Saturday, 8 February 2020

Wabi-sabi.

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!

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Enter 2020.

This blog is about my experiences in both gendai and koryu budo. So looking ahead into 2020 I can see changes coming for both Aikido and TSYR. I have been teaching just two children Aikido over the past few years at my private dojo. However, through word-of-mouth I have been asked to take on a few more. This could move my numbers up to five students. To be honest, my small dojo could only handle a maximum of six children on the mat at once so five is good. I have never sought students but I enjoy passing my knowledge of Aikido onto others and will accept children that I think will make good students, I am a picky sensei. I don't apologise for that. My day job keeps me busy so if I am teaching after work I want to enjoy the experience as much as the kids I teach.

As some of you may already know, I have been awarded my Shoden teaching license. This means I can now teach people TSYR. I will be looking to teach in Auckland when I can to help that group increase their skill level. Of course, I will take on teaching responsibilities at the Hamlton Dojo when needed but to be honest that shouldn't be very often as I have a competent teacher there and another capable fellow deshi with a teaching license. 

I started the year as I always do, out in my dojo. This morning I worked on critiquing my batto, first by working on the omote forms and then performing the matching ura version of each kata. I am really enjoying the sword work at the moment. For years I always felt that the sword fought me and I would diligently work through the kata but felt frustrated at my lack of control. Of late, things seem to be clicking. I can make slight adjustments in my technique to get better at the kata and I am finding overlap in some movements which helps. I am enjoying the precision of the kata. 

I also hope to use the summer holidays to do some more renovations on the dojo, I have some work to do to finally tidy up the mat area and complete it properly. That should be possible over the next few weeks. 

So I am excited about what I may be able to achieve this year in my martial arts.
All the best for your own training!



Sunday, 22 December 2019

A great way to end the year.

As we bowed in to start the last formal training session of 2019, imagine my surprise when my sensei formally announces that he has been given the authority by Threadgill sensei to award me with a Shoden Teaching License. I feel privileged and humbled. Currently, to my knowledge, there are 61 Shoden licensed teachers worldwide and I would make the 62nd. By being bestowed with the license to teach I take on the responsibility of passing on my knowledge and ensuring the survival of the ryuha. That is not a small thing. 

I also got the opportunity to borrow a copy of Shindo Yoshin Ryu - History and Technique to read over the summer break. It is written by Tobin Threadgill and Shingo Ohgami. What a beautifully put-together book!  The content within its pages is amazing and I highly recommend any member of the Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Kai to read it. In fact, anyone with an interest in koryu bujutsu should read it. 

All in all that was a great Saturday and rounded off quite a mixed year for me. I started the year having 10 weeks off training due to an ongoing injury that wouldn't heal. When I returned to training it was sporadic as my daughter's soccer season was beginning and this meant more time away from training. Fortunately, the latter part of the year allowed me to get back into my training and I enjoyed a fantastic seminar with Marco Pinto sensei at the beginning of November. I have certainly felt like my own practice has really improved recently and I am feeling 'sharp'. To be able to come from no training at the start of the year, to then make great gains in my training by the end of the year, feels like a great accomplishment. 

Wishing you all a great Christmas and a Happy New Year!
Train safe everyone!





Monday, 25 November 2019

Assassins!

So I recently finished playing a game of assassins at my workplace. If you don't know what this game is then check this link here.Staff are given the option to opt out before the game begins, otherwise it is assumed you are playing. You arrive on a Monday morning with a note telling you who your 'mark' is. Along with one clothes peg. This is your weapon. Should you succeed in getting this peg on your mark, they are out of the game and must tell you who they are hunting down, this continues until the end of the week. At that point prizes are given for those still 'alive' and those with the most 'kills'.
I didn't play last year as I helped plan the game so this year was my debut. I am happy to say I survived until the last day and got into the final four alive. Unfortunately, I let my guard down in the last fifteen minutes of the game to be taken out. 

Four kills!

Why am I writing about this on my budo blog? Well, interesting thing. In the past I have suffered from anxiety and anger management problems. Due to the paranoia the game creates, my colleague asked how my anxiety was going while the game was running. I had nothing! I was wired, excited and loving every minute!  So why wasn't I feeling the panic and paranoia that some of the others were?

I have had counselling for both anger issues and anxiety and what I have discovered is that I have a reactive personality. So I respond to perceived threats quickly. Now, in the everyday life of work and family these threats are really just perceived. Not actual life threatening situations. They are also over a long period of time (chronic) and my physiology is trying to respond to these threats and anxiety is often the result. While the game was running, the threats were real. I had to watch my back or I would get 'pegged'. I also had to be vigilant and scheme to get my targets. I had to take moments when I saw vulnerability and commit fully in that moment. Three out of my four 'kills' involved acting in a moment of my target's weakness. Opportunistic almost. All my normal nervous energy was given purpose. I had never felt so stable and mentally sharp. My colleague (the one that asked about my anxiety) made an observation. She said that there must obviously be a genetic component to anxiety, depression etc. and that it must have been useful to have this 'reactivity' (let's call it that) in times of war and disaster. The problem is when the real threats go away generations later, those born with this reactivity don't function well in peaceful times. She knows of one family that has had both sons of that family attempt suicide, one succeeded and the other one did just enough damage (hanging) to starve his brain of oxygen and he now needs full care to get by. This is an example of it being 'in the family'.

But here is the kicker. All of a sudden her observation made me feel normal. I want you to understand what that means. I hated myself for when I had anger management problems. I was confused as to why I would have anxiety attacks over things when under chronic stress. Now, this make more sense. I could forgive myself a little. For that week of assassins, I was totally in my element!  I enjoyed the hyper vigilance and the fact every action during the day mattered. All my energy was being channelled into purposeful behaviour and I felt great!

Two things I can take away from the game that relate to budo. 
1. The predator mindset was invaluable to being successful in this game. The constant pressing of your target until they made a mistake was very important. 
2. The reason I choose to practice budo other than other physical pursuits is because it gives me a small experience of consequences really mattering. Move wrong and you could get hit in the head with a bokken. Lose focus and you can stab yourself with your habikito. My physiology needs this to function at a normal level or weird things happen (like anxiety attacks). 

Keep training!






Saturday, 16 November 2019

TSYR Australasia unites!

Marco Pinto sensei has arrived in New Zealand for a weekend seminar on the 1st November 2019. On Friday night we had jiyu keiko (free training) for a couple of hours. Hamilton deshi as well as two early visitors from Auckland were able to make it. Eight people were given advice from Pinto sensei on kata from empty hand through to battojutsu and kumitachi. It was an atmosphere of study and focus as bokken and habikito were being used next to people being joint locked or thrown.

Pinto sensei in action.
On Saturday we had representatives of the entire Australasian TSYR membership attending. Sixteen people in total including four deshi from Australia. This is the first time these people have been on the same mat together since Robbie Smith sensei passed away many years ago. We spent the morning session working on the te hodoki with variations and tips. The afternoon session was focused on the haru set of the kumitachi. Pinto sensei emphasised uchitachi responding correctly to the techniques to allow counter attacks if needs be and to keep safe during practice.

That night we went out for dinner and there was plenty of conversation and laughter. One Auckland member and an Australian bunked down at my house as the Hamilton group spread the visitors amongst their homes. This allowed for more discussion that evening and morning over breakfast. As all the Australians were members of the Armed Forces, my visitor had interesting work stories. 

Sunday morning was all about the kuzushi no kata. Unfortunately I couldn't attend the Sunday afternoon session but some batto and disarms were covered as far as I am aware. 

When I got home my muscles felt like they had been stretched and were aching. It was good to push myself and work with many great people. The aching was not muscle soreness but more a feeling of being overstretched and the next day my body felt fine. I honestly believe the aching of the day before was a reaction from my nervous system from taking ukemi from Pinto sensei and having to respond rapidly to his movements. 

Pinto sensei was amazing. He moves with such speed and power that at times when I was receiving technique from him I felt like my brain was rattling around in my skull. In one technique he lifted both my feet off the ground - twice!  He said to those watching that one can simply step out of the technique when receiving it. I argue that to step out of the technique, you actually have to have at least one foot on the ground!

TSYR seminar attendees.
The vibe on the mat was fantastic. Everyone was working hard and very demanding of themselves. It was an excellent experience.





Friday, 11 October 2019

47 Ronin: Book Review.

The tale of the 47 ronin (Ako Incident) is immortalised in kabuki theatre. It has been told and retold since 1748 and is popular for its theme concerning samurai loyalty. I would classify John Allyn's 47 Ronin as historical fiction. It is historical fact that around 1701, a samurai called Asano Naganori attacked the Shogun's Master of Ceremony, Kira Kozukenosuke Yoshinaka inside the Shogun's palace. He was asked on the very same day to commit ritual suicide. It is also historical fact that 47 of Asano's samurai raided Kira's mansion about a year and a half later to avenge their lord's death. What John Allyn does is fill in the gaps and makes some assumptions to bring the characters to life. Therefore I see this as historical fiction. 



This story is very well known and popular in Japan. John Allyn is an author from the United States who has lived in Japan and has placed his own take on the historical event. Overall I thought he gave the story a good shot. I think having some knowledge of feudal Japan would help the reader as the author does not give very much information on this front. It actually feels like Allyn assumes the reader knows the guts of the story and therefore concentrates on the lives of Asano's retainers during the period after their lord's death and prior to their attack on Kira's estate. I found the chief retainer believable as he tried to keep the band of ex-samurai together, balancing the hotheads from those who were willing to step away from the whole mess. It is a book that is written plainly but not unlike the style of Eiji Yoshikawa's Musashi. Where the writer does not spend very long on characterisation. There is an intriguing quality to this style of writing and I still felt pulled along by the story even though I knew the outcome. The story also portray's Kira as the bad guy and Asano as the noble country samurai. This is the 'official' view of the characters according the kabuki play. The historical figures may in fact be something quite different. 

If you know the story of the 47 ronin then this English version might be an interesting take on the old Japanese tale. 

Oh, by the way, the movie starring Keanu Reeves is NOTHING like the actual tale. So if that is your only reference then prepare to get an education.