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Fixing things

I try, I really do try not to be a "guy". I sat down in the cafe and noticed the footrest on the stool was missing a bolt and hanging down. I substituted it for another but of course I noticed that the footrest on that one was loose so I spent five minutes fixing it.

I really did try not to, and the fix won't last long, you can only turn rusty ikea fasteners so tight with your bare hands. But it's a compulsion. The bolt will at least be there when someone gets around to fixing it properly.

There are some things that you can fix but shouldn't, like the cafe's stool, not my job. Some things you fix, like the brakes on your car, you know they're broken and it's your job to fix them or have them fixed. Some you fix even if it's not your job, like that tricycle on the road.

Then there are the things that you may figure are broken but really shouldn't fix. It may be that it's not your job, it may be that they are simply badly designed in your opinion, but work just fine for others. The car mirror comes to mind as something that really isn't broken and isn't in need of fixing. Don't glue it in place, your wife will yell at you when she next uses the car. It can be adjusted but it isn't to be fixed.

Some things work the way they do for reasons you may not think of right away. The martial arts are all about fighting right? So you'd figure that would be what we ought to test in a grading, if your technique isn't practical, if you couldn't survive a fight with what you're doing, you ought not to pass.

The academic equivalent of this is the original university model where you read a subject for three or four years and then you get tested on it. One test, pass or fail after four years work. A couple hundred years of "fixing" later and you come to my school years. A midterm and a final in each subject each semester, so maybe 20 exams a year. Now, after another generation of "fixing" the system and largely on the insistance of the customers 'er students, there seems to be 5 to 10 little quizzes and tests per subject per semester plus an exam or two, nothing counting for more than 20% of the mark, ever.

The modern budo situation is not to teach the art for 5 years and then kick the student out into a life and death situation (as if that ever actually happened) but to test students for a level of competance appropriate to their time in training. Have you made the level or not? This is not life and death, it is anything but. You are not tested against the fighting skill of someone else, but against an agreed upon standard.

Simple yes? The assumption that budo is about fighting and winning is not what is being tested, so the system is not broken if someone passes their first grade with skills that are not equivalent to someone who has been training for ten years. Are they good enough for someone at six months? Fine, pass.

So where do we test the fighting skills of someone in the budo? Well personally I don't think we test them at all, but I suppose some would say we test them in tournaments. The thing is, unless the tournament rules dictate that there are no rules, and that a loss is defined as being put into a state of being killable, it's not about fighting, it's about sport. Hell even warfare has rules, there are things you are not supposed to do, and if you are about to tell me they are done, all you're telling me is that people break rules.

So why do we test people in the budo when the only real way to assess fighting skills is to put a student into a life or death situation? We test students because students like tests, and our job as teachers is to design tests that are passable. Students like tests? Of course they do, they like the validation of their skills. What they don't like is failing the tests, but most know that's good for them, that it makes them work harder and all that.

Tournaments? Did the judges like you better than the other guy (iaido, gymnastics, figure skating...) or was he stronger, faster, tougher than you that day (boxing, kendo, running, shotput...). Fun, personally satisfying, a test of who's a better high jumper in that particular meet, all that stuff.

But ultimately, no matter how many tests you pass, no matter how many tournaments you win, you are going to get old and some kid is going to be able to beat you up. At least with the skills you learn if you're just learning fighting.

So, do we fix the martial arts and make sure it's more about fighting since that's what it's all about? Is that what it's all about?

If you're going to fix something make sure it's actually broken before you do. Oh, and make sure it's your job to fix it, I used to get into a lot of trouble when I worked for the University by fixing the wiring or the plumbing or painting the walls of the lab. Wasn't my job and there were folks whose job it was to fix things. Sure I may figure the centrifuge can be bolted to the cement block wall, but maybe the physical resources people would know that the vibration would destroy the morter and make that wall fall down. Not saying I ever did that but I have heard gasps from folks who have walked into rooms and seen such things.

Some things you fix, some you don't, even if you can, and some you check with others to see if they are actually broken.

Dec 30, 2015

Too Old for This

I see there is another bonehead initiative in the iaido world. In the cause of my peace and quiet and in the name of "I'm too old for this" I may not be writing much in the next little while, at least until this one comes to nothing like all other bonehead moves tend to do.

On the other hand, I'm obsessed with experimenting with speakers and my house is slowly filling up with unfinished cedar and spruce cabinets. I think they are going to end up being sold, and I'm hoping the couple of pair of re-foamed disco speakers (you know the type, 12 inch woofer with a one inch tweeter, no midrange at all) will be given away to my son's friends. All young men should own a pair of gigantic cabinets that will vibrate windows at least once in their lives.

In the meantime I am having fun, I've switched to a folded, tapered, quarter wave transmission line design (a tube in a box) that is a lot more speaker-sized than the zigmahornets I have hooked up to my own system.

Introducing Scrappy Speakers, things that sound good (to me) created from thrift store speaker finds and such high-end materials as spruce strapping, cedar fence boards, end-lots of click together flooring and other such scraps as one might find around a working shop. In other words, these are traditional speakers, koryu if you like, home-made and enjoyed.

The problem is of course, that they do tend to pile up. What's not a problem is that each and every one is an adventure. I have a pair just finished that use the drivers from a pair of Realistic Minimus 4s from the 1970s. Funky indeed, 5 inchers with whizzer cones. I did say vintage didn't I?

Dec 29, 2015

Seitei Niten Ichiryu

We were having fun with tachi seiho last night, two of us learning the set, two seniors. A good mix when you are learning because the senior side can take care of the timing and distance for you.

Of course we got questions on which foot goes where and that started putting thoughts of "seitei niten" into my head. You know, the niten where you have to pass an exam by putting the correct foot in the correct place and cutting to the precise position because that's what is written in the book.

Even though I "wrote the book" that idea gives me the willies. Fortunately, I suspect I'll never have to worry about that sort of thing. Niten kata are just too simple to be used that way. Most of the tachi seiho (long sword vs long sword) are of the "he cuts for your head, step to the side and cut him on his head" variety. Everyone would be a 7dan in two years if we did testing on that sort of stuff. Thing is, you don't step where you step because it's "in the book", you put the right foot in the right place because you have to, otherwise you get smacked on the head.

Which is of course why I love Niten. You know all those things Musashi says in his book, all the "stick like glue" and "steel and flint" and "body of a massive rock" stuff? When you stop memorizing dance steps you actually get to explore that stuff. Take the fourth technique, Uke Nagashi hidari. You walk up to your partner, on the third step he cuts down at your head, you step to the right while deflecting his sword down to your left, then as he steps back into hasso you step in and cut him on the wrist or the head.

Simple neh? Who cares about that sort of kata, it's hardly a waza, you can learn it in four minutes, six if you're a bit slow. I've had lots of potential students come and go saying it's just too easy. But, but, when do you step to the side? Where does your partner swing at your head? Where do you move? How come he steps back? How come you have to step in to hit him? How come he doesn't just crash through your block? Can't you step back and hit him before he hits you? Why do my bokuto keep breaking?

Oh this is joy my friends, these are the things I live for. Keep your memorization exercises, I want a simple kata and a vicious partner who will try to hit me. Someone who will track me if I start going into automatic pilot, who will cheat by changing the attack if I don't wait, wait, wait for the right moment. Someone who will just step out of range if I hesitate when that right moment arrives.

Don't make me go inside my head and do the metronome-timing micrometer-distance double-solo-dance grading thing. Let me instead look into my partner's soul and try to catch that instant when the attack can't be changed. Not when it starts, that's too easy, but that point half way through when there's total commitment, when I can move and laugh at the widened eyes of someone who knows they just died but haven't fallen over yet...

Was it good for you too?

Once we've done that for a while, let's look into the stuff that's "hidden" in the kata. Hidden, hah! Musashi wrote a lot of stuff that doesn't seem to fit the kata he left if you're not paying attention. After you learn how to pay attention to your partner with those simple niten techniques, maybe you go back to the book and pay attention this time.

OMG I thought the last kata was amazing!

Dec 19, 2015

24 hour news

In a "500 channel universe". I notice that our newscasters (does one cast news like monkeys cast... well never mind) have told a story something along the lines of "Canada has not raised our threat alert level in response to warnings about threats".

That's a story? When I was a kid back in Tillsonburg (my back still aches when I hear that word) we had an atomic warning siren that was tested each Thursday evening around 7pm I think. The world wasn't slowly warming (lovely day here in the cafe window, sun bouncing off the road at me) but in danger of sudden heating to unimaginable temperatures and we were supposed to duck and cover under our desks. Actually I don't think anyone ever told us that, being country folk we figured it would be a good thing to go fast rather than die in agony over weeks after the bombs fell. Unfortunately, being country folk we were going to be those slow-diers in the city.

That was 40 years ago, and there were politicians who made careers out of the "Red Menace" as cold warriors. Once we realized (eventually) that nuclear war wasn't all that likely (despite the Cuban missile thing where we were a couple minutes away from extinction) we moved on to the proxy wars in Africa, Asia and the middle east. Wars that spawned that brand new thing "terrorism" in the form of the Red Brigades, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the FLQ, the IRA and all the other home-grown organizations worldwide. Oh, sorry, but before that we had the Anarchists throwing bombs in Europe and before that... well let's just say we've seen it before.

The cold wars created the client states we still see around today which are supposedly exporting terror to us free worlders. Well before that it was the colonial powers divvying up the older empires... Did we do it to ourselves? How do we fix it?

We don't.

My point is that since the dawn of time we have had the situation we have now. It's normal, there is nothing new about these "new threats to our way of life". You think the Khan's Golden Horde didn't have terrorists on it's borders? Imperial Rome? Nor is it new that politicians exploit our fears of chaos to gain and keep power. What's the solution? There isn't one. You can trace terrorism back to the earliest civilizations for a very good reason. Civilization creates terrorism. Terrorism is what's left over from the chaos of "every man for himself and the strongest get the goods" after a bunch of folks get together and act collectively to enforce some rules. In other words, terrorism is what's left outside of civilization. You don't fix it because it's always there.

Terrorism comes from outside, even when it's inside. All terrorism is "domestic terrorism" in our global globe. It's just a convenient name for a faceless enemy that our leaders are going to protect us from. It's simply non-civilization.

Us martial arts folk tend to be "we can solve this" types, if we didn't think we could do something about it we wouldn't practice our self defence moves. Instead we'd sit around and complain that "someone else should do something about it". The thing is, we need to be careful about what we try to solve. Some problems really do deserve the "keep calm and carry on" treatment because trying to do something about it could make things worse.

Allow the government to read my mail because it will keep me safe from terrorists? No thanks, I'll take my chances, after all I drive to the coffee shop every morning and almost every day somebody in another car pulls a dangerous move that could get me hurt. Gimme red light cameras and leave my mail/email alone.

Are you listening CSIS? Maybe not if our threat level hasn't gone up today.

Dec 17, 2015


I haven't written anything for a few days, in fact I just noticed I left an item (I hate calling these things posts or blogs and essay seems a bit New Yorker Magazine) abandoned mid-edit. I hope it's mid-edit and not half done, if so I'm not likely to pick up the thread.

The reason is that I fell down another rabbit hole, this time it was speaker design. To be specific, transmission line speaker design. First, let me say that everything is related. Speaker makers, the DIY types, sound just like the sword guys. L6 is sooo much better than 1085 for swords... Actually the speaker guys have math, so it's worse, you can find websites where you fill in your speaker numbers and out spits a design for your speakers. It's all about tuning, about getting a boost in the bass. Whether or not you can hear that bass is the same question as whether or not you'll notice the difference between L6 or 1085 steel when doing iaido. I suspect that even if you're cutting up wet mats you won't notice, unless one steel is so hard you can't sharpen it. A bass response that goes down to 17 hz?

Look, I just yesterday found a "speaker test" audio file on the net and found out that I can't hear anything below about 100hz, let alone 20 (see that kid running around your feet? He might be able to hear 20-20,000 hz but I'd bet you can't). The same web test says I can't hear anything above 13,000 hz. Can you still get the dog whistle app for your phone? I used to drive the kids crazy with turning up the volume and sending out about 16,000 at them. Didn't hear a damned thing but they sure yelled at me. Morse code in a school classroom at 16k ought to be happening somewhere.

So the rabbit hole? Transmission line speakers are midrange monsters. The speaker guys all talk about bass response from a single four inch driver, but old guys like me know that bass response comes from drivers that are at least ten inches across, and you need two of them, one in each speaker.

Bass response is the speaker equivalent of megapixels in camera-land, of horsepower in car-land, of "generations back" in koryu-land. It's THE thing you need to brag about. But it's more complex than that you say? Sure it is, and in speaker-land it's a flat response curve down to that 17hz that you can't hear.

Enough about bass, I can't hear it. (Or my computer speakers can't spit it out, they're currently a couple of 1980's 8-track-system pegboard-back honkers... yes I am a scientist, it did occur to me that the equipment might be at fault, I'll need to get the kids to listen to the space I can't hear to see if it's there or not.) If I can't hear it, it's not important to me. But I built a pair of "Zigmahornet" speakers (very simple design) out of construction grade spruce strapping and they blow me away. They are midrange monsters (did I mention that) and suddenly I can hear voices once more in the music. All this subwoofer nonsense that happens today (with satellite speakers that are not much more than tweeters, and boom box "subwoofers" that are 5 inches across) means that there isn't any midrange, so us old farts aren't hearing the music.

I picked up a pair of disco-thumpers on the side of the road and we tried them carefully, just to see if the drivers still worked (the foam is rotted off the 12 inch woofers). They do, the woofer works, the midrange (a 3 inch cone) and the tweeter (a 2 inch cone) work as well. Guess what? They're disco-era speakers, no midrange. I'll fix the foam and listen again, maybe give them to a party-animal.

I listened to the "hornets" and fell off my chair, how do you get that much nice out of a pair of thrift store sony surround speakers? And I went down the rabbit hole. After days of crawling through the interweb I came to the conclusion that if I just have fun and make speakers that are roughly the right size and shape it ought to be OK. All of these "to the last 1/4 inch" plans conclude with "and then you stuff insulation in it until you come up with that flat response curve down to the tuning frequency with your microphone and computer analysis". Reminds me of "grading point budo" where we forget that it's all about chopping people up and not about stopping the sword within 1/4" of a specific spot, or about what the damned thing is made of.

I'm out of the hole because I have a couple of designs I want to build, and I'm pretty sure I can simply adjust them to make my ears happy. Maybe there will be jitters at certain frequencies that I could fix by rounding off a couple of corners, maybe there will be a drop off somewhere, but what do you want from a thrift store driver you ripped out of a discarded speaker? If it makes you happy and it reproduces music like you've never heard before, why not go for it?

There are things in the music I'm listening to these days on the 'hornets that I've never noticed before. I have my daughter's album on the cd player (ten dollars at the thrift shop) and it's knocking my head off. (Safe as Houses, they're on faceplant, check them out).

Oh, and the other obsession I've been having lately to keep me away from the keyboard? A couple thousand board feet of rotted wood that was put out on the road by the last shed of a lumber yard near my house. I've been going daily and pulling out boards and stacking it in my back yard. Spalted maple, spalted birch, spalted beech, and various oaks that don't spalt. My shoulder is screaming from all that weight going onto the roof racks and off again but I have years of wood to play with. What is too rotten to use will end up in the cottage fireplace.

I love my life.

Dec 16, 2015

Standards according to one judge

And how to fix him.

I sometimes get questions about the correct way to do seitei gata, logical enough since I have a big mouth and talk about this stuff quite often but aside from when I say "read the book" I'm really not an authority. All folks who say things that aren't written down in the book are expressing their understanding of iai, which means they will be bringing in what they've been taught and what they've worked out for themselves.

I thought I might write occasionally on some of these questions I've heard over the years and see who drops in to correct me. First, a little bit of a word for the students who will be reading this. Yes judges argue with each other. If we didn't it would mean we don't care about your iai. We do, it's up to the chief examiner (head honcho of the section, whatever you call him in your country) or his local representative to name the judges for each panel. He will try not to name people who don't care about your iai. He will try to name people who are current, who are up to date. That means those who are arguing about how the kata ought to be done with reference to the book and to current practice worldwide. At the moment in Canada I am that guy for Jodo and I take the job seriously, that means that, right or wrong, I'm the final arbiter on how we practice and grade the seitei jo. That makes for consistent practice across the country and it means there's a single place to aim the blame for problems with the techniques. Despite what current business practice seems to dictate, in the budo the guy at the top is at fault. Always, without exception. If we have a judge that is biased or lazy or out of date it's our job not to name him to a panel. Therefore it's our fault. Always.

Wanna be in charge?

Because of that responsibility we are required to be open to discussion so let's have one.

Recently I got a question from a judge on Sanpo giri. Where and how does the left hand come onto the hilt after the first cut? My answer was as follows:

"Let's see, Sanpo giri, things I've heard hanshi say, the left hand does NOT come on like you're doing banzai it comes up the center of your body, you don't stop at the top of the cut, it's like uke nagashi, the tip doesn't drop.

So put all that together and the left hand comes on somewhere before or just at (as long as you don't stop and wait for it) furi kaburi.

Furi kaburi being defined by me here as the point at which you are square to the opponent, the sword is overhead just about to cut downward, you start toward the opponent to cut him. It is at this point that the book says your kissaki is above the tsuka.

Now a problem comes when we use the broader term for furi kaburi which is to lift the sword up over the head. In this case if we say the tip has to be above the hilt we get problems and strange movements to try and do this after a thrust for instance, do we make the next cut a two parter, pull out, lift up, or do we throw the stabbed guy at the next guy? Depends on how you define furi kaburi but I read it as the instant you square up/ start attacking."

So, anything else to add?

"What's the exact position of the tip above the head for Seitei Gata?"

Here's my response to that one:

"On the distance the tip is above the hilt at furi kaburi, again a hanshi said that it can be 45 degrees above if you need to put it there on a student who tends to have it too low. Another hanshi told us that you need about 180 degrees of swing for a cut, so if he's kneeling and you're standing that 45 degrees is good but if he's standing you might want to put it at horizontal to get the 180.

Long story short, seitei doesn't specify except "above hilt at furi kaburi". The current fashion is to cut big, and some of our folks coming over from Japan are dropping it below the hilt. That will be fixed at some point in the future and we'll all be agonizing over it once more. It all depends on what the top hanshi in Japan are emphasizing."

There are two questions for the world to sort me out on should I have got it wrong.

And I often do.

Dec 11, 2015

Make me one with everthing

Said the Buddha at the hot dog stand.

Last weekend I had the fourth dan challengers for the pre-grading seminar and I told them the secret of fourth dan. You have to remember everything for sensei. It's your job to remember every kata that you do in your dojo, the name, the way it's done and the order in the school. In short, you need to know everything that, up to now, you figured sensei knows.

Because when sensei turns to a fourth dan and says "what comes next" he may not be taking a teaching moment. He may actually be having a senior moment, in either sense of the word. There's a chance he's just getting naturally forgetful, sad but true, but there's also a chance that everything is starting to blur together for him. Sensei may occasionally throw a kata together or change one and you might figure it's a variation you've never seen before. It might be, or sensei may have simply invented it on the spot to teach a specific point. That's not unheard of, why do you figure kata numbers grow and shrink and grow again through the generations? As Colin Watkin sensei has said, kata are the way we put waza together. It's the waza that are the fundamental principles of the school, the kata exist to demonstrate and to teach them.

When sensei starts to have senior moments he will often be thinking in the realm of the waza of the art. At that point the kata can start to blur from the point of view of a junior. "He's confusing number six with number eleven again". But does that part of six go with that part of eleven? Of course they do. They all go with each other, if they don't you're doing some sort of representative school derived of many schools. It's how the old guys can look at a school they've never seen before and tell you whether it's old or new without diving for Wikipedia. Just look at it.

So why the fourth dan requirement to remember everything exactly? If it's all waza and the kata don't matter what's the point? Well the point is that it's every sensei's job, every generation's job to pass along what they were taught, unmodified. The kata teach the waza and if the kata get too esoteric you aren't going to get to the waza without a LOT of guidance. Most of my "invented kata" these days consist in my shifting six inches and then looking at the class and saying "see? you understand? hmm?" Blank he's-at-it-again stares. Nope, there has to be somewhere that the kata are kept safe from each generation's understanding of them. Each sensei will know the art in a slightly different way and there has to be a counter to that drift. Some sensei will rarely teach some kata while emphasizing others. Maybe those are the kata that revealed the secrets to him and so he feels best teaching from them. Someone in the dojo has to know the whole school, everything complete and in it's place.

In the old days they wrote out by hand a list of the kata that had been passed along to the student. Unless sensei was just practicing his calligraphy, this was a lot of work to do when a piece of paper with name, school, rank and stamp would do as proof of achievement. That's what we do today in the age of cheap book publishing. The kata got written down and passed along because that's how the student was reminded of what he'd learned, all of it. "This is what you now know and what you ought to pass along".

Today we have too many books, too many scrolls, we know what we learned and what everyone else in the world learned too. When you get "old enough" it all starts to slide together, what you're supposed to pass along and what everyone else is passing along and all your other martial arts and... that's why fourth dans exist. That's why your "inner fourth dan" had to exist at one point in time, even if you're long past there. Somebody has to know what you're supposed to be doing next. Fourth dans have to be a little bit brave too, they have to say to sensei "umm, that's not the way you taught that to me ten years ago sensei, is this a variation?" when he knows perfectly well that sensei is mixing stuff up again. Sensei will get mad and say something like "I'm teaching you a variation you fool" but what he really means is "oops".

Your inner and outer fourth dan is the guy who preserves the school, your lineage, for the next generation.

This blurring and resistance to blurring isn't restricted to a single school or even to a single art. Musashi told us that all arts are ultimately one. The things you learn in carpentry can be applied to war. If you read what I write you know that my budo tends to blur in with my own carpentry and my photography and my speaker doodling and my dreams... eventually everything is one thing.

The Japan of the samurai defined this commonality of practice in the various arts as geido. If you work back far enough through your martial arts wit and wisdom you'll end up eventually at Zeami and his writings on Noh theater.

Make your lists, do your comparisons, get those notes down in your own personal books. In order to be a good sensei you have to pass this stuff along to your own fourth dans so they can pass it along. At some point it's all likely to start to blur together and you may find yourself shifting six inches to plant your stick into your partner's solar plexus and saying "see? you understand?" Sure they do, you just showed them all there was to learn about maai, seme, kamae... ...

But they're going to want to see it again and maybe even check their list of kata to see if that one is on there.

Dec 9, 2015

Heard at the big table

You may not believe this but there is the occasional burst of chatter up at the big table where the judging panel sits. Or maybe one should say mutterings under the breath. I thought you'd like to know what gets noticed by the judges, aside from your performance of course.

The big irritation this year was from the audience. This is true most of the time actually. First was the mechanical shutter on a couple of old-school SLR cameras. Those things are louder than you think they are in a silent room, and when they are on motor drive as we used to call it, rapid fire shots, they are quite intrusive. The other audience problem is a perpetual one in the space we were using, the Etobicoke Olympium. While we can rent the floor space, we cannot also rent the running track which, as anyone who has been on one of these things knows, is inhabited by grouchy people. Get in the way of an exercise runner and you are sure to get yelled at. Go the wrong way on one of these things and watch out. Despite many warnings over the years not to wander, and appeals for traffic police in the audience, we still see challengers strolling along the track. For martial artists not to know where they are in the room is to tempt fate at your next grading! Think we don't notice? Hah.

For the challengers here were a few things that were noticed on the floor. Please note these may not be important to your grading, they are just things that catch the eye while sitting still for several hours in a row, trying to concentate. (In my opinion, the only thing worse than sitting a grading panel is judging tournaments. Rank is punishment kids.)

Earrings and other jewlery will catch the eye pretty fast. As will bright logos on braces. Try to be little brown housewrens during your test, not peacocks.

For the lower ranks, at least try to get that thumb in the loops of your sageo during your etiquette, before you give up and mash it into a bundle. Who knows, with a bit of practice it might work.

It would be nice if we start number eleven (so giri, a kata that has a very long travel forward) far enough back that we don't end up with the sword over the judges table. Yes we're all swordsmen, yes we know how to duck but we judges are not supposed to move so we end up conflicted. Best not make us notice you in any case but this one is hard to miss.

Aside from this stuff, we notice good things too. I bet you didn't know you get bonus points when you turn, realize there's someone right beside you and you don't cut them. That level of paying attention can get you an instant pass, even if you think it might cause you to fail. We are more impressed with control than we are with the alternative. This one looked pretty cool, like a movie, one person cutting toward the back of another, that person then turning and responding with a cut of his own and yet nobody gets cut. Movie time!

My overall impressions of the grading were positive. There was a real difference between ranks and a very consistent level of skill within them. That means the various instructors are on the same page and standards are being taught effectively. Not to brag, but in the jodo tests held just after iaido, I thought that the challengers were all performing at least a grade above what they were challenging.

It was also great to see that these gradings continue to include challengers from outside Canada. Perhaps it's time to start recognizing our various National gradings for what they have been for years, Americas Zone gradings. Judges from North and South America have been moving betwen countries for years, doing what the international federation has been asking us to do. We are already doing what we've been asked to start, it's just that nobody has paid it any attention.

With a "zone" that takes up half the world, and includes three or four countries that, by themselves, are the same or larger than the size of other "zones" in the world, one can see the resistance to formalizing such things. Some of our third and fourth dan challengers flew 17 hours to attend this grading. Making this a usual thing is not the way to grow an art. (We once caught hell for inviting two hanshi within a month of each other to the same country. One in Ontario and one in B.C. which are four or five hours apart by jet.) In Canada it's getting better, but still, students may need to spend several thousand dollars and drive or fly five or six hours to do a kyu exam. Over here in the New World things are still big, making them bigger might make sense if we're counting countries, but not if we also look at a map.

But enough editorializing, we do what we have to do and sometimes that means flying for 17 hours to challenge a grade or sit a panel. To all that participated in the gradings yesterday I say well done. If you passed it was by the seat of your pants and if you didn't, it was by a hair's thickness so everyone should keep working hard next week.


Dec 6, 2015


I made a strange looking speaker yesterday, mostly because it's strange looking. When I compared it to it's twin (a couple of old Sony surround speakers, four inch speaker in a sealed box) I was a bit disturbed to find no difference. Was my day's work a waste of time?

On listening further I did discover differences in them, and I much prefer the one I made so I'll probably make another to pair it with. Then I'll have to figure out what to do with them, but the point, (like budo) is to learn from them rather than to use them.

It took a direct comparison, one to the other to figure out which I liked, and to see any difference at all actually. We humans are great attenuators, it's part of how we work. The world is such a mass of information it would be impossible to survive without the ability to get used to what is not necessary to "know" at any moment. We're so good at this we have whole systems of practice to teach us how to pay attention to things that we've hidden from ourselves. Like how our minds work, so we do "mindful meditation" and mistake it for a religion, or for some of us, we do budo. But we can never, and should not, get to the point where it all comes crashing in. Instead we need to get used to (attenuate) what we have and learn how to use our comparison circuits efficiently.

Huh? OK take the speakers, I make a pair and listen to them for a couple of minutes and unless they're real tin farts, they sound fine. Now I compare them to another set, oops they're not as good, they have no bass at all. So I listen to the new ones, and then try them with another set. Woah, they may have bass but it's just a spoon on a kettle, these new ones are smooth (which usually means there's some midrange for my old ears to hear, bass and treble are long gone). You see the point, if not exactly happy with, we can get used to just about anything. It's noise, it masks the tinnitis, I'm happy. It's only by comparison that I know there's something better.

I could of course take someone's word for it but audiophiles are like oenophiles, banging on about things I can't hear or taste. I don't trust them to tell me what I'll like. I can't, they are in the spirit world, they hear and taste things that are beyond my understanding. Sort of like the people who do that delayed death touch stuff. Just as an aside, knowing that stuff seems more a curse than a blessing. "Really, there's hints of cat pee in the finish, I swear there is". Consider knowing how to kill someone a week later with a touch. Undetectable, nobody knows, now don't use that knowledge on the guy who just cut in front of you in line. You see? A curse.

But we can learn how to use our own ears to hear differences in speakers and this will actually train us to get more out of our music listening. My daughter can hear stuff in a composition that I absolutely cannot, but she's studied music all her life. My son can track multiple objects in his shoot-em-up video games (is that the genre... I'm thinking I got that wrong) that I'd lose in the clutter.

Training works to make you better at what you can already do. I don't have to think about how to make a bokuto any more, I put on a podcast and concentrate on Kant or Hume or nuclear physics and the background activity is me playing around motorized knives with my bare fingers. I'm good at it. But the earphones come out when I'm making speakers, I'm not good at that, I have to pay attention, and it makes me a better woodworker (with all my fingers) when I'm paying attention.

Which always brings me to budo. You can get used to what you do, you attenuate, get satisfied. Then your sensei comes along and makes you notice something, a twitch, a glitch, and once you can see what he's talking about you can fix it. But you have to see it first. Is that it? Just let your sensei shove your nose in the mess and you'll learn? It can be, it depends on what you want. Not to diss your sensei but you can also compare performances. I can fiddle with speaker shapes for years but never get much bass out of a two inch speaker driver. If I don't know there are ten inch drivers out there, or ports, or folded horns or transmission lines, I will continue to mess with my closed box trying to get 50 hz out of 50 mm. It's only by seeing/hearing one of the giant floor-standers of the '70s that you will understand there is a more efficient way to get bass than fiddling with height x width and stuffing insulation.

Same with your budo. If you don't know how much room there is for improvement (by looking at those who are infinitely better at this than people like I) you will continue to fiddle with what you have. Or perhaps you simply declare you're good enough. Look, it depends on what you want from your practice. I have listened to my music on a set of computer speakers for years and I was fine with it. It was only when I gave my daughter her grandmother's pair of PSB "bookshelves" (back in the day our definition of bookshelf was a bit different) and my old Marantz receiver that I knew I could still hear the differences. I could still improve my ear. I was quite happy with the computer speakers, I was happy to listen to those who told me that modern computer-aided design means that modern speakers are better automatically than those old designs. It is a choice that I am now rescuing old speakers from the thrift shops and going on like a wine expert about smooth mid-bass and wooden cabinetry.

It's a choice whether or not you want to settle for the budo you're doing now or actively go out and look for better, more efficient ways to do things. My sensei says that you must, absolutely must look at everyone, senior and junior and find their faults. Not to correct them, never that, but to look within and see if you are doing that same thing. If so you fix it in yourself and thank the person you're watching for teaching you. If you see something that they do better, steal that and thank them again.

If you are happy with what you are doing, by all means ignore your chance to improve while making notes of their mistakes. Just be careful of feeling superior if you ever meet that same person in the back alleyway with your swords drawn.

Dec 4, 2015

Don't aim with, aim at

Last night we were working on jodo as per usual when one of the students had a moment of revelation and said "ah, aim with the left hand".

I lost it a little.

After thinking about it I realized why. When you think "aim with the hand" you are focusing on the hand, and not on the target. Don't aim with the hand, aim at the target and forget what the hand is doing. To focus on what you're doing is to be caught up in what you're doing and to forget you have a partner/opponent. It's what I call rolling your eyes back in your head to look inward.

There are whole systems of iaido instruction that are based on this looking inward, especially in seitei iai. Teachers who insist on saying things like "your hand should be shoulder height at this point" or "your tip should stop exactly at the chin here". This "check point budo" is necessary for a short time but if students aren't taught to go beyond they will be stuck there forever.

In partner practice it can get you hurt if your partner is also paying attention to where his foot goes instead of looking at you. The easiest thing in the world is to slip into the habit of the kata and start working on something sensei just demonstrated. With iai that's not a problem but in jodo it's a formula for a bruise.

The other problem with "check point budo" is that it doesn't work. You're trying to use propioreceptor information to project force outside yourself. You are trying to touch your nose with your finger by paying attention to where that finger is. Much better to figure out where your nose is. This is very simple to demonstrate for yourself with a stick and a string. Hang the string somewhere, put a weight on it if you want to make it easier, I used to use a bag chain. Now take a stick and poke the end of the string or the last link in the chain. If you want to hit the target, concentrate on the target. If you want to miss for a week, pay attention to where your left hand is.

You have to allow yourself to hit the target. This is why beginner iai is so boring, it's a bunch of people trying to put their swords in a specific place. Senior iaido is more interesting simply because they have an opponent and they are cutting that opponent. You can see the opponent. Often you can see how that opponent is moving.

Large amounts of time are spent in iaido placing tips at chin heights or trying to aim hips in the correct angles. Just put a target there and all that time making those corrections becomes wasted time. We can aim our hips at "something". If we don't know where the opponent is in an iaido kata we can calculate angles in our heads for months and still not get it right. The story of an iaido kata is not it's "riai", knowing what your opponent is doing isn't something reserved for senior students, it's the starting point of the kata. Take away the metal swords and substitute a partner with a bokuto and you're at the starting point of all partner practices, rather than at the upper middle point of iaido. Where your opponent stands is not a secret to be shared, it's not a math equation to be solved by angles and inches. Roll your eyes back out of your head and look at where he is.

Then aim at him, the part of him you're supposed to hit, don't aim with your left hand.

Dec 2, 2015

Learning should stick

If you router across end grain it's going to tear out. I know this, and I even told myself to router first and cut the slots into my radio-inspired mp3 speaker box afterward but no, I had to see how the slots looked. Today I'll be sanding by hand all morning to clean up the mess.

Then of course I had to see how the fake button would look on the front so I glued that on which will prevent me from using the power sander. There's experimentation, sure, and I hate working in the shop with plans because I'd rather just play but experimenting with new "no clamp" glue (it sucks) at the same time as working up a new design while trying to fit an existing speaker into a new box and then getting things out of order just to see how it looks... eventually it just becomes a mess.

I'm going to sand the chunks down and call it "vintage-inspired". That will fix it. Sort of like not actually learning a kata and changing it while trying to remember how it goes and calling it "traditional-kaewaza". Maybe. It certainly looks sort of like...

Still, I worked in research for enough years to be done with recipes and SOP. Time to play and allow myself to experiment and I will continue to do so with my photography (never wrote down a lighting setup in my life) my woodworking (nothing better than looking around and saying "that will do" as you pick up a piece of zebrawood to laminate into your construction-grade spruce box) and my budo (don't ask me to remember the name of the next kata, that's what 4th dans are for). It's always with some reluctance I go to the recipes and blueprints that are grading requirements. We've been doing that for iaido for a while now, spent a couple days with seitei at the log dojo which I hope will be useful. Been doing it for aikido too, and the guys did their test last night. I hope they did well, I meant to go watch but lost track of time as I got all involved in re-gluing this box that exploded when I routered it.

There's having fun and experimenting and then there's blowing the edges out of 90 percent of a box side when you absolutely know better. That's just sloppy and it's asking for more work and time to fix it than you saved by not paying attention. Re-inventing a lighting style because you can't be bothered to write them down is one thing, tripping over the cords and smashing your new monolight because you're not paying attention is quite another.

Slow down and let some of that experimentation become learning and then let it stick.

Dec 1, 2015


I recommend practicing iai in the middle of the woods in a log dojo while listening to Ben Hepner playing the Ride of the Valkyrie on the radio. Highly motivating.

We managed to fit six of us in the space, cleverly avoiding construction materials, a couple of kerosene heaters, bicycles, the stereo, the batteries for the solar system, and a giant hole in the middle of the floor where the stairs come up. Still I figure we had as much or more room than a lot of private dojo in Japan. We put a few more dents in the floor as well, in my pursuit of a floor like that of Namitome sensei in Fukuoka. The students who visited there this last summer now get it.

We drove on through seitei of course, the grading is next weekend. Lots of "use your left hip" and another lecture on the hole that happens on your left side if you don't do enough saya biki combined with that left hip.

Which brings me to another thing I've been saying lately, that there are two saya biki. The first is done when cutting horizontally or upward from the scabbard. You need to move the saya back off the sword as you push the sword forward out of the saya or you can't get it out. For the cuts that come from above we don't need that first saya biki. If we do it, we end up pulling the sword free before we're ready to cut which means we lower the hand and now we're getting hell for smacking our opponent in the face. Instead try just lifting the saya and drawing with the right hand only, then at saya banari do the other (second) saya biki and drive the koiguchi down to the belt to meet the left hip as you cut.

We followed this with an examination of moving from the finish of the last movement through the next cut. No stopping overhead for the left hand to catch up or similar pauses.

Made for a much more smooth performance overall and one of the participants remarked "like oku iai". Sure, why not, why would we learn something in one place only to deliberately forget it in another which was supposed to be "lower" or "prior". In no way should we consider that seitei iai is introductory or basic or more fundamental than a koryu iai. That way does not lead to 7 or 8dan-land.

I once had a couple of conversations about the three levels of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. In one we spoke of the differences that happen in the levels, the timing changes, the angles, the heights. In the second conversation I asked a high ranking instructor of another lineage how he performed the three levels differently and his response was "I don't". I don't, consider those two ideas to be different, both are correct. We can do Omori with certain movements that are easier for beginners and we can then do other movements in the Oku Iai level that can't be done by those same beginners. But we won't do those movements any differently, no matter how skilled we are. We will do them as skillfully as we are able. How do you unlearn a skill? What would be the point of pretending we're a beginner and can't move in certain ways if we can? Omori may be a beginner set, done in different ways than Oku Iai but you should not perform it like a beginner unless you are one.

Here come the girls on their horses, can you see them in the clouds as Brunhilda calls down her sisters? Oh lordy, bring the thunder!

Nov 29, 2015

Just do something

Dave Green sent along a link to an article on CPR which essentially said that too much detail, too much focus on technique will reduce or even prevent the attempts of bystanders to perform CPR.

Something else in the article, which I remember from 10 or 15 years ago when I took my CPR instructor's training was that in most cases, dead is dead. The solution? Try it anyway, you aren't going to make things worse if you just pound on the chest until the rescuers get there. If you don't pound, chances are they will get there too late. Just do something.

Good advice, try it, even if you haven't been trained, try it. It's better to know the theory, circulate the blood to the brain by squeezing the heart, than to try and memorize compression and breathing ratios. I was taught two different ratios for adults and kids, and to use one or two hands, and to use two different ways to seal the mouth and nose for adults and babies and... and... I can't remember any of it. I do remember the riai of the thing, the baseline theory which is "pump and blow". And the smaller riai? Pump more important than blow.

Of course there are other things that are important, like the "wire fire gas glass" thing but the riai for that is "you ain't much good if you're injured or unconscious too". A student and I were hiking in the woods a while ago when I stepped on a nail through a board. It stuck in my heel and didn't go all the way through but I took a step or two before catching on that I was dragging something. The student promptly stamped on the board to help out and got a nail in the foot. This of course made me mad, don't stamp on a board that is stuck in someone else's foot until you check to see if you're going to end up impaled too.

Just check first, wire is electricity, poke 'em with a stick. Fire is burny, throw them down and roll them on the ground. Gas is poisony, use your yogic breathing or get a mask but don't jump down into the silo when Dad collapses because then you both will be down there. Glass... just like nails, pokey in footsy, put your shoes on.

See, all this is martial arts isn't it? Using sticks, throwing people around and breathing correctly, or at least breathe the the correct stuff. The only difference is not to take your shoes off before you go at it.

Dave and I developed and taught a self defence course back in the late '80s and our intent was not to teach at all if it didn't work. So we did the research and it seems resistance does work, we carried on and looked into what works. The primary theory we ended up with was exactly this, "just do something" because when it comes to resistance to assault almost anything works, what doesn't would seem to be doing nothing. Yell, bite, kick, talk, anything except nothing.

The course has run it's course unless one of our former instructors is still carrying on, and one day I really do intend to write it all down and do a video or two. The system was nice, it was easy to teach and to learn. Mostly it was simple. If, that is, the instructors can resist the temptation to teach it as a martial art. You know, worrying about angles and inches and making it complicated and telling folks you need ten years of practice.

Instead just do something.

Nov 28, 2015

Not Fade Away

I wonder about the martial arts, about exercise in general actually. The University is building a massive new athletics building which is supposed to more than double our exercise space. I now wonder if that building or the old one will be converted to classrooms. I just don't see the masses of users, and judging by the offers of free and discounted end-of-semester classes, I wonder if we're filling classes with our present supposedly limited space.

When I was a student in the late 70s with a third the student population we had over 100 intramural volleyball teams and we played until 2am. Now the building is barely open to midnight during the busy parts of the week, it being easiest to save money by reducing hours worked. Is the new building going to allow the same number of employees to offer the same services in 1/4 of the open hours?

But never mind all that, where are the participants? Where are the users? More to the point, where are my new budo students? I like teaching the few experienced folks around the place, sure, but where are their replacements?

I am reminded of all this because the registration deadline has just been extended for the pre-grading seminar for the upcoming gradings. The seminar is about half full, and restricted to challengers. I truely hope those qualified are not staying away because I mentioned I thought pre might better be post. Not my intention I assure you, and I can't believe what I write would influence anyone in that way. First, you don't turn down instruction at any time and second, you don't listen to what I say. Just don't.

For anyone who didn't register because this seminar is always full to bursting, apparently this year it ain't so take advantage.

But my fear isn't bad advice or bad guesses about reservation space, my fear is that budo and all other forms of exercise are fading away. That we are headed toward the Wall-E world of couch potatoes who get their exercise watching WWE or UFC or whatever it's called. Or is everybody out shaking ropes in the dozen or so crossfit places I have spotted around town?

Me, I'm sitting in the warming air of the cabin about to start a weekend binge of practice with my students ahead of the grading. I am happy to report that 100% of our challengers are signed up for the seminar, all three of them. They're looking forward to the uncrowded floor but I'm afraid that without the seminar income we'll come up short on overall expenses so I'll torpedo their hopes and recommend that you folks who are staying away, not stay away.

Not fade away.

Nov 27, 2015

Circles in circles (more distance stuff)

We did the big and small circles thing in Aikido class yesterday. Haven't done that for a while but got sucked into the vortex while doing the warmups. Started with a mutual yokomen uchi, both sides striking, both sides blocking and somehow went on from there instead of going to the situp binge I had planned on.

Both stepping in, both swinging means both are doing a circle of the same size. To go into a throw all we need is a smaller circle from one of the pair. That's what we did. Attacking hand gets guided past and down, defending hand becomes an attack to the face or a lift under the elbow (or your elbow in his armpit) and there you have the big steering wheel throw... does it have a name? I've just called it kokyu nage which seems to be the catch-all name for all throws that work by making uke extend and fall down.

Then into an even tighter circle as a hip assisted throw. Since everyone was all over the map I got out a bokuto and showed what happens if you get loose in your distancing, you get cut. I love this stuff, it makes things so very clear. The class got much tighter.

The thing about this circular movement as compared to my usual sword arts is that close doesn't mean stop. Tai atari becomes dynamic which has always been fascinating to me.

Then we tried to help the 5kyu guys who are testing on Monday by going into shihonage from yokomenuchi. No problem with omote, just continue the movement of his attacking hand down in front of ourselves, drive under his elbow and turn to fold his arm over his own shoulder. Lots of balance and footwork stuff to work on here so much happiness. But then I had to go spoil it by showing what happens when you try to do it against a sword. Whack, the Pamurai took great pleasure in bruising my leg. You'd better have good control of the sword before that happens.

Or ground it. By entering the eye of the hurricane, getting inside his circle, we take control and move him around us. Now, if we can't continue at this distance we can move back out again. Hand to hand this is a good thing, it gets us away from his other hand as we deal with one of his by using two of ours. With the sword that becomes a problem, hand to sword means we move out of the safe space inside his weapon to the nasty stormy place where the winds are very strong. If, when we step back out of distance we move his arms downward strongly while dropping our weight, we can slam the tip of that sword into the ground. We can ground his power and freeze it so that we can step to the other side and do shihonage ura, to his back. After demonstrating that, and the possibility of stamping on the sword at that moment just to reinforce the grounding idea, we went to Yokomenuchi Shihonage Ura, inside the circle, ground his movment and freeze him, step in on the rear side and turn to throw.

Nice. Inside, outside, inside, controlling his free hand while using two of our hands on his other arm. If we control the distance and keep his balance we're safe from the loose cannon that is his other hand.

I've usually figured out my point by this time in the essay, I suspect it's the one about using the distance to control his balance. The secret point, I suspect, is that I love this stuff. I daydream about grips to the sword and moving inside attacks and all sorts of other things that the Tengu whisper in your ear when you're out in the woods delirious from lack of food.

The guys kept going on about "which foot do I start on" and "is this gyaku hanmi or ai hanmi". I kept yelling back "just get out of the way" thinking "can't you guys feel which way you have to move?" "Just dream it!" Why is it that we get to this place just when our bodies are beginning to fail? I can see what I want to do from across the room but the body may not respond like it once did. Ah well, try to jump-start the next generation.

Folks natter on about the tenuous connection of sword with Aikido these days but it is such a clarifying force. Do you suspect your posture is weak while doing your techniques? Ask a partner to pick up a sword and see. Using too much muscle? Try to muscle the edge of a blade. Distance a bit wonky? Figure out why while at the end of a sword. Nothing clarifies the mind like a student willing and more important, able to hurt you.

Nov 27, 2015

Warning, retirement ahead

Men, apparently, are subject to boredom and depression when they retire. They can't handle Saturday seven days a week, they wake up and can't think of a thing to do each morning.

I think that's a bit backward, I'm only bored and without something to do when I'm depressed. It's the depression that causes lack of interest in life, not the other way around.

Thankfully, there's routine. I get up almost every morning and go to the coffee shop with my un-retired wife (who went back to work) so that I can write a bit and watch the world go by. Then I go home and either work in the shop (gettting into the cold season when I say "I'm retired, I'm not risking the table saw with frozen hands") or these days, messing around with making cutsie little mp3 speakers by ripping apart old computer systems. Guess what folks are getting for Christmas this year?

Routine, it's what got me through two University degrees. I attended a couple or three martial arts classes which gave me a structure around which to hang the rest of the week. If it's Tuesday this must be Tae Kwan Do.

But now I feel like I'm bragging. Here I am retired while I'm wondering if my kids are going to ever get that chance. Or will they be stuck in unpaid internships, dead end service jobs, and part time work until they drop dead one day because they can't get ahead of their debt? The unions that helped create the idea of retirement are under fire, benefits and pensions are a thing of the past. Suck it up sweetie, you really want to control your own money don't you? Sure you do, the company or the government shouldn't force you to save your money, it's yours.

Oh and incidentally, that means you won't be getting any contributions from your employer toward your retirement nestegg. You know the one... no? Well nobody's fault but yours for not saving.

On the other hand, you could go to a low cost martial arts class, get un-depressed through that culturally appropriated spiritual stuff, and avoid spending money at the race track at the same time. Soak up that bored-time with board-time and go break a few.

Nov 26, 2015

Distance Education

Last night was jodo, I figured it would be a nice break for my knees from all the seitei we've been doing since half the class (two of them) are grading. I was wrong, I noticed my right knee, ankle and foot were hurting. And my shoulders, of course my shoulders, which then put the pain up into my neck. OK so I've learned that jodo is what sets my shoulders off each week.

But the leg? Ah, that I figured out as well. I was really slamming that right foot into the ground when demonstrating with my usual partner (the Pamurai) and it wasn't on purpose, I'm a gentle guy, really I am. No it was because my partner was fading before I was striking for her face which was causing me to chase her, big huge push on the back leg and then to prevent actually hitting her I had to stamp to stop my momentum. Then the left foot went from all that pushing the fat man. Why you running away? I said. Scared? She said. Well I suppose I'd be scared too if somebody of my mass was driving full tilt at me with an inch of jo out front aimed between my eyes. Barely in control.

All of which set off a rant on distances. Distances have been on my mind anyway as I've been trying to get the iaido kata back out of kendo range. As my sensei says, in kendo you go get him, in iaido he comes to you.

In jodo it's sometimes one, sometimes the other depending on the movements of the kata, sometimes we chase, sometimes we stand firm and let him impale himself. But at no time should we be chasing someone beyond the combative distance, that just puts us off balance and in position to get hit. Or we just hurt ourselves and complain about it next morning... my right shoulder is "interesting" today.

The over-reaching I was talking about above was the final strike to the face in many of the seitei gata jo kata. The yada yada stuff as I call it, lock down the sword, poke them in the stomach to put them back on their heels, chamber the jo and then hit them in the face. Tachi is supposed to pull back to avoid both the poke and the hit, especially the hit. Not supposed to be running away.

One of our folks was going for a shortcut, lock, poke, then don't chamber, just keep coming in with the left hand out there (honte uchi rather than hiki otoshi uchi) and strike overhead for the face, all-in-a-row. You'd think that would work but about the third time it happened I found myself batting the jo aside instead of backing up. All those years of aikido I guess, kendo would probably have done as well to trigger that reaction. Sword is backing up to regain his balance right? So once he's made the distance he's looking to reverse the situation, to knock the jo aside, move to the side himself, plant and move forward again... something to prevent being run into a wall. A constant attack while I'm backing up means I get the measure of the distance and then I'm looking to get control. That's when I realized that the yada yada stuff was set up to disrupt that control. Poke stomach to get tachi moving back and make some distance, as he begins to look for a counterattack, withdraw the left hand and stop the movement. This instantly puts tachi out of range of the counter he was planning and the brain stops working for an instant. As the wetwear comes back on line and just as tachi is thinking about moving back in to attack, here comes the jo into the face.

By manipulating the distance the jo keeps the tachi off balance, curiously, by letting him get his balance back (to stop backpeddling and get onto the toes once more).

You don't have to do jodo to get this idea, go practice your own kata and see if there are places where you control your partner's balance by manipulating the distance between you. Look for those weird stop points your sensei insists on and see if they are messing up your partner.

You know this already? Well OK, I'm slow to the party most of the time. My sensei says that he has had two students who got it instantly and I'm not one of them. I have never claimed to be good at this stuff but I can see what makes this stuff good and I can rant at my students until they're better at it than I am. I've been successful at that several times and hope to keep at it. If I can't keep up physically I can sometimes stay ahead by analysis through these little jots as the coffee gets my wetwear online.

Nov 25, 2015

Warning, Cultural Minefield

You may have heard about the Student Federation Yoga class for differently enabled students that was cancelled because of concerns about cultural appropriation? The woman teaching the class was not "of the proper culture".

While I suspect the incident will turn out to be more about 20 year old student leaders not wanting to be sucked into such arguments (by just trying to make the thing go away), they have still landed in it. If you haven't heard of this one you will know many stories of your own.

I am beginning to suspect that our university class (those who are priviledged enough, wealthy enough to attend a University) means well with all this sensitivity but I know for a fact it can distract from their studies (or their studies can distract from their causes) and this distraction may be causing them to miss a small point.

By suggesting that only a member of the originating culture can teach yoga, they are implying those teachings have no inherent value. Don't go glassy eyed, all the budo, including the western stuff (unless you're German or Italian or a member of the knightly class of circa 1253) is culturally appropriated so it's just a matter of time before they come for us.

It won't be the Japanese that come after my classes, they approve of them and even support them. They have no interest in preventing we westerners from passing on their instruction. It may be another story if we're talking about control, I remember the problems that happened several years ago when aikido students in the west got highly enough ranked to become shihan. The Japanese organizations had some trouble "letting go of the hands of their kids" but eventually they did. We all have to let our kids go sooner or later. And we have to trust that what we've taught them is understandable, and has some value in itself. If only parents can decide when it's safe for a kid to cross the road, the parents will have to live forever, or until the kids die at least. We call these "helicopter parents" and they show up at Universities more often than they should... oh yes, that's what I was on about.

So if Yoga (or any of the budo) can only be taught by someone from India, it must be that the art itself cannot speak for itself. It's a demonstration of how far Yoga has come from its spiritual practice that folks assume the argument is stupid... how much culture does it take to teach someone how to stretch? Or how to punch someone in the face? But of course that's not the problem is it, no the problem is that spiritual component which supposedly can only be grasped, fully understood and taught by a member of the originating culture. In other words, and to repeat myself, by suggesting that it is culturally specific we are suggesting that it has no independent existance or value. It's a folk dance and Chilleans better not be caught doing any Morris Dancing. I don't want to see women wearing pants either, that's a meaningless, non-spiritual part of our men's culture. Not even at Halloween!

A thousand years ago I had a friend who converted to Sikhism because she wanted to study yoga. This was before stretchypants of course, and she took the cultural component of the study seriously. But that's different, she wanted to study the culture and the spiritual aspects much more deeply than most people. Are we to suggest that she can't become a Sikh? Once a WASP always a WASP? Can I say wasp any more? I was "born" one so I guess it's OK for me to use that term of derision, but not you, you Papist.

I suspect our cultural warriors would be all about accepting and studying other cultures, just make sure you don't learn from them because that would be cultural appropriation.

And no Morris Dancing!

Nov 24, 2015

One size does not fit all

Especially in seitei gata iai which is derived from several lines of koryu. Yet the idea persists that there is a single way to cut, a single way to do whatever.

Thing is, it doesn't work. There are lots of things that are default modes in any art and seitei is no exception. A few years ago I came up with a list of thirty or fourty things that you default to in seitei but none of them is exclusive. You need to say things like "all cuts and thrusts in seitei are done with the hips square to the opponent... except for those that are not." I actually heard that from a hanshi once. He had a big grin on his face when he said it.

That one stuck with me, in fact quite a bit of what he said has stuck. He also said that furi kaburi is the point at which one starts one's attack, which has all sorts of interesting effects on your iai if you think about it for a while. The hips square thing is important to me because the kendo federation iai practice is kendo. We ought not pretend otherwise. For me, that means I get to be even more annoyed by my pet peeve (fair warning to those who are grading in a couple weeks) which is the final cut of both Uke Nagashi and Kesa Giri. We start at the left shoulder of our opponent and finish out of the body at his right hip. Combine this with the injunction to cut with your hips square, and keeping your left hand at the center of your body and you come up with one (1) place for the tip of your sword. In front of your left hip.

I have been going on about this for many years. About 1987 I was told that if your left wrist doesn't hurt at the end of this cut you're not doing it right. My left wrist still hurts at the end of this cut, almost 30 years later, yet I am still listening to beginners tell me it can't possibly be the correct position (it hurts!) as they turn their hips away from the cut and make a big scooping curve out of what ought to be an almost vertical line. Look, do the cut and freeze, have a friend stand square to your hips and then walk toward you. If he gets stabbed or your blade ends up on his left side you have failed in this cut. I don't care if your hands are in the position of every other cut you do, this one requires your left wrist to be bent at a different angle than most of the others.

Speaking of one size not fitting all, let's back up in those two kata just a bit, let's go to the start of the downward cut. Right hand a fist outside and a fist in front of your right shoulder. Your right arm is extended and the tip, as I was taught back in the day, "stuck in the ceiling". Now reach up and grab the hilt with your left hand and cut from there. If you want to cut like you were taught you will have a hard time with this. You can't start the cut with your left hand because it's extended already so you drop your wrists forward and let the tip wag behind until you can get the whip you're used to. Or you bend the tip back behind you before you can grab it with your left hand, which puts the hilt out of reach so you bend your elbow until you can and then you whip the sword over. Both those methods let you put your left hand on the hilt in the "correct" position which means that, when you finish the cut with the tip in front of your left hip and your left hand in front of your bellybutton it hurts. (So you stop with the tip in the center of your body or even at your right hip and you twist your hips so that you have cut your opponent. Yes, you cut him, no it isn't kendo federation iai because you haven't cut him with your hips square to him.)

Sure your wrist hurts , but are we sure you have to perform the cut here in the same way as you cut in Mae? Go try this method of cutting instead of what you've been trying to do. Arm as described, a fist out and forward from the shoulder, arm extended, hilt down so you can reach it with the left hand, left elbow low so you don't block your vision of the opponent. Now don't move anything as you grip the hilt with your left hand as close to how you were taught as you can, but let it be not quite there. You will notice that your left wrist is already extended, so you can't start the cut with the left hand. Don't bend your left wrist, don't drop your arm to whip the tip, instead tell yourself that you are half way through the cut and (continue to) push forward with your right hand to start (continue) the movement of the tip forward. Now it will finish in the correct place, and look at your left hand, it is not turned all the way on top of your hilt as you were taught, but is just slightly off. In fact, it is in a position where it doesn't actually prevent the cut, it will hurt a little but the cut can be done without twisting your hips away from the square position.

Is this the way you were taught to cut? No of course it wasn't , but it's the way this cut was taught to me many years ago. Not in these words but rather "start this cut as if it's a one handed cut". I do, and I have never had to modify it from the original instructions. Tip in front of the left hip, left hand on the centerline. You just have to stop trying to make this cut the same as other cuts.

One size does not fit all.

Nov 23, 2015

Nuki Tsuke

To draw and point, that was one of the things we worked on at the seitei iai class on Friday. The idea of nuki tsuke is to suppress the opponent. We usually try to do this with a feeling of pressure as we push the tsuka down the centerline toward our opponent while, as my sensei says we think "don't draw, don't draw". When we get to saya banari (the point at which we "break" the tip out of the koiguchi and close our hand to cut) we are at the point of no return and we cut.

But are we really? I know it's apostasy to even think about variation in ZenKenRen iai, it's standard after all, seitei gata, fixed in "the book", but hey, my sensei says I should use seitei to learn so I'm going to do that. Why do we draw and cut when the technique is named nuki tsuke? Why can't we draw and point?

Try sitting opposite a partner at the correct distance and as he starts to draw at you, move just a bit faster and draw your sword, close your hand and stop your tip just in front of his throat. Have you suppressed him? Is he still drawing? Are you pointing your sword at him? I have no idea if I'm allowed to have that thought or make people do it, but it sure does get rid of that tendency to pull the sword hand to the right as you begin your horizontal cut. In fact, any kind of sitting or standing in front of an actual person tends to fix problems in iaido. (Something else my sensei says.)

There have been discussions about which kata are nuki tsuke and which are nuki uchi (a draw and strike rather than a suppression) and it is generally agreed that the first two seitei, Mae and Ushiro are nuki tsuke, the rest are nuki uchi. I'm good with that, number three is uke nagashi, go no sen, he is attacking while you are deflecting and counter attacking. No making him back down with your mental pressure when he's already swinging at you. Then from number four onward we are into techniques from the Oku Iai level of practice which means multiple attackers amongst other things. How do you make two or three people back down? You probably can't so number four (two attackers, it's not from Eishin ryu, it's from Oku), six, seven, eight, and ten are nuki uchi.

That leaves five, kesa giri as a solo opponent. He is cutting downward while you are cutting upward so no chance for nuki tsuke here is there? Is there a more confusing kata in seitei than kesa? Seriously, you're standing in front of this guy who is cutting down and you are cutting up? Can you even hope for ai uchi here? He has your head, you've got his waki bara, not a great tradeoff, he must be the hero with the flesh wound in this story. Or can we think of something else here, like maybe we slide to the right as we cut upward. Hey, I got that from a hanshi, I'm not making stuff up now. But sliding to the right would be easy enough to put in the kata, why not do it if that's what was intended? Not to be disagreeing with a hanshi (I never do that) but probably he was giving the beginners something easy to chew on rather than talk about jo ha kyu and it's relationship to maai and sen and... Get out of the way of the downward cut is so much easier.

Instead of dodging I'm thinking maybe we cut upward on the 2.5th step rather than the third, that way the opponent is (from his point of view) half a step too far away to hit you so he's not swinging and now you're inside his range cutting upward. Now, on that basis, can we make this a nuki tsuke instead of nuki uchi? Well why not stay out six inches and cut upward to stop with the tip of our sword just in front of his throat and the edge of our blade upward in position to cut his left wrist if he keeps cutting? It would be easy enough to have slipped four inches to the right so that we are still in a strong position in front but with our left shoulder pulled back we'd be clear of the right handed cut down he might make as he runs his throat onto the tip and his left wrist onto the edge.

Just saying.

Nine is Soete Zuki, we turn left and cut down diagonally from the opponent's right shoulder to his left hip, then stab him in the stomach and leave him to die three days later from a painful stomach wound. Hey, this one is not from Muso Jikiden so don't blame us for such mean behaviour. We'd probably modify it to thrust the suigetsu which would nick the bottom of the heart.

Yes folks, this is indeed how I spend my Sunday mornings.

So could we suppress this fellow? We used to imagine him behind a corner or in a doorway. Now he seems to be walking beside us... you know, the hanshi who come over and teach us seem to play with the story... Try the walking beside thing with a partner, your opponent has to turn toward you and, since you have to move back to make room to cut him, he must be moving back to make room to cut you. If he's moving back away from us and cutting already, how do we not die? We draw toward his face to make him twitch before moving past and upward don't we? Don't you? So we then close our hand and the point is at his right shoulder beside his neck. Why not pull back a tiny bit further and stop the point at his throat? You saw that coming didn't you. What about turning and stepping in toward him instead of away? Can we jam his draw with one hand and smack him a good one with the other? Try it with a partner and see. Oh you say, no it's easier for him to jam your draw than you to jam his because your saya is between the two of you.

So why were you walking beside him like that....? Hmm? Well you were so why not open your blade forward (instead of at his face) when he tries to grab your hilt? Hah, he snatches his hand away and you continue the technique as usual only now you've got the time advantage because you're already drawing. Note that we've noodled around with a couple of variations so far without much change to the kata at all, just some angles as you draw and cut. Best to make sure you know which story the panel wants to see before you go to your grading yes? No pressure.

Moving on to numbers eleven and twelve we seem to have single opponents as well. With So Giri I'm pretty sure it's a single opponent unless I'm in some sort of ghost story where they poof into smoke when you cut them and another is lined up behind. Can we somehow make a nuki tsuke of this kata? Um, we're opening our sword to the right, leaving a gaping hole for him to cut into. I am relatively certain we are not trying to prevent him from drawing, so no. Not nuki tsuke, but rather forcing him to strike first so that we can counter that predicted strike. A bit of research on the net will find this tactic in some of the koryu.

Which leaves number twelve, Nuki Uchi. This one is a surprise, we're suddenly attacked and have to jump back, no nuki tsuke. You think it's not likely that you can do this? I've done it, I remember a seminar in Kingston many years ago where I had become used to the attacks of a beginner student in my own club. I asked a former student who had spent a few years trying to hit me to assist. I motioned for him to swing at me while I (stupidly) turned aside to the class to see if they were paying attention. They were, I wasn't. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the bokuto moving and I stepped back just in time to feel it whiz past my nose. My former student seemed to think knocking me out would not have been his fault. At any rate, stick with this long enough and you can step out of danger without thinking about it. We're talking swords here, not grenades, it doesn't have to miss by thirty feet, just miss.

So there are some thoughts on nuki tsuke from last class for those who were not making notes. Now I'm going to go home and see if I can make an MP3 player from an old pair of 1960s JVC speakers before class this afternoon. With a house full of speakers SWMBO is starting to notice, I may have to start giving these things away. I've used the "Christmas" dodge but I don't think she's buying it.

Nov 22, 2015

Draw at your target

Aaargh, who said that? Since when do we draw at our target in iaido? I'd have to spend more of my life than I want going through all the iai kata I know but let's start with seitei and figure out where we are supposed to aim at the target. This always comes up for morote tsuki, where we are to aim at the side of our opponent's head with the tsuka kashira as we draw right?

And then sensei yells at us for just slapping him on the forehead with our sword. The problem is that someone somewhere said "aim at the target". Guys, we're cutting not thrusting or shooting, and even when we're shooting arrows at a target we don't aim at the target unless we're three feet away from it.

OK let's go through some of the first kata in seitei. Mae: Aim at the target? No, we aim at the suigetsu and hit the side of the head. In my koryu Mae I hit the shoulder which is a good six inches to the side of what I'm "aiming" at. In Mae he's in seiza and I'm up on my knees so the suigetsu level becomes his eye level but I'm still aiming at the center of his body, not the side of his head.

Ushiro is the same. Uke nagashi is a deflection from the saya so no target. Tsuka ate, hey, we aim at the suigetsu of the first guy and hit that target. So aim at the target! Same for the second thrust, then cut from overhead but put the tsuka gashira on the center plane between you and your opponent, not aimed at, but on the attack plane.

Kesa giri: Surely we aim at the target here? Well no, at least I don't, I aim at the suigetsu, I don't want to be exposing the back of my right shoulder to an attack from jodan thank you very much, I aim for the center and hit the waki bara just above the side of his hip.

Which brings us to Morote tsuki and the idea that we aim the kashira at the upper side of the head as we cut down. Well I don't, I put the kashira on the centerline above his head and then I raise my right wrist to the height of the target so that when I close my hand the tip moves over to about four inches above his head. Drop the arm and I'm done. I do not aim at the target.

I could, but that would mean that to get the maximum range when I start the cut I would need to rotate the sword over the tsuka kashira, push my hand upward in a small arc as I get the sword from the scabbard into position to cut. Awkward and time consuming, just lift the hand naturally to the right position and do as we always do, close the hand then open the chest when the tip arrives at the correct position to start the cut.

In seitei we cut from the saya in three general angles, from above (as close to vertical as we can manage), horizontally and from below, (as close to vertical as we can manage). We push the kashira at the centerline, close the hand, then open the chest to cut.

Maybe I'm missing something, let's go to number seven, sanpogiri. Turn to the right and cut the first opponent, it's a mostly vertical cut, just slightly off, and it comes down to the chin from the area of the head between the crown and the corner of the hairline. Try doing it by aiming at that spot, you'll cut your face off. Raise the hand, step under the hand and cut down.

How about ganmen ate? Thrust the kashira between the eyes, aim at the spot, hit the spot. yes, aim at the target. Same for the guy at the rear, thrust the suigetsu by aiming at the suigetsu. For thrusts, sure, aim. For cuts? Not so much. Hey this is just number four stood up. Sure it is, it's a new kata, only got added in the late '80s where everything was derivative. Trust me I was there, I remember disco.

Soete Zuki: Aim at the shoulder and cut the shoulder? This is another one of those slappers and no, lift your hand above the target and cut down onto it. Aim at the hara and stab the hara. That works.

Has anyone caught the flaw in my argument yet? We'll come back to it but consider that there is an inconsistency in what I'm saying.

Shiho Giri: Turn square to the first fellow, smash his hand with your tsuka using your left hand, but do it from above down the centerline. Aim for the center but not at the target, although the target is on the centerline so... yes or no for aiming at the target depending on your definition of aiming at. Aim at the target and thrust at the target for the second guy. Pretty much the third time we've done tsuka ate right? Add some more vertical cuts.

So Giri: New-new kata now, and we explicitly do not aim at the target for the first movement, we draw in the same angle as the sword sits in our belt like some newb who is just asking for it, then we deflect and cut when the bait is taken... err, when the evil opponent meanly attacks us, forcing us to self-defend ourselves.

And Nuki Uchi? Nah, draw at 90 degrees from the target as we avoid an actually surprising attack.

Have you spotted the inconsistency in my argument yet? Consider the horizontal cut from the saya, aim the tsuka kashira at the centerline and cut to the near/left side of this line, the side less than 180 degrees of arc from koiguchi. Rising cut? Same, aim at the center and hit the opponent's right hip, to the left of where we're aiming. But the downward cut? I told you to raise your hand above the target which puts the target more than 180 degrees from the koiguchi, we're thus cutting to the right aren't we? Wait, what? I said put the kashira on the centerline and cut his head on his right side (our left) so maybe.... aargh my head hurts. How about "hey, if you're cutting downward your hands are above your head to start the cut so downward cuts from the scabbard are the same as overhead cuts!"

Where did this aim at the target thing come from? I figure it comes from what I said next after I'd just ranted about not aiming at the target last night in class, "aim at the opponent". Aim the kashira at the opponent in such a way that it mentally unbalances (seme) him, usually at his suigetsu or eyes but almost always at the attack plane (the vertical plane running through his tanden (center of movement) and yours. This can easily become "aim at the target" since the target is the opponent. Now narrow the definition of target to be the place where you initially contact him with the sword. Bam, we're down to semantics once more. The question is "what do you mean by target?"

So can we talk about where it says in "the book" that the tip is above the tsuka when the sword is in furi kaburi? Do we mean that the tip has to be above the hilt at all times? At all times when we are lifting the blade overhead?

Aaaand that's how you get lawyers.

Nov 21, 2015

Tai Sabaki and Kuzushi

I realized something last night in aikido class which I would not have much reason to think about in iaido or jodo. Balance is movement. It's also power and speed and a lot of other stuff, but mostly I want to think about movement. The circumstance was our attempts to do shihonage without wrenching each other around, to travel through the movements of the throw without triggering a reaction from our partner or straining our own shoulders and arms. The same thing really, if you're exerting yourself your opponent must be reacting.

At the end of your turn and just before your partner falls down you have to have his balance, that is you have to own it, it has to be broken on his part. If you're holding his forearm you need to be in one place, if you have his hand as well and can bend his wrist you can be at another place but in both cases you need to have his balance. This is true for any throw, even something like kotegaeshi I said, at which point I got a bit of pushback. "Well no, you can throw with a wrist turn" (as for all these ruminations I'm assuming you folks can look up these techniques on the net so I won't explain very fully but this one involves pointing the fingers back at the body... which hurts).

At that point I disagreed and demonstrated that if you can move you can counter a throw, with kotegaeshi you change the angles and slip out. "Yes but then you can... " take the balance with a further movement so that your partner can't move out of it??

One thing that usually does work if you don't have the balance is to move really fast with huge power before your partner can react, but that's so inelegant. Better to take the balance and just tickle your partner along the cliff edge for a few moments before dropping him off. So much more evil.

When we move to the sword or the stick arts we don't really get to feel that physical balance in our partners, which is why I keep talking to my sword students about aikido. I often talk about mental balance in sword and it would be handy to refer to physical balance when I do, as in "if he's off balance he can't move". My own sensei spoke about his early judo training (self defence against a brother who was taking judo) and I'm sure he knows all about balance since one of his favourite kendo sayings is "first I kill him, then I swing my sword".

Mental balance is one aspect of weapons arts but we can go to the physical realm and see places where we can take advantage of our partner's inability to move. A very simple (in concept anyway) example is to make your move after your opponent has committed to his. This is fundamental to aikido as well. Trying to move out of the way of an attack that hasn't happened yet is a bit useless. One needs a committed attack in order to practice an elegant throw, a small move to the side accompanied with a strike that lands at the same time as the attack misses, or a jo to the solar plexus straight down the line as the swordsman just begins to cut forward. In every case our partner is unable to move because he is already moving. He has launched himself on an attack that he can't deviate from. "First I kill him, then I move", does that make sense now? In the case of most of our arts but perhaps easiest seen in aikido is taking our partner to the point where he cannot avoid being killed by us, and then we refrain. Take the balance, fix his position, then allow him to fall without damage or tap him on the head with a shinai, or pull the strike with the bokuto.

But feints and fakes you say? We don't fall for those do we? Well we don't train with feints in kata in most cases, what would be the point? A feint that is fixed into a kata isn't much of a feint, best just to work on responses to committed attacks and leave the feints to the realm of a more freestyle practice. Or put another way, the proper place to learn how to recognize a committed attack is during freestyle practice.

Iaido is the odd duck out as per usual. Like solo karate kata you're just waving your sword in the air. "My sensei says" that kendo folk say that about iaido. But Iaido folks say that kendo people are just jumping around hitting each other on the head with bamboo sticks. The kendo folks have a point, we are just waving our swords in the air most of the time. That's why your iaido sensei will tell you to practice kendo or jodo or some other partner practice and why they keep going on about kasso teki, that invisible opponent. Without some idea in your head about what you're actually doing in each kata you really are just waving a sword around.

On the other hand, if you're just getting in a hit faster than the other guy you're just smacking each other on the head with bamboo. If you're just going through the movements of a kenjutsu or jodo kata without paying attention to the attacks on the other side you're just dancing. If you're powering through aikido kata, muscleing your partner to the ground, or perhaps falling over because the technique is supposed to go that way, you're just getting in a bit of exercise. Nothing wrong with any of that, it's all fun but it isn't budo.

Take the balance, then apply the throw, kill him, then swing your sword.

Nov 20, 2015


There is a thought that photography is different from other visual arts (painting, sculpture) because it is a representation of a real thing. To be more specific, a photographic portrait is different from a painted portrait because the photograph is the same sort of image as the image in our brain, it is mechanical, with no intervention by the human artist as happens when a human paints that same face.

We have an idea of a real thing, and we value it. I was recently approached about someone who wanted to be "connected to a teacher in Japan". If we do budo it's hard to disagree that having a connection with a Japanese teacher makes it feel more special than if we simply teach ourselves as westerners. We can rationalize all we want about Japan having more teachers, deeper levels of instruction, or the culture of Japan being necessary to really understand budo but the fact remains, if some 2dan comes from Japan there will be students who give him more authority than a westerner who has three times the rank and experience. There is an automatic assumption that just by being Japanese the kid will know more. The same is true even of instruction received in Japan. That same advice heard overseas is somehow less authentic to us because it isn't coming from the source. Same information, different source, yet we assign differing amounts of value.

If you want to sell things on the internet you will do better to give them a story. Sell a sweater as a sweater and it might get sold. Tell folks that it was owned by a movie star and that same sweater will gather more bids. This works even if we make up patently false stories. We simply like stories, we like origin myths, we like to feel a connection to the real. The pepper grinder lid of my spice jar does as good a job as my grandmother's little wooden mill, yet I move peppercorns from the jar to the mill because as a very small boy I filled that mill for my gran. As she got older and asked me what I wanted of hers I told her I wanted that mill and I have had more than one argument with girlfriends and family about leaving it in the water on the counter. I have a very strong sense of connection with that object, it is more real to me than a plastic jar.

We argue on the net about "fake" budo, about people who make stuff up and call it a koryu. We get quite angry about this stuff, and we see folks "exposing" this fakery. Storefront karate clubs which teach kids are sneered at and called babysitting services. Tell me, is a made up sword cut really different than a "real" one? Is that after-school karate club (where the instructors often make the kids do their homework before giving them some exercise until their parents get home from work) really so bad that we adults who attend our once a week "authentic koryu" class can look down on them?

What is all this? Why is a genuine Vermeer more valuable than a fake that takes expensive machinery to detect the fakery? Why do we have art experts to authenticate at all? Can't we simply buy stuff we like and not worry about who made it? Money you say, genuine Rothko paintings are worth more than fakes. Sure they are, but that begs the question of why, which is what we are discussing now. Things are worth what we're willing to pay for them, but why are we willing to pay more for something that is authentic? Why do we value a kata that was passed down through 400 years more than one that was passed along for 100, or from ten minutes ago? Why the real instead of the fake, given that they both have the same value as a bit of exercise on a Tuesday evening? Why the Vermeer rather than the fake given that both go well with the couch in the living room?

The answer is trust, it's truth. We value truth not because some external king or god told us not to lie, we value truth because we must have it to live our lives. We must trust that what we are seeing is real, what we hear is real, that it is true. Communication, and therefore being human could not exist without trust. Think about it.

So what is the original sin? Not disobedience but lying. To lie and cheat will get you expelled from the tribe, not because of some monetary loss, but because we can't be human without trust, we can't work together and humans that can't cooperate will quickly die. We are as social as ants and bees, individuals don't last long.

We detest liars, the boy who cried wolf, the fake soldier, the sensei who makes up stories about his fighting exploits. We detest them because we must, trust is that important.

So how to explain politicians? We think they are liars, we don't trust them, and they often live down to our expectations. Do they? Or do some taint the lot? Do we really allow the liars to continue after they are exposed? Do they really get away with it? Only those who can exploit the law or manipulate other processes that we have put in place to govern our personal urges. The few who get caught taint the many.

Do a few radical religionists taint the entire lot? Damned right they do. Humans are great generalizers, we are built to categorize and I have, over the years, categorized all Abrahamists as dangerous. I have to be reminded constantly that most of them are decent folks and that most of them really don't pay attention to their religion at all. Yet the few continue to taint the many, such is the effect of a betrayal of trust. Trust goes beyond the individual, it applies to the family and the tribe. That's why the trustless are exiled to die in the wilderness, not because they are annoying but because they can taint the entire tribe.

A man is as good as his word. That is one of the first things I was taught as a kid. I was punished for lying and for imagined lies. This gave me a deep sense of injustice but I remembered the lessons and watch constantly for failures in my character. I try to keep my word, even if I only gave it to myself. It is only in the last decade or so that I have allowed myself to release things that I have taken on, to great relief of stress but a lot of guilt. I no longer edit and publish a photo magazine, I gave it to someone else knowing that was just a way to let it go and feeling a hypocrit. If you want me to do something don't threaten or bribe me, simply tell me that I promised to do it.

Budo is where we hone trust, or at least it should be. We make a contract with each other to attend classes, we ought to keep that contract. Sensei may be unpaid, if you don't attend class and he ends up practicing alone he may just consider that contract broken. On the other hand, you may figure that since you didn't pay a fee the instruction is worth what you paid and so you can stay home. If sensei is paid you can consider that he's recompensed for the class and you can also stay home. The lessons of budo start with you getting your butt onto the floor for practice, not because it's good for sensei but because it's good for you. Not for the exercise but for the demonstration of trust. You want secrets? Earn your sensei's trust.

The physical interaction of a kata is a manifestation of trust. We trust our partner not to injure us, we enter a contract when we enter the dojo. Is there anybody in your dojo more detested than the guy who hurts you but whines if you hurt him back? The more trust the higher the intensity of your practice. In this case skill is very much directly related to trust, without skill you can't trust. In a real sense, skill IS trust.

We trust our senses to show us the real world. We trust authority to provenance objects so that we don't buy fakes. We value the real because what is real is true and we need to trust that we are told the truth.

If you get upset by lies and twistings of the truth by men who think they are clever you are simply being human. Those who mislead are playing a dangerous game. You are as good as your word and that photographic evidence is as good as the assurance I have that it wasn't manipulated into a photo-painting.

Nov 19, 2015

Stress Testing

My students have already started their grading stress testing as they realized that they had not received registration forms for the pre-grading seminar and other clubs had (probably my fault). Panic and emails later, they have safely reserved space for themselves.

I'm conflicted about seminars before gradings. On one hand it's a chance to get some instruction, and that's never a bad thing. With several judges and lots of students it would be a missed opportunty not to attach a seminar to the grading. When the organization requires seminar proceeds to help finance the gathering of said judges it becomes a requirement.

Back in the day, when we financed ourselves to the gradings, the pre-grading seminars began as short sessions on etiquette and proceedure just to get everyone on the same page. Why not learn the grading stuff just before the grading rather than require it as part of the test? Stand there, bow in that direction, that sort of thing.

It has since become a half day affair with instruction on the kata and that's what concerns me. I'm not worried that students will be told to fix this or that major problem ahead of time, why not, it might work. I am concerned that their stress levels are increased when they are told to fix something inconsequential (maybe metsuke for ikkyu) and they end up focused on that to the detriment of the things that matter (like cutting somewhere near the correct direction). Worse is if they mis-hear an instruction in their adrenalin-fuelled hyper-attention and they change something that's passable into something that isn't.

If you think this is a bit of needless worry on my part you're probably right, but I have heard, over the years, more than one person asking me "what do I need to do to pass" during these seminars. "You need to practice for the last year or two, so go hop in your time machine and come back in a few minutes when you've done that." Seriously, very few people can learn how to pass or even fix something at a seminar held just before the grading. It's too late.

For those of you who know how it's supposed to be done (read, how it's done in Japan), and are about to tell me that the judges should be nowhere near the grading students on the day of the grading, please give me a break. It's a small population with few instructors. We don't have the luxury of hundreds of instructors to call on. My same request goes for just about everything else that we do differently from how it's supposed to be done. We are aware, trust me.

Now, in the Western Jodo gradings we have switched the seminar to after the grading and I'm a bit more comfortable with that. Come in prepared to grade, not counting on last minute practice to get you through. Come in and show us your level, we'll say yes or no and then we'll get on with a practice. For those who don't pass and ask why, it's always a quandry what to say if you're packing up to go home right after the grading. In fact I have stopped answering that with anything but what I was instructed to say during the many judging seminars we've had. "Ask your sensei". Seriously folks, I'm one judge out of five or six, it's been a very long day and the last thing I want to do is tell you in thirty seconds why you failed. Mostly because I won't know. I may not even remember your face, although I've seen it many times. I'm looking at bodies moving, I'm not there to teach you, I'm there to judge you. For the same reason don't ask me what you should start working on now if you passed. Same answer from me for the same reason. Do you really think I can remember what you did after I've watched 60 or 70 people? I used to reply with level-specific generic advice (what else could one do?) but I would rather not say something you've heard before and can read anywhere. "Ask your sensei".

But with the post-grading seminar system you can get onto the floor and ask me in a meaningful way while I'm acting as a teacher rather than as a judge. Now you can show me and I'll tell you what I think wasn't up to the required level, or you can show me and I will tell you what I think you ought to work on now. It might even be useful advice.

My best advice for the iaido grading coming up in a couple weeks? Relax, enjoy the seminar and ignore everything we tell you there until after the grading. Just file it away in your notebook and do what you've been doing for the last year or so, what your sensei told you to do. He's probably right you know. Treat the seminar as a warmup until the day after when you read your notebook and discover why you didn't pass or what what you ought to work on next if you did.

No worries.

Nov 17, 2015

Other People's Students

OPS, is there anything more fun than other people's students? I'm talking seitei here of course, those standard sets of kata that are taught by multiple instructors. (All are sensei to all students right?) It's a blast seeing new faces in front of me who flat out tell me I'm wrong when I ask them to do something. That's not the way it's done! they say.

Those are always teaching moments, provided the students are teachable of course, not all are. But for those who have ears they can be shown that what you're saying is the same as what their sensei says, just looked at from a different angle. And what's the point of standing in front of someone else if you're not looking for a different viewpoint of the same thing?

My own students will also challenge me, and I'm good with that, they force me to re-evaluate what I just said. Sometimes they get caught between the simple stuff you tell beginners and the more stubtle things you tell the experienced folks. It can be faster than that, just this week a student said "but that's not what you just said". Actually it was more like "I don't get what you said just before because it doesn't seem to be what you said right now". I don't mean to imply that my students are rude, They're adults and they are serious about this stuff so of course they challenge what I say. I don't do the "my way or the highway" thing so they don't do the "yes master" thing.

After a bit of yes you did, no you didn't, I explained to the student that I was just about to describe a slightly more subtle way to do things. Fix the big stuff first as in "grab your tsuka and drive forward with it from the very start of your movement during the ate in tsuka ate" which moved to "grasp the tsuka with the left hand first and then the right as you rise allowing you to put that hand on without binding up your right shoulder trying to get the hand into place around your raised right knee".

Neither instruction was really about grabbing the hilt, it was about moving from the hips, which you have to do if you grab the tsuka with both hands first, just a different way of saying "use your hips don't throw your head forward as you get up" because I get bored saying that over and over.

A different viewpoint. We aren't that close to other clubs so I can't just send my students out to hear things a different way, I have to be my own Other People's Sensei (OPS) and say things that are "obviously wrong" so that the students get startled into challenging what I say and thus create that oh so rare teaching moment.

I love it when they dive for their notebooks.

The only sad thing is those OPS who really don't want to be in front of an OPS. Hmm that doesn't work very well does it? Those students who don't want to be in front of a teacher that isn't their chosen teacher. This begs the question of why they are standing there doesn't it?

Gradings. As grading season approaches you really should get yourself in front of as many of the panelists as you can. That way you will learn what turns their crank and what pushes their buttons. Yes you should play this game, you're grading and if you don't respect the panel you grade in front of you really should not be in front of them. If you know better than the panel, you are above that panel and they ought not be judging you. To attend a grading means to accept the judgement of that panel so accept it.

Omote Mae. The other reason for being in front of those panelists is to let them see your tate mae, your recognizable, reminding face. This becomes more true as you get up there in rank. If you're around once every four or five years to grade you aren't really very serious are you?

Ura Mae. The other side of this (the ura mae) is to make the panel aware of any physical liabilities you have. You can't really expect a panel to take your partially frozen left shoulder into account if you're good enough to hide it most of the time (you should hide it, it's budo, don't advertise your weakness). Get in front of other sensei and let them discover your problems on their own. Don't declare them, just let them show up and explain them when asked.

Don't get me started about doctors notes before gradings, there is enough paperwork already thank you very much.

Pride. There will be other people's students who will be standing in front of you to show you how much they know. They want you to recognize their amazingness, their superior knowledge gotten from a sensei obvously senior to you, probably in both rank and skill. As that inferior sensei you ought to understand that they are enthusiastic, eager kids who don't understand how much of an insult to you and their teacher they are presenting. Just praise them and move along, they aren't there to learn. You should remember what Dorothy Parker said about horticulture.

From their point of view, they are in front of you to show you what a real budoka looks like. Punish them with praise.

Frustration. Not the student's but their sensei's. A student may be in front of some other sensei because they were sent there by their own sensei in an attempt to break through some blockage or other. If you see one of those students in your class you have to make an effort to break through. This is a request from a fellow teacher and you may not have been told about it, not warned the student is coming, not told about the problem. Find it and fix it. Good luck, now the frustration is yours because you can't just praise them and move on. Misery loves company.

Nov 15, 2015

The devil is in the details

My sensei says he uses seitei to research his iai. Me too. It's grading season and the students say they want to practice seitei when I ask them what we're doing in class. So we do.

I like working on seitei because it is a nice platform to work on the details, the finicky bits of body movement that make iai look good. It's all about looking good of course, because what looks good to us budo types is something that's centered, balanced, comes from the hips, and is powerful.

I use seitei for that because it's the place where the devil is in the details. It's only 12 kata so you learn the shapes pretty fast and from then on it's all fiddly bits around the fiords. Working on how to make a movement of half an inch forward with the tip of the sword before curving it up over your head, or switching the driving foot from back to "front becomes back" instead of falling forward is easily and naturally done in seitei. This leaves koryu for other things, like variation and exploration, something best left out of seitei.

Not that you don't find interesting things in familiar places. Yesterday I got tired of tripping over a box of tanto blanks so I started to process them. I found a couple from Brazillian Rosewood which must have been from that single flat of wood my supplier got many years ago when a deadfall log was uncovered by a fire.

Seitei is the same, there are little gems to be found while practicing it. Not everything all grading points all the time. In amongst the frequent statements from my students along the lines of "Ohmi sensei told me that same thing last weekend" I usually find a few nuggets for myself. Just small things like a way to show micromovements of the sword tip or how looking under your arm rather than over it can let a cut from Uke Nagashi fall to pieces.

What I find a lot though, which doesn't please me, is that I've not told these guys something that I am certain I told them twelve times. Sure I've said a lot of things over the years but some things seem more fundamental than others and to find that I haven't mentioned it (likely because I've heard myself saying it a thousand times) is a bit upsetting. "What do you mean I've never told you to do furi kaburi as if you are hooking the back of your opponent's neck and pulling him toward you. Of course I have... haven't I? Aargh!" And they dive for their notebooks.

Good thing it's all written down in my books.

Too bad they don't read them...

Nov 14, 2015

Wabi Sabi

The floor under my stool here at the window of the cafe is full of crescent shaped dents. I like that a lot of them were probably put there by my fat arse. It gives me a sense of stability to see the traces of my presence.

Last night a couple of our Aikido students got brand new gi in preparation for their 5th kyu test and one of them immediately asked one of the other students how long it would take to have a gi that looked like his. The answer of course isn't how long but how many times you wash it. Nothing wears the threads as fast as a washing machine.

When I was a kid we had "guaranteed to fade" jeans. They made a mess of the other clothes you put in with them but they did fade fast. Today people are too lazy even for that and you can buy pre-ripped and pre-faded jeans.

I seem to recall that you could buy a black belt that was also guaranteed to go threadbear in a very short time. Before that we had to tie it to the bumper of our car and go for a drive.

The problem is, even if the guy who built your kitchen table whacks it with a chain to give it a certain vintage look (that's a thing), it really isn't vintage. Even if you got the exact yellowish tinge on your gi, or the perfect amount of dingy white showing through your black belt, the second you started to move on the floor you would be exposed as a lamb dressed as mutton.

I've become addicted to buying vintage speakers in the thrift shops and fixing them up. The ones I like best are those from the 70s. They have a certain smoothness to their sound that you don't get as you move through the disco era and into the modern "plastic fantastic" speakers of today. That distressed pine table you just bought is going to be white, no matter what sort of honey stain is put on it. There's nothing that looks like old pine except old pine. Trust me, I've got half a houseful of unfinished pine trim and I couldn't replace a piece of it without it looking like a flashing light at midnight.

This same fascination with old things is a big part of the maker culture of Japan. If you make pots you need to make sure to add a thumbprint to it, and if it cracks when you fire it, so much the better. A little flaw, a little age. Small protests against the mass produced world of perfect design prehaps, or less kindly, maybe an attempt to invent a look of experience.

You can't make a new thing look old. Not really. You can't imitate experience on the mat either. Sure you can buy the faded jeans and at a fast glance they may look like you built your house in them, but a closer look shows that the rips are sharp, the threads are unfeathered. You can do a kata just like your old sensei if you're a talented mimic, but break that kata and your sharp edges show. I once watched a couple of hanshi hachidan do a kata which broke in the middle, they simply carried on with the last half of a different kata to finish the demonstration. I'm pretty sure I saw a hesitation of at least a tenth of a second from one of them but that may actually have been my own brain stuttering when I realized they'd gone off-plan. In order to be that smooth you have to make that and similar mistakes for a lot of years, you can't "learn" that.

Speakers age, their drivers relax and smooth out with hundreds of hours of use, the cabinets shift and warp slightly, adding character to their sound. Old sensei have relaxed into their art, their bones and muscles have warped a bit, giving them their character. Don't try to buy into that when you start your own practice. Buy a pair of new jeans and enjoy watching them fade and fray over the years, breaking into your shape rather than some generic wear pattern. Do what your old sensei says, he'll give you the new jeans of the art, as you get older your character will show up, I promise. A torn shoulder here, a bad knee there and you'll make small adjustments which will flavour your practice.

Now make sure your students don't pretend they've got your bum shoulder.

Nov 13, 2015

Koryu Kids

So... I look at my faceplant feed and there's a photo of a little girl in flood hakama, or with her arms in the air screaming, holding a sword movie style (you know, take a weapon that works by extending your range and tuck it behind your arm). The photo is explained by some such text as "this little girl is a badass and you'll never guess what happens next".

Let me guess, she jumps around waving a sword, screams randomly and at the end throws her hands up in the air and yells triumphantly. Maybe she does it well, but regardless she will look like she's having fun. Did I miss anything? I can tell you that I missed watching the video and probably will continue to miss watching it because I'm not interested in watching it. I may laugh, I may get upset but I doubt it. Mostly I'll feel like I wasted some time.

It's fine. Really folks, it's fine. Nobody cares, even if they know, that what she's doing isn't what you or I do when we swing our swords around. Well, very few people care. I know some folks have had some trouble with it because it's... what? Not what we do I guess. (So put up some video of what we do maybe? See if it goes viral?)

It sort of looks like what we do though, there's hakama and a sword, and to other kids (and apparently a lot of adults with time on their hands and a share button) it looks like fun.

I'm all for it. Really, I may not have any desire to watch it, but I hope that hundreds of thousands of Karate Kids do, and get into the sword, just like hundreds of thousands of gamers get into cosplay and RPGs (Rifle Propelled Grenades?). Out of those masses of people who are aware of what a katana looks like, maybe ten or twenty will find their way to my class over the next decade and maybe I'll continue to pass along my art to the next generation.

Where else are our students going to come from except these stupid inaccurate movies or these stupid inaccurate video games or these stupid karate kids tournaments? Don't watch them, don't play them if they bother you but don't think for a minute that they aren't our best bet to get new students.

What we need is a program of Koryu Kids to add to the cheap babysitting provided by the karate kids classes, or the judo kids, or the baseball kids, or the hockey kids, or the cubs, the brownies, the cadets... I've watched folks move from enthusiastic karate kiddy to adult koryu student. It happens a lot.

Let's encourage it, hit that share button without irony.

Nov 12, 2015

Too much information

Snake style:

When I started my iaido and jodo training we had limited sources of information, our training with senior sensei came in short bursts during a seminar. At that time the sensei would generally do a core dump of information, or to put it more crudely, he'd throw up a giant bolus containing everything he could get into it. We on the other hand would open our mouths, dislocate our jaws and swallow it whole. We would then spend months or even a year digesting it.

This works because we had that time to digest, like a snake we moved around with a great lump that got smaller with time as we absorbed the information and made it part of ourselves. The bolus took time to become body knowledge.

As you might expect, this method of learning is uncomfortable at best, often painful, but it was what we had. The information wasn't particularly organized, we didn't always get the bits in the correct order for best learning but eventually we sorted it into a workable arrangement, usually in time for the next bolus which would help clear things up as we fit the new information into our pre-existing framework.

Rabbit style:

Now, twenty or thirty years later, students can graze instead of gorge. There are sensei who teach every week, who can present the information in the best order for deeper learning. As a result, students today know a hell of a lot more than we did at their time in training. They'd better, smaller packets of information are much easier to convert to body knowledge, and there is someone to fill in the nooks and crannies with extra bits as they go.

Think of a nice block foundation laid with good morter instead of a rubble wall. Both are good foundations, one is light and strong and goes up fast, the other heavy and slow, often filled with who knows what bits and pieces.

The two foundations need different care and feeding. The rubble wall, being a pile of stone, dirt and scrap is dense, it will soak up the occasional truck backing into it, but is more succeptible to erosion at unpredictable places if it hasn't been packed evenly. The block wall is uniform, boring even, but it deflects wind, rain and snow. It is resistant to slow erosion but beware that backing truck.

Let's talk corrections. Give a snake style student six or eight corrections at a time and they will simply take them all in, shake off the ones that won't work right now and use the rest to stuff into those weak spots in the rubble. Being used to large amounts of information all at once, it's not a problem, our snake student simply uses what he can right now and lets the rest sit in the yard until he needs it and can get around to it.

On the other hand, the rabbit student tends to choke on too much information. Give one correction and it's done, the rabbit student puts another block into their wall immediately. On the other hand, give them two or three blocks at a time and the first one is likely to end up broken on the ground beside the wall.

To be more specific, I often watch my generation of teachers correct a single thing, a sword angle perhaps, and there's no problem. The student fixes the angle. Not happy with that, my generation (OK I'm probably talking about me here) will then add a second correction, the foot angle has to change too perhaps, and bing, not only does the sword angle go back to the wrong place, the feet end up crossed.

It's not that the young student is stupid, although my generation might think so in the deep parts of our rubble wall, it's that they are used to fixing things immediately. They can't, because they are good students, just ignore the second correction. They try to fix both. We snake students will just smile and nod and continue working on the first correction until sensei goes away. We won't forget the bit about the feet, we just won't get around to it until we fix the sword angle.

I guess what I'm saying is that we weren't really students at all, we were "book learners". Just because the book happened to be a living, breathing person doesn't matter, we got the whole book, front to back thrown at us and we taught ourselves. Long hours alone with our sweat and our blisters.

What do you do with too much information? And why would we figure that giving someone four corrections at one time is a good idea? These days I get really grumpy if I don't have time between seminars to digest big doses of information because I know it isn't in the body, it's in the head only and the head is a crap place for this sort of memory to be.

Head learning isn't really learning, you have to put it into the body. You doubt me? How much do you remember of the calculus? I'd bet very little if you don't or didn't use it regularly. You don't really know something until you can't remember what it's called. I answered a recent question "do we push our tsuka down with one or two hands?" by saying "I don't know, just a minute" and did it. The answer was two and I trust my body on this.

Too much information is often the same as none at all. On the other hand, if all you can get is too much, learn how to digest slowly.

Too much information is better than none at all.

Nov 11, 2015

Peterborough Koryu Seminar

My sensei says...

Before that, I'd like to say many thanks to Jim Wilson and his crew in Peterborough for their work with yet another lovely Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu seminar. I think this is the fourth, may there be many more. I'm impressed that so many students will attend a koryu seminar with an instructor who is not their direct teacher. It's nice to see that they have faith that they will be made welcome and their particular lineage will be respected.

I'm not, however, surprised. My sensei said, during his introductory comments, that you follow your sensei, even if you're here in front of him, you follow your sensei because that's the way of koryu. He has always been welcoming and has always given his best for the students in front of him. That's the arrangement we made when our group started way back when, that it would be about the students and not about us. So if you're in front of my sensei he will do his best to teach you. He's not interested in being a big shot, and he leads reluctantly to say the least, but we won't let him quit. The result is that there were students from at least a dozen different instructors at the seminar. I heard not one word of disagreement with anything he said, not one sigh of frustration that he "was doing it wrong". Sure it was a self-selecting group but I'd like to believe that we are perhaps growing up out of the attitude that we have nothing to learn from anyone except our own sensei who has all the secrets in his head.

I happened to be passing one of my own students who said "I'm waiting to see which section Ohmi sensei is teaching and I'm going there". Good. That's as it should be, even if I'm teaching on the other side of the room. Go where it's going to do you the most good.

My sensei also said, and I quote, "If you're 7dan seitei you better show me 7dan koryu". I'm pretty sure I know who that was aimed at, I'm going to take it that way regardless. I need those boots to the butt in order to keep my ego in check. (OK don't spray your coffee all over.) If you don't have a little pounding down once in a while your head can get all pointy so thanks sensei.

His meaning is pretty clear, you can concentrate on the technical movements of iaido and get to a pretty high grade without learning much about the mindly aspects of budo. From my point of view, seitei is amazing for learning body control. It's a defined (standard) practice that you can be taught by dozens and hundreds of instructors. One mountain, may viewpoints. Those same instructors, and this is my sensei's point, can also give you insights to the mental aspects of the art if you are willing to listen.

That can be good and bad. It can be a great breadth of understanding or it can be a confusing jabber of voices. That's where you need a pure stream of knowledge, a steady frame to contain all that other information. You need your koryu teacher, the one who has a unified understanding, a straight line, a single path up the mountain for you to follow.

You can't climb two paths at the same time, but it can be a tremendous help if someone on the path beside yours can look ahead and tell you about that cliff to the left. Seitei is the "Grouse Grind" a stairway up a mountain in Vancouver that has dozens of people on it at any one time, climbing all day long. Koryu is the pathway around the other side with you and your guide. Both are ways up. On your sensei's path you see his backside and not much else, on the Grind it's wider (I imagine, my daughter told me about it, I've never been), there's room for you, your sensei, his buddies and their sensei so you can listen in on the gossip as you learn how to put one foot in front of the other.

To further bend the metaphor, there can be cross-linking paths between the two of them and now I've told you that you can't climb two paths at the same time but that you can climb two paths. When I first started my iai practice my sensei had to tell us to at least go through seitei once every practice. Thirty years later he has to remind us to work on koryu as much as on seitei.

Thanks for the reminder sensei. And thanks for the chance to get the reminder Peterborough Iaido.

Nov 9, 2015

The most benefit

Learn what will do you the most good in the long run, when you learn it. You ought to be buying low p/e stocks as a young man (they are useless in the shorter term, you need ten years on average to start seeing a return, but they don't scare you out of market) and high risk stocks as a middle aged man (you are confident of the market and have the time to make up losses). As an older man you need to start being cautious and need to preserve your resources because you're about to start spending them so you switch to things like banks and other investments that make you snore.

High risk when you start can wipe you out. Dividend stocks when you're beginning or middle aged will not make you rich. The right investment at the right age will pay off best in the competition for whoever dies with the most.

As a beginner in the martial arts you need to find an art, or more realistically, a sensei that can do you the most good in the long term. You need to think about a 40 year career and that means finding a teacher that will give you amazing fundamentals, a platform that you can build on. These guys aren't all that exciting, they tend to tell you to fix things hundreds of times until you actually fix them but they won't burn you out, they won't teach you stuff you're not ready for.

Five or ten years in you can start learning the risky stuff, with a good base of strength and good knees you can start doing those high spinning kicks, those marathon kata sessions, that high level stuff that seems so much like magic to the beginners. With luck and care you ought to get about ten years out of that work. Here you need to find a teacher (perhaps the same teacher) who will push you beyond. One who has truly gone before and knows how far the body will go, who pushes you to your breaking point every practice so that your limits extend. Here is where you start to understand that the body is always weak, the mind can be strong. You need a teacher who will egg you on until the technique falls apart and then slaps you down for breaking form. All without letting you go past your real limits into injury.

After a good run we hope the risky investments have paid out and your technical understanding is broad. You have a pile of cash but perhaps you don't know what to do with it. You've got more than you actually need. Now you're heading into the third phase where things need to get boring again. Risky practice here will not pay off any more. One day that 500 kata marathon will break your knee. Now you're ready to deepen your practice, to start thinking, to retire from the circuit and start coaching or at least trying to figure out what makes this stuff work. This is where you start spending your accumulated cash on things that matter, like really good sound equipment and excellent books. The kind that disturb you, that make you think rather than distract you from the stress of your job.

You have the fundamentals, you've had your time at pushing yourself past where you "just knew" you could not ever go. You have the knowledge that your mind can overcome your body and have little left to prove. Now that you are into the age where you can break your body at will, you need to let yourself believe that you can do that and stop demonstrating it to yourself. Now is the time to preserve that capital and stretch the career as long as you can. To stop is not an option any more, so let yourself coast a bit, let the youngster amaze the rest of the class, it will do him good to feel amazing, it's your job to smack his ego down now.

You? You get deeper and deeper into what you've learned, you have the rest of your life to refine your own budo into that annoying "old man" place where you keep yelling at students things like "no just feel where he's about to move and strike there!" and "don't ask me to demonstrate how to disappear again, it takes years off my life!" The deeper into the cave you get the harder it is to make yourself understood over the weird echos. It's OK, talking about glowing planes of attack confuses and frustrates the mid-level guys and makes them want to work harder so they can be as crazy as you when they get older.

At shodan you figure it's amazing you remember some of the kata names. At yondan you take pride in catching out sensei and correcting him on the kata names. And sensei? He can't see a difference between kata any more and knows he can just point at a yondan who will certainly know the name of that one he wants to do now. You know, the one that best demonstrates the glowing planes of attack.

Nov 6, 2015

There's none so Scots

As the Samurai abroad. I happily admit that I'm a very conservative person when it comes to budo. Especially the seitei gata iai and jo that we use to grade students.

I've been in from the start of the sections and so have been in on the discussions and decisions that we've made over the years and one of them was that we couldn't be dedicated followers of fashion. We have more or less settled on a style of practice and we deal slowly with any changes. If you've been doing it for the last ten years, chances are you ought to be doing it like that at your grading this year. If not, you will have been told about it for about three years.

The rule of thumb was that if we were going to make a change to the practice that affected your chance of passing, like a standardized sageo control in iai for instance, you would be told about it one year, the next year you'd be warned and the third you'd be graded on it. Canada is a big country and not everyone is at every seminar every year. Run your own organizations as you wish, but we chose to keep our folks around if we could. At least that has been the way so far and that's the way the jodo section will continue to run while I'm in charge. That's the nice thing about having a heirarchy, the guy at the top sets the style so that you can point at him and say "his fault" when you're told you're out of fashion.

If you have the impression these days that we are flopping around each year like a teenager who can't figure out what the cool kids are wearing this week, it's not from me. Or the rest of the grading panel for that matter. We've been around the block a couple times and have seen things come over from Japan one year only to disappear the next. These are usually bits and pieces that are subject to interpretation, "the book" has only changed two or three times that I can recall offhand. I stopped making notes on "changes" early in the process. I don't like change, I don't want to enforce change, so I'm going to get told (directly, to my face) to change about three years in a row before I'm going to change. If you visit a dojo in another country and are told "it's now done this way" I'm going to listen to you, smile and nod, and ignore you politely. I believe what is going through my head during those times is "talk to me in twenty years...".

Do I sound like someone who isn't willing to learn? I assure you I am willing to learn, but there's a difference between fashion and style. Having only one or two chances a year to get the "word from Paris", the news about the latest goings on in the big smoke, this country boy will concentrate on style rather than fashion. If it gets you the win in the tournaments this year, that's fine but I'm not in the tournaments. What goes down the catwalk in Paris is fashion that isn't actually relevent to us hicks in the sticks. That new collar style may eventually get out to us in the local department store but I can wait for that.

So as a practical matter, don't make your notes about the changes you see (or let's face it, imagine you see in a glimpse at a seminar), make them about fundamentals you need to work on. If sensei says waggle the tip of the sword over your head counterclockwise, note it certainly, give it a try, but don't count on seeing it again next year. If sensei says you need to square in your hips, write that down. I don't care whether your local teacher says that to you every practice, write it down, it's important. The stuff "you know" is what's important, the stuff you get told about so many times you can't be mistaken about what you heard. That's style, not fashion.

Be conservative, concentrate on the fundamentals, get that right and the colour of bonnets this season won't bother you so much. That's why old folks seem to be conservative and unwilling to learn or change. The "shock of the new" becomes the "boredom of the retread" for those who have seen it come around four times. The "better way" may just be the 1968 paper dress. Yes there were paper dresses at one time, like disposable coffee cups. You wore them and threw them out. New Designs Every Week!

Budo is what has lasted for 400 years, not what was dreamt up last week as the newest way to twiddle your fingers on your stick.

Think mud, blood and sweat.

Nov 4, 2015

Apples to Oranges

One nice thing about getting old is that all you need to do to forget things that irritate you is not write them down. It took me ten minutes and half a coffee to remember what I wanted to write about.

Which is the habit of pundits to write about national government finances as if they were comparable to your household budget. You know the thing, take eleven zeros off the figures and there you have it, that's your yearly budget, now, isn't the government doing a really poor job? Look at all that debt they are piling up, why the bank would take your house away if you budgeted like that.

First, these guys are assuming that household budgets aren't well into the red. Second, there is no bank to take the country away. That's not the job of the UN, despite what some believe. The closest to taking away the house would be voting the government out, which is the point of these comparisons of course. Let's repeat that, there are no consequences to government debt like taking your house away, or otherwise suing you into jail. Nations don't go to jail.

Mostly though, you with your household debt can't print more money. You can't simply go to the boss and say "give me a raise". The government can. If you owe money to a company they can take you to court and sue you. If a government owes a company money they can simply ignore it, or even nationalize the company. Mostly though, they can just pay the company because that keeps people in jobs and that's sort of what a government is supposed to do. Along with keeping you safe from invasion and fixing roads and stuff like that.

A national government is not a household, and the national leader is not your dad, despite attempts to make it so. Can I repeat once more that the government can print money? That a government can raise taxes to pay its debts. By the way, those debts, they aren't the same as your debts, the government doesn't go to a bank for a loan, they don't charge things on a credit card. They sell bonds, all sorts of bonds like the ones you use to save money if you're a good household budgeter. If you believe your government will dissappear tomorrow due to their debt, you better sell those government bonds you hold. If you figure your GIC and/or T-bills are safe, you aren't worried about government debt, you're holding it.

Some things sometimes seem to be related to other things but they are not necessariliy so. Government debt is not the same as your debt. We haven't talked about what happens if a government cuts costs. What will you go without if you cut the waste out of your household budget? Cigarettes? Booze? Your car? The equivalent for a government is... what? Well roads for the car, subsidies to agriculture for booze (corn for whiskey), Hospitals for health care for cigarettes? Pensions for government workers? Rather than get rid of those, how about you work for the government and get one for yourself? They don't exist in the private sector unless you've got one of the few union jobs left.

And my budo point? I suppose that some things are not the same as others. I see regular statements along the lines of "if you want to learn self defence buy a gun" or "fights in the alleyway ought not go to the ground". Both things are true, but both compare apples to oranges. If your government budget was your household budget... but it isn't. Nor is Aikido a self defence course. Nor is koryu kenjutsu an efficient way to teach soldiers how to fly drones. I'm not saying that aikido can't be used for self defence, or that the principles of Sun Tzu aren't broadly applicable to warfare today, or that government debt isn't "loans you are paying interest on" but you don't get to set the interest rate on your credit card debt.

When making comparisons to make a point, make sure what you are comparing is comparable.

Nov 3, 2015

That's not Right

Yesterday we decided to get up off our knees and take a rest by going through two of the partner sets of our koryu iaido, Tachi Uchi no Kurai and Kurai Dori. Of course I got enthusiastic and stomped a lot, of course I further damaged my knees, but in a different way than my attempts lately at seiza so it was probably a good idea.

Apart from realizing it's been a long time since we've practiced these kata, it brought to mind a story from several years ago when I was asked to teach Tachi Uchi at a seminar. I arranged folks in pairs and we were about ten minutes into the class when I noticed a peculiar look from one of the students. I asked what was wrong and he informed me that I wasn't teaching the techniques correctly.

Since it was the end of a two day seminar and I was a bit grumpy I invited him to teach the class. Of course he didn't take me up on it, and I felt a bit bad so I explained that if I'm teaching then my way is "correct". If someone else is teaching then their way is "correct". Koryu isn't standardized and there's a definite difference between a class of solo and partner iai. I have no problem inviting students to do it "their way" if we're practicing solo kata, as long as their way doesn't interfere with those around them. You fix that by shifting people around on the floor. When we move to partner practice there's only one way to do it, that's the same way as your partner and it ought to be the same way as everyone else. In other words, do what the instructor tells you to do. Anything else is unsafe.

The idea that there is a single way to do a koryu kata is a common assumption amongst students who are lucky enough to have had a single source of instruction for their entire career. The way they do it must be the way it is done. For us old farts who had to grab whatever instruction we could whenever and wherever we could it's hard not to laugh when we come across this attitude. Or to get a bit grumpy at having to explain it all once more.

Tachi Uchi no Kurai was introduced to me three separate times by two instructors, both in the same lineage. Some kata were the same but some seemed quite different until I figured out that there was only one kata but three different movements of the sword depending on where you placed your foot. Once again I came back to footwork.

I don't think I've ever written this story down, but one of the introductions to Tachi Uchi for me was in England, twenty years ago? Maybe more. The instructor was up at the front of the class with a big set of folded papers in his uniform. My sensei and I (and several other people) were clustered around a copy of Mitani's book flopped open on the floor. We were all looking at diagrams and photos putting this foot here and that one there working it out together.

Having had that experience it's a bit of a sand grain in the old oyster-brain to be told I'm doing it wrong. I know why I do it, I know where and when I was taught what I know, and I can trace all my knowledge to people who were taught by people as well as to books.

Does the idea of learning from books disturb you a little? If you are in the Kendo Federation iai and jo sections it shouldn't. Your highest authority on your grading kata isn't the head of the section in Japan, it's "the book". I find comfort in books, they are a frozen slice of time that will allow you to check what you're doing now with what was done in past generations. If you're lucky enough to have a book from your lineage you ought to be reading it regularly, to hear from the sensei who taught your sensei's sensei is a rare chance.

Just don't read that book and then tell your sensei he's doing it wrong.

Nov 2, 2015

Fall forward

And spring back, or at least that's how I confuse myself at this time of the year. Your clocks go back in Fall, by the way, so I woke up an hour earlier than I needed to this morning. For us fellows of a "certain age" that isn't a big deal, we're up four or five times a night anyway, it's usually a matter of picking one to stay awake for the day.

Falling forward is an image I use to describe how to tell if your maai is too close. "If he can kill you by fainting you're too close". That's fainting, not feinting by the way. While there's nothing wrong with "sneaking in" to range, if you're doing it without meaning to, it's a problem that might get fixed with a poke in the chest. Hopefully with a bokuto rather than a shinken.

Speaking of men of a certain age, the sign just fell off the door of the cafe and two of us were fixing it within about ten seconds. A bit of an adjustment to a wire and it ought to be good. It's just what you do, something needs fixing, you fix it... and hope someone doesn't see you doing it so that you don't get sued. Yeah, cynicism increases directly with the number of times you have to get up in the night.

Aikido is one of those arts that suffers from "too close", especially when you're trying to take a sword away from someone. "But it's impossible for me to jump in that far and get hold of his wrist". Yes. It is. So don't try and don't worm your way close enough to the sword that he can kill you by fainting. Stay at the same distance as you would be if you had a sword in your hand. In fact, sneak your feet back just a bit so that he has to really leap in order to hit you. Then wait.

When he leaps in to hit you he will be committed to his movement and it will be very hard for him to adjust as you slip to the side and calmly lay your hand on his. If he is swinging into the space where your head was, you can reach his hands, a sword is about the length of an arm. This, by the way, is your one and only chance to take a sword away from someone. If you can't wait for him to commit to a movement you're not going to take the sword. If you can't get the timing and distance right you're not going to take the sword. If you can't catch his balance before he can recover from his attack you aren't going to get the sword. Your best chance is to hope that the fellow with the sword believes it's impossible for you to take his sword. It isn't impossible, just very, very difficult.

At this point we're into "self defence vs the boyfriend" territory. You know, you show someone a self defence move and she comes back next class and says "I tried it on my boyfriend and it didn't work". Did you poke him in the eye? Did you stomp the inside of his shin with your shoe? No? Hmm. Did you tell him you were going to try something? Yes? Hmm. Put a kendo player with a shinai in front of yourself and tell him that you're going to take his shinai away. Go ahead, try.

Now get your bogu on and play some kendo, when you get into tai atari just roll off while grabbing his hand and then rip his shinai to the side in a small overhead movement as you step back. Did it work? Maybe half the time? If it works once then it's not impossible.

What's the point of only practicing stuff that works all the time? We'd just sit at home and laugh at youtube videos if we did that. Better to get up an hour early and go try four impossible things before breakfast. Gasp... I said four!

Nov 1, 2015

Then you could do this

At least three times last night I caught myself telling the aikido beginners "and if he does this you could...." I apologized a couple of times for that but I can't seem to remember that a class needs clear physical direction, not stuff to think about. Having four different techniques going on at the same time makes for very poor practice, especially if the four techniques are trying to be applied at the same time by the same student.

I really need to keep my own delight at discovery to myself and keep it disciplined in class. Same goes for the practice time for each technique, they barely get four tries apiece before I'm jumping in to share my next bit of amazing information with them. In other words, I'm using this as my own practice not theirs, and that's not very nice. In fact it's the way to create students as scattered and half-arsed as I am.

When you're leading a practice (I don't call it teaching any more, the University is all about charging you money if you're teaching... well it's all about charging you money in any case, but more if you're teaching) you ought to be dealing with the class, not noodling around in your own head.

I won't go so far as to suggest a lesson plan, that is just no fun at all, but at least have a theme, introduce it, develop it throughout the practice and come back to it at the end. For me that's pretty easy since all I care about in aikido these days is the entry and there are only three of them, well maybe four. Last night we started with irimi, just a slip to the side, noodled around with a few variations and came back to it in the final exercise with a modified "cheating" kokyu dosa. That was a whole class on one theme, getting off the attack line at the right time and to the right distance, then a small bit of "oh heck, I don't feel like moving any more, you get off the line" at the end.

A theme could be other things though, for instance a practice theme which was "here's all the stuff you need to learn for your next exam" could be useful. Twenty or thirty different techniques in an hour or so certainly, but you might unify them with constant reminders to "look good for the judges", in other words, to slow down and be more precise rather than just slam each other around.

You know, sword is so much easier than aikido, one stance, one grip, one goal. We're warming up with swords, getting those shoulders loose, working with the hips, and using the lines on the mat to figure out where that attack line is and where we ought to be. I caught some video by accident where folks were discussing in great detail (yet again) how aiki sword isn't real sword. Those same folks also tend to claim kendo isn't real sword either so I'm assuming whatever they do is real. I'm OK with that, I'll call it aiki-big stick coming down from above at your head if that's what keeps me out of that argument, I just find a stick really useful to teach timing, distance and angles. I'm not sure what "real sword" teaches but perhaps I don't need to worry about that. Having had a shinai wrapped double over my head a few times has made me figure that I'd rather not be there when a kendo guy swings, having been whipped into the floor a few times by my aikido teacher as I tried to hit him with my big stick coming down from above at his head, I know I'd rather learn how to keep my distance and poke him with it.

So I work on that very first movement where you time it and move to the right distance. That fascinates me and it leads to trying to stuff everything I know down the throats of my fellow practicers all at once.

I've got to stop trying to do that.

Oct 30, 2015

Get Used to It

And I did, I got used to computer speakers, a subwoofer and a couple of tweeter / midrange satellites. It was an Altec Lansing system and it was the best I could find at the time and it's pretty good, really, but I settled.

I figured my ears are old, one half deaf, and it was this that made me more or less uninterested in music any more. But then I found and fixed a set of speakers from the pre-subwoofer age, a pair of large bookshelf wonders from a company long-gone and I started listening to them.

They are wonderful, and I have yet to get tired of listening to them. I find myself looking for excuses to sit at my desk instead of heading to the shop. I have a nice newish plastic Japanese subwoofer to go along with them and I plugged it in for about ten minutes. I unplugged it, the splatty thud of a subwoofer is awful. Seriously, what was I thinking, it was something to get used to, not something to enjoy, like the rest of the computer sound systems I've had, they're OK. They're fine but there's more, there's a craving to go listen to your speakers that I had when I was a kid.

Do you like your budo performance? Are you satisfied with what you've got now? If you are doing as well as any of your teachers are you happy? Sure, why not? It's natural to like what you know. If you're listening to the best speakers you ever heard you're likely happy with them. Nothing wrong with that, but if you hear better, look out. You may find yourself with a jam jar full of change as you save up for a new pair. Same with your budo, if you see someone better than you've seen before may get an itch to get back in the dojo. You just don't know how good it can get until you see or hear better.

On the other hand, if you listened to great speakers as a youth, and you have got used to, you have settled for, inferior speakers now well shame on you. Be careful to stay away from the old wonders, don't look at the old videos of the old masters, or look too closely at the amazing kids and their ten foot vertical side kicks, you may find yourself full of existential angst, full of the fear and loathing and sickness unto death that comes with knowing that you "got used to it".

Do these old speakers still hit 20k hz? How would I know, that's dog whistle range to me now, but I know they're the best in my hearing range that I've listened to in decades. You are laughing at the thought of a ten foot vertical side kick, but if you're still capable of blasting out someone's knee, why are you kicking for their ankles?

Ito sensei said his knees were sore in Japan but felt better once he arrived in Canada. I could see that he went onto the floor like I do, but when he taught the correct way to sit down, he showed it. I could see it cost him but he wasn't going to allow the students to be sloppy, he showed them one good example in the hope that they weren't looking at clouds.

Don't settle. Fight to be what you can still be and for heaven's sake, make sure your students don't settle on your physical limitations.

Oct 29, 2015

An Honest Attack

Last night we somehow got quite involved in the role of the attacker in two person kata. Nothing shocking came up but we spent much of the practice looking at what happens if the attacker tries to "help". Help is no different than a fake, and fakes aren't very useful in kata practice.

Our specific situation last night was jodo, and the specific problem was the idea that one lifts the sword overhead where it rests until the attacker moves into range and then cuts. Considering that we are supposed to be cutting from hasso, the sword at the shoulder, rather than jodan, the sword overhead, that pause actually changes the whole dynamic because it changes the attack.

The cut should be large, quick and with full intent to cut the jo down. If it's not, if it's too slow, or has pauses or is off to one side or... it's not very useful. All the variations that get thrown in unintentionally or deliberately mean that we are no longer doing kata but freestyle practice.

This is at an intermediate level mind you, nothing wrong with being careful with beginners but at some point the quality of the attack is going to have a big effect on the learning of the defender.

Responding to confusing attacks is frustrating at best, and can be quite dangerous. It's not hard to move under an attacking sword that gets there a bit late if one falls into "dance mode". The defender responds to a twitch but misses the block because the attacker is moving slowly and suddenly the honest attack has been converted to a fake. Sure it's instructive but its also a good way to get hurt.

In any partner kata situation we need to pay as much attention to the attacking side as the defending side. More actually, since the attacker sets the distance, timing and intensity of the practice. That's why the "old way" was to have the seniors attack and the beginners defend. The seniors "took the fall" because it was safer that way. Today we tend to teach both sides from the start because testing requires showing both sides. Because the teaching methods that have been handed down from that older era tend to emphasize the defending side (the teaching flowed from more experience to less) we may, these days, be neglecting the attack.

Best to teach an honest attack at the same time you are teaching the defence.

Oct 28, 2015

Eating the Bear

Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you. And sometimes you both have a knosh.

Yesterday I replaced the rotted foam surrounds on the woofers of a pair of Szabo 622 speakers. Custom 80 reads the serial number. Lovely things, solid oak cabinets, mid-'80s, bult in Cambridge Ontario. Somewhere I read they were worth $700 new. That's a pile of money, but considering my mother paid $600 for my built in St. Jacobs PSB Passif IIs I suppose it might be true.

Mostly I bought them because they look really nice and they were built around here. There used to be an amazing speaker industry in this region, sort of like the high tech stuff going on right now. Actually I suppose that was the high tech stuff back then.

I spent quite a bit on them as these things go, $75 for the pair ("as is" some clever bunny added) plus another $30 for the new foam, most of which was shipping. I have never replaced a speaker surround before but I looked on the net and decided it wasn't beyond my patience. Then I decided in my arrogance that with care I could avoid one of the steps, that of shimming up the voice coils.

Anybody else have any idea what I'm talking about? Never mind, suffice to say that after I put all the glue... all of it, including the second coat you put on "just for insurance", one of them worked fine and one sounded like hell. Voice coil was scraping the side of the magnet.

I spent my sauna time in the office soaking the thing in alcohol and managed to get the surround loose once more, then I cut away the dust cover and shimmed the voice coil, glued the surround back, glued down the dust cover (yes I removed the shims) and this morning I wired it up along with it's sister and listened to some lovely sound. They are easily as good as the Chinese made PSB speakers I bought earlier this year for $300.

I made a couple speakers when I was young but have never repaired drivers. I figured at first I wouldn't bother with that sort of thing but it never occured to me that I didn't have the ability, given the patience to read instructions, to do it. I'm glad I did.

Over-confidence made me ignore the shim step, which didn't surprise me, I do that a lot, try to cut corners before I even know where the corners are. That's not kigurai, that's arrogance.

I have a student who is fond of saying "I don't know how to do that" and worse, "I can't". It makes me want to walk out of the room. It has been explained that the statements make me expand on my admittedly often obscure instructions but I still want to throw my hands in the air. You think that there is anything in the world that any of you out there can't do? Is there some smooth move that sensei does in a kata that you will never... ? If it can be done, you can do it. To assume it's beyond you is simply to admit that you're not willing to put in the effort. Don't say you can't, say you don't want to try.

There's lots of stuff I can do now because I tried, and lots of stuff I don't want to do. Drywall mudding comes to mind, I refuse to sand the mud so any wall I've ever done is messy. I don't mind messy walls but I admire the hell out of walls that are perfect. It's not that I can't do a job like that, it's that I won't.

You can get in your own way with your careless words. If you "can't do something" that's final. You cannot. If you won't do something, maybe you will later.

What's the risk, that the bear might eat you? What's wrong with that, I love telling stories about how I tried to cut a corner and ended up underneath a wall thinking that maybe I should have taken the time to put in a brace. Or dissolving glue a millimetre at a time at 2am because I didn't want to spend an extra 5 minutes shimming a voice coil.

Say "I can't" and you'll never have that embarassing story. The cliche means to try, sometimes you eat the bear, yes, but it's not that bad if the bear eats you, you get to use the cliche and it's a fun one.

Try, never mind Yoda and his stupid assertion that talent is inborn.

Oct 27, 2015

Let me do one

I hear this from iaido students who complain that they can't get a full kata done before sensei is on them to fix something. I hear it from students at seminars who complain they don't break a sweat because sensei is demonstrating and talking all day. I bite my tongue regularly during classes because I know they're not practicing elsewhere and need to put everything together once in a while.

We ought not to think this way. With iaido, when you're in front of sensei, it's not practice time. Go find some space and swing your sword on your own, it's allowed, it's expected. When you're in your scheduled slot in the dojo it's learning time, it's check time, sensei will tell you what you need to do during the next alone time when you're practicing. You can do all the complete kata you want on your own, don't waste time in class by repeating stuff you do well.

Sensei confirms what you know by not correcting it. (Unless there's so much stuff that needs fixing before you get there that you don't get there). Your rank tells you what general level you've accomplished compared to others in the organization. Be content with knowing that and move along to the next level rather than rest on your laurels. Yes that's what that means, I keep finding amazing examples of cliche in the arts.

It is enough

I told my kids many years ago that we were rich. They weren't sure what I meant since we were driving a rusty Volvo and living in an tiny house that had pathways around boxes rather than hallways. (Now it's a big house with pathways around boxes rather than hallways but never mind). Thing is, we had enough to eat, somewhere to sleep, clothing. That means we're good, but we had more than that, we had more than enough to eat, closets full of clothing, and the Volvo was paid off. We were rich since rich means having more than you need.

I walked past a nice red Viper yesterday. Do you need a 10 cylinder 500 horsepower car? Certainly not, a rusty Volvo is enough to get you to highway speeds. The rest is just competition, useless for anything except as a marker to those who are also in the competition and that includes anyone who would want a Viper. Me, I looked it over and decided you couldn't get a 4 by 8 sheet of drywall in or on it, therefore it's a useless vehicle. It doesn't make even the lowest rung of my competition.

So how much rank do you need? Enough to be of use to your organization, provided you want to be of use. That's one way to look at it. Enough to be ahead of those you don't like? Perhaps, but a little unkind of me to suggest. Enough to make up for inadequate feelings in other areas of your life? Now I'm being nasty. Well why not? You should sneer at your own fleeting (I hope) desires for red Vipers. Sure, admire that American bullfrog styling that just can't get past the drag strip to a nimble mountain curve, but move on. You have enough, you are rich if you have more than enough, let yourself be rich, admit you have more than enough.

Because rank exists, people are conflicted and often confused about it, just like money and cars. When is it enough? If you wish to be of use, it's enough when you are of use. If you use gradings as markers, it's never enough until you're at the top rank. If you slip into competition mode, it's enough when you're at the very top rank, and everyone else at that rank is dead.

If it's motivation to continue practicing, then even the lowest rank will be enough, and yet no rank will ever be enough.

Work until you are rich, then move on. Work for pleasure if you like, hell work yourself to death so that your kids, kids can be lazy bums but admit to your true reason for working. Whatever you're doing, if you have enough and you're still agonizing about more, look inside and find your true motivation.

Enough is enough.

Oct 26, 2015

Not Just What, but When

I'm sitting here feeling a bit guilty about not getting down for the surprise second part of the Ito sensei seminar in Etobicoke. Guilty but not too sad, I'm hurting this morning. Hopefully with aspirin and caffeine I'll be ready this afternoon to work on what I'm sure will be a couple of months of effort.

You see, sensei said yesterday "you should cut with your hips".

Yawn you say? Heard it! you crow? Yeah it sounded "a but that" on the way home when I was recapping what I'd learned and heard the words come out of my mouth. They'd been there before I'm sure.

But it isn't just what sensei said, it was when. It was half way through a pretty intense kihon exercise when my sword was starting to become heavy, when my old arms were getting tighter and tighter because I was afraid I was going to pull a muscle, just as the pain levels were starting to ratchet up in my right shoulder and my left knee. Just at that instant sensei said "cut with your hips" and I did, the momentum of driving my hips forward allowed me to use the bones in my arms to lift the sword. The bones weren't tired, the muscles were, the bones weren't sore, the muscles were. By letting go with the muscles the bones could move and the hips drove the sword overhead.

When I grounded my front foot and my hips came to a stop the weight of my sword combined with my arms (not an insignificant poundage) received the inertia of my entire body and whipped down at a frightening speed.

Was that a new thing for me? No, but it's been a few years since I've been worn out enough to absolutely require cutting with my hips in order to keep cutting at all. Now I need to keep working on it until I get rid of the effort. The effort in my arms to protect the muscles by using the muscles. The effort in my head to ignore the pain as I move and instead relax until the pain isn't there. While I can move my hips and while my arms will rotate up and down I can keep doing this thing that I love doing.

Not what was said, but when. This is my learning these days, a small word at the right time and cascades of change go through the body. These things tend to get named in my head for the sensei who said them. "Ito hips", "Kisshimoto fingers", "Maehara push", yet they were all there from the start. I "am" my instructors, Ohmi sensei, Cruise sensei, Haruna sensei, three folks who started me on my way 25 years ago, and who continue to guide my journey. They told me all I need to know, gave me all that needed to be said, but much of it I wasn't ready to hear. "When the student is ready the teacher will appear". We need to hear it at the right time. As Ito sensei said at the beginning of the class, leave your pride at the door, become an beginner. Or, as I like to think of it, clean the shite out of your ears and listen, it might be time to hear something.

Cut with your hips!

Did you become enlightened? Probably not, but some day you'll hear that at the right time and you will do the little hopping up and down squealing dance that high ranked students do in those secret classes you beginners aren't allowed to see.

Mostly because it's not a dignified dance, but it must be done.

Oct 25, 2015

Grading is not important

It's that time of year again, I'm seeing folks start to worry about gradings, so I'd like to reassure those folks that grading is not important. It really isn't, so go ahead and grade without obsessing about it.

In Canada it happens to be the largest source of income for the federation. That's not true in all places but it tends toward that way when collecting and tracking yearly memberships is/was a pain as it was for us for years. So consider your grading fees as support of the organization and grade.

I've heard many reasons why grades are important, one of the most common is that obtaining a grade lets you join an instructional or demonstration group in big events. That is, you get to stay with your age/ability group in the big demonstration or seminar. Fair enough, reason enough to grade, but if you don't want to grade then remember that most of your learning happens back in the local dojo not at these big seminars. Locally everyone knows your abilities, if you are at a place where you have to be sorted by grade it's not likely you're going to be getting more than an update on the latest styles or, nightmare time here for those with fraudster syndrome, told you ought to be in the lower group. Heh.

In our koryu seminars we tend to ask "who knows this kata" rather than asking what grade you are since there are no grades in our koryu. Still a sorting process, you won't avoid some form of it.

Respect is a fun one, you need a grade to get respect. I suspect I don't need to tell anyone how much I care for respect. I wouldn't write this stuff if I cared what folks thought or said about me. I've been getting hell for it, going on three decades now, almost all of it still floating around the net. Respect is a big thing in the kendo federation at the moment I'm afraid, grading panels are being told to tighten up, we've got too many folks at the top so get those pass percentages down. I'm not revealing any secrets here, it happens in cycles in all martial arts. I am no longer involved in my Aikido grading system, aside from mixing up the beginners with my 20 year old style of kote gaeshi, but I know our club seriously considered switching organizations because the requirements were cranking up for many years. As it happens those requirements were put back to where they were when I was a lad and we're still with the same group.

Respect isn't proportional to grade. For respect you get people asking for airport promotions (I need an 8dan for those foreigners to respect me... OK you're an 8dan). For respect you get local groups cranking up grade requirements so that their folks are better than those back at the source at each rank. While I am not impressed with either of those situations, they are harmless for the most part. What is harmful is if students of any rank start to believe that rank confers or deserves respect, that you have to be respected because you've managed to get a rank. Always remember that you can buy a black belt at the corner store. You can spend half a million dollars on a supercar, doesn't mean you can drive. Those who are impressed by rank or flashy cars...

But go challenge your next grade anyway, not because you want respect, not because it's a tough test. Go grade because it's time for you to have that grade in your organization. You wear a hat when you go bald, you go for your shodan when you've been practicing for a year or so, or whatever time frame your art and organization dictates. For my kendo federation it's about a year, for my aikido federation it was about five. I took 11 for my aikido shodan.

Which brings us to opportunity to grade. For my aikido rank we just didn't have a chance to grade, there was a gap of about six years between my ikkyu grade (got at 4-5 years I think) and hosting a seminar where we held a shodan grading. So that was the time to grade. I was never interested enough to do the paperwork to grade at some other seminar so I didn't, but who can't get up the energy to grade at home?

If your local situation doesn't let you grade, don't grade. If you have a chance to grade, go grade. It's up to the organization whether or not they want to give you the chance to grade. At the moment in Canada the highest rank you can get in Jodo is 3dan so if you've been waiting to do your 4dan test for the last three years you've got the wrong idea. You can go to Japan or Europe to grade, certainly, but the reality is that 3dan is the highest rank your organization offers so you're "there". Don't agonize about it, eventually the situation will change and then it's time for you to grade. The rank is not important and neither is grading but there's no reason not to have the rank or try the grading, it's all practice.

Oct 23, 2015

Who made me an expert

Last night we were doing some jodo and a question popped up, "do I move back or does he push me back, I know I'm not saying that very clearly..." Actually it was very clear and I knew exactly what was meant since I probably invented the mantra which used to go Push Push Pull, you smack down the bokuto, then push the jo at tachi twice, finally tachi pulls jo forward by stepping back into hasso.

Then some Japanese teacher came along and said "no, the jo pushes tachi back there too". So it became push push push.

Except last night I was speachless, I couldn't just say push, I had to try to demonstrate that after three moves the swordsman had his balance back (or he's a really bad swordsman or jo is running beyond his safely controlled advance or...). The result was seven or eight examples and me looking around saying "you see? you understand?" So frustrating, I just couldn't put it into words. If you wait to be pulled, tachi has you, if you push, tachi has you, if you're indecisive, tachi has you. The best I finally came up with is "stay with him, keep him on his heels". Pay attention? I say that so much it's meaningless.

When did I get so expert that I can't just say "push push push" and be done with it? That's the correct way to teach anyway, you can't feed students words when they have to experience for themselves what you're trying to give them. They just have to grow into some kinds of knowledge.


The knowledge that makes you arrogant. Only you're not, you're really not, you say to yourself "who made me an expert". Well you did it to yourself. My wife can look at a box of bokuto and before even picking one up say "that one's not a full inch at the hilt". Makes me think she's just assuming things again, but she actually can see that sixteenth of an inch difference. We are all experts at something, and we all seem arrogant to those who don't have our bodily experience with our areas of expertise. It sneaks up on you. My usual example of this concept is the car mechanic who tells you what's wrong with your car before he sees it, and a student told me it happened last month. She drove her car into the garage and the guy said "I know exactly what's wrong... yep it's a Mazda, it's your shocks". Just from the rattle he could tell what was broken. He wasn't trying to be clever or arrogant, he just knew what he knew and stated it.

"So what makes you such an expert?" Damned if I know, it just sort of sneaks up on you doesn't it? And you can't "do" kigurai, you accumulate it like liver spots on your head. "What do you do if he does this?" The correct answer is "I dunno, try it... oh you do that". Arrogant isn't it? Or magical if you're a beginner, and theater if you're a skeptic.

But for me, it's nothing so much as "who made me an expert? I don't know the answer... I just have a hint in the back of my head and if I do it often enough maybe the words will come to tell you whether you push or pull... or you could just do it until your body teaches you". Sounds too arrogant to me, right up there with "you wouldn't understand" or "wait until you're older".

We love our words, they are such a substitute for experience, but sometimes what they teach isn't quite the same as what experience teaches.

Oct 21, 2015

Senior Moments

On Sunday I went back to the local thrift shop and saw that the pair of early '80s Szabo model 622 (custom, no less) speakers was still there. I spent $75 for them, rotted woofer foam and all. I've ordered new foam and look forward to trying to refurbish them. Every time I look at their solid oak cabinets I get a warm fuzzy feeling.

Last night was spent in the bar watching the election returns (and the ball game) to lots of cheers. At one point a short clip of another venerable product was shown. That was Trudeau senior saying "welcome to the '80s". I had forgotten how fond I was of that man, being a senior myself and remembering the girls who fainted at his rallys. Doubtless the same ones who fainted for the Beatles. Now I see that Canada has their own family dynasty thing going on and another popular Trudeau is at the helm. His old man did a pirhouette behind the queen (he was truly a brat) and his son was shown doing a pratfall down a flight of stairs on a US comedy show. I'm so tired of po-faced seriousness, let's have a bit of life in our leaders once more. Bring back the Shawinigan handshake and political wives who use a gift statue as a weapon to prowl the halls for intruders instead of shouting "terrorist" at everyone they can see and creating secret listening agencies to "protect" us.

I'm tired of plastic speakers with "powerful looking bumps" on the shell. Give me some real wood with some real sound. Something of solid oak that doesn't buzz annoyingly when you crank up the volume. Give me something with a bit of heart at it's heart.

We spent the weekend in a surprise Niten Ichiryu seminar because we had a visit from a member who has graduated. During the class I managed to get into a bit of a talk about philosophy but stopped myself before anyone fell asleep. The point was an observation about my own tendency to wax philosophic (how meta) during class these last few years as I lose my physical abilities and go deepen into thoughts about the riai of the art. I thought about those students of Aikido who learned during the early days (Aikido is a kick-ass practical martial art) and the later years of Ueshiba's life (Aikido is a divinely inspired unification of spiritual forces to bring peace and love to the world). The answer of course is yes. Aikido isn't unique in this, all the arts I've studied have the same dynamics between young and old instructors/instruction.

Young boys (I was one once) like to bounce off walls and explode when they hit the floor. Old farts (I was one once) tend to wax poetic about balance points and move real slow with stately grace as they let the young boys bounce and explode around them. Thing is, it's not really an old/young thing, that helps but it's more a process that takes a long time to accomplish. About the time that your body is failing you find you don't have to rely on it quite so much, balance, timing and distance can make up for a kick-ass ability to take a punch. Loss of power is certainly an incentive for learning not to rely on it, and sure, loss of feeling in the feet gives the same stoic expression as ignoring the pain when you break a toe, but old age doesn't cause philosophy, experience and thinking does.

There's lots of old sensei out there that haven't learned much in their 30 years, some of us are just starting to get glimpses as we approach our 7th decade of hanging around the planet, so please have patience and watch carefully for those rare moments where we manage to show you a kick-ass move. It takes us weeks to recover from those so don't ask to see it again. In the meantime we'll talk about the deep resonance that solid oak will give as opposed to injection moulded plastic. Don't try to go where we are now, you have to first bang your head against the wall like we did, but file our little speaches away, we won't be around to tell you again when you get to the point where they will do you some good.

In the meantime, you may even enjoy the liveliness of some things from the '80s. It wasn't all disco and nylon shirts. Oh dear, I think I just found my gold chain in amongst my grey and thinning chest hair.

Oct 20, 2015

Eliminate the Extraneous

One of my key instructions to myself in iaido is to get rid of any extra movements, time or twitches. Shave all the extraneous stuff out of a kata and it takes less time to perform without speeding up. The key is efficiency not rushing. You don't need to be faster, just fast enough.

How does this help us in our daily life? Well the same principle can be used in every instance that we use our hands of course. In the shop I batch work when I can, change tooling only when I have to, that sort of thing. That's not a secret, it's the second phase in the industrial revolution, the first being steam power to replace muscles for the heavy lifting. Assembly lines were much more efficient, if somewhat dehumanizing, in fact we are well into the ultimate dehumanizing phase of assembly with robotics.

From a mental point of view the same search for efficiency works quite well. The thing that "mushin" works against, the mind that no-mind responds to is a scattered, ragged, multitracking ball of drier lint (go ahead, follow the threads if you dare). Just as we pare down the physical twitches in a kata, we should pare down the extraneous in our thoughts in order to get to the essential. This is Occum's Razor in it's active form. "The simplest explanation is usually correct" becomes "get rid of all the extra bits and find the simple".

Pare away the extra fluff to reveal the solid thread at the core of your thought.

How do you know you're on the right track? Can you explain your thesis to your mother in three sentences or less?

Can your mother figure out what you're doing when you flail your sword around in the air?

KISS (stop writing)

Oct 13, 2015

It's Pretty But

Is it art? I was talking about the Zen Ken Ren iai with my class and explaining why I was giving them certain minute adjustments to their practice. Specifically, I was talking about noto and the difference between moving both hands, saya and hilt, together so that they met in the middle and stopped moving at the same time. One of my students commented that he was taught to bring out the saya first and stop at the center then finish by bringing the right hand to the left. After asking who taught him that way I said that I was taught both keep moving, both stop at the same time and that the folks who taught him should have told him the same thing since their teacher was my teacher. That's as close to saying "it's wrong" as I get most of the time and after then saying "I don't actually care which you do but do what I tell you to do" I explained why with a comparison to weightlifting.

Seitei is bodybuilding, koryu is powerlifting. Seitei is pretty, it's concerned with the shape of things, with looking beautiful, it's bulging muscles in proper proportion and a nice transition from one pose to another. Powerlifting is an often mis-shapen hulk of a guy who "lifts heavy stuff up off the ground". It's not for pretty, it's for effect.

That's grossly unfair, I know, but it explains why I told the class to do it my way. I've sat on a lot of panels and I know what the panel wants to see, I know which symmetry of the muscles we like so I teach it that way. In fact, if gradings are getting close I will teach pretty to the exclusion of effective if I feel that I have to make that choice.

I shouldn't have to, and most of the time I don't. There's nothing wrong with Seitei iai in terms of effectiveness, at least not as my teachers taught it to me, but sometimes I think the most neglected part of "The Book" is "it should make sense combatively". Especially those parts that instruction is supposed to cover, the parts that aren't written down. Too often pretty gets the nod.

Koryu is easy, if it doesn't work, don't do it. If it does work, do it. If it doesn't make any difference whether you do it one way or the other, pick one. No, not that one, pick the one your sensei does.

Seitei should be the same, with the proviso that you don't pick the one your sensei does, you pick the one the panel wants to see. Mostly that is going to be the one your sensei does so what's the problem?

Usually there isn't one. I suspect though, that I was feeling a bit put out by another comment from my student which was along the lines of "hey we're getting lots of corrections". Why did that annoy me? Because I was adjusting the heights of hands, the angles of cuts, things that would be automatically correct should that student have a target they can see. It irritates me that the comfortable level of correction in iaido is that from seitei where we are correcting things that really don't need to be corrected. "Cut across his eyes" should not require years of adjustment. Just put an opponent there... look... eyes... cut them. Not a problem.

But the grading panels want, no need, to see the cut at the correct height so away we go once more with "lots of corrections".

It's not you seitei, it's me.

Oct 11, 2015


I have always been interested in philosophy, the "how should man live" type mostly. In fact I took a University minor in it. I went into Aikido for the philosophy, not for self defence (I live in Canada).

I have recently read an analysis of masculinity as shaped by modern vs traditional martial arts and one of the stated points of difference was that traditional martial arts had a philosophy and modern arts don't. No attempt to define what that philosophy was by either the author or those surveyed, just "has/has not got philosophy". Hmm. Not horridly useful really, both have philosophy, one might be sweetness and light, the other rip his eyeballs out, but both are ways of looking at and understanding the world.

When I was young in the arts my fellow Aikido students would often ask about the philosophy of the art. "We never talk about it" was the complaint. Over the years I've heard that a lot about many arts, and I know people who have changed from arts which are silent to arts which give out handouts full of words, words, words.

Some people like to pay 98 cents for a grapefruit, some like to pay 49 cents. (Old marketing story). The thing is, I never had any trouble seeing that the philosophy of Aikido is in the practice itself. To name a few examples that have served me well off the mat: Do not directly oppose force with force, especially if you have less force at your disposal (get off the line, don't just yell "no I'm not", redefine the problem). Unify with your attacker, move into a similar stance and see things from his perspective (use a little empathy, walk a mile in his tabi). If you can't avoid a situation, yield with grace and maintain your balance until you can bring the world back into harmony. Note that in no case does one ever simply give up and accept the attack, or seek to destroy the attacker. One begins from a position of harmony and one seeks to restore that harmony if there is a disturbance (in the force?).

This practice through the body is called "shugyo" by the authors in a couple of papers I just read which concerned the difficulties in the internationalization of kendo and why that art should not seek to be an Olympic sport. It is the form of the practice that is important say the authors, it is through the body that the mind is trained because the Japanese believe in a unified mind and body while the westerner believes in a mind body split ever since Descartes who is the father of modern philosophy. Seriously, Descartes is the father of modern philosophy? Well never mind, and never mind that by saying the Japanese believe in a mind body unity one has split the mind and the body in order to state that they are unified. (It is for this sort of reasoning I don't call myself an atheist, one has to take the concept of gods seriously to state that one doesn't believe in them.) The point was that the form of the strike is what's important in Kendo, not the strike. It is the form of the strike that holds the instruction for the mind through the body rather than the counting of coup. By the same reasoning the authors state that it would be the form of the strike (kick) rather than the soccer ball going into the net that is important, or at the least, just as important as the goal itself.

In other words, sport is about scoring goals and winning, kendo is about improving as a person. Back to the masculinity paper, traditional martial arts "have philosophy" while modern martial arts are concerned with winning a fight/contest. Same arguement. I didn't begin the arts for self defence so the idea of not worrying about winning and losing never concerned me. Hence my easy acceptance of this idea of something beyond the technical skills of fighting. I began because I was looking for something beyond fighting skills. You often find what you look for, and you sometimes find what you're not looking for. Having the ability to read the thousands of books and articles on the philosophy of the martial arts, I also never looked for speaches from my sensei on the inner meaning of Aikido. Good thing as he rarely gave them, it took some beer as I recall. Class consisted of the embodiment of the philosophy of the art. Otherwise known as keiko.

What's the philosophy of budo?


Oct 11, 2015

Swordsman vs Silverback

A while back someone asked me if I thought a trained swordsman or a silverback gorilla would win a fight. I did actually think for a few moments before answering that it would be the gorilla.

It doesn't matter how well trained the swordsman, if he shows an opening, if he has a moment of hesitation, he can lose. Our swordsman has only to doubt for an instant as the gorilla comes toward him, he has only to have a flicker of fear during the attack and he will hesitate. Hesitation and second thoughts are death when the opponent has none.

What about our gorilla? He doesn't know what a sword is, he sees an ape that is smaller, weaker, with maybe a stick? A twig? Whatever it is, it's not worrisome. This little ape is not posturing, not making any of the moves that would indicate it is anything but an easy victory, so have at it. No doubt, no hesitation, no fear.

Don't, please, send me emails telling me how gentle apes are and how the ape would just posture and then ignore the swordsman, the question suggests the ape is attacking to kill.

And I say the odds are on the silverback, that's where I'd put my bet.

Oct 11, 2015

Traditions aren't Fossils

I just read in a paper all about how the traditional martial arts (as opposed to MMA) were unchanged from far back in history. Nothing could be further from the truth, no more than oil portraiture is unchanged since Leonardo, photography requires wet collodion, or carpenters use framing hammers to build houses.

I love my nailguns, I've got a brad gun that's battery powered. Best thing ever, I even tried it on the styrofoam I had to put back on my shop ceiling after changing the garage door. Didn't work (duh) so I had to go back to my hammer and foam nails... hated that.

Traditional martial arts use kata that have supposedly remained unchanged for centuries (like Tosa Iai). Or a set of kihon that have stayed the same for three generations, out of which kata are created each practice (like aikido). They may use teaching methods (shu ha ri) that are similarly stable and they may have the same aims now as then. The founding statement of Tosa Iai (MJER in my case) contains the same goal that I seek through my practice. But every generation of these arts learns their core secrets for themselves. Each student learns what they learn based on what they bring and what they were taught. That the generations learn similar things at the end of the day is a testiment to the teaching method and the underlying purpose of the practice, but the art itself changes as much as anything else done by humans.

The kata of an art are chapters in a book, the book being the art itself. Those chapters, unlike a chapter in a textbook, contain variable information. This is my point, so pay attention now. A written textbook, if written well, will convey the same knowledge to everyone who reads it. Passing an exam won't be easy if you somehow read something different from the rest of your class and your professors.

This isn't the way a kata works unless your instructor, someone like me, runs off at the mouth and tries to force you to his understanding of the kata. I love the sound of my own voice and I figure I'm pretty clever so I like to explain every twitch. I'm a lousy sensei because of this (although I'd probably make a decent math teacher... might not get very far through the curriculum but by gum the students would know why the times tables work).

A kata is an exercise, a woodworking project perhaps, or a recipe. It's a vessel out of which you pluck understanding of how to make a fancy corner joint, or how you put yeast and sugar together to make bread rise.

That understanding varies depending on what the student brings to the project and what the teacher says about it. The combination creates a guided journey to a principle. Here are the four ways to make this corner joint, here are historical examples of each, now you go and make one on this box of such and such a size and use. The student then produces a box that is either beautiful, beautifully ugly or meh.

Kata are taught in a process described as Shu Ha Ri. You keep, break and then leave them. Keep means to copy the kata as you are taught it, memorize the dance steps and reproduce them. Use this recipe for sticky buns and produce some sticky buns that match these sticky buns. Most people never get beyond this stage.

Break means to break it down, to get inside the mechanism and understand how it works, push the envelope and see where it works and where it breaks down and more importantly, where it is strong. Want a box for bricks? Maybe a glued 45 degree joint isn't the best choice for your box. Want sticky buns? Maybe using vinager instead of sugar wasn't a good idea.

Leave means to leave the kata behind. If you have figured out how things work it isn't hard to create other things that look the same but aren't the same. Your finger jointed box for bricks is a very strong joint due to a combination of lots of surface area for the glue and side grain vs end grain. Maybe you can use the same finger joint to create a bridge span or a beam.

Each generation of students will extract information from a kata and derive the core principles, but that generation will get something extra... we hope. Each teacher will build on the knowledge of the prior generations. Don't forget that the process involves both a kata (unchanged for centuries) and a sensei (changing all the time). It's the combination of the project and the guidance that creates the understanding.

In some cases, woodworking for instance, a third factor comes in, we now have urethane glues for our joints rather than our traditional boiled hide and hoof or rice pastes. Stronger glues can mean stronger joints... or it can mean lazy joints I suppose. In the martial arts world we tend to ignore technical changes, we don't use titanium swords for iaido practice because they don't contribute anything to the process. For a similar reason we don't use guns even though they are much more efficient than blades for killing. One could make gunnery a michi, in Japan they certainly have and in the west we have the "quick draw" handgunning that iaido is always compared to.

But killing isn't the point, nor is winning a duel in the back alleyway using Niten Ichiryu or winning a bar fight with aikido.

To summarize, the teaching of martial arts is traditional, it has persisted for centuries and those who teach it are careful to maintan that traidtion. But each student learns for themselves from the kata presented, so what is learned will change with each generation, perhaps even with each student. The art is traditional, not fossilized.

Oct 10, 2015

My Definition

I'm just starting to read a paper which looks at how young men compare their masculinity with martial arts and combat sports. Or something, brain is a bit fuzzy this morning, I hate getting up before the sun.

This prompted me to think about our perennial arguments about martial art and sport, specifically, what's the difference.

It's a martial art if:
It's traditional (what's that?)
It's got a sensei (preferrably wizened and asian)
It's non-competitive (well to be accurate, let's say it doesn't have organized, scored tournaments)
It's got a uniform (the plainer the purer)
It's got named techniques (or at least identifiable techniques)
It's got a history (the more ancient the better, even if we have to invoke the tengu)
It's got a lineage (the longer the better, even if we have to join two or three lines to make up the numbers)

It's a sport if:
There's scoring
There's blood
There's trophies
There's age limits (at the upper end, as in "young man's game")
There's media coverage (especially if there's blonds covering it)
There's fist pumping (and trash talking)
There's an insistance that the competitors are "real gentlemen outside the ring"

Personally, I figure the difference that counts is the scoring, it's a sport if there's scoring and winning and losing. That includes several of the arts that I do, and could include every one of them if we think about tournaments that are open to any art and are scored by best performance. Even aikido would fit in there (and don't forget that some forms of aikido have competitions).

So all arts that deal with combat techniques can be made a sport and if it can be made a sport why isn't it a sport? Participation in the tournaments? But that comes down to a choice, do it as a sport or not.

Or as I'd like you to consider, do it as a martial art or not.

By the way, let's think about ikebana, is that a sport? Could be, are there competitions for the best arrangement? How about grading, is the licensing process not competitive? You have to reach a certain physical and/or mental state to get (win) a rank which then separates you from the rest of the crowd which did not get the prize, er, pass the requirements.

Perhaps we ought to consider whether or not you felt pride when you got your last grade. Did you feel like fist pumping when you saw your number on the pass list? Are you sure you're not in a sport? Really? You aren't the least pleased that you passed and your fellow student (who isn't half as good as you are) didn't? Or perhaps he passed but you didn't and you're better than him... and it's not a sport in your mind?

OK you say, I'm about to bring up my old chestnut "you get out of it what you bring to it". Perhaps. If you practice an art as a "way" with the intent of self-improvement you will likely not be fist pumping and bloodying the noses of your fellow students in excesses of zeal during practice as you push to the edge of the rules. In other words you won't be looking for the competition, except maybe to "compete with the self I was yesterday".

For those who show up at class looking to be a kick-ass ninja turtle or the baddest gladiator in the ring (but a real gent outside of it), you're likely going to be up and down depending on how much of an ass-kicking you got last practice. Winning isn't everything after all, it's the only thing. (So when you lose throw yourself off the cliff... or onto your bed and weep into your pillow for preference, or get back up for the seventh time if you are knocked down six times... I've never got that one but never mind).

Yes, you will tend to get out of the art what you put into it / are looking for. But what about those who get blindsided? How many of you were blindsided by the "way" while looking for some self defence? How many of you are out there long past your best-before date doing jujutsu that would get you tossed out of the squared octagonish shaped circle? Or playing kendo long past the time when those twitchy kids would knock you out of a tournament when the gloves go on and they don't have to politely receive their whupping from the old guy? Or doing iaido when the old knees make you look rediculous trying to get into seiza and you will never get your next grade because the panel wants to see seiza?

What happened?

Consider also those who came into the arts and left after their competitive career, or after they "got their black belt", even some of those who came in for the self-improvement stuff. What happens when someone comes in to be improved, intending to stay forever, yet drifts away with many promises of "be back when I'm not so busy at work/family/yoga"?

What's the difference there, why are some caught and kept and some driven away?

Could it be the "way" the classes are taught?

Could it be the sensei?

And if that's so, why do some people stick with some sensei while others leave that same sensei? When the sensei is ready the student will appear... or some such.

Can something that is absolutely in the sport realm be a martial art (a way)? There's some literature from decades ago that would indicate that boxing might be a better way to be a better person than running. Nobody much bothers with that idea these days, we all know that violence breeds violence and that boxing is violent but karate is not because it's eastern and therefore philosophical. Right?

My definition becomes less and less certain with every passing year. I'm starting to lean toward looking at "the way" of teaching rather than what is taught. Some boxing coaches might just be teaching "the way" by accident. Some Aikido sensei might just be teaching sport.

We don't study this, we just teach the way we were taught, so how did you turn out?

Oct 5, 2015

Aikido is....

Did a quick sign yesterday for the aikido class to post at the gym. Some parts were easy, classes have run since 1980, chief instructor has been practicing and teaching for 35 years. Photo of Ueshiba Morihei throwing someone. Class times and call to action "sign up at the front desk".

But I stalled out at "Aikido is..."

"Japanese martial art" certainly, should be no controversy there, but jujutsu? I worried about the MMA guys and the Aikido guys both objecting to that. Thinking about Canadian or American jujutsu (that combination of aikido, judo and karate that has developed in the last 50 years in the west) I considered calling Aikido a koryu, or a traditional jujutsu. In the end I just dropped the idea.

An unarmed martial art? Well no, we've done weapons training since that first year (1980). A throwing art? Images of chucking bricks at each other.

I don't know what to put on a sign for the public to see. In the end I decided that the photo ought to say as much as needed about the actual look of the thing and then I added "balance, grace and movement oriented" I think. I really do believe that aikido is a beautiful art and I hope some students also want to do something beautiful.

In the class I pulled out the old "combat ballroom dancing" reference. Was that Jay Gluck in his book "Zen Combat"?

I also talked about the combative distance for aikido with the students, it being fingertip to fingertip (two arms) while judo is one arm length and the sword arts are four arm lengths. I don't know how useful that was, it's sort of how I think these days.

That was last week and of course this week I started with a bear hug from the front. (My mind is nothing if not self-perverse). We are going to work from footwork to technique if I remember to do it, and this week I invented "zed-pattern". So front bearhug, step out, step back in behind partner and hip check. Excuse to teach breakfalls created.

Broke the first half of the zed move out to do sumi otoshi (corner drop from a wrist grab) for an excuse to talk about the stability box (box from toes to heels) and to talk about fixing the front foot to the ground by starting the arm movement downward rather than just back so that uke can't just step back with you.

Added back the second step of the zed to slam uke into the ground with a shoulder check. (Beginners always like getting physical, this balance and effortless throwing stuff seems like cheating).

Next we switched arms so that the partner grasped the offside arm and we snuck our elbows in and up toward the face (we had previously talked about keeping our free hand up around uke's face to protect our own from a punch). This meant we were facing each other, uke grasping our wrist with his backside arm... hmm, left foot forward, grasping my left wrist with his right hand. At this point the seniors in the class all frowned and asked me WTH I'm doing, the hand and footwork were all wrong for the attack. Trust me I said.

We then put it together to do tenchi nage, two hands on two wrists, wrist at forward leg goes back to the corner, other wrist goes up uke's center past his head and then drives him down as we finish the zed move.

So how do you put that on a poster? Kendo gets "smack each other with sticks" Karate gets "kick and punch", Aikido gets "moving around until he falls down"?

I dunno what it is, but I know it when I see it.

Oct 2, 2015

Breathing isn't so important

Well, maybe in the boring old world of getting some oxygen to the cells so we can stay conscious, but not in the mystical world of being an enlightened fellow.

Breathing is something to count rather than something to count down (as in those magical systems that figure we've only got so many breaths in our bodies). We may actually have only so many heartbeats or so many breaths on average but an average is a magical thing, it doesn't really exist. I had a camera that was rated for 300,000 shutter movements but I know for a fact I got almost double that out of it before the electronics gave up.

Breathing is to be counted, to give the brain, which needs something to do (we are all ADD in the head or we're dead), something to focus on. Same can be done with the sword, breathe out, breathe in, sword out, sword in. What's the difference?

Concentrate on your sword and the motions you need to make to create a beautiful iaido. Your iaido should be beautiful, calm, full of life, powerful, with a message that can be read by your observers. Beautiful. You can breath, you can use your hara, you can visualize an invisible opponent. This gives you your mandala, your mudra and your one point to focus on... in short, you have all the things you need for your meditation or whatever they call it these days. Mindfulness practice? The idea that there are fashionable terms for these old practices just blows my mind, I went to the pinup board and just found a YOflexION course. As well as ads for about six different doulas... what's a doula? Marketing this stuff has to have gone on from the very beginning I suppose, but it surely is a strange concept that we would practice something to get rid of the very thing marketing creates in us.

In any case, you can use your iaido practice as meditation, and it's not just the breathing part of it that works, it's the whole enchilada, visualization, focus on one point, breathing, mystical movements of the hands which have esoteric meanings...

You can also practice it to get really good at it and win tournaments and pass grades. Really rather up to you.

Me, I figure I'm trying to get better at it because that forces my brain to focus harder and disrupts all that bad recruiting of more and more of my neurons into pain pathways. In other words, iaido makes me feel better. It also disrupts those cycles of self-destructive thought which makes me feel better. And when I feel better it's easier to be a nicer person.

Breathing isn't so important, but it's part of something that can be.

Sept 30, 2015

Knowing and owning

I can know lots of stuff, I can know how to fly a plane for instance. I can read about it, study diagrams and theory, maybe even get on the old PC flight simulator where I was occasionally successful in flying the biplane.

But that's not the same as physically flying a plane.

I can read about enlightenment, I can get told that I have to sit and breath to achieve it, but if I never sit and breath I won't actually achieve the enlightenment I know all about.

That's the theory anyway, the "eastern" idea that anyone can achieve a goal, produce an artifact, perform a kata, if they but follow a set of practices which are, largely, transferrable from one art to another. It is the way, the michi, which underlies this practice, and the particular practice doesn't much matter.

We start knowing everything (owning nothing), full of knowledge, certain of how the world works. With practice we drop bad habits of mind and body and progress along the way in standard steps toward mastery of an art. What you know intellectually doesn't matter all that much, who you are or think you are is as much a distraction as a help as you begin to understand with the "bodymind" (a phrase I dredged up out of my youth).

That's why you can't be told how to "do/show fukaku", you accumulate it through years of doing. It's why I can't seem to tell my students how to move from one stance to another without going out of balance. They have to do it in order to even know it's do-able.

Contrast this with the "western" idea that we have an inherent, inbred aptitude for certain things, we "have a talent" for it. We "are a genius". This means all we have to do is do it. Maybe we should read a book to get going but once we do we're off to the races. Granted, some things are truly inherent. Basketball players come to mind, if you're seven feet tall there's an inherent talent there for the game. But that talent is a physical attribute, you're tall in a game that rewards tall. Having two hands and healthy knees should be similarly considered a talent for chado, the art of making tea. One armed would be positively disempowering for kyudo (bow and arrow), while one arm might not necessarily be a hindrance for tanjo (a one-handed cane art).

But none of those talents or hindrances would help or prevent someone from becoming enlightened, from learning mushin, fukaku, all those great terms that I forget the names and definitions for, that we're supposed to learn in the budo.

I once knew all those terms and could argue with the best of them over what they meant. Now I haven't a clue what most of them mean, but I have seen them.

You can know something (sort of), but until you've practiced it, you don't own it.

Do it.

Sept 29, 2015

Purple people person

Has anyone had an easy time meeting people in their first year of college? My boy is three weeks in and is having some issues with his shyness. That's what it is, really, although people have all sorts of impressive sounding terms like social awkwardness these days. As I mentioned to my wife on the way home from a visit, if we were rich we could probably have him diagnosed with some sort of modern syndrome and pay for some real expensive therapy. But back in the day we just called it shy.

I certainly did not have an easy time starting university, and I'm told I'm a people person. I'm really not, I don't seek out people to be with, I don't have a lot of folks who drop in constantly for a chat. In fact, around strangers I can revert to being very shy and quiet. The difference between young me and old me is that now I just don't care what people think of me. I really, truely don't. This gets me in trouble with the budo crowd as you might expect. They are quite fearful that I will bring the arts into some sort of disrepute with my loose attitudes and relaxed manners. Thing is, I don't care what people think of me, that doesn't mean I don't care what people think of the arts, or of my country's place in them. And that's where I'm going to get into trouble eventually. I won't lift a finger to protect my own position or reputation but I'm quite willing to protect what actually needs protecting, at the cost of my position or reputation. That would be my sensei and my organization (and my students too for that matter).

It's the organization that needs the reputation protected, not the person. VW just destroyed fourty years of trust in a stroke. It doesn't matter what the spin doctors say, the CEO apologizing and resigning won't fix this problem. It's not a personal one, and no matter how much people these days want to find a single person to blame so they can punish that person, it's the organization as a whole that takes the hit. You will find dozens and hundreds of people who will, through greed or the best of intentions (gotta keep those workers in their jobs) have allowed the cheating to go on, but they aren't the ones who will be damaged for years to come. Nobody will remember their names in a hundred years but VW will be fighting a reputation for dishonesty even then, should it survive that long without being sold to bury the problem.

I'm a pragmatist, not much for dogma over fact-based decisions, but I'll be willing to bet that the number of folks kept working in the diesel shop by cheating the environmental tests will be less than those who will now lose their jobs through distrust of the company. It's not a matter of totting up numbers one side and the other when you're selling something that folks can buy elsewhere, it's not just economics, it's emotional. Like burkas in citizenship ceremonies. Politicians with dogmatic followers understand emotional issues. There can't be more than a couple hundred women a year who want to swear in with their faces covered. They can't be checked for bombs beforehand? Someone else is going to be under the cloth? It's a matter of emotion, those people don't dress like us old stock folks (they can certainly look like us) so they are "other". Emotion. Fear of the other in this case, fear of lies in the VW case. We are a fearful lot.

Which brings us back to shyness. Why are we shy when we're young but less so when we're old? Filters I've been told. Old people lose the filters. How do we test this? We look at the stuff old folks say and declare that they have lost their filters, youngsters wouldn't say such outrageous stuff. Maybe, or maybe that old person always said that stuff, or wanted to. Maybe the filter was just fear that their family would be hurt if they declared their true thoughts... I dunno, but at base, old folks have a lot less to lose by "putting it out there" and talking to whoever they damned well want, and telling the rest to take a hike. What's it going to matter? Dead soon.

Fear of rejection as a youngster is a big part of shyness. You can't be rejected if you don't approach, but youngsters are amazingly cruel, even at college age (which, let's face it, is high school age these days, a year in your late teens is a long time and when I went to college I had been trusted to drink for a year already. Kids are younger longer now). Shy people get labeled with all sorts of hurtful names.

So maybe scarring turns a shy person into one who isn't. Maybe if you're emotionally battered enough by the names, the suggestion of "otherness" long enough you simply grow a thick skin and don't fear the labels any more. Or maybe you recognize, eventually, the essential fear of others in those who are labeling you.

Role playing? That's mostly what I've done over the years to overcome my shyness. I'm "sensei" when I'm in front of a class and I have a job to do which I do. I play the talkative, caring person who is concerned with your education. It's the job, not the person talking. Just now I got a coffee refill from a nice looking young girl and I said "thank you my dear, yum yum". Can you imagine some 35 year old guy getting away with that? Wrong message from the guy in that role, but I'm an old fart, and old farts can talk like your grandpa... even if they aren't in that generation. I really didn't say "my dear" or "sweetheart" when I was a kid. That was the generation before me, but now I get to say it because I can play "old gentleman". (Or creepy old guy if you want, but since it's old, harmless is added... creepy old harmless guy. I like it, I could say anything!)

Just as the person can and usually should fit within the company or the organization, playing the role they need to play to keep the wider group working, that same person can subsume their own shyness to a role and allow that role to interact with other people. I can be a lousy teacher and that doesn't really hurt me, but tell me I'm a lousy communicator and you're hitting quite close to home. I can become a better teacher but can I become a better person? A role is a step back, a layer of insulation.

So what, in my role as a father, should I say to my son? I suggested doing some intramural sports, but that's "where" to meet people not really "how". Except that it is also how. Same as joining a club. The group gives you a common set of things to talk about and it's the social noise that's most important, not the information flow. We are still monkeys in the trees chattering to each other "no hawks, no leopards, all good so far". When it goes silent it's time to start looking in the shadows and hoping it's the other guy who gets taken. We all like to be reassured we're still here.

I'm not kidding when I say that I like using my cards to buy stuff. I really get a kick out of being told I'm "accepted" when my money is taken by the machine. I came across one machine a while ago that didn't say "accepted" and I was quite hurt.

"Here I am", "Here I am", "Here I am". I've begun saying that when a loud motorcycle or a little car with a big bass speaker goes past. I kind of feel like waving just to say "accepted". There's a need for affirmation in everyone, why not help those folks get a bit of affirmation. How about those of us who can play roles or who really aren't shy, smile and say hello to the scary dude on the bike? Or the girl with enough piercings to make it dangerous for her to walk by the wrecking yard magnet. Or with the tattoos all over her face?

You think those things aren't statements that "I don't care what you think of me"? But saying it that loudly can often mean something else can't it? Of course we care what people think, I wore a rope belt when nobody else did. I wore my nose-picker shoes, my baseball cap on sideways. I wasn't saying "I'm an individual", I was too much an individual (read: no friends), I was saying "I don't care what you think about me, I'm not shy, I'm rejected because of how I dress". You hate me because I'm purple, I don't have to even talk to you, I know you hate me because you're not purple.

Games, we play games with each other and with ourselves.

In budo, where we communicate or get broken bones, we don't play games. We work at honesty in our outlook on life and in our motivations. I don't care how you treat me or what you do, as long as you understand why you're doing it. Don't assume you know, desire, fear and ignorance are powerful.

It is through the mind that we save the body.

Sept 27, 2015

Gather ye roses

While ye may. We've had a week of nice weather with few bugs so I have been working on the back room (finishing out a storage area and trimming out a door). Unfortunately the old garage door broke in a way that I couldn't fix it any more so my last few days have been spent ripping out a fourty year old monster and replacing it with one of these new insulated doors. This of course led to some rearrangements of the framing, all the while trying to produce the occasional bokuto while standing on one leg in the mess. Thank goodness the thing didn't break closer to the snow.

I realized this morning, as I was lifting some weights to stop my shoulders from screaming, that fall is here. I now have no evenings free between the photo arts club and 8.5 hours of budo a week. Thankfully I'm retired. These coffee shop mornings are just about the only time I sit down these days, which is a good thing and a bad thing.

Good because I've lost 20 pounds and am now down to a svelt 235 pounds.

On the other hand, I actually sat down and had the cat on my lap for ten minutes yesterday, my excuse for taking a break until I gathered the strength to go back into the shop.

Grass needs cutting, floors sweeping, did the laundry and the dishes yesterday. Good thing the kids are off to school or I'd be asking them to get cracking on stuff. Decks are painted, garage trim painted just in time to rip it off. A few more boards from the lumber yard to finish up the door so I'm going to look for a racking system to see if I can get the wood in the shop up off the floor. Nice new door, it seems a shame to cover it in piles of sawdust. In the meantime the floor I was supposed to have down by today is still at the store.

Apparently all this activity is bleeding over into the iaido class where I was informed that I made the students work really hard. Something unusual for me apparently.

Well if I'm suffering, everyone suffers. They can always hope for bad weather.

Sept 26, 2015

Budo is for life

It seems the aikido classes have survived for another semester and I taught the first Thursday class yesterday. Seeing some new folks I did a fast explain of what the art was and then told them that budo is for life rather than for a brief fling like a social dance class to meet folks or a spin class to lose a few extra pounds.

Budo is for life for real, not like they say about puppies, few pets live as long as we do. Being for the long haul, may mean switching specific arts as you get older. I'm a lot more comfortable now with jodo and niten than iaido or aikido due to my advanced age and wonky knees, but that's fine, I'm still practicing after 35 years and plan to do so until I can't.

I thought later I should have finished my point to the class and explained that we wouldn't be trying to teach them the entirety of aikido in one semester. Even with the small sword schools of 10 or 12 kata only, you won't learn all there is to learn in a year. You can memorize the kata, sure, and you may even look pretty, but the good stuff comes after many years of working on the same 10 or 12 routines.

Imagine being in figure skating and doing the same four routines for decades, or being a band and playing the same set forever. Sounds awful doesn't it? But think about how well you'd play those songs after 20 years. Think of the nuance you could pulll from them.

Classical musicians probably get budo.

The basics of any martial art are not hard to grasp, they are the same as any combat system, hit while not getting hit, throw while not being thrown, and those skills can be taught quickly. Witness basic combatives in any army, or self defence classes. But budo is something else, it's taking the time to practice and get better at something for your entire life, intending to take a lifetime at it. Being patient and waiting for the benefits to arrive in their own time, along with the insights into the art itself.

Switching focus perhaps, from unarmed wrestling around on the mats to a stately swinging of the sword or the stick, but working the same underlying principles always.

Budo, it's not just for the holidays.

Sept 25, 2015

Is it Conan with a sword?

Do you know in your heart that the koryu are for killing? It would seem that some people think learning to use a sword is for killing orcs. Others figure it's for learning the culture of another country. Those who figure it's for killing people often seem to forget that, as Musashi says, if you can kill him, he can kill you.

Do you know what killing is? Have you seen a dead body? Handled one? Many people have not. It's no joke that most people will say that food comes from a grocery store if asked. We are city dwellers and far from the idea that life is impossible without death. Unless you have chlorophyll, your life depends on the death of some other thing.

Many people start their martial arts career with fantasy. Some have dreams of using their martial arts skills or perhaps their collected guns against an intruder. Judging from some writing I've encountered on the interweb there are those who positively hope to have their homes invaded so that they can test out their stuff. I wonder if these people have any idea of the effects of a sword slash or gunshot on a body. Perhaps they will laugh and joke about having to clean up the front carpet. If so I know the answer.

I was very uncomfortable a week or so past when newspaper photographs of a drowned child seemed to affect people. Those who thought the photograph should not have been published were as mysterious to me as those who said they suddenly realized the suffering of the refugees. I think it shows a genuine lack of education and experience if we cannot understand human suffering and death without newspaper photos and stories to get worked up about.

Why did that photo shock? Was it the small child? Do adult men not suffer when they drown? Do they not wash up on beaches? Not understanding the suffering of the world before tripping over it is a dangerous condition. Most of the nonsense in daily life which my kids call "first world problems" is just this ignorance of suffering. One of the worst manifestations of this fantasy world is the idea that those who suffer are being punished by some god for being lazy. The poor are always with us, god helps them what helps themselves... I am deeply uncomfortable around these people because they do not understand suffering. They have never suffered themselves and lack the understanding of suffering in others. Hence their shock at seeing photographs of dead children which trigger thoughts of their own suffering in a similar way. Comments about the name brand shoes on the child only point out this relationship. Oh those others may not be so other to us, look they wear the same running shoes. It might be my child.

It might be me.

The sword schools? What have they to do with this? How do they help? Or rather, how should they be practiced in order to avoid thoughts of fantasy.

Without putting your own life to an end you can't really get the full benefit of sword practice. Doing iai, consider that you are at the execution grounds about to be beheaded. Doing kenjutsu (partner practice), uchidachi (the attacker who is defeated) must consider himself dead at the end of each kata. Keep the idea of your own death in mind. Similarly, as shidachi (the one who "wins") one must consider the effect of one's cut on the partner, death or injury must be felt rather than just dreamed about. This advice is not mine, I am not so original or so advanced religiously but I recognize truth.

There is no life in this world without suffering. If we ignore this we can do unspeakable harm.

Fantasy has no place in budo. It is fantasy that has prompted ideas of deathless victory in war. You may kill from a distance but someone is killed. You may kill from a distance but you will suffer nonetheless if you are human. To be human is to understand death, even through a video screen. To be unaware of death is to be alive but not human.

To kill for political gain is inhuman.

Conan the Barbarian is a fictional character, his life and choices cannot be yours, his suffering and ultimate triumph with his ever-sharp sword over evil people is entertainment and the story could even be instructional. Do not base your sword training on his.

The will to live is not enough, you must also understand the need to die. Only then can you begin to understand the suffering of others.

Only then do you become human and leave the world of fantasy behind.

Sept 24, 2015

You need beginners

While beginners may seem a pain in the touchus, slowing down the class and making you repeat the same old thing, they really are quite useful. For one thing having a beginner in class lets the previous group of beginners know just how much they know. It's amazing how fast the previous beginners let go of their worries that they aren't learning anything when they realize just how much they understand in comparison to the new guy.

Beginners slow the class down, that's true, but this isn't a bad thing. Going fast during class can often mean going into automatic pilot, just repeating the kata without thinking about what you're doing with them. You're supposed to break this stuff down and try to understand the lessons behind and beneath the kata but you can't really do that if you simply repeat them endlessly at speed. Beginners ask questions, they trigger thoughts of why this movement instead of that one.

As for repeating the same old thing, what makes us think we've repeated whatever we need to repeat to the last bunch of beginners? I realized a few weeks ago that I hadn't told any of my students a quite fundamental thing in several years. This happened when a beginner asked a question and I answered causing the rest of the class to give me the aha look. That's when I realized I had forgotten something yet again.

So celebrate the beginners, those few brave souls who wander into a class full of flying lumber and put their faith into the kindness of the group. They in turn will be welcoming beginners in the way they were welcomed in years to come.

Treat them well, you need them.

Sept 21, 2016

Shorter Days

I see that Maehara sensei has died suddenly. This is rather saddening news as his teaching was appreciated by all who spoke to me after last May's iaido seminar. His leadership of the seminar resulted in one of the least dramatic I can remember. I didn't get much chance to practice with him as I was concentrating on jodo and now I will never have that chance.

Pick the flowers when they are in bloom, gather the seeds in their time. We may not have a chance to do things later. This is all standard advice in the budo world and for the most part it is good, but as I have said before, we really must live as if we will live forever. How can we do otherwise? If we do not, we risk shortening what time we have by trying to do too much too fast.

Moderation in all things, including moderation. Rest when you should, work when you should, leave the worrying aside. Do not live in a world of regret for things done and undone. Do not live in a world of drama, the universe will be fine with or without you, and what you do or do not in your lifetime will be at worst a cute story in a hundred years.

Sept 20, 2015


I see our local dirty tricks brigade has been at it again, the Liberal's signs are being trashed. Well that just makes me more determined to remember to vote come the day (should it be legal for anyone to tell us when the election day is). Not classy. Just realized that it also lets me know which party is perceived as the threat should I want to vote strategically. Nice.

I have enjoyed some of the responses to the lawn toadstools this election. A local deli is putting up nicely designed advertising signs with all the other little clusters. I think that was brilliant. The University on the other hand has flooded the roads with signs for their big running shoe sale which, in the past has taken up the entire fieldhouse with liquidation stock. Very ugly signs I'm afraid, very jumble sale. Not classy.

Did a demonstration yesterday for the kids walking past the remains of the grass lawn on the commons near the cannon. No organization, no efforts to get a crowd out to watch, just a bunch of clubs all doing their things at the same time, plus the fitness programs telling us where we could not stand. Thought it was just for clubs, too bad the instructional martial arts clubs weren't also given a chance to demonstrate one more time before their classes were cancelled that evening. Not classy.

One of our students was amazed that we didn't have a sign to stick out on the sidewalk... I didn't suggest that he go make one. I know, those who know me are now surprised. We just demonstrated our thing in behind the ninja club and will maybe have boosted their membership as folks arrive wanting to do Niten Ichiryu, Jodo and Iaido. Thanks to the folks who turned up to demonstate and got an extra practice in, I enjoyed myself just swinging a sword and even improvised some shoto and "muto-ryu" as an homage to my Aikido roots. Still, would have been nice if the punters knew what they were looking at, and before you suggest I could have told folks, the aerobics music was deafening. Why didn't we have a table? Because we were told we had to rent them for ourselves rather than just have one supplied by the department as in past years. Nickels and dimes. Not classy.

Woke up at 5am this morning which may explain the grump, on the cheery hand I got to watch my daughter's band last night, they have some new material they were showing off, and apparently they are in studio for their second album. Hope they catch a break before the high school members of the band scatter to distant universities. Yes they are that young. Very classy bunch of kids, the Parent Groupies were out in force once more. Parent goupies, maybe not so classy. Safe as Houses is the band if you're wondering. Haven't a clue how you'd find them on faceplant but I'm sure you all know.

Another faceplant page you might want to check out is the Photo Arts Club of Guelph. I just put up a little photo challenge for the week and will try to do one per week for people, just to contribute something on that page. If you're in the area I will probably be holding at least one photo workshop a month, maybe even weekly since my schedule is probably cleared by one evening. We'll see, maybe my personal work will pick up again.

Best lawn sign I've seen so far is on the way to the coffee shop. It looks hand-painted and it says Fear and Lies and in the corner says reject. Go vote if you can figure out when, very classy.

Is it still legal for students to vote at their college? If so I want to tell the kids to register. Hopefully some campus groups are taking up the cause of telling folks to vote since Elections Canada isn't allowed to do it any more. Not classy.

Aaaaand Grumpy again.

Sept 19, 2015

Process over product

I finally, after fourty plus years, have figured it out. I have always taken photographs, since I was about 7, and I never bothered too much with the images themselves. Never put them in albums, never framed them. The shows that I've had were actually produced by someone else choosing and mounting the shots.

I have done a lot of model work over the last ten or twelve years since the invention of digital cameras and inevitably the models will ask me what I am going to do with the shots. Do with them? Collect them on a hard drive I guess, publish a tiny number of them in an online magazine I guess. Put them on my website I guess. Mostly I don't do anything with them and I have always been at a loss to explain why.

It's the process I would say, but that always sounded as strange to me as it did to the models. Sketchy might be a better way to put it. Sometimes I would try saying it was a performance, but that sounds even more sketchy.

But I've always had the feeling that I took photographs the way I practice martial arts. You do it because you do it, you are it, you become it. With the martial arts there is no question about a product, there is none. To do a kata (as we are going to do this afternoon in a demonstration to see if we can get students to sign up before tonight, apparently) is to perform something but not to produce an artifact. There is no artifact, even if someone signs up for the club, or films it on their phone there is nothing more than a record of the performance, the performance itself is gone the instant it is produced.

So why do we perform a martial arts kata? Why performance art of any kind? The performance is the point, the process is what counts in our budo world, the process of becoming, not the arrival at some ill-defined point. In the Japanese michi (ways) the process is much more important than the artifact produced. In ikebana is it the flower arrangement or is it the process of arranging the flowers that counts most? In shodo is it the writing of the characters or is it the scroll produced? In budo we have no such confusion, there is no artifact so it must be the process. In the west we are not unaware of this, I have mentioned performance art. Theatre is a similar example. In our religious field there has always been the value put on prayer.

The idea that there must be an artifact, that you must produce something if you are doing something is powerful for a materialist, merchantilist mindset, and you can see this in the idea that one sits zen "to become enlightened" one exercises "to lose weight" one studies budo "to get a black belt".

One takes photographs "to produce an image"... But I don't. Gary Winogrand, a NYC street photographer died with some huge amount of undeveloped film sitting around his apartment. Asked why he shot so much his answer was "to see what something looks like photographed". I think he was a bit unclear in his own motivations, I suspect that he, like me, photographed so that he could photograph. One doesn't do photography, one is photography. Just as one doesn't do budo, one is budo.

Not something you do, but what you do. Process over product

Sept 18, 2015

Are you experienced?

Or enlightened? These days everyone knows all about Zen, or if not what the word means exactly, at least that you will experience enlightenment all at once when sensei whispers that certain something in your ear or clouts you upside the head with his stick. This is why we collect kata, looking for that special one that reveals it all. Surely it's just around the corner at the next little dojo. (I've never understood why the old guy who knows it all doesn't have eight thousand students instead of eight. Surely if he's got the secret everyone would soon know he's got the secret.)

But for some of us who aren't so lucky as to have caught on when clouted, we have to keep working at it, day after day. Once in a long while comes the small reward of knowing that we are "one with the universe" but that goes away as fast as it comes and we are left with the daily plod of working at our practice. I have had those moments. The most memorable (probably the first time I knew what it was) was while sitting on a bus. As we went around a corner I got the whole union of existance thing dumped on my 20 something frame. It didn't last long thankfully, you'd starve to death if it did, but I took the lessons and returned to the daily routine. It was nothing particularly shattering, I was prepared for it, but I can see where folks would feel themselves special and start religions.

The budo equivalent of this transcendent experience is the mushin moment where we don't swing the sword but the sword swings us, where we don't throw but we are the throw. This too is something that can come at any moment, but doesn't stick around. At least not for me.

These enlightenment moments can do more harm than good if we aren't careful about them. You aren't any more experienced after the enlightenment than you were before, you've just been given a glimpse of what lies underneath. The danger comes when we figure we're done. Trust me, you're not. Or not usually, I mean if you go into a permanent state of mushin where you are now unbeatable, responding correctly to everything that comes at you, well... call me. I tested myself last night in class and if I'd been facing a shinken rather than a bokuto I'd be two fingertips short and be typing with eight fingers today. Student got tired of my shite and cut from a different angle than I guessed.

I've seen plenty of beginners get that mushin look in their eye as they are moved during a kata. It's fun to watch but I'm always careful not to notice lest they think they are "there". I hope they use the experience as inspiration to keep practicing but I suspect some of them leave because they figure they've arrived. Why you would leave when you've just arrived is a mystery, but there it is.

I also figure that some folks leave the arts after a few months or years because they haven't had "the enlightenment". How one would experience "no mind" while searching for that experience is beyond me. If you're thinking about not thinking about, it's hard not to think about. Enlightenment moments tend to show up when you're not looking for them, like when sitting on a bus or while looking real close at that stick coming for your head rather than trying to remember what angle your next step is supposed to be.

So how do we get to enlightenment? For most of us it's through experience, through doing something over and over. First we learn some dance steps, then we practice them until we forget the steps, then we pay attention to our partner and finally, one day, maybe the steps practice us.

We only know about the enlightenment experience because those who have had it warn us not to give it any importance. That we attach the importance we do to it is a reflection of my generation's fascination with getting high. What it should be instead, is a reason to work even harder. If we are enlightened without knowing what it is, we invent a new religion because "we experienced the divine". We figure it's an end point instead of an indication that we're on the right path.

Then enlightenment
Eventually, experience IS enlightenment

Sept 16, 2015

Telephone Tag

Or as we used to call it, Chinese Whispers, although I don't know if that's OK to say any more. What I'm talking about is the inevitable drift in information that happens when you get an oral transmission.

When they were little my kids forbid me to read them their bedtime story, I embellished, I edited, I didn't read what they knew was on the page (their mother read it to them properly). This is the topic in a nutshell. What's passed along orally tends to change and what is written in a book tends to become fixed to the point of being old-fashioned or even disapproved.

The old guys always said that you should not write things down, you ought to teach it and learn it directly, mouth to ear or even better, eye to muscle.

I agree.

The old guys also wrote this stuff down because they figured there wasn't a student who got it the way they got it, or that the art as a whole might die out due to a lack of interest.

I agree.

As for us, we ought to read the books to figure out what is core, and we ought to learn and teach this stuff eye to muscle with a serious consideration as to how folks today can learn it. Did anyone ever have 10 hours a day available for practice? Well they don't today, no matter how many times I read that one needs to practice full time to "get" this stuff. If that's true the arts are dead.

Yet if we don't have ten hours a day on the same art, while ignoring all others, how can we avoid filling in the blanks with the other stuff we know? How can we avoid letting other things slip into that story we're reading our students? The simple answer is that we often can't, and perhaps that doesn't matter so much. Remember playing telephone tag? After six or ten whispers the words were always different than the first iteration. But was the message? Someone needs to do a sociology class project on this and get back to me.

If, joyful student, we do have multiple hours a day to practice, where would we go? Nobody I know around here teaches this stuff all day every day, but I used to go to several classes a week in several arts, up to four of them at one time, at one time. I filled in the available time as best I could. As a result do I bring in stuff from one art to fill out another? Damned right I do, especially when it fits perfectly. Do I worry about that? Of course I do, hence my constant reading and re-reading of the source materials. You need to pass this stuff along in clear, pure form, or as close as you can, but you need to realize this stuff is alive, it was never in a state of crystalization. We may have formulae that we repeat but this isn't magic or even organic chemistry, inexact doesn't get us blown up.

Did you just say it gets us cut down by our opponent? Really? Magical spells can backfire, but from what I've been told a surprise (read secret) technique is a good thing. Switching from a predictable kata to something from left field just might work in a sword fight... might not... but I'm not that worried about getting into fights any more. I'll leave that to the kids who are better suited to it through their strength, speed and more solid joints.

Pass the art along in the correct shape with the correct theory and try not to put too much extra into it, but don't agonize about it. Some things go out of fashion (permission?) like maybe saying "chinese whispers" or naming a character in a book "Indian Jim". Books and other writings will eventually contain those anachronisms while oral traditions will change to fit the modern context. Simple as that. Read old stuff with an eye to the context in which it was written and teach to the student.

But try not to invent a new thing. Remember how that went for Dr. Frankenstein.

Sept 14, 2015

Copycats vs creators

I am now bereft of children. My son has gone off to school and I miss him. It's not that I saw him that much but there were signs that he was in the house, dirty dishes would appear (sometimes in alarmingly large amounts all at once if he cleared out his room) and maybe we would pass in the kitchen as we both made our suppers. Now there's a hole in the house.

Not long ago we had a talk about school and I described my rote learning, the regurgitating of biochemical pathways or the laboratory test where I was able (at that moment) to identify the genus and species of a rodent from a single tooth. Impressive even to myself, but today I doubt I could tell a mole from a vole. This was in contrast to what he'll be doing in his computer engineering degree which is learning how to create vs how to repeat.

Which brings me to budo of course. (Everything does). There are two ways you can approach an art like iaido or jodo. The rote learning way is to work on doing the best repeat of what sensei has done or said. The second is to actually understand what is behind what sensei is doing. Repetition vs creation.

In the repetition form of things we find the standard forms of practice used for testing and competitions. These are not even as creative as figure skating or gymnastics, we don't make up new forms from the basic elements, we just practice the basic elements in the set forms. (OK at one time I suppose the figures part of figure skating would be pretty close but that stuff was dropped years ago because those mechanical Russians kept winning). Judging students on how they approach the ideal forms is easy and fairly accurate, it allows judges to see how well the students can control their swords and themselves, how much they practice, and a lot of other useful things beside. As well, these performances can be as impressive as identifying species and genus from a tooth found in the dirt.

Then there is the stuff we say we want to see from the higher grades, the demonstration of the riai of the sword. This is where we expect an understanding of the principles such that you could create a new kata from the basic elements at need and without thought. Ah got you on that last bit didn't I? Up to then you figured you could make up a new form from the kihon. I have seen what happens when students try to make up a new kata, sometimes they succeed in keeping it within the school, sometimes they manage to... how shall I put this... pull things more from their fundaments than from the fundamentals.

But eventually anyone can make up variations on the kata that look right, even if they don't know what they're doing. How do we judge that? How do we know whether what we're looking at is the result of creation or just good copycatting?

That's where we have to take someone's word for it, that word in the form of inka, a testimony to attainment. There are lots of things out there that have the appearance of a new thing but are really just mutton dressed as lamb. In our modern world this copycatting would have the lawyers down on your software engineer because today an inka comes in the form of a patent and the judges are... well judges.

Are patent examiners the best judges of cretativity? We hope so. Are judges and juries and lawyers the best panels to determine the difference between copycatting and creativity? Welllll... This is what I mean by taking someone's word for it. It gets messy doesn't it? The only one who truly knows whether it was created or copied is the performer, the maker. In budo we trust our students to be honest with themselves because the only benefit of cheating would be to boost their own egos (by winning a tournament or a higher grade) which is the exact opposite of what they ought to be working toward. In other words, we trust our students because if they cheat the only person they hurt is themselves so the situation is self-correcting.

Sept 10, 2015

Passing it along

I know we're all going to live forever, but sometimes accidents happen to even the most immortal of us. If that happens, what happens to our lineage?

You haven't thought about it? You're young yet then, but eventually this needs to be addressed or the art won't continue. This isn't the latest exercise fad, it's not something you spent four hours and $400 to get certified in. If it was then it wouldn't be budo. This isn't something you made up last week. You may have made up an entire new set of kata which you are teaching to your students but budo is not the techniques. Even if your line says things like "our practice is only for killing, and now we only practice it as a cultural memory with none of that spiritual BS", you may just be passing along budo with that technical stuff without realizing it.

Budo is not the techniques, it is the method of teaching, or perhaps I should say that budo is a michi, a -do, a way. We pass that way along to the next generation, maybe not even realizing that we're doing it. This is why the arts aren't exclusive to Japan and the Japanese. If it was just a bit of culture it wouldn't make any more sense to teach it to a bunch of gaijin than teaching Newfoundland clog dancing to the Japanese. I mean you can do it but what would be the point beyond maybe the entertainment value to both sides. The Japanese aren't going to understand outport culture by clog-dancing any more than I'm going to understand Japanese culture, modern, Edo or Sengoku Jidai, by doing Niten Ichiryu. Not the point, not the purpose.

A big part of budo is the lineage of teaching and teachers. That's because we need some assurance that what we're teaching and what we've taught is correct, that what we're teaching is what worked in the past. That's why we don't make up kata and try to pass them along as "new and improved". We may create new exercises for reasons of specific technical instruction but we don't bother to pretend they're the core of the curriculum. The curriculum we receive is enough to teach the way, and the way is the important bit.

Here we are then, teaching our budo to students. If we appreciate the lineage we ought to be thinking about how to get this art to the next generation. How do we do that? Most of the time we just assume that our top student will take over, having learned all they need to learn about teaching by being taught. It's not a bad thought, it's probably worked for centuries since there usually isn't a "teaching the teachers" curriculum within the arts. What there is of that is usually a few words in the ear or written down on the final certification paper. Often it's a story about the founder and how he discovered that there's more to this stuff than just the slicing of the heads.

A couple weeks ago I gave a bit of a speach about the underlying method in a seminar. After class one of my friends told me he appreciated my comments because I had not mentioned any such thing in the 20 years or so that he's known me. I suppose I don't say much about it because the method is in the practice, not something we read in a book, or something that we are convinced of by argument or dictate from above.

But will our successor know this? And is our successor someone who can guide his own students through the same way? Again, we usually don't worry about this and I suspect that's just fine. Our students wouldn't stick around for decades if they weren't getting something beyond the techniques, how long does it take to learn a few dozen short movement patterns? How much longer do you need to learn how to apply those patterns in a fight? Not tens of years that's for sure. You can become a brain surgeon in less time than you spend on your budo education, mostly because your budo is not a technique, it's a method. If you get that, you stick around in class, so anyone who has been with you for 30 years is likely someone who "gets it".

The idea of teaching the teachers is one that is concerned with passing along facts and figures or techniques in as short a time as possible. Budo and the other ways are about something else. In some cases these ways may actually be anti-efficient in their teaching as we try to keep students around long enough to be "hooked on the method". Do you remember the day you realized you are in this for life?

So pass it along and don't worry so much about who is going to take over when you slip off the cliff.

Sept 4, 2015

Trains and trikes

It occurs to me that there are two different ways to teach budo. The first resembles a team of cyclists on a road, a line of people who cycle along drafting the first guy who drops back to the end and everyone shifts up as the whole assembly zips through the countryside. In that image, imagine the head sensei regularly moves back to teach the beginners while the seniors are left to roar along leading the way in turn as they move on up. Eventually the head guy drops out completely but the cycle of cyclists continues along the way.

The second way to teach is more like a train, with the head guy as the locomotive who stays out front and the students follow along behind. This way the instructions are passed back from car to car until they finally reach the last one, the beginners in the caboose. What happens when the locomotive conks out?

In the cyclist method of teaching, with sensei regularly moving back to teach them, the beginners get a single voice, the unified voice of authority and the entire class has a common basis for understanding the arts. The seniors may feel themselves without instruction for a while as sensei repeats the fundamentals for the juniors, but that's not a bad thing, it tends to keep them on the right path as they extract deeper meaning from those once seemingly simple instructions. The beginners, inexperienced as they are, will appreciate the gesture of being taught by the top guy. Let's face it, when you come into a new situation it's good to know you are valued, and never forget that even a beginner can see who is in charge.

In the train method of teaching the sensei keeps charging ahead, moving deeper and deeper into the unknown territory down the tracks, pulling the cars behind. (OK make it one of those truck-trains like in the Australian outback so they can go anywhere the cyclists can on the roads.) As he figures out what is ahead sensei passes that to the nearest student who is expected to pass it along to the next and so to the next. These assistant instructors are expected to pass things along exactly as they are told but of course their knowledge of what's ahead isn't as clear as the view from the locomotive so small changes can happen. This isn't usually a problem but if one student is a bit "hard of hearing" things can go astray and instead of rolling along behind smoothly, the cars at the end with the now-bumpy wheels might just start slowing the entire process down.

I'm talking here about sensei teaching the entire class or teaching just a few seniors who then teach the juniors. In the first case sensei's own progress might be slowed down a bit as he has to keep repeating the basics with the beginners instead of working on his own practice. In the second case sensei may move forward with his own practice at a faster pace as he concentrates on his work with the seniors but he risks losing contact with the beginners as his students become their teachers instead.

I suspect you know my bias here, I was always taught in small, non-commercial dojo where the sensei teaches everyone by necessity rather than by choice. This has made me a bit sensitive to the problems of the larger dojo with their assistant teachers and concerns with the heirarchy. I like the way I was taught, and I will continue to teach that way in my small dojo full of a mixture of experience and enthusiasm. I don't actually think my progress would have been any better for ignoring beginners and blasting ahead with my seniors, mostly because (to be honest) my seniors wander off to other towns (I teach at a university). But even if they were around I think a constant moving back to the basics gives as much of a push into the unknown regions of practice as just pushing ahead with the throttle wide open. Like the cyclists, a constantly shifting move from front of the pack to the back gives everyone a chance to rest a bit as they draft the guy in front and the entire team moves along smoothly as a unit. As I said, when sensei drops out completely (retires or dies) the team as a whole isn't affected much, everyone is on the same page and conflicts ought not to erupt, at least not over the technical stuff.

The assistant-teacher system can slow down everyone including sensei, as much as it frees him up to explore. If you're an assistant teacher you're being asked to both learn from sensei and teach your juniors. This slows down progress dramatically since people end up doing one or the other, teaching or learning, because... well because life happens. Who's got time to teach and learn? Two classes a week where you have to teach means no time to learn. So the assistants slow down, which means the beginners slow down and now they are not driving sensei ahead. If sensei isn't being pushed he has to pull even harder.

These assistant instructors, being assistants, are not responsible for their teaching either. That's up to sensei. So unless they are assigned students of their own and given specific classes, you run into the situation where they might simply not turn up for class, assuming some other assistant or, ultimately, sensei will pick up the slack. How fair is that to anyone? All that can create personality clashes and who has to sort those out? Sensei.

Much better, in my opinion, to have a single personality to deal with (sensei's) so that everyone can unite in complaint against one guy, and so that beginners can decide to leave or stay based on that single choice. Much more clean and nobody is wasting time trying to fix problems that are systemic rather than individual.

And what happens when that locomotive conks out? Which of the several assistant teachers takes over? Without sensei to knock heads together there can be a problem (as there might be with the cycling method of course). But worse is that the assistants may not have the same training they might have had if sensei was teaching everyone and they were learning during all that teaching time.

Where do I come off having that opinion? From a historical point of course, our common understanding of the koryu arts is that there is a teacher, a single teacher, who teaches the students directly. This is our ideal case study. Does it hold up? Well for most of the time since the Meiji restoration I suspect it does. Before that perhaps not. For instance in Fukuoka with the Shindo Muso Ryu there were at one time something like 300 plus menkyo kaiden (full license) but only, as far as I can tell, three lines (three dojo) of practice. I suspect with that many licensed folks around there was some assistant teaching going on so never say "this is the way it was" unless you want to be embarassed by those inconvenient fact thingies. Government sponsored schools aside though, I suspect most villages had a teacher who had a few students that got taught directly.

Large dojo with four or five classes a day, and we're talking commercial dojo now, will require multiple teachers. I understand that, and if I had such a thing I'd set it up so that the assistant teachers would have their own students, quite apart from me as the head instructor. It would be understood that they had a single teacher, even if that teacher was still studying with me (which he would be in senior class). No time to study and teach? Then study it is, teach when you're retired from the job and your kids are grown up. Or make that teaching position your job.

Large dojo with a couple classes a week? You know what I'm going to say... get on your bike.

Sept 3, 2015

September already

I have no clue where the summer went, I seem to spend most of the winter hoping to make it to the warm weather and most of the warm weather being depressed that the days are getting shorter. June 21 is the only perfect day in the whole year and then it's full of melancholy because it's come and will be gone soon.

Ah Fall, ah veritas, yes we are all going to die and the worms will eat us. "Do you want to live forever?" Says Sandahl Bergman in one of the Conan movies. Well, apparently yes, we want to live forever. We assume we will live forever judging by the amount of time we spend looking at youtube videos of cats or Taylor Swift.

Me, I might want to live a long time, at 60 it's just getting deeply interesting, but I know I won't and I also know that the only afterlife is as wormfood. Makes for a certain urgency, a certain pressure to get things done now, to participate in something that will last beyond my brief time here in the world of consciousness before I return to the unknowing that is the wider universe.

It's a dangerous thing, this believing that things will last forever, your life/spirit/whatever, the resources of a single planet overwhelmed by clever monkeys, the summer warmth. This makes for a lot of time wasted being bored and playing smartphone games while baking at the beach.

If I want to watch videos without feeling guilty I have to create something first, like a few laminated tanto (the latest project in the shop) or even cut the lawn (a job I bitterly resent since anyone else in the family could do it, leaving me with more time to do all the other jobs that they can't). My recent baking was up a ladder painting the logs at Tombo Dojo.

The best way to use my time though, is to practice my budo. Not so much to practice these days, but to teach it actually.

Wow, that's true, I almost feel like practicing it is a selfish thing to do. I need to fall back on the buddhist principle that by enlightening myself I enlighten the world. Too much thinking you need to take other folks to the light will lead to an outbreak of missionaries. Not a good thing for anyone. Yet I want to do my bit to keep the budo moving through time.

You live on after your lifetime through your kids (those selfish little genes) but humans have another course, through participation in the meme pool. By being a part of a ryu, the flow of a school of instruction, you become part of something longer than your 70 years. In a very real sense Musashi is still with us because I practice Niten Ichiryu. In fact Iwami soke used to say "we are Musashi" quite a bit. Creepy as that sounds, he's right.

As a photographer a great piece of advice is to look behind you as you take that amazing shot, there's often something worth seeing in the other direction. What do we see in the other direction from a ryu? The invented schools of budo I suppose. I have never understood why the old ways of swinging a sword around aren't good enough for folks. Why would they want to invent a new and improved way to use a useless weapon?

It's because they want to skip the process and go to the supposed rewards directly. If you invent a sword school you're automatically the head right? And thus money flows in... except it doesn't. All that happens is that you produce yet another splinter religion but without the cash flow. Another sad attempt to avoid that feeling that there really isn't anything beyond death, by becoming powerful, if not rich, in this life through cynically selling the promise of immortality to other folks.

But it's the process that is the reward, not the achievement. If there were a pill that turned you into a swordsman with the skills of Musashi there would be no point in being as skillful as Musashi. If you get to heaven by giving money to the preacher there's no point in going to heaven, and thus no point in giving money to the preacher, but shh, whole sectors of the economy are dependant on beleiving that this or that snake oil is going to let you live forever.

Through your kids or through a lineage of ideas, both of which require a hell of a lot of work. Selling or buying instant immortality (gratification) only gets you rich or poor, depending on which side of the equation you choose, but there's nobody keeping score. In four generations nobody is going to care how rich you were but we still know the lineage of our sword school don't we? We still know the ideas of the Stoics and the Epicurians who had things to say about how to properly live life. If you don't know them you can still read them, a hint, it doesn't include indulgences.

It does promise a lot of hard work.

Sept 1, 2015


I came back from the west after a week of seminars and even after the first class here I woke up groggy and stumbling. This despite a good solid 8 hours of sleep. Sometimes the anchors don't work.

That doesn't negate their use to anyone, especially to university or college students who have a staggered work hours. I was ten years or more in university (OK there was a long transition/overlap period from classes to working there) and through most of that time I practiced martial arts as much for the structure they gave my week as for their skills. I realized that I could use my training times as an anchor to keep me on track throughout the week.

This was so valuable that I switched courses and would have switched majors to avoid losing those fixed points in my life. Without them I would have been much more prone to missing the other classes.

Budo provides anchors in other ways. I was recently told that work uncertainties and issues at home had reduced one student's practice hours with a resulting jump in stress levels. This isn't the first time I've heard that, and in my own case I don't know if I would have made it out of my 20s without the meditation provided by a vigorous class. It's easy to concentrate on something other than your personal problems when you have wood coming at your head, or when you're upside down above the floor.

Sure, other things provide distractions when you're a student. The exercise classes like zumba and yoga and boxercise will make you sweat and deafen you with the loud music and screaming (interchangeable) instructors, but they lack a very simple requirement for a good anchor. They aren't there for the long haul. You do those things to lose weight (or in the case of the boys, to gain weight) and you don't do them for long. The reason gyms offer 12 types of yoga is that movement for exercise (medicine) gets boring. You switch classes and instructors and times to keep the interest up and when you finally realize you're supposed to weigh 190 and not 170 you quit.

Budo is something different. It's not a class, it's a life-long fixture, it's part of you, not something you do for any reason at all. If you can get students started in a budo in school, those who don't quit after a class or two are quite likely to continue that physical practice for the rest of their lives. They may switch to a less vigorous practice as they get older but they will keep moving those joints as long as they can.

Budo isn't for losing weight, it isn't for medicine (exercise done to make you healthy but so boring that you have to have televisions and loud music to get you through it) and it isn't even for self defence (that's a short class not a life-long practice). Budo is something that you do to anchor your life in time, in mental space and in history as a part of a centuries-long tradition of care from teacher to student. It's a relationship between you and your fellow travellers along the way.

So in the interest of promoting this practice in Guelph, I have been updating our 'orrible webpage at http://seidokai.ca/ but forgot to put in the important bits. I'll write some of them out here since I've got the time and I'm sure those of you in Ulan Bator are itching for the information.


What we are: A club that practices Japanese sword and stick arts. Specifically Iaido of several schools, Jodo and Niten Ichiryu. We practice at the University of Guelph and hold occasional seminars at Tombo Dojo which is the upper floor of my log cabin in the woods near Wiarton. We've got a seminar there on the Labour day weekend if anyone wants to attend.

How much we are: The UG classes are free and open to anyone. For those not full time students at the university you will have to get into the athletics building which is $5 a day or you can get a monthly membership. Full time students pay nothing at all for the classes. For those who wish to grade in iaido or jodo you can join the Canadian Kendo Federation. This is done directly through the CKF website (kendo-canada.ca) rather than through our club. Gradings in iaido and jodo are done separately about twice a year and are under the supervision of the CKF.

When we are: Classes are held through the school year (September to April) Tuesdays from 10pm to midnight (our most popular time actually) Fridays from 7 to 9pm and Sundays from 1 to 4pm. All classes are in room 210 in the main athletics building. Parking on campus is free at those times.

Over the next short while I hope to spiffy up the website and include this, but you will find more information there right now. If you know someone in Guelph or the surrounding area (we have regular students from Toronto, Hamilton and the KW area) please pass this along.

August 28, 2015

A word in your ear

I can't remember what I was going to write about this morning, so I'll put a word in your ear.


That's the sum total of the verbage our club has this year in the athletics department flyer, out of about fourty pages. No contact information, no times, no prices and certainly no explanation as to what that word would mean.

We're not alone, all the other clubs got the same amount of verbage. Nicely designed page though.

My only hope is that nobody ever reads that booklet because it's not particularly useful to new students unless they know what iaido is... would you go looking for iaido in your college athletics handbook? No joy if you're looking for jodo or niten ichiryu or kage ryu, all of which we also practice and most of which was described in the old handbooks.

So if you're in or near the University of Guelph and want to learn some Japanese sword arts, or know someone who's interested, let them know that they can contact me because the folks at the athletics department won't have anything more to go on than a single word in the handbook. (We also have kendo but that's an instructional (read potential money-maker) so lots of information there.)

Or perhaps I'm just a techno-grampa, I notice that if you want to know the facilites hours you won't find them in the handbook either, it seems that "we have an app for that". So maybe if you download the app to find out what time the building is open (apparently it's quite unpredictable since we need an app) it maybe links to some information beyond what clubs are available, what they do, when they are and how much they are?

I don't know, I call up the guys on the front desk and ask for the hours and they tell me, or I ask at the beginning of the semester because they don't actually change much. The website? No times on there either last time I checked.

My student asked me last night while we where discussing this situation, what the three questions each new student has. I guessed when are the classes, I guessed how much they cost, both correct. Then I guessed "who is the teacher". She smiled at my stupidity and said "no, it's 'what is it'". Stupid me, she's right, new students don't care who's teaching so the teacher is irrelevent. The three R's: what they are, when they are and how much they are.

Look, bottom line is that if you're a student who is not willing to really really try to find out this information you aren't really interested right? And if I'm not willing to devote hours of time and energy to let students know about this extra bit of culture which might broaden their minds and provide a bit of an anchor to their chaotic university experience... well I'm not much of a teacher am I?

Ah, anchors, that's what I was going to write about. I'll try for it tomorrow, I'm too depressed right now for some reason.

August 26, 2015

Dead Man's Clothes

I am spending a few days in White Rock where my cousin has a coffee shop (Official Bean Around the World coffee shop of Sei Do Kai) at the five corners (world class collection of thrift shops). It looked a bit like rain so I bought a jacket just to make sure the sun came out and it got hot again. Great success on both counts.

I buy all my suspenders and quite a bit more in thrift shops, including the sound system for Tombo Dojo. I like to think that I'm wearing "dead man's clothes" because that's the real way to recycle.

I often wonder about some of the things I find in the shops but you know, some folks want new and haven't a bit of use for grandpa's collection of Zoot Suits.

As a long time student of the martial arts I've got all sorts of time for Grandpa's hobbies. If Gramps hadn't had an affection for stuff from old dead guys he would likely have practiced some new and improved martial art or worse, just bought a gun and declared himself fearsome. Instead my teacher's teacher's teachers decided they kind of liked the way the old things felt. Just like I am fond of the way my fourty year old Fisher speakers sound, the ones I paid $20 for.

Did I mention I'm in White Rock? I have been walking around and have seen a tiny castle down on the beach, another one in an entirely different style up the hill a way (with a three-wheeled bubble car in the garage) and a few spongy-floors as we used to call the old cottages in my home town. Mostly though, as I stand on the beach and look up the hill I see a glass wall of million dollar condos. I love the old spongy-floors, they have character, they have quirks, they are more than a little organic and to tell you a secret, they have as much worth as these glass boxes do. On sale they'll make a million or more (and then be knocked into oblivion to make way for a glass box). What's worthy in these old houses is the land underneath, the foundation if you want to think of it that way.

Just like the old martial arts, the koryu. They may be old enough to have collected all sorts of patches, new rooms, strange wiring and alarming sounds in the night as the many roofs cool at different rates, but the foundation is worth as much or more as the day they were invented. More-so than some of these new-smelling arts. (Have I told you about the Zumba-Yoga class I found up near the Tombo Dojo?).

Just across the road a photographer has a little booth set up. He's selling photos of the view of course, sunsets over the straight, unsharp-masked-to-death city scenes of Vancouver, that sort of thing, the stuff the tourists and the guys who buy the new condos want. Me, if I lived here I'd be crawling up and down the back streets looking for these old cottages and shooting them before they get consigned to "dead man's housing" and knocked down for another cookie cutter greenhouse.

Give me the dead man's clothing of my koryu arts over the pseudo-commando "effective" stuff any day. That stuff looks too shiny, too fragile. Come the mile-high tsunami those glass walls are going to blow inward and become reefs in the ocean. The spongy-floors will likely just float off the basement (if they even have basements) and become boats. When it's over they'll maybe float back down and land somewhere, maybe another street or three to the east.

They'll maybe survive long enough to get into one of the thrift shops and picked up by the next generation..... nope, mixed those metaphores too far and lost it completely.

By the way, the jacket looks brand new and has a crest that says "Cyclone Taylor '96 Red Wings AAA". And it fits, how could I not?

Aug 20, 2015

It would be a funny old world

If everyone in it were the same.

More than once Ive heard of a sensei being told by other sensei that their koryu was "old fashioned".

Does that sound strange to you? Koryu doesn't change? It's the same since the founder invented it?

I think this sort of comment is rather unavoidable if one is in a larger organization, it doesn't have to be one with a separate seitei culture and it probably doesn't have to be one where there is a headmaster who is redefining the art. There just needs to be a group of sensei who get together regularly to practice, and one who doesn't. Maybe he's been out of touch for 20 years, or coming into a new area. His art will, inevitably, eventually, look different from the group.

We are a friendly animal, we like to get along, all evidence to the contrary. If you get a bunch of people doing a martial art together on a regular basis, especially a partner practice where you have to pay attention to what the other guy is doing, you are going to get a drift toward a common method of practice.

Once that drift starts, anyone who isn't along for the ride is going to look "old fashioned". Apart from the irritation factor (I'm not old fashioned, you guys are new fangled), I don't think there's really any problem with the situation as long as there isn't any real pressure to change going either way.

Of course if it's a headmaster or an organization changing things deliberately and demanding compliance then this can create a problem for both sides. The solution might involve our old fashioned teacher leaving the organization.

And then what? Well usually not much of anything. Sensei leaves, students stay or leave too and it all settles out eventually. Of course, people being people that might take three generations but eventually the problem is not a problem any more.

Ideally, we all decide that it would be a boring world if we were all alike, and we simply accept variation where it makes no difference. Step twice here in the kata instead of once? No problem. Change the kata to the extent that you'd need to give it a different name? Maybe that's a bit more of a concern. Does it work? Well if we're doing a competitive art we can try it out, what works and is within the rules is likely to be acceptable, maybe old fashioned, maybe too new for comfort, but you can't argue with a winning move. For those arts that you can't test, like maybe it would require shinken behind the barn to see if it works, we can imagine and discuss (preferably over beers) and if we need to, shake the head and walk away convinced the other guy is insane, but walk away. If you can't test it, the effectiveness if that disputed movement isn't going to be a problem. If we're teaching our students to fight zombies in an alternative dimension.... well maybe we do need to continue the argument.

August 18, 2015

Why I'm not taking my 8 dan test

Last night I got asked once again if I was working toward my 8dan test. I suppose it might be a reasonable thing for folks to ask since I'm eligible next year so perhaps I should think about it myself.

No, I'm not working toward it. If I were, I would have to be attending a seminar every weekend in Japan for the next year or so to get my face in front of the judges. Oops, I don't live in Japan, bad move if I want to take an 8dan test there.

There is no mechanism for taking an 8dan test in iai in Canada since we haven't done any yet. Yes we can give an 8dan, any country under the FIK creates their own requirements for ikkyu, 8dan and the three shogo ranks as per the standard guidelines for grading. The only requirement for all those awards I just mentioned is that for 8dan the candidate has to do jigeiko. Well I suppose I could strap on some bogu and grab a shinai... That's the letter of the requirements (it's the kendo federation after all), but as usual we'd need to interpret that for the iai test which would be something along the lines of "no 8dans for people who aren't practicing" so the requirement for iai would be "got to demonstrate some iaido".

My iai is garbage at the moment. I just did a demonstration at a seminar here in lovely Vancouver yesterday. Iai first then jodo. My iai was as I expected with my wonky knees, I can get "near seiza" I suppose, but to start from a slightly too raised, slightly tipped forward position throws off all the rest of my practice, standing kata included, I can't seem to recover. The jodo on the other hand felt a lot more sharp, perhaps that might have something to do with working with a fellow jo student who is better than I am, "sharp or smacked" would be how I put it. Quite a bit easier to get into the groove.

So I think we've established that my iai isn't up to snuff for an 8dan test but there are reasons I'm not working on it to get it there. The main one being that I simply don't want an 8dan.

That's not unheard of folks, I know lots of people who don't. But what about all those folks who take the test fifteen times just to challenge themselves? Why am I not wanting to challenge myself?

My challenges are the same as they have always been, I spend enough energy and time each year trying to grow the art... lately trying to keep the art at the level it has been, that I don't feel the need for a further challenge. I was "in at the start" and seem to be still at the point where finding gradings for the rest of the students is a much bigger challenge for me than passing a grading myself.

I'm not sure that's clear. I spend far more of my effort trying to arrange gradings than I do worrying about a grading for myself. If I were simply able to walk into a grading any year I wished, maybe I'd be looking at doing an 8dan, but when I would have to somehow arrange the grading, define the grading rules, obtain the panel and the finances to do that, and then stand in front of that panel... no thanks, too much work for no reason. Nor do I have the money or energy to try and go somewhere else to challenge for an 8dan. To go to Japan and challenge would simply be a donation to the airlines, hotels and ZNKR, the result of that challenge is predictable. Some strange face showing up out of nowhere doing mediocre iaido? Nah, come back next year and try again until you're too old.

My satisfaction has never come from passing a grade, it's from knowing there are gradings in the first place. My motivation was never to get a rank, it was to have a rank that was useful in the providing of gradings for other people. And that is the key point right there. A 7dan is a useful grade, the most useful grade for providing gradings for other people. 8dan has no further use in the system we have now. In fact, having 8dans around is a dangerous thing as it might eventually create a need for them. The international standard guidelines say that you can do any meaningful grade with 7dans. Create some 8dan ranks outside Japan and you risk those guidelines being changed so that you have to have an 8dan to do what a 7dan is sufficient for now.

Far from being a help to our grading system, I think an 8dan is actually a risk to that system and I have no desire to see it at any further risk than it's at now. Japan is full of 8dans, and even hanshi hachidans, so they can put panels of those folks together. We're decades away from that place and I see no reason to confuse the issue further.

On a simpler note, my sensei doesn't have an 8dan so I'm not going to play leapfrog. I will follow the guy who has "gone before" but I have never had a desire to turn that situation into a race. It is sufficient that he will teach me, no that is the only consideration, that he will teach me. Rank is a position in an organization, it has nothing to do with he and I. Our positions are that he is my teacher and I am his student. It's so simple that it gets forgotten by a lot of those looking to pass their next test. Budo doesn't exist without a teacher and a student. The rank system is entirely extraneous to that original heirarchy. It is not unheard of for people to switch teachers in order to pass the next grading. I suspect you know my opinion on that.

I was once offered the position of shibu for a koryu art. That would be a piece of paper that says I'm in charge of the art for Canada or North America or whatever other fief we agreed on. I asked whether or not the soke would agree to visit anyone in "my region" without going through me first and his answer was no. Why do I need the paper then? I'm already the shibu in that case.

Paper means something to put in the file folder of honour. Authority is something granted or withdrawn by those up the instructional chain, the paper is only as good as those who give it, make it. If a soke says I'm the guy you have to talk to, I'm the guy. If he changes his mind later and says someone else is that guy, but I've got paper that says I'm that guy.... well you know what I can use that paper for don't you.

If my 7dan says I can sit on the highest panel we need then it's sufficient to give me all the authority the federation needs me to have. If that 7dan later becomes not enough, if those running the organization decide it now has to be an 8dan piece of paper, well we've just created a problem haven't we? We don't have the rank to run the place and we get knocked back another couple of decades while folks try to get the rank once more to run the system. I'm getting old, it probably won't be me because I won't have got that 8dan back when I should have got it if I had been psychic and known we'd need it later.

Or the organization hands me an 8dan and says "keep doing the job you've been doing".

You are shocked? You think an 8dan is the same test as your 4dan? To put it in rather simple terms, the last technical grade is your 5dan. 6 and up don't require any further technical skills, they involve other things.

Things like the need for those ranks to exist. Go think about that a bit and you'll understand what I mean.

Aug 17, 2015


At post class beers last night I was talking about a book that I really appreciate as a major insight into the meanings of my school. I lamented that I didn't buy it when it was published, although I must have known of it. My suspicion is that I decided it was just another how-to book and I already knew how-to. What I needed was more practice, not more reading.

This is sort of a cyclical thing with me. A few years earlier I'd have snapped it up in a heartbeat and devoured it for all the how-to I could get. Now, I'm reading it because it discusses the why-for. Yep, have done lots of how-to and now I want to know the why-for.

At class we were going over a koryu set that one of the students was taught in Japan recently so that she could refresh before it drifted away. At one point she said, "and here you thrust for the eyes rather than make a big swing". I must have frowned because she said "someone only said it once so I'm not too sure". No, I was frowning because I was filing it away. I told her that it's the small throw-away remarks that your teachers give you that are the nuggets, the jewels of a practice. Those are the things you ought to be putting into a notebook.

Another student mentioned that he didn't know how anyone could make notes. He's a more visual sort of fellow, would be drawing pictures rather than making notes. Well why not, that's what cell-phones are for isn't it? To take pictures? Who makes calls on cell phones? Pull out the device and record stuff. Unless you're the type who records and never looks again at all the stuff you've recorded. In that case, put the phone away and pay attention, that way you see it at least once rather than zero times.

But back to the point, it's the small, throw-away things that you need to remember, the one-off remarks that make things suddenly clear to you. Don't forget them in your sudden flash of "oh, so that's how I do that", if you focus on the how-to bit of that encounter you will miss the why-for of the remark, it will drift out of your mind.

Now you really need to know the how-to before the why-for starts to even catch your attention. It's only after getting the distraction of trying to remember which foot goes where at this point that there's even room to hear the good stuff, but with enough practice and an open ear you will eventually start hearing stuff that's worth putting down in your notebook. Instead of just going back to one of the many excellent textbooks or videos available these days.

The what-for? If you haven't worked that one out you probably aren't reading this.

August 14, 2015

It's the attention stupid

My daughter noticed a fellow driving a Smart Car on a four lane highway using a hands free phone. By that she meant he had both hands on his phone and was dialing a number and then talking on his phone.

Smart car, dumb driver.

Paris, France has just started to allow bike riders to run through red lights, not across the street, but turning right or straight through at a T intersection. This will legalize what bikers do anyway and will also, the experts claim, make the streets safer. Safer? Sure, car drivers won't automatically move on a green without checking first for those insane bikers going through red lights.

The major intersection near my home has a bad accident about once a month. A smaller road which opens out to three lanes from one at the bottom of a hill (and is one of four north south routes in town) meets a four lane parkway. Drivers get up a good head of steam coming down the hill and time the green light so that they shoot through the intersection nice and smooth. Problem is, those on the parkway figure since it's four lanes it ought to be a restricted access road and they run the red light. Simple equation (green means go, red means I'm late for work and the other direction is stopped isn't it?) for a once a month closure of the intersection while the authorities sweep up car parts and occasionally people parts.

There is a town in Holland that has taken out all traffic controls. No lanes, no lights, no signs. It's on a highway so cars come to the town at high speed and then hit chaos. Only it isn't. The accident rates in the town have dropped. Cars slow down, drivers pay attention and everyone seems to work it out.

It's the attention, it's good for us while driving because it will keep us alive better than not paying attention. It's also good for us elsewhere as attention stops the chittering monkey-brain from going into the endless downward spiral of obsession with "negative thoughts" that makes the pharmaceutical industry so profitable.

I have just been reading a translation of one of the foundation texts of my iaido koryu and in it, the founder of the art states that the inner meaning of the art is to attain victory over the three poisons and gain isshin (one mind). In other words, the secret core of iaido, since about 1600, is to attain mushin (no-mind) by paying attention to the practice itself in the same way the monk pays attention while meditating. Sword out, sword in, pay attention.

We know all that right? And we'll get on it just as soon as we take this call.

August 11, 2015

It's the simple things

I am, as they say, somewhat chuffed. The students are in Japan and have been traveling around from dojo to dojo as well as doing some sightseeing. In one of the sparce emails (students are like kids, they figure you aren't interested or already know what they're doing) I was informed that their kihon had passed muster.


Seriously, who cares about the kata, anyone can memorize dance steps, but the kihon are the simple things and those are what make or break a kata. The basics are basic.

Look around on the internet and you'll find lots of videos of kids doing long, involved, "high-level" kata. They are doing them real fast, they are not paying attention to each other, they are just dancing through somewhat interconnected sequences while throwing themselves from imbalance to imbalance. A bit of attention to the basics would fix those problems, providing of course you can get kids to work on the basics. A dose of kihon would make "high-level" into high-level eventually.

So yes, I'm chuffed that the students were approved for their kihon. They work hard at it and appreciate the feeling of moving from one position to another with power and balance. They get other things too. One of them split off from the group (the trip is almost over and they're scattering to the winds) to travel for a day to a seminar in another city. She got there just as the seminar was ending so didn't get to practice. Nevertheless, she apparently got a tremendous clout on the shoulder from one of our sensei along with a big grin. Some folks would not have bothered to go since they'd "miss the seminar" but that's not really the point of these things is it? The point is to be there and see your fellow travellers on the way. You can bet that in the future her efforts to attend at least the post-practice part of the seminar will be remembered.

It's not about the complicated dance steps of two people ignoring each other, it's about the simple connection of person to person. The sort of connection that relies on a solid grasp of the basics. The basics of a martial art, the basic effort toward human connection.

The simple things.

August 8, 2015

Empires or Lineages

Something that gets a bit confused in the world of koryu within federations is the idea of "who owns you". The koryu are pretty well understood by us westerners, your teacher is your teacher. You don't go training with other sensei without permission or being told to go.

What a lot of folks don't understand is that this sort of thing happens with the standard sets as well, with the "seitei". The instruction from the top is that up to 3 dan you can pick and choose things you like from various sensei, you can take this chiburi and that noto from different sensei. But after third dan you need to go with one sensei so that your overall style becomes consistent.

For consistent read recognizable. There's nothing like the comfort of seeing a teacher's style in a challenger so that you know where to slot that student.

That's the lineage stuff. What gets a bit more complicated in the west is the idea of "empire building", of teachers from Japan accumulating students in the west beyond what other teachers may think is a good idea. This isn't spoken of often, and it happens almost always in the seitei side of things (nobody would ever admit to having a problem with a koryu line being large, that would smack of jealousy).

You can see the problem. On the one hand teachers and students are being told to specialize, to concentrate on one teacher to one student, but on the other are being warned of being too focused on one teacher, of building empires.

Do I have a suggestion on this? Not really, most of this problem is beyond my pay grade. I know who my koryu sensei is, and who taught me my seitei. On my own side I don't have enough students for anyone to get concerned about me building empires and I don't worry about who my students study with as far as seitei is concerned, they are welcome to listen to anyone they wish, I'll pass judgment on what they retain when I see them at a grading.

Koryu of course, is koryu and I'm a bit picky about what they learn, but even there I'm not all that concerned with them practicing with other sensei. They are either my student or someone else's I don't mind which, but they will have to choose eventually.

Over the years I've seen lines of practice with a single teacher lose that teacher and lose their way, that's one of the benefits of being in a larger organization (you can pick up another teacher). This is the flipside of that benefit, with multiple teachers you get discussions of empire building and lineages. As a student of the art you need to be aware of this sort of thing so that you don't get upset when you run into it.

The budo aren't quite the same as school, your physics teachers don't usually get concerned with who has how many students in their class. On the other hand, they may get a bit possessive of the good students.

Be one of those students that get fought over.

August 7, 2015

Being in the present.

"Do not drag the mind into the past nor into the future." That's a bit misleading I think, we need to reference the past and anticipate the future in order to continue in the present.

We learn from the past without letting it control us. Yes we found things that work in the past, we may even practice them, but if they do not work in the present we must abandon them or we will ourselves perish. Think about a kata, it is in the past, something you learned, perhaps even something that worked for someone at some time in the past, but if it does not work now it will do more harm than good. Think of a world with half a billion people, we can live well within the limits of growth, we can consume and grow, seemingly forever. Then comes the medical revolution, antibiotics and vaccination and the other benefits of science. Now infant mortality drops and humans multiply to the point where we have shot past the carrying capacity of our world. The old ways of living, the growth fixation (have lots of kids and maybe one of them will look after us when we're old) will lead to a crash. Malthus was right, we should have crashed long ago, were it not for Borlag and the green revolution and oil-based nitrogen fertilizer combined with shorter wheat and higher yields. We dodged a bullet a generation ago, can we rely on some further scientific miracle to save us again so we can continue to grow?

It can't work forever, simply cannot, and with a small amount of thought we can understand this. Populations that outrun the capacity of their environment collapse. We have limits, have always had them, yet when our fundamental belief systems were created those limits were not apparent. What worked for a population counted in the millions cannot work for one in the billions.

So why do the fundamentalist religions continue to advocate large families? Is it ignorance or rejection of science alone? Of course not, in democratic countries with declining birth rates those groups that can breed more voters will acquire more political power. It's a numbers game.

What about the future? A swordsman (forgive the digression above, I am still talking sword) who does not anticipate, who does not live at least partly in the future, will only be able to react. We know that avoiding a sword stroke is impossible if one is not moving as it begins, yet without anticipation we can only react to what is already happening.

The present is not instantaneous, despite what the wise men say, it contains a basis in the past, it sits on a foundation of all that we have learned. The present contains and embraces a timeframe into the future, in a swordfight that timeframe is measured in fractions of a second, too short a time to actually think about moving, but time enough to move. In terms of politics (the policies by which we run our lives through our laws and practices as a group) we must think further down the line. Politicians may think in terms of months (what's going to get me elected) but as a population, as a society, we need to think at least a generation ahead (how will my kids live?) and we need to try to guess even further to the future (what sort of world will my grandkids live in?). It is on that basis that we need to select our governments, not on whether we get some short term benefit from a power-seeking politician. The timeframes for that sort of thing are too short.

We know this sort of thing, my generation will remember the story of the ant and the grasshopper that we watched as kids. We cannot really live "in the moment" and expect to be living in the next moment. Winter is coming.

Yet if we want to be truly free of worry that is where we live, just in the moment. Vote for the candy that you eat today because it tastes good, don't worry about the future, that just causes you to worry (by definition). If you want to be a carefree swordsman stand there and assume that you will come up with some sort of response to the attack that is coming. (Remember, the ant fed the grasshopper through the winter so someone else will take care of you in your old age right?)

If. Only if. You have worried about your future as a swordsman and you have practiced one hundred times, no thousands of times longer than your present sword fight will last, and you now put aside that past worry to clear your mind (your thinking, worrying mind) out of the way, perhaps your body will react, anticipate, and respond correctly.

It is preparation, not belief or wishful thinking (same thing?) that allows things to "just happen". Being told everything is fine and some inner (or outer) power will protect you, and believing it, is a good way to be cut down where you stand.

August 6, 2015

Relative speed

Driving up to the cabin the boy remarked "it seems cold but it's 18 degrees" which prompted a talk about how we notice change rather than that which doesn't change. It's the coolness after getting used to a few hot days that makes 18 cold, not the absolute temperature. That same effect would make 18 positively hot if it was to suddenly appear in the springtime after four months of ice and snow.

It's the difference we feel from what we've been feeling before, not even from our usual body temperature (everything would be cold if it was less than 37 degrees in that case).

So what's fast in a kata? Not the absolute speed of either partner, but the relative speeds of both. I don't have to be super fast to beat you, just faster than you.

Like running fom a bear. You can't outrun a bear. Good thing you don't have to, you just have to outrun your buddy.

You just have to be faster.

August 5, 2015

What happens next

Last night we were practicing jodo kihon and one of the newer students remarked that it seemed to him that he ought to be stepping in to catch the opponent's arms rather than just move sideways.

So of course we pulled out a bokuto and went through the distances step by step. If he were trying to catch me where I stood when about to cut him, then of course he would have to step forward to do that. But how smart is stepping in on a guy with a sword? Instead, he needs to wait until I'm committed to cutting him, in which case I'm the one stepping in and all he has to do is step sideways.

In other words, the important thing is not what's happening now, what distance we are from each other at the moment, but what happens next. This is where kata teach us how to anticipate our opponent's next move, which is essentially the only way one can come out of a conflict of weapon on weapon safely. The tip of a bokuto or a jo can move much too quickly to avoid, let alone see, so we must rely on watching other things, like the body shifts that preceed a strike, or the hands, which are moving much more slowly than the business end of the weapon.

A fellow may be fast enough to avoid a punch, but to avoid a sword strike would be superhuman.

All that is not to say that we don't step forward when we ought to step sideways, and if you find that your move ends up a bit behind yourself (your posture is bent, your balance is on your heels perhaps) you might think about this.

I have often said that every attack contains an opening and I believe this. Even the most perfectly timed and shaped attack will have, at it's end, the goal of striking you. Knowing this means you know exactly where the opponent will be at that moment and knowing that...

Musashi warned that if you can hit him, he can hit you. The opposite is true, if you can catch him just as he begins his attack on you (again, consider the speed problem of trying to respond to an attack that has started) you know what happens next. It's as simple as putting your body in another place and your weapon where the opponent is going to be.

August 5, 2015

Immovable Wisdom

I'm going through a book of writings by Takuan Soho before I get back to trying to go through the Tengu writings. Can't quite muster the concentration for that one, maybe in the winter, which seems to be coming soon since we're in an election campaign and they are never called in the summertime because that just irritates Canadians who have little enough summer to enjoy.

The essential problem, according to Takuan, is that the mind gets caught on something while we need to see it all if we're going to survive a swordfight. Thing is, humans are set up to eliminate input and concentrate on one thing, hence the getting stuck on things. We need to do this or our brains are overwhelmed by the input. This explains our ability to not see the guy in the gorilla suit who moves across our field of vision during psych tests.

The other thing is that most zen types (and Takuan was a zen guy) talk about mindfulness, paying attention to stuff, like drinking my coffee and paying attention to it instead of drinking it and typing. We really don't multitask so put down your phone and pay attention to the road in front of you.

How do we work this out, this paying attention to stuff without getting caught on it? It seems contradictory, and I seem to remember the last time I read Takuan I was a bit put off between fushin and fudoshin, frozen mind and immovable mind.

Serial attention, we don't mulititask, we pay attention to this, then this, then this, which is how we miss the gorilla suit. What's the thing about immovable mind then? And frozen mind? Simply not letting things go. We must move from one attention to another smoothly, it's sort of a relativity thing, the mind must remain immovable in our head as it were, and not get frozen like our tongue to the metal pipe of the last thing we were looking at. (Did I mention winter is here?)

The problem is not concentrating on the task at hand (avoid the sword) but lingering on the last thing we were doing (wow that was close... aaargh). The frozen mind is stuck on some thought or image and can't deal with the change that is approaching. This is the problem with trying to make a kata fit the real world (or an economic theory that has become a religion?) trying to use a screwdriver to hammer a nail is to be fixated on the screwdriver rather than going to get a hammer. The immovable mind is not dragged around by old thoughts or theories, not trying to force the world into a belief system, it is one that moves from present to present and deals with the world as it appears before us. A frozen mind cannot change, an immovable mind simply observes and adapts to change without itself being dragged about by that change.

To "change your mind" is to assume that the mind is fixed in one shape. This is fushin, a frozen mind which might just shatter if it is forced to change so changing your mind is bad. If your mind is immovable, not frozen into a belief system or fixated on a kata or a theory then it can't be said to change. The whole point is that the mind is itself, change, it is meta-change, beyond change because only something which is frozen into a shape can change. Formlessness cannot change, only form can change.

The method of thought called "science" is an example of formlessness, if the evidence, the real world, does not conform to your theory, move along and modify the theory. This is fudoshin. If, on the other hand, you have a belief system passed down to you by your father like some precious jewel, be very careful not to test that belief too strongly, simply ignore what contradicts or that belief system can shatter. That is fushin.

It's actually quite subtle, or it seemed so when I was younger, now it just seems obvious. Move along, as Musashi would say, if you lose your spear draw your sword, if your sword breaks, draw your dagger. Regret about losing your spear will do you no good at all.

August 3, 2015

What's with the kata?

If the ultimate goal of training is to develop an immovable mind, a mind that will come up with techniques at need and not get caught on what the other guy is trying to do or what you are trying to do, why do the old schools have kata?

I love teaching aikido because I get to make up kata on the spur of the moment. What happens if I do this? I dunno, try it, oh, that happens, go practice that. But I didn't learn it that way, I learned it through a series of kata that my teacher taught me. It's just that one day the kata seemed to fall away and now I have trouble remembering them. In fact I have trouble remembering the names of the waza, the movements like kotegaeshi and aiki otoshi and irimi nage.

So why don't I just teach at the spontaneous level and skip all the time-consuming repetitive stuff, the stuff everyone ought to know without me telling them every two weeks. To a large extent I do, I tend to go down the rabbit hole and drag my students with me. I go into long speeches on the history of this or that kata. I explain minute changes in balance and how to invoke them by breathing in or out while near your opponent.

And the beginners go glassy eyed. Sometimes the seniors have a (not so) quiet word about asking people to do things they haven't a clue how to do.

Now I'm not claiming to be anything special, just some guy who thinks he's starting to understand what the old guys wrote about in books. Not like I understood it as a beginner, but maybe now I'm getting a few glimpses about what they were actually saying.

Which means I'm almost happy when grading time comes around in aikido class and I have to teach the kata that the students need for their test. It's why I tend to concentrate on the kihon in the koryu stick and sword schools I teach. There I can go with the students on a little journey down a small rabbit hole and show them a lovely thing without them getting too lost.

It's also why I am not fond of a long kata, one where I have to even flicker toward thinking about the next move. That distraction is an irritation.

That's it actually, "enlightened" teachers and beginners need kata. They need that irritation like an oyster needs a bit of sand to make a pearl. Not that a pearl ever did any good for the oyster but never mind that, it's a metaphore. What I'm saying is that in order to get to Ri you need the kata of Shu. The Shu stage of Shu Ha Ri is the kata stage. The Ha stage is where you start breaking up the kata into their bits and pieces and say things like "I dunno, try it" and come up with some sort of interesting combination of those pieces (waza). The Ri stage? That's where you leave it all behind and forget the kata, forget the waza, forget the name of your school and simply deal with whatever there is to deal with. You go from knowing nothing through knowledge to knowing nothing.

Which is something I knew as a beginner, you start with a white belt, it gets black (grubby with use) and then white again (black threads wear off with use). I knew that, but somehow forgot it during all my learning and now that I'm old and forgetting things, I'm starting to remember that I don't know any more than I did as a beginner. The sickness of learning is starting to fall away as my brain and body start to fail and I can no longer amaze myself with my physical technique. (Is physique the result of physical technique?)

August 1, 2015

The keys to the dojo

How do you pass your school along? I don't mean the art, you do that all the time that you are teaching students, I mean the school itself.

First, we can talk about the school as a whole, then we can talk about the single dojo.

The school as a whole.

Ever wonder why there are so many headmasters out there, so many lines of practice in the same art? One of the big reasons, if you believe what the students write, is that the former headmaster makes a big mistake and names some guy who isn't the best technician of the art. Of course that best technician is the guy at the head of the student's line, that's a given.

Here's the problem, by saying that the old teacher made a mistake those students are insulting their own teacher (who taught him? a fool?) and are second guessing based on their own limited experience. In other words, what those students understand is technique, what they base their judgement on is technique. They want to be taught the best by the best, so their teacher is (rightly or wrongly) the best ... by necessity.

Is technique the defining characteristic of an art? Debate that as you wish. Is technique the sole basis for naming the next headmaster? Absolutely not. Sure the next head should be good at what he does, sure he ought to be able to teach, but in a largish school with several good teachers what you really need is someone who can keep it all together, someone who can walk the middle road between fellow students. Students with a common teacher have no trouble staying together, teacher bangs heads together when needed and everyone accepts this as correct. Students without that common teacher tend to fly away with no common center of gravity to bring heads together forcefully. The named successor needs to be a bunch of strings, stretchy strings, that keep the rest of the folks somewhere in the neighbourhood because you can't make an equal a superior by a piece of paper. You don't try to make someone a new teacher for all the fellow students, you try to find someone the rest of them will respect and help to run the art. That fellow may very often be bookish, he may be non-confrontational, non-aggressive. He may be someone who doesn't innovate, but instead keeps his teacher's art close to his own practice. All this may add up to someone who doesn't appear to be "the best" technician.

You know, I've talked to several folks who are "the head" of their line as identified by their students. Those heads very rarely claim anything but a teacher who had a teacher and I have never heard any of them badmouth any of the other teachers in their art. Have opinions on how to do this or that, absolutely yes, but to say "he can't do it", never. Every person in all previous generations was a giant who didn't need stairs to the second floor of his house. It's the students who need giants, teachers have fellow students and giants who taught them. This is right and correct.

You name the next successor to a school on the basis of whoever you figure is best to carry it on. If that's the "last man standing" (no more students left) then it's an easy choice. If there are several students of the same vintage it gets a bit more tricky, especially if you've got a great technician who's a bit of a dick.

The individual dojo

The idea of the last man standing is much easier to see in a dojo situation, whether it's a building or a set of people practicing. With few folks practicing in a single location under a single teacher the line is very clear and there's usually a senior student by the time sensei retires. That guy gets the dojo, either by being named (maybe deeded the building) or simply by stepping into the role of head teacher (a role he may have had for years as sensei declined in health). Any folks who don't agree with the situation will probably have left long ago or will leave when sensei is gone. That's fine, no hard feelings there, when sensei retires or dies the students may choose a new teacher or go out on their own. It has to be that way to prevent internal stresses.

A teacher is a teacher, students come and go, the last, most senior guy tends to get the nod when the school is passed along. If there are several candidates the choice comes down to the best man for the job, whether or not he's the best technician.

Multiple heads

In the best interests of the school a headmaster might also address a multiple bank of candidates by making all of them "headmasters" so that they can split up and go their own ways without conflict. This is actually the old way of doing things, the budo was never a franchise system as some arts were, the martial arts were localized by legislation and that system continues informally today. When an art gets popular it splits into multiple lines. No big deal with most senior teachers, huge deal for the students of course.

At the dojo level this may also happen, sensei may suggest to some of the senior students that they go out and start their own clubs as they get to that stage and start stretching their legs but show no indication of leaving on their own. In that way sensei can prepare the way for a single student to be around when it's time to retire.

In my case the answer will be of the "easy way" I suspect. I plan to be around forever and probably won't have any succession plan in place. Whatever students are around when I'm gone will figure it out themselves, I don't teach kids so it won't be a problem. The adults will work it out won't they?

July 31, 2015

Off to Japan

The students leave today for Japan. Very exciting for them, they have a couple of weeks planned out to travel together and train, then they split up and go their separate ways.

The trip is the first for most of them, but they have places to stay, people to meet and practices to attend. That's the social aspect of the martial arts, the ability to find common ground no matter where you drift. I remember reading something years ago about how the Japanese exist in interlocking bubbles of connection, the job bubble, the martial arts bubble, the family bubble. It's not a Japanese thing, we all live in these bubbles, some overlap, some isolated. With an overlap it can get quite interesting, as when a martial arts teacher has a boss from another circle as a student.

I also remember reading how the internet has shrunk the entire world down to a village. Again, nothing really new there, we have always had ways to communicate with folks across the globe, the internet is just faster, not more far-reaching.

The kids are going with backpacks, borrowed weapons and that enthusiasm of youth that I remember well. I hope they end up sleeping on park benches at least once, maybe a beach too. There's nothing like a spot of difficulty to build those stories they will tell their own students in twenty years.

An adventure is someone else having a hard time somewhere else. I wish them "interesting times".

July 28, 2015

Running with knives

Thinking about dueling inevitably brings out the question of using sharp swords for practice. One of my favourite sayings from many years ago is "Toy swords make toy swordsmen". My answer was always "Real swords make massive lawsuits". Not to mention the also real danger of being shot by police. A fellow who does jodo with me was swinging his stick around in his parking lot and was descended upon by the police. This is in sleepy Guelph, where there are enough police and few enough problems that you could really get descended upon. Imagine if that had been a real sword.

Best to do this stuff in full funny dress, with wooden swords, and well away from any bears, er, mothers with cubs, er, children around. The full dress makes it clear you're just a harmless martial arts nerd and being away from mom-eyes means you're less likely to get reported in the first place. In an era where parents get reported by other parents for letting their kids walk to school, imagine what seeing a real sword on the street would inspire.

Think I'm over-reacting? How about no stick at all? I was recently told about a karate guy who hopped out of his truck and did a kata while waiting for a delivery. Again, reported and descended upon. If he'd been in his white pajamas it might not have been a problem, he would have been a martial arts nerd and not have some potential mental illness (which, in the absence of any other possible responders, inevitably requires an armed police response).

Folks say that practicing with sharps is a different thing than with a dull blade. It can be, if you don't practice with your wooden blade as if it's sharp. I was taught to use my imagination and treat a bokuto like a shinken and to this day I get very angry if someone touches me accidentally with their bokuto. I also get very angry at students who jerk their swords away and yell "shinken-des!" at me if I move to adjust their hands. Really? You think I'm an idiot? Why are you in front of me then? If I want to touch your sword I'll look at it or I'll ask you if it's sharp, otherwise treat it like it's a bokuto that you treat like a sharp sword. Keep it still until I move it where I want it to be.

I actually have to suppress an urge to attack when some student starts jerking their sword around to avoid cutting me. You swing a sharp thing near me and I figure I ought to defend myself. Imagine if I had a gun on my hip or an assault rifle handy in my car. Be still and don't provoke.

OK so from that you know I mess around with real swords. Actually I started my iaido with a wall-hanger that snapped in half and then a shinken which I used for years until I got a proper iaito so I'm aware of the benefits of a real sword (you're careful) and the disadvantages (you're careful). Working with and around sharps doesn't worry me much, let's face it, very few people are ever injured in the martial arts, far fewer than are in the safe sports like basketball or football. What does bother me is talking about using shinken.

Joe public doesn't need to know there are real swords around, they don't need to know you use them and they sure as blazes don't need to see them on the street. I don't care if it's legal to carry them around in this country, and neither do the police. There are not enough of us to make a political difference (unlike gun owners) so legislators will make shinken illegal in a heartbeat in the cause of getting re-elected on the law and order platform.

If you must use a shinken to be serious about your practice, make it even more esoteric, pretend it's illegal, keep it invisible and stop talking about it. For your personal safety (what better justification to shoot someone could there be than "he's got a sword, stand back and hand me my AR15") and for the benefit of all of us who would like to at least keep using our wooden weapons which would be the next to be outlawed (hey, you can kill someone with a stick you know). Remember that one of the favourite statements of the gun lobby is "knives kill people too, why not ban knives". Why not indeed. I wince every time I hear that because the trouble is, knives can be banned and often are. The gun lobby ought to be silent on that point, knives would be the slippery slope, once those dangerous things are banned the authorities might just go on to the less dangerous things like guns.

Because you can never go too far in protecting the public when an election is just around the corner and the public can be scared into voting for you.

July 25, 2015

Stick-fighting and dueling

Singlestick, cudgeling, canefighting, whatever you call it... the western groups are as concerned with separating the various forms of smacking each other with sticks as we Japanese types are of separating and tracing the history of our bokuto schools.

Last weekend we were doing a bit of generalized cane fighting based on not much in specific, just some blocking practice in order to give ourselves a bit of reaction time work, some practice at reading the partner. Yes we're supposed to do kendo for that, but putting on bogu is a bit of a pain, and any bogu I ever owned was passed along years ago.

As for doing some practice with bokuto, too heavy to pull the hits for students who have been taught to hit heavy. I don't want to reverse a couple years worth of instruction by telling them to control their swing, I want that bokuto to keep whizzing past my ear when I receive a kata.

So we did something that was new and unusual, something where it's natural to control the swings which are unfamiliar anyway. Eventually I'd like to get to a point just short of dueling so that we have a quick and easy freestyle practice handy for when we need it.

What you say? Dueling is too dangerous because it has no rules and always goes to the death? I have found some things I wrote on dueling a few years ago, so here they are for your amusement.

Isn't dueling done for?

You don't need to look "back in the day", dueling continues to this day in the German University Fraternities, and if you do a google search on Chris Amberger or Mensur you may come up on some of his writings about it. He published a great journal called Hammerterz Forum for several years that dealt extensively with dueling.

As you will learn from Chris, duels are highly rules bound, and always have been regardless of our ideas about them. They are much different from a chance scuffle in a back alleyway with a robber for instance, or from a fight on a battlefield.

Duels rarely went "to the death" so the dueling math that says one dies or both die therefore there's a 2:1 chance of death isn't realistic. Duels, as I mentioned are full of rules and the vast majority would have been to something less than a result where the victor would be in jail for years. For instance, you would not be matching unequal weapons in a duel. You would not be matching a weapon against a weaponless art.

Luck in duels?

If we go to "scuffles in the back alleyway" we're not talking about skill vs skill and a "fair fight", there we're talking about overwhelming force. After all, who would give someone a chance if they're out to kill or rob them? For the assassination you do it with a knife or bullet in the back and when you rob someone you do it with a superior weapon.

I suppose dueling is to match skill while the back alley stuff is about luck. If you are concerned about that, you might also start to think about differential size as well as skill, so look to weight classes and the other mechanisms of fair play in sport to decide how much luck figures into the equation.

Is dueling sport?

We can talk about the difference between sport (kendo) vs sharp swords (dueling) but again, when would you get the situation where you have a massive differential in skill level with sharps? You'd have two people who were more or less matched in skill and thus presumably matched in their comfort with facing a sharp sword. If you didn't it would be, and was, called murder rather than a duel. I suppose one could go to the intent, if it's to satisfy honour or to test one's mettle then it's a duel, if it's just for fun it's sport?

Somewhere I think I have an old Kendo Nihon with an interesting story about a couple of students from Danzaki Tomoaki sensei's dojo who decided to go out behind the dojo and have a real match. Interesting things were said regarding the fine motor skills and what happens to them (not so fine). It's not a matter of one being scared and the other being skilled, there's a rough equality of terror. There were also accounts of various duels in the issues of Hammerterz Forum as well, and the judicial results of same.

So when I say I want to do some cane fighting just short of a duel, I mean I want to get the reactions up and the blood pumping and a serious attitude of paying attention in a more random situation than a kata.

July 22, 2015

The Tengu amongst the cedars

I'm reading the Reinhard Kammer Tengu Geijutsu Ron written by Chozan Shissai in 1729. That twice-translated book of a fellow who goes up to the mountains and listens to the tengu talking in the tops of the cedars. I happen to be amongst my own cedars in my log cabin of cedar with my dojo above my head with floors of red pine (same as Namitome sensei's dojo in Fukuoka but a lot less dents). I'm not going to sit amongst the cedars outside until late fall after a frost kills off the mosquitos, blackflies, deerflies and horseflies, but I can sit on the upstairs deck and look at the tops of some trees close by.

In all of this budo loveliness you'd think I'd get some sudden enlightenment or at least hear some secrets whispered in my ear. Instead all I've got is a sore shoulder from staining railings well overhead and a sore back from who knows what. Well the back and the shoulder didn't benefit from the tanjo practice we did yesterday I suppose. Still, nothing whispered into my shell-like ear.

I'm half way into the book, after the introduction by the English translator and then the introduction by Kammer and the introduction by Kanda Hakuryushi and then the initial statements by the lesser tengu and some of the comment by the head tengu. What I've discovered so far is that I'm probably better off not having secrets told to me. In fact I'm better off having neither secrets nor zen buddhist teachings, as the philosophy of the day in 1729 was neo-confucianism which emphasized getting along in society rather than getting off the wheel of reincarnation.

In the interest of starting my analysis of this book which needs some careful attention and perhaps a few less beers while reading it, I am going to try to explain why I ought to hope nothing whispers to me out of the trees.

First some terms. In the book we have the principle (ri) which is at the core of the form/technique (waza). This principle is universal, think Platonic ideal. Next we have the life force (ki) through which all things happen (including the performance of the waza). Guiding, swimming in, the life force is the heart (I dunno, didn't catch it, maybe kokoro?). Alongside these we have consciousness (no idea, I obviously need to go back to the introduction with a notebook in hand) which is something you don't want as it is the chittering monkey of reason which just gets in the way. Now that I think of it, consciousness is what makes it hard for me to understand this book so far, I read ri or ki and figure I know what they mean, of course I don't, not the meaning that the author gives them, I last read this book twenty years ago and there's no way I remember the specifics. As these arguments are given by the various tengu there is also a drifting of thoughts to other things, like maybe I ought to be putting a handrail on the front steps, or replacing the back steps, or coating the logs or getting the students up the stairs for another practice or... Stupid Monkey.

The heart is what we use to guide our chunk of the life force. The heart can go bad, although it is originally good. The heart can be influenced. The heart is like a fish swimming in the sea of life force. The meaning of fish swimming in the sea? That's the principle I suppose, but I'm pushing the metaphor beyond what is given. We're ultimately looking for the principle but we don't want to be told what it is, that gives us a shallow, consciousness type understanding that is more harm than good. We must find the principle through the form, the technique of our swordsmanship.

That's the setup, we acquire a deeper and more vigorous life force through practice of the techniques. This deeper life force gives room for the heart to move freely and calmly. With enough practice we eventually come to realize the principle.

The implication is that a teacher does not give the secrets (the principle) to the student, he gives the techniques and the occasional nudge and the student discovers the principles through perseverance. Last night I thought "spoiled student" as one of them said "I don't know how do do that" and pouted a bit, expecting me to explain as I usually do. Of course, being a sway-with-the-wind sort of person who is reading this book I replied "I tell you what to do, you go figure out how". Then, realizing that wasn't the meaning of the book, I pointed to the heavy bag in the corner and gave an exercise to develop what I wanted to see.

At any rate, principle isn't something to be read about and memorized for the 8dan test. "Sensei I need kigurai for the next exam, how do I do that?" Well Johnny, kigurai is that which becomes apparent through long practice so what do you think? "Umm, I should walk very straight and stick my chest out?" Aaargh, come here and I'll show you something by not cracking you over the head with my bokuto.

In all of this heart / life force / form / principle chain it occurs to me that there is no place for the body. The authors (introductions and main text) mention some students who are talented and will get it sooner, and they also mention those who practice a killing sword, all life force, heart and no technique or principle who just go straight in and using their superior strength or size, just cut down the opponent. So body is in there somewhere, and I suggest that it will be in the form. The technique is no more fixed and eternal than the life force or the heart (the principle is universal) so here is where the broken-down old bodies of folks like me fit in. The technique must fit the person, or it isn't really a technique, it's just an impossible shape. Technique must have effectiveness in swordsmanship or it is just so much waving the stick around, therefore it must take into account the physical capabilities of the swordsman. If your arms don't go above your head, a technique from above your head will simply be a way of getting off this cycle of birth and death.

The principle is, but without physical reality. The form gives the principle reality, and through this form the principle is revealed to the student. The form is created anew each time by means of the heart acting through the life force.

Too much heart and consciousness arises, too much technique and the heart / life force is strangled. Too much concern with winning and losing clouds the heart and strangles the life force. The proper chain of events must be preserved for understanding of the principle to arise. Consciousness must be supressed in order for the heart and life force to remain unmoved.

Or at least that's where I am at the moment, just after making a loaf full of raisin-french-toast for the students and another pot of coffee.

Not a bad start to the day which promises rain and therefore prevents all this painting that is causing consciousness to arise.

July 19, 2015

Development and change in koryu

Here are the final four papers that I have tucked away from going through the Research Journal of Budo. I give them all here as they are all concerned with the history of the budo schools. Two are from the start of the koryu and two from the start of kendo.


Research Journal of Budo Vol. 19 (1986-1987) No. 3 p. 1-7

A Study of the Tradition of the Toda School of Swordsmanship

1) Nihon Bunka College

Kazuo OKADA 1)

About the era of Oei (A. D.1400) Chujo Hyogonosuke Nagahide started the Chujo school of swardsmanship, introducing the doctrine of the Zen sect by Jion, a Zen priest into it. Later it prevailed widely in the province of Echizen (now it is Fukui Prefecture), where lived the Toda Family, from whose descendants appeared a large number of masters and experts in succession, as the result of which, the Chujo was called the Toda school before everyone knew it. The founder of the Toda school was Nagaiye, whose son Kageiye succeeded to him and his three sons, Satoiye, Seigen and Kagemasa handed down the secret of the art. It was especially to Shigemasa who was the adopted son of Kagemasa that the authority of this family reached the climax. I have tried to consider in this monograph the details of the tradition which flourished from the Chujo to the Toda school with the help of documents in connection with the same school.


From Nen Ryu to Chujo Ryu to Toda Ryu and from there to the Itto and eventually Kendo. There is a continuous line from the Zen monk Jion to modern day kendo which would seem to include a zen component from the very beginning. We often look for discontinuities and assume that if a thing has a different name it is a different thing. While this is often the case, sometimes what we are looking at is a gradual change rather than a "new thing". This is the oldest of the lines mentioned here.



Yoshiaki TODO, Takashi NIIDE

One of the characteristic culture of Budo is to exist of many schools in Budo. As the conditions of a school formation in Budo. S. Nakabayashi pointed out

(1) A founder is born and discoverd a trick,
(2)A trick is arranged
(3) Arrange of instruction.

But there hasn't been illustrated on the point of the conditions of a school formation in Jujutsu, yet. And so we considered the conditions of a school formation in Takenouchi-Ryu-Jujutsu being the first appearance in Jujutsu. The results were as follows:

1) Hisamori Takeuchi, a founder of Takenouchi-Ryu-Jujutsu was the head of a family and went on knight errantry in order to himself. At last he founded Takenouchi-Ryu-Jujutsu in 1532.
2) The second established a Law, Keeping a trick from another and making a courtesy with pupils. He made HEIHO-KA and lectured pupils preparation for battle according with Zen.
3) The third invented the system of promotion, for example from entrance to be up to Tassha, Mokuroku, Zirou, Menkyo and Inka. He instructed the trainer KATA from easy to difficult in accordance with the system of promotion.


We move from 1400 to 1532 in this paper and the oldest school of jujutsu. Probably not the oldest, but perhaps the oldest recorded, or the oldest continuing or... Old being good of course. The important point here is an attempt to apply a set of conditions on the origin of a school of budo. First, the founder of a school must discover a trick. It need not be a new one, but it needs to be distinctive or the other parts won't happen. Next, the founder must arrange this (these) trick into a curriculum. Finally, and this is the part where all these modern budo seem to fall down, this system must be passed along to students in such a way that they will then pass it along to further students. Without this last part you have a good teacher perhaps, but no school.

Note that from the very beginning, the founder of the Takenouchi school established a system of grading which was based on his system of instruction in kata from easy to difficult. We continue this system today in many schools in some form or another. In the kendo federation we have many koryu students who study their art with no specific grading in that art. Nevertheless, these students participate in a grading system using standardized kata derived from the koryu. Of these students, many are taught the koryu only after reaching a certain grade in the standardized system.

It is difficult to avoid some sort of grading system if one wants a school to be passed along in a systematic and faithful way. One can't rely strictly on the integrity of all students in all generations to transmit things faithfully. Gradings of any sort, be they academic, administrative or physical, are simply checks on knowledge acquired. No more or less mysterious than that.


BAMBOO SWORD MATCH-Analysis of Shinto-munen-ryu Kenjutsu Kokoroe-gaki-

Susumu NAGAO

Shiai-kenjutsu or bamboo sword match with protective gear (Bogu) was created and developed by the Jikishinkage-ryu school in the early eighteenth century with the purpose of improving Kenjutsu (Japanese fencing) which had lost opportunities for actual contact. Today's Kendo has its origin in this match.

A recent study (Yoshio Kobayashi et al.1993) maintains that the Hokushin-itto-ryu school built its theory of bamboo sword match between the Koka and the Kaei era (1844-1853). However, no report has been made which clarified the features of other Kenjutsu schools using bamboo swords and protective gear before that period. Shinto-munen-ryu Kenjutsu Kokoroe-gaki, owned by National Diet Library, was written by Muto Shichinosuke, a master of Shinto-munen-ryu in Sukekawa Village (present-day Hitachi City, Ibaraki Prefecture), who was active in the Tenpo era (1830-1843). It describes the features of other seven Kenjutsu schools: protective gear, bamboo swords, postures, techniques, tactics and the customs to deal with them. The main points of this manuscript are summarized as follows:

Prior to the Koka era, each of the Kenjutsu schools had original postures, techniques and tactics. For exemple,
1. Itto-ryu: a fencer mainly thrusts at the opponent's chest and face from the Lower posture (Gedan).
2. Jikishinkage-ryu: a fencer strikes his opponent's head gear and gloves with both hand constantly from the Upper posture (Jodan).
3. Kyoshin-meichi-ryu: a fencer principally makes one hand strikes constantly from the Upper posture while putting his left foot forward.
4. Ryugo-ryu: a fencer strikes his opponent's whole body, especially the legs.

Protective gear (Bogu) were not the same among the schools. Head gear (Men) and gloves (Kote) were worn in common, but body-protecters (Take-gusoku or Do) were not because body-protecters were primitive in those days and some schools assumed that it could hinder the movement of a fencer.


Protective equipment was used in the early 1700s to allow contact matches since the deaths and injury of matches by bokuto or shinken were causing problems and that type of dueling was outlawed. This paper examines a document from a hundred years later which outlines the ways in which shinai-kendo varied from school to school at this time. The standardization of kendo was a generation or two away. What I find amusing is that the itto ryu, known for its overhead strikes was described as doing mainly thrusts. The Jikishinkage ryu seemed to aim for the headgear and gloves, which might reflect its familiarity with the equipment (why damage training partners? Aim for the pads.)

The Kyoshin Meichi Ryu seemed to like striking from a distance, a one handed strike with the left hand while stepping forward with the left foot would give at least ten feet more reach.

The Ryugo Ryu fencers seemed to like going for unprotected areas, perhaps this is why the school isn't around any longer? Enough welts on the leg and the students might be heading for the other schools.


A STUDY ON THE “DENSHO-RUI” AND THE ACTUAL AWARDING CONDITION OF IT IN SEKIGUCHI-RYU OF TAKEDA FAMILY-Focusing on the classification of the “densho-rui”and the awarding system of the school-

Tetsuya WADA

Sekiguchi-ryu of Takeda family was a kenjyutsu-school transmitted in the Yoshino-river area in the province of Awa. In this school “taryu-jiai” was practiced vigorously with the new training method, “shinai-uchikomi-geiko”, in the latter period of Edo era. Almost all of the “densho-rui”, the traditional writings, of the Sekiguchi-school are owned by the descendants now. There were many martial arts schools whose “densho-rui” have been lost by now, so the Sekiguchi-school seems to be a quite important case for us to know the whole “densho-rui” of martial arts school.

In this paper I intended to clarify the kind of “densho-rui”, their awarding order, and the relation berween the new training method and the traditional awarding order of the Sekiguchi school during the period of shifting from the old training method to the new one. The results can be summarized as follows:

(1) The number of the kind of “densho-rui” in this school which are confirmed by now is about fifty. Among these, eleven kinds of “denjyu-jyo” and “sho-jyo” which were from “Sekigwchi-ryu-hachikajyo”to “Injyu”, formed the traditional awarding order of this school, and were transmitted orderly to the disciples.
(2) Six Kinds of “senkyo-jyo” were “sho-jyo” to recognize the six classes of this school which were established at the end of the 18th century. The skillfullness of the technique of the new training method regarded considerably important object to recognize the classes.
(3) The traditional awarding order of the Sekiguchi-school was not changed or abolished after the establishment of the six classes. Nevertheless the significance of the traditional “waza” and awarding order based on it disapeared gradually.
(4) “Toritate-seido” of the Sekiguchi-school was a characteristic form to instruct the disciples and to operate the martial arts school, and had a kind of character of “iemoto-seido”. “Toritate-seido” had been made because the new training method came to be practiced mainly in the Sekiguchi-school.


Finally, we have a paper which examines the awarding of grades in a koryu. At first they were awarded for kata but gradually this relationship to kata faded away, while the grade ranks remained. The focus of a school can change over time but some things remain constant, resistant to any change. Grading systems would be one of them, the next generation would want the same paper that the old guys have.

July 17, 2015

Seminar Report

This past weekend was the Bill Mears 10 year memorial seminar in St. Catherines. This was a one day event which, for those who didn't make it, went as follows. First a memorial service for Bill, then warmups, followed by seitei gata for the rest of the morning. In the afternoon we did koryu, splitting into two groups, shinden and jikiden.

The morning class was as one would expect, but we had enough instructors to split into five groups so everyone got grade-specific instruction. I had the shodan group and tried to jump them over nidan by asking them to loosen up the hands and shoulders and focus instead on the hips. Never too early to start relaxing the hands apparently, as my student told me that my hands were too tense during my demonstration at the end of the day. Haven't improved a bit since my 6dan test it seems.

Bill would laugh.

Koryu in the afternoon was taught by Ohmi sensei and Cruise sensei. I shooed my student over to the shinden class so that she could get some experience for the day she begins to sit on panels. I'm not too worried that any student of mine would be dogmatic about style as we tend to do a lot of different arts and play with some different styles for each. However, watching me demonstrate is different than having instruction from a sensei in that tradition so I like to see my students stretch their experience when they can handle it. Some people never get to that stage, as we discussed in the after-seminar dinner.

Ohmi sensei began his Jikiden class with a discussion of the various styles that exist in our kendo organization. I was amused to hear him tell everyone that my style wasn't his style. Now whose fault is that? I learned his style for a few years but then he began shifting my style toward that of Haruna sensei so that I eventually became the 'orrible mess I am now. Funny thing is, what he created suits me just fine and I have no complaints. Sensei explained some of his history to the class, the lineage to the Shumpukai in Osaka where he learned, and the lineage of Haruna sensei which is now the main influence on our local Jikiden. Along the way he mentioned the other influences.

Of course, just to make sure nobody got the wrong idea he then pointed out that we all have our sensei and that we had better do what sensei tells us to do until at least the equivalent of our kendo federation 4dan grade. Once we get toward 5dan we can start thinking about our own iai.

One thing he mentioned was the tendency of some sensei, some of them quite senior, to simply "act". I have heard the same thing from a hanshi who called certain movements "over-acting" and the idea fit quite nicely with a thought of my own while watching the opening ceremonies of the Pan Am games, as well as watching two "sports" shows at the bar last night. One was some Japanese game-show inspired "ninja contest" and another was a UFC fight. My thought was "my sports are not entertainment".

We went through Omori Ryu and discussed those things that are distinctive from seitei gata and those things that should be the same, the latter mostly mechanics and feeling. Speaking of seitei and koryu, one of our senior sensei just spent a month in Japan after being away for several decades. He noticed a pronounced drift of his koryu toward the style of seitei, not so much to lament the changes but in surprise that something that was originally seen as some sort of necessary bit of extra stuff had, through the grading and tournament systems, become central to the practice.

All in all I get the feeling that we here in Canada aren't too worried about moving our koryu toward seitei, we don't have the same focus on tournaments. Grading, while much more common than tournaments, is still only a maximum of twice yearly. We have the luxury of time to work on the koryu. (And of course there's none so Scots as the Scots abroad. We overseas folk are pretty conservative with our budo.)

Bill Mears would have approved. He hated tournaments and barely tolerated gradings as a necessary evil. He was a traditionalist and his nickname was "The Hard Bastard". I suspect this came partly from his insistance on proper iai (including etiquette), but also on his days as a biker in England. It was those days of riding hard-sprung motorcycles over poorly-paved road that did in his back. Bill had back problems, mostly he had too much back I think. He was a pain in my neck from me looking up at him.

One of his students asked me for a story about Bill so here it is. During one of his stays in hospital to get his back worked on he told me he had been visited by the tengu. Well actually he told me he was high on morphine for the pain and before he went under for the surgery he worked out an entire new school of iai. Unfortunately he didn't get it written down and could only remember part of one kata which was called "Ebi no Ashi". During this kata one poked repeatedly at the feet of one's opponent as if trying to skewer all the feet of a shrimp.

A lovely man, Canadian iaido wouldn't be where it is without him and it would be a lot further forward if he was still with us. I miss him.

July 16, 2015

The Techniques of change

We tend to think that what we know is how it has always been. This isn't true, as they say, the only constant in the universe is change. And perhaps the speed of light for the physicists out there.


Research Journal of Budo Vol. 21 (1988-1989) No. 3 p. 41-48


Koichi HASEGAWA 1)
1) Aizu Junior College

There is an old saying in Kendo that states: “First, the eyes; sencondly, the feet; thirdly, courage; and fourthly, strength. ”Thus, stance and footwork are the very fundamentals in Kendo. Since the standard of stance has been changed with time, it is difficult to give a definition of the correct stance. Therefore, the historical changes in length and width of the stance, especially in the chuudan basic position (Chuudan no Kamae) during Meiji and Taisho eras, have brought to a focus in the present paper. The results are as follows:

1) The length of a step in natural walking, namely about twice of foot length, is taken as a standard of stance in Kenjyutsu from the end of Edo era to the beginning of Meiji era.
2) In the latter half of Meiji era, a tendency toward a shorter stence is in evidence, because of setting a standard form of Kenjyutsu (Kenjyutsu-Kata) and movement of changes toward the both hands sword method in the army.
3) The army adopted the both hands sword method in the fourth year of Taisho era. Then, the length of stance came shorter approximately to one and a half of foot length in police, army and school.
4) As a result that both players stand face to face with their back straight, they are supposed to move forward and backward quickly both in offense and defense. And such a kind of techniques with quick motion came to be prevalent in Kendo.


If we say that the stance shortened from the Edo to the modern period, that would give us a lovely point of discussion to try and find the differences between kendo and kenjutsu. But half a foot length? I'm not sure that would be due to any technique changes rather than an emphasis on faster technique execution. The authors do speak of the army going to a two handed sword style and this would be from the one handed sword they purchased in quantity from the west. The Japanese army went to, if I remember correctly, the french sword style for the army, lots of moulinettes (circular movements of the sword) then moved back to a more linear style (lift straight up as per kendo rather than circle it over) but retained the one handed sword since they had plenty in the armouries. Finally they went back to the katana style sword. In all this I could see the stance being wider during the one handed era than both before and after.

Regardless, the point is that techniques have changed even from the Meiji to the present day. Granted that's very close to 150 years but for those who believe things never change (those who have been in the arts for less than a decade perhaps) this could come as a surprise. We have had photography for a little bit longer than that 150 years, so an examination of old photos ought to yield some interesting finds for those who want to spend some time on the net. Prior to that time all we have are scattered writings that usually did not include detailed descriptions of techniques.

Thus we really can't say much about what the founder of an art was actually doing four hundred years ago when he invented the art. So we probably should not.

To this point. I have been reading a textbook of my iaido koryu from a teacher in another line. This book is not illustrated, but contains quite readable descriptions which I read and went through in my head quite carefully. It was after I read these that I saw video of the lineage concerned and I must say that I was somewhat surprised at the exaggerated way in which they performed the points of difference I read in the book. Reading truly is not the same as seeing, even if, perhaps especially if, one fills in the visuals from one's own style while reading about another.

On further investigation of the same lineage I noted that there was a broad range of style from the exaggerated version I mentioned, to versions that were much closer to my own lineage. The variation within the same line of practice was quite large, even though they all must have had the same root a generation or two before. Having recently been involved in a discussion of the supposed variations done by several instructors in the same club, I am tempted to show the concerned students these videos just to watch them fall over in shock.

Half a foot length is perhaps not something I would say was a notable change in stance. One vs two handed swords and techniques on the other hand would be something of significance.

Underlying this physical variation are the principles of the sword art concerned, and it is these that one can see uniting the various styles of the iai lineage I mentioned. It is these principles that are also represented in the textbook, and you can see through the various shapes of cut and timings to a unified theory. This next paper discusses one of these theoretical points.


Research Journal of Budo Vol. 16 (1984) No. 2 p. 1-7

Examination of “Ma” in Kendo

Mamoru TANAKA 1)

“Ma” is a concept which covers all regions of traditional culture of Japan, and is one of the important concepts called “riai”, which is relevant to all the techniques of kendo; that is, the techniques which are made in the interactions with the opponent, are all considered to be related with “ma”. “ Ma” in kendo is generally explained as a distance to the opponent and a timing of hitting or thrusting. The definition of this concept is, however, given quite intuitively and vaguely, and furthermore, this concept is interpreted in many ways and therefore is a “riai” which is difficult to understand readily.

Thus, this paper is intended to examine mainly the concepts of “ma” which are found in the books of kenjutsu in the Kinsei period, and to clarify the inherent significance, characteristics, essentials, and so forth. Moreover, we try to examine the change of the understanding of “ma” in relation to the change of techniques by comparing the notions of “ma” which are found in the books of kendo of today with those of earlier periods.


And that is the extent of the abstract. It is unfortunate that the author did not include further descriptions or his conclusions in the abstract. Doubtless some kind soul will soon translate this paper for idly curious fellows such as myself. Or beter yet, translate the books upon which the paper relies for its data.

Having little realistic hope of any of that, I put this reference out there for those who wish to read it themselves.

July 10, 2015

The Unity of Kenjutsu

We recently looked at a timetable of the developent of kendo which had five phases. I considered these phases in the light of how they affected the koryu and mentioned the role of the government and the military expansion of Japan on the diversity of those koryu. This paper addresses the development of a "unified" kenjutsu (kendo).


Research Journal of Budo Vol. 13 (1980-1981) No. 3 p. 10-18

The Teaching Method of Modern Budo Military Arts: A Study on the Process of its Establishment (2): On Unified Style

1) Hukusima University

Since the inauguration of the modern educational system, bujutsuka military artists out of office demanded that budo military arts be put in the regular curriculums. To this, Ministry of Education and scholars on physical education argued that budo military arts was inappropriate for regular curriculum. They pointed out that budo military arts could be dangerous and that it lacked the unity of instruction program and of teaching method. They admitted, however, that it could be given as an extra curricular activity to male students who were fifteen years of age or older.

To overcome the argument of the Education Ministry, bujutsuka military artists tried to establish “unified style to be taught in the regular curriculums” by unifying tens of, hundreds of schools. In other words, they appointed, on July 27,1906 (the 39th year of Meiji Era), “the committees to study unified style”.

Jigoro Kano headed the judo committee and Noboru Watanabe, the kendo committee. Each committee reported, the following month, the style called “Dai Nippon Butoku-kai Seiteikata (Japan Society for Military Arts Virtue Style)”.

To be more specific, in judo's case, Kodokan school made the original plans of the committee and they gained the full support.

Kendo's case was not so easy. The plans of the committee were not accepted. A new 23-member committee was appointed in October,1912 (the 1st year of Taisho Era) and the committee presented the 10 brand new “Dai Nippon Teikoku Kendokata (Imperial Japan Kendo Styles)”. These styles still exist today and are considered to be the bases of kendo.


By the end of the Edo period the kenjutsu arts were no longer at the peak of their numbers. With the coming of the Meiji and the spirit of modernization / westernization the numbers dropped even further. Those who could read the "writing on the wall" naturally looked for ways to preserve their arts. Where do you find young students? In the schools of course, so the drive to put kendo into the school system began. We have mentioned that at this time kendo was promoted to the school authorities as physical training, and as such would need a unified curriculum that could be taught to groups in large classes. The eventual result was the kendo no kata and shinai kendo.

A generation or two later the kendo of western sport and physical training would become the kendo of Yamato Damashii as it was called upon to prepare the spirits of the youth for war.

This "search for a home" to allow the survival of the arts was not a one time thing. After the war ended in 1945 kendo was banned for its close ties to the military apparatus. After a change of a few years into a sort of cross between western fencing and kendo, the art was again allowed into the schools as a competitive sport, where it bloomed to several millions of participants. Since its shift back toward a more spiritual goal these numbers have dropped somewhat but still remain strong. (I'm sure other factors have also influenced the numbers.)

The presence of iaido in the Kendo Federation may be a way for kendoka to learn about the live blade, but what was in it for the iaido sensei? Kendo would seem to be the logical source of students for the koryu arts and again, as was done with the kendo no kata, the kata of the koryu iaido arts were standardized to a set of seven, then ten and now twelve to accomodate the need for a curriculum. (Was there also an element of competition with the earlier-formed Iaido Federation? I'm enough of a cynic about these things to suggest there may have been but I wasn't in the meetings and those sorts of reasons don't make it to the minutes, let alone the mission statement.)

Jodo in the Kendo Federation seems a less likely fit for the general kendo folk, but it gained a foothold because of the heavy influence of police kendo. There is no doubt at all that jodo gained a great deal by this association both inside Japan and out. Support from the various national kendo federations has helped jodo grow internationally.

Judo seems not to have made this turn back to a spiritual practice, becoming instead an Olympic sport in the mid '60s. There is no doubt at all that housing itself in the IOC has contributed to the growth of judo worldwide, to the point that there are now more judoka in France than in Japan (if I remember those numbers correctly). There have been moves toward an Olympic future for kendo as well but these are vigourously opposed by the Kendo Federation in Japan and while the art has recently joined an IOC-recognized organization (Sportaccord) this seems a move designed to block entry to the Olympics rather than a step toward. There is little doubt that kendo in the Olympics would create a boom in the art worldwide, but it would also quite likely mean the loss of control by Japan.

As was seen in the creation of the kendo no kata at the beginning of last century, finding a new home to preserve the art is always accompanied by a loss of independence. That's rather a tautology isn't it? To survive one joins a larger group, but this membership always entails a loss of control, and often a change of direction. What the school system, the government, and the IOC want from an art can be quite different from what the original koryu might want for that same art. Still, when the choice is oblivion or change, a choice must be made.

Has all this unification of the koryu into the kendo no kata meant a disappearance of the koryu? Of course not. As long as the old arts are preserved in some form during the period when we wait for new students to grow in the larger organizations and become curious about the origins, the older forms of training can survive and flourish once more. We see this in the koryu lineages themselves, where a series of headmasters might be somewhat "lightweight" but pass down the art faithfully. Then one generation might see a genius (or someone with a lot of time on their hands) and the art will once again bloom with strength. It is never a problem for an art to survive with a strong headmaster, it is the generations between that need care and nurturing, sometimes at the expense of joining a larger organization which can protect them.

July 9, 2015

Don't correct other people's students

A while ago we had a seminar and "my sensei said" quite a bit a bit about being a senior. Specifically he was talking about how to keep learning while being a teacher. One thing jumped into my mind just now as I was looking at one of the old martial arts forums online where folks were obsequiously (my new favourite word) criticising various videos online.

Ohmi sensei said "Do not correct (criticize) other people's students. Look at them, see their mistakes and look at yourself to make sure you are not making those same mistakes". Great advice indeed, I have never looked at any iai performance and not seen at least one "mistake" that I make myself. If that video is of a highly ranked sensei I take solice and if it's a lower ranked student I become inspired to correct myself before that student corrects it and passes me by.

I am pleased to say that I have no desire to correct either my betters or my juniors. I will offer advice if asked of course, but it has been a long time (about the equivalent of nidan in iai and about 3rd kyu in aikido) since I have felt compelled to demonstrate my knowledge. Best just to provide an example of your brilliance so that others can be inspired to follow.

As I think deeper about this, I don't think I criticize my own students all that much. What use is it to say "you're doing it wrong" (I'm usually a lot more snarky about it than that) if you've already told them once how to do it correctly. I figure if I tell them and they don't do it, I was unclear and I find another way to tell them. Mostly though, I prefer to build on what they are doing correctly than to correct what they are not. That way they move ahead while feeling that they are moving ahead. To teach by correction gives them the feeling that they are not improving at all.

Was I just correcting other people's students who are teachers? Not my intention at all. This is what I do and how I feel about it, you are welcome to take what you wish from that. Remember, if you treat it like advice then it's worth what you paid for it.

After a grading I get students who come and ask for corrections. Apart from saying "ask your sensei" I try not to offer anything. I will to those who are especially persistant but then it's usually to question what they are asking, how to pass the next exam or how to improve their iaido. How to do stuff like I want to see it done or how to get past the rest of the committee. By then their eyes usually glaze over and they wander away to ask the next guy. Gradings aren't the place to ask me for advice.

Seminars where we are both watching a senior sensei are also not the place to ask me for advice. Go ask the guy in charge, not me. Not unless the guy in charge looks at me and says "answer him". Then it's not you getting advice, it's me getting tested. Even if you're my student at that same seminar, go ask the big guy. Now, do I ask questions that someone has asked me but won't ask the big guy? Sure I do, I was told a very long time ago that one of the functions of a senior is to look stupid in front of sensei so the juniors don't. You think the big guys figure I'm asking that stupid question for myself?


Some things I've seen at seminars. Senior students correcting others off in the corner (or even in the middle of the crowd) while sensei is speaking to that very same point up front. Classic. I especially like to watch the students try to ignore the senior and listen to the sensei. I've seen those senior students then move around in front of said junior, turning their back on sensei in the process, just to make sure they get their correction across. Magnificent. The best of all is watching a senior get bodily pulled away by his buddies as he begins to contradict the point just made, and clarified, by the sensei in charge of the seminar. Unforgettable.

Speaking of which, how about a student at a seminar who flat out tells a sensei that he is wrong because so and so other sensei said to do it this way. And proceeds to demonstrate the "correct" way. I kid you not, I've seen it more than once. All of these incidents get no mention from the sensei in charge at the time (don't correct other people's students). The biggest reaction might be a small smile and nod accompanied by a sort of hmm sound. That's at the seminar, consider what happens later that evening when sensei tracks down that student's teacher.

Don't correct other people's students.

If you are asked to do so, assume you are the one being tested or you're being used for the different pitch of your voice, maybe a different pitch will get through the buildup of wax in that student's ears.

July 8, 2015

Whither Waza

Today we look at the development of waza, or rather, the intent of the waza in relationship with the sword schools through time.




This essay presents a methodology which tries to look at the Budo history from a perspective of making of the wazas (techniques). This author devides the development of Budo techniques into the following five phases based on the history of the spors techniques.

Phase 1 a stage when Bujutsu was used in actual fighting--from antiquity to 1543
Phase 2 a stage when schools of Bugei were formed--1543 to 1840s
Phase 3 Bugei in competition, i. e. Bugei was transformed into Budo--1840s to 1900s
Phase 4 reverse secularization of Budo--1900s to 1945
Phase 5 present-day Budo--after 1945

In phase 1 it was what is called the “practical technique” stage in the history of sports techniques. Phase 2 saw the departure from Bujutsu for practical purposes to Bugei for “fun and games”. Phase 3 was the transition period from “fun and games” stage to the “competition” stage. From phase 4 onward, Budo was played systematically as “competitive sports”. “Reverse secularization”, conspicuous from the phase 4 onward, went against the modernization processes of sports, and produced ritual styles of Budo which are different from the traditional styles of Budo since the Edo period. Many of the Budo styles, considered today as the tradition of Japan, were consciously ritualized during this period.


For those interested in the history of budo, this time frame is a handy reference, although a three hundred year chunk for phase 2 is a pretty big chunk. That period might be the one most interesting to those who study koryu, and it is not without sources of information in English. When we read works from authors of this era what strikes me is not so much how different it is today than at that time, but how similar the teaching. Perhaps this is because instructors have looked to those sources from that time to the present, there's nothing like a book to keep things standardized some will say. Others of course might say nothing like a book to strangle progress. (That in a nutshell may be the difference between the koryu types and the kendo types.)

Progress where? Let's look at the timeline above with an eye on kendo, then an eye on koryu and assume they are different things. The outline makes most sense to me, when examining mainstream kendo, the largest group of Japanese swordsmen. First we have the age of sword as tool of warfare, up to 1543. Sounds reasonable, cut like this, thrust like this. Not much else needs saying so we don't see any large "schools" of instruction. Think of how specialized one needs to be to teach riflery in basic training. We see many instructors in many camps. They may have their small quirks but it's all accepted as adequate. There are no specialized methods taught to a select few, not for the basic skills most will need. Someone is going to come up with "sniper school" I suspect, but that's not basic training is it? You tell me, are there specialist name instructors in the armed forces who teach their own distinctive style of gunnery? For the specialist schools I suspect one needs to go to the civilian populations, especially in areas where a large group of gun-carriers exist. There we see named schools of gunnery based around famous teachers with special methods like the point-shoot types and the quick draw types and the concealed carry types. It is the transition from phase 1 (military use) to phase 2 (civilian use) where we see the distinctive schools arise.

The author writes that this transition is one to "fun and games". I love this. Think about it, he's got the right tone, it's a transition from "here's how to do it, hope you got enough information in this past month to kill some folks before you get killed" to "hey we can spend bags of time preparing for imaginary situations without the stress of knowing we're soon getting thrown into a meat grinder". If that's not a transition to fun and games I can't imagine what is.

"Then stuff happens for 300 years." In 1840 we presumably start to see the rise of gekken, or shinai kendo competition where it becomes possible to send students out to try their skills against other schools. This is the age of "bugei in competition", and it meant something as the sword instructors competed for students. Students meant income and there was now a real method of testing between the methods of one instructor and another. Those who can, please read the paper if this has caught your interest. I suggest (assume) that at this stage we are looking at gekken as a way for individual styles to compete one with another, much the way that "mixed martial arts" was supposed to have told us which martial art was the best. The so called "no rules" competitions. Of course anyone who thinks for a moment will realize that there are always rules, if no more than "we'll meet at a place and time and fight for a while and try not to kill each other". Those rules already define the competition. In the modern era of "no-rules martial arts" I never saw a swordsman with a shinken go up against a boxer. Never saw anyone show up with an assault rifle either. Some things are outside even "no-rules".

Regardless, I suspect the aim of competition in phase 3 was to test school vs school. The intent would define the rules and so we would see the variety of equipment and techniques we know existed from the records.

In phase 4 we see the rise of a nation which was at first imitating the west and then in competition with it. During this time the old way of testing school against school became standardized to a way of uniting the entire country in a martial-like activity that could be used to instill "samurai spirit" in the youth. Rules began to dominate the competition, more rules mean more playing to those rules and the techniques would begin to change to accomodate. With more defined rules we can innovate in training methods and technique to more closely accomodate the rules. Innovation and improvement can then be checked by victory or defeat.

During this time of unification of rules and technique, there was also a conscious effort to get rid of the idea of western sport and replace it with the new-samurai ideals of national patriotism as Japan acquired and expanded it's empire. This kendo in the service of nationalism would be quite a different beast than the Edo era kendo in the service of a specific sword school.

The author doesn't say much here about phase 5 except to include it with phase 4 as the era of reverse secularization where they continue to work against the modernization processes of sport and create the ritualized budo that are now seen as the tradition of Japan. Fair enough, but authors such as Alex Bennett have pointed to a short period between the early '50s and 1975 where kendo exploded as a strictly sport-related activity. It was in the mid '70s that the federation again retrenched kendo in the "reverse secularization" mode of showcasing and then exporting Japanese values to the rest of the world.

This is the phases as I see them from a kendo viewpoint and I think this fits best. From the viewpoint of a koryu they are perhaps a bit lacking as the main development of koryu is contained in that 300 year period of phase 2. We can trace the schools up to the 1700s through such sources as the Honcho Bugei Shoden and from there through many others if we wish to examine the issue. After we enter phase 3 I can imagine that pressures from the modernization of Japan would have combined with the rise of shinai kendo to push the koryu in specific directions. If you did not adopt shinai kendo you were losing students and perhaps at risk of disappearing altogether.

During phase 4 and especially closer to the war I suspect the role of individual koryu was virtually zero in the sword community, all would have been focused on "state kendo" if I can coin that phrase to mimic the idea of "state shinto". Ironically it may have been the ban on kendo imposed after the war and the subsequent sporting kendo that allowed the koryu to sneak back into the consciousness. Those who were not interested in this sports boom may have moved back to the old schools. I have no data to back this up other than looking at my own koryu histories to see when they expanded into the modern ear, but I put it out there for consideration should someone be looking for a term paper topic. The kendo federation adopted iaido and jodo at about the time it began it's turn from sport kendo to... cultural kendo? and this certainly gave a boost to the koryu associated with iai and jo.

At any rate, whether studying the history of kendo or koryu this five phase structure is handy to have in your mind.

July 8, 2015

What's a Dojo

Where did this idea of a special place to practice come from and just because a dojo was orginally a place of religious practice, does that mean it still is?

DOJO (PRACTICE HALL)-A Study of the Process of its Existence-


The word “Dojo” is translation of Sanskrit “bodhi-manda” which originally means the place where Buddha had spritual awakening and has been generally used in the meaning of the place for Buddhists austerities. Later in the Edo era, it came to be accepted as a word indicating the place for practicing bujutsu military arts. In this study, We intened to clarify the historical change of the meaning of the word “Dojo” and that of the structure of the place for practicing bujutsu military arts.

In the Edo era, it is certain that they hung “hanging pictures”or “tablets”, but they seldom made Shinto altars. Shinto altars have been prevailed since the end of the Taisho era or the beginning of the Showa era as a part of the national reinforcement policy of the Imperial Facism which was joined together with the National Shintoism.


We ought to be careful about applying the dojo of religion to the dojo of budo. A word can have multiple meanings and just because the original dojo was a place of buddhist training, the military dojo might not be a place of religion at all. Perhaps this article would clarify the connection.

The link between a budo and a religious practice might bettter be examined in the writings of that school rather than assumed from the name of the building. Even the religious trappings within that building should be examined with a critical eye. The ubiquitous alter would seem to be a product of the post-samurai Japanese nationalism, of State Shinto, rather than a connection to any religious practices of the founders of the art. Again, the spiritual practice of a dojo might be best revealed by a chat with the sensei.

July 7, 2015

Read the label

I just walked in from the back back yard, very deep lot, most folks don't realize we have a back yard and a back back yard, and am feeling a bit sheepish. I was doing one handed dumbell snatches (you guys would be doing them with kettle bells I'm sure, but me and my handlebar moustache are a bit traditional, no to be honest, cheap) and I had just given up on my weight jump. I'd put another five pounds on and couldn't get past three reps. When I took the 2.5 pound weights off the reps jumped to an easy 10 and I got suspicious.

Turns out my 2.5 pound weights were actually 2.2 kg so my weight jump was ten pounds, not five. If I'd known that I would probably have been happy with my 3 reps. In fact I'll probably put them on again quite soon.

Read the label before you jump to conclusions. Sure I read the weights when I bought them (used) but I usually forget my reading glasses so just saw 2.number and assumed they were 2.5s. Why not, they were light.

At a recent class we had a discussion about seitei iaido. Does the tip of the sword need to be above the hilt at all times? We assumed so for decades and struggled to make other parts of some kata work with this restriction. The problem of course was if you had just thrust the sword into an imaginary opponent and then had to lift it overhead for a second cut without making two movements, one to pull it out and one to lift it. If you lift the thing straight up you are picking up this imaginary fellow as well. If you pull it out then lift it, that's two movements, in fact that's often a pull out, then a shove back to "cock" the cut.

So back to the book where it says that the tip of the blade is above the hilt "at furi kaburi". Ah, well that doesn't help much, we need to know what furi kaburi means. Most folks define it as "lifting the blade over your head". I did too, before I just got tired of trying to avoid either lifting an opponent on the sword, doing two movements to lift the sword, or (dun dun dun) allowing the tip to move below the hilt as I lifted the sword. In other words, until I realized that I could only lift my dumbell three times before failure. The "fix" came when the upper ups told us to let the tip fall below the hilt as we lifted the sword after a thrust. So we memorized and did. No problem technically but WTH, the book is supposed to trump all.

The "solution" came when a hanshi made the comment that "the hips square up at furi kaburi". Not "at the end of" but "at". Ding, the label suddenly became clear as I looked at it a bit more closely. Furi kaburi is that moment when you are about to attack, not the entire time that you are lifting the sword over your head, but at the instant you begin the downward cut. Now it doesn't matter where the tip is in relation to the hilt as you raise the sword, just that it is above the hilt as you begin the cut.

Are you reaching for your keyboards? Does this sound like sophistry? Of course it does, because it is. The book is sacred, it is the standard, and like all standards it moves with those who have the power to move it. Think of the book as the law, and those who can move it as the government who try to make the law immobile. Mandatory sentences and all that. Now think of the hanshi as judges, those who interpret the book for you in the name of justice. They have to apply the laws to real life, which is not simple, it's messy. They have to reconcile one movement from the thrust to the cut, with not dropping the tip, as much as you or I do. So they interpret. That's their job, they have to decide which is less damaging to the kata as a martial art, to make two movements or to "drop the tip" as we would automatically say. They read the label in a different way than you or I do, in fact they must often "read it to us". All the while telling us that the law is the law. The book is the standard and I believe it. I also believe that I can find contradictions which must be reconciled. Nice to have someone to do that for me.

Who does that for me? Not the visiting upper ups who often seem to have different solutions to the problems. No it's the top guy in the country, he's the chief decider. The guy who decides is the guy who puts your name forward to the president for your next grade. The guy who tells all the other judges how to read the labels. It has to be one guy or you get arguments, it has to be that guy because he's the ultimate authority on the ranking system. Ranks in my organization come from my country, or another country if I grade there, where someone else reads the labels. The book makes sure that everyone has the same label to read, and it's pretty specific in most cases, but as I've heard some students complain, "it doesn't spell everything out". No it doesn't, just enough that we're all on the same page. We don't all have to be on the same line.

To force everyone to be on the same line, to take any descretion away from any upper up, would be like trying to dictate mandatory sentences for everyone. Justice would suffer. If we all went strictly by the book then I'd be done with iaido, I can't sit properly in seiza or tate hiza so I'd be gone. At least gone from my organization if not from the art. I'm happy for there to be a chief decider who says I can continue to practice iaido even when the book says I have to do kata from seiza and tate hiza.

Read the label, if it's a dumbell weight it's pretty clear but if it's something like the seitei book it needs to be read even more carefully. If you read one thing and I read another, that's maybe an argument. Thankfully we have a fellow who decides what the book says. That's his job.

July 4, 2015

Make Me a Ring

The real benefits of martial arts training, what are they?


Research Journal of Budo Vol. 17 (1985) No. 2 p. 7-14

The Trend of Self-esteem in University Kendo Athletes
Kichio UEHARA 1)

1) Tsukuba University

The purpose of this study was to clarify the trend of self-esteem in Kendo athletes. It was examined by questionnaire in relation to the effects of experience in significant situation. The subjects were 222 Kendo athletes who took part in All Japan Inter-Collegiate Kendo Championship Tournament in 1983. The results were summarized as follows:

(1) Kendo athletes had the higher self-esteem, the better their personal performances in the past had used to be.

(2) Kendo athletes were obliged to evaluate their self-esteem in significant matches. Irrelevant to victory or defeat, those who had higher self-esteem before the matches somehow lowered their self-esteem after the matches, while those who had lower self-esteem somehow enhanced it.


I have written a couple of books on this, but here's yet another study on the effects of martial arts training, this time from kendo in relation to self esteem. We all know that winning a ribbon increases self esteem, it must, we give participation ribbons to everyone in school. (Actually I'm OK with that, as I get older I realize that a medal for participation actually recognizes something, it's important to encourage participation and participation is something that is worth being proud of.)

The first conclusion above would seem to support the idea that if you've done well in past competition your self esteem is greater. At this point I'm wondering how self esteem is defined, if it's a belief that one will win in a future contest the conclusion is almost a tautology. However, that future ability to do is usually defined as "perceived self efficacy" and I suspect the author is using our common definition of "feel good about oneself" for self esteem.

The second conclusion is what caught my eye. That those who had higher or lower self esteem before a match went in the opposite direction during the match. This reminds me of the story of the king who asked for a magical ring which would bring him down when too high, and up when too low.

That is something we could all use, is kendo that magic ring?

July 4, 2015

Still here?

Why is it that the sword schools of Japan are still with us?


武道学研究35-(3):9-20,2003〈 原著〉新当流における刀剣観について: 『兵法自観照』を中心に酒 井利信

Concepts of the Sword in Shintou Sect Doctrine

Toshinobu SAKAI


This study attempts to clarify the concepts of the sword in Shintou Sect doctrine by examining the book, named "Heiho jikansho" written by Mr. Sekihei Otsuki. The important part to note regarding this book is firstly the enormity and quality of core techniques that were described in writing and consigned to posterity, even though secrecy was prerequisite in the world of modern swordplay. Secondly, I viewpoints on sword concepts in terms of swordsmanship have been summarized in this book. Furthermore, this book not only explains sword techniques, but also our country's attitude towards swords, that have been established since ancient times, are narrated as a whole, not partially. Thirdly, the content of magical acts involving swordsmanship is recorded, which represents the uniqueness of this historical document.

The largest discovery in concluding this research is that the artistry of magical acts has been maintained and conveyed in modern swordsmanship. As for the content of Shintou Sect artistry of the magical acts, the following was revealed : 1) In the Shintou Sect, the magical act for exorcism was performed using a sword (s). The sword used for the artistry was considered to be the same as that of "Futsuno-Mitamano Tsurugi." When an exorcism was performed with this sword, the relationship with a god named Takemikazuchi was an important element, which has been shown in our ancient mythology. 2) This magical act of exorcism was performed in two directions, namely against an enemy one was actually confronting and against an enemy within oneself. 3) The magical act of exorcism using a sword (s) consisted of two elements, which involved both physical movement and linguistic action.


By "still with us" I mean why and how did the sword arts come down to us unchanged (we can argue that later) and unbroken (same argument). The sword arts obviously are not "battlefield ready" in this day, nor were they ever all that useful in war, being better thought of as sidearms than as main weapons.

One theory might include the findings of this paper, that some schools of the Shinto ryu lineage at least, may have considered the sword as a religious object, used to perform exorcism. While I doubt we are studying the koryu sword arts today in order to cast out demons, I suspect there is a kernal of religious feeling in our practice. Who hasn't, at one time at least, looked at a well-made sword with a feeling of mystery and a desire to achieve mastery over it. Is this not the same urge that founds religions, or that sends people looking for one. This as opposed to those who do Religion (with a capital R) out of habit.

Think about the idea of exorcism, to cast out a demon. Can this not be the bad parts of ourselves that we wish to be rid of through the practice of budo? Should we consider this to be a degraded or perhaps downgraded form of the exorcism described in the abstract? Not at all, the worse demons of our own nature are more real and more powerful than any supernatural entity that we might wish to blame for our base acts.

Does the Japanese sword only act against Shinto demons? If so put it down, you will have to become Shinto, become Japanese in order for the practice of budo to do you any good. Can one convert to Shinto? Perhaps that would work. Myself, I choose to believe that the personal demons of our own bad nature are at the core of every world religion. Far from there being a father or mother god or set of gods that all other gods are modeled on, and who created demonst to torture us (thanks god, really appreciated...) I think it started from the other end, from the impulses to destruction we call demons. If we put them outside ourselves we must also put up a god to oppose them or we are lost. The devils came first.

Here is another abstract on the same subject, but talking about the sword as representing god (as opposed to being that which performs exorcism... wait, same thing).



Toshinobu SAKAI Released: November 27, 2012

In ancient Japan, the concept of gods had been changed as passing of time. From this fact, it is expected that Japanese primitive faith had been changed, as sword culture was transmitted from China. In this paper, we describe transformation of primitive belief and foundation of unique Japanese sword culture, in the process of accepting sword culture. The summary is as follows: 1. Sword culture influenced ancient Japanese mental world, and changed belief in the fire. This belief in the fire changed from destructive to constructive and part of this had been absorbed in the concept of sword. 2. Originally, ancient people believed in god of snake that supported farming. But, as the time went by, power of god of snake had declined, and this faith was absorbed in the concept of the sword. 3. Power of god of thunder had decline, too. The belief in this had concentrated at peculiar god “Takemikazuchi”, and this had been related to sword. 4. The sword came to absorb concepts of fire and snake. And related to “Takemikazuchi”, it was recognized as god itself. 5. From the above discussion, it is assumed that there is a unique Japanese way of thinking that sword is related to god. This is thought to be a foundation of concept of sword in Japan.

July 3, 2015

Can I attend the Senior Class please?

Whenever a senior class is announced there is a flurry of requests from those below the cutoff criteria to be allowed to attend. It doesn't matter whether that cutoff is rank, "dojo leader" or whatever, the rest of the folks want to know what's going on. I suppose it's human nature, we're curious monkeys.

What is going on is that the seniors are getting some instruction. That's it. Nothing secret, nothing that everyone else won't hear about eventually. So why the big deal? Why not let everyone attend or watch if they want to?

Let's deal with "attend". First, seniors (and I'm talking 20 year folks here) don't benefit much from general instructions like "square up your back foot" or "move from your hips". They've heard it, I'm sure you've heard them say it, yet that's the level of instruction that must happen when beginners and middle ranks are in the room. It has to happen as well when there are too many seniors in the same room. Time is limited and instructors rare so individual attention isn't going to work in a crowd. Yet that's what seniors need most.

So ask yourself next time you want to attend a senior class. Do you want to take away your teacher's chance of doing some work on his own practice? Don't you think you get enough time in a year without asking for this small bit as well? I'd buy it maybe if you were at every single practice, or at least as many as your sensei has made, which is quite often every single practice.

What's that you say? You can benefit from senior level instruction because you are so talented? Perhaps you are. Perhaps you could, but what secrets do you think are being handed over? Seniors are working on the same things you are, they just don't get to be students when you're around because then their title is either teacher or "one of the faceless horde".

So what about being able to watch, or what about taping the class? You won't get in the way, you promise, you'll be a fly on the wall, real quiet. You will be in the way, you know. Being in the room or being shown a tape later will prevent your sensei from getting hell from the head instructor.

Sure, I know your sensei has no ego, that he says he's just a student like everyone else, and I believe it. Problem is, if I'm teaching that senior class I am not going to tear your sensei a new one to force him to see that he's got a lazy back foot and isn't using his hips. I AM NOT GOING TO DO IT. Not in front of you. If you don't understand why, you really do not need to be in that class.

Let me ask a question. Do you think that the secret to improving is more practice? You don't need a senior class. Do you think that it's important to get the newest standards for your kata? You don't need a senior class. Do you think that personal instruction from your teacher's teacher will benefit your practice? You don't need a senior class. Do you think you'll be told how to pass your next test? ... All that happens for you in regular class, even the teacher's teacher thing. Where do you figure he learned it?

When you have put in the thousands of hours of practice and have attended enough seminars to understand that there is no standard, even for the standard kata, when you spend all your available practice time teaching and supervising those below you, then you need that senior class. Until then you should spend your time telling your sensei to go to senior classes and maybe even arranging one for him, rather than asking to tag along.

So what about that other junior you heard was at a class? How come not you too? Life isn't fair is it? Sometimes juniors get shoehorned into senior classes for reasons of need, benefit, or just plain priviledge. They may be there because the instructors need them for something, they may be there because they don't get much chance at practice and need it all when it's available, or their sensei may have enough pull to say they want their junior in the class. Regardless of the reason, be comforted that the class won't do them any more good than it would have done you. That is to say, no more good than if they'd been in a room alone practicing for that same period, reviewing their sensei's instructions in their head. They aren't being taught any secrets, in fact it's a pretty good bet they aren't being taught at all.

On the other hand, they may just be seeing their sensei get proper hell for making a mistake they also make. Probably are. Does this sound like a place you want to be? Senior classes can be difficult, for a junior in attendance it can be like watching your parents argue. More likely though, that senior who shoehorned their student into the class may not be getting taught at all.

July 1, 2015