89. Kuzure: “Breaking” the Kata

If my martial arts readers will forgive me again, I will venture into the world of tea (chanoyu) to draw out a concept that might apply to how we understand budo, especially the koryu, or classical systems. I do not doubt, however, that there may be ample food for thought for the “modern” budo practitioner who practices in a more traditional manner.

I just spent an extended weekend in a workshop, observing training under a master instructor from Kyoto, Japan. He was, to me, unusual in that he prodded and questioned students not only on HOW they were doing their tea temae (sort of like martial arts “kata” forms) but WHY. Why are you doing this movement? Is there a historical meaning to this action that goes back to Sen No Rikyu, the founder of wabi-style tea? What is the meaning of rubbing your fingers that way before you reach for a tea container? Why not do it some other way?

The teacher did his questioning in a gentle, pedagogically inquisitive manner, seeking to draw out ideas and theories from the students themselves before he would chime in. That way, he forced the students to think for themselves.

The word for “master instructor” in our tea school is gyotei. The sensei remarked, “I think of myself less like a gyotei than a kyoshi (a term meaning “teacher” used for college professors), for various reasons. I think because I entered training in my 30s, unusually late for a gyotei, I may have a different perspective of myself and how I want to teach. I want YOU to learn to think for yourself…”

Well, anyway, on the last day of instruction, we went over the upper level temae reserved for only higher-ranked students. These temae are categorized, somewhat, like the three levels of Japanese calligraphy, as in kaisho, gyosho, and sosho. There are shin (kai-) level temae, gyo level and so level. The three terms respectively refer to the way the temae is done, reflective of the levels of calligraphy. In shin temae and kaisho, the form is very strict, angled and linear. The aim in calligraphy is to repeat a standard form as perfectly as possible. Gyosho breaks the form up and is considered “semi-cursive” in Western terms. Sosho is “grass-writing,” i.e., very loose and free.

In tea, shin level temae are the longest, most complex, most formal temae. They are probably the oldest, developed by Sen No Rikyu himself, based on long-lost Chinese and Japanese roots hundreds of years in the past. The utensils are primarily Chinese in origin and of museum-quality vintage and provenance, although in regular practice they are usually cheaper modern replicas. Gyo level temae introduces shorter temae based on variations of the shin level, and so level temae are comparatively shorter and more “free,” in a manner of speaking. The so level temae also introduces more humble, Japanese-made implements, such as a table made of unvarnished wood and bamboo in lieu of a black lacquered stand for shin.

The demarcation is quite closely aligned with calligraphy writing styles.

Shin level temae, therefore, is considered the epitome of the formal art of tea.

Now, several writers on Japanese martial arts have already noticed the implications of this categorization of writing styles on the Japanese concept of teaching forms. Kata interpretation, therefore, can be thought of as “shin” (following the kata as precisely as possible, attempting to mimic some model of behavior and movement); “gyo” (loosening up and rounding out the movements a bit in terms of varying the timing, attack points, etc., but still making the movements quite familiar to anyone familiar with the forms); and “so,” interpreting the kata in a highly individualistic manner, rendering it almost incomprehensible to a layperson who doesn’t have the necessary background to understand what’s going on.

In that way, writers much better than I have always noted that it’s necessary to learn the proper, “stiff” form first (kaisho) before one is able to interpret it properly for oneself. Without proper grounding in a standardized form, you just end up with a total mess, like so much of what we see from self-taught youthful martial arts “masters” on YouTube, who are usually in need of a lot more maturity and a decent hair cut.

But here’s a couple more notions to chew on, inspired by what the tea sensei said, which perked my ears. Think of these concepts relative to how you think about kata.

Many students think the pinnacle of learning all the temae in tea is learning the shin level temae, the sensei said. In a way, that’s true. But consider the gyo and so forms. Another name for so temae, he noted, is “kuzure.” That means, literally, “busted up; torn apart; taken apart.” Kuzure is also pronounced “ran,” as in the Akira Kurosawa movie translated as “conflagration,” i.e., things are just confused and gone to hell. That is, so level temae is taking apart the shin level movements and putting it back together again in what can appear to be a random manner. It may seem simpler and more informal, like sosho script, but like sosho, it is actually harder to do.

Someone writing sosho without the requisite years of discipline gained from practicing kaisho is just going to make stuff that looks like chicken scratch, with no spirit or contained and directed, but free-flowing, energy. Someone doing so level temae without understanding shin level temae will not understand the balance between tight formality and looser, freer movements. It’s like someone trying to literally imitate the movements of the elder Ueshiba Morihei (the founder of aikido) without undergoing similar years of training in the basics. It just looks like a mess.

So level, therefore, is actually harder to do because you have to know Shin level properly first.

But more: the implication the sensei said was startling. There’s a whole different way of looking at the pedagogy of learning in a classical Japanese art or koryu.

We all think that the basics, or kihon, is where we start and then we progress upwards in a linear fashion, towards more and more complex and granulated methods, until we reach the “advanced” kata, the okuden or oku-iri, or whatever it is called in one’s school.

Then, of course, when we learn the whole curriculum, we go back to the basics to refine the individual parts and move back up the ladder, in a revolving manner, perfecting our foundations and therefore making the whole of our temae stronger and more precise.

That is how we learn, but when you think about it, the founders of the koryu actually founded their arts in a totally different manner. They created their systems based on only a few principles, manifested in only a few kata. The Takeuchi-ryu, for example, has hundreds of kata for many different weapons and situations. But the legend has it that its founder learned only five short sword techniques, a couple of rope-binding methods, and one cryptic message from a mystical yamabushi (“mountain ascetic”). The Shinto Muso-ryu Jo was founded when Muso Gonnosuke received a flash of inspiration after days of training in a remote shrine, and it was a one-sentence, highly cryptic oral transmission.

This is not to say that they “made stuff up” (if you discount the mystical connotations). All the founders were warriors, from warrior families, who had decades of training before they realized a new way to organize prior methodologies. But they all encapsulated what their inspiration was in relatively few kata.

For these early koryu, the techniques began with the okuden, the highest level kata. But because that would be like jumping from zero to sixty miles an hour for most students, the founders and their descendants added more kata: the shoden (beginning level) and chuuden (middle level).

One of the stereotypes foisted on the koryu is that their pedagogy is confused and archaic compared to Western style educational theory. But already, early on, the shoden-chuuden-okuden methodology showed a progression of complexity that took a rank beginner at a certain level and systematically trained him for further and further complexity. You usually weren’t taught the most complex methods first. You were gradually “broken in.”

In addition, while the kata may not change all that much, training methodologies do historically change. There is ample documentation, for example, that Shimizu Takaji, a master instructor of the Shinto Muso-ryu jo, created the kihon (basics) for the ryu when he was invited to Tokyo to teach modern budoka and law enforcement. He realized that in the middle of the 20th Century, these non-samurai students had no inherent abilities to hold a sword or staff naturally, compared to bushi in premodern Japan, who were given a sword to wield as soon as they could walk. So he created the kihon to help teach students how to wield a sword or staff, and how to execute single movements.

We think, therefore, of a pyramid of learning, in which the wide base is the basics at the bottom, and as we progress, we learn more and more about less and less until we learn the few and precious okuden at the very tip of the pyramid. But consider the point of view of the founders. Their pyramids are inverted. They knew only a few kata and general theories upon which they could encompass their whole universe of attack-reactions naturally and spontaneously. The fewer, in fact, the better so as to have less confusion of what to do in the heat of actual combat. From that point of view, the few methods radiate outwards, as variations upon variations of kata.

In reversing one’s point of view, then, the okuden (or the shin level temae in tea) become the real kihon! By eventually learning these kata, you see how they are manifested in all the lower level kata, only broken up (kuzure) and/or recombined to show the students the variations that are possible given the “key” to movements from the okuden.

But why not therefore teach the okuden first? The problem with that is that usually the student is unprepared to run because he can’t walk, much less crawl yet. The okuden are usually few and concise. But to do the movements just right requires a body and mind capable of capturing the founder’s concepts perfectly, and most of us are not at that level to begin with. So we learn the various “lower” kata first, before we progress to the okuden.

I do not doubt that students who were bushi some four hundred years ago or more were able to receive mastery licenses much faster. Part of it was that perhaps ryuha had fewer kata per my conjecture. But in addition the bushi were, after all, trained in warriorship from a very early age. They had better a priori training. Plus, they had a life-or-death motivation. If they were bad at martial arts, they could literally die on a battlefield. For most of us living in an urban, modern society, we don’t face such motivations on a day to day basis. We don’t need to master combative arts in order to survive. Doing koryu will not win a bigger stipend from a lord, or win fame, notoriety or a reality show contract. Some of us, through natural athletic ability and/or personal motivation, advance rapidly. Many only go so far because their motivations are less deeply felt and are more superficial and fleeting, or because of our sedentary lifestyle, aren’t as naturally physically gifted. So it goes. Time changes. Perhaps we do need more basic kata because our bodies have a harder time “grafting” the logic of a ryu to our inner core movements.

I noted in an earlier blog that another tea saying by Rikyu was that one’s progress in learning is like going from one to ten, but when you reach ten, you go back to one. In other words, you always return back to the basics after you think you have mastered everything, and then work your way back up again, over and over, as a way of refining and polishing your skills.

The other implication of this saying, therefore, is that when you learn the advanced kata, you actually learn the “basics” of the ryu in terms that they are the actual theoretical foundations upon which the ryu was built. When you go back to the “basic” kata, you will therefore see them with new eyes, and your movements will, in some way, be different. You will see this circular training methodology as a “virtuous cycle” in which all your techniques become further and further refined.

But for those who are advanced enough to have been given a glimpse of the “advanced” kata. Think of this: they may be the “basics.” It opens up a whole different way to look at one’s art.


44 thoughts on “89. Kuzure: “Breaking” the Kata

  1. Well said. And at least for me and many others starting in our dojo “Braking Kata” was difficult at first to comprehend, as it seemed paradoxical, au contraire to our logical thinking and reasoning. But, realized overtime, how valuable and important that cyclic-tier structure is, including the deep appreciation for Japanese aesthetics that comes from it. Thank you Wayne for another great post.

  2. I also would like to add, the appreciation of Japanese aesthetics that exist and are traditionally upheld in Budo. And in this sense, there is no difference between Chado, Sado, and Chanoyu, or simply Ocha and Budo. When I first was told about tea ceremony, from a Japanese woman in here 80s who possibly was a teacher basically said, tea ceremony was used by the samurai to resolve marital tensions between them and their wives. Historically accurate or not, I don’t know. But, what it did for me was to sum up the essence behind tea and the importance it had. Her choice of explanation may have been tailored to me for my benefit- it is a possibility. I don’t think I ever got a denotative definition or straight answer from anyone of her generation, as it always seemed to be a teachable zen moment, a muse moment.

  3. Thanks for a very thought provoking blog! I think with any traditional japanese art, you have a collection of techniques and then you have the ryu’s particular “spirit”/weltanschauung (I love that word!)

    One memory of this sticks out for me. While in Japan, I used to attend a yearly honno embu at my town shrine. There was a particular group of shinto muso ryu practicioners who demoed every year, so i saw the head guy and his assistant demo over a fairly extended period of time. The head guy always exerted a particularly strong type of zanzhin: It was expressed in his posture/gaze and was apparent throughout every technique.

    One year, the head guy did not appear, so his assistant led the demo. He exhibited exactly the same “thing”/zanshin that his teacher had. It was a very strange thing to look at the demo: it was like seeing the same person upon the stage, but they weren’t the same person!

    Anyway, if you don’t understand the spirit of your school/style, you only have a collection of techniques. Accessing this Spirit is done by “unfolding” that which is inherent in the root techniques, and mastery/freedom is attained by maintaing and expressing this spirit in all the techniques of the school. Does this make sense?

  4. In that teachable moment, which revealed a new layer of meaning relating to budo practice with each year crystalizing the importance of the mood of the dojo. As Oisin points out and Wayne flags is the mood or spirit of the dojo. That too works on the same structure Wayne discusses. My sensei stressed the importance of dojo mood and the value of the correct training spirit. He hailed the importance of basics/ a good foundation. For example, he would say in broken English “polish…polish… 10,000 times” referring to practice. It really hit me one day concerning the spirit of my sensei. My sensei said something very profound about spirit one day. It was so profound, it was the reason why I try to follow him. The occasion was at a dinner with my sensei, myself and two twenty-something Korean female friends of mine.

    The two women had graduated from grad school, and we where discussing their achievements and it was the first occasion my sensei had met the women. During the conversation my sensei said seemingly out of nowhere in the middle of the conversation, saying firmly the women’s parents built the stage they play on. The message was on target, it effected all of us in different ways. As irrelevant as it seemed, my sensei had a good reason for saying what he did. He took advantage of a teachable moment . It was a profound lesson that was directed to all of us, I am truly appreciative. For me, it was about the sensei and student relationship;. the sensei traditionally being a father-like figure. It caused a satori effect upon me as his student. Years later, I have recognized that all good sensei’s are on the exact same sheet of music. They all march to the same tune. They all have the same spirit.

  5. The next day we trained, my sensei’s presences on the mat had changed, because I looked at him differently. I looked at practice differently, as a result of the analogy he use during the teaching moment. I understood the importance of the spirit or mood of the dojo. And with each year I train, I go though the same process as Wayne discusses on an interpersonal level unfolding new deeper meaning and yet returning to the basic understanding of the analogy he gave. Understanding that there is no separation of the basics and advance techniques in my internal practice as well as my internal practice. With each year I have a deeper gratefulness and appreciation for mine and all the ancestral senseis, and their spirit, who built the stage that I play on. It is my obligation to try and follow this spirit, one I must take.

  6. I just wanted to thank you, Wayne, for such thought provoking posts. The ideas and thoughts that you publish on your blog has caused a much deeper wish to understand my practice than solely stepping on the mats could do.

    I have found that every teacher has a different understanding and a different teaching style that you can only get by understanding the basics inside and out. Also, every student has a different understanding and feel even though they may have been taught the same way by the same Sensei. This post seems to underscore that for me. In September I was lucky enough to see Saotome Sensei during a seminar and he said something along the lines of “There is no ‘style’ of Aikido. Aikido is you.” Or something along those lines. At the time I understood it as “be true to yourself and your aikido will be true” but that is only half of it. You must have the basics before you can move to the so-level, as quoted in you post.

    Once again, I just wanted to thank you for your blog posts and the deeper thought that it inspires.

    1. Hi Chad. This may come across as contentious, but I don’t mean it to be. I have also praticed Aikido for a number of years. There is a difference that is very hard to explain. . Wayne’s blogs are excellent attempts at it.
      Actually, I believe that Aikido, as it is widely practiced anyway, is the opposite of the training methodology mentioned in the preceding examples. The way I see it, Aikido are a number of techniques in search of a unifying principle. That principle is supplied by the practicioner. Hence the reference to Saotome’s Aikido etc.
      the aikikai shihan, Hiroshi Tada, has stated that when he dies, his aikido will die with him. So, you take the skeleton of the techniques, and you flesh it out according to your own abilities, experiences and inclinations to make it your own.

      It’s analogous to the (post)modern, romantic coneption of art, where what is created is a unique expression of the creator’s personality. Another example I can think of is the stanislavsky “method” of acting, where the actor creates the character from their personal experiences and emotions. So Dustin Hoffman IS The Lettuce. Robert De Niro IS Jake la Motta etc.

      Traditonal Japanese arts, in contrast, have a set methodology of psycho-physical organisation that define the essence of the “Ryu” The examplar of Ono ha itto ryu swordsmanship, for example, should manifest a certain quality of movement, a certain attitude, almost a certain type of personality/thing, that is unique to that Ryu. There is a set thing, a set methodology etc. to be manifested that is simply not up for debate. As a practicioner, the entity that is “You” is irrelevant to to Ryu, unless “You” happen to have certain qualities congruent to qulities manifested in the Ryu. Other qualities that you may have (even if they are extremely postive and attractive) are irrelevant to learning the ryu. In fact, “you” will almost certainly have to face up to aspects of of yourself (body habits, emotional reactions etc) that will have to be supressed or changed if the essence of the ryu is to be fully manifested within you. And until the essence if fully manifested within you, all you have is a collection of techniques that “you” (wonderful as you are) are doing.
      And they will die with you.

      This is not a criticism of aikido or most other modern martial arts. In fact, this allowing for the expression of one’s individuality is probably responsible for Aikido’s widepread success. And being part of a Ryu doesn’t guarantee that you will understand or change to become the Ryu. It is incredibly hard to do. It is almost the polar opposite of values that we in the West are inculculated with. Even more so in the case of martial arts. Martial arts and sports are meant to PROTECT (i.e boost) ourselves right? That means bolstering our “confidence” our sense of ourselves.

      An interesting debate would be: could Aikido be taught along these lines (and I think there are some people moving in this direction) and, if so, Should it be taught this way?

      Anyway, that’s how I see it.

      1. I don’t find it contentious at all. And I appreciate the insight.

        I agree that traditional Japanese arts have a certain “personality” or “soul” that aikido doesn’t quite touch. It has an overlying “flavour”, if you will. Aikido’s “flavour” is very dependent on the individual practitioner. I also agree that no one will ever have the same aikido “style” as someone else. You do take the skeleton and flesh it out according to your understanding, experiences, etc. But you have to have the skeleton before you can flesh it out. You need to have the basics before you can make the art your own. That’s also what I took from Wayne’s post. You need to have the basics of calligraphy before you can move on to a more loose and free flowing level of the art.

    2. Most of us go through this process and have these types of questions if we hang in there long enough. I think it is a sign of understanding what you are doing, as we progress past the mimicking, and adhesive practice (which is all and good) stage of our learning. We often want to identify things, note variations, something we do when we start learning to help us understand what it is we are to do. It takes time and practice to let those training wheels go. When we realize through practice that our martial arts activity is a living dynamic activity based on flexibility. And the initial learning structure that was rigidity was set in place as framework for learning. This is not addressing the philosophy of koryu arts, in general, who preserve their ryu techniques, not allowing creativity in performance of techniques. Changes to the art if any are done at to the art are done only by the school’s head master instructor.

      What I am saying is no one can do anything, especially martial arts, identical to anyone else unless it is Karate or like arts. I can’t imagine if it is even possible with Aikido to execute a technique identically to someone else. Trying to do so will just be years of frustration. Sure there are people like Joe Thambu who when performing a technique resembles Gozo Shioda pretty nicely. Closer examination will show it is not identical.

      The importance of learning basics as a new student where the framework is strong and ridge, where mimicking and adhesion of practice creates a scrutiny. Then if you practice long enough that falls away and you pass though the stages Wayne described with calligraphy, being more freeform approach, understanding how you body best does the technique with the basic structure. Then you return to the basics with a different eye, less critical of details and having a more broader scope and outlook. This interpretation is then personalize, just like in how we learn and master calligraphy. I feel Wayne did a pretty good job writing about this process.

  7. A difficulty with the “bottom of the ladder” and “starting back at 0” analogies is that they don’t really map to the lesson of shin-gyo-so. They don’t acknowledge the work that has taken place and meshes with the reiterated lessons. Once you’ve covered that ground, you can’t start at the beginning *again*, because you’re not the same beginner. You might be starting at the bottom of another ladder, but it’s certainly not the same ladder.

    The analogy I came up with is that of a spiral staircase. You keep covering the same area on the ground, but at each pass you’re at a higher level. (Of course, sometimes it feels more like an auger than an ascending staircase*, and sometimes it feels Escheresque.)

    You could also make a parallel to painting. In this way, shoden is underpainting. If you get the underpainting wrong, you just can’t make the finished piece right. Even though it may not be directly visible in the finished piece, you cannot lay it down carelessly. You can go back, though, and change decisions made in the underpainting — wipe or scrape off, underpaint more.

    As we cycle through this process over and over again, we become more steeped in the nature of the ryu. When we break apart the techniques and reassemble them in our own understanding, it is an understanding based in the principles of the ryu. It’s the same with anything that’s worthwhile to learn, isn’t it?


    *(And yes, I’ve heard all possible augur/auger puns . . . )

    1. Beth, in a word, yes. And I’ve been also thinking about other things related to the pedagogy of teaching and learning in a physical/spatial/time related context, plus with koryu you have the cultural overlay, and then throw in the supposed mental and conceptual learning…Some people, as Meik says, “get it” rather easily. A lot of people, even in Japan, don’t, for some reason. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, trying to figure out why this is so. Part of it may be that some people don’t get the concept of constant polishing. They reach a certain level of ability (one foot forward, other one back, turn and cut…) but are satisfied with that, not “seeing” how to refine the distance, timing, etc. much for years on end. A subject for another discussion, surely…

      1. Those are interesting points, Wayne. I wonder how the difference between androgogy and pedagogy relate to this, because I see koryu generally being more androgogical and gendai arts being more pedagogical (gendai arts being more defined in the way people will move through a curriculum, testing for X belt after X amount of time in training, etc.)

        Then there’s the role of personality. Some people will “settle” — they’re satisfied with achieving a certain level of skill, but do not feel the drive to go on. Some, though, will chase down ever-finer details. They never say “good enough,” without a trailing “for now.” But as you say, another discussion altogether.

        I’m currently wondering about the tendency I see in some arts to attempt to pin down and define all possibilities inherent in a particular kata as a kaewaza. For instance, if the stock kata is a 45 degree turn, then a 60 degree turn is a kaewaza. If stock says shomen, then yokomen is kaewaza — another, related shin waza, rather than a natural adaptation to circumstances. That seems to me to be a discussion that’s been developmentally delayed at shin, when it would be more fruitful at gyo. What do you think?


      2. Beth, I think you clarified a point that I was probably crawling towards, without pinning it down; that of the different POVs of the teacher and the student with regards to content learning. The teacher, who has internalized the content, will naturally look at it differently from a student, who has to climb up the ladder to grasp the whole “gestalt” of the art. The dichotomy is something I always try to be aware of in my “regular” day job. What I expect may not necessarily be what students are initially capable of. And not only in teaching koryu, but in many other educational environments, I think the hardest thing is to prod students to move from rote learners to engaged thinkers…whether it’s koryu, gendai budo, history, literature, computer graphics. If the brain is a mental muscle, I think the hardest thing is getting a large number of students off their cerebral duffs and exercising their brains! So perhaps the one big difference is the teacher knows where he wants the student to go towards, and the student needs to grasp the goal and head towards it actively. Too many students sit back and expect knowledge to somehow flow into their heads like water, without any effort on their part. But I begin to grouse…

  8. Constant polishing people don’t get it- I am one of those people. But I get it. Budo is practicing constantly for a game you will never play. Just for meditation benefits.

  9. What if we are over analyzing this too much? What if we are over thinking it. Polishing is about determination, dedication, willingness not to settle, to refine skill and keep refining. That there is not a terminated end to budo skill.

    The Lost Connection

    Maybe this connection isn’t being made, the Budo and swordmaking, both have very similar processes, a connection not everyone can make.

    What then makes a good swordsmith becames legendary? The answer is a superior swordsmith. In feudal Japan, swordsmiths reputations where mythical, their work struck fear into the hearts of samurai and Shogun, and wanted by all. Why? Because of their willingness to start with each sword and their skill from zero. The famous Masamune Sengoworked tirelessly and endlessly to gain the flawless skill to make the perfect sword. So much so he became crazy and forged that spirit of crazy into his blades making his blades and himself legendary. He was constantly refining the fabrication of his weapons starting each blade from zero, made the same way, in the same repetitive process. With each sword, like his contemporaries, he gained new knowledge, skill and expertise never abandoning the same patterned process. The idea to kept refining the same process of sword making lead to expertise. So, Muramasa Sengo, a madman, an exacting perfectionist demanding perfection seen value in the refinement process.

    The term to “polish” technique does come from the dedicated process of swordmaking, because of swordsmiths such as Muramasa Sengo, and a few others. That connection is lost, and has been lost for centuries in Budo, both in Japan and abroad.

    Not Everything Can Be Taught

    Being able to see it, isn’t something I think is teachable. It is a realization and a drive that comes from within an individual who is willing to go the extra mile and make those sacrifices. These are the same qualities that make anyone great, or ahead of others. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Part of teaching is understanding learning, understanding what is teachable and what isn’t.

    I remember watching a newscast interview on TV about a local high school coach talking about his very talented and exceptional star athlete who was doing amazing things on the field. The coach said, he could only teach so much to his player, and what he couldn’t teach is his player’s hunger and drive to win. He said, what made this player bound for stardom was the player was constantly working on his skills at all levels harder and longer than anyone else on the team. The coach continued to praise his star player because he worked equally hard on the same basic fundamental drills, where the other players see no value in. The coach ended the interview by saying players either have it or they don’t. There is no way to teach that kind of motivation, disciple or dedication.

    So, here is this athlete understanding what he must do, like the great swordsmiths, is polish his skill endlessly become to great. That the idea of “braking kata” is part of the process where with each new sword or athletic skill you break the paradigm and start at zero, retaining knowledge and skill every time it happens, producing a better result each time and seeing the value. The mind set of understanding the that value, is something you can’t teach. Instead, it is something either someone understands and exploits it, or they don’t. This is why only a few make it to the top.

    1. And if you have no real talent and you work longer and harder than everyone yet never become even OK let alone great? The coach labels you a dud and you get to spend your athletic career on the bench ie as a failure. So much for the value of polishing!

      1. Andrew,
        That is, I think, one of the problems of competitive sports. In the striving for excellence, there are winners and losers. And too often, the losers are cast aside.Even in competitive martial arts, if you’re not a “winner,” you are pretty much cannon fodder in some dojo. It’s less so in dojo that embrace the idea that training is a lifelong endeavor, for everyone regardless of physical skill, as long as they have the proper attitude. So in the case of koryu, the value of “polishing” is still very, very appropriate, I would argue. I consider myself a mediocre athlete because I would never reach world class levels in sports budo, but I managed to go through about 45 years of really enjoyable training nonetheless as I segued to koryu budo, where winning a contest is not even a consideration.

      2. Wayne,
        Even senior koryu budo teachers treat those that they deem to have talent and/or high potential in the art “better” than those people they deem to have no talent, irrespective of attitude. I’ve seen many Sensei leave highly motivated people who have the “right” attitude in the corner of the dojo for an entire seminar while they taught “interesting” things to others whom I guess they deemed worthy.

        In my opinion koryu budo should be more competitive than sport can be – “can I wait just a little longer”, “can I do the technique with less effort than before”, “can my ability really make up for a disparity in size”… – and not something one does because one can’t win at sports.

      3. Andrew,

        You must have seen some really crappy koryu teachers, is all I can say.

        On a less facetious note, might I respectfully ask what you mean by the last paragraph. Do you think koryu should have more competition in some manner or do you think koryu is for people who “can’t win at sports”? Or do you think it can in its own way be more “competitive” than sports budo? Please clarify. I’m kind of mystified at your statements.

      4. Wayne

        You write as though favoritism by a Sensei is not a given. They are human and its a common enough occurance.

        What’s the relationship between uchidachi and shidachi if not a competitive one?

      5. Thanks for this interesting discussion!

        Jon: “The mind set of understanding the that value, is something you can’t teach. Instead, it is something either someone understands and exploits it, or they don’t. This is why only a few make it to the top.”

        Andrew: “And if you have no real talent and you work longer and harder than everyone yet never become even OK let alone great? The coach labels you a dud and you get to spend your athletic career on the bench ie as a failure. So much for the value of polishing!”

        I agree with the second.

        The “you have it or you don’t” (implying: “and I do, btw”?) seems too easy and also restricting.
        Yes, there is a limit of things that can be “learned” by “things being stuffed into” the student.
        I agree to making a distinction between “learning” and “working it out”.
        Can you as a teacher bring your students to the point where they can work out the problem for themselves?

        Some have it, some don’t – meaning only a few of your students will be able to work it out?
        I believe that a very large percentage of us starts out with the right skills but many of us lose them along the way.
        The role of the teacher/guide would then be to provide the right place & circumstances for the student to gradually rediscover these skills. He has to ask the right questions, pose the right problems that guide the student on the path of discovery.

        –Aina Opiskelijat

      6. Aina, your depiction of a teacher as a guide is a very nice one, and I sometimes tell my students (in both computer graphics and budo) that that is my role. I do not give them anything except a finger pointing to where they have to go. They have to make the effort themselves to attain mastery. The role of a teacher and student is 50/50, I tell them.

      7. Aina, it isn’t a matter if you “get it or not” it is a matter of are you willing. Like Wayne said, it is a 50/50 relationship. It is also something I go into more depth in Wayne’s Blog #93.

        I was not the best student in the bunch, meaning I was a slow learner. Things didn’t come to me quickly, I worked everything else out while most other students where “getting it” and moving on. In my training struggles a peer of my Sensei was watching the class and noticed me never giving up, working really hard being dedicated, doing my best. After class he pulled me to the side and commended me for my austere training effort, enduring the repeated unbearable failures, my determination and preserving for so many years. He said, the proficiency of waza was not as valuable as proper spirit.

        For those who debate what a sensei is or isn’t please be careful to note what he says beautifully here about one element describing the authentic role of Japanese, “…a teacher as a guide … and I sometimes tell my students (in both computer graphics and budo) that that is my role. I do not give them anything except a finger pointing to where they have to go. They have to make the effort themselves to attain mastery. The role of a teacher and student is 50/50, I tell them.

        This is what I was told, taught and was taught under, from a traditional Japanese koryu sensei.

      8. Wayne, ideally: yes. The problem as always is the discrepancy between reality and ideal.

        With individuals it can’t be always 50/50. (I strongly belief in individual “teaching”.)
        There will be some with whom the teacher has less to do then 50% – the “talented” ones.
        Then there are some students who have a big package to get rid of first. They might need more from a teacher then just a finger pointed somewhere.
        To stay with your example of the room, where you show one corner: Maybe you also have to turn on the light, remove the student’s sunglasses and in some cases even turn him around so that he sees that there is more in the room than the one corner he is facing.

        Yes, in an ideal world we would only have students that are dedicated, attentive and curious.
        But what do we know about their background? What brought them to the state they are in?
        Why are they rude, disregarding, annoying, bored,…?
        We can send them away and let other people deal with the “problem” or hope they find like-minded people.
        Or we can try to be open and provide an atmosphere were they are not judged.
        If we can only reach one in a hundred, isn’t it worth the effort?

        Jon, I was not talking about the technical part, the speed of learning. I understood your comment (“The mind set of understanding the that value, is something you can’t teach. Instead, it is something either someone understands and exploits it, or they don’t.”) as meaning that you were talking about the ability to “never giving up, working really hard being dedicated, doing my best”.
        I say that this attitude can be (re-)discovered.

        I suggest (and this is also not easy for me), that “we” should not feel special because we “have this”, but should humbly accept that we were lucky to be able to keep this ability. We shouldn’t look down at the “bored”, the students, who can’t “display creativity and self-motivation” and are “being discourteous and obnoxious”.

        (And I know, I’m contradicting myself, because a teacher who can be so open is also an ideal.)


  10. Andrew,

    I guess I tend to look through life with rose-colored glasses. I don’t see much unwarranted favoritism in my teachers. They have great affection for some students, but to me it’s because they’ve trained the longest and have the most attachment to the teacher, in terms of budo and personal history. It may be a kind of favoritism, but I look at it as natural human friendships by way of bonding. As for the second statement, again, maybe I’m a Pollyanna. I would tend to think the relationship of an uchidachi and shidachi type partner relationship is more cooperative, not competitive. You really can’t do a kata well if you are constantly trying to jam your partner up with untoward actions. Dangerous, actually, for both sides.

    1. Wayne

      A teacher should expect nothing from a student other than the student turning up to training. To divide people between those with an appropriate attitude/personal history/talent/quality of friendship and those without is detestable.

      Perhaps we have different meanings for “cooperative” and “competitive” but you mistake uchidachi trying to help shidachi to improve with both trying to “win”. A modern karate match where one person tries to overcome the other, and so be the winner, does not really differ from a koryu kata where a senior helps a junior to improve in terms of competition.

      As for danger, if there is none then there is no martial art.

      1. Andrew, I guess, then, respectfully I have to agree to disagree. As a teacher, I expect a LOT more from a student than just showing up for training. I expect more than just showing up of my students in my regular profession as a college professor as well. Too many students expect an easy “A” for just occupying space in a chair. When they fail to perform to standards I set clearly in my syllabi and lessons, and they do not display creativity and self-motivation, as an instructor I can only show them the way. I can’t do their work for them. So they don’t get a passing grade. I have expectations of my students, similarly, with my budo dojo. If someone shows up and acts rudely, without regard to myself or others, without a willingness to create some kind of social interaction that displays empathy and consideration of others, which is all I ask, then accidents can happen. People can get needlessly hurt. There is no place for overblown egos in my dojo. And, of course, people are more than free to not come back if that’s not to their liking.

        But if a college student therefore acts like that and then treats me with no regard to respect or common courtesy, I really don’t see any reason why I have to pass them for not doing the work, for not communicating with me, and for being discourteous and obnoxious. It’s the same with how I treat newbies in my martial arts dojo, and they are quite free to leave and find a myriad of other dojo in town that will allow them to act that way. If they fail to allow for common human decency, then they won’t progress, and the sooner they find a place that allows for such overblown chauvinistic attitudes, the better. I don’t make a living from teaching budo, so I don’t need to suffer rude and self-serving people.

        If I were a saint, perhaps I would be much more egalitarian in how I treat students. But I have human limitations and will treat people I know and trust with more intimacy than those I don’t. So a student who has trained with me for years, who I’ve seen grow up, turn into a man, whose wedding I attended, who I trained with before he went on the first of three tours of combat duty in Afghanistan: I bonded with him and treated him like a younger brother to me because he treated me similarly with respect and friendship, and he worked hard as if his life depended on it, because in a way, it did. A student who showed up only two or three times, wearing patches from another dojo, who I tried to work with but who seemed impervious to my advice and teachings, who exuded a “know it all” attitude…I had not time to get to know him or care for him, and he displayed no effort on his part in trying to get to know me or the other dojo mates, so why should I feel the same way about him after he shunned us and our attempts to befriend him and then he just up and bagged on us? No, sorry. I’m no saint. Call that detestable. I call that making sure jerks don’t hang around and hurt people.

        I would also offer that a “modern karate match” IS different from a koryu kata. I’ve done “modern karate matches” and koryu kata, and they are not the same in intent or attitude. Not even close. Not that one or the other is better, but the intents ARE different. Using the term “competition” for a koryu kata simply doesn’t work for me, unless you can explain and contort the etymology of the words better for me. So, yes, quite possibly we may have a different interpretation of those words, for which there hangs our disagreement.

        Okay, the relationship between uchidachi and shidachi is more cooperative than competitive because there will usually be a sempai and a kohai doing the kata, and it is the job of the sempai NOT to compete with the kohai and beat him/her into the ground, but to perform his role, whether as uchidachi or shidachi, but most usually as uchidachi, and elicit the proper response from the kohai when he does an attack the RIGHT way. He does not deliberately overwhelm the lower ranking person as if in a tournament match. He pushes the kohai but only towards the kohai’s potential, as far as possible and then some, but not totally beyond the kohai’s safety zone. Bad things can happen then, and I’ve seen it and heard some really horrendous stories of when that cooperativeness breaks down in a koryu group, and people get hurt. Really bad.

        As for “danger,” it is inherent in any budo, without saying. But there is the razor’s edge of it being immanent if something goes terribly wrong, and it can often do without anyone’s fault, and there is the too often false machismo of needless, unnecessary violence and sadism. And I’ve seen the latter in all sorts of dojo, of all stripes and types. Too often that kind of bravado masks not true bravery, but a sadistic kind of bullying.

        I’m not ignorant of modern budo. I’ve done judo, karatedo and aikido, the former two at some very high levels of competition in my youth, and have had my share of injuries, mostly my own fault, sometimes that of a partner. It comes with the package. But I don’t tout it or take any great pride in it. It just happens. So I’m not swiping at modern sports budo and competition. But it seems to me, you can’t lump a contest, such as a “modern karate match” with a koryu kata at all. And I truly believe people senior to me in both modern and koryu budo will, by and large, agree with me should you poll them.

        Sorry, I guess I disagree with you, most respectfully, and will leave it at that.

  11. Wayne

    Isn’t one of the main goals of budo to overcome oneself, and of course that struggle constitutes a competition?

    Also this primary goal is common to both sports-orientated and modern budo as well as to koryu budo so even though the intents may appear to vary (and at inidivudal levels they may) they ARE one and the same.

    Perhaps I’m already senior to you in budo 😉

  12. I think unfortunately there are allot of myths and misconceptions that surround Budo. As well as a lack of a ridged uniform universal standardization. Because there is such a lack of standardization it allows for liberal personal interpretations by everyone and their grandmother.

    Having no Budo god that will smite anyone for creating their own idea of what Budo is or isn’t, allowing for vast and personal interpretations that can be tailored to anyone’s likening. Thereby allowing for a myriad variety of personal opinions. Treating Budo as if it was a tailored suit does create misinformation and myths confusing Budo and its practice.

    Personally, I think Wayne’s blog is a vital and an accurate resource on Budo and Koryu. There are very few people who can spell out properly what Budo was, is, and should be, like Wayne.

    1. A couple comments here: disagreements are bound to arise when we discuss philosophically how to teach, so I don’t take any such comments as negative, just that people have different points of views. Jon notes that there are huge differences between people’s ideas of what budo is or ought to be, and I agree. I have one idea, and use this blog to suggest it, but that doesn’t mean I’m always right. Maybe I think I usually am (or I would change); but I know that I can sometimes be totally, completely wrong about something. However, one of the things that I think we need to do is dispel a lot of misunderstandings that have arisen from when the Japanese martial arts and ways were first introduced, often by Japanese instructors who had a shaky command of the English (or other) language, or others who trained only in college dojo before moving to a foreign country, or interpreted in America by a lot of returning servicemen who might have trained only on a “base” dojo that catered to them. Many of these teachers overcame their weaknesses and became fine teachers as they matured. Some just made stuff up. Or they continued a kind of machismo type of martial arts that are at odds with the more practical, lifelong-activity type of dojo.

      For me, Aina, as a teacher, I will admit to having human limits, and will therefore never become “teacher of the year,” in computer graphics or budo. I adhere to the 50/50 in general, but actually, as a high school and college instructor (and I’ve also worked with homeless children), I’ve had many students and parents come up to me and say that I was one of the few teachers who gave their child (usually a belligerent, sullen boy) a chance to grow up. I put up with a lot because I tend to be rather forgiving of immaturity and I try to guide them. On the other hand, I DO have guidelines, and when a student continuously oversteps it, especially to the danger and detriment of others, I stop it. If you let some people total freedom, they may end up abusing the rights of others, whether in a dojo, or in a regular classroom. I do not come from the philosophy that a student is free to do whatever he wants, when it means he infringes on the rights of others and the cooperative nature of a classroom or dojo.

      There are a couple of students who are still training with me who have serious physical or health issues that has made learning a complex bujutsu very hard and slow. But they keep showing up, and I will keep teaching them because in a voluntary learning environment, having the motivation to train is a huge plus. But they don’t get rewarded for “just showing up.” They have to work hard, and while progress is slow, they are measured against the same yardstick as others. They realize it (I think) and realize that whatever markers or grade they receive is truly earned, not a handout.

      We may differ in opinion, of course, but that is how I teach.


      1. Wayne, thanks for clarifying.

        “I DO have guidelines, and when a student continuously oversteps it, especially to the danger and detriment of others, I stop it. If you let some people total freedom, they may end up abusing the rights of others, whether in a dojo, or in a regular classroom. I do not come from the philosophy that a student is free to do whatever he wants, when it means he infringes on the rights of others and the cooperative nature of a classroom or dojo.”
        I will sign that.
        “Being open” doesn’t mean “no rules”.

        As for Jon:
        “Having no Budo god that will smite anyone for creating their own idea of what Budo is or isn’t, ”

        (naa, better not go any further…)


    2. Jon

      You seem to be saying that there cannot be one right answer yet I’m wrong and Wayne is right.

      BTW I don’t think that a martial arts class is a free-for-all where anyone may hurt anyone else. All students must agree to the written/unwritten rules of the class to train or leave.

  13. Aina, I am not sure how you see my quote, as you didn’t go any further. As I see it, people have freedom to screw up, or make up, or bastardize what Budo is or isn’t due to their liking. I used the word everyone to me everyone and anyone, including Japanese. But outside of Japan it is much easier to mess with what Budo is or isn’t, then in Japan. For example, I had seen this so called Budoka, dress in a train wreck of grab that combined leopard pattern, Pancho type of thing secured at the bottom with an obi that was black and gold obi, a mon printed fabric hakama. He wore bangles and had his hair in bun held by chop sticks. All the while walking with a walking stick/club. He called himself Shihan Master ______. Sad thing his students in tow took him seriously. I have seen other so called budoka at an iai event dressed as extras in a bad Edo soap opera/daytime drama, and never got out of character. Yet, in both cases people where memorized at their costuming and transferred that to their knowledge of budo being accurate and correct.

    I have experienced Japanese sensei as Wayne pointed out too, and others who just exploited the “fame” of having adoring fans who subscribed to stereotyping them because they are Japanese, who had no real experience or knowledge in Budo, and made it up in a Japanese context as they went. The term that may apply is posers who never where questioned?

    Unfortunately, there is no Budo god to smite them down.

  14. Let me add to be fair, there are Japanese senseis who have skill and experience and have adoring students that just don’t do Budo right. They abuse their position and status.

    1. Jon

      If a person wears jewellery then that automatically means either they have no skill or understanding of budo or that they can’t do budo right (whatever you mean by “right”) even if their students believe otherwise???

      Why are you so intent on passing judgement on other Japanese Sensei? To me it reads rather myopic/offensive. Maybe Japanese Sensei treated you the way they did because they saw you carrying your ignorance before you like a lantern.

      1. Andrew,

        Just a note here: you can disagree with Jon, or me, or others, and even greatly offend in the process, but this last comment gets close to “trolling,” starting an argument simply to argue, without any redeeming value or reasonable argument. You can argue passionately but lay out your reasons rather than accuse and denigrate others. I think Jon laid out his beliefs pretty clearly. You may disagree, but why? Do you think wearing bling-blings are part of the philosophy of budo? Why is that so? Can you do it without resorting to personal attacks? You accuse Jon of passing personal judgement, but then you pass your own personal judgement on him. Why would it be myopic/offensive to make a judgement decision on a teacher? In college, we faculty are subject to being reviewed by our peers, our students and our administration all the time. Why not in budo? Please: you can argue a different point of view (as, for example, Aina has, but most respectfully, even though passionately) but a little respect here for a fellow reader is due, I believe.


  15. Wayne

    Maybe I did step over a line 😦

    Jon mentions no names of people so there’s no way for anyone to refute or verify his assessments so I found the comments by Jon regarding his assessment of a people based purely on what they are wearing to be inappropriate. Jon talks, maybe tongue in cheek, about a budo god as though he’s part of a religious cult and wants to be rid of heretics. To me he writes as though he’s the authority on budo with his view being the only possible correct/valid/right/appropriate one.

    The way has no gate but Jon seems intent on erecting one and standing guard.

  16. Wayne, this seems to be getting out of hand (with your accusation of trolling). I don’t want to judge people, but Jon is a challenge. I can understand Andrews reaction.
    It’s not easy to stay factual and impassionate when you are confronted with a righteous attitude.

    Jon, I hope that you are writing your posts to provoke us. (Maybe to prove that I am not as open as I claim/try to be?)

    If you are sincere and really mean what you write, then I can only side-step and leave you alone. There is no way you can discuss with a religious fanatic. (Please note that I’m not saying you are, but that your texts are easily read this way, at least from a non-US point-of-view.)

    To me budo is not a religion. I don’t think that there is a “right” way to do budo, but several. If you really wish for a higher authority regulating what budo may be and what not (and from reading your recent comment on post#94, I fear you are), then I ask you: who will judge them (the people in authority)?

    I have seen things that were called budo and seemed strange or funny to me. My first reaction has been: “Argh!”, “That’a absurd” or “That’s wrong!”. But in the end there is always this question: How does it effect *my* budo?
    My training, my “way” is not influenced by them.
    The public picture of budo? / “Budo is presented in an absurd way and people will think I do stupid stuff like that.” – Well, why do you care? How does the public picture influence your training, your progress in budo?


  17. When I was in college I took a required 300 level psychology class for teachers. The room was filled with psychology teaching majors. The professor started a discussion that really struck a nerve in with students with an idea of what something should be. These students defensive in disagreement with personal and passionate argumentation. The professor, a bit taken my surprise and aback, explained that it was a discussion not to be taken personally. It was a theoretical discussion he started to outline a subject, and to frame the subject of discussion and by no means should anyone should take his remarks at a personal level.

    1. The late Professor Julius Sumner Miller once said “why cloud the charm of a Chladni plate with a Bessel function?” which one could badly translate as “why let the truth get in the way of a good story”.

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