If my martial arts readers will forgive me again, I will venture into the world of tea (chanoyu) to draw out a concept that might apply to how we understand budo, especially the koryu, or classical systems. I do not doubt, however, that there may be ample food for thought for the “modern” budo practitioner who practices in a more traditional manner.
I just spent an extended weekend in a workshop, observing training under a master instructor from Kyoto, Japan. He was, to me, unusual in that he prodded and questioned students not only on HOW they were doing their tea temae (sort of like martial arts “kata” forms) but WHY. Why are you doing this movement? Is there a historical meaning to this action that goes back to Sen No Rikyu, the founder of wabi-style tea? What is the meaning of rubbing your fingers that way before you reach for a tea container? Why not do it some other way?
The teacher did his questioning in a gentle, pedagogically inquisitive manner, seeking to draw out ideas and theories from the students themselves before he would chime in. That way, he forced the students to think for themselves.
The word for “master instructor” in our tea school is gyotei. The sensei remarked, “I think of myself less like a gyotei than a kyoshi (a term meaning “teacher” used for college professors), for various reasons. I think because I entered training in my 30s, unusually late for a gyotei, I may have a different perspective of myself and how I want to teach. I want YOU to learn to think for yourself…”
Well, anyway, on the last day of instruction, we went over the upper level temae reserved for only higher-ranked students. These temae are categorized, somewhat, like the three levels of Japanese calligraphy, as in kaisho, gyosho, and sosho. There are shin (kai-) level temae, gyo level and so level. The three terms respectively refer to the way the temae is done, reflective of the levels of calligraphy. In shin temae and kaisho, the form is very strict, angled and linear. The aim in calligraphy is to repeat a standard form as perfectly as possible. Gyosho breaks the form up and is considered “semi-cursive” in Western terms. Sosho is “grass-writing,” i.e., very loose and free.
In tea, shin level temae are the longest, most complex, most formal temae. They are probably the oldest, developed by Sen No Rikyu himself, based on long-lost Chinese and Japanese roots hundreds of years in the past. The utensils are primarily Chinese in origin and of museum-quality vintage and provenance, although in regular practice they are usually cheaper modern replicas. Gyo level temae introduces shorter temae based on variations of the shin level, and so level temae are comparatively shorter and more “free,” in a manner of speaking. The so level temae also introduces more humble, Japanese-made implements, such as a table made of unvarnished wood and bamboo in lieu of a black lacquered stand for shin.
The demarcation is quite closely aligned with calligraphy writing styles.
Shin level temae, therefore, is considered the epitome of the formal art of tea.
Now, several writers on Japanese martial arts have already noticed the implications of this categorization of writing styles on the Japanese concept of teaching forms. Kata interpretation, therefore, can be thought of as “shin” (following the kata as precisely as possible, attempting to mimic some model of behavior and movement); “gyo” (loosening up and rounding out the movements a bit in terms of varying the timing, attack points, etc., but still making the movements quite familiar to anyone familiar with the forms); and “so,” interpreting the kata in a highly individualistic manner, rendering it almost incomprehensible to a layperson who doesn’t have the necessary background to understand what’s going on.
In that way, writers much better than I have always noted that it’s necessary to learn the proper, “stiff” form first (kaisho) before one is able to interpret it properly for oneself. Without proper grounding in a standardized form, you just end up with a total mess, like so much of what we see from self-taught youthful martial arts “masters” on YouTube, who are usually in need of a lot more maturity and a decent hair cut.
But here’s a couple more notions to chew on, inspired by what the tea sensei said, which perked my ears. Think of these concepts relative to how you think about kata.
Many students think the pinnacle of learning all the temae in tea is learning the shin level temae, the sensei said. In a way, that’s true. But consider the gyo and so forms. Another name for so temae, he noted, is “kuzure.” That means, literally, “busted up; torn apart; taken apart.” Kuzure is also pronounced “ran,” as in the Akira Kurosawa movie translated as “conflagration,” i.e., things are just confused and gone to hell. That is, so level temae is taking apart the shin level movements and putting it back together again in what can appear to be a random manner. It may seem simpler and more informal, like sosho script, but like sosho, it is actually harder to do.
Someone writing sosho without the requisite years of discipline gained from practicing kaisho is just going to make stuff that looks like chicken scratch, with no spirit or contained and directed, but free-flowing, energy. Someone doing so level temae without understanding shin level temae will not understand the balance between tight formality and looser, freer movements. It’s like someone trying to literally imitate the movements of the elder Ueshiba Morihei (the founder of aikido) without undergoing similar years of training in the basics. It just looks like a mess.
So level, therefore, is actually harder to do because you have to know Shin level properly first.
But more: the implication the sensei said was startling. There’s a whole different way of looking at the pedagogy of learning in a classical Japanese art or koryu.
We all think that the basics, or kihon, is where we start and then we progress upwards in a linear fashion, towards more and more complex and granulated methods, until we reach the “advanced” kata, the okuden or oku-iri, or whatever it is called in one’s school.
Then, of course, when we learn the whole curriculum, we go back to the basics to refine the individual parts and move back up the ladder, in a revolving manner, perfecting our foundations and therefore making the whole of our temae stronger and more precise.
That is how we learn, but when you think about it, the founders of the koryu actually founded their arts in a totally different manner. They created their systems based on only a few principles, manifested in only a few kata. The Takeuchi-ryu, for example, has hundreds of kata for many different weapons and situations. But the legend has it that its founder learned only five short sword techniques, a couple of rope-binding methods, and one cryptic message from a mystical yamabushi (“mountain ascetic”). The Shinto Muso-ryu Jo was founded when Muso Gonnosuke received a flash of inspiration after days of training in a remote shrine, and it was a one-sentence, highly cryptic oral transmission.
This is not to say that they “made stuff up” (if you discount the mystical connotations). All the founders were warriors, from warrior families, who had decades of training before they realized a new way to organize prior methodologies. But they all encapsulated what their inspiration was in relatively few kata.
For these early koryu, the techniques began with the okuden, the highest level kata. But because that would be like jumping from zero to sixty miles an hour for most students, the founders and their descendants added more kata: the shoden (beginning level) and chuuden (middle level).
One of the stereotypes foisted on the koryu is that their pedagogy is confused and archaic compared to Western style educational theory. But already, early on, the shoden-chuuden-okuden methodology showed a progression of complexity that took a rank beginner at a certain level and systematically trained him for further and further complexity. You usually weren’t taught the most complex methods first. You were gradually “broken in.”
In addition, while the kata may not change all that much, training methodologies do historically change. There is ample documentation, for example, that Shimizu Takaji, a master instructor of the Shinto Muso-ryu jo, created the kihon (basics) for the ryu when he was invited to Tokyo to teach modern budoka and law enforcement. He realized that in the middle of the 20th Century, these non-samurai students had no inherent abilities to hold a sword or staff naturally, compared to bushi in premodern Japan, who were given a sword to wield as soon as they could walk. So he created the kihon to help teach students how to wield a sword or staff, and how to execute single movements.
We think, therefore, of a pyramid of learning, in which the wide base is the basics at the bottom, and as we progress, we learn more and more about less and less until we learn the few and precious okuden at the very tip of the pyramid. But consider the point of view of the founders. Their pyramids are inverted. They knew only a few kata and general theories upon which they could encompass their whole universe of attack-reactions naturally and spontaneously. The fewer, in fact, the better so as to have less confusion of what to do in the heat of actual combat. From that point of view, the few methods radiate outwards, as variations upon variations of kata.
In reversing one’s point of view, then, the okuden (or the shin level temae in tea) become the real kihon! By eventually learning these kata, you see how they are manifested in all the lower level kata, only broken up (kuzure) and/or recombined to show the students the variations that are possible given the “key” to movements from the okuden.
But why not therefore teach the okuden first? The problem with that is that usually the student is unprepared to run because he can’t walk, much less crawl yet. The okuden are usually few and concise. But to do the movements just right requires a body and mind capable of capturing the founder’s concepts perfectly, and most of us are not at that level to begin with. So we learn the various “lower” kata first, before we progress to the okuden.
I do not doubt that students who were bushi some four hundred years ago or more were able to receive mastery licenses much faster. Part of it was that perhaps ryuha had fewer kata per my conjecture. But in addition the bushi were, after all, trained in warriorship from a very early age. They had better a priori training. Plus, they had a life-or-death motivation. If they were bad at martial arts, they could literally die on a battlefield. For most of us living in an urban, modern society, we don’t face such motivations on a day to day basis. We don’t need to master combative arts in order to survive. Doing koryu will not win a bigger stipend from a lord, or win fame, notoriety or a reality show contract. Some of us, through natural athletic ability and/or personal motivation, advance rapidly. Many only go so far because their motivations are less deeply felt and are more superficial and fleeting, or because of our sedentary lifestyle, aren’t as naturally physically gifted. So it goes. Time changes. Perhaps we do need more basic kata because our bodies have a harder time “grafting” the logic of a ryu to our inner core movements.
I noted in an earlier blog that another tea saying by Rikyu was that one’s progress in learning is like going from one to ten, but when you reach ten, you go back to one. In other words, you always return back to the basics after you think you have mastered everything, and then work your way back up again, over and over, as a way of refining and polishing your skills.
The other implication of this saying, therefore, is that when you learn the advanced kata, you actually learn the “basics” of the ryu in terms that they are the actual theoretical foundations upon which the ryu was built. When you go back to the “basic” kata, you will therefore see them with new eyes, and your movements will, in some way, be different. You will see this circular training methodology as a “virtuous cycle” in which all your techniques become further and further refined.
But for those who are advanced enough to have been given a glimpse of the “advanced” kata. Think of this: they may be the “basics.” It opens up a whole different way to look at one’s art.
Every so often, no matter how much we try to avoid it, current events have a way of barging into the dojo. The recent Boston Marathon Bombings is one of those events in the minds of many Americans. We’re not used to terrorist attacks on our own soil, albeit we’ve had our share of it over the past couple of decades. I’m sure it’s been the topic of conversation before and after some training sessions, and even during breaks.
How do we make sense of it in the light of martial arts?
I tend to look at terrorists and any criminal attacks on civilians and the appropriate response by law enforcement and military authorities the way Lt. Col. David Grossman (http://www.killology.com/) likens it. His analogy is not totally appropo, I think, but it does put things into a really interesting and useful perspective to start a discussion. The following is based on Grossman’s analogy, although any misunderstandings of his ideas are purely my own fault.
Grossman likens the general public, law enforcement (or military, or any emergency/rescue/survival official) and criminals (predators) to the interplay of sheepdogs, wolves and sheep. Predators like wolves will constantly circle a herd of domesticated animals, waiting for a chance to attack them. The many cattle, sheep or other such herd animals, like their predators, have four legs, teeth and hooves or claws, but they simply are not bred or capable of protecting themselves other than the flight or faint reaction. “Fighting” to protect themselves is usually not possible given their weaker and smaller jaws and claws. (The analogy does break down, for example, if you talk about elephants, whose sheer size can do damage to smaller predators like lions, or other herd animals with antlers or other such features that can do damage. And let’s not forget beavers. Recently, one of those seemingly innocuous creatures killed a man who got to close by using its incisors to bite him in the femoral artery. Don’t anger the beaver.) The shepherd therefore employs sheepdogs to guard and protect the herd.
The thing is, the DNA of dogs and wolves are over 99 percent similar. They are so similar that they can, in fact, manage to interbreed given the proper circumstances. So while they do have physical differences, such has dogs having slightly smaller incisor teeth and wider, flatter faces, what’s there to stop a dog from attacking the same herd it is supposed to guard? It’s breeding and training. In the human counterpart, it’s attitude, ethos and goals. Predators and protectors are totally different kinds of people, although they share many different traits. The sharing of traits, however, is the danger zone for protectors.
Or, as one friend in self-defense training joked about it to me, “The closest thing to criminals are cops. Both like to drive around in cars all day scoping out the joints, both carry guns, boss people around, and drink a lot of coffee.”
It may be a joke, but reflecting back on Grossman’s metaphor (or is it an analogy?), there are, in fact, similarities between our guardians and the predators of human society, just as there are superficial similarities between dogs and wolves. Both tend to carry deadly armament, or have the expectation of the use of force in carrying out some of their profession. Both are, in fact, trained to react to violence, whether it’s through training in law enforcement or military boot camp, or in the mean streets of violence and abusive behavior.
But all such similarities end, as all such similarities end when you discuss dogs and wolves, when you talk about motivation, goals and loyalties. A guardian of society, whether it be a member of the military, law enforcement, or even fire/rescue, medical, educational…any kind of professional who renders service to the public, does so as a service, as an aid to the public. They have a calling, and that calling is to help other people in need. To protect the defenseless, to aid the weak, to rescue those in danger. They will go to danger to succor and comfort the public. They are trained to react to emergencies or problematic situations by confronting them and trying to stop them. It can mean stopping the bleeding of a wounded bystander, or firing shots at a psychopath who is intent on blowing up more people, or helping a patient into a wheelchair. They do not have the option of running away. They are trained to help, to go to the problem, to protect and defend. They go to danger to help others.
The predator, however, will actively court dangerous situations in order to get what he/she wants, whether it’s attacking a weaker family member, a total stranger, or society in general. The predator is not out to stop violence, he’s actively looking to create disruption and violence to get what he wants. It could be for a radicalized cause, for greed, for personal gain, but it’s basically selfish goals, for his self, never mind the pain and suffering it can cause others.
Both predator and guardian, however, circle around the dark attraction of aggression and violence, whether it is social, verbal or physical. The attraction of violence, so vivid in so many movies and computer games, is something that a guardian has to watch out for, because only a paper-thin barrier stands between the attitudes of a guardian versus a predator. A gun on the hip of a guardian, for example, can be used to protect the life and limb of citizens. In the hands of a predator, however, it can threaten, intimidate, wound and murder. It’s like sharp fangs and claws. Both dogs and wolves have them, but they are put to different uses.
Therefore, the need for law enforcement officers to live up to an even higher standard of behavior than the general public is a necessary draconian rule, else they fall into corruption and criminal behavior. Likewise, soldiers who slaughter innocents and who torture and abuse civilians or prisoners debase their military tradition, and in so doing become nothing more than uniformed terrorists, losing their pride as a military unit with a traditional heritage of service.
When any military resorts to debasing its code of conduct, it loses its discipline and core characteristics, hence the need for military courts passing out harsh retribution to soldiers who abuse their responsibilities as combatants. The guardians cannot become the predators.
Some martial artists like to think of themselves as “warriors,” emblazoning their keikogi with logos and patches that are like military insignia, such as crossed swords, stripes denoting rank, and so on, but that’s not necessarily the case. We martial arts folk don’t go to combat, unless we are also soldiers or law enforcement officers. What we do train for, however, and how this essay has relevance for martial artists, is that while we are not necessarily warriors, proper training should inculcate in us the mind and heart of a “warrior” in that we deal with facing up to stylized combative situations (i.e. moments of stress) and, through repetition, learn to mentally and physically deal with them without totally falling apart.
Of course, it’s very rare that a criminal may come at you with a samurai sword or a wooden staff. More likely, it will be a short pocketknife, “Saturday Night Special” pistol, or an assault rifle. But we train for keeping our cool in physical or mental encounters that trouble us nonetheless, and the abstracted action and reaction trains our minds, often, more than our bodies. In that way, the training is like training a dog to learn how to be a dog, to guard and protect a flock or herd rather than have it revert to its wolfish nature and attack the herd it is meant to protect.
The direct aftermath of the two bombs that went off at the Boston Marathon was recorded by numerous cameras and video equipment. In the midst of the chaos and carnage, one gratifying thing to see was that many everyday, average people immediately ran to help the wounded, rather than trample away like frightened cattle. It was as if the “herd” wasn’t just a herd, it was full of guardians of all stripes and colors, willing to sacrifice their own safety to help those in need.
What proper budo training should do is cultivate that kind of mind: the willingness to serve and protect, not just in a fight or tournament, but in everyday life, and in such emergencies. The danger is that martial arts training can easily be turned on its head if the goals are only slightly changed, and it becomes a spawning ground for psychopaths with a fixation on violence, for making better bullies and thugs. It can be the same martial art system, but only a slight tweak in the methodology and goals will create better predators rather than braver altruistic members of society.
In our modern American urban and suburban lifestyle, we tend towards a sedate culture that avoids actual violence as a means of getting our way. Hence, a common reaction to blatant violence used to be either the “flight or faint” reaction, or just immobility through disbelief that it is really happening. Terrorism and other random acts of violence has become so commonly reported in the news these days that I think the general public has been roused from their complacency. Yet, I still think that properly conducted budo training can help us deal with confronting such extraordinary events of destruction, whether human-made or natural.
And if done long enough, I suspect we end up like old, grizzled doggies ourselves, sleeping by the fireplace of our human masters, happily dreaming of younger days when we protected our master’s houses and yard with our big barks and show of fangs and claws. In that way, maybe Grossman’s analogy is truer than he thinks. I kind of feel like an old, lazy dog myself nowadays.
When I was younger, stronger, and dumber, I used to think that there was only one best way to train in budo, and that was to train as intensely as I could, straining my physical stamina to the limits.
Now that I’m older, weaker and not quite so dumb, I have come to realize there are many training modes, and they all have their merits, depending on the eventual general goal you are striving for, which is overall mastery of your art, in all its aspects.
The different modes of training can also be utilized within one training session, or they can be separated according to the situation.
For example, the most intense physical training pushes you to your limits. It challenges you to give it your best. It’s the best modality for sportive competition, young people trying to test themselves, and for physical endurance and health, as long as it is not overdone. On the other hand, sometimes scaling back and working slowly on technical or theoretical aspects of training helps you to more easily absorb new information, or to refine and polish your rough edges as far as techniques go. Then there are moments where you train but the goal is not so much perfection of form but widening one’s breadth of spirit and heart. More on that latter anon.
The levels aren’t precise steps. They have fuzzy transitions from intense, exhausting physical training to lower physical activity but more mental and cognitive thought, to even just not doing anything physically but visualizing the skills and actions in your head in order to mentally integrate them into your mind, body and spirit.
Good athletes and coaches know this. That’s why they combine the usual training regimes with light “no-pads” workouts before a football game, and regular chalkboard discussions about techniques. Good coaches encourage good athletes to previsualize their game skills before the game, relaxing their entire body and imagining how they will play successfully. Enough research has been done to show that such mental rehearsals and mental repetition of techniques really does help the athlete, musician or artist perform at his/her mental and physical peak.
It is such a given that training modes should vary that it’s a wonder it’s not used as much in many budo schools. I can hazard different reasons why this is so, but it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, among the more competitive sports budo, the notion that you scale back physical training may strike the teacher as “weak” or “wimping out.”
That’s a pity, because they are ignoring decades of sports research and proven methodologies. And “Well, my sensei has always taught it hard core like this so I’m going to teach it his way” is also antithetical to the notion that budo is based on maximum efficiency of movement and action (as the founder of Kodokan Judo, Kano Jigoro, would say, “Seiryoku Zenyo: mutual endeavor and maximum efficiency”).
This topic occurred to me because I was reflecting on two incidents; one very recent and another from years ago.
Recently, it was my good luck to have a senior member of the iai system I study visit Hawaii on vacation. Since he and his wife (both highly ranked) were mainly here for the warm weather, they didn’t pack much by way of martial arts training gear, but he brought a saya bokuto, a wooden sword with a plastic sheathe that he used to practice in the early mornings in a corner of a park in Waikiki. When my schedule permitted, I would join him and he worked on improving my form. It was very informal. We dressed in Bermuda shorts and t-shirts. If it drizzled, we put on baseball caps and sweat shirts. Sometimes we went through the kata at full speed, but most of the time we slowed things down, concentrating on getting the form right.
Then we managed to schedule a time when he came by my little dojo to work with my students. In that case, we were dressed in keikogi and hakama, and used iaito. The cuts and techniques were done a bit faster, a bit crisper, and of course there was a bit more formality. As a friend would say, it’s atarimae. It’s to be expected. When you are in a formal dojo setting, you do act more formally. If you’re in t-shirt and shorts, trying to work through forms step by step, you take it easy, relax, and think things through, taking time to stop, go back to a mistake and redo them, and slip into an easy, relaxed pace.
I found that the two kinds of practices enhanced my understanding of iai immensely. You need the precision and physically demanding workout of a formal practice session. But sometimes it helps to just go out into a park and go through things informally, stopping and thinking, “Hmmm. Do I really step this way or do I step that way at this point? How am I holding the sword above my head? I should slow down and see what I’m doing with my footwork in this kata…”
I enjoyed working in those different modalities so much that when another iai visitor came through on vacation, I deliberately balanced a training session at the dojo with one in which he and I worked out informally in t-shirt and shorts, under the eaves of a building (to avoid passing showers), overlooking a beautiful Japanese garden. The session at the dojo was jam-packed with training, going through a whole set of forms and trying to fix the techniques precisely. The session by the garden was informal, with lots of questions and answers about the meaning behind the techniques, with less emphasis on speed and more on the process, methods and concepts embodied therein.
Visualizing one’s techniques is also not only practical for strengthening those synaptic nodes in the brain, leading to better physical performance. It probably helps in creating a better mental and emotional state in the mind of the practitioner.
And, although this last story involves tea ceremony, you could just as well use it as an example for budo training.
I used to know a fellow tea student while I was in Japan. We were in a mixed group of students studying at the main headquarters of the Urasenke School of Tea, comprised of foreign and Japanese students. For various reasons, somehow we managed to really bond together and enjoyed not just training intensely together six days a week, but also arranged to be with each other socially afterwards, going to dinners, sightseeing and attending tea-related events. Perhaps it had to do with my very young and exotic American rooommate from Los Angeles, just finishing up college at UCLA. The Japanese female students swooned over him and I ended up being the intermediary, having to translate all sorts of puppy-love letters stuffed surreptitiously into his kimono in between practice sessions. One thing led to another, and soon we all ended up friends.
For my part, I got to be close to the older students from the Japanese group: an older Nikkei (Japanese American) who entered the Japanese language group, an older woman who had given up a career in midlife to train to become a tea teacher, and a woman, E san. She and I were roughly the same age and enjoyed many similar activities, such as museum-hopping and Noh drama. Oddly enough, her major in college had been German literature and mine was Japanese literature, but we shared similar general interests in world literature and the literature, poetry and philosophy of tea ceremony.
I asked her once how she got involved in tea, and why she decided to enter the very intensive three-year mastership program at Urasenke. She replied that she hadn’t really planned on it originally. As a college student, she chanced upon a sweet old Buddhist nun who taught her tea once a week in a quiet, old nunnery in the forests surrounding Kamakura. She would take a train ride from Tokyo on the weekends, walk through bamboo and pine groves, and she and the nun would have a bowl of tea and informally practice together. She felt it was such a stress relief, especially when it was during exam time, to sit in a tatami mat wooden room, looking out at a forest of pine and bamboo. So she originally started tea just for the peace and tranquility she experienced from visiting the nun in the forest temple.
One day, however, the nun told her that she should seriously consider advancing in tea licenses so she could eventually teach tea to others. E san demurred. She wasn’t interested in being a tea sensei. She just wanted to do tea like that, in the middle of a forest in a secluded temple, no big deal about teaching or acquiring students. But the nun persisted. “I’m not going to be around forever,” the nun said. E san didn’t give that conversation much thought until one day she went to the nunnery to find the tea hut boarded up. She asked around and another nun told her that her teacher had passed away. She decided to follow the nun’s last wishes and entered the Urasenke School of Tea. She felt obligated to carry on the nun’s legacy somehow.
Even though the training program she was in was hectic and intense, trying to cram a lifetime of training into three years, E san said her most vivid idea of what chanoyu really is all about was still defined by those peaceful weekends sharing a bowl of tea with the nun. Even in the most grueling training sessions (and believe it or not, those sessions CAN be grueling!), she said she would try to hold that image of tea ceremony in her mind.
Eventually E san received her teaching license and became quite a popular teacher in Kyoto, which seemed to abound with tea sensei on virtually every street corner. Much later, I caught up with her and a mutual friend and shared some tea and cakes. She was just recovering from a long illness, she said, and had some aches and pains, “but nothing to worry about.” She kept on teaching, sitting in seiza as best she could, and some yoga exercises were helping, she said.
But about a few months later, I was shocked to hear from friends that E san, who was only in her mid-40s, had passed away. She had leukemia but didn’t even tell her friends and students about it until it had become so severe she had to stop teaching. She returned to her family in Tokyo and passed away quickly thereafter.
At the wake, the parents told my friends that E san loved tea until the day she died.
“She would be lying in bed, but we would sometimes see her hands moving, quietly. So we asked her what she was doing, and she said, ‘I’m going over the temae (tea “kata”) in my head.’”
She loved tea so much, even when her body was unwilling, her mind still went over the forms, lovingly. I would like to believe the focus necessary to recall the movements helped ease her discomfort. I would also like to believe that by visualizing her first, most intimate moments studying tea with the nun in a Kamakura temple, she also was bringing forth a kind of tranquility and peacefulness to her own self before she passed on.
While this story is about tea, I think it has great meaning for anyone in budo and about visualizing, and how “practice” need not be limited to the strict confines of the dojo. It can be done outside, in a spare moment, in regular clothing, informally, not so intensely, and even without using one’s body, but just by moving one’s mind.
And on another level, such training is not only to help you become a better technician. In the case of E sensei, it gave her moments of quiet happiness during her physical pain, as she remembered sharing a bowl of tea once, long ago in her youth, with the elderly nun, deep in the green woods of Kamakura.
With all creds to The Clash, that song title must sooner or later ring in the ears of traditional Asian martial artists sooner or later. Do you spend the money to go to Japan, China, Korea, or whatever Asian country that was the birthplace of your art?
Another, more erudite writer, Dave Lowry (who now has his own web site!), has brought the subject up several times in his own public writing, and he asked me that same question recently to sound me out. Like him, I have been to Japan to live and train. I thought about it and concluded with a definitive…maybe.
There are many reasons to go or not to go. Economically, does it make sense? As much as you may want to go to the home dojo of your art, is it within your budget, really? Maybe if you’re young, single and without any responsibilities, jumping on a plane is easy enough. But if you’re older, responsible for a family, and have to carefully ration out your paycheck for monthly expenses, the romantic impulse may have to wait a while until you have enough to take care of any family emergencies that may arise when you’re gone.
In this age, too, for modern sports budo, there’s not so great a need to go. Seminars with visiting teachers from the home countries abound, as well as home-grown talent that can explain things better in your native English. Techniques can be learned as easily at home, or even easier because there’s no language barrier, than in a foreign country.
I could go down the list why every “go” reason can be balanced by a “stay” reason. Dave, himself has drawn those same conclusions.
One of the things he did point out, as I recall, is that while technically it may not necessarily help much (or it might, depending on your commitment, ability and instruction), what you do get is a sense of the underlying culture, and how it gave birth to the art. As Dave noted, it’s like being a classical musician and going to Europe to see the birthplace of Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Bach. To walk the same streets, to listen to the acoustics of a concert hall where Beethoven conducted, to step on the same floor at Versailles where the Sun King Louis XIV pirouetted in ballet, to simply breathe in the air along the Seine under the shadow of Notre Dame, or step past the tombs in Westminster Abbey…that is to feel and grasp how such music fit into that culture, that past, that history.
That emotional, experiential understanding will deepen your understanding as a musician. Will it add substantially to your expertise and technical virtuosity? Maybe, maybe not. But it WILL give you a greater understanding of the culture behind the music that you play.
That is pretty much what Dave wrote. To this, I might add: It’s true if you have the eyes and ears for it.
When I was a graduate student in Fine Art and Art History, I was lucky enough to receive a travel grant. Most students in my university’s art program used the money to visit and study on the West or East Coast of the continental United States. Encouraged by a painting teacher, I stretched the funds by begging my parents for a “loan” and saving a summer’s job earnings to visit Europe. Using a Railpass and staying at youth hostels, I managed to visit several countries, engaging in mental discussions with the great masters of European art when I encountered their works in museums. I also stopped in Boston and New York City, to walk through their major art museums as well. The experience was pivotal in my understanding of art history. By seeing the actual works of art, and not just projected slides on a white wall, I also came to an understanding of the technical and artistic details that I would never have gotten otherwise.
I recall entering Rembrandt’s former home, in Amsterdam. It had been converted into a museum. Here was where Rembrandt lived and worked. I saw his paintings and etchings, one after another. One particular etching, that of Lazarus rising from the grave, had me nearly in tears. By seeing the original work up close, I could trace each line, each etching and engraved black stroke of the Master’s own hand. The impact of being so close to him, as an artist I revered, just was an emotional high point of my life.
But that was because I had built up a readiness for it. I had spent years studying art history, and printmaking in particular. I knew the problems Rembrandt would have faced etching the plate, wiping the ink, dampening the paper, and then printing the image to make it just so. I studied his composition, the way he drew such expressive faces. And based on my prior knowledge of what it took to create such masterpieces in that era, I was moved.
During that trip, for a while I hooked up with some teenage kids out on their great adventure, staying at the same youth hostels. They were really not much impressed with my daily ventures to art museums, and preferred instead to spend their days finding inexpensive eats and bars where they could get the cheapest liquor. Europe, for them, was a mix of boring “ancient” historical sights and drinking and carousing.
They had eyes, but did not see. That was because they had neither the interest or the prior knowledge to appreciate the language and history of Western art. What was a sumptuous feast before them was inedible. They came back from their most excellent summer, unfortunately, probably little changed from when they left.
In art theory, there is a whole system of criticism based on the theories of semiotics and structuralism. In it, the “art experience” is composed primarily of three components: the art itself, which bears the message; the viewer who receives; and the artist who creates the message. The artist can create what she thinks is a masterpiece, but unless that masterpiece is placed in the right context in front of the right audience, the language it is written in may be lost upon the viewer, hence the “experience” is wasted, no matter the possible intrinsic worthiness of the artwork itself. The viewer, as a necessary part of the artistic moment, doesn’t get it. In this theory, then, critics are the “consumers” par excellence of the viewing audience, the connoisseurs who have fine-tuned their taste buds so they can savor and explain the nuances to the rest of us consumers.
For someone going to Japan for training, the best outcome will be if he or she is ready for it. If he has the capacity to absorb the sights, sounds, knowledge and techniques, not just in the dojo, but in the culture, the environment, the atmosphere. That is basically what you can get out of a study tour in Japan: a nuanced understanding of the context of your art, in its point of origin.
Practice at your piano or violin, of course, is the only direct way to better your concert skills. But an emotional and conceptual understanding of the flavor of Beethoven’s environment may deepen your skills on an affective level. The same, I would say, is true of studying a martial art at its point of origin.
It’s probably more true in the modern, international systems of budo, such as judo, kendo, aikido and karatedo. There are quite a number of very capable teachers at a very high level here in the West, and there are also many opportunities to attend workshops and seminars. It’s more problematic with koryu arts, which are much smaller in membership and certified instructors. There is also something to be said about learning what has more of a cultural legacy embedded into it than the more sportive arts, which were intended to be national, as well as international, in scope. Many of the koryu were once specific to one area, one cultural location in a Japan that was divided up into self-contained domains with specific dialects, customs and traditions. For the koryu student, a visit to a home dojo may offer a great deal of insight into why things are done a certain way that will finally make a lot of sense compared to the somewhat esoteric nature it seems to evoke in downtown Brooklyn, for example.
So should you stay or should you go? Depends. Are you ready for it? Will you get anything out of it or will it not be worth the cost, time and effort?
Finally, a tale of two goers. One person I encountered went to Japan to pursue his dream of doing kendo. He started off teaching English as a side job, but focused primarily on kendo, to the point that he wouldn’t give up some of his training time for teaching more hours. Eventually, he lost his teaching jobs. He ended up living in a boarding house, in a room no bigger than the size of an average American closet, with no running water or plumbing. The school he was employed at felt sorry for him so they gave him odd jobs as a custodian. His life was filled with kendo and menial labor. I suppose he loved doing kendo, but he had no broader horizons, no prospects of gaining experiences that would put him in good stead if he ever decided to return back to his home country and start a career. He lived like that for years, with no improvement in his employment status. When you’re young, you can do that for a couple years. But if you’re middle-aged or older, that’s a really sad way to live, thinking that’s the way the rest of your life is going to be, with no money saved up for retirement, no medical insurance, no family or lifelong friends outside the dojo.
The other person I know: he fell in love with a koryu. He prepared by trying to study Japanese and Japanese culture, saved up some money, and flew over to Japan without much of a plan. But he was a young, strapping, healthy single guy. He wanted to train as much as possible, like the first example, but he knew he had to earn some income outside of training to pay for his everyday living expenses. He started with teaching English, as many foreigners do, but he already had other skills. In his own country, he was something of an established “personality”; he worked in communications, radio and, of all things, comedy clubs. His good looks, sunny personality, good humor and unusual adeptness at picking up the language quickly got him freelance gigs as a radio personality, print model, various other radio and print work, and even stints as a mixed-martial-arts competitor, where he often got beat up but somehow still managed a contagious, self-deprecating smile. His stay in Japan is broadening his skill set and experiences (he can now make jokes and puns in Japanese, one of the hardest things I think you can accomplish learning that language), and on top of that, by growing in his experiences outside the dojo, he became a better martial artist inside the dojo. Now he’s one of the main assistants to the head instructor. His infectiously happy demeanor attracts children, and his tall, handsome movie-star features pull in the housewives and young ladies. He’s also parlayed his experiences into knowledge he’s using to pursue a Master’s Degree, so he’s planning for his future and getting a higher education.
In the first case, the person I describe may be simply headed to a darker and darker ending, where his experiences and options in life get smaller and smaller, until all he has left in the world is his kendo training. And woe be to him if he should get a major health issue or require assisted living. In that case, going to Japan for martial arts training was more in pursuit of a sickness, an addiction that destroyed the rest of his life. In the second case, the young man is heading upwards. His whole life looks bright, and his martial arts study is not an addiction that is bringing him down, so much as it is a addition to an already rich, varied, eventful and happy life that will push him up.
Should you go to Japan or stay? Is your life already more like the former or latter example? What do YOU bring to the possible experience?
“Every truth has four corners. As a teacher I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three.”
Confucius, or Kung-fu (Master) Tzu (551-479 BCE), has been misunderstood and misappropriated over the centuries, according to one Chinese scholar and Confucianist I met. He noted that one had to take Master Tzu in his proper context: as a philosopher who was trying to bring order out of the chaos of a warring land by promoting good governance, the idea of civil service based on scholasticism and wisdom and not inheritance and accident of birth, and a peaceful society. He was bound by the conventions of his time, but he sought a way forward. Given that he lived about 500 years before the birth of Christ, a lot of his ideas are, indeed, pretty liberal.
He was later used, of course, as a bulwark in China against cultural progress and women’s rights, then vilified by the Communists as a reactionary. He’s been many things to many people.
However way you look at him, however, he’s been influential in the premodern educational system of many East Asian countries. This is true too of Japan. The Confucian classics were part of the traditional education of the warrior class before Japan’s modernization, and Confucian philosophy still exerts great influence over Japanese culture and society.
It’s easily seen of course in the way teachers are supposed to be accorded great respect by their pupils, although some of the high school students I’ve seen in Japan are in sore need of a refresher course in respect and piety.
What I find more wanting, however, is the self-motivation espoused by Confucius in the above quote. One would think that this lack of motivation would be expected in Japan, China or Korea, countries that were the bedrock of Confucian societies and whose educational system relied heavily upon rote memorization and repetition. But in many martial arts dojo in America, this lack of self-discovery and personal initiative is also easy to find.
Confucius was saying that a teacher’s role is really limited. No matter how much he offers, he is only, as the Buddha would say, a “pointing finger” showing you the path to wisdom. It is up to you, the student, to take that road and find its end. The teacher is a marker, a pathfinder. He’s not going to carry you all the way to the end like a baby.
A teacher, a sensei (“one who has lived more than you”, i.e., an elder, someone with more experience), can teach you only a smidgeon of what you need to know as a martial artist. The rest, the majority of the learning, in fact, is up to you. You can be shown one corner of the room by the teacher. Given that one corner, as a student you should have enough wits about you to be able to discern where the other three are. The teacher shouldn’t have to show you all the rest of the corners one by one.
My first tea sensei told me that quote, many decades ago. Odd, how it stuck to me. Perhaps it resonated with my own attitude towards my academic life and martial arts. I was always a reader, so when I become involved in martial arts and tea ceremony, I tried to get my hands on as many books about the subjects as I could, to learn and read further. When I found the English language books wanting, I forced myself to better my Japanese reading skills to be able to go through old Japanese texts.
By the same token, during my graduate school days in fine art, I haunted the university’s library as much as I hung around the art studio doing my art, going through books on past artists: their lives, their histories, their painting and printing techniques. I learned a trove of knowledge that, even though I teach mostly digital art and photography, I still use constantly in teaching the concepts and theory of visual art.
One of the oft-repeated sayings of the martial arts teachers who I consider my “father and mother teachers” in fact, is “kenkyu shinasai.”
It would often occur when they would say something or demonstrate a technique that would have me in wonder and awe. They would explain just enough so that they think I got the general idea, and then they would smile and say, “Kenkyu shinasai” (You need to study this on your own more).
I have found that this kind of instruction, given at the proper time and place, proved invaluable for making that knowledge truly internalized, a part of my self.
As one example of the results of this, I think back to once, when I went back for more training in jujutsu. Our headmaster was off on his day job so he asked one of his top students to help us visiting students. The student’s own profession was as a chiropractor and massage therapist. He had taken what he had learned of the jujutsu arm dislocation methods and, because of his work experience, brought the angles and pressure applications to a fine art by studying and studying on his own. Our three-hour session with him was eye-opening. He took apart the dislocation methods as only someone who works with joints, muscles and bone structure every day could.
It made me realize that, as gifted a martial artist as my head instructor was, he couldn’t teach me all I needed to know. Other people had to show me things a different way for me to grasp. And I had to spend more time working things out on my own; to make the knowledge fit my own body morphology and ways of movement.
If you are true to the Confucian methodology of learning, then, you don’t just learn by rote or limit yourself only to what you learned from your teacher. Learning becomes a way of life; it fills your entire world with opportunities to increase your knowledge and wisdom.
I keep going back to this because I see too much rote learning going on, not just in Japan, but also in our own country, the United States. Too many students just learn enough to get by and they think that’s enough. Too many students only learn a minimum from their teachers and are not motivated to plow through the library, to get more knowledge from the stored and accumulated intelligence of hundreds and thousands of people before them. Too many martial arts students repeat only what their teachers taught them and leave it at that.
That’s especially troubling with some students whose teachers may have passed on, and with that, they lost their connection to their main wellspring of information from Okinawa, Japan, Korea or China. So they continue to repeat what they learned from their teacher without questioning, researching or digging deeper. My opinion is that it does no respect to the teacher. By not trying to extend oneself, you are in a downward spiral, debasing your methods and muddying it up further and further.
That doesn’t mean that you jazz up your kenjutsu kata practice by introducing Spandex tight-fitting gear in lieu of keikogi and uwagi, by the way. I don’t mean the wholesale revamping of a koryu to “fit the times.” What I mean is serious research into the history of your ryu, perhaps. Or a comparative study of why you do a kata a certain way when another version of it is done another way. Why is that? Is there something you can learn? Is there something the teacher left out, deliberately or inadvertently? Was there more that your teacher didn’t want to teach you or didn’t know how to teach you that you can attain, to extend and deepen what he passed on to you?
The teacher showed you a corner, and only one corner, after all. I don’t think he expected you to be content with just sitting in that one darkened corner and not explore the rest of the room. If so, then he was a self-serving egotist interested more in self-aggrandizement than in leaving a growing, maturing legacy that will survive and expand long after he is gone.
As a student, then, it is up to you to find the other three corners and to make the entire room yours, not just stay stuck in one little dark corner.
“All war is based on deception.”
My friend was eager to show me the latest book in his collection. The book focused on one koryu, but also had sample kata from other koryu schools, including our own.
“But look at these photographs,” he said, smiling like a Chesire Cat about to spring something on me.
The pages he showed me had sequential photos of several kata from our martial arts school. But they were odd. They were so odd, I couldn’t chalk then up to regional or instructors’ personal differences. There was something just wrong about them, as if the people demonstrating didn’t truly understand the meaning of the kata, like they learned it by looking through a cracked prism at the actual techniques.
The demonstrators, who claimed to have master’s licenses in several koryu, also wrote that they had studied directly under one of the headmasters of our school. How could that be, I asked rhetorically, when their techniques were just…odd.
Ah, my friend said. Maybe it was damasare.
There might have been something unsavory about the writers that the headmaster didn’t like, but he couldn’t get rid of them. Maybe they kept coming around pestering the teacher, so finally the teacher taught them something just to get them out of his hair. Something wrong. And then he sent them off. They were secure and smug in their knowledge, but anyone who knows anything about the ryu would know immediately that they had learned a flawed, mistaken, and incomplete version of the kata he was taught. Good enough for general consumption, perhaps, but the ‘keys to the kingdom” were missing. Those who know could tell they didn’t get it right.
Deception is not just a technique used in warfare. It is an integral part of martial arts education, particularly the koryu, since they are closer to combative methods than pure sport competition. And I don’t mean just deceptive fighting techniques, like a feint to one side to set up an attack to the other side. Damasare, deceiving those who you don’t want to learn your methods, is a technique used to keep your school’s techniques within the school.
Deceptive methods to protect your methods from being co-opted by unscrupulous outsiders or even students of your own who you don’t trust go back a long way. One teacher of my school has suggested that he has found in records and documents examples that go back to at least the Edo Period (1600-1868 CE), back when our ryu had quite a number of dojo and several thousands students. You couldn’t trust all the students to have the ryu’s best interest in mind. The ones you can’t kick out but don’t trust entirely may be taught incomplete or wrong methods.
There were already some folk back then, he said, who were known to be “kata collectors.” They would train only long enough to learn enough upper level kata for their own purposes, then leave for another school without permission, train a while there too, and then eventually set up their own schools, with no allegiance to their former teachers without permission. The teacher, if he suspected someone to be like that, would deliberately teach him wrong methods, or give wrong or incomplete explanations. After all, back then you never knew if that guy from another fief who displayed a selfish, self-seeking personality, might face you in battle in a civil war. Why teach him stuff that could get yourself killed?
Not all ryu do this overtly, but I think some kind of damasare, of trying to retain methods or meanings only within the ryu, is in nearly all traditional koryu arts, and can perhaps be found in more “modern” budo too.
One of my karate friends said as much, when he began to study Okinawan karate in Okinawa, from teachers who were intelligentsia: professors, lawyers and doctors. They had the acumen and ability to research the origins of various kata. They had long conversations with him about the history of karate kata, and he concluded that a lot of the kata transmitted to Japan from Okinawa were incomplete, insofar that some of the more esoteric meanings were deliberately withheld from some Japanese students. That, too, was a subtle implication I got when interviewing Asai Tetsuhiko, the late Shotokan master instructor. He said that he frequently went to Okinawa to study older kata and kobudo that were not part of the original Shotokan curriculum in order to understand what was left out or forgotten.
That is one reason why I take askance at some karate bunkai demonstrations done in tournaments that take kata literally. Ostensibly, bunkai demos are performed to explain a set of moves from a kata. But many kata themselves are full of damasare. Some of the moves aren’t what they literally look like. So if you take a literal interpretation of a move, it may not necessarily be what it really means. For example, think about it. Stepping forward three times, with three alternating downward block in a kata makes no sense in a combative situation. Who would step backwards and try to punch you at the same place and fail, three times? Those aren’t blocks. And not all of them are at gedan level, I would conjecture. They are hidden techniques, hidden within plain sight. Those who don’t know think they are just three gedan blocks done one after another. Those who do know what they really mean…well, a lot of times, they won’t tell you unless you’re part of their school, and a trusted student at that.
It’s the same with aikido. A lot of people think that it’s all about grabs and wrist locks. But Ueshiba Morihei, the founder himself, once let slip that “atemi is aikido,” or attacking vital parts is a foundation of the art. So that Kote Gaeshi technique: maybe the pugilistic attacker won’t try to grab your wrist. He’ll try a straight right punch. But the same attack to the wrist works whether it’s to a grab or a strike. Instead of reaching for the wrist, tori is really striking the wrist at a nerve bundle. But you say, “Oh, but why would I want to take a fall if it’s only a little wrist twist?” Yeah, but that pivot and turn of your wrist? It’s coupled with a left punch to your jaw, then the grab of your wrist with the left, then as tori pivots, his elbow smacks the other side of uke’s jaw. Those strikes to soften uke up really help him to go with the “flow.” And that throw, by the way, is a way for uke to survive practice. Done full speed, it’s really meant to dislocate wrists, elbow and shoulder while standing up if uke resists.
But if you practice that way, however, two bad things happen. One, you lose your training partners real fast. Two, you may lose sight of learning how to “flow” with the attack, since you’re so intent on causing so much wreckage to the attacker. That destroys the overall goal of aiki training: to develop a flowing, smooth body dynamic on the part of the student. So the actual “fighting” explanation of the move is hidden from most students even during training.
So those who know, know. Those who don’t…they make up weird bunkai.
For the koryu in the modern Internet and video age, it’s a tricky way to track who really learned the art and who just picked up a book or magazine, or learned only a few techniques and ran off claiming full mastery.
A while back a friend pointed me to a web site that featured guys in black t-shirts doing what looked like our ryu’s short dagger grappling techniques. However, instead of traditional weapons (kogusoku or wakizashi), they were using butterfly knives and flying around like monkeys high on caffeine. The techniques were recognizable as ours, though, although through careful scrutiny, I could tell that most of their kata were probably derived from a very good imitation of stuff they copied from books and videotapes. There were some deliberate change-ups put into the kata specifically to hide their real meaning. Anyone attempting to pilfer the techniques via videos of a demo or online videos would also copy the mistakes and omissions.
So that brings another kind of damasare: during embu, or formal public demonstrations, our koryu (and I’m sure other koryu) will deliberately change some aspects of their kata compared to what is practiced in the dojo. There is “kata for the dojo” and “embu style kata.” Instead of a particular strike point, for example, we attack a different point. It’s still a viable attack point, just not the particular one our style wants as a primary target. Members who know will immediately recognize the difference. Outsiders who don’t will surreptitiously video it, copy it and practice the demo kata without knowing what they are doing is not quite the right way to do the form in a dojo. They don’t know the difference. Plus, they’ll be outed as superficial kata copiers.
While on the face of this, a lot of damasare may seem like unwarranted paranoia, you should remember that its origins were in a time before copyright laws protected the owners of the techniques. It was also a time when there was a real possibility that some of the methods could possibly be used in battle or civil war against another clan. The less you shared with outsiders who you didn’t fully trust, the better. Why show potential enemies your style so that they could learn how to beat you, not in a sportive contest, but in a life or death situation?
Nowadays, the purpose of damasare has changed somewhat. It is used to mask the essence of the ryu from those who would steal the methods via printed media or videos and market it as their own.
With some of those outsiders, you could tell them to go away and they will disappear. Others are annoyingly persistent, and so you have to figure out a way to not give them the keys to your secrets as they keep showing up to train or buying all the DVDs and studying videso on YouTube.
The more a style is a koryu, the more you will see these kinds of damasare at work; to hide the methods from outsiders, from those who would steal the methods for their own greed and selfishness, from even one’s own students who do not exhibit the best of character traits, and from potential adversaries and possible future combatants.
Going past these hidden veils means proving yourself worthy not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Are you trustworthy enough? Or are you perceived as just another jerk who wants knowledge only for narrow, selfish purposes?
Your teacher at the local dojo trained in Japan (or Okinawa, now a prefecture of Japan), so he’s got to be the real McCoy, right? And how he teaches and conducts the class is the “traditional” Japanese style, right? Yeah, so that karate dojo down the street whose teacher never set foot in Ye Olde Nippon is lacking authenticity, you think I would say, right?
Not necessarily. Just because you trained in Japan doesn’t mean squat, without inserting a whole lot of conditions, caveats and “on the other hands.” It may sound strange, especially since perhaps all six of my regular readers would think I’m a hardliner about the “You want to do koryu, go to Japan” mantra.
There are a whole load of issues that come with whether or not the experience in Japan was a plus or not, or whether or not you’re getting a good representation of “traditional” budo training from that guy who claimed he sat at the foot of Ueshiba Morihei, Oyama Masutatsu, and Mifune Kyuzo…(which, quite literally, one of my judo sensei did do, amazingly enough. He was there at a “golden age” of martial arts in Tokyo. He used to hang with Donn F. Draeger, sparred with Oyama, learned aikido under the aegis of the elder Ueshiba and was thrown around by the judo legend, Mifune Kyuzo. He could literally point to a spot no bigger than a dime and throw me on my backside there, even with me fighting it all the way. But that’s another story…).
What kind of dojo?
The first issue would be what kind of dojo the teacher trained at. There’s a variety of training regimes within just one system of budo. If a person were to train exclusively with a college budo club and think that was the ONLY way to train, he’d be sorely mistaken. College karate clubs used to be notorious for their hazing, brutal training, and militaristic discipline. They still seem to demand strict adherence to sempai-kohai social stratification in the dojo. They’ve toned down the more sadistic aspects of their training since a karate student died from physical abuse a couple of years ago, but don’t go looking for much inward-facing meditations on budo philosophy at a college club. College judo and karate clubs thrive on competition with other college clubs, and that sportive, competitive spirit filtered into other college budo clubs, like kyudo and iaido. It’s more about competition (hence, training extremely hard) and developing lifelong friendships.
Dojo run by police stations are even tougher, since the police have a practical purpose in learning kendo, judo or aikido; if not for direct application, then for overall health and physical conditioning for the course of their work. And they also train for national police competitive matches.
Training in martial arts is no walk in the park. But if your teacher was very young when he was in Japan and trained at a college club or police dojo, then that will explain why he demands that you do 10,000 reverse punches as warm ups before you even think of doing kata and kumite in your four-hour training session that is like basic training from hell night. But that’s not the only “authentic” way to train.
There are also hombu dojo; or the main training hall of an organization. The Kodokan for Kodokan Judo is a tall skyscraper replete with several matted floors and one very large, expansive matted room, offices, meeting rooms and museum. Training at a hombu dojo like the Kodokan may mean brisk, hard training with a multitude of training partners. As a central meeting ground for members from all over Japan and across the world, you may think that budo training should be like that: with training possible nearly any day of the week, with top instructors giving structured classes, tests and ranking given to scores of students at a time, and full time, fully paid teachers, in a brisk, no-nonsense atmosphere. In actuality, even in Japan a full time professional budo teacher is a rarity. You will encounter a few such extremely gifted and talented professional budo teachers at a central dojo, or perhaps in their own dojo if they are talented enough to cultivate a very large coterie of students. But it’s the exception, not the rule, even in Japan.
The most problematic dojo is the one often found in Okinawa, with its large American military bases. I call it a “base dojo,” set up on an American base, with a teacher trucked in from outside. For postwar Okinawan karate teachers, it was a way to make money in a place devastated by World War II, when Japanese and American forces destroyed the main island’s infrastructure. The quality of the instruction was, in my opinion, uneven during the first few decades after the War. You had some teachers, I suspect, whose main motivation was making money off the Americans and their technical expertise might have been limited. One of my Okinawan karate teacher friends put it less charitably. He said, in effect, “A lot of those guys who taught at bases were considered bums by the other Okinawan karate teachers. Sell-outs. Not so much because they taught foreigners, but because they ran after the money and were the middle to bottom tier teachers at the time. To my sensei, if you wanted to study real Okinawan karate, you went to the dojo, the dojo didn’t go to you. You were good enough that the students came to you, not the other way around.” Unfortunately, many servicemen who trained in Okinawa and returned to set up the first karate studios in the States had that kind of limited exposure. To their credit, many of them returned and trained further at the hombu dojo of their sensei, expanding their technique. But many got stuck and didn’t advance further in their abilities or understanding.
My own opinion is that the major problem with learning traditional budo on an American military base is that it’s not really learning traditional budo in its proper context. Enter a fully equipped, large American military base anywhere in the world and you are not “in country.” It is as if you tore a chunk of Americana from the ground and plopped that acreage, complete with manicured green lawns, large PX (like a military version of Wal-Mart), wide paved thoroughfares, movie theatres, gym, English radio stations and TV cable, ESPN and reality TV shows, etc. in situ, right there. In Japan. In South Korea. In Germany. In Okinawa. You would have no idea you’re in a foreign country. So the teacher may be Okinawan, but the whole environment, the dojo in a gym, the surroundings and even the way the classes are conducted may be colored by American stereotypes of what budo training is about, even though it’s in-country. And the teacher won’t correct you because, for Pete’s sake, it FEELS like it’s a foreign country to him one he passes through the gates of the base.
So there’s a lack of knowledge, especially if the student doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture, with that vacuum filled up with cobbled-together stereotypes or misunderstandings from other young, inexperienced enlisted men and women, about budo.
Far more common, but not frequented by many foreign students, are what can be called machi no dojo; the typical dojo on a neighborhood street in a typical city. They dot the urban landscape. The dojo may be only as big as an American two-car garage. It may be tucked away on private property, nestled between domiciles, with only a small kamban (placard) announcing their name and hours of training). The neighborhood children and adults gather there as much for an excuse to meet and gossip as to train. Such training is spotty. Some dojo are really too lax and laid back, more an excuse to get out of the house and gab with the gang than real hard training. Others combine a nice balance of relaxed atmosphere with focused, individualized one-on-one teaching.
One of my sempai (student senior to myself) used to spend several months in Japan every year, during his summer breaks. He would do iai at the large gathering at the Butokuden training hall in Kyoto, where many iai students from all over the city and college teams would gather to study together. The Butokuden training was wonderful for experiencing all the variety of teachers, and working out en masse. Then he would also train at two of his teacher’s own personal dojo. One of the dojo was above the sensei’s place of business. It was no bigger than an apartment room, which is what it really was before it was commandeered to be a dojo. He would do iai in close quarters with only the sensei and two or three other students. Sometimes the sensei would have to leave for an appointment or business meeting in the middle of class. Then he’d return and pick up where he left off. It was very informal but led to many hours of refinement, detailed instruction, and precious experiences.
Another friend of mine ended up in Japan for an extended period of cultural study and he decided to continue his kendo training. He found two neighborhood dojo near his apartment. One machi no dojo was more overtly competitive-bent. It displayed its tournament trophies in a window looking out on the street and focused mainly on winning competitions. He thought their basics and form, however, were weak. And it charged a lot of money. Instead, he found a machi no dojo that was on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. The building it was in was an old wooden structure and there were ample kids and youngsters, but the instructors stressed proper form over winning tournaments, and he liked the laid back but precise, old fashioned atmosphere. Plus, it was cheap, something he had to consider since he was a student on a stipend. It was only later when he was in the dojo’s locker room that he discovered a whole bevy of tournament trophies when someone slid open a cabinet. He asked, “Hey, what are those?” One of the sensei replied, nonchalantly, “Oh, those. We always win a lot of trophies at tournaments, but win or lose we tell the kids don’t get hung up on them, because the training is the main thing, not winning. So when we get those things, we just stick ‘em in here.” My friend loved training at that dojo.
In some ways, some of the returnees who have experienced only one kind of dojo setting are like the tale about the blind men and the elephant. If one only felt the trunk, you would say that an elephant was like a snake. Only if you experienced or observed all these varieties of dojo would you realize that there are a multitude of dojo situations, and they are all valid in terms of what they offer and the kind of training per the clientele base they service.
Want competition and tough training? Train like a college or police dojo. Want a pastime you can do for years on end, develop friendships and learn more about the lore and history and technical minutiae? Try a really good small little dojo. In the military, in Japan or Okinawa for a very short time, don’t speak the language, afraid of the natives, don’t know your way around downtown Naha, don’t feel comfortable outside of your cultural comfort zone? Try a base dojo. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just there are limits to a base dojo in terms of really understanding the underlying culture of the budo unless you make the individual effort to learn for yourself.
Note, however, there isn’t mention of a martial arts “studio” as we often find in America: a stand-alone training hall (usually karate or aikido) run for the benefit of a full-time professional teacher, in a business environment, like a strip mall studio that is all about location, location, location. It’s often got big glass windows that display tournament trophies, martial arts gear, and signs and slogans in slashy, pseudo-orientalish typeface. Although that kind of dojo is beginning to pop up even in Japan, I suspect that its origins lay as an American invention. I’m not panning it (much). I know some really good karate and aikido teachers who make a decent living and deserve their income because their instruction is first class, and they have to advertise, offer all kinds of incentives, and tailor their classes to their clientele in order to survive as a business. That’s just how it is in our own capitalistic society. You have to pay the rent, feed your family, make a living. It will be interesting to see as cultural interchanges expand, whether or not this kind of dojo succeeds if it attempts to make inroads in Japan or China.
But I keep going back to the best times I had in dojo in Japan, and they were usually events more of the intimate nature, not easily replicated in Western dojo unless a concerted effort is made: like when there would be only two or three of us students and our jujutsu teacher, who was in another room playing his shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and checking in on us only now and then, as we clacked our bo together and the bamboo outside knocked against each other, buffeted by the winter winds. Our sensei was practicing the song “Shika No Tone,” a plaintive, haunting melody representing deer lost in a barren winter forest, calling out for each other in the night. Or just before class in the main dojo at the Butokuden in Kyoto, at my first encounter with my iai sensei. I sat in the shadows of a wooden pillar waiting to be introduced while a student trained before the evening session in the mottled lighting of old incandescent bulbs hung from the dark rafters, and the only sound I heard was the sliding of his feet on the worn, polished wooden planks, and the cut of his sword in the autumn air. Sudden, deadly movement, followed by a slow, precise turn of the wrist to return the sword to its scabbard. It was a beauty that caught my chilled breath in my throat. Those are the kinds of experience that even my own dojo can only hint at but never, ever replicate being that we are in a community center’s well lit dance studio near a busy, noisy intersection in downtown tropical Honolulu.
And I think, too, of what my jujutsu sensei said once; that before dojo structures, martial artists used to train outdoors, out in nature, so they were in tune with the greater natural world, the “daishizen,” much more than we were. Handling a sword, maneuvering for a throw, handling a weapon, were part and parcel of their total world experience, as much a natural part of their lives as cutting firewood, knowing when it would rain or snow, intuitively sensing the lay of the land or knowing the changing of the seasons. In that sense, even the most “traditional” dojo is still a controlled environment at least one step removed from the roots of ancient martial arts, which came out of being embedded in nature’s own environment and rhythms.