One of the problems people have with this is that they imagine, therefore, a dojo of screaming abuse, etc. I've written about this as 'wolf-pack etiquette' - the wolves are relaxed, even playing, but are continuously aware of the alpha(s) and at the slightest muscle twitch, they are 100% committed in attention and action.
That said, this is an elite model - and some people will never bring the intensity, some people may collapse mid-way.
And in this model, there is a lot of self-study required - not only introspection and solo-training, but in rounding out your knowledge any way one can, through books, etc
Ellis Amdur, from a conversation on Facebook
Transmitting koryu budo ryuha is a challenge, even in Japan. Koryu don’t fit neatly into the modern world of computer games and polite work cultures. The ferocity and intensity of good koryu practice are not generally welcomed in the workplace or anywhere else. The spirit of practice is very different from modern budo forms that have been created to fit into a sporting style of training and encourage ideas of fairness and openness. Teaching the techniques of a koryu budo tradition is the easy part. It’s transmitting the essential spirit of a koryu budo ryuha that is difficult.
Koryu aren’t nice, they aren’t sporting and they really aren’t fair. Koryu are about self-mastery and survival. Not all koryu are as raw as EllisAmdur’s descriptions of Araki Ryu training, but they are all ferocious in their approach to training and to living. Nice, at best, would get you ground under foot in the worlds of hot and cold conflict where they evolved in the Japan of the 14th through 19th centuries. Even during the enforced peace of the Edo era, daimyo were in conflict with each other, and everything was fought in ways that required absolute self-mastery. The 47 ronin ended up committing seppuku because their daimyo, Lord Asano, didn’t have the self-mastery to deal with the indignities that Lord Kira is said to have inflicted on him. There were right ways and wrong ways to go about handling a matter of honor between two men of their rank. Losing your temper and drawing your sword in the shogun’s castle was the worst way. Asano’s actions declared him unfit to be a daimyo.
Hinkaku 品格、 is an essential quality that all traditional Japanese arts seek to instill in their practitioners. The Kodansha Online Dictionary defines it as “grace; dignity; class; style; panache”. These qualities are fundamental to hinkaku, and are developed in all Japanese arts, from shodo to cha no yu to koryu budo (they are supposed to be taught in gendai budo as well, but from the behavior I have seen at judo, and karatedo tournaments, this idea is honored more in the breach than in the keeping). Hinkaku in koryu budo has additional characteristics. It is fierce with a cold intensity that can freeze others with a look.
My iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, displayed hinkaku every second I was with him. He even managed to project hinkaku when playing with my then preschool daughters and with his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One of the things that sets koryu budo apart from other arts is this ferocious intensity. With Kiyama Sensei, that intensity was something that was always there if you looked for it, but the only time I saw it fully uncovered was during koryu budo practice. His intensity during iai was so great I expected the floor of the dojo to start smoking where his gaze was focused. During kenjutsu training he could freeze me in place with his ferocity.
|Kiyama Hiroshi Shihan, Photo copyright Yamada Kumiko.|
For all that ferocity and intensity though, he was never tense. He was the embodiment of relaxed power even when tearing me apart in kenjutsu. Relaxed and focused and ferocious all at once. The ferocity and intensity of the hinkaku displayed by koryu budo adepts is what sets the hinkaku they display apart from that shown by masters of shodo, cha no yu and other arts.
That ferocious, relaxed intensity is an essential element of living koryu budo. Developing such intensity, whether in a local dojo or a distant study group, is a challenge. Early on in my training my teachers were often frightening in their intensity. Over time, as my skills and my own intensity developed, I came to relish those moments when they unleashed it. I had to discover within myself the ability to stand before that level of focused ferocity and not disintegrate under its power. It is this aspect of the spirit of koryu budo, of relaxed, ferocious intensity that I am still trying to figure out how to develop in my students.
Describing that intensity and ferocity can cause people to imagine a world of teachers barking orders, students rushing around with military precision, corporal punishment and casual physical abuse. It’s not. Koryu dojo are the most relaxed places I have ever trained. Gendai budo are much more militaristic than koryu budo. The intensity and ferocity of koryu budo are always available, always within easy mental reach, but they are only pulled out when they are to be used.
That the koryu dojo is not run with military precision does not mean that people are sloppy and lackadaisical. Just as with any good budo, there is no unnecessary tension. Everyone is aware of what’s going on and paying attention to sensei. Sensei never speaks louder than necessary to be heard. He doesn’t have to. People are paying attention and always ready to react to sensei’s direction, without looking like they are standing at attention.
One of my seniors is the nicest, gentlest person I have ever met. He’s Japanese and he is so gentle that he uses keigo (very polite, honorific language) with everyone he talks with, whether they are the most senior teacher or the most junior student. It is impossible to imagine him saying anything harsh, and I can’t imagine how you would have to misbehave for him to yell at you. However, bow in to train with him, and he is intense, ferocious and wickedly fast. He apologizes profusely if you get hit during training (he’s so precise that if I get hit, I know it was my fault) but he doesn’t pull his attacks. He comes in with intensity whenever he is actively training. In between he’s sweet and gentle.
Teaching the focus and intensity that characterize this kind of practice is one of the great challenges for koryu budo teachers in the 21st century. When my teachers were growing up and were first learning their koryu Japan was a hard place to live. Kiyama Sensei was born in 1925 and grew up when Japan was at war. Much of the education system was devoted to developing toughness and ferocity in the students. The first couple of decades after World War 2 bred their own sort of toughness, with food shortages and everyone’s energy directed towards rebuilding the country. What would be an overwhelmingly brutal practice session now was a walk in the park for people who had lived through WW2 and the post war deprivations.
I got the tiniest taste of it when I was first training in Japan. Most dojo still weren’t heated yet, so winter training in unheated dojo was the norm. I was training with plenty to eat every day and working a cushy job teaching English with plenty of rest. Food wasn’t rationed and I wasn’t laboring 12+ hours a day to rebuild my community and then going to practice.
We all, Japanese included, now live relatively comfortable lives. How you teach the ferocity and relaxed intensity necessary for good budo is a real question inside Japan and out. In the past teachers could start out expecting certain basic toughness from their students on the first day. Being willing and able to survive those sorts of practices was a given. Life was harsh at best.
In the 21st century, anyone who expects that sort of toughness on the first day won’t have many students. Toughness that was a given 75 years ago is hard to find. People in the industrialized world don’t need it, so it isn’t automatically developed. But such toughness is a necessary foundation for the intensity of koryu budo, so how do we develop that in our students in such a way that we don’t drive students away and we don’t weaken the ryuha?
To successfully transmit the spirit of koryu budo, teachers and training must be ferocious and intense. When I started koryu budo, I had several years of Kodokan Judo training, including in those old, unheated gymnasium dojo to develop a foundation upon which my koryu teachers could build. Even that did not prepare me for the particular quality of koryu budo training. Gendai budo, like any modern sport, has intense training that requires strong focus and dedication. I respect and honor that. However, koryu budo training brings in something additional that isn’t necessary in modern budo and sports.
For me, it comes down to the cliche of life and death. What we are doing in koryu dojo is going as close to the edge as we can, and then having our teachers and our seniors drag us several steps further through training. If I lose focus for an instant in judo, I get thrown or choked or arm locked. The moment passes and training continues; it’s nothing special. If I lose focus in koryu budo training, I’m liable to come in contact with my partner’s weapon. Even if your partner is tremendously skilled, the training is done with such intensity that there is no room for error. If you lose focus, you will get hit. You will know that you died.
Even when everything goes well, the margins in koryu dojo are only a centimeter or two. That’s all the space you have between success and death. Those weapons come in horribly close. You have to be so intent on your partner that having a dangerous weapon swing just past your nose doesn’t elicit the smallest response. For example, there are several kata in Shinto Muso Ryu that involve aiuchi situations. Uchitachi attacks and shijo doesn’t try to evade. She doesn’t try to block. She stops the attack with her own strike to uchitachi’s face. That end of the jo ends up about 5 cm deeper than where uchitachi’s face was. If uchitachi isn’t paying attention, she will get hit between the eyes. Hard. There is no room for error here.
In koryu kata there are many places where the margin for error has been removed. You either do your part perfectly, or you get hit. I’ve been hit a number of times. One of the most memorable involved a dear friend of mine. We were doing kenjutsu and I got careless. I started my evasion too early and gave her the time to adjust her cut. She did a wonderful job of tracking me and connecting her bokuto with the side of my head. I had an impressive swelling and bruising at the site for a couple of weeks. Other times I’ve moved too late or too slowly or left my elbow behind when I moved and gotten whacked. None of this is ever malicious. It’s just that the margins leave no room for errors.
When I train with any senior student of Shinto Muso Ryu, I know they will be focused on hitting their target, and I’m the target. The cuts and strikes are precise. Move too soon or too far, and I create an opening that my partner will exploit. Move too late or not far enough, I get hit. Training at this level of intensity is always quite thrilling, and if I make a mistake it can be painful.
As a teacher, I have to develop this intensity in my students. If you come to my dojo, I will try to make some of every practice as intense as I think you can handle. Often this will be more than you think you can handle. If I’m wrong, you probably won’t come back. The difficulty for teachers is gauging what a student can handle correctly. Even with a dedicated student, pushing too far too fast can be disastrous. People can get seriously hurt. Sometimes people decide not to come back, even if the teacher hasn’t made any mistakes.
That’s okay. Koryu aren’t concerned with having lots of students and members. That’s not what they are about. Koryu budo are about training people to fully embody the spirit of the ryuha. The spirit of any living koryu is ferociously intense. Each ryuha has a unique spirit. Araki Ryu is very different from Shinto Muso Ryu, and both are far different from Yagyu Shinkage Ryu. Training in any of them is a fiercely intense experience. The individual differences are clear when you watch experienced practitioners.
That intensity is always present at a low boil. There is laughter and joking, but always respect for the lessons we are learning, the weapons we are using and the people we are training with. Ellis’ metaphor of the wolf pack is apt one. If Sensei motions for attention, everyone is immediately silent, regardless of what sort of shenanigans were going on at the moment. There is a richness to this intense focus and practice that I don’t experience in the normal world outside the koryu budo dojo.
Koryu are not for everyone. That’s not an elitist or exclusivist statement. Lots of people bow into the dojo. Very few stick around. The dropout rate in gendai budo is high, but it’s even higher in koryu budo. Most people aren’t interested in the level of intensity required to fully transmit koryu budo; however, change the intensity level , and you won’t be doing koryu budo. The intensity is an essential part of the training.