Sunday, 14 February 2021

Shu, Ha, Ri

 There is a concept in traditional Japanese training that consists of three stages - Shu, Ha, Ri. It can not only be applied to martial arts training, but flower arranging, the tea ceremony and many other disciplines that take a long time to acquire. It is a complex concept with many layers and I am still learning much about this idea. Recently Miles Kessler has organised a series of interviews with prominent U.S. budo teachers to discuss Shu, Ha, Ri. I highly recommend watching these discussions as the insights provided are fascinating. 

You can find those interviews here: Shu, Ha, Ri

Today, I will make my own meagre attempt at explaining the three stages but please take what I say with a grain of salt. I am still finding my way on the martial path and do not have the years of experience that the men Miles interviewed have. So, as I often do, I will use two books to help me clarify my ideas. The first book is the Student Handbook of the Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Kai by Tobin Threadgill Sensei. The second is Kodo: Ancient Ways by Kensho Furuya. 

Kensho Furuya describes the three stages of learning as such: Shu means the protecting stage, in other words, the form or shape of the technique must be preserved or protected. The second stage of training is called ha and this relates to breaking the form. At this stage the basic form is broken into its many applications. The third stage is called ri, the student forgets the forms and masters the formless technique, leaving the old ideas behind. In other words he has fully matured in his training. 

I find Furuya's definitions a good starting point but they feel incomplete or too simple for me. After listening to the gentlemen speaking with Miles Kessler I can see there is much more to it than what I have written so far. 

My understanding thus far is this: 

Shu is where all students start, learning the basic forms. In martial arts this will be, where do I put my foot, my hands, which way do I turn? Until a student can get some competence in the basics, he or she can not move on. In Threadgill Sensei's handbook, an article by Takamura Yukiyoshi explains this concept further. Takamura Sensei explains that without first devoting oneself entirely to the mastery of the omote (surface ideas, obvious movements) of the kata, the student is destined to remain forever a beginner. To embrace the kata the student must resign himself to a series of repetitious movements. This can feel boring, tiring and sometimes the movements seem random. However, the kata are designed to test the student on many levels. The correct repetition of the movements are training important ways of moving, they are developing muscle memory and building a foundation. The beginning kata are also testing a student's concentration, tenacity and devotion to the art. The kata are not just challenging a student physically, but mentally as well. Once a student can execute these kata at a satisfactory level, they can move on.

Ha is where application can be applied. In Aikido this might be the myriad versions of Ikkyo applied to different attacks. In classical training it is finding the applications or bunkai within existing kata.  Takamura sensei says, "...ha is the first hint of creative expression allowed the student." He goes on to say, "This is when the student is encouraged to consider any response to failure within the pure kata." Takamura warns instructors that this stage in a student's progress is fraught with dangers. On one hand, the true potential of a student can start to show through and this can be satisfying for the teacher but instruction must still remain structured and core principles adhered to. Failing to do this can cause a divergence from the founder's teachings and what the student is doing is now something else. 

Ri is a hard concept to define and I'm still not sure I understand it fully. In Aikido, I see it as spontaneous technique. The student has embodied the techniques and principles of the art and now simply responds to threats organically without thinking. This can be demonstrated most clearly with Aikido randori, where the aikidoka is set upon by multiple uke, each trying to ensnare or pull down the target. Even under this sort of pressure, if the student has arrived at ri, he or she will move appropriately and calmly to neutralise any attempts to down them. Takamura explains ri as the intuitive expression of technique that is as efficient as the prearranged form but spontaneous. For some people, this level if intuition is beyond them. 

Now we have some definitions for the three stages. It looks to be a linear progression from shu, to ha and finally ri. However, my own experiences indicate that it is not the case. This is endorsed by the speakers of Kessler's interviews. I was out in my private dojo today and I found myself practising the first sword draw I was taught, some nine years ago. Repeating the sequence over and over, trying to get it a little better. Despite knowing other cuts now, here I was back at this first cut. I was back at shu. Many stories, including those about Takamura sensei tell of exceptional sensei and practitioners going back to the basic movements. However, we return to kihon (basics) with an experienced eye. Perhaps even with a different perspective than when we were first introduced to the movements. I was taught how to apply ikkyo from a single wrist grab many years ago, but I don't do it the same way after all this time, it may look the same outwardly, but I know I move differently inside my body, I think differently too, my intent has changed. 

I can also be at different stages of shu, ha, ri in different kata. When I am taught a new kata from the TSYR curriculum, I can find myself back at shu - learning the movements. So depending on what I am working on I could be at shu, ha or ri (theoretically, of course). Imagine the progression as a self-perpetuating cycle, where each stage informs the next but you can move backwards and forwards depending on what you are working on. 

At the time of writing this, Threadgill sensei has yet to voice his opinion on this concept with Miles Kessler. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. 

Train safe!

Thursday, 11 February 2021

Be the Warrior in the Room

 The heading of this post comes from a quote by Matt Larsen - the Director of Combatives at the US Military Academy at West Point. He spoke with Joe Saunders on the Managing Violence Podcast. I find this expression interesting. What does he mean by being a warrior in the room?

Is this the only concept of a warrior?

Its a fascinating concept "the warrior". The simple definition of a warrior is a person engaged or experienced in warfare. However, as Matt Larsen says in his interview with Joe, "the proportion of a country's population that makes up its military is significantly smaller than in ancient times." (I am para-phrasing here). So does this mean only those people in the Armed Forces are warriors? 

This requires us to define a warrior in our modern day setting. Matt Larsen believes a warrior is someone who can protect others or keep them safe. So what does that look like?  Does it look like the large, muscular guy standing in front of his girlfriend?  Is it the person who trains week after week in their chosen martial art? Is it the person who has trained in First Aid, in case it is needed when they are out and about with family and friends? Is it the person who has taken a Defensive Driving Course so he or she is a better driver and is more likely to perceive threats on the road while transporting his or her family?

It could be all of the above if the motivation is to protect someone and keep them safe. Now, motivation is important here. This is not about ego. If you go to the gym to get that fit, strong physique to impress a member of the opposite sex, you are not showing a warrior mentality. If you are doing hours of practice in your martial art only to obtain a black belt and prove you are better than everyone else, you are not showing a warrior mentality. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with having those motivations, but don't call yourself a warrior. 

In this day and age, a true warrior is a person that is going out of their way to keep innocent people safe. Members of the Military, Law Enforcement, Emergency Services - These people are warriors. A friend of mine is a paramedic, to me, that man is a warrior. He intentionally seeks to help others and keep them safe. You might think that is a bit lame to hear but think about it for a minute. You don't need a weapon to be a warrior. 

Of course, we are not all in those professions. Can we still be the warrior in the room? Well, that depends. Often the warrior in the room appears in a moment of crisis. He or she has always been there as a friend, or a workmate or even the stranger on the street. You wouldn't know they are a warrior until a situation calls for them to act. It could be anyone. It doesn't have to be the athletic twenty-something. Let's look at some examples.

A car accident has just occurred. Some people will drive on, pretending not have noticed. Others will stop, flick their hazard lights on and call the emergency services. Others might cautiously move up to the cars involved to see if they can help. Those who saw the accident but chose to ignore it are not warriors. They were not seeking to protect or keep others safe.

What about this scenario,  A training mate has a hideous accident one night on the mat. He severely dislocates his elbow. He is in a lot of pain as the nerves are stretched beyond their normal length by the odd shaped elbow. What does a warrior do in this situation? Someone might get on the phone to an ambulance. Another person might try and make the guy as comfortable as possible, maybe placing a punching pad under the injured elbow to ease up the pain. One of your buddies might be cracking jokes to keep the guy's attention off the elbow. The fourth guy is outside ready to signal the ambulance to the right entrance. All of these guys are being warriors. They are trying to protect their friend. 

A final scenario. Your teenage daughter comes home and explains how a boy at school is making lewd comments and trying to hit on her. This makes her uncomfortable. What would you do? You could find out the boy's name and contact the school to alert them to the problem. You could give your daughter advice on how to deal with the unwanted attention and see if she can sort it out on her own terms. You could confront the boy and threaten him if he doesn't leave your daughter alone. What is the best option? Again, this depends. It depends on the type of person your daughter is. It depends on the severity of the boy's comments and actions. A warrior wants to protect and keep people safe. If the boy's unwanted comments can easily be put down by your daughter's strong rejection or firm boundaries, then confronting him and thumping him is not keeping people safe. In fact, it could land you in more trouble and take away your options for protecting your family in the future. 

So what's the take home message in all of this. If you want to be the warrior of the room, be prepared to act to protect or keep safe those you value or love. To ensure you can do this proficiently, train accordingly, in whatever pursuit you see fit. Learn to improve your situational awareness, take a First Aid course, stay mobile and fit, keep practicing your martial art.  Speak up for yourself but more importantly speak up on another's behalf if they can't. Drive considerately and appropriately for the road conditions. We are not professional soldiers but we can still protect!

Good luck and train safe!

Monday, 8 February 2021

Connor Burke and Yamashita Sensei: Book review

 I am currently re-reading a five book series put out by the author, John Donohue. The series follows Connor Burke, an accomplished martial artist and Asian historian living in New York. The reading experience is light and the books are relatively short, anywhere from 270 to 300 pages long. I would categorise the genre of the books as crime thrillers. 

The first book - Sensei - introduces Connor and his sensei, Yamashita. They are pulled into a police investigation involving a serial killer who is methodically killing off high ranking martial artists. The story combines the exotic world of Japanese martial arts with the pragmatic drudgery of detective work. 

Deshi, is book two. Connor's brother, an officer in the NYPD, enlists him to decipher a strange message left by a murder victim. The message leads Connor to the samurai heritage of a mysterious martial arts sensei, the foreboding world of a Tibetan clairvoyant, and finally the wilderness of an elite mountain temple. 

Book three is called Tengu. The book gets its namesake from a renegade martial artist who has named himself after the mythical mountain spirits of Japan. The Tengu mourns the vanished prestige and cultural heritage of Imperial Japan. He, like the terrorists he trains, believes the West is responsible for destroying the spiritual essence of a once-great culture. 

The fourth book is called Kage. In the unforgiving landscape of the Southwest of the USA, Connor Burke works to piece together the mystery surrounding Westmann - a deceased writer - his work, and a cryptic manuscript that has captured the interest of rival smuggling gangs. Burke's only hope of solving this mystery is to call upon the aid and guidance of his teacher, Yamashita. That won't be easy. 

Enzan: The Far Mountain, is the fifth book of the series. Connor is asked by a wealthy and prominent Japanese family to retrieve their daughter from a Korean drug dealer. Connor reluctantly accepts not knowing the dangers of doing so. He accepts the mission to protect his old sensei from harm but gets in way over his head. 

The reason I am reading this series again is due to the author announcing he has finished writing his sixth book in the series, Keppan: The Blood Oath. In fact, he posted on his Facebook page on the 21st January a picture of his computer screen with the finished document. So I imagine we still have some time to wait as it goes into editing and publication. 

John's books captivated me because he manages to interweave pop-culture crime stories in with traditional budo values and uses the protagonist to show the tension and complexities that arise from the mingling of these concepts. The author has been training in the Japanese martial arts for more than 30 years. He has trained in aikido, iaido, judo, karatedo, kendo and taiji. He has dan ranks in both karatedo and kendo. John has a Ph. D. in Anthropology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. For more on the author and his works, check out

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Licenses, gardens and the dojo.

 This post is going to be a bit of a rambling one. Lots of things have occurred on my martial arts/Japanese front lately that I would like to reflect on. 

First of all, Tobin Threadgill - the kaicho of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu - has released a list of names of kai members who have gained various levels of teaching license. This is the first time he has done this and the current pandemic has brought this about. Normally, he would offer licenses in person as he travelled the world. Obviously, this is not possible right now so he has followed a traditional approach that other budo follow whereby after the Japanese New Year (nowadays celebrated on January 1st), names of people are released who have gained promotions. This usually occurs around Kagami biraki (Opening the Mirror ceremony) on January 11th. 

It was quite a large list, the kai has over 200 members as far as I know and by far the largest group of license recipients were people who have obtained a chuden (second tier) teaching license, my instructor, Chris, included. Two other members of the Oceania group were granted a Shoden (first tier) teaching license, bringing the total number of licensed instructors in our area to five!  It also means we have two study groups becoming branch dojos. This is great for the growth of our area and the kai in general. 

What is even more exciting is that our two most senior instructors, Brent from the U.S. and Marco from Portugal, have been granted one scroll each from the Jodan (third tier) license. This represents their combined ability to teach the entire technical curriculum and is very important in ensuring the koryu can be fully transmitted. 

This weekend, to top it all off, Chris and a few of us from the Hamilton dojo are travelling to Auckland to train with those members there. It will be a good way to start the year and consolidate the NZ group. 

Closer to home, I have begun extending the Japanese garden. I felled three small trees which dropped leaves all year around. I was constantly removing the leaves from the existing Japanese garden, not to mention my gutters blocking up on the house. It was a relief to drop the trees and this gave me an area to extend the garden. 

The new area cleared for planting.

Once I had conditioned the soil by weeding it and adding fertilizer, I covered it with weed matting. The next decision was what to put in it. My elderly neighbour use to be a rock hound when she was younger so has many rocks in her garden. She had mentioned that I could use some if I needed so I went to talk with her and chose a rock she was willing to part with. 

The rock is actually petrified wood and the texture on this piece is amazing! I am very lucky to have such a generous neighbour. The rock is placed in the prestigious position of being the first part of the garden a visitor sees when they arrive in our driveway. Once the rock was placed, I went to a local nursery to buy plants. Two azaleas went in as well as some native ground cover plants called Pratia "Blue Stars". My wife had bought me a Griselinia plant which is a native New Zealand shrub. At the Hamilton Dojo we use this plant in place of Sakaki on either side of the Kamidana. Up until now I have been using artifical Sakaki leaves in my own dojo, but I can now use Griselinia. I have planted this shrub near the back of the garden.

Plants going in. 

One space remains in the garden for my feature plant. In each section of the Japanese garden, I have a taller specimen. In the first section I have a miniature Japanese Maple, in the second, clumping bamboo. The third section is exposed to strong winds so I am thinking of either a dwarf pine, Japanese Plum/Apricot or weeping cherry. Unfortunately, the last two plants are not available until our winter (June/July) so I may have to wait to completely finish the garden. As with the other sections, the empty spaces will be filled with white river pebbles. 

The final piece of news I have is that my friend Jules has finally pushed me into renovating the genkan of my dojo. Its been five years since the dojo was built and I have not done anything significant to the genkan. So recently the two of us took the walls back to the framing, removing the old sections of wall that still remained. Then we started to plan what we needed for new walls including insulation and lighting. 

Jules hard at work pulling the old wall lining down.

We also removed the old oil-stained carpet that was on the floor (the last owner was a car enthusiast) and Jules took it all away. I recently purchased some new lighting that I hope to put up when we line the walls. 

Above is a photo of the lighting I purchased. The black set of three LED lights at the top and the single at the bottom are what are going into the genkan to replace the standard fittings. 

So as you can see, it has been a productive month and there is still plenty of work to do. 

Stay safe, everyone. 

Friday, 1 January 2021

Hello 2021

Well! Where to begin? Little did any of us know what 2020 would bring and even now many people in the Northern Hemisphere are still locked down at home as their countries deal with the pandemic. I count myself very lucky. New Zealand (thus far) has escaped the worst of it. We have suffered a total of 25 deaths and of the 2,162 people that had cases, 2,082 have recovered. Currently we have no restrictions in place other than our borders being closed. Life goes on as normal for the most part. 
I thought I would look back at my first post of 2020 and see if any of my predictions came true. I started last year's blog discussing the number of aikido students I had (two) and growing this. During 2020 I taught four students regularly so I doubled my numbers! As I have said before I don't advertise, it is just by word of mouth that children end up training with me and four is a good number for now. As it was, Covid restrictions created a fairly strange year and training was on and off as the country moved through different alert levels. 
As for teaching TSYR? Well, the Auckland study group were hit hard by Covid-19. Not only did they go into lockdown when the rest of the country did, later in the year, their region was hit again and although the restrictions the second time around were not as bad, it halted training for that group and people weren't allowed to travel to Auckland unless they were essential workers. So I think I managed two trips to Auckland last year and that was it. My own training continued unabated. We have a core group of about six of us that routinely train at the Hamilton Dojo and the group trains three days a week. I try to make two of those training sessions but sometimes it is only one if family commitments call me away. I also can train by myself at my dojo to make up for this. This evening one of the Auckland guys is driving down to stay the night and then he and I will have the first training session of 2021 at my dojo in the morning. 
As for my hopes for 2021? Well, I am very conservative this time around. I don't see New Zealand opening its borders until the pandemic is under control, this means no visits from Threadgill Sensei. As a group, the Hamilton branch must simply keep training to the best of our ability. Aikido will start up when the school term starts in February and I hope to get enough training in to grade some of the students at the end of the year but again, who knows? All it takes is one person to be irresponsible and Covid could be among us again. So, I will take each week as it comes. 
My post is sounding a bit bleak but to be honest, personally, I have had a very good year. My family has stayed in good health. Professionally, both my wife and I have had a successful year, and our daughters are also achieving very well in their pursuits. So there is plenty to be happy about.

I hope this year brings health and happiness to everyone. Train safe! 

Saturday, 10 October 2020

Size and Psychology

 I want to touch on a topic that came up in a podcast I was listening to. The podcast was called Managing Violence by Joe Saunders and it was an interview with Savannah Archambault. Savannah shares openly in the discussion about her experience of rape and sexual assault and the impact that has had on her and the way that she teaches martial arts. It was refreshing to hear a woman's perspective on the martial arts. I highly recommend it!

During the discussion, Savannah is asked what the key factors are to teaching female students. She answers by saying that to her, gender doesn't matter. What matters more is the psychological state of that person and their size. In martial arts, size DOES matter. She admits that having a woman only class does help a female student recover from trauma initially but ultimately, once the student can move past some of those triggers, having a mixed class is more beneficial. This allows women to work with men and to see that the techniques being taught can work on a male. 

So I would like to explore the ideas of the mental state and size of  a person in martial arts.

Size does matter.

Firstly, size. To me, this is simple physics. The greater the mass of an object, the harder it is to move. I weigh 76 kg and stand 186 cm (6 foot, 1 inches). Think of a thin pole - that's me. Now if I am training with someone who is 110 kg and 168 cm (5 foot, 5 inches) I am going to have a hard time. I am giving away a lower centre of gravity and have less mass than my training partner. Of course, if I get my technique right I can move the other person around but I will have to have very good technique or I will most likely fail. I mean, this is the reason they have weight classes in sporting martial arts like judo. We discuss this very thing with body throws in TSYR. If we are trying to throw a person that is absolutely huge, then rather than take them over our hip it might make more sense to chock their ankle or leg and have them fall at that point. It still requires good martial principles such as taking their balance but there is less chance of injury for both parties if it goes wrong during training. 

Consider a tall, strong woman who is into training and conditioning, perhaps she goes to the gym, perhaps she is a competitive rower. Now, put her up against a smaller man who is fairly inactive. Perhaps he spends most of his days behind a computer screen at work or playing video games at home. The size and strength difference will be obvious, we can ignore the genders of either training partner because in this situation, the woman will most likely have an easier time of performing the technique than the guy. This is what Savannah was getting at. Size matters more than gender. Yes, this is an unusual situation but is possible. My wife is of Dutch descent, she is 183 cm (6 foot) tall and weighs more than me (I will not be stating her weight here, I have some sense.) So this makes her on par with me for height and reach but I give away a little mass. However, I have trained and conditioned my body for many years in martial arts while she prefers daily walks and yoga. If we have a fun, play-fight and wrestle about on the floor, I can prevail. However, I believe should she want to (and she doesn't), with a bit of training she would be formidable because she has the size already there. 

So with all things being equal, size IS more important that gender when training in martial arts.

What about the mental state of a person? I have already talked about mind set in one of my other blog posts so you will know how important I think this is. No matter your size, if you think you can't beat the other person or you think you can - you are right. Attitude is so important. Confidence is so important. Often we think of women being the victims of abuse, and while this is statistically, most likely, we mustn't forget that men can also be victims of abuse. Men can come to the dojo with trauma. Again, this is Savannah's point. Gender is second to the psychology of the martial artist. 

Where is your head at?

I started my budo journey in Aikido. Historically, it is a martial art that has a higher percentage of female practitioners than some other martial arts. So from the very start I have trained with women. I now teach Aikido to children and only one of my students is a boy, all the others are girls, my daughters included. If I look at my two daughters, their psychology is different, they bring a different energy to the mat. My youngest is a rough and tumble kind of kid and throws herself (sometimes literally) into her training. My older daughter is more considered. Here we can see, within the same gender, a difference in attitude. Both do Aikido, both are strong, confident girls, but approach their training differently. 

In Shindo Yoshin Ryu: History and Technique by Tobin Threadgill and Shingo Ohgami a past female student of Takamura sensei talks about how she was treated differently to the male students as she could not match their power. He had high expectations of her all the same and demanded that she surpass their speed and precision. He asked that she become deliberate, determined and dangerous. Just think about those adjectives for a moment. If that isn't all about psychology then I don't know what is!

I would like to add my own thoughts to Savannah's. Although gender is second to size and mindset, I do believe males and females communicate a little differently. My years as a secondary school teacher have taught me this as well as raising my daughters. Women and girls like to talk things through while men and boys like to just do it. While this is a generalisation, on the whole I find this to be true. As an instructor it is important to find a space for both approaches. Letting females talk out what they understand, at the right time, helps them. Letting a male just get on with trying the technique, helps them. The trick is making this work in a mixed class and of course, there are exceptions to every rule. 

Hopefully, I have given you some things to think about in this post. 

Train safe.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Ironing out the kinks and removing the slack.

I thought I would just write a short post this time. 

Winter is a tough time for me as I don't get in as much training time as I would like. My Saturday morning training sessions are hijacked by my obligation to take my daughter to her football (soccer) games instead.  Now, don't get me wrong, I really enjoy watching her play but I miss a key training session each week. As weeks go by I find my body tightens up and old injuries start hurting. 

Jack having a bad day.

Saturdays at the Hamilton dojo usually focus around taijutsu and bodywork stuff. It is the foundation a lot of the other things hinge around. By the end of the football season I am really noticing the reduced training. During the week during our kenjutsu class, I really felt by body fighting me. Quality sword work really suffers if your body is not aligned correctly and it physically hurt to adjust habits I was forming from working on a computer and driving the 40 minutes to and from work everyday. Certain muscles had tightened up and it took fifteen minutes or so to get everything working correctly again. By the end of that session my body had limbered up and I was feeling better but I was discouraged how one less training session a week was hampering my progress. My lovely wife opted to take our daughter to training yesterday so I could get a Saturday session in. During the training we covered chokes, vital points for striking and body throws. I could feel tendons and muscles clicking and crackling back into place as I trained and walked out the the dojo feeling much, much better. 

As I get older I appreciate more and more the need to stay mobile for good health. Stuck in a chair for long periods or stooped over a computer increase my chances of getting injured as muscles stiffen and tighten. I have known this for a while now, mobility is the key to physical health in my humble opinion but sometimes as work and family keep me busy it is easy to get lost along the way.

As I write this I am reminded of a quote from Morihei Ueshiaba, the founder of Aikido:

The purpose of training is to tighten up the slack, toughen the body, and polish the spirit.

I certainly feel like I am in need of some serious slack-tightening! It feels to me like O'sensei must have had days like mine for him to say such things. 

Train safe, everyone!