to the lessons on what to do when someone attacks with a wooden sword. Get out of the way of the attack and then counterattack.

This lesson could be described as “How to deal with myself when something big and unexpected happens.” I’ve used this lesson in how to reach down inside myself and maintain steady breathing, a clear focus and calm mind even when people are going to pieces around me. My heart rate may go up depending on the situation, but I’m the only person who has any need to be aware of that. The rest of the world gets to deal with someone who is clear, calm and in control of himself. That’s a heck of a lesson to get from a guy with a sword.

I don’t know where else I could get a lesson like that. This isn’t a sport. This is a classical budo.
“Win or lose, it’s how you play the game” sounds nice, but in classical budo it’s often more of “Do it right or get hurt.”  The lessons are structured to get you to a place where you can deal with that. I don’t think Sensei came up with the real sword jo practice himself. I have a feeling that he had that experience and found it valuable, so he passed it on to me. How many generations of teachers and students this goes back I don’t know, but I am eternally grateful to all of them. This is a lesson that has served me well over and over.
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My budo teachers have given me the dojo as my haven, school room, and proving ground. It’s an awesome place to spend my time. They have shared their wonderful treasure, these budo traditions. It’s not something they just hand out. The senior teachers are maintainers, preservers, guardians and sometime innovators. They have absorbed all the lessons that their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers have discovered and developed, going back generations. Judo goes back about 6 generations. Shinto Muso Ryu goes back nearly 20 generations. Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu goes back even further than that.

I owe an immense debt to all of the teachers and students of the arts I study. It’s a debt I cannot possibly repay. How can I possibly thank the founders of my Kodokan Judo or Shinto Muso Ryu? I know I can’t, but I am aware of how much I owe them for the physical skills of the arts, the haven and place of wonder that is the dojo, and all the other things and lessons that have come to me through the practice of their arts. That feeling of a debt that can never be repaid is a considerable part of Ōn 恩.

Just because I can never make full payment on the debt I owe to my teachers and those who went before us doesn’t mean I can’t do anything. I express that gratitude to my teachers and all those who have passed the art on to me. If you spend time in a dojo in Japan, you’ll notice that senior students and the teachers are often the first ones to grab brooms at the end of practice and start sweeping the floor. If you a lucky enough to be able to get to the dojo early before practice, you’re likely to discover the teacher quietly sweeping the floor and cleaning up the dojo for practice. Juniors have to be very early to be lucky enough to get to clean up for keiko. Getting to do it is another way of expressing gratitude for all the things you feel ōn for.

I really do worry about not doing anything to embarrass or cause problems for my teachers. It’s one of the biggest concerns I have with writing posts for this blog. Am I going to say something that causes problems for my teachers? That little editor is always chattering away at the back of my mind. I try to ensure that my behavior will never cause them any concern and certainly make sure I don’t create any messes they will have to clean up.

When I started, being on time to practice, working hard, helping clean up after keiko and not being a jerk were enough. The longer I train, the greater the size of the debt I owe that I will never be able to repay. The more of a sense of ōn I have. Now sweeping the dojo, working hard and not being a jerk don’t seem like nearly enough, but what is?

I accept responsibility. I can show Sensei how much I appreciate what he has shared with me by teaching it to others and making sure that the river of our tradition does not dry up and end with me. I share and I teach and work at growing the art. Some of my teachers are no longer here for me to thank. I teach new students and make sure they know these men and women lived and contributed so much to their being able to learn budo now.

Kodokan Judo is everywhere. I have heard it is the second most popular participant sport in the world, behind football (soccer). Koryu budo are not so widely practiced, nor are they intended to be.  They are intended to continue from generation to generation. I do what I can to make sure the ryuha grow into a new generation, and that the new generation is worthy of the treasure the great teachers have showered upon me.

This much harder than I expected because I want to be a worthy teacher of the lessons I have received. The result is that I put a good deal more consideration into what I’m doing and it takes more effort than I ever expected. Which lessons are right for each student? I know students can’t leap from lesson to lesson. They have to work on and practice and polish each lesson until it enters their muscles and bones. That doesn’t happen with one or two classes. I’ve had to develop a new sort patience while I try to make payments on this debt to my own teachers.

To my surprise, I find a special joy in seeing students grow and develop in budo, and seeing the arts flow into a new generation. There is something deeply satisfying about seeing the growth and development of a student. That’s another debt to my teachers that I will not be able to repay.

Ōn seems like a heavy burden, but it is one that is wonderful carry. How can I not be thankful for this sense of gratitude when it comes from all the wonder filled and amazing things I have received through budo practice? I even appreciate this sense of Ōn.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Budo Thoughts During Jet Lag

Teacher, Friends And Peers
Photo copyright Kumiko Yamada 2015

I wrote most of this while recovering from my most recent trip to Japan.

I’ve got jet lag. I was lucky enough to spend the last two weeks in Japan visiting friends and teachers, but now I’m home and until my body adjusts to the different solar schedule, I’ve got a few hours in the middle of the night where I’ll be awake.

Jet lag gives me some time to think about things.It’s always great to visit everyone in Japan, and these past two weeks were no exception. I have been going to Japan to train for 25 years. I still see myself as the young guy who just started. All around me in Japan I can see how everyone there has aged and changed. I’m not the young guy without a clue anymore. Kiyama Sensei turned 90 this year, but he still has the most powerful koshi I know of.  Inoue Sensei hasn’t changed much. He was a 7th dan with smooth, strong iai when I started, and his technique has gotten smoother with time. There are a number of folks around who hadn’t even started iai when I moved back to the US from Japan, and they are already 5th dans.

Budo is a path that goes on and on. It’s not just a solo path. We travel the road with our teachers and the other students around us, and the journey will continue even after we no longer can. For ourselves, we journey along the road seeking skill and maturity. For our students, we are part of the road itself. My teachers have formed the bed of the road I’m journeying on. Particularly early on in my journey, they were the road. If they branched left, so did I. If they turned right, I followed. Their direction was fundamental to how I saw budo and what parts of it I was able to explore.

As I’ve gained in experience and understanding, I have more ability and freedom to explore the path of budo and all the side roads that branch from on my own.  There are exciting and flashy trends that turn out to be little more than swamp gas. You can get completely lost trying to chase them down. Of more value are the simple things. Just going to the dojo and training.  Having a partner who trusts you and herself enough to attack so that you do get hit if you don’t move properly.

These are important parts of the journey.  There are many Ways that don’t require another person. Shodo and kado (calligraphy and flower arranging) leap to the front of my mind. No on is required to make shodo or kado practice complete.  The practitioner need never share her work with another person.  The calligraphy and the flower arrangement are complete even if no one else sees it.

Budo isn't a solo path though. All budo, even iai, is about interacting with the world. Our teachers and partners are important parts of the world, often providing immediate feedback on the quality of work. Our greatest adversary is always ourselves, but it is through practice with our partners and teachers that we find the flaws within ourselves to be addressed. That’s one of the tough things about having good teachers and peers on the path. They won’t lets us ignore our own faults. They point us towards faults we would happily ignore, and help us improve beyond them. This is never fun, but it is one of the great things about good budo practice with good teachers, good partners.

Not all budo training and learning happens in the dojo. Photo copyright 2015

Learning to fight without learning anything else is a fool’s path. Along the Way of budo training, there is a lot of learning beyond just the techniques. We won’t get that without our teachers, without our training partners. One of my students, an accomplished teacher in his own field, has been critical in helping me recognize and start dealing with some of my own weaknesses. He can sense when I don’t take some aspect of training as absolutely seriously as I need to. He also happens to have a brilliant eye for spotting issues with an individual’s structure. He is a wonderful companion for all of us traveling on this particular path.

I wouldn’t have made any progress in budo without my teachers and partners. They’ve taught me, gently and sometimes not so gently, about timing and spacing and ukemi and so many other things. Budo is an endless path, but I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without my teachers and partners. Thank you.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Who Is Your Teacher?

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis

Who is your Teacher? Is she a friend? Is he a mentor? A capable guide? A hired hand whose job is to teach you techniques you’re paying for?  An athletic trainer? A mystic? A sports coach? A philosopher? A drill sergeant?

Budo teachers come in a lot of shapes and sizes, styles and roles. It doesn’t matter what title we use for them; teacher, sensei, sifu, coach, or simply Ma’am or Sir.  The exact title isn’t the important thing. The important thing is what they do and who they are.

What a teacher does seems pretty straightforward. They instruct us in the techniques of our art. At first they teach us the basic stances and then the movements and techniques that make up our particular style of budo. They train us and drill us in the exercises that will polish and help us master our martial art. What makes a great teacher though? Not just the person who leads the beginners class, but the teacher who inspires and supports us and becomes a model of the kind of martial artist and person we want to become. What makes a Teacher?

From a purely technical standpoint, especially early on in practice, what we really need are coaches with a touch of drill sergeant in them.  And a bit of saintly patience if you are the poor soul trying to teach me anything subtle for the first time. Beginners’ classes tend to share a lot of similarities across arts. They have a narrow focus on a few fundamental building blocks of the art.  Whether the art is primarily about throwing or striking or locking or weapons, the beginners’ class spends their time on the basic movements that you have to know cold and then know so well you forget that you know them.

Teachers for these beginners classes have to drill the same things over and over and over until you’d swear they would go crazy with boredom.  Somehow the good ones never do. The good teachers are patient coaches and drill sergeants pushing us, sometimes dragging kicking and screaming, towards the goal of absorbing the fundamentals so deeply into our muscles and bones that we can forget that we know them, forget that they are even there so we can learn the techniques that are built upon them.

I’ve had a number of teachers who were great at this.  Kiyama Sensei excels at being a patient drill sergeant. He will take a bokken and stand at the front of the dojo, yelling “Mo ichi do!” and banging the end of the bokken on the floor to indicate when to start. He stands there, 90 years old and with still perfect posture, watching us practice with a focus even sharper than his sword. After an hour or two of driven practice under this intense gaze, you’re wrung out, dripping from exertion, and quietly thrilled to have absorbed another practice with him.

Great teachers aren’t just coaches and drill sergeant. Kiyama Sensei always seems happy and eager to run a practice, whether he is drilling a group of beginners in the fundamentals, or working with a high ranking student that he’s trying to lead to discovering subtle understanding of the myou 妙, the mysteries of the art. The really great teachers are able to adjust what they are doing, and shift their presence from that of an implacable drillmaster to a guide leading you along nearly undetectable forest paths.

The really high art doesn’t start until we’ve soaked our bones in the essence of the budo we study so that we express the fundamentals without thinking about them, and even when we are actively distracted from them. Our teacher then needs a very different approach from the one that marinated us in the fundamentals. Now we need a teacher who can guide us towards the delicate mastery that looks like magic to beginners. This takes a different sort of patience.

It also takes a teacher who doesn’t feel threatened when a student begins to understand their art at a deep level and begins to shift from being a student of the teacher to a colleague. I’ve seen a lot of people who couldn’t handle that transition. Teachers with insecure egos or hang-ups about control seem to feel threatened when their students begin to approach same level that they are on. Sadly, seeing a technically excellent teacher whose ego can’t handle having anyone close to his level around is not uncommon.  There are plenty of dojo where there always seems to be significant gap between the senior student’s level and the teacher.

Fine Budo Equipment from Mugento Budogu LLC

Great teachers relish having someone grow from being simply a student of the basics into colleague they explore ever deeper and more subtle aspects of the art with. Just as in any academic field, great budo teachers are thrilled when students surpass them. Only poor fools are jealous and upset when a student surpasses them. One of a teacher’s responsibilities is to pass on their art to a new generation. It is a lucky teacher who inspires a student to discover more in the art than the teacher knows.

As we spend more time in budo, our teachers become our friends. In something like budo, that we will can study and grow in for 50, 60, 70 years and more, I sincerely hope that we become friends with our teachers. We’re going to be spending a lot of time with them. Great teachers are comfortable with shifting relationships and shifting roles. They can be the teacher in the dojo, and a friend at dinner. I’ve written about the trust we develop with the people we train with, and that is even more true for our teachers.  Great teachers don’t take that trust and build themselves a pedestal to stand on. They return it, sharing their discoveries and their missteps along the journey we share in budo.

Early in my budo journey I had a teacher admonish me not to put him, or any teacher on a pedestal. He seems to have known himself well, as he was an excellent teacher for me in that moment, but he knew how tragically flawed he was. As we mature along the way, we sometimes have to learn that not all of our teachers are great. Some of them we surpass as human beings very quickly.  The great teachers may become our friends and colleagues along the Way, but they remain teachers and inspirations.

Budo is not just about the techniques of the art we study. Budo is about how we approach and deal with the world we encounter while walking life’s path. Great teachers are great not just in the dojo. Takada Sensei had incredible iai. He also had a wonderful joy in life, and respectful manner for everyone that I someday hope to emulate. Kiyama Sensei’s budo is awe inspiring in its power and ferocity, but his mastery means that most people think he is a sweet, gentle grandfather. He doesn’t have to show off his budo to anyone. You can always see it if you know what to look for. His posture is so perfect I’m embarrassed by my own even while typing this. Sensei’s focus and control never leave. Nor does the respect he gives everyone, from the 5 year old beginning kendo student to the most senior instructors and ranking swordsmen.

I don’t think there is room in most people’s lives for a lot of Teachers. I’m lucky that I have known several, and have a  couple that I can call “my Teacher.” They don’t come along often. If you find one, cherish them. The greatest honor and award I’ve received in my budo career is when they tell someone that I am their student. No rank will ever mean as much to me.

Who is your Teacher? Is she your coach? Your drill sergeant? Your guide? Your fellow explorer along the Way? Your friend? All of these and more? If not, you haven’t found your teacher yet.  Keep looking. She’s out there.

Monday, December 14, 2015

What Are You Training?

I know many people who scoff at the idea of budo for personal development. They see dojo training as strictly a means for honing technique. They laugh at all the mamby-pamby talk of personal development.  For them, Budo is strictly a place for becoming a better fighter. Which is exactly why they are completely wrong.

Marc MacYoung recently wrote

The act of physically killing someone is easy.
What is hard is having the judgment to know when to do so or when not to.

Yes, you’re learning how to use techniques. That’s fundamental to the process. You have to learn the stance and postures first. These are are your alphabet. Only after you’ve learned the alphabet can you learn to spell whole words. Once you’ve got your basic postures, stances, grips, etc, you can start learning techniques.  But learning techniques is like learning to write individual words. There are lots of people who can spell, but like many people I deal with by email, still can’t write a coherent sentence.

Budo doesn’t really start to become budo until you’ve got enough control of these basic building blocks that you can begin assembling them into simple sentences. In judo these look like the Nage No Kata, with basic attack and response patterns.

Even in the relatively simple budo sentences of the Nage No Kata, complexity starts sneaking in. There are techniques that require multiple steps to set up. Others are attacked, blocked and the defense is circumvented. Start with a simple sentence like “He attacks me with his fist.”  Learn to reply with “I drop and throw him.”  Simple budo sentences. Like simple sentences in a grammar school reader, are not very interesting.

Once you start learning to put together stances and techniques, you can have a conversation. Mark Law talks about this a little in his book FALLING HARD. Judo randori, or any kind of sparring, is a chance to have a budo conversation where questions are posed in stances and techniques, and then answered with other stances and techniques.

Just like in writing class, even after you learn spelling and basic punctuation there is a lot to learn about creating sentences and then paragraphs and stories in the language of budo. Early on we don’t have too many words in our budo vocabulary, so our sentences aren’t very subtle or interesting.

As we progress along the Way, we learn to choose more and more precisely appropriate techniques. We learn that uchimata is probably not the best technique for us to use on the goliath at judo, but that it works pretty well on the guy close to our size. Against that small, fast lady, the one who’s always catching us with taiotoshi, we’re going to need to polish up our foot sweeps.

We have to learn to recognize these things. The same is true in weapons training. The best technique against the tall, strong foe may be entirely inappropriate against the quick, light one, and the techniques that work in those situations may be utterly ineffective against someone short and solid.

Then, just like at dinner with the family, we learn that sometimes the best reaction is none at all. When we train, we have to consider that not all threats and attacks are equal.  I spend a lot of time working with students getting them to make serious attacks. Often I can see that what they think is a serious attack won’t reach me. I can stand there and watch them swing. Their bokken whistles by me. I’ve learned not just how to deal with an attack, but how to distinguish between something that will hurt me and something that won’t (I’m a slow learner, so I got hit a few times before I figured out the real difference).

Knowing the difference between an attack that is dangerous and one that can be ignored isn’t just about technique.  Most of the attacks we deal with in life aren’t physical. They are attacks on our mind and ego. If you never train anything but physical technique, how will you develop a spirit sturdy enough to ignore attacks on your ego?  Are you learning the control necessary to ignore verbal attacks that don’t need a response of any kind? That’s budo too.

What good is all this budo training if you never train anything but technique? Without training the mind and the spirit you will be a servant of the techniques, applying them without discretion (sounds like most brown belts in randori).  You have to have control and discretion about when to use which technique, and when it’s best not to use any technique at all. If all of your training is about how to apply the techniques, you risk applying one when you shouldn’t.  In the US, that can put you in jail very quickly.

Truly mastering techniques means that you control the techniques. You decide when a response is necessary, and when it isn’t. You decide what level of response is appropriate and which technique meets that requirement. You decide when a situation is escalating so you can leave before you have to decide what level of response and which technique is most appropriate.

This means you have to work on the mamby-pamby stuff too, not just the cool techniques. You have to learn to self-control, to know that some attacks can be ignored because they won’t hurt you, and that other attacks should be absorbed and ignored because the damage that reacting would do is worse than the damage the attack will do. Do you learn these things? They are part of the strategy of applying martial arts training. Learning the techniques is just the first step.  Learning when not to use them is a lot tougher.  To be able to know when not to use a technique, first you have to do the tough work of training your mind and spirit to be greater than your ego. If you thought that iriminage or uki otoshi were tough to master, try mastering your own ego.

Are you training technique? Or are you training you?