Saturday, July 25, 2015

What it means to be part of a koryu bujutsu.

I practised aikido for about nine and a half years. I was introduced to the martial art by a work colleague and thought I would check it out. I entered into training thinking that I would keep at it until life got in the way. I became obsessed with training, I was young, single and had time. During those years I met many people. Most of them through the dojo I trained at but also while visiting other dojo or at seminars. I enjoyed learning how to train with other people and found out how to persevere through my own limitations and frustrations. I struck up friendships but the members of my dojo felt like work colleagues. People that enjoyed the same interest as me. Some did become long-term friends but most did not. 

Aikido taught me how to learn a martial art. Then I entered a koryu bujutsu. 

The first difference is how I got involved. I was interviewed by phone by the sensei at the time and had to produce a CV of my martial background including past teachers (this was easy, one martial art, one teacher). I was invited to train but it was made clear this was a probationary period where I could walk out at any time or I might be discouraged from continuing. Finally, after about a year of training I was asked to take keppan (blood oath). This cemented for me how serious I was to take my training. Things in my life had changed. I had a partner and young children now. Time was at a premium when I was entering a more demanding martial art. The expectation is that I train as often as I can and as diligently as I can. Needless to say, I value my time on the mat. But one thing that I wasn't prepared for was how close I would become to my fellow training partners. Numbers in a koryu bujutsu dojo are small (I mean really small). In a modern budo a typical training hall might find 10 to 30 students training in any given evening. At our koryu dojo we have a core of about 10 students, with anywhere from four to eight training on any given day and our dojo is considered 'healthy'. This means I have got to know these other people very well. The head of our kai lives overseas but travels to New Zealand once or twice a year. Members from our dojo travel to hombu once a year for instructor seminars. Threadgill sensei knows each of us personally. He knows our families as well. For me, this is very different to my aikido training days. If I went to an aikido seminar up to 100 people could be on the mat. The guest instructor would most likely be from another country but didn't know you by name and certainly didn't know your family. You would take what you could from the lessons put forward by this person then return to your own dojo. Aikido, as with many modern budo is taught to the masses. Koryu bujutsu is not. It is much more personal. Genuine relationships are formed between teacher and student.

Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu has lost two of its senior most students over the last two years. One was my dojo-cho the other was a senior student at hombu. If a well-known, high-ranking aikidoka was to pass on, it would be sad. Sad in the kind of way when a distant relative dies. When a member of a koryu bujutsu passes, it is like a close family member passes. Although I had never met the student at hombu, she was my senpai, she had entered the ryu before me, she had taught both of my instructors at some time or another and through them passed on her knowledge. There is a connection. People from my dojo who had trained at hombu had spoken about training with her, what she was like as a person and even shared notes she had made on techniques. There was only two degrees of separation between us. That makes it real, it hurts. Even as I write this I am astonished at how much the koryu bujutsu community means to me. I have friended TSYR members on Facebook that I have never met but we are a small community with a shared experience. We practice an old budo and there are not many of us, we are committed to its preservation. That brings us together. When a senior member passes, so too does their knowledge and insight. 

When my sensei passed suddenly, the messages and contact made from our international family was amazing. Robbie had traveled often and met many of those from the Ryu. Even those who had not met him personally had heard about him from someone in their dojo, again, two degrees of separation. We are a close group.

How the koryu is organised is different to aikido as well. In aikido there are many styles and organisations. The Aikikai can be considered to be an umbrella organisation that represents mainline aikido. No single person is in charge though. In koryu bujutsu there is one headmaster of the kai. In our case, Threadgill sensei. What he says, goes. Although he lets each dojo-cho manage the day-to-day running of their own dojo he ultimately decides which member is registered with the kai and who has to leave. Only him, no one else. If you don't like it? Tough. This actually helps create the close family feel of the group. The headmaster is mentor and teacher to all, almost like a father-figure. It certainly removes much of the politics that is found in large modern budo organisations.

Being part of this koryu has enriched my life. I have had to give more to this training than in aikido but I get more back in return. 

Training in a koryu bujutsu is not for everyone but for those of us that have taken the risk and made the commitment required it can be very rewarding. 

10 comments:

  1. Thank you Dean,

    I enjoyed reading and could certainly relate. See you in a few weeks.

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    1. I am looking forward to catching up, Adam.

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  2. As usual I really enjoy reading your posts. Especialy at this point and given the events... It is something that most people would not understand, but I think you did a great job explaining it.

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    1. Thank you, Artur. One day I hope to meet you and further strengths the TSYR bonds.

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  5. Its an interesting perspective on aikido and koryu however its a highly personal narrative. What if your Aikido teacher also happens to be a Kendo instructor as well? You stay in same dojo with same persons.
    A Samurai was also trained in an Aikido like Jiujitsu in olden days. NB: There is only one Aikido. Nobody since Ueshiba has been able to improve on it except possibly Morehei Saito in staff/bo category. I dont know much about international organisation of Aikido but the legacy of Morehei Ueshiba is carried on by his grandson who is the current grandmaster regardless of skill level. I say this because first hand students of O Sensei are still alive. This causes a variance in teaching styles but not in the art.

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    1. Thanks for your reply. Yes, it is a highly personal narrative, that's what I write about here. My experiences. As to a sensei teaching more than one martial art, well that is an interesting perspective. A past sensei of mine taught karate, wing chun and TSYR. Quite a mix! I was only interested in TSYR but some of my fellow training partners did two but not often all three.

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  6. Dean, I browsed around for TSYR bokken and somehow stumbled upon your blog. Great stuff!

    Bien

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    1. Thank you, Bien. Chris and Pete have mentioned you after participating in the Instructor's Seminars. Nice to have you reading my blog.

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