Monday, September 12, 2016

Budo and Non-action

I haven’t written anything in a few weeks, which I’m sorry for.  Life has a way of happening that has nothing to do with plans or intentions. Family emergencies and work just get in the way. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing budo. It just means I haven’t been doing formal budo practice.

What I have been doing is applying budo. Breathing while balancing stillness and movement. Budo isn’t life, but it is a way of living, of doing, and being. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Stillness is tough though. All of our instincts, and much of our socialization is to “do something.” The classic trope is  “fight or flight.” This reduces our options to a ridiculous degree, and ignores one of the more powerful options: “stay calm and do nothing.”

All of our education and life preparation is about doing things, being active. Don’t wait. Be proactive! The early bird gets the worm. Don’t just sit there, do something!

Then there is chapter 10 of the Tao Te Ching:

Understanding and being open to all things,
Are you able to do nothing?

What does it mean to be “able to do nothing?”

Early on in jodo I learned the importance of staying calm and doing nothing. Sensei would move forward in the kata and stretch out the timing and spacing until the mental tension made me snap into doing something.  Sensei was perfectly calm. He could attack or not. Either was fine with him. I couldn’t wait and do nothing. I had to take action.

Of course, as soon as I moved I was dead. Sensei hadn’t given me any reason to move. He was just standing there, within attacking range, not doing anything except making my mind and pulse race with worry about what he would do. Then I would move and he would cut me down (gently, and with great good humor, but cut me down all the same).  I’m a slow learner sometimes; it took me a while to learn the simple lesson to breathe and accept the moments when I don’t need to, and should not, do anything.

In chapter 37 the Tao Te Ching says
            Tao abides in non-action
Yet nothing is left undone.

Like the Dude, the Tao abides, and abiding was something I had to learn to do in jodo. Non-action isn’t inaction. For someone who enjoys working with words as much as I, it seems strange that I can’t give a clear, straightforward definition of “non-action.” I have come to my present understanding slowly, over many years, and like budo, it’s not something I can fully verbalize. I prefer to use the Chinese term in my own thoughts: wu-wei.  For anyone coming to the Tao Te Ching for the first time, I realize that term is useless. Until you’ve got some experience with different translations and some sort of physical practice, “wu-wei”  is meaningless, and “non-action” will have to serve to get you started along the path.

Budo training is physical philosophy. The lessons of any budo art are really found on the dojo floor as we work the kata. In the dojo, words are like the finger pointing at the moon in Chuang Tzu; they are there to direct you in the proper direction. But - Once you’re going in the right direction words become just a distraction from the real lesson.

Once I learned to just accept that I don’t set the pace of these kata, I was able to begin learning jodo. Learning to accept things as they are and not waste energy trying to change what I can’t control is tough lesson to learn in the dojo. It’s even more difficult to apply outside the dojo where there are so many more factors to be concerned with. In the dojo it’s just you and your partner that you have to worry about. Outside the dojo things are rarely that uncomplicated and concentrated.

The more comfortable I get with wu-wei, with non-action, the more relaxed my jodo becomes. Once I stopped trying to force the kata to to go faster than my partner wanted, I stopped getting hit when I anticipated an attack and moved too early. Learning to let go of that need to push things along at my own speed allowed me to stay relaxed and loose. Stiff, tight muscles are slow. Breathing out, remaining relaxed whatever my partner does, or does not do, I can respond more quickly and more fluidly.

When I leave the dojo and rejoin the wildly complicated everyday world, does this lesson still apply? I seem to find new places to apply it every day. When I don’t rush to “win” a conversation, I learn so much more. When I can be quiet and just wait in negotiations, often the person on the other side of the table gets so anxious for a conclusion that they give me what I’m looking for without my having to argue much of anything.

The most frequent application is dealing with all the little things that don’t go as fast as I think they should. The little things like traffic that’s too slow, a child that won’t move, a teapot that won’t whistle. When I let the world take its own pace without trying force things, I discover the traffic pattern that is the most efficient and soon find myself outdistancing the guys trying to weave from lane to lane for a one-car length advantage. Engaged in a battle of wills, a six-year old will dig in until they explode in a tantrum. Faced with a battle of patience, they soon become distracted and once they’re distracted they’re easy to move. Teapots, well, nothing I can do is going to make the water boil faster. That’s one of those things where being able to do nothing is its own reward. The other option is to be impatient and annoyed and upset by things I cannot influence.

Chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching:

Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.

It’s a lot like lessons in judo. The more I try to do things to my partners, the harder I work and the less I accomplish. When I let go of whatever strategy or technique I’m clinging to and stop trying to force it on the match, I begin to  flow with my partner. Instead of getting frustrated because I am having difficulty doing the technique of my choice, I am delighted to discover that a range of techniques become possible. Blinded by my focus on doing a certain technique, I can’t see the opportunities my partner is giving me. Relaxed and clear minded, it’s possible to see the patterns of my partner’s movement and turn their strong movement into a natural fall.

Doing the same thing outside the dojo is far more challenging, but as much as the level of difficulty increases, so do the rewards. It’s nice to flow into a natural technique in the dojo. It’s satisfying to respond to attacks as they really are without trying to create openings and trying to force things. The satisfaction is that much deeper at home or work when I get out of the way and let things develop naturally.

In the last few weeks there have been a lot of events in my life that I couldn’t influence. The best I could do was stay relaxed and not let them disrupt my heart and mind. Relax, breathe and abide. It’s enough. I don’t have to attempt to fix the world, or even my little corner of it. Most of life is beyond my control or even influence. Can I breathe and abide until it is time for me to move? When tragedy strikes and no one can fix things, breathing and letting people be is tough. I want to help, to fix things. Understanding that I can’t really do either,  just waiting calmly for a space in which I should act, is far more difficult than anything I do in the dojo. However, the dojo practice of waiting for Sensei to really strike, remaining calm and still and prepared to move when the moment actually calls for it, has prepared me.

Sometimes the finest thing you can do for those around you is to be there and do nothing. Wait, watch, be aware of what they are experiencing, and only act when there is a need for it. So easy to write, so difficult to do. In the dojo we practice breathing and being and just standing there waiting for Sensei to attack with a big stick. If we can learn that lesson, it’s amazing how often we can apply our budo in the world.

Are you able to do nothing?

Monday, August 29, 2016

So You Wanna Cross-Train?

My friend and colleague, Deborah Klens-Bigman is an accomplished martial artist and respected scholar of Japanese classical dance. She often does me the honor of serving as a sounding board for ideas, and generously edits my posts to make them polished. This time Klens-Bigman Sensei responded to my ideas with an essay of her own, which I 'm proud to be able to publish here.

Deborah Klens-Bigman  Photo Copyright Iaikai 2016

So you wanna cross-train?

Previously,  two posts considered cross-training in other budo.  The first set out the benefits as a means to deepen understanding of your primary art.  The subsequent post looked at another side of the issue - that some martial arts teachers might forbid their students to seek training at another dojo.  That post also suggested that students caught up in such an arrangement may have picked the wrong person to train with in the first place, and speculates on such teachers' selfish motivations.

So - here we have two solid arguments in favor of "cross-training."  It seems like a good idea, right?  Find a different (though maybe related) art form, and go for it, right?  Not so fast.  There's a right way, and a wrong way, to train at a different dojo.  If done right, you can obtain benefit for yourself and do credit to your home dojo.  If not, well - read on.

Let's first assume that you are a student in good standing, who is also not a raw beginner.  A very-beginning student who seeks training in another art form gives a teacher the impression that you are not serious in your practice in the first place.  The term for this (at least in English) is "dojo-hopper."  The sense is that the student is in some sort of martial arts shopping mall, with various things on offer.  Come in, poke around, try a couple things on, and go on to the next store.  This is definitely how to shop for a prom dress, but most budo teachers take their practice seriously, and expect students to do likewise.  

Next, let's consider motivations.  I am not talking about jumping ship and looking for a new teacher - that's a different subject altogether (see above).  And I seriously doubt you would look around and think to yourself, "I'll bet I could deepen my understanding of the principles of [fill in name of current practice] by trying out [something else]."  More likely you saw something on YouTube or even (shockingly, but it does happen) at a live demo and you thought it looked cool and would be fun to try.  NYC is a veritable feast of martial traditions, both Asian and Western, old and new (and even theatrical and cinematic!).  It's easy to feel like a kid in a candy store.  There is nothing wrong with this motivation.  But there is a proper way to go about it.  So I am offering a list - from smartest to dumbest - ways to go about cross training in a different budo form.

1.  Talk to your teacher and ask for permission to try something else, and ask for her suggestions as to where to find another dojo.  For example, you could say, "I was thinking about trying a jujutsu class.  I wanted to run the idea past you first.  Do you have any suggestions as to who I could study with?"  Believe it or not, even in a place as huge as the Big City, many budo teachers at least know each other by reputation, if not personally.  Moreover, we know who the crank teachers are; or, at least, we have the means to find them out.    Asking for permission, along with asking for advice, accomplishes several goals - it shows the teacher you respect her, and that you respect her opinion.  It also puts you in line for a good recommendation with one of her colleagues.  Having been recommended and accepted for cross-training in another dojo also shows respect with regard to the other teacher, who then has a clear idea of who you are and may have a sense of what you might be able to accomplish by training with him.

 2.  Ask your teacher for permission only.  This is not as smart as suggestion number 1, but it at least shows enough respect to your teacher that she won't throw you through the nearest wall.  Most teachers will say yes (and if she doesn't agree, there is probably a reason, as in she doesn't think you are ready to branch out.  If you respect the teacher, you will respect her opinion and ask again later).  Some may volunteer advice if they think you might be interested in hearing it; others may just say it's fine, and you are then free to roam.  

 3. (Moving to less-smart ways).  Go somewhere else and don't tell either the primary teacher or the new teacher what you are doing.  I don't recommend this, but it can actually work, as long as you exercise some discretion.  Don't do what one of my students once did: blow off a request to perform at a demo by explaining that you have a tournament with another teacher that weekend.  Just say you're sorry and you can't make it; and you hope to be able to perform with the group at another time.  Being so up front about your conflicted schedule may send a teacher the message that you are so enamored with the new style that you are not as interested in what she has to teach (even if that isn't strictly true).  Moreover, not supporting the dojo when it asks for your help also makes you look less serious about your practice, unless it involves work or family issues.  Your perceived lack of interest may result in the teacher's attention being directed a little bit more to other students instead.  Tangentially, if the second teacher learns about your primary art form by other means than your telling him about it, you may find yourself getting the same treatment.  I'm jus' sayin'.  We like to think that our teachers have better tempers and more wisdom than lowly students (and they might), but they are also human beings (with a lot more experience than you) and they have feelings, too.  And those feelings should be respected if you are serious about your art form.

 4.  Declare that you are going "budo shopping" for other stuff to do - you say you may come back to the home dojo someday, but then again you may not.  Believe it or not, this has actually happened.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the student has given the impression that the teacher (and her art form) are interchangeable; with one practice being not any better or worse than another.  The now-former student in question was fortunate to have done this via email and not in person.  Needless to say, this person is no longer welcome (except, just *possibly* as a guest, and paying the guest mat fee).  Unless you really intend not to come back at all, I don't recommend this method.  

 5.  Just show up at a new place and disparage your primary teacher to gain favor with the new one.  As I said, we all know each other, by reputation if not personally.  Remember the six degrees of separation?  In the budo world, it's more like one or two.  You won't be accepted once the truth comes out.

 As my colleague the Budo Bum has said, there are many benefits to cross-training, and most of them won't be revealed until you have spent months (or even years) training in another form.  In my budo career, though my primary art is iaido, I have also done some training in naginata, kyudo, kendo, some empty-hand, and I am currently studying jodo as a rank beginner.  I also train in Japanese classical dance; an art form that developed in the Edo period that shares many principles of movement with koryu budo forms.   Many of my colleagues and teachers both in the U.S. and Japan also cross-train.  For the most part, all of their teachers know and respect each other, and are cross-trainers themselves.   My teacher, Otani Sensei, when I spoke to him specifically about working with another teacher, interrupted my carefully-rehearsed permission-asking speech by saying, "That's okay, that's okay.  Once you know the principle, the technique doesn't matter."  I still can't say, all of these years later, that I fully understand his point, but I knew then I had the freedom to figure it out.

Bio Note: Deborah Klens-Bigman is Instructor at Iaikai Dojo, in New York City.   The dojo website is
Deborah Klens-Bigman Photo Copyright Iaikai

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cross Training

What is the value of cross training?  Why do I consider it essential to development as a budoka?

There are tremendous benefits to getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that are new and different. Every art is built on assumptions about the armament, training and intentions of your imagined opponents.  Judo is great against the kind of attacks that are assumed. Judo training against weapons is pretty lousy. Shinto Muso Ryu is fabulous against guys with swords. We’re a little less sure of what to do against spears and grapplers.  

Classical Japanese systems originated in an era when people were assumed to be armed, and wearing armor was common.  For both reasons, empty hand striking arts never got started.  It wasn’t until Okinawan empty hand arts were brought to the main islands of Japan that empty hand striking was seriously considered. By the time that happened in the early 20th Century, armor was mostly relegated to history and Japanese society was peaceful enough that few people went about armed.

Martial arts developed to solve specific problems. The great sogo budo 総合武道 of Japanese history - arts such as Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinto Ryu and Kashima Shinryu - all evolved in a particular era with very clear needs. In the centuries before the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and enforced peace, war was the norm. Warriors were not specialists, but generalists, learning a variety of weapons in systems where the fundamental principles were applied to everything, whether they were armed or empty handed. Combatants were most worried about surviving battles where they would be armored and facing a variety of weapons and foes.

After the Tokugawa forces brought peace to Japan with musket barrels, martial arts continued to be practiced. New arts arose to suit the new conditions with different expectations. The concern was no longer armored foes on the battlefield, but duelists, angry drunks, thieves and rebellious peasants. The arts that developed in this period reflect very different expectations about the sort of violence people would face.

Every art makes assumptions.  Sometimes we don’t even notice them. When I first started judo, a friend who was doing an art that makes different assumptions showed me some of my assumptions about what people would and would not do. I then learned that competitive judo’s assumptions about the opponent’s face don’t travel well. It’s a good thing to have your assumptions challenged.

Competitive judo has a polite rule about not attacking the face.  It’s a nice rule, particularly for all the randori (grappling sparring in judo) that we do. Going to work and going on dates with a face covered in bruises all the time would be less than ideal.  When you train like that all the time though, It’s easy to forget that not attacking the face is nothing more than a polite agreement between practitioners.  My friend Paul didn’t train in an art with any such agreements, so he casually reached up and moved my face.

Forgetting that these sorts of assumptions are made for the safety and comfort of long term practice is simply and quickly corrected by training with folks who have different standards of what is polite and respectful practice. Being a judo guy, training with a friend who does TKD does wonders for exploding unconscious assumptions on both sides. Judoka don’t have an aversion to getting a hit a few times if that will allow them to close and throw. Strikers will be happy to make a mess of your face long before you get close enough to throw them.  Strategies that work well in the narrow confines of your home art can become disastrous as soon as you step out of the dojo.

A little cross training can open up whole vistas of realizations. Judoka make all sorts of assumptions for training purposes that are silly outside the dojo but are perfectly reasonable from the perspective of making regular training safe.  For example, we don’t make an assumption about when the fight is over.  It’s over when both people agree it’s over, especially in dojo randori where you’re not competing for points. That became interesting for me when I started training with aikidoka  from time to time.  Many people in aikido assumed that once uke was off balance and being thrown, the action was over. I didn’t know about that assumption, so I surprised quite a few people when I  counter attacked while being thrown or even as I was being slammed into the mat. That’s not a problem with aikido, it’s a problem with training. Since then I’ve gotten to know some great aikidoka with exposure to judo. They enjoy my attempts to counter attack in the middle of their techniques, and the challenge of finding ways to stop me.

Another eye opening experience was when I took up jodo. I’d played with some methods of taking weapons in judo and aikido. I thought I understood something. Then I started training with jo and sword. I quickly came to a new understanding. I understood nothing about weapons, spacing with weapons, or timing.  Unarmed spacing and timing is a different beast from armed spacing and timing. My teachers could reach me at distances where I was sure I was safe. That staff was in my face before I was even aware they were moving.

You don’t have to go so far as to take up another art to gain significantly from cross training. I’ve learned loads from getting thrown around by my friend Chuck (yes, that’s really his name). Chuck does an interesting style of jujutsu, and he was happy to test all of my assumptions and preconceptions. I would say brilliant things like “You can’t do that.” and Chuck would promptly do it to me. I’ve been rolled, pinned, mashed and chucked all around the dojo, learning the whole time. I haven’t taken up studying Chuck’s style of jujutsu, but I’ve learned loads from playing with him.

Just doing something outside your specialty can open your eyes and clear out myths. Kim Taylor used to host the best cross-training event I’ve ever been to.  He invited all sorts of senior teachers from various koryu to Guelph, and we’d each teach a 2 hour introduction to some aspect of our art. Then we’d go try everyone else’s stuff. In one weekend I got to do jujutsu and naginata, a couple of styles of iai, maybe some jutte or spear, and a little kyudo. Afterwards we’d all go out for dinner and quiz each other about everything we’d seen and try to get answers to some of the million or so questions that leapt into our minds while we were trying all of this new stuff.  I saw experienced aikidoka go from thinking they knew something about swords to deciding that they really needed to take up a sword art. I saw sword people conclude that some of those “dinky” weapons weren’t so silly after all. Lots of people from all sorts of arts developed an interest in jodo.  A particularly thick-skulled judoka who was sure he’d seen pretty much all there was to see in Japan got schooled in just how limited his experience really was. For three days we’d train and ask questions and then train and ask questions some more. No claims of superiority, just loads of honest curiosity and a willingness to have all of our assumptions and preconceptions shattered.

I believe cross training is critical to fully developing your understanding of budo. If you only do one thing, that’s fine. If you only know about one thing though, that’s not. Get out of the safe zone of your dojo and go play with folks who do something different. We all look great at home where everyone moves and reacts the way we assume they should. What happens when people don’t move and react as we expect? Does our art fail us, or do we fail our art? If we don’t get out and challenge our own assumptions by cross training from time to time, we fail our art.

Having preconceptions and making assumptions about what will work and why is unavoidable as long as we’re human. Not doing anything to challenge those preconceptions and assumptions though is is a sad failure of our duty to our arts and ourselves. It’s especially sad when it’s so easy to find a way to check our thinking. Sign up for an open seminar with a different martial art. If you do empty hand stuff, try a weapons art. If you only do weapons, try an empty hand art. Step out of your safe zone and do something completely different. You may be amazed at what it can teach you about your art.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Teachers Who Can't Share

I run into people all the time who sincerely believe that training in another art or with another teacher is a terrible and disloyal thing to do. I also bump up against teachers who tell their students they should never train with anyone else, and that their art is the best so they shouldn’t try anything else.  

To me, this is pure foolishness and unrestrained ego. No art is 100% complete and perfectly prepared for every possible turn of events. Even the great sogo budo that were born in Japan’s Warring States period (circa 1467 - 1603) and include a range of armed and unarmed skills,  - even techniques for fighting while in armor or street clothes - don’t have or even attempt to have a kata for every conceivable situation.

I think back to the great martial artists of the last few hundred years in Japan, and I can’t think of any who trained exclusively with one teacher.  Even now, I can’t think of any arts that expect and demand 100% exclusivity all the time. I know of arts, such as Kashima Shinryu, that ask beginning students not to train in other arts without getting their teacher’s permission, but this is more about making sure students learn good fundamentals without getting them mixed up and messed up by training in systems with different - or worse - conflicting principles. Even then, they don’t insist that a student train only with one teacher.  Once the student reaches sufficient proficiency with the fundamentals, training in other systems is not forbidden.

Historically, I look at teachers like Kano Jigoro, Ueshiba Morihei, and Kuni’i Zenya, and the subsequent  development of their own systems. None of these teachers and developers could have achieved anything close to what they did without training under multiple teachers in multiple systems.  Kano Jigoro received licensing in two different koryu jujutsu systems before he founded Kodokan Judo. Even after founding the Kodokan, he continued to train and learn from other systems, most notably adding instruction from Fuse Ryu to strengthen the Kodokan’s groundwork.

Ueshiba Morihei studied a lot of stuff. He studied judo in a dojo his father established with a teacher brought in for the job. He studied jukenjutsu in the military. He learned a chunk of Yagyu Shingan Ryu.  Even after he had mastered Daito Ryu and founded Aikido, he continued to study and learn, taking keppan with Kashima Shinto Ryu.

Kuni’i Zenya was the soke of Kashima Shinryu. However, he was sent to train in Maniwa Nen Ryu as well. He took what he learned from Maniwa Nen Ryu and used it to refine Kashima Shinryu (don’t let anyone tell you that koryu budo never change.  They are like rivers. They continue as the same river.  The Nile at its headwaters is very different from the Nile as it enters Egypt, and even more different as it passes through the delta into the sea.) Kuni’i Sensei would not have become anywhere near the martial artist he did without exposure to more than one system.

I look at my teachers, and none of them has been exclusionary in the own practice or in their expectations of their students, so I suppose I am prejudiced in favor of being open with students because that is a notable element of my background. I started my budo journey in Kodokan Judo, and my teacher there encouraged his students to take advantage of any training opportunities in the area. Almost as soon as we knew the etiquette well enough to not make any major faux pas Earl started suggesting visits to another local judo dojo to train on days we didn’t have keiko at our dojo. I got over to the dojo at the YMCA fairly often, got extra keiko and a different set of critiques on my technique.

My sword teacher, Kiyama HIroshi Shihan, may well be the poster child for cross training. He has 7th dans in kendo, iaido and jodo, as well as decades of koryu iai and jo practice. He also has dan ranks in Shito Ryu karate, jukendo, and judo.  There may well be other stuff that’s just never come up.  

Matsuda Shihan, my jodo teacher, has a license in Kukishin Ryu as well as in Shinto Muso Ryu,  plus he has dan ranks in iai and karate to go with his 8th dan in jodo. He actively told me to go train with a senior jodo teacher he had great respect for.  He said I should take any chance I got to train with this man.

So my background definitely predisposes me to be in favor of being open with my training. My teachers have always been open to me learning from others.  There are limits of course.  If I’m doing iai with Kiyama Sensei, I would never object to anything because some other teacher I had seen did it differently from Kiyama Sensei’s way. I have too much respect for my teachers to insult them like that. Kiyama Sensei was a senior teacher before I was born. I can’t imagine that I’m going to come up with anything that he hasn’t seen dozens of times already.

Matsuda Sensei is perfectly open with my questions about things I’ve seen or heard from other teachers. He’s happy to talk about these things in the right time and place.  During his lesson is clearly not that place. If we are doing free practice, or outside the dojo, that’s the time and place.

All of these experiences with my own teachers make me suspicious of teachers who won’t ever let their students train with anyone else. In such a situation, who gains? I don’t see any great benefit for the students, or for the teacher. I can see the point of limiting the outside training of beginning students who are just starting to get control of their own bodies. I can understand teachers who don’t want students to confuse themselves and slow down their development by mixing their learning with multiple instructors giving them potentially conflicting advice. This is a temporary situation, though. Once a student has a firm enough foundation, they can train with other people, even take up additional martial arts without damage to the art they started with.

Not allowing students to train with anyone else is a red flag to me. This is not the early Tokugawa Era with people wandering around challenging each other to duels with live blades or even wooden substitutes. People aren’t in danger of losing their government stipend or even dying if they lose a challenge match. We aren’t protecting our techniques and strategies in order to to give us an advantage when we have to fight our next duel.

This is the 28th year of the reign of the Heisei Emperor, or the early 21st Century to much of the rest of the world. Duels don’t happen that often these days. This is the age of YouTube after all. There aren’t many secrets left. Almost everything can be found somewhere on the internet with the minimal effort of a Google search.

When I hear of a teacher who won’t let students train with anyone else, I always wonder what their reasoning is. And then I wonder if the problem isn’t with the students, but with the teacher. I’ve never been able to come up with a valid reason for limiting students’ training myself. I have  seen a number of reasons that reflect poorly on such teachers though.

There are teachers who are quite capable martial artists, but who are also insecure human beings. I can see how an insecure teacher would worry about students liking another teacher better.  Telling them not to train with anyone else is a simple way to make sure they don’t discover someone they like training with more. It doesn’t solve the problem of students leaving, but it may slow them down, and maybe it makes the insecure teacher feel a little more in control.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who had an overabundance of confidence and no actual skills. They tell great stories, often about how they trained in Japan or China with secretive masters. Their descriptions of the awesome secrets they learned and how powerful their skills are can be truly amazing. Their only concern is that if their students train with other people, they might realize that all their teacher has to offer them are some great stories, and no real skills. These folks have a genuine concern. If anyone were to check with folks in Japan or China or wherever they say the trained, their teachers would be even more mysterious, because no one could find them. In this age of Facebook, it takes about 15 minutes to find experts living anywhere in the world who can check on things like this. Best for these teachers if their students never talk with other martial artists, and definitely don’t let them train with other folks. Students figure out pretty fast that what they’ve been taught is empty sound and fury when they are repeatedly knocked on their rear ends by strangers.

Teachers are humans too, with all the possibility of the angelic and the risk of the demonic. The vast majority of teachers strive to be the best example they can be in the dojo, and lead students to higher levels of being, not just higher black belt ranks. There are others who are there only for what they can get out of it, whether that is the satisfaction of lording their rank over others, having people show them respect and excessive deference, or just collecting a lot of money from students every month without having to give anything more than the illusion of teaching something.

Even when a teacher has a lot to offer students, if they are so insecure, or so into controlling others, that they can’t bear to see their students get some training from someone else from time to time, they are crippled as teachers. Someone like this will feel threatened when a student gets good enough to be a teacher herself. Their own fears and insecurities will hobble them and prevent them from giving students their best teaching. Behind every decision and every interaction will be the fear that students will leave.

I can’t recommend that anyone train with a teacher who can’t stand to see them train in some other art or with another teacher if a good opportunity arises. For me, cross training is essential to understanding my primary art. Training with a good teacher is essential to learning an art deeply. I can’t see how a teacher crippled by insecurity or mad with the need to control others can be a good teacher for anyone. If a teacher says you should never train with anyone else, that should be a loud warning signal to find a different teacher.


Saturday, July 16, 2016

Marti Malloy on Olympic Judo

Marti Malloy is the Olympic bronze medalist in Judo at under 57 kg.  She will represent the US again in Rio in a few weeks. She writes quite passionately about competing in judo here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Budo Dream

I had a get together this weekend for a bunch of friends. It’s the fulfillment of an early budo fantasy. When I started out on my budo journey, I really didn’t know anything. I’d read some articles and looked through a few books, but this was the 1980s. The internet was still 10 years away, and I’d have to wait  20 years for Youtube to be created.

Like many at the beginning of the journey, I had fantasies about what the journey would be like, where it would lead, and what I might become. You know, a powerful martial artist, strong and respected by senior teachers and masters. I started in judo, and had visions of myself as a senior teacher easily throwing strong, young men about the room. People would treat me with respect and deference, and call me “Sensei” like I called the people I respected and looked to for guidance in mastering judo.

All I really understood was that it takes a long time and a lot of practice to get there. That didn’t seem like a particular hardship, because I was having so much fun learning and playing with judo that spending time practicing in the dojo may well have been my favorite thing to do. Fortunately, the dojo is still one of my favorite places to spend time.  Training and working up a sweat with the various budo I do now (which still includes Kodokan Judo) is something I look forward to and can’t get enough of.  I spent this morning doing iaido, and hopefully I’ll do something tomorrow.

Time passed.  I graduated from college and managed to do what a lot of people say would be wonderful but few ever do. I found a way to move to Japan to live and train. I spent years living in Japan, training judo as much as I could (sometimes 4 or even 5 practices a week).  I earned a black belt, and promotions beyond that. I found new arts to train in alongside judo. Now I can confuse people by saying that I do judo and jodo.

I met genuine masters.  People who had been doing budo for more than twice as long as I’d been alive at that point. I met a swordsmith and got to work as his assistant. I learned to handle swords that were legendary in America. I cut myself more than a few times in the process. I trained in dojo that had no air conditioning in the summer and no heat in the winter. I learned that I could do judo and iaido even when my feet are numb. I also learned that I really don’t want to train when my feet are numb with cold.

At judo I got thrown around by everyone. Guests always wanted to try out the gaijin and see just how strong he was. At first, I wasn’t. They threw me all over the place. I kept coming back.  Honestly, I was still having loads of fun. As the years passed, I must have learned something, because guests kept challenging me, but I started throwing them from time to time, and then more frequently. Then one of my seniors in the dojo started pulling people aside and whispering in their ear if he saw them headed my way.

My sword teachers were more than three times my age, yet they still moved with a strength and elegance I envied. 80-year-old men who could move a razor sharp sword with ease, speed and precision. They would put on their kendo armor and totally dominate strong high school athletes who trained every day. Takada Sensei practiced with a monster blade that was 400 years old.

Eventually I moved back to the USA, but I never stopped training. I’m still training. And last weekend I realized that I had achieved the fantasy of my early judo practice.  I had a little gathering of friends. I invited martial arts friends from all over the country to come train together and share aspects of their arts with each other.  Among the guests were senior teachers from several traditions: judo, a couple of different styles of aikido, an iai teacher, and a classical jujutsu teacher.

They all came with respect for each other and for me. More than anything else I’ve done, this tells me that I’m doing something right. That so many fine martial artists would be willing to join me and share the lessons they’ve learned is amazing to the kid who started judo back in the 80s.

We had a wonderful time. Friends started arriving on Thursday afternoon and we were all like kids in the budo candy shop. We talked and explored ideas and drank beer and talked some more.  We went sailing. Friday was spent making numerous trips to and from the airport to gather up all the friends arriving that day. I became very familiar with the construction zones at the airport. No one complained that I drive like judoka, they just accepted it with a smile.

Conversations ranged all over the map. In the group are doctors, artists, scholars, world champion athletes and brilliant minds of all sorts. We talked budo, medicine, budo, science, budo, books, budo, philosophy, and more budo.

Saturday we laid out mats and started training. I’d rented two nice sized halls so we could have organized training going on in one room, and casual discussions and explorations in the other room at the same time. There were always folks playing with weapons somewhere, and there always seemed to be someone trying to grab or hit somebody else to see what would happen.

We explored some great techniques from aikido and I noticed the relationships to some Daito Ryu I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. The balance-taking and controlling are also similar to some things I do in judo. Then we had a fun round of judo.  We saw some interesting judo kata, and we got to play with something that looks completely different from anything in aikido -  foot sweeps.  Except that they aren’t completely different. The same principles of timing and controlling your partner’s center apply,  and the ukemi to protect yourself when thrown is remarkably similar.  The mindset is a little different, the strategy very different, but the principles and effects are remarkably similar. Uke goes flying. Disrupt the center, remove stability and take uke to a place where there is nothing to support them. Beautiful, simple, efficient and nearly effortless. It was great fun watching the aikido folks working out the timing and movement for something so far from the techniques they practice regularly while still applying many of the same principles. In the spirit of the weekend, they leaped into it with enthusiasm and without comments or claims. They just tried it and enjoyed the ride any time their partner got the sweep right.

After the judo, we put the mats away and got out bokuto - wooden swords. A friend of mine taught some kenjutsu kata she inherited from her teacher. During the class there was pure respect.  No cries of “Well, we do it this way.” from the class. Everyone was focused and interested in learning as much as they could from from a respected teacher in a tradition other than their own. Everyone shared the desire to learn as much as possible from everyone there.

Egos were left at the door. No one had to prove anything to anyone. We were all looking to learn and share. Each teacher was respected for what they brought to the room. This can be pretty rare in budo circles. For a practice that is supposed to help us transcend our limitations, a lot of us get trapped by our egos, worried about how good we are compared to the person next to us and busy trying to prove our way is the best. It’s a trap I know from the inside, because it’s caught me a time or two.

I’ve been blessed with some incredible teachers who’ve helped me recognize the damage ego has done to others, and to escape the trap myself. Over time, my teachers have honored me with their respect and trust. They have entrusted me with treasures of learning and knowledge handed down from their teachers and teachers before them. As I become responsible for these treasures, I discover that the gifts my teachers have given me are both an honor and a burden. These treasures are not for me to hoard and keep to myself. They are meant to be shared with people who will take the lessons to heart and use them to grow and to pass them on to others beyond themselves.

With this gathering of friends there is both the honor of being accepted as someone with gifts and skills to share, and to be surrounded by people who I know will soak up what I have to share. They will make the best possible use of the techniques, even as I’m busy trying to absorb as much from them as I possibly can in an all too short weekend.

After my friend finished sharing her teacher’s kenjutsu with us,  we cleaned up a little, went out to the courtyard, and did a little tameshigiri.  None of us are part of the Battodo Federation or any similar group that spends a lot of time on tameshigiri, so it’s a lovely treat and challenge for all of us, from those who specialize in the sword to those who may have never picked up a live blade before.  One of the big secrets of cutting with a good sword is to let the sword do the work.  It’s a great tool and will cut beautifully, if you let it.  

After we turned a stack of rolled mats into a large pile of mat confetti, spent the evening back at the house talking about everything imaginable, and playing with even more budo.  I looked in living room and there was a Yoshinkan Aikido teacher and a jujutsu teacher arm-to-arm playing with different approaches to techniques.  Out on the deck the discussion of budo philosophy had gotten frighteningly complex. In between in the family room someone had set up massage table and a couple of people were working on a third and trying to free up some range of movement.  It was definitely not a relaxing massage.  When things wound down everyone, regardless of rank, grabbed stuff and helped clean up. No egos, no expectations, everyone just pitched in and started doing whatever looked like it needed doing. Everyone was here as a student of budo and everyone contributed.

Sunday was more of the same. We studied some jodo while the weather was cool enough to be outside. Lots of fun and the occasional big smile as a light bulb went on and people connected the jo practice with things they knew from other practices.

In the afternoon we had a session with an aikido teacher from Yoshinkan. Everyone was out on the mats, the Aikikai folks, the judo guys, the jujutsu teacher all got out there and tried this stuff. The stuff that is similar is surprisingly similar.  We all emphasize correct posture, breathing and movement, even when we approach them from different directions.  I’m trying to figure out how to get some of these lessons across to my judo students now. I can see where they would benefit from some of the ideas being emphasized by the different traditions, I just have to find a way to present it that communicates in a judo framework.

The last session of the weekend was the least martial, but perhaps the most universally applicable.  One of the teachers has developed a curriculum for teaching safe falling to non-martial artists. There are lots of people who are at risk of taking a dangerous fall, and she’s worked out a way to teach them falling without having to learn the high impact ukemi of aikido or judo. It’s a brilliant application of budo techniques and principles to the wider world.

After dinner that evening, we were somber for a while. All of us have been training long enough that we have lost teachers and friends along the way. We remembered a friend we trained with last year who passed away, and we remembered teachers and friends, some gone many years, but still alive in our hearts and in our practice. A somber time, and an important one. Our budo journeys didn’t start in untraveled wilderness. We each took our first steps on pathways that had first been cleared and later paved by teachers and students long before we were born.

My first judo teacher is gone.  So are my first iaido teachers. I continue to practice their lessons and pass them on to my students. I’m sorry they can’t be here to see how I’ve developed thanks to the lessons and directions they gave me as I was starting out. I still find it hard to believe that I’m teaching their lessons to students of my own, and that teachers of other styles whom I respect seem to have as much respect for me. In an important way, these teachers I respect stand in for and represent the teachers I have lost. They help me test and grow my understanding, and they are perfectly happy to call me out when my ego gets too big or my ideas are simply foolish.

The Monday after all the training was a little quieter.  We hung around in back and talked and swapped jokes until someone had the idea to go to the zoo. If someone was thinking that this would be a safe place for us, they were very wrong. The use of humor as atemi became so strong and effective that one poor member of the group had to run away because her face was hurting from laughing and smiling so much!

One thing that came out of this wonderful weekend was the reminder of just how little I know and how much there is still out there for me to learn. Even after decades of training with empty hands and a variety of weapons, I spent much of the weekend learning new things and getting a new perspective on things I thought I understood. Aside from all the marvelous learning I was doing, it is inspiring and joyous to know that the journey is far from over.  It’s been so much fun getting to where I am that realizing the journey is still in its beginning stages makes me happy.

All these teachers and budoka came to visit and share and laugh and train together out of respect and admiration for each other. That they have as much respect for me as I do for them is the fulfilment of that young judoka fantasy. The journey has been long and the lessons learned along the way humbling and amazing. That I have earned this much respect from people I respect is a frightening thing. I often wonder what they can possibly see in me to be worthy of their respect. My teachers saw something in me worth teaching though, and these teachers see someone with something to share with them that is worthy of respect. That’s something wonderful, and great gift to someone who frequently feels like a beginner who knows nothing.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Yamashita Yoshiaki Photos

Yamashit Yoshiaki visited the USA from 1903 to 1905.  During that time he taught judo to a number of people, including Teddy Roosevelt.  This article and photo album at the Amherst Library is an amazing record.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Growth Of Budo

I was listening to NPR the other day on the way to work and they had an interview with Takagi Kikue, an 83 year old survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Takagi San’s openness in sharing her experience with Americans, and her ability to grow beyond the nationalism she grew up in and to embrace the world without seeming bitter even after the horrors she lived through brought back memories of my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei. He was a grand gentleman when I met him. Tall for Japanese, particularly of his era, he was already in his seventies when I first met him.

He was leading an iaido demonstration at the Minakuchi Castle ruins, It was quite the display. I remember that Suda Sensei had borrowed a suit of armor and was wearing that for the demonstration. 20 or so people swinging swords and a guy in full armor before a castle turret and gate makes for quite a site. I wish I’d taken more pictures. I was there because I’d heard there would be an iai demonstration. I started looking for iaido after I got to know the swordsmith Nakagwa Taizoh because I wanted to be better able to appreciate the incredible swords I was always seeing and handling when I visited him.

I somehow got myself introduced to Takada Sensei and asked about studying iai. At the time I lived 5 minutes from the castle, but I was planning to move to Yokaichi soon. Luckily for me, Takada Sensei was teaching in Eichigawa, just 2 train stops and a 5 minute walk from where I would be living.  They held practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the half of the community gym not being used by the local kendo club at the same time. It turned out that Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were both senior members and teachers of the kendo club as well as teaching iai.  

Both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were Japanese Imperial Army veterans. In 1993 there were still a lot of veterans of The Great Pacific War around. Takada Sensei invited me to come train at their dojo.. He was the senior teacher, and although both he and Suda Sensei were 7th dans in iai, and both were in their 70s, I found out later that Takada Sensei was Suda Sensei’s teacher. They were both amazing, quick and strong.  

I made the effort to go to iai practice, still a bit apprehensive about being a gaijin doing a classical Japanese martial art. This was 1993, and gaijin in classical budo were still extremely rare. The only worthwhile books on the subject that I had seen were Donn Draeger’s, and they didn’t fill me with confidence that someone showing up, gaijin or Japanese, would be automatically welcomed into the family.
Takada Shigeo Sensei

Fortunately for me, Takada Sensei was a grand, warm, outgoing human being who was delighted to have someone interested in the art he taught. He had me practicing the first night when I arrived to ask if it might be ok to learn iaido. I was expecting every myth and legend about starting a traditional martial art that you can imagine. Anything was possible in my active imagination, and I envisioned scenarios from having to sit outside for a number of classes to having to perform outrageous demonstrations of my sincere desire to learn (having seen what kindergarten and elementary students in Japan often had to go through with wearing shorts all winter for school to toughen them, and some of the gatsu (guts) training that junior high and high school sports teams go through (thousand fungo drill anyone?), I was more than a little worried about what I might have to do to prove I was serious.

It turned out my biggest concern was how soon I could get an iaito, hakama and keikogi. At first, Takada Sensei lent me an old one the dojo had, but I needed to get a hakama and keikogi right away. That called for a quick trip to Kyoto. I’m always up for a trip to Kyoto, and an excuse to browse through all the budo shops around the Budo Center is always welcome.  So I found a beautiful indigo, cotton hakama. It cost more than I could afford while buying an iaito though, so I saved money by asking my sister-in-law to sew ties on an old judogi and turn that into a keikogi. Takada Sensei seemed ok with that.

Budo such as iai were born in a place and time where anyone who wasn’t Japanese had no rights in Japan, and in fact just being from somewhere else and being in Japan was a crime punishable by death. In that time and place, to be Japanese was to be sure you were the finest flowering of human accomplishment. The rest of the world was filled with barbarians who would surely benefit from the civilizing influence of Japanese culture, but were probably too barbaric to really appreciate it.

Less than a hundred years after that world came to a violent end, torn apart from within, Japan was at war with much of the world, driven in part by a firm belief in the superiority of the Japanese culture and spirit.. Takada Sensei and Suda Sense both served in that war in their youth. The budo the studied in their youth had a frighteningly nationalistic bent to it. People like me were clearly barbarians utterly incapable of appreciating the subtlety and profundity of budo and other aspects of Japanese culture.

Takada Sensei could have carried the ideology and prejudices he was raised in with him throughout his life. Instead he transcended that. Budo, which when he began it had been co-opted as a tool for indoctrinating and preparing people for military service, became much more than that. Oddly enough for things that are called “martial arts,” budo like iaido managed to grow by shedding their militaristic accretions. Takada Sensei, who started budo while being prepared for life as a soldier, transcended his early lessons. He gave up his prejudice and grew.

His budo grew with him. When I met him, he was thrilled to be able to share his iaido with me. He really loved teaching me, and all of his students. I was his first non-Japanese student, but not the last one. Even in the very rural corner of Shiga Prefecture where we were, international students started to find the dojo as both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei made a point to let people know that international students would be warmly welcomed.

Takada Sensei enjoyed pointing to his sword, a beautiful 450 year old blade that still had the military mounting he put it in when he went off to war. He would take it out and say “This was for killing Americans, but now it teaches them.” He was very happy and proud that he, his sword, and his art, had grown beyond the limits and prejudices of his youth. Instead of an instrument of war, his sword had become a tool for bringing people together in a shared journey of growth.

Budo is not a static idea, and Takada Sensei understood this well. What budo means, the reasons for practicing it, the goals to be achieved along the path of practice are not stuck in one age or ideal. People argue about what constitutes “real budo” as if there was some point in history when budo was pure, pristine and perfect. Happily for us, that day never was.

Budo is not a something anyone can possess.Takada Sensei, with his sharply ironic comments about the change in the status of his sword understood and embodied that better than many. Budo started out as a very practical aspect of training soldiers to fight. This training blended with Neo-Confucian ideas and the influence of sado, tea ceremony practices, after the establishment of peace during the Tokugawa era. For 250 years the idea of what budo is was blended with ideas from all over Japan. With the opening of Japan new ideas flooded in. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a backlash developed against the seemingly overwhelming tsunami of new and foreign ideas. Early in the 20th century budo was swept up in the arguments about how Japan should develop any ideas of Japanese uniqueness. By this time though budo had developed too widely to be truly claimed by any one view.

Great budo thinkers and leaders from kendo, iai, kenjutsu, naginata, and judo argued and debated whether budo practice should serve the state, Japan or all of humanity. A few, like Kano Jigoro Shihan of Kodokan Judo, had sufficient status to be able to openly disagree with the militarists in power. Most teachers did not have significant status to protect them if they didn’t agree with those in power. Those who did agree gravitated to the big, national, budo organization. Those who didn’t generally kept their heads down and their opinions to themselves.

Everyone who grew up in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s grew up doing some sort of budo in school. Boys did kendo, judo, jukendo. Girls learned naginata. It was considered an essential part of the education and development of proper Japanese spirit.

Takada Sensei was a gifted and talented swordsman, with kyoshi certificates in both iai and kendo.  I can still picture him handling his family’s heirloom sword with casual power and perfect control. When he swung it looked as easy and effortless as child with a bubble wand, and when he stopped the blade it was as sudden and solid as if he had driven it deep into a tree stump.  Like his sword, he was polished and bright.  Even in his late seventies, when I met him, his budo was bright and lively, polished smooth and shining.

He didn’t get there quickly. He spent decades and decades and decades on the path of budo striving to perfect his technique and himself. He wasn’t perfect, no one ever gets there, but he was a wonderful example to me of what the journey can be and where it can take you. From a young officer in the Japanese military to a lifetime of teaching people of all ages how to be a little bit better today than they were yesterday through training with the sword, he grew and matured. Along the way so did his budo.

By the time I found my way into Takada Sensei’s dojo in 1993 he had more than 60 years of budo practice and shugyo under his wide kaku obi. He’d been thinking about what budo was, and the budo Sensei was teaching when I found my way into his dojo was greater than just something that only native Japanese could appreciate and benefit from. Budo that wasn’t limited to training medieval warriors for life in a land of endless civil war. Budo that wasn’t limited to being a finishing school for the social elites who ran pre-modern Japan. Budo that certainly wasn’t limited to developing the spirit in Japanese youth to conquer and dominate the world.

Takada Sensei taught me and showed me budo that is for the world. His sword, instead of cutting down enemies as it was surely intended to do when crafted during the Muromachi Era, performed the miracle of binding together an old Japanese gentleman and an immature, young American. Budo grew from deep Japanese roots, but it is flowering around the world.