Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forging As A Training Image In Japanese

Forging is a common metaphor when talking about training, whether it is in the martial arts, the military, or anywhere else that people learn to handle stressful encounters. This is true in Japan and the West.  We speak of forging character. In English, when we speak of forging it refers to shaping something. When we forge a knife, we are hammering it into the proper shape. “Forging character” implies developing personal character in a situation of stress and pressure.

When the Japanese talk about forging,tanren 鍛錬,  they have a somewhat more complicated image non-Japanese do. It’s not just the idea of beating hot metal into shape, and hardening the steel. There is a critical step before this in the process of forging a sword. You have to hammer and fold the steel many times before the steel is ready to be shaped. This process usually takes as long or longer than the process of shaping the blade.  

The idea is that the Japanese go through this repeated folding and hammering of the steel to create a multitude of layers in the steel. These layers of hard and soft steel make a blade that is both able to endure severe impacts and hold a sharp edge. Steel that is homogenous will either be soft or hard.  Soft steel will absorb impact without cracking or breaking, but it bends easily and a sharpened edge will dull quickly.  Hard steel will hold an edge well and resist bending, but it is brittle and liable to crack if struck hard. The ancient Japanese technique of layers of hard and soft steel makes for a blade that has hard layers that will hold an edge and soft layers that will absorb impact.

This great blending of the properties of hard and soft steel was not the reason Japanese smiths started repeatedly hammering and folding their steel though. They were driven by something else that colors the Japanese concept of forging. The steel used to make Japanese swords is probably the lowest quality, most impure and contaminated stuff to pass for steel in the world. It’s called tamahagane. It’s made by collecting iron bearing sand which is then melted in a crude earthen smelter by adding charcoal directly to the material being smelted. As in any smelting process, most of the impurities and stuff that isn’t iron melts and runs off. The classical Japanese smelter isn’t very efficient or effective though, so a lot of impurities remain in the resulting steel, as well as an abundance of unburned charcoal bits. No self-respecting smith would touch this stuff.

In Japan it was all they had, so they figured out how to make it work. Their solution is slow and takes an incredible amount of effort, but the outcome not only transforms the steel into high quality material, but creates all those layers that make for a stronger, sharper blade with the incredible patterns in the steel that contribute to making Japanese swords the most beautiful in the world. The patterns on the surface are subtle and complex, giving a picture of the complexity and beauty of the internal structure of the swords.

How does heating and folding the steel get rid of all the impurities and chunks of charcoal to leave the beautiful, layered steel with a grain like wood? The smith heats the billet and hammers it out so it is long enough to be folded in half. Every time the smith strikes the metal, glowing bits are smashed off of the billet and go flying into the air. Those glowing bits aren’t steel.  They are impurities, slage that would removed in more effective modern smelter. As the smith repeatedly hammers, folds and hammers the steel, more and more of the impurities are driven out of the steel.  Occasionally splinters of unburnt charcoal rise to the surface as well.  These pieces have to be raised up with the tip of a file and pulled out with tongs.  After 10 to 20 repetitions of hammering the billet out to the proper thinness and then folding it in half, the steel is pure and the layers have been welded together by the force of the hammer.  Sometimes you will only have half as much material as what was there before you started heating and hammering.

All of this has to happen before you can begin to shape the blade.  This image of forging, where you have to heat and hammer the metal to purify before you begin shaping it into a blade is an important one when you think about training in Japanese martial arts.  The image of tanren is one whereby the student has to be purified and have all the slag and residual garbage driven out of her before she can begin to be shaped into a martial artist is an important difference.  The western image is that we take students and they are ready for forging.  The Japanese image is one where the student has to be prepared before they can even begin to take the shape of a martial artist.

This explains a lot about some of the traditional stories of teachers having students do seemingly ridiculous things for weeks or months before they begin teaching them martial arts. These stories are about how teachers prepared their students to learn the art, in the same way that a smith prepares a block of steel to be able to take the shape of a sword.  Students rarely come into the dojo perfectly ready to learn.  I know I wasn’t ready to learn in anything approaching an optimal manner when I started, and I have seen very few students who were.  This image of tanren gives us another, and more accurate, view of the role of the teacher.  

We don’t just teach students our arts.  New students come in eager to learn budo, but most of them really aren’t ready to start learning.  I know I wasn’t.  Most people who come into the dojo don’t know how to stand or even how to breathe (unless they were lucky enough to play a wind instrument or sing in choir).  Before a student can begin learning budo, they have to learn to do things that are fundamental to all of life, but which don’t seem to be considered worthy of teaching anymore.  We have to teach them how to breath and how to stand and how to walk.  

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I played trombone for 10 years before I started judo, so I had the breathing part down solid.  I only had to learn how to stand and walk.  I worked on good posture and basic walking for months before I really got it.  Learning to counteract 20 years of bad habits acquired while slumped on the couch in front of the TV, or slouching over the desk while pretending to do your homework takes time.  These kind of habits are buried deep, so learning to break them takes work.  

This is where the idea of 鍛錬 tanren starts to make sense.  We all have habits and traits, both physical and mental, that get in the way of learning good budo.  We really can’t start learning budo until we get rid of these counterproductive habits and traits. You don’t put the foundation for a building on on sand.  You don’t form a sword from ore that is still loaded with slag.  You can’t really learn budo until you get rid of the counterproductive habits and traits you’re carrying.  You can’t learn budo if you’ve got a bad slouch or you can’t breathe fully and efficiently.  The teacher’s job is to hammer and forge you to help you get rid of these traits so you can start learning.  Once you learn how stand up and breathe, then you can start learning budo.  This preparation, that’s part of the forging process.  That's tanren.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

So you do budo? What does that mean?

So you do budo?  What exactly does that mean?   It’s some kind of moving zen right?   Or maybe Taoist philosophy?  After all, the character for “do” in budo is the same as the “tao” in Taoism.  Does studying budo mean you practice a system of killing people descended from ancient Japanese warrior arts? Does it mean we dress up in old-fashioned Japanese clothes and use a bunch of Japanese words that native Japanese don't understand? Does it mean your art has a sophisticated set of moral, ethical and philosophical teachings?  Does it mean that your regular practice of techniques for maiming and killing your fellow human beings are supposed to make you a better human being?  Purer? Holier maybe? 

For most of us, myself included, we’re doing something we enjoy.  Stop.  End of discussion.  We enjoy it.  Just like other people enjoy paddle-boarding, bird watching, and exclaiming over the latest super-hoppy beer they’ve discovered.  What we’re doing in the dojo is something we enjoy.  Unless you are involved in law enforcement or security of some sort, you’re probably doing this because you enjoy it.  That’s the main reason any of us keep doing this for 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 or 80 years.

As much as I love all the great, high-minded benefits and lofty ideals that budo training can potentially provide, I have to recognize that what keeps me and everyone else coming back year after year, decade after decade, is the fact that we really enjoy it.  Admitting that up front lets us get on to those high-minded benefits and lofty ideals honestly.

Martial arts training provides a lot of benefits.  People get out and get exercise.  We learn potentially useful fighting skills of various applications, self-confidence, and coordination.  These things you can get from any sort of martial art though, not just budo.  So what does it mean to say you do budo?

To start with, it means you’re doing a Japanese tradition.  Sorry guys, but I would say that arts from other cultural traditions shouldn’t be called budo (except in Japan when the term is being used in it’s broadest possible meaning of “martial art”).  If it’s not Japanese, it can’t really be budo.  This isn’t to say that budo is some sort of superior concept that only the Japanese have access to.  

Budo includes hundreds of years of philosophical development about individual and social responsibility and the responsibility to fully develop the oneself.  The majority of this comes from a combination of Neo-Confucian ideas and native Japanese ideas about self and society, but there are a few chunks of Buddhist philosophy, a liberal dose of tea ceremony theory and practice, and a dash of Taoist mysticism sprinkled on so lightly most people don’t even realize it’s there.  It is the presence and more importantly, the application of these Japanese cultural ideas that makes something budo.  Without them, you’re not doing budo.  You’re doing something else.

Not doing budo is not a bad thing.  Chinese arts like Wing Chun, Paqua and Hung Gar all have rich cultural traditions of their own, as do arts like Escrima from the Philippines or Pencak Silat from Indonesia.  To try to make any of these arts into Japanese budo would be an insult to the traditions, ideas and philosophy that have nurtured and developed those arts.  There is no reason to try to force other traditions into the mold of Japanese budo. Show those traditions real respect and let them be the Philippine or Indonesian arts that they are.  Respect them, don’t try to make them something else.

This brings up a reasonable question.  If Japanese budo is the result of Japanese culture, can non-Japanese truly learn it?  The simple answer is yes.  That’s part of the brilliance of these traditions.  They encapsulate so much of these philosophies and other ideas in their practice that if you train in a well established dojo in Japan, you’ll absorb most of them without even being aware that you are doing it.  You’ll learn about properly fulfilling your roles in society as you occupy a variety of different ones in the dojo.  You’ll be a beginner, a kohai, a sempai, an assistant, a leader and even a teacher as you stick around longer and longer.  You’ll learn about Confucian ideas of self-development for the betterment of society.  You’ll discover things about mental development and calm from the training.

This is not to say that you have to go out and specifically study about Neo-Confucianism or Buddhism or Taoism or tea ceremony or anything else outside the lessons of the dojo.  The lessons about these ideas are already built into the practice. In many cases these ideas are so deeply embedded in Japanese culture at this point that most native Japanese can’t tell you the origin of the specific ideas and practices.  They are just part of the cultural atmosphere of Japan.  In budo they are often contained in the expectations that surround how you train.  These ideas will show in the way lessons are taught and how members of the dojo are expected to act and treat each other.

Even in Japan it’s possible to just go to the dojo, train and go home without doing anything else, but then you won’t really be a member of the dojo, and you won’t really be learning budo.  You’ll just be practicing the physical techniques without getting anything else.  You probably won’t even be getting the real techniques.  If you aren’t showing any serious commitment to the dojo family, the real members of the dojo aren’t likely to make an effort to teach you anything beyond the surface movements of the art.

I can hear the people saying “OK, so you can learn budo if you go to Japan.  Fine, but what about those of us who can’t travel all the way to Japan and spend years living there? Are we doing budo?”  Well, if the dojo is a good one, with teachers and senior members who have absorbed the lessons and the way a dojo operates in order to maintain those lessons and ideals, then certainly it is possible to learn budo outside Japan.

The problem in many places outside Japan is that the dojo were not established by people with a rich understanding of all the facets of budo.  In the US, often dojo were established by people with enough understanding of the techniques to teach in a limited capacity, but without the depth of experience in the dojo to really grasp all the other things that go into making budo.  Budo is a Japanese cultural tradition, and even if we come from different cultural traditions (and hey, I’m a rustbelt America, it doesn’t get much more different) it is possible to learn and even internalize the ideas about relationships and responsibility and the responsibility to develop oneself so you can fulfill your duties to your fullest ability that is wrapped up in the concept of 武道.

Budo is a term loaded with cultural baggage Budo 武道 is a way, as is distinctly shown by it’s second character 道 (michi), meaning “way.”  This Budo concept implies a great way of self development, going back to The Great Learning of Confucius.  The first 4 characters in Chinese are (very roughly) “Way of Great Learning” 大學之道.  That fourth character is pretty familiar.  It’s this idea of learning and self-development that budo is an expression of, captured and built around the particular and almost contradictory practice of studying how to hurt, maim and kill our fellow members of society.  To be doing budo we don’t have to have mastered all aspects of the martial, philosophical or cultural portions of the particular style of budo we study, but we do have to be working at mastering them.  

Budo incorporates a lot more than just broad principles and specific techniques for fighting and killing. It’s build on traditions of thought that predate it by by nearly 2000 years.  It incorporates ideas about self-development and fulfilling your role in society (in this case the dojo society) grounded in 17th century Neo-Confucian teachings.  The pedagogy teaches fighting concepts specific to conditions in Japan at various times in history.  Some arts go back to the 14th or 15 centuries, some were founded in the 20th century.The arts teach and maintain traditions of fighting originating with their founding and some have additions or modifications to adapt to new features in society and fighting that may be only a few decades old.  They are all filled with Japanese cultural expectations about how one behaves, learns and grows, the role of the individual in the group and how one develops into various roles within the group.

That’s the path, the way of budo. Budo styles and traditions are Japanese traditions of combat that incorporate ideas and expectations for the development and actions of the individual members of the tradition. If we’re only learning the physical techniques, then we’re not doing budo. If we’re not trying to to learn and implement the ideas about personal development and responsibility in our lives, then we aren’t doing budo.  Dressing up in funny looking, archaic Japanese clothes and using some Japanese terms isn’t enough, or even necessary.  We have to be working at learning the ideas about self development and responsibility and seeing how they apply to our lives while learning to maim and kill people, then we are doing budo, whether we started yesterday or have been working at it for 80 years, or anywhere in between.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

You Thought Being Sensei Would Be Awesome

After hearing me comment about what a great day I’d had at Judo practice, a friend of mine lamented the fact that there is no one senior to her in her koryu budo dojo. At that Judo practice I enjoyed myself and learned a bunch. Because I’m not the most senior person in the room there, I can relax and absorb what is being taught. I don’t have to worry about how to teach a particular point or think about what we’re going to do for the entire practice. I get to learn. Yes, if someone junior to me seems ready to learn a particular point I’ll work with them, but it’s always within the framework of the class someone else is teaching. I can focus on learning and practicing as a happy student.

I understand my friend’s lament. Where I’m at, if I want partners to train iai and jo and kenjutsu with, I have to teach them. There is no one senior to me for quite a ways. I’ve known lots of people who wanted to be the big kahoona teaching martial arts. Having arrived at that position by the simple expediency of moving to a place where I’m the only option if you want to learn the stuff I do, I can let you in on a little secret. It’s not fun.

In fact, I don’t know of anyone who’s teaching that wouldn’t trade in their cold, windy, exposed position on the top of the heap for a nice, cozy spot somewhere down the side a ways. At the top, all the responsibility is on you.  You get to worry about what to teach and how to teach and and why the people aren’t catching the point of your carefully thought out lessons. Plus you get to worry about the dojo have space and enough money to cover expenses and that someone is there on Thursday night to lead practice because you are attending your daughter’s recital and gee, I thought I remembered how to do this kata, but now I’m not so sure….how did that entry go? When you’re on top, it all comes back around to you. This is a particular problem outside Japan where dojo don’t usually have decades and decades of history.

In Japan most of the dojo I train in are lead by people in their 70s and 80s. Many of them have more than 70 or 80 years of budo experience under whatever is left of their well-worn belts.  Imagine a dojo where the median rank on the floor most nights is 6th dan. That’s pretty common.  Training in a place like that is incredible. You absorb lessons without even realizing it because the atmosphere is so rich with experience. Your training partners as often as not started practicing decades before you were born and the head sensei started decades before that.  

You don’t have to worry about what teach or how to teach it. There are plenty of seniors doing that. You just go and absorb everything you can. Some of it you forget and other lessons you don’t realize you’ve learned until they bleed from your bones and muscles and heart when needed. Secure in the knowledge that whatever question you might have someone around you will be able to answer in more detail than you can handle, you can relax and just focus on your training, on improving your budo and yourself as much as possible.

When, for whatever reason, you find yourself at the top of the heap with people around you calling out “Sensei”, that security melts faster than ice cream in an Arizona summer. This is especially true if you’ve only got a couple of decades of experience under your still all too new belt.  I still have loads of things to learn about all of the arts I study, not just Judo. For iai and jo though, most of the year I’m the only teacher around for me to rely on. I don’t have all the details of every kata nailed into my head yet. This is a problem for my training. I can teach my students a lot, but they aren’t nearly ready to work on some of the things I’m doing, so I have no practice partners nearby.

I’ve got a pile of kata that I was introduced to at the most recent gasshuku. Anything I don’t remember and don’t have written down somewhere is lost until the next time I can get together with a senior student or teacher. Of course, the nearest senior for my Jodo practice is at least 600 miles away. For iai, it’s 6,000 miles. I don’t get those checks and memory enhancements nearly as often as I’d like. I can get together with a senior in Jodo a few times a year, but getting to Japan is a lot tougher.  

For my students, I hope our dojo is a great place with a good mix of juniors and relatively senior folks. This way they can learn and grow as quickly as possible. For me improvement is comparatively slower and takes more effort. It’s also lonelier.  

A big part of budo, especially koryu budo traditions, is all the stuff that is not techniques and kata.  There are discussions of history and traditions of the system. Koryu bugei traditions are not just collections of techniques. There are stories and anecdotes that enrich and enliven the tradition.  These are not supposed to be dead, fossilized collections of dried and desiccated memories from ages past. These are living traditions that flow on from the past into the future. These stories and memories provide an important part of the foundation and understanding of how the technical practice relates to the world outside of the dojo. Without seniors and peers, all the responsibility for sharing and remembering this part of the art is yours.

Being sensei sounds great. It’s a fabulous idea right up until the moment it becomes reality. Then you discover that it is lonely and stressful. Every buck stops with you. If you have any questions, there’s no one ask. You’re on your own.  If you don’t know or don’t remember something, you’re just out of luck. You never have the luxury of relaxing and letting someone else handle it. If you want to learn something then you’ve got to figure out how to do it right. You don’t get to ask anyone. You’re sensei, and you’re all alone.