Sometimes wanting to win too much can make you lose.
That koan-like phrase came to my mind when I was thinking back to an incident that I observed decades ago, and I wondered about its meaning ever since. Now that I’m older, maybe I understand just a bit of the significance of what the old kendo sensei was trying to say.
I had come to the multipurpose practice hall a little early for my own budo practice. There was a kendo session going on so I sat quietly and I watched the ending of the training.
I noticed one particularly fierce exchange between a “fighting” godan (fifth rank) kendoka and a kendo sensei, who was well past his 70s and pushing 80-something. The old sensei, sans kendo bogu (protective outfit), would appear like any frail old Japanese gentleman, with thick glasses, combed-back silver hair, and heavily accented English.
The opponent was middle-aged, in the prime of his physical prowess, who outweighed the older sensei by at least fifty pounds of sheer muscle. He had just reached godan based on his competitive record, hence the “fighting” godan term, denoting that he got his rank based not so much on teaching and contributions to the Way of kendo, but on a strong tournament record. He was a bear of a man, with a powerful stroke and energy to burn.
Yet, although I wasn’t all that knowledgeable about kendo, I could see that the godan was getting the worst of it. He gamely cried out with very strong kiai, charged in, and laid flurries of powerful blows, trying to hit the sensei’s covered head, body or wrists, usually to no avail. The sensei would dodge the strikes through subtle shifts of his body, changing the distancing, or with flicks of his shinai (split-bamboo sword). Every now and then, as if to dispel his own boredom, the sensei would kiai and lay a sharp rap of his shinai on the younger player’s kote (wrist) or men (head).
This kept going on for at least ten minutes, with the godan visibly getting more and more frustrated. His breath became more labored, coming out in louder, guttural pants. The old sensei maintained his composure, standing tall and unperturbed, yelling, “Come on! Orai (all right)! Try again!”
The results would always be the same. The godan would let loose a throaty kiai, charge in, rain a flurry of blows that would have laid a lesser player on his rear end or backpedaling furiously to get out of the way of the attack. The sensei would simply deflect the blows, sidestep the charge, and then kiai, rapping the godan with his shinai seemingly at will.
Finally, their practice session ended. The sensei went up to the godan and, as much as I could recollect, this is what he said, with some flourishes by me to make his Japanese-English more comprehensible.
“You know what your problem is? You want to win TOO MUCH. Maybe that’s okay for tournaments up to godan level. You are so strong, you can beat anybody up to godan. But unless you change your mind, you will be stuck at godan, because you have a sickness. The sickness in your mind is you want to win too much. You understand? You want to win so much so you cannot think of anything else. Like timing. Distance. Technique. You have to change your own mind before you can beat somebody like me.”
Every now and then, I would drag up that memory and try to figure out what that sensei meant. Now, perhaps, being a bit older, somewhat wiser and a whole lot crankier, I might be able to begin to understand his words.
Especially in a competition-oriented budo, winning is a big deal. You win to advance up the ranks, especially in the lower kyu and dan ranks. With modern budo like judo, karatedo and kendo, tournaments are a major component of establishing one’s rep, status and prowess. Yet here was a kendo hachidan (eighth dan) telling someone NOT to think so much of winning.
Up to a certain level and age, kendo (and judo and karatedo) can be a wonderful, strenuous sport, and if done right, the sportive aspect can be an excellent motivator for striving for excellence, particularly among youngsters. But at a certain level, they are budo, not JUST sports, like tennis or badminton. There’s a martial component to them. Without going into their martial applications, such modern budo have an emphasis on technical mastery as well as sportive winning and losing.
The godan, up to that point, had relied upon his sheer virility, his overpowering strength and energy, to win matches. What the sensei was saying was that those factors were fine for competition up to a certain point. But going up against kendo masters fifth dan and above, you needed much more than that, because such high-ranking kendoka had been there, seen it all, and had developed such skills in timing, distancing and reading an opponent that sheer physicality wouldn’t cut it.
Skill and mental and spiritual factors now had to become greater components in that godan’s repertoire. And to open up to learning such skills, the godan had to forego brute strength and develop a whole new set of skills…and thereby in the interim, lose a lot because he had to stop relying on what he had used in the past to win. But in the long run, he would win by losing.
So often, then, you will see those youngsters with natural athletic abilities, blasting through their opponents at will in tournaments, laying low people with rapid fire mae geri, or unstoppable men uchi, or a killer uchimata. But there’s the common phenomenon of so many of these wunderkinds reaching a plateau and then suddenly quitting, finding something else to occupy their lives, such as skateboarding, the opposite sex, or drag racing. What gives? Maybe some of them, like the kendo godan, found the winning too easy due to their robust physical gifts, but they suddenly hit a wall that they couldn’t push through. They didn’t have a gruff, tough old sensei like this one to explain to them the next step of their growth.
Wanting to “win” is not just a sickness found in modern budo. This overwhelming desire to obtain rankings and status can be found in koryu as well, in the form of dan and rank collecting, or collecting the amount of kata learned without thinking about the quality of what you already know. They are all “sicknesses” of wanting to attain something quantitatively, rather than qualitatively.
My own iai teacher used to tell me, before he passed away, to not be too mindful of how many kata I knew. “Just perfect the ones you do know so that when I pass on, if any other sensei sees your technique, you can show quality, not quantity,” he said. And, in fact, he advised me that of the many kata I had already learned, he believed that I should focus on just five different kata from the different levels. “Get those five right, and any other kata you know or later learn will be easy,” he said.
Even in the Takeuchi-ryu kobudo, my sensei said that if I were to perfect even just one out of the over 400-odd kata of the system, then the ryu would survive in me in Hawaii. “It’s not how much you know,” he said. “It’s the quality of your spirit, and the quality of your technique.”
The more I learn, in fact, the more I realize my Takeuchi-ryu sensei was right. There’s a myriad of forms in the ryu. Even my sensei has to bring a stack of notebooks to his classes to keep track of the different weaponry and kata involved. But at their root, all the kata rely on a particular set of basic body movements, concepts and theories that cut across all of them. Get those basics right and you will be fine in whatever new ones you learn. Never get a good grounding in the basics and you will never look like you’re doing Takeuchi-ryu, no matter how many kata you know.
So that is the “winning sickness.” But there’s a corollary to that attitude. There’s “true” winning; being able to absorb what your teacher is saying and then foregoing winning trophies or rankings for the sake of long-term mastery of the true meaning of one’s budo system.
The gruff old kendo sensei also trained another acquaintance of mine. He, like the fighting godan, rose up quickly through the ranks to become the youngest kendo godan in the state. As my friend noted (and I will admit to paraphrasing and adding in some extra words because my memory is fuzzy):
..The last time I trained with him was kind of odd. I had won several tournaments and so on, but I thought I still needed to learn more from F-sensei. He had some techniques from his family’s koryu kenjutsu style that he would use against me. After a while, I finally figured out what he was doing by watching him a lot, but I still couldn’t do it right. I knew what they were, though. I just needed to work on them. Then I got godan. And then one day, I was training with F-sensei and out of nowhere, his technique came out of my own body, I slipped aside when he attacked and I hit him on the kote without even thinking about what I was doing.
F-sensei told me right after that practice, “Okay. Now you are godan. And now you know everything I wanted to teach you and you just have to think about it and improve it. So I have nothing more to teach you. You go off and learn some more on your own. That’s how you are going to improve from now on. You don’t need me.” I protested and said I had to learn more, and he said, “No! You cannot depend on me forever!”
That was kind of strange, but you know what, he was right. F-sensei forced me to think for myself. When he died a few years later, I’m not sure if I was the only student he pushed away, but I felt that he had given me everything he knew without holding back. That’s why he sent me away. He wanted me to perfect my form and think for myself.
Absorbing your sensei’s teachings into your own body and mind. Then thinking for yourself. That was true winning, according to that sensei.