Monday, September 18, 2017

Focus and Tunnel Vision




We didn’t make a sound as we stared at each other. The room around me faded as I focused on my partner. I advanced into combative ma’ai and swung my sword at her head. She dodged and counter attacked, driving my sword down. I pulled back and away, trying to re-establish an effective spacing for using my sword. She punched me in the gut with her staff as I pulled back and then came in hard with a strike to my head. I dodged back and to the side.

Which isn’t quite the way the kata is supposed to be done. However, if I had done the kata the orthodox way and moved straight back, I would have stumbled over a chair and some bookshelves.  Being focused on my partner didn’t mean that 100% of my attention was consumed by her attempt to make a large dent in my skull. I still had to be aware of my surroundings. Many of the dojo where I have trained are in multipurpose rooms, and several are rather small.  I’ve trained in dance studios (watch out for the piano at the end of the room), gymnasiums (be careful because the folks playing basketball on the next court lose control of the ball from time to time - if the ball  doesn’t hit you, the players might run you down trying to get it back), church meeting halls (pianos, chairs, bookshelves, carpet and the odd church member wandering through on some other business), and don’t forget all the back yards and parks with trees, lawn chairs, free range kids and dogs). There are lots of things you have to be aware of besides your training partner.

We all know that not being focused is bad. Let your attention wander in the middle of kata or sparring and you can find yourself being whacked over the head with a large stick. But too much focus is just as bad. When everything fades from your awareness but your partner, you can easily run into a wall or furniture, that piano in the back of the room, hit someone training alongside you, or worst of all, hit someone who isn’t even training and doesn’t realize that it’s not safe to walk close to people swinging swords and big sticks.  (It’s incredible how many people think it’s perfectly safe to run in front of someone practicing with a sword or staff.)

Like so much else in budo, there has to be balance. You focus enough to handle your partner, but your awareness must be broad enough to deal with the rest of the combative environment. Too much or not enough - either can lead to disaster. Focus is a great thing, but too much focus becomes tunnel vision. Kendo people talk about enzan no metsuke 遠山の目付, “focusing on a distant mountain”. Don’t get so caught up by the detail in front of you that you lose sight of the whole picture. 

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If you are busy watching any particular detail, it’s difficult to see anything else. Focus on teki’’s sword and you lose sight of her feet. Focus on her feet and you lose track of her hands. What do you look at? What do you focus on? Nothing? Everything?

The whole point of enzan no metsuke is that you don’t let your vision become stuck on any particular point. By focusing on a distant point, your focus becomes softer and wider, taking in the whole of teki without being stuck on any particular point. With your focal point so distant, your peripheral vision takes in everything near to you. You can see her movement and the tip of her weapon and know what her hands are doing all together because you are seeing all of them.

The reasoning here is similar to that of fudoshin 不動心; if your mind stops on any one point it can’t entertain what happens next, creating weakness. If your eyes are locked on any one thing, you can’t see anything else that might be coming at you. In addition, if your eyes are stuck on something, your mind will be stuck there as well.

Under stress, we can develop tunnel vision. In this natural reaction to stress, we lose awareness of our peripheral vision, resulting in a tunnel that only shows the object of our focus. This level of focus might be useful in extreme circumstances, perhaps when you’ve been wounded and need to ignore the pain to continue fighting. It kicks in a lot lower level of threat than that, and opens you up to getting taken from behind or tripping over obstacles you would otherwise avoid. Teachers of martial techniques were aware of this long before anything that could be called “budo” arose. Practicing to not get stuck looking at your opponent and missing everything else became a part of martial training and continues in both classical and modern budo traditions.

The broader lesson is that excess focus is also dangerous in life outside the dojo and beyond the field of combat. Life isn’t all about any one thing. Life is about a lot of things; family, work, personal development, friends, hobbies. It’s easy to get caught up in what we are doing and forget the rest of the world, whether what we are doing is budo, or chess, or work, or a beloved hobby. Too much focus on any of those and you will start to neglect other important parts of your life.  Budo teachers aren’t the only ones who have noticed the dangers of tunnel vision, but they are among the few who practice not having it.

In the iai style I train in, Shinto Hatakage Ryu, there is an action at the end of each kata that, among other things, helps break tunnel vision if it develops. At the end of the kata, after the action is completed, we shift our body to one side, stand, and then purposely shift our point of focus. Other iai schools have similar practices.

Do you get tunnel vision when you train? Do you have tunnel vision in some other area of your life? How do you break away from it and keep your focus balanced?

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Budo and the Aging Budoka

I had another birthday recently. So did my iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi. He turned 94.  Aging is just another part of the budo journey. Just like regular practice, eating and sleeping, it can’t be avoided. My teachers, and my fellow students have all accumulated a variety of issues that come with the aging process, but we’re still making progress on the journey.  There are still new things to be learned, concepts to be better understood, and principles that can be more fully applied in our lives.

I began studying Kodokan Judo when I was 19 years old. It was as fascinating and fun as anything I’d ever done. Judo was the first athletic activity I fell in love with.  It was great being 19 and able to train in the dojo 4 or 5 times a week and still have enough energy to do some weight training on the off days. Bumps and bruises healed quickly, and even when I cracked my ribs, they healed easily. The biggest problem with healing my ribs was that I had an excess of energy and wanted to be on the mat and training several weeks before it was safe for my ribs to be doing judo.

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We trained hard all the time, because we could. We went to tournaments and fought hard. We won some, we lost some, and we ate everything in sight afterward. No matter how hard we trained one day, we could get up the next day and go at it again.

The summer before my 23rd birthday I achieved a dream and moved to Japan. I had a job teaching in the local junior high schools. When the teachers found out I did judo, they kindly introduced me to the high school judo coach, who invited me to train with his club whenever I was free. The high school club members were great and welcoming. Some of them had been training for twice as long as I had, others were relative beginners. We would train hard everyday and then get up and do it again.

9 years later I was living in Japan and I was still training with the high school judo club. Of course, I was 9 years older and the club members were still 15-17 years old. At that point, when I trained hard, I would get up the next day and think about what Sakashita Sensei would have them do, because I wasn’t doing it two days in a row.

Fast forward - Last night I was at judo practice and worked out with some guys in their teens and twenties.  They play hard, and I’m not sure they understand what I’m saying when I suggest that we “Keep it light”. They want to go 100% all the time. What amazes is me is that they can practice that hard for a couple of hours and they still have the energy to be disappointed that practice is over. By the end of practice I’m just happy to still be standing and wondering who sucked all the oxygen out of the dojo. Then the guys are talking about what kind of training they’ll do tomorrow, while I contemplate nothing more than good stretching to work some of the knots out of my muscles.

I do notice that it’s easier for me to do the sensible things now. It still bothers me when I pull a muscle or something similar and need to sit out, but no one has to tell me to sit down. The boundless energy that some of the young guys have makes it almost impossible for them to sit out of practice, regardless of what they’ve done to themselves. The teachers nearly have to sit on them to keep them from exacerbating their injuries by training before they’re fully healed.

Over time I’ve acquired my share of life reminders, otherwise known as injuries, and I’ve discovered I can hear them talking.  My knees let me know when they are getting to the end of their endurance. It’s an interesting sensation when they start to talk to me. I had to overdo it a couple of times before I realized what my knees were saying, but I did learn. When I hear them talking, I know it’s time to back off my training. I know now that if I don’t, I’ll spend the next day limping around the office and explaining to people that I was too stupid to stop training when I reached my limit.

I also know enough to make my practice count for something more than just working hard. Don’t get me wrong, I still love working hard, but I want all that effort to give me something more than a good sweat. Part of any do 道 is the idea that it doesn’t have a final destination. No matter where we are on the path there is still much to learn. I want to come away from every practice knowing that I have improved at least a tiny bit. That means being focused on doing my practice right. I might not be able to do as many reps as I used to, but I can still use them to polish my technique. I’m working on some left side techniques these days. As I enter, turn and drop under my training partner, I’m still focusing on creating good kuzushi, keeping my back straight and bending my knees deeply enough.

I find it amazing how lessons or instructions that don’t mean much can hang around in my head for years until I reach a point where I can use them. That feeling when some piece of advice that I got 20 years ago finally clicks and the light goes on and I understand! Yesterday it was how to move my legs and body to get into the right position for sumi gaeshi. I’ve known what the right position is for ages, but how to get there was another problem entirely. Yesterday during practice I had one of those wonderful epiphanies that happens in training, and a piece of advice I’d received years ago dropped into place. I could see the shape of the movement I needed and I could do it. It’s annoying to think that I had the key to the technique all this time and just wasn’t ready to see it.

This has happened to me often enough that I’m not sure I fully agree with the old saying that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think it’s more like “When the student is ready, he’ll realize the teacher has been there all along.” So many times when understanding has come, it’s been a sudden insight into the wisdom of something my teacher has been telling me all along.

I notice that what qualifies as a good practice for me has shifted. I used to have to be dripping with sweat and so tired I could hardly move. Now I feel like it was a good practice when I have chewed on a problem or idea in the art and learned something new.  How tired I am is irrelevant. How much did I learn? What did I discover about the art? It doesn’t matter if it’s judo or jodo or iaido, the important thing is how much I’ve learned. It’s great to sweat and work hard, but if I’m not learning anything I may as well just be doing push-ups.

It’s this never-ending opportunity for learning and improvement that makes budo fascinating for me even after three decades of study. I know there is always more to learn about the art I’m studying, and always more to refine within myself. No, I can’t do randori endlessly at judo anymore. But I can discover new ways to be a better judoka and more fully embody the principles of the art. My knees don’t like the seiza techniques in iaido as much as they used to, but when they tell me they’ve had enough of seiza, there are still a full set of standing kata to work on.

Now I can easily see why my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei, was so eager to get a new sword when he was in his seventies. He bought one that had a large fuller in the blade to make it light. He had been using a heavy blade from the Muromachi period (1392 - 1573) that would make his wrists hurt after long practices. With the new blade he could go to gasshuku, train all day and still feel fine afterwards. After 60 years of training, he was still excited to learn new things and continue his journey on the budo path. I can easily imagine that when I reach his age, I’ll be excited about getting a new sword too.



Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Budo, Bujutsu and Spiritual Development

Whatever else it does, budo teaches how to move with good structure, develops an understanding of the effective ranges of movement and how to optimally use time.  Budo is also concerned with making practitioners not just better fighters, but better people.  If a practice is  doing all of these four things, it’s probably budo.

Those four essentials haven’t changed since some bushi in pre-Tokugawa Japan first started putting together budo curricula. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, those essentials have to be there. Whether it is unarmed jujutsu, kenjutsu, kyudo or intercontinental ballistic missile warfare, you’re going to need to understand the structure involved, and how the weapons involved function in both time and space.  And you can be darn sure I want anyone involved in handling intercontinental ballistic missiles to constantly seek to be a better person.  If you have power, and that’s what martial training gives you, then you should work on being a better person. Even with as limited a budo form as judo, no one should develop those skills without also learning to be a good person.  There are enough dangerous jerks in the world already.

Look at the requirements for keppan in the old systems of koryu bugei.  They include injunctions against bad behavior and exhortations to students to behave not just correctly, but wisely.  I know people who proudly proclaim that they don’t do budo; that they are focused on real fighting technique, “bujutsu” they say.  THEY don’t water their training down with that budo nonsense of individual development!. I can’t count the people who have ridiculed budo as being some sort of ineffective, watered-down nonsense because it aspires to teach not just how to fight, but how to live.

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There is a popular impression that focusing on developing the heart as well as the technique suddenly came into vogue after the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1604-1868); that Kano Jigoro not only developed Kodokan Judo to be useful in public education but that he invented the idea of martial arts training as a form of moral and spiritual training. I have read and heard people ridicule Ueshiba Morihei as being nutty for his emphasis on Aikido as a means of achieving world peace.

In fact, martial ryuha in Japan have been mixing technical training with personal development for as long as there have been ryuha. Karl Friday, in his great volume Legacies Of The Sword(1997), introduces the physical, psychological and spiritual training of Kashima Shinryu. The system dates to the mid-1500s and included aspects of all these areas of training from its origin.

Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu dates from the 1400s and it too includes spiritual development within its curriculum. This can come as a surprise to people who would denigrate any martial art that teaches personal or spiritual development as being weaker than one that focuses on powerful technique alone. As an art that traces its origin to divine inspiration, there should be no surprise that it includes practices and teachings intended to improve not just the fighting spirit of the student, but their not-fighting spirit as well.

Katayama Hoki Ryu has a completely different lineage. Thanks to the work of Yuji Wada, Costantino Brandozzi, and Rennis Buchner many of the early writings of Katayama Hoki Ryu are now accessible. Katayama Hoki Ryu is a kenjutsu and iai system dating from the late 1500s. Originating in the war-filled Muromachi period, if any art should be focused solely on technique, this is one. Instead, the headmasters of Katayama Ryu wrote volumes about the mental and spiritual aspects of their art.

It should be clear that focusing on mental and spiritual development isn’t anything new in Japanese martial traditions. It’s been going on since the earliest days of of organized bugei training. The people who try to extract the techniques from all the rest and say what they are doing is somehow a “purer” form of bujutsu have, in my opinion, missed the whole point of the traditional ryuha.

From the earliest traditions in Japan, bugei ryuha 武芸流派 (martial arts school) teachers understood that just learning how to fight was not enough. Creating strong fighters is great, but if they lack the wisdom and maturity to know when and when not to fight, they pose a greater danger to society than any benefit they can bring. To teach a student was to take on responsibility for how your student behaved. If your student went out and injured or killed someone, the authorities would likely end up asking you some pointed questions. Even if your student was fully justified in their actions, there would be an investigation. If the investigation found that the justification was lacking, punishments in old Japan were brutal.

Whether you call it character development, or spiritual training, or just making mature adults, budo practice in Japan has contained a healthy dose of mental discipline since long before it was generally known as budo.  There are many ways of training students for this kind of development. Various bugei arts include chants, mantras and meditation practices borrowed from Shinto and Buddhist traditions. It’s not just Ueshiba Morihei who was talking about world peace and enlightenment. The idea that individuals can achieve self-perfection through study is a core concept of Neo-Confucian thought and can be found in the teachings and writings for many koryu bugei dating as far back as the 15th century.

In Japan, the philosophers of the samurai class took the Neo-Confucian ideal and expanded the subjects to be studied to become a “profound person” or 君子 (kunshi in Japanese, junzi in Chinese) to include the martial arts. They went so far as to coin the phrase 文武両道 (bunbu ryoudou) or roughly “Scholarly arts and martial arts are both of the Way”.  Within the Confucian traditions, anyone could become a kunshi through study and sincere effort. The Japanese just expanded the circle of things that should be studied beyond those of the fine arts, morality, literature, ritual and etiquette to include what were known in the Japan during the Kamakura, Muromachi, and Tokugawa eras most commonly as 武芸 (bugei) or literally “martial arts”.  The gei 芸 here is the same as in geisha 芸者, literally “an artistically accomplished person”.  

In addition, the word for “morality/morals” in Japanese is written 道徳 (doutoku) with the characters for way 道 and virtue 徳. These are also the first two characters of the work known in English as the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing) 道徳経. Anything that talks of individual development or what is often lumped under the phrase “spiritual development” in the English-speaking world, was likely to be, and still is, included in the concept of a “Way” 道. Like The Analects of Confucius, the Tao Te Ching is concerned with what traits make the sage (聖人seijin) and the “profound/superior person” ( 君子 kunshi). Neither one was enamored of war or violence.

Neither were the Japanese of the Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Period), the period from about 1467 until the victory by Tokugawa Ieyasu at Sekigahara in 1604. This was a period of uncontrolled civil war throughout Japan.  The Tao Te Jing says in Chapter 31 “Wherever a host is stationed, briars and thorns spring up.” Nearly 150 years of constant warfare had proven this to the thoughtful in Japan. The ideal of the bushi class was the profound person, the sage, as this idea was expounded Neo-Confucianism, Taoism and even in Buddhism. Hard experience had taught the Japanese to place the study of the arts of conflict on the same level as the fine arts, ethics, morality, etiquette and virtue.  

Conflict can come at any moment, and the profound person is ready for it when it comes. In order to be prepared for conflict, one must understand ethics, morality, etiquette and virtue. The great thinkers going back to Confucius and Lao Tzu recognized that one who understands only war is not even good for that. Even war has limits. In every society there are actions and behaviors that are beyond acceptable. In Japan, learning appropriate action, etiquette, ritual, ethics and morality was considered essential for anyone learning bugei.  

This is why ethics and etiquette, morality and individual spiritual development are so important in the classical bugei.  The Japanese didn’t want people trained in violence who didn’t have the maturity, self-control and spiritual development to handle the abilities that training gives. They included things like meditation, right behaviour and spiritual development in their bugei systems from the beginning.  A profound person has many characteristics we associate with someone who has a high degree of spiritual development.  She has self-control, doesn’t become angry easily, has the wisdom to discern right action and to not be baited by others. She is patient, kind and discerning. She doesn’t employ violence unless it is the most appropriate option for dealing with the situation.

Far from being a watered-down version of the classical arts, budo forms contain the ethical and spiritual center that has guided classical budo in Japan since before the term “budo” came into wide use. The idea of seeking mastery of martial technique without achieving mastery over your self was anathema to the founders and teachers of old. It should be anathema to teachers and students now as well.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Test Day

Shudokan Dojo, Osaka, Japan.  Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.
Last November I took a rank test in All Japan Kendo Federation Jodo. Getting ready for my test in November I spent a week in Osaka training several hours every day with my teachers. I didn’t know if I was ready for the test or not, but a week before the big day we started daily practice. By the end of the week I felt like I might have an outside chance of passing. Matsuda Shihan, Morimoto Shihan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei had all worked hard to drag me up to the level needed to pass the exam.

The test was held at the Shudokan Dojo on the grounds of Osaka Castle.  The dojo was reserved for the testing for the whole day. My friend Bijan and I got there early, but we still didn’t beat Iseki Sensei. He was waiting for us when we arrived. We registered, found a spot to put our gear and then got changed. There were a lot of people testing, including 12 for 4th dan and 5 for 5th dan. We started warming up and practicing on the floor where the test would be just to get used to the space and hopefully calm down a little.

As time passed before the test more and more people, both test takers and spectators, arrived. Bijan and I had lots of support. Iseki Sensei and our training partner Fujita San was there.  My friend Tadokoro Sensei came to cheer me on. I was surprised and honored that Fukuma Sensei came as well.  At 90 years of age, he is still strong and active and training jodo regularly. Everyone seemed to have at least a few supporters.

The test committee consisted of five 7th dan teachers.  To pass the test, you had to get a  passing mark from at least 3 of the 5. There would be 2 pairs demonstrating at a time in front of the judges. Each person had to demonstrate both the tachi and jo sides of 5 kata with randomly selected partners. The five kata required were different for each rank being tested for, but they had been announced months before the test, so there was plenty of time to prepare.

The test takers were called to line up by rank, and we were issued numbers to wear so the judges could identify us. The numbering also let us figure out who our partners would be for demonstrating the tachi and jo sides of the test. My partner for the demonstrating the tachi side was a tall gentleman about my size and age. Fo demonstrating the jo side, I was partnered with a small women who appeared a few years older than me. Once we figured out who we would be partnered with for each demonstration we grabbed our partners and started practicing together to get comfortable with each other.

The tall gentleman and I adjusted to each other without too much trouble. We had similar reach and power. We ran through the kata so he could get used to me as his tachi and I could adjust to his jo. The lady and I didn’t mesh as well. I was having trouble shrinking my technique to fit her, and she was having difficulty adapting to my stride.  We kept at it though and started making progress towards working well together.

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While we were doing that, apparently the judges and organizers were watching us, because at some point one of the organizers pulled us aside and told us they were changing the partnering  a little. The lady got paired with someone closer to her size, and I was partnered with someone closer to mine. The rule is that you take whoever they give you as a partner, but it seems they didn’t want to make adjusting to your partner too large a hurdle.

My new partner was a bit smaller than I, but quite a bit larger than the lady I had been working with. My now former partner seemed relieved not to have to work with me, and I’ll admit I was glad to work with someone who was easy to adapt myself to.  We started practicing right away because there wasn’t much time before the testing began.

Not long after this we were called to order again, and the testing began. It started with the lowest rank being tested that day, ikkyu, and would finish with the 5th dan testing. This meant I got to see everyone else test before my turn arrived.The ikkyu candidates demonstrated kihon techniques and the their designated kata. Then the shodan candidates did their designated 5 kata, both jo side and tachi side. Then all the nidan candidates.

I kept looking at the clock and wondering how we would get everything done by lunchtime. I’m sure my friends could all tell my mental state by how frequently I looked up at the clock. Bijan and I were both eager to take our tests and be done. I’m sure my blood pressure went up steadily while other people took their tests and the hands on the clock sped around.

The sandan candidates filed onto the floor, two pairs at a time at a time, and demonstrated their designated 5 kata. Then the head tachiai, the person calling out the directions for the testing called a break for lunch. I really wanted to get this over with, and now we had a hour for lunch. Because Shudokan Dojo is on the grounds of Osaka Castle, there are yakisoba and takoyaki stands next to it serving all the tourists. Those of us who had not packed hearty lunches, like me and Bijan, bought some yakisoba noodles or takoyaki squid balls and headed over to one of the castle walls where our friends and teachers and fellow dan challengers were gathered eating and sharing treats with each other.

We sat down with everyone and somehow started to relax. It was refreshing to be out of the dojo and not counting down the people ahead of us who had yet to test. For those who think that traditional Japanese budo teachers have to be tough and stoic and never smile, this would have been a shock. All our teachers and friends had brought extra treats to pass around, and everyone was laughing and joking. When the cameras came out, the smiles got wider and and laughter got louder. I’d needed this more than I knew. I’m sure I had wound myself tight watching everyone test all through the morning. The smiles and laughter gently eased a lot of the tension out of me.

After lunch it was just the 4th dan and 5th dan tests. There were twelve 4th dan candidates in 3 groups and five 5th dan candidates separated into 2 groups. When the testing started back up, they called all the 4th and 5th dan candidates together. While the 4th dan candidates lined up and walked to the test area, the 5th dan candidates lined up and sat in chairs directly in front of the test floor facing the judges on the other side of it. From here we had a great view of the 4th dan tests, though I admit I don’t remember much of what I saw at this point. I was cycling through the 5 kata that were designated for my test. The 5th dan test consisted of the ZNKR Jo Kata 8-12.

As the 4th dan challengers finished up, they moved us to ready chairs next to right of the test floor. I was the youngest in my group, so I was up first.  This meant I would demonstrate tachi and then cycle around to do the jo. My partner for this portion of the test and I walked out onto the floor as we had been instructed, arranged our extra weapons at the side and waited for the direction to begin. The first kata, Tachi Otoshi, went well I seem to recall. The opening for the next kata I very nearly blew.  To be sure I did the right kata in the right order I was focusing on the initial attack, which is a cut to the upper arm. I was launching straight into the attack when I realized I hadn’t done the awase with the jo yet. Somehow I managed to turn the premature attack into a simple matching with the jo, though I don’t believe anyone missed it what had actually happened. I’m very sure the judges all caught it.

After that big hiccup the kata went smoothly. At least, I don’t remember any other major stumbles, though there were a few minor errors of timing and spacing. Being that my partner and I had done the kata together for the first time that morning, I’m not surprised. We even got through all of Ran Ai without any mishaps. If there is a kata where things will go wrong, Ran Ai is it.  It’s several times longer than any other kata in the ZNKR syllabus, providing plenty of chances for me to screw up. Somehow, I didn’t.

My partner and I finished and waited for the tachiai’s direction to leave the floor. I carefully left as we had been taught, and picked up my jo while my partner exchanged his jo for a tachi so he could do the tachi role with the next candidate. Doing those 5 kata at that level of intensity had left me flushed, sweating and breathing hard. I worked at getting my breathing and my mind calm and relaxed. Since I wouldn’t need it again, I put my tachi down at the corner of the mat and circled back around the test floor to chairs on the right where candidates waited until it was their turn to demonstrate.  I set down and watched the next couple of demonstrations, but I don’t remember anything except that the head judge looked terribly severe.

Then it was finally my turn to demonstrate the jo side. I tried to walk out with presence and dignity. At the very least I managed to not trip over my hakama. The tachiai called out the commands to begin. My tachi partner raised his sword, and I held my position in tsune no kamae. I waited for tachi to approach and when he came in range I began my movements.  I’d go into more detail, but I think I was too busy testing to remember much. I do recall being shocked to realize while doing the zanshin on our second kata that everyone in the room was watching us.  It hadn’t occurred to me before, but this was the very last test segment of the day, and the other group of challenging for 5th dan had already finished. There was nothing else to do but watch us. Somehow I made it through the last 3 kata without any significant hiccups, even with the realization that so many people whom I look up to were watching.

We finally finished the last cut and strike of Ran AI, managed our bows and exited the floor, again, without tripping over my hakama or my feet.  It wasn’t a perfect test, but nobody looked like I had embarrassed them, and no one tried to offer me condolences, so I figured it was ok.  Pass or fail, I had already accomplished my real goal, which was to not embarrass my teachers with a weak test.

All the test challengers changed out of their hakama and got drinks. We sat around chatting and discussing the test conditions while the judges went off to discuss the tests behind closed doors. After a week of intensive preparation it was a relief to be done and not have to think about it for a while.  Even if I didn’t pass, it would be 6 months before I could try again.

Eventually the judges finished their meeting and posted the results. Somehow I had managed to present an acceptable demonstration, and the judges passed me. I was so relieved and excited it took me moment to remember to check to see if Bijan had passed as well.  He had!  All our sweat and sore muscles for the past week paid off in wonderful exhaustion. After receiving congratulations from everyone who had helped us prepare, and all our friends who had come to cheer us on, we hurried over to the officials’ desk to take care of the registration paperwork.  All that was left was to wait for the official rank certificates to be issued and mailed to us.

Now it was time for the best part of the day. Everyone we had come with gathered at a nearby restaurant and we celebrated.

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A couple of weeks ago, I repeated the experience. I was in Pennsylvania for the AUSKF Jodo Shinsa. I arrived a few days before the shinsa so I could prepare myself. The day before the shinsa the group of us who were taking part all gathered together so we could review things and make sure we were all on the same page. We spent the day reviewing the kata together and preparing ourselves.

The next morning we got up and spend more time running through the kata and getting ready.  Before the test we reviewed the test procedures; the proper way to bow, the proper way to enter, and how to present ourselves with dignity. Then it was time for the actual test.

We bowed in, walked onto the floor and took our places. The test went smoothly.  I didn’t hyperventilate, or trip over myself or otherwise make myself look like a fool. There was one significant difference between this test and the one I had passed in November. This time I was judging the tests. It felt almost the same though.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Musings Of A Budo Bum

My book is out! I've put together a collection of my some of my favorite budo essays, arranged them by themes and published them as Musings Of A Budo Bum. It's over 150 pages of pure budo stuff, with everything from how to use budo titles to how to stand up, plus many, many other things.

I want to thank everyone who contributed to the IndieGogo campaign to help get this published. You are awesome!

Signed copies are available at Mugendo Budogu in the USA.

Globally it is available from Amazon sites around the world, Chapters, and other fine booksellers.

 Musings Of A Budo Bum


The subjects covered are

CONTENTS
Introduction
Getting Started
Do you have to study in Japan to understand budo?
Etiquette: Form and sincerity in budo
Sensei, Kyoshi, Hanshi, and Shihan: budo titles and how (not) to use them
Different ranks in martial arts?
Zanshin
Do versus Jutsu
What kata isn’t
Trust in the dojo
Training
Training, motivation, and counting training time in decades instead of years
The most effective martial art
The dojo as the world: learning to deal with violence and power
Budo and responsibility
Investing in failure
The spirit of learning
Training hard and training well are not the same thing
When it comes to training, fast is slow and slow is fast
Getting out of the comfort zone
There are no advanced techniques
Essentials
The most essential principles in budo: Structure
The most essential principles in budo: Spacing
The most essential principles in budo: Timing
Philosophy
The only things I teach are how to walk and how to breathe
Budo expectations and realities: understanding the limits of what we study
Will budo training make me a better person?
Budo as a “professional skill” and professionalism in budo
Budo training and budo philosophy
How to adapt an art form to fit you
Is kata too rigid and mechanical? 

Thanks everyone! 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Budo Training and Stress

A friend asked me to write about budo as a stressor vs budo as stress relief, and how this interacts with the concept of "If your practice is comfortable you are not growing as a budoka"

At the most basic level, budo works as a stress reliever in the same way that any physical activity does. The activity burns off excess cortisol and adrenaline. What makes budo different is that budo training is, as you suggest above, also a type of stressor.  Competent budo training takes the student (and we’re all students of budo, no matter how long we’ve been studying) out to a place where there is physical and mental stress as a regular part of training.

The practice of martial techniques is pointless if the mind is not developed to be able to handle the stress of conflict. Therefore, competent budo training prepares the body by practicing techniques and strategies, and prepares the mind by placing gradually increasing pressure on the student’s psyche while teaching techniques for managing and mitigating that stress. Having someone trying to hit you with a big stick is stressful even in a training situation. To be effective, budo practice must train students for the stress that being in actual conflict will elicit.

Budo practice doesn’t start students out with full speed and force attacks. It starts them out with an attack that is within their capacity to evade and counter. The attacks are real though, in the sense that when I attack one of my students, she knows that my weapon will shortly occupy the precise space that her head is occupying now. The attack is not as fast or as powerful as I could make it. It is as fast and as powerful as it needs to be to require the student’s best action. The goal is not to hurt or injure the student. The goal is to train the student to deal with the possibility of harm and handle it calmly. As the student masters various parts of the training, the speed and power of the attack must be increased to maintain the challenge for the student and to ensure that the student continues to grow. What had been stressful as a beginning student will cease to be stressful to a more advanced one.

In other words, the student will have learned to handle a certain kind and degree of stress. The budo teacher’s job is to increase the stress and at the same time teach the student techniques for dealing with that stress. I find that good breathing technique is the most fundamental of stress management tools. Early on, students will begin to take quick, shallow breaths that don’t sustain them.  That shallow breathing, in turn, will increase their stress level. The experienced student of budo has learned to breathe efficiently, from her diaphragm, in a steady, measured manner.  Good breathing technique helps the student to remain calm and in control, even as the speed, force and intent of her partner’s attack increases.

The senior student remains calm even under attacks that would overwhelm a beginning student. The repeated experience of gradually intensifying attacks combined with learning to master one’s breathing and reactions through the exercises of a particular budo system increases the level of stress the student can successfully manage. It is not that having someone attack them is no longer stressful, but that they have been trained to raise their stress reaction levels. An attack by a senior teacher that would have been overwhelmingly stressful before, one that  would make a student start hyperventilating while waiting for the attacker to approach, becomes something they await with calm, measured breathing and a quiet, mirror-like mind.

As budo practice continues,  the student finds that she can summon this calm breathing and peaceful mind not just in the dojo, but anywhere she feels stress or conflict. Eventually the student reaches a level where even when her teacher presents a new situation that she is unfamiliar with, her body and mind remain calm and peaceful.  She then becomes confident that she can handle whatever is coming.

This is one aspect of budo training that makes senior exponents appear to be super-human to beginners and non-practitioners. They are in command of themselves, controlled and calm, even when under intense stress. The more effectively a student internalizes the lessons about breathing and mental calmness, the more the lessons will show up outside the dojo.

Being able to remain calm and and unstressed is useful in all sorts of places and situations that don’t involve people trying to hit you with big sticks, tossing you across the room or choking you into submission. It’s surprising how useful this skill is in business settings where negotiations are going on and people are trying to ratchet up the pressure. There are all sorts of adversaries who don’t attack with big sticks, but do attack in other ways, with verbal attacks, implied threats and physical intimidation by imposing on personal space. These can all bring out stress responses.

Budo training can be applied in all of them. Just remembering to breathe calmly when the person across the room starts raising their voice gives the budo student an advantage. Being able to maintain her calm, steady breathing helps to keep a peaceful, undisturbed mind, which does a good job of making many pressure tactics seem almost silly. People who like to intimidate others by their close physical presence are often unnerved themselves when their targets remain calm and confident while their personal space is violated. People who like to yell and pound the table during negotiations tend to grow quiet and uncomfortable when their outbursts are met with calm disregard. It’s like the physical attacker who expects you to stand there and get hit. The student can rewrite the script for the interaction simply by remaining calm when under attack. It doesn’t matter what form the attack takes. With her calm breathing and clear mind, she gets to choose her actions rather than being pushed into the reaction her adversary is looking for.

Budo training works both sides of the stress equation. The physical and mental intensity of good budo practice provides vigorous exercise that relieves accumulated tension. Over time, the lessons learned from the vigorous practice lowers the pressure you feel overall because the training works to raise the bar as to what is stressful, and to help maintain mental stability and calm even when things get hot.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Are You Practicing Budo in a Vacuum?

Osaka Castle Main Tower. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


I love visiting Japan. It’s a fantastic opportunity to train in dojo where there are several senior students, each with more experience than most teachers in the USA. The teachers who lead these dojo are incredible.  My teacher, Matsuda Shigeharu Shihan is based in Osaka. He doesn’t run his own dojo, but rotates around a group of dojo run by his senior students, people like Kazuo Iseki and Hotani Masayuki. Outside Japan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei would each be highly recognized, but inside Japan they run dojo and look to Matsuda Shihan for leadership. I also get to train sometimes with Matsuda Shihan’s colleague Morimoto Kunifumi Shihan.  To get to train with these people, who have 40, 50 or 60 years of experience truly is an honor and a privilege.  

However, this post isn’t about my teachers, or even training in Japan. It’s about the frame and background that surrounds them. I’ve seen people try to practice budo without putting any effort into understanding the history and cultural background of the art they are studying. To me, they are studying budo in a vacuum. It can be argued that fighting can be learned without studying the cultural milieu within which it takes place, but I don’t think the arguments are very convincing.  Without understanding the culture and history of your opponent, you will not be able to understand her goals, which leads to misjudging what tactics and strategies are most appropriate.

Budo wasn’t created in a vacuum by a bunch of guys with vivid imaginations. Budo comes from a concrete world of sweat and blood. The world of the founders of the many ryuha  was filled with obstacles that could block your weapon if you didn’t pay attention to your surroundings.  Even your own weapons and clothing could interfere with your ability to react.

The many different schools of Japanese budo are impossible to truly understand and appreciate without  understanding the history and culture which nurtured and contributed to the individual schools. There are dozens of surviving schools of Japanese budo; some with histories from the 1400s like Kashima Shinryu and Katori Shinto, as well as other,  more recently developed schools, such as Kodokan Judo and Ueshiba Ryu Aikido. Each of these schools shares a great deal of Japanese culture, but they also each have a unique history that informs the particular values of the school.  The circumstances that surrounded the founding of a school in the tumultuous era of the 15th century were different in almost every way from those that led to Kano Jigoro founding Kodokan Judo in the 1880s or Ueshiba Morihei establishing his Aikido in the 1940s.

When I go to Japan, it’s an opportunity to immerse myself in the unbelieveable depth of experience in the dojo, but also to soak myself in the culture and history that has shaped the arts I study. When I went to Japan in November, I had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of Japan that has influenced the budo I study and practice.



I arrived in Japan on a Saturday evening and spent much of Sunday getting adjusted to the time change and doing some jodo training. On Monday morning I got up and headed over to Osaka Castle Park. I wanted to see the dojo I’d be testing in the following Sunday, and see Osaka Castle itself.  Somehow, in nearly 30 years of traveling to Japan, seven of them spent living there, I’d never gotten around to seeing Osaka Castle. It’s the site of some of the most horrific and important battles in Japanese history. The castle tower has been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times, but visiting the castle and the surrounding park provides good perspective on the Japan of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Osaka Castle Main Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


Osaka Castle Inner Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


The castle tower is big.  It was easily the tallest object around for hundreds of years. What is more amazing are the walls and fortifications around the tower.  These are massive, and they easily give a feel for the huge armies that were involved in the wars of the 1500s that raged back and forth across Japan.The idea of carrying a sword and being part of those huge armies changes the view of what combat might have been like.

 
Shudokan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016
 
As it happens, the Shudokan Dojo, where I was to test, is part of the Osaka Castle Park complex now.  It’s a lovely building from the Showa Period (1926-1989) built just for budo practice.  I wanted to check out the interior where my test would be, but the dojo didn’t open until later in the afternoon when I would be training with Hotani Sensei.  The outside of the building was lovely, and the sign said anyone was welcome to practice for just 300 yen. What can be rare and hard to find in America is open to anyone in Japan with 300 yen and an interest in budo. 
After several days of training, I was starting to get a little sore.  I needed a break.  So before keiko that Tuesday we went to Kiyomizu Temple to do some sightseeing.  Kiyomizu Temple is at the site of an ancient spring with pure water used for sado, tea ceremony.  The temple complex is about 1200 years old, though the current buildings date from the late 1600s. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most picturesque places in Kyoto, so it’s always filled with tourists from all over Japan and the world.

Kiyomizu Temple overlooking Kyoto. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.



Recently, it’s become popular rent traditional clothing to walk Kyoto in. This is a new trend that I like. There were lots and lots of women in kimono, and even a few men in hakama. The city of Kyoto has worked hard to maintain its traditional buildings and architecture, and the tourists in traditional clothing fit right in. It’s not hard to imagine how the temple and city must have looked when everyone dressed that way.

Ladies in kimono at Kiyomizu Temple. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


After walking through Kiyomizu Temple, my friend Bijan and I and walked around the small shopping streets from the temple to Maruyama Park. The road leading up to Kiyomizu Temple from Maruyama Park is, in this era, really a foot path, even though locals and delivery trucks insist on pushing their way through the crowds. It’s lined with small, traditional snack shops, green tea ice cream vendors, and traditional craft shops of all sorts. I bought some lovely tenugui at a little shop along the way.  When I asked the man at the register how long the shop has been there, he told me that he’s the 6th generation owner. This is not at all unusual in Kyoto, and helps bring alive the idea that the living traditions handed down carefully from generation to generation that we train in aren’t all that rare in Japan. Besides shops, there all sorts of crafts where the living masters trace their lineage back generations and hundreds of years. Kabuki, Noh, potters, painters, sword makers and sword teachers can all trace their lineages back through the centuries. In places like Kyoto, this sense of age permeates the atmosphere and brings a sense of the normalcy of such things to those of us from countries that  are younger than the arts we study.

Wandering from Kiyomizu Temple to Maruyama Park also makes some of the kata I’ve studied over the years much more practical and less philosophical. Many of the homes and store complexes have an actual gate or mon 門. If you have a kata in your system with the word mon  in the name, such as Mon Ire in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, you can easily see why there are particular kata for fighting around a gate. The top of the gate is low and the space is not very big. You have to be careful just walking through the gate, much less trying to fight there.

Another feature of old Japanese cities are the narrow streets. I know several bugei systems with a kata called Hoso Michi 細道, or Narrow Street. The street from the temple to the park is only about 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and there are many little streets connecting to it that are only 3-6 feet (1-2 meters) wide. After you see just how many narrow streets there are in a traditional Japanese city like Kyoto, the only surprise with having kata called Hoso Michi is that there aren’t a lot more of them. There are little tiny alleyways everywhere.

The path leads past all sorts of little, traditional shops and many small temples in addition to Kiyomizu Temple.  We had a lovely sushi lunch in one.  Sushi as we know it isn’t all that old, only really dating from the mid-19th century, but some of the senbei and dango shops, like the place where I bought the tenugui, have been there for generations. Being able to walk the streets this way, you can feel the atmosphere of centuries past, and now, thanks to all the tourists wearing kimono and hakama, you can get sense of how the people may have looked as well.

Budo, like any living tradition, and any living person, has been shaped by the culture and history through which it has passed.  You can’t study budo in a vacuum. Without understanding where budo comes from, there is no way to really understand what you are doing or how those lessons might apply to the world as it has become. Those funky kata are just arm waving exercises until you can clearly see the world they came from and how they fit. Without that, there isn’t any way to connect what you are studying and practicing with the world you live in. Even the modern budo of judo and kendo are more than 100 years old in their current forms. Aikido isn’t quite 100 yet, but some of its elements are from far older traditions. Shiko, knee walking, goes back to particular styles of court dress from the Edo period. Judo contains kata against weapons of the Edo and early Meiji eras. Kendo, is, well, a sword art.

If you don’t know how the art you study relates to the world it came from, what possibility is there for you to relate it to the world outside the dojo you live in? This is especially true in the koryu bugei, but as in the examples above, it relates to more modern budo as well. In the Shinto Hatakage Ryu that I teach, there is a strange little movement during the noto that doesn’t make a lot of sense as iai is usually practiced. Iai is usually practiced with just a katana in the obi, but that’s not how the samurai who created the art and lived it for generations dressed.  They wore two swords, a katana and what we call today a wakizashi, a short sword worn beside the katana. That strange little motion looks like silly arm waving, and it is. At least, it is until you put a wakizashi in your obi next to the katana. Then the motion makes perfect sense as you maneuver around the wakizashi to get the katana back into the saya without banging the swords or your wrist. There’s a lesson here about being aware of your surroundings and moving in accordance with them that shows up in many places in budo kata, regardless of which ryuha you are studying.

The lessons of budo kata and training aren’t meant to be particular. You’re not learning about how to wield your sword in an alleyway in Japan, or how to fight in and around the gate of a traditional Japanese home. The kata chosen in any ryuha represent specific examples of general problems.  How do you draw your sword in obstructed spaces? How do you move in loose, baggy clothing, or be aware of obstacles in your environment? If you think of each kata and lesson as an isolated instance, there is no way to understand and absorb everything it has to offer. Knowing the history and background of a kata makes it possible to extract general rules from specific lessons. There is no way to make a kata for every possible variation. There isn’t enough time in one life to study every possible scenario. The creators of budo chose lessons that could be extrapolated from individual kata to the whole panoply of life.

Generations ago when the budo ryuha were being created, these general lessons were easier to pick up because the specific practices were drawn from daily life. Now we have to study not just the kata, but the history and settings of the kata before we can extract all the lessons they contain.