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Learning Mind Reading

I was doing a bit of Niten Ichiryu after weeks of learning some relatively complex kata in another school. One thing I noticed immediately is that Niten is simple. That is, a Niten kata has very few movements, which is what attracted me to the school in the first place, you can get down to it quickly.

"It" being the good stuff, the timing, the distance, the courage and the mind reading.

Mind reading? Yes, you can read minds by learning how to read bodies. You can read when your partner is about to attack through the tell-tale signs in his body. Now of course he is going to try to move without telegraphing it, but you can still read him if you work at it.

To develop the ability you have to start with your own body and learn how it moves, then you need to learn how to control it. For this practice, iaido is ideal, and that's why I began that study in the first place. Iaido allows you to analyse your stance and posture. It allows you to study power and sword handling and tip position and how to control it all.

Next on the list is to move on to partner kata work. Here you have to learn sei chu do, the stillness and the explosion and the relationship between the two. You can't simply freeze and then leap, you have to learn how to move from a state of rest, of relaxation, into a full attack without any preparation. To wait in a state of tension means that you are getting tired while screaming "I'm going to attack soon". Not very surprising to your opponent at all.

Does competition have any place in all this? Sure it does, if one trains correctly. Unfortunately most competition training consists in how to be faster than your opponent rather than how to read him. To be fair, most kata training consists in learning how to dance so it's not much better. The ideal of both competition and kata is to know when your opponent is about to move, then you can move easily to whichever place is best to be, thus stopping the attack even before it is made.

All this means that the ideal partner kata should be simple. It should allow you to "see the world in a grain of sand". There is infinite pleasure in Sasen, the first kata of the Niten Ichiryu long sword set which consists of walking up to the opponent and stabbing him in the throat when he tries to cut you down. Nothing more complicated than that, yet the technique is infinitely complex and infinitely difficult.

Dec 29, 2009
Teaching Teaching Mode

I used to have what I called teaching mode, still do I suspect, which consists of demonstrating the kata at the same speed all the way through. Each part gets the same amount of time and emphasis. The reasoning behind this was that when you are learning a kata each and every piece of it is of the same importance and so should be seen clearly.

Lately I have changed my mind and I now think that teaching mode is a mistake. I think it's a lot more important to show students what they are working toward rather than starting their instruction from an artificial timing in the kata.

Once they have seen the kata at the correct speed and timing there is plenty of time to break down the movements, show the mistakes and vary the timing. In other words, the very first thing the students should see is the very best example you can give to them. After that you teach.

A problem with teaching mode is that it can be a trap for an instructor. A while ago I was working with one of my students who has his own dojo and it took almost an hour for me to get him out of his own teaching mode so that we could work at his level.

Never forget that teaching time is an instructor's practice time as well, and by starting from your best effort you will be stretching your own legs.

Dec 26, 2009
Secrets Your Secret Gift from Sensei

Since it is Christmas day I thought I would give all budo students a gift and reveal the deepest most hidden (hiden) secrets of your martial art.

Or rather, reveal to you how to hear the secrets from your own sensei.

So, hiden means something like secret transmission, kuden means oral transmission, and okuden means the topmost, hidden, secret teachings or some such.

When do we get them? Obviously just before we're done right? Like in the movies when the old master whispers them in the ear of the chosen student and then croaks.

Well here's your special secret gift from me to you today. The innermost secrets of your martial art are given to you on the very first day you start practice.

Yep, it's the basics, the stuff you hardly listened to for the last 4 or 5 years as you've been trying to get sensei to teach you the good stuff.

It's the stuff that sensei wouldn't even think about putting into his manual... not so much for fear that the enemies of the school will learn it, but because it's what he tells you every day of your training. It's oral because it's too damned basic (read that last word as meaning IMPORTANT) to bother writing it down.

So why do we think it's something we get only after years of practice? Because it really is something that we GET only after years of practice.

"When the student is ready the teacher appears" actually means, when the student has done enough basic practice for enough years to clean the wax out of his ears, he'll finally hear what sensei has been saying all along.

You doubt me? You think that a couple of words in the ear from a dying man would remain secret for long? Come on, martial artists are the greatest gossips since fish wives became fishers. Nothing is going to remain a secret for long. Even the (secret) correct answers to the Zen Koan were eventually written in a book and published.

No, the best place to keep the secrets is right out there in the open, like a $10,000 bicycle covered in mud and scratches thrown on the front lawn instead of being chained to a post. Nobody ever looks for anything of value right in front of their noses.

But if you do look, if you listen with clean ears, you'll find all sorts of secret presents from sensei at your very next class. Just make sure you're standing down close to the beginners for the really juicy stuff.

Dec 25, 2009
Practice Gifts from Sensei

It's usually with the higher dan ranks.
It's usually close to grading.
It's usually painfully public.

I'm talking about getting reamed out by sensei of course. Getting it both barrels and loud, in front of all those lower grades you're supposed to be impressing with your skills. Getting it so that you feel like the skin is being taken off your back as all your faults are not only revealed, but the length of time you've had them and how hopelessly you have tried to fix them over the years.

I'm talking about the beginners wanting to slide under a rock and hide.

Now, unless your sensei is a sadistic jerk (and it's hard to tell sometimes but surely by the time you've spent 15 years with him you'll have figured that out) these are gifts and should be taken as such.

These gifts are a way to shake you up, to get you into focus once more, to get you to the next level of training.

As my sensei said a short while ago when accused of being mean to a student, "but I'm still talking to him"!

If sensei was really angry, or had given up on that student he wouldn't be talking to him at all. It's pretty easy to ignore a student in a room full of them, and it takes a lot of energy to come up with a new way to call someone a useless git, so take your gift from sensei, say "hai" and get back to work.

I should note that it wasn't me who came up with the phrase "gifts from sensei". I told the story to a soon to be newly-minted 6dan student and the first words out of his mouth were "but those are gifts from sensei".

Dec 19, 2009
Learning I am not a Japanophile

Make no mistake, I like Japan, I quite like its culture in tourist-size doses, but I have no desire to be Japanese or to live in Japan.

I do budo for what it teaches, not for who invented it. I don't want to be a Samurai and I don't want to preserve an ancient culture. Never did. I am also rather suspicious of the idea that the Japanese culture has something to do with what you learn in the budo. I think the lessons of budo are contained within budo, and that's why it survived in Japan, and why it flourishes outside that country.

Why am I not more enamoured of the Japanese culture if I practice its martial arts? To be fair, I have also investigated its carpentry, furnituremaking, house design, swordmaking, kumihimo, sashiko, and zen buddhism. Perhaps this makes me a closet Japanophile? More likely it is part of why I'm not fascinated with the culture. Familiarity breeds un-fascination after all. Tellingly, I do western carpentry and joinery, build western houses, braid, or crochet rather than weave cord, have done more western embroidery than sashiko, and it's been years since I've sat on any regular basis. What I do is budo.

Another reason I'm not a Japanophile is that I associate with and am taught by a lot of Japanese who are outside Japan. I have no illusions about the people, no belief that you have to be Japanese or that the Japanese have a special genetic knowledge of budo. I know, because I've been told, that it takes a good heart and a lot of sweat, something that is not culturally unique. All this is backed up by my sensei who has for years wondered why a "round-eye" (my term, not his) would want to spend hours in seiza. I recall his words were: "I have to do it, I'm Japanese, but why would you do it?"

Good question.

I've always answered that I do it for what it teaches me.

Dec 18, 2009
Learning Making sense

Nothing better than watching a senior student working through a kata, making comparisons of kihon between two or three kata, and figuring out for himself why this kata works this way and that one works that way.

It's a delight because soon afterward their practice takes a jump upward, they are more enthusiastic, more emotive and more skilled at what they are doing.

Your kata have to make sense to you. Yes we are all told from day one what's happening, "here you punch the guy on the right and then you turn and stab the other guy" but that's not quite the same as figuring out just how much angle you need to apply here to get just the right amount of thrust there.

To do that you have to go through the kata with an eye to how things work instead of which foot goes where. Begin with the question "why" instead of "what". Why do I shift to this angle rather than What angle do I shift to.

If it took a lot of faith to memorize the dance moves, it takes even more faith to look at the kata, accept them as working / workable, and search for the reasons why. It would be much easier to change the kata to "what works" when you get to one of those points that seem to make no sense at all. Take the hard road and look at what you're doing, think about what you've been taught, and do the kata 12 times at full speed with the best partner you can find. See if it works now.

Yes, this is the "ha" of Jo Ha Kyu... one of them.

Dec 14, 2009
Teaching Budo TNG

So, all you senior instructors out there, have you got your replacements picked out yet? Are you training them to take over? Giving them more and more responsibility while you start backing out of the mix?

No? Why not? You're not getting any younger and even if you live to be a hundred you'll still eventually kick it so why aren't you thinking about who's going to replace you?

Every organization needs a plan, or at least an informal process whereby those at the top are efficiently replaced by trained, competent members of the next generation. This is something that is often sadly lacking in the budo. We've all seen cases where a dojo falls apart when sensei retires, or watched organizations flounder for years after the ruling clique retires (or more usually gets the big heave-ho from a membership that is finally fed up with them). It also happens in the koryu, quite often, when the headmaster somehow never quite gets around to setting up his successor.

The result, all too often, is that the most senior student still hanging around gets the nod, and quite often this senior isn't all that senior at all. If everyone is lucky the rest of the group falls in line and supports the new leader(s) but that is often not the case as a more senior member suddenly decides that he was passed over somehow.

Are you a senior student? Have you been paying attention to what is happening higher up? Are you putting yourself forward to do some of the jobs that need doing? If not, you should be. Doing some of the work allows you to check out how the rest of the work is being done (or not being done) and you can be prepared to help take over when the time comes.

Nobody should assume that what they're doing to run an organization is self-evident and easy to pick up. It isn't, especially if those at the top are secretive, micro-managers or really bad at keeping records.

Dec 11, 2009
Spirituality Hara

Somewhere out there in book-land is one called "Hara" by a German fellow and I thought about it the other day, maybe 20 years after I read it.

Wow, Google is the king of the world (after I somehow remembered the author's name)

Hara : the vital centre of man / Karlfried Graf von Dürckheim ; translated from the German by Sylvia-Monica von Kospoth in collaboration with Estelle R. Healey
by Dürckheim, Karlfried, Graf, 1896-
London : Allen & Unwin, 1962

Now, as I recall, the author used the concept of hara as a starting point to discuss spirituality and I seem to remember that at one point he talked about hara to hara communication.

What a lovely, budo concept. This would be the way that a good martial artist can anticipate the movement of his opponent, a hara to hara connection would mean that the intent to attack can be communicated directly and responded to before any physical movement is actually made.

Yes, it's a "gut feeling".

How do you get it? Practice of course, keiko, lots and lots of years of partner practice and competition.

What is it really? OK if you don't believe in hara to hara transmission of ki, how about all movement in the body comes through the hara, through the centre of balance, and small shifts in the weight distribution of the hips can be detected by experienced martial artists so that they can tell when someone is about to move.

And how can one detect those shifts of weight, assuming they result in pretty small actual physical movements?

Physical empathy. Remember we're talking about hara to hara communication so it has nothing to do with the eyes or the rational consideration of movements and what they mean. It is a direct feeling of what the opponent is doing (and feeling) because the martial artist feels it too. The hara are connected, what one is feeling, the other is feeling.

A martial artist who can't empathize with his opponent can't establish this hara to hara communication, can't get an accurate "gut feeling".

Meaning of course, one of the main objectives of the martial arts is to develop empathy for your opponent. If that isn't a spiritual pursuit I don't know what is.

Dec 10, 2009
Learning The Push

Working on a set of koryu jodo with a student today I realized that I'm really not fond of accuracy. Absolutely, do the stuff like you were taught, learn the footwork, learn which foot goes where, what your grip should be on the stick as you take your initial kamae, but then you've got to forget it all.

And I mean really forget it, like you can't remember how to turn on the blinkers on your car when you think about it, because thinking about it is what gets you hit in the head.

So, how do you forget about the steps? Hmm, let's back up a bit. The student I was working with is beyond the memorize the steps bit with this set, and is in need of the push generally.

The push is when you either start to get this stuff or continue to be a dancer, a technician who knows the steps and knows how it's supposed to go and never actually gets it. The push is when a more experienced partner (could be sensei, could just be your senior who happens to be working with you that day) decides to start moving just a little bit faster on the attack and stops moving when it's your turn to move. Now when they attack faster it's pretty obvious to the student what's going on, and most can handle it just fine, but that stopping is nasty. It's like falling into a hole, like pushing on a door and having it move just ahead of you as someone on the other side opens it.

It's confusing and brain stopping. And then your partner attacks into the space and maybe taps you on the head.

What's happening of course is that without the senior partner moving to the next part of the kata, the junior isn't pulled along and then has to "figure out how to turn on the blinker". Which means the brain has to kick in and that creates a space.

OK all that means is that the student has to do some more memorization and move onto the attack when he's supposed to right? Well yes, if we're still dancing the kata, but there's another level.

That's when the student feels a hole and moves into it without thinking about it. Sometimes that means breaking the kata and doing something else. Now we're back to me not liking accuracy.

I was pushing today, and was reacting to my student's openings, the holes that were happening because I wasn't leading, but I also realized eventually that I was also getting upset about holes in the kihon. All the parts and pieces were in the right place, and the timing was good but I kept stopping, and then I started swinging into openings.

Those were openings that were the result of not moving quite far enough to one side, not covering the head while switching from one movement to another, rocking back before moving forward, moving in too far on other motions.

Oh my, this is the part of the kata that I love, where it starts talking to you about the basics, about why you move this way and not that.... right, back to the point.

So, I push and don't pull and correct some kihon and more and more the student closes the holes and eventually comes one kata where I'm controlled from start to finish, where I'm hit in all the right places and can't find an opening and am basically helpless for the entire time we're moving.

Yay, technique forgotten, attacks reacted to, adjustments adjusted and sensei properly poked.

I'm feeling pretty good about this but at the end comes that look. The one that says "oh hell I blew that one" and I ask why. "Because I'm not at the right angle!"


Dec 9, 2009
Learning Tanjo DVD

I have added a DVD instructional tape to our lineup of items for sale at SDKsupplies.com

Uchida-ryu tanjo

For those who are interested, Uchida-ryu Tanjo Jutsu is the walking stick set of 12 kata from the Shindo Muso-ryu Jo school that I practice. I have bundled the tape and a tanjo (tapered, hickory) together here at: http://sdksupplies.com/cat_instructset.html

This is a project I've had in the back of my head for that last 4 years so it's quite a thing to finally have got it done. There is a link to a preview of the tape on the website mentioned above, it's low quality video so don't panic, the DVD is much better (video at least, can't say much about the instruction).

Dec 4, 2009
Teaching 7 Dan Blues III

It's all well and good to talk to students about why they should practice with a 3dan or later with a 7dan, but how does a student know if they've got an instructor that actually knows how to teach them?

Unfortunately, other than the obvious (are you learning?) it's difficult.

On the other hand, an instructor ought to be able to decide when they can't teach a student anything more, so when do you tell a student to go get help somewhere else?

Is it when the student is physically better than you? No, everyone runs into the physical barrier eventually, but that doesn't mean you can't teach. You can still push a student along and if he really needs to get a thumping you can always get someone else to do it for you.

It's necessary though, to be honest with yourself as an instructor, are you pushing this student for his own good or because you're cranky? If you're just old and cranky you're not likely helping the students. Brutal self-examination and honesty will allow you to know when you can't fix a student's problems any more and then it's time to pass them along to someone who can.

Sometimes we teach out of habit, we don't practice any more, we haven't got a teacher and we aren't learning new things from watching our students. Sometimes a teacher will just stop studying the art. These are all clues that it's time to hang it up and get a new hobby.

It may be a more subtle clue, are your students stalling out in the rankings? Are fewer of them starting their own dojo? Are they just "worse than the older generation"? If so the problem may not be the students, it may be the teacher.

Is teaching a chore? Is it getting harder to get enthusiastic about going to class and facing another bunch of slack-faced whiners who want to leach off your accumulated knowledge? Definitely time to hand over the keys to the dojo.

Are you a budo god? By that I mean are you intolerant of questioning, impatient with being asked to explain yourself and unwilling to justify your way of doing things? When you start to think that you are beyond improvement it's a pretty good sign that you're wasting your time in the dojo. After all it's a place where everyone, including sensei, go to improve themselves. If you're above that you should be looking for something else to practice, something you're no good at so that you can be a student again.

Back to the students, does your sensei exhibit any or all of these traits? In combination with your own lack of progress it might be a sign that it's time to go.

Dec 3, 2009
Learning 7 Dan Blues II

When I was in High School I was a jock. I think I've got a jacket somewhere around the house with about 30 sport patches on it. Once I tried out for the badminton team and was not picked. This so irritated me that I found the best badminton players in the school (or at least as many of them as I knew about) and played them for hours, getting my ass kicked repeatedly. I made the team the next season.

While you can get to a certain level with little problem, and often much more efficiently, by working with people closer to your level, there comes a point in some people's training where they need more. They need to have their asses kicked.

As a rank beginner who has no idea how to swing a sword, and who is beginning iaido, a sandan or yondan is probably the best person to train with. Those guys will know the kata very well, will know all the points to hit and the timing to use. They can tell you how to do it without confusing you by telling you six other ways to do it.

But.... but, but. When you hit sandan or yondan, when you have a few years of dedicated practice in, and can control the sword and are young and strong and flexible, you may just run out of your training. You can hit a wall.

If you are lucky, you will have a 7dan around to help you through that wall. Unluckily, just sitting in front of sensei and practicing what you've always done won't help. Sensei may assume that you are content and will offer a comment or two once in a while, may even praise you for your efforts and abilities.

You may assume you are doing well.

Such a trap.

Now is the time in your training where you must take over and push yourself. You must push yourself to understand what you're doing, and you must push sensei, challenge him, show him how far you are, and by doing so, demand to be taken to the next level.

Whinging on about how you just can't seem to get it won't do you any good, nor will telling sensei that you want to learn much more and much more deeply. Simply show him what you can do and then ask him what you need to do next. You may get a demonstration, you may get a lecture on esoteric Buddhism, you may get some advice on which other sport to take up, or which other teacher to go visit.

You may get dumped on your ass.

Regardless, you will probably have received something quite subtle (assuming you're actually at that stage) and you should accept it for what it is, something to chew on for the next week, month, year, until you can come back and show sensei what you can do.

Eventually, if your sensei is lucky, he will tell you to get the hell out of his dojo and find someone else to bother with your questions.

The only way the arts will go forward is for students to surpass their teachers. The only way for the arts to avoid going backward into formula, ritual and cheezy dance routines is for students to challenge their teachers, and to get in front of teachers who can show them physically how to get to the next level. In some arts this can be quite painful, especially grappling arts where most of the instruction is given and gotten directly body to body. Even in something like iaido there can be pain involved as demands are made for muscles to be used in unfamiliar ways.

In every case, in every martial art, there will come a time when the student is driven beyond his limits. Unfortunately this can often be translated as some sort of endurance test, usually by half-trained instructors who figure abuse is part of the programme. A good sensei will take a student and push, find the way to make the student frustrated, find the way to make him angry, find the way to make him want to quit, and push, push, push just a little further each day, forcing the student to dig a little deeper. If sensei can make the student panic, make him desperate to find some way past his wall, that student may just come to a place where he finds the way through, or over, or around.

Do it again, and again, and again, and one day the student may find himself, if not beyond the teacher, at least at the same place.

These are the koan of the martial arts, and just as you can find books of "answers" to koan which you can spout, giving you the outward appearance of someone who understands, so too in the martial arts you can find a certain bravado, braggadoccio and bluster that gives you the look of an artist.

IF... you find a sensei who is capable, and if you ask the right questions and if you push yourself hard enough, you may avoid that false sense of accomplishment and come to a place where nothing is ever good enough again, where you continue to try and improve your ability, where you spend the rest of your life in search of yet another sensei, yet another exercise, yet another line of questions, trying to get IT. Whatever IT is. You may, at the very same moment, come to a place of calm and quiet, where you don't worry about finding IT. 

Dec 2, 2009
Learning 7 Dan Blues

"Wow you're lucky to have a 7dan in your dojo".

You think so? I don't. I think that it's actually not very likely that having a 7dan in the dojo will make you a better ikkyu, in fact it can be a problem for beginners. At 4dan I knew one way to do things, and I was really good at it. Now I know 23 ways to do things and may or may not be good at some of them but I am sure a beginner who is taught four ways to do something is going to be lousy at all four.

A 7dan can make you lazy, you don't need to think, you don't need to remember or make notes, you can rely on sensei to correct you. Now any sensei can correct you but a nidan will likely be saying things like "I think this is how this one goes" which tends to make beginners pay attention.

7dans can tend to drift off into strange and esoteric instructions and lectures on the meaning of life... beginners just need to know which foot goes in front when you do this part.

Being a student of a 7dan can make you a bit... over-confident shall we say? It's pretty easy to assume that since your teacher is so highly ranked (and here in the west a 7dan is a pretty high rank), you somehow know more than the guy next door with the 5dan instructor who started at the same time as you did. Maybe you do "know" more, but is your skill level better? After all it's not what you know, but what you can do that counts most in a martial art.

7dans can get bored. Beginners all deserve to be told the basic stuff, the important stuff that they need to know at that stage of their career. A bored 7dan may just start handing over instruction that is more suited to a 5dan than a first kyu. This will not make a beginner into a 6dan, it will only make them confused and frustrated that they can't do what sensei is telling them to do.

Old. 7dans can be old and creaky and well onto the downslope of their physical skills. This means they aren't really very good role models to follow, it's more a matter of "do as I say not as I do" by this stage. That's fine for a 6dan who knows the basics and just needs fine tuning, but it's hell for the beginner who can end up doing "old man's style" if they aren't careful. Let's face it, it's pretty easy to slop a part of your technique if sensei does that... after all he's got a 7dan and does it, why can't you? Well you can't because you're on the upside of your path and sensei is going to get really mad if you make his mistakes after he tells you they're mistakes.

I think perhaps 7dans are like really rich desserts, excellent for your enjoyment of life if indulged occasionally but not very good as a steady diet.

If you do end up in a dojo with a 7dan, do yourself a favour and make sure you watch the 3dans. Ask the 4dans a lot of questions, you might be surprised at how clear and simple their answers are.

Nov 27, 2009
History History of Japan

In 8 minutes (From Alex Bradshaw, well worth watching)

Nov 25, 2009
Training Take a note

My senior student came out with the statement "they were all taking notes" a few days ago. You have to understand that this was right out of the blue, and it was just the two of us working on some new kata so I was a bit confused.

"I wonder why I don't take notes" she continued, "perhaps it's because I'm sitting in front of a 7dan two or three times a week". She's right of course, she really has no reason to take notes because she gets constant supervision and correction, and she can just ask if she ever has a question. No need to take notes when the textbook is right in front of you, right?

Well, no. I told her to start taking notes because I'm not always going to be here and in 20 years those notes are going to be all that's left of the way I did things and what I thought about them.

Take notes, take photographs, take videos of your teacher. One day he won't be there for you to ask questions.

Oh, and she was suddenly thinking about a seminar the two of us had attended over a year ago. That's the way her mind works.

Nov 10, 2009
Photos Stereo Photos of Old Japan

Nice collection of "jiggle-gifs", conversions of stereoscopes of old Japan.


Nov 10, 2009
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Tokyo Kendo Tournament at Tokyo Budokan
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Nov 5, 2009
Living What is hard

Death is trite.

It is the natural state of the universe, life, the kind of life that can understand that it is alive can't be anything but statistically zero in an infinite universe. What doesn't exist should not fear what is everything. What is everything is so common it's trite.

Life is hard. And very, very special.

We know we are alive, so we are able to fear death. Personally I don't know why we should but out of that fear we invent afterlives that are just like life and, perversity upon perversity, we make ourselves miserable, sick and even killers so that we can attain that supposed life after death. We fear it but it isn't hard.

No, death isn't hard, it's inevitable, and easy to find early if you really want to. Once you're dead you don't fear any more, there is nothing else for you. Those you leave behind will miss you but death is... Death isn't what we fret about. Deep and serious sickness isn't hard either. We've got lots of procedures for that stuff, and medicine. We know how to do sympathy and receive gift baskets.

What's hard is life. What's easy is complaining about traffic, lunch, gosip, unfairness, relationships, money, sex, and just about everything else. What's hard is appreciating, at all times, whenever we are awake, the miracle, the absolute amazing, statistics-defying, absurdly unlikely delight and joy of being alive.

We need to pay attention. We need to learn how to be in the moment. We need to have some lumber heading for our eyeball once in a while to train us to appreciate the obvious, that we're not dead.

What we also need to do is figure out how to find joy in everything we're usually complaining about. Life is special, too rare and beautiful to waste making yourself miserable finding things to complain about. Hey, even when you are convinced you have every right in the world to be upset, vengeful, and entitled to divine justice, is it better to be upset or find a way to spend the next few minutes with some happy aspect of the situation? Surely you can find some way to make the situation happy? The ultimate would of course be to remind yourself that you are still not dead, but that you could be before the next breath. And if it's bad enough...

Oct 29, 2009
Learning Uchi Deshi

An uchi deshi is an "inside student" one who lives with the instructor. I once had a fellow ask me to be my uchi deshi for Niten Ichiryu. I told him that I couldn't afford to feed and house him.

At some point many of us entertain the thought of living with our teacher and learning from him full time. Trust me, I once ended up as housemates with a teacher for over a year and it's not a thing I would recommend, nothing removes the mystique of "sensei" quite as fast. Now this wasn't in Japan where the system might work so let's think about it a bit.

Traditionally, an uchi deshi was an apprentice who lived and worked with a craftsman in return for food and the chance to learn the profession. Those who want to live with a martial arts instructor and learn martial arts without babysitting his kids or cleaning his toilet or digging his garden are just "leeches we teaches". I suppose the system could work with a professional instructor so that the student would clean the dojo, answer the phone, post flyers, chase down students for fees and otherwise do the money-grubby jobs which would free up sensei to teach more classes.

The problem here, and uchi deshi have indeed complained about these things, is that the outside students often get taught more quickly and systematically than they do. This makes sense, the outside students pay for their lessons and sensei needs to teach them quickly enough to keep them coming back. (But not so quickly that they get it all at once and don't have to come back). The uchi deshi aren't going anywhere so sensei can take his time with them.

I have heard the same complaint from western students who go to Japan to learn from sensei there. Although they are not uchi deshi they are at class every week. These students often see other western students come into the dojo and get taught massive amounts of technique, often jumping ahead of the "in-country" students. What is happening is similar to the situation above, the visiting students are given lots to go work on while the weekly students are fed in smaller, more careful doses.

So what about a paid uchi deshi system? These are more usual now than the apprentice system, in this case the students are paying to stay at a dojo for a short time (even a couple of years is short if you think about it) and don't have the expectation or even the chance of taking over the business some day. The system is more like a vacation (in the short term) or a traditional western university degree (in the longer run) than an apprenticeship.

Is being an uchi deshi a good thing? If you plan to teach professionally and want to learn how to run the business it would be great. If you just love the martial art and want to learn as much as you can as fast as you can, one of the other forms of instruction such as a week long seminar might be a better fit to your needs. Uchi deshi spend a lot of time learning how sensei washes his dog and changes his baby's diapers which may or may not have something to do with the martial art you're trying to learn.

Oct 29, 2009
Training Practice like your hair is on fire

I just drove by a place that was hit by a tornado. We get those around here every now and then. It reminded me, as if I ever need reminding, that things are temporary. Buildings, clubs, teachers, even the art you're learning, all are temporary.

Got something to do? If you put it off for too long it just might not get done. Want to get really good at the martial art you study? Practice like your hair is on fire.

Tomorrow may be too late.

In fact, with a club like mine, where we practice at a University, it's forever almost too late. Institutions have no memory and if we don't get a couple more students to sign up for class we may end up losing our 2-3 hours a week to Hip-hop Bangra Seductive Dance. 20 years of instruction doesn't mean a thing to an 18 year old in charge of paperwork for the athletics clubs.

Oct 28, 2009
Teaching Accepting Failure

You can't fix everyone. This is perhaps one of the hardest lessons to learn as a sensei. It works on a couple of levels, perhaps the first every instructor encounters is that some folks just can't be taught physically. The student who tells you why they can't do some movement or other, the one who fixes it while you're looking at them and then drops right back into the same old habits, the one who looks at you blankly, as if to say "I'm doing it that way, what's wrong with you?" and the one who tries, really, really tries but never gets it.

All of them can make you wonder if you're a failure as an instructor. After all, this stuff isn't all that hard, you learned it so others should be able shouldn't they?

Well some can't. Some won't. Some will, slowly, so slowly you can't see it. All you can do is keep teaching, correct them and move on, check back in a week.

What about the other level? The one most of us would rather not speak too much about? We know that the martial arts are not about learning how to kill folks with a sword, or how to win sport matches. As my TKD instructor used to say, "nobody trains for ten years on the off chance they will get into a bar fight". So what about us teacher types who understand that we're there to help folks become better people, get off drugs, do better at school or just become a little nicer around their family?

A very long time ago... OK when I was 8 or 9 years old... I figured out that people could be manipulated. When I hit high school I became publicity director for our student council and I have been in the influence game in one form or another ever since.

When I was an undergrad at University (thirty years ago!) my mother asked me why I kept bringing these little birds with broken wings into my life. Not only did I have no idea why, I was shocked to realize I was doing it. I was trying to fix people's lives.

Becoming a martial arts instructor many years later hasn't helped much but I try to keep things in perspective by yelling at least once a month "I'm not your mother!" in an attempt to keep the students from telling me their personal problems. I just try to create a space in the dojo where they can get away from the girlfriend/boyfriend/job/parents for a while, physically and mentally. With a bit of a breathing space most folks will sort things out for themselves.

Mostly I think those who have passed through the dojo have gone out the other side a bit better for the experience and I'm content with that.

What shocks me, every couple of years, is running straight into the realization that there are folks out there who don't want to get better. They don't want to stop being miserable, complaining, despairing wretches. They really don't. Some folks just want to be a black cloud over their own and their acquaintance's heads. They want to rain on everyone's parade, not just their own, because they can't see that they are mostly the cause of their own unhappiness.

There's a special kind of egotism that says "I am unhappy, it can't be my fault therefore it is someone else's fault, therefore I will make others unhappy until they make me happy". Of course all the other person gets from this is a big downer of a day/week/year/lifetime.

It shocks me that these people seem immune from any idea that they will die some day, that in ten years nobody will ever think of them and in 100 years nobody will even know who that miserable coot in the photograph is. They seem to think that they will live forever and that their happiness will always be of concern to those around them. 

It shocks me that they can waste their lives, and those of the people who could be loving them or at least liking them in such a perverse exercise of sadism.

It also shocks me, every single time, that I can't fix them. The best you can do is walk away, and if you can't do that, at least put them in a space where their depressing influence on others is minimal.

You can't be happy until you want to be happy and are willing to do what it takes to be happy. That may even involve understanding how much you have been responsible for your own unhappiness. It's a tough lesson and no instructor can teach it.

Oct 20, 2009
Technique Seven on one

There is a youtube video out there of a Japanese TV show which features a kendo teacher who fights seven guys who have never done kendo before. To eliminate the suspense, he beats them twice even though they are all attacking at once.

It's fun, the setting is great, an old castle or some such, but it's more interesting to see how he does it. The opponents all start on one side and they all start on command. Their job is not to get killed of course, as is the teacher's. The tactics are pretty clear from the start, fght them one at a time: go to the end of the attacking line, chase them into each other, back into a restricted area so they have to bunch up, if you have to go into the crowd attack through them and turn back quickly to face those chasing behind.

Above all, don't be cautious. It would be interesting to compare his tactics to what Musashi advised in the Go Rin no Sho if I had time, but what it most reminded me of, was the randori practice in Aikido.

Oct 19, 2009
New Products New Stuff I'm Making

Been in the shop lately, have made several new tanren bo and suburito, a few new knife designs for Arnis/Kali type training, some new exotic bokuto, some thick bo (1.25 inches dia, up to 7 feet). 

I will also be making some beefy ipe Niten Ichiryu bokuto for those who like them like Soke's set.

Anyone got some ideas on new stuff for me to make? The rising Canadian dollar (falling US dollar) has cut into what poor profits we've been getting lately to the tune of 30% since March. Ouch, and the house needs a new roof and back room. Looks like the retirement fund is going to get used early.

Oct 15, 2009
Learning My Trip to Japan

Speaking of learning, I just ran across a copy of our itinerary for the trip to Japan last spring. Here it is for those who want to be jealous.

Apr 24, 25 Leave for Japan and arrive Tokyo.
Apr 26, Iai 9am-noon
Apr 27, Iai 1-9pm
Apr 28, Jodo 7:20-8:40 Nihon Budokan
Apr 29, Jodo 10am-late afternoon Kanda
Apr 30, Iai 6-9pm
May 1, To Kyoto
May 2, Embukai
May 3, 8dan gradings
May 4, To Fukuoka
May 5, Jodo
May 6, Jodo
May 7, To Tokyo
May 8, Back to Canada

So all in all a most satisfying trip, although some of the folks are making noises about going back some time to see Japan instead of the inside of a gym. It was a lot of different locations and several of our instructors and great training all around... but I think I'd still rather bring the sensei over here for a seminar with a hundred folks rather than me traveling there.

That trip set up several more trips and seminars for the summer that let me get quite a bit of instruction for myself. It was quite a shock to find some beginners standing in front of me this September.

Oct 14, 2009
Learning How does Sensei learn?

At the heart of things, the easiest way sensei learns is to be pushed by his students. Two things have recently reminded me of this. One is that the student who is with me most these days has started to challenge me. She's starting to push back a bit during demonstrations and occasionally during practice. This is how I learn the techniques more deeply, by getting challenged and having to figure out where I need to be when that lumber is heading toward my head a bit more quickly than I expected.

The other way to learn is to have students ask questions. Every once in a while they will come up with one I haven't heard before and then I have to think. Recently there have been some online discussions of beginner questions and I hear a lot of advice such as "do what sensei says and shut up" or "because I say so". Neither of these are very helpful to a sensei who is trying to keep learning. We need questions to learn, either generated by ourselves or by students, it's too easy to "rest on our laurels" and very hard to drive ourselves once we're at a certain level. It's much easier to use student questions to keep ourselves moving forward.

So in a very real way, sensei learn by having students. Does this mean that you should teach if you want to learn? Absolutely not. You should teach when you have no other choice, and only then. If you can find someone to learn from, someone who can teach you directly, be a student, it's a hell of a lot easier. 

Oct 13, 2009
Learning I Hate Learning

I mean it, I really hate learning new kata. I have three new sets of kata that I have to learn because they have recently been taught to me so I'm spending two or three days a week with my notes, my videos and whatever books I can find, learning which foot goes where and what my opponent is doing now.

It's like memorizing biochemical pathways, you have to keep repeating them. It will be months before the sword and the stick movements are worn into my bones and then finally I'll be able to get into the good stuff. In the meantime I am not spending the time on the stuff I already know, so I'm not doing much in the way of good stuff at all.

What's the good stuff? That's the timing, distance, and intensity of the kata. It's the fear when your partner suddenly gets ahead of you and almost hits you in the head. It's the sudden realization that you "get" what the teachers before you meant for you to learn in the kata. Up until then you're just learning dance steps.

So why am I complaining? I mean it's great to learn new stuff right? Who wouldn't want to learn a new set of kata?

Well... me for one. I actively resist new kata these days, and to tell the truth, I've got students who do the same to me. They yell stop when we are blasting through kata for them to work on. The reason I resist became clear to me the other day when I started to think about just how many kata I'm supposed to be practicing these days.

Schools I (should) regularly practice Set numbers Total
Zen Ken Ren Iai 12 12
Zen Ken Ren Jo 12 12
Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iai 11(+1), 10,8,10(+3), 5, 10, 10, 4 72
HyoHo Niten Ichiryu 12, 7, 5, 5, 5 34
Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo 12, 12(+1), 2 27
Uchida Ryu Tanjo Jutsu 12 12
Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu 12 12
Keshi (Keishicho) Ryu Iai 5 5
Shindo Munen Ryu Iai (Mitsuzuka s.) 12 12
Total kata to "regularly" practice 198

Other sets and schools I could be practicing but don't
  • Muso Shinden ryu iaido      
  • ZNIR Toho iaido      
  • ZNIR Batto iaido      
  • Kendo no Kata kenjutsu      
  • Aikido Ken and Jo     
Other sword schools in which I have had some more or less serious instruction and in which I could/would likely practice if I had the time      
  • Hoki ryu iaido      
  • Mugai ryu iaido      
  • Katori Shinto ryu kenjutsu      
  • Kashima Shinryu     

I've surely forgotten some but you get the idea. Hang around long enough, practice with enough people, and you will accumulate sets of kata as you accumulate inches around your waist. 

It gets to the point where you actively avoid situations where an instructor is likely to hand you another set of 10 or 12 kata to learn. After all, it's not like I haven't got enough to work on now.

Oct 12, 2009
EJMAS October Updates

You'll find the October updates at: http://ejmas.com/thismonth.html

The new stories:

Oct 1, 2009
Scams Martial Arts Instructor Needed

I received the following email to an unknown list and from Gerston Field <gerstonrecruiting@gmail...>

Hello,My Name is Mr Gerston Field,

I am looking for an experienced martial art Instructor who will handle five teenage boys they are age 14 to 16 years they will be attending Kung Fu and Self Defense class for a month Nov to Dec.

The student are based in UK and they will be coming over to your training school for the period of the training. And there is also a logistics agent that will be put in place of all their logistics like International airport transfer, Flight, Accommodation if there is no accommodation in your place of training and other logistics needs of the student.

I want you to Get back to me with your response and also the price estimate and total cost for a month class as we don't have much time with us so that they can start and resume class with immediate effect.

Please get back to me via my personal email which is

Best Regards,

This is the first martial arts variation of the cheque scam I've seen. What happens after the quote is the cheque arrives but it's too much. You refund the difference and the cheque bounces. Pretty simple really.

Clues to a scam? They don't know your name, they are sending 4 teenage boys overseas to someone whose name they don't know, they are sending the email to a list of people which is unidentified, the send and receive freebie emails don't match and it's a limited time offer.

None of them are a particularly screaming clue but taken together...

Oct 1, 2009