108. Breaking Traditions

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?

 

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8. But…Does it work? –The “Warrior’s Mind”

The other day I walked past a dojo where a group of earnest karate students were practicing their kicks and punches. They looked pretty good in their nice, white, traditional karategi, but after a few seconds of observation, I surmised that none of them, not even their black belt instructor, had a kick or punch that would keel me over with one “killing blow.” And that’s not saying much, because I’m an aging old geezer over 50 years old.

So…does traditional karate NOT work? Is it true that the only really practical martial arts are the ones where you “rock and roll” and mix it up, like judo or Brazilian jujutsu, or the MMA type stuff?

Well, since it’s my blog and it’s my opinion, I’d say for the majority of people in a dojo like the one I saw, not really. But lest you think Wayne-o has gone over to the Dark Side, I’d say maybe almost the same percentage of practitioners in MMA and other nontraditional martial arts are also incapable of really mixing it up.

Here’s the sad truth, as I see it. Whether it’s MMA modern cage fighting or traditional budo, the majority of students in the United States (I can’t say my observations are any good outside of the US) are probably going to be mediocre when it comes to a high stress, truly combative situation. Will they be better off compared to if they had not had ANY training at all? Perhaps. And that goes for myself. I can’t truly say I’d be the last man standing in a violent confrontation, and I’m not talking a drunken brawl over spilled beer. I’m talking a life-and-death situation.

I would say, however, that all things being equal, MAYBE a judoka or MMA practitioner might have a slightly better chance of survival because of the high level of endurance training they undergo, and that on average active judo, karate and MMA players are younger and more reslient, and being younger they are able to train harder and longer. But take out factors of youth and training time, and I’d say any kind of martial arts training, on average, will give you only a marginally better chance of survival.

UNLESS…(there’s always a caveat with me)…unless you train with real intent. I don’t mean coming at each other with a beer bottle in practice and cracking your partner’s head if he/she fails to properly block your swing. I mean with real focus and mental intensity. In other words, you really, really think about what you are doing when you are practicing, and you don’t waltz around like two contestants in “So You Think You Can Dance.”

If you read books by folk who do real research in survival and combat stress situations (and not books by “wannabe’s” posing with camo pants and short little weenie knives), books by folk like Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (On Combat, at http://www.killology.com) and Ben Sherwood (The Survivors Club), you will note that in many high stress combative and extreme survival situations, the major factor for survival is not physical (although repetitive combat and survival training does help), but mental. You have to have a “survivor’s mind,” or a “warrior’s mind.”

For some illiterate, ignorant nutcases, that means being a stone cold psycho killer one step away from lawlessness. You know, like those bad guys in the old “Karate Kid” movies: “Yes Sensei! No mercy, sensei!” There are, unfortunately, people in our midst who don’t have a mental barrier that keeps them from hurting other people. They have no compunctions when it comes to killing, maiming, stealing or hurting other people. That’s not a warrior’s mind. That’s being a psycho.

But that’s not the case at all when you dissect what writers like Grossman and Sherwood are saying. What they are saying is that through proper training, the mental as well as the physical is conditioned to be prepared and to react properly under duress, without freaking out. Under high stress situations, our body goes through documented physical changes, including the release of hormones that can stimulate our brains in different ways. Our nerves react with either the fight, flight or freeze as stiff as a board impulse, brought on by thousands of years of genetic imprinting. Our breathing gets faster, our vision narrows, our heartbeat speeds up and our blood is flooded with hormones that move us to either run as fast as we can, flail away at our attacker, or freeze in disbelief because “it can’t be happening, it can’t be happening!”

Unsticking our body and minds and then getting them to move in the right way in order to survive a combative or survival situation requires two things: preparation and proper mind set. As far as preparation goes, that can mean proper budo or martial arts training. Whether it’s classical budo or MMA type training, if your body has been properly trained in repetitive combative or semi-combative situations, you should be somewhat physically prepared to do something. Preparation in a survival situation, as Sherwood culls from actual incidents, can be as simple as knowing where the exits are on an airplane before an accident happens, or buckling up your seat belt before you drive on that really accident-prone stretch of highway, or avoiding a darkened alleyway because you heard that it’s frequented by muggers late at night.

Having the proper mind set, what Grossman calls a “warrior mind,” is being able to have some amount of control over your instinctive, subconscious impulses with your cognitive mind, even in the midst of the chaos and “fog of war,” violence or traumatic incident.

Sportive type martial arts advocates often decry “traditional” martial arts practice because they see kata geiko (practice of preset “forms”) as “unrealistic.” However, you could classify a lot of training that modern law enforcement and military units undergo as kata geiko. Running through a simulated urban environment shooting at targets is a form of kata geiko, for example. Repeating evacuation procedures for flight attendants is kata geiko. If, therefore, kata geiko is not any good, why are they still used as a major form of pedagogy in modern systems of combat and survival training?

In budo, kata geiko performs the same function, more or less, as in more modern systems of training. Sans being put in actual danger, kata geiko offers a modicum of safety while the student performs physical movements that may be necessary in high stress situations. By repeating the training over and over, the movements become almost instinctive. Having the movements be instinctive is a good thing, because in actual situations, the cognitive brain can “freeze” or lock up. So if you take too much time thinking, “Well, I’ve got to make a fist. Let’s see, close my fingers together, thumb over other fingers, thrust out the fist, strike the guy with the knuckles of my fist just below his nose…” That’s too much thinking, especially when a part of your brain is screaming, “Oh my God, Oh my God, he’s trying to kill me! I can’t believe it! Let me out of here!”

No. You just have to punch your attacker in the face without having to think about HOW you are going to form a fist and make a strike.

The weakness of kata geiko for classical budo students is that it can become a dance. It can be shorn of their combativeness, their intent, their seriousness. If you don’t practice a karate kata with proper focus and intent, and then you try a half-arsed punch at your attacker and he’s still standing, you are in real deep poo poo.

Lest the MMA and sportive crowd snicker at the kata folk, there is also a danger in too much sportive training done the wrong way. Again, if you treat your training too much like a sport, while you may gain a lot of physical conditioning, you may not gain the proper mindset for a combative or survival event. An actual violent or survival confrontation is not a sport. There are no rules, no out-of-bounds targets, no neutral corners. “Playing” at a martial art like it’s a game doesn’t help in the development of a proper mind set.

That’s why, I suppose, when I was a young judoka, judo was treated a lot differently than it usually is today. I talked about it once with an old-timer judo instructor. We both mused over the differences in intent. In the old days, he said, we never could just amble off the mats to drink water and lie around in between matches. We had to sit up straight and focus on the practice. That was because, I now realize, judo still retained a sense of  budo-ness; it was still trying to develop a warrior mind, not a sports mind.

The judo sensei shrugged his shoulders and commented further. Nowadays, he said, students think nothing of walking off the mat, sucking on Gatorade or water from water bottles, lying on their backs and talking amiably with each other. “Well,” he concluded. “It’s a sport. What can I say? It’s not like the old days. We can’t force them to endure, to do shugyo (severe mental and physical discipline).”

It’s even worse if you talk about the kinds of aerobic exercises that use martial-artsy moves like kicks, punches and blocks. All the examples I’ve seen have not convinced me that they have any shred of real utility in a combative situation. The intent of those exercises is mainly for sheer aerobic exercise. In most cases, I see most of the practitioners executing movements with terrible form, poor kime (focus) and with very little delivery of real force at the point of attack.

One famous movie star testified that after doing a form of aerobic kick-boxing, he felt confident that he could “kick ass.” I don’t think so. He looked pretty good in spandex tights hopping around, but as far as really stopping someone in their tracks with his bare hands…Uh, nope.

Unfortunately, whether it’s classical budo or modern MMA type martial arts, you can’t FORCE someone to develop a “warrior mind.” You can encourage them to focus on training, but it’s hard to outwardly judge intent, focus or mental preparedness. You can only suggest it to others, and prepare your own self, mentally, for such real life situations.

Going back to that karate club with the bad techniques: What I will say is that the members appeared to be trying hard. Some kind of training is better than nothing, and perhaps given where they started from, the members may have come a long way in their physical dexterity. I couldn’t say. So they were crappy. But maybe they are better than if they had done nothing at all. I have to give them that much.

But the biggest fallacy for any martial arts student is to be smug. Performing kata half-assed or “playing” at randori or groundwork without focus and intention are both detrimental to the development of the “warrior’s mind.” I’m not saying that everything should be stoically, deadly, boringly serious. No, what I’m saying is that practice, whether kata geiko or free “sparring,” should be focused and thoughtful, and one should never be satisfied with what you can do. You should always strive to get better in some way. By striving, the mind is actively engaged in honing the movements, in paying attention to what’s going on. By focusing on practice, you focus on training the mind and body to have the proper movements and reactions “stick” to you mentally and physically, with less and less effort.

That, for me, is to have a “warrior’s mind.” And maybe, just maybe, your techniques MIGHT work.

6. Step by step and inch by inch

Budo pedagogy: progressive learning in budo

Jeremy Beatty, Yagyu Seigo-ryu Batto-iai
Jeremy Beatty, Yagyu Seigo-ryu Batto-iai

A short while ago, a curious incident occurred in my dojo. Well, it was curious for ME. I’m not sure if it registered at all on the other people involved. Anyway, we had an eager, excited new young student in our iai class. I took him through the first reishiki (forms of etiquette) and the first kata. He was doing poorly at it, but I figure, given time, he’d be fine. He just needed to hone his movements. So I told him to work on what he learned for a while and left him alone.

I turned my attention to another student and tried to correct his techniques for fourth kata. The new student ran up to watch what we were doing, even to the point of trying to imitate some of the form. Ignoring this red light, I walked away and approached another student, who was doing the ninth kata of the series. The new student ran up to us too and watched us eagerly, then he blurted out, “Wow! Can I learn that too?”

I had to pause a beat to even comprehend that on this, the first night he actually stepped on the floor to learn iai, he wanted to jump all over the place. After recovering from my amazement, I could only laugh in disbelief and then replied with a curt, “No!”

I turned away. Then my conscience took the better of me and so I turned back to the crestfallen student and explained to him that in a budo training system, you do the forms in a progressive way, going from the basics and moving up to more advanced sets, only through the guidance of a teacher. You don’t jump around, especially when your basics were still so shaky.

I’m not sure if he understood where I was coming from. When I thought about it, I realize that quite often, the pedagogy of teaching budo (which is very true in koryu but holds no less authority in many modern budo that are taught traditionally) may be completely foreign to modern youngsters and teens brought up in a society of instant gratification, infantile pop culturalism, and denigration of excellence and striving. Then again, the pedagogy is not exclusive to budo. The essence of the way you train in budo is the same in many traditional arts or apprenticeships, and in my old age, I think it may have to do with simply the way humans learn certain things: very slowly, empirically and through many, many years of effort.

That’s anathema to people raised on instant-everything. Learn form 1, move on to form 2. They get the sequence, but their body dynamics, timing, distancing…everything that really makes up the art…suck. Try to tell those people to wait and they get indignant. They may protest, “I can do Ippon-Me Mae! Why can’t I learn the next kata?”

Sure you can do Ippon-Me, sort of. You can do it but your basics suck. If you can’t do a kiri oroshi right in Ippon-Me, what makes you think you can do it right in Nihon-Me Ushiro?  You just end up with someone who can do a lot of things badly.

When I first started doing iai seriously in Kyoto, one of my teachers was famous for making his beginning students do only one kata over and over again for hours on end until he/she “got” it.  You never progressed beyond that until you reached a level that satisfied him, and that level was extremely high. Even my main teacher was firm about having me learn one kata at a time decently before moving on. He was less strict about getting it “perfect,” but he did advise me to focus on quality of the kata I knew, not on the quantity.

“If you just practiced these kata over and over…” and he ticked off a list of only five forms, “Then all the rest of your forms will be fine,” he said. Years later, I am coming to understand what he meant. The basics count. Big time. They are your foundations. If your foundations are based on a hill of sand, you’ll never build anything enduring on top of it.

Focusing on the basics is not something a lot of modern-day students want to hear. But it’s necessary. You don’t have to be 100 percent perfect in doing a front kick, for example (most of us will, after all, never reach “perfection”), but you should reach a certain level of expertise in a basic movement before trying to move on to work on more advanced work. However fancier or complex an advanced form may be, it will still look like junk unless the basic forms that make up the advanced form are at a decent level.

Eagerness and enthusiasm are good things to have. But you shouldn’t have them overwhelm equally important elements of patience and striving for perfection of form. I still like to go back to the first kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and repeat it several times before I get into the specific techniques I want to work on during practice.

And after all, the best musicians still go back to playing basic finger exercises. Tiger Woods still practices his basic swing, ballet stars still work on basic form, form, form.

5. When it’s time to quit

Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.
Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.

I’ve previously written about joining a classical Japanese martial arts.

But conversely, there are times when you should quit a budo.

This sounds like heresy, right? Maybe it is. But at a certain point in time, you may stop and think, “What the hell am I doing? I’m not enjoying myself, I’d rather be (insert a pastime here), and I’m hurting too much after practice.”

That’s when it’s time to reassess your goals and personal feelings about your martial art. Sometimes careful reflection rejuvenates your commitment. Sometimes, if you take a long, hard look at the physical, mental and emotional toll a budo takes on you, it may be time to leave. Okay, you may think of yourself as a “quitter” and you forego rational and logical conclusions and continue to beat yourself up mentally, physically and emotionally. Let up, bro. There are other things in life besides the dojo.

This sounds antithetical to promoting the martial arts, but I’ve left a couple of schools myself and feel better for it. So I “quit.” Hey, I’ve still got a happy life and a decent job. That’s the more important things that matter more than a pastime, be it budo, golf or playing bridge on Saturday nights.

To start with, you have to go back to why you joined a budo in the first place. Hugh Davey (Shudokan Martial Arts Association) and I were sitting in front of a cheap Japanese restaurant waiting to be seated and we conjectured that if all you wanted to learn was how to defend yourself, most moderately athletic people could learn that in a few months, give or take a week or so. So then what comes after that. Between the two of us we had close to 50 years’ worth of martial arts backgrounds, and yet we figured that nothing more really comes out of it if self-defense is all you’re looking for. Learn how to punch, kick, gouge eyes and knee a groin, and the rest is pretty much learning about the mindset and strategies of personal self-defense. You don’t need to perfect a front kick for years to defend yourself adequately. So we concluded that folks like us who continue to practice for decades are probably two shakes short of crazy.

On the other hand, if you enjoy budo practice for other intangibles, such as the physical exercise, the body dynamics, the camaraderie, the philosophy, the history, the sheer FUN of doing it…then you continue budo…Until these don’t become fun any more.

Several reasons may therefore impel you to leave. If it’s the physical exercise, then if you conclude that the physical training is hurting you more than it is helping you, you’re basically beating up on yourself. You could pull back on training and realize you’re not a twenty-something anymore. If that’s impossible given the training requirements of the style, then you may consider leaving so as not to water down the training system.

When you get older, your body ages and weakens. Age has its advantages but as a middle-aged guy, let me tell you, what it does to your body sucks. So you may have to forego training simply because your creaking old body can’t take the punishment anymore. No shame there. We all get old. Football players, for example, age really fast. You don’t see many 50-something-year-old professional football players still in the first ranks of the pro leagues, do you? The body can take only so much punishment from a contact sport like football before it simply gives out. Ditto extreme sports like rugby, boxing, pro wrestling, and so on. The lifespan of athletes in those competitive sports tend to be rather short. Why wouldn’t competitive judo and karate be different?

When I was in my mid-20s, I started graduate school. I was holding down a part-time job to pay the bills and I loved martial arts so much I was training in karate, aikido and judo at the same time, all the while jogging several miles a day. My body fell apart eventually and I realized overtraining was a bad thing. (D’uh!) I had to concentrate on getting a degree so I scaled back my training. By the time I finished graduate school I was getting close to 30 years old, and my schedule didn’t allow the freedom anymore to train as hard, and besides, my body was already aging. I had to focus on only a couple budo that I could do that wouldn’t hobble me when I needed to go into work. Doing competitive judo and karate, and then doing hours and hours of aikido simply was not physically possible for me anymore. So practicality forced my eager hand to scale back on training.

Another problem may arise when political and interpersonal dynamics become messy. A dojo is a place for training, but to keep it going, you need structure. The dojo needs to have a teacher, it needs to be part of a system of budo, and oftentimes, the technical system is held together by an organization. The organization can be big, such as a national group, or it can be an independent dojo run solely by the teacher. In any case, the political and social structure of the dojo may turn sour. Rather than subject yourself to that kind of emotional and psychological anguish, you may rightfully decide to leave.

There was one aikido dojo I used to train in that didn’t feel quite right. Instead of helping each other, oftentimes students who were senior to me (in spite of having trained in aikido for some four years prior, I donned a white belt to practice at this place) tried to beat on me or poke me when I was trying to work slowly on a technique. It took all my self-control not to side kick or punch out those students  in reaction to their snitty jabs because by then I had all those years of aikido, a dan ranking in karate, and a dan ranking in judo.

But where did that snotty attitude come from? It came from the senior teachers, who had a problem with their self-esteem. Soon enough, I began to understand the dynamics of the place. Some teachers hated other teachers. They were jealous of their ranking and spent a lot of time maneuvering to put other factions under their power. It was not a happy place. Eventually, I left. I didn’t want to deal with those off-the-mat politics. Later, I learned that the head instructor finally left and set up his own dojo because he was disgusted with the politics as well, and a huge split fissured the remaining teachers into two parties, with each side threatening to sue the other side in civil court. Do you need that kind of b.s.? I would hope not. Luckily, living in Hawaii the were always alternatives to training at that really spiritually draining place.

There was a karate group I used to train in where the physical training was excellent for young folk. It was intense, physical and challenging. However, over the years I was training, the whole system slowly began to focus on tournament sparring, something I had very little interest in. But I was just one of many low-level black belts. If I didn’t like what the head instructor was doing, then I couldn’t really challenge him on his decision to focus on tournament play to the detriment of everything else. It was his dojo. So I left.

As for judo, I enjoyed it immensely as a young man. But the emphasis in many judo dojo nowadays is on competition, especially since it’s now an Olympic sport. The intensity of keeping up with national-level competitors for me was too much when I had to also work and go to graduate school.

Did I wimp out? You could say that. On the other hand, I had reached a level where I was training with folk from the US Judo Olympic team. They could wipe the floor with me when it came to stand-up randori, but due to my training in Kawaishi-style judo, I managed to hold my own and even tie them up in matwork. And in karate and aikido, I had excellent instructors and trained with a number of very good karateka and aikidoka in the day.

It was just that the politics, emphasis and personalities made things very uncomfortable. And so, because I didn’t HAVE to do it for a living, when it ceased to be fun, I left. After over a decade of training, I walked out the door and never returned.

Although I still miss judo randori, the beauty of doing karate kata and the smooth flow of aikido, I don’t miss the politics and the wear and tear it took on my body. Your experience might be different, of course. One of my friends teaches Okinawan karate and he spent years researching the roots of karate, traveling to Okinawa to study under the best teachers of his system. If I were younger and not involved in what I’m doing now, I’d study with him. His style is wonderfully technical, powerful, and is doable even for older people. When I “retired” from competitive judo, I still helped out with a children’s judo dojo to enjoy being thrown and tumbling around with the kids, until my work schedule precluded that. And I find that my early aikido training really helps my current jujutsu training.

In the end, however, I left. I quit. Yes. I was a quitter.

But I was lucky to have stumbled into other martial arts that seemed appropriate for my lifestyle, personality, work commitments and locations. I eventually began a study of tai chi chuan and classical Japanese martial weaponry. Then I spent some time in Japan and began my lifelong study of iai and Japanese kobudo. Lest it sounds like I was hopping from style to style, I remain somewhat amazed that I have been in the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai system and the Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden kobudo for some 24 years now.

The head instructors I met impressed me as teachers and as human beings. The political structure of both organizations were bearable, i.e., they pretty much left me alone and rarely asked anything of me. I’m a cranky old guy and not being asked to do a lot of organizational stuff was a real plus for me. The fellow students I met were accommodating, friendly and helpful. There would be an occasional jerk, but not more so than what you would find anywhere in any endeavor. Moreover, as I aged into my middle ages, I found I could still train without falling apart physically. The training for iai and kobudo could be structured so as to take into consideration my oncoming physical senility. So I stayed.

If the groups suddenly turned into a crazy cult that worshipped Brillo Pads, would I leave? In a heartbeat. I love training. I love budo, but it’s a PART of my life. It’s not my whole life. It enhances my life, makes my life richer, and enhances my health and sense of well-being. I enjoy it a lot. Training in budo gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, health, poise and stress relief. Once it becomes a drain, once it becomes a negative in my life, once it becomes a weird sucky cult, I would quit.