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?


107: Why Do You Train?

Why do you train in budo?

I don’t think there’s one (or even two) right answers, really. There might be better ones, silly ones, stupid ones and awe-some bodacious ones, but one, or two right answers? No. But there are two paths a student can take when motivated to begin martial arts. One road ennobles, another adds insult to injury to a broken, crooked spirit.

As a student, and as a teacher, and even as a student who has trained long enough to be asked to help instruct, that’s something you have to consider when approaching a student to offer instruction.

You need to consider this when, perhaps, trying to figure out why a person may be hesitant in performing a particular kata, or stumbles this way instead of that way, or is too eager to learn too many kata instead of focusing on improving what he already knows, or is much too involved in attaining (or, in the case of a teacher, charging money and giving out) rankings.

Even as I say this, I’m actually not quite sure what kind of answers I’d get from my own little group of students. What they tell me may be markedly opposed to what I really want to know, because people learn to be good at giving “right answers” in a social environment.

“I want to learn how to better myself, to develop my health, and to learn about budo philosophy…” Yeah, sure. Then you watch them and they are all over the place, stumbling over themselves, not pushing themselves after classes to learn for themselves, and engaging in some pretty un-healthy lifestyle choices. Hmmm. There’s some cognitive dissonances going on there.

I write this because my wife, bless her heart, wants me to better organize my budo paperwork for my club. “What is your mission statement? What are you DOING?” she asked. “Why do you train?”

“Uh…because it’s…fun?” I answered.

“Not good enough,” she replied, putting down her pen and looking at me. “Why don’t you ask your students why they train?”

I do, and did, I replied. Whenever a new student joins, I ask them why they want to train.


Well…I get answers all over the map. Because they want to learn koryu: the history, the theory, the philosophy of classical martial arts. Because they enjoy the training but can’t do competitive training anymore. Because they want to learn how to twist wrists and throw people around.

She sighed. That’s not going to help. You need a concise, precise five-sentence statement.

I’ll try, I said. But really, ask five different people, and you may get five different answers or non-answers (like a shrug of the shoulders and a, “I dunno. ‘Cuz it’s fun!”). And even at that, the answers may not truly be why they train, in their heart of hearts. You often have to watch them and observe their attitudes and performance when they train to get at the heart of what their goals are.

The other reason for my musing on purposes for training is because I was just at a street celebration for Chinese New Year. As is the tradition in our Chinatown, a parade full of dignitaries, politicians, military marching units, high school bands, and assorted crowd favorites walked down the main street of the Chinatown section of Honolulu. Along with those folk were quite a number of local martial arts groups. There were Chinese martial arts/lion dance groups that livened up the festivities. And there were a lot of tenuously Chinese-y or totally non-Chinese martial arts groups walking down the street, in their training outfits and running shoes, stopping to perform mini-demonstrations midway.

All the groups looked to be McDojo types (I say this more in a descriptive way; not as a pejorative): lots of tykes and teenagers in ill-fitting outfits, lots of younger people in various stages of grunginess, as if being unshaved and without a visit to a barber in months lent more street cred toughness to them in their white, blue, black or combination of all the above plus red, white and blue colors.

I watched with some amusement (my wife dissected my gaze and said, “You’re just a snob!” to which I will admit to) and then told her that we didn’t have to stay and watch the martial arts very long. We could go find a stand that sold jai, noodles and gau to take home. The demo’s were bor-ing. Same old same old punch and kick, or some half-okole “ju-jits” moves stolen from legitimate Gracie systems.

One thing I’ll say though, I thought I understood why many of us, and many of the students I observed, took up martial arts. It was to appear (note that word, “appear”) tough. Join a dojo, wear some cool pajamas, learn a couple of killer moves, and then think you are a tough, badass assassin. Be “strong.” And you don’t have to work too hard at it, from the looks of their techniques. It’s an alluring incentive, especially for youngsters (think of how they channel themselves into being dinosaurs, monsters and wizards), and for young men and women seeking to find some self-confidence as awkward adolescents, but without trying too hard. I would hazard that even I started off in budo that way: I was tired of being beat up in schoolyards so I joined a judo club to get physically stronger and tougher.

The “Be Strong” allure is a powerful one, and I suspect that’s what brings a lot of people into budo training (and a lot of other martial arts besides Japanese budo). Attaining a sense of physical dominance is a natural impulse across cultures.

One of my students served in military intelligence, and he noted that modern combative training emphasized MMA-style grappling. When he complained to the drill instructor that they wouldn’t encounter nearly naked grappling fights on a modern-day battlefield, the instructor replied, basically, that he knew that was true, but with only a few days for hand-to-hand training in between cardio and marksmanship, at least the raw recruits would develop a SENSE of competency in hand-to-hand, even though they really weren’t going to learn much of anything. At least they’d FEEL more confident.

When my student served overseas, he analyzed captured terrorist videotapes used at their camps. Funny thing, he wrote. There’s a lot of stuff where the new recruits in those terrorist camps are being taught en masse to punch and kick, like a karate class. When was the last time you saw a terrorist attack a mall, bus or building using karate? Never, right? But the training itself lent a James Bondian sense of being a killer elite to the terrorists recruits who would probably sooner strap a bomb to themselves than attack someone with their bare fists. So it’s all about creating an imagined, if not a real, sense of physical strength.

There’s a lot of “churning” going on in those factory-style dojo, however, for various reasons. Sooner or later, a student’s self-delusion about being the next James or Jane Bond, secret agent, is dashed when he is beat too many times in a contest or tourney. Or he realizes through a fog of self-delusion that there are a whole lot of people better than he is, and he is hampered by a mess of obstacles (physical, social, mental, and congenital) along the way to being Batman, Superman, Kwai Chang Caine or the next incarnation of Bruce Lee.

When that happens, the student inevitably drops out. He learned enough to be dangerous to himself, full of inflated self-confidence. Now he can brag about being a yellow belt to his drinking buddies, but he doesn’t have to do more work to get any higher, because, hey, his hands are deadly “fists of fury.”

On the other hand, one shouldn’t diss all such beginnings to become “strong.” I was like that too. I did become physically healthier. Doing judo opened up a whole new world for me, a bookworm: that of athletics. From judo, I went on to high school football, a bit of wrestling, then aikido, karate do, and finally ending up in koryu.

In my case, I didn’t quit because what supplanted my quest to “become strong” was a quest to learn more about the whole nature of budo, and how it could become a part of my body, my mind, and my life in ways that went beyond physical brute strength, combativeness and “looking tough”  to actually “being tough” mentally.

For me, I think the problem is when some people enter the martial arts seeking such outward, superficial machismo and never grow out of it, moving on to becoming seniors and even teachers without ever deepening their understanding of their own nature and that of other people. When their own physical limitations, old age, infirmities, etc., stymie them, they drop out, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.

Several of my own teachers have noted that this attitude can be a problem. There are many kinds of martial arts, they admonished me. All of them can lead up to the top of a mountain along different paths, but they all have the same goal, technically, physically, and philosophically. So don’t be so critical of other schools or their approaches if you understand that they are attempting to reach the same goal but in a different way.

On the other hand, they also noted that there ARE some paths that lose their way, that go downwards into a dark valley instead of a mountaintop, that become not a path for self-cultivation to becoming a better individual, but a dark road to selfish brutishness. And that can include any kind of martial arts, modern or classical, eclectic or traditional.

“That is the way of the Demonic World (of Buddhism),” one sensei told me. “People act like vicious, violent animals, selfish, greedy and self-centered. That is hell on earth, which comes about from ignorance about one’s true humanity.”

The goals of training, therefore, lie along those two paths: to one’s betterment (however it may be, such as physical, mental, spiritual and so on) or to the negative path of being prone to violence, pride, self-centeredness. The tools (budo training) are the same. It’s how you approach the budo and use it that makes all the difference in the world.

The teachings of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu heiho, and even one of the okuden in one of my own school of koryu is the concept of “Satsujinto, Katsujinken.” In discussions with other people with more experience, I’ve been told that the concept has several levels of understanding, from the personal to the tactical, to the political. A full discussion of all the meaning of this phrase, meaning “The Sword that Kills, the Sword that gives Life,” is beyond the scope of this short blog essay.

However, I am led to understand that one of the meaning is that the sword symbolizes one’s training in martial arts. Like a sword, martial arts by and of itself is neither inherently good or bad. It is how the practitioner uses it, and approaches it, that creates either a weapon that is used either for good or for evil, for the development of positive physical and mental virtues, or for the creation of a thug.

Why do you train? Ask yourself this. And/or ask your students this. Watch their lips move, but then observe how they train, and decipher their true motivations from how they act, not what they say. Becoming stronger is admirable. Becoming healthier, wiser, smarter, better. But beware of fostering the flip side of the coin: by becoming “stronger,” does that mean becoming meaner, crueler, stronger without compassion, powerful but more selfish? Whatever the answers, is the student looking for a Sword of Life or a Blade of Death?

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.