Monday, 6 April 2020

What is koryu bujutsu?

Once work colleagues or people outside my close circle of friends hear that I practice martial arts the next logical question from them is, "What martial arts do you practise?"

I have found this hard to answer. I used to say 'jujutsu' but this would lead to people thinking I did Brazilian Jujutsu and was rolling around on mats and choking or tapping people out. Irritatingly, this is what most people think jujutsu is. So I changed my answer to 'an old Japanese martial art with swords'. This tends to get people thinking in the right direction but they started to think I was a ninja or samurai (eye-rolling at this point).

Lately (in the last two years or so), I have revised my answer once again. This time to, "I practice a classical Japanese sword art."  I like this answer for a few reasons. First of all, the term 'classical' indicates something old. It's very definition is that of being traditional or long-established. This is very true of koryu bujutsu. Secondly, it is of Japanese origin. Martial arts have many cultural backgrounds, I want the people asking to know that my tradition is strictly Japanese. Finally, I mention the word 'sword' so that they don't automatically think about the many empty hand fighting arts that come to mind when thinking martial arts. Even though my school does train without weapons, that is not our focus, so this is my answer. It tends to satisfy the curious while keeping true to what I do. If they have further questions or want an actual name then I will tell them that I practice Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. This is usually more than enough!  Just uttering that phrase tends to blow their minds. 

This line of thought triggered this blog post. I would like to go a little deeper into what is koryu bujutsu? Now, I do not read or speak fluent Japanese and my understanding is simply my own based on conversations with and reading by those that know better than I do. So, I do not claim to be an expert on this subject. I am simply, as always, writing down my thoughts on the matter. 

Let's start with looking at the word 'koryu'. The characters that make up ko-ryu can be read as "old" and "flow". Essentially, this refers to styles or traditions of Japan of a particular past time such as flower arranging, tea making, dance and of course the fighting arts. Therefore, I can't simply say I practice a koryu. It is too broad. Therefore, I can add the word "bujutsu", meaning "martial arts". So you could translate koryu bujutsu as old school martial arts. Now, the words bujutsu and budo can be used interchangeably and have a fascinating history in English interpretation. There are some lines of thought that classify bujutsu as martial arts that focus on combat effectiveness while budo are martial "ways" that focus on self perfection and morals. I believe Donn Draeger was the first person to place a difference on these two words. However, others have said that most Japanese do not see a difference between the words at all. Some old school Japanese practitioners will say they study budo.
Ellis Amdur mentions in his writing that one of his own Japanese sensei didn't like the word kobudo (old martial way) as to him it meant something fixed and dead, like an antique. This sensei preferred, instead, to say koryu budo (old flow martial way) - an art that flows from the past to the present, still developing and relevant to the world. 
I tend to use the term budo for my general practise of TSYR and aikido but if I am specifically talking about TSYR I will refer to it as a koryu bujutsu. I never say koryu budo. It just doesn't sound right in my head. Each to their own.

Amdur writes that the koryu bujutsu were established as entities that used combative practice as a binding force. Their purpose to teach the practitioners how to function perfectly as a member of the samurai (warrior class) under the leadership of the daimyo (feudal lord) whom the bushi served. To the modern observer it may appear that training in these old schools simply comprises of mimicking a preset series of movements called kata. It is far more than this. If we look between the lines at what Amdur has written we can see that at its heart, studying koryu bujustu demands loyalty from its practitioners. The ryu flows through its members (remember the translation "old flow") and when you sign up to be participant in one of these archaic arts, your individual wants or needs in your practice become second to the maintenance of the ryu itself. You are loyal to the headmaster and loyal to keeping the practice going into the next generation. Threadgill sensei discusses loyalty in "Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique." He mentions that loyalty should not be trivialised in a society where individuality takes priority. In other words, western culture. One must not let ego get in the way of real loyalty. The type of loyalty he writes about is not that of a mindless drone. More that of a thinking person who has made a conscious choice to be loyal to the ryu. Amdur describes this type of group loyalty as similar to a wolf pack. At first glance, wolves might play and frolic about but as soon as the leader prepares to hunt or perceives a threat, the whole pack is on the alert. They are finely attuned to the alpha's moods. Such is the case with koryu members who may appear to joke around with each other or tell stories before training begins. However, as soon as the sensei kneels to bow in, without a word, the casual joviality stops and everyone lines up ready for class. Immediate focus and calm ensues. 

I have battled with the balance of loyalty between my training, family and work for years. I have written about it from time to time on this blog. However, I have settled on this working paradigm for now - my family is first, my work is second and then koryu bujustu fills in the remainder of my time. I study a martial art so I can learn to use physical power to protect my family and others (family first). I work to obtain money to support my family (family first) and my koryu practice, therefore work needs to be second. However, once I have satisfied my needs for family and work, koryu training must be my priority. Let me clarify this. Having a drink down at the local bar is not as important as training. Binge watching a television series is not as important as training. Thinking "I can't be bothered going out to the dojo today" is not good enough. If I have time, I should be training. Now, training not only includes going through the physical movements of kata. It could writing my blog, reading one of many books on the subject I have yet to get to or cleaning and maintaining my sword. I can be practical about this. 

Right now, my country is in lock-down as it comes to grips with COVID-19. I am fortunate in that I can work from home. My children are home with me and my wife can also work from home. My daily routine supports my priorities. First of all I keep my family safe, we follow the health suggestions by our government and stay in our 'bubble'. We wash our hands well and only my wife is going out for essentials - family first. Secondly, I am a high school teacher so I am working from a digital platform for now. I make sure I am up-to-date with my work commitments online. Once they are satisfied I go out to my dojo and train for 30 mins to an hour depending on what I am working on, every day except Mondays. I give myself Mondays off from physical training - today is Monday.
I also read books about martial arts and write these posts. My mind is never far from TSYR or budo in general. 

My relationship with other deshi in the kai is quite unique as well. I cover these in more detail in this post. It is a very unique situation where I am part of an international community. 

So, that is my thoughts on this crazy obsession of mine.

Train safe and wash your hands.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Developing a Budo Body Part V

I have wanted to go into a deeper discussion on developing a type of body that can generate relaxed power for a while now. However, I am very aware that I am still learning and have a lot more to learn in this field. Due to this, I will be relying heavily on two books to help me clarify my thoughts along with my own experiences. Ellis Amdur's "Hidden in Plain Sight" and T. Threadgill and S. Ohgami's "Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique" are written by men that know much more than I and are where any quotes I use come from.

Takamura Yukiyoshi sensei called the type of body that had these esoteric skills, a budo body. I intentionally used this term back in April 2011 with my first Budo Body post. I had only been training in TSYR for a number of months but even then it was made clear to me that my body was getting conditioned for a certain skill set.

So what is this type of power I am training for? The term most often used is internal power or internal strength. Amdur summarises internal strength as managing the intersection of the ground and gravity forces within you and then directing these forces in the most powerful way possible. I think this is a good place to start. There is a fundamental exercise that I was taught very early on in my training called Ten chi jin. This is where a person stands with feet side by side, shoulder-width apart, arms slightly bent and extended forwards in front of the shoulders. The legs are slightly bent, the feet facing forward and the head up-right. Now imagine another person applying a lateral force through the first person's arms in an attempt to topple them backwards. As the force enters the first person, he or she splits the incoming force, half directed towards the ground and the other half upwards into the heavens. This exercise is teaching you to redirect forces acting on your body.

Now, if we go back to Amdur's definition of internal strength you can see that is exactly what this exercise is training. I have been practising that exercise for nine years, week in and week out. It is now becoming easy to absorb and redirect that lateral force no matter who is pushing on me. What is more interesting is that it takes little effort to do. This is important. This exercise to accomplished through coordinating bone and muscle so it is aligned in such a way that the force naturally flows where you want it to go. It does not take excessive muscular tension to do. I am 186 cm (6 ft 1 inch) and only 75 kg (165 lbs) so imagine a tall stick. I am actually very easy to knock over in most situations. The fact I can have people heavier than me lean on me and not topple me is a testament to this type of training.

As I said above, this is a fundamental exercise we have been learning for a while. It is not the only exercise and there are other skills we need to learn that require a different approach. Any application of internal power/strength also requires a heightened sense of body sensitivity. Threadgill sensei writes about four dimensions that provide this sensitivity: Skeletal-Postural, External/Tactile Sense, Internal/Proprioceptive Sense and Dynamic-Kinesthetic. I will touch on these very briefly, if you want to know more, buy the book.

The Skeletal-Postural dimension has already been discussed above. The skeleton should be aligned in such a way that it takes minimal amount of muscle to stand upright. Without a decent instructor it is very difficult to know exactly what this looks or feels like. Tactile sensitivity identifies subtle pressure changes during body contact that allows practitioners to evaluate and respond to threats. Paired exercises are required to develop this. Proprioception is the awareness of knowing where your body is in space without using visual cues. Dancers and gymnasts have enhanced this ability as well as martial artists. With proper dynamic training, the final dimension can be honed. This is done by replacing inefficient movement patterns with more efficient and budo-appropriate ones. This results in the relaxed power I wrote about at the beginning of this post. Together these four overlapping dimensions allow a TSYR practitioner to consistently monitor the physiological state of their own bodies.

SAMURAI reJACKed: Episode VII – Jack and the Three Blind Archers ...
Samurai Jack training his proprioception.

Once an awareness of one's own body has begun to develop, five key skills can be practised. Again, I will not go into detail here (read Threadgill and Ohgami's book). The first is to have a connected body, a body that is flexible but strong and works in a unified fashion. The practitioner is able to act in a fully coordinated manner recruiting muscle, bone and fascia to deliver power. The next skill is that of having a subtle touch/feel so that your hands can detect tactile feedback. The touch must be light, only as much is required. The third skill is the cultivation of a precise grip. Flexible, yet firm and devoid of tension. Extremely important in this weapon-based art. The fourth skill is called Dragon Capturing and involves projecting force into an adversary when you grab them. Not in a linear fashion but with a subtle spiral. Finally, breathing methods are utilised to enhance internal strength.

I would like to talk about fascia for a moment. This connective tissue plays an important part in internal power. Recent research hints that fascia is more than just a passive tissue enveloping muscles and organs. It can be conditioned, toughened and used to direct and assign force. Many of the metaphors in internal martial arts appear to be linked to using the fascia network within one's body. I remember talking to the late Robbie Smith sensei before our usual Saturday morning practice. I said that my body felt more robust and springy than prior to training with him but I couldn't put my finger on why. Thinking about it now, I believe the exercises we were doing were developing my fascia along with the coordination of the muscles to created a more unified body. Even now, when I train I can turn on a 'tone' in my body. I'm not sure what this is but I can speculate and say it is a combination of key muscle groups and fascia. If that makes sense? I know that without that tone, I am more susceptible to having my centre taken.

In his book, Amdur has this to say, "With internal expressions of force, the mind directs muscles, ligaments, tendons, fascia AND one's body mass as a whole, organized primarily to exert actions upon oneself, which affect the other in the process." This is a fascinating statement and a great explanation, in my opinion, on how a budo body is created. What Amdur is saying, is that until you have control over your own body, you can't control your opponent using internal power. In my own experience, I find this to be true. Most of my training in internal power has been around me being aware of tension in my body, how I power movements efficiently and monitoring my body alignment. As Threadgill sensei says, once this budo body is developed, the very act of an adversary touching the practitioner results in the attacker being stripped of any structural support. The opponent loses their advantage on contact.

Now that we have established that the practitioner requires an element of sensitivity and an awareness of their own body mechanics the final, crucial element is intent. Threadgill sensei talks about intent often when giving instruction. For a person of his calibre to be talking about the same concept over and over again indicates to me that I should listen carefully. If he thinks it is important then so should I. Internal power ultimately requires a well-integrated mind/body connection. In a moment of conflict, I can't think sequentially through my checkpoints to make sure I am moving appropriately while someone tries to strangle me. My movements must become instinctual. Therefore I must get to the point where my intent drives my actions and I trust that the training I have in place allows for my body to produce the appropriate response. 

A great analogy for this is driving a car. When we first learn to drive a car it can be overwhelming (especially if you learned in a car with manual transmission). However, over the years it becomes second nature to drive to and from work everyday, pass other vehicles and assess threats as you drive. This is what must occur for internal power to be practical. Think about how many hours you have spent behind the wheel of a car. Then think how often you train. Scary thought, huh?

It is well documented that athletes use visualisation to help them succeed in their physical endeavours. When you visualise yourself doing something, but not actually doing it, the same neural pathways fire that would normally activate those muscles that help you perform the activity. The mind is a powerful tool. I think of intent in the same way. If you have grabbed me I might put my intent behind you to make you topple in that direction. I think, "over there" and my conditioned, coordinated body does what is required to put you there. We can practice intent when attempting Ten Chi Jin exercises. Once we can redirect the incoming force we can start to try other things within this set up. I can move the other person around as they try and push me over. By thinking "move that way" my opponent gets moved. I can also place my intent into parts of my opponent's body. This is complex to explain in this post. Having face-to-face instruction is key to learning such concepts. 

So a budo body is not complete without the intent of the practitioner. Amdur says, "intent is the ability to use the forces of gravity and ground to your advantage, and to organize your body in such a way that, moment-by-moment, you shift to make another's power your own." It is the final puzzle piece in internal power training. 

Internal power training comes with a warning from Threadgill and Ohgami in their book, "Not all budo practitioners can internalize or master nairiki (internal power) skills. Nairiki training requires a significant investment in time and physical dedication." Further more, "Considerable mental patience and resolve are needed. Repeated failure and thousands of hours of repetitive training must be endured to acquire these skills, with no guarantee of success." 

Jack in snow | Samurai Jack | Know Your Meme
Even after training for years, you may not get it.

Sobering words.

I have found a certain level of competence in this area but have a long way to go before mastery. I see it being many years until I can claim that, if at all. 

Train safe out there everyone!

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Universal truths of budo and body mechanics

The title of this post has been taken from a quote from a martial arts friend of mine. He was discussing the cross-over he saw in internal Chinese martial arts and internal power trained in Japanese martial arts.

At the TSYR dojo where I train, we have karateka, aikidoka, judoka and gendai jujitsu folk training together. We all bring something different to the training based on our previous disciplines (in many cases people still train in that discipline). We often talk about how certain principles overlap in many of the martial arts.

A human being has a finite way of moving efficiently. By this logic, a martial artist has only a finite way to strike, apply locks or throw someone effectively. What we are noticing as we train is that we are conditioning our bodies to move more and more efficiently and as we look at the principles behind many of the techniques we see overlap in other martial arts.

Jigoro Kano and Kyuzo Mifune

Here are some of the 'universal truths' I have discovered, please note that some of these concepts are hard to explain with words alone and some have to be experienced to get the full meaning of what I am trying to say. Also I am sure I will change my mind about some of these ideas as I refine my understanding. So, a disclaimer - this is how I understand things as of now, in no particular order of importance, and they are all up for discussion.

POINT OF IMBALANCE (the third point)
Humans stand on two feet. Although this has its advantages, the major drawback is that we are not very stable compared to our four-legged counterparts. Good martial arts exploit this fact. If we trace a line between the two feet and then another line perpendicular to that one (forming a T), the end point of that line is where a person will lose balance if we put their centre of gravity there. Put very simply we have two such points, one at the front and one at the back. If you ask a friend to stand square on to you in a relaxed manner and then lightly pulled their shirt from the chest, they would tilt forward and have to step or fall over. You can move them by pushing them backwards gently as well. It doesn't matter what stance they take, there are always two points of imbalance waiting to be exploited. This concept can be found in aikido, judo, TSYR and I'm sure many other martial arts. How this is achieved depends on the martial art.

So you take someones balance, so what? They will just step or readjust their weight won't they? Of course they will. To maintain an advantage the martial artist must stop this happening. Double loading/weighting is just one expression used to describe an opponent's weight being trapped in both feet so they cannot step without falling. This is hard to explain only with words. Imagine you are at that point where you are about to fall but you are so extended or compressed that if you should lift either foot, you will collapse on the ground. This is double loading/weighted. A martial artist will try and set an opponent up in this position so that they can then dictate where or how the opponent will move next. This might result in a strike, throw or joint lock. Double loading takes away an opponent's options. Without a secure base they cannot counterattack and therefore are severely compromised.

It is important in any martial art to move from a position of power. To maintain your own balance and be 'strong'. It is no good executing a technique while your own balance is compromised. This goes for transitioning from one movement to another as well. Should you not be in a position of balance as you move, your opponent can take advantage of this. I have heard dancers comment on the importance of 'finding the ground' with your feet at all times. They too know the importance of a solid base. 

This may mean lowering your centre of gravity by bending your legs (like the sumo practitioners above). It may mean having your feet flat on the ground or it might mean making sure you have your weight directly over your feet, or one of your feet at all times. 

This usually refers to the use of the legs and lowerback/pelvis/core to support and move the body about. To correctly move from centre the practitioner is not using extra muscles to complete the movement. I find this simple idea to be one of the most challenging to achieve in practice. Through my life I have generated certain body/movement habits. As I train myself to move from centre I am discovering these habits and am challenged to change them into new ways of moving. If you are moving from your centre correctly, your upper body is stacked on the bowl of your pelvis and will move where your centre moves. This is written too simplistically but hopefully gets my point across.

This is an extremely difficult one to explain but I will try. By making contact with another person, the practitioner can feel into their opponent's centre and take their balance. It requires a great deal of sensitivity and we spend some time every training session on this at the dojo. Ellis Amdur calls this the Listening Skill. I believe all martial arts that have elements of prolonged contact are ultimately trying to develop this. You can see this in the BJJ of the Gracies, the interplay between two fencers and the subtle Judo of Kyuzo Mifune. Once you can feel where an opponent's balance is, you can move it, take it away and ultimately control their actions.

Maintaining a good posture as you move is fundamental to Japanese Martial Arts. Even when a person bends at the waist they do so with a straight back. Does this mean you can't bend? No. However, where you bend from is important. Many people bend from the lower back or round their shoulders to get lower to the ground. What is better, is to bend at the hips or bend your knees. In this way you keep your centre engaged, your upper body stacked upon the pelvic bowl to tap into the power of your waist, hips and lower back. I have had both my instructor and a ballet teacher talk about 'moving around your spine'. Essentially this is the same idea. You shouldn't be twisting your spine or rounding it in a way that takes strength away from your structure. If you can spin or turn on the spot without your head moving, then you are moving around your spine and maintaining good posture. 
Throwing with good posture.
This term refers to body structure - the alignment of bones and muscle to remain stable and strong. Misalignment of the bones will cause certain muscle groups to contract to maintain stability, when this happens, an adversary can exploit this moment of increased tension. Unifying the structure of your body with sophisticated joint articulation, muscle coordination and controlled breathing leads to internal power. This is the ability to use maximum power with little effort. Threadgill sensei discusses this in depth in his book Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique. 

I believe all of the above concepts apply to good martial arts mechanics. If I see someone applying these principles, no matter what their background or training history then I know I am looking at a proficient martial artist. 

Train safe.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

What are your win conditions?

When we bow onto the mat, whether it is judo, aikido, kendo or some older budo, we engage in controlled violence where there are set rules, limitations and boundaries. No matter how hard I train I know that I will still be getting in my car afterwards and driving home, healthy and happy.
That is a good thing. I want to reuse my training partners from week to week and we all need each other fit and healthy. Unfortunately, this mentality doesn't lead to good self defence psychology.

I have been re-reading Rory Miller's book, Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training & Real World Violence. I also have been listening to an Australian podcast called Managing Violence by Joe Saunders and another podcast called Walking with the Tengu by Matthew Kreuger. These three men have left me with many thoughts about my own martial arts training.

Joe Saunders has created the Violence Survival Pyramid. He talks about four factors that go into increasing your chances in a violent encounter. From the most important at the base of the pyramid to the least important at the top. If you have a look you will notice that he puts physical techniques at the top (the least important factor). Rory Miller writes about dealing with sudden, violent encounters. Although he wrote a whole book on the subject, most of his writing is not on physical techniques, why? Finally, many Walking with the Tengu episodes mention win conditions. Despite the different topics this podcast host explores, he often returns to win conditions. 

These thoughts and ideas have been percolating in my mind. I keep coming back to win conditions. What have you decided is your goal for any given confrontation, whether it is verbal or physical? In sport karate it is scoring a clean touch on a designated area. In MMA it is getting the tap or the knock out. In kendo it is getting a clean strike on a designated target area while showing strong spirit. As a high school teacher managing challenging student behavior, it is deescalating the situation to a point that allows learning to continue. For a police officer it may mean the restraint of a person with handcuffs. To a soldier it may mean killing the enemy. 

All these win conditions set up very different training regimes for the people above. It makes no sense for a karateka training for his next tournament to learn the verbal deescalation techniques of a teacher. The teacher does not need to learn how to fire a rifle to get the focus of students in a classroom and teaching an MMA fighter how to strike with a kendoka's shinai is not going to help him much in the cage. This may seem obvious but people still have arguments over 'the best martial art' or 'the best technique' when what they should think about is the win conditions assumed with each of those statements.

If I am put in a self-defence situation where my life is threatened and I may be able to escape,  my win condition is to get away. Everything I do in that moment is to try to make that a reality. Any actions I might perform that aren't helping me achieve this goal are pointless and in this case, potentially deadly. 

If you are practicing a martial art I hope you have thought about the win conditions that have created the training paradigm you are involved with. Is this what you thought you were training for? Is it not clear what you are training for? I started aikido in 2002, I joined because a workmate of mine had been practicing a long time, he was a black belt and because he was a nice guy. I thought the dojo must be pretty good to churn out a guy like that. I went into it with the thought that I would do it as long as life didn't get in the way. Little did I know that martial arts training would become part of my life. However, my reasons for training in aikido changed over the years and so did my assumptions about its practice. You could say that my interpretations of what the win conditions were changed. At first I considered the win conditions to be the resolution of conflict through superior technique. An aikidoka could skillfully use his opponent's force against him and the adversary would see the error of his ways. The more I trained, the more I found this difficult to believe. So I started to doubt my practice and the purpose of my training. That was a confusing time for me. Because the win condition was not clear, it was hard to decide which elements of my training I should focus on and which parts I should forget. Then I decided the win condition of aikido was still about conflict resolution but through deescalation and we were practicing a physical metaphor. It was more about training a mindset that was open to resolving conflict through deescalation be it verbal or physical. The physical training kept me fit and flexible and wasn't that practical. For me, this was particularly true of aikiken, the wooden sword training. At this point I had started as a high school teacher in a co-ed state school and the mental skills I had learned in aikido practice paid off. I could see a link between my training and my profession. My training found renewed purpose. I could also blow off steam on the mat. 

I still had my doubts about all the sword swinging I was doing. That didn't seem to fit into my deescalation paradigm very well. In 2011, I was introduced to Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu. This is a classical Japanese sword school. Everything I thought I knew about using a Japanese sword was wrong in this training paradigm. The win condition in TSYR is very clear. Kill the other guy. However, do this in the context of medieval Japan. The mindset is different. Deescalation is not important. You have to have the mind of a predator in this martial art. Everything I learn and train for in TSYR is to gain advantage over an adversary to kill him. This makes training so much clearer and straight forward. If I perform a movement that gives an advantage to the other person or is done in an inefficient manner I am 'dead'. There is something very pure about this type of training. 

The funny thing is, I still practice some aikido. I teach it to children. My TSYR training has clarified the win condition of my aikido practice. It most certainly is not the desire of my aikido training to kill the other guy. That, I am very sure of. So what is it? 
 I believe it is beneficial to learn to be strong of mind but willing to deescalate a situation. That is the win condition I have for my students. Do what is needed to deescalate and no more. That is a valuable skill I can give them to take into the world. 

So I go back to Joe Saunder's "Surviving Violence Pyramid". We see mindset is the very foundation of this diagram. As he says, "get your head straight" and everything else falls into place.  Rory Miller discusses the psychology of both attackers and victims in his book. He understands that the mindset of a person is key. Know what your win conditions are and train hard to ensure you can achieve them. Your win conditions will decide your mindset, your mindset will decide your training parameters. Then you can train with sincerity and purpose, without distraction and without the 'fluff'. 

When I step onto the mat I will be one of two people in that moment. If I am practicing TSYR, then I am the predator, seeking an opportunity to kill. If I am practicing aikido then I am the mediator, seeking to find a solution through deescalation but not devaluing myself in the process. As my mindset shifts, so too does my training. This gives me a sense of clarity.

So, what are your win conditions?

Train safe.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Of Gods and Monsters.

If you haven't listened to the Samurai Archives podcast yet, do it!  I have been listening off and on for the past few years about the culture, warfare and literature of historical Japan while driving to and from work. I would like to continue the theme of getting into the mindset of the historical Japanese warrior by exploring one of the podcast episodes that talk about just that.

I wrote about some of the ideas the Japanese person may have had during the Edo period of Japan (the time period from which Shindo Yoshin Ryu was founded). I have spoken about Shinto and the concept of wabi-sabi in earlier posts. What the Samurai Archives podcast leads into is this idea that people from the past were not simply ignorant versions of ourselves but had a completely different reality to our own. Things like ghosts, spirits, magic and gods that are termed superstition today, were part of a person's reality in medieval Japan. Think about that for a moment. For the average medieval Japanese person, magic was real, the kami were real, evil spirits existed.  As the hosts of the podcast put it, the Japanese before the 1800's were living in one of our medieval fantasy novels. 

In Jack's world, Aku is very real.
Now extrapolate out that idea to the Japanese warrior. David A. Hall writes about the influence of Buddhism on combat and warriors of the time. One goddess of the Buddhist pantheon in particular, Marishiten, has been an important figure for groups such as military personnel, police officers, the classical warrior traditions (bingo!) and sumo wrestlers. Apparently, Marishiten's popularity among Japanese warriors was mainly due to the combative powers she could place upon her devotees. Such things as invisibility, clarity of mind, intuition and so on. By the thirteenth century, esoteric practices such as the kuji (hand gestures combined with mantras) had become very popular. Again we must remember the psycological implications of a warrior believing these chants and gestures would actually give him power over his enemies. Looking at this from a modern worldview we may scoff. However, we all know the placebo effect is a real phenomenon so it doesn't take much convincing for me to see how the classical Japanese warrior's belief in such a practice could lead to him performing at an enhanced level, even it it wasn't really based on supernatural entities.  Remember, the people of this time had no access to any other way of thinking. This was their reality.

Returning to David Hall's writings we can look at the power of invisibility. Immediately we can say, wait a moment, they couldn't actually turn invisible! Hall proposes that in the case of the Japanese warrior the power of invisibility granted by Marishiten was not so much physical concealment but more a psychological ability. It could mean anything from hiding one's intentions strategically to the psychological blinding of an opponent during hand-to-hand combat. He uses modern war time examples of where soldiers firing their weapons at charging troops would miss due to the charging men having a psychological advantage. They were for all intents and purposes, 'not there', so couldn't be hit. 

Another wondrous power of Marishiten is intuition, the ability to react accordingly, without thought. You can imagine that after years of training and experience, with thousands of hours dedicated to a chosen field, that the way a warrior thought and reasoned would change. This new way of thinking can call upon experience and/or the appropriate movement rapidly at a moment's notice without effort. Otherwise known as a flash of intuition. So what the classical warrior might attribute to Marishiten's power was simply an accumulation of years of experience in a narrow focus of study. In fact in classical martial traditions the okugi (inner mysteries) may be told to those after they have done their share of training. However, these secrets would not have been useful to the uninitiated anyway,  without years of practice and training to put them into context, they wouldn't make any sense.

The idea that the classical Japanese warrior had a different reality to ours can also be demonstrated with their use of esoteric practices to decide strategy and tactics on a larger scale. Deciding when to fight battles or go to war was often considered by first seeking the advice of a priest or other holy person. This wasn't considered an afterthought either. A warlord could decide the fate of his domain on these practices and he truly believed that there were forces at work that were beyond the mundane. These forces could strongly influence the outcomes of battles. 

So, where does that leave a modern day practitioner of koryu bujutsu? First of all I have no intention of shrugging off my twenty-first century worldview and living in the reality of a medieval Japanese warrior. I could no sooner do that, than a warrior of the past understand what a mobile phone is. What I can do is look at what those practices and beliefs developed in the warrior. Things such as intuition, a mindset that controlled or dominated an opponent, a feeling of invincibility. This is the key to breaking into that mindset and this is why I get annoyed when people say that what I might practice is archaic and pointless. There are lessons to be learned if we trust the process. One thing that hasn't changed for hundreds of years is the mentality of the human mind going to war. There is a certain psychology that will set you up for dealing with combat much better than others. There is a formula that has been put together by many practitioners and passed through many generations waiting to be discovered. Provided we are patient, we can tap into this. 

Train safe.

Saturday, 8 February 2020


Part of being a deshi in a classical Japanese martial arts school is trying to understand the Eastern mindset that our predecessors held. This is complex and I have touched on a few of these ideas in the past, Shinto being one of the most important for TSYR. 

Recently I was listening to a podcast which was discussing the tea ceremony of Japan and as part of this talk, the term wabi-sabi came up. This is not the first time I have heard this term but I was encouraged to dig further and think about what this might mean for me as a TSYR deshi. Before I go any further please let me explain that my grasp of Japanese is limited to 'dojo Japanese' with a few other phrases I have picked up along the way. So my opinion is based purely off what I have read or heard over the years. 

The Japanese language has many words that do not have a direct equivalent in English. I believe wabi-sabi is one of them. Put in very basic terms it describes the concept of beauty found in imperfection. Wikipedia goes further to say "Wabi-sabi nurtures all that is authentic by acknowledging three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect." An object that is aged or worn can have wabi-sabi, so can a carefully repaired cracked bowl or a rustic handmade object. Scratches and marks on an object give it a story and makes it unique to any other. But does this mean everything that is old and worn has wai-sabi? Apparently, its not that simple. 

To understand this further we can look at the Western worldview of beauty. In contrast, we find beauty in symmetry, perfection and newness (or youth). This is the cultural value of beauty I was raised in. From what I can tell, it was as far back as the ancient Greeks that held this idea of beauty dear. Its not hard to believe when you look at such things as the Ancient Olympics, where the athletes performed naked, showing off their amazing physiques (oiled if wrestling!). The idea of perfection in mathematics, universal laws (physics anyone?) and being obsessed with the eternal all contributed to our Western concept of beauty. So jump forward to 2020 and we see the obsession with youthfulness and the eternal in such things as fake-looking, flawless, Hollywood stars, plastic surgery, fitness fads and the need for having the latest new phone. 

The roots of wabi-sabi comes from Buddhism which suggests wisdom is gained by coming to terms with imperfection, impermanence and emptiness. Through Japan's history wabi-sabi became more refined and permanently entrenched in the culture partly due to the tea ceremony. 
In the 1500s, a tea master known as Sen no Rikyu redefined the etiquette for the tea ceremony, with emphasis on humility. He favoured efficient movement with no fuss, plain and simple utensils and respect for the guest. In doing this he imbued the tea ceremony with wabi-sabi.  There is a story about Rikyu that shows how he viewed wabi-sabi.  One version (there are many) tells how one of Rikyu's sons built a beautiful tea garden strictly to the teachings of his father and then invited his father to view his new project. The father took one look and frowned. The son was shocked, he had done everything according to his father's rules. Rikyu walked over to a cherry tree and shook the branches. The blossoms drifted lazily to the ground. The falling of the flowers brought imperfection to the otherwise new tea house and garden. This was wabi-sabi. Today, all schools of the tea ceremony still follow the rules Rikyu put in place so long ago.
The concept of wabi-sabi can also be found in the aesthetics of flower arranging, Japanese pottery and zen gardens. 

So what does this mean to a Westerner practising an Eastern martial tradition? Well, it gives me a change in perspective, a different worldview and an insight into the thought processes of men who lived a long time ago in a different society. It helps me understand how these people would have thought about their world and how it affected their martial training. When I go for a walk in the NZ bush or along a beach on the wild West Coast of my country I can appreciate wabi-sabi. The flow of impermanence and imperfection is all around me and at the same time I see beauty in it all. It lifts my spirit. The simple act of waves rolling in and out as the tide comes in, removing any trace of footsteps. The changing of the trees with the seasons. Watching my children grow and change, as I grow older and change. There is an acceptance that comes over me. My life is fleeting. That one thought can make me sad and happy in the same instant. I will not live forever but how lucky am I to be here now experiencing the world, seeing my children grow and my wife laugh. These same thoughts the Japanese warrior must of had. For he is also human. 

As a deshi of TSYR I am aware of my impermanence while the ryu can flow though me and carry on beyond my life time. Back through history one fleeting life after another has persevered with this art, contributed to it and let it flow onto the next generation of deshi. It is an amazing feeling to know that generations of people have practised what I am practising even though it was at different times over hundreds of years. I can appreciate the simple beauty found in humble moss climbing over a rock in a zen garden, just as my predecessors did, or marvel at the patterns found on the bark of a gnarled tree in the New Zealand bush. Even though I am hundreds of miles from Japan itself, the birthplace of TSYR's founder. It is trying to understand wabi-sabi that connects me to the people who practised the ryu before me. That let's me carry on the flow of information from one generation to the next and reminds me that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Train safe, everyone. 

Monday, 13 January 2020

Learning to use/abuse power.

This post was inspired by an article written by Ellis Amdur, titled Ballet Boy. I suggest you read it before following the rest of what I write. I'm not going to pretend I know what Ellis is getting at in that article but this is what hit me.  The boy in the story gets beat up and bullied, then he eventually retaliates and finds that he is stronger than he thought he was. He then systematically hunts down and deals with each of his bullies. This didn't sit well with me. Maybe I'm too much of a romantic, maybe I am being unrealistic but the fact that the boy suddenly realises he has power and then uses it to harm others bothers me. Yes, I know that they got him first and it was payback. I don't think that makes it right. For years I have wondered why I keep learning how to use violence to control or hurt people as a pastime. I came to the conclusion that I wish to know how to use violence to protect others rather than to have power over others or bully people. It's a big deal for me. 

I live in a pretty safe country and in an even safer community so I may never need to use this stuff but I do have one story to illustrate my point. 

A few years back I was training at the Hamilton dojo (the Yoshin Wadokan) with my fellow TSYR deshi. It was a freestyle training session. So we just had on gi pants and T-shirts, not our full keikogi and hakama. We had just got onto the mat when one of the women who turned up a little late said, "Did you see that couple out on the field?" Next to the dojo is a large green sports field. As we opened the doors to look out upon this field we could see a man standing over a woman who had obviously fallen to the ground. It was obvious that they were having an argument and it had got physical. My sensei immediately jogs towards the couple yelling "What do you think you are doing?" Right behind him are myself and two other deshi. Upon seeing us approach the man straightens up and steps away from the woman on the ground. His demeanour changes very quickly from aggression to appeasement as he sees he has been busted abusing his partner. The female deshi helps the woman up and starts to lead her away asking if she is alright and has she somewhere she can go? I stay and talk to the male, who is calling me sensei at this point (eye-rolling moment) he even offers me a can of Bourbon and cola that had fallen out of his back pocket during his scuffle with the woman. I decline. I can see that he has scars on his face from old scratch marks that he received, no doubt from the woman he was standing over. I suspect this couple have been in a culture of violence for a while. 
This man is probably a threat to nobody except his partner and looks to get as much as he gives. Eventually everyone is talked down and the man and woman move off in different directions. We go back to keiko. I'm pretty sure those two would be back together in no time and smacking each other around again. 

Here is an example where my dojo mates and I could use our power for the right reasons. We didn't need to rough-house the guy or threaten him but simply let him know that what he was doing was wrong and we wouldn't stand for it.

Good Jack or Bad Jack?
There are many instances both in and out of the dojo where power is used to abuse others. Ellis Amdur does a very good job of discussing this in Chapter 10 of his book, Dueling with O-sensei. It is a great read and I highly recommend it for any martial artist not just those practising Aikido. To quote Amdur, "The dojo is a laboratory in which we can embody some of the most horrifying potentials of humanity, with the aim of mastering and controlling them. It must, therefore, be a place of trust and honorable behaviour." Amdur acknowledges that we are learning how to be good at violence. In doing so we must surround ourselves with a culture of safety and care. This is very important to the mental state of all involved. 

When I was an enthusiastic 5th or 4th kyu in Aikido I bought into the harmonious and healing nature of Aikido. I thought Aikido could change people and bring peace to everyone's lives. The dojo could be a sanctuary for strays and the down-trodden. The problem with this thought, as good-intentioned as it was, is that when you bring people into a space, they bring their values and ideas with them. They are not hollow vessels waiting to be filled. So I was naive to think that people who may train once or twice a week with us would change radically from the person they were. Sure, there are instances where Aikido has helped people improve their lives, but they have to want to change and other factors are at play here as well, like good friends or agencies supporting them, not just the dojo. 

I remember one fellow that joined us at the dojo. He had obviously had a rough time in his life and although he tried to fit in at the dojo, some of his habits of distrust and anger were too ingrained that he compromised the safe,caring nature of the dojo. After he had been spoken to on many occasions about some of his behaviour he slowly disappeared and we never saw him again. Last I heard he was training at another Aikido dojo in town.

When I speak of learning to use power, I don't only mean physical power. The culture of a dojo can lend itself to abusing people psychologically and emotionally as well. We have all seen those movies where the young apprentice wants to learn the martial arts from the master. We then join the local dojo and think "teach me, sensei." at any cost. This requires a high level of trust and some people exploit that trust. Then there are the kids' classes. Those little people are put in your hands by their parents and they are trusting you to look after their sons and daughters and keep them safe in a potentially dangerous environment. The allure is strong here. As a teacher/instructor/sensei you have absolute power in that context.

The Budo Kensho (Budo Charter) released by the Nippon Budo Kyogikai (Japanese Budo Association) in 2009 states that through physical and mental training exponents seek to build their character, enhance their sense of judgement, and become disciplined individuals capable of making contributions to society at large. That is just article one. There are six articles that speak of things like teachers being role models, everyone showing respect and emphasis on more than just gaining technical skill. Lofty ideals but the document makes it clear what is expected of any budoka. The irony is I have seen these things exhibited better in my current koryu practice than in any gendai budo dojo I have stepped into.

The longer I train the more I see the mental/psychological aspects of my training becoming more important and that of the quality of a person's character. Some people just enjoy hurting others. I don't want to be the one that gives them more tools to do so. I find myself in a privileged position of teaching Aikido to children. I have a chance to influence how they view and use power in their lives as they grow. 

So these days, as I teach my own Aikido class and train in TSYR I am more comfortable with training with people that fit the mindset of the budo I practice rather than the other way around. Good people make good budoka. Lets give the power to those who already have the morals and values to wield it graciously, with honour and integrity.

Train safe!