Thursday, December 20, 2012

Update on training injured

An update on the ol’ knee.  Back in December of 2010 I bent my right knee roughly 45 degrees to the left.  I’ve been taking it easy and not pushing myself too hard.  I thought over the summer that it was pretty much healed.  It only took one regular judo practice to prove this was not true.  While I am fine for straight line movements, it turns out that any sort of lateral movement is both painful and a chance for my knee to collapse under me.  I decided I should do something sensible.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been visiting doctors and having x-rays and MRI’s taken to find out what is wrong with my knee.  Now I know.  I completely tore my anterior cruciate ligament, and I’ve partially torn the posterior cruciate ligament and the lateral collateral ligament.  The result is a very unstable knee that can’t take much lateral pressure at all.  If I think about it much, it’s rather scary.

Not so many years ago, this injury would have been the end of my budo career.  I can move in straight lines, but any sort of lateral movement is impossible right now, which makes most of the budo I do problematic.  It made me consider what it might mean to not practice budo anymore.  At first that was too scary a thought to touch upon very hard.  Budo and budo practice are important to my idea of who and what I am.  At first, the idea of not having budo as a part of my life was so frightening I found myself coming up with rationales for why that couldn’t happen.

Then I had to ask myself why did the idea of not doing budo anymore make me so anxious?  Budo is great.  I almost accept that as an a priori  truth that needs no support.  When I realized I was close to that level of devotion to it, I decided I needed to do some serious thinking about what budo is in my life.  If I can’t imagine life without budo, I’m probably putting too much emphasis on it, and I need to work at getting my life more balanced.

Budo, like any “do” 道、is a small way pointing its finger at the big Way 道 that the Taoists talk about.  But budo isn’t the Grand Way of the Universe.  It’s a small way that is approachable by a little guy like me.  I don’t imagine that I will ever be so wise that I really understand the Grand Way of the Universe, the Big Tao that Lao Tzu talks about in the Tao Te Ching 道徳経、but I do think I might be able to get a handle on a little way like budo.

I like budo training.  I really like it.  It’s one of the most absorbing things I do.  I can get lost in budo practice for hours at a time, and occasionally, when I’m really lucky, whole days.  Good budo challenges me at every level: physical, mental, and emotional.  It makes me look at things very closely, break them apart and see how things are connected.  Why it is that when my partner does X, the most suitable thing for me to do is Y.  It’s not just about how I move my body and what I do.  It’s about how what I do influences my partner and vice-versa.  It’s how I move in space and time and how I move with the people and things around me.  Do I go blundering into things, lurching from situation to situation, or do I move with awareness and sensitivity to my surroundings and what is happening beyond myself.

That’s the point where my little way, budo 武道, meets up with the big Way 道 of Lao Tzu.  I learn about living in the world and interacting with it through practicing budo.  I learn about how to move effectively, waiting for the right time to move, leveraging what my partner is doing to strengthen my actions, not overreaching, not overextending, and knowing when to pull back instead of blundering on the way I’m going.  These are lessons I really try to apply to my life outside the dojo.  I’m never sure how successful I am at applying them to life, but I’m trying.

But what is it about budo practice that is so great that I don’t want to imagine life without it?  The tough answer isn’t that budo practice is so great.  It’s not the epiphanies about living in the world that I get from practice.  It’s not the lessons about movement and stillness.  It’s not the lessons about timing and not moving before the moment is right.  It is about the rush of being able to handle myself and a weapon at a higher level than I move at on a normal day.  It is about the thrill of not getting injured and being able to handle it when someone attacks me without reservation.  It’s about having access to physical power that other people don’t have.  In other words, the parts of budo that I don’t want to imagine being without, are the outer shell of training that is all about my ego.

If I could never train again the way I am accustomed to training, I would not lose the deep lessons of training.  I would still be able to work on timing, stillness, movement, best action in the world.  I wouldn’t be able to work on being tougher and more dangerous.  I wouldn’t be able to practice with dangerous weapons or doing powerful empty hand techniques.  I would have to let go of that part of me that finds these things exciting and a rush and a boost to my ego.

As I thought about this, I realized that what I need to work on is getting rid of that part of my ego.  The injury to my knee is painful, but blessedly, it can be fixed.  If I don’t let go of my ego though, I can cause injury to the people I train with, as well as those I live and work with.  Looking back, the injury to my knee was partly driven by ego. I really wanted to prove I could throw my training partner.  Did I need to?  I could have gotten through the evening’s training without throwing him, and we both would have been fine.  Unfortunately, I really wanted to prove something to him and to myself, and it was something that didn’t need to be proven.  So I tried to set up a throw, and instead of letting it go when it didn’t work out, I pushed more effort into the throw.  My partner did a perfectly reasonable movement to stop the throw, and when I threw in still more effort, the thing that ended up giving was my knee.  

If my ego had not been involved, I doubt I would have pushed for that technique.  My ego was involved though, and it blinded me to the proper movement, positioning and timing.  My ego convinced me to try something that was clearly foolish and doomed to failure.  I’m glad it happened and I got injured there.  In the dojo, with good training partners is a good place to find out about your ego.  What if it had happened at home or at work or on the street?  At home I could have insisted on winning arguments and being right and in charge, harming my relationships with my family and friends.  At work I could push my views forward over better plans and advice to elevate myself amongst those I work with, and perhaps harmed others jobs and incomes with plans based on my ego rather than good timing and positioning in the market.  On the street perhaps my ego would have insisted on “defending” myself from someone and getting hurt or even killed, when a better solution might have cost me my wallet or just the a bit of ego as I let someone else have their way even though it might be wrong, rude and disrespectful.

The important bits of budo practice I can find in other places.  I can work on breathing and timing and presence and movement in a lot of activities that don’t involve combat practice.  If I can’t at least control my ego, or better still, let go of it, then maybe budo training isn’t the place for me to be right now.  That’s the powerful lesson coming from this injury.  My ego has gotten too big.  I need to work on cutting it down to size.  I’m finding this aspect a lot more painful and troublesome than any of the physical pain I’ve encountered in training.  

It’s easy to train the physical aspects of budo, but the mental side is more critical.  This where you learn not respond to threats and attacks that aren’t real threats.  I’ve learned that much about maai in the dojo.  There is a point where my partner is too far away to be able to reach me.  In these situations I can ignore the sword strike and focus on my partner because I know the sword is not going to touch me.  I don’t have to move unless I want to.  I’ve learned to await the real attack peacefully, without excess tension or excitement.  Then I move when it’s really appropriate to instead of whenever something appears to be threatening.  I’m trying to learn to apply that lesson to encounters outside the dojo.  This is tough.  Often what is being threatened is not me so much as my image of myself.  

This injury has forced me to face one part of that.  The threat of not being able to do budo is not a threat to me.  It’s a threat to my image of me.  Looking at it that way, the most difficult part becomes trying to drag my image of myself closer to whatever the reality is.  I enjoy budo immensely, but it’s not all I am.  Being really honest with myself is tough because it is so discomfiting.  I have to admit that, as much as I love budo, and as much as I try to define myself in budo terms, that’s only a small fraction of who I am, and I need to make room for imagining myself in other ways.

This doesn’t mean giving up budo, by any means.  It does mean admitting that a threat to my budo practice is not a threat to me.  It does mean balancing what I’m doing in budo with some other activities to make me a more complete person.  I know I’ll never be finished.  I will be a work in progress until there is nothing left that can be call “me”.   Budo is a part of that. Right now it’s a part I really love and enjoy.  But it’s not an essential part of my life or who I am.  I have to accept that and train with an awareness of this.  My budo is a small way, not the grand Way of the Universe.  If I remember that, I can learn a lot from it.  When I forget this, my ego swells and I can go off in all sorts of unhelpful directions.

My knee hurts.  And it’s really frustrating when I can’t do things I want to because I’m pretty sure my knee won’t support them.  I’ve got lots of other things to work on and think about though.  This knee injury isn’t the end of the world.  It’s a change, and a hurdle and problem.  One of the few things I think I’ve figured out about the big Tao is that change is constant, form is transitory.  This knee injury is a useful lesson, and it keeps on teaching.  My budo training will go on, but it will be different, and hopefully less ego driven. If I hadn’t gotten hurt, I might have been able to avoid this lesson, and that would have been worse than the injury.

I wonder what lessons I’ll learn from having my knee put back together?  This injury is definitely no fun. I'd much rather be physically whole, but I think I may have learned something valuable about myself in the process of dealing with this injury.  Now if I can just keep learning. It's not the end of my budo career, but it is the start of a new phase.   

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Budo Then and Now

I was reading where someone was saying  they are working to preserve the spirit of budo as it had been 500 years ago.  That sounds nice on the surface, but when I think about it, I’m not so sure this is really a desirable thing.  Budo is a way, a path, a journey.  If we try to keep it exactly as it was, it is no longer a journey, and it loses its relevance to the present.

I can understand the urge to preserve a martial art without allowing anything to change the art and the tradition.  The people who created these arts were geniuses, and what they created has great value.  That value can be destroyed when people who lack sufficient depth of experience and understanding start playing around with the techniques and kata which make up the art.  It would be too easy to lose the core of a martial art by trying to constantly update it and make it attractive so as to compete with every new fad that comes along.  One look at what modern competitive judo has become will show what a mistake this path can be.

Kodokan Judo includes everything that can be included under these two fundamental principles: “Maximum efficiency, minimum effort” and “Mutual benefit and welfare”.   Competitive judo no longer has guiding principles.  It is about being popular, easy to understand and putting on a good show.  To these ends, the rules get rewritten based on whatever seems likely to increase the sport’s popularity this year.  In order to make competitive judo more popular, the International Judo Federation recently banned an entire range of throwing techniques.  No good explanation has been given by the International Judo Federation (IJF) for why they did this, but the strongest speculation seems to be that this will remove wrestling and modern BJJ elements from the sport.  Judo grew strong accepting challenges from other jujutsu styles and learning from defeats.  Modern judo is just running away from the challenges posed by other grappling systems, becoming weaker and less worthy of respect in the process.

Worse than this, in a recent press release, the IJF said that the new rules are “to promote beautiful and spectacular judo, where ippon becomes the ultimate goal again”.  Except that the aim of Judo is not scoring ippon (full point win) in a competition.  The aim of Judo is to develop an understanding of the principles of “mutual benefit and welfare” and “maximum efficiency with minimum effort”.  Those are the principles of Judo.  Modifying rules to make Judo more exciting for spectators but less effective in teaching the essential, foundational principles of Judo and making it a less effective martial art is a betrayal of the spirit of Judo.  This is chasing popularity for the sake of being popular.  It is also the destruction of Judo.  I predict that if Judo continues down this path, it will disappear in just a few generations as people switch to arts that remain effective and based on good principles.

If we only preserve budo as it was, without ever letting it change though, it becomes a museum piece.  Nice to look at, but not really something that belongs in our day to day lives.  In the past, budo systems were referred to as “ryu” .  This is a character that tells a lot about the nature of budo traditions.  Read “nagare” when it stands alone, means “stream, current, flow”.   This gives the idea that these teachings are flowing  through time.  Not static like a fossil, but alive, moving, changing, growing, as they pass through the years.  A great ryuha should not be weathered down and worn away by time like a rock, but it should grow mighty as water flows from a narrow stream in the highlands and gathers other streams into it and becomes a river.

Budo is a living way.  If we try to preserve it unchanged forever, it loses its value and relevance to the world around it.  Just as one’s individual understanding of Budo and its principles evolves as one grows in the art and deepens their understanding, Budo schools have to evolve and grow as the world they exist in changes.  This change can happen in variety of ways.  One of the most common is for a teacher to become dissatisfied with the art they are practicing to found a new art, which we can see around us abundantly in recent years.

Another possibility is for an art to actively grow and evolve, to remain suited to the world around it by making changes or additions that keep it up-to-date with the world.   An example of this is happening can be seen in the art of Shinto Muso Ryu.  Shinto Muso Ryu was founded on the use of a 128 cm staff, called a “jo”.  When the art was founded early in the 1600s, it was just the art of the staff versus the sword, with  some sword vs.  sword  techniques taught alongside,  so students could become proficient in the sword, both to better understand the art of the staff, and to understand the most common weapon in the world of Japan at that time, the sword.

As decades and centuries went by, the kata for jo were expanded to include more and more scenarios against the sword.  Over the decades, other weapons were added to the curriculum as well.  Jutte, a common police weapon in Tokugawa Japan, and the tying and binding art of hojojutsu  were added late in the 17th century as Shinto Muso Ryu became associated with the police force of the Kuroda-Han in southern Japan.  In the 19th century, a school of kusarigama (a short sickle with a ball and chain attached) was added to the curriculum, expanding the practitioners understanding of weapons and of longer spaces.  At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a period when walking sticks became quite fashionable, and since they were readily available, and similar to the core weapon of Shinto Muso Ryu, one of the senior practitioners developed a curriculum for the walking stick.  

Shinto Muso Ryu now offers a student the opportunity to learn weapons that function at a variety of ranges and that operate on principles of striking, cutting and flexibility.  The art has not stopped growing and adapting.  During the second half of the 20th century, a group of techniques for dealing with unarmed attackers who grab the jo were developed.  These have not been included in the official curriculum yet, but they are taught to students as kuden, or verbal tradition of the art.  I know that leaders of some lines of Shinto Muso Ryu are also developing additions to the art that they see as beneficial to their students.  The most common of these are iai forms, but it is perfectly reasonable to imagine a senior teacher deciding that Shinto Muso Ryu should also offer a set of empty hand techniques to go with the art’s weapons training.  It hasn’t happened yet, but Shinto Muso Ryu is only 400 years old.  There is lots of time for the art to continue to grow and adapt.

Living arts change, grow and adapt.  Dying arts have pieces of themselves worn away by time and are eventually forgotten.   This phenomena can be seen as well.  Some styles of iaido that once encompassed not only solo kata but also paired weapons work with multiple weapons have lost all or nearly all of their paired kata and they are down to just 1 weapon.  These are fading arts, because in losing their paired kata and many of their weapons, they don’t get just a smaller curriculum, they also lose a huge amount of knowledge about timing, spacing and combative distances.  You can’t learn how to judge spacing and timing from solo practice.  You also cannot learn to read a person’s body cues to understand what they will do next, or what lines of movement they have committed themselves to.  Without a variety of weapons, they are limited in understanding the distances necessary for a variety of weapons lengths and types.  It is possible that by letting these paired practices fade, they arts in question have lost the majority of their knowledge, utility and applicability to the world.  This can be seen in Judo as well.  The rule changes mentioned are the elimination of attacks and defenses.  The art is shrinking and losing some of its strength.  It is fading, and if this continues, it will die.

It’s possible for an art to revive, especially if there are multiple lines of transmission.  Then lines that have lost aspects can learn them anew from lines that have maintained their tradition.  This is tough though, and takes some brutal honesty on the part of the line looking to recover it’s full breadth and depth.  The leaders of such an art have to be willing to admit that their art is less than what it was, and could be, and go to someone else and humbly beg to be taught what has been forgotten.  That takes true humility, which is often especially difficult for someone who has become senior in an art.  

It has happened though.  Members of Kashima Shinto Ryu recognized that a part of their art had slipped away at some point and was no longer known.  However, they also knew of related arts that still taught similar practices to those they had lost.  Being more loyal to their art than to their own ego and status, the leaders of Kashima Shinto Ryu went humbly to one of these other arts and asked to learn what had been lost by previous leaders of their own art.  For all that you hear of jealously guarded secrets in the martial arts, there is a lot of openness also, and the leaders of the art approached by Kashima Shinto Ryu agreed to teach what had been lost.  By doing this, the leaders of Kashima Shinto Ryu strengthened their art and gave it new vitality.

There is no reason to assume that once an art has been around for a couple of generations in one form, that it can never change.  In truth, the opposite assumption should probably rule.  That once an art has been around for awhile, it will change.  The question then becomes “How much change is a good thing.”  I have to admit that I tend to think that less change is more successful.  Changes need time to be tried out and examined for robustness.  Those changes that aren’t robust enough should never be formally included in the art. If they do prove worthy over time, then they should certainly be included in the formal curriculum.  These changes and adaptations take time, decades rather than years, to become fully embedded into a living art.   

Most of the senior teachers in classical ryuha that I have met are extremely conservative about their art.  I used to suspect that they were ignoring the world around them striving to keep their art in the past.  As a spend more and more time training with them, my understanding and appreciation of their decisions grows.  They aren’t trying to make their arts wildly popular. They don’t want to be the next big thing.  The next big thing is always quickly replaced some other big thing.  They value their art and want it to be strong, with solid enough foundations that it will survive the changes around it and be able to absorb them instead of being broken by the changing world.  They do make changes.  As I look at classical ryuha, I see that they are adapting to the world.  They have changed the way they take on students and how they share their arts.  Many things are no longer hidden away in scrolls.  In some arts that have grown large enough, the art is presented in books and on professional videos!

It is the student’s responsibility for discovering how their art relates to the world they live in.  I once thought the teacher should show the student how it relates, but I’m realizing that I don’t live in quite the same world my students do, and I can’t make all the connections for them.  Each generation of students is responsible for understanding how their art is relevant to the world around them.  The world changes, but a koryu budo with solid principles will continue to be relevant without frequent changes, because what the ryuha is really teaching are the principles.  The techniques are just a means to that end.  Each generation has to do the work of learning the principles and applying them.  

I practice koryu budo.  I practice living arts.  I hope the arts my students practice will be subtly different than the arts I practice, as the art flows down through time, adds new knowledge and understanding, and adapts to new circumstances and challenges.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Swords, Budo, and the centuries

My friend Kawahara Sadachika is a sword smith in Japan (he's a Buddhist priest too, but that's an entirely different story).  I managed to squeeze in a visit to his house in the Shiga countryside during a business trip last month.  He is always a tremendous pleasure to visit.  His home is on the grounds of the temple he cares for and it is always lovely.  It's called Nenpo-ji and was built in 1712.  Here are some pictures of the temple.

Kawahara Sensei is gracious and wonderful gentleman.  I've known him for about 15 years.  Hopefully I'll get to visit him again soon when he is working in his forge.

This time though we looked as some swords he has made, as well as a beautiful Nanbokucho Period blade that he was studying.  I always enjoy looking as Japanese swords, because each one is so unique, not just in shape and history, but also in appearance.  Each has a unique hamon (temper line) and jihada (steel grain).  We looked at a couple of nice blades that Kawahara Sensei had made.  They have a wonderful, lively jihada.

It is always a pleasure to watch him work with blades, even just to clean them.  He does it with a sense of respect and honor towards the blade he is handling that is truly impressive.  In the above picture he is working on a wakizashi that he made.  It's a lovely piece, and my picture below doesn't do it justice.  I really need to take a better camera on my next visit.  The picture is fuzzy, but the blade itself is delightfully clear with a lively, active jihada.

We talked quite a bit about the beauty of the blades, and in particular about the Nanbokucho tachi that he was studying.  It's a really fine blade with a wonderful shape and general appearance, as well as beautiful detail.

As we were talking about the incredible craftsmanship and beauty of this particular blade, Kawahara Sensei commented casually that he would be satisfied if he could ever make a blade of this quality.  This stuck with me because I have heard similar sentiments from another friend of mine who is also a sword smith.  Nakagawa Sensei has said to me many times that he “wants to make a sword that someone will look at in 1000 years and say 'He made a beautiful sword.'”

At first I thought of this just as wanting make something of quality, which is in itself quite a worthwhile objective.  Later it struck me that Nakagawa Sensei and I had been looking at, appreciating and talking about swords made a thousand years or more before we were born.  Sensei has every reason to consider what someone a thousand years from now will think of his swords.  It is quite reasonable to believe that some of his swords will be around in collections in the 31st century and that people will be sitting around looking at them and commenting on the grace, power, balance and beauty of his swords.

It’s quite common to talk about future generations, but how many of us really consider the future that far out?  Who seriously considers what someone one thousand years in the future will think about their work?  Who among us has reason to think about things that far in the future?  But if we practice budo, there is a good chance that a thousand years from now people will still be practicing the arts we practice, and they will be the descendants of what we teach. 

If you practice a koryu budo, you are practicing something that is already hundreds of years old.  Ogasawara Ryu kyudo is already nearly a thousand years old.  Katori Shinto Ryu dates from the 1400s, while Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu trace their origins to the 1500s, and Shinto Muso Ryu dates from about 1610.   When we start considering our practice in the scale of hundreds of years rather than decades, that should impact how we practice and what decisions we make.  Can we think about the arts we practice with a longer view than just a few years that are easy to imagine?  Can we imagine someone a thousand years in the future doing what we are doing and benefiting from it?  Can we make decisions about how we practice recognizing that what we choose now may influence how people train in the distant future?  Should we?

So what does it mean to practice with an awareness of hundreds of years of tradition leading up to us, and of hundreds of years of practice flowing down from us?  To me it emphasizes everything that we are doing, and it explains why teachers can seem so conservative.  It places even more importance on me getting it right, so that when I demonstrate for someone, or teach someone, I’m passing on the lesson correctly.  If I’m a poor student, I can only be a poor teacher as well.

The fact that after hundreds of years and revolutions in the technology of combat the koryu arts are still practiced and appreciated by people, and people still find so many relevant lessons is testament to the depth and enduring value of the lessons they teach, and the effectiveness of the way they teach their lessons.  It also suggests that whatever imaginable and unimaginable revolutions we have in combat, the lessons of the koryu we practice will continue to be relevant.  Scary thought there. 

We are teaching stuff that will be important for someone hundreds of years in the future.  I can see it pretty easily though.  The little lessons are the techniques and kata that we practice.  Those may or may not be directly relevant to anyone.  But the big lessons about movement, posture, timing, spacing, positioning, zanshin, and rhythm, these lessons I expect to be relevant as long as there are beings in conflict.  I find the idea of being part of a stream that stretches back hundreds of years, and will flow on for hundreds more to be an incredible thing.  It makes me awfully small, but with a huge responsibility.

Knowing that these lessons remain relevant after centuries, and will continue to be relevant is also tremendously exciting.  It means I’m not just preserving a fossil.  The art is useful and alive and contributing much more to student’s lives than just preserving a memory of things long past.  As long as people are people, there will be conflict, and it will involve blunt sticks, clubs, bladed weapons, chains and ropes.  The capacity for violence is part of who we are and I don’t think any amount of wishing is going to make it go away.

I’m ok with that.  I’m also ok with training that helps deal with that capacity.  I find the idea of training in arts that have successfully helped people deal with the capacity for and actuality of violence for hundreds of years reassuring and fascinating.  I’ve been studying budo for more than 25 years and I still learn something new every time I step into the dojo.  The arts are that deep.  From talking with my teachers, the ryuha they train in are deep enough that even after training for 2 and 3 times as long as I have, they are still learning new things and discovering new depths.

This is what we take part in and contribute to when we train in koryu budo.  We partake of living lessons about how to deal with some of the most fundamental of interactions.  These lessons have been refined over centuries, and now they are very effective and efficient.  Our job as students and teachers of these arts is to pass on faithfully what has been given us, but just as faithfully, to refine those lessons where we see a need.

Koryu budo have survived, seen a decline for a few brief decades when nearly all interests in Japan turned to all things shiny, new and modern, and are seeing a resurgence as a more balanced view valuing both that which is modern and new and those things which have shown resilience and worth over time.  The growth of koryu budo internationally in the last 2 decades is easily as great, and possibly greater, than that of gendai budo in the first several decades after their introduction the world outside Japan.

Those of us lucky enough to be involved in these arts have the responsibility to maintain the high standards of practice that have come down to us.  We also have to help our arts adapt to the changing world, but we must not change the arts just for the sake of change or temporary popularity.  Arts that are well-maintained, well taught and well practiced, that adapt wisely, will surely survive many, many more centuries, and continue to have value.  We are part of the current of these koryu, and students in centuries to come may well look back and see us as having had some small part in continuing the flow of these arts into their future.  If my name is remembered a thousand years from now in some list of koryu teachers, I hope it is remembered as having served the ryuha well, and not for having tried some fancy new trick that lacked sustaining value.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Most Effective Martial Art

I have to say this.  I believe that the effectiveness of a martial art should be judged not by what the most gifted practitioner of the art can do with it, but by what the least gifted practitioner can do with it.

When people talk about how great a martial art is, the reference point used is almost always what the very greatest of practitioners of the art can do.  These are inevitably fabulous and gifted martial artists. In general they can do incredible things I will never be able to dream of doing.  I’ve felt this level of skill first hand.  Judo is one of the arts I study, and it because it is an Olympic sport, who is the very best of the best among the competitors is not open to argument.  I’ve had the good fortune to train with Olympians and world champions.  I know what their skills and arts feel like (they are almost undetectable, they are generally so subtle you only realize you’ve been thrown when your back hits the floor).

The vast majority of us don’t have their gifts of speed, dexterity and sensitivity.  I’ve seen that the very finest of martial artists, whether the art in question has a competitive sport or not, exhibit these same gifts of speed, dexterity and sensitivity, whether the art is unarmed or armed.  What this gets to is, if we compare martial arts by comparing what the most gifted practitioners can do, we may well only be comparing who is the most gifted, and not which art has the most to give.

A lot of people talk about which martial art can beat another in a head-to-head match up.  To me, that’s rather pointless, because such head-to-head match ups never happen.  What I want to know, what really interests and excites me, is what can a martial art do for an average to below-average practitioner?  You know, someone like me.  This is where things get interesting, because now the foe isn’t some other highly trained martial artists, it’s our own clumsiness.

What will studying the martial art do for me? I already know it won’t make me an unbeatable fighter.  No amount of training is going to do that for me.  I don’t have the gifts.  But training will do other things for me.  Will it increase my sensitivity?  Will it improve my timing?  Will I gain a mastery of spacing?  Am I likely to collect a lot of injuries while training in this particular art?  WIll I enjoy the time I spend training and feel like it is benefiting me, not just on physical level, but also on a mental level?  Will I learn coherent principles that can be applied across the spectrum of encounters, and not just a bunch of discrete techniques that can only be used in situations very similar to the ones they are taught in?

Considering these questions one at a time, here is what I get.  “Will it improve my timing?”  This is a good one that people don’t give enough consideration to, in my opinion.  “Timing is everything” goes the old line, and that is certainly true in the martial arts.  I’ve seen over the years that the most accomplished, most effective artists, whether in a sportive art such as kendo or judo, or in kata art such as kenjutsu or jojutsu, are the ones with the best timing.  They attack when the conditions are optimum.  They don’t waste energy, when the opening occurs, they are there.  They move with their opponents and hit their targets with timing rather than speed.  I’ve seen octogenarians completely dominate people in their teens and twenties because they understood timing.  They matched their movements with their partner’s movements and timed them so they slipped naturally into place.  

This brings up the next question.  “Will it improve my sensitivity?”  Sensitivity includes awareness of a broad range of things.  From the closest, feeling and understanding your partner through their touch where they are holding you or your clothes, to your awareness of the world around you and the people in it.  At the closest level, I teach students to be aware of their partners even when their eyes are closed, so they can understand and affect their partner through touch without looking at them or the point they are targeting.  From there sensitivity stretches out to being aware of how someone is going to move and what they are going to do based on understanding the clues in their posture and movement.  This requires a visual sensitivity first focused on your partner, and later, as you improve, extending to everything in your awareness.  If all you learn to focus on it how to strike or how to see one opponent after they are declared, you aren’t learning very much.  If you are becoming sensitive to the world around you, you are really learning something worthwhile.

“Will I gain a mastery of spacing?”  This is a great one, because if you can control the spacing between you and a partner, you control the entire encounter.  By controlling the spacing, you can limit a partner’s options and even choose what options to give them.  It’s tough to learn about controlling spacing at a range of distances from just one art though.   Most arts are very strong at one or two distances.  I study Kodokan Judo, which is great at the most intimate distances, the range where you can reach out and hold someone.  If you practice some of the kata you can learn about slightly longer distances, the range of hand strikes.  It’s starts to fall down at kicking ranges and is really bad at weapons ranges.  Shinto Muso Ryu Jo is great at a variety of armed ranges, but it has little to offer at the range of touch.  You can’t learn everything at once, and I wouldn’t expect one art to teach you everything.  But whatever you are studying, it should spend a lot of time in partner practice so you can learn about spacing.  I’m not talking just about sparring, but partner practice, which includes a lot of slow, careful, thoughtful practice so you can internalize lessons about spacing without developing bad habits.

“Am I likely to collect a lot of injuries while training in this particular art?”  This should be a no brainer, but we forget about it quite often.  Is the training atmosphere a safe one?  Are these people that I want to be around?  Every physical activity has risks (know any basketball players who’ve had knee surgery?)  but the risks should not be excessive.  I have friends who have left dojo because of the way training was run.  Usually the problem is not with the art but with the way training is done.  Be aware of this.  The people you train with have a huge impact on the value you will get from your training and how much you learn.  If they don’t respect you physically, you could end up badly damaged with injuries that cause lifelong problems.  If people don’t respect you as a person, you have to deal with not just physical risks, but with the emotional wear and tear of being treated badly as an individual.  Not all injuries are physical.  Make sure the particular art in the particular place you are training is safe for you and those around you.  

“WIll I enjoy the time I spend training and feel like it is benefiting me, not just on physical level, but also on a mental level?”  Training takes effort and motivation.  If you don’t feel like you are benefiting, you’re not going to want to do it.  Good training should leave you tired, and honestly, exhilarated. The effects should enrich your body through the exercise, your skills through the technical training, and your mind through the broader application of what you are learning.  If you aren’t getting all three, you might want to rethink what you are doing.  I know that when I leave a good training session, I may be so exhausted I can hardly walk, but mentally I am much more alive and aware, and emotionally I am, exhilarated.  The training stretches my physical skills and mental awareness so that everything functions at a higher level.  This extends to my emotions as well.  This is one of the big reasons I love training.  It just feels so good at every level.

This is the difference between a coherent art and just a random collection of stuff.  “Will I learn coherent principles that can be applied across the spectrum of encounters, and not just a bunch of discrete techniques that can only be used in situations very similar to the ones they are taught in?”   A lot of people argue over whether something is a “jutsu 術” or a “Do 道”.  That’s not really a useful question, but I’ve already written about it here.  The question to ask should be, “Is this based on coherent principles that can be applied beyond the discrete techniques being taught, or it just a collection of techniques?  The best arts and teachers use techniques as pointers towards principles rather than as an end in themselves.  If you are studying throws, do you learn how off-balancing and over-extending contributes to instability in a partner and how this makes powerful throws effortless and effective?  If you are studying striking, do you learn how to move your hips and lower body to develop power that can be applied to not only strikes but other movements as well?  If you are studying joint locks, are you learning the principles behind locking the joints to prevent movement, or are you just learning to twist the wrist *this way* so it hurts?  The art should teach principles that cross all of these areas and can be applied strategically and tactically as well.  Lessons from throwing will apply to striking, while striking lessons apply to joint locks and lessons about locking the body apply to throwing.  The system should be coherent and the principles effective across the range of activity.

All of these things are essential to making a worthwhile art in my eyes.  If what you are training isn’t giving you all of these, you aren’t getting the most possible out of your art, and the art doesn’t do very much for the people studying it.  Which art is most effective is the one that does the best job of teaching you the above.  Not every art is ideally suited for every person. We each bring our own strengths and weaknesses to our training.  The best art will reinforce your strengths and help you overcome weaknesses.  It will develop your sensitivity, timing and mastery of spacing.  Your body will be strengthened and energized by your training, and your mind will be polished.  You will feel better physically, mentally and emotionally after training.  You will gain skills and understanding that apply far beyond mere physical confrontations.

If you’re not getting all of these from your training, you’re not studying the most effective martial art.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Do vs Jutsu. Again.

It seems like this issue comes up a lot.  I'm involved in a discussion about it on a LinkedIn discussion board right now, so I thought I would share some of what is going on over there.

The whole Do vs. Jutsu discussion only gets a lot of play outside Japan. It's something that Donn Draeger came up with. It was an interesting idea, but, frankly, he was wrong. There is no opposition between the two concepts. To have a way (Do 道) you must have skill (Jutsu 術) to build it from. In order for skills to be coherent, they must be organized in a way. 道 is founded on 術、while 道makes sense of 術。  

It not either or. It is both and. Either or is something Westerners insist on. It used to make my teachers in Japan smile at my ignorance when I pressed the conversation on them.

Both together. One without the other just doesn't make sense.

When we start, we tend to focus on the skills, because we need them as a foundation to understanding what the way is.  Beginners can talk about the big picture and the fundamental principles, but these have to be explored and experienced through the practice of discrete skills and techniques.  These provide the map to understanding the way and the principles of the way.

The "Do" idea is a really old one in Japan.  Sado 茶道 or tea ceremony has been called Sado since at least the time of Sen No Rikyu (16th century), and there are martial arts being called "Do" 道 that I have seen going back to at least the 17th century.  Even the Kano Jigoro shihan recognized that the term Judo had been used by some groups long before he started using it.

Most arts though were known simply by their name (Hayashizaki Ryu, Kashima Shinryu, Shinto Muso Ryu) without adding an adjective such as jutsu or  do prior to and during the Tokugawa era.  Names and descriptions changed often, but the organizing principles did not.  Separating a technique from the principles that make it work is, to my mind, impossible.  Having a principle without any applications or techniques that express the principle is difficult to imagine.

Ideally, the principles give rise to the techniques, and the techniques point the way to the principles.  Some great master had a deep insight into the principles of their art and developed techniques that express this principle.  It’s a great circle with the master having an insight into principle  and developing techniques based on that principle, that Way 道。  Students then study the techniques as way of learning to understand the principle behind them.  The techniques serve as road markers pointing the way to the principle Way that underlies the art.  The students master the techniques and come to embody the principles and express them spontaneously.  They then being teaching these techniques to a new generation of students.  The circle continues.

In Japanese there are a lot of terms that express the concept of Way: michi 道、houhou 方法、
kata 方 (different from the “kata” meaning form 型、形).  The goal of any art, whether it is described as jutsu or do, skill or way, 術 or 道、is that the practitioner can spontaneously express the principles of the art/school/style/system spontaneously in accordance with the situation.  If you only learn a collection of techniques, but don’t understand the principles that underly the techniques, you will only be able to use them in the exact situations in which you learned them.  If you use the techniques as tools for learning the underlying principles, the Way, then once you begin to understand the principles, you will be able to apply them to all sorts of situations, not just the specific one covered in the technique you learned.

In a fully developed martial art/martial science, the principles and the techniques cannot be separated from each other.  The techniques work because of the underlying principles, and the principles are expressed through the techniques.