There are times when what we consider to be “traditions” need to be broken. Yes, that’s right. As the author of this blog titled “Classical Budoka,” which discusses the most tradition-bound types of classical Japanese martial arts, I think some traditions are meant to be broken.
–That is, they are meant to be broken if they are no longer relevant, meaningful, logical or appropriate. They are meant to be discarded if they are revealed to be antithetical to their purpose and function, if they cause undue harm or negative effects to the practitioner, and if what replaces them are more appropriate for those purposes.
Does that sound like I’m like every adolescent on YouTube who wants to be the next Bruce Lee wannabe, mumbling about “useless traditional martial arts styles, do your own thing, ‘kadda’ is useless, etc., etc.”? Perhaps. But there’s a lot more ifs ands or and buts in my statement.
One of the things that need to be addressed first, however, is that in martial arts, what are the traditions you’re talking about? Are you sure they are “traditions” in a viable, historical sense? Are they actually just some idiosyncrasies of a particular style, or a teacher? Could they be something that was just made up recently? In the case of some dojo in the United States, are they garbled, messed up rituals created by people who have no real idea what the actual traditions are.
For example, one of my colleagues told me that he was once contacted by a karate school regarding the proper way to blow out candles after a belt-awarding ceremony. In Japan, do you blow out the candles with your breath, or do you snuff them out with a candlesnuffer? To my friend, it was (to use an Internet shorthand term) a WTF moment. What the heck are you guys talking about, he asked (more elegantly, of course). In traditional dojo in Japan, there are no such candles! That group’s whole candle lighting services, shuffling around on knees (not moving in shiko, by the way), and shouting “Osu!!!!” at every breath (and doing fist-bumping and high fives along with slapping the thighs with every bow), giving man-hugs (grabbing at the shoulders, patting the back, turning the head to one side) were ridiculous to his own “non-traditional traditionalist” eyes. Those aren’t “traditional” traditions at all.
I’ve encountered several such strange cross-cultural oddities of “tradition” in my years of observing different martial arts schools in the States. No doubt, many of the folk perpetuating or creating those instant traditions mean well, but to a real traditionalist, they look ridiculous, like a mixture of boy’s club secret hand shakes (here’s your Merry Marvel Marching Society secret decoder ring!) with artificially created cosplay rules. Those aren’t true traditions: they’re made up!
In those cases, those aren’t really traditions that go back a long time in their own cultural matrix. They were somehow made up in the transition from one culture to another.
As far as actual traditions go, sometimes some traditions need to disappear because they are based on cultural, ethnic or religious prejudice, and have less to do with the martial system than with cultural prejudices better left in the past. They may be based on old superstitions that do not hold up against modern knowledge or do not fit in a more egalitarian society. For example, some budo instructors were pretty sexist when it came to women training but a few short years ago. They would sniff that women weren’t part of martial arts tradition, but that’s a real myopic view of tradition. In premodern Japan, samurai women may have trained separately, but they did train in classical martial systems, especially in naginata.
As noted in a recent popular historical drama, the daughter of the head of the Chiba kendo dojo at the end of the Tokugawa shogunate, was a Chiba Sana. She was nicknamed the Demon Beauty (“Chiba Dojo No Oni No Komachi,” a play on the name “Ono No Komachi,” who was a famous poet and beauty of the Heian Period) of the Chiba dojo because she beat all comers, male or female, in kendo duels. During the civil war that ended the Tokugawa era, a platoon of women samurai of the Aizu domain fought royalist infantry attacking their Aizu Wakamatsu castle of Tsurugaoka, and pushed them back until the soldiers retreated far enough away to shoot them down safely from afar with rifles and cannon fire.
To be sure, in modern budo there is less of a history of women training, but that dearth is a somewhat recent historical situation and it is clearly being rectified as more and more women in many countries take to the enjoyment of training in budo. It also helps that such chauvinism, at least in most First World countries, are being cast aside.
The core traditions of Japan are also changing. In the past, due to Confucian influence, women were excluded from many situations due to their gender. Japan’s aging population and lower birth rates have altered such thinking. With fewer young men and women willing to bend under traditional roles, women are being designated headmasters of strongly traditional systems; they are assuming more and more roles that were once the province of men only. We now have a woman as the first headmaster of a major school of flower arrangement, daughters assuming the mantle of heads of their family arts and crafts traditions, women moving up the corporate ladder, and so on. That inevitable expanding of the social roles of women is reflected in the budo world.
I started training in a very ancient koryu nearly 30-odd years ago. There were only a few diehard young guys who trained with me, and the assumption was that it was too old-fashioned and stifling for any modern-day contemporary female to enjoy it. It’s not that women were banned from training. It was more like, no one was interested. No one sane, that is. Nowadays, I cannot see how the ryu could do without women actively participating. There are housewives who train with their kids, young single women who think it’s cool to train in a koryu, newly married women who use training as a break from their usual schedule to get some physical training and sisterly friendships.
Another example is the sometimes ethnic and/or national chauvinism one might have encountered in some dojo. It was rare to begin with, and is nearly nonexistent now. However, some teachers used to cite “tradition” to mask their prejudice. I know of at least one instructor of a koryu who said he would never teach non-Japanese nationals, period. End of the debate. He made those comments in a Japanese language kendo magazine, claiming that foreigners would never be able to grasp the “uniqueness” of his art. Nowadays, he’s flying out to teach workshops in Europe and North America, collecting frequent flyer miles and many more students all across the globe. It’s amazing what monetary rewards from more tuition and teaching fees can do to change such attitudes.
Another teacher of a famous koryu once remarked in an interview that, although he had several foreigners in his system even as early as from the 1960s and 1970s, he wasn’t sure his ryu could ever be truly transmitted outside of Japan. Even within Japan, he thought that the true transmission of the ryu necessitated a proximity to the geographic location of the Shinto shrine whose deity was the inspiration of the ryu, hence the main dojo had no branches, or shibu. A couple of years after I read that interview, I subsequently read about the first sort-of shibu of that school. A student from a faraway prefecture begged to join the ryu. When he was accepted, he commuted as many times a month as possible, and would train on his own wholeheartedly and sincerely. In due time, the teacher noted his earnestness and also the fact that friends of that student wanted to also practice, but were having a harder time of making the regular commute. Thus, the teacher relented and sanctioned a study group, which became a shibu. I note, now, that the ryu currently has official branches across Japan, and in various countries all over the world.
In these cases it was not so much raw prejudice, as a guarded approach to something new that the ryu had never considered before. What foreigner in their right mind would be interested in learning something so old-fashioned and Japanesey as a koryu? It just never occurred to such teachers that there would be any such people, and so what do you do with those eccentrics? That was never encountered when the ryu was founded, after all.
In the latter two cases, my hunch is that the original misgivings were based on the pragmatic, careful nature of koryu. These classical arts, which retain training methods hundreds of years old, do actually change, but change is slow and careful.
On the other hand, I’ve encountered more prejudice from large, modern martial arts groups than from traditional koryu, where decisions are made on a level “closer to the ground.” I’ve heard of large organizations in which top ranks are only reserved for Japanese nationals, a deliberate reflection of cultural prejudices in some quarters and individuals of Japanese society and not so much of the budo itself. I’ve been iced out of training in a more modern budo style just because of that attitude on the part of some teachers in Hawaii and Japan. My response? I took my marbles and played elsewhere, with other people who weren’t so narrow-minded. Besides, I wouldn’t want to train with them anyway, if they held such prejudices. Those kinds of folk tend to be nasty examples of human beings in the rest of their dealings, too. Why stick around with those kinds of people?
What seems to be anathema to the New Age eclectic martial artists who criticize classical arts, however, may be the perceived regimentation of rituals, etiquette, formality and methodologies. What they appear to be describing, however, are rituals found in more “modern” martial arts, the shinbudo. Some such clubs of judo, karatedo, aikido and kendo do go overboard, but I daresay, my first and ongoing encounter with koryu is that it is more relaxed in terms of formality. Oh, you can be sure that the strictness and discipline is there, but it tends to be more “relaxed.”
The formality of a koryu tends to be based upon the notion that, at heart, the technical nature of the training includes methods that were meant to maim or kill an enemy. You don’t make light of that, ever, although you can still remain friendly and not overly rigid. Formality for is own sake is never the reason in a koryu. The koryu has no sense of training for showing off, for winning a tournament, or for grandstanding. I’ve found that most young men don’t gravitate to the koryu because it’s not something they can show off or strut around like a peacock with. Therefore, there’s no comparative need to rein in obnoxious, exaggerated machismo behavior as you might find in a crowded, popular modern training group.
I also notice that as eclectic systems become more popular, they tend to take on their own share of standardized rituals and stiff training methods. I think it’s inevitable when a system grows and enrolls more students. So it can be a matter of the pot calling the kettle black.
There is a historical example: When karate was accepted as a possible component of physical education classes in Okinawa’s public schools before World War II, the different karate masters had to establish a series of standardized, simplified kata that could be taught in the schools. Each teacher had to forego his/her ryu’s unique styles in order for a broader, more sensible, albeit simplified kind of karate could be taught in the public schools to the greatest number of students. A standardized training regime (warm ups, kihon, ippon and sanbon kumite, Pinan (Heian) kata) was established to make the content easier, standardized and repeatable across the board. No longer was karate taught nearly one-to-one, with a teacher and only a handful of students training in undershirts in the back yard. Now you were talking about hundreds, and then thousands of students whose progress needed to be measured by teachers who may hardly know them and their abilities. Hence, the adaptation of the dan-i ranking system from judo, the belts and white keikogi, the testing system, and other “traditions.”
Take another example: the most well known critic of “that traditional mess” was the late kung-fu action star, Bruce Lee. His words, little understood, have been mouthed by more young punk wannabe martial artists than anyone else in the known universe. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to have heard an interview on public radio one day in which his (now) adult daughter recalled that Lee never forced his kids to walk exactly in his Jeet Kune Do style footsteps. Instead, he enrolled them in traditional judo classes because he felt that judo gave youngsters the best mix of healthy exercise, body dynamics and tumbling, and positive interactions with other youngsters, compared to any other martial arts.
Lee embraced the Weltanschauung (and hubris) of the California pop mentality of his era. “Do your own thing,” “Say no to the Man,” “Down with the Establishment.” All the counter-culture ethos of his time cloaked his outward philosophy and approach to martial arts, which, in many ways, was quite traditional in a practical, Chinese sense. Lee was really not discarding all traditional martial arts so much as distilling and concentrating, as much as he could given his situation, ALL martial arts, into what he thought were their bare essence, and then attempting to fit them to the close-quarter boxing methods of his root art. He used Wing Chun, a most traditional, singular art, as his foundation. You can still see the Wing Chun influence in old films of him and the thread that went from traditional Wing Chun to him to any of his living direct students. And he trained manically, doing the basics of what he adapted, over and over again. It was a self-imposed discipline that echoes the strict regime often seen in traditional dojo. That was no “hang loose” “Do what you feel” hippie-dippie system. Looked at technically, Lee’s methods was a personal system that adapted traditions into a system that few could really master because it required discipline, singular focus and inquisitiveness (and a bit of showmanship and flair) that was unique to him. And then, when he passed, his students had to concretize and formulate Lee’s methods into a “tradition” in order to make sense of it and pass it on to others. So a non-traditional art has, in fact, become an art that relies on tradition, formula and form.
This is not to say that Jeet Kune Do history is unique. I suspect koryu and many modern budo are similar in that a founder may have had an inspired, unexplainable and unique insight into martial arts, and it would take their successors, especially the second and third generations, to formalize and make sense of the core concepts so that they would be coherent and understandable to us lesser mortals. Certainly, I think this is the case with aikido, after talking with many teachers who have had experience studying directly under its founder, Ueshiba Morihei. They would often note that sometimes Ueshiba would lapse into incomprehensible (even to native Japanese speakers) explanations about how his techniques were reliant upon esoteric Shinto and Buddhist deities, the flow of the universe, and so on. Perhaps so, but that doesn’t help any student really understand the actual body dynamics of a technique. In contrast, I have observed Ueshiba’s son, Kisshomaru, and grandson Moriteru, and they tend to be quite clear and concise in terms of explaining practical methodologies and applications.
Another problem with keeping or breaking traditions is that they are often misunderstood as being nonsensical by the ill informed (“form or tradition for its own sake”), and sometimes tradition’s own worst enemies are its misguided proponents who argue for it from a totally wrong point of view.
There are a lot of good reasons, for example, for the standardized training outfits (keikogi) in traditional budo, especially the simple white top and bottom (with black or the indigo-dyed blue of kendo as variations). Having people wear clean training outfits is good for dojo hygiene. I was a middling wrestler on a high school team and one of the biggest problems for our coaches was fighting staph and other skin infections brought on by having our bodies in daily contact with the mats and each other, and some other wrestlers did not have the healthiest of hygiene. Boy, talk about fear of getting cooties. Standardized outfits also gets rid of the natural penchant for some people to wear eye candy and bling-bling to stand out, even in a dojo. That can be distracting, as well as potentially dangerous in a dojo. Someone wearing fancy rings could miss focus on a punch and imprint his/her hunk of jewelry on your face, for example.
Having a set of restrictive rituals and etiquette surrounding sword handling makes total good sense. As anyone who has handled firearms will attest, a lax attitude and laziness is a disaster in the making. Having a healthy respect for bladed weapons, expressed in ritual etiquette, extends to the other formalities of respect given to other weapons and other individuals in the dojo. Any weapon, metal or wood, and any person, could potentially cause needless injury if treated lightly. There’s enough possibility for injury just in the practice itself. There is no sense in multiplying the chances by trivializing those aspects of training just because you don’t like all that “traditional mess.” Etiquette was meant to focus your attention on those things that can be potential sources of danger.
Sensible rituals and etiquette, therefore, were developed to protect and enhance training, not as mere fluff and pageantry.
On the other hand, there are times when variations to tradition are accepted and often necessary, and the proponents of blindly following tradition don’t understand when they have to be broken.
As one example, I once printed a photograph of a very venerable jo instructor in my defunct martial arts magazine. It was a great photo, taken outdoors in Hawaii in a park full of tall grass. I subsequently received a letter from a kendo teacher who criticized the photo and the teacher. The teacher felt that wearing what he called “kung fu” slippers (actually they were jika tabi, a kind of soft-cover black work shoes with rubber soles that are popularly called “ninja shoes” but are really blue-collar construction worker footwear) was sacrilegious to traditional martial arts. You ALWAYS practice bare footed, he declared! That jo teacher was really a disgrace to traditional martial arts because of his breach of etiquette.
Well, yeah. If you wore jika tabi in a wood-floored or tatami-mat dojo, I can see his point. Going barefoot in a Japanese domicile is the cultural norm. Traditional Japanese residencies had very few pieces of furniture. People lived close to the floor, sitting and sleeping on the floor. To tromp in from outside with your shoes on, which may have doggie poo, dried gum, and who knows what kind of germs, is really unhealthy in that situation. More so in a dojo, where you may have intimate skin contact with the floor or mats. You don’t want to have your face shoved into the mats where someone’s shoes also trod, and get it in intimate contact with outside dirt and feces.
But as I gently tried to point out, in Japan there is really no stigma to footwear when practicing outside on uneven, rocky and dangerous ground. When I trained outdoors in koryu, we often went barefoot on grassy areas. That gave us more sure footing so we wouldn’t slip and whack someone in the head. But if our feet were sensitive, or for whatever reasons, if we wore jika tabi, it was no big deal. That’s what they were meant for.
In addition, I noted that the particular park where the picture was taken was infested with keawe trees. These hardy, gnarled trees produce branches that have thorns that can grow over three inches long. Step on one of those thorns by accident and you had better have your tetanus shot up to date. I once hiked a deserted Hawaiian island inhabited only by feral goats and keawe trees, and I spent a good deal of time in the evening pulling out those thorns from my sneakers. If I had walked barefoot, I wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes before I would have collapsed from deep puncture wounds in the soles of my feet.
The jo sensei didn’t “break tradition,” he was using common sense and wore footwear to prevent a visit to the Emergency Room. Indeed, he actually wasn’t “breaking tradition” so much as using tradition (you wear footwear outside, barefoot inside) to deal with a new situation, that of training on thorny ground in Hawaii.
In fact, my own opinion is that “breaking tradition” may mean not so much breaking the traditions of a classical style of martial art, but breaking one’s own traditional prejudices and myopic points of view.
Recently, a friend was approached by a young man who wanted to train in his koryu. The prospective student said he was serious about learning a koryu and would be a devoted and loyal student. Yeah, yeah they all say that.
However, the student said that he would not be willing to train with women, as his religion forbade any contact with the “unclean sex.” And he was deeply devoted to his beliefs, formed from his interpretation of the religion’s texts. My friend teaches two koryu. Offhand I think one koryu is about 400 years old, the other some 450 years old. Yet, however old and steeped in Japanese traditions as they are, there is no inherent restriction against men and women training together. So my friend informed the young man that he couldn’t train with his group. The youth countered by asking if he offered individual, one-to-one teaching. He would be willing to pay for it. No, my friend said. The attitude precluded that because there was naturally going to be times when he had to interact with other students, women included, and besides, he had no time in his schedule to take on an individual student, lucrative tuition or not (probably not).
He thought that was the end of that interchange, but a few weeks later, the young man wrote back with “good news.” He finally talked to a leader of his religious sect, and he was informed that while women were considered separate in terms of roles and social positions, there was nothing in their religion that expressly forbade him from training with them in martial arts.
My friend informed the young man that in spite of that reversal of his core beliefs, he would not be accepted into the ryu. In slightly more genteel terms, he told the youth that the exchange with him had been a pain in the butt, and was revelatory in that the young man may also encounter issues with other things practiced by the koryu, such as bowing to a kamiza, actually touching a member of the opposite sex, showing them equal respect, bowing to other humans, and so on. If he felt that his interpretation of his religion was so restrictive about one thing, surely it was going to cause problems with other traditions. So good luck on finding a koryu teacher who will allow your personal prejudices, don’t let the door slam your butt on the way out, and get out of my face.
That’s an example of a situation in which “breaking tradition” really means breaking one’s own inbred prejudices and fears. Finding and breaking fake traditions or even overriding old ones that have outlived their usefulness are easy. But what about your own traditional fears and prejudices?
Why do you train in budo?
I don’t think there’s one (or even two) right answers, really. There might be better ones, silly ones, stupid ones and awe-some bodacious ones, but one, or two right answers? No. But there are two paths a student can take when motivated to begin martial arts. One road ennobles, another adds insult to injury to a broken, crooked spirit.
As a student, and as a teacher, and even as a student who has trained long enough to be asked to help instruct, that’s something you have to consider when approaching a student to offer instruction.
You need to consider this when, perhaps, trying to figure out why a person may be hesitant in performing a particular kata, or stumbles this way instead of that way, or is too eager to learn too many kata instead of focusing on improving what he already knows, or is much too involved in attaining (or, in the case of a teacher, charging money and giving out) rankings.
Even as I say this, I’m actually not quite sure what kind of answers I’d get from my own little group of students. What they tell me may be markedly opposed to what I really want to know, because people learn to be good at giving “right answers” in a social environment.
“I want to learn how to better myself, to develop my health, and to learn about budo philosophy…” Yeah, sure. Then you watch them and they are all over the place, stumbling over themselves, not pushing themselves after classes to learn for themselves, and engaging in some pretty un-healthy lifestyle choices. Hmmm. There’s some cognitive dissonances going on there.
I write this because my wife, bless her heart, wants me to better organize my budo paperwork for my club. “What is your mission statement? What are you DOING?” she asked. “Why do you train?”
“Uh…because it’s…fun?” I answered.
“Not good enough,” she replied, putting down her pen and looking at me. “Why don’t you ask your students why they train?”
I do, and did, I replied. Whenever a new student joins, I ask them why they want to train.
Well…I get answers all over the map. Because they want to learn koryu: the history, the theory, the philosophy of classical martial arts. Because they enjoy the training but can’t do competitive training anymore. Because they want to learn how to twist wrists and throw people around.
She sighed. That’s not going to help. You need a concise, precise five-sentence statement.
I’ll try, I said. But really, ask five different people, and you may get five different answers or non-answers (like a shrug of the shoulders and a, “I dunno. ‘Cuz it’s fun!”). And even at that, the answers may not truly be why they train, in their heart of hearts. You often have to watch them and observe their attitudes and performance when they train to get at the heart of what their goals are.
The other reason for my musing on purposes for training is because I was just at a street celebration for Chinese New Year. As is the tradition in our Chinatown, a parade full of dignitaries, politicians, military marching units, high school bands, and assorted crowd favorites walked down the main street of the Chinatown section of Honolulu. Along with those folk were quite a number of local martial arts groups. There were Chinese martial arts/lion dance groups that livened up the festivities. And there were a lot of tenuously Chinese-y or totally non-Chinese martial arts groups walking down the street, in their training outfits and running shoes, stopping to perform mini-demonstrations midway.
All the groups looked to be McDojo types (I say this more in a descriptive way; not as a pejorative): lots of tykes and teenagers in ill-fitting outfits, lots of younger people in various stages of grunginess, as if being unshaved and without a visit to a barber in months lent more street cred toughness to them in their white, blue, black or combination of all the above plus red, white and blue colors.
I watched with some amusement (my wife dissected my gaze and said, “You’re just a snob!” to which I will admit to) and then told her that we didn’t have to stay and watch the martial arts very long. We could go find a stand that sold jai, noodles and gau to take home. The demo’s were bor-ing. Same old same old punch and kick, or some half-okole “ju-jits” moves stolen from legitimate Gracie systems.
One thing I’ll say though, I thought I understood why many of us, and many of the students I observed, took up martial arts. It was to appear (note that word, “appear”) tough. Join a dojo, wear some cool pajamas, learn a couple of killer moves, and then think you are a tough, badass assassin. Be “strong.” And you don’t have to work too hard at it, from the looks of their techniques. It’s an alluring incentive, especially for youngsters (think of how they channel themselves into being dinosaurs, monsters and wizards), and for young men and women seeking to find some self-confidence as awkward adolescents, but without trying too hard. I would hazard that even I started off in budo that way: I was tired of being beat up in schoolyards so I joined a judo club to get physically stronger and tougher.
The “Be Strong” allure is a powerful one, and I suspect that’s what brings a lot of people into budo training (and a lot of other martial arts besides Japanese budo). Attaining a sense of physical dominance is a natural impulse across cultures.
One of my students served in military intelligence, and he noted that modern combative training emphasized MMA-style grappling. When he complained to the drill instructor that they wouldn’t encounter nearly naked grappling fights on a modern-day battlefield, the instructor replied, basically, that he knew that was true, but with only a few days for hand-to-hand training in between cardio and marksmanship, at least the raw recruits would develop a SENSE of competency in hand-to-hand, even though they really weren’t going to learn much of anything. At least they’d FEEL more confident.
When my student served overseas, he analyzed captured terrorist videotapes used at their camps. Funny thing, he wrote. There’s a lot of stuff where the new recruits in those terrorist camps are being taught en masse to punch and kick, like a karate class. When was the last time you saw a terrorist attack a mall, bus or building using karate? Never, right? But the training itself lent a James Bondian sense of being a killer elite to the terrorists recruits who would probably sooner strap a bomb to themselves than attack someone with their bare fists. So it’s all about creating an imagined, if not a real, sense of physical strength.
There’s a lot of “churning” going on in those factory-style dojo, however, for various reasons. Sooner or later, a student’s self-delusion about being the next James or Jane Bond, secret agent, is dashed when he is beat too many times in a contest or tourney. Or he realizes through a fog of self-delusion that there are a whole lot of people better than he is, and he is hampered by a mess of obstacles (physical, social, mental, and congenital) along the way to being Batman, Superman, Kwai Chang Caine or the next incarnation of Bruce Lee.
When that happens, the student inevitably drops out. He learned enough to be dangerous to himself, full of inflated self-confidence. Now he can brag about being a yellow belt to his drinking buddies, but he doesn’t have to do more work to get any higher, because, hey, his hands are deadly “fists of fury.”
On the other hand, one shouldn’t diss all such beginnings to become “strong.” I was like that too. I did become physically healthier. Doing judo opened up a whole new world for me, a bookworm: that of athletics. From judo, I went on to high school football, a bit of wrestling, then aikido, karate do, and finally ending up in koryu.
In my case, I didn’t quit because what supplanted my quest to “become strong” was a quest to learn more about the whole nature of budo, and how it could become a part of my body, my mind, and my life in ways that went beyond physical brute strength, combativeness and “looking tough” to actually “being tough” mentally.
For me, I think the problem is when some people enter the martial arts seeking such outward, superficial machismo and never grow out of it, moving on to becoming seniors and even teachers without ever deepening their understanding of their own nature and that of other people. When their own physical limitations, old age, infirmities, etc., stymie them, they drop out, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.
Several of my own teachers have noted that this attitude can be a problem. There are many kinds of martial arts, they admonished me. All of them can lead up to the top of a mountain along different paths, but they all have the same goal, technically, physically, and philosophically. So don’t be so critical of other schools or their approaches if you understand that they are attempting to reach the same goal but in a different way.
On the other hand, they also noted that there ARE some paths that lose their way, that go downwards into a dark valley instead of a mountaintop, that become not a path for self-cultivation to becoming a better individual, but a dark road to selfish brutishness. And that can include any kind of martial arts, modern or classical, eclectic or traditional.
“That is the way of the Demonic World (of Buddhism),” one sensei told me. “People act like vicious, violent animals, selfish, greedy and self-centered. That is hell on earth, which comes about from ignorance about one’s true humanity.”
The goals of training, therefore, lie along those two paths: to one’s betterment (however it may be, such as physical, mental, spiritual and so on) or to the negative path of being prone to violence, pride, self-centeredness. The tools (budo training) are the same. It’s how you approach the budo and use it that makes all the difference in the world.
The teachings of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu heiho, and even one of the okuden in one of my own school of koryu is the concept of “Satsujinto, Katsujinken.” In discussions with other people with more experience, I’ve been told that the concept has several levels of understanding, from the personal to the tactical, to the political. A full discussion of all the meaning of this phrase, meaning “The Sword that Kills, the Sword that gives Life,” is beyond the scope of this short blog essay.
However, I am led to understand that one of the meaning is that the sword symbolizes one’s training in martial arts. Like a sword, martial arts by and of itself is neither inherently good or bad. It is how the practitioner uses it, and approaches it, that creates either a weapon that is used either for good or for evil, for the development of positive physical and mental virtues, or for the creation of a thug.
Why do you train? Ask yourself this. And/or ask your students this. Watch their lips move, but then observe how they train, and decipher their true motivations from how they act, not what they say. Becoming stronger is admirable. Becoming healthier, wiser, smarter, better. But beware of fostering the flip side of the coin: by becoming “stronger,” does that mean becoming meaner, crueler, stronger without compassion, powerful but more selfish? Whatever the answers, is the student looking for a Sword of Life or a Blade of Death?
I have reached a surprising (well, surprising to me, at least) benchmark in my life in that, in the martial systems and tea ceremony that I focus upon in my spare time, I have achieved a dubious distinction of becoming one of the senior members. I’m what we impolitely call an “old fart.” Lest it seems an exalted, superior position, it comes with the heavy burden of shouldering more responsibilities.
As a senior, I am in that funny moment when I’m transitioning from sempai (older student) to sensei. In some systems, I’ve been teaching for a while, but I always would shy away from having the club members call me “sensei.” Now no longer. I need to become a sensei, not just for me, but for my students.
As one of my teachers said, “Even if you know only one kata, then you can teach that one kata. It’s not the number of kata you know. It’s the quality of your instruction that counts.” Assuming that mantle also gives me the position to develop, nurture and protect my charges, to certify them and to authenticate their training, raising them up to become the next generation that will pass on the system.
It’s not a responsibility I really wanted. I just wanted to train hard. But it comes with the territory of having your own little dojo, running it your own way, and having a direct connection to your headmaster.
And sooner or later, anyone who has trained for any length of time will end up teaching. Whether it’s as a fully certified instructor, or more informally as a sempai to newer students, you are always teaching others from the moment you first learn something for your own self. It’s inevitable in a social environment.
In my professional life, I also teach, primarily digital art and photography, which is experiencing a surge of interest among youngsters. My classes are always filled, thanks to the relevance the field has in this day and age of electronic media. Prior to teaching college, I taught for some ten years at a high school, so I’ve had over 20-odd years’ worth of experience teaching.
One of the things I’ve learned is that formal teacher training is a real plus in your kit of tools, but it only prepares you for half of the reality of running a classroom or dojo. Taking courses in education gave me the theoretical framework of education philosophy, the technical essentials of lesson, course and program preparations, and the psychology of teaching and learning. But how you perform “on the ground” as sempai or sensei really depends on how you can bring out your unique positive social traits to the fore.
I’m not by choice a naturally gregarious person. As my wife observed, unlike her, I could be pretty satisfied just working in the yard, walking our dog and reading, and I seem to get enough socialization just with her and a small group of friends. So getting up in front of a classroom or in the dojo was a stretch for a reclusive guy like me. But I’ve learned to “put out,” to a point where teaching has become somewhat enjoyable.
And so, as an oldish codger, here’s my advice: the sooner some of you realize that part of your responsibility for being in a ryu is passing it on to the next generation, the better. It’s not only the role of the sensei. The sensei needs your help, if you’re a sempai. If you abrogate it and keep pushing that responsibility away, you’re forcing the teacher to shoulder all the burden, and you infantilize yourself. That’s not how real teaching and learning occurs. In a free-wheeling classroom environment (watch kindergarteners or elementary school kids), the teacher is the one-to-many center of knowledge who passes out information and controls the classroom, but there is ample room and time for kids to teach other kids. This is called peer-to-peer or collaborative learning. To shirk this and shrug, “I dunno, I’m not the sensei,” is false humility. You’re not the sensei, yes. But you may know something more than the guys who are newer than you. So you help them, like an older brother or sister helps their sibling figure out a math problem. You’re not the teacher, but you can help.
That’s not to say you lord it over your kohai (younger student) like a mini-dictator. I’ve seen too many blue and brown belts in a karate or aikido class take on airs of superiority well above their station. They’re not trying to help. They’re trying to assert their tiny little bit of snobbery because that’s all the status they think they have in their pathetic lives.
I remember donning a white belt even though I had four years’ worth of aikido training and over ten years of competitive judo (plus some karatedo), becoming one of the main uke for my sensei, when I entered a new aikido dojo. I paired up with a young, smug blue belt who needed a shave and a bath, and as I tried to refine my shiho-nage, he kept poking me in the armpit to suggest that I was open for a counter. I was trying to move slowly to refine my movement, but he kept smirking smugly and poked me as we did it to each other, me slowly trying to take apart the kata and he doing it as fast and as strong as he could to impress and intimidate me. I thought, “This guy shouldn’t be doing it this fast to a white belt. He’s not that good, and he could hurt somebody who was really a newbie.” I could handle it. But he wasn’t trying to help me by working with me. He was just immersed in his own ego gratification.
Finally, I thought I got the movement just right, and I had about enough of his poking me in the armpit, so I threw him at full speed, disbalancing him and then slamming him and bouncing him on the floor. He had his fingers all set to poke me again, but at that exact moment, my disbalancing threw him off, and then before he could recover, I had slammed him to the mats. The bulging-eyed look of fear and surprise in his eyes was priceless. He bowed out and subsequently avoided training with me for the rest of my stay at that dojo.
On the other hand, I’ve been in some really well-oiled dojo where senior students were incredibly helpful without any hint of smugness. They would be patient with me, pointing out problems, helping me to fix them, reworking my footwork. Coupled with the sensei’s direct instructions, progress in a dojo like that would always be rapid and enjoyable.
So everyone teaches, even students, in a smoothly functioning dojo or classroom. But there’s a difference between helping to teach and feeding your own ego.
HOW do you teach? Ah, there’s the rub. There are as many ways to teach as there are personalities. Given the basic format of a ryu, or the expected content of a class, how you present the material is a matter of the teacher’s personality, experiences, and also how much the teacher relies on his own teachers’ examples.
Recently, a question arose in a koryu discussion group about how different dojo teach koryu in different ways, as if, perhaps, there was only only a couple of “right” ways. I’ve been bumming around enough dojo long enough to realize that there are many, many ways, and many of them can be construed as “traditional.”
Setting aside the kinds of teaching that are just plain bad (and you definitely know when you have an awful teacher, just as college students know when they have an instructor who doesn’t know what he’s talking about and doesn’t know how to teach), there are many ways a sensei can structure a class. The structure will also depend on the kind of students he encounters, the number of students in the class, and the a priori technical abilities the student brings to the class. In a small group, you don’t have to have such regimentation in training. You work more one-on-one on particular strengths and weaknesses, going at the individuals’ own speed. In a very large group, you have to move the entire group along en masse or learning would be more chaotic. The happy spot for midsize groups is somewhere in between one-on-one and large-group production-line training.
In terms of different teaching styles, I had one teacher in iai who would observe your kata and then simply say, “That’s wrong. Do it again. And keep doing it again until you get it right,” and then he would walk away. That’s about all the instruction he would usually give, leaving it up to his sempai to teach you what, in fact, you did wrong. He was gruff and spoke very little, but he was also one of the great perfectionists among the teachers I knew, and my jai improved greatly under him and his capable sempai. I had another teacher in iai who was the exact opposite. He would elaborate on a new kata, show me the technique several times, correct me, and explain any esoteric meaning that might be attached to the kata. He would linger to watch me long enough to say, “Well, you got it more or less, but you need to do this, and that…” and then he would wander off to help another student. The two teachers taught on different nights. Together, they improved my iai incredibly fast. So there’s no right or wrong way in terms of these approaches. They both seemed to work, especially in tandem.
For the most part, however, the modern shinbudo and older koryu teachers I stuck with usually had similar attributes. They were superlative examples, technically. They could demonstrate, discuss and break down the kata. So they could show by example and also explain verbally. They could also observe and correct my own movements to get my technique right. How they structured their classes, exercises and led kata training, however, was all over the map.
The daunting task, therefore, of a teacher is to first be a good example for your students. That is why my koryu teachers, when I told them I was returning to Hawaii, encouraged me to teach. Both my iai and jujutsu sensei said, “You can’t improve much on your own. You need to have people around you. And if you teach, even if you think you don’t know much, you will be forced to think about the kata more deeply in order to truly grasp the waza, and so by teaching, you are furthering your own learning.”
I am reflecting on this aspect of training, too, because I just finished the New Year’s celebrations for my tea ceremony group. We held a large chakai (tea gathering). As usual, nobody wanted to be “first guest” at the event because that’s the highest position of honor for the guests. It goes to the person with the highest status, and the first guest is responsible for representing all the other guests assembled in the tatami mat tea room. So we spent the usual few minutes trying to sit in places other than the exalted first position, close to the host. Finally one of the tea sensei in the preparation room came out and said, “Wayne, YOU are going to sit there,” because they needed to get the chakai started. All this “enryo” (holding back out of humility) was taking too damn long.
I was, in fact, the chief operations officer for the group, so that position did hold some amount of relevant prestige and weight, but I also realized that more and more of us middle-agers have to step up to the plate. The second guest sitting next to me was retired, in her mid-80s. The other ladies after her were largely in their 70s and 80s. There was a scattering of younger teens and middle aged folk, but not enough. If we more seasoned but still relatively “young” folk always keep holding ourselves back, we run the risk of opening a huge gap between our generation and our teachers. Our sensei in tea (and in koryu) are aging before our eyes. They need help. They need the younger people to step up to the plate, not just as main guests and taking charge of hosting, but also as teachers and leaders.
So folk of my generation and younger, those of us Baby Boomers and the tail-enders, we’re seeing our teachers hitting their twilight years. We’re being encouraged (or not) to teach more, to run things more. Maybe some sensei are still afraid of letting go. They’re like parents who are having a hard time letting their children go off to college. It’s our responsibility to at least help them with things that they do let go of, because pretty soon they’re going to be gone, not in a matter of decades, but in a few years. Or even, God forbid, months. And we ourselves are in transition, heading into our own autumn years. As I look over the broad scope of decades of training in tea and koryu, I see that we’re just a link in a long chain, and even as we have to assume responsibilities, we also need to push some of the responsibilities down the line, to younger folk. To teach them not just how to train, but how to teach, because we’re not getting any younger, either.
A good teacher, therefore, especially in mid-career, is not just teaching students to be students. He/she is teaching students to become their own teachers, their own fountain of knowledge. To forever make a student dependent on you, to hold a student back, is to forever infantilize the student. It only shows the insecurity of a teacher to do so. And a student who only wishes to be spoon-fed everything, even after years of training, needs to grow up, to stumble more on his own, to pick himself up and try again, as we did, and as our own sensei did years before us.
A New Year decoration in the tokonoma of a tea room, including a woven lobster, pounded sheet of dried abalone, persimmons on a stick, pickled cherry, kep, charcoal, citrus, uncooked rice, and fern leaves, all symbolizing themes and concepts for that particular tea group.
One of the characteristics of traditional martial systems, in particular the koryu of Japan, is the emphasis on traditions. That would be almost without saying. After all, “koryu” means “old style,” so quite naturally the older martial systems retain not only martial techniques from the past, but surrounding traditions, concepts and mental concepts from the past.
Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a very big plus or a very large negative. An aficionado of very modern eclectic martial practices might look at all the surrounding traditions as useless relics of a dead past, of little practical use for modern applications. Lest I sound harsh in my depiction of such an attitude, I can understand it, if your main purpose in studying martial arts were for ringed sports competition or pure “self-defense.” It can also put a damper on enrolling new students if you told them to give up the form-hugging Spandex tights, surrounding mirrors and New Age mumbo-jumbo in lieu of the boring discipline of white keikogi and the silence of a dojo without sound system blaring out the latest Euro-techno pop music.
Most martial arts “studios” in America run somewhere in between the two extremes of strict traditionalism and Spandex and tights modernized fight club (or exercise spa). For such studios, I would like to offer a nudge in the direction of tradition. Or, at the very least, give them something to consider, which might set them apart and offer something different from every other studio that offers cardio kickboxing, kiddie ninja classes, MMA, karate and “jujitsu” classes around the clock.
For me, what attracted me to the koryu was the entire package, wrapped around tradition. I had gone through several more modern systems, such as judo, karatedo and aikido, with side trips to other systems of Japanese and Chinese origins. Technically and sportively, they all had something to offer, given their strengths and limitations. What I found, however, beguiling in the koryu were the traditions. I had developed a reasonable dexterity in athleticism in those arts, and a certain amount of knowledge conceding the “self-defense” aspects. I enjoyed the training and conditioning. Yet, what I found more compelling was the deepness of the traditions in the koryu. That’s just me, so if you still enjoy a modern shinbudo form, hey, that’s great. Whatever rocks your boat.
And, over the years, I’ve come to a relaxed conclusion that traditions can be found within oneself, if you look hard enough, and within your own respect for the lessons of the past. Within different koryu groups, too, there are different levels of adherence to tradition. By the word “tradition,” I mean not only the forms, the practice and the regime, but also the surrounding events, ceremonies and rituals.
I’ve practiced with a koryu group that really didn’t stand much on traditions outside a very, very traditional practice environment. You practice, you go home. That’s about all that was demanded of you. It was indicative, perhaps, of the attitude of the main teacher. In addition, it seems the more a koryu becomes “modernized,” forming organizations, board of directors, and governing agencies, etc., the less it becomes like a familial, clannish and coherent cadre. So idiosyncratic traditions are cast by the wayside.
It has been my very good luck, however, to have ended up in a couple of groups that have kept surrounding traditions alive. What I find is that by keeping such traditions vibrant, they help to create a sense of group unity that enhances the training and the longevity of student participation.
At this time of the year, my thoughts turn to the traditions of the Japanese New Year, celebrated in general by Japanese society and also in particular by traditional koryu dojo. Perhaps some of the traditions can be celebrated and become part of your own dojo?
In Japan, New Year’s is one of the biggest holiday festivals of the year. The end of the old and start of a new life is not just cause for celebration and partying, but also for self-reflection, family get-togethers, and treks to temples and shrines for blessings.
A koryu dojo will close its doors to allow its members time to attend to family, work and friends’ parties. The bonenkai is a characteristic of Japanese organizations. It’s usually a dinner or luncheon party where you get together, ostensibly to remember the past year and wish each other luck, prosperity and happiness for the coming year. You can have bonenkai for work, for a club, for, yes, your dojo. And why not have a bonenkai, as it will fit right into the party atmosphere anyway that we Americans have for the New Year’s?
Other traditions from Japanese culture may be more esoteric, but they can be fun, and can also lend a sense of how even modern traditions, like aikido, can be embedded as part of Japanese cultural practices that can be shared and nurtured outside of Japan.
For example, on New Year’s Eve, traditional families would visit a Buddhist temple to pray, and to wash away the ills and troubles of the old year. When I lived in Japan, friends and I visited Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto at midnight and it was as busy and crowded as a Tokyo subway. Visitors crowded the sub-temples of the sprawling religious complex to receive blessings from Buddhist priests chanting sutra. We climbed up a rickety ladder to get a chance at ringing a temple bell, the sound of the bell and our offered prayers were supposed to wash away the 108 ills of our body and mind that had accumulated over the past year. The ringing of the bells on the last night of the year is called Joya No Kane.
Early New Year’s morning meant a visit to a Shinto shrine, called Hatsumode. We went to Kamigamo shrine in northern Kyoto and then braved the crowds at Yasaka shrine in the downtown district. Again, as in our visit to Daitokuji, the crowds were as tight as sardines in a can with visitors seeking blessings for the New Year. We washed our hands and rinsed our mouths with water drawn from a spring, to symbolize purifying our inner and outer selves. (Speaking of which, I’m drawn to some similarities in practice between, of all things, Shinto, early Christian and older Jewish traditions. Certainly some of the symbolism, such as water to purify (baptize) may be universal, common denominators. But some other particular symbolisms and traditions are very odd, and very strange indeed that they are quite similar. But I digress…) Then we entered the inner shrine area and cast coins into an offering box to ring the bells and receive our blessings (again) for the New Year’s.
There are other family and folk traditions that are also observed by traditional families and institutions.
At the entrance to a house or business, a kadomatsu is placed. This is a decoration made of aodake (green bamboo, to signify resilience), matsu (pine, for evergreen, or long life), and branches of cherry (sakura; for beauty). Together, this triad creates the triad of sho-chiku-bai (pine-bamboo-cherry) that is a sign of auspiciousness of the highest order. As far as folk tradition researchers can discern, the kadomatsu arose from folk beliefs that the pine and bamboo arranged near the entranceway was meant to channel the spirit of the New Year’s spirit to enter the house and bless the household members. Different prefectures and villages in Japan had their own versions of the kadomatsu (literally, “Gate-pine”), so if you can’t make it out of green bamboo or can’t find a nice pine branch, that’s quite alright. Traditions change from era to era, geographic location to location.
In Hawaii, the early Japanese immigrants couldn’t find green bamboo or the bountiful pine of their native country. My parents’ generation therefore used the branches of the ironwood tree, since they resembled pine needles, and tied them with rope to the front porch of their wooden plantation houses. A few decades ago, a crafts education group that I was working with decided to revive the kadomatsu using the atypical three-bamboo style. Three pieces of bamboo of varying heights, cut at the top at an angle, were lashed together with rope, then Norfolk pine (imported from the US Mainland) were inserted at the base, along with noshi (cut white paper). An assembly process was developed so the kadomatsu could be sold en masse as a fundraiser for the group. It proved to be hugely successful as local Japanese Americans, and then nearly every other ethnic group and all sorts of large and small businesses, latched on to this as a fun tradition for the New Year’s, regardless of ethnicity or religious background. Pretty soon, all sorts of groups were making kadomatsu as a fundraiser, including Boy Scout troupes, private Christian schools and Christian churches. You never know where a tradition will take you.
Oddly, as the tradition grew, self-styled kadomatsu “experts” originally trained by the original crafts group, emerged, to teach people the “right” way to make a three-bamboo style kadomatsu. Friends from the group and I laugh at this development, because our own research led us to discover that there is no “right” way to make a kadomatsu; every location in Japan had their own symbolism, their own style.
So if you can’t make your kadomatsu quite like what you see in examples online, that’s quite alright. As long as you get the right symbolism, that’s quite alright. After all, the original Japanese immigrants used branches from the ironwood tree, which isn’t really a pine. That was all they had, so they altered tradition to fit their environment. You can place a kadomatsu on the side of your own dojo front entrance, if you have a permanent location. Or, if you are renting space, perhaps you can place it at the entrance or near the front kamidana at least for your first training of the New Year.
Back in my childhood, we had a large extended family, enough to have mochi-tsuki at my house. The entire Muromoto clan, its relatives, and any number of friends were invited to come to pound rice into mochi, or rice cakes, to place in ozoni soup, to offer at the altar, and to stuff with sweet bean jam as a New Year’s sweet. Wooden mallets were used by the men of the household to pound the rice in a stone-and-cement mortar, and the women would shape the hot, glutinous rice into round shapes for the mochi. Alas, those years have passed, a lot of my father’s generation have passed on, and my own cousins are far-flung all over the world, so the sheer manpower is no longer available. But families still pound mochi in Hawaii, if they can assemble enough family and friends, and if you have someone who can remember how to do it (there’s a trick to discerning when the glutinous rice is cooked long enough, and when the rice is pounded just right, and how to shape the mochi), that it can also be a tradition for the traditional dojo.
While most mochi are made into edible, palm-sized pieces, larger ones are made to be stacked, one on top of another, as an offering at the altar. This setting is called kagami mochi, or “mirror” rice cake, since the mochi are so large they resemble the old-style round Japanese mirrors; or kasane mochi (stacked rice cakes). This is an offering to the gods (or God, if you are monotheistic), although after the gods have partaken of it, one can cut the big mochi apart and use the pieces for the ozoni soup.
The kasane mochi is part of a larger decoration in the family tokonoma (alcove) or, in the case of a dojo, the kamidana. It can be as elaborate or as simple as you want that decoration to be. A citrus fruit would be placed on top of the two stacked kasane mochi, called a daidai (this is a play on dai-dai meaning “generations upon generations”). Not having this fruit, which is native to Japan, Japanese in Hawaii use a tangerine, or mikan, which is about the same size and flavor. Other decorations adorn this basic setup. For example, you can further decorate this arrangement with dried persimmons (a play on words for “joy”), woven yarn lobsters or shrimp (the bent back of the crustaceans signifying longevity), and so on. A tea sensei I know would decorate his alcove with a mound of raw rice, topped by three cut pieces of cylindrical charcoal, tied together, with a single pine branch sticking up from the middle. This signified the importance of the hearth and kitchen in the tea house. Budo dojo may, perhaps, include some wooden dogu in the decoration.
Before the old year’s end, there is the O-soji, or “Great Cleaning.” The New Year should be welcomed with a clean heart and clean room, so in dojo in Japan, great and small, members will clean up the training hall, wiping down the tatami, changing the paper screens, and so on.
The first practice of the New Year’s, after the brief New Year’s hiatus, is also a special one. It’s the first practice of the year. So it’s usually time for a kagami biraki ceremony. The term means “mirror opening.” In ancient Japan, on New Year’s Eve, the mirrors were covered over due to superstitions about it being unlucky to see one’s face at the turn of the year. You weren’t supposed to gussy yourself up, either, and were supposed to spend the time in austere quietness, praying. (Well, so much for THAT tradition, even in Japan!)
When the mirror was uncovered, it meant that the world is going back to business as usual. Hence, the kagami biraki celebrates the passage of the New Year’s and the beginning of all things, including training. For a dojo, this could mean a short ritual ceremony in front of the kamidana, and/or an embu by all the members, demonstrating their techniques to the Gods or God as a kind of supplication. Or it could mean simply “hatsugeiko,” the first training of the year, in which you perform 100 men cuts or gyakutsuki, or ukemi, as a kind of ritual cleansing act.
And food! And drink!
Along with the offering of kasane mochi at the altar, there is usually a bottle of very high quality Japanese rice wine, or sake. After the ceremony, the bottle can be opened and members can partake of the omiki (ritual rice wine) to celebrate the New Year’s. Herbs can be added to the sake, to make what is called otoso, a supposedly healthy concoction. (One year, a student tasked with the purchase of the sake picked up a sweet cherry liquor; for him, Japanese wine was Japanese wine, but be aware that there are many different kinds of “Japanese alcohol,” from sweetened liquors to shochu (what I call Japanese moonshine), to amazake, to a whole bunch of really weird, fermented drinks whose provenance I can only guess at. What you offer at the altar should be high quality Japanese rice wine.)
Over the New Year’s, besides the ozoni soup and mochi rice cakes, there are various other traditional foods served. New Year’s is a time for toshi koshi soba; “Good luck for New Year’s buckwheat noodles.” After New Year’s Eve there is a plethora of foodstuffs called, collectively osechi ryori, food that can be eaten cold, so that you don’t need to reheat them on the stove (from a tradition when New Year’s was one of the few times that the women of the household didn’t need to work and cook all the time). Many of the osechi ryori dishes are sushi style, with vinegared rice, or pickled vegetables and fish.
One of the traditions in Kyoto includes giving a kasane mochi set to your teacher, especially if the teacher is in a traditional art, such as tea ceremony, flower arrangement, or flute (and, of course, koryu budo). This was a way of thanks to the teacher, who could use it for their altar, and then consume it afterwards. This tradition probably arose from a time when white polished rice was quite rare and expensive, and so giving rice as a gift was considered very respectful of one’s teacher. Maybe rice may not be that appropriate in the West, but a small thank you note, or a gift or present to thank your teacher would be a nice tradition to start, wouldn’t you think?
These are but some of the observances of one traditional holiday of New Year’s in Japan. Many of the rituals are practiced by the koryu dojo I am attached to in Kyoto, or by my family or the tea ceremony group I belong to. Other events, rituals and ceremonies are also observed throughout the year, such as Setsubun, Dolls’ Day, Children’s Day, and so on. The private grounds surrounding the budo dojo I attend in Kyoto has several varieties of cherry trees so when they bloom in the spring, it is a beautiful sight. This has given rise to a special spring embu outside the dojo, under the cherry trees, just in time for the cherry blossom viewing season. The embu is followed by an afternoon picnic under the trees with copious amounts of liquor, much friendship, laughter and fun, and a karaoke sing-along.
Traditions, after all, are not just about serious, deadpan disciplined rituals. They are also about celebrations of shared training, of shared hardship, friendship and fun. Ritual and traditions are part of being human, to celebrate the steady passage of time, and to help give structure to an organization and the people in it.
Done with the wrong attitude and the wrong way, of course rituals and traditions can be stiff and boring, meaningless and empty. Done with heart and soul, rituals and tradition give body and depth to a traditional dojo that non-traditional, business-like, “no-nonsense” eclectic martial arts training centers can only envy but never duplicate.
A reader recently asked me to comment on how one finds the time to train. We live in a day and age, he noted, that puts a stress on how many waking hours we have to devote to training in budo. How did the great masters of the past manage to train so much? How can we devote all the time we really need when we have jobs, families, and other responsibilities?
It’s not a minor question. Surveys show that we Americans, at least, are working more hours and getting paid overall less (figuring in inflation) than a decade or two ago, and stereotypes notwithstanding, we work more productive hours than almost any other country, including the vaunted Japanese worker. All that work and then having to deal with daily family life will, indeed, put a crimp on training time. Surely, if you’re an adult with a job and a family of any sorts, you can’t be going to the dojo five nights a week to train for five or six hours. It just ain’t gonna work.
First comment: an author I admire and respect (plus, he’s my bud), Dave Lowry, addressed this issue in, I think, a past column in Black Belt magazine. So what I say is nothing new, and much of it is cribbed from his own article, since I pretty much agree with his observations.
Second: We’re not alone in our predicament. Every generation has had to struggle with figuring out how to balance training with living a realistic life.
When the earliest martial systems were founded in Japan and China, they still provided a modicum of practical application for life-and-death situations. Learning to handle a spear or sword, or grapple to the death (or for subduing criminals) were skills a hereditary warrior had to know to better survive if called upon to serve in a war or police action. So it wasn’t much of a choice between pastime or work. Learning the bugei WAS part of one’s occupation. There was no conflict of time between pastime and work.
Go down a bit more in time and, in Japan at least, there was an extended period of relative peace of the Tokugawa hegemony. But early in that period, civil war was still a relative possibility and so martial artists who were skilled at their craft could parlay their prowess into being hired by a feudal lord as part of his retinue or as an instructor. The martial arts were still practical skills that could, in fact, be utilized to save your life during the execution of your duties as a warrior.
However, if you study the records and proclamations, much of the martial ardor and pugnacity of the Sengoku bushi (Warring States samurai) faded as two centuries of peace ensued. Several Tokugawa shoguns had to write public admonitions to the samurai class to continue to practice martial arts and study strategy because as bushi, that is what their station in life was supposed to be about, never mind that the wars were over. So as the samurai became bureaucrats, administrators, teachers and lawmakers, they, too, struggled with balancing work, family and budo training. The problem of finding the time to train is nothing new. The issues are the same.
Here’s my own opinion: if you can’t commit a reasonable amount of time to your training, then perhaps your life is full as it is already and you may have to forego it, at least for the time being. The two koryu master teachers who I admired as my main teachers in Japan both said the same thing: there is a hierarchy of values, and never let your love of martial arts eclipse the other responsibilities you have, or in the end you will be left with nothing. You have to put in adequate time for family, first, because without the support of your family, your life is meaningless. Whether family is just a spouse or significant partner, or ten kids, a wife and three ex-spouses who receive alimony, you have to shoulder the responsibility you took on, and spend the time and effort with family, and extended family, to make sure the family endures, and you as an individual in that family contributes your fair share. That is what being an adult is about. You no longer take everything. Now you have to give.
Second, of course, is your job. Without a stable job and income, you really will have a hard time paying to train. You need to pay dues, room rent, buy new training gear when the old ones wear out, be able to pay for travel expenses to attend seminars and workshops,and pay for medical bills if you fall the wrong way or get hit in the head by a wayward stick. So you have to do your best at your job and to secure a decent wage for a decent days’ work.
Finally, if all the above is working relatively well, you can enjoy budo as a pastime. With a supportive family and good job, doing budo is a plus, a way to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy, a way to engage in an activity that you enjoy with others who enjoy it with you, a way to develop bonds and friendships outside of family and work. Having the mental and physical health that comes out of good budo training will add to your abilities at work and in your family and social life, but all these parts have to work together and you should never use budo training as an escape to avoid dealing with your responsibilities in the other two spheres of your life.
From my own personal experience, trying to find your own balance can be frustrating at times. I wish I could train more myself, but given my work and family responsibilities, I only have a limited amount of free time in a week. I therefore know that I am not progressing as rapidly as I could were I still in Japan, training four nights a week. But I tell myself that I was glad I was young and reckless and did that, but now I am older and have responsibilities so those days are long past. I will still grow in my skills, only slower. In the meantime, I am also progressing in my work, and my little family is growing as we live and learn and love together.
I’m not saying that you have to abandon martial arts entirely if work or family needs take precedence. I know a budo student who will sometimes get into terrible arguments with his partner because he wants to take one night out of an entire week to train. That’s not an unreasonable request, in my opinion, because training night is basically his one and only social night out “with the gang.” He doesn’t gamble, play golf, drink, or go to parties. He just works and comes home. Asking him to cut off his one and only social engagement is a bit too possessive, I would say. People need a way to blow off steam, to exercise, and to make friends outside of family and work.
On the other hand, training all the time, every day, when you have the chance to the neglect of family and work, may be fine for professional athletes and young teens with time on their hands, but it’s not a healthy goal for anyone who does have family and work. Your life will suffer, and even for young men and women, there has to be a fallback in case martial arts as a professional career doesn’t pan out as you think it would have. Find the time, I say, to stop and smell the roses. Learn about life, study philosophy, look at art, experience things outside the dojo. A greater maturity in life will lead to a greater grasp of things inside the training hall.
After all, it’s all about striking a proper balance, something even the vaunted samurai had to do when they lay down their arms and had to survive as administrators and bureaucrats, as well as martial artists.
In addition, if you find yourself an adult with only a limited time for the dojo, you should also not think that budo training ends once you step outside the doorway of the training hall. One of my sempai works as a busy executive for a large bank in Tokyo. He has a family; a wife and a child. He has to put in very long hours as one of the bank’s top mid-level executives. Gone are the days when he was a college student, training in three to four different martial arts, five to six days a week. Now he teaches two classes on the weekends when he’s free, and sometimes he has to let his senior students take over when the bank asks him to work on the weekends.
Still, he maintains a sharp edge. He’s still one of the most skillful technicians I’ve seen in my style. How does he maintain his edge? I think that he values his time so much that when he does train, he is fully engaged. He trains very hard, without wasting time, and tries to teach and practice as much as he can when he’s in the dojo. Time is a commodity too precious, he knows, to waste. I try to tell that to my students in budo and in my college computer graphics classes: life is short. You think you will live forever, but a human lifetime is short, you never know when you are going to kick off, so work hard, engage yourself in whatever you do, and pay attention. Don’t just slouch your way to oblivion and then regret that you didn’t have a fuller life in the end. Be engaged in the world, in your life.
Second, my sempai told me that he’s constantly training, even when he’s not in the dojo. How? Well, he explained, when he’s on a subway train to work, he tries to train himself to learn balance, as the train sways and shifts under his feet. When he walks through a crowd, he tries to slide through without bumping or jostling other people. He tries to be aware of his surroundings, making note of entranceways and exits, how people interact near him, how they move. He tries to always be aware of his surroundings. “That is a kind of budo training,” he said.
He also spends the time to go over the kata in his mind, as a kind of mental exercise. By imagining and repeating the kata in his mind while he is on the long subway ride to and from work, he is engaging in what many professional athletes do before a game or match; previsualization sharpens your mind, prepares it for the actual event, and hones your senses. It may not be as physically beneficial as actually doing the movements, but it does prepare your mind for the engagement.
Thus, one does need some amount of time training in a dojo. But if you consider that total “training” doesn’t stop at the dojo, you can envision parts of your life also being part of budo training, actively (like paying attention to how you walk, how you breathe, or keeping your balance in a subway train) or passively (previsualization, going over kata in your mind). In doing so, budo becomes not just a separate, disparate part of your life, only done in a dojo, but an integrated, integral aspect of your whole life, as you engage in work and family life.
(Note: I originally sent this email to my students prior to an iai practice.)
A note on training:
Lately, we’ve been focusing on basics, going over the shoden level seiza forms over and over again. There’s a reason for that. I’m still not satisfied with our basics.
In all traditional Asian combative arts, there is a strong emphasis on reaching a particular expertise in the repetition of proper form, none, perhaps, more so than in iai. Since iai proper does not have competitive matches (although lately they have instituted a kind of forms competition in some organizations in Japan) that pit one person against another, the only way to evaluate expertise in iai is through perfection of form. This emphasis has become such a fetish in iai that even some koryu folk will admit that watching iai is nearly as exciting as watching grass grow or paint dry. It is just going over a form, over and over again.
However, that is why I keep emphasizing working on basics, all of us, myself included. Proper form is really important in iai.
When you study a particular ryu, or ryuha, you are basically trying to reach an appropriate level of “form” that indicates you are in line with a certain way of doing a kata, a series of linked movements. There may be variations from one dojo to another, and one teacher to another in the same school, but there are some basic signposts that declare that you either “get it” or you don’t: Your timing, perhaps, or the way you move, handle the sword, the angle of your chiburui, or angle of the cut with the sword. This is one step beyond simply repeating the steps, or procedure. This is polishing the steps and instilling in them the particular WAY you move with the sword in hand.
When you begin to “get it,” your swordwork begins to assume an actual personality: that of your own, of course, but also that of the ryu you are performing. That balance, that tension between individual character and the characteristics of the ryu is the hardest to attain, as beginners. When you start with iai, everything may seem random and arbitrary. If you progress, however, and you observe other ryu, you should come to a realization that there are implicit reasons why you do things a certain way, and why another ryu does things a different way. You will begin to grasp the differences in timing, technique and mental kamae (posture). What many of you who have been doing it for some months need to do to break your logjam is that you have to somehow internalize the ryu’s sensibilities as your own, and subsume what your mind and body seem to want to do under the mantle of the ryu’s methods.
You may want to slouch and hunch your shoulders because all your life, that’s how you stand. Or your body wants to use your shoulder and arm strength instead of your hip muscles. You have to consciously, mentally, force yourself to make the corrections. The other part is you also have to make the connection with your own body, forcing it to move that way too when you perform the kata. Again, there may be long-standing habits in your body that you have to break.
You have to see what is being done, internalize the concept in you mind, but you then have to transmit that movement to your body. A lot can mess things up in this two-step process. Be aware of what you are seeing and doing.
Koryu study is basically this: you break down bad habits and try to institute new ones, hopefully better ones. I know, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of training, but training without thinking or self-correction is no improvement. You are simply reinforcing bad habits and making them harder to break. I think it was football coaching legend Vince Lombardi who said something like, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
What he meant was, even if you put in time and effort in training, if you are training the wrong way, you aren’t really getting any better, you’re only getting better at doing something badly.
Thus, being cognizant in training means you have to be self-aware of your mistakes and self-correct, always doing a kata and then never being happy with it, considering it from all angles, and correcting your mistakes, forever striving to approach the model of the kata demonstrated by your sempai and sensei.
Even the best teachers I know are never satisfied. Of their own kata, they would say, “Mada, mada (Not yet, not yet)” They were constantly polishing their skills. These were men and women who were superb in their arts, yet they were never satisfied. And that dissatisfaction was what, perhaps, caused them to excel as far as they did.
I don’t feel adequate in my own skills. But every time I do a kata, I try to improve it. Do I need to tip the edge one degree up or down? Am I using too much right arm in that cut or not enough left? Am I leaning too far forward? I try to remember what my teachers have told me, and work on their advice, over and over again.
Finally, going back to your mental approach: You also need the ability to self-evaluate. That means you have to see clearly whether or not you are doing things right for yourself. You need to tame your body and ego so that they do not get in the way of a truthful, honest feedback. I am reminded that the second kata of the Takeuchi-ryu kogusoku is called “Sumashi Miru (Seeing clearly).” Ono sensei once told me that not only does it describe the technique of the kata (looking right at the opponent and challenging his/her mental aggression) but it may also describe a very important heiho (martial strategy) of the ryu. You have to be able to read a situation clearly, without blinders of ego, fear and doubt. In advancing in a koryu, you have to see clearly what you need to improve and work on it every practice session.
A teacher may guide you along the way, but a teacher can’t carry you to the end. He or she is only a guide, who points the way. It’s really up to you to walk that road and get to your destination yourself. The really hard work has to be done by you, as in other aspects of your life.
While this blog is about my take on classical martial arts, permit me a story about photography which, I promise, has implications for the subject of budo.
I recently attended a lecture given by a famous professional photographer. Over the years, at computer graphics conferences, I had always made it a point to attend his lectures and workshops. I’ve been at his feet, metaphorically speaking, for some 12 years, having listened to his presentations at least five to six times, as near as I can count. To me, his technical understanding, his ability to explain his vision and his craft, are without peer. At the end of any of his talks, my notebook is full of little nuggets of knowledge: Photoshop Layer techniques over a photograph, using the Histogram, rendering to grayscale using color curves, using light and focus for composition…
As far as the art, science and craft of digital photography, I thought he was a true master. He was also funny, acerbic, witty and could ad lib jokes that kept the audience in stitches. I learned as much from him about public presentations as I did about digital photography. Yet, I thought he had flaws. Huge ones. He was certainly helpful when people had questions, and never lost his temper. But I sensed a tremendous ego. Like all artists (and, my wife says the same about me), he had a huge amount of self-centeredness, all the better in order to focus on himself and his art, I suppose. But in some ways, it made his edges seem somewhat jerky. There was a part of him that seemed an act, a theatrical performance, and not something heartfelt.
Nevertheless, I kept on attending his lectures whenever I could. He was that good.
Recently, he came to Honolulu to give a lecture and series of workshops. I encouraged one of my best photo students to go to his public lecture because I felt he would really inspire her and help her technical growth, and I had made his book mandatory reading for her. We both went to the evening lecture, got there early, and sat in the front row. I had warned her. “The guy is one of the best technical masters of digital photography, in my opinion,” I said. “But I gotta warn you. He comes off as a bit of an asshole.”
Nevertheless, when we sat down and I got a look at him as he talked with the organizers of the lecture, I sensed something different about him. After 12 years, he had aged. Yes. Physical appearances do change. He looked older, with more hair on his chin than on the top of his head. Yet, there was something else that had changed in his demeanor and whole spirit.
He strode up to the centered podium and fiddled around, making small talk with the audience before the start of the lecture. My student took the time to ask him to autograph her copy of his book. He did it with gracious good humor, and a touch of sarcasm directed only towards himself.
Then the lecture started, and I was, again, intensely scribbling notes about his technical concepts and conceptual theories, page after page. He had the same incredible range of knowledge, expanded even more over the years, he had the same jokes, easy repartee, and brimming self-confidence. Yet, there was something else I hadn’t seen before…a warmth to him? He projected image after image to demonstrate particular methods. All wonderfully shot photos, as usual. At the end, though, things changed. He offered to show a couple of slide shows of his work, with little monologue, just to show the sum total of his technical and artistic theories to date.
And then he prefaced the slide shows with a story. One of his most recent freelance jobs had been to photograph a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who had just been released from years of detention by the military junta that ruled her country. The experience humbled him. He had been used to shooting famous celebrities and movie stars, actors and fashion models. He wrote to her, citing his resume, and at first she turned him down. “I am not a movie star or model,” she wrote bluntly. It floored him. Who WOULDN’T want to be famous for fame’s sake?” he must have thought. He kept at it, sending more requests, until finally he received a tentative positive reply, and a cryptic requirement: He had to “do right.”
In the country, he saw poverty, suffering, and a nation that seemed to be facing a new burst of freedom and democracy for the first time. He encountered people with few material possessions who seemed happy and content to share their laughter and friendship with him. Then he met the laureate. He had to talk through an interpreter because, while she knew English perfectly well, the junta still ordered that she not talk directly to any foreign correspondent or photographer. So the communication on the first visit was roundabout.
Yet, he did communicate. And he asked this and that, and always said, “Please,” and “Thank you,” trying to act humble. He asked the laureate, as a “by the way,” how one would say thank you in her native language. The reply stunned him. She said, through three people, “In our language, we do not have words for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ unless you are asking or doing something that requires extraordinary effort, beyond the pale. In our everyday life, we do everything with thanks and mindfulness, so we do not need to say it. We do it.”
The words must have struck him like a bolt of lightning. He had tried to act humble, but he realized he was still acting. It dawned on him that “do right” meant that words are one thing, but actually doing actions in the right manner (as in the Buddhist Eightfold Path of “Right Action”), was different from just ACTING or talking the right way. And to do right, his mind had to think right.
The revelation churned in his head for days, perhaps months. Now, he said, he was going back to that Third World country for a follow-up shoot. But also, he was planning a photo book about the country and its people, and he didn’t know how but eventually, he wanted all the profit from the book to go towards building a school for that country’s children. Somehow, some way, he was going to do it, because he wanted to do one right thing in his life, something outside of his own life, for others. Rather than just harvesting images of other people and creating beautiful pieces that showed how good he was, he wanted his photographs to touch people’s hearts. Because, he said, isn’t that what sharing photographs should be all about?
And at the end, he used the Hawaiian word for thank you, “Mahalo,” that he was taught by my Native Hawaiian student. And it sounded like he meant it.
My student, her husband and I walked to our cars together. In the parking lot, she said she was blown away by the presentation. The photographer, she said, was “like a Zen master of photography.” In reply, I said I had never felt that level of humanity and greatness in him before. He was always a master technician and artist. But now…he was something more. By believing in something outside of his own self-centered career, he was like…a sensei.
I say this because in any endeavor, in any field, you have those before you who have technical and artistic skills. In the budo, you have teachers who may have the greatest knowledge and technical ability. Couple that with teaching ability and you have incomparable mastery of martial arts…at one level. There is more than enough that you can learn from such teachers. But there is another level, and if the budo aspire to be more than just sports in white pajamas, or redundant ways to cause harm to others, then the other level of mastery is important to note. The budo should make of us better human beings. That is the promise and mystique of Asian martial arts, but all too often, it is woefully abused, overly mystified, or debased, even in the countries of their own origins.
One of my friends thinks that martial arts don’t necessarily make people better. It just brings out people’s inner personalities, so you can more clearly see whether they’re thugs, normal people, or extraordinary human beings. I tend to think that IF the budo are pursued as a shugyo, as a discipline that encompasses physical, mental and spiritual training, they DO offer a path to inner training, but only if the budo student seeks it. But then again, there will always be people who have different opinions about everything, including life, social relationships, work and creative endeavors. For some, budo or photography are nothing more than just ways to make money, or in the case of martial arts, to better beat up other people. For others, it can be a path of humanity.
In that way, I count myself lucky to have studied under several teachers who exemplified the best traits of a budo sensei, not just technically, but in their personalities and demeanor. They will always stand out as role models for me to emulate. Were they perfect? No one is perfect. They had personality flaws and human weaknesses, but given that, warts and all, they stood out as wonderful human beings. They were the ones who put aside their egos when teaching, and helped us students out, not to show off what they knew, not for more money from dues, not for fame or fortune, but because they truly wanted to help the students get better. They thought of us. And we could tell it wasn’t faked. Their concern for others were truly genuine. Like the photographer’s tale, the best sensei don’t have to act like good teachers. They ARE good teachers.