Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Budo Training and Budo Philosophy

There is a lot of philosophizing that goes on in budo circles.  I know that I am in the first rank of those guilty of it.  There is far too much of philosophizing about budo by a lot of people who don’t have the depth to do a good job of it.  This might be a symptom of the internet age though.  Everyone who trains should be thinking about the ethics and values of Budo, but not everyone’s thoughts are ready for prime time.  With the advent of the internet bulletin board and personal blogs (like this one) any fool (like me) can expound to the world.  That’s probably not a great thing.  However, budo without a philosophy of well considered ethics and honor is just another way of hurting people, so I’m glad to see there is so much time and effort being put into thinking about it.

Having said that, I think you need a ratio of at least 100 to 1 ratio of practice to philosophy, although it might need a lot more practice than that.   Consider that the Tao Te Ching can be read in an hour, and then you can spend years discovering new stuff from it.   All the good budo that I have encountered has been deeply thoughtful and filled with philosophical content, but the bulk of that content is written in the kata and application, not in words.  The kata and application are structured so they teach nearly everything about an art, whether it is a koryu bugei such as one of the branches of Yoshin Ryu jujutsu, or a modern art like Kodokan Judo or Aikido.

The kata and applications practiced don’t just teach how to do a technique.  They teach what the art values and thinks as well.  If you haven’t studied the kata and application of the art deeply, any written or spoken lessons about the art will be meaningless.  In Kodokan Judo there are 9 sets of kata, and they teach a full range of techniques for throwing, pinning, joint locking, choking and disarming.  But the techniques taught are just the beginning.  The kata teach how to apply them from a variety of ranges and attacks, so you can also learn something about when to apply the technique.  

When studied properly the kata teach a student to see how close someone has to be before they are dangerous.  The kata also teach an arts philosophy on how strongly to respond and what level of damage to inflict on an assailant.  Some arts believe in preemptive strikes (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu share the same assassination kata Tana No Shita. One of the first kata in Araki Ryu is an assassination kata).  Other arts don’t include surprise attacks but are willing to strike first once they have been threatened (Shinto Muso Ryu’s Tachi Otoshi).  Still others refrain from action until actually attacked (Kodokan Judo).  This is philosophy at a fundamental level that is embedded in the kata of the particular systems.  These kata all make an ethical statement about what is acceptable behavior in the eyes of the people who crafted the system.  

Studying an art’s kata teach you what the system approves of and disapproves of.  It also teaches about things such as how strongly to respond to a given situation or provocation.  Some systems always respond with lethal force (see pretty much any koryu bugei from before 1604 c.e.).  Others have a variety of responses that range from killing or crippling an attacker down to simple restraint.  Shinto Muso Ryu has a variety of responses in the kill, cripple or seriously injure range, while arts like Kodokan Judo and Aikido tend to focus on the range from causing injury down to simple restraint.  These are all philosophical statements, but without deep practice of the art, the philosophy of the arts cannot truly be understood.

Most arts also have written or verbal teachings that supplement the physical training, but the physical training is the core of the system and really teaches what they system believes.  The associated writings help one to better understand the art, and provide some guidance in the form of things to think about while practicing. However, without intensive training in the systems kata and application, the writings and verbal teachings are nearly meaningless because they lack the proper context for understanding their intent.

Kano Jigoro Shihan, the founder of Kodokan Judo famously crafted two guiding principles for his art:
自他共栄   Jita Kyoei often translated as Mutual Benefit And Welfare
精力善用 Seiryoku Zenyo often translated as Maximum Efficiency Minimum Effort

These are simple statements, but the true depth of their meaning and intent can only really be understood through intensive practice of the system that embodies their meaning.   Mutual Benefit And Welfare sounds very nice, but actually practicing it in the dojo while you train is much more difficult that the simple phrase suggests.  The dedicated student has to learn how to do this even when they don’t like their training partner, even when they are tired, angry or annoyed, and even when a partner may have actually harmed them in some way.  The principle is not easy to implement, and it isn’t meant to be applied just during keiko.  

Seiryoku Zenyo is even more difficult to understand, though perhaps it less emotionally difficult to implement.  It starts out in technique, but grows quickly after that.   All Kodokan Judo students soon realize how important the principle is for doing the techniques of the system properly and effectively.  That is quickly obvious when you see a 60 year old judoka doing randori with a 20 year old, and you notice that the 60 year old is relaxed and breathing easily while the 20 year old is stressed, stiff and gasping for air.  Same techniques, same art, but the 60 year old is doing a much better job of applying Sieryoku Zenyo.  While the 20 year old tries to use strength and youthful energy, the 60 year old is doing only as much as is really necessary, resulting in the 60 year old being fresh and relaxed after a few minutes of randori while the 20 year stands next to him exhausted and panting for breath.  The difficult secret is that you are supposed to be able to scale the application of Seiryoku Zenyo to everything else you do in your life. It’s not meant just to be hidden in the dojo.  Without dedicated practice in the dojo though, the real depth of the concept will never be revealed though.  There are lots of things that seem efficient at first but that the trial and error of practice reveal to be mistakes.

As a student advances deeper and deeper into a budo school, they slowly discover more and more depth to the teachings, both the practical, physical teachings of the system and the written teachings.  The core of any budo system is the physical teachings of the art, the kata.  The writings associated with the art help a student to understand what is embodied in the kata, but without extensive practice of the kata and deep appreciation for their contents, the writings will just be so many scratches on paper.  This is true whether they are Kano Jigoro’s writings about mutual benefit and maximum efficiency, Ueshiba Morihei’s writings about the circle, square and triangle, Shinto Muso Ryu’s shiteki bunsho about the nature of the jo, or some of the esoteric teachings of other styles like Yagyu Shinkage Ryu or Araki Ryu or Miyamoto Musashi’s writings for Niten Ichi Ryu.  If you haven’t studied the physical portion of the curriculum deeply, the philosophy will be meaningless.

Now get out there in the dojo and study your art’s philosophy.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Why do we start teaching?

I wrote about the responsibility of rank in my last post, and then I discovered this fabulous post by Wayne Muromoto about teaching in budo, why we do it, why it's important.  He does a lovely job of talking about how the responsibility starts, and how we should accept it and shoulder it.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

What Is Martial Arts Rank?

I got involved in the another discussion about the real importance and value of rank again.  This conversation has been around since at least Kano Shihan establishing the now popular system using black belts and ten steps of rank (known as dan 段 in Japanese).  You’d think I’d be over this discussion, but I can’t seem to let it go by without taking another whack at it.  I’m sure there were huge discussions within the Kodokan, because the rank system there evolved over several decades before it was finally settled in the form we are all familiar with.   

The question of what does a particular rank mean can be an interesting one.  People are constantly asking “ What is a black belt?" and “What does rank really mean?”  These questions need to be looked at in connection with a couple of other questions.  Those are “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”  

In the world of classical Japanese martial arts, the koryu bugei, these questions don’t seem to exist.  It might be because people are not evaluated in comparison to each other’s level of attainment.  They only give scrolls that correspond with the portion of the system you have learned, and teaching licenses that lay out what you are qualified to teach.  This only leaves one question to ask if you are talking to a possible teacher, and one to ask anyone you are training with.  The question for possible teachers is “Are you licensed to teach?” and the question for training partners is “Can you do this technique or kata?”   

For me, part of the issue is that I’ve been in the iaido and koryu worlds for a long time.  I started in judo, and I still train, but I spend a lot of time in other arts.. The Kendo Federation (where I got my iai and jo dan ranks) has ranks, but there are no symbols of rank. Everyone in the room dresses alike, from the guy who just started, to the 8th dan who's been at it for 80+ years. The koryu dojo I'm in are even less about the ranks and such. Yeah, you get some paper sometimes, maybe a license, but that's pretty much it. There are even fewer signs of rank there than in the Kendo Federation. The fascination with belt colors is only in judo and karate systems, and something that is big outside Japan. In Japan, you get a black belt comparatively quickly, and all it tells people is that you are a real member of the club who can take the ukemi.

This leads back to the initial questions: “What is a sensei?” and “What is a student?”  These seem obvious.  A sensei is someone who teaches, and a student is someone who learns.  Those answers work fine in a standard school classroom setting where most questions have right and wrong answers, the kids sit in the desks and the teacher stands in front of the white board.  They don’t work so well in dojo where everyone mixes, the teacher might be in his 30s or 40s and the students are anywhere from 9 years old to 91, and even the teacher is working to improve her understanding of the art.

The student’s role seems straightforward.  The student is there to learn the art.  To do that, that the student is responsible for showing up healthy and ready to learn, with a good attitude.  The student is responsible for herself.  That was quick and easy to write, but it’s not very satisfying.  Showing up healthy is pretty simple.  Budo is practiced in close contact with other folks, so please take responsibility for yourself and don’t expose your training friends to every illness you get.  Stay on the sidelines when you’re sick.  This might not be a complete answer, but what is a sensei needs to be considered before we can go any further.

So what is a sensei, and what is she responsible for?  I’ll start by disappointing everyone who wants to break down the Japanese word 先生 and define it by it’s parts.  We don’t understand the modern meanings of English words because their original German, Greek or Latin roots meant something a thousand or two thousand years ago.  We define them based on how they are used today, and the same goes for Japanese.  In Japanese today, ”sensei” is used to address a teacher, doctor, lawyer, politician or other important person.  Most commonly, it just means teacher.  Nothing more.  It has no fancy, special, abstract or mystical meanings.  It just means teacher.  The word doesn’t help us.

In a budo dojo though, the sensei doesn’t do a lot of classical talk and chalk teaching.  Keiko in a budo dojo is a different situation from teaching an academic subject in a classroom, with different concerns, conditions and goals.  The teacher has responsibilities to the students and to the art she is teaching.  I’m partial to the modern version of koryu budo instruction rather than the military style instruction that became popular in Japanese and Okinawan during the 1930s and 1940s in militarist Japan, and which continued and was spread worldwide afterwards in gendai budo like karate.  Koryu is generally done in smaller groups, with more personal instruction and less regimentation.  This reflects what sensei is responsible for.

Sensei is responsible for students’ having a safe training environment, that should go without saying, but it doesn’t, so I say it often.  This is koryu bugei, and one significant difference I’ve found between koryu bugei thought and practice and nearly every other teaching situation I’ve seen is that in koryu bugei the sensei has no responsibility for making sure students learn anything.  Sensei is responsible for making sure students can learn if they make the effort.  If someone doesn't make any effort and doesn’t learn anything, that’s the student’s issue.

In both koryu bugei and gendai bugei, the sensei is not only responsible for teaching the student.  The budo sensei is responsible for the art as well.  They are responsible for passing on the entirety of their art to the next generation.  They are not responsible for popularizing the art and teaching to as many people as possible.  In fact, many senior members of koryu bugei systems  view trying to spread an art as being an abdication of their responsibility to the art.  Trying to spread an art quickly risks having poorly or incompletely trained people teaching and not doing a good job of teaching, and worse, corrupting the art because they don’t understand it well enough.

The lessons of any good budo system, koryu or gendai, are far more complex, and deeper than just the movements.  In addition to the physical movements there are strategies and tactics for controlling the spacing between you and your opponent.  There are techniques and concepts for controlling yourself and your mind.  Most of a budo system is beyond the physical movements, and these are the real heart of a system.  WIthout a proper understanding of these aspects, an art cannot truly be taught or learned.  The sensei’s responsibility to the ryuha includes making sure that only students with an adequate understanding of all parts of the system are teaching.  It is better to remain small and obscure and pass along the entire system than to grow into a huge, globe straddling organization that is teaching only the merest shadow of the original art.  The teacher’s responsibility to the art is greater than to any individual student.

Interestingly, it’s strange how quickly most students begin to see and understand this. The art, the system dates back generations, particularly for koryu bugei ryuha which can be more than 500 years old, but even Kodokan Judo, the exemplar of gendai budo, is over 130 years old.  The ryuha (system, school, art) has it’s own priorities and requirements and benefits. These outweigh the needs of individual students.  As students develop an understanding of the deeper nature of the ryuha’s teachings, they also understand that the ryuha will continue long after them, and that their responsibility is to learn the system to the fullest of their ability so that those who train with them and follow them will get the full system and none of it will be lost or corrupted.  

Students who begin to understand this, also begin to see and take on responsibility for maintaining the system.  Mastering the art is no longer just about gaining personal skill.  It becomes about being part of a larger structure that stretches back into history, and pushes on into the future.  As students move from beginners to experienced students to teachers licensed to teach a portion of the system and occasionally become licensed to teach the entire system, their rank isn’t about status.  It’s about responsibility.  The higher your rank, the more responsibility you have to the system.  Students who are only interested in learning the system for themselves and who don’t take responsibility for the system should be, and usually are, slowly frozen out of the school, and sometimes even simply expelled.

This is the way it should be.  As I’ve been reading more about the early days of the Kodokan and the new rank system that Jigoro Kano Shihan implemented, and it’s evolution, it becomes clear that in the early Kodokan, rank, at least at the early to middle levels, was strictly about how well you could fight.  Students were promoted when they defeated 4 people of the same rank, instead of based on how well they knew the whole of Kodokan Judo.  I suspect that this caused a not so subtle twisting of priorities amongst the growing membership of the Kodokan.  We can see the effects today in the way the International Judo Federation values competition above all else, and downplays or ignores the other 90 percent of the Kodokan syllabus.  What has happened is that in many modern budo, rank has simply become a symbol of competitive accomplishment and not a reflection of system mastery or responsibility.

This leaves me with the sad reflection that we have two different answers to the question of rank.  The first is what should rank mean?  It should be a reflection of student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it.  The second question is what does rank actually mean?  In koryu bugei, rank is still a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it.  In gendai budo sometimes rank is a reflection of a student’s mastery of the system and their responsibility to it, and sometimes it is a recognition of the student’s competitive accomplishments.  Figuring out which is which usually isn’t too difficult.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Rant About Budo And Sports

I’m blowing a gasket about budo just now. Dr. Ann Maria DeMars, the first US women's world judo champion reduces the benefits of judo to those of tennis or golf. Steam coming out my ears that the art I love so much has fallen so far even in the eyes of its champions. She wrote on her blog

There are lots of benefits to training martial arts.  Budo, including Kodokan Judo, teaches a lot of things while learning and practicing the principles of conflict, whether armed or unarmed.  In addition to the fundamental principles of conflict, including combative spacing, timing, rhythm, tactics and strategy for dealing with all sorts of conflict, effective self-defense skills, the conscious ability to read peoples posture and movement.  It should also teach discretion about how and when to use those skills, respect, honor and dignity.  

Sadly, when the focus of a martial art becomes competition, those benefits are soon lost.  Dr. DeMars reduces a great budo to little more than a social gathering with health benefits.  Her concern about judo seems to be keeping it a positive experience for the students and not letting coaches’ and referees’ go on ego trips.  Nothing about actual application of the skills learned, nothing about respect, honor and dignity.

On top of the things she has lost, there is the problem of over-specialization. To do well in any competitive field, you have to specialize.  In judo competition you have to specialize in what the rules will allow.  Competitors never waste time on anything that doesn’t apply to competition.  The result is that people only learn judo at very close distances.  They never study anything that can’t be used in competition, and as Dr. DeMars does note, the rules change frequently, often based on what the International Judo Federation thinks will make the Olympic Committee happy, rather than based on what makes good judo.  One result is that most people who’ve started judo since a bunch of rules changes in 2010 are completely unaware of the existence of Kata Garuma, one of the signature techniques of Kodokan Judo’s founder Jigoro Kano.  People who do competitive judo know only what is included in competition, and even there, they often practice a limited set of techniques that they specialize in using in competition.

Even if we only talk technique, Kodokan Judo includes so much more than sport judo that I feel like competitive judoka are voluntarily blinding themselves.  They don’t know anything about controlling spacing and timing for any attack other than a grab.  They never learn about strikes or weapons attacks.  They are completely ignorant of whole classes of techniques, from strikes to joint locks to weapons defences.  They never learn about handling attacks from any angle that isn’t allowed in competition.

Over and above that, the values they learn are only those of the sporting field.  Sports are nice and popular, but the etiquette and behavior are a bit thin.  Good sportsmanship isn’t the same as honor and respect.  Kano Shihan established two fundamental principles of what makes something his Judo; Maximum Efficiency Minimum Effort and Mutual Benefit And Welfare.

The first, Maximum Efficiency Minimum Effort does get mentioned a lot..  The sports guys seem to like this one because it’s an effective strategy for winning. The problem is that it’s supposed to be a strategy for living, not just a method for judging the effectiveness of techniques.  The techniques of Judo are supposed to be a physical method for learning and experiencing this principle as something that can be applied everywhere, all the time.  Instead it’s reduced to a trick for figuring out how to win trophies.

Then there’s the other foundational principle of Kodokan Judo; Mutual Welfare And Benefit.  The idea is that everyone benefits from training and practice.  Judo practice is a group activity.  To really practice Judo you have to have a partner.  You can do the movements alone, but without a partner you’re not really doing Judo.  When you have a partner, both of you are supposed to progress in your understanding and application of Judo’s principles.  

This is a great lesson.  You get so much more of value out of things when everyone involved benefits.  This is a strategy that can be applied throughout life.  I even manage to apply it regularly in the competitive world of business.  There is a fundamental difference between life, including a competitive are like business, and sport.  Sports like competitive judo are zero sum games.  No matter how many people are involved, there can be only one winner.  By definition, everyone else has to lose.

Life, even in it’s competitive aspects, is not a zero sum game.  I know in America, what I’m about to write is close to heresy, but in life, there don’t have to be losers and winners.  The most effective solutions are the ones where everyone gains something.  When I negotiate something in business, the best strategy, and the one that wins the most agreements, is to make sure my partners in the negotiations benefit as well.  If they aren’t benefitting, why should they agree to what I’m asking for?  Mutual Benefit And Welfare.  Make sure everyone benefits from what you are doing.  Don’t just divide the pie.  See what you can do to make pie bigger, so everyone gets more, regardless of the percentage.

Competitive sports though, are zero sum games, and this drives what I find to be a selfish and thoughtless attitude as the level of competition climbs.  I’ve witnessed too much bad behavior at the highest levels of judo competition, behavior that runs completely counter to the principle of Mutual Benefit And Welfare. I see people who will use questionable techniques that can endanger themselves and their opponents, people who cheer their victory when an opponent loses on a technicality, people who by their behavior show that they have no respect for the human being they are facing and see them as only something to be broken if it gets in their way.  This not to say that I don’t also see good sportsmanship in competitive judo, because I do see it. Good sportsmanship though is a faint shadow of the values I expect from someone who calls himself a judoka.

In Judo there principles and techniques.  The techniques are just expressions of those principles.  They are a means for elucidating high level ideas and making them concrete.  We are always trying to refine and improve our understanding and application of the principles.  The goal is for everyone to benefit and grow.  In budo, including Judo, there is no such thing as perfect. There is only progress.

Dr. DeMars though seems to think that continued progress is not really possible.  If the only measure used is that of competition, she may be right.  In the same blog she writes that “I think far too many people continue teaching judo for too long…..I'm not nearly as fast or strong as I was 30 years ago. What I can do and demonstrate is limited.”    Our bodies don’t perform as well as we age.  If the goal is continuous improvement of our understanding and application of the principles however, there is never a reason to stop.  We’re not trying to win anything.  We’re trying to progress as judoka.  We want to continue learning to be more efficient, more effective, and more beneficial for our partners to work with.  Really, if a technique or application works well for someone who is 50, 60 or 70, than it ought to be amazing when a  20 year old learns to apply it in the same way.  As we age, we have motivation to refine and explore techniques and ideas that we would never bother with when we are young and hale.

Dr. DeMars completely neglects Judo’s ability to empower its students.  I often hear the word “empower” tossed around, but Judo, like all budo, really does give students power.  It gives them the power of conflict and violence.  It’s a power I dearly hope they will never need, but it is a power that means they no longer have to be intimidated by anyone physically.  I have seen how it changes peoples’ relationship with the world, especially women.  They get ownership of the power of violence, and they no longer stand as potential victims of it, but they stand as owners of that power.

Everything I’ve talked about gets lost if Judo is reduced to a mere sport for meeting people from different walks of life, seeing the country, getting exercise, and testing your skills, one where the rules are constantly tweaked to make it more interesting for spectators or to be more photogenic for television.  I’m saddened and furious to see what a small, relatively worthless and easily replaced thing someone like Dr. DeMars views her judo as.  I understand that competition is fun, but just doing competition seems to be to be like eating nothing but fries and ice cream.  There’s not much nutrition for the mind and spirit there, and it can be awful for the body.

I’ve started teaching judo again, but I can’t honestly recommend that my students go anywhere near any place that focuses on competitive judo. 

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Laws of Budo

I have a few rules of budo.  Maybe you can add some more.

The Laws Of Budo

1.  Don't be there.  Don't be where the fight starts.  If that fails, don't be where the blow falls.  Just don't be there.

2.  There is no perfect in budo.  There is only progress.

3.  If you find yourself in a fair fight, there is something wrong with your tactics and strategy.

4.  Maximum effectiveness, minimum effort (Kano Shihan was a genius).

5.  Getting hit up side the head with a stick is a great reminder of why you don't want to get hit with a stick.

Outside Training

This started as a quick note I was going to toss off in a couple of minutes.  More than an hour later it had gotten a little out of hand.  Sorry about that.

I spent about 3 hours in the dojo this morning. We warmed up with the Seiza No Bu from Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho, and then I taught Rick a new kata, Ushiro, from the Tachi Waza No Bu.  After that we did some kenjutsu, and suddenly 2 hours were gone and he had to go to.  Then I worked on some kata from Shinto Muso Ryu alone.  It was good dojo practice.  The thing I haven't been doing enough of recently though is the outside training.  I need to be doing more of this.  That’s my plan for this afternoon.

For me, outside training is critical, but it's probably not what most people think of.  This doesn't include things like practicing kata and techniques at home.  That's still training inside the style and the system.  Outside training is training that happens outside the formal definition of the styles that I study, and it include some physical training, but mostly it's mental.

The physical training is the smallest part of outside training.  That’s just going to the gym to make sure all parts of my body are getting the exercise they need to be balanced and healthy and able to support what I do in the dojo.  A little time in the gym can make the dojo time much more productive, and I do mean a little time.  I’m looking to keep my body balanced and strong, so I spend most of my limited gym time making sure that I’m not getting overly strong in one direction.  I also try to stretch regularly.

The biggest part of my outside training though is reading and thinking.  I read stuff that makes me think about my budo and the principles related to it.  There are some books that I come back to time and time to read and ponder, there are others that I only read once, but they are all part of my training.  My favorite book for the philosophical side of budo, and I absolutely recommend it to everyone who trains in any martial art, is “Dueling With O’Sensei” by Ellis Amdur.   Amdur does a fabulous job of taking some of the great budo cliches and ideas, such as katsujinken and really giving them a hard look under some very real conditions.  He works doing crisis intervention, often with extremely violent individuals, so his starting point is always very concrete and practical.  He’s not taking a theoretical approach.

Right now I’m reading an wonderful biography of the man who influenced modern budo far more than anyone else, Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan Judo, creator of the modern budo rank system, member of the International Olympic committee, sponsor who brought karate master Funakoshi Gichin from Okinawa to Tokyo and introduced karate to Japan, the driving force behind making physical education an important part of the Japanese education system and the person who got Judo included in the Japanese education system.  The book, The Way Of Judo, is loaded with information about budo and Japan during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  Ideas about what the “Way” Kano saw students of Judo treading and what that means for how he envisioned Judo.  It gives me insight into the kinds of lessons that kata and keiko are intended to teach.

I’m reading books about the history of different Do 道, such as tea ceremony and calligraphy to improve my understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of Do in Japanese culture.  Budo did not have any sort of national network and discussion until Kano Shihan created Judo.  Before that, all budo was local, though there were some interesting conversations started in old Edo.  On the other hand, tea ceremony dates to the 15th century or earlier, started to get organized into schools under Rikyu in 16th century, and had organizations that stretched across much of Japan by the end of the 1600s.   Tea ceremony styles, calligraphy schools, and flower arranging were having discussions about the nature of training and personal development on a national scale centuries before budo achieved anything close to that level of organization and discussion.  Since tea ceremony and calligraphy were considered essential parts of the training of a true gentleman in Japan, the ideas developed there appear to have quickly found their way into the writings of budo teachers, all of whom were certainly learning calligraphy, and many who were learning tea ceremony.  One surprise for me has been how little Buddhist and Taoist thought has to do with these, and how much Confucian ideas do.
I’m also learning things about physiology and the body under stress that change my understanding of training.  I’ve often heard that competition in the martial arts is supposed to teach you how to react and control yourself under the stress of a real conflict.  I believed it too.  The only problem is that the stress of actual physical conflict is orders of magnitude greater than anything going on in competition.  You don’t get anywhere near the dump of adrenalin and other hormones during competition that you do in a threat situation.  In a threat, adrenalin and other hormones drop into your system, you heartbeat flies up over 170 beats per minute, your fine motor control vanishes, and a number of other things happen.  A good place to start learning about this is Dave Grossman’s book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.  A lot of things I’d heard in the dojo turned out to be completely wrong at fundamental, physiological levels, so wrong that they could get you in serious trouble.  Grossman does a nice job of pulling a lot of research together, and the bibliography could keep you busy for quite a while.

Of course I’m also reading classics of Chinese thought, especially the ones that have had a significant impact on the ideas and thinking of classical Japan where the arts and ways I’m studying and training in were created and developed.  Be sure to read The Art Of War by Sun Tsu, The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tze,  the Chuang Tze, some of the writings of Confucius are essential too (some of Confucius can be difficult.  Start with The Great Learning and some of the Analects.  He seems boring, but he was writing about the essential relationships in life and how to develop as a great human being.  It’s important if you want to understand budo relationships and expectations, especially if you ever travel to Japan).  

I’m going to be reading more about Japanese history as well, so I can place the various ideas within the budo I study in the proper context to be understood.  Things that developed in the Sengoku era of constant war and the early Tokugawa period when people were still afraid that civil war would break out are very different from things developed in the middle Tokugawa era up to about 1850, when the Pax Tokugawa was accepted and expected to continue.  Beyond that, the budo developed at the end of the 1800’s after the fall of the Tokugawa government and the embrace of modern Western technology and the mad dash to overtake the West is very different from all that had come before.  On top of this, if you don’t understand the impact of the US occupation on modern budo, particularly Judo, Kendo and Karatedo, how they are taught and organized, it’s impossible to understand what they really are, and what was jettisoned in the 1950s.  Much was jettisoned, not to make the Americans happy, but rather to please Japanese bureaucrats who were busy crafting a new image for Japan in the international community.

All of this is outside training, but it is vital for my training in the dojo as well.  I admit it, I’m a budo geek, but I believe a basic knowledge of the history of budo, some of its philosophical ideas, and the real physiology of budo and conflict are essential to full growth and development on the Way.  Budo is not just a bunch of movements and techniques.  It absolutely demands a robust philosophical and intellectual framework to give it its proper place in our world.  The only way to get that is through outside training.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Train Every Day, or Everyday Training?

Leading up to the New Year, I ran across a number of proposals for people to make a special effort and do some sort of training every day.  I was a little surprised, because I thought, perhaps naively, that most people do train every day.  Training feels good.  That’s one of the big reasons I’m still studying and practicing and training after all these years.  I really enjoy getting into the dojo and training as often as I can. That’s what most people seem to think of when you talk about training every day.  Everyday training though is what you do all that other time when you’re not in the dojo.  Our training shouldn’t be what we do in the dojo.  That’s where we learn what we have to work on.  The real training is what we do in our everyday life.  

We go into the dojo and we learn and we practice and we refine.  What are we learning and practicing and refining?  If we’re doing karate, we’re learning stances and movements, and how to strike, block and kick from those stances and movements.  In judo we learn to move with good posture so we can throw without being thrown.  In weapons arts, we learn to to handle a sword, staff or other weapon while moving so we are strong and stable and not leaving openings where we can be attacked.  Is there anything common about all of these descriptions?

I’ve said before that the only things I really teach are how to walk and how to breathe.  Once we start learning these fundamentals, there is no reason not to practice them all the time.  How good our budo is depends on how well we master the fundamentals of moving and breathing, so we should be practicing these things every chance we have.   We spend a lot of time in the dojo getting our posture corrected, being told what we are doing wrong with our legs and body.  These corrections aren’t just for the dojo.  Budo practice doesn’t stop when we bow to our teacher, say “Thank you” and leave.  That’s when it begins.

When we walk out the dojo door, we’re walking and breathing.  We are moving.  We should also be practicing applying the lessons about how to stand and walk and breath.  Way back when I started judo in the dark ages, the US Judo Association test requirements included, from the first test, a demonstration of shizen hontai, or natural body posture.  Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?  We had to demonstrate natural body posture.  If it’s natural, why check for it? It turns out that good body posture isn’t really natural. Our natural postures are loaded with problems.  We slouch.  We push our heads out in front of our bodies.  We look at the floor.  We’re stiff.  We don’t balance well, and have all sorts of other problems.

Good shizen hontai really isn’t natural. It’s optimal.  It’s about standing in an optimal manner that is ready without being stiff, relaxed without collapsing, and capable of moving in accord with whatever happens.  There’s nothing natural about this.  Shizen hontai, it turns out, is tough to do right.  Even after a couple of decades of practice, I’m still working on it.  Standing around is one of those everyday things that I do that is practice every time I do it.  It’s just an everyday thing that is part of my everyday practice.  When I’m standing still, I check how I’m holding my head, and make sure it’s floating properly.  I feel how my legs connect to my pelvis and make sure the weight and stress is equal.  I make sure my butt isn’t sticking out in back, that my hips are under my shoulders and above my ankles.  There are always little things to correct.  I won’t even talk about all the things I’m trying to fix in my sitting posture.

Walking is really tough.  I have to pay attention to where I’m going while I try to correct various problems.  When I get too involved with fixing my movement, I’ve been known to walk into doors and walls.  So in addition to making sure I’m moving smoothly, maintaining good balance and posture, keeping my whole body working as a coordinated whole and breathing properly from my diaphragm, I have to pay attention to where I’m going.  I’m nowhere near good enough to try that walking and chewing gum simultaneously thing.  That would be a disaster.   

Standing and walking are everyday activities.  These are activities I do every day.  The are also integral parts of my training.  The more I integrate proper stance and movement into my everyday activities, the less I have to focus on them when I’m in the dojo training.  I practice the fundamentals all the time, because they are fundamental.  In judo and jodo and iaido, good fundamental movement and posture is more powerful than anything else I can do.  

Good movement and posture isn’t just for the moments of the kata, or the 3 minutes between “Hajime!” and “Yame!”  Good posture and movement is for every moment of every day.  It’s great practice for what we do in the dojo.  It makes the practice in the dojo more relaxed, more a part of me and less something that is being imposed upon my body by my mind.  Body and mind are working together.  Even more though, this is the everyday application of what I’m learning in the dojo.  I’m walking casually with good balance, proper, relaxed breaths, and solid, stable movement.  

When I’m under fire in a meeting or a discussion or dealing with one of the many complete jerks the universe seems to have such an abundance of, I’m standing casually with proper balance, relaxed and breathing deeply, with relaxed shoulders and back, nothing showing that the verbal attacks could be upsetting me, relaxed even though the jerk is trying to intimidate me by getting right in my face and trying to steal my personal space.  It’s amazing how powerful a practical application of budo this is.  No matter how intense the attacks and the attempts at intimidation, it’s surprising how quickly they wilt and melt away when they don’t have any visible effect. I’ll admit, it can be almost as stressful as when my teacher decides it’s time for my training to be ramped up to the next level of intensity, but that’s part of the training and the application.  The more I make these fundamental parts of budo fundamental parts of my everyday training, the less effort it takes to stay relaxed and stable and calm regardless of what’s coming at me.

This is budo after all.  Budo is a path that leads through all parts of life, not a single place set apart from everything else and hidden from the rest of life.  It’s supposed to seep out of the kata and dojo and permeate our whole lives, our whole selves.  The first, and perhaps most important part of us that budo should color is how we move and carry ourselves.  This should be something that gets worked on and polished all the time.

Training isn’t something we do every day. There shouldn’t be anything special about training. Just like taking a shower, getting dressed and eating breakfast, training is an everyday activity.  Don’t train every day.  Make the everyday your training.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mindful training

I write a lot about how to train in kata, and uke's role in pushing and stressing their partner by changing the speed, rhythm, timing and intensity of the kata.  I tell people to never train anything more than once.  My point with all of these is to develop the skill at a higher level than just automatic.  Whenever we do something, we should be fully engaged or we aren't training well, and we aren't learning good budo.  This article is a great discussion of the proper mindset for training and learning anything.  "Going From Good To Great With Complex Tasks"