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On your knees again

Have I told you this story? It's about a sword instructor who is working for a samurai era daimyo. He gets paid to teach the men of the area how to fight, and he also teaches iaido. Some of these guys have been through the wars so they are a bit banged up.

So this instructor says to the guys who have had an arrow through the knee (literally, not the viking mercenaries who were married) that they can't practice iaido and they should get out of his class.

What do you think? Would he be working there next month?

Once again I've been asked if it's OK, if it's possible, to do iaido without being able to go down into seiza or tate hiza. Is it OK to stand the techniques up? This time it's specific to koryu, which is a bit unusual, it's usually about zenkenren iai (seitei).

The easy answer for koryu is "ask your sensei". If your sensei says you can stay in the class while he's teaching seiza or tate hiza techniques, you can stay. If he says you can't do iaido without getting on your knees, there's always boxing. The point there is to stay off your knees.

(May I make a parenthetic pitch for Niten Ichiryu? Sonkyo is the closest we get to kneeling techniques and that's just in the etiquette. The techniques are all upright, if you aren't allowed to do iaido come do niten... swords are also light, easy on the shoulders! See the world, meet interesting people, learn a trade.)

Or find a more traditional sensei who teaches iaido as a practical art and who would never even think to suggest that someone with bad knees should try to do seiza or tate hiza. After all, why practice drawing the sword from a position you'll never ever be in? Only makes sense from a theoretical, idealistic point of view. Practical thinking says don't waste everyone's time trying to get into and out of positions that will only get you killed in a fight. If you can't come out of seiza with enough force or speed to counter someone who is standing already, don't sit down in the first place. (Goes for the healthy-knee brigade too doesn't it?)

It's not like you get graded to a universal standard in koryu. If you do get graded by your sensei he can modify the art, modify the grading, to reflect life as you live it, rather than "as it should be". Or not. Like I said, ask your sensei.

I suspect you will know what I advise my students with bad knees to do with tate hiza techniques. Yes, I say do them standing. Why not? Or do them from an upright kneeling position. Or from a chair. Why not do them from a chair?

If you are young and have healthy knees I still don't recommend spending hours at a time on your knees. If you're not used to it work into it. Damage your knee one day through overuse and keep it damaged and you may be looking at knee replacements when you're older. Not recommended, and by the way, replacement knees do NOT bend as far as seiza or tate hiza. Once you're out, you're out.

We are not in the Sengoku Jidai are we? Our lifestyle isn't going to demand coming out of a seated position while drawing a sword. Where life is that dangerous it's likely you're doing a quick draw of your handgun, or pulling your tactical knife... not in my town though. And for the place where we are going to be flopping onto our knees with weapons in our hands, those of us talking about bad knees and seiza are past the age where we're going to be doing basic training and humping around 160 pounds of gear. There's a reason we send the kids out to war, us old guys with our bad backs wouldn't make it to the fight. (We know this, we send the kids out to train and destroy their bodies doing it, and then we don't support them for the next 60 to 80 years as they hobble around... Amazing).

So stand the kata up. I'm just going through Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu tate hiza no bu in my head. Nope, can't think of any of them that can't be done standing. Now some of the kata involve some... well most of the kata involve being close, being within arms reach of your opponent, so standing them up and doing them "walking style" might not be a great idea if you want to examine what they are supposed to be teaching you, but that really is between you and your sensei. As Musashi said, "I will tell you this in class". Well maybe it was "I will transmit this orally", but that always makes me think he's about to sneeze.

And what about Seitei? Well in our area we did settle on a standard way to do the four seated kata when standing up, and then we changed the requirements so that those who must stand will never demonstrate the first four kata at a grading. Problem solved, no need to practice the seated kata at all.

Personally, I would prefer we go back to the original way of asking to see those kata because I would like to know if potential instructors understand them. Of course that assumes that people with bad knees will be allowed to teach. They do now but we can always tighten up the standards and get closer to those ideals, which would mean I finally get to retire.

My advice to folks who do get to demonstrate the first four kata in gradings is to do them entirely standing. Don't confuse the judges. But for practice, do them as closely to the seated kata as you can. This lets you demonstrate most of it to your students. The closer to the standard you can show, the less you have to talk.

Maybe start from one knee touching the ground for tate hiza and both for seiza, but don't bend the knees more than 90 degrees. If you can do noto and sink down onto one knee, go ahead. The half-down positions will help keep your legs strong without blowing the knees. Personally I can sometimes get within an inch or so of seiza, and can get my knee almost to the same angle for tate hiza if I keep my left toes on the ground. This helps with demonstrating most of the kata and for the rest of it, that's why senior students. If I was ten pounds lighter I might get closer but it will take a long time before I trust my knees again.

The question was "can I do koryu tate hiza kata standing up". The answer is "ask your sensei", but since you asked me, the answer is "sure, why not?".

Which seems to be my standard answer these days.

June 30, 2016

Koryu is a little bit more mean

The question last night was "what's the difference between Seitei and Koryu?" We were talking about zenkenren jo and I mentioned the second kata isn't strictly speaking from the koryu.

It doesn't look any different or feel any different from number one or three, hence the question.

Common question really. What is the difference? Someone mentioned that "koryu is a little bit more mean than seitei, a little bit more nasty". It is? How do you change the physical shape of a kata so that it is more nasty than another kata, without making it a different kata altogether? One difference between seitei and most of the koryu jo I've practiced is that tachi comes back to feet together in koryu and remains with the right foot forward in seitei. Is feet together a bit meaner/nastier? The instant response was no, actually it's a bit weaker in that it's a bit easier to be knocked off balance with your feet together. How about cutting from hasso or moving the sword above the head first to cut? Hunh? Where did the idea of a two part cut in seitei come from? Not me.

Well if it's not the small changes in the kata itself then maybe it's that you practice it a bit nastier? You're a bit meaner to your partner? Is it that you are nice to your beginners in seitei but try to chase them away in koryu?

Perhaps some do.

If you do both should you do koryu meaner or should you do seitei nicer? Maybe you ought to do both the the best of your ability and pay attention to your partner. Maybe you ought not to smack beginners around because you figure one is meaner than the other.

It went around for a bit, it was suggested that those who make a big difference between seitei and koryu tend not to do seitei and want to make koryu something special, something over here against that sissy stuff over there. I don't know anyone who does that. Do you?

It was suggested that seitei is standardized, taught by many in the same way while koryu is a single sensei, a single line. Therefore differences. Good as far as it goes, but I, like most folks in the kendo federation I suspect, have been taught koryu by more than one sensei. If there are many available you tend to get exposed to many. Look back to the lineage of the headmasters and you'll find quite a bit of cross-sensei training going on. Anyone who has tried to put "the chart" together runs into that problem.

My answer? "Seitei" is the stuff you do in the kendo federation for gradings. Koryu is the school(s) out of which both the kata and the sensei that teach you the seitei come. Sometimes it looks a little different. Sometimes people think you ought to train differently.

Why the fuss?

June 29, 2016

What wasn't said

It's hard to tell what I've said and what I haven't sometimes. If I said it ten years ago I might not have said it to anyone in the class today. Yet I assume they know it.

That's sort of the point of writing books and doing videos I suppose. Let the students read the books, that way they pick up all the stuff I should have said but didn't. Leaving us to get on with stuff I've just invented. It's also good to have visitors to class who might perhaps convince me that I need to say something I figure has been said.

Haven't I told you that before?

On the other hand, it's not all that important that I tell students exactly what I was told. If they "get it" and are not making the mistake I made, who cares if they hear the correction for that mistake they aren't making.

Mistake? Correction? Hmm. I'm starting not to believe in those.

We had two visitors from Argentina yesterday so we had a day-long seminar. Yes, if you come on an 11 hour plane ride we will have a seminar for you too. There were only seven of us in the room so I got a good look at their zen ken ren iai and it was just fine.

They were concerned of course, as you are when you don't have a high ranking sensei to look at you every class, but really, if you've had some training, ten or twenty classes maybe, what more do you need to learn 12 short solo kata. I figure most of the time in this situation, my job is to reassure and maybe give some hints on how to practice in the absence of a high rank.

Like making sure you know your body is in the right form to create power. There are some strained positions that can creep into an iaido practice which need to be corrected by a sensei, or need to be found by getting a bokuto and working with a partner.

Move from the hips / center. Get the grip. Believe in friction (don't choke the life out of your grip). That sort of thing. If you can do that who needs a sensei around to tell you everything his sensei told him to correct things you don't need correction.

In other words, you're probably fine, carry on.

June 26, 2016

Split Personality with a sword.

Recently I found myself saying "you must explode out of seiza into Mae". We even demonstrated what is needed to get across the gap to get at an opponent's hilt if they start to draw.

We were doing kendo federation iai and one of the students stepped forward and said. "Erm are you sure we're supposed to go fast there?"

No, we aren't, but we are supposed to explode, we have to explode there, yet no, we go slow. We explode AND we go slow. Yeah, that's it.

The kata requires that we sense the intent of our opponent to cut us and so we cut him across the eyes or the forehead. From the position we are told our sword is, at the initial cut, and knowing that our opponent is the same size as we are, it's not hard to figure out that this opponent has not started to rise yet. His hands may be on his sword but that's about as far as he gets.

OK if we want to "sense his intent" we'd better be paying attention. If we want to cut him after he's touched his sword and before he's rising we'd better explode out there. If we wish to cut him even before he starts reaching for his sword we'd better explode out there. If we don't, if we move slowly at first, he'll draw and cut us before we get him.

But this is nuki tsuke, this is a suppressing draw so we go slow to give him a chance to back down. We accelerate toward the end of the movement to catch him if he doesn't back down.

Yes we do, but in order to get someone to back down in this situation they need to be wavering in their decision to cut us. If they are not perturbed at this moment, if they are determined to kill us, we'd better explode.

Jo ha kyu isn't just acceleration, it's supposed to be imperceptible movement at the start, by the time he notices that we're moving/accelerating it will be too late and we catch him. Well yes, but how is that a warning? Where is his chance to back down?

We are of course running into the difference between "combat practical" and "pretty" aren't we? Some days I think so but no, not really. You can be combat practical but slow and precise. In fact that's basic training methodology, slow it down but make it as strong as you would if you were doing it at "combat speed".

Nuki tsuke, the initial draw and cut, is just a movement. How do we perturbe with that? One way is to be completely ready to explode. We do this by drawing in the knees, activating the thighs and the hips while keeping the upper body still and relaxed. You think this isn't visible? Your opponent can see this, even if it doesn't register. The more experienced the opponent, the easier it is to see this potential explosion. This alone may stop him from attacking, but it will certainly disturb his mind if not.

(By the way, there's a term for the situation where you start to rise before your hips are engaged, before you have your hands on your sword, or where you rise without drawing. It's called "suicide".)

Surprise is another way to disturb your opponent. If he suddenly notices that your hands are on your sword and that it is half way drawn, that your arms are in an "unbendable" shape as you begin to rise (what he cannot miss, the body getting bigger as you rise up and move forward) it will disturb him.

Uncertainty means time, time to move slowly enough to look pretty to a judging panel but time enough as well to explode slowly, to give your opponent time to back down.

If you can explode slowly you can explode quickly. If you move only those muscles that propel you forward and concentrate on leaving the rest of them relaxed, you will train yourself to move efficiently, which works out to quickly.

Get out of your own way and into his head.

We may just work on this some more at the seminar today.

June 25, 2016

Relax, go through it.

A student made the comment recently that she felt she had been cut by her partner, yet she didn't get hit, she was simply not there when the sword passed through the space where she was. She also mentioned that her partner was cutting full force.

That last is, I think, important. This sort of involvement with a kata is only possible when you get toward the dangerous end of things. If there is not enough danger to make you pay attention, and too much time to think, you don't get this effect.

My student also mentioned that it was good to be practicing with people who were close to her skill level. Again, important. With beginners you are being careful, you are not rationally absent because you're responsible for making sure neither of you gets hurt. With a senior you may not believe you can "beat them" and that small insecurity causes hesitation and that causes thought. Or the other way around, it comes to the same thing.

With sensei? Well there's rarely a chance to practice this way with sensei if you are the ragdoll (as we used to say in Aikido). Sensei is teaching, he's not practicing with you, so he's likely to do strange things outside the kata like stop in the middle of a swing and talk. Now this can be an excellent chance to practice for the ragdoll, but it takes a contempt for sensei to do it. I don't mean disrespect but I mean the healthy contempt of believing in yourself that you can handle whatever sensei does. It takes intense concentration and control to keep up with the random bits of movement and mood that come up with some teachers. If you can do this you will get a quite different training than if you stick to kata which never changes. Or at least doesn't change as much as the random ramblings of some sensei... OK me.

Relax, go through it. Or it goes through you.

Just what is it that we are talking about here? It's sometimes called mushin, it's moving from the void, it's "becoming the kata", it's "being swung". It's damned important and if you have it happen to you in a kata you need to try to repeat it. Often. It's Musashi's final chapter, the "bolt from the blue".

It's the universe breathing you.

Now if I was to guess what this thing is I'd say that it was what happens when you know what to do (you've been practicing the kata for long enough) and you're not worried you will mess it up. Add to that a partner who isn't giving you much space (or a senior that is tickling around the "edge of the envelope") so that you have no time to think and it can happen. The sword begins to cut, you "flow" out of the way.

After that your brain kicks back in and tries to think. What it sees, what it remembers is you getting cut with the sword, that's the last time thought was engaged. The body (or your reptile brain or whatever) moves you, bypassing the rational mind. The cut moves you. "You" don't move you and so the brain doesn't understand. You got cut but you weren't there. Magic. The kami protected you.

Sure, think about it, go ahead and bury it under explanations but do that later, or don't do it at all if you want to trust me on this.

I was once driving a girlfriend's car, four or five of us nattering away when we came to a crossroads and the car ahead of us was t-boned, a car had run a stop sign and blasted the other in the side. I kept chatting and steared between them as they separated, no brakes, no violent steering, just head for the hole. We were several meters down the road before someone said "urmm... " and the brain kicked in. There was nothing magical about any of it, I was just driving and avoided the cars in the same way as I would have avoided a tree or gone around a corner. No thinking involved or needed, just 10 or 15 years of driving experience and a tendency not to panic.

You know, I may have that story a bit confused, or it may never have happened, it was decades ago and I don't rehearse stuff like that in my head. If I did I might not be able to do it again. If I made up angels or devils who guide events around me they might not be on my side next time.

As one monk said to the other "I left that girl by the side of the river". No I didn't leave the girlfriend, its a zen story go look it up. It basically means deal with life and leave it. Just put it down and walk away.

To move "from the void" without thought (mushin) means get your brain out of the way, get your excess rationalization into the closet where it belongs when you are fighting for your life. Trust your training, trust yourself and if it works don't think about it. If it doesn't work, don't think about it.

Just don't think about it.

June 22, 2016

How's my emFAsis?

A video just showed up on youtube, or at least someone just discovered it up there, which is from 1997 and is a gathering of my particular line of Niten Ichiryu in the home dojo of the sensei who taught it to me.

I watched enough of it to see that the Oyo Waza were there. These are a couple of sets of extra kata that I was taught just about the same time as this video was shot. That would be almost exactly twenty years ago. So I've been doing these kata for 20 years and am just now seeing how they were done by folks other than my sensei.

Or perhaps I will see them done by my sensei, as I said, I haven't watched it yet.

What will I see? Will I see that I've been doing it wrong for two decades? Am I nervous? One would think so but I'm really not. "I do these kata the way I was taught them" as I say repeatedly. The thing is, I don't. I really can't. If I did them as I was taught them I'd be 20 years younger and considerably less practiced in all the arts. I have no idea what that would mean, except that I have seen some truly cringe-worthy video of myself from that age. The edges are rough, the elbows seem to be in different angles on my body and don't talk to me about my knees.

No, I do the kata as I have come to do them after 20 years of practice, that's what I should say. Not that I've done these particular kata all that often in the last 20. They were given to us all at once, once. I wrote them down in my notebook and dragged them out occasionally after I'd taught this or that bunch of students the rest of the school, which would mean perhaps once each 3 to 5 years or so. But the school itself has been in constant rotation since the early '90s, so coming up on 30 years now, and a seldom-practiced set of kata in a school is going to be "filled in" with the movements of that school and so is going to be "correct". Correct?

"You'll see" you say? I suppose I will, but here's what I expect to see. Different. I expect to see these several dojo and sub-lines of the school doing the kata in different ways. It's all supposed to be the same, the "Santo-ha Niten Ichiryu" but it's also a "summit" or some such. In other words, "let's get all the folks together and see how we're doing it now". I'm assuming of course but knowing what my sensei said back then I'm pretty sure that's what this is. So I'm going to see variation, I'm going to see different interpretations of the same kata.

They're all going to be interesting, they're all going to be recognizable but maybe I'm going to see someone on the other side of the attack line from where I expect to be at the end of a kata. (I cheated, I saw that when I was poking through the vid to see what was on it.)

Amazing, some people, even back then (1997) were doing it wrong. Or I'm doing it wrong?

Well, having read Musashi's works, and assuming the various translators are not all idiots, I'd say that it would be a pretty good idea not to call anyone right or wrong if trying to "go back to the source" to figure out how to do it. Musashi was not particularly clear in some of his explanations of the physical movements of his kata. Considering that his books were written all at once and he wasn't all that interested in passing along physical movements, I'd say that isn't surprising. In fact he was rather dismissive of those schools that dealt only with the physical shape and fingerwork and timing of kata.

However, for me the source isn't Musashi, it's my teacher from around the time of this video. I'm still not going to look too closely at "the source" because I'm not too worried about being wrong. What is wrong? If I'm doing it now in a different way than my sensei did it then what does that mean? It means I get to think about why I'm doing it differently now than when I was taught it. Maybe I mis-learned it then? Maybe I took lousy notes?

Maybe I learn something more than "I was wrong", that would be nice.

Look, if you're firing a rocket at Mars and you miss, (yes I'm really going to rocket science here) you would be wrong. The idea was to hit the planet and if you miss you were wrong somewhere along the line. Defined goal, obtained or not? Right or wrong.

What's the defined goal of Niten Ichiryu that you can be right or wrong? That you do the kata exactly as Musashi taught them?

No, I'm not too worried that I'll see the kata being done differently than I do it now, or even then. I expect to see differences and I expect that I'll enjoy thinking about why in the world anyone would do it like that. I will learn from the differences.

What if I see that I'm doing it exactly like it was done then, and that everyone then did it exactly the same way?

Then I'll regret wasting my time watching the video. It won't make me feel superior that I'm doing the kata as they were done then because I don't feel that those doing the kata in ways different to how I do them now are wrong. How could I feel validated and "right" and superior if I don't feel others are incorrect.

I'm right:

Let's examine the case where I am right and others are wrong. What can be done with that? Well I could tell them they are wrong and I could teach them how to do it right. The wisdom can flow from me to them. How does that help me? It would feed my ego? Is that a good thing?

We're different:

What if they do it differently than me? What if we are both working toward the same goal (Musashi's hyoho) but are looking at the kata from different angles? Then I could argue with those other folks. I could defend my way of doing it and listen to them defend the way they do it. Maybe we both learn something. Yes!

I'm wrong:

And if they are convinced they are correct and I am not? Then I shut up and let them teach me their way and I learn something and they learn nothing. I love that one, they get what they want and I maybe get what I don't want but maybe need. They are right and I know more than I did an hour before. Yes!

How can you learn if you don't think you're wrong? Or at the very least, permit the small possibility that you might perhaps be slightly wrong?

Oh damn, we're back to faith vs science again aren't we?

June 21, 2016

Take it outside

I don't know how many folks practice outside but those who do tend to be quite uppity about it. "You don't fight on the dojo floor so training there is useless."

Perhaps it is, but I'm a big fan of a perfect dojo floor, it's a lot more fun than stumbling into holes in the ground and stepping on dried up seedpods that have spikes.

Most folks will say things like "if you can do it outside on a slope with rocks and sticks you can do it in a dojo. Me, I think it's the other way around. I can walk around on rocks and sticks, can even do it uphill. What I can't do outside is practice for two hours letting a sword swing within a half an inch of my nose. It's too dangerous. I might do it once if I had to, if it was an actual duel and it would end the fight, but for a practice where every one of your partners is nicknamed Lurch? I don't think so, you learn that sort of distancing inside where you're not worrying about falling over.

Don't get me wrong, I like practicing in a hat and do it every summer, it's just that outdoor practice is a different thing than indoors. And yes, I think it ought to be done.

Practicing outside is like working yourself up to a massive adrenalin dump and then trying to be subtle. Subtle doesn't work when all your fine motor control is gone and it doesn't work outside. The little sliding step that your partner doesn't see in the dojo, doesn't exist on the lawn.

Musashi warned against those schools that relied on finger and wrist techniques. You know why outdoors. Musashi talked about picking a target-rich attack line rather than trying to snipe at wrists and that makes sense outside. Big sweeping cuts to catch anything that is swaying into range when you miss your initial target that has wobbled, quite accidentally, out of range. If you miss a wrist your opponent is still there in range, if you miss on a big line to the body it's likely he's moving back and that means he may be on his heels tripping over that bush you spotted.

Different tactics, different attitudes. The idea of waiting and cutting as your opponent comes into range makes a lot of sense outside. After all, why jump at him when you're not sure about what you're going to land on, instead provoke him to jump in and catch him from some solid footing. The body goes before the sword as the boss says, but sometimes just the sword is good.

Getting bored of your iaido practice? Turn to 45 degrees or even 180 and practice. Or close your eyes. Getting too good at your jodo? Get out the door and learn a whole new set of skills. Antiseptic will take care of the cuts and aspirin will do for the sprains.

June 20, 2016

Two sides to kata

There are two sides to kata, the striker and the winner. That's the usual form, the one who attacks "loses". I can think of one or two kata that we practice which might look like the winner initiates things but further study would seem to indicate there is a step missing which is present in another set from the same school so again, attacker loses.

The attacker is uchidachi, striking sword. The defender is shidachi, receiving sword. The definitions would pretty much dictate who attacks and who responds.

A kata is not to be "broken". There is no free-form movement built into a kata, there are no places to improvise. This is for safety and it's to preserve the story that holds the lessons of the kata.

The two sides of the kata are getting different lessons. Uchidachi is called the teaching side. This is true in that uchidachi sets the pace, the distance, the rhythm and cuts in such a way that shidachi can perform the actions that let him "win". Shidachi follows, reacts, and responds.

This is NOT a formula for learning "how to do this when he does that". Nor is it uchidachi teaching shidachi how to use a sword. The kihon does that. At the recent jodo seminar the juniors and those who were grading went with one hachidan and were put through the kata they were going to demonstrate for the weekend. The seniors? Not more advanced kata, not even the basic kata, but the kihon. We spent three days on kihon. The jodo section of the CKF has added kihon demonstration to all the levels we test because we mean for our various dojo to practice kihon. A lot.

Kata are not for learning how to swing your weapon, they are for other things.

For shidachi they are to learn how to read an opponent, how to react and respond to attacks. How and when to get off the line, how to get to the right distance to strike. Shidachi follows all through the kata except for the final strike, and then follows after that. Shidachi picks up the timing and rhythm from uchidachi, shidachi struggles to keep up, struggles to keep still and present a target when every fiber of the body wants to move offline NOW.

You know this.

Uchidachi, well they just walk in and swing right? They are the senior because they know the kata and are there so shidachi can learn the kata, that's why they are sempai right? Well sort of. That's the "tate mae" the face of it, but there's more.

Uchidachi has the harder job. He has to figure out exactly what shidachi can handle and give a small bit more than that. Exactly that. Too little and shidachi can't learn. Too much and shidachi is crushed and again, does not learn. It's the same as weightlifting, if you don't lift to failure you won't gain strength very fast. If you fail immediately, if you can't get it up, you may as well not be trying. (Yes, there will be some strength gain trying to lift something you can't lift and some gain by lifting a bitty bit of weight, but we're talking efficiency.) So uchidachi has to read shidachi. Each time, each kata, because shidachi can learn in jumps. Shidachi can "get it". Uchidachi cuts to the correct target, makes a big cut, so shidachi can get in there. Eventually the cuts come a bit faster, a bit smaller as uchidachi teaches. Not too much, not too little.

But wait, there's more! Uchidachi controls the kata and so controls shidachi. Or should. This is where uchidachi learns, this is what the uchidachi side teaches uchidachi, control of your opponent. How do you make shidachi stand and wait for the strike? First charge in there and scare him, make him want to move too soon, then stop dead still and make him wait on high alert for too long. He moves! Now uchidachi can track him and strike him! But does not. Uchidachi knows the kata, uchidachi can simply strike to where shidachi is going to be but he must not. Uchidachi could strike to miss shidachi and help keep him safe just in case he doesn't get out of the way. WORSE! He must not! Uchidachi swings for the target and stops if shidachi is not out of the way. Uchidachi watches shidachi move too soon and does not swing... the humiliation of stepping offline too soon and NOT getting hit is worse than getting hit. Shidachi learns.

Uchidachi doesn't react to what shidachi is doing, uchidachi controls his little puppet, a shift in weight here, a tiny squeeze of the hand there, clues for shidachi, tools for uchidachi. Musashi speaks of the ruler and the string, uchidachi uses them to move shidachi forward (push on the ruler with your hara and shidachi moves back), and back, (pull the string with your hara and shidachi follows). If the skills between uchidachi and shidachi are similar, or uchidachi is not very experienced, uchidachi studies this distance, learns how to move as the distance closes or opens until he can control it. To within an inch. This isn't done with the eyes and the brain, it's done through the hara, the gut, it's a feeling. He's moving now. Eventually, I'm moving him now.

Uchidachi doesn't just lead, he controls. Shidachi doesn't just follow, he struggles to escape, to resist that control.

All within the kata. The kata must not be broken, yet if both sides are working hard and the kata breaks there should / will be a reaction. Uchidachi will swing! Shidachi will not be there, his sword will be in uchidachi's suigetsu. Shidachi cuts the wrong target! Uchidachi will not be there, but an inch out of range. Smiling.

You think thirty years of doing the same old boring kata is ahead? Do your jobs and both of you will be exhausted in the next thirty seconds. You will struggle to do a brand new kata each and every time you walk toward your partner, not wondering if you will live or die, but wondering how you will kill him this time.

Did I say thirty seconds? A third of a second. It always comes down to a third of a second. Did I? Is he?

Each and every kata, shidachi learns how to live. Important stuff for sure. Uchidachi learns how to die. Tough lesson, to die so someone else can live. This is not your "gun-fu" martial-looking art. This is not your "unbeatable techniques learned fast in the next seminar". This is not your "beware old men who know (insert name here)-do" t-shirt.

Big boy pants on, go get your sticks.

June 18, 2016

Propaganda Practice

It occurs to me people might figure that if they know they can be manipulated, and if they have studied the methods, they ought to be immunized.

That is perhaps true, they do teach media studies in school sometimes, and this usually involves knowing how commercials work. So once taught always known.

But like that Ikea commercial with the sad little lamp in the rain on the sidewalk. "You are crazy, it's only a lamp" (Svedish accent). We can fall for good propaganda. We do fall for it. Even when we know we fall for it we do anyway.

So innoculation, constant practice at giving and receiving it is a good thing. And that can happen in a martial art. The idea that falling for "the big lie" can have immediate, personal consequences is also helpful. Who doesn't think that the negative reinforcement of a punch in the face when fooled by a feint isn't instructive? A feint? Something that is not true that is presented as the truth to make others act in a certain way, usually to their eventual sorrow.

Paying attention or getting smacked is a good way to learn how to pay attention. Being whacked on the head for going into automatic pilot during a kata can be a good reminder that mindless repitition of a movement pattern, like mindless parroting of "talking points" and slogans, is actually dangerous.

When I was an undergrad we used to say "Damned foreigners, come over here take our jobs". We used to say it whenever we found ourselves saying something stupid and mindless and "evilly banal". It was a way to remind ourselves that we are no better than the rest. It was usually followed up with something like "nuke the whales", which at that time often had the power to make people stop and think about what they were saying. No Nukes, Save the Whales became Nuke the Whales which has all the correct bits but in the wrong places. It punches buttons but then immediately makes those buttons useless. Did we think about what we were doing? Were we really Dadaists? Probably not, we were just mocking ourselves and our knee-jerk sloganeering.

It takes quite a bit of work to be cynical, to look below the slogan, to resist "having faith", to stop being a "follower of principles".

Will budo automatically give us the practice? Budo is a tool, it can be used in many ways. There are folks out there that say things like "you must do everything sensei says with no questions asked". Not really conducive to producing thoughtful students. There are those who talk about "samurai ideals", without understanding what those ideals were to the samurai of 1590 and how those were different from the ideals of the Imperial Army of 1940. Which "samurai" do you figure had the most use for unquestioning loyalty and mindless obedience? Well, on second thought, both of them would have wanted that, one of them mostly got it.

I have been accused of not being very..... I can't think of another way to put it, of not being very Japanese. I often don't do things "like they are done in Japan" and I don't "do what sensei tells you to do". I freely admit I don't do things like they are done in Japan simply because I don't know what that is. The statement "like it's done in Japan" usually means "like I do it" or "like I want you to do it". Japan is a big place, they do it lots of ways there. As far as not "doing what sensei tells you to do" that's simply not true. I do things the way sensei tells me to do. I often fail to "do things the way sensei wants you to do" because I am not so good at reading minds. At about that point someone tells me I "don't understand the Japanese culture" which apparently has something to do with reading minds. The thing is, most of my sensei told me to think for myself and avoid being a mindless follower. It's usually students who have been in the game a lot less time than I who are telling me I'm not Japanese.

Usually, but not always. You will find true believers everywhere.

Having a certain type of faith in your sensei is useful, he may ask you to do things that you don't "get". The thing is, I always figure that while you save time by not asking why, it's not a virtue to refrain from asking why. Not asking why "because asking why implies lack of faith" is a good way to promote "faith". I believe that doing this kata for 30 years will make me a master. 10,000 hours! If, after 30 years you still haven't a clue why you twitch your sword this way or that at this time or that it must be because you are a poor believer, your faith was not strong enough, you didn't put your hands together and wish hard enough.

Me, I always figured you could just ask sensei if you tried for a month or so and still didn't get it. My sensei always had an answer for me. It's not "having faith" that should stop you from asking constant questions, it's good learning. Try it, try it again, think, try once more. If you still don't get it, ask before you waste more time. You waste time by constant questions and you waste time by not asking when you ought to.

Learn, don't waste time. Find a budo teacher who wants you to learn. Avoid a budo teacher who wants you to follow. Most budo teachers are poor, and rather powerless in the grand scheme of things. If you want to be a follower then follow someone who has a lot of money and will reward you for following.

Cynical? Dang tootin'. And I want cynical students, keeps me from thinking I understand stuff. Keeps me from thinking this stuff is simple and the way I do it is the right way.

Nuke the Whales.

June 17, 2016

Toxic Masculinity

Testosterone poisoning, and a host of other such terms seem to float across my awareness on occasion. There seems to be a problem so folks say, with boys and men. There must be, we have terms.

Do we have solutions? Well in my own experience we have zero tolerance on the school yards, we have special programs for teaching the boys tolerance and sensitivity and all that other good stuff. I haven't a clue if any of it has done anything at all. I suspect not, there is excellent research out there to indicate that blaming a single group for a problem and telling them they have to fix it is a good way to achieve exactly the opposite effect.

Watch out, old man remembering. When I was a lad we had segregated schoolyards, the girls on one side, the boys on the other and the couples would hold hands across the line between us. The boys played British Bulldog and broke our arms, I have no clue what the girls did, played with dolls? Dad went to work and drank too much at lunch and died early from a heart attack. Mom stayed home and took care of the kids and cleaned house and took valium. At least that was how it was supposed to go. Actually Grand-dad came back from the war a bit shattered and drank and Gramma booted him out and raised Dad on her own, working all her life. Dad came back from the war a bit shattered and drank and Mom booted him out and raised us "on her own" and worked all her life.

I don't know where all these other families were, but not in my neighbourhood. We had no adult supervision and careful guidance like kids get today, my mother walked me to school the first day of Kindergarten and asked me if I could find the way again. I said yes and that's the last time I remember anyone taking me to school. From then on we were out the door in the morning, back for dinner (if we didn't make it we didn't eat) and then back for supper. Lunch is a city thing guys. Somehow we grew up without becoming monsters.

My mother's generation fought for birth control. Planned Parenthood was a dangerous organization, just like the US politicians say it is.

Once television hit, the generation after my mother had "consciousness raising". This was not to teach young boys to become Metrosexuals or Justice Warriors (got that one off of Dilbert this morning), but to teach those housewives who stayed at home and looked after the kids and cleaned the house that they were downtrodden and miserable. It was a tough sell, many of those downtrodden women watched their mothers fight alongside their fathers to put food on the table. Big gardens were not something you got advice on from magazines, they were how you fed your family and Mom was out back with a hoe. The downtrodden housewives were, mostly, quite aware that a single income that would support a family was a brand new thing.

And short lived it turns out. We didn't need consciousness raising to get women back into the workforce, all we needed was the loss of the middle class jobs that would let them stay home.

Still, life remains awful and we must guard against injustice and inequality. I wonder how many people would appreciate the equality of Gramma's time where everyone is free to starve in the same way. When both men and women are out of work and out of money and no social safety net to support those slackers, it's a pretty equal world. At least within the social class. (Beware when that class realizes there is another class out there that they aren't going to get into. You'll need a good military and a strongman willing to use it.)

Three quarters of a trillion dollars, I think that's the amount us boomers are supposed to inherit from our parents in the next ten or twenty years. Good thing too, it will maybe pay off those debts we've built up since the 70s on those credit cards. Manspreading is our biggest problem? How about 20% interest rates?

I have seen four or five generations now and every one of them fought against something or other. It's our nature to fight against something and if there's nothing to fight, we'll invent something. That's why imaginary wars and threats to "our way of life" work. We are not a nice, peaceloving, earth-nurturing warm-fuzzy. We are animals that figured out how to cooperate our way past the tigers and the wolves. We are nasty, brutish and their lives are short. If we don't have something to turn all that cooperation on we'll invent it.

Look, "toxic masculinity" and "testosterone poisoning" are exactly the same as "hysteria" and "PMS". Just imaginary terms right? Well except that you can use PMS as defence against a murder charge while testosterone poisoning is a presumptive judgement of guilt. Men cannot be drunk enough to excape responsibility for their acts while women can never be sober enough to be responsible. Ladies, you won the war, get over it.

My solution for all this? The same as always, get the kids into martial arts and keep them there. The boys will get the crud beat out of them by the girls of their age and the girls might just learn not to smack the boys.

I'm not kidding. I warned my daughter many times not to hit her brother and eventually I had to grill her about who hits who at school. "Is it right for a boy to hit a girl". OUTRAGE. "Yet it's OK for you to draw blood or bruise the boys with your slapping and punching?". You see, victims are never responsible so make sure you are always the victim.
Martial arts don't talk about victims, they teach how to fight. Simply knowing how to hurt someone else efficiently and perhaps permanently will usually reduce the temptation to smack someone. There are none so anti-war as those who were on the front lines. Generation after generation of civilian soldiers in my family and my father's advice? "If we go to war again son, go to the Yukon and get lost". Never officers you see, just soldiers on the front line.

The psychological aspects of budo are especially good training. To understand how to manipulate and control others through your voice and body language will also tend to reduce the use of these abusive tactics. My mother once told me she left my father after he hit her. She told me this in order to explain to my obviously shocked face that she had pushed him into doing it because she couldn't really justify leaving him otherwise. It wasn't that time. She knew what she was doing and how to do it and I thank her for telling me that at an early stage of my life. I soon recognized my own ability to manipulate and belive it or not, I've tried to keep that superpower in check all my life.

We are not nice. YOU are not nice. Nice is for extinct species. Understand how that reality can be used to manipulate you, and how you can use it to manipulate others. Terms like "Toxic Masculiinity" create enemies in your reptile brain.

Can you think of other terms?

William Randolf Hearst once said something like "you furnish the pictures and I'll give you the war". "Remember the Maine". Go look it up, or can I just say WMD?

You think you can't be manipulated? That's like saying you can't be punched in the face. Take up a martial art and see how likely either is.

And take your kids along.

June 16, 2016

Organize This!

Organizations are funny things. Recently we were talking about a high ranked teacher who left his organization and then returned only to be dropped a couple of dan ranks. He hadn't left for that long, a year maybe, so what happened in the meantime? Did the standards jump that much in a year that his former students now outrank him?
Of course not, it was a punishment for leaving in the first place. That's obvious, but wow, if I were in charge I'd be very reluctant to do that sort of thing. If you can take rank away for punishment you can obviously give it for reward. You like Joe? Give him a couple dan ranks. You don't like Al? Take a couple of ranks away. And this says what for the rank system? No I'd fine the fellow, charge him a large amount of money to re-join if you want to punish him, don't destroy the faith in the rank system. How smart is it to give public proof that your rank system is not a standard of technical prowess but a system of reward and punishment. Unless of course that's what it is.

In the past (deep deep past) we had a fellow from a different art entirely get in touch and say "I can bring 500 people into your organization, what rank will you give me?" Umm, ikkyu if you pass? There were two different ideas of rank going on there, and while I appreciate that 500 people coming into our federation would be a hell of a boost, the rank system is not the way to do it.

Lest you think that I'm suggesting our rank system is too important, too prestigious to be used as a recruitment tool, I'm really not. The rank system simply has no meaning to someone who has not gone through it. The thinking at the time was that "this guy has no idea what our ranks mean so can't really be asking for one can he?" To be handed a rank means the rank has no meaning from a technical point of view. Our rank is more or less a sign of how long you've been practicing. It represents skill, it doesn't confer it. Our ranks have little other meaning than this.

Now some organizations use rank for other things than as a symbol of time served. In our own group a 5dan means that you can put students forward for a grading. Certain ranks are required to sit on a grading panel. It is not the rank that is important in either of those cases, it's the skill, the accumulated practice, that those ranks represent. As I was once told, "not every 7dan in Japan gets to sit on a grading panel, only those who have the skills are allowed". Nice if you've got that many 7dans hanging around. On the other hand, to hand a 7dan to someone who doesn't practice the art and then to put him on the grading panel.... Yeah.

So we come to one of these Zen things. If you want a grade handed to you it proves that you don't know what that grade means and so we can't give it to you. Why? Because it's meaningless to you and so to trade a meaningless grade for 500 students would be a bad deal for you and dishonest on our part.

Automatic transfer grades would be the same thing really, to switch from one iaido or jodo organization to another and receive the same grade (or maybe a higher one? Same as the prior discussion then, grade for bodies delivered) would be meaningless. Grades are not equivalent. At 11 years I got an Aikido shodan, we'll give you an iaido shodan at about a year if you time it right. Our 5dan takes what? Assuming a year to shodan it's 11 years and the aikido shodan let me (at that time) grade students up to ikkyu and put them forward to grade for dan ranks. The same as the godan in iaido so the equivalence is shodan = godan. Except of course that aikido is not iaido so technically, no possible equivalence at all.

Transfer grades can work if they are tested. Can you, as a member of another organization, do our iai kata at the same level as your current rank? Fine, here's our recognition of that in the form of a rank. Maybe you don't sit on a panel for a while until we know you understand our judging criteria but that would certainly be on the table for the future.

Jump grades? I got two of them, one for iaido (from zero to 4dan) and one for jodo (from zero to 3dan). That's the price you pay for being there before the grading system exists. You sometimes have to sort it out to start it so you do a one-time placement according to time in harness and who teaches who and then you're done. Do it the same way you would test a transfer grade, here's the grade you're being offered, can you pass the test? Yes? Bingo here's your piece of paper, carry on as you have been. Do you need to have outside examiners in an already established system to make this meaningful? Certainly.

Do you keep the jump grade system around after the first one? "Hey, I'm a shodan and I'm good enough for a yondan so let me try for yondan, I bet I can pass it". Why? What good would that do for you or for the organization? For a transfer in from another organization maybe but for someone already there what purpose would it serve?

Iaido in the kendo federation is a sort of strange thing really, the rank is in a set of 12 kata with, at higher grades, a couple of koryu kata as well. So there are two things not quite connected going on. The testing in seitei and practice in koryu that may or may not be taught by someone in the same organization (usually but not necessarily).
Something like karate or aikido or judo is tested much differently, in this case all of your practice is tested at once, your "koryu and seitei" is on the table.

Then you have things like the smaller koryu sword schools that may or may not have testing at all, and if they do, it's usually not a dan system. But it could be....

June 15, 2016

Tombo Cottage Seminar Report

I had forgotten what a weekend of Kage and Niten could do to my right shoulder. Drawing a five foot sword on a sandy beach and then working the one handed kata of Niten will really stress that poor damaged joint.

Never mind, it usually goes back together with a bit of weightlifting. The seminar seemed to be a success, 9 people for two days of sun, sand and swords. The days began with some lazy snoozing for about half the crew and wake-ups at maybe 10am with breakfasts done around noon. At some point someone remembers why we are there and class gets started. I think we had about 4 or five hours of practice each day. Plenty for cottage work.

Saturday we spent the late morning and early afternoon on the beach doing Kage. We spotted a few people watching form a safe distance (some behind trees) but nobody came over to join us. The beach was wet and the fog was rolling in yet a few brave kids shared the sand with us, building castles and digging holes.

We were simply learning the steps for most of the class, but the very act of trying to draw these blades is an education in hip, leg and body positioning. One of the seniors (Dennis, the man with more nicknames than you can shake a canoe at) later explained to the class that there are many correct ways to generate power, there is the straight ahead square-on hips of the Kendo Federation (kendo and iaido) and there is the angled hip-line of jodo, the koshimi of Niten, but then, then there is the hip of Kage with its groin-ripping length. Fun stuff. Later in the day after an old-man-nap I noticed some shuffling and clacking upstairs in the dojo. Eavesdropping like the old gossip I am I was quite happy to hear some good discussion and instruction in the nito seiho of Niten. I left well enough alone for a while but eventually, coffee in hand, I drifted upstairs where I was pulled into the class. Honestly, they were doing fine but the group eventually gathered and we spent the rest of the afternoon in a "mitori geiko" class where we discussed the five two-sword kata and what they were showing us.

If all this sounds a bit loose, it is. I honestly don't mind if people drift in and out of classes as they wish. I'm more concerned with them learning than standing around at attention and you can learn a lot by looking and listening. This isn't boot camp, or even "lose some pounds" class so I feel no obligation to chivvy people into lines. In fact, I really like it when people who may think some private practice is going on will still push their face around the corner to learn what they can. It's always better instruction if you can steal it rather than have it pushed at you.

Practice or not, listen or not, it's a hobby and I'm not wasting my time no matter what. I got a bit of trim painted, a bit of work done on the place in between scarfing down more red meat than I usually eat in a month as one of the other students put it. (The trip home involved buying veggies and fruit and snacking on those for three hours).

Sunday had the same slow start but eventually we got six pairs upstairs doing the itto seiho of Niten. These are delightful kata, my favourite I think. Real "walk up and kill him" stuff. The new students learned the footwork in about thirty seconds and we were right into the good stuff, distancing, timing and all the other basic things. At one point someone came out with "this stuff is all psychological isn't it?".

Heh heh. You only get that sort of spontaneous observation when you're with a bunch of folks you trust, and how can you not trust a group of ten people crammed into a smallish cottage with cold running water and communal cooking and cleaning.

Incidentally, the cottage was cleaned and tidied up without any direction from me at the end of the day.


June 13, 2016

Cottage Rules

Cottage rules are very much like dojo rules. Look around, see what needs doing and do it.

While sitting here eating my oatmeal and drinking my coffee I can see a sink full of dishes. I took two giant pots off the stove to make the coffee, both of which need washing as well.

Someone cooked last night, lots of people ate, nobody washed. Hmm. Actually there were two meals cooked yesterday and no washing yet.

As I made coffee I made enough for those who were awake and drank it, but those who drink tea... there is a box of tea in the van where it has sat through two trips, three people must have seen the box as they got out each time. Yet it remains in the van.

I've got a list of jobs to be done up on a whiteboard on the wall, I crossed off cleaning the chimney because I did. I see the rest of the jobs are still there. I'll get to them another weekend, they're things like change the oil in the generator or wash the walls so not intuitive. To be fair, people are up here for a seminar, not to work on my cabin.

The rule in that case is: Clean up after yourself. Beer cans in the recycle bin, dirty dishes at least put into the sink rather than left where they fall when you're done.

These are rules. The intention behind the rules is really quite simple. "If someone doesn't clean the dishes I might not get my next meal because there's not enough room to cook if there are dirty dishes."

It's entirely selfish, there's no altruism involved. Well, maybe in so far as you pitch in and do something before you get so hungry you fall over, which might mean before someone else hungry enough to fall over does the dishes first. Altruism makes you feel good so feel good about doing the dishes before someone else does them. You weren't a sucker you were contributing to the well-being of the group. Yeah, yeah, that's it.

Tidying up the old beer cans means there's room to put new beer cans down. Just make sure you claim that spot at the coffee table.

Bringing in the tea means not going out to the van to get tea when you want tea. Oh wait, the tea did get in, its up on the shelf where it should be, to be discovered after someone went to the van looking for it. Amazing. Must be a senior student around the place.

Of course, if you do a cottage job without being told exactly how to do it you run the risk of being told "that's not how it's done" and nobody likes that. Wait, I like that because being criticized for doing something means you never have to do it again.

Doesn't it?

Does in my world, unless I'm getting paid that is. I do a volunteer job and someone tells me I did it wrong, it's their job now. That's only good sense, if it's so important that the salt gets left on the table but the pepper gets put back into the cupboard, it's obvious that I should not be messing around with the system putting the salt in the cupboard.

Oh yes you've encountered that situation, don't be telling me you haven't.

Dojo gets swept before class. I've swept dojo for thirty years, I like sweeping, I have a bald head, call me Sweeper, beware a smiling old man standing there with a broom. I come into class and there's five or six students standing around talking. I grab a broom and start sweeping, someone always comes up and says "Oh sensei I'll do that" and I say "No it's fine I like sweeping".

But seriously, just because I once said I don't mind doing a job, or I've done it before, doesn't mean it's my job, reserved for me only for the rest of time. Feel free to grab the broom and sweep before I start sweeping which reminds you that someone should be sweeping.

Now I'm done my coffee and maybe the sun has got around to the hose and there is some hot water which I will gather to do dishes since other people are waking up and one of them is going to want to cook breakfast.

I'm the host, it's my job. Right?

No, but I am a teacher and there are many, many forms of teaching and one of the things you are supposed to learn from budo is looking around and doing the jobs that need doing. Teaching by example. It's a thing.


June 12, 2016

Going it alone

The question for the evening was how to train if you are on your own. After a monumental struggle with my phone and my tablet involving downloading an extra app, trying to copy and paste where Android decided you don't copy and paste...... all just to find an email address that should be in my contacts list anyway.... I'm ready to chuck all of this back in the bin and go it alone.

But that's not quite what the question implied, it was how does one train budo on one's own. Granted, sensei are usually at least as annoying as these "smart devices" and about as smart, so I can see wanting to train without one. I certainly would like to be without that portable email device.

But you can't train alone in the martial arts. You have to learn this stuff somewhere, either in person or through books and videos. In no case can you learn budo without having another person provide instruction to you. You can make stuff up but that's not budo. Or at least not what we consider budo to be. Budo is a lineage, not a "way of fighting" and you can't be a lineage of one generation in length.

Let's get to the usual question. I've learned this stuff from someone and now I no longer have access to him. What do I do? First, you practice what you know. This is pretty obvious, or should be. If you don't practice what you know you won't retain it, in fact you'll lose it. So practice every day, or whenever you usually practice.

Next, if your sensei is still alive (one of the most common ways to be alone in your practice is to have a sensei die) then visit whenever you can to get checked and to learn a bit more. If you are a long distance student to begin with you might get a "data dump" of information in a very short time. Write it down or lose it.

I remember speaking with students who spent years in Japan learning an art who would watch other foreigners come for a week and get ten times the information they got in a year. Didn't seem fair but it is two different situations. You want a lot of stuff in a very short time? Visit once a year for a week, get the shape of a whole bunch of stuff and then hope you can remember it. You want to learn this stuff in depth... but slowly? Go to class two or three times a week.

If your sensei is alive and not available for short visits maybe he's available to answer a letter (those were like emails but using pen and paper and the post office... sort of a UPS for paper and pen packages). Or today, maybe you can irritate him as much as he irritated you by buying him a smart device so you can communicate with him.

It's truly not hard to contact people any more, unless there is a language barrier and then it's as hard as it always was. I know folks who use video chat programs to do remote classes. It would work quite well I suspect. I have got to the point of making videos to send to people in order to answer questions, haven't quite got to the video lesson thing yet.

And if you no longer have a sensei?

Find another one, that's allowed when your teacher dies. If you are young and half trained it's more or less expected for you to do that. If your organization is large and you are in the heirarchy, a lineage of some type, you would be expected, even if fully trained, to fit yourself into that heirarchy somewhere. Nobody likes a loose cannon rolling around on deck.

Not practical to find another teacher?

Books, your notes, another, similar art, a lot of thinking, a lot of practicing and setting yourself questions that you must answer by looking deeper within your own art.

Teach. I mean it, students ask the dumbest questions, the ones that are so dumb you've never thought of them, and now you have to think about them in order to answer them. Maybe you teach yourself at this time. Just in case you say something interesting, listen to yourself as you answer.

If you just can't do any of that, if it's just too hard and too depressing to work on the stuff on your own and you don't have a sensei any more.... "tsk tsk, that's a shame, too bad" (etc. etc.)

Not trying to fix something you don't want fixed, but it's OK to stop practicing. You have, in all likelihood learned lots already.

June 11, 2016

Kata aren't important

Yes I know I recently said that kata were the way the schools are transmitted and that we ought to pass them along unchanged. Yes that would imply that they are important but I was talking to a beginner to the club. We do a lot of arts, compared with most dojo, and the topic of the day is dictated by the seniors in the class. It's up to them to tell me what they need to work on because I don't keep track. This means a beginner doesn't often get the chance to collect the kata in order or with much chance of repetition.

When they've been around long enough they start collating the kata, and of course all the books are written to help with this. If they've got the fundamentals the specifics aren't hard to pick up.

So, for that beginner? The kata are not important, they can be left to me to worry about, for now the goal is to understand what the kata are teaching, or what the art is teaching at the moment. It's important to get at the principles and the kihon when you're beginning. Too much memorizing of steps will distract from the lesson.

As many of my professors said throughout my school years. "It's in the book, pay attention to what I'm saying now". So yes, kata aren't important. Not right now.

And the lesson? We did a lot of Niten Ichiryu kihon last night, we were working on Nito Seiho, the two sword stuff and the way we do it requires a lot of shoulder movement. It doesn't take long for those shoulders to start screaming if you "try". Put anything but a bit of a grip and your arm falling assisted by gravity and you will pay for it in the morning. Light hands, light arms and an accurate track of the sword, that's the key.

The swords we use are light so it's possible to work with no tension in the shoulders but light swords mean you want to cut heavy and as a result you're fighting your instincts. Two swords moving in different directions at different times are hard to coordinate. You need to concentrate there too. To add trying to memorize the movements of a kata is just a bit of an overload. There's not much to the kata anyway, except for timing and distance and paying attention to your partner, which is what we did. Lots of analysis of the kata and not very much memorization because memorization leads to "getting your part down" without much attention to the other guy's part. That way leads to, as the Pamurai put it and as I'm going to steal it, "synchronized swinging".

Take a longish kata, memorize the heck out of your side of it, have a partner that does the same, now go through it as fast as you can, intersect with each other once in a while and you've got synchronized swinging but not a kata. When I see those sorts of thing on the interweb I want to reach into the screen and poke the folks just a little to watch them fall over. No balance at all, just a series of movements done real fast and barely in control.

When the defensive movement comes before the attack you know you've got synchronized swinging going on.

June 10, 2016

Rules and meaning

Have you been for a walk in the woods lately? If so, chances are that you've seen little bags of dog poop sitting along the side of the trail. That sort of thing is a combination of a rule with laziness. The rule is "stoop and scoop" and the laziness is "oh, there's no garbage can within four steps of where I am now, so we'll just put this here and someone else will collect it I'm sure". Forest fairies perhaps?

You think maybe the little bags fell out of a handbag or slipped off of a leash? Perhaps, until you see the things tied to a branch for the picker-up people to find all the easier. No the dog walkers are following the rules and then defeating the meaning. The meaning is "don't leave your dog's mess where it will create a problem", the rule is "put it in a bag".

But you're in the woods. Putting your dog's poop in a plastic bag and leaving it on the trail is the opposite result from the meaning of the rule. It has just created a problem. You know what? Let your dog poop lie where it falls on the dirt, unless it's on the trail. The rain will wash it into the soil along with the poop of dozens of other animals and the bacteria will take care of it. Your dog's poop is no more dangerous than that of a raccoon, even if you think it must be, after all it's your dog so it must be important. The little forest fairies that make dog poop disappear? Rain and bacteria folks, neither of which appreciate the plastic bag.

Kata are rules. It's a rule that you do the kata as you were taught, and it's a rule about that rule that you pass it along (with the other kata of your school) as you were taught it. That's a rule about a rule, a metarule. Terry Pratchett talks about first and second thoughts. Second thoughts are about first thoughts and maybe we need a little more second thought in our lives. Like, what is the meaning behind "stoop and scoop" and am I accomplishing that meaning by following the rule then dropping the baggie beside the trail? How about third thoughts? "What am I, an idiot? Leave the stuff where it is in the woods and let the trees eat it".

By all means, do the kata as you are taught it. Then think about that kata and try to figure out what it is supposed to accomplish. Does it have a principle I should think about? Is it simply practice in some movement or other? Those who are in my Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu classes will be familiar with my thoughts on So Dome. This is a kata where you draw and cut (nukitsuke) and then replace the sword in the scabbard (noto) several times. My thoughts? It's nukitsuke / noto practice. It's some sensei in the wayback lineage saying to a class "you guys suck at your nukitsuke and noto, you can't do iaido without nukitsuke and noto, here, do this exercise of nukitsuke and noto for a while. The next generation says "and here, do this exercise" and the students of the third generation say "so what's this one called teach" and teach says, umm dunno, never really got told what it was called, how about many stops? aaaand that's how you get kata.

I have no proof of that of course, but seriously, we're going to go into a fight against a whole bunch of people by putting the sword away and whipping it out repeatedly? Sure we make up all sorts of stories about it but... no. Other kata have deeper meanings, they teach things like how to use distance, how to invite an attack to a specific target, how to deal with multiple opponents and even, dare I say it, how to bring in the punters with a nice long, flashy kata just like those other schools have.

Seriously, you figure the old guys way back had no trouble finding enough students to make the rent?

And the meta-rule? The one about passing kata along as you were taught them? Third thoughts say you could be wrong about your second thoughts, maybe you didn't get the meaning of So Dome, maybe it has a meaning you missed. You pass it along to your students as a rule, they look for the meaning behind the rule, maybe one of those bright lights is smarter than you (not hard in my case) and gets the real meaning of the kata.

This happens you know. Schools can be passed along by several generations of dullards, getting weaker and more stylized but hanging on until one generation a bright light shows up who "gets it" and revitalizes the whole thing. The fact that every generation figures it's that brilliant beacon of budo is no reason to go changing the rules. Just in case, in the deepest parts of your ego where you might harbour a tiny little idea that you could be wrong, pass the damned things along as you were taught them.

If you're really that brilliant, create another set of kata and come back in four generations to see which set is still being practiced.

Me, I will be content to teach what I know and what I think I know in the hope (no, proven fact) that my students will be better than I am.

In the meantime I'll finish my coffee and watch a big cat across the road dig a hole, do it's business and cover it up for the empty-lot fairies to take care of.

June 9, 2016

Lightly Does It

We were working on jodo last evening, the Kendo Federation type, and were doing the partner kihon. They are an interesting exercise and have been drifting around quite a bit for the last few years. Not really in their essentials but in the specific way they get from one side of the dojo to the other. Over a couple of decades practice you might notice things start one way, move to another, and then come back again. It's these little cycles that give you a clue as to the range of possibilities rather than "the way". That aside, I want to talk about something that is not "in the range" but happens to everyone as they start their practice.

At one point in the practice I noticed folks having a bit of trouble with the movements, the sword was loading up and the jo was having trouble moving them. Usually a little bit of this is fine because the feedback tells jo if they have their body in alignment, but to stop the movement entirely is a bit over the top.

Beware too much concentration on parts of exercises where those parts don't exist.

In jo kata and kihon there are places where we stop that don't exist in real life. In this case it's at the catch of the sword in kuri tsuke.

Move to the side and catch the sword on the hilt, stop, then move the sword down to lock it to the swordsman's hip. The swordsman steps back as the jo is driven toward him and down so that both end up with their four feet in a line and the swordsman has the jo safely on the hilt between his hands.

Do you see something slightly odd there? What's the stop for? Well it's one of those "we can do this once the real way or we can do this for the next several years" situations. The once is to move to the side, smash the swordsman's hands on the way to ramming the jo into his face as we tip him over because we've stomped on his foot preventing him from stepping back to receive the technique.

When we stop in the middle of this movement, the swordsman naturally begins to resist the jo. It's an action / reaction thing. But there is no resistance in the sword just before it hits the target. If there is a tight grip and muscular direction in the sword during the attack it's really, really sloooow. Light hands to get up to speed and then grip just before you hit the target so you can drop your weight into it. When you do it for realsies the jo will be meeting an unweighted, fast-moving sword-hand combination that will be moved offline quite easily.

So to perform the kihon in a realistic way the key is to take the strength out of your swing, not to put it in, as most beginners assume.

This light feeling in the hands should be mirrored by a light feeling in the attitude. Be open to your partner, have a mind that is adaptable, eyes that see things easily and you will be able to move closely and smoothly together. The jo will approach you but not strike you hard. Be strong, unbending, determined to do things in the "correct" angles and distances as dictated by one sensei or the other and you will find the jo an inch or two inside your body. A bent rib might be the best outcome we could hope for in someone with such an inflexible set of principles.

Lightly does it, and understand those places where we stop for safety. Don't add stuff that really isn't there.

June 8, 2016

Confucious Say

"Not everything put into my mouth came from my brain."

I keep seeing these photos on my faceplant feed that have some generic martial arts photo and over that some banal saying like "if you fall down get up again" attributed to Musashi or sometimes Yagyu or Ueshiba. I'm pretty sure Musashi said "if you fall down get up again" but that would have been to a two-year old kid. It's sort of the thing you say to kids to stop them from crying when they've fallen down. There ya go, guys trying to fix it again.

Still, most of the stuff is of the "I'm pretty sure Musashi didn't say that" variety and it sort of bothers me. Not enough to do anything about it... OK I'm writing about it now but I've got to start this thing somewhere and why not here? The thing is, we really shouldn't put words in the mouths of real people, especially people who have left their own writings around for us to look at. Quote them, sure, but for the stuff you just make up because it sounds adorable, make up some deadly dude, or use Charlie Chan. He's fictional and spoke just like most of this stuff. Had some pretty good lines too if you listened to his mumbling "recognize backside of number one son because spank so much". That is so not correct for today in so many ways it's hilarious. Speaking of mumbling in movies, why isn't that a thing any more?

We used to get a lot of the "Confucious say:" fortune cookie stuff and it was mostly inspired by Charlie Chan I suspect. Don't do the "Confucious say" thing guys, "Uffda: we don't say that". Saw that on a t-shirt in Minnisotta, Minnessota.... North Dakota. It was Charlie that spoke the fractured English, Confucious would have spoken quite elegantly in whatever dialect he spoke I'm pretty sure. Does it make it more authentic to fracture the English that Musashi is supposed to have spoken? If you're translating something he did not say can you not "translate" it elegantly? Or does the fractured English lend it some oriental mystique?

I was about to say Orientals don't really speak like fortune cookies but I can't remember when I last read a fractured fortune. You've got to add "in bed" to them to make them funny these days. Charlie was oriental, his actor was not, and Charlie was a comic figure. The kids figured it was the way he spoke, I think it's the things he says that other characters don't catch.

"What's black and blue and floats in the bay?"

Yes, I know its OK to put words in the mouths of historical figures, it's harmless, after all what harm has ever come from putting words in the mouths of Jesus or Mohammed or any of the other Abrahamic prophets?

Nah, my point is that it's not a good idea to assume, by pure assumption, or by reading things into what others are saying, that you know what those others think. Usually the assumption is that they think the way you do.

They don't. They can't. It's dangerous to assume they do. Over the years people have pegged me from the far left to the far right. From a pacifist to a militarist. A chauvanist to a feminist. Look, dudes, you're not going to nail me down if I can't nail myself down. I'm whatever I need to be from moment to moment to get whoever is yattering at me to go away. Distrust everything I say (or trust everything I say, it comes to the same thing).

If you live in a country where you can say whatever you want, where you don't have to worry about who is listening to you, by all means, make up adorable sayings and live by them. It's only in a free and secure country where you can "live by your principles" which amounts to picking a set of rules to live by and never questioning them. If you are surrounded by enough fellow believers then you can get away with that, but please, for your own sake, don't travel. At best you might learn how to think, but there is a good chance you will be gunned down for your assumptions.

Next time you make something up for Musashi to say, consider if he might actually have said that. I'm sure you could find a fictional character to assign it to instead. Obi-Won Kenobi maybe? Yoda? Ah, no best not those, you'd be called out in a heartbeat. "Yoda never said that!"

Musashi say... I don't care what you say I say, I'm dead these 350 years.

June 7, 2016

Not spanking sensei

Thanks to all who wished me a happy birthday yesterday. I wonder if my senior students noticed that there was no "I may be old but I can still kick your ass" rhetoric coming from me in recent weeks. Fact is, they have been able to kick my ass for many years now and I suspect they know it.

Respect is a wonderful thing isn't it? They let me carry on with my fantasy. This prevents the unsightly scene of sensei being smacked. There are many reasons why budo teachers don't wind up on the floor more often but respect and kindness are probably the number one reasons.

Being better than all the students is what most teachers would like to believe I'm sure. And in some cases it's true. Kid's classes come to mind.

From the teacher's side, the most important way to prevent a broken nose is control of the class. This is "military discipline" at it's base. One doesn't train killers without making damned sure they don't use those skills on oneself. That means keeping them rigidly controlled so that they don't get "ideas". This has come into budo in North America through the military, perhaps even from one military to another after WWII, from Japan to the US troops who took Karate back home. Military discipline in class would be natural and has become the expected norm.

Standing at attention and lots of pushups isn't really a big thing in most of the koryu I've experienced, and certainly not in my class which seems to have a reputation for being a bit spotty in the order and respect department. Perhaps so, but I absolutely control the class as any of my seniors will tell you. It's my class and while I love hearing a lot of laughter there'd better not be any sloppiness during a kata. I'm even a bit intolerant of people talking while I'm talking, mostly because it makes it hard for me to hear myself speak.

I have, over the years, seen a student or two with "that look" in their eye. The one that says "OK old man, your time has come". It's usually my own fault for pushing them a bit too hard but it's something you don't want to miss. I have handled it in various ways, sometimes letting them have a go if I'm sure I can handle them, more often these years by disrupting their attack before it starts. By stopping the kata verbally and talking about this or that which puts their brains in a different mode. You don't try to rip the head off the guy you're listening to.

Which is part of budo. Nobody should ever think that budo is just the physical techniques. Listen to how your sensei defeats a student before they even attack. That's a budo you can take back to your job.

Of course, if you're in a class where all you ever do is march about, do pushups and stand at attention it's hard to learn. Perhaps the verbal stuff isn't in that art. Perhaps that sensei (to be a bit unkind) isn't sure he could handle a class that got out of control.

I just remembered a book I kept seeing in the martial arts section of a used book store which was named "Logical Self Defence". It was a book on formal logic, syllogisms and all that, and I always figured it was mis-filed. Perhaps it was where it should have been.

Although to be honest, I've seen more fights start because of a logical argument than be prevented by the same. Still, make them stop and think.

Then hit them upside the head.

Kim "I still think I can kick your ass" Taylor

June 6, 2016

Same time, same thoughts

Those from the same time tend to have the same thoughts. Certainly the same general attitude on life. Now we wouldn't notice this if things never changed, if life continued generation after generation on the same track. But things do change and attitudes become "old fashioned" and granny becomes "politically incorrect".

You don't have to approve of what granny says just because you understand where she got those ideas, it's perhaps part of the new thinking not to approve, or forget or forgive. It's the thinking of the times, this generation's intolerance. Once a jerk, ever a jerk and never a great man if a jerk. Hence Pablo Picasso was a lousy artist because he treated his women in a way that we don't approve of two generations later.

As you wish.

I was born in 1956 and I have some peculiar ideas because the folks who raised me had some peculiar ideas about their time, the great depression. I find it hard to spend what money I have, let alone live twenty years ahead where I'll finally pay off the credit card for that car I bought today. Debt is frightening to me. I lived in an era where hard work and education would get you ahead in the world, I grew up in an era of a middle class so folks of my era will say work hard and study and you'll get ahead, and they did, you could move from the lower classes to the middle classes. I know because I lived it. This isn't true any more, although people still want to believe it. It's probably keeping the revolution at bay for a while yet, but eventually the lower classes are going to figure out they're not middle class and are never going to be. Then there will be different thoughts.

Even while I was in high school I thought it would be best to send any kids I had to private school where they would make connections with the bosses and have a job through connections rather than by merit. Was I wrong? Last time I saw job seeking advice it was all about tapping those networks. Nary a word about "go upgrade your education" or "work hard and the boss will reward you with a promotion".

Whatever, as the kids say. I want to talk 1620 not 2016. I want to talk about a couple of big fellows who knew each other, had a duel (or two depending on which art I'm teaching that day) and created a couple of budo arts that persist to this day. Muso Gunnosuke for Shindo Muso Ryu jodo and Miyamoto Musashi for Niten Ichiryu. I can't help but keep comparing these two arts when I'm teaching them and the other day I had the thought that their movements (jo and tachi and shoto regardless) may just be due to their being of the same era.

I've commented on these similarities before, one place is in a Journal of Asian Martial Arts book "Constructive thoughts and practical applications" where a bunch of the magazine authors described two favourite techniques. I chose two shoto kata, one from Niten and one from Shindo Muso (Shinto Ryu actually) because they were similar, and taught me by two of my favourite teachers.

But why are these arts similar, why are the ways you move your hips and the timing and the whatever you want to look at the same? Is it because I'm teaching it from my own understanding? Partly I suppose, but I can separate koryu iai from seitei iai without any problem. Why not jodo and niten? I can separate aiki jo from SMR jo.

Is it because my teachers of Niten and Jodo were of the same generation? Again partly I suppose, they would have had similar experiences. Similar experiences amongst all the generations from the founder to today? Again, that's likely a part of it.

But I wonder if there was some common theory of combat from 1620 that created the similarities I'm noticing? It seems worth thinking about, maybe looking into some other arts of the same vintage. This will not be easy, "common sense" is never written down, simply because it's common sense and therefore something that everyone knows. Like "work hard and study and you'll get ahead".

June 5, 2016

Game theory, probabilities and budo

Nothing written here so grand as the title I'm afraid, it's just that the topic of game theory came up in relation to kata, in that it would be a good research project to see what game theory had to say about predicting the next move of a kata.

Now I have some sort of vague idea what game theory is, started to read a book about it years ago, but I'd bet Musashi had an even smaller understanding of the theory. Probably. Yet his writings about his school would indicate he had a pretty good idea that being predictable was a bad thing in a fight.

Many people say that by the time he wrote the Go Rin no Sho he was down to five kata. If you read the book you'll see he writes of five stances which are five kata. While I have no doubt that everything he wanted to teach could be put into five kata (one is enough for a clever student) I very much doubt he was teaching only those five by the time he wrote the book. He certainly taught other kata at earlier stages of his life. In his subsequent lineages, other kata were added PDQ by his students if they weren't directly from Musashi.

No, what he said was "here are the five stances, up, middle, down, left and right". What other places are there? In a fight your sword is going to be high to low, left to right, that covers all of it from what I can see. Behind your back is pretty much just for the movies. Instead of assuming the five kata of the book are all there is, maybe we think of them as examples of how to use the swords from those initial positions.

The two swords? Not something it seems he used much in a fight, but an excellent way to get your second hand off of the hilt. Put it on, certainly, when you need to really hack at something, but why keep two hands on the weapon, thus restricting your movements?

It was all about defeating the odds, or rather making the odds so high that prediction is practically impossible. You really don't want your opponent to be able to predict your next move. Two hands on one sword means restrictions on the way the sword is used, on where it is in relation to your body. A set of 30 kata? Well if someone has seen them and recognizes what you're about to do.....

Musashi said here's the five places your sword is likely to be, work from there. He further, and most importantly said that no matter what is happening, the idea is to cut the opponent. If you have to block, block with the idea that it will lead to cutting him. If you have to wait, wait for the chance to cut him, if you have to jump aside, jump to a place where you can cut him. If you are going to be hit and can do nothing else at all, step in and stick to him like glue and then when he tries to separate from you, cut him.

Work from the function, the form only exists to contain the function. The function is to cut your opponent down. Do that in as few moves as possible and if you are, for all practical purposes, unpredictable as you do that, good.

I'm not saying that game theory or probability theory would be wasted on an analysis of kata, far from it, I think it would be a great thesis topic, but one would want to put some restrictions on the topic first. If one wanted to use Niten Ichiryu then one would restrict all possible actions to those contained within the kata. One might justifiably restrict the analysis to a single set, on the assumption that one goes into a fight with the weapons in hand and does not draw another or substitute one for another. In a single tempo / encounter / passage (is there a Japanese term for the single clash of weapons?) there is little switching from one sword to another or adding the shoto half way through swinging the tachi. Even video games won't let you change a tachi into a shoto half way through a swing if you're too close to cut with the tach. Will they? Surely not.

Looking at the tachi seiho, they are mostly one step. He swings, you stab him in the throat. He swings, you lop off his head. That takes care of the first three. Next he swings, you block his swing, as he tries to disengage to attack again you lop off his head. That's five. That's also both sides of the attack line depending on which foot is moving forward at the time he starts his cut down on you.

You could totally model that. From six onward it gets a little more complicated, in that there are three movements in the next kata (moji gamae) but essentially you are going either right, left or straight down the middle to start every kata. Since our opponent is only cutting down the middle from high to low, at least at the beginning of each kata, the variation occurs on only one side.

So to analyse the set with probablilty you could figure out how many possible moves, how often those moves are made, etc. etc.

Game theory would be a lot more profitable for a post-grad thesis I suspect, since a lot of the work done in the kata is psychological. How do you get your opponent to back up? Crowd him a little so that he naturally goes back to get his cutting distance, but not too much so that he steps in to do tai atari (body strike). Where is that point? It depends on your opponent/partner. How do you get your opponent to commit to a strike? Take all the other strikes away, but without making it too obvious that you are trying to restrict his choices, because if you do that, he will then give up striking you in favour of disrupting your stance.

It could be fun! (It also makes me think that the old guys might have known a lot more about game theory than we give them credit for.)

Musashi's point of course is that you really need to get to the void. You need to get beyond all this "if you do that I'll do this" sort of thing and simply cut as if lightning from a clear blue sky. (Unpredictable.)

Takes a while to get there and in the meantime much fun can be had from the kata.

June 5, 2016

Function is form

The phrase form vs function can only be created by humans and our strange mental ability to abstract. In nature (except for our mental part of nature) form follows function. Or perhaps form is function? Or function dictates form. That's probably the best way to put it. You need a function to survive an environment, an organizm has the function, the form of that organizm becomes the correct form for that environment.

It's really pretty simple. It's Darwinian, there is a stress, a selective pressure, some invididuals exhibit traits that cope with that stress, those individuals reproduce.

Movements, waza can be thought of in the same way. Certain ways of swinging a sword are more likely to promote survival on the battlefield, others are not. Those that promote survival will have a certain shape, a certain form and that form is, by definition, correct.

Now we come to the Peacock's tail. Darwin had a hard time with this one but eventually came to the conclusion that sexual preference is a pressure. I'm sure most teens will agree that being attractive to the one you want to be attractive to is a big pressure, and it's just that simple. The Peacock's tail would seem to be pretty anti-survival, but in the absense of massive survival pressure (predators that zero in on that tail, knowing a rather un-maneuverable morsel is attached to it) then the preference of females to showy-tailed males will promote showy-tailed males.

In the absense of battlefield pressures, other factors in swordsmanship can come into play to dictate function and therefore form. Electric scoring in competition may dictate forms of attack that mean you "get in first" but get stabbed in the process. Since death of both competitors is not a concern, getting in first is good, that form is good.
Ranking systems can dictate "pretty" forms swordsmanship over combatively effective forms. Look back to the dawn of photography in Japan to see some interesting sword stances that you would never see today. Kendo rules changeing perhaps? Late Edo sword (Meiji restoration era after all) as vs post WWII sword theory?

The selective pressure involved in the ZKR iai and jo is to pass the gradings or win the tournaments. The form that does this is the correct form. Koryu folk might claim that their forms are more "combat oriented" but absent actual combat to test the effectivenes of one form over another...

But this is not where I was going on this lovely evening in Tombo Dojo (my nice log cabin with the leftover-lumber table my mother varnished, making it the permanent table, where I'm sitting now, typing and enjoying a leftover beer from the seminar that someone put into the boxes as we packed up). I wanted to talk about teaching from the form or from the function. But as you see from the above, function can be dependant on the specific pressure being exerted.

We shall try.

In kata practice a sensei might say "make your feet parallel" or he might say "use your hips correctly" or "drive forward powerfully". These are all the same instruction. I may have mentioned at some time past that students get a bit deaf and sensei is constantly trying to find a different way to say the same thing. Some of those things above are instructions on the form. Some are instructions concerning function.

My preference is to teach from function rather than from form. I will try "square your hips" before I say "feet parallel" because feet parallel is just a form, it's a way of seeing that the hips are square, try making the feet parallel while your hips are not square to the front. Does your knee hurt? I mean yes, there are those who, just to prove me wrong, will twist their hip joints to move the hips out of square while having parallel feet but really, I mean seriously?

Beginners get feet parallel, they can do that. They can't, as easily, feel the direction of their hips, so from a "pass the exam" point of view, making students shape themselves into the correct form is efficient. I'd just prefer they know what the function of that form is, then they can apply that function to other situations.

Having said that, I suspect some of you will notice that "square hips" is also just form. The real function is "drive straight forward powerfully". The problem with starting at that last instruction is beginners. Beginners don't know how to drive forward powerfully and will try random things for years. Best to say "square hips" and add "because strong forward move".

When teaching from form dominates, two forms with the exact same function become different things. Look at the form Mae from Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. It has a different form from Shohatto of Muso Shinden Ryu, and even a different name. It must be a different kata. From a functional point of view one is a horizontal cut from the scabbard followed by a two handed vertical cut, while the other is a horizontal cut from the scabbard followed by a two handed vertical cut.

Two forms, same function. OMG. One of these things is not the same? Now look at the differences in form and figure out what functional reason exists for the difference. Now you're learning from the kata.

Teaching form, practicing form leads to what some call "dancing". Dancers are concerned with form, with creating amazing forms with their movements. Dance rarely has an underlying function. Some ritual dance perhaps, the dance propitiating the gods, and that dance better get the function right or lightening may strike faster than a bad review. Budo isn't dance, only in that it has an underlying function for it's movements. A sword dance may wave a sword about, a budo kata had better be waving that sword around with the sharp side aimed toward the opponent.

I'd rather my students knew about the edge before they know about the pretty way to move that edge. Function before form. Perhaps ugly, but effective. Pretty can come later and hopefully it will be more than lipstick on a pig.

June 4, 2016

Broad and Narrow Education

Last evening at Niten practice I found myself saying "kissaki gaeshi performs the same function as the opening movement from Shinto Ryu Nito Ai, if the sword is being pushed down, turn the edge up, this strengthens the grip" and "the footwork on the final cut of Gedan is the same as kuri tsuke from jodo". The class gets it, it's comparative budology.

Narrow education is represented in something like me trying to explain that the release of the initial cross-block in Jodan must be precisely timed to disrupt shidachi's escape. Too soon and he's in range and will simply thrust, too late and he gains the initiative by "popping" his sword into chudan instead of continuing back into hasso. So too must you remove the tachi just an instant before the kodachi or you end up in a stalemate ai uchi situation.

The result of that was me being told by one of the senior students that "look, there are some things it's just better for us to discover rather than you trying to tell us". Absolutely correct. That's the function of kata, to provide the playground in which we discover. The kata are not themselves the point, it's what we learn through them. What I actually said was "hey, this is my practice right now, just be patient and I'll be finished talking to myself in a moment".

This narrow of broad and narrow isn't quite the same as the ideal of learning more and more about less and less. We are constantly discussing the form of Seitei Gata, which angle here, which height there, what timing in the other place, getting closer and closer (one would think) to the critical point where everyone in the world looks exactly the same. At that point we get to one of those "if everyone in China were to jump at exactly the same time they'd all feel pretty silly afterward" things.

No, the point of everyone doing it all the same way isn't for us to make a mass "musical iaido" demonstration as we used to call them, but for us all to learn the same underlying principles. Things like "the most efficient and strongest way to move forward is to align the feet". This was actually the subject of a study using force plates and it really is true. The more angle on the back foot the more the body tends to move to the left as well as forward.

Sort of obvious when you think about it, like almost every scientifically investigated thing ever. Up to then you get, as Peter West put it, filling in from somewhere else. If you take out all the filling in you ought to get to the same underlying principles, which are Kendo principles. "Oh Kim you say that as if it's a bad thing". No, I say it as if it would be a good idea for every iaidoka who is young enough not to break when starting kendo, to find a good kendo sensei and start kendo if they're serious about their Seitei Iai. Or at least listen very hard at their kendo-playing sensei if they have one. I did a summer of kendo with Taro Ariga when he was at the University of Waterloo... so there. Just another beginner in the back.

I like the combination of broad and narrow, it suits my education and since most of my students are University Eddicated, they get it.

Do what works for you.

June 3, 2016

More and more about less and less

That's what we used to say about our education. I hold a masters in Microbiology and it surely did seem that way, you would start with a broad outlook and then start drilling down to smaller and smaller details.

Microbiology, smaller details... bwahahaha

This knowing more about less is not a bad thing, it's a different thing. A broad outlook is useful for some things, and a narrow outlook is useful for others. I often think of the difference between my entire budo education (pretty broad, but mostly Japanese) and the work I do on the Zen Ken Ren iai or jo. The broad includes long stints of Aikido, Tae Kwon Do, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu iai, and Niten Ichiryu with smaller doses of several other sword schools, boxing, kung fu, and even a seminar or two of western medieval stuff. The Narrow is almost 30 years spent on ten, then twelve iaido kata and maybe 25 (20? I'd have to look it up) years on 12 jodo kata.

Thirty years on twelve kata that can be done in ten minutes. Think about that for a moment, and still I get told I'm "doing them wrong". They must be really hard! They're not you know, but they are really, really familiar. They are also done by lots and lots of people, including scores of hanshi hachidan who all get to have an opinion on what the standard way of doing them is.

The kata have been around since 1968 so that means they are coming up on 50 years old. Hey, that means I've been practicing the iai kata for over half the time they have been in existance. Have I seen changes? Yes, I have seen additions (7 to 10 not long before I started, and 10 to 12 about 20 years after that) and I have seen perhaps four major changes to the way of practicing them. These are "real" changes, as in the book was changed, and include a change from two angles of cut on kesa giri to one, and a change in the left foot angle of the second step on soete zuki.

Big changes.

I've also seen lots of "unreal" changes, many more of these. These are changes that arise out of interpretation of the instructions. For instance, we used to do shihogiri so that you ended up in the same spot you started. This is a karate idea, or rather this idea drifted in from how some karate people do their kata. Another idea we had was that shihogiri was done with the opponents on an X pattern. This was simply an assumption. In fact, a careful reading of the book shows that the opponents are on a t pattern rotated 45 degrees. Neither of these were actual changes, just changes in the way we did them.

Isn't that fascinating. If you practice Setei Iai you might find it so. If you do not you will probably (along with me now that I read what I just wrote) be wondering what the blazes I'm going on about. I mean really, the angle of the foot on the second step? This is something to agonize over?

How about having the tip below the hilt when you turn from stabbing a guy behind you to cut a guy in front in tsuka ate? How's that for mountains out of molehills? Believe me, it caused arguments and bad feelings for years. I'm not kidding, years. People are very protective about the "things they know" especially if they've had to fight hard to get that information. The greater the effort, the harder it is to let it go. I mean, if you have a practice that is used for testing and most of the early testing is "how accurately you can do the form" these little details are IMPORTANT. Capital letters important.

That's the downside of knowing a lot about a little, the desire to know even more can lead to inventing problems which don't exist. It can lead to "knowing it" when there's really nothing to know, such that kids who are younger than my practice of the art tell me that "it's changed". For the record, Seitei iai and jo do change, but rarely and in well documented steps. Otherwise, there is what the last teacher told you. Multiple teachers, multiple "changes". You see, Seitei has a certain "revealed truth" which is the book, and then it has a "scientific truth" which you discover by experiment/experience for yourself through practice. The "religious truth" is unchanging until it is changed. The experimental truth can vary depending on who has discovered it. To fly from one discovered truth to another thinking it is a "change" is somewhat counter-productive for students, yet we do it because Seitei is one of the "know a lot about a little" things.

There is a reason to drill down in science, to know more and more about less and less. It got us to a population heading for 9 billion from the 3 billion or so we were when I was born. Look up the history of antibiotics and "the green revolution" to find out how that happened.

There is a reason to drill down into Seitei Gata as well, and it's that massive familiarity I mentioned earlier. By practicing the same kata for 30 years I have a yardstick to know exactly where I am (sliding rapidly downhill). I can use that yardstick to work on the details. The whole point is to learn the dance steps fast and then to go beyond those steps to learn... well... to "use your hips". What, you thought there was something profound? The hips are profound, the angle of your foot is trivial simply because it takes care of itself when you use the hips properly.

But that's a story for another day. For now it's enough that we know we're not wasting out time knowing more and more about less and less. Not wasting time that is, unless we're arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

42 isn't it?

June 2, 2016

Can't catch a break

At the recent seminar the topic of jo styles came up somehow and I mentioned Aiki-jo. The somewhat typical response was that there was no Aiki-jo. I defended the art saying sure there is, there's lots of styles of aikido jo depending on who taught who. The inevitable "yeah but it doesn't work" came up and I again denied it to which the answer was "well yeah, you can make it work because you have lots of weapons experience".

That's sort of the point isn't it? Any art can be done or not done well depending on the people doing it. It's usually not the art but the understanding of the underlying principles that is the problem. Most people point to the swoopy-loopy way that some aikidoka move the jo, but I've seen lots of Shindo Muso Ryu folks practicing in the same way. Lots of fast whoop-de-do with no balance at all as both partners float around doing two separate dances that happen to intersect once in a while.

Sounds like fun, and I see by a poster at the Safe as Houses concert the other night that Contact Improv is still a thing. We used to do Aikido that way once in a while, like a dance, it's good training.

Anyway, after defending aikido at the seminar we were doing some jodo at class last evening. I was doing some tight in, cane-derived stuff vs sword to start with, setting up a discussion on distancing when one of the class said "can we get back to Aiki-jo please, I'm going to Summer Camp soon and don't want to be confused."

Errrm, I thought I was doing aiki-jo. It was an aikido practice and we were doing jo so it must be right? Well OK, back we went to the longer range of Saito sensei's solo jo suburi practice. The Pamurai's wrist needed a break anyway, she's probably got a bruise today from my combination of inventing stuff on the fly and her trying to figure out what the hell I'm doing. Can I say hell on facebook?

It's interesting that people think there is a thing called Aiki-jo that can be identified and recognized. There is and there isn't. Saito sensei wrote several books including sword and jo and those have immense influence in the Aikikai lines of practice. Other lines have developed different ways of using the jo and the sword, and some lines have even adopted Shindo Muso Ryu without realizing they have made it aiki-jo. By that I mean they practice SMR or ZNKR jo and call it that, but when they use the principles of aiki they make it aiki-jo.

Not to get too ordinary about this but a four foot stick is a four foot stick. To smack someone upside the head or poke them in the spare tire is pretty standard stuff done in pretty standard ways.

The founder of Aikido didn't invent a jo school, he used a jo and his students, Saito amongst them, copied what he was doing as best they could. The founder didn't invent a sword style, or a punching style yet they are used in Aikido as well. At the beginning of the art people already knew how to use a sword, a stick, and they knew how to strike with their fists too. They even knew jujutsu. What was invented was a theory of movement. No, not invented, what arose from the founder was a way of putting the units of budo together in a new way. Even the specific techniques and ideas of Aikido existed before, as folks have been arguing about for decades. Yes, Daito Ryu, yes, Omoto kyo, yes, Kashima Shinto Ryu, yes, Japanese army bayonet, yes, maybe even watching some pretty girls doing naginata. But do all these things put together in a bag and shaken necessarily come out with Aikido?

It's not the specific techniques, lots of arts use a wrist twist to torture their beginners. It's the underlying principles of the art that make the art. A "new art" doesn't get invented whole from the principles up, Aikido was developed, discovered, evolved, through the founder's practice of budo over many decades. I doubt he figured he had something new until someone told him he had something new.

So can I use cane vs sword techniques with a jo in Aikido class and call it aiki-jo? I say I can... except for the cracking of the wrists, that's not very aiki. I did, after the fact, try to explain that on the first touch of the jo on the wrist the swordsman should fade and flow, blend with the technique to protect himself.

After the fact.

I'm really a crap teacher, I assume the class has the same number of years behind them that I do. I need to keep reminding myself that the Pamurai has been around for less than 10 years and doesn't have an Aikido background... she'll probably be at the climbing gym next class and no more fun for me.

Assuming the class has the same experience with weapons as I do, I raised my voice a little when we did renzoku uchikomi and those jo went all over the place. Everything I do is against a sword so the hands go over the head, the end of the jo is aimed right at the swordsman's eyes and then, when it's time, the jo is swung around into the second strike to the head. Take it off the swordsman before you are striking down at him, step in as you take it off him and you will be eating a sword. To me it's that simple. How can you not know that? How can you step into a meat grinder wide open?

Well you do it because you're still trying to figure out which foot goes in front of which, and I need to remember that when I'm teaching. Hence the not inventing kata on the fly, but creating them at least ten minutes before class and introducing them slowly, not as "here, cut me!" That may be how the founder developed the art but I'm not him.

People tell me the difference between Aikido and Koryu is that Koryu has kata. Maybe, but Saito has kata, and your usual aikido class has kata, they're just invented on the spot by the sensei. He says "attack this way and respond this way". Is this not kata? When it's bare hand against bare hand it's also not too damaging if you move the wrong way or your uke sticks when he should flow.

Weapons? Maybe standardize it a bit more than that.

And I AM TOO doing aiki-jo.

May 31, 2016

What's good for you

I honestly don't know what's good for me any more. Exercise, surely but these days I lift weights and my wrist hurts. I need to let it heel so I'm thinking ride the bike... no, wrist. Long walk? Got things to do. Try to run again? Oh yeah, that was such a good idea the last four times I tried. If I could jog like an old fart it would be fine but in my head I'm still 18 and running for the county championships.

Work is good for me, I'm working on building a wood shed (finally) and managed to get bit on the nose with the sun. It's a big nose. I don't work fast any more and I try to keep things organized, but I still managed to clutter the yeard enough with the bits and pieces of old deck I'm using to build the shed to manage to trip and wrench my left shoulder.

Honestly, for a guy in pretty good health I seem to be a wreck. It's probably a bit of a post-seminar let-down. Hmm, back when the kids were babies let-down had a whole different meaning. That's the time after a seminar when I'm at sixes and sevens (what does that mean?) and can't really focus on anything because everything was put on hold for a month while seminar related stuff gets full attention. Then the threads are all flapping loose in the spring breeze.

Spring? This year it seemed like spring happened on the Saturday of the seminar, we went from leftover winter to 30 degrees and humid almost instantly. That three weeks of bug-free 17 degree weather I was counting on to clean out the back room and put down the floor never happened. Today I plan on buying some deck screws (the fourty pounds of them I must have somewhere are at the cottage I suspect) and dig up some joist hangers (cottage I bet) and find my big framing square (cottage for sure) and... why don't I just buy two sets of tools, one for home and one for the cottage? I have, and it usually turns out that both tools are at one place.

So someone write an app that photographs everything, identifies it, puts in in an inventory which is geographically tagged. That is, I open the "where is it" app, scroll through the categories which are named something like "that big metal thing that lets me figure out if a crossbeam is square to the wall... oh yeah the square" and it will tell me that it's at the other place so I should buy one when I'm at the hardware store buying the other thing that's at the other place. Or it will tell me that it's under the pile of old coats that got thrown in the corner when someone was looking for their new coat in the perfectly good closet beside the pile of old coats in the corner.

Eh, it would need to be fed photos regularly, and that would mean finding the phone to take the photos. Not being a kid of the 00's a phone wasn't welded to my hand at birth. Looking for the phone to find the app to find the tool would just as likely turn up the tool as the phone.

Speaking of which, it took me ten minutes this morning to find my pants.

Did I mention I may be suffering from post-seminar confusion? That's when you lose the wind out of your sails because you suddenly come to the end of your rope and find you're not trimming the yardarm so the canvas is all aflap.

Figure that one out google. I know you're spying on me, for my own good, so you can better serve me targeted ads.

Maybe a third coffee would help.

May 30, 2016

We're doing kendo

We are in the Kendo Federation, (those of us who are), and that means the focus of the organization is, quite naturally, on Kendo. I was asked recently by one of my students "why did iaido join kendo". A not unreasonable question, but iaido did not join kendo, there was no amalgamation of organizations, the kendo federation took advantage of a few kendo players who were also highly skilled in iaido to create a set of seven kata which would allow kendoka to get some experience in handling a real sword. Kendo no kata has the same intent, and is incorporated into the kendo grading system to ensure that kendoka don't get too far away from the sword while using the shinai.

It's the grip.

No joining of kendo by iai then, but an iai designed for kendo. Of course the kata are based in the koryu but the underlying theory, the principles, are from kendo. You've heard of parallel feet and square hips yes? You've heard that the tip should never drop below the hilt? (At furi kaburi if you'd like to read the book.) These are kendo concepts, go straight in, hit fast (if you are facing someone who is directly in front of you and you drop your tip down your back it is much slower than if you use a shorter arc... keep the tip up). I have been taught that if you have a question about Zenkenren iai you should go look for the answer in kendo no kata.

Jodo? Again no sort of merger but jo came into the kendo federation through the police. The jo is still a police tool, if you ask for directions in Tokyo you will perhaps have a small map drawn on the sidewalk with the tip of the jo. Also good for leaning on, and perhaps other things, like poking and pounding without the need to shoot someone dead. The connection between the police and kendo? Long and important, suffice to say that if you're a young Meiji era troublemaker trying to get a revolution going a police sponsored tournament is a less likely place to do that than a private tournament somewhere out of sight.

Go look this stuff up, it's good for you.

Practicing iaido or jodo in the kendo federation has some implications. First, the ZKR iai and jo become very important, in fact they are primary to your practice. The koryu schools don't really have anything to do with it. Before you jump on me what I mean is that the kendo federation did not merge with any koryu schools at all, it has its own iai and jo practice which is used for grading. Sure the iaido sections have a requirement for a koryu kata or two in the higher gradings, and seven of them for the second half of the 8dan grading in Japan, but this was (I was told) simply an attempt to keep the koryu schools alive, to promote them a bit because seitei was becoming dominant.

This situation has not changed over the years. If you are in the kendo federation your practice is seitei. Your gradings are there, your main instruction is probably there, quite possibly your only instruction is there. Many clubs reserve koryu practice for higher grade levels, concentrating on seitei to start. All this has implications, you should not, absolutely not, bring koryu into the seitei unless those koryu moves are identical to the seitei moves. This would seem obvious, if you're being graded on how well you do one style of an art you would not bring in another style. Not if you want to pass.

The other hand is somewhat problematic for koryu purists. You should also not take seitei into your koryu. This may now be impossible for those in the kendo federation, especially as those at the top retire and those whose base is seitei rather than koryu take over. You learn your base, your roots, at the knee of your first art. If that art is seitei your base is going to be kendo. If your sensei is a kendoka, that's all the more powerful, we fill in with what we know, we become assured of what we know by practice. Kendoka know what works, they will teach what works.

My base happens to be aikido rather than kendo. Aikido is "anti-kendo", the history of the art more or less dictates this, if you were facing a sword in the early 20th century you were facing a kendoka. As a result, interestingly, this makes koryu more comfortable to me than kendo federation iai. My iai began with koryu. My sensei, once I found him, was a kendoka who had learned koryu first and I learned it from the beginning and perhaps practiced it more than seitei since we had no grading system at the time. The result is that I think a lot about the different principles of seitei and koryu simply because I have to train hard not to let my koryu contaminate my seitei.

Jodo is a slightly different story because the kendo federation jo is Shindo Muso Ryu. You might say, with considerable justification, that the kendo federation joined SMR jo. (Or perhaps was co-opted by SMR.) The result is that there is more difference between some lines of koryu than there is between some lines of koryu and ZKR jo. Still, this is kendo jo and the last ten years have seen a move toward kendo in the standardization of the kata. I was taught that the sword side "is" kendo no kata (OK say seitei iai since the statement was aimed at me and I don't do kendo).

The subordinate position of iai and jo in the Kendo Federation is interesting to a judge as well. The grading system is based on kendo. Instructions to judges are based on judging kendo, the requirements of rank are based on kendo ranking.

If you are a newbie who is simply being taught iai or jo in a kendo federation club you might think that the system was designed with the three arts fully integrated and fully separate. Fully integrated because you might assume iai and jo joined kendo (thus all iai and jo is kendo iai and jo and iai or jo outside the kendo federation is "split"). A not unreasonable assumption for a beginner, we all figure we're in the senior organization and we see a unified, world-wide kendo organization that runs world championships. These things imply certain conclusions. Our beginner might also conclude that the three arts are fully separate within the art. After all, the grading requirements of kendo are not the same as iaido are not the same as jodo.

But they are. At their base they are. Sure you do iaido kata for iai and jodo kata for jo and kendo kata for kendo (oh yeah, and a little demonstrating of your shinai kendo) but the underlying times to grade, and the instructions on how to judge are not different for the judges. I read the same yellow book for iaido and jodo that the kendo judges read. I use the same criteria (adjusted for a solo art using a real sword and a partner kata art using jo and bokuto) for both iaido and jo to determine pass or fail as kendo judges use to pass or fail kendo challengers.

Ever wonder why the uniform is so important that you can fail ikkyu iai for it? It's not that having a matching top and bottom or having your undershirt showing exactly 1/4 inch all around is important to your skill at iaido, it's really not. No, but it is important that you wear your bogu correctly when you are doing kendo. If it is improperly worn you can get hurt. The rules make no sense for iaido, not at the functional level, but they are a safety consideration for kendo. You think I kid? I was told that the unwritten rule was that I wear montsuki when I challenged 7dan iai. Montsuki? There is no mention of montsuki (the big flappy sleeved top with family crests on) in the rule book. In fact the rules say a nice tight-sleeved kendo top for all gradings and tournaments.

The standard guidelines for awarding 8dan read something like "this rank is up to the country provided that the test includes jigeiko". So if I do an 8dan in iaido I have to put on bogu and demonstrate my kendo? No of course not, the meaning is that you don't hand out 8dan to "can't practice any more" sensei. I would have to demonstrate iaido in an iaido 8dan grading. But the wording is kendo-centric, which is my point.

And yes, 8dan (and above) is up to the country awarding it, and yes, your grade comes from your country, it is not registered, approved, or otherwise vetted by the ZNKR or even the FIK. Your grade, from your country, is recognized in all other FIK countries, that is the mechanism, not a central, world-wide grading registry. The accounting (in all meanings) stops at your national level.

What that means is that if standards come into question the answer is to train the judges, not to move the gradings to another country. Kendo judging instruction moves from the center (Japan) outward to the rest of the world (in the various judging and referee seminars regularly held). This is all a function of the worldwide kendo competition that holds the organization together. The country level is the World Kendo Championships unit. Referees come from different countries and so must judge to the same standard. Ranks are mostly irrelevant to the competition and so are not fussed over as they may be in iai or jo. If you, as a 4dan kendoka can smack a 7dan on the head, it's a point.

And somewhere in there is my point. I hope.

Oh, yes my point is that you should consider what being in the kendo federation means to iaido and jodo.

May 29, 2016

What do you see?

At the recent jodo grading one of the judges declared himself pleased because we saw a real difference in level between the grades. This is as it should be, if you didn't improve there would be little reason to continue grading.

The judging requirements in our organization are more or less like this: For the first three grades (ikkyu to nidan) we look for reasons to pass the challengers. At sandan you should know all the kata of the kendo federation iai, and you should know all the jo waza up to... what is it? Number 8 I believe. The jo gradings are set up to go through the 12 kata in the kendo jo set in order. There is no need to work on the kata above the ones you are testing for, but I can't think of a sandan in our group that doesn't know the whole set so let's say that at sandan you are expected to know the lot.

Sandan then, is a bit of a turning point, where you stop the memorizing and start working on other things.

What other things? Well, technical things for lack of a better way of putting it. Since the judging manual says that up to five dan you "look in the book" for your grading points, I take that to mean that five dan is another of those turning points. At five dan you are at the end of your technical work and now the real work commences.

Six and seven dan are more or less similar and when you get to 8dan the judging instruction simply says they ought to know the riai. Yep, the difference between seven and eight is the knowledge of the riai.

So if you know it all (the technical stuff) at 3dan what's this technical stuff up to five dan? It's the stuff you work on all the time at all levels, it's my all time favourite piece of teaching "stop the sword at chin height" on the first cut of Morotezuki. The difference between three dan and five dan? A third dan stops the sword at chin height, a five dan cuts down to chin height.

A six dan? A six dan wonders what the blazes you're talking about. "I just cut the face and then held my opponent using seme, there's no 'height' or 'angle' in there".

"No" you say, "you have to stop at chin height, that's what I was told, if you don't you will fail". The six dan replies, "So if I cut the face and I'm off by three millimeters I will fail my seventh dan? Fail me then."

But we won't. We'll fail you for stopping at chin height. The difference isn't in things you can measure, the difference is in attitude. Attitude toward the kata, toward the art as a whole, and toward the judges. We see different things at different levels. I'm not looking at the same things in a godan that I look for in a sandan. I've only got so much attention, and if I'm using it to measure how good your propioreception is (can you close your eyes and touch your nose?) I may not have the spare space to check whether all the challengers are cutting. I've seen yondan pass iaido gradings with an incorrect chiburi and noto on a kata. I wasn't looking for a specific chiburi and noto and apparently neither were the other judges. If the challenger does a good chiburi and noto (although the "wrong one") and doesn't collapse in despair (a tiny hesitation will draw the judges eyes just as fast as that sigh and twist of the mouth. Yes we saw it... now, yes we know you know you did it.... now.

I've also seen yondan pass who couldn't cut, but who hit all the checkpoints. There are five or six judges on a panel, if enough of them are looking the other way and enough of the others haven't switched to the next level of judging filters yet, it can happen. Not very often, so I don't advise it as a budo career strategy.

I'm not terribly concerned with yondan in the iaido section, there is plenty of rank above that to catch and correct any troubles over the next several years. I am more concerned with the challengers to six dan.These are the folks who will be taking over the instruction very soon. These guys are "important". In Japan they are nobodies but in Canada they are the few, very few, that will be taking over the heavy lifting in the next decade or two.

In the jodo section that duty falls much lower on the scale since the section is younger and smaller. We rely on sandan to be doing the heavy lifting. This is true for the entire America Zone and it's not really fair but who said Budo is fair? If you're the only guy on the block, you're the guy.

While we try not to grade jodo sandan as if they are rokudan challengers, outside the grading we end up asking them to do the things one would normally ask rokudan (or higher) to do. These folks are organizing seminars, lobbying their kendo federations, setting up jodo sections and generally doing the work that hanshi do in Japan. In the USA and Canada we've got some yondan and godan to take some of the pressure off, but it's still a matter of "first in, most work".

Is this unfair? Is this a hardship? Do you wish it were otherwise? Don't. When an art is just starting out, just growing, it's a wonderful time. Everyone bands together to help one another, everyone, of necessity, thinks of the art first and their own selfish interests second. It's "us against them" a time of knocking on (kicking at?) the doors of established power structures trying to get in. You learn more about human nature in fifteen minutes than you might in ten years in an established structure.

In short, you'll miss it when it's over.

Outside the grading, look at your role, rather than at your rank, to find your way. To return to gradings though, what does a six dan look like?

First, they can hit all the checkpoints. They wouldn't be a five dan if they couldn't, so we can leave that behind. They can also show some power, not the power of a nidan, with all the shoulders and straining forearms, but rather, somewhere on the way to the power of an 8dan with it's softness hiding a nasty surprise. The lead pipe wrapped in velvet. I was once a bouncer in a strip bar where the bartender was a small guy. Since there was only one bouncer he was the backup and he asked the local police if he could have a pipe behind the counter. They replied that if he did such a thing he ought to wrap it up so he didn't leave a mark. Yes the lead pipe wrapped in velvet is a thing. By the way, this was 40 years ago so relax, I doubt the police would say any such thing any more... and this was also a place where one of the bouncers was knifed in the bathroom for supposedly ratting out his buddies on a drug deal. I didn't work there long.

Back to 6dans. They can show a relaxed power, still muscular perhaps, but not in the shoulders, its only in a "your hands are too tight" sort of way. The current crop of rokudan, the ones who were teaching at the seminar, all showed that sort of power in their test and they all got the same correction. Lovely and relaxed just a tiny bit too much grip. What does that grip look like? It's the tiny frown on your face when you are telling your student you want him to stop his sword at chin height. It's a small reveal, a tell, that the student might misinterpret as anger or disbelief or something else.

Mostly though, what I look for at six dan is "your own iaido". A self-assurance that borders on arrogance, a pride in your work. If you come asking for the grade you aren't going to get it. If you demonstrate that you are already there you'll pass. Once you reach 5dan you are done with changing and fixing and wondering how to move from your hips and "how to" in general. That's what 5dan is for. From now on you don't ask, you tell. If a senior corrects a movement it is to get you to a higher level, it's to provide the chance for you to discover other things. It is not to correct a mistake. You are beyond mistakes.

Let's face it, by 5dan you've been doing this stuff for at least 15 years. Twelve kata for 15 years, do you figure you missed a class somewhere? If someone says "the angle is here" or "you stop here" you just do it, even if it's not what you think should be done. There are styles even in ZKR iai and jo. By 5dan you ought to be able to recognize what's "in the book" and what's "his way of doing it". If a 5dan gets told to do it at a different angle, specifically told, it's likely that the instructor is trying to reveal a different body mechanics, not making a correction. Try it, if it works steal it. If you don't get it, think about it for a while but ultimately, if it's useless to you, forget it and don't worry about it. It may pop up again years later.

As a judge on a 6dan panel I'm there to be told what iaido is. Tell me.

May 28, 2016

Hope you are mistaken

It occured to me during this past seminar that you can't learn if you aren't mistaken.

First, there is the usual "learn by your mistakes" sort of level, where you make a mistake and get corrected. This is very important, by making a mistake and getting corrected we usually get much more than a fix for the specific mistake. Here, Not Here, is useful but we get more don't we, often we get an explanation of why here and not here.

If we have been "putting it there" all along, we may not know that it's in the right place, so when somebody comes back from a different seminar and says "no, no, it goes here" we may doubt our own knowledge. To have been told just where it goes is a defence, an innoculation against doubt and debate.

On the other hand, some people may feel that making mistakes is the only way to get any instruction at all, so they may become involved with "attention seeking behaviour" and never actually learn from their mistakes while having the impression that they are getting taught.

If you're a clever bunny you can learn from others' mistakes and so you ought to listen in on all corrections rather than drifting off into your own world. Those who feel that any corrections not aimed directly at themselves are not applicable to themselves are themselves making a mistake.

It's hard for some to accept correction and therefore learn through those corrections because it's hard for some people to admit they are mistaken. To admit that one may not be perfect is a blow to the ego. Mistakes are for other people, mistakes are someone else's fault... "if I'm wrong in this placement it's my sensei's fault that he hasn't corrected me". Life really isn't that complicated, own your mistakes and you can become better. Pass them along to someone else and you will remain as you are. A good thing some would say, but not I.

The crab bucket attitude is the other side of this inability to admit one is mistaken. "Everyone is awful" (umm because I'm awful). This is not the way to be mistaken. Everyone is not awful and just because you are mistaken you are not awful. You are teachable, one of the things that teachers like, that they need.

Make mistakes, try, be corrected, learn stuff.

Don't become mistake greedy. There are ranges within which things are correct. If you are constantly seeking intruction you can get caught in an endless series of changes to something that doesn't need changing, seeking the correct "here" and not moving on to learn the other stuff. A senior student is someone who has seen the "here" cycle around a few times and knows there is a range. A senior needs to make his "here" appropriate for himself, his body, his injuries.

Own your mistakes and eventually you will own your budo.

May 27, 2016

Kata is not Kombat

There seemed to be a small amount of confusion at the seminar about the nature of kata so perhaps a few words would help. Kata is not combat, it's a training device and should be understood as such.

Both sides

Many people understand that the uchidachi, the attacking side is the senior side. But fewer know that both sides have an opportunity to train. The attacking/losing side sets the rhythm, the timing and the distance, not because they are the attacker but because they are the senior. This is for instructional purposes and it's the senior who should be better at this than the junior.

I think we can all agree that when shidachi (shijo), the "winner" of the kata is working through the kata he should be paying attention to the distance and timing in order to do the movements correctly, but it is uchidachi who leads all the way. Only at the decisive movement, when he dies, does uchidachi lose the initiative and it is at the finish of this movement, just before the separation of the two partners that a negotiation occurs to allow uchidachi to resume control. I often compare this instant and the following kamae o toku (release the stance/contact) movement as the separation of armies after a ceasefire. It doesn't take much to cause an incident and everyone is fighting once more. Care is needed, but a different type of care than when going into battle for the first time.

This is a careful separation, looking for attacks into a defended position rather than looking for chances to attack into your partner's position. It means having an attitude of mutual good will rather than single minded determination to annihilate. Let's face it, in most kata stories uchidachi is dead by this time, this separation phase is about breaking the distance with your partner without literally getting poked in the eye or hit on the head. It's not strictly part of the lesson. It's part of getting ready for the repeat of the lesson, or the next lesson.

What is it that this senior side can learn? After all, teacher doesn't learn from student does he? Frankly, yes. Beginners are unpredictable, they are dangerous units they may not know enough yet to sleep through the steps like some seniors do. Use this as a senior, keep a close eye on them, put yourself into danger deliberately so you aren't caught unaware that there is any danger at all. This means giving a target and only taking it away at the last moment, being a bit slow but just fast enough. It means reading your partner.

Pulling not pushing

Many people believe that the senior side is there to push shidachi to new heights. From shidachi's side this certainly seems to be the case if he has a good uchidachi. As it should.

The thing is, if uchidachi is truly senior to shidachi, uchidachi can take shidachi apart at any moment. He is senior and so is more efficient, probably faster, certainly more knowledgeable. He knows the kata, knows decisive moments and can use them. He probably knows how to read shidachi and can use his imbalances, the weak point of his breathing cycle.

If uchidachi feels he should push shidachi he may hurt him. Instead, uchidachi must take the attitude of pulling shidachi up rather than pushing him. Find the limits of your partner and work just fractionally past that limit. Think of weight lifting. If you are truly serious about gaining strength you need to lift to failure. You can remain within your limits for years and never get a bit stronger, but if you spend a month picking up heavy stuff from the floor for two or three reps (which means you aren't damaging yourself, one rep to failure being a good recipe for one rep to breakage) to absolutely, really, your muscles won't lift the last try, you will rapidly become stronger.

This is a delicate position, you must attempt a lift just beyond your ability which means you must try to fail without failing due to injury. A good shidachi will work JUST beyond the capability of shidachi so that shidachi must struggle to achieve the rusult, but actually achieve it. Forcing shidachi to fail will drive shidachi backward, destroying his confidence and making him worse rather than better.

Pushing by finding the least little opening and ramming your sword into that opening is not helpful and at some time, if you're switching partners and mixing in with other people to really understand the art, you might just have your rear end handed to you by someone who wasn't really open when you thought he was. Trust me, that's not a good day.

Poor Shidachi

Indeed, shidachi has a sad lot, but I mean here those who don't want to work with a shidachi who is too far beneath their abilities. Some shidachi are just too good to work with absolute beginners right? Well perhaps but I've never seen anyone that good. I've seen hanshi make absolute beginners look brilliant. I figure that's a good uchidachi.

It's a poor uchidachi that can't teach and can't make a poor shidachi look good.

Shidachi's side

On shidachi's side, if you sense that you have a partner who is truly superior to you, it's your job to push, and push hard. Try to actually hit shidachi within the confines of the kata. Don't be sneaky, be a good student and do it correctly but damn it, get in there! Show uchidachi that you're trying that third rep to failure. Get out of your comfort zone, push the envelope.

Even Stevens

Of course we don't usually have that amount of skill in our new populations of budoka here in the west, and the shidachi uchidachi roles change around regularly. How do we deal with that?

That's the point, you deal with it. Pay attention, do your best, wait for the signs.

And remember, you're senior if you were there a week before your partner.

May 25, 2016

Seminar 26

JODO Chile's photo.

The 26th edition of the Guelph Spring Seminar is more or less over (the sensei are off at a cottage and fly out tomorrow) and I find myself quite sorry that it is. That hasn't happened for a while but on the drama and stress scale this one was positively boring. That is due, as I may have mentioned earlier, to the amazing people who step into their roles and simply do a superb job. Even the Pamurai was a bit less frazzled and somewhat confused at times when she turned to tell someone a job needed doing only to find it was already done. The training and socializing scales were off the chart.

We ended up with just over 100 participants which is a nice number, not too crowded on the floor. I would have to say that the two gyms were roughly even for much of the seminar and I did a quick count of jodo on the third day to find we still had 30 plus bodies on the floor. Iaido had healthy numbers too.

As the day went on people drifted off to catch flights or start their drive home but the last class of the day still had ten or fifteen pairs to go through Shinto Ryu, a set of sword/sword kata that many of the iaido people had never seen before.

Many thanks to our jodo translators, Takeshi Kimeda sensei and Thomas Groendal sensei who gave us quick, clear and precise interpretations of some very clear and precise instructions from Tsubaki sensei and Morimoto sensei. Iaido needed no translation as the fabulous four took the classes well in hand. Galligan, Green, Tribe and Chart had some weary looking iaidoka by the end of the first day and it was decided that instruction was coming in half the usual time.

The CKF Jodo grading was held Sunday afternoon directly after classes which concerned me a bit as I felt the challengers might be a bit tired. It turns out adrenalin is a powerful pick-me-up and the only people in danger of nodding off were the judges and officials. Chris Jarvie did a bang-up job once more, acting as tachi-ai and secretary all in one. He managed the floor, the challengers and the judges with calm and tact.

I am sure I speak for the challengers when I thank Tsubaki sensei for taking them all in hand to prepare them for the grading. They were well prepared and I am more than pleased to report that thirty-one jodoka now have new ranks ranging from ikkyu to third dan.

On the other side of the room Morimoto sensei was running the rest of us through Seitei Jo briefly, and the kihon extensively. Kata are easy, details are hard and we had some very hard training. I found lots of stuff to steal and got some good correction, unfortunately some of the corrections were things I tell my students to correct. It's tempting to hit oneself on the head with one's jo at those times.

As the jodo sensei mentioned at the closing ceremonies, the students (in both gyms) worked so hard the sensei forgot to put in the scheduled breaks, they worked right through the day and were going as strong at the end as at the beginning. If you remember that they would be suffering jet-lag it's even easier to appreciate their teaching.

Student reports on the training? All positive.

The evening events were also good. Despite the stealth location for the dinner and auction (the local pro football team took over our usual lounge for a massage room) the Ittokai bunch did the usual bang-up job on the auction. With a surprise visit from Doug and Clint, Tak had the entire auction history represented. Nice to see all three "eras" of the auction in one place. Many years it was their hard work that moved the seminar from the red to the black. I haven't done the books but I suspect we're in the black once again this year.

I'm looking forward to jodo class tonight where we'll be going over the kihon sotai to get our lessons into our bones.

Don't take any time off to recover, get onto the floor and reinforce your seminar experience!

Until next year.

May 24, 2016

The Calm Before

The storm. Ah yes, you take your little spaces where you can. This is, I suspect, why I am a creature of habit, the same coffee shop the same bar, it's because they are comfort food for the soul. I can spend five minutes in either and a day's worth of anxiety just flushes.

Create your spaces and then even thinking that you'll be there later will calm you. Your budo training will also do the same, creating movements you can rely on when you need them. We ran through Oku Iai tachi waza last night, nobody wanted to put their kneepads on ahead of the seminar I suppose, but the kata were unfamiliar to most. I spent quite a bit of time saying "it's fine, you can step there or not, up to you". The result was that the class fell back on their habits and learned the kata all the easier for it. Good budo habits are the arc of your swing, the mechanics of turning and cutting. The bad habits have to do with reactions to stimuli, if you always twitch one way when presented with a certain threat you will have a problem should an opponent figure that out.

I update the last few preregistrations this morning, some coming in as I write I'm sure, and hand them off to Dave at lunch and then head out to the airport to pick up the Jodo sensei who are in the air right now. Off to Niagara Falls through the Toronto long-weekend cottage traffic and then on to the seminar.

Looking forward to it.

By the way, drop-in beginners are always welcome, we've got quite a few new faces coming this year, many of them signed on for the grading.

May 20, 2016


Doctor Doctor was back at the cabin after a year or two away and declared that there would be decluttering. I'm all for that, even though I'm more of the "buy bins so that we can stuff things in them and put them up above the closets" sort of person and we all know what happens when you buy bins. The last bunch were used to move the son home from school and now they sit in the middle of the living room half torn apart. I suppose that, given enough years, he might unload the rest of it into his room.

The number of things I do has been decluttered quite a bit, to the general improvement of my life. As little administrative stuff as possible. As much letting other people do their jobs and not commenting as I can manage. You'd be amazed at how that has decluttered my email inbox.

I no longer go to bars where they seem to resent customers, or coffee shops where they have signs telling you to get out after 20 minutes. The decision to go where I'm welcome and not where I'm not has decluttered my brain and dropped general anxiety levels. The result is that my Bass shows up when I do and my dark roast is waiting at the cash. Now if I could just find a restaurant that drops food in front of me instead of asking me which of six types of rye bread I want (apparently "toast" is not a thing any more". Mom's Bistro, where your waitress drops the special of the day in front of you and says "eat, there are starving kids in Uruk". You know, a traditional place. I have taken to hunting for grocery stores with only six aisles, I do not need to have to read the labels on twelve different boxes of pancake mix to figure out which one I want.

My emotional life is decluttered nicely by a lack of newspaper reading on my part, a total absence of talk radio, TV commentary and, I have to admit, some heavy pruning of political and religious posts on the faceplant feed. Not supporting any sports teams helps too. With no need to keep an eye on things and make sure those Paris Peace Talks are going along correctly, I find I don't have to strain at the psychic influence lobe so much.

Buying some weights for home use has helped declutter the attempts to keep the joints together. No more sitting on a leg press machine with 600 pounds shoved out there and having some diddy-bop kid start swinging a 45 pound plate over me because the room is overcrowded by about 200%. Yeah that was one of the defining moments of my not very exciting but perferred that way life. You don't just swat a 45 pound plate aside as it drops toward your "not going anywhere" lap.

All this has still not got me to the point of being bored, which is a good thing. As soon as I'm bored I find a new hobby which somehow manages to maintain the clutter. I had planned to have all the speakers out of my back room but that didn't quite happen. Mind you, if I sell all of the completed sets at the seminar it will make quite a dent. Once I see the floor I can maybe get that finished.... OH dear and now my emotional clutter has just gone up.

We are probably at 80 people for the seminar today, a good decluttering.

May 18, 2016


We talk a lot about timing in the martial arts, but patience is a big part of that timing. It's not all just jumping in and getting there first.

We were inventing kata last evening, jo vs bokuto, bokuto losing of course, as seems traditional in a mismatch of weapons. Cross at the middle, bokuto up to jodan, jo thrusts in to disrupt the attack, then jo withdraws directly backward before moving offline to sweep the swordsman's front leg. There are two timings, depending on how swiftly the swordsman resumes his attack. If he does this quickly, the avoidance of the cut is on the pull back of the jo along with a shift of the body. If the swordsman is a bit slower, the jo can pull back and wait for the swordsman to readjust his distance and attack once more, at which time the jo moves offline to do the sweep.

The first timing is easier, both sides just move along at a steady pace, the dance steps are done in waltz time. Forward, back, forward, back.

The second requires patience and so is more difficult. It takes some nerve to pull back, present a target and wait for the right moment to get out of the way. If we dance the movements the move offline just pulls the sword onto the new attack line. The jo must wait for the committed attack and then move offline. To move offline and then offline some more is hella hard to say the least.

Patience is pretty useful in all sorts of places, the stock market for instance. The market has gone up steadily over the long term but it tends to bounce as people get scared (old school) or computer trading systems start bouncing around in response to each other (new version) but for those with patience it's not a bad place to put your money. It's where the rich folk put theirs so you know there's pressure to keep it working as it has. To make money short-term you need the other kind of patience, the one we talked about above, you need to have the patience to know, well maybe feel, what the low point is and buy there, then feel what the high point is and sell there. That's what the computer trading systems are attempting most of the time, Trading really really fast at trigger points trying to make pennies. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's just too mechanical. Anything mechanical can be defeated by a change in the timing and I suspect we're starting to see competing algorithms trying to disrupt each other's timings. The brute force speed deamons buying buildings as close to the exchange computers as possible (less wire means faster trades) and then the finesse models that take a slightly longer view to negate that short wire advantage. Then of course, you get the Warrren Buffets, the old school investors who buy value and hold on to it for a long time. How quaint. How patient.

Martial arts as market trading strategies. There you go, Musashi for businessmen. Take your insights where ye may.

To apply all this to current events, like the upcoming seminar (he hinted, keeping his eye on the ball) you have to be patient and understand "the market" in order to run a seminar. First you need to have the intuition that there are enough people around to support a seminar... (or you have to want it really bad and be willing to lose some money.) Next you have to understand people a little bit. The reason is that it's nerve wracking to watch the calendar tick down without those registrations coming in, you have to understand that people never get around to anything until it absolutely has to happen. Hence the invention of pre-registration deals or "at the door penalties" as your nature will interpret them. Glass half full? Deals. Half empty? Penalties.

Timing, you need to have faith that there will be a good moment to "pull the trigger" or the plug as the case may be, and then you need the patience to wait for that moment.

May 17, 2016

My Blessing

I never remember from one year to the next just how stressful the last week of the seminar is. It is the week of changes in plan, the week everyone remembers that they wanted to ask me for that custom bokuto, the week that 20 people remember there is an "at the door" price and start a 20-email chain asking how to avoid paying the extra fee. "But when exactly, to the minute, is the real and truly cutoff time????" Honestly, there is always at least one preregistration that arrives after I give the paperwork to Dave on Friday night. Not kidding.

It's a blessing I don't remember stuff like that because if I did I'd do nothing but complain for the rest of the year about how hard the seminar is to organize, and maybe I'd start to belive it and then maybe I'd stop doing it.

No fear..... no that's not it, ah, No Worries Mate! There, that's for Nate who is in fact, Dr Dr (secret identity blown!) the Pamurai will not let the seminar drop, it's her baby and she'll run it even if I say "Kill it, I want it gone!" She already told me that. The seminar that would not die!

Come time to start organizing and I've forgotten all the garbola that happened last year. Actually, I've usually forgotten by the end of the seminar and am all weepy-eyed that it's over.

Ugh, what a sap. I can't hold a grudge for fudge. I remember, sure, but I just can't seem to store this stuff up like some folks can, so I make sure I get my revenge when I get the chance. Not that I envy those who can do that. What a waste of time and energy. Nah, I'd rather forget the irritation and get on with it. "Suck it up, buttercup" said one of our belly-dancing godans, and I have to agree. Is she coming for the seminar? Hmmm.

It's a blessing that I can't hold a grudge. It means that when someone is in my face I can't remember the stuff he did that I could throw right back at him. What would that accomplish? I know from experience it wouldn't even give me a momentary feeling of satisfaction.

Better to just get on with it and enjoy this incarnation. Yay for the blessing of not being able to hold a grudge.

Aaaaand that's the second pint. Time for a sauna.

May 16, 2016

The Worm Ouroboros

There was once a snake, a vast snake that encircled the world. That snake got as big as it did by eating, and eating, and eating. It became so big that there was nothing which could satisfy it's hunger. In it's greed and gluttony it bit it's own tail and began to slowly consume itself inch by inch, mile by mile.

Eventually it consumed itself and was no more.

Granny Weatherwax says that everything is story, we tell ourselves stories and we fit into them and if we understand we are in a story sometimes we can change it.

Terry Pratchett told the story of Granny Weatherwax in case you were wondering.

We love stories, the fact that we can communicate abstract concepts to each other means that stories "are". Before books, before scientific papers, there were oral stories, there were songs (music being a really efficient way to remember stories). Even our big things are stories. What is religion, what are political systems if not stories?

So what meaning have you assigned to Ouroboros? When you read it what connection did you make? I really had nothing in mind when it popped into my head, (probably why there was room for it in there). After writing it I thought of my own which goes something like this: A martial art is developed by a couple of generations of excellent people and has a vast library of techniques, but later develops a culture of "saving a technique for the top guy so that he can always beat the students" (you've seen that movie right?). What happens? Well the snake eats its tail, each generation a little bit of the school is lost as it's not passed along. Eventually the school disappears unless some amazing person comes along, inherits it and revives it.

At which time future generations start whinging on about how it's not really the pure school but some sort of reinvention.

Was my story as good as yours? If not let me hear yours some time.

How about kata and stories? Every kata is a story, it's that simple. A kata is not some formula to be applied to an attack and lord help us if the attack doesn't follow the story. The story needs to be known fairly quickly, it is not "the riai" to be revealed later, it's the story that you're learning as you learn the dance steps.

Once upon a time there was a nice samurai who was just sitting in seiza when the evil step-brother started thinking about killing him. The nice samural drew his sword, giving the brother lots of time to back down but he didn't so the samurai cut him across the forehead, dropping blood into his eyes and then kindly finished him off with a vertical two handed cut from stem to stern. Being a nice boy who cleaned his room every week, the samurai then shook the blood off his sword before putting it back where it belonged, in the scabbard.

See, a story. Now, what is the riai of the story? Not that the evil step-brother was sitting in front of him. Not even that the survivors get to define the defeated (Evil Step-Brother? Really?) although that is a lesson worth learning. No the riai is the lesson in timing and distance and the moral instructions on the difference between self defence and murder that really should go along with the technque.

The riai is the moral of the story taught by the kata.

May 16, 2016

Martial arts and sciences

The subject of me disliking the UFC came up recently. That's the discussion about "just what is a martial art" at its root, but in this instance it went along the lines of "how can you argue with an art that is so good it has developed its own techniques".

First, I don't dislike the UFC, I don't think about it at all, really, any more than I think about hockey, boxing, race car driving, basketball or any other sport. I played sports, I don't watch or follow sports because that's just not something I do. If I were betting on sports there's a good chance I still wouldn't watch because my watching would not affect the outcome of the game. I might watch in order to handicap the teams but watching for entertainment or because I thought I could affect the outcome of the game for "my team"... Not involved, don't dislike, just don't care. As for creating its own techniques, of course it would, all sports end up with techniques that suit the rules. One plays to the rules.

Martial arts are not the same as martial science. The goals are not the same, the methods are eventually not the same. Martial science, according to me at least, is the study of how to kill soldiers and win battles. This is the "let's see how your kicky punchy stuff works against my AR-15 and Glock 9mm" version of confusion.

Martial sport is a competitive activity based loosely on military activities. You learn from a coach, the purpose is to defeat an opponent according to some rules which define what a win is and what a loss is.

A martial art is an activity loosely based on military activities with the purpose of making a better person. There is no killing of other people or even the contemplation of the need to kill others some time in the future. Therefore the weaponry can be something that became obsolete three hundred years ago. There is discussion of how to defeat an opponent, sort of like a sport, and even how to kill, sort of like military training, but the purpose is neither to win a competition or to kill. The study of martial arts is to study martial arts, it is not "for" anything further.

This study has the function of concentrating the mind, of breaking unhealthy cycles of thought, things that work for people who don't want to practice zazen. Does it actually work? Perhaps, but irrelevent. The important point is that the intent is to make a better person.

Sports may make better people but that's not their intent, at least not since the days of "fair play" and "sportsmanship" on the playing fields of Eton. The more likely argument for sport (beyond making money for owners of sports teams or for the guys who own UFC) is to make you more fit, not to make you a better person.

The intent of martial sciences are to make killing people more efficient. If you become a person who hates war through being a soldier this is not relevent to the science. If you end up with PTSD this is demonstrably irrelevent, once you're done, you're done and those who use you would really prefer to lose you rather than rehabilitate you. The aren't trying to make you a better you. While some might argue that using drones is to keep footsoldiers from getting traumatized from close-in violence, drone pilots with PTSD would seem to argue that it isn't working. In fact, drones are cheaper than planes and so more efficient for the jobs they can do. More bang for the buck. Train one pilot and lose as many drones as you want.

My argument for a definition isn't quite circular, martial arts are for making people better people because that's their intent. The circular form would be Martial arts are for making people better because they make people better or some such. I'm simply saying that a Martial art is one where the intent is to make better people. As to the actual results, I leave that open.

The military doesn't aim to make people better, nor do sports. Are there "martial arts" out there that don't try to make people better people, thus arguing against my definition? There are activities that claim the title while being, perhaps, sports or even being a form of military hand to hand training. It's just a defined term and I encourage you to think about the exceptions to the definition, or rather the blurring of lines between all these similar-looking activities.

So not a sport and not military training, where did the martial arts come from? I might argue that they didn't arise just once, but that they arise constantly. I think they arise when military men, soldiers or trainers, run out of a job. Musashi is a good example, in his youth he wanted to be a soldier, trained to be one with his father. Is there some doubt what art he studied before developing his own? This is not a surprise, does any army in the world call what they do "something", or bother to make note of who taught who? Or is it just training? Musashi's father taught him what he knew. Musashi probably also trained with other people as you might train in various things with various specialists in any army.

By the middle to end of his life, Musashi was no longer training for war, he was training as he always did but became aware of the effects of his long practice on his personal outlook. While he may have considered what he taught in 1645 to still be military training, by the time the third generation showed up they were likely practicing as much because it was "good for them" as because they were expecting to use the training in a war.

Now if we look at it like this, maybe martial sports also become a bit more strange. How would they arise? Simple desire to see if "this stuff works" perhaps, there is evidence that in the sword schools of the later 1800s one spent 4 or 5 years practicing, was handed one's menkyo kaiden and sent out with bogu and shinai to test oneself and steal techniques from other dojo. This wandering to challenge and learn could as easily become sport as the original martial training became methods to improve oneself.

I split, where I would usually unify, but sometimes it's useful to break it down before building it once more. The reason I don't dislike the UFC but have a pronounced disinterest in it, is found in this splitting apart and putting together.

May 15, 2016


Oh, sensei, write us an essay on centerline, we want to hear about that next.

Umm, how about I write about standing up as it relates to budo? It might be easier. I mean there isn't much that is more fundamental to martial arts than the centerline, which I will expand to include the attack line. This is a one-shot essay, a coffee essay so don't expect anything but a random assortment of thoughts please.

What is the centerline.

It's a line running down the center of your body, stand straight up and square to a mirror. The centerline runs along the line you might draw between the tip of your nose and your bellybutton. Along that line is the center of your head, between your eyes, your nose, the area just under your nose, your teeth, your chin, your throat, your solar plexus including xiphisternum (the thing you aren't supposed to break off and shove into the liver when you do compressions for CPR), and last but not least, your bladder and groin. It's what you might call a "target rich environment" and you ought to treat it as such.

How do we use it?

There are a lot of kata in many arts that include strikes to these targets, and in the case of the sword or the stick, the entire line, as in "cut down this line and hit anything that gets in the way", or cut down this line and pick your target as you step in. The first kata of ZKR jodo, Tsuki Zue, allows you to hit any target on the centerline depending on when you step back in while dropping the jo. We choose the wrist in the classic case, but by stepping forward earlier you can hit the head, and later you could hit the groin. The tip of the jo swings down in a constant arc, we step the arc forward and it intersects with the partner at that height, that position along the arc. This is why we strike the top of the head for the final movement rather than the face, as the first kata learned (in Seitei folks, in Seitei, calm down) it's pretty easy to see a situation where a beginner steps in a bit late and strikes the face under the raised arms of the swordsman.

We strike in at such an angle as to keep the swordsman's centerline behind the strike to the wrist. Creating uncertainty in the opponent is a good thing. Obviously going for a certain target just makes life easier for him. Think about what happens if we are at an angle to his centerline and we hit for his wrist with nothing but air behind the tip of our jo. Can he twitch his wrist and be on us before we can pull our jo back or lift it in our defence? Sure he can. Can he just take the hit on the wrist and attack immediately with his other, uninjured wrist. Again, sure he can.

Suspenders and a belt, that's the ticket, attack and defence all in the same move. Attack the centerline not the wrist.

Centerline and movement

The other reason then, you strike down the centerline in Tsuki Zue is to prevent the swordsman from coming in on you. After all you are only hitting him with a stick while he has the proverbial three foot razor. If he tries to move toward you, your stick is in a position to physically stop his advance. Psychologically, that stick flashing down in front of the eyes also isn't a bad thing but if he ignores that and steps forward anyway, he will hit your stick for you and by doing tenouchi (shibori, squeezing your hands) at that instant you will blast a hole in that advance and he will stop.

Is the centerline always the centerline?

No, actually it's not a physical, fixed line on your body, it's a line on a cylinder, in fact it's the closest vertical line to you on that cylinder. Think about trying to knock a hole in your opponent with your stick this time. If you "hit the suigetsu", the solar plexus, and you are not facing your opponent squarely (you have, for instance, moved off the line of a swordsman to his right so that you are facing his right shoulder) trying to thrust the suigetsu with your cane or your stick will at best give him a scrape. Now, from this position think about knocking over a log standing on its end. You hit it on the vertical line closest to you right? Otherwise it just spins. In this case, your swordsman's short ribs are on that line. Go ahead, give them a tickle.

What about posture?

For the most part, don't bend, tilt or othewise deform that center line. By keeping all those targets one above the other you can protect them all at once by shifting your feet. Again we're talking weapon arts here, a boxer's crouch will take a lot of targets out of range of his opponent so it makes sense to deform the line and protect the solar plexus thus allowing the head to be protected by the gloves.

What's this attack line then?

Now that we understand the vertical centerline, let's draw a line between your centerline and that of your opponent. This is, for the most part, in Japanese weapon arts, the attack line. Think two swordsmen who both have two hands on their swords, the left hand goes up the centerline and comes down the centerline. The right hand might move off the centerline to create an angled cut but the left hand stays on that line because that's where you generate the power. Two hands, one sword, you don't want to wander too far off that line for power or for defence, as long as your sword is on the line the line is not open to attack. Angled cuts come across the line at some point so thinking about the line will help here too.

What about one handed swords coming in from strange angles? What about them? The attack isn't coming down the centerline but it is certainly coming along an attack line if it's a thrust or an attack plane if it's a cut. That plane intersects with your centerline. Move so as to remove your centerline from the attacking line or plane.

(I suggest moving directly forward into your attacker's undefended centerline. He had to move his sword off his centerline to come at you from some side angle right? Think Aikido, think yokomenuchi, a hand strike to the side of the head. Most people pull their arm up and put their hand somewhere behind their ear to start the strike, elbow flying out to the side. We have to deal with that attacking hand? Really? Why can't we just step in and punch them in the face sensei?)

Simple yes? We simply get off the line right? One would think so but maybe "basic" would be a better term judging by the number of times per class you hear "get off the line!"

Are we starting to get a grasp on the changing nature of the centerline and the attack line? They are interconnected. OK let's nail it down. You are facing your opponent squarely with your sword and he has his. The attack line is that line from your hara to his hara (or tanden, the center of mass which is the center of all movement in the body, it all tends to rotate around this point). So tanden to tanden or hara to hara you have a connection. Musashi says you need the string and the ruler here, the string to know when your opponent is moving away and the ruler to feel when he's moving in. These are along the attack line and tell you the distance.

If he attacks and you step off the attack line what happens? Well in the best of cases, his attack continues along the line it started off on, while you have re-aligned your attack line and can now attack freely. In other words, when your positions change, the attack line changes. Duh. Well not really duh. If you "move off the line" as in perhaps Aikido, and figure the attack line is still along that original path, you will have a hard time as an attacker and as a defender. The defender will be out of danger but won't be able to throw well because his throw will not take into account the new relationship between the centerlines. This may be more clear if we look at the attacker who is, really, supposed to be helping the defender learn. If the attacker continues along his original path after the defender moves offline, the contact (the attack, the kata) will be broken and attacker is now left with trying to grab a train and pull it off balance by main strength. Not likely.

If attacker punches and defender moves offline by turning to face the other direction, pivoting on his front foot, two things can happen. First let's assume attacker just keeps moving along the original line or stops. Defender must now push or pull or kick him in the ankle to finish the technique. If attacker has a sword and defender is trying to do kotegaeshi (a wrist turn) it isn't going to happen. It just isn't. Attacker has two hands on one object and can use that to put his entire body strength and weight and balance into keeping his wrist to himself.

Now, in the second instance, imagine attacker isn't an idiot and continues his attack. To do this he must realign himself on the new attack line. Let's say he has a sword, he turns toward defender and tries to realign his sword to cut. Defender now also has the sword (through his connection with attacker's hand and wrist) and since the sword is moving, defender can change that sword path as he sees fit. If defender has aligned his centerline onto the new attack line before attacker can get turned and aligned himself, defender has a much stronger position (his hands are on his centerline) and defender has become very weak (his hands are easily moved off his centerline unless he's damned good).

Understand the centerline and the attack line and the relationships between the two and the role of your posture in all this and the sting and the ruler and.....

OK that's your two coffees. This will be posted if we get somewhere with wifi today, I have no idea if the rain is going to stop but the cabin and the bush are getting a good soaking. Ought to be a great mosquito season when it starts. If I could send some of this westward I would.

May 14, 2016

The Simple Things

Last evening was quite a negotiation, we are a motly crew in the summer with folks from several different arts who come together in larger classes than I often have during the fall and winter. After comparing bodies and weapons and polling the populace we settled on Iaido:Standing:Tachi Uchi no Kurai.

After going through the first four with several moves in each I figured we could finish on Suigetsu. It's a pretty simple kata, walk forward, threaten suigetsu, opponent tries to dash your sword away, you back off to avoid then come back in to strike the head.

It's the universal kata, in about a hundred schools including Kendo no Kata, and apparently it's a bit too simple. Every pair seemed to have a problem with believing that it was that simple. Surely there must be more to it, an extra step here, a big waving of the sword there... Nope.

Trying to fix it, I changed the final cut to a thrust, now the defender could walk in and with barely a twitch of the sword simply skewer the opponent. (Make something else even more simple to satisfy our desire for complication in the one we're doing). I tied it to other arts, I talked about the difference between movie sword and efficient sword and things improved some but we still went past beer o'clock.

At which point we made a beeline for the Pennywhistle where we were much relieved to see that it was still intact after the mass of fire trucks earlier in the day. The 6th floor to the top was empty though, yet another apartment fire.

The message for today? Let it be simple. Sometimes it is. Iaido is like marble sculpture, chip away everything that's not the statue. Sword needs to be simple.

Oh dear, the fire trucks are heading past again!

May 13, 2016

Seminar pre-report

The Spring iaido and jodo seminar is shaping up nicely, we passed the original numbers quite a while ago (I think we were around 40 in 1991 at the first one) and we have just gone over 60 for this year. With the reserves we ought to be just fine for yet one more kick at the can. We aren't going to set any records for attendance but from a grubby money point of view, our expenses ought to be well down so it will work out. From a growth viewpoint I'm a bit concerned. I always figured the numbers at this particular seminar would eventually peak as other seminars were developed over the years, and I think that's happening to a certain extent. Some of them are approaching this one in size but I see many of the same faces at each. While this is to be expected in an area that is driveable, it would be comforting to see a more regional attendance.

What I'm saying is that I'd love to see a bigger pie rather than a splitting up of the same size pie into more slices, even if each of those slices are the same size as the pie.

Those who have been around for years may recall the pop-tent covered field beside the Gym. I always wanted to fill that thing one year but we never got to 300. The building was condemned (was never actually up to snow code apparently) and is now gone, being replaced with an even bigger fieldhouse that I will never live long enough to fill. Well, yet another self-created pressure off the old shoulders.

Jodo Grading at the seminar

We are holding jodo gradings at this seminar and the lack of chances to grade in jo for the Americas Zone has really been reflected in the registrations. We have almost double the number of applicants from outside Canada as from this country. This doesn't necessarily reflect a drop in numbers for Canada, but it does reflect the glass ceiling effect of having a quarter or more of our jodo population at the maximum grade they can obtain at the moment. This percentage is growing as the first few grades are only a couple of years apart so beginners quickly bump their heads and become part of the salmon run waiting to make their leap from the bottom of the falls.

We're working on it. Be of good faith and keep practicing you students who have other arts and gradings to work on. Jodo is worth doing for it's own sake and for the lessons you can take back to those arts in which you're still working up the ranks.

On the positive side we will have many new faces at the seminar this year, mostly in Jodo (many coming for the grading I suspect) so yay, more steps toward that critical mass that will be required to move things along.

I just had a Groucho Marx moment there. He would never join a club that would have him as a member. I think the equivalent is somehow right here, we're in a situation where we have to push from below to be allowed to grade. "I would never be a member of a budo that wants me to grade"... Or maybe it's a Catch-22, we have to have enough people to have a grade, but we can't get those people without a grading.

All of which amounts to "Hey, keep practicing, keep introducing the art to beginners, at some point the ice dam will break". This is me as the guy whose job it is to get you those grading opportunities. You keep asking what's happening and this is it. Not enough I'm sorry to say, we're offering as much as we can and we're trying new things. In September we hope to take a bunch of people to Europe to, fingers crossed, shuffle up the ladder a step. If that happens we might be able to offer another rung for everyone else. This will I'm afraid, take some funds and I'm appealing now to the jodo folks for some contributions to the "send a sensei to camp" fund. We'll probably have a jar somewhere at the seminar and we'll likely figure out some sort of fundraising event as well. Suggestions? Kihon for Kash? Also check out http://jodo-canada.com/ for the Canadian Iaido and Jodo fund, we haven't had need for this one for a while but we do now, so please check it out and top it up. The appeal is on! What sort of lovely gifts for donations do you suggest? I'm always up to grind more wood in the shop.

SDK supplies at the seminar

Just a bit of a head's up for those heading to the seminar. We have a vast over-stock of stuff that Brenda will be wanting to get rid of, lots of laminated items that haven't got onto the website yet, lots of seconds to bundle into club sets for loaning to beginners, lots of deals for multiple orders.

Plus a few speakers will be tucked away in the corners, those I really don't want to bring back home because I need to get at the floor once more and they're piled all over the place. I have finished up 9 or 10 self-powered sound bars which are very popular with the smart-phone set, and I also have a few "passive" speakers for those who still have stereo systems at home. Ask your dad what those were kids.

So save some room in the car to carry your items away. If you're flying or bussing it, drop us a line and tell us you're looking for the seminar prices and we can ship it to you.

I'd dearly love to be able to walk around the house again instead of wearing pathways into the place.

Coffee cup's empty, time to go get a bit of work done before taking Liam to his driving exam.... eeeeeek. Oh, and Guelph locals, there seems to be a dozen fire trucks down at the Pennywhistle so keep your fingers crossed or we'll be looking for a new place to have a beer tonight after class.

Speaking of class, I believe we are cancelling the Sunday class in favour of going to the cabin with Dr. Dr. who is back from Australia for a visit. So come on up if you want to practice, the weather should be fine and the bugs still asleep. I hope.

May 12, 2016

Spoiled Rotten Seminar Organization

That's what I am you know, spoiled. I was chatting last evening with the Pamurai who has taken over most of the organization of the Spring Seminar. She likes it, she wants it to keep going so slowly she has taken on more and more of the jobs. I remembered last night just how much there was of it as we went through the checklist. T-shirts, hotels, residences, lounge rental, scheduling, transportation... it just goes on and on. My parts have been pared down to registrations and booking the space. Oh, and just doing what I'm told once things start happening.

So when I say that the seminar isn't all that much work, I mean it. At least for me. Pam is doing most of the bits and pieces that are so easy to miss. Still, she doesn't look too stressed this time, she's done it before and she doesn't bother to check with me before she makes a decision.

That's the thing, we don't have a committee, we don't have to deal with people who "have a say" without "having a job". The seminar organization has always been a one or two person job, initially because we didn't have anybody else (still don't) and then because I realized that it was easiest done that way. The seminar was, and still is sanctioned by the CKF but whenever anything more than that was offered I have politely and quickly declined the help. There is nothing to read into that except that I can't handle any help, I can't afford it, I don't have the time and resources to accept help. If I had help I would need even more help.

Sounds confusing? It's really not. When (not if) there are problems that come up, a decision is made instantly. The lounge this year was booked by another group, when Pam found out about that she dealt with it (or rather is dealing with it today) without having to check with me or anyone else. It just gets done and we move on. Having a committee to consult with would only have made a three second decision a three day decision.

If you want something done, give it to a busy man. This is true, but it's true only because a busy man won't have the time to mess around, Just do it without talking about it. The key here is to "empower" the person who actually does the work. The hard part as "the boss" is to let them do their job and not to micromanage during or complain afterward. It took a little while before the Pamurai really believed that I would not second gues what she does.

Hah, that's wrong. Of course I second guess and of course I'm shocked when she does something that I wouldn't have done, like order enough shirts when I'd have ordered too few. Maybe I should have said she's learned that she can ignore my shocked comments because I'll apologize about ten seconds later and say what she did was the right move.

So yes, I'm spoiled rotten these days, unstressed to the point where I'm actually losing sight of how close the seminar is.

Now, in a couple of weeks this two-person workforce will expand dramatically. All sorts of people will slot right into their job to make the seminar happen. I'm feeling a bit, um, conflicted about my longest-running help which would be Dave Green on cash at the door and at the auction. He started as a poor student way back when and now he's one of the iaido instructors. I guess I really should ask him if he's OK with double duty. If he is, I'm sure someone is going to give me proper hell for bad manners and not treating a sensei correctly and all that.

But he's just so good at his job!

Then there's the crew from Rochester who run the auction, and the Pamurai's Minions who just run. (OK don't lay into me, they named themselves.) All these folks show up and do their jobs without discussing it with me, or maybe an email to say "this is how we're doing it this year". Damn I appreciate these folks, they run the seminar.

This year we've got one Minion who has been missing for quite a while trying to finish up a thesis. He's coming back to do his job. In past years we've had many folks come back to do their job even when their iaido careers have been winding down due to injury. I'm talking about you Auction Crew. Don't ever think I don't notice. While I'm grumping around going insane due to problems I have to fix ten minutes ago, or trying to be in two or three places at once because "you're the organizer you should be here" these guys just keep things going.

I'm spoiled. I may not always acknowledge it but I know I am. Thanks in advance, all of you.

May 10, 2016

So pass me already

I want one of those bumper stickers that says "Retired, pass or stop reading this" or whatever clever thing it is they say. Just don't hang around behind me taking a run at my bumper, I'm not going to speed up.

I say the same sort of thing to my class, something along the lines of "if you don't intend to be better than I am, don't come to class".

Well actually I don't say that in a serious tone, I don't mind if people just want to come and hang out. Still, what's the point of having someone who has "gone before" and spent years figuring out how to do something efficiently if you don't take advantage of the shortcut to catch up and pass. I had the comment "wish I'd heard that two years ago" the other day. Well I suspect it took me four or five years to work it out, so you're now ahead of where I was at your level. Move along from there.

The reason teaching exists is to make it easier for the next generation to get ahead of us. Isn't it? Why else would teaching exist?

Teaching exists to:
Boost the ego of the teacher.
To cause respect in the students thus boosting the ego of the teacher.
To "show off" for the students thus boosting ...
To make money, thus boosting the bank account of the teacher.
To have people around who will sweep the floor and clean the toilets.

While I'm sure there are lots of similar reasons to be a teacher, the genetic, evolutionary, Darwinian, fundamental reason has to be to promote the next generation to a better place. "Look kids, here's how you use a stick to fish grubs out of a hole in a log".

By that reasoning, the role of a student is to use the experience of the teacher, to steal it quickly, and go on past to figure out new stuff, like "hey, you can also use this stick to poke a small animal in the side and get even more meat for less effort".

Once you're a teacher it doesn't mean you stop learning, of course you keep learning, in fact, you try to stay ahead of your students for as long as you can. The meaning of "sensei" is "gone before" so I keep getting told, and if you're not "going before" you might just get "left behind" on that ice floe. It's that going before and been there already that students pay for and clean the floors for and respect you for. It's what they can learn, that jump start that is valuable, not the title. Expecting respect because you have the title "sensei" or "ten dan" is like expecting to look better because you bought the latest dress off the runway in Milan. Seriously, you're not tall, 16 and 110 pounds, you are NOT going to look like that model when you wear that dress. You're not going to get into that dress.

On the student side, respect looks a lot like paying attention and trying real hard to do what you're told to do. Bowing and gifting and assorted sucking up while not trying to improve is a big time waster for a teacher. By all means be polite and do things around the place but remember that true etiquette in the dojo is to get as good as you can as fast as you can and then get better through sheer bloody-minded effort.

You want to give me a gift? Get better than I am. You think I'm in it for my ego, then by all means bow and scrape at me and call me sensei a lot and dont forget saluting and calling me sir and being as military as you can be. Lots of marching around to martial tunes. I promise I'll take it for the insult it is.

If you try hard and improve but deep down you don't think it's appropriate that you pass me, I can help with that. There are many ways to slow down, pull over to the side and wave your arm out the window so that little red sports car will stop worrying your heels. Sometimes yelling works, or snide remarks, or ignoring someone until they get lonely and try harder just so you yell at them again.

Sometimes sending students to another sensei so they get a differnt perspective works. Students can get deaf to one voice and will often respond to another way of saying the same thing in a voice that is unfamiliar. Sending a student to a teacher that's ahead of you can pull an unsuspecting student past your level. Sometimes you're just too far ahead of a student and can't get back there to pull them to the next level, in that case maybe sending them to someone who isn't quite at your level will help them more than another lecture on the difference between Musashi's "short armed monkey" and his "stick like glue". Seriously, I once found myself giving that lecture and only stopped when one of the seniors began to drool.

Sometimes the best thing for a student is to boot them out the door to start teaching on their own. While this may be because they just don't listen any more, it might also be that they have too much to work out in their own heads and getting it out onto their own students to look at it, will be the easiest way for them to sort it.

As a student, none of that is really your worry. Your job is to get as much as you can as fast as you can and then get into that passing lane and go around mister pokey. If he's a good teacher he'll be telling you how to do that, look at that arm sticking out the window!

Or get off the bumper and enjoy the scenery.

May 9, 2016

Get it while it's hot

A few days ago I took a look at the ages of the latest jodo 8dans, they ranged from just a little bit younger than me to comfortably into the 70s if I remember right.

While I am NOT making any comments on these folks (I don't know them) and I am certainly not making any comments on their abilities, it made me think a bit to see that 8 dan starts at about my age.

I'm a pretty healthy 60. Actually I can't think of a single health problem save a fatty liver, but let's face it, I'm past my prime. My shoulders hurt, my knees hurt, a lifetime of abuse will do that. I'm thinking that maybe if I lose another 20 pounds I may be able to sit in seiza but I doubt tate hiza will ever be there again. Twenty pounds would put me back to 215 which is a weight I haven't seen since I was in my early 20s. My "fighting weight" was/is I suspect around 225 so maybe that would be enough.

The point is, you're not going to see stupendous iai or jo from me. I'm well into my coaching years which is OK but I'd really like to show the students how it's done.

Which brings me to the next generation.

The standard of excellence that I carry in my head for any of my martial arts is one that I obtained from teachers who were in their prime. Who were at the top of their form. These were teachers who ranged from their 20s (Tae Kwon Do, Kung Fu, Boxing) through their 30s and 40s (Aikido, Iaido) and into their 50s (Jodo). Prime age being somewhat a function of the particular art. Tae Kwon Do requires a foot above your head and the ability to jump like you did in High School basketball. That's not a sport for an old man. When I was in my 20s I used to say Aikido wasn't much of a workout. Now just getting down and up off the floor 30 or 40 times in an hour would be a pretty good workout for me. The weapon arts tend to be gentler on the body but prime age for iaido is, I'm suggesting, about ten years less than prime for jodo due to the need to get into and out of seiza and tate hiza. The heavier sword swinging around at arms length from one hand is also a consideration.

From my first introduction to iaido up through about five dan I learned from people in their prime. Strong, powerful iai that was also smooth and fast like a boxer's jab. The strength of a middle aged man combined with the speed and lightness of a kid is a wonderful thing to see and I saw it. Is there any wonder I'm so unhappy about my abilities today? I was fortunate to learn from the teachers I did, teachers who were from 5dan to 7dan, people at the top of their game, who were "hot".

When I was young I didn't need coaching from an 8dan, I needed to be shown, I needed to feel what I should be learning, I needed the physicality that I was fortunate enough to experience from my teachers. I was a big, fit fellow who wasn't ever impressed with the woo-woo of the martial arts. In the striking arts I wasn't impressed unless there was a fist in my face, in Aikido I felt the power of my sensei come up through my arm and shake my head at first contact. By the time I started iai I could see the precision, the... as my sensei says, the "catch" of "catch him". I could see that it worked because I could feel it in my hara. Jodo, as one of the last arts I've studied went right back to my early days, to feel someone take my balance through a jo and a bokuto was breathtaking. I still resort to my empty hand to show students what I felt from my jodo teachers because I still can't show the same thing consistently with a jo. It's those glimpses that keep me going. Please understand, I'm not saying these new 8dans inJo can't take my balance through two sticks, I know they can, but at 25 years old I needed someone who "made it work" through their physical ability, not that magical, unreachable delicacy and skill that comes with 40 years of training. The physical I could understand, 40 years of training I could not.

So who taught my teachers? In their youth they had young teachers of their own, guys who were "hot". If they didn't their arts would have looked different. A beginner who doesn't see the art performed by someone in his prime won't soak that into their bones. Not easily. Not without a very good teacher who knows how to get from a student what they can't show any more. But now, or rather then, who was teaching the guys who taught me in my youth? That was what the May seminar was all about, getting in some senior teachers for my teachers. It was never about me or the other youngsters, our teachers were good for us, we were bumbling along learning which foot went where, the seminar was never about us beginners, we were there to pay for a teacher for our teacher.

But not this year, not in the iaido section. Those teachers have had their day in class, and I've had mine. Twenty plus years of bringing in higher and higher ranked teachers has given us just about as much as we'll ever get, and it's time to look to the young again, to give the nidans, the yondans, someone to feel in their guts. This year the next generation of teachers in Canada will be stepping forward and I'm excited about that. It's past time. These are 6dan instructors who are in their prime, every bit as good as I was in mine, as good as any I've seen over the last 30 years. These are teachers who are "hot" who can make it work.

To make it work is something that I can't do any more. I can't power someone off the ground any more with my foot, I can't drive nails with a punch any more (yes I could once), so I'm not a lot of use to beginners any more. But these guys? I've felt their power, they are ready to take over and I'm so pleased that they can. They are at the place where my teachers were when I was a smart-ass youngster. They could have handled me then and, unless I bring out all my inner "old age and treachery" I suspect they could handle me now. (Oh the ego of an old man).

Get it while it's hot kids, these guys will be collected in one place, bouncing ideas off each other, showing off to each other for three solid days. You think you're hard enough? Sit in front of them.


May 8, 2016

Under your nose

It's fun to find things that are right under your nose. I'm sitting here with a pint of Keiths in the Red Bay Lodge. I've owned the cottage for 21 years and I never realized this place was here. Newly renovated and reopened for a year it's pretty awesome and two minutes drive away. Beer, pub grub and pizza. I suspect we'll be regulars.

Most of the cool stuff I know comes from snooping around the neighbourhood. I figured I wanted to learn some Zen because, well because I was a 20 year old and I looked around the University to find some. I found Aikido instead and practiced hard for the next decade or so and have kept in touch since then. Along the way I found iaido at an Aikido summer camp and later found my sensei in Toronto, starting a 33 year practice (so far). From iaido I found Niten Ichiryu, Jodo and Kage Ryu by paying attention to what other stuff the people teaching me knew.

I planned none of it, just stumbled across arts through people who were right there in front of me. How cool is that?
Now I'm sitting in the "Twisted Antlers" pub looking out at the cabins in the twilight and admiring the post and beam roof. Lots of wood, lots of logs, lots of beer and I'm the only customer in the place which means I have to go get my own beer. Funny how that works, I guess waitresses the world over figure that if it's just you and her you'll get off your rear end and let her know when you want something.

If you want something, ask for it, you may get it. I asked the teachers that I discovered knew strange small arts if they would teach me. Not one of them said no.

Don't spend your life on wishes for fishes in oceans far away, open your eyes and grab the stuff that's right under your nose. A good inland turnip might be just what you need.

Inland turnip?

May 7, 2016

Stuff you know vs stuff you own

When I finish one of these essays I make sure it's uploaded before walking away to get rid of some of the three cups of coffee. When someone steals a tablet or a camera I don't miss the thing, I miss the information on the thing.

I've got lots of stuff. More than I need, but sometimes I give things away, like wooden weapons or speakers. I make these so it's easy to replace them if I want to, I have no trouble giving them away as gifts or selling them to people. Same with my photographs, if you come to the house and say "oh I like that" you're likely to get it.

Stuff can be stolen, it can be broken, it can be lost, but knowledge can't be taken away ever. Got a choice between going to school or buying a nice red sports car? A red sports car won't buy you the next red sports car.

I didn't come from money, pretty much the opposite, but the grandparents knew how to grow a garden, they knew how to make what they needed, we had food on the table and as my gran would say, we "had a pot to fish in".

I've heard it said that if civilization ever had a shock we'd never get back to where we are now. "Nobody knows how to make a car from scratch any more". Nobody ever did. I have built computers by putting the components together. I can also solder electronics and could probably put power supplies or motherboards together. What I can't do is make transisters and put chips together. Those are things that require factories and those can be built because we have the knowledge, even if we didn't have the stuff any more.

A car? The knowledge hasn't been lost, folks can still weld, machinists can still make parts. It's just that one person can't do it all... or could but would never have the time.

The only part of knowledge that worries me a little is the fallacy that "nothing disappears from the cloud". Of course it does. The place we store our knowledge these days is a bit shaky, but as long as we don't get stupid with the books, the things that will survive the collapse of civilization or the Carrington event EMP pulse from the sun, we'll be fine.

Make sure you concentrate on the stuff you know rather than the stuff you own.

Last night we worked on Seitei Iai and I'm afraid I gave the class an opinion on learning iai by doing Seitei. The teaching of Seitei to beginners is understandable, everyone wants to start grading, but the way it is taught for grading makes it "stuff you own". You memorize things like "so much angle here" or "stop the cut at this height". It's all about accurate style and remembering which of the seven or eight chiburi (of twelve kata) goes with number five. You can use seitei to teach students "how to know" you say? Sure but why? There are better sets out there for that, like Omori Ryu with it's mostly one chiburi and mostly one noto and simple progression of skills that build one on another.

You won't remember having to recite a poem in grade school, but I do. You'd memorize the lines and then you had a thing, you owned that poem. The thing is, it didn't really help you to learn how to write a poem. When you teach iai as something to be memorized for a test you own it. When you teach iai as a living, breathing expression of the principles of the sword you know it. Take, for example the instruction in the first cut in Morotezuki to "stop the tip of the sword at chin height".

Last night I got into an argument with the Pamurai about what chin height, the height of me when I'm cutting or the height of me standing up with my feet together as I probably would be if I were attacking me from the side. By the way, it's the height of your chin when you're sunk into the hit.

Now that you know that you own that fact. You can use that fact to pass a grading. The thing is, have you learned how to cut a face? You know where to stop but do you know what the purpose of that movement is? If your teacher was trying to give you the knowledge of that particular movement in that particular kata he would probably say something like "cut the face" not "stop at the chin". Unfortunately if we tell you to cut the face you'll miss the check point and cut through to the chest somewhere. Unless of course there really is a face there, in which case your swing will be slowed up and maybe stop at chin height, a good place to be since that place is a threat to your now enraged opponent who would very much like to come in and cut you. Mind you, stopping at the chest height isn't bad either, now stopping outside his body, there's a problem.

We can't teach Seitei that way and expect you to pass your next grading so we don't. But understand, we're making you memorize a poem not teaching you how to write one.

Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, teach that man to fish and he'll be on the riverbank every day and lose his job and he and his whole family will starve to death.

May 6, 2016

Bored Sensei

"Are you bored sensei"?

Yes I am. You are repeating the movements of the first couple of kata in a set in preparation for a grading. Of course I'm bored, I have to let you go through it a bunch of times to memorize it before I start correcting you.

So all I can do right now is be in the room and make sure you don't get bored and start hitting each other. I'm just a babysitter without a cell phone. Bored.

"You could be making comments to those of us who know the dance moves already". Well yes I could, and the beginners would listen and try to take that on board and it would slow them down. No, you practice too, but pay attention to your posture and your timing and your cuts and, in short, work on every comment I've made to you for the last however long you've been around.

Oh yes, I am also here to make sure that vacuum of instruction doesn't get filled too much by your more experienced partners. A certain amount of "no, no, other foot forward" is useful but only one person in this room gets to yammer on about how the third headmaster may have invented this kata. You don't really need to know that to do the kata.

Look, I talk all the time, I correct stuff that you don't know how to fix yet, I love to hear myself yap because that's how I learn. You think you like it when we do kata in fast succession, and when we learn new kata every couple of classes, but that's just me being selfish. When I shut up, once in a blue moon, and let you get on with it that's me being kind, and generous, and bored. It takes a lot to keep me from jumping on you to correct things you really don't need to correct. Especially when we're working toward a grading. If you're not doing things at a pass level I'll say something, in the meantime just work at what you know and make it smooth by making it automatic.

See, I'm not even jumping in to rant about just how dangerous it is to go into automatic pilot and walk through the kata. At your level you'll pass with that, so do it. My job is to get you well within the passing standard without giving you stuff to get nervous about. Trust me, we'll pick up the details later, maybe not in this kata, maybe not even in this art, but we'll get there.

Do you worry that your partner is telling you porkie pies? It's a small room and there aren't very many of you here, I can hear what you're being told, if I don't correct it (usually a couple of repeats later), I'll catch it a couple of repeats later and fix you. Don't sweat it, your seniors are quite likely repeating something I said to them when they did what you just did. One sensei, one "right way" to do it. That's what being a beginner is.

Oh, and seniors, if you know three ways to do it, don't tell the beginners. Take note of which way I told them to do it and pretend that's the right way. They don't need the cross-channel interference in their brains as they try to keep two "right ways" in their heads. (They also will not respect you for your vast knowledge, they'll be annoyed that you confused them.)

So how do you know when I'm trying to give you some grading practice? When you're not getting corrected every 30 seconds. How do you know when I'm bored? I look bored. I'm leaning against the heaters warming up my bum. I'm reminding myself that I'm supposed to be bored right now, I'm taking my full attention off of you and thinking about beer because if I look at you I'm going to want to fix you.

This is me watching you do situps while I stand around smoking a cigar. Umm, that's a real thing by the way, when that room next door was a different room and people smoked in labs and classrooms and workouts.

Seriously, I'm that old.

"But you don't care about our grades, why don't you just teach us the good stuff from the beginning"? I do. I do both, care about your grades and teach you the good stuff from the beginning. You should grade, I want you to grade for two reasons. One, it's good for you so just do it. What's not good for you is to care whether or not you pass. Care enough to grade and do the best job you can, don't worry if you pass or not. That's on the judges not you. Do your best and let the grades fall as they will. If you're worried that your failure will reflect badly on me, relax. I don't care and I've also made it very clear to the panel that I will put anyone forward when they've got the time in. The panelists understand that if they fail one of my students I won't be upset. That way you don't have to worry if you don't pass and they don't have to worry if they don't pass you. Those who like me won't pass you because you're my student and those who don't like me won't fail you to make me unhappy. It's all between you and them.

See how clever I am?

On the other hand, I want you to pass because I care about this art and I care about it's continued existance after I'm gone so you are supposed to get the rank to replace me at some point, some how.

And yes, I do teach you the good stuff from the beginning. Did I tell you how to hold the sword? That's the good stuff. Did I tell you the story of the seniors class where the 6 and 7 dans were jumping around like little girls with a new Barbie? Did I show you the massive teaching about the grip that prompted that jumping?

Sure I did, I showed you the grip and I showed you the difference between the grip before and after. You tell me you still don't see it, which is fine, just don't tell me I don't give you the good stuff from day one. That grip won't pass or fail you anyway, not now, not at your 7dan test so don't sweat it. The good stuff isn't usually the grading stuff.

So get on with it you boring people, memorize those steps, figure out who moves first, stop the stick at the right height and we're good. Don't worry about why, you'll hear about that later.

When I'm not bored.

Hey, 36 years ago today in 1975 I entered the University of Guelph. That might be twice the age of some of you folks practicing. See, I told you I was old. Twenty-six years ago was the first Spring Seminar so please feel free to register for this pre-historic thing. You can find the link through http://seidokai.ca/ (pre-historic website).

Wait... dang no that's 41 years ago today. I have to go do some more crosswords to fight off the Mad Cow.

May 4, 2016

Gremlin days

Yesterday was a Gremlin day, it started off with a surprise closure of one of the four routes through town as I tried to get to the cafe, then the keyboard was out of juice so it only typed every other letter, taking the son to his appointment was a ten mile detour because I didn't look up the address, later the dvd I had of Lauren's recital would only play with VLC and I had to learn how to be a hacker on linux to find a program that would record sound off the sound card and....

Umph, I hate days like that, the computer keeps crashing, the bank insists I create yet another online account and password just to get a form for my taxes. It goes on and on.

But it really doesn't, Gremlins don't exist. Well they did, for a few years they were made by American Motors, and were one of the ugliest cars ever made, but the kind that get into the machines and mess things up? The thing on the wing of that plane William Shatner was flying in? An external force that explains everyday problems.

This is a good thing, better than we should internalize and figure we're cursed by the gods. Gremlins and being cursed by the witch down the street is preferred, then you have a target other than yourself. We all want someone else to blame for our misfortunes.

Misfortune? Stuff breaks, cities close roads, Apple execs just don't get that it's all about perception and nothing to do with the fundamentals of accounting. Misfortune is what happens to people who figure it's personal, that the world, the universe, actually gives a toot about them. It's a form of selfishness.

Oh we must save the world from environmental degredation. No we mustn't. I mean I agree that I'd like to go on living and I'd like my kids to go on living but that's saving our own arses, if we destroy every living thing on the face of the planet "the world" will still be here. And if it's not? Umm, the solar system is short a planet? And who cares? Seriously, if there is nobody left to care, who cares?

It's down to me me me. Gremlins don't mess up the roads to mess with me, I just notice the roads because I'm driving on them. The hubris of me thinking it's got anything to do with me is breathtaking. What about the roads in Calcutta? I'm not there so they don't exist I guess.

Your existential angst and your sliver in your thumb are all just things that happen. They arent caused by anything except, perhaps, your notice. Man is the measure of all things. Truly he is. Mother Earth doesn't know we're here messing up her ecosystem. She doesn't know there's an ecosystem to mess up. Neither do the ants know, only Man knows.

So, it rains on your wedding day? It's not about you. Someone does something you don't like? It may not be about you. Your dog bites the hand that feeds him? Also maybe not. Your keyboard only types every other letter? Probably about you, so remember to charge it. Your computer crashes just before you save that twenty page chapter? Absolutely about you.

Pick your Gremlins and blame them, or keep in mind that the Universe is mindless of you and everything else and stop taking stuff personally. That stuff that is personal? Figure out what's on you and what's on someone who just doesn't like you and put it into perspective. It could be worse, unless that person who doesn't like you just killed you, but then we're not talking are we? I bring that up? Sure I do, in a hundred years your descendents and everyone else on earth are going to have no idea who you were or even that you were. If they do, if your great-grandkids think about you at all those horribly embarassing things you did and tried to cover up will be forgotten or just a cute story. Hey, I've got ancestors who were shot or hung as British spies during the American Rebellion. Traitors to the rebel cause! Am I embarassed? No. It's a cute story, even better that they weren't really spies, just some Quakers with nice farms. Even more fun that it happened again a generation later when one of the kids was hung in London, just down the road, as a rebel in the revolt against the Family Compact. Yes, that's why we hate you Toronto.

But did they beat their kids? Did they run around the place in the altogether? Did they believe in the wrong god? I haven't a clue. All the shameful, horrible things are gone, along with their neighbours who reported them as spies and claimed the farms.

Old folks get this stuff. Do you ever wonder why your granny says those outrageous things? She won't have to live with "the shame" for much longer. Yeah but you will. Really? If you want to take it on you can, if you want to take it personally (she's just doing it to embarass me).... no, she's probably doing it to embarass you, let's be honest.

So how do we keep our universe and our society from influencing us? We can't, not really. There are places in the world, according to some book review I read yesterday, where the men actually believe their genitals are being sucked back into their bodies and they will die when they are completely gone. There are other places that believe in witches and burn the neighbours. There are places that... well we once called it mass hysteria (I'm sure there's some more acceptable modern name for the same thing) and it's something that "natives" do in backward places right? Our enlightened, scientific society doesn't buy into Gremlins and voodoo death do we?

Except for all those "diseases" and "syndromes" that have absolutely no scientific proof of existance that we take "remedies" for.

Maybe it would be better to believe in Gremlins when you have a vague feeling of angst instead of looking at yourself (always to be avoided) or those closest to you (for sure, it's your boyfriend's fault because he's holding you back). Maybe we have a mannose intolerance which is why we have this beer gut. It couldn't possibly be that I eat too much... it must be my addiction, my syndrome. That's it, I'm a taste addict, I'm addicted to stuff that tastes good. Goes well with my sex addiction and my breath addiction.

Nah, it's Gremlins.

May 3, 2016

Grumpy old men

The Neighbours have one of those little dogs that is well past its prime. Half blind, it was always yappy but now it barks at anything that moves. Still you have to remember that one day you too will be a grumpy old man with teeth that hurt all the time and a bum knee. One day you too will be surrounded by people who whisper and write things down using a magnifying glass and who insist on being fuzzy.

Give them a break, the kids are watching how you treat them, and as I said, one day that will be you.

May 2, 2016

It's beyond me.

'Just really psyched about this poster right now thanks @[100005236602414:2048:Lydia]!!'

My daughter's viola playing I mean, it's beyond my ability to judge. I have no idea how good she is, I have to take other people's word for it. Do I love her playing? Yes. Did she blow my mind with her grad recital last evening? Yes. Was I crying by the third piece? Yes. But I repeat, I have no idea how good she is.

I have talked about mushin, about performing an action without thought. I have talked about being so well connected to the techniques that those techniques fall away and last evening was a good example of that. She has ceased to worry about the technique of her art. I confirmed this for myself when we asked her how she felt about it. She said she was satisfied with it, but that in one or two places she was slightly out of tune, still, that didn't matter she was pleased with it.

Not overjoyed, not super-relieved that it was over, not overly-critical of the inevitable mistakes made in a live performance. No, satisfied, happy with her performance and a small imperfection noted without much concern.

As I said, mushin, Musashi's void. The place where self-conscious technique, where the desire for perfection has fallen away and what is left is a satisfactory job. "It is sufficient". Indeed it was.

Since I've watched her grow up and been at performances since she was half her height I was always able to relate her skill to dan ranks. It was a few years ago that I declared her a 5dan, at the end of her technical learning curve, where her fingering and bowing were good. Since then she has moved away from what I can judge because the musical abilities in our family seem to run in the female line. Lord my mother would have loved that recital. Now there is someone else who would have been weeping, to see her granddaughter make her way in Music.

What can anyone judge in an art not their own? The technical.

That photograph is well focused, the lighting is good, the colours are accurate, the framing is to the accepted standard as is the composition. That's technical and half of it can be done by the camera these days. The post-recital photos are usually taken in front of a bunch of photos on the wall under some spot lights. That means the lighting is spotty, sometimes in shadow and sometimes in lights almost directly overhead. Yet it was pointed out to me that the cell phones were compensating and the wall behind with the photos was being blown out as the faces were accurately lit.

A cell phone!

Me and my camera were taking photos around the corner where I found some soft even lighting and a blank white wall on a staircase. That's the old-school trained photographer in me, look for the background, look for the lighting. No need to learn that stuff any more, if it's technical it can be programmed.

Can we say auto-tune?

In the martial arts the big critique is often something like "what can you do with a sword against a gun"? "Let's see you wrestle your way out of a tactical nuke". Yeah yeah, you could make a one-touch microwave that uses remote sensing to cook anything to the correct internal temperature. Just put it in frozen and turn it on, it dings when it's done. You could even put in a convection system to brown your roast up nice, and maybe a slider to choose rare to well-done.

But that's not the point. Technical is easy, if you can program it, it's easy. You can measure it.

I might have been 10 when my mother said to me "I never really liked Liberace much, he never makes a mistake but that's it, just technique, no feeling". That statement hit me. It was a different world back then, nobody expected life to be fair and so to be told technical perfection wasn't good enough didn't bother me. I just realized that now. Today it's like being told "you were the first to the finish line but you don't win the race".

There's something beyond the technical, and in my daughter's case I can tell she's beyond it but I have no idea how far. The program was your typical grad recital stuff. Some old work and some new. Some challenging finger-work and some challenging bow-work. Solo and accompanied work. Reading and memorization. I don't have the programme in front of me but it was a solo Bach piece, a... damn I want to say sonota but that's not it, a piano / violin piece where you read the music and it's in several movements... somebody tell me. Anyway it was by Bloch (OK now I'm questioning my memory... Block? No Bloch). Next was a modern solo piece by Penderecki (her violin and viola teachers are in the Penderecki Quartet I think) which was all delicate bow-work, not spectacular fast riffs but it sounded damned difficult. Being a teacher, being her father, I tried to look for the technique and yes, I heard her tap her viola once, I heard one small bounce on a bow line but I couldn't keep it up, I got lost in the music. This was a modern piece, you aren't supposed to get all weepy over anything written after 1870 yet... The last piece was Bartok and it was all fingers. In the whole recital I saw one place in this piece where it looked like she was trying, I think she got the viola jammed a bit tight to her chest because it didn't happen again.

And it didn't disturb her at all. There are computer programs around that will produce musical pieces "in the same style as Mozart" or whoever. I wonder if they are designed to make mistakes in the composition. I wonder if the music they produce will have occasional mistakes in bowing or fingering? If not, we will have to come up with another term than Mastery or Mushin for these things. Maybe "technical mastery" but never mushin, because it's the way you deal with a mistake or a disturbance that reveals your command of your art. Mushin is the dealing with variables. A perfect kata, a perfect viola performance can never demonstrate mushin. Mushin is not mindless, a computer is mindless but does not have mushin.

If you can measure it, it's not what I'm talking about. And what I'm talking about is hard to assess if you aren't in that specific art.

What I know for sure is that Lauren's art is beyond my ability to assess her.

May 1, 2016

Seeing what it looks like photographed

Garry Winogrand was a street photographer in New York who died with something like 3000 rolls of film left hanging around his apartment. He took thousands of photos and when asked why, he said he photographed to see what things looked like photographed.

It would be entirely accurate to say that I write to see what I say about things, I teach for the same reason, to see how I answer questions.

At the last class I was asked about how to pick the right technique from the right school in order to respond to an attack, or more specifically "how do you know which technique to use". I replied that after 30 years the stuff just comes when you need it.

If you practice long enough it does, it really does. To be a photographer of any sort, but especially on the street you have to see-shoot. You can't be fiddling with the camera, it has to disappear. When you're writing, the keyboard and the program has to go away, you can't be messing around with fonts and backgrounds and other such nonsense, your brain and your recording medium have to blend seamlessly, any distractions will prevent the thoughts from being recorded.

Thinking about, buying and collecting, cameras or editing software will make you an expert in using the bits and bobs of the hardware or software. It won't get a photograph or a story made. Hence the taking of thousands of photographs, the writing of hundreds of essays, it keeps you involved in the process, it lets you go right through the tools, forget the tools and get the job done when you need to do it.

If you obsess over kata, worry about "getting it right", you won't get past the tool to the actual work.

While re-reading my comments on Musashi's Go Rin no Sho last evening in the sauna I came across what I said about the five books. It was a comparison to the concept of Shu Ha and Ri. I'd love to quote it here but the Kindle app on my tablet won't let me quote my own writing. Useful that. Shu Ha Ri is of course Keep Break Leave and I take that to mean Keep the form, Break (down) the form and Leave the form behind.

Shu is represented in the first two books, Chi (earth) where Musashi gives a general introduction to his art, and Mizu (water) where he describes the five kata of his school.

Ha is represented in the third book, Hi (fire) which describes what happens in an fight and Kaze (wind) where other schools and their characteristics are described.

Ri is the last book, Ku (sky or the void) where Musashi describes the emptiness required to achieve mastery, or perhaps more accurately, the emptiness acquired after achieving mastery.

The comments go on to rearrange this into four stages of learning.

1. First one learns the techniques of the art, and after doing that we go around looking for situations where we can use the techniques.

2. Next we learn about situations and when we do that we sort through our set of techniques / tools to fit one of them to the situation.

3. Beyond that, we then look at how other people deal with these same situations, we learn something about their techniques / tools and see how we can apply those lessons to our own practice.

4. Finally, we arrive at the point where we simply forget all that came before and we just apply whatever tool or technique the situation requires without having to think about it.

Hence, we photograph something to see how it looks photographed. We write an essay to see how it turns out. We simply answer a question without thinking about it or worrying that we haven't checked all the books. We respond to an attack in an appropriate, and spontaneous way.

There is nothing special or even different about how we study budo or the end goal of that study. Every field of endeavour uses the same stages, the same method of learning. Musashi uses the carpenter in the Go Rin no Sho to illustrate what the hyohosha (the martial artist or commander of armies) needs to learn. Choose your tools, learn how to use them, keep them sharp, then forget about them.

Ever wonder why the kid straight out of school with all the latest information can be so annoyingly wrong? Doesn't matter what field I'm talking about here, it's always the same, they have all the newest techniques, all the sharpest tools and they figure you don't know a thing because you don't seem to know anything. Smile, nod and watch the kid fall flat on his face.

It's not cruel, he'll be fine once he gets a few years of experience. You have to break in that engine, smooth off the rough edges a bit, let the lubrication seep deeper into the parts before it runs well.

Spend a few years seeing what things look like photographed.

Apr 30, 2016

What do you do?

Spring? This is spring? You know in your bones it's going to be 4 degrees for the next two weeks and then it's going to suddenly be 40 and too hot to work outside.

It's cold in the shop but I spent the last couple of days in there grinding wood anyway, just to get a jump on the summer orders and to make a few more choken (five footers) for the seminars coming up. But the cold combined with juggling 10 foot boards through the bandsaw does my shoulders no good at all.

It's little wonder that last night's class was all thrusts all the time. I had no desire to lift my arms over my head. It was a combined aikido / iaido class, about 50/50 with a wild card thrown in so of course we picked up the jo instead of the iaito. What can I say, I forgot my iaito at home in my concern to take enough weapons along for those who borrow. Second summer in a row without our locker so we cart everything up and back.

Since I was thinking aikido and jodo I started off with a comparison of thrusts in each, alternating between Shindo Muso Ryu on one side and Aiki-jo on the other. Somewhere in there I managed to find myself doing some Kukishin Ryu (the wild card guy) that I stole from a book twenty years ago. Moving through three styles of jo turned out not to be a problem for the class, they were using the same weapon and the same feet and somehow it worked. Let's face it there are only so many ways to poke someone in the stomach while getting off the line because they are swinging at you with a sword. A lot of ways to get offline, granted, but the mantra was "just poke him" and don't worry too much about which school you're doing. There's only so much note-taking a man can tolerate after all.

One of the folks called me out eventually, asking if the samurai would have studied all these arts. Yes and no. I have no idea how old the Kukishin Ryu is, but I'm sure the Aiki-jo is not something the samurai would have practiced since it wasn't around until post Meiji. But yes, the samurai would have practiced whatever arts were available to them. They were hired to fight (I'm being a bit simplistic here so don't jump on me) and their boss would have hired instructors to teach them. More than one maybe, and maybe they'd get taught archery, sword, spear, horseriding and gunnery, or whatever the boss figured he wanted them to learn. If there were two instructors teaching sword, maybe the samurai would learn two styles of sword. Why not? The idea that we learn one art for 30 years is a pretty modern one, as is the idea that it takes those 30 years to achieve "mastery" (menkyo kaiden).

Together with this idea that you need to focus exclusively on one koryu, there is a somewhat countering idea that we study a generic art which combines the old ones, we do Kendo which comes from many kenjutsu koryu, we do various seitei gata schools like zenkenren iai or jo, ZNIR toho or suchnot, which again, come from various koryu. Look, I didn't invent the idea that "a sword is a sword".

Now, when you speak of the samurai you always need to ask "which" samurai, since the class existed for many hundreds of years, but the old budo schools we discuss these days are all products of the Edo period, and the modern arts derived from these. Again, let's not get too balled up in lineages that go back to 1100 where I've read that Mr. Minamoto learned Aikido from the Tengu. Instead let's think about our samurai of the mid-1700s, what was happening then?

Mostly not a lot. The transportation system wasn't terribly efficient, you needed papers to go from your area to another, the boss had a residence out in the sticks and maybe one in Edo. As Joe Samurai you would more or less be studying like most of us study now, opportunistically. In 1750 you had a job that didn't involve training for war constantly. You maybe were encouraged to go to the local dojo where you studied whatever art the teacher there was offering. If you showed a talent and worked hard you got good at it. If not, no big deal, there wasn't much call for your sword skills anyway. Today for most of us it's more or less the same, if there's a Niten Ichiryu class in your city you might go study that. What has changed is that the world has gotten a bit smaller, you can actually hop a plane and go to Japan and study Niten if you wish. This is a modern idea, this treatment of budo as a menu of choices that you go through and pick. The samurai got what was offered, we get a choice, even if most of us don't take it.

The exception back in the day might have been the trip to Edo where a talented samurai may have gone with the boss to the capital to stay for a while. In Edo there may have been the chance to study with other teachers, other arts, and why not? In 1750 there was, I suspect, still the thought in the back of the head, that war could break out. It was only three generations ago after all. Well, three generations... yes likely not a huge amount of thought about country-wide warfare. These days we seem to forget what war is in a single generation, shows what not listening to grampa does for you. If you don't listen you forget, when you forget you have to learn all over again.

That's what it is to get old, you have to watch the kids learn it again, and roll your eyes when they get surprised by the pointy stick in the eye.

I seem to have wandered quite a way without really finding a point. Which I suppose is my point, if you want to study a single art for 30 years you're going to get really good at it. That's fine, but it isn't likely what the samurai did. Perhaps not even what the headmasters did if you look at the dates some of them took over the school. Back in the day there were 20 year old headmasters. In the 1800s a student may have been given his menkyo kaiden in a school after 5 years and booted out onto the road with his bogu to go musha shugyo and learn from other teachers and other schools. It's the later generations of headmasters that tend to take over later and live longer, or perhaps we need to look at it the other way around, live much longer and not hand it over until much later when the top student is also an old man.

Wander around, study lots, don't worry about the point of it all, just keep practicing what you can, the arts are as relevant today as they were in 1750 so be of good cheer young jedi er samurai.

Apr 29, 2016

Fresh eyes

The son is driving us around this morning on our errands. It's quite an interesting experience to drive with a beginner, the traffic and the signs and the other bits and bobs of driving show up in a whole new light. Just the fact that his hands don't automatically know the way to the coffee shop is a bit of a jolt.

I recommend using someone else's eyes regularly, like looking in the back yard for a photograph, or trying to guess when your partner is going to unload a heavy strike at your head, it's good practice for paying attention to the details you usually ignore.

More importantly though, looking at the situation through some else's eyes will make you a better teacher. Just why does that beginner have so much trouble cutting in a straight line?

Want to see it through their eyes? Switch your hands on your hilt, reverse a kata so that you're doing the mirror image. Be Ginger Rogers ("It must be so good to dance with Fred Astaire" "Well, perhaps, but I have to do everything he does except backward and in heels".)

If nothing else, you will have a bit more sympathy for those just learning.

You know, if I ran the world everyone would learn how to drive in open-caged dune buggies. That way people would maybe get the idea that they are not seated in front of a TV screen playing a video game as they drive. Beginners really and truly ought to be terrified as they begin to drive. Of course with fully autonomous cars without even manual controls we will all forget how to drive.

When teaching your martial art why not set up an exercise or two where the students aren't sitting well within their comfort zone, just to show them that what we're doing isn't really an exercise in posing pretty. I'm not saying you should make it actually dangerous, keep the roll cage around the dune buggy, just set it up so that they can see the consequences that might happen if they don't concentrate on effective movement.

After all, what's the point of swinging a sword if you're only thinking about where it stops rather than how to cut. So much of iaido can be like that, posing and dancing. Yet so much is explained if we put the metal swords away, pick up a couple of bokuto and go through the kata with a partner. There's the written exam and maybe even a driving simulator program on a computer but to learn to drive we also figure you need some guided practice out on the road. If you can't figure out where your imaginary opponent is, look at a real one with a bokuto in his hand. If you only ever have an imaginary opponent who moves exactly the same each time, you are going to get RSI of the brain. Real drivers are nuts, they don't follow the rules of the road, they are random. Deal with it.

Apr 26, 2016


A student I haven't seen for quite a while showed up yesterday. He has been out with a shoulder injury which is finally recovering. The injury may actually turn out to be useful as he is working toward a double 6dan in iai and jo. Both ranks require much more than technical ability and having your upper body power taken away can help you focus on the hips and legs while getting the strength out of the shoulders. Soft above, strong below.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.

Even if you cannot lift a sword you can go to a light iaito, or to a bokuto, or to a niten bokuto (much lighter) or even to nothing at all as you work on your footwork. I have found that with a little imagination you are never really unable to practice in some capacity or another.

Some random things we worked on in class.

Uke Nagashi: The Pamurai is going to teach a class at a high school and so we went through the "one hour introduction to iaido school" otherwise known as Keshi Ryu. This really is a great intro set that can be taught very quickly. It's standing (hard for beginners to learn while their knees are screaming in pain), it is easy to remember (you can leave a complete school with your class), there are only five kata which cover attacks from four directions and a final "surrounded" kata. The first three kata give you draws upward, horizontally and downward and all the kata finish with a vertical cut and the same noto so you learn it once and have it for the rest. Despite being drawn from five different schools, the kata are well fitted together and the skills build through the set, finishing with a kata that looks flashy and complicated but which is really quite simple once you have the trick of it.

The main feature though, is uke nagashi. It's full of it, each kata has at least one example and they are from many different positions. A real workout in keeping the wrists soft and, for some of the class, learning to live with a tip that is below the hilt.

Stopping vs cutting. In both the iai and jo sections of the class we came across multiple examples of folks worrying about "where the sword/jo should stop". Why would you want to worry about that? Worry about cutting or making the strike not where you're going to stop the weapon.

Transition speed from one direction to the other: Keshi ryu "drops the tip", so does Kage, Muso Jikiden, Niten and just about every sword art I know except Kendo. Are all these arts misguided? Do kendoka know something we don't? Well, yes they do, they know that if you drop the tip down behind your back your cut will be much slower than if you leave it up. It's absolutely true, but I give you an experiment. First, face forward and lift your sword up and cut down. Now lift it up, drop it behind your back and do the same cut. Takes much longer right?

Now instead of facing the same direction to cut, turn to cut, anywhere from 45 degrees to 180. Now keep the tip up as you turn and cut while timing your cut somehow. I counted quickly from one to seven as the class did this. After four or five turns to get an average number, do the same thing except ignore the tip completely. Just let the wrists go soft, get the hands overhead as fast as you can and then as you face the new direction fire the left hand to cut. The class came up with much lower numbers when the tip was down as opposed to when they tried to keep it up.

Strange neh? How can both rules be correct at the same time? Tip up is faster, tip down is faster? It's a mystery I leave you to think about.

Win from across the room: One of our number was winding up on an initial movement (a thrust with the jo from the right hip). Being schooled in the "back up until you find the problem" method of teaching I suggested that the original ready stance be modified so that the hand is slightly forward and the grip in the striking position right away. This fixed the windup but also made the initial stance much more strong. You must be in a strong stance even when your opponent is many steps away, this makes them nervous as you come across the floor to attack.

The left hand controls the tip: This was mentioned in passing but we spent some time on it in an earlier class. The idea is to remain in position a step away from the opponent as you bring your weapon into attacking position, then, assuming you've got a sword grip, left hand at the bottom, right up the shaft a bit, begin the cut with the body moving forward and the left hand lightly beginning to lead the weapon, then trigger the strike as the body comes into position using the left hand to pull rather than the right hand to push. The key here is using the body to straighten that tip onto the attack line rather than wrench it into place with your arms. For those who have been around the dojo, yes this is the Seidokai "rope sword". (We really do have a bunch of short ropes hanging around the place.)

Boat anchors and Railroad Tracks: Musashi was very much against special stances and ways of walking and I agree with him. (He would be relieved to hear that I'm sure). I run into this a lot with aikido stances and karate stances and kendo stances all competing to move bodies from point a to b. The railroad tracks are the parallel feet of kendo which are great in one direction, not so good if you have to turn. They are often opposed (in my head at least) by the aikido T-stance with one foot behind the other so that you can move off the railroad tracks in a flash. Problem is, if you advance with the T-stance you often get the back foot dragging along behind like a boat anchor. You really can't use the hips to bring up the back foot if your hips are sideways on... probably explains the groin pulls from my Aikido days.

Any sort of special stance in preparation to move forward is a clue as to your next movement. The railroad feet are going to move forward most effectively, the T-stance is going to move offline most effectively.

That's enough writing of notes for the class, they should get their own notebooks!

Remember, make lemonade, it's an ill wind that blows no good, every cloud has a silver lining, April showers bring May flowers, if anything can go wrong it will..... oops.

Apr 25, 2016

Photo critiques and budo

Long ago I was somewhat involved in teaching photography. We had a large studio and access to many models so I figured a series of workshops would be a nice thing to do, plus I could recoup a bit of the money I was spending on studio rental.

One of the things I didn't do was photo critiques, even though the participants wanted it. The problem was that I wasn't interested in turning out a bunch of mini-me types so we would start with "Do you like it?" then move on to "What were you trying to do here?". Mostly what I got back was "I just want to make better photographs". Desperately I'd switch to "Can you show me an image that you want your photo to look like?"

And on it would go until I would sometimes get to wherever it was they wanted to go. From there we could look at how to get there, but with no destination in mind it's hard to draw a map.

If you don't know where you're going, it's no use asking anyone else how to get there. If I get asked "what do you think about this photograph" I can analyse it, look at leading lines, composition, tonal gradients, subject matter, how pretty the girl is, how big the church, all sorts of things, and I can also make a guess at what the photographer was trying to get across, if anything, but how does that help the artist become a better artist? If they have no idea what they're trying to do it's hard to help them do it. If I tell them how close they got to something I'd do how does that help?

What you can do is provide tools. You can talk about what kind of camera you need (usually anything at all will do, including the phone in your hand). You can talk about using natural light or modifying light in a studio. You can talk about where to find models (I haven't a clue in these days of selfies, who needs photos from a photographer when the ideal is pouty lips and an arm that goes out of frame) or how to compose landscapes. It's all tools. What you can't do is provide.... not ideas really, desire?.... vision.... you can't provide the impulse to create, to capture images. The nicest camera in the world won't provide that, nor the best education. A cellphone will take much better pictures than my old spotmatic and a day in the darkroom, and it will do it instantly, but that cellphone won't find the urge to create an image that holds the attention for more than half a second.

A photo critique is only useful to provide advice on how to use the tools, not how to get a great shot. I can tell you how to get my shot, or somebody else's shot but I can't tell you what your shot is. So if you like it, you're done. If you don't like it, you're going to have to tell me why if you want me to tell you how.

I need a standard, a goal to judge by.

Any sort of judgement suffers from this sort of problem. Is this a good picture? I dunno, is it? Is this a good kata? I dunno, did you punch your imaginary opponent in the face? Is that the goal? What's the standard I'm judging to?

Budo isn't sport because there isn't a standard to judge by, or rather, there are too many standards. Just as you can photograph with many, many goals, you can practice budo with multiple objectives. If you're a competitive runner you have one goal, get to the end of the race in front of the other guys. Simple. Coaching is also simple in that there is a clear goal, get your runner to the end before everyone else.

Figure skating? Not quite so simple now that it's all about a combination of gymnastics and artistic merit instead of making 15 passes over a figure 8 and seeing who is closest to a single line. Are there even figures any more in figure skating? Non-objective competition goals are hard to define but it can be done, and is, then it comes down as much to the training of the judges as to the training of the skaters doesn't it?

Objective vs subjective sports. How about photography contests? Same problems, if it's a free-form subjective judging you end up looking for stuff you like, a popularity contest where the winner is the one who is closest to the average of what the judges like. If it's supposed to be objective you start looking at exposure values and tonal gradients and... that's all done well by computer these days so what's the point?

There are competitive martial arts. Kendo, boxing, wrestling are all sports and all have subjective and objective goals. Some fencing of the western variety uses an objective scoring system, electric points and vests. Your objection? It's just about making the buzzer go off. In Kendo you have more subjective scoring, it's not enough to make a nice smacking sound with the shinai on the men, you have to do it with a certain style. That puts the judges much more into the picture, along with their training.

Boxing and wrestling are a real combination, points for somewhat subjective hits or falls (what's a legal hit or an illegal throw) and pretty objective things like knocking someone unconscious.

So what do I do with jodo or iaido? How do I teach them? Do I teach toward competition? If so I teach the standard kata out of the book, I focus on getting the movements correct according to standard instruction, and I take into account what the judges are going to look at, I worry about the objective movements of the kata and the subjective opinions of the judges.

Do I teach toward gradings? It's the same.

But I don't. I'm not really very interested in whether my students win tournaments or pass gradings. Don't tell them that, they'll get mad at me, but it's like photography, I want them to have their own goals, I don't want them to be either mini-me or standards-boy unless that's what they want. If they don't know what they want I've got to wait for them to figure it out before I can help.

What do you want from your budo? Cool threads? Snappy style? Super-combato skills? A bunch of folks to go have beer with? High rank? Physical mimicry powers? Trophies?

Me, I want a space I don't have to argue about and some people who want to practice. It's the process of practice that concerns me, not the goals. And my photography? It's the same thing, I'm much more interested in the process of photographing than in the resulting photograph. Which is weird, apparently.

Hey, if you sit zen, tell me why? Is it to achieve satori? To get off the wheel of birth and death? Or is it to sit zen?

Hah! You know, I'm old enough to remember when running as something to do was a very weird thing, now I see all sorts of people who don't need to lose weight out running for no other reason than to be out running. Aerobics? That was never a thing, now suddenly (well, in my lifetime) doing situps and pushups is something you pay someone else to tell you to do? And why? I dunno, maybe there are goals like losing weight or getting buff or having a job as a trainer, but I suspect most people get hooked on it for exactly the same reason I like the process of photography or the process of budo.

It's mindless.

Apr 24, 2016

Do you have to teach

This came up over beer after class last night. Do you actually have to pass along what you have learned in the budo? The usual answer is that you must pass it forward, if you were taught you must teach it in turn.

But that's not true is it? Not unless you signed a contract when you walked into the dojo. One of our group spoke up about a contract she signed at a dojo which said that if she quit she would not teach for five years afterward and would not open a dojo within a certain distance of the original. More or less the opposite of what we're talking about.

"But my teacher taught me for free for 30 years and the art is fading out so don't I have an obligation?" If you figure you do, you probably do but that's a personal decision, not some sort of unwritten (or written) rule.

People teach for all sorts of reasons. Some students can't wait to be a teacher, they strain at the leash. I wonder how many of these kids stop to think what it is they can offer. Presumably they can teach what they've learned but what is it that they've learned? Much more likely they just like the title. They like the idea of being in charge because the guy who is in charge knows lots of cool stuff. The thinking gets a bit backward, being a teacher doesn't give you knowledge, it's knowledge that gives you the tools to be a teacher. Same goes for the respect that comes along with being a teacher. It doesn't come with the title, no matter how many pushups you give your kids for mouthing off at you. Respect is a prerequisite, not a perk.

Me, I teach because I like to teach. It's that simple, when it isn't fun any more I'll quit. One day the students will show up for class and I'll be gone, it will be fine, they are all capable and by the time they are seniors they know how to teach, I kind of push them toward that. Teaching can be taught, and if you teach your students with an eye to turning out teachers, you will. Part of that is to tell them that they "have to pay it forward". By the time they are ready to teach they will have seen through that ruse but it serves its purpose at one point.

I also teach because I believe in the value of the budo to the students and to society at large. The arts are a great tool for self-improvement and an even better tool for healing. That stuff has little to do with me, I just pass along what I was taught, it's the learning of it that does the good. Like Granny Weatherwax says, "anybody can see what isn't there, it's the ability to see what's actually there that's the trick". The arts give you a chance to learn what's really there.

Teaching should never be compulsory, some people are horrible teachers. Some are purely mechanical and never get beyond that. Some are needy, seeking validation, living for the adulation. Some resent that they have to teach because they have nobody to learn from.

Those last aren't necessarily bad teachers I suppose, a healthy resentment that you don't have a teacher is good in a teacher, and some learn how to learn from their students. I do, it's one of the reasons I am still teaching. Just last night I made a lovely connection between some of the jujutsu and one of the kata in our koryu iaido school. Why do we perform a certain movement when an opponent grabs our scabbard? Because of what we do with that scabbard in one of the other kata. I suspect I may never have connected the two if someone hadn't asked a question.

I love questions, it means I have to answer them and when I answer them I learn the answer.

Or maybe I just fool myself, which I worry about. Remember that "seeing what's actually there"? That's it mostly, trying to see why you do/believe what you do/believe. Where does that lead? To other teachers. If your teacher is gone find another one, learn a different art, which is really just the same art from a different direction. Or read.

If you're not taught to be a teacher you can still learn it. Steal it, like you steal your techniques. I used to watch Haruna sensei not just for his technique but for how he taught. Can't fix a problem in your cut? Get told to change it over and over again? Haruna sensei would walk over and say "back here, about three moves before the cut, fix your foot". You'd fix the foot and the cut suddenly worked.

See what's actually the problem, fix that.

To be a teacher you really have to care about stuff like that. Not everyone does, and so not everyone should be a teacher. We need to remember that.

Making someone a teacher can also be harmful. It can stall their progress in the art, it can reverse it. Being a teacher is being certain. Beginners don't need to hear your internal dialogue as you tell them "well so and so says do it this way but this fellow says it's this way and... " Students need a sure hand, a firm voice, and that means teacher needs to "know it all". Take that attitude back into a class as a student and you're suddenly closed. Sensei says "do it this way" and your teacher-brain says "no, that's not how you do that". It takes a conscious wrench to be able to flip from teacher to student and not everyone can or wants to do that.

Teach if you want to, even teach if you have to (nobody else around), but don't teach because you think that's what you're supposed to do. If the art you're teaching were to disappear from the world tomorrow would that be a problem?

I've lost lots of hammers in my life, you can always get another, it's not the tool it's what you do with it.

Coming to Guelph this May to teach iaido at the spring seminar are four of the best teachers I've ever had the pleasure to know. Four distinct and insightful approaches to the subject, four sets of eyes that can see what's actually there. I steal stuff from them all the time and yet, in the deep dark past, they practiced with me.

All misty-eyed now.

Apr 23, 2016

A beautiful alphabet

Lately I have been watching BBC photography videos rather than television shows, there's only so much pseudo-drama I can take, and who figured it was a good idea to have a conspiracy backstory running through year after year of episodes? Give me the old Star Trek, one episode, one story and we're done.

One of the recent watched documentaries was from the early 80s I think and was an interview with, again I think, Andre Kertesz who spent many years in New York not getting hired because he wouldn't take photos like everyone else. Wow I should go check this because I don't want to attribute it to the wrong person but never mind. Some European photographer said:

You have to learn the alphabet if you want to write. You can spend many many years learning the alphabet and eventually you will be able to create a really beautiful alphabet, but if you don't learn how to write you will never produce a story.

This rang a bell for me, with lots of reverberations (yoin). What do we have in the budo except the very same thing. The kihon is the alphabet, little fragments of movement that can be perfected. Then we have the kata which are the stories. Each kata is a short (or in some cases really long) story.

So to practice your kihon is to practice the alphabet. Wonderful, your writing ought to be pleasing to look at, your accuracy at making a B not look like an R is important. Penmanship is important if you are going to communicate or confusion may ensue.

When you write a story you need to know the parts of a story. There are many types of story and you read them to understand them. You may even write the same story for practice. This is a kata. Each kata has something to teach, each is a type of call and response with an antagonist and a protagonist.

So we have our penmanship and we have our practice story which we write over and over. If we are good students we create masterpieces of art, you know the type of thing I'm talking about, things like "yeah though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil because I'm the meanest son of a bitch in the dojo" in beautiful calligraphy on parchment. Framed to suit your decor.

Shall I stretch the analogy to include the frame? Never mind, you are probably starting to see where this is going. If you continue to practice your calligraphy and copying of the story you will get really good at producing those parchment artworks for hanging on the wall. Since each one is individual you can charge more than if you have one version photocopied and reproduced thousands of times.

Because you only do the one story you never have to rip up a parchment due to mis-copying the next word. Practice makes perfect. All is good. There are only six stories/plots anyway so what's the point of doing more?

Know your alphabet, practice your penmanship, write out those standard stories, you must if you want to be called literate. But if you stop there you are a copyist, or as they said in the middle ages, a scribe. Who's a scribe today? Once that damned printing press got invented your whole profession went byebye.

Want to call yourself a writer? Maybe you need to go beyond being a scribe.

There's nothing wrong with having lovely handwriting, you have to know the alphabet. My grandmother saved one of my "stories" from before I went to school. It was a piece of paper with ink scribbles. I said it was a story and she patted me on the head. So cute.

You don't watch movies and then jump about with a stick and call it budo. Well, you can and you might even get a pat on the head, hell you might even get students if they don't know what budo is, but it ain't really literature is it?

You may have the world's best Gothic or Comic sans, if all you do is copy someone else's story you will never be able to call yourself an author will you?

Nothing wrong with being a scribe but there's more. The whole point of writing is to communicate, not to decorate. The whole point of budo is to create a combative sequence at need, not to get some exercise on a Tuesday evening. Gold stars for penmanship and spelling certainly, collect them when you can but eventually you need to take all those short stories you've read and create one of your own.

Or perhaps just a beautiful alphabet.

Apr 22, 2016

What would Musashi do?

I've been reading my own books lately. Yes I know it's an egotistical thing to do, you're supposed to write them and then say "Oh I never read those poor things". In my defense, I very rarely look at the photos I've taken. But the books are not really books written for others, they are my notes so of course I read them.

They started with scribblings in a notebook and to clean them up I typed them. From there it wasn't far to get my mother to illustrate the first couple (digital photography was a decade away) and then, recently, it's been just too simple to do. In a couple of years I've cleaned up most of the books I intended to write, projects that have been hanging around for 30 years some of them.

So I'm reading a couple of books today, one a sourcebook I put together for the students, papers and such on the background of Musashi's life, and the other a duotang printout of "Hyoho, the writings of Musashi that aren't the Go Rin no Sho" or some such title. Who looks at titles? It is perfect to sweat on in the nightly sauna where an e-reader would just fry. In it is the Dokkodo, the 35 articles, the 42 articles and a couple other things, plus my commentary.

It's the translations I mostly read, and compare what I wrote with what I think now. Mostly I confirm that I'm learning a little each day, sometimes I worry that I'm not as subtle as I once was. But above all else I remain impressed that some dude who was writing almost 400 years ago could have such an insight into what you need to do in these modern times to be happy.

Then again, he only wrote what all the major philosophers have been writing since wedge was first put to clay. It's just that he wrote it with reference to budo, which happens to be an interest of mine.

Don't regret the past. Don't live in the future. Don't accumulate fancy stuff or crave fancy food. Don't lust after women or big houses.

You know, if we lived according to the Dokkodo the "service economy" of the first world would collapse in three weeks. Then, I suppose, we would have good use for the other parts of his writing, how to use our swords.

Bwahahaha, we swordspeoples (can't be sexist) will rule the world!

Seriously though, read Musashi's writings if you want to figure out what you're supposed to be learning with all this budo stuff. There's a bit more to it than beating up that schoolyard bully from 20 years ago.

Apr 21, 2016

Cross train your life

I've got to say, I'm pretty content right now, I'm sitting on my deck (built last year or two? from the remains of the former deck) having a noonhour coffee, listening to Sigur Ros on a pair of speakers I built, feeling smug about hanging another speaker on the sauna under the roof so I can listen to it later after I've built a table on the back-back deck to build stuff on. If you can't manage to clean the crap off your workbench, build another workbench out exposed to the rain where you don't dare leave crap on it.

As I drift further into retirement I find myself doing more and more things, which is nice. If I don't get too scattered and if I remember which things ought to be done before others, I am finding more and more satisfaction in doing stuff for myself. I may even start spending time at the cabin so that I can putter up there like I'm puttering down here. Summers are quiet in the dojo anyway and I can let other people fight for space if needed, I've done my bit.

It's good to have survived another winter (I hate winter) and it's good to crosstrain your life like you crosstrain your body. Have more than one hobby so that when one starts to become more than a hobby you can switch to another for a while. Just try to remember that a hobby is not a job and vice versa.

I know you're supposed to find a job you love, but my daughter once said to me that I tend to make my hobbies into jobs. It's true, comes from poverty, from not having the spare money to have a hobby that didn't also pay for itself. That's a hard habit to break but you can do it if you cross-train your hobbies. Have too many of them to... oh my goodness who would have thought a nasty pair of computer speakers could sound so nice when put into some proper cainets... sorry, if you can afford a hobby, have too many of them to spend the time trying to turn them into jobs because the stress of dealing with customers, trying to advertise, packing and shipping, is what comes with a job and is the lifestyle equivalent of carple tunnel syndrome.

We crosstrain away from our budo so that we don't get repetitive strain injuries. We should crosstrain away from exercise so that we can exercise our brains. We should crosstrain away from our jobs so that we don't get sick from the stress.

Simple, do other stuff so that your inner hunter-gatherer still figures you're grubbing for food and you can take a break from grubbing for food.

Like writing some nonsense to avoid feeling guilty about drinking a coffee.

Apr 20, 2016

Why I stay part 2

Wherein I continue to try to remember the seminar of last weekend. The problem with having a good sense of "moving on" is that you move on and often forget what just happened. Sometimes I would like to scream "Move on" at people, sometimes I wish I could keep things in my head just a bit longer.

Hence the wee diary here. On with the story.

We are learning the dance steps of Kage, which foot goes where, so we managed to get about half way through the material in the three hours of the morning before breaking for lunch. Three hours is probably as much as you want to do at a time, there was much complaining about groin muscles for the rest of the weekend.

One useful thing about Kage Ryu is that it's one of those sword arts where you "do everything wrong". You lean over, you turn your hips, you roar kiai, you stretch out and drop the tip and slide your hand on the hilt and... it's a great experience for beginners and a wonderful teaching opportunity to examine just why we do what we do in the arts. If you've been told you mustn't do X in an art, and then realize you have to do that in art Y or it doesn't work, you need to figure out just what's happening instead of blindly following instructions. Is it just style? Is it because of the length of the sword? Why?

The afternoon began with the long sword set of Niten Ichiryu. At least I think it did, I seem to be moving on. I suspect what we did was run through it without much depth, but there must have been enthusiasm, or perhaps the students have been listening to me for too long but I heard "I Loooove Niten" a couple of times.

It's just so clean. Take swords that are light enough to stop if you have to, get a partner who is trying to take your head off. Now clean up your body movements to the point where you can avoid that strike, make it work for you. What's not to like, an art that is so simple you can pick up the dance steps in 30 seconds and then spend 30 years trying to figure out the exact moment your partner is committed to his move.

For some reason the seminar had become "new stuff day" so I dug out the notes on the Oyo Waza and we did the first set of five two-sword kata to finish off the day. These kata are not original to the school and Aoki sensei (the 8th headmaster) has said they don't need to be studied which makes me suspicious that he invented them. (You tend to pass along what you were taught but what you invent is disposable.) They are, however, excellent examples of using the waza of the school in different ways and so I like to pull them out once in a while. Haruna sensei taught them to us and so they are part of my practice, it's a pretty simple formula, you teach as you were taught.

The evening was again spent in our local pub, where the Bass and the Strongbow appear mysteriously on the table shortly after we sit down. Sometimes I think I was a big fat sheepdog in a past life. I'm happiest in familiar surroundings, just leave me here in front of the fire to dry off and I'm content.

Next day we warmed up by finishing off the remaining Kage Ryu kata, concentrating on the footwork because I wasn't going to lug all the choken to class again. The topic of the day was iai and jo, but of course we couldn't just do the usual could we? No, while I was planning a different way to approach the zenkenren iai one of the students said "can we do that one where we stab foreward and back about six times?" OK out with more notes and we went through the Shindo Munen Ryu of Mitsuzuka sensei. or as we often call it these days, Hosoda Ryu. These are 12 kata that have the most wonderful names of all the arts I do, Uke Fune Gaeshi, No Arashi Gaeshi, Utsu Semi. Lovely.
After wondering why our swords were so short, especially since the noto (putting it away) was similar to that of Kage Ryu we realized that the art could almost be turned into Kage just by using a choken (the long sword). This school may have a confused lineage but there's no doubting that it's internally consistent, which is why I have so much trouble remembering the separate kata. They build and intermix wonderfully. The class was one long discovery of connections with the waza of Kage and I'm glad we stumbled on it.

Going through the set didn't take long, as I said, it builds on itself so a movement learned in the first one is just plugged into others as you go on. After we were throught the 12 kata we went back and quickly did the second set of five Oyo Waza before breaking for lunch.

The afternoon finished off with some bog-standard zenkenren jodo and a final burst of practice of blowing the sword away (hiki otoshi uchi) timed and called out by me to bring the energy levels up just for the finish. Nothing like an adrenalin rush to finish on.

Time to head back to the bar after that, and time to close the report, as Brenda has to go to work. Someone has to earn the living in this family.

Don't forget to sign up for the May seminar and email me if you want to know the schedule for the rest of the seminars during the summer. We've got weekends planned for Guelph and for the Cottage (Tombo dojo) from June to September. http://seidokai.ca/

Apr 20, 2016

Why I Stay

Sometimes I wonder why I stick around in the arts, but last weekend one of our former students came back for a weekend visit so we arranged three days of training. Three days of practice, no organization, no administration, no paperwork at all, just three days of swinging sticks and swords. Marvellous. No worries about where to stand, no splitting into groups, and if you had done the stuff before you grabbed a beginner to pair up. What a concept, get as much information to as many people as you can in a short time.

Friday evening is our usual iaido class but you know, I'm actually hazy on what we did that evening. Must have been iaido... oh yes, we did the Bangai Den, the "extra stuff" that hangs around the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. Some of our current students hadn't heard of them so why not? We began with the three kata Hayanami, Raiden and Jinrai from Oe Masamichi. I call these the three permissions. 1. You can take an oku tachi kata and add some fun stuff onto the end. 2. You can stand up a seated kata and add on some fun stuff and 3. You can put any two kata from any level together and do them. Then we added Shihobarai which was developed later but is in the same class as Hayanami, just take the second oku iai standing kata and add the fun stuff, then open it up to the four corners of the room. Two other kata usually fill out our "extras", one we call Sode Suri Komi (a variant of Ryoshi Kikitsure) and Yurumi Uchi (a variant of Oku Iai Uke Nagashi).

The theme of new kata with old principles carried on through the weekend. To explain, if you take Oku Iai Uke Nagashi and meet the opponent on the right foot coming forward instead of the left, and do the same movement to the right hand side while drawing through a defensive movement you get the new kata Yurumi Uchi which really isn't new at all if you look at it like this.

Saturday morning revealed the culprit in this "new kata from old" idea in that we began our series of seminars in Kage Ryu in the runup to the visit by the Shihan of the school, Colin Watkin sensei who will be coming from the Philippines to Calgary the last weekend of August and then flying to Ontario the first weekend of September for a seminar near Wiarton at the dojo in the woods.

Incidentally, this seminar was organized many months ago. Since then the dates of the CKF national iaido seminar have been announced as the same September weekend. Watkin sensei's trip is too complicated to change so I can't attend the tournament but CKF members, please listen to this next bit. You cannot attend the Kage Ryu seminar here in Ontario if you have to decide between this and the tournament. You will attend the tournament. Clear?

To get back to the story, the Kage Ryu is a school of batto (sword drawing) using very (very) long swords. In our case somewhat standardized bokuto about five feet long which I cobble together out of long bokuto and two plastic saya. It works, but the lightweight bokuto give some improper information about how to move the sword so we broke out the tanren bo and the heavy suburito to show folks that you can't just crank these things around with your wrist, or cut while keeping the tip up in the air for that matter. The tip drops, the sword swings you if you're not careful. The "new kata from old" idea comes from this school. We learn 18 waza in the practices but they are somewhat fluid, and when you demonstrate the school you must create new kata from these waza. So you learn the principles which mostly derive from the sword size itself, and you create from those principles. Most unusual in an old art.

OK Brenda has started a new job so these essays will have to be shorter than lately. (and unedited) More later.

Sign up for the Spring Seminar! http://seidokai.ca/

Apr 19, 2016

Nothing but flaws

While walking upstairs this morning I looked around to admire the work I did last week to finish up the walls and trim. All I saw was the blotchy paint on the doors (three coats not being enough apparently), and the brushmarks, the uneven coverage on the walls.

Later I was reviewing some notes I wrote a while ago, in preparation for the Kage Ryu seminar this weekend when I found myself with a pencil in hand, cleaning up mistakes and poor writing.

When you look at work you did you may see nothing but flaws. This can be a good thing while you're working on the project, a critical eye lets you catch the spots you missed. This can be a pain in the tuchus when you're finished the project, as all you get from your work is a bad taste in your mouth. All you see are the flaws. If you can't say "good enough" you will be unhappy forever.

Or worse, you'll never move beyond that job. I painted the bathroom door three times and I'm going to do it again, I can still see the shadows in the paint, it isn't even. Now, if you were there for a visit and I was to ask you what colour the door was after we'd gone downstairs you'd have a hard time telling me, let alone seeing the flaws I see. But I'm doing it again one of these days, the job isn't done. It will never be done because now that I've finished the paint in some places I have to wash the walls in others.

I could spend a hundred years on that paint. Unfortunately, while I'm painting, the sump pump is in need of some serious work and if I paint long enough my basement floor might collapse. There is a difference between good work and obsessive perfectionism.

When the job is being done, do it with a critical eye. When you are learning your sword kata, be critical and learn it correctly, but if you obsess you will never progress.

"Don't obsess if you want to progress".

There, a nice slogan for your budo practice. Totally counter to what you have in your head I'm sure, but think about it. For instance, when reading my notes this morning was I correcting the text or was I extracting information? You can't do both you know, much as you'd like to think so. When I pull out those notes for class tomorrow (what, you think I have everything I practice in my head? This is a new school for me, I will have the notes out because I don't want to screw it up) I will skim them rather than read them for detail, that way I can get the information I need without seeing the clunky sentence structure. Like this one.

Ever wonder how writers with dozens of books to their name get them done? They don't obsess over perfection. Rewriting that book for thirty years doesn't really get it done. On the other hand, you've got to admire someone who spends that much time on a single tome. You have to admire the time they've got to spend on it.

How many kata do you practice in your martial art? If you practice a single art with a very small number of kata, think about how prefectly you could preform that kata. How correctly you could move, how precise.

How mechanical.

Let's face it, if you do six kata for sixty years you are going to be bored out of your skull unless you find things to keep your interest up, things like ever finer details to worry about, ever more powerful movements which will probably give you repetitive motion injuries. And unfortunately, it will never be good enough.

Not for you, not for others like you.

But give yourself a break, stop beating yourself up over brush-marks in the middle of a wall, and the criticism of others might just drop away. In fact, it might not appear at all. If you don't point out the spot you missed it's likely the spot will be missed.

While I like that people ask me how to do a kata, it gets a bit irritating to hear (for the fifteenth time) how a perfectly acceptable performance was "just awful". It's nice that someone is working hard to deserve their rank, we should always strive to deserve our rank, but it gets real old real fast to hear someone constantly whine on about how they don't deserve their rank. It isn't a very long step for those folks to say that nobody else deserves their rank either.

Maybe you don't deserve it, maybe nobody else does either. Be happy that you don't deserve it less than some others don't deserve it (if you're status oriented) or be happy that you don't suck quite as much as you sucked last year (if you're internally oriented). If you can't even be that happy, just stop telling everyone else how much you suck, we've heard it, we know. We also know we suck, if we didn't we wouldn't be practicing, let's just take it for granted that we all suck and get on with practicing OK?

I don't want to know about the spot up in the corner of your wall where you missed the second coat. I have enough spots on my own walls that I can't-not-see thankyouverymuch.

Apr 15, 2016

I am not important

It was suggested to me recently that my daily noodlings here might be mistaken for official announcements by the organizations I'm involved with, that would mainly be the CKF but it could also be the Niten Ichiryu, Kage ryu or even Aikido. Maybe the Photo Arts club (I write about photography sometimes), maybe even the University of Guelph (I worked there for decades and still teach there).

It was also suggested that people might take what I write out of context or that they might read between the lines of what I write and use that to make trouble.

Taking the second point first, you can take what's written anywhere, even on a menu, out of context or read between the lines and use that to create trouble. People do it all the time, I do it myself, and shame on all of us. I have a single way to prevent people from taking what I write out of context and that's to stop writing altogether. Perhaps I should, but seriously folks, I'm not that important. I have been writing on the WWW for just about as long as it has existed and I have not changed a thing. Nor has any institution collapsed because anything I wrote got misinterpreted. Nor has anybody shown up on my doorstep waving a gun. (NOT a suggestion). I'm just not that important.

As for reading between the lines, if I were to stop writing altogether would that not be a very large line to read between? For one thing my family reads this stuff and they might assume I'm dead. Maybe I've quit one of those organizations listed above because I disagree with something they have done, or maybe I've been made hamon (a really popular term on the martial arts part of the net a few years ago, it means you got booted out) which would mean there are big problems in (insert institution name here). No, to stop writing would not prevent the gossips from gossiping, the haters from hating or the worriers from worrying. Haters gonna hate? What an egotistical thing to say, in order to be hated you gotta be pretty important. I'm not that important, and I'm old enough to be just fine with that.

To the first point. Am I writing in any official capacity at all? Are you kidding? I have almost no official capacities any more, I've been slowly dumping them and with each one I get happier in my life. Full disclosure then, I am an exec on the Photo Arts Club (which means a weekly meeting and office hours and making sure the studio and darkroom are in working order) and I am listed as the head of the jodo section for the CKF (which is largely a figurehead position which means I'm the first thing to crash into the dock... what you didn't know what figurehead meant?).

So to it, and please read this carefully if you have been using my writing to make trouble. I write this stuff over coffee. It is an exercise in "stream of consciousness" which means I start an essay (a facebook post OK, consider the importance of facebook posts to the world at large... they are not that important) to see where it leads me. I use it as an exercise to keep my brain working because I have to end with some sort of connection to what I begin with. I use it to figure out what I think about something, or I use it as a discussion with those who comment and post their own thoughts on the topic of the day. Mostly I look around while driving to the coffee shop and see if any thoughts gets triggered and I riff/rant on them.

I don't edit this stuff, I read it over once and try to catch the typos and fix spelling and take out any grumpiness that creeps in. Yes, I get annoyed with stuff, yes, guilty, I might slip and actually comment on a real world thing that happened. I would ask you folks to take this for what it is, a random bitch about something that has no official status whatsoever. Remember, I'm not that important. In return I'll assume that what you say randomly in a fit of bitchiness is also just that, I will assume that you are not that important if you will do me the same courtesy.

And at the end of the day we can assume that we both care enough about the topics we bitch about / disagree on, to bitch and disagree.

What you've got here is an unimportant guy, a non-official guy, writing for my own amusement while I drink a coffee and avoid getting into the shop to grind wood. There will be no news for you to miss here if you don't want to read it. That's fine, I don't mind if you don't read it. If you're looking for stuff to make you upset, I would seriously ask you to consider what you're doing, that is not a healthy thing for you to do.

If you want to read between these lines and take what I say out of context and then claim that what you just invented is some sort of official announcement from me.... I would ask that you comment here and call me out on it. Maybe I'll learn something. If you don't want to comment publicly, send me an email, I'm not hard to find judging by the spam I get. If you want to scurry around in the dark and make gossip and try to stir up trouble (which, I'm assuming was what brought all this on) then shame on you for low ambitions. I'm not that important, pick someone who truly is important and put words in their mouth. It will cause much more trouble.

Finally, let me assure you that I have very little influence any of the organizations I'm involved with. I have no personal sway with anybody who runs these organizations. I have no influence on anybody who can influence these organizations. Read things that I wrote 40 years ago and compare them with what I write now. Nothing has changed, the stuff I'm supposed to be complaining about has not changed.

I'm not that important, seriously.

Apr 12, 2016

More on growth

Joe Svinth has posted an analysis of growth in any art as compared to population growth of humans and, aside from scaring me all over again at the way we can breed, suggests the following.

Anyway, with billions more young people to practice martial arts, it would seem reasonable to assume that more people would be available to practice judo, boxing, wushu, or whatever. And if that is true, then all one needs to do to grow an art is send out teachers. To grow, an organization does not need to promote high ranks. It Instead, it needs to produce classroom teachers. Put in everyday terms, we need more teachers in the classroom, and fewer EdDs in the head shed."

While I agree entirely, we still need some way of producing those teachers and that, unfortunately, means having higher ranks to sit panels to produce instructor ranks.

Elsewhere it has been pointed out that France has a separate system of teacher certification for budo instructors but I suspect this is not disconnected from the grading system. The certification consists of three parts, anatomy and physiology, teaching the art, and finally, administration and other paperwork. I would suggest the first two can be picked up in the current grading system of most arts, and could certainly be added to tests, but there is no harm in splitting it out.

Still, teaching certifications would not replace grading in, say, the kendo federation where a multinational structure requires inter-national grading standards. These are minimum guidelines and are not particularly secret although some people seem to have trouble finding them, but they are minimums. Any country can add to them and some are being pressured to add requirements which, effectively, shut down the grading process. I have no idea if this is a deliberate policy from Japan or simply the usual messing around by individuals but it is happening in multiple countries. The lack of higher grading means a lack of lower grading which leads to a lack of teachers which means stalled growth.

Now, to replace the grading system with a system of teacher training which includes the current grading requirements is entirely possible and may become necessary, but this will put any country that uses the new certification system outside the fold. Even with the same requirements you have created a new grading system.

As I have pointed out, this happens all the time and is called "leaving the organization to form your own". For iaido and jodo this may be practical but for kendo and those who want to compete at the worlds, this is a problem. On the other hand, there are no rank requirements to compete, so kendo, from the competition point of view, can happily exist without rank. At least until the FIK declares a minimum rank requirement to compete. What that would mean from a heirarchy point of view I suppose, is a replacement of dan grade with seeding position. Of course, being wicked, I might point out that one would also fall in one's rank as well as rise... well perhaps we make it like a recording thermometer, one's indicator goes up but not back down. You finish your career with the highest seeding you achieve. The teaching certification then takes over for those who continue in the art as coaches.

Part of the reason I write these essays is to talk to myself and I have just more or less convinced myself that the lack of higher da ranks to create lower dan ranks doesn't need to be a problem for iaido or jodo either. We simply create a within-country teaching certification which matches that of the current system and perhaps even adds the curriculum of our national coaching certification. There is no other use for the ranking system than to sort people out into teachers and students, and to give paper to the kids who love to know they've passed a test.

This way the people who just want to see guideposts without going into debt are able to see them and those who are concerned with "being the same level as in Japan" can spend their money and go to Japan to grade. I put the quotes there because I have no idea what that means, "to be the same level as". Our arts can continue under the kendo federation, we do not lose access to Japanese instruction, and recognition of rank within the organization continues. If someone comes from Europe with a 6dan they are recognized as a 6dan here and are slotted into the system accordingly. Now, if someone from Canada has a teaching certification and moves to Europe, that will be a different story but as I say, if it's that important they can go outside the country to grade.

That might be a way to keep things running should our top ranks continue to thin out, which they will. On the other hand, perhaps the problem is not at the institutional level, and is just the usual messing about by individuals, perhaps the current requirements for panels will be reasserted and all will return to growth and this will have been just another bump in the road. We've had them before.

Get the teachers out there if you want to grow. Stop producing them if you want to shrink. Not a complicated calculation really.

Apr 11, 2016

Grading and Numbers

The relationship between gradings and numbers has always been a discussion. Let's look at the arts that I practice and see if we can get any clues about this relationship.

First, what I do. Aikido: my first art, one that I started in1980. Aikido is mostly an unarmed jujutsu style but I was taught weapons more or less from day one.

Iaido: I guess my second art, a sword drawing art. I held a 5dan before entering the kendo federation grading system and now hold a 7dan in that organization.

Jodo: Another kendo federation art involving the stick vs the sword. I hold 5dan.

Those are the arts with grading. The rest of them are without grading or with old school grading systems that don't apply to folk like me.

Niten Ichiryu: My third art I suppose, after Iaido, a kenjutsu school that I've been practicing and teaching since the early 90s.

Kage Ryu: My newest art, and I guess one could say it was a sword drawing art. One I was introduced to 5 or 6 years ago I think, and one I've started teaching to our club because I just don't have enough to keep up with.

Various other small arts that aren't really relevent to the discussion here.

So now I have to go try to find numbers for all these arts.

I'm back and not very much more enlightened but here are my results.

Aikido is very difficult to get numbers on, in three generations this art has managed to branch off into hundreds of different organizations which makes counting a chore. A few years ago the Aikikai (my organization and the one headed by the founder's grandson, supposedly the largest group) stated that Aikido has spread to more than 130 countries and had over 1.2 million members. More specifically (and around 2010) we have Sweden with 4700, Spain 4500, Portugal 1400 and France with a whopping 70,000. The British Aikido Board has 44 separate organizations under it's umbrella and 10,000 members.

I'd say that in the west Aikido was an overwhelming winner in the numbers game when you look at the other arts. We will come across the large numbers in France again. That country has by far the biggest numbers in all the arts and I suspect we would have to go into the historical records to understand why. The country today isn't that much different than any other European country but there has been a deep interst in all things oriental since the 1800s.

Kendo (it's especially difficult to get breakout numbers for the three arts) claims 1.5 million in Japan which might top Aikido there, unless that 1.2 million worldwide number for the Aikikai was just for the Aikikai. Outside Japan it's entirely another story with kendo numbers running at least 1/10 those of Aikido. Kendo in the USA is about 4600, the UK 1000, and the CKF 1100. France is the clear winner in the numbers game with 9000 members, 5200 in kendo, 1800 in iaido, 1200 in Chanbara and 500 in Jodo.

In Canada, the last time I had access to the numbers iaido and jodo were 20-30% of the population so somewhere around 200.

To go back to Japan, somewhere I seem to recall that iaido was around 300,000 and jodo 10% of that at around 30,000. I'm not sure what document I was looking at but based on 8dan challenges it seems iaido is about 10% of kendo and jodo about 1% of kendo.

So in the west, Aikido up to the 10s of thousands with multiple organizations, Iaido and jodo in the hundreds per country and largely a single organization. There are other iaido organizations and even a few jodo groups but when we talk numbers we're talking kendo federation.

Let's go with 1.5 million kendo in Japan and maybe the same numbers for Aikido. I could be wrong. 300,000 for iaido and 30,000 for jo.

Moving on to my other arts, we have Niten Ichiryu. Now in 1994 or so I was told there might be 130 people in Japan studying. Today that number would probably be less, but worldwide I'd be willing to say there may be 300 people who practice.

Kage Ryu? let's say 30.

So for what I know and practice, the arts with grading run from millions to tens of thousands of participants. Those which do not have grading are in the tens or hundreds worldwide.

Is there any significance in these numbers? Perhaps not but I do know that participation in class drops when there are no gradings coming up. Is there a difference in those who are in the grading arts compared to those in the non grading arts? Yes I'd say so, at least at the lower experience levels. Those in the grading arts tend to be focused on grading. This may be good or bad, and at the upper levels of experience I'd say the thirst to grade usually disappears.

In the non-grading arts is it all sweetness and light? Not really, there's no focus on grading but there can be a big romantic factor in the less experienced participants. "I wanna practice the art of MUSASHI!" Again, this tends to go away as experience accumulates.

In graded and non-graded arts the more experienced students tend to practice for the inherent benefits of the art, rather than the external signs of grading and/or romantic connections, but the graded arts tend to start from a much bigger pool of beginners and so have more folks around at the upper levels. As a scientist you should be wondering right now whether gradings cause numbers or numbers cause gradings.

Yet we can't discount the orders of magnitude differences between some of these graded arts, with iaido at 10% of kendo and jodo at 10% of iai. The three arts share a common grading system (with differences in what is tested of course, but the same mechanics) so should not be different due to the gradings per se. Kendo is where you get to whack each other with bamboo sticks, it's fun, it's competitive and it's well suited to youngsters. (For youngsters read people who are healthy, have lots of energy and have lots of time on their hands. Add no jobs and no family). Iaido is solitary, repetitive to the point of boredom and seems, looking at the age distribution, to be more suited to older folk. This may also explain the general disinterest in competition in iaido (and jodo) which tends to appeal to the young, the old having quite enough competition in their jobs thank-you-very-much. Jodo? Well in one documentary produced in Japan by the Japanese, 50 people on the streets of Tokyo were asked if they'd ever heard of jodo. 0% said yes. That's not a typo, zero percent in the country of it's origin.

You can't get excited about something you've never heard of. You can't join a martial art you don't know exists.

Judo? Jimmy Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, all in movies from the 50s that featured Judo. And it's now an Olympic sport. Karate? Elvis Presley, Chuck Norris and a generation of US servicemen who came back from Okinawa with enough knowledge to open a dojo (or not, as you may feel about it) and an olympic sport. Kung Fu? David Carridine and Bruce Lee and Hollywood movies again. Ninja? Hey Stephen Hayes and countless movies in many countries. Aikido? Stephen Segal is still at it with his movies. Oh, and Tae Kwon Do, also an olympic sport and one of the most heavily promoted of all the arts. Is there a small town anywhere without a TKD studio?

When was the last time you saw a blockbuster movie with kendo in it? Perhaps you've seen a movie with kendo. How about iaido? Buckaroo Bansai and ..... um. Jodo? Are you kidding? We need a blockbuster movie where the hero uses jodo, not a historical drama about Muso Gunnosuke but a real superhero type who uses jodo. I'm sure Marianne is going to chime in with a zombie tv series that I don't watch... maybe that's it, is jodo guy winning? Here comes the latest craze to sweep North America... JODO not JUDO damnit.

My read on all this? Kids. Kids love grading and kids love competition. Kids can see themselves at the olympics, in grade 9 I had my olympic running path all marked out and I was on track (ha ha) right through high school after which life got in the way. Kids have the time to practice and once you get them thoroughly hooked they will often continue on. How do you get kids? Umm, you know what I mean. You put a dojo within ten minutes of Mom and Dad's house because Mom and Dad are not going to drive junior to the next town, let alone Japan to practice.

If you want an art to grow, kick your students out to teach as soon as you can. Support the hell out of them and keep teaching them but make it really easy to start up their own club. Some of them will become good at it and the art will grow. Some will be back in your class after a few months, those you may have for life so make them really good technicians instead.

If you can't get the kids interested in your art (really, you can't teach iaido a bit and let them whack each other with foam swords for a bit?) you still need that dojo in every town. People with jobs don't have the time to drive themselves to the next town (or Japan) without neglecting their jobs and their family. You really want to teach a roomfull of selfish egotists who will neglect their kids just to wave a sword around?

You go to them so they can be good people.

Don't tell them to go to Japan to learn, all you'll end up with is a roomfull of creaky old retirees.

Apr 10, 2016

Retirements and replacements

It's beginning to happen, the inevitable loss of senior grades in our organization. Hard, really, for me to quite believe it after 30 years of building but of course it had to happen eventutally, not everyone is like me, 18 years old forever.

The problem is, for the last few years and for various reasons, we have put our promotional system on hold so we have nobody moving up the ranks at the higher levels which means that we are not replacing our losses and this, to be honest, is a crisis.

We have a need for higher ranks in order to create lower ranks. We need bums on grading panel seats in order to maintain the current levels of students, let alone increase the membership. Without replacements at the top we will tip back over the curve and start to fall down the hill on the same side we came up. In other words, today we are self-sufficient but two or three retirements means that we no longer are, and rule changes from outside the country have made it very difficult to fix the problem.

What we're talking about here is a tipping point and we sit exactly on top of that point. We can go either way, down the far side of growth and self-sufficiency or back down the near side of declining numbers and since we have churned up the mud on that side of the hill it will be much harder to get to the top again.

Oh man, how obtuse can I get trying to make this thought generic, and it is a generic problem for any martial arts organization. You build the system for decades and some people end up on top, either floating there on talent or pushed up like a clogged pore pushes up a bit of dirt. Either way, those on top are equally valuable to the organization, they are bums on seats at a grading panel. It doesn't matter who they are, or what anyone thinks of them as people, they are the necessary pieces of the machine that keep it running. Lose them and the whole thing grinds to a halt unless you can somehow replace them. Now if, while those parts of the machine have been moving into place you remove the ability to build replacements, you are in a very dangerous position.

It's budo you say, just create the rank you need, after all the top guy owns the system doesn't he? Why doesn't the head honcho just create the 10 dans you need? Who can say different? Jump them up.

Fine idea, and of course it's the way the organization got created in the first place, but with a large enough, old enough organization you get memory loss. People forget that beginnings are different than middles, that when things are building up authority and rank gets created out of nothing. In the middle, rank is given by those above because there are those above and that's all fine as long as the organization is small and localized. Grow a bit larger and you find you now have beginnings along with middles which is usually fine if those in the established areas support those who are growing. Withdraw that support and insist on growth from above at the same time and you have a problem. You stall growth instantly.

So leave and join another organization that has the rank structure established, or is still growing and understands the need to support the fringe areas. Or just leave and make your own organization.

These things happen of course, and could happen here quite easily but it's always a shame to have to abandon a large organization that could work just because those in it won't let it work.

I have no solutions to offer, really, because the solution is too simple. The people in the system need to work together in good will toward common goals. Unfortunately this rarely happens once an organization gets large enough. It only takes a few people who work for their own ends, their own ego or who have a selfish personal agenda, to gum up the system and then, given losses without replacement, the system begins to collapse.

What was it that people keep repeating? We can have about 150 friends, anything over that is artificial and tends to fly apart. That may well be so, yet humans work in much larger groups and we do it through artificial systems. Through organizations which sometimes work, sometimes go off the rails and fall apart. Like it or not, if your budo organization is larger than 150 members you are going to spontaneously generate administrations alongside the heirarchical teaching structure (which is an administration system in itself). Administrations are created to assist the goals of the organization, but given enough time and growth, administrations tend to assume they are in charge. Clerks will always tell you they are the ones who actually run the place. Never mind the bosses or the guys who make widgets.

Eh, I'm looking to my own retirement. I was about to say I'd like to leave a working system in place when I go but you know what, I'm not really that important, I'm just a bum on a seat, the organization will rise or fall despite me so I'm going to relax and be useful for as long as I can be, then it's somebody else's problem

Apr 9, 2016


I'm painting trim this week, something I asked the family to do about four years ago so it's still waiting but with the cold weather I got tired of trying to work in the shop and decided to finish the job I knew I was going to do eventually. (Run on little sentence, run along.)

Start in a corner and work out from there, the bathroom walls get a repair touchup today and we're done there, then it's just a matter of trying to keep up with the dust. While looking for my small rollers I found an old one that I think was my mother's. This led me to think about the other stuff I've got from the family over the years. A pepper mill from my grandmother, quilts, watches, the sort of stuff that may or may not get passed along to the kids. Let's face it, nobody but I really cares about old junk.

Which leads me to think what I really inherited from my mother. Sure, maybe a little paint roller, but what I actually got from her was painting. I learned to decorate by watching her paint and paper the house. When I moved into my own places it was simply obvious that I would ask the landlords for paint for the walls and, in one case, urethane so I could sand and refinish a wood floor. That skill I got from my grandfather who I watched sand and refinish a highschool gym. That's one of my earliest memories actually.

From my father I got a shop full of tools which I had no room for so they went elsewhere and were eventually sold for cocaine that went up a nose. Not mine, I hasten to add. I'd have liked his portable forge and his cement mixer but never mind, if I want a tool I can buy it. What I inherited from my father, picked up during reluctant "helping" sessions was enough construction knowledge to be able to build my own house. Not that I did... no wait, Tombo dojo went up with me there for a lot of it and I still have no problem with building stuff. I can lay blocks, frame, side, roof, drywall, insulate, wire, plumb... yep all of it and all of it I watched my father, mother or grandfather do.

The real inheritance? Not a few tools or knick-knacks, but the sure knowledge that I can do what needs doing around the house. Not the actual skills, the go-to-school and learn the details stuff, but something much more important. The belief that I can do it. If my ancestors could, I can. I just have to start and I can finish it. It's the starting that's the hard part of course, and the wondering why everyone else around me is so stupid that they can't do this stuff.

They're not stupid of course, quite the opposite. Tell dad that you don't know how to do something and you force him to show you how, be hard to teach and he will say "go away" and finish the job himself since that's less effort. It's just what I did with my dad when he had me up in cottage attics putting in that old short-fiber insulation on hot days when the beach was RIGHT THERE waiting for me.

OK now my arms itch.

Interesting thing though, I was visiting my daughter at her first apartment and noticed that she had painted her walls. Hmm, maybe Gramma has passed something along after all.

OK do I have to link this up for you? Budo things: nice fittings on a sword, sensei's obi. Budo skills: what you got from watching sensei.

Humans love stuff, so much in the first world that we throw stuff out to make room for more stuff, but seriously, would you rather inherit a shop-bought dresser or the ability to make your own furniture? Something I got from my grandfather.

Apr 7, 2016

Volunteer organizations, budo and trust.

Why do you stand in front of a panel and challenge a grade? A student of mine (who has decades more budo experience than I do) failed a grading a few years ago. I suggested he might want to go overseas and grade (he was trying for a higer level grading) and his response was quite informative. He said "I have no interest in being judged by strangers, I want to be judged by my own instructors and if they say I'm not at that level, I'm not at that level."

Trust, you either trust your panel or you don't. If you fail at home and go pass somewhere else what have you just proved? That your local panel, your instructors, were wrong? That... well what else could it be?

The grading panel has as much power to critique your level of practice as you give them. It has as much authority as you trust them with. If you don't trust their ability you won't respect their decisions. The same goes for your organization, especially if it's volunteer. Most volunteer organizations have very, very little oversight, either by the government or by their own members. The only thing that keeps them running is trust, the trust of the membership that the administrators are doing a proper job.

Anything that brings the administration or the grading panels into question will drop the level of trust and that way lies the end of the system. How does an administration lose trust? Mostly by promising and not delivering. Don't promise, keep expectations low and the membership will be happy. Promise the moon and deliver an LED flashlight and you'll lose trust, even if you figure the LED is a good substitute for the moon. Inconsistent enforcement of the bylaws, reversed decisions, non-transparent processes all contribute to mistrust.

This trust thing appears obvious to me, but I have seen instances where people seem intent on destroying their own federations. Imagine going into a local area as a senior instructor, walking into a dojo and tearing the lower-ranked sensei into pieces in front of his students. I've seen it done. What good have you accomplished by that? You may have convinced yourself and a couple of beginners that you are a big shot, but most adults will see your actions as deliberately hurtful rudeness, plain and simple. Would it surprise anyone if that dojo left the organization?

No, your job as a senior instructor is to create trust in your organization and that rarely involves accusing other members of incompetance. In order for people to trust you, you must create trust in others. Loyalty comes from trust and respect, not from some weird idea of budo ideals. Budo people are not being paid to take the boss' abuse, nor are they actually family, despite how much we talk about that, so overly-critical Dad and nagging Mom have no place in the system.

What to do with an instructor who needs correction then? As a senior instructor coming in for a seminar there are ways and then there are ways. First I'd recommend thinking about just what it is that you are correcting. If it's a small style change that has no effect on the effectiveness of the technique I might start by saying "what you're doing is fine, but here's how I do it". If the correction is one that will make a difference at the next grading I might say "OK here's what we want to see for the next grading" without suggesting that it's "wrong", maybe even suggesting that "it's a change, what can I say..." if it really is a change in the requirements. Maybe you say "OK up to now that's the way you should have been doing it but at your level you should now do it this way".

No matter how you put it, raging denunciations of incompetance in front of that instructor's students are inappropriate... unless that's your schtick. You can come across as the raging lunatic toward everyone and that might work, if the entire group gets the same treatment it's "fair". Even better if you rage and then grin like a maniac to let them know it's all an act. Even if it isn't.

Otherwise, a quiet word in the ear off to the side of the class while they're doing something else will work. Saving the corrections for sensei until beer after class can work as well. One of the easier ways to correct sensei while not appearing to correct him is to repeat the movement with general corrections to the class (corrections aimed directly at the sensei) until he gets it. If it isn't working maybe some sharp eye contact with an eyebrow raised while repeating the correction or maybe a finger pointing at him in passing just before looking at the class in general and explaining it once more. How about taking sensei and a couple of senior students aside for fifteen minutes with the explanation that "these guys are going to get some higher level instruction so go oil your swords"

You can work out your own system but the main idea is to get the corrections across without undermining the authority of the local instructor. That way you build trust instead of resentment.

Trust me, I'm a sensei. OK how about trust me, I've been doing this for 30 years? No? How about "I'm on your panel, do what I say". Yeah that usually works.

Apr 5, 2016

History, context and grading

Sunday we started class with a little bit of walking on our knees. We did a bit of the Aikido triangle (knees apart, feet together) and swing your hips thing then moved on to the straight ahead, step out, slide the back knee forward type from the Ogasawara ryu. You can find a video of the Ogasawara style online somewhere I'm sure. That's where I got it.

The reason was simple, we were practicing Seitei Iai and I wanted to connect the seiza techniques with their origins in the old school. The story goes that Omori Rokurozaemon was the student of Hasagawa Eishin but was booted out. He studied the Ogasawara etiquette (which would have included sitting around in seiza and probably moving on their knees much like they move today) and invented a set of kata from seiza that we now call Omori Ryu or Shoden. This includes Mae and Ushiro from seitei.

If you take this method of movement and put it together with Mae (to create the jujutsu version), with an explosive drive of the hips forward in order to jam and overwhelm your opponent sitting opposite, you come up with a connection to the past, but much more importantly you come up with a connection to your hips. All from knowing a little bit of the history of your school.

Now does this help you pass your next exam? That's debateable. One of the folks in class asked me what essays were missed while I was without my tablet in Brazil and I think one was this: History won't help you pass your next iaido grading, but neither will chasing the latest tweeks in a seminar in some foreign country. Seminars are taught by a single instructor and not everything is written down in the book. As a result you get some interpretation of the kata from every instructor, you may think this new way of doing something (that you just learned from this new instructor) is "a change" rather than somebody else's way of moving. As well, not everyone at a seminar is paying attention all the time, nor is the instructor at the seminar always speaking without mistake. Finally, instructors have been known to say things like "more vertical" or "faster" without giving any actual angles or acceleration numbers.

Consequently you occasionally get informed about some, how shall I put it, "interesting changes" to the kata from those who have recently attended seminars. My advice is fairly simple. Believe in your training and understand that the Seitei Gata don't change very often and never quickly. Kids, to whom everything is new, may make a fetish out of a correction but that doesn't mean it's an actual change to the kata. What is new to the kid may not be new to anyone else, and as mentioned, he may have misheard, sensei may have mis-spoken, or someone may have got the wrong end of the stick.

We've got the book. If it changes there, you can be sure it's a change, beyond that, assume you're looking at a particular way of doing something and treat it as such.

As far as passing your next grading with this new information you just got from the seminar (or from the kid who attended), you'd better make damned sure that your particular panel has "got the new way of doing it" or it may just be considered "wrong". You see, you don't get to decide what's passable and what's not, your panel does. And by the way, there is no court of appeal over a grading decision, they don't get reviewed or overruled. There is no mechanism for such a thing. You get to try again. You don't get to appeal to your buddy in the national organization or that sensei you met last year in Japan.

Now we come to what I call the "koryuification" of seitei. The idea that you have to follow a particular line of instruction, that you have to have a recognizable style of practice so that the judges know who your teacher is. This helps you get a pass at your next grading.

It may indeed, but again I refer you to your local panel, or the panel that is testing you at the moment. You may be the exact replica of the most famous and politically powerful teacher in, say, Baluchistan, but that isn't going to get you a pass in Bolivia because that panel won't have a clue who your teacher is. Your famous teacher won't have any influence over that panel at all. Nor, in an ideal world, should he.

Which is the point. Seitei Gata is supposed to be standardized, we have a book out of which to teach and to judge. Up to 5dan your panel (anywhere) is instructed to "look in the book" for your pass or fail, not "look to the guy in the middle of the table" or "look to the famous guy sitting in the audience". Your lineage style shouldn't matter (those little frills that say your teacher is so and so) nor should any amount of historical understanding of the roots of your art. What matters is that you are doing it like the panel wants to see it done, and if all is good, a panel in Brazil will give the same judgement as a panel in Borneo. That's how it's supposed to work.

My teacher has thought occasionally about going to Japan to try his 8dan. He's a Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu fellow and the advice he has been given is to change his style to look like Muso Shinden Ryu because that's what the panel in Tokyo is used to seeing and wants to see.

You disagree with that idea? You should not. If you stand in front of a panel and ask to be assessed you are accepting their assessment. You are giving them the power to judge you, you are saying that you will accept their judgement of your skills. If you don't want to do that, you should not be standing in front of them. If the panel figures you should look like Shinden Ryu (or even better, look like the famous guy in the middle of the table), look like Shinden Ryu or don't challenge. One hachidan I knew a while back told a story about a lineage head who kept trying his 8dan while doing his kata like his koryu. The hachidan said "why do you keep challenging when you have no chance of passing, you're a headmaster of your own style, what's the point?" The fellow replied "I have to show the panel that there is another way to do things beside their way".

OK I get it, but you, dear reader, are not the headmaster of a style. So find out what your panel wants and give them that. Concentrate on what your panel wants and trust that the system has trained them to understand the standard. If you don't believe they understand the standards because what they want is different from what you learned in the latest seminar you just attended, well....

Apr 4, 2016


I attended two world premiers last evening, one a piano concerto and one a choral symphony. Lauren played in both, hence the attendance.

While listening I wondered if anyone was recording the performance. There will be two in all, the last today I believe (so get to the WLU if you want to hear them). If they aren't recorded they very well might never be heard again, thus known only by those of us in the audience.

Ephemeral, I wonder how many other works of art were seen once and never again. How many plays, how many pieces of performance art, how much writing broken on tablets or rotted away.

Every kata you perform is the same, if it's not recorded it's gone forever, and if it is recorded it might surivive a generation or two, then again, probably not past your next cellphone purchase. Digital media is, despite our belief that the cloud is eternal, ephemeral. Already there are digital "standards" that are gone. The encoding might have disappeared as the next generation of the software isn't quite backward compatible, or maybe that 8 inch floppy in the back of your closet fits nowhere at all.

8mm film had to be converted to magnetic tape at one point, but at least the film survives the projectors, being physical images. Betamax tape won't survive the players.

Is this a little sad, does this make us think, just a bit, about the ephemeral nature of our existance? It should, that is why we perform. We rage against the dying of the light every time we create something that we know is destined to crumble into dust. Ozymandis and his mighty works may have made men tremble once, but not any more. We rage, but we fall anyway, we become dust to make room for our children, fertilizer for their crops.

Too big? OK how about that small choice you have to make today, the one where you choose between something that makes you happy but that makes the grannies upset? Well in a few years the grannies will be dead and in a very few more so will you. Go ahead, make peace with the kid from the different religious sect two doors over. It may make your granny happy to remember "those people" did something a century ago, but it's just a story now, and what happens to all stories?

It's only stories that create hate and fear and loathing. Stories should disappear, to be replaced by other stories. We are known by our stories, by our artwork. It's only through this that we communicate ideas. You think dogs have religious conflict? You think cats care what colour they are? They have no stories, they have hunger, and fear, and desire.

We have all that, but stories also. Our hunger and fear and desire goes away when we die, our stories might last a bit longer but thankfully, for the good of our children, even our stories go away eventually.

If they did not, nothing would change. Ever. Think about what that would mean.

Apr 3, 2016

History and Culture and Pespective

History is where we were, culture is what we are. We have perspective on history, we can look back and based on what evidence we have, can make judgements. Not so much on culture, which is the medium in which we swim. Think about asking a fish to tell you about water. A frog, who moves from water to air might have a better line on what water is, or even a raccoon who has some perspective on water, but perhaps not on air.

I have, for some of my budo career (not so much in the early days but in the last several years) been told that I need to understand Japanese culture to "get" budo. My argument is that modern Japanese have no more of a handle on the culture of the Samurai of 1600 than I do. We go to history to understand those men, not to current Japanese culture.

While this may be true, we may actually be talking about two different budo, one that is embedded in current Japanese culture and one that is historical in nature. In other words, we are speaking of budo as it functions in Japan today and budo as developed from actual wartime arts immediately after an age of widespread warfare while Japan became a unified political entity.

Budo today is all about loyalty and service and heirarchy isn't it? It's about doing what sensei says, and defending the system and sacrificing yourself to protect the country. The etiquette of the ZenKenRen iai opens with the sword edge toward the opponent (toward... to ward) representing our desire to defend ourselves, our families and our country. Straight from a hanshi's instruction, that.

But the historical budo, derived from the Samurai who fought in the wars of the late 1500s is about hired swords, (see Karl Friday's book of the same title) it's about switching sides for profit and attaching oneself to the guy who looks like the eventual winner.

Why the difference? Look to the Empire of Japan from the 1930s to 1945 and the use of budo to create soldiers for the Imperial army. There you'll find the ideals of sutemi and blind obedience brought to their highest pitch after a long windup through the Confucian ideals of the Edo.

How do we know this? Not so much from our Japanese sensei (the fish in water) as from western academics who live in both cultures, our frogs in the pond who go between the water and the air. Hmm, more unflattering than I intend folks, just a metaphore.

Personally, I am much more interested in the historical roots of my arts than the current function of those arts in contemporary culture. Mostly, I must admit, because the current importance of those arts in their home seems quite minimal. The main function of budo today, with respect to modern Japanese culture, may well be as a bridge to western Japanophiles. In Japan itself I suspect those in the budo might point to geido, to the general use of "arts" as methods of self-improvement but outside that circle I suspect the budo look a lot like Civil War re-enactors look to the British and the Americans. Quaint being perhaps the kindest word.

The Kendo Federation itself describes kendo as a "gift" to the rest of the world which will teach them correct ideals. This is from the 70s if I remember rightly from Alex Bennett's thesis. Just after the end of the war Kendo was a sport, and quite a popular one apparently, with a peak of about 7 million.

As I said, my personal interest in budo is from the period in the early 1600s when the practical fighting arts of the wars became ways of self improvement. I'm much less interested in the budo of the recent past, the right-wing nationalist version of the war years. This is not to say that those sensei had nothing to say to us, I have studied with some and certainly benefitted through study with their students, but the political aspects of that budo don't interest me as much as the early Edo, a period before an awareness of Japan as a nation amongst nations barely existed.

Do I need to study modern Japanese culture in order to understand budo? Perhaps, perhaps not. I certainly need to study Japanese culture to understand Japanese culture, and I do keep a wary eye on the ultranationalist, conservative strains in the budo of the west, but my chief interest is in budo as a technique largely detached from culture. One that has the goal of self-improvement rather than one which has the goal of "being a productive member of society" which is often code for obedient cannon fodder.

Apr 1, 2016

Brand new bag

Papa got a brand new bag, just like the old one. I bought the whole family tablets a while ago and now I'm going through them. The family has all switched to smartphones but unless they're the size of a tablet I can't see the things. So I get the leftover tablets. This is now my third, I still have the first, but it's a bit clunky these days, being a phone company thing it was never updated, just ignored from the day I bought it.

The second, a newer, faster one disappeared somewhere between Toronto airport and Sao Paulo. I suspect it's in Toronto somewhere, hopefully with a factory reset.

This one is identical to the one I lost and I factory reset it myself so consider this a test.

Just to avoid this being me talking to myself, here's another brand new bag, We are about to start working on Batto Choken Kage Ryu. That's Kage as in "a nice view" not shadow. A short while ago I noticed that someone has put out a book on "secret lost koryu" or some such. Well this in that.

It was practiced in the Kumamoto area during the Edo period when the swords were regulated length. This school uses swords that are 3.8 plus shaku long, so it was taught "in secret" in the Tachibana clan. I put secret in quotes because I would be willing to bet it was one of those secrets that are not discovered because people put their hands over their eyes. After three or four generations of peace and quiet a secret sword art would have seemed as quaint to the Japanese as it does to us now. No harm being done, why bother enforcing the rules. But I'm just speculating, projecting modern attitudes to older generations.

On the other hand, why do we assume the attitudes of the older generations are carried on in this one? Well an essay for another day.

So Kage Ryu was secret, and today is almost lost. Not really lost because there are two or three folks who still remember it and one of them has been teaching it to a small group for a few years now. The group is centered around Calgary Alberta with sparks in other areas like Edmonton, Florida and Ontario. Still, you can easily count the students so maybe we can say it's "almost lost" and therefore "almost secret".

The shihan for this small group of fans is Colin Watkin who studied the art for many years in Japan and who has retired to the Phillipines. He is coming to Calgary this August, and also to Ontario on the first weekend of September to teach once more. Since I participated in the last two or three seminars over the last many years I have finally committed to passing it along. Since it's my fourth major koryu art this involves large amounts of guilt at not doing a better job of it. The seminar in September is one step toward relieving that guilt.

What is it? Well imagine doing iaido with a five foot long sword.

Now, in our case, imagine doing that on a five mile long beach. We tend to practice outdoors on Sauble beach near the Tombo Dojo (my log cabin cottage with it's upstairs dojo). I'm trying to put a web page together so I can't point you to anything but email me if you're interested in participating. All are beginners so I guess all are welcome.

Two new things. New is good, keeps you young.

Mar 31, 2016


Last evening at Jodo practice we started, as usual, with kihon but didn't get too far before I started to talk about momentum. I didn't call it that at the time but later I realized that's what it was.

First, let's understand that it's really, really hard to move from dead still to full speed ahead. I know that's one of the things that make the arts beautiful, nothing looks so good as an iaido kata which goes from dead quiet to a full speed cut to stillness in a fraction of a second. A stillness that seems to keep moving forward.

Sei chu Do, Do chu Sei. Stillness in action, action in stillness. That's the origin of our dojo name, Sei Do Kai, and it means that when the body is moving the mind must be still, when the body is still, the mind must be moving. Mostly we figure it means keep your attention when you're not doing something and be calm when you are, but it has a lot to do with momentum. Think about trying to move from a position of rest, where your body is not only still but relaxed, and your mind is also relaxed. There's no way you can start moving from that point without some sort of wind-up motion is there? Often we'll try to compensate by stiffening up the body in preparation to move, now the body is moving (although against itself so that it isn't going anywhere) and the mind is moving as well. OK for a short period, OK if you can relax the part that's holding the movement back instantly without winding up, but after a few seconds the body will collapse creating a big opening in the defence.

Middle distance runners will line up with one arm cocked back waiting for the gun. They aren't allowed to have a running start to the race but they can take up the slack, make the wind-up movement first, in preparation of going forward. Swimmers and sprinters in their blocks are made to be still before the start of the race because a bit of rocking to create momentum will be an advantage to those who time it correctly. It is of benefit for these athletes to put their full will down the course and to take their preparatory movements right up to the point where they explode forward. (What happens when there is a slow gun? Yep, someone false starts due to a collapse of the body tension or the will.)

So what shall we call this? Perhaps mental momentum, that visualized movement in your head which will keep your will moving down the course while your body is still, waiting for the starting signal. This is good for defined movements, like a footrace, but fixation on a movement in budo can get you injured or killed. Instead, we apply a generalized, highly attentive pressure toward our opponent with our mind. We call this seme. A fixation on a defined movement, like cutting the wrist, will not help us, and in fact will help our opponent. This is the "outward spirit" Musashi speaks of, it is what our opponent can read in our eyes, it's what we normally see. His eyes might not flick to our wrist, probably won't, but we can see (if we look correctly) his attention focused there. His pressure in this case only helps us. Now, if he can simply project a generalized intent to attack without showing us where, he can create confusion in our mind. If he can hide his inner spirit while manipulating his outer spirit he can actually fake us into believing in one attack while striking elsewhere.

This mental momentum we discussed later in the class, while trying to see targets and attacking them instantly inside the kata. For instance, in the first seitei kata (tsuki zue) we avoid a strike to the head by stepping back and dropping the jo into position to counterattack. (You can find Seitei jo kata online if you want to go look it up). The second movement is to strike the left wrist of the swordsman with the tip of the jo. If we try this while concentrating on, perhaps looking at, the wrist and then swinging the jo to hit it, we will fail. The swordsman will simply remove his left wrist and the jo will miss. This is not hard. Now, if the jo is instead raised a bit higher and if shijo (the defender) attacks the entire centerline, from top of head to wrist, uchidachi (the swordsman) will be rocked back on his heels and will find it hard to avoid the strike to the wrist. Once the wrist is struck jo must keep tachi (sword) from continuing to attack, he must pevent the wrist from moving upward or the swordsman's body moving forward. This is done with physical and mental pressure forward. Nothing stops a rising wrist like a thump to the solar plexus. Sword must move back, yet he must continue to attack. Where is that attack? The easiest place is the other side of the jo, so tachi steps back and lifts the sword to jodan (overhead). In the kata, jo then strikes tachi's left wrist once more and we finish the form. But really? How hard would it be to catch the jo on the wrist at an angle so that it isn't broken, then to throw the stick off to the side while cutting shijo one handed?

No, the advanced way to perform this kata (and I'm talking about higher ranks here now please, beginners need to memorize the dance steps first so stop reading) is to attack the target as soon as you see it, and as soon as you can without getting cut. Your mental momentum must be toward tachi, you must attack the opening instantly without consideration/rationalization, without thought (mushin) and that target is the top of the head. The wrist gets hit because tachi is on his heels and doesn't dare try to catch the jo with his sword (it's coming in at the wrong angle and easy to miss) so he throws up his wrist to take the blow in order to survive. There is a world of difference between deflecting the attack with the wrist in order to counterattack, and defending the head because the jo is attacking, crowding, pressing in and has the initiative. So how do we practice this way? With an honest tachi movement, present the target and then defend the head, don't just step back out of range and throw the arms overhead.

If you do? Well now you have a kata with a choice point don't you? What target is presented when tachi is in jodan? Suigetsu of course. And what do we use? Kaeshi tsuki. So in our choice-point-kata number one we finish the form either as usual, with a strike to the head and tachi defending with his wrist, or with the new ending, a thrust to the solar plexus as the arms uncover that target. Target-strike-notice which target was open.

As I said, not for beginners.

Back to our original consideration of momentum, while doing the kihon. If we do kaeshi tsuki (we reverse the jo ends by twisting our hips and then step through to the thrust) we turn, step and thrust to the target as our front foot hits the ground, and drive through as our back foot comes up to re-establish our stance. So what happens with the jo? Usually it stays firmly held at both ends with our hands. We turn, step and thrust somehow after we land that front foot, often with some extra movements of the shoulders and a lot of arm motion. In other words, we wind up. Let's look at this, where is our still point? Just after the turn over of the jo. From there we drive forward and thrust, all continuous movement. OK we're looking for a fast acceleration right? Sure but it's drive fast with the hips and withold the jo until the right time isn't it? No, we can use jo ha kyu, an acceleration of the jo as well. As you start moving forward with the body, let the jo run slightly through the front hand and accelerate it to the strike at the end of the body movement. Now the jo isn't going from still to full speed, it's moving slightly in the correct direction from the beginning. This jo ha kyu movement isn't just acceleration, it's a vaccine against winding up, it's lubrication toward changes in direction. (And I stole it from a hanshi).

The usual partner drill for kaeshi tsuki is for tachi to step back into jodan exposing the solar plexus. If jo comes in with the jo fixed between the two hands, and tachi cuts down, it is hard for jo to react and catch the tachi before getting hit. Change the jo movement to a small slide through the front hand as you move forward and you will find it's easier to catch the tachi as it cuts. Try this carefully, and only practice it with experienced partners who can pull their cut if needed. Physical momentum is the difference. Jo ha kyu is the mechanism. Full speed or stillness from the get-go will commit you to a single movement and it's this commitment to the move that your opponent is looking for, the sooner you commit to your movement the sooner he can avoid it.

That's enough, my coffee has gone cold so let's recap. It's hard to move from dead still to full speed so keep the mind moving when the body is still. It's hard to move from dead still without a wind-up, so use jo ha kyu, the acceleration phase of the movement to give yourself a little bit of momentum, this will prevent you from winding up. There will be places where your mental and physical momentum should be laser-focused, as when you are in a sprint. There are other places where that momentum must be a generalized pressure toward your opponent as when you are applying seme in a kendo match to drop your opponent onto his heels.

It's easier to change direction than it is to start moving.

Go thou and apply this lesson to writing your next novel or cleaning the house or building that garden shed.


Mar 30, 2016

Just Nothing

Some days you just come up with nothing. Today is one of those, I really have nothing to say but here I am, typing anyway and something will turn up, I'm sure.

Some classes are like that, I look at the students and realize that I don't have a damned thing to give them, I've said it all, shown everything I've got, so why are they still there and more importantly, why am I still there.

The answer is simple, I'm there so they will be there. I'm not so much a teacher as an excuse to gather in one spot and practice what is, to be honest, a pretty useless art. The modern use for iaido or jodo or any of the other arts we practice is approximately zero, yet we all get something out of it, whether we realize it or not.

Teacher as excuse to gather, I like it.

Other times, as at a recent seminar, I've been known to grab students by the collar and shake them saying "come and see me, I can get you to the next level". Seriously? Well yes, I mean it, but it's usually a pretty simple thing I'm talking about, a bit of a tweak in the attitude. Mostly to get them from outside to inside as I mentioned recently, to go from a purely technical practice to one that works from an inner feeling of balance and timing to guide that technical mastery.

But I just said the skills we learn are useless yes? So why bother?

Of course the technical skills of budo are useless, we all know that guns are better. I see that the US supreme court has decided that any arms you can bear is the meaning of the right to bear arms, so presumably the government cannot restrict the use of rocket propelled grenade launchers, or TOW missiles. I look forward to seeing seminars in how to protect yourself and your home by the use of shoulder fired antitank weapons. As for empty handed, UFC is the ultimate right?, or Krav Maga or whatever other flavour of the month. Certainly not the antique stuff we practice around here.

No the fighting utility of our stuff is zero, as is my teaching, just zero. All of it is only an excuse to get together and interact with each other in ways that... what? Wait. Is that the point? Is that why I have no interest in the fist-pumping and trash-talking that goes on in the entertainment martial arts? Am I in the arts for reasons other than learning to be a badass?

Damned right I am. I'm in them to be at every single class so that I can hang with my peeps. I'm in them to socialize all those little punks that figure beating someone up or shooting them is a good thing. It's all a trick, "here's a sword, here's how to chop off arms and legs, now you gotta practice for the next 30 years before you're good enough to do it, come on out to the next 40 practices and see if you like it".

Oh, by the way you have to get along with other people in order to practice this stuff, and you have to care for their health and well-being so they don't get injured and you have to help clean the dojo and you have to car-pool to the seminars and maybe even sleep on the dojo floor with everyone else and...

You have to show up even if you've got nothing.

Mar 29, 2016

When should I teach?

Teaching is a difficult subject in budo, at least when you start. Just when are you ready? In some cases it's not that hard to know but in others, the decision can go on for years. Understand I'm talking mostly about non-commercial groups here, those where it doesn't really matter how many dojo are within one territory, but even commercial dojo often find that their territory is surprisingly small.

Let's look at the easiest case, the one where you have no choice. You are the only person in your area who knows what you know, there are no instructors in weekly reach and you need to have a space to practice. Unless you can build a dojo in your back yard or the weather is good year round, you're pretty much stuck with gathering up some bodies and getting a space. That was my deal with iaido in 1987 when I started teaching at the University of Guelph, I needed a room and the easiest way to get one was to have a few folks who would practice with me. Now, I must say that I had been teaching Aikido for a few years already, and I suppose I could have signed out a room for myself to practice, in other words I didn't really need to teach in order to practice, but I wanted the art to grow.

Which is the second case, you want to promote the art. After many years of thinking about this, I've come to the conclusion that the best, perhaps the only way to increase the numbers of students in some martial arts is to increase the number of dojo. It would seem that some arts, iaido and jodo included, tend to max out at a smallish number of people per dojo. There are exceptions of course, Japanese cultural centers tend to have large numbers of students simply because those centers are where students would expect to find iai and jo. But for your usual small town the numbers of students tend to be less than 20 and often less than ten per room. I know that my own numbers at the University have been steady at about 14 for decades, with 6 to 10 being the usual practice size per class.

So what rank should you have when you start your dojo "because you have to"? Whatever rank you have. There is no real-world minimum rank to teach, if you know more than your students you are qualified. Of course most arts have some sort of minimum experience requirement, a minimum rank or some such, but that's an artificial standard. The fact of the matter is that anyone can teach as long as they have something to teach. Will the students of a one-year experienced instructor be very good? I don't know, it depends on how good that instructor is and how good a teacher he turns out to be.

The other "rank" you need as a short-timer who is teaching is ego. You ought not be teaching if you don't believe you can teach. That doesn't mean you should be an arrogant fellow who thinks he knows stuff, in fact that fellow will make a bad teacher. No, you need to believe you have something to pass along and you need to believe you can pass that along. Having faith in the art and in your own instructor will help. Knowing you will have continued instruction for yourself and help with your students will help. Ego is not a bad thing, but perhaps if we call it "perceived self-efficacy" it might help. You have to believe you can do it.

In areas where the arts are just new and growing it is critical that these inexperienced instructors be encouraged and supported by the few higher ranked instructors who will have taught these juniors. In fact, if the senior instructors discourage such juniors they will not even consider going out to teach. There are cases of this, and these arts do not grow.

Is teaching a good thing for the inexperienced? Absolutely not, but teaching-to-practice is better than no practice at all. As long as these juniors are realistic about their own skills and their need for further training (and let's face it, I'm talking about ranks requiring up to 20 years and more here) they will be OK. Most of the teachers I've met in this situation, who were successful, are just fine, as are their students. The egomaniac who just wants to be a big shot is easily spotted and his students never stay beyond a year or two.

From a selfish, grow the art point of view, even these guys are fine, they tend to be good self-promoters and bring in the students, and those who get hooked tend to move on to the better instructors.

Let's move on to the case where there is no necessity to teach, where there are dojo with senior teachers in weekly reach. When should those students consider going out to teach?

Well, if there is a complete grading system in place (and very few cases exist of incomplete grading systems) then the easy answer is not before you get the recommended/required license to teach. In the kendo federation this is usually thought to be 5dan. I haven't read the Canadian bylaws for a while, or those of the FIK or ZNKR so I don't know if this is actually described as "teaching rank" or not. It is the rank at which an instructor can sign the grading request for a student so it's usually called "teaching rank". If you have instructors of lower rank it's not hard to get someone of higher rank to sign papers. Some groups may make a big deal out of this, others may not.

If there is an incomplete grading system, as there is here in Canada with Jodo in the kendo federation, an ad-hoc requirement will appear. Our system stops at 3dan, so 3dan becomes the top rank and therefore, 3dan is absolutely the teaching rank (or the art dies). We are fortunate to have 5dans in jodo around who sign everyone's papers but if they were not there it would simply fall to a 5dan in one of the other arts, iaido or kendo, or failing that, the president to sign the papers. Of course if we had no 5dans we would not be grading 3dans and the president would be signing for those students to grade in another country. The point is that signing authority isn't really a measure of teaching permission, it's a measure of signing authority.

So what is teaching permission? Well in most systems it's when sensei says "get out and teach". Some sensei won't ever say that and there are clubs around with many, many senior ranks under an even more senior rank. If the area has plenty of dojo to satisfy the demand for instruction, there's no real problem with this, except that too much rank in a single dojo tends to create "washerwoman" problems. Who won't get a bit irritated on occasion with being fourth in line after 40 years of experience? Who wouldn't erupt in an occasional bout of complaining over the back fence if they were still cleaning the toilets and organizing the parties at 6dan? Better to be cleaning your own toilets somewhere else one might think.

A true teaching license is not the administrative permission to sign a form, that can only ever be an effort to ensure some sort of minimum standard for the organization. No the true teaching license is when your sensei says "I've taught you all I can, or at least all I'm willing to teach you right now and you're a snotty know-it-all so get out and torture your own students for a while" which is budo for "wait until you have your own kids, then you'll know". After three or four years of practicing Niten Ichiryu with Haruna sensei I knew I had a teaching license when he said "where are the other students?". I took that to mean "I'm not wasting my time teaching you if the art isn't getting passed along" and I started forcing my iaido students to learn Niten so that I could continue learning.

All these teaching grades and permissions/orders from sensei are well and good, but don't really create instructors. That happens when the student in question believes they actually have the ability to teach. No amount of paper or yelling can change that, it has to come from the student himself. The other reality is that even if you have the grade, the permission and the belief that you can teach, you still need a place to go teach. Curiously, in a small town this is hardly ever a problem, while in the crowded city, along with lots of other dojo in your own and many other arts, it can be a real problem.

When should I teach?

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Bwahahaha you thought that meant something else?

Mar 28, 2016

Growing Pains

CLAK (the Latin American kendo federation) just had an iaido and jodo seminar and I have caught a bit of post-seminar chatter on the net. It's normal that folks get excited after three days of training and want more. (What follows is for those in SA who are frustrated and looking for ways to train. It might offend some who are drowning in resources so please, if you are in that situation, bear with me, perhaps once you were not so fortunate.)

After a seminar is when the reality of scarce resources become most visible. South America is where Canada was ten or twenty years ago and still is to a large extent. It can take thousands of dollars to attend a seminar or a grading due to distances and a lack of senior ranks in the area. It usually happens that there are one or two spots where there are some instructors and some students, in our case it's Toronto and Vancouver. As a result there is inevitably a feeling that those areas get all the attention and the hinterlands are "out of the loop".

There are always suggestions on how this situation can improve, usually it involves the kendo federation doing what it's mandate says and spending money to send instructors to the outlying districts.

But it doesn't happen very often, not for kendo and certainly not for jodo or iaido. The administrators feel the money is better spent where the students are, rather than trying to increase numbers where they are not. This is natural and extends all the way to Japan where lately I've been told the FIK will not send an instructor to a seminar that has less than 100 participants. Why would they think this way? In Japan I'm sure their seminars regularly run over 300, 500 maybe, and 90% of kendo is in Japan so why send valuable senior instructors to the hinterlands where they are surely wasted.

We once got in trouble for inviting two hanshi to the country within a month, obviously a waste of resources. One went to the Toronto area and one to Vancouver. Why would we need two hanshi in one month unless there is some problem like two factions in the organization? Well there weren't and there isn't, it's just that Toronto and Vancouver are a very long way apart. So far that it takes 5 hours to fly between them, or about 4 days of almost continuous driving, a week by train. It's not surprising that someone from a densely populated, small country like Japan would not understand that people can't just hop on a train and be at a seminar in a couple of hours. We get compared to Europe constantly, well how about a hanshi in Holland and one in Belgium within a month? Two countries so that's OK but Toronto and Vancouver in the same country? Absurd. Well never mind, there was such a complaint raised I don't expect that will ever happen again, those who organized such visits are not inclined to organize any more.

I have mostly given up pushing for support at a local (Canada) level for jodo gradings. I have been presented with conditions regularly and have met them only to be given more conditions. That is, when I am not being told that I'm just selfish for trying to get a grading panel here and why don't I just go to Japan to grade. Well I could, but that does Canada no good at all and I don't care about my own grading except in the single circumstance that it would assist the growth of jodo in Canada. Having been stonewalled for several years I will be trying to get enough people graded out of country to allow us to grade inside Canada to the next level. Hopefully we will be able to stay ahead of the decline that will happen if our gradings remain capped at 3dan.

My point? It is that our South American friends are not alone in their frustrations at trying to build the arts. No matter how many centers of activity you develop there will be more hinterlands to service. No matter what you do, it will be difficult to get outside help to come to you, and you will be told to "just go to Japan" or "just go to Europe" as if this was a simple train ride.

Any art is expensive in it's own way, but having to grade half a world away gives our arts a special flavour of expense. It's unfortunate, and doubly unfortunate when the economic argument of bringing a few to teach many is ignored and you are told to take the many to go see the few. To pay for an air ticket to bring a sensei in from another country will take about 5 or 6 students pooling their money. Let's say the ticket is $1200, that's $200 each for six people to bring in a sensei, or $7200 for those six to go to sensei. I know it doesn't make any sense but that's the reality today.

Twenty five years ago it was a little easier to bring in a sensei and I committed the price of an air ticket to Japan toward organizing a seminar so that 30 people could benefit instead of just me. This was no great sacrifice on my part, I had no great desire to visit Japan and I was already receiving excellent instruction from two good sensei so I wasn't in need. But my sensei were without instruction. It wasn't a difficult decision. From that seminar grew a nucleus of students who could build iaido, and eventually jodo as well. Along the way I did travel here and there for my own instruction but mostly I kept bringing in the experts.

This has become somewhat more difficult in recent years as seminars have become defined as "private" and "official". I honestly don't know what those terms mean, our seminars were always sanctioned by the CKF but they were financed by the participants. This seems to have confused people so now I have declared that our seminar (with no changes to it's finances or structure at all) is now "private". Which means it is the same as every other seminar and tournament in Canada except perhaps the national tournaments held every three years.

For my SA readers, I have a few suggestions based on my experiences. First, let CLAK and your national federations worry about organizing the gradings. Concentrate on your training instead. Stop obsessing about your grades, your pass rate at the recent grading, in front of a panel of six nanadan (who really do know what the standards are, honestly they do), should tell you that you are on the right path. Your local instructors are fine, carry on. I say the same to the Jodo group which didn't have a grading but after three days with you I can reassure you that your skills are equivalent to any I've seen elsewhere. Your years of training compared to our years of training have resulted in the same skill. If the grades don't match, it's not a problem. Again, don't obsess about gradings, just train hard.

If you are the only person in your area and you want to train, teach. Who cares what your rank is, just teach what you know to those who know less. That's the definition of teaching. We started our iaido and jodo sections with little more than big egos and a bit more training than our students. We were lucky enough to have a few folks at the top who understood this need and who guided us correctly. So do you. To think you have to wait until you have a full rank complement before you start teaching or start a section (in the case of jodo) is to admit you don't really want a section.

Remember that word "private". You can invite anyone you wish, from anywhere in the world to come and teach your small group. You really can, there is no rule against it. The reality is that the person you ask may say no. Don't be upset, this can be for many reasons, they don't know you, they are involved in trying to get their next grading and don't want to "step into any minefields", they figure your group is property of some other sensei, or they may just be too busy. Remember that senior instructors are people too, they have their own personal concerns beyond promoting the arts.

The best people to approach may be those who have recently retired (and have not had to go back to work yet) or those who are self-employed. A weekend seminar isn't usually a problem, even for those who must use their vacation time to come and teach (remember though, that sensei have families and may want to vacation with them). One suggestion I read from the SA group is to organize a traveling visit from the sensei, to go from one city or country to another so that the locals don't have to travel. That economic argument once more. Consider what that means to the sensei. Is the local group willing to hold the seminar during the weekdays, or on weekday evenings? If not, each city is going to take a week of down time between for sensei. Four seminars is a month of being away from home if each city gets a weekend. This can be done, but someone will have to take care of the sensei between weekends, and sensei will have to be able to spend that month away from his job and family.

It makes sense financially but it is difficult practically. For the last couple of years I have done a jodo grading in Vancouver one weekend and then seminars in Alberta the next weekend. Someone has to host me in that week between and I'm away from my workshop for that time (sort of retired / self employed). It's not a big hardship for me, but this year I could stay for two weeks and three weekends as one of my sensei (Kage Ryu and Niten Ichiryu) is visiting Calgary on the third weekend. Since I'm hosting him on the fourth weekend I will not be staying for that second week, it would be hard on me (I'm not fond of traveling) and more work for the locals. Imagine the work for a month worth of visit.

Yet it could happen, and it would make sense financially and practically if the coordination was good and, as I said, some groups were willing to have their seminars during the week. Fly a sensei in to one city, have a weekend seminar, then fly him to another city or another country and giving him a day to sleep, do another seminar. Keep going for a couple of weeks or even a month and then fly him home. I can see it working. I can also see that sensei being delirious after about two weeks.

If that sensei is self-employed rather than retired with a good income, you may have to consider replacing some of that lost income for him. This is not "making money from teaching" this is replacing lost income, but some people may not see the difference and the ZNKR forbids making money from teaching kendo so choose your visitor carefully and keep quiet if you are handing money over.

So to sum up. The instruction in South America is fine, some great, some good, some in need of help but none of it inferior to other countries so carry on. Gradings will always be a problem which is unfortunate because gradings are one of the main ways to keep the art growing. Unfortunate but true. If you do want to bring in a sensei to teach, go ahead and start asking, if a sensei doesn't want to or cannot visit you he may just know someone else he can send. If not, ask another sensei. If you want to bring someone in for an extended time, make sure they are young and fit and go ahead and ask. You will never get if you don't ask, and you might get if you do. Be organized if you're going to do that, and consider bringing in two people so that the main sensei has someone he knows well to carry his bags and assist in the teaching.

Most of all, don't make complaining about the difficulty of training your focus. It's not an obstacle, it's a challenge. Use books, use "youtube sensei", use skype. It's a lot easier now than it was 25 years ago, and infinitely easier than it was 100 years ago. Be of good heart and just train.

Mar 27, 2016

Inside out

Or outside in. You can teach from both directions and my personal preference is from inside out. Iaido in the kendo federation is a good example of how both ways of teaching can be used, different approaches being usual for seitei and koryu iai.

Outside in is to teach from the dance steps, the appearance. You step here, you stop your cut here, turn your head and then cut there, stopping your sword at this position. From all that mechanical description you are eventually supposed to see where teki is and to give your iai some feeling.

From inside out is a longer, more careful process, more suited to the koryu where students aren't anxious to grade since there isn't a grading system. From the inside you concentrate more on the kihon of the art, the basic movements that are appropriate to the entire school (another difficult thing to do with seitei with, for instance, four different chiburi in the first five kata). From inside out you start with the grip and how it feels and why it is the way it is. You teach students to feel the correct grip. Then you move on to the cut, more precisely, the two or three cuts that you go through as you get more experience. You start to put all the kihon, the basic techniques, into the shape of the kata and you explain just why each kata is done. All this is accomplished by various means, including pairing up with bokuto to see how certain movements work, and to push and pull each other to find the balance.

As I said, it is a much different process than outside in, and it seems much slower to most people. It really isn't. From inside out you have a slow takeoff but a much faster ascent. This is because the koryu are designed around a few basic principles and waza and the kata are built from them. If you have the fundamentals you can rapidly pick up the kata. Outside in gives you the shape but there's nothing inside until you build it, fast takeoff but slow ascent.

A while ago one of my students asked to go over Oku Iai (the third level of practice in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu) and I replied automatically that we were practicing Oku Iai even though we were doing Omori Ryu (the first level) at the time. Omori is where you work on the fundamentals, Oku is where the strange stuff is thrown in, but you can't appreciate the strange stuff if you don't have the basics in your bones. "This is different" only means something if you have a "usual" to compare it to.

Seitei sometimes seems like nothing but difference to me, especially if it's taught only outside in. How many folks salivate for their next session with a high ranking sensei so that they can learn about the changes in angles of this or that cut? That you can make those changes is a good thing, but to think that those changes are in any way important other than to test whether you can make them, is a mistake. While I have no doubt that there are people out there who feel that their iaido is better than someone else's because they know the, well let's call it the latest fad from Japan, most senior sensei are rather doubtful that iaido is about whether magenta or puce is the colour of the season.

"Sensei! Sensei! I was just at a seminar and they said this cut is now done at five degrees steeper than it was done before. Which should I do?"

"I don't care, as long as you cut."

Outside in vs inside out happening right there. That wasn't my answer actually, mine was something along the lines of. "Who cares, figure out which one your local grading panel wants and do that one". But I'm a bit cynical.

You can learn iai from either direction, but I favour inside out simply because those who get really good at putting the sword into various checkpoint positions become very attached to that. It's hard to tell a senior grade student that they can't cut for beans and they have to relearn how to use their hips. Better to teach the hips and the cut first while pretending that the kata from the "secret levels" can only be taught after many years of practice. That way they learn the fundamentals while they are still shoshinsha (open minded) and the promise of secret kata keeps them around. By the time they get to the secret stuff you can just spit it out in an hour and they'll have it filed away, they'll realize the good stuff isn't another tap-dance craze but the ability to shuffle, step and hop.

Learn your scales, then try a Bach Fugue. Learn to draw, they pick up the oils. Learn how to hold the brush before you start using grass script.

But it isn't impossible to learn how to read if all you have in the house is a book on theoretical physics.

Mar 26, 2016

Mr. Roboto

First, I ought to say that I am a big fan of the Zen Ken Ren Seitei Gata iai and jo. I've defended them for decades as a good way to allow an organization to provide gradings while allowing the membership to continue with their many koryu arts.

Now, decades later, in an era when the seitei gata are entrenched as the beginning arts of most students in the federation, I'm beginning to have a problem or two. First, there are those people who think that seitei is THE CORRECT way to do iai/jo. After all, it was created by the best swordsmen of the day and it was written down in "the book" and you grade and tournament with it and... and most importantly... it's what I know!

Sure, all true, but it's not "the truth". Seitei is what you use in order to work with people from different lineages of iai (jodo is somewhat different, the seitei being derived from a single ryu so we'll use iai from now on). It is wonderful for this reason alone. Seitei is what you will use for your next grade so of course you will practice the bejeepers out of it and get very good at it, good enough to start worrying about micro-measurements like the two centimeters between the kensen and the kissaki. Practice stopping the sword long enough and you will be able to stop it at one or the other of these. Is it a good thing to learn how to stop a sword at a precise position? Is this the function of a sword? Does it demonstrate control? Your answer to these last two questions might differ, and if you think about it, the difference might explain a bit about the value of that precision of movement.

Seitei is written down in a book, but please read it. What is in the book is fixed, what is not in the book is not fixed, which leads right back to the reason why we can't use the koryu for gradings or tournament. Where there is any room at all for variation we will see lineages pop up. "There is only ONE way to do correct seitei gata and that is the way your sensei does it and he follows a sensei and he follows a sensei"... Yes, that's true, but making a fetish of the differences which exist between the paragraphs in the book is not the way to use seitei to bring the world together. It's the way to establish little groups who can argue with each other about who is doing it the CORRECT way. Sageo control is a good example of this. It is not specified in the book so you see various ways to manipulate the sageo. In Canada it got a bit crazy so we decided, in our small corner of the world, that our sageo control would be done the same by everyone, with one small change between the Shinden and the Jikiden students. Since that's who we have, that is accurate, but really, it's between those who tie their sageo on the left and those who tie it on the right side. If your koryu ties it around your neck or to one of your toes we would have to reassess our "rule" about correct sageo control, but mostly it's worked so far.

I have sat grading panels in many different places, one of them South America where I encountered different ways of sageo control. Do I take points off for those different sageo controls when judging? I should not. Sageo control is not specified in the book, as a judge I am expected to know this, and to understand that sageo control may vary from what is specified in my home base (Eastern Canada). Depending on the level of the grade being challenged I may be required to assess the combative effectiveness of that sageo control (is the movement of the sageo creating huge openings for attack? For instance, is it being tied in such a way that the challenger has both hands behind his sword so that if I attacked at that moment he could not defend himself). A 6dan challenger ought not be open to attack while a shodan has other things to worry about than the subtle positioning of his hands while moving his sageo.

Maybe the iaido committee of the FIK ought to standardize sageo control so that the judging becomes more fair? Think about this, how much standardization can you do? Do we regulate the number of breaths between kata? Would this be a good idea? But we time some gradings and having a time restriction will 1. reduce the breaths between kata to zero and 2. be unfair to those who breath more deeply. Having a time restriction and specifying three breaths between kata are two standards that conflict. More standardization will cause more contorted thinking and instruction to try and reconcile conflicting standards. Now students and instructors must decide which are important and which are not.

But as a lazy judge I'm all for it, the more ways I can fail a student the easier it is for me to sit a panel. I simply wait for a "major fail point" and put my X on that space and go back to sleep. As you might imagine, I'm not really a fan of lazy judging or lazy judges. If I go to South America I ought to be nervous because I am going to see some variation from what I have instructed my students. When I see it I am going to have to consider the variation in relationship with the rank. I am also going to have to figure out whether a bunch of students are doing that variation which would indicate a club all being taught the same way (pass) or if it is simply a beginner getting tangled up (probably a pass) or a senior who just hasn't a clue that they are leaving themselves open to attack (fail point).

A couple of years ago someone suggested that we use motion analysis software to judge iaido grades. This would be entirely objective judging, stop the sword at the right place and you pass, don't and you fail. For lower grades you can set the range of motion higher than for higher grades. Hey, why not? In gymnastics you are supposed to "stick" a landing, if you take a step you have points deducted. No consideration for balance or arm waving is in the rule book I suspect, because gymnasts make motions like spastic octopi in their efforts to avoid a step on the landing. Not elegant, off balance, open to attack (gymnastics came from military exercises) but no step because that's what the competition rules specify. This will / does happen now in iaido. With a concentration on stopping the sword at a certain spot, a student will destroy a correct swing. One does not decelerate the tip of the sword to a stop at the chin and have any chance at all of cutting the face or even surviving the counter-attack of a real opponent. The book says "stop at chin level" or some such, (don't step on the landing) and that becomes a fetish. Flail your arms around to avoid the step, cut really really slowly with the right hand to stop at the right position.

Motion analysis? Sure, no more unfair considerations of age, or injury. Maybe you need a medical certificate and maybe the software is re-written to accomodate your specific injury. What's the liklihood? Iaido isn't very well funded, judges aren't paid but software engineers are, so no more doing iaido when you're injured, we aren't going to rewrite the motion analysis system. You will pass until the level set within your motion range, then you will fail forever because the system sees you outside the correct range.

Nah, judges work for free, they are also expected to be fair while still taking things like missing limbs into account.

Standardization is good when it lets a bunch of different koryu work and practice and learn together. It becomes useless when it seeks to make everyone a robot.

Mar 24, 2016

My Summer Vacation

What I did on my summer vacation. I left a cold Ontario and twelve hours later landed in Sao Paulo for the Latin American Kendo Federation iaido and jodo seminar. Goyo Ohmi, my iaido sensei was along, and we eventually met up with four more iaido nanadan from the USA.

You haven't read about this before now because somewhere between the Toronto airport (pretty sure it was there) and Sao Paulo my tablet disappeared leaving me with my ebook reader as a communication device. Not a chance I was going to use it to write, so a few essays will probably never see the outside of my head. No cloud is without a silver lining is it?

The Thursday was spent doing that special sightseeing that happens around Ohmi sensei. A wander through the streets looking at trees, flowers, people, cars, dogs... in other words, just soaking in everyday life in a new place. Many thanks to Kojima sensei (President of CLAK) for wandering with us and treating us to a lunch of rice, beans, salad and steak, along with one of the dozen or so (it seems to me) Brazilian juices that start with G, and of course a bottle of beer. A typical lunch in a typical fast food joint. So nice to see an almost complete absence of our local burger joints.

In any case, if you are wondering what Sao Paulo looked like to me, it was Tokyo with graffitti. Lots of graffitti, some of it just scribbles (tags?) but some quite surreal artwork and much of it done by people who must be absolutely without fear. There was graffitti two or three stories up which must have been done by dangling on ropes or renting a hydraulic hoist because there was no other way to get there. Serious respect.

And respect for the drivers who somehow manage to merge and flow with their cars inches apart, their tempers under control, hands and blinkers in constant use. Not to mention horns that are for information instead of an invitation to fight. Oh and the "mad dogs", the hundreds of motorcycles screaming through any small gap in the traffic, peep peep - zoom. Now I was told that at least one dies each day and side mirrors are destroyed regularly but luckily we saw nothing of that. For my friends in Montevideo of four years ago, your traffic is a bit crazier but your motorcyclists a bit less "mad" I think. (Although that might be a horsepower thing).

Friday to Monday was the seminar. The first day was at the old Japanese Cultural center. A funky place with a corrigated steel roof, aircraft hanger style. I love buildings like this, they wear their history in a way that you would rarely see in Canada. I suspect lawyers would not permit it, but the building will see some renovation soon I think someone told me. Regardless, if swordmen can't avoid a hump in a floor or a hole, they don't deserve the name. The surface grip was good, the goodwill was excellent and the practice happened.

Ah yes the practice, nothing wrong with the learning skills of South America, they managed to squeeze massive amounts of information out of the sensei while soaking it up like a sponge. None of this "oh I'm tired I wish we could have a break" talk that I could tell. More like "can we practice through lunch?".

The jodo classes started in the afternoon of the first day as far as I can recall, and I never saw my iaito after that. The first jodo class was in another room off the main floor and we worked through the afternoon with a five minute break to find me some water as my throat had gone completly dry. Did I mention these guys were good at squeezing it out of you? Notebooks and sharp attention will pull a lot more explanation than one might have given ordinarily.

And that's as it should be. If a group has few chances to practice with senior ranks (if you can call a godan a senior rank, which you can in the Americas) they ought to be given enough to work on until the next seminar. That's how we learned, a big bolus of information that took months to digest, sort of like an Anaconda with a goat. For myself I tried to give a feel for the inside of the kihon rather than sticking with the dance steps. Stuff that will help with self learning for the next few weeks rather than stuff you can get out of the book or from videos. I tried, I hope it was helpful.

The jodo students came from all over South America. There is a "hotspot" in Rio and another in Santiago, Chile with other, scattered folks who have been doing well learning from books and video. I mean that, I have no problem with people who learn on their own, they are generally motivated and hungry for information from a warm body.

The Chileans have been coming to the May seminar here in Guelph for a while now, and the Brazilians have been heading to Europe. Both, I will say once more, are in synch with each other and Kendo federation jodo so don't worry and carry on as you have been doing. I suppose my biggest job was to reassure, I certainly didn't need to do a lot of "this foot here not here" correction.

The Brazilian group was started by Endo sensei, a wonderful teacher who learned his jodo in 1940s Japan. I was fascinated to see his demonstration of seitei and I am jealous of his students. If anyone has video of this demo I'd love to have a copy. I hope his students are taking serious note of his style because it is well worth preserving. As I mentioned at the seminar, the seitei jo I was teaching is the style you use to get your grades, it's fine, powerful, elegant, but it's not the only way. Endo sensei's way is lovely, all the more so for being distinct and I managed to steal a small thing, a hiki otoshi, that just delights me. DO NOT make the mistake of thinking what I was teaching is "correct", it is the current fashion (way of movement), it will get you your next rank, but it is not "correct".

The next day, Saturday, caught me a bit by surprise, I had on my grey uwagi thinking it was going to be the heavy lifting day, but in fact, we moved to a larger venue and had the official opening. Sore thumb, nail sticking up much? Oh well, I should know better by now. I hid down the end of the official photo but I suspect not well enough.

On the other hand, a light uwagi helped a lot as we took the jodo class outdoors to allow more room for iaido. The organizers were quite concerned about us being outside but I pointed out that the most critical of all dojo in jodo was what we'd call a deck attached to the side of a house. Jodo is for the ashigaru not the samurai. We went out and got our feet dirty and that's where I find myself quite a bit at seminars. The city of Calgary in Alberta is not a stranger to folks in dresses and hats hitting each other with sticks.

The third day started with a grading and I was quite happy when we finished the 5dan tests... until someone told me that we still had 50 or 60 nidans to go through. OMG. That took us the rest of the way to noon.

Since quite a few folks left for home after the grading there was more room inside for our jodo group so we tried not to make too much noise and finished off our classes in the shade. My shiny red head thanked me. Of course when the kendo folk started their godo keiko we headed out once more and had one of those strange classes where you switch partners a lot as people bow out to catch busses and planes back home. Review, relaxed discussions and a slower pace which was good because I'd run out of things to say. Hah, right.

So a sayonara party that evening featuring more kinds of bbq meat than I knew existed, some formal sightseeing the next day (big buildings, statues, shopping) and off to the airport for an overnight trip home where I arrived dizzy, groggy, and much in need of the two naps I had until the 10pm to midnight jodo class at my own dojo.

Hmm, no wonder I'm a bit confused this morning, even after three cups of coffee.

To all who were so very kind to us, I thank you. You made my five day summer (freezing to 34C back to freezing) a joy.

Mar 23, 2016


Control is an illusion, we are not in control of our lives, there are too many variables out there. Some people are OK with that, some have a hard time, loss of control can be frightening.

Budo doesn't teach control, it teaches adaptation to the situation that happens when you are not in control.

Random events like 90 percent of the drivers on the road (so it seems) or natural disasters are out of our control. What is also out of our control is other people. Recently I heard the statement that "so and so is out of control". What does that mean? My first thought was "whose control?" The next was "how do you control someone".

The first was obvious and we won't go there but the second is worth exploring, we control others just as far as they allow us to control them. To control someone you have to have some sort of power over them, that's almost the definition of control. We use various means to control, the most crude would be physical violence of course. We control through force of arms, as the threat of being arrested, beaten or perhaps shot. Laws do not control in and of themselves, it is the threat of state violence that backs up a law.

Consent is another form of control I suppose, consent to a law gives that law power. I agree that running red lights is a stupid thing to do so I don't run red lights. If the law were changed so that we stop on green and go on red, I'd follow the law because I agree that we all ought to drive the same way. One can consent to be controlled.

One consents to violence too I suppose, it's a choice, I do it or I take a beating, not much of a choice but nevertheless.

What about lesser force than physical violence? Aikido perports to control without violence, yet we lay hands on our attackers and put them in positions they don't want to be in. Is this non-violence? It's physical control regardless of how we argue the intent. Violence is a definition, what most of us think is violent is the norm, an average, and there will be individuals on both sides of the average. Self-definitions of violence might include getting within spitting distance for some people, while for others a bit of slap and tickle is foreplay. Consent we say, consent makes the difference. Sometimes, but in some cases laws, backed up by state sanctions (violence) will require that certain physical acts are violence with or without consent. You think these definitions are not just averages? Consider spanking of children.

Let's assume that control involves threat at it's root. We follow the rules of a sporting contest because if we do not we lose. We do what our teachers tell us or we get expelled from school (or the dojo).

Don't like the control someone has over you? Stop and think about what threat they have to enforce their control. Is their threat real (can they make something happen to you that you don't want to happen) or have you been sloppy and simply assumed they have more control over you than they actually do. You may think that you need your job and so you put up with a mean, violent boss. Is the tradeoff of a paycheque worth the abuse you are taking? Could you get a better payout if you threaten him right back with exposure to a harassment lawsuit if he doesn't settle out of court for a couple hundred thousand? There's blackmail and there's legal blackmail, both involve a threat to extort a benefit.

We assent to our control, after all there are many people throughout history who have refused to be controlled at the cost of their lives. Killing someone is the ultimate loss of control of the person killed, you can't control someone after death... unless you can convince them that you can punish them eternally after death... wait, that's not you, not after they are dead, that's you now, threatening in life. Eternal damnation is a threat to the living, it's out of your control once that person is actually dead so it's really not much of a threat unless you can prove you are in direct communication with the entity that will be doing the torturing after death. Hmm, are the preachers of fire and brimstone actually speaking to/for the devil?

You can use the threat implied by a demonstrated killing of one person to control another you say? You may actually create a martyr and accomplish the exact opposite. I have no idea which is the more likely but if I were to go research it I would start from the hypothesis that killing would, at first, increase your control of the population but if it went on for too long it would incite rebellion. To be smart about killing one should probably kill "outsiders", when it slides into the families of the "silent majority" as Richard Nixon used to call them, it will cause a loss of control.

To take it down to earth, has someone told you lately that you can't do something? Does this bother you? Look at the threat behind the statement of control, add "or else..." to the command. Now ask or else what? You may find that you are consenting to that control under a false threat, or under a punishment that is far less onerous than the order itself. In that case the control becomes a bluff. Call it or not as you wish.

Too many empty threats will destroy control, pick your fights if you want to control someone. We should have figured this out in our struggles for control, child to parent. Too much "no" and the kids ignore you. Too little "no" and they control you. Control is not a right conferred by giving birth or being born, it is a negotiation, one must offer a command and the other must consent to be commanded.

Even when we entice, we offer money for work, there is the threat of withdrawl of that money underneath the enticement. The carrot and the stick.

The best control? Agreement, full consent to good arguments presented. It's a bad idea to run a red light. I agree I will not run red lights. Ah says the third person, but I am more important than others and so my time is more valuable and I will run the red light.

There's that violence again, in the form of someone who is driving full speed to catch the green. We don't really stop for red because it's the law, we stop for red because if we don't we may become dead.

Mar 15, 2016

Branching vs Breaking

The iaido section of the CKF is looking for ways to grow. My first reaction was that we are just fine, we've got plenty of members who practice regularly. We can have a split in membership heading to two different seminars at the same time and still have plenty of people to go around. In fact, the two seminars are quite telling about our growth and position at the moment. Being Canadians we constantly compare ourselves to the USA, and being budoka we compare ourselves to Japan so here it is. One seminar in the States with 100 people and a couple of hanshi from Japan could be compared directly (driving distance) to the Welland seminar with 40 people being taught by "the local guys", one of whom we see every week. The population difference is ten times, the attendance difference is a lot less than that. So our conversation over beer last evening was that we're doing OK, if anything the USA needs to catch up. When they do there will be more awareness of the art, more exposure in the media which will leak across the border and help us grow here.

But there is always room for improvement, and the usual calls for growth were made. More communication, more unity, more support for our seminars, more seminars in more places. All of that is fine, and it's all a help but there are a few problems which we've discovered over the last 30 years or so of our growth.

First, we've got more communication these days than you can shake a talking stick at. Once we had lettermail (those funny paper things that weren't advertising flyers that arrived at your front door) and that was pretty much it. If you sent a newsletter to your membership you were more or less covered. Now we have email, seventeen different messaging apps and a website. The email and the facebooks/twitters/instagrams/tumblrs/ etc are all what you can call "push" communication. You push it out to people who, hopefully, read it. The website is "pull", the membership has to decide to find out what's going on and go read it.

"I didn't know, nobody told me about it". You hear that and you think to yourself, if only we had more communication from the leadership. If only somebody had made sure everyone was told about the seminar we would have had twice the people there to learn from the instructors. OK two points, even with push communications the members have to read the damned emails. Even with Facebook you have to sort through thousands of posts a day shoved at you by that system to notice one from your group. I probably see less than one percent of what facebook tells me I should look at because I am on that system for maybe two minutes a day. Email is getting easier to check since the spam filters went up and the crap migrated to the social media but it's still pretty easy to miss things. So if I don't go looking for communication it's pretty easy to miss it.

Which brings me to the second point. Whose job is it to communicate? Remember when you were in high school and your mom used to yell the time to you seven or eight times each morning so that you knew it was time to get up? Well your mom doesn't work for the administration of your martial arts organization. OK maybe yours does but mine doesn't. Even on facebook there's a good chance you're going to have to go hunt for information on your organization. Is it there, or is it on Linkedin or is it on google plus? Can you remember? Who's putting it where?

How about it goes on the website and nowhere else so that everyone knows where the information lives and can go get it from that one source where it is updated faithfully? Six people putting information in twelve different places isn't communication it's a scavenger hunt. How about you as a member go find out what's happening by looking on the website or phoning someone in charge? Let's face it, if you can't be arsed to go look up a web page you aren't likely to go to the seminar anyway.

Oh, and how does communication to the membership bring in new members anyway? We don't call that communication we call it advertising and if you're not advertising you're not attracting new members. Does your organization figure advertising is a bit too close to commercialism? A bit crass? Well fine, you'd better have a really good looking website and you'd better hope for a movie that features your art so that new students go looking for your art and find your website which tells them where the local dojo is. You've just advertised but you can pretend it's just information. Is your list of dojo and dojo contacts up to date? Might want to check that regularly, if you don't you are neither communicating information nor advertising.

Which brings us to the number one best suggestion we came up with last evening to get new members. Our organization ought to team up with a bunch of other organizations to fund a blockbuster movie featuring our martial art, and we ought to make it a series so that once every five years we repeat the process.


How about advertising? If we're not too proud there are still some places that make sense, all you need to do is figure out where your target audience lives and advertise there.

When was the last time you sent out a press release? Is that the job of the national organization?

Ah unity. Yes that eternal call for more togetherness which actually translates to "SEP field in effect". If we are all together and we're all communicating really well then we can leave it to the guys we elected to do the jobs yes? The guys who are in charge are in charge yes? They ought to put out press releases and advertise and do all those other things that we must do to grow because we're united in our efforts.

I love looking at it from the unity point of view because I can dump all my work upstream to committees and directors of this and that and vice presidents of the other thing. We're all in this equally together and I'm out of the loop here away from the big cities and the big concentrations of people so you guys do it.

No? So what is all this unity in aid of? I don't think we need a call for more unity to build membership, I think we need more dojo and more branching out. We need downloading and a national organization that says "how can we help" to which the reply is "senior instructors and gradings".

Send us senior instructors who will come in and tell our students what a good job the local instructors are doing. Make it easy to provide gradings for our students because students like gradings. Then get out of the way and let us get on with sending out local press releases (let's face it, a national organization sending press releases to national news outlets is going to be a waste of time).

Now, once you've given us the senior instructors to support our local efforts, and the means to do gradings we can grow. If you want to do more maybe have a spiffy website that's designed to point visitors to a local dojo and advertise that website on search engines and facedin and anywhere else you figure you can find students for us.

But forget unity and think branches if you're looking for growth. Are you really looking for growth? New members come in to the local dojo, they don't come in to the national administration offices, so think branches and the tools those branches need.

Branch out, decentralize, "empower" the lower-downs, the further-outs, stop doing it all from the top down.

Branch out, but don't break up. Want to break up an organization? Centralize the hell out of it and micromanage everything. Make obscure rules and change them regularly and send out hundreds of notices to dozens of places so that nobody knows about the rule changes yet get told they were told. Get in the way rather than out of the way. Tell the local groups that they need to pay steep membership and grading fees and then tell them that they have to pay more to bring in senior instructors. Tell them that they have to spend thousands of dollars to travel thousands of miles to do low rank gradings.

Have you heard this stuff before? Sure you have, it's not rocket science. To grow you need a dojo in a good location that's easy to find and easy to join and support to keep the membership around for more than a year or two. You need to boot the senior people out of their local dojo to go to the next town over to open a dojo there because for most of your membership this is a hobby not a lifestyle. Very few people will go to Japan to study an obscure martial art, most will go five minutes down the street to practice once or twice a week.

Want to grow an art? Branch out or Break up (the folks who get irritated enough to leave an organization often continue to practice and teach). Either way will put a karate dojo on every other block, one of those ways will grow your organization.

Mar 14, 2016


Yesterday was the seventh annual Welland iaido seminar and one of my favourite seminars in the year. This year was a gathering of fourty people, a bit less than usual due to a conflicting kendo tournament and an iaido seminar in the United States. Those who attended the Welland seminar were noted and thanked (he said ominously) by the instructors and the "originals" as I like to put it. While there were many beginners the seminar had a real feel of being populated by those who agree with the original principles of our iaido. Those being the ideals of our two founders of iaido in this area, Goyo Ohmi sensei and Stephen Cruise sensei. As usual the structure was to rotate the instructors amongst the students, grouped by rank. Four instructors (Ohmi, Cruise, Carole Galligan and myself, Dave Green was tickled to be a student this year and watched each of the instructors with a critical eye I suspect).

This is Cruise sensei's seminar, his students being the organizers, and each year he gives a small talk which, for me at least, sets the tone of the instruction. His topic for yesterday was "Metsuke" which was highly appropriate considering I for one, was looking around at who was there and who was missing (he said, ominously again). I kid, I'm sure those who were at the kendo tournament (several from my own club I must admit) and those who were at the American seminar had a good time as well, but probably not as good a time as we had catching up with our old friends. I only mention all this disunity of purpose because I found it amusing that a speach on unity and common support of our community was "phoned in" by one of the CKF administration who was attending the US seminar. Being under a barrage of media reporting for the last couple of years of electioneering I'm sure my hypocricy filters are set way too high, but I laughed anyway.

Back to the topic and never mind the gossip. Let's see what metsuke lessons I pulled from the seminar. First was the original mention by Cruise sensei, to watch what you are being taught and try that, rather than simply assume what you know what you are seeing and do what you always do even when told to do something else. Did he say all that? Those who know him will perhaps accuse me of embellishing a bit and they'd be right. I suspect what he really said was "watch carefully". And so I told my groups to watch carefully.

Extending this idea, I also reminded people that there are hundreds of hours of iaido video online these days, and there are "mirror neurons" in your brain that pick up and rehearse (mentally) what you are watching. This has been well known for a long time and you can read up about psychocybernetics and visualization and mental rehearsal if you wish. The effect is real and very useful so my question to everyone is "do you want to watch hours worth of people making mistakes so that you can laugh at them or do you want to watch the top people do what they do"? Those hours of fun might just be teaching you how to be funny for other people.

Yet we instructors have to watch our beginners endlessly don't we? I heard Ohmi sensei from across the room thundering at the senior group, accusing them of being little better than their students and saying "for every hour that you teach you must spend two hours practicing". Wow, in my day it was an hour for an hour, it seems that inflation has caught up here too. His point is valid though, we really do need to spend some time on our own practicing iaido if we want to improve. Still, there's no excuse for not learning while teaching and Cruise sensei mentioned this in his final comments by thanking the students for letting us "steal things" from them. I steal stuff from my students all the time, I'm not ashamed to admit that, I'm a lousy self-teacher, ego is way too big, I figure I know it all. It's good to be cracked over the head regularly by my students, metaphorically and literally. Every time I'm knocked down I learn something.

"Get knocked down six times, get up seven". (I still don't understand that math).

When you are teaching, look at your students and see your bad habits come to life multiple times. Listen to students ask you "should we be leaning forward as we draw the sword"? Ouch "Umm, err, my sword is really long and my knees hurt and...".

Better yet, look into your students and see the way the power moves through their body, get into their posture in your own head and figure out where their problem arises and then fix it. By doing this (use your mirror neurons) you are teaching yourself how to read others and this is something that you really need to work on if you only do iaido. How do you learn how to read the balance in an opponent if your opponent is imaginary? Metsuke, look hard at real people, see their strength and their weakness.

Finally, I asked the seniors to start thinking about riai, it's never too early to start working on your 8dan test, and the difference between the requirements for 7dan and 8dan is that single item. We were looking at a three-opponent kata at the time (Sanpogiri) and I said "what's the riai". A couple of people said "there's three opponents". Cue the rant about iaido vs any partner practice out there, where the partner practice starts from "here's your opponent, aim at him". Iaido isn't a puzzle, some crime novel where the position of the bodies is revealed on the last page, it really ought to start with a knowledge of where the opponents are. The kata says you cut there, there's an opponent there.

So not the position of the opponents then. Maybe, he said, since we've been talking about metsuke, maybe the riai of this kata is how to control multiple opponents with your metsuke. Metsuke as a tool, a weapon to create confusion and doubt. They all looked at me expectantly and I yelled at them "I don't know, I'm not an 8dan, you figure it out".

And come back and teach it to me.

Anyway, a well-organized seminar once again, well done Ron Mattie and crew, I very much look forward to next year, please ask me back.

Mar 13, 2016

Firing the Coach

Last evening I was asked if it would be OK for a student to go study with another sensei after he left the University. Just when can you change instructors?

My answer is "any time" but I'm not very traditional. Wait, perhaps I am, it would depend on just when it became a thing that you can't change sensei and I suspect that would be some time during the early Edo period when the big push came to stay down on the farm and stop stirring things up by being socially mobile. No more "low overcome high" please, learn some loyalty and stay loyal.

As a result, it is considered unusual for anyone to switch sensei with no good reason these days. Being a ronin and wandering from dojo to dojo is even more strange. But it does happen, especially in the "modern" arts (the ones that are only a hundred years or so old). There are certain areas where students will wander from dojo to dojo, perhaps practice times are such that you can get a full week of practices in by attending two or three dojo on their different nights.

That's usually considered fine, but eventually, if you want to get ahead, you should settle in one place under one sensei. Why? Because the powers that be like things stable I guess. In my iaido organization it's considered fine to take technique from several instructors up to about 3dan, then you should settle on one sensei so that you develop a recognizable style that will make the judges comfortable when they see you at a grading. Mix and match tends to be confusing. The other reason is related, it's about getting that next grade, but it's further up the line where "politics" comes into the equation. You will eventually need a sponsor to get to the highest levels of your ranking system. Having a recognizable style from a powerful sponsor will make things easier so you stick with your sensei.

So we have reasons why we don't switch sensei. If you don't care much about grading up the levels it won't matter if you practice with several sensei or if you switch from one to another. And it's not impossible to rank up if you practice with many sensei, it depends on your local judges. In fact, getting your face in front of all the judges is often considered a good thing if you've got a high level challenge coming up, so in some situations bouncing from dojo to dojo is a good thing. It's the switching from one sensei to another that is usually the biggest problem. Many folks don't like this at all.

Well if we are supposed to have one sensei only, and stay loyal, is there any situation where it's OK to switch? Yes there are several and the first has been mentioned. If you are moving away from your sensei he will usually tell you to go find someone else to practice with. That's considered a very good thing to do in most cases, especially if you are lower ranked and really do need a sensei to continue your studies.

If your sensei dies, you may also wish to choose another sensei. It's sort of the same thing isn't it, this time your sensei has moved away from you. Do you need to stick with the same dojo for your new sensei? Not necessarily, you need to get along with your sensei, and the next in line may be someone you don't get along with. Each situation will be different but it's generally considered fine to move to a different dojo to work with a sensei you get along with. Does this cause problems? Sure, sometimes, people are people and being a high ranked sensei doesn't prevent you from being a washerwoman gossiping over the back fence. Did you hear what that woman down the street did to her husband? What an awful person!

Is there ever a situation where you leave a perfectly good sensei for another? If we go back to that grading thing we might imagine a sensei who is not highly connected telling an ambitious student to go practice with another sensei who is connected. It won't be very likely that the student will switch on his own, there's the matter of the new sensei accepting the switching student, but if the old sensei requests it, or if it is managed correctly so that the student sort of slides over gradually, it can be done. I'm not a fan of this, but if the grade is important enough to the student why not go with a stronger sponsor. Better than to have that student hang around being depressed and resentful.

What about having several sensei on up the chain? I see this situation quite a bit in the West where we have our local sensei who we practice with every week and then we have our "Japanese sensei" who come over every so often to teach a seminar. If you figure this is a thing, please consider whether you have a sensei or a coach. Now those who are in the elite sports situation will have something to say about coaches but I'm talking about the "little coach", the guy who teaches you some technique, not your main coach who manages your life. That main coach, the guy who plans your meals and designs your workouts is your sensei. The guy who works on your forehand for a couple of weeks is a "little coach". Now consider if your "Japanese sensei" is your sensei or a coach.

As I said, I don't much care if my students study with many sensei or just with me. If they are in front of me I teach, if they stick around for years I might even guide their martial arts career like a main coach, it's inevitable. Since I'm not a people person I don't much care which kind of coach I am to them, or whether they consider me their sensei, it's not that important to me. But I do have a bit of an issue with those who consider they have multiple sensei and who rank them. I suspect that most sensei who are around this situation have been told at one time or another that "(insert higher ranked sensei here) said this should be done this way". As grampa said, there's nobody smarter than a 15 year old boy, except maybe a 14 year old girl. From a beginner you will forgive that because they don't know how rude they are being, but dudes, if you're standing in front of one teacher you don't tell him he's doing it wrong according to some other teacher. How far would you get in your tennis career if you told one coach that another coach says do it a different way?

You know what? Do it the other way then. Fastest way to get me to stop teaching you is to tell me someone else told you to do it another way. So go practice with the other guy and stop wasting our time. No, I'm not a fan of multiple sensei, it's not good for you, but if you want to do it that way, at least don't talk about it to those various sensei.

What if your sensei is just not the right guy? You don't get along. He's a big jerk.

Well? What do you think? Do you stick with a powerful jerk just so you can get the next rank or do you go to someone who can teach you? Does loyalty trump your well-being?

Your call, ultimately always your call. You don't put your life in someone else's hands, you aren't allowed to do that. You spent your teenage years breaking away from your parents, why would you think you should make your sensei a second parent?

Mar 11, 2016

The Ki Word

I was forced into using the Ki word last evening. It was a jodo class and I really don't like to bring in the woo woo stuff but I had to explain that there was a real difference between hasso with the left hand in tight to the body and out front a couple fist widths. I have the same discussions about holding the sword. I'm not sure what prompts people to stick that sword straight up in the air (movies?) but it makes my teeth hurt.

So what to say? Well I put my hand on a student's chest and said push. There was more power with the hand stretched a bit forward. Good, problem solved, we move on. But we didn't, this being a University club they had to know why. The center of balance was pushed forward right? Umm, maybe a couple of millimeters, a hand is only a few ounces while the rest of the body is a hundred times that, so physics isn't the complete answer.

I could have gone into things like biomechanical advantage but that would have been just so much woo woo on it's own, no I had to resort to "Ki".

It's just easier to project power forward when your hand is forward. You have a point to focus on, you are psychologically moving forward if your hand is forward, by putting your hand forward it forces you to move your hips and front knee forward a bit to maintain your posture.

I don't know, I just know it works. I tried to explain by the old rising weight exercise. Touch the tanden and push on the chest, nice and strong. Now touch the head and push on the chest, suddenly your strength is all gone and you're pushed backward. So, I say, you see, your weight rises and you flip the toilet plunger from rubber down to rubber up.

Really? I'm pretty sure that tapping someone on the forehead does not a damned thing for the distribution of mass in their body. It moves their attention rather than their physical attributes. So what do you call that?

I call it Ki, but I'd prefer not to call it at all. "It's spiritual" I yelled, unable to help myself. "It's the body of a big rock, it's the immovable mind". I was pleading with them to go read this stuff on their own and leave me alone. "Why is the sky blue" says the kid, to which I reply "it isn't, we just told you it was and you must now come to believe that it is but actually the sky isn't anything at all and up to a couple hundred years ago according to some headline or other I just read the other day, we didn't see the colour blue at all".

You shove your hand forward because I like the way it looks and I'm sensei and you do what I tell you to do because my teacher told me to do it that way. And with that final, unarguable explanation we moved on.

But still, it moves.

Mar 9, 2016

Tachi Uchi no Control

We worked on Tachi Uchi no Kurai yesterday afternoon, TUNK to those who are fond of acronyms (not really a fan but I must admit I use MJER a lot so never mind). Pick your fights as I say to any parent I meet.

I was taught that set of kata three times by two different people and I dearly wish I could lay my hands on my notes from that time. Some of the kata have three variations, some only one in my head today and I can't escape the feeling, or is it a secret wish, that I've forgotten some. I like that I can put the variations into a nice teaching sequence to demonstrate different aspects of the kata. For instance, the first kata, De Ai, which is the equivalent of Mae from the solo iai practice. A horizontal cut, then a vertical cut. The kata is a cut to the knee which is blocked by swinging the sword down beside the knee. The blocker (shidachi) then cuts down vertically on the attacker's (uchidachi) head. So.... how is that Mae? Well it's not and it is, It's not because the first movement is a block, the second is fine though. Consider what happens if the first move is a horizontal cut, the kata is over or you miss or the attacker defends or... no matter how you do it, you have to change something so why not make it a block and then a cut. That's what some teacher along the way decided.

Now some folks, my sensei included, do a mutual cut into each other's swords but that one doesn't make sense to me so I must admit with some embarassment that I don't teach it that way. Still, no real problem doing it thus if you wish. In fact, the distances are subtly different so it's good to do both ways and learn.

"My" variations happen after the first contact of the swords (cut and block or mutual cut). Variation one has uchidachi (the attacker) stepping back to issoku itto (one step distance) and after that, lifting his sword overhead to block the vertical cut which shidachi must make from that correct maai. Great way to start, means you are at the standard correct distance to do the final cut, which means you can learn what that distance is.

The second way I was taught (which happens to be the first way actually) was to skip the awase (mutual stance) step and just flow from block to cut. In MJER we shuffle back to that distance as uchidachi, having just learned where that is. At least we do that in our club. Other places pull the feet together and Muso Shinden Ryu steps back so that the left foot is now forward. Why do I mention that? Try blocking strongly with one foot, then the other forward, which position of the sword (hands to the right or the left) works best? Feet together?

Third way? Well it's just shidachi blocking and then cutting down immediately as fast as possible. So fast that shidachi has no chance to reverse direction. The variation then is that uchidachi has to slide past, flow to the side and get that sword up to his left shoulder to make sure he doesn't get hit. Once we learn this one we can practice at full speed more than once.

Other kata have similar progressions. Shin Myo Ken (draw the sword into a defence while being attacked with a vertical cut) has variations where you step forward with the right foot as you draw either to the left (your sword tip is forward), down the center (a stop block of the attack) or to the right (uke nagashi, tip is back). Around here I usually say something like "this first one is just like Hari Tsuke of Niten Ichiryu and this one... " which really is too far. I ought to let the students discover that stuff for themselves. Stick to one art, teach within that one even if you do several.

My point? Well it's that if you are teaching and you've only learned one version of a set like TUNK, but want to modify the kata a little to demonstrate a point to the class, go ahead. Your modification is not likely to be outside the variations that exist out there in the lineages. Just remember to teach the one you were taught as "the standard" so that it gets passed along to the next generation.

Which do I teach as standard? The ones from Mitani's book of course. A good, clear book with plenty of photos is just too damned handy as a standard reference so why not use it? My own manual is available to the students as our "local standard" with the three or two or one versions so I'm not too worried they will forget more than I forgot. And variations I make up in class to demonstrate things? They are, as they should be, ephemeral. With no record of their existance they will do their job and then go away. When my students get around to teaching the same material they can make up their own variations and if one of mine pops into their head they can remember me for an instant. That's the only signature I want to pass along to them, the rest ought to be as standard as I was given them.

Respect your gifts and regift them as you got them.

Mar 7, 2016

Not Everything Has to be Perfect

Relax, not every kata you do is going to be great. Not every poem or essay you write, not every photograph you take. It's fine, despite what you were taught, it's OK to do some work that is sub-par.

This morning I went into the weight room and grabbed the deadlift bar and did 3 reps instead of ten. An epic fail in some eyes but you know, at my age, at that time of the morning, it was a start. Later today I might just get up there and do some more reps because my muscles are twitching and my shoulders hurt a tiny bit less. If I'd waited until I felt like lifting I might not have lifted anything at all today.

In other words, do what you can without too much worry about what will come next. Relax, just do it says Frankie. Not all of it will be great but all of it is good.

Don't think about it, use mushin and do one, the second may be easier, the third, well you're there and things are happening so now it's easier to keep going than to stop.

Who knows, somewhere in there may be the perfect kata, the amazing paragraph. Then your ability to lift that heavy thing up off the floor will fail. That's the perfect moment, when you have nothing left, that's really what you're after.

Lift to failure, write until you're empty, do your kata until your arms are too tired to muscle your sword around and then maybe you'll relax and stop trying so hard and the perfect cut will emerge. My best photographs are always buried in the pile somewhere toward the end of the session, the first I can always delete without even looking at it.

Relax, just do it. Don't overthink it.


March 6, 2016

Aikido and Iaido

Those happen to be two of the arts I practice, but any similar combination would do as well, as a way to practice the different aspects of precision and flexibility.

I started in Aikido at a University club. That means working eternally with beginners in a beginner dominated atmosphere. Nothing wrong with that but as I stayed and stayed and stayed I realized my posture was never going to improve with beginners hanging off my arm. It would have of course but I didn't see that at the time that I started my Iaido practice (three years into Aikido but much more seriously about seven years in). Finally I had a place where I could work on posture, on moving power from the floor to the tip of a sword.

Thirty years later I'm still seeing the benefit of both practices. My Aikido (and TKD and boxing and Kung Fu and the koryu sword arts) has informed my iaido as much as my iaido provided a place to study posture for the other arts. Here is what I see when looking back, and when reminded by the aikido class last evening. We began with Yokomenuchi, a hand strike to the side of the head. The first thing I pointed out was the massive hole in the defences that happens when you use this attack, the arm goes up overhead and the elbow goes out to the side leaving the face open. Every attack contains an opening, if it didn't we'd all be using that one perfect attack. The defending side needs to be flexible to find that opening.

Later in the class we were practicing a variation of the seated kokyu dosa finishing exercise and one pair were having a right fun time preventing each other from doing the technique. This is never hard when you know what the technique is and when I sat down to demonstrate I found myself just flattening my partner straight back. So much effort to prevent my hands from moving sideways there was that exact same hole in the attack right up the middle. After a threat that next time my knee would be coming up the center as well as my arms I left them to it but the thought occured to me that the determination to do the technique caused them to overlook the obvious solution, change the technique, flow from one to the other. Stop being rigid.

Over the years I've sat a lot of Iaido judging panels and one of my least favourite things to see is a student being really precise in his efforts to hit the grading points exactly. It's boring, and robotic and the eyes are rolled inside the head. It's also easy, with iaido there's nobody hanging off your wrist, you can assume your postures with ease, it's just a matter of touching your nose with your finger. If you can reach out and find the radio dial in your car without looking you can do that kind of Iaido. And that kind of Iaido is very common with those who do nothing else.

The posture becomes most important, the technique assumes magical proportions, if we only do these motions accurately enough the portal will open and we can go to Narnia.

Try this worship of Iaido technique against a kendoka, or against a kasso teki who hasn't read the script. It will come down to trying to muscle it through or "get there first". The same muscling it through that you get in Aikido or Judo or what have you when you try to force a technique to work on someone who just isn't in the right place for the technique, or who still has his balance, or still has two working shoulders.

A solo art (Iaido, Karate kata) will let you work on your posture without interference but it will become robotic if you don't have an invisible opponent. A competitive/cooperative, throwing art like Judo or Aikido (not the tournament style but the practice style) will let you work on modifying your posture to accomodate someone hanging off your arm but can become sloppy if you concentrate on just getting your partner onto the ground. Then there are the paired kata weapons arts which let you take your posture and work on distance and timing to extremely precise tolerances but can get as robotic as the solo arts without a small measure of competition somewhere under the surface. I sometimes find myself resorting to empty-handed versions of weapons kata just so that the students can feel the weight of someone else as they try the technique. A bit more connection, a bit more friction to deal with.

Tournament competition? It was usually designed to test the kata but how much classical judo is left in Olympic judo? How much Kendo no Kata in Kendo? As much as the rules allow and demand of course, and no more. The goal of tournament competition very quickly becomes to win and you do that by playing to the rules. Try doing a classical kata movement in Kendo and see where it gets you. On the other hand, your opponent is disqualified in a no-contact karate match if he hits you in the face? Shove your face into his fist and you win the match. As a Canadian I am constantly hearing folks worry about how they could clean up the fighting in Hockey. Really? You could do it in an instant, you fight, you're out of the game completely (I don't mean that particular game, I mean you don't play hockey any more) and you're charged with assault. How much fighting do you think would be going on the next week? There's a difference between a slap on the wrist and losing your job. Rules are what count in tournament play, not kata.

Solo forms, partner forms, cooperative/competitive practice, tournament competition. They all have their things to teach. You can learn everything in any one of them but each is best at one aspect. Keep that in mind and you will be less likely to waste your time trying to force a square peg into a round hole, or as I said last night, "don't just grab it and jerk".

Relax, be flexible, you'll enjoy it more.

Mar 4, 2016

Top O' The World Ma

Who doesn't want to be the king of the hill, on top of the heap? If we don't, we're probably lazy or fooling ourselves out of modesty. You should want to be at the top of your profession but there are two ways to get there.

First is to work really hard. Harder than everyone else around you until you become better than those around you.

Second is to tear down the hill, to tear down all those around you so that you are now on top of a very much diminished pile of people who are all really bad at what they do. But you're on top.

Third... OK I lied, is to build the hill yourself, to be the one who creates the hill in the first place. If you're the first one in you get to be senior to everyone who comes after. We're talking rank here of course, as vs skill level which will always be a different hill.

Which brings us to the fourth way to be on top, redefine the hill. If you're not the top rank then be the top guy in skill.

Or number five, be ranked in a different, of course more superior, system so that, say, your 5dan is the same as his 8dan. Of course this puts us right back to number two doesn't it. So does redefining the hill as skill instead of rank.

Number three? Same as number one, work for it. Maybe I didn't lie after all, maybe there are only two ways to the top, work hard or tear down those above. Oh, and number three? What about leaving your organization at a medium rank and starting your own with you at the top? Number three is now number two right? Shorter hill.

So as part of our decision on which way to the top we will follow, we ought to think about how high we want our hill. Being better than a bunch of incompetant boobs is not much of an accomplishment is it?

Which brings us inevitably to the definition of better. What decides who is on the top? Well we've talked about rank, it seems pretty clear cut, there are numbers attached right? Higher number means higher up the chain right? 7dan is above 4dan. Perhaps, but a 7dan might point out that you're talking at least two different ranking scales, one for technical, physical prowess and one for, well, for lack of a better way of putting it, politicing. At some point the ranking system of every martial arts organization becomes political, how could it not? There are only so many places at the top, so many 10 dans available, and they go to those who support the system best. Rebels need not apply.

But what of this physical skill stuff, what physical skills? Well read your grading requirements, those skills. For iaido it's inevitably for those who swing a sword around in the air with the most precision, for judo and kendo it might be demonstrating winning techniques in demonstration matches or even, do they still do this? beating some folks who are higher ranked in a match.

If we consider this last we can easily see how a ranking system switches from one thing to another as you go up the hill. Think of a system that ranks skill by how often you win contests. The top guy will always be some youngster maybe up to 40 where you're at your peak strength and still have your speed. It would certainly not be some antique who can barely shuffle around. For those old farts to get to the top you need to switch to a different skill set, maybe as a coach, maybe as an administrator, maybe as the guy who can keep the system from flying apart due to all those egos trying to get to the top of the hill.

Maybe as the guy who hands out the rank. We can't forget that if there is rank there has to be a who that bestows it. That's the guy at the top... the guy we're trying to be.

Do we want to be that guy?

Wait, why are we trying to be at the top of the hill? What's in it for us? If we scratch and claw and fight really hard we get to be the guy who decides where on the hill everyone else sits. Is this a good thing? Is this why we started up the hill in the first place?

What happens when we get there after studying and practicing and following our sensei for fifty years? Where is the path? Where do we go? Where is our sensei?

Hmm, maybe it's not so much a hill as a deep pond where you don't so much climb up as float to the surface and have no place else to go. Bunch of floaters, Top O' The Cesspool Ma!


Mar 2, 2016

The Golden Age

Take a look at those kids who are walking, or more likely being driven, to school today. Or the kids in your class. In 50 years they will be telling their grandkids what a rough time they had growing up. At the same time they'll be telling their budo students about the giants that walked the earth, thundering swords, kicks high enough to reach the ceiling in your little hovel of a dojo.

Hovel, you were lucky, we had a hole in the road.

Those giants? They'll be you. And the kids, they'll be telling their students that they are poor imitations of the folks in the golden age. At least that's the way it has always worked, the guys that taught me when I was a beginner were pretty amazing I'll tell you. They really were, especially compared to me back then, trying to put one foot in front of the other. It's the comparison that makes the impression, the distance between sensei and beginner.

As you get along in your studies you become less impressed with the skill levels of those who are closer to your own skills, and it naturally seems that something is being lost, after all the school that is now only a block from your home used to be at least five miles away when you were six.

We might, for the sake of our own legacy, feel that it is unfortunate we have such easy access to video in our day. If our students film us now and show those videos to their students surely those new students will see that we are really nothing special. Much better if we let the stories grow until we become giants in our own right.

Don't worry about it. Those students will still be told that you were amazing and looking at the video they'll believe it. They'll still know nothing and will still be convinced that they'll never be able to do what you are doing. As for your own students, well they will know, video or not, that you put your hakama on one leg at a time. Seeing Haruna sensei sitting around the kitchen in his droopy Japanese underwear having a smoke and drinking coffee didn't reduce my awe of him one bit. In fact it added a lot of respect to that awe. Here was a fellow at the height of his skill and fame in Japan who would come to Canada to teach twenty or thirty of us poor kids. We didn't need someone of his skill, a good third dan would have been sufficient, but he came anyway and our abilities took a leap every time.

Looking back at some of the video from a generation or two before him shows people who fought for their balance, who didn't cut straight every time, whose grip was a bit off, whose injuries forced a strange shape into an arm. These are the giants who passed their skills along to our teachers and I don't know about you but I find it comforting that they aren't really all that far away from our own abilities. I am reassured that given another ten years of practice I might be at their level (that would be about 40 years worth).

See, I just did it, I made them giants and myself a poor imitation. That's not a bad thing, it keeps me wanting to improve, wanting to learn. When I figure I know enough I'll have nothing to do except lord it over my students (even more than I do now). That day will be the beginning of the end, the tipping point, the first of the final days when... did I mention that every generation figures we're ten minutes from apolcalypse? That's genetic, it keeps us one step away from the tiger in the grass, that conviction that there's a tiger in the grass.

Anyway, keep in mind that this is the golden age, it only goes downhill from here, you are the shining giant of the future.

Don't trip over the plug to the video camera.

Mar 1, 2016


Yesterday one of the iaido class asked if we could review the Oku iai we did on Friday. He was informed that class was a review of the week before that but he said he missed that one and... about that time I interrupted. Didn't want the kids to get bickering.

But it was a teaching moment so I started the class at the beginning, with Omori ryu Mae, the very first technique of the school. It's a simple thing, sit seiza, rise and cut horizontally as you draw, then vertically to finish. I explained that this is the fundamental movement of the school.

We switched to tate hiza from seiza and did Yoko Gumo, first technique of the second level. The only difference was the starting position, not a different technique at all it turns out. Then we did a return horizontal cut which took us to Kasumi, the first technique of Oku Iai Iwaza, but not really different from Mae. Now, instead of one opponent in front of us we put two out there, one to the right front, one to the left. The same horizontal sweeps worked here, no change needed in the technique and oops, a third opponent to the front.

To make it simpler we took out the third opponent and changed the horizontal cut from the scabbard to a more or less diagonal cut to the man on the right and then did the vertical cut to the man on the left. Tilt the first cut and change the number of opponents and Mae/Yokogumo becomes To Zume. You know what came next yes? Stand it up and you have Yuki Tsure, the first cut of Oku Iai Tachiwaza.

The point? If you are practicing Omori you are practicing Oku, the fundamentals are the same throughout all the levels. They are not different techniques, they are different kata. Or as Colin Watkin sensei puts it when teaching Batto Choken Kage Ryu (BIG swords, seminar coming in September), waza are fundamental, kata are what happen when you use the waza.

I tried to explain where the students may have got the idea that Mae was different than Kasumi by explaining that we often start their instruction with Zen Ken Ren iai. That school contains kata which really are different from each other, their waza being pulled from different schools. It has been smoothed and adjusted toward the kendo fundamentals over the decades but there is no mistaking that the kata are somewhat disconnected. That will never change. Thus, when the students go through ZKR iai and learn the next kata they are really learning something different, a new angle of cut, a new chiburi, a new noto. Granted Omori is somewhat different from the rest of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, different chiburi for instance, but nothing like the four noto in five kata or whatever it is in ZKR iai. So the students expect Oku Iai to be something they have to work hard to remember, something they have to review.

Just how consistent is MJER through it's various forms? We went back to Mae and did it "Shimomura-ha" style, big hip twist as far away from Seitei as you could possibly get on the horizontal cut, then OMG you have to square up without moving back away from your opponent so back knee slides up to front foot just like in Muso Shinden Ryu / Seitei. Lightbulb moment, so the opponent is a long way away and we're reaching for him. "Tanimura-ha" style like we do? He's closer. Not really different kata at all when you get down to it, still a horizontal cut and a vertical cut, you're just using your hips and shoulders a bit differently to respond to an opponent who is far away or close.

Do we have to know Shimomura-ha too sensei? You already do, let's do Sodome from Oku Iai Tachiwaza. Look, same hip twist, same fundamentals of cut for a horizontal cut that ends up "behind your butt". Same cut happens in Eishin ryu Oroshi but sensei's knees didn't want to get into that one so he just tucked it away in a corner.

Two lines of MJER, not really different in their fundamentals. That's the conservatism of Koryu, that's why Haruna sensei was able to tell me years ago that two other schools of iai I had learned were 1. koryu and 2. a somewhat modern seitei. You see a bunch of kata with different fundamentals and you're looking at a modern mix from a committee for a specific purpose. To teach kendoka to handle a real sword, or maybe to teach the police how to use their sword. The difference between them isn't so much age as construction.

In our case, MJER is constructed from consistent fundamental principles of movement. Zen Ken Ren iai is constructed from several waza of several schools which were then adjusted to reflect the fundamental movements of kendo (square hips, parallel feet).

Don't contaminate one with the other, they are different things I said. Hmm, where have I heard that before?

Is there no point of common interest between them? Of course there is, there are wider commonalities in all Japanese martial arts and beyond that there are even wider principles between all martial arts. Just keep in mind where on the commonality scale you should stay. MJER Mae is not really the same as MJER Oku Iai Iwaza Kasumi, if you see them you know they are different. Japanese iaido is not really different from Chinese wushu or Western boxing on the level of combative mindset are they? But the principles of a jab are not really going to be applicable to drawing a three foot sword on anything but a "both move forward" level so beware of what you are trying to take from one art to another.

For some reason the USSR / NATO ammunition choices pop into my mind. Wait for the other side to standardize on a certain calibre bullet and set your calibre just slightly larger. You can use their ammunition but if they use yours their guns jam. Some things can be brought into your art from elsewhere, others won't fit.

There, now I've written your notes for you class.

Feb 29, 2016

The sly little professional

Last evening we went to the Laurier Opera to see The Sly Little Vixen and my daughter who is first viola. This is a difficult piece, both for the orchestra and for the singers. As I overheard one of the voice professors saying, "there isn't a song in the piece". The orchestra does some heavy lifting and my daughter later said that the conductor, Raffi Armenian (am I bragging a little here... hah always) had given them a sort of backhanded compliment by saying that the Vienna Philharmonic was given 9 hours to read through this piece, the Laurier orchestra was given 8. Over pretzels and beer cheeze she also mentioned that she felt they had played "enough correct notes" at the performance.

And there you have it in a nutshell, the definition of a professional. Someone who plays enough correct notes for long enough to collect a paycheque and go home to pick up the kids and make supper.

I realized I am a professional. Why else would I be trying to hold myself back from making that 20th set of speakers in two months, plus, likely, the same number of self powered units? I ought to be making one set of the things with perfect finish and months of design and computer testing so I can put them in my office and point at them. Instead I'm looking at costs of materials and time to manufacture and grinding them out without an established market. I'm not suggesting a professional is someone who sells things, but that a professional has a certain attitude to the craft. A lunch bucket attitude.

As opposed, I suppose, to an amateur. Let's move to photography where the difference between the two is quite striking. A pro uses Canon or Nikon cameras, often both. Not because they think they are the best, you certainly won't find many pros arguing online over the merits of those cameras, but because they are good enough. Get an offer to be supplied by Pentax or Sony and the Canon gets put on a shelf. Canon, Nikon, Pentax, there's lots of used equipment out there, lots of older lenses to pick up. There's easy service, or you just buy another one to replace the spare.

The amateur argues for hours over the merits of this or that camera and agrees (perhaps even with the pros) that a Leica is "the bomb". In fact I'd suggest that most Leicas are with the amateurs (Leicas are very expensive and supposedly quite good, I wouldn't know I've never seen one, certainly never used one). Me? I use a four generations back Canon Rebel, the entry level consumer camera. In fact I tend these days to use a G15, a generation old point and shoot with most of the features of an SLR, because it's in my purse all the time. I want the equipment to get out of my way, I want to take pictures not explore new bells and whistles. I will happily use "program" and let the camera do most of the work most of the time but I'm not very interested in the toy camera filter and I'll put a fisheye on it rather than use the fisheye filter. Nasty thing that is.

At work, the professional photographer takes the picture the client wants. Takes lots of them, does the minimum of post production work and gets on with promoting the business. The amateur spends hours pixel peeping to make each image perfect. Good enough vs perfect. You'll hear things like "take the time and know your lighting patterns so that you can get it in one shot". The pro has always "got it in several hundred shots". In the film era one difference between pro and amateur was the willingness to blow through ten or twenty rolls of film in one session.

I suppose we call this distinction utility vs decoration to get back to the speakers. I find myself wanting to make them from the rough cut lumber I use rather than spend the half hour planing them. Already some of them I forget to sand. It doesn't make any difference to the sound, and allows them to be sold for less, but I suspect a better finish would give them a more "professional look". What I'm trying to tease out here I suppose is that a "professional attitude" doesn't imply a "professional look". Good enough doesn't always, OK rarely does it mean perfection. You make it to sell it and if it takes a prefect finish to sell, you concentrate on that. One of my friends went to the store the other day and said she thought the perfect looking speakers there sounded like carp. I think that's what she said, it was noisy in the bar.

Consider the word "masterpiece". What do you think of, a perfect picture, an amazing piece of furniture? It's the piece that a journeyman makes to show his master that he's "good enough". Most actual masterpieces were, I suspect, not very impressive. Good enough though.

My point? I have to have a point? It seems so, well then my point is that what I look for in a martial arts performance is professionalism in my definition. If I'm on a grading panel I look for "good enough". Is it a masterpiece? Does it meet the minimum standards of performance? Yes?

Good enough, let's go for a drink.

Feb 28, 2016

Aikido is fake

Because the attacker cooperates. It's also backward because sensei is the defender and the attacker is the junior which is the reverse of most Japanese arts where the senior is the attacker and the junior defends.

Somehow we got onto ukemi last evening in class. Well actually it's not all that surprising, I'm a big fan of ukemi, having been one of the rag doll brigade for many years. I'm also all about the entry and getting the balance at the first contact so as to avoid wrestling matches. That's just common sense, with my creaky shoulders it doesn't take long to find a position of no strength at all.

But really, aikido is fake because uke cooperates? The roles are backward? What if, just if, we trust the art as it was passed along and we think about it being the right way around?

My recent sauna reading was an old JAMA interview from 2006 or so with Ellis Amdur if what follows sounds familiar. If not you can still find the Journal of Asian Martial Arts online, many of the articles are being converted to book form. Amdur's ideas on ukemi fit nicely with what I've felt for years and it popped out in last evening's class.

Back to me, it's all about me after all. What if we assume that Aikido is the right way around. What if sensei does the throwing not because he's all crippled up from taking the falls for too long, but because the learning side of the art is the falling down side?

Seriously. I know it means that we've somehow got it the wrong way around in our heads, but how unlikely is that? It's the throws that interest us, it's the throws that other arts concentrate on and try to teach their students but what if Ueshiba assumed the throws were the simple stuff while the "going with the throw", the "cooperation" part was the important part? How much more powerful would you be as a martial artist and as a person if you couldn't get knocked off balance by any attack? If you could absorb and redirect and move around and even counter an attack? Sure we try to learn that on the defending side but it's better done on the side that get's thrown. It is done on that side. Earlier and more efficiently.

Aikido isn't a hugely complicated art, none of them are really. It doesn't take long to learn the basic throws and pins yet we concentrate on those for years and years. Why? Mostly because we are "trying to learn how to do them against any attack". So where do we learn how to deal with an attack? Perhaps the unique revelation of Aikido is that the important part is the ukemi.

If someone attacks you and you can't blend with it and you can't resist using a broken arm, you have to absorb it by moving away, protecting that arm before it gets broken and perhaps even collapsing safely onto the ground. Blending and absorbing, sounds like what we hear all the time yes? But which side, uke or nage, does the most blending? Where is that learned most efficiently?

So we started last evening with a brief mention that we were going to work on the ukemi side. We did the "aikido punch" that I learned from Kanai sensei back in the 80s when he spent three hours teaching a black belt class how to punch (I had snuck in to watch from the sidelines). That class got me interested in the ukemi side, I mean black belts not knowing how to punch? From that punch (not a karate or boxing kind of punch by the way, more like how you'd thrust a tanto from your hip, very well suited to Aikido) we looked at the relationship of the punch and the grip on the sword and then went to kotegaeshi and looked at how kotegaeshi works against that punch and a person holding a sword. No real difference.

That's when I did a bad thing. I showed the class that you can counter kotegaeshi by simply moving with it instead of standing still and letting nage hurt your wrist. As the technique comes back at you why not step past and turn to watch your wrist like nage is doing? Aha no more twist.

The bad thing? It's hard enough to keep beginners from wrestling around on the mat, now I've told them that techniques can be countered which is just going to make it worse! That's why they are always going on about which foot should be forward and which hand they're attacking with. They're better students than I am a teacher, they're doing as they were taught while I just say "I don't care which hand you strike with" and useless stuff like that.

Never mind, it's all about me and I wanted to explore ukemi so we did a counter to prevent kotegaeshi. Instantly the class was trying to do some sort of technique from here. See, they were still thinking the important thing is the throw, even though I'd told them it was the ukemi. Throws seem amazing, but it's the stuff that leads up to the throw that interests me, the throws just happen if you move, avoid, take balance and grin.

A safe fall doesn't happen because nage lets you fall. A safe fall happens because you are well ahead of nage, you are allowing him to throw you so that you can enjoy the ride.

I always enjoyed the ride. I regret not being able to do Aikido any more. I can teach it a bit, but I just can't take the falls, maybe I never learned it very well in the first place.

Feb 26, 2016

Students and kids

I'm in a bit of shock today, we had six new students appear at our 10pm to midnight jodo class just to try it out. They picked it up fairly quickly so I hope they keep coming.

That put us, momentarily I'm sure, officially ahead of the new Japanese cultural center jodo class down in Toronto. I mention that because it certainly won't last. Our new folk happened to see our lonely little poster in the hallway of the gym. Who would go looking for jodo or niten ichiryu at a University campus? But in the big city, of course you're going to go to the Japanese cultural center, a dojo in a Japanese center? Duh. If they don't have 30 or 40 students by the end of this year I'll be shocked.

Anyway, the explosion of faces in class started me thinking about just what I want in a student and it isn't mass numbers. I used to be quite a missionary for the arts, still am I suppose but more in the way I used to be right at the start of our electronic lives when social media meant email lists and I gathered everyone I could onto a manual list that became iaido-l where the biggest function, from my point of view, was to get students together with instructors. Any student and any instructor, any organization, we just had to grow the arts.

We did.

I'm still happy when I see new clubs starting and established clubs grow. I'm a big fan of pushing nestlings out to start even more clubs because these arts tend to have low numbers of students per dojo, except as I mentioned, in places like the cultural centers. If you think of karate you'll know where you can find a dojo because you pass two or three every week. Iaido? Jodo? That was what iaido-l was for.

For my own club? I've never really had more than about 14 people around at any time, five or six of which come to class. The rest "are coming" of course and occasionally they replace others that disappear for a while. You have to take the long view on this stuff, there's no time restriction on learning the kata based arts, you can replace the fast twitch muscle fibre of a kid with the efficiency that comes with training and do quite well as an old fart.

So not mass numbers, I'm not into bragging rights. Don't begrudge those who are, and they exist, but I think that's a waste of time. No, my students are like my kids, someone to pass things along to. I love having kids that I can share with, even if it's only pocket money, but mostly I'd like to give them wisdom and health and skills.

Over the years I've had a few students I've been able to pass my budo to. Note I didn't say "teach", because that's what you do with technique, hold the sword like this, put your foot there, memorize the times table. Teaching is where you start but I have always wanted to pass along more than that, a love for the arts, a desire to keep learning, an understanding of the meaning of the movements. More than that though, I've been able to pass along a method of becoming a better person.

I didn't invent that, it was passed to me by my teachers (not taught, I didn't learn it, it was gifted to me) and I have been gifted with several students that I could pass it along to. That's the true cost of the budo. If you want me to teach you cool techniques of smacking people on the head you can pay me at the door (or not, I don't rent the space and have few expenses I can't cover) but if you really want to pay me back get out to every class and actually listen to me. You'll be teacher's pet in no time. Some day I hope you'll pass it to your own students.

This is A payment for a specific part of the arts by the way, if sensei is getting out of pocket teaching you, find a way to put back into the pocket so he will keep teaching you. That's a simple, free-market, mercenary calculation you ought to make as someone who wants to learn. Sensei may not want it, may give you hell for offering, but do it anyway. We're not talking about that today, we're talking about the pay it forward part of things, which has nothing to do with your responsibility to pay it back.

By the way, being in every class and listening is different than being in every class and figuring you know more than I do. I can't teach you if you know more than me, you're wasting both our time but as long as there's floor space you can have part of it. I don't mind, sometimes it's like being around your dad, you learn stuff even if you don't know you're learning and one day you say "Oh my kami I'm becoming my sensei". There are lots of students who are the equivalent of a 15 year old kid.

Wait until you have students of your own, then you'll know!

Feb 24, 2016

Nothing to say

It will come as a relief to many to hear that I have been sitting here for a while enjoying my coffee and looking at the sun reflecting off the car hoods and have not come up with a single topic for an essay that I haven't covered before.

Not that that's going to stop me I suspect, I have been involved in fitness magazines which are famous for running twelve issues over and over again. 25 ways to firm abs for swimsuit season. If we didn't cover the same ground endlessly we'd never have anything to talk about.

I remember well the old internet forums before faceplant took over the world where you would see newbies ask a question and the established experts yell at them RTFFaq! I would cringe every time, the fastest way to shut down a discussion is to refer everyone to Wikipedia or some other repository of information.

I love questions from students, each time we go over the same ground it gets a bit more nuanced, my understanding gets a bit deeper and my appreciation for the many angles at which you can come to a topic increases. See, I said the same thing three times there and made it way much better right?

Of course if you don't want to talk about the same old thing you could always stop reading the forums, stop listening and stop talking, just let other folks get on with it.

The thing is, how do you continue to participate? I mean if you learn all the kata in your art and you like the art how do you keep participating without hearing sensei say the same old things over and over to the new students? I suppose if you've got lots of students you could have beginner and advanced classes but what does sensei say every senior class? "You gotta do more basics"... may as well be in the beginner class where they are actually doing the basics. You have to go over the same ground if you want to keep participating.

What if you decide you want to teach, how do you do that if you don't like saying the same things over and over? Do you stand up there and say "go read the book!" OK I've been known to do that in moments of dizziness as I realize I must have said the next thing I'm going to say several thousand times over the last 20 years. It's a good thing I like the sound of my own voice.

But it's not really that, every time I say something I've said before I realize I'm hearing it for the first time. I hear it with what I know now, not what I knew the first time I said it and certainly not the first time I heard my sensei say it.

And then you get all mysterious and say things like "there is no try" or "you must empty your mind".

"Fall down six times and get up seven".

Feb 23, 2016

Make a heavy sword light

And a light sword heavy.

Yesterday we went from tanrenbo (some of them up to five pounds at the end of three feet) to iaito to niten bokuto and back again several times. We were trying to find our way toward understanding first, how a sword moves (a tanrenbo can't be wrenched around like a sword) and then how to feel the weight and more importantly the momentum of a light sword (a niten bokuto can definitely be wrenched around).

Musashi said a lot of trite sounding things like "you must use each weapon according to its characteristics" which is far from trite. Watch any of your dojo mates move a sword around, it's as if the thing were an unruly kid on the end of granny's arm. Flap flap twist.

It was pretty obvious that we really do study the same thing no matter what art we're currently working with. It was soft wrists yesterday I think. Let the tanrenbo move as it wants to move. Start with walking across the dojo doing uke nagashi one side then the other. Soften your wrists and raise your arm overhead which will move your shoulder to the center and then shift your hips and hey, zippo bang, the tanrenbo comes slicing into the place where you were. Easy if you let your wrists move. Apply just enough power to get the thing overhead and let it fall into the starting position once more.

Now with an iaito and furi kaburi from nuki tsuke (the finishing vertical cut from the end of the first horizontal cut from the scabbard)... well it's sort of there, if you work on it hard enough you can feel the weight of it, and the speed with which it swings past you and the acceleration you can apply as it comes into position to cut. Oh, we were working on koryu so the tip being below the hilt was allowed. Some spicy comments were made about moving the sword in unnatural ways.

Then on to Niten Ichiryu and our fundamental exercise which is kissaki gaeshi, thrust, twist edge upward, overhead, twist, cut down. Sword stays on the same plane. Except that it doesn't does it? Since it weighs nothing at all any sort of tension in the grip means a stiff wrist which means that poor little bokuto jitters all over the place.

Back to the tanrenbo, try swinging that thing around one handed while twisting it edge up and then down again and you quickly find the efficiency of a soft wrist and getting out of the way of the momentum. A heavy sword is a harsh teacher, you can sprain a wrist (or resprain a thumb I discovered) in an instant of trying to interfere with the momentum. Your only hope is to accelerate it on the thrust from the hip to head height and then let it go while you turn it around the long axis, and turn it again at the top.

Musashi said a long sword is slow and a short sword is fast. If you can look beyond your immediate reaction of "well duh" and start paying attention to the weight and momentum of your weapons you will see what he meant.

It's pretty cool.

Feb 22, 2016

Another winter and there's still heat in the house

It would look like I have survived another winter. It's 3 degrees today and has that feel that spring might fight it's way through the frozen boots and mitts on the side of the road. It's not that I dislike the idea of winter, killing off all the annoying insects that the tropical world has to endure is a good thing. Theoretically.

I must admit that this winter was mild enough for me to get myself in trouble again, the speakers thing I mean, it's a "project" that I've wanted to work on for many decades but I never had the time. Pulling back from most of my administrative duties, finishing up most of the books I started in the 80s, dropping out of the gym at the university, all these distractions gone meant I had some extra time so of course I found something else to get working on.

Well, perhaps my son will keep claiming speakers, the collection seems to be migrating to his space in the house and away from mine, he's taken three sets so far. I must admit that it delights me that he likes the things, a father never complains if a son wants something he's made.

Nor does a sensei complain when students steal their stuff. It's sort of the deal really, we put it out there, make you do it, yell at you, kick you in the rear end, and what do you do? Mostly you go to some other teacher and come back to tell us how they do it, but occasionally we see that you're learning what we teach and that makes us happy.

It doesn't take much, we aren't in it for praise, or even the money, very very few martial artists ever got rich teaching budo. Those that make a comfortable living tend to be the upper level administrators in olympic sports, or just plain administrators in the smaller arts. Budo teachers tend to teach because it's what we do. We run commercial dojo because it lets us practice more, we charge to pay for dojo space rather than to pay for our house.

In other words, it's pretty easy to take advantage of us. I know a couple of teachers that are highly ranked, have lots of students in successful dojo and still have trouble finding enough money to pay for the gas to get to class, let alone the gas bill in their house. They don't complain because they are still students as far as they are concerned, and they would be offended if you offered them pay to teach.

Now that's the kind of "stealing techniques" that I really don't agree with. Their students would be the first to tell you all about the purity of the art and the grubbiness of money. I don't mind my son taking my speakers, he's my son and has a call on anything I've got and I don't mind my students taking my techniques, I don't pay rent for the dojo and my students tend to buy their equipment from me. Instead of a commercial dojo to pay my electricity bills I have the sdksupplies.com business. It doesn't quite pay all the bills (post-secondary students are expensive) but Brenda has gone back to work so yay the bills are covered. My students can steal my techniques all they want.

Just don't come into my house and take the speakers without some sort of compensation if you're not my kid. My daughter the musician has also taken a set, and can take more if she wants them. But not some random bloke off the street please, even if I do want them out of my way so I can make more. Students who figure it's their right to get taught budo for free because their teacher offers to teach it for free?

What's free in this world? Your teacher probably worked a crappy, low level job all his life so that he could do what he loved, and now he's offering it because he believes it's good for you. You figure it wasn't paid for? He paid for it, you're stealing it.

Pay for it. He won't take money? Fine, find a way.

Grumpy now because I see by the forcast it's going to get cold again next week.

Feb 21, 2016

Just what are the lessons anyway

It being reading week at the University we held a joint aikido iaido class and worked on "sword taking". Turns out the joint class looked just like the usual class but never mind, a promise is a promise.

We started out with the prep work we'd done the week before, shift aside and stiff-arm the swordsman into the ground, which made for some interesting breakfalls. I asked my uke why the awkward fall and was told "I was afraid I was going to smack you in the back of the head with the sword.

Yep. Exactly. Lesson number one against a weapon is that you can't ignore the weapon.

Well perhaps lesson two. Lesson one is get out of the way first, then figure out what technique you're using.

Well maybe lesson one is don't. Don't try to take a sword away from a swordsman, it's a bad idea. I have fairly strong hands and tend to do a lot of one handed kotegaeshi and similar, it's laziness on my part and it just doesn't work against a swordsman who has two hands on a force multiplier. The swordsman has to be well off balance for anything one handed to even have a chance of working.

We're talking resisting, uncooperative, stubborn uke here, you know, beginners.

So follow the head and face down into the mat to stay behind the sword once you've passed it to get to the swordsman.

Cue irimi nage, if you don't want to smack him in the face, pass your arm across it and clothesline him. Again, you have to follow the throw into the ground or that sword comes right across your ribs as he falls down. Which leads to breaking the balance through a tenkan and hey, we can get our hand on the sword! Now we can control that sword as we throw. Yay. No more smacks on the head.

Which brought up another bit of concern, the actual taking of the sword was really ugly. Since it was a joint class I couldn't allow the usual sword taking grip on the bokuto, you know, the one where I can get my hand in between the two hands of the swordsman so I can take his sword away cleanly. No I had to insist that they use a proper grip as if there were a tsuba and that left about two fingers worth of sword to get hold of.

Made for some shy swordsmen as those fingers got twisted and crushed. Which then led to a lot of awkward falling over.

Why the wide grip? To avoid that stuff of course, who wants sprained and broken fingers after a practice? It's a simple formula, practice "real" and someone gets lumber in the head or broken fingers or both. Practice with the hands split apart and it may not be "real" but it's a lot more fun.

The lesson being that practice isn't fighting and sometimes you do things "wrong" so that you can go to work tomorrow morning. "Oh, Aikido is fake, the uke all cooperate." "Yeah, what's your point?"

We carried on with several variations on kotegaeshi, nikkyo, ude kime nage, the wrap it into your armpit and drive the elbow back so that uke has to do a banana breakfall thing, and a couple others maybe, I don't really keep track. The class ended up with a semi-freestyle that mostly didn't work which turned into "ok put the swords down, do shomenuchi and nage will just step aside while holding their hand in front of their face between their eyes and keep that pointed toward uke so that they can push it forward and say "bonk" as they hit uke on the forehead.

The lesson? Stop futzing around with the hands and trying to remember what sensei just showed you as a technique, there are no techniques (often because sensei does something else when trying to show something... bad sensei) if you don't get out of the way first.

Move, don't get hit, move, don't get hit, move, oh technique. I tried that with one of the more experienced students and a technique showed up every time, no need for two or three tries but you get the point. Someone attacks you, don't be there. That's my aikido. I'm not fond of this formula stuff where you have to move to this angle and grab with that grip and... Sure it's useful as sin and you need to learn it but the first lesson really ought to be "get out of the way". Like the idiot teacher I am, we finished up with it instead.

Oh well, better late than never as my gran used to say. Actually she usually said "you're late, you missed lunch, back outside" but never mind my childhood.

Feb 19, 2016

A modest proposal

A visit to the doctor for a checkup yesterday revealed that I'm going to live forever. Or maybe until my next visit in five years or so. While there I had an interesting conversation about doctor's notes. I asked my doctor if he would have any trouble writing a note to say that he thought it was a bad idea to bend your knees until your heel hits your butt and then put your entire weight on them... for hours at a time.

He laughed. Then he went on to say that doctors in general have a bit of a problem with these notes. They feel that HR departments ought to do HR rather than download it onto doctors at public expense. He went on to ask whether an organization asking for $50 worth of note from a doctor might rather see that taxpayer money be used toward something like, oh, fighting cancer say.

In short I think he might be a bit upset if I came in for such a note. I assured him that I would never have a need to ask for that note as I have no desire to either grade or compete any more, and would certainly not, should I require a note to do so.

But we did come up with a suggestion. Should our organization suddenly feel that it doesn't trust our membership any longer, and requires a note from a doctor to allow that membership to compete or grade without getting into seiza or tate hiza, then I propose that a receipt for a $50 donation to the cancer society or some other medical charity be used instead. Don't want to sit seiza? Donate $50 to do some good rather than take $50 out of the public system. Will someone try to "cheat" and not sit seiza when they are able to do it?




What do you think? Will it work or will we have to "do what they do in Japan". One of my students considered that argument and said "what if Japan decided to jump off a bridge, would you do it?"

Feb 18, 2016


I was listening to the radio on the way over to the cafe and my station has a couple of little items called "under the covers" where they play a cover of a song, and "distant cousins" where they play to songs and you're supposed to hear some sort of resemblance, like "oh, they use a piano".

I caught a bit of the sound of the Grammy awards in the bar the other night, from the reflection in the bar mirror I'm glad we were around the corner but I caught a bit of some amazing new love song or other which seemed to be nothing but bits and pieces of every other love song I've ever heard in 60 years. I started to wonder just what you could claim was original.

People talk a lot about creativity, mostly as if it's a sudden flash of inspiration that one could then claim ownership over. Patents and copyrights and whatnot. The thing is, every bit of inspiration is built, as they say, "on the shoulders of giants". We have legal claims on creativity not because it's rare and unique, but because at a certain point in a society these ideas appear. First one to the registry office wins.

A few years ago I looked at copyright law on photos and found out that I could register batches of shots at a time. Being such a big fan of paperwork I figured that it would be easier to take a new photo than to try to shoehorn an old one into a new job. The whole business theory behind stock photos of course is that there are only so many shots, they are all copyrighted (they are) and someone will pay you to use one. Meh, go take one and use it "for free".

I have understood for a very long time that I haven't got an original bone in my body. Everything I know about the martial arts came from one teacher or another. Now in the part of the budo world where I live, this is looked at as a good thing, one must not innovate, one must only copy those gifts of knowledge from the giants of the past who never had stairways in their houses. (One famous wushu teacher I once practiced with said that in the old days all the sifu had stairs in their houses.) "Sensei puts his hakama on one leg at a time".

I mention all this because recently I noticed a book has been written by a teacher of mine. I told a student who then tried to buy a copy but was told that the book was "for our group only". Yep, doubtless the ideas in there are absolutely unique and not to be shared with outsiders because come the zombapolcaypse they will need to know the secret ways to kill people in order to survive.

It is a bit depressing that the interweb hasn't knocked all that out of people's heads (who has secrets any more?) but the attitudes persist. There's "us" and "them". I see the same thing with lines of instruction where students are hoarded and instructors don't want to be seen to poach. Now this may make sense in a small town commercial dojo where sensei is trying to make a living by teaching, but I'm talking about cross border sniping in non-commercial arts. What, other than ego boosting, is accomplished by accumulating and hoarding students who are not actually students? If they're not in front of you they're not yours.

Koryu you say, it's important to keep the line pure you say? Sure I get it, I really do. You are your lineage, but not because you live in the basement with mom, it's because you were born of and raised by mom. You are what you have learned and if you learned from a sensei you are in that lineage. You can't help it, and you can't be denied, any more than mom can deny she's your mom. If you move out of mom's basement you don't live there any more. So? If a student of mine studies with me they are "mine". If they move along and go somewhere else I don't insist they remain as students, nor do I insist they ignore other instructors. If they aren't standing in front of me they aren't my concern. There's house rules when they're here but those are pretty slack, mostly "don't insist too hard that some other teacher's way of doing this is the real way to do it". Tell me once but remember I probably know who his granny is, don't irritate me or I'll make you do pushups.

My point is that I'm no more unique than you are, or any other teacher. It's not a matter of getting the "secret stuff" it's a matter of understanding what we are all trying to understand. It's only ego that makes you think you know something nobody else does, or that you thought up that cool lyric to that love song you just wrote. The "giants" whose shoulders you stand on all got their stuff from other people who got it from others. It's not a single line, it's a big mess of interacting string and at best we're kittens re-arranging the string on our side of the room.

Feb 17, 2016

The tyrany of software

Yesterday I spent an hour writing an essay only to have it disappear as it didn't copy and my faceplant app wouldn't open and I haven't a clue what, but after twenty minutes messing around trying to figure out what's where in hidden places on my tablet I found nada. The clipboard dumped the last essay on the current one and that's that.

In the effort to make things foolproof we've made fools of everyone. The essay yesterday was partly about that, about the effort to make rules and regulations for martial arts as if they were sports. Since it's not a new topic for me I suspect folks will know what it was and I can go on to read a couple of papers instead.

Testing, testing, this thing on?

Feb 14, 2016

Tempo and Sen

Last evening in Aikido we practiced the most common randori technique. Yes indeed the old straight arm to the face and Uke falls over. It has become one of my favourite places to demonstrate sen no sen or one tempo or Musashi's attack into the attack (both attack at the same time). The nice thing about it is that you can work from uke nagashi to ikkyo to face-plant-nage all without changing the footwork. Of course the students wanted to change the footwork, nobody believes what a simpleton I am, they all figure it has to be more complicated.

Of all the ways to talk about an attack, I think I am beginning to prefer the western way of looking at things. Of course I may have this completely wrong, in which case I take credit for it, but here goes. A tempo is a single time duration which contains an action in a fight. A cut is one tempo, a punch is one tempo, Irimi nage is one tempo provided the unbalancing and throwing and even pinning is all done continuously with no chance for the attacker to recover.

All that is fairly obvious, but what seems difficult is the interaction between two people in a kata or a fight. Musashi tells us there are three encounters, you attack first, he attacks first or you both attack at the same time. Mostly this is sen sen no sen, go no sen and sen no sen.

You see my problem with the sens, I always have to stop and think which are which. Musashi is a bit simpler, which I appreciate, being simple myself. The problem with the Japanese way of putting it is that there seems to be no extension to the initial contact. He attacks you defend (presumably), you attack first or you both swing at the same time. Presumably you win in all three situations but that requires further explanations. Musashi said that if you don't attack first or at the same time it becomes ton-ton, ton-ton. One-two, one-two, attack and block back and froth.

The western way to describe that is two tempos, two times. He attacks and you defend, one tempo. Then you attack and he defends (or doesn't), a second tempo.

If you attack (successfully) as he is attacking it's one tempo and there is no response possible, he's bleeding. So one tempo is what happens on both sides during a single time with no stop and start again. A punch and block, followed by a punch from the defender is two tempos and on the second tempo the other guy could block and then you get into ton-ton.

More than two tempos is, I would bet, described by the western swordsmen of old as "and then you're just whacking at each other's stick". Ton ton.

So the three sen are good for describing what happens at the initial contact, he attacks, you attack, both attack, and the idea of tempo is good for describing units of action which will help to understand the rhythm of the kata, and to explain what I call the "fallacy of expanding time in kata".

To get back to last evening. The idea is that the attacker cuts with a sword, or punches. This was my fault, I wanted one tempo, sen no sen, an attack into an attack and with a punch to the face you get two tempos. The punch ought to have been to the solar plexus so the straight-arm could just ride over it. What we got was a bunch of circling the arms up and over and pushing the attacking arm down before the face-palm which was as a result, in the second tempo. Fallacy of expanding time in kata? But what happens if I push his arm down here and then do this... well then I can do this... but I'll then do this... Ton ton.

So we got the swords out and it was easier, step to the side (and a little forward) let the arm move straight from the back foot to the face as the sword and arms disappear down toward the floor. No time there for expanding the kata, it's done thank you very much.

The uke nagashi? Same movement with the arm to swing the sword up and guard the side of the head as sliding along the top of the punch toward the face, or meeting uke's arm to do ikkyo. All the same body shift and mechanics.

The amazing ki throw where uke falls down without being touched? Face plant. I was thrown without being touched a lot by my sensei. His big mitt would come toward my face and I'd throw my head back at the same time I was stepping forward and then I was looking at the ceiling. Nothing mysterious about it, I just had to believe he'd take my head off if I didn't move it. I did.

I dunno, my students all seem to believe I would do no such thing. Maybe they're fearless, maybe I'm a wimp, but they all seemed to like having a palm on their face and complaining that I cranked their heads around to throw them. Even when I said "the next one is coming through at full force so you'd better move your face" I ended up doing the James Cagney with a grapefruit to the face technique. I finally had to resort to teaching a brand new ukemi, you punch as you step forward and then use the punching arm to breakfall, OK now let's practice the breakfall while our partners hold their hands out in front of our faces.

Yay, we're doing the mysterious ki throw, just don't do it from across the room unless you're throwing a baseball really hard.

Next week is reading week so we'll combine iaido and aikido classes on Thursday for a class on how to take a sword away from someone.

Seriously. I'm an idiot, and half the class was telling me they were going to bring their iaito while the other half was asking if we were going to use real swords.

You have to admire the faith.

Feb 12, 2016

The illusion of speed

As I was riding to the coffee shop (Brenda drives) I watched the driver ahead pull into the oncoming lane, partially pass the two cars in front of us, turn left into a plaza, shoot through it and turn onto the side street at about the time we were driving past that same side street.

The time saved could not be more than it would take to get out of the car at the end of the drive, even if that driver had waited for the moderate opposing line of cars he or she jumped in front of. Did I mention the sun was in the eyes of the oncoming cars and that their reaction times would have been reduced should they have seen a car going the wrong way in their lane.

The result of all this excitement, at least in the mind of the driver pulling the stunt, would be the illusion of speed.

How do we know we're going fast? Certainly not when we're calm. Do you feel as if you're doing 400 miles per hour in a jet plane? Or 140 kilometers an hour on a two lane straight road with lots of other cars doing the same speed? No not really, but hit that sharp bend and suddenly you're fighting friction and experiencing that adrenalin rush that comes with not paying attention until you're in trouble.

There's the speed we feel, which is often illusion, and real speed, which is getting from point a to point b "faster than". Speed is always relative, we're traveling at some science-newsie-superlative even when we're standing still because the earth is speeding along.

Go to an amusement park and we may thing we're going really fast on a ride but what we're doing is going at relatively slow speeds around a tight corner, or dropping with an acceleration close to that of gravity so that our stomachs go flutter flutter. An illusion created in brains that evolved to deal with the speed of walking or of boulders falling on our heads from cliffs.

We drive on a multi-lane highway and change lanes a lot trying to get into the one that is going fast, this creates a dangerous situation which bumps our adrenalin levels and makes us pay a little more attention to the environment giving us the illusion of speed. Is it real? Pay a bit more attention to the slow trucks around you, are you really "going faster" by lane jumping? How much faster? Is twenty feet from behind to in front a real thing or the illusion of getting somewhere?

Be a scientist and test this, drive like your usual maniacal self one day and time your trip to work. Now the next time drive in one lane only, pick any lane, and go with the flow, keep a safe distance, let people merge, do all the horrible time wasting things that you usually avoid doing. Now check the time it takes to get to work. Do this on alternate days for a month and see if there's any time difference between methods of driving as opposed to the variations between days of same style driving.

Roaring from one red light to the next through town is another interesting way to speed. The whiplash of your little stoplight sportscar (you know, those little commuter cars with loud mufflers and an effectless spoiler) may give you the impression of speed but are you going any faster than the delivery van that keeps blowing through the intersection while you're mashing the accelerator at the green light?

How do we know we're going fast in budo? Well we smack him before he smacks us right? So how come we kids, with all our fast twitch muscles can't hit the old 8dan guy? He shuffles and pokes along in the hallway to the dojo but manages to get his hits in before we do every time we fight him.

Perhaps we have the illusion of speed while he has real speed. We bunch our muscles and wind up and huff and puff and explode into a strike. He just lifts his sword and lets it drop on our heads.


He's learned to get out of his own way, he doesn't wind up, he doesn't tighten his muscles, and he doesn't waste time thinking about strategy. We twitch, he sees an opening after he's hit it. Yes I said after, he doesn't see the opening then think "there's an opening" and start to swing. He hits the target and then thinks "maybe I should tell that kid that there was a great big opening there.... oh wait, he probably knows because I hit him".

Calm down, pay more attention to what's happening around you, stop trying to go fast by getting in your own way. Slow down and go faster.

Feb 11, 2016

Our Many Selves

I made a small power amplifier in a cute box with a big wooden flower on it and it was promptly claimed by the Pamurai who also snatched up the blue column speakers "I don't have enough speaker wire to reach both pairs of speakers so I need this amp". I made another in an old cigar box thinking that it was ugly and far away from the pretty one so she'd leave it alone but no, it only put her in a quandry about which one to take. I guess her macho side got woken up by the second box.

I'm a bit pleased today to head into the shop to grind out a couple of kingwood bokuto along with some massive jatoba "bruisers" for a couple of custom orders. I don't really want to think much today, just zone out and make a couple of sales rather than think hard and accumulate another pair of speakers. Dull workerbot wins over brilliant designergod today.

Last evening I was happy enough to work on Ranai, the long kata of seitei jo. It was a memorization class, nothing I needed to think about at all, just telling people where to step and what to hit. The most basic, mindless budo practice we can teach. "No you have to put your foot exactly here and stop the stick at precisely this angle." Memobot... copybot.

I don't know why, but yesterday my head was full of cotton and it's still not very clear. Maybe it had to do with sitting in front of a computer in the photo arts club office all day, researching Soda Torahiko, a long-ago teacher and author my sensei mentioned on the weekend. Google translate is almost there but still it gives me a headache trying to figure out if a page is worth trying to read or not. I do this at the University because I'm behind several pay-walls. I can barely believe that there are companies out there that want to charge me $35 to read a four page article from Australia on acoustic labyrinth speakers from 1934. Umm, is that thing still even in copyright? Is this what the internet hath wrought? I mean the authors wrote and published that paper in a journal that was freely available, it's been paid for, for coming up on 100 years, yet some business school model seems to presume that you ought to find rare things and gouge the hell out of them. Sort of like buying a pharma company and cranking up the prices on everything proprietary by 8000 percent. Never mind the people who die if they don't get the drugs, it's all good, they'll sell their cousins' houses to get it and you get rich, rich, rich. It says something that even the US government is starting to think that sort of behaviour might be a bit much.

Meanwhile, people figure martial arts teachers ought to teach for free. Including some martial arts teachers. There has to be some sort of appropriate middle ground, here. The goal of human life isn't to sell things for obscene profit while getting stuff for free is it? Is this the ultimate development of the "protestant work ethic" of my youth? That used to be about contributing to society through your efforts rather than making money by having money. You were supposed to give away anything you didn't need.

Budo teachers are old school. You give away what you have. Funny thing is, the more you give away, the more you get back. You learn by teaching.

Of course that can be twisted too, as in "OK you're the senior student and it's really good for you to teach so you take care of my commercial dojo class tonight because I don't feel like going to class, oh, and have you paid your dues this month? It's good for you to pay your dues and to teach the classes for me. Really. It is. Trust me."

When I'm selling stuff I try to be Joe Businessman and remember that my time is worth something whether I think it is or not. When I'm volunteering for something or hanging around waiting for someone to show up to a free workshop I try not to think of the many ways I could be spending my time elsewhere making stuff to sell.

Multiple selves. Be the position, if you're workerbot, turn off your complaining brain and work. If you're designergod, knuckle down and concentrate on making something amazing, damn the cost.

And when you're being "social media marketing guy" don't forget to include the website address. It's down there, just under my name and date. That's the one. Click... the.... button.... cliiiick... the.... button....

Kim Taylor
Feb 10, 2015

Feb 10, 2016

Total Drama Dojo

I haven't been in one of those for a very long time, but I get regular reports from a couple of them. It's great fun to hear about the ups and downs and ins and outs but I suspect it's not the best learning environment for the students involved.

There seems to be a certain age range required to create one of these dojo, a mix from teen to middle age seems to be about right for drama. The teens are the fault of course, hormone-junkies that they are, but a chain of no more than five or six years separation allows the effects to run right through the dojo.

On the other hand, if there's a break in age between students and sensei (like 40 years in my University club) and a relatively homogenous age group, no kids, no adults, just "young adults" the drama seems to be no more pronounced than it is anywhere else on a school campus. Which is to say everyone in the class has well-proven ways to deal with everyone else. Then there is sensei who rants and raves about obscure things which, I'm sure fascinates and distracts enough that the students don't get annoyed with each other. Everyone has the same target, the old fart up front that won't let them get on with swinging their swords.

Of course, I could be wrong, it may just be that I'm completely insulated from all the drama by that age gap, and I simply haven't got a telegraph line to hear about it.

I'm OK with that too.

Feb 9, 2016

I don't want to be Japanese

At the dinner after the seminar last weekend the talk drifted to things Japanese and someone told me that since I've spent so long doing Japanese martial arts I must want to be Japanese.

Yes they were trying to push one of my buttons but seriously, I've never wanted to be Japanese. Nor am I much of a Japanophile. I mean I am, as much as I like any other country. I like British pubs and Uruguayan BBQ and so on. I've always liked "a Japanese touch for your home", Zen gardens and shoji and suchnot but to say that makes me want to be Japanese is actually rather insulting to the Japanese. It would be like saying people who like maple syrup want to be Canadian.

My answer was that I don't want to be Japanese, I want to practice with my sensei. The same sensei with which I spent an entire flight to England trying to explain why I, as a westerner, would want to practice iaido. "I'm Japanese so I have to spend hours on my knees doing iaido and tea and suchnot but you don't have to do it so why?"

I tried to explain that the practice of Japanese martial arts is not exclusively a cultural artifact. If it was then nobody but the Japanese would be doing it. I further explained that much of the cultural stuff hanging off the arts wasn't there at their beginnings, that the Edo, Meiji and war years, not to mention the post-war kendo revisions mean that a lot of cultural baggage has accumulated around the arts which are simply not necessary to the arts in themselves. I tried to explain that there is intrinsic value in working toward the perfect iaido form, as defined by a deep understanding of what the art and the forms mean.

He just shook his head. Now of course I simply say to others who ask me the same questions "because I want to study with him". Case in point was the seminar, where "my sensei said" that the class was not studying oku iai, even if we call it oku iai, it's just a bunch of movements. Oku iai comes with 20,000 swings of the sword, but only if it teaches you. If you swing the sword 20,000 times and the sword doesn't teach you, you need to swing it 20,000 times more. He didn't say that we had to learn Japanese, or that we had to move to Japan to immerse ourselves in the culture in order to understand the art. What we had to do to understand oku iai was to swing the sword 20,000 times and let it teach us.

You know, more than once my sensei has been told he's not Japanese any more and I think he's OK with that. I know I am, if he were more Japanese I suspect I'd be somewhere else. I know I have little desire to chase after those teachers who have told him he's not Japanese. It's not that I don't like them, but I think, in my own egotistical opinion, that they might be chasing the wrong rabbit. I want to chase his rabbit, to do an iai that works, that is real, that teachs such things as calmness in the face of disaster, balance on a slippery deck in a storm, correct actions when they are called for. I'm not much interested, never really was, in the latest fashions from Paris which will get me my next rank. I'm also remarkably inept at latching onto the coattails of the guys in power.

Something else I learned from my sensei.

Feb 8, 2016

Political Avoidance

One of our senior folk remarked to me yesterday "I stay out of the politics". I remarked that you can ignore the politics, but you can't avoid it. Politics is, and somebody has to do it. If you ignore it, someone else has to do it.

Politics at the dojo level is simply the negotiations that go on in order to get along and get things done. Dojo politics? So and so sucks up to the sensei, sensei doesn't sign your grading form, you get told to go help the beginners, Joe is a real jerk and cranks you after you help him put the wrist lock on. Do any of these sound like anything but getting along with people?

Then there's the level of organization to organization politics, meaning your dojo to the regional or national level group. Again, it's a matter of negotiation and getting along to get things done. You can't get a sensei to a seminar in your area? You don't know what's going on because you're out of the loop? The organization never told you about that grading, those rule changes? Sounds like you're efficiently staying out of the politics to me.

The organization funds certain things but not others? Provides services in an unfair way? How is ignoring "the politics" going to help that? Only jumping in with both feet is going to change anything. Most of these organizations are volunteer and most of them are run by two types. Those who want to be in charge of stuff, and those who do it because nobody else will step forward. Often one type claims to be the other or is actually the other without realizing it. I truly suspect I'm the type who "does things because nobody else will", but secretly wants to be in charge... and then I realize I have not been elected to a single political position in my entire life yet have held them since high school. Wait, no, I got elected as publicity director in high school. I suspect they call that communications director these days, communications being the same as propaganda for most organizations. But after that I decided someone else could do the work... and I've ended up doing it because nobody else wants to ever since. Well, that doesn't actually prove I am not an egomaniac who wants to be in charge does it? Just that everyone else wants to stay out of the politics and makes it easy for me to be in charge.

Regardless, the power-seekers and the pushed into it. Why only these two types? Because everyone else is "staying out of the politics". Better to shake your head and tsk tsk at what they are doing than to be doing it yes?

I try to stay out of politics but unfortunately I have trouble finding other people to shove forward to do the work for me, and apparently I still have an agenda. I still want to see certain things happen in the various organizations I'm involved with so I tend to keep politicing, but at a drastically reduced level compared to what I used to, and the worst of it is at the behest of others, so I'm a recovering politico I guess.

One day at a time.

So why do we think politics is a dirty word? Because politics is people. Most people have an agenda, if it's not very broad it can be a problem for the group as a whole. Some politicos just want another title, or want to be "the big wheel" without the bother of doing the job. Maybe they don't know what the job is? That's a problem for those who what other things done. There are those who can't see very far, they tend to only hear what those standing next to them say. This is a problem if the person standing next to them is not "your guy". That means some other group gets the resources and you are ignored once more.

I could go on but I'm simply describing the various types you meet in your daily life. The waiter who figures he's doing you a favour to bring your coffee, the boss who fires everyone according to how far from the main office they are, the secretary next door having the safest job in the company.

It's hard for people to put aside their personal desires and opinions to think about the larger group. I recall being a director of one national federation and being called the "iaido director". There was no such position and I was not appointed to the position as an advocate, my title was "director" and that's that. I did my job that way, often advocating policies that did not benefit iaido at all, but that were of benefit to the group as a whole. In return I expected the other directors to take iaido into their considerations. Unfortunately, what most people expect is that each person is going to act out of selfish interest, thus the calculations and manipulations which are intended to get a "fair representation" of people in the directing groups. So many from this location, 50% women, an "iaido director". Should any of these "fairly balanced" types vote any way than "what they're supposed to", in a way that isn't selfish and limited in vision, there's hell to pay. Kami forbid we should expect our leaders to think, that's not what they were proportioned there to do.

45 years of "politics" and I still expect more than I know will be there but I prefer to believe in the progress of the human spirit.

Stay out of politics? By staying out you are participating. Somebody has to do it, somebody will, but it won't be you. If you don't like politics because selfish and small minded people are politicians, how do you figure it will help if you leave them to run the place?

You don't want to get into the politics? Fine, but be honest about it. You're too lazy, too busy, too uninterested in the bigger picture, sure. But never figure you're above it. That's saying you are above getting along with your neighbours... and that's how you get lawyers.

Feb 7, 2016

Kata are not formulae

Or rather, they are not single formulae. As we were practicing jodo last night we got chasing down all the extra movements we make with our hands when flipping the jo end for end or striking down the sword and similar. There's a lot of it so I said "don't move the front hand". Of course that instantly became "the rule" and nobody moved their front hand even when they were supposed to move it.

So we switched to "don't move the front hand in relationship to the body in this situation, and don't move it in relationship to the room in this situation". Still no joy, those are "rules" and rules can be followed thoughtlessly, therefore are.

Eventually we ended up with "look, there's a sword right there, do you really want to move into easy range of that sword while you're flipping the jo around to another position? No? Then don't." "Do you really want to step into his range while you're still lifting your jo up overhead into position to strike him? No? Then don't". "Do you really want to stick the jo down your hakama and release his wrists while he's in range? No? Then wait until he moves and then move your body out of the way first".

Not rules, not even formulae, which would imply a "unifying theory of smacking on the head with a stick". Kata are just chances to learn how to move when you have a stick and he has a sword. Carefully would be "the word" I suppose.

What worked eventually wasn't a set of rules on when to move your hand first and when to move it later, it was to realize that there's someone standing there in front of you who wants to split open your head. Move appropriately, hints to be found in the kata.

People sometimes figure that iaido is easy because there's nobody in front of you to distract you from the proper movement. In fact, that's what makes it hard. What's easy is to have an honest partner in front of you who will take advantage of your mis-timing and mis-movement. No need for sensei at all, just a simple digital teaching method.

Bruise / no bruise.

So why do we practice iaido? "Why to learn how to swing a live blade of course". Well I suppose so but you can do that without all the fuss and bother of dressing nice and bowing nice and getting a quarter of the way through a kata before being stopped and told you're doing it wrong. A back yard full of plastic water bottles will suffice.

No, iaido is most useful to people who have been practicing partner kata or freestyle kendo, aikido, judo, karate or what have you for long enough to come to the realization that they need to go away for a while and work on their kamae. Iaido is best done by people who understand what a real teki looks like, who don't have to "imagine", to invent "kasso teki". If you've been trying to do pretty aikido for a few years but can't seem to get there with some beginner hanging off your arm, or if you've been getting hit on the back of your men in kendo, or still winding up (and getting smacked in the face) in your karate kumite class, or still looking like a grade school wrestling beginner clinging to your partner in judo, maybe you need to go to iaido and work on your posture a bit. After all, it doesn't matter all that much where you learn how to root your back foot into the floor while connecting that power to your hands.

Your partner will teach you how to use that power once you have it, that's what the kata are for.

Solo to work on your posture, kata to work on the distance and timing, freestyle to see if any of it is taking hold.

Now if I could only get the students to realize that my "aikidoing" of the jodo class and partnerizing of the iaido class is for their own good. They're too efficient at deriving formulae.

Feb 3, 2016

States of change

As I drove over the train tracks near my house I got a bit nostalgic. All my life I've lived near trains and now they seem to be ripping up the track as fast as they can. Maybe they need the steel to build trucks. Live long enough and something will go away, I suspect the folks who lived near the canals felt nostalgia for the cargo barges going by on a sunny afternoon. Now I imagine it's all rich folks putting up and down sipping wine.

The railroads killed the canals, and the roads killed the trains. Governments built the roads which weakened the privately funded trains so much that now governments run passenger services over those same private tracks. My grandfather worked for the Grand Trunk, a narrow guage track that ran all over Southern Ontario but died when the government of the day figured it was better to match the USA track size than to have a system that couldn't be used to invade us. Bye bye Grand Trunk.

The road system has been incredibly successful, citizens can do with it what they wish, run groceries to stores, go to stores and get groceries, all sorts of things. What other government project as done as well worldwide.

The internet seems to be another of those public services that could be amazing, is amazing I suppose, but for the last twenty feet from the street to your house where private more-or-less-monopolies get to charge you bags of money to connect to it. Don't want to pay taxes to keep up the net? Who runs the big pipes? I suspect it's not your local phone/tv/internet gouger. Don't want to pay taxes to fix potholes? Think about if you had to pay tolls for each kilometer driven, or even better, lay down your own roads like the train companies had to do.... and that's the real reason track is being ripped up, they have to pay for it even if they're not using it.

My point? I dunno, do I always have to have a point? Well how about this, governments and organizations exist to provide services that allow citizens and members to get on with whatever they're supposed to get on with. Sometimes they provide services that damage similar services and that's unfortunate for those invested in the losing side, but folks can adapt.

Unless they can't. What happens if the government decides to stop spending money on roads? Why not, anti-tax-me is pretty powerful these days, 'user-pay' is on the rise (as in I don't use the subway why should I pay for it, oh and fix these potholes what do I pay my taxes for...). So the train tracks get ripped up and everyone buys trucks but then the government stops maintaining the roads and now there's neither trains nor trucks. Oops, better start laying track.

Organizations? Let's go with budo as always, large organizations like to get larger, they do so by providing services like instruction and grading. Smaller groups sign on and adapt to the new situation, shutting down their own grading systems, adapting their practice to fit in with the big group.

What happens when the big group starts to change the way it provides service? It all depends of course, but at some point the smaller groups are going to start making tracks.

Almost every organization... no, every budo organization I've been involved with has gone through growth, stagnation and decline. They grew in an era before aerobics classes and the rise of the local gym, they grew by a focus on providing instruction and grading through enthusiastic leaders who were evangelical in their zeal to spread the art. Then, typically, the bean counters take over as the building generation gets tired and steps aside. Now the organization becomes more important than the membership. Fees rise, grading requirements rise, services that were provided through enthusiasm become user-pay. Eventually growth stalls as members find the service doesn't match the expense and they leave, but for a while new members replace them.

Comes the 24 hour local gym and a different, exciting exercise system or machine every month and the long steady decline of the budo organization begins.

There will always be a core of course, just as there will always be some punter on a restored barge drifting down the canal system... at least until they silt over. Then the barge is tied up at a dock and the former sailor buys an RV to drive from Wal-get to Wal-get parking lot on that new-fangled road system.

I'll be pushing my own barge down the canal for as long as they don't need my space for the new trip-hop hot suspended yoga class. Then maybe I'll build that dojo in my back yard... if they let me.

Feb 2, 2016

Teaching secrets

Yesterday we went through Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Oku Iai, the seated techniques (iwaza) and the partner version of the standing stuff (tachiwaza). Yes there are partner versions of the standing techniques, I know because I invented them yesterday.

Trust me, I'm a sensei, you (my students) have to have faith that when I invent stuff it's for your own good. Without faith you won't get better.

OK never mind that I can hear you laughing, I'll give you some reasons why I teach Oku the way I do. As for the partner thingies, it's just a real quick way to give you a version of what's going on, a feel for the timing and distances and a chance to hear the traditional stories without giving you a chance to try and remember a bunch of footwork and sword angles. You have enough to write in your books with the seated stuff, we'll come back to the standing kata and you'll get it a lot faster for knowing the feel of it first.

As for that seated stuff, please do not write down the things I told you not to pay attention to if you are a beginner. I teach you Oku because I was taught Oku, it's the way my sensei was taught. Start at Omori and go through the levels until you hit the end and start over again at the beginning.

Other people teach differently, maybe doing the very first kata for a year or two and then introducing the rest when the students are ready. I have a great deal of sympathy for that method but it's not how I was taught so it's not how I teach. Still, please do remember the places where I told you to ignore what you were seeing and hearing, there is a lot in Oku that contradicts what we want you to learn. You can't chase two rabbits at the same time and you can't swing the sword in two different arcs at the same time either. One shape we want you to have as your baseline and one you ought to assume is a mistake on sensei's part when you see it. "Look, he blew that cut completely didn't he". As far as you're concerned, yes I did.

Now I'm explaining this to you because you are adults and you can separate things in your head. I know it doesn't bother you that when I'm teaching Jodo I tell you that Muso was defeated by Musashi, did his time on the mountaintop and came back to defeat Musashi, and then in Niten Ichiryu class I tell you that Musashi was never defeated. Two arts, two stories, no problem.

But two different ways to cut in one art? That's a bit much even for an adult beginner to take on physically, no matter how well you understand it in your head, so don't. One of them isn't to be demonstrated anyway, it's not very elegant is it? It also promotes bad habits that we are trying to get rid of when we teach you the other shape.

I kind of rant on about this and other stuff don't I? Things like the way you lift your sword over your head after drawing and cutting. I make a bit of a fuss and insist that you do it in a different shape for each level of practice. That's what I was taught and it's what I teach you for a very good instructional reason. There's no real-world problem if you use the Oku way of lifting the sword when you're doing Omori, but once again, if you do it as a beginner it will promote bad habits. Specifically, doing things the way I teach you will give you a sense of where your hand is in relation to where the opponent is. More, it will give you the experience and control to put your hand wherever you need it. Start using the Oku method because you figure it's "more advanced" and you'll end up creating an opening in your kata. Don't do it, and don't teach it to your students, no matter how clever you think it is. Let them walk before you allow them to stumble (they won't run, try it on a student who thinks he's ready for the secret stuff, he'll stumble).

It's natural that we all want to know the secret stuff, but if I show it to you now and reveal it as not so very secret, then ask that you be patient and wait for me to tell you when to try it, will that give you some peace of mind? I used to worry that I was missing something, I was, it's practice. Practice long enough and you stop looking for the secret stuff, simply because you realize there is no secret except the basics that you were shown the very first day you stepped into the dojo. In 1980 I picked up a bokuto for the first time ever and was shown how to grip it. I'm still working on that, that's the secret, every twitch and swing of the sword comes from that grip. Secret kata or secret ways of shaping your cut don't count. The ability to do any kata and make any shape cut comes from the grip.

I think my sensei told me something about using my hips that first day too, maybe I should get back to that one of these days.

Feb 1, 2016

I believe I was called an atheist recently.

I want to analyse that sentence. First, let's take the word atheist, for some reason I want to believe it means someone who doesn't believe in religion, but the various dictionaries tell me it means someone who doesn't believe in god. I figure that ought to be an adeist, but deism is a specific variety of god belief. God made the universe and then beggered off somewhere to let it go as it wanted. God as the big bang, or the continual little bangs of the multiple worlds theory or some other such quantum thing. Why not? Big Bang, Big Kahuna, Prime Cause all of them.

Atheism as a disbelief in religion? I certainly believe in religion, I've got plenty of evidence that it exists, it's in the news a lot and I've been in churches. I suspect I was even baptised as an Anglican. So yes, I believe in religion.

Do I believe in gods? I believe in the concept, I believe in the concept of Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy and Inherent Human Rights. Do I believe in their existance? Not at the moment, I have no evidence so I suppose I'm an asantaist, an asupernaturalist. Are there forces at work in the universe that I don't understand? Absolutely, quantum mechanics come to mind, I have no understanding of that stuff at all. Those who work with it assure me they don't either, it's just a set of equations that work, but who knows what they mean? They explain in a very mysterious way, how the world works. Sounds like religion to me, except that physicists don't try to evangelize... oh wait...

OK let's go to 'believe', what does that mean? Well it means "I think" or "my mom told me" or "I read it in a book". Belief is a slippery word, to a scientist it probably means "on the preponderance of evidence I have gathered, this may be an actual thing". To lots of folks around these days it comes out as "you are entitled to your beliefs". I suspect you are in this country at least, but what or who entitles you to believe whatever you wish? Is there a "human right" or a "god given right" to believe? I dunno, I suspect most people don't think about it. What's a 'right'? It's something that is permitted by the most powerful person or organization with power of life and death in your neighbourhood. Your rights are somthing that are negotiated and placed into the law, or they are something handed down by an 'even higher power' than that earthly authority. Regardless, they are not inherent in you, and they can certainly be taken away.

Belief. I believe in believers, in fact those who Believe scare the bejeepers out of me. Those who believe, who really, really believe in the absence of evidence to the contrary or simply the absence of evidence, who wish to force others to the same belief, in the belief that they are doing what is right, are capable of showing up at my front door with a weapon to enforce that belief. Believers, and Beliebers scare me. Sports fan(atic)s scare me. They do, they believe that watching the Leafs and believing they will win the cup this year will have an effect on who wins the cup this year. People believe they have the right to run a red light because they are late for work.

Am I an atheist? The statement is meaningless, it is without meaning in my case. I don't believe in anything, so it applies as a label, but it has no meaning, no matter what definition you are applying when you put me into that category.

I doubt. I require evidence, I look for reason, I don't believe. Yet I act as if I believe, I must or I wouldn't still be here breathing. I believe that if I step out onto the road and someone runs the red light and hits me I will cease to exist. This gives that busy driver the powers of a god (or a well armed citizenry at least) and I believe that. Yet I have no personal evidence of it, I've never tried it. Maybe the car bounces off me like it bounces off Superman. Still, I will continue to believe in the power of internal combustion and drivers with the right to run reds.

I get to doubt and examine publicly the meaning of life (the topic of the essay that somehow became a discussion of religion for someone) because of where I live. If I lived in a theocracy you'd not hear me cast doubt on the idea that the meaning of life is to obey (insert deity name here) and spread his/her/its good word to the atheists. I'd be right in there with a pitchfork and a torch. Or at least I'd be very quiet. Pascal's Wager can be applied to this life as well as to the next. When in a society that will punish you for expressing your doubt, on the balance of probabilities it's better to believe.

Believe what you wish, keep it to yourself if you don't want a visit in the middle of the night. For the most part, I keep it to myself because I believe in Believers. Sometimes, when I'm trying to discuss the meaning of life, it is necessary to bring the gods into the discussion since that is usually the first explanation you get from your mom. "Why am I here?" Because I got drunk and forgot to make sure your father was wearing a condom." Yeah, that may be the real meaning of your life but your mom isn't going to tell you that.

But you're all grown up now and if you want to think about the meaning of life it's your right to do so. It may even be your duty should you believe in certain conditions for leading a worthy life.

I doubt.

Jan 31, 2016

Meaning and purpose

After a somewhat sleepless night, (I mostly worry about organizing other people to get things done and preventing other people from 'helping') I tend to think about things like the meaning of life. Well, usually it's more like thinking about moving to the cabin and becoming a hermit so I don't have to deal with people, but it comes to the same thing.

Someone famous said "hell is other people", which just popped into my head as a clever thing to say right now, but it's not actually true. Hell is the result of your own efforts to get other people to do things, or your efforts to avoid other people trying to make you do things. Other people are annoying to the extent that they are other people and not you. OK I had to go look it up and apparently it wasn't Sartre who said that (in "no exit") but some actress in the Vampire Diaries. Really, the Vampire Diaries came up first in Google so that must be the source. Talk about cultural appropriation.

Never mind all that, what is the meaning of life? I've been thinking about that since I was less than half the height I am now and I'm not a lot closer to an answer other than to sincerely believe it's the wrong question. The meaning of life is that we are alive. The meaning of oxygen is that we breathe it. The meaning of light is that we use it to see. Does there need to be a reason? Have you ever thought what a miracle it is that we live in the goldilocks zone, our planet is exactly what we need to exist, the right temperature, the right gravity, the right amount of radiation... it's mind boggling. Except that it isn't. It is what it is and we are what we are, these are not disconnected things. One does not cause the other. One was not created for the other. My understanding of this came when I was seven or eight I'd imagine, when I thought about what an amazing set of circumstances it was that I am. What if my mother hadn't walked down the pier that day at that time and my father hadn't accidentally burned her leg with a cigarette from the boat he was sitting in? The answer of course is that I wouldn't be here to be wondering about it. The question arises because I am.

Nothing wonderous about it at all, although that sort of thing is supposed to make me all awe-full. The universe is really big, really, really, really big, so big that we can't imagine how big it is. Doesn't that make you feel amazed? No, it scares the hell out of me, it makes me feel insignificant, it makes me want to invent a god so that he can have a mysterious reason for me being here amongst all this damned big. Oh and dead, eventually we all find out we're dead men walking and what's that supposed to mean in an uncaring unforgiving universe or even on a world that doesn't give a rat's patootie whether our entire species is here or not, any more than it cared if the dinosaurs survived one of it's burps of gas to become chickadees or not. Wow, life is rare, and delicate, and short, and snuffed out with a missed heartbeat. Surely we must have a god who will give us a life as long as the universe after we're done here, surely we can't be as insignificant as we are?

Really? Yes let's have a god who tells us to end the lives of those who don't believe so that we can live forever and those who don't believe just end. Or better still, the believers go to a nice place and the unbelievers go to eternal torment, forever, and ever. The ultimate crab bucket. (And I now feel the need to rince out my mouth. Seriously, who invents this kind of thing?)

And all the wrong questions, all the wrong assumptions. The universe doesn't care about you, the world can get along without you, as will your kids and everyone around you. The world is not your mother. God is not your mother, your mother cares about you. Your kids care about you, take what meaning for life from that you wish and be satisfied.

This is not depressing folks. What is depressing is to flail yourself with worries about meaning. Again, the meaning of life is "life is". What's wrong with that? We humans may be the only thing in the universe that is aware of the universe in the way we are aware of it. That is, the only things that can whip ourselves with anxiety about what it all means. "Oh if we only found other life we would appreciate our planet and protect it". "Oh, if we knew for certain how special we are we would protect our planet".

The planet will do just fine without us, we can't do anything to it that will hurt it. The Planet Is Not Us folks, when we talk about protecting the planet we are talking about preserving the continued lives of 9 billion meatbags walking around on it's surface, who have been aware of their own existance and able to worry about it for less than one percent of the age of said planet, and who somehow have managed to get the power to end our own existance before said planet belches and does it for us. We won't destroy the planet, we aren't that powerful, we can only destroy ourselves, stop being solipsists and assuming the planet is you. You're not that important.

So how do we contemplate killing ourselves on the planet (which is the correct version of the question)? By understanding that once we, personally, are dead it doesn't matter what happens to the rest of THEM. All the better if we go somewhere else and live in pair of dice forever but if not, we won't know we aren't there.

Meaning of life my ask.

How about another question, how about asking what your life is worth instead of what it means? My life means something if I am remembered forever! Be careful what you wish for, who do we remember forever? Some pretty nasty characters, and what was their worth? Worth may just be inversely proportionate to fame, even if we do confuse the two. Think of the first four famous people who pop into your head. Now think of four worthy people. Are they the same?

Maybe they are, if so you probably think more about worth than meaning, assuming meaning is "living forever", which, to be honest, comes down to being remembered unless we go back to some god who stuck us here to live and die as some sort of test of worth which if you pass means you live forever. My brain hurts trying to think up reasons for such a thing, in fact the best I seem to come up with is "god is" I can't figure out what he's up to (or what he's for) any more than I can figure out what life is for.

I am rather more fond of the reincarnation ideas than the heaven forever ideas. You keep getting reborn as different things until you get it right and your existance ends. The goal of course is to end the cycle of existance by finding or developing some sort of worth. Funny how all that quickly ends up with more gods attached to it, and some sort of continued eternal existance after you get off the wheel. We just can't take the idea that we won't be here.

Which goes back to my point. Life is. What more meaning can there be than that. All living things share that with us, we all live.

We choose to believe we are separate, special compared to other animals like dogs. Dogs are, they have existance, they live, but we are different. Sure we are, we are different in that we can contemplate things like the meaning of our existance, and invent all sorts of mental gymnastics around the awareness. A dog doesn't worry about the meaning of life. He just is. A dog doesn't contemplate the meaning of killing and eating a rat, he just does. We agonize about killing and eating dogs. A dog is content to continue living, we seem not to be.

What a waste of time. How about not worrying so much about the meaning of life and thinking instead of the worth of our life. Our invididual, sole, miraculous, random, short, forgettable life.

Are you even more depressed now? Why?

Life may have no meaning, that doesn't mean it has no worth.

Jan 30, 2016

Permission to fall down

We do our aikido at a University so the concept of positive progressive permission is familiar here. For those who don't live in an ivory tower that means you ask permission every step of the way when out on a date. "Can I hold your hand" "No I'm driving". "Can I unbutton your top button" No it's cold. "Can I buy you another beer" Absolutely.

Anyway, at one point during our second class of the semester last evening I told them to do a breakfall by getting onto the ground "Ask first". The theory being that it's well padded. Our theme of the evening seemed to be something like "understand why you're doing stuff", so with ukemi it was "protect things that need protecting by sacrificing things that are less valuable".

We started with breakfalls because they're what you need most, especially here in southern Ontario with our winters that alternate between blizzard and freezing rain. Lots of ice under snow. You're half way to the ground before you realize it so "ask first". The hands and legs are sacrificed for the hips, the hips for the spine, the spine for the head.

We worked on absorbing as much of the fall as possible with the muscles of the legs (squat first) then drive the side of the ask to the ground and right after that work on cutting the rotation of your head toward the mat. Slap the arm down by the side of the hip (not up over the shoulder where the rotator cuffs may or may not still work and certainly don't reach for the ground on the way down. You know where it is, right where you left it, beside your foot). By slapping at the hip you're using the big muscles in your chest and back, slap to bleed off energy into the ground. Then use that pivot point (your big ask) and shoot your legs out straight to further cut the rotation.

Look at your belt knot, or your groin if you don't have your belt on, to keep the head tucked and use your free arm to protect your head.

And you're there, a bruise on your inner elbow where that ice spike poked you, and a story for the guys in the office.

Front breakfalls are a bit different than side or back in that you want to hit the ground with your arms over your head. Again, take as much as you can with the leg muscles, then tap the knees on the ground (don't drive them into the gravel, get over them) and launch forward to hit the mat with the forearms and palms once more but as you do use those massive chest muscles to pull yourself forward off the knees as you slap your stomach (that big soft round thing that conterbalances your big ask out the back) into the ground. This keeps your chin off the ground. If you were playing volleyball and just dove for a save, you'd be sliding with great drama across the court hoping not to get stomped on as your teammates go after the ball.

After breakfalls come rolls. Tell the class the following: Get down on the left knee, put the left shin at 90 degrees to the front wall. Put the right knee down now, aimed at the front wall. Put your right palm on your left knee and look at your groin. Push forward, more, more...

At some point you hear "Oh, I did it". Feel like a wizard.

Now drag out the big soft high jump pit and demonstrate a "big breakfall" from your ghost opponent, while telling the seniors in the class that it's all well and good to launch yourself into the air often and enthusiastically but you'd better get good fast if you want to continue in Aikido because it takes a toll on the bones and you don't want to end up like crippled old sensei who can teach but can't do. Be a sissy instead and do little breakfalls and rolls most of the time.

All in all, I'd rather not teach the falling down stuff but that's what you better do with beginners before you teach the throws. Or do what I do most of the time and work on the entrance up to the taking of the balance. That's what fascinates me so that's what we do.

Sensei are a selfish bunch.

Jan 29, 2016

Never give up, never surrender

While doing jodo last evening we got onto the topic of winding up and its cousin, falling back on your heels whenever you stop moving.

Never give up territory that you own, and never surrender an inch while you're starting the kata.

On the windup, get all that stuff over with before you have to move in a kata. Drop your weight onto the correct foot (bend the other knee), put the hand into the position that it launches from (no sense pulling it back before you shove it forward). Take a breath so you don't have to suck in oxygen while there's a sword coming down on your head.

While inside the kata if there's a stop called for, stop as if you're half way through a movement and got frozen in place. Don't stop, rock back on your heels, move away from the opponent, and then have to activate all those muscles again to start forward once more.

Both these things mean there is no pressure on your partner.

Never give up, never surrender.

Jan 27, 2016

You get what you measure

The scientists amongst you will get that, but I'm not convinced that the statement is all that well understood generally. Of course it makes sense in and of itself. What else could you get except what you are measuring.

The corollory is that you don't get what you don't measure, which is why you shut down research into areas you wish to ignore, but that's another matter, brought up here just to get people all riled up. Mostly scientists.

Let me begin by outlining what I was taught of judging in the kendo federation by chairs and members of the central committee in Japan in both iaido and jodo. Then we can talk a bit about measurements.

First, judges are independent, they are expected to judge and allowed their opinions. On the other hand, they are also required to be impartial and thus there are rules in place about separating them from the challengers on the grading day and not discussing results etc. etc. Things I have written about before. Impartiality and independence are probably the most import qualities which build trust that the judging process is fair. Anything that reduces the appearance of fairness will work to ultimately destroy an organization that relies on gradings, and most budo organizations do.

So to reiterate, judges are independent and allowed their opinions and their judgements will stand, regardless of whether or not anyone, including the chief judge thinks they are correct. By opinion, I mean they have their own criteria but this is subject to instructions from the technical committee (headed by the chair, in Canada called the Chief Examiner). These criteria are outlined and perhaps described at seminars by local committees and chief judges on individual panels. In other words, judges are trained. At any particular grading there may be variations in proceedure and other items that are outlined to the judges by the chief usher on the day.

But at the table, during the gradings, judges are expected to decide for themselves whether or not a candidate has met the level required for that grade. That's it, in a grading it's possible for everyone to pass or everyone to fail. This is different than a tournament where by definition 50% will fail.

What about a judge that is prejudiced, or who is lazy, or who otherwise damages the dignity of the process. His judgements stand, but the chief judge can remove him from further panels simply by not recommending him. It is the chief examiner's job to draw up a list of potential judges and to recommend them to sit a panel. That list is then sent on to the regional administrative head (the president or similar positions) who will be putting the grading together and doing all that monetary, administrative stuff. What does this mean? Well in Japan I am informed that judges who "pass everyone" or who "fail everyone" are not invited back to sit on panels. This is possible in Japan where there are in actual fact (I refuse to write 'literally') thousands of potential judges. In a place like Canada where we have few judges, the chief examiner does not have that luxury. This does not constitute a problem since places with very small numbers of judges tend to have very tight judges, they have been together for many years and are "known quantities". The judgements are consistent and require no particular concerns. This changes somewhat as new people come into the process but the older judges will tend to educate the new ones into the particular culture and the challengers should see no great and sudden changes either way, changes which would undermine the faith in the process.

Each local area of judgement will, inevitably, largely because of the small number of judges, have its own flavour and here is where we get to the point of this little essay. Results at gradings will depend largely on what is being measured, and what is being measured will determine the style of budo in those under any particular panel.

Perhaps the simplest, and to my mind, laziest way to judge is one that is also the easiest to standardize across multiple regions. That is to measure things that are objectively measurable. Is the hakama touching the top of the foot and higher at the heel than the front. Is the juban one cm exposed all around the uwagi? Does the top match the bottom colour? These are things that are simple to judge, so simple they only require publishing somewhere and they disappear. Challengers will do what their instructors tell them to do to pass. Challengers who show up at gradings in improper uniforms (provided those uniform requirements have been established, published and publicized) will fail. Of course one might argue that the panel is punishing the student for the failure of the teacher but the teachers are not standing in front of the panel are they?

Should "common knowledge" be the only way the uniform standards are established, in other words, if they are not written on the website, in the handbook, or thoroughly taught to the teachers, this becomes problematic and failing challengers for improper uniforms, a simplistic pass/fail criteria but one that is a manditory fail point, will undermine confidence in the system. By establishing an objective measurement which includes an element of unannounced change or general uncertainty, one creates an unfair grading situation.

Similarly, timing a grading is a manditory fail point. If one has variable requirements for timing (sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes it's a fail point if the timer is sitting beside the challengers, sometimes not) it creates problems. Yet it is a very simple measurement to make. Should one simply begin working on the timing from the start so that one never goes over time? Perhaps, but for my part I tend to tell my beginners to ignore time and not worry if they fail their next test because of it and "JUST SLOW THE DEVIL DOWN".

You get the idea about manditory fail points in things that are easily measured by rulers or clocks. They are not a problem if standards are clearly communicated, and are a problem if not.

Then we come to "check points" which are written down somewhere and taught to the students. These are much more important in determining what sort of students you get as a result of what you measure. There are check points in the kendo federation iaido manual and those are most certainly known by the challengers to gradings. They are known because they are taught vigorously in the months leading up to gradings. The ones that are easiest to measure and easiest to teach are things like "the sword must stop at chin height when cutting the face". This of course leads to many discussions and definitions of chin height, which is fine, but it also leads to massive efforts to actually stop a cut at the right place.

Think about that, "stop a cut at the right place". I leave you to make the connections between what you measure and what you get.

Publishing judges check points and teaching those to students will rapidly produce students who expect to pass if they hit those check points. Never mind the awful technique in between. Students will practice to the test as much as sportsmen will play to the rules. If you want to succeed you will push the limits of those rules. If you figure stopping a sword within a centimetre will get you a pass, you're going to buy the lightest, shortest sword you can get away with.

Other check points are things such as "must demonstrate fukaku". This is so vague as to be meaningless to students but always leads to requests to be taught how to demonstrate it at a grading. The answer of course is to say "practice". How does a judge measure something like "depth of practice"? By knowing it when he sees it of course, by his own depth of practice. One does not get out a string and a weight to measure depth of practice "mark twain!" style, one sees it out of the corner of one's eye. In other words, it's difficult, it's an opinion, it's somewhat regionally determined, it's an unspoken general impression, strongly influenced by the senior teacher in an area.

Does this lead to feelings of unfairness in challengers? After all how can one object if one goes over time, what's not fair about that objective measurement? But subjective measures like how good are you, how well can you cut, how well can you catch the opponent's timing, how well can you read the shifting weight inside your partner's body, must surely be unfair measurements, subject to the whims of the judge.

Curiously, they are not for most budoka, they are the things they want to be measured on. Who measures them? My teacher and his fellows, who else could? Who would object to subjective measures applied impartially by your teacher? I suggest perhaps those who have a fondness for the rule of law, who figure more objective rules will fix everything that hasn't been fixed yet. Judge me with clocks and rulers because it's easy to pass. Don't mark me with opinion and impression and judgement!

But this thing we do is not the high jump is it? Or the 1500 meter.

Jan 25, 2016

Everybody knows

That in the east they go from practice to theory right? And in the west we start from theory and go to practice. That's how the teaching works, so we teach kata by look-do and from that the students will get the deeper insights if they just stick to it for long enough.

Maybe. I was never really taught that way, the closest was when I started Aikido and our sensei came from a black belt dominated class in Toronto to our rank beginners out here in the hinterlands of Guelph, but didn't really change anything. Demonstrate four times and say "go ahead", so we did. Watch the feet twice, then watch the hands, if you got the feet you got the hands.

That's the story I've been telling for 30 years and I'm only partly lying when I do. I mean, that's the way class went with sensei, but we had two sensei from the start, and our second, he was a third kyu at the time, taught two of the three classes. He explained things, and even back then there were a few textbooks floating around so we read those.

In other words, while the main style might have been look-do, we filled in with explain and study right from the start.

In the last month or two I've started building speakers. I started from the practical, I ripped a pair of computer speakers apart and put them in a box. The last time I had built a speaker there were no computers in the home to have speakers attached to. If we'd put speakers on the IBM mainframe we fed our punchcards into it would have been kind of useless, no audio, just a 128 character line printer for output. (132? What's twitter?).

I looked at the amplifier, ripped apart some speakers without amplifiers and looked at them, wondered why you needed the box closed since I could run an old pair of pegboard back six inch speakers with a 5 watt per channel amp, and read some theory on the net. The boxes went down a treat for Christmas presents.

I had earlier refoamed a pair of solid oak bass reflex speakers (Szabo) and loved the sound. (Bass reflex speakers have a tuned port, a tube of certain dimensions that extends the bass a little bit down while often making it a little bit "one note"). From there I thought about wood and glued some plywood onto some minisystem speakers and found a lot more bass in them. Stiff cabinets good said the theory, confirmed by my practice. Maybe this stuff works.

The Pamurai found a pair of Boston Acoustics towers and she refoamed the woofers. Nice sound, acoustic reflex style (sealed box) but they need a lot of power to drive them. Not surprising since the air pressure inside is resisting the movement of the woofer cone. How did I know that? I looked, no hole, so I read and found out why.

I read some more then tore more speakers apart for their drivers, went to the shop and built a couple of cabinets that were essentially a couple of tubes. Zigmahornets. I'd read the theory online and was told I needed a specific driver and mdf and... I stopped reading and built them with a pair of 4" drivers out of some surround speakers since it's easy for me with my shop full of machinery and a few dollars worth of pine/spruce strapping. They sound different than anything I've listened to over the years. I liked them.

So I read some more on transmission line speakers and went to the thrift shops and accumulated speakers and have since been alternating between experiment and theory.

All this to understand the theory? Why not just read it on the net? Mostly because when I try to read theory I fall asleep. Remember calculus? I remember taking the class in high school and again my first year of University. I remember that I was good at it, I got great marks, but I know that at the moment, I have no idea what it is. I really don't. I don't know what it's for (find the area under a curve?) or how to use it. From the day I finished the course to this I've never used it, rarely thought about it except when I'm saying to someone "yep I took calculus once". Theory alone is a bit abstract... duh. You perhaps know kids that can quote chapter and verse from Takuan Soho's text on immovable mind. They can fire the definitions of all the concepts at you, but fall apart if you change the kata on them. I used to be that kid, now I can't remember the terms, the definitions or the authors most of the time. I have no clue if I can show you the theory or if I actually understand it, but I suspect I'm better at it than I was back when I "knew it".

Even when I manage to stay awake for the theory of speaker building lectures from the net, I never know how much of what I'm reading is BS and how much is half-baked opinion. Remember the Zigmahornets and their specific driver with specific characteristics. It sounds fine with a random driver. Was I lucky? Nope, I've built 30 or more speakers since in various shapes and sizes and they all sound OK. Some are soprano (1 and 2" drivers) some are tenors (4 to 6"), all have their particular voice, but all the line speakers are roughly the same sound. The kind of sound that makes you think the cats are knocking pencils off the desk in the next room when a drummer hits the rim with his stick. The kind of sound that lets you separate a cello from a bass guitar. The kind that makes you turn your head to the left when the guitarist starts a solo.

A hell of a lot better sound than when they were in the plastic-fantastic cases with the tuned ports and the peizo tweeters that start working somewhere around 18,000 Hz, well beyond my range of hearing (it stops around 13,000 I think).

So why the difference of opinion between me and the net? Between my experience and the theory? It goes back to the underlying principles. It goes to what you're using as your measure of a good speaker. I have no instruments to measure these things so I don't spend time trying to tune them to an absolutely flat response 20 to 20k. Why? I can't hear in that range and music is mostly well inside 27 to 5,000Hz. Beyond 5,000 Hz is the realm of babies in distress, ambulance sirens and other unpleasant sounds. Not least of which is my tinnitis.

My measure is to listen and compare it to the live music I listen to, orchestras and whatnot. Have I ever had a speaker fail? Sure, they go back into the parts bin. Those I like are accumulating.

What about budo? Is there a parallel to be drawn. (Of course there is, or I wouldn't be writing this). The underlying measurements dictate the answers you get. If your measurements are to get flat sound per frequency between 20 and 20k you can produce a speaker that gives you that but sounds like shite. Thing is, we tend to measure things that are easy to measure. Tone generator and mike in an anachoic chamber is easy. Putting an orchestra in one room, a speaker in another and asking experts if the speaker matches the orchestra? A bit expensive and not at all easy.

For another example of what I'm talking about look up "pixel peepers" in the photographic world.

Budo? My sensei says "catch your opponent" and that's my ideal for iaido. Other systems of measurement look at the ability to stop the sword within a one quarter inch window after cutting. I've watched students do that but not cut a thing. If you're measuring the ability to stop at that point it's correct. If you're measuring the ability to cut, it's not.

Is the solution to do both? I suppose one could, but is it important to stop the cut at a precise location in the first place? Perhaps. Let's go a bit further in our comparison. At the very earliest levels of grading in our iaido federation you can fail for having your uniform out of place, or for blowing your etiquette or for going overtime. These are easy things to measure, are they important? Certainly to some people or they wouldn't exist. I suspect you might be able to guess my opinion of them as measures of good swordsmanship. Think about this from a judges point of view. Oops, Johnny went over time, big X and I'm done. It's easy... read lazy. You want to process a thousand students in a day? Make sure your measurements of quality are easy to define and to apply.

At the end of the day, everybody knows.... what?

Jan 24, 2016

Not just a time suck

While faceplant can be a massive time suck, my old tablet and it's barely working apps will crash after five minutes or so which I take as a sign to get off, but I just realized, after having my plans for a post sucked right out of my head, that it can be a massive wet blanket to creativity as well.

The simple act of wondering why in the world anything, human or algorithmic would figure I want to see a photo of some pretty model holding the world in her hand while the caption tells me about a quiz I can take which will identify the six things that prevent me from getting ahead.... how about doing quizzes that tell you why you're not getting ahead? That could be why I'm not getting ahead.

Ah, now that I've put words on... paper?? Whatever, I've remembered what I wanted to think about.

Not from the center

Aikido class is always fun for me, awful for the students I suspect, if they're trying to learn aikido, and last night I started off with the question "who has heard that you should move from the center". A few hands went up, the beginners looked like beginners always look. Get to the point sort of look.

Well, says I, you shouldn't move from the center you should move the center from. Clever Clyde neh? My point being that if someone is swinging a sword at you (there's always a sword in my class, can't help it, it's just so clear, no arguing at all, you've got a big split scalp or you did it right) you need to move your center off the line, not move from the center.

If you bend over and leave your head on the attack plane you can be moving from the center. If you maintain your nice upright posture and instead shift your center off the line, all the rest of you moves offline as well.

Language has power, words are magical until we don't need them any more. How we phrase things in our heads will affect how we do our arts so find the right words to put in your head and leave them there. When you need to do something the correct combination of words will cause the correct actions.

Not kidding, be careful how you phrase things to your students. You, of course, are beyond language and will do the right thing without thought... that's mushin right?

Jan 22, 2016

Look to your kids

Some columnist is now warning that we ought to be afraid if our kids are on yet another social media thingie where, presumably, they do bad things.

You want to know if you're going to have bad kids? Look to yourself. Everyone figures their kids are OK which means most kids turn out to be you. The parents who figure their kids are not OK are often those who bring up kids that don't slavishly obey.

You wonder what sort of parent you are? Look to your kids. If they don't respect you, you're likely not respectful, of them or of those they see you interact with.

You don't get to have respect just because you figured out how to procreate. That's not really anything you need to learn, your biology will guide you entirely without any thought being necessary. In fact, thought can interfere with the process.

Teachers, sensei, you want to know what sort of a mentor you are? Look to your students. Students and kids are remarkably similar, even the stages of development. Anybody out there with "teenagers" who are pushing your buttons and figuring out what they can get away with? And you thought you were done with that when Johnny went to college.

Right about now you're saying to yourself "there he goes again with the hasty generalizations", and you're right. I know good kids that came from crappy parents. Kids grow up despite their parents and sometimes they can grow up pretty well. But on the whole, you end up saying to yourself as you get older "my kami, I'm becoming my mother". We pass the arts through generations, sensei to student, but along with those arts we also pass along our teaching style, our attitudes toward others, our opinions on our organizations. Just like you shape those little mini-me types scarpering around the house stealing food.

They're mirrors, don't look too closely unless you're prepared for what you see.

Jan 22, 2016

Global Financial Concerns

And building stuff for other people to buy. I thought, for the last several years, that I understood the world. I mean, cheap oil equals cheap transport equals China builds all sorts of stuff and we buy it and all is good. Cheaper oil would then mean cheaper stuff and more prosperity for everyone. If people keep buying more and more stuff we're gold.


The market and all that, trickle down effects. If someone is making a trainload of money, we all benefit. But now oil is worth less than nose drippings on a humid winter day and the world economy is tanking. What's up with that? Was the world economy mostly about using cheap oil to dig up more cheap oil?

How come cheap energy isn't producing a massive manufacturing boom? Could it be that things have just accelerated to their natural conclusions because of the cheap oil? As Brenda pointed out, cheap stuff coming out of China meant nobody in Canada was making stuff any more, just going into debt to buy it. Sounds right, in fact it was government policy for that last ten years, don't make stuff, dig it out of the ground and sell it as fast as you can instead.

Last ten years? Hell that's been the policy in Canada since it was Canada. The one exception I can think of is when Upper Canada developed and subsidized hydro electricity out of Niagara Falls and stole the manufacturing base away from New Brunswick. Then it moved to Japan, then Korea, then China, now who knows where it's going to end up now that China has switched from making stuff to buying stuff. That's what they call a "mature economy". You only make stuff if you're "developing". It's much higher up the chain if you buy stuff and sell it on, or better yet, loan money to folks who buy stuff someone else makes.

Meanwhile, I was in the thrift shop last evening and had a long discussion with another old fart who bought a set of beat up Small Advents (that's the name of the speakers, really, there was large advents then small advents). His dad sold the things so he's got a bunch of old drivers and stuff and will fix the speakers up just to listen to them. We talked about all the electronics on the shelves that was just thrown out because nobody fixes stuff any more. Why? It's cheap. Getting cheaper.

Or it will until the system breaks down, then let's see if our switch to financial and service industries was a good idea. An entire country's economic strategy based on moving paper around, the kind that records money transactions and the kind that goes with that order of eggs and bacon. Production? That's cutting down trees and shipping them elsewhere to be made into furniture isn't it? Or pumping oil to be made into plastic to be moulded into speakers. Yep, mature economy, the ideal of the rest of the world. Work at that cubicle on Bay Street pushing orders for stuff from the guy next to you to the guy on the other side.

It's beyond me. I'm too old to understand that stuff. I like the simple things, I make something and somebody wants it and gives me some money and I give them what I made. That I can figure out. Of course I'm not good at it, I mean I make stuff but I have trouble with the sizzle. "Sell the sizzle not the steak" right? Even better, don't just get on with it and make a widget, buy the widget from some poor sucker and paint it black and sell it on with extravagant promises of lifestyle improvements. That's what I'm supposed to be doing isn't it? Spend my time creating sizzle?

Or producing books and videos that highlight my massive skills at martial arts so that people pay me a zillion dollars to endorse their yoga pants? Something like that.

I dunno, I'm old. Maybe the ability to build a house, grow a garden, rip apart and repurpose electronics has given me a false sense of being able to carry on until oil becomes expensive once more and the economy booms because of it.

Listen, if anyone can explain this stuff to me please do. I don't get it... unless the economic news is mostly about making money out of the stock market... wait, it's starting to make sense.

Jan 20, 2016

You can't teach that there

Sunday's class is three hours long and the last one featured a whole three kata. That's a kata an hour which I suppose might sound OK if the kata were long, complex things. But they weren't. The most complex was chudan from the nito seiho set of niten ichiryu.

Put the two swords in front of you, avoid having them struck down twice, cut for your partner's wrists, then cut up under his wrist while blocking his sword as he cuts for your head.

Not particularly complex, but I got a bit frustrated because I couldn't teach what I wanted to teach there. It set off a lecture... OK a rant, on paying attention to the partner and doing something other than what my sensei calls a "sword dance". Especially one that only fits with the sword dance your partner is doing by accident.

Wave the swords around in exactly the correct manner, timing and position as is dictated in the manual and you'll still end up dead, just with a feeling of the unfairness of life because you did it all right.

Be a bit confused about the movements, fine, I'm OK with that, but there aren't that many and after you are shown them, practice them a bit and have them memorized, that's the moment you can start the kata. Up to then it's just gathering the wood to make the fire. Necessary but no matter how big the pile it won't get the rabbit cooked.

This is the problem with iaido, it's so easy to make it a dance. Maybe I should say we make it a boring, poor dance because dancers would say that a mechanical, lifeless dance is just "doing iaido". Or they would if they knew what iaido is.

Partner kata means you can interact with a non-virtual representation of your opponent. A teki instead of a kasso teki. So that's where I teach stuff about dealing with an opponent. My sensei teaches that stuff in kendo class.

So out came the lecture on the roles of the attacker (uchidachi) and the defender (shidachi) in Niten Ichiryu. The attacker seems to be pretty dumb. If his left foot is forward the sword is in hasso. If his right foot is forward he's cutting. Not hard to deal with then. So why do the two sides end up too close or miles apart, and the various attacks and avoidances and whatnot end up mis-matching?

Well if you know the movements why not go ahead and do them and damn the consequences. Perhaps because there are real world consequences to the wrong timing? The wrong distance. The wrong angles and hip shifts.

How do we teach that?

Ah, finally. First, at the beginner level we have to understand that there's a teaching side and a learning side. Uchidachi, that simple-minded loser, is teaching. We've lately had the luxury of having some experienced students around and we almost always put them on the uchidachi side. Beginners stay on the shidachi side. Uchidachi teaches, he leads all the motions, he sets the distances he sets the timing, he never, ever, gives up the initiative to shidachi. Not out of skill but because this is what is supposed to happen.

Shidachi's job, once he memorizes the movements, is to pay attention to uchidachi. That's it, no showing off, on jumping ahead to chapter 12, just do the movements as controlled by uchidachi. Shidachi's side is the simple one, despite what we think, to win is easy. Uchidachi has the tough job, to be at the edge of shidachi's skill, to be clear, to stick rigidly to the kata, to force shidachi to pay attention.

To mess with shidachi's head by changing the timing slightly, to pull a long stride out of shidachi, or a short one, to slowly speed up and to speedily slow down shidachi's motions when necessary.

If uchidachi isn't on his best job, shidachi won't learn a damned thing. If both sides aren't paying attention, I can't teach the fun stuff, like how to speed up and slow down, how to stretch a stride or shorten it, how to catch an opponent's movement before he knows he's moving. Maybe I can do that, maybe not, but I know for a fact that nobody learns that stuff if they can't do the kata together.

So we dropped the two-sword set and went back to the simplest of one sword kata, hasso hidari. Both walk forward three steps. Uchidachi cuts down on the head, shidachi steps to the right and cuts down on uchidachi's neck. How much simpler could you get? Every sword school has a move something like this don't they? Anyone can do this, why not move on to something more interesting?

Because I don't think there can be anything more interesting than this kata. This is the essence of Musashi's sword. No flash, no trash, just walk up and kill him. The thing most people forget is that he's also trying to kill you and that makes a difference. With a complex kata you have a hard time teaching that bit, it's just too dangerous, uchidachi has to dance carefully so that shidachi can follow and remember all the waving around and stepping here and there. It takes decades to get to the part where uchidachi tries to kill you. With hasso hidari it takes about ten minutes to get to that point.

IF, if, if you can get shidachi to pay attention.

Jan 18, 2016

Diversity? How about business as usual

Our University President has sent a letter around to clubs on campus noting that black students had demonstrated in support of Black Lives Matter and similar causes. The President noted that the University wants to be supportive of diversity and wants to have meetings to discuss supporting diversity of all types.

Aside from the diluting of the problem (black citizens apparently being targeted by police and being killed out of proportion to other citizens) to one of being inclusive of everyone, I was my usual touchy WASP male self and produced the following statement which likely won't get sent but I thought I'd put it here.

"As a martial arts club we are fully aware of cross cultural issues. Our instructors are as often Asian as Caucasian but our parent organizations also have highly ranked instructors of many colours, many cultures, and in both sexes.

Our martial arts clubs here in Guelph have always been accepting and supportive of diversity. In our club specifically over the last 30 years, we have had the disabled, women, men, and those of all colours, races, and creeds as they say. Those who are differently gendered, vegan or what have you are not asked about their personal orientations or beliefs. They are simply asked to practice our arts safely and honestly with all others in the class.

Diversity is simply not something that we discuss,the martial arts are concerned with issues of personal development, personal safety and a sense of community that often lasts a lifetime as the arts are almost always practised within a wider organization and with a sense of continuity hundreds of years long. Our teacher's teachers are important to us and often they don't even speak our languages.

We welcome anyone to our arts where they will find a second family which is as diverse as any that has existed in the world for the last four hundred years."

As I re-read that now I am reminded why I don't join these sorts of discussions. My statement is meaningless and misleading. It's meaningless firstly because it's a hasty generalization. I know plenty of martial artists of all races creeds and colours who are anything but accepting of diversity and so do you. It's also meaningless because saying we're accepting of diversity is like saying we're accepting of heating in the winter. In other words, I don't know what that statement means. Someone who is truly accepting of diversity won't think about it any more than they'll think about their furnace. You only notice you're accepting of it in its absense, or when someone reminds you of it (like when the heating bill comes). I have black friends who sometimes irritate the snot out of me, often when they say things like "that dog is racist, he's barking at me". At those times I'm reminded that they are a different skin colour than I am. I'm also reminded that our next door dog is a barky little thing that I'd like to step on, she's been barking at me for almost 18 years now. I know for a fact she's an equal opportunity barker because she's blind as a bat.

The statement is meaningless simply because it carries no meaning. Or rather it is a statement of an ideal, it has no compulsion, it has no educative value, it's a feel-good. It could simply be a lie, in fact, as I stated earlier, lots of martial artists are anything but inclusive, I think about groups like Karate for Christ, or I think about Asian instructors who do everything they can to keep the arts as "cultural treasures" which can't really be appreciated and definitely should not be practiced by foreigners. I don't need to go on, you can think of your own examples. "Martial Arts" is not "a thing", one can't make statements like I did about them without those statements being meaningless.

Acceptance of diversity can be legislated, there are hate laws and quotas. Acceptance of diversity can be encouraged, the arts funding in Canada is about to change to require diversity rather than simply mention it. You want money for your arts group? Show us the minority groups in your employ.

You will know something about your acceptance of diversity by how you feel about such laws and rules. Think about it.

But do any of these rules and vision statements make a real difference? Tell me, what makes a Chinese martial artist different from a Patagonian martial artist? You had trouble picturing a Patagonian? There's a clue, you know what a Chinese looks like because at some point somebody differentiated "Chinese" from you. If you're Chinese are you Han or ... some other subgroup that lives in the eighth of the world called "China", can't think of one right now. Why make the distinctions, well we humans don't distinguish things on an emotional level unless there's some profit in doing it. Some trees are evergreen, some deciduous, no problem, do you hate deciduous trees because the dirty beggers litter all over your lawn? Maybe, but that makes about as much sense as hating some racial group that you don't live beside. Don't like the tree? Cut it down, it's on your land. Don't like Patagonians? What? Makes no sense unless they are raking their leaves onto your lawn but they're half a world away.

Now if you're at war with the group next door and you can make some sort of distinction like "their god is a false god so it's OK to kill them (and take their land)" then creating an emotional distinction makes perfect sense. That's why they were invented.

These distinctions persist, they are propogated by those who don't examine them, they are passed down in families like the silverwear but most of them cease in a generation if they are allowed to cease. Can we say "mixed marriage"? What marriage isn't mixed? You marry someone other than your sister and it's mixed as much as it's ever going to be mixed from a genetic point of view. The rest is what your granny approves of, or more likely if you hear the words "mixed marriage", disapproves of. The kids, if left alone and not told that they are different, will find their own reasons to hate and love and otherwise interact with each other. If they are educated about diversity they will be educated, certainly. They will know that they are different from the kid next door and that they should be accepting of this kid (despite what? Despite being diverse? What's that?).

What profit is there in being accepting of everything? I dunno. I do know that there's profit in talking about and doing things about diversity. There are departments of diversity in the University, there's arts funding to be had. I've nothing against that really, unless those who are making a living at it are too much in my face about how I'm a "whatsist" because of my race, creed, gender and what have you.

Hasty generalization. If you want to accuse me of disliking something just ask, but don't assume I'm against whatever it is you're for because you have made assumptions. There's plenty of real reasons to dislike me, I'll provide them, you don't have to make them up ahead of time.

Please yes tell me I should sign a statement that our club is accepting of diversity. I'll sign on, I'd accept the next door dog into the class if it gave me one more body to keep the class running.

I'm just not all that sure it's going to address the concerns of that group that was protesting on campus last week.

Jan 17, 2016

Too much

This old tablet was starting to get really slow so I deleted a couple of movies I'd watched anyway and a very large number of posts. Now it runs a little better. Freeing up a bit of time to write more posts.

In my back room, speakers are slowly accumulating at the rate of about a set every two days I'd estimate. There are probably twenty plus pairs there and I can't see it going on much longer. There just isn't room to keep them around. I have no idea what to do with them, I am just having fun making something that sounds great out of something that sounds like crap. It started by putting some plywood around a pair of mini system speakers and finding smoother, deeper bass. Just stiffening the cabinets and getting rid of the wooden drum effect fixed them up. Not long after that I'm ripping speakers apart and putting the drivers in new containers.

They need to start disappearing, both kids have claimed a pair, as has the Pamurai (two sets) for her new apartment. She's threatened to start selling them on Kijiji for me. I can see the ad now. For sale: Unique, hand made speakers created from construction materials with negligable fit and finish that usually sound pretty good.

Yeah they ought to go out the door like hotcakes.

Maybe I'll find a good slogan, something like "Look like hell, sound OK". What do you want from a guy who grinds wood to make martial arts weapons. It's a matter of function over form, or perhaps just enough form to make sure the function is there. Perfect glossy finishes on bokuto or speakers doesn't make them work any better. I only go down beyond 80 grit sandpaper when Brenda forces me to do it on the exotic woods. 80grit is the line between soap and perfume.

We're talking physical accumulations here, files on an sd card, cedar boxes in a room. We're also talking about what these things look like as vs how they work. In the case of physical objects, form matters only so far as it improves the function, beyond that it's perfume.

How about forms themselves? Can you have too many forms? These are the physical manifestations of martial arts practice. Can you have so many forms in your head that there is no room? Can you add one and have one fall out the other side of your head?

To a certain extent, yes. Learn a form and never do it again and you'll lose it. But our brains aren't sd cards, you can't stuff "too much" into them. The storage in our heads isn't the same as the storage of "stuff", it's associative, it's a natural comparative mechanism. Things associated with things.

I used to torture my daughter with her gifts after a seminar trip. I'd try to find something that didn't look like anything else she owned. She'd spend hours looking around the house until she found another item that she thought matched the one I gave her so she could have one in each hand. My son wasn't quite as obsessed, it all got tossed into the pile and eventually moved back out the door, possibly to make room for his sister's pairs.

So why is it that we don't actually run out of room for new forms? Mostly it's because there aren't "65 forms in our school", there are four ideas. There are 12 kihon. There is one principle. It doesn't matter how many forms there are, they are all manifestations of the few principles so they can expand in numbers, contract, change... as long as they are demonstrating the principles it's all good.

I suppose it's the same with speakers, there is one goal, to hear the music as it's supposed to be heard, or at least as you want to hear it. Beyond that it's just forms upon forms. I make dozens of speakers because I can, I'm experimenting, reading and learning and trying to figure out the "riai", separating the real from the rumour, the soap from the perfume. In the "school" of speakers I practice (transmission line, how perfect is that for a budo guy) I'm coming to understand that what's important is the characteristics of the driver (what the opponent does) and the length of the tube behind the driver (cut him with your sword before he cuts you). That's the essential, beyond that it's a search for the edges where things don't work. If you choke the line down you lose the sound. If you make it too long your drivers may distort. If you stay on the attack plane you better deal with your opponent's sword in a forceful way or he'll cut you.

The varnish on the speaker is a fancy hilt wrap on your sword. To a certain extent, the joints on the speakers can be hanging open, just as your bokuto can have sanding scratches or your juban can be somewhat sloppily arranged under your uwagi, yet the function remains.

Too much function? No such thing. Too much form? Only on a superficial, store physical things in physical shape sort of way. Not what we're talking about as form in the martial arts, or in the process of making speakers.

Never too much practice, only too many results of your practice hanging around. That's a problem when you're making speakers but no problem at all when practicing budo, the ghosts of your movements don't accumulate in the least, make as many forms as you wish.

Jan 16, 2016

Show me what grade you are

My shoulders are screaming and my head is pounding this morning, but it was worth it. Our late-night jodo class turned into a basics-intensive drive to understand distance, timing and the correct application of power and softness to achieve the same. Sounds pretty basic doesn't it, but my two four/five dans who were there got something entirely different than your usual "take three steps and hit him in the head here".

I call them four/five dans because that's what they are in my head. I've never forgotten what my sensei said back in 1987 when we had no gradings to attend. He said "go out on the floor and show them what rank you are". Now, almost 30 years later, we're again at the stage where there are no gradings available for many of those in the federation. So I return to the beginning and treat my students according to what rank they are, not what paper they own.

These two are somewhere between four and five dan easily, even if they have topped out at third according to the chances to take a test. What a ridiculous situation, one that has dropped our practicing jodo population to less than half what it was five years ago. But not these two, and that's good. If you're sweating and scared during a practice, if you're standing still, not able to move for fear of getting killed if you do the wrong thing, all without the spur of "practicing for the test", you're my sort of student and I'll tear my shoulders apart to teach you what I know. Tear you apart to get you to put yourself back together in a better way.

Students who don't care about the paper on their wall deserve instructors who couldn't care less what you call them in class.

I have never had any patience with this ego-driven insistance on "respect" in the martial arts. Respect is what you earn by how you treat your students, not by what rank you've managed to purchase or by how long you've been hanging around the boss. By the way, that doesn't always mean being a nice guy, but it certainly doesn't mean being a puffed-up jerk. The same goes for students, their respect is earned by how hard they try to learn what I'm trying to teach not by their skills at sucking up.

I've known "students" that make the word "sensei" sound like an insult. Mostly because they mean it like that. "I'm only calling you sensei because you have a higher rank than I do even though I am better than you". Social climbing, smarmy little twits.

Oh, you've met?

Don't call me sensei unless you're my student. And if you were my student you probably wouldn't call me sensei. Last night I got told "Kim, you're not doing the kiai on maki otoshi in the right place". You'd think that I could fix that wouldn't you? This from a student who had been yelled at for an hour up to that point. Was there any feeling of "aha now I told you something" to it? Not at all, just a senior student reminding sensei that he needs to fix something that gets looked at during those non-existant gradings.


Jan 13, 2016

Find your place

Once again last evening I was yelling at the class because they couldn't get the right distance to start a Niten Ichiryu kata. They were too close, too far, or drifting toward one side of the dojo.

It's easiest to explain why knowing where you are in the dojo is important when you're practicing kata. Not knowing the maai in a Niten kata means you die, it's as simple as that. Our kata aren't long and fancy, there isn't any room for little errors that you will correct later, and certainly no excuse for poor distancing. If you miss, and your partner can cut you, you fail. Niten kata are of the "walk up and cut him while stepping to one side as he tries to cut you" variety. They can't be called fancy. In fact, one student was wondering last evening why Nagashi Uchi is a thing, considering that earlier we did Uke Nagashi hidari and ended things right there. (Nagashi uchi is two uke nagashi, one on each side). The answer of course is in the distance of first contact with your partner. One distance means he's back on his heels and can't defend himself, the other means he is not and he can. The lesson is "if at first you don't succeed...".

We have a nice large dojo to practice our sword work in, but I still rant about finding your place. You need to be able to look across a room and know whether you're going to live or die at that range. There's no room for walking in and "seeing what happens".

In Aikido we have a massive dojo. One of the largest areas of mat I've ever seen. Some classes we have maybe four couples working on their techniques and guess where they are? That's right, a dojo the size of a house and these guys are dropping their partners right on top of each other. Find your space.

Iaido is always the tough one to teach this sort of thing. With a room full of people swinging metal swords you'd figure it would be easy, but apparently it's not. Being the most self-indulgent of martial arts, it's easy for iaidoka to roll their eyes into their heads and figure there's nobody around but themselves. Just swing that sword, hit those grading points and you're good. No need to know where you are... until you get a sword in your back from the kid behind you who is also in his own little world. It seems that there are those who like to drift back, and those who tend to drift forward, and they always seem to line up the wrong way around. When I'm teaching I look for these guys and switch them around. Egos be damned, you drift back, you ought to be in the back row.

As an aside, it's fun to check out which schools put seniors up front (for the beginners to watch), down at one end (because it's the high point in the dojo) or at the back (to smack the beginners on the head when they misbehave). Our policy is to surround that lone beginner with our masses (usually at least two or three) of seniors so they have to move in lock step or get smacked. Force-learning is best learning neh?

Find your place, put a little gold star on the floor and look for it later kids. Or for the grown-ups, look for a mark on the wall in front of you, then look for a mark on the wall beside you. When you find them, stand at right angles to them. Simple enough.

When you're starting to "get" this stuff, just feel how much space you have in the eight directions around you. In any room, wherever you are, see if you can start feeling how much room you have around you. Eventually the air will become compressed as you get near a wall, and thinner where you have space. Now it's like driving, you know where you can go at all times so that when the truck appears in front of you it's easy to go right or left depending on the feeling of space you've created by paying attention. You avoid hitting the guy in your blind spot because you don't have a blind spot.

I get very upset with myself these days when I trip over something. I never used to do that, some part of my brain always knew where things were around me and I just stepped over or around them. Now it seems that the brain is getting as crippled as the body and I can't keep track of the loose stuff that shifts around the place.

Or maybe it's that the kids are gone and my brain figures things will be where they ought to be.

In their place.

Jan 11, 2016

Your perfect budo book

Back to some warmth today, but I'm slightly off balance because the window seat at the cafe was occupied. I'm sitting at a table instead, listening to the corner effects on the music. Two days without producing anything in the shop, I seem to be a sissy these days. Problem is, I'm not actually set up to do anything in the house either. I should be writing a book or three, that's what I decided I do in the winter. Any ideas folks?

What would be your perfect martial arts book? A collection of youtube videos perhaps? I mean, does anyone buy budo books any more? I know it's been a long time since I did, or to be honest, request one from a publisher to review.

In fact, it's been a while since I was looking through google scholar to see if there are any budo papers that I haven't read which have somehow come out from behind the academic firewalls. I don't know about you but I get a bit ticked off when I find a 30 year old paper that I'm expected to pay $45 for.

So there's part of my answer. A new book has to have information in it that I'm willing to pay for. A rehash, no matter how well written, of stuff I already know isn't worth much to me. Now, if it's more clearly written and allows me a deeper understanding of the material, maybe that's worth something.

As an exercise in writing, as an exercise in deeper understanding of the material I highly recommend transforming your own notes into a book. Perhaps I'll do that, I've got several notebooks hanging around.

I could perhaps set up the camera and shoot the seven or eight boxes of laminated one of a kind stuff for the business, but then I'd have to code all that onto the website. Ugh. My back is sore just thinking about it.

Back to a book. My preference would have to be specialist to a fault. Something historical would be nice, a translation of some writings from the late 1500s when the ideas of modern koryu (I just laughed) were being formed. Something before the Edo period warpage, and certainly before the Meiji and all that ultranationalist nonsense. Since there have been some very good works written already on the historical side of things by folks such as Karl Friday and Alex Bennett (his theses are online folks, and not behind firewalls) I guess I'm looking for someone to dig up some undisovered manuscripts.

Dunno if that's very likely, I rely on our western scholars who are slowly getting into that stuff. I'm not a translate the primary sources kind of guy so I won't look there for something to do in the next few months.

Maybe I should see if any of my old photocopies are mildew-free enough to still read. If I combine them with the stuff I've been reading lately I wonder if there's a literature review there? Maybe I should get one of the students to start a post-grad and just hand all that stuff over, my last lit review was in the early '80s. Before the temptations of cut and paste. Just before, I remember having discussions with my supervisor on how theses looked different when they were cut and paste jobs as opposed to written.

The easiest books for me to write are technical manuals. I remember the first attempts back in the dark ages before digital photography. My mother illustrated those, and did a pretty good job but they were years-long efforts. It's easier now, and ever so much more enjoyable but I think I've begun to run out of things that I do. I'd actually have to check but I think I've got a video of Niten Ichiryu shoto left, which I may get done tonight and then I've finished. The sword stuff anyway, I might have an aikido book left hanging out there, and the women's self defence course was never written up. Aikido is WELL covered by thousands of books and who wants to read a women's self defence technical manual? Don't we all, as martial artists, know all there is to know about that already?

Well, like I said, it's warmer today so I'm heading into the shop to put together another set of speakers or two. That will amuse an old retired guy until it's time to go practice tonight. The Pamurai (not my invention by the way, I think Mike Chinadi came up with that) has only agreed to be abused doing another video if we get some real practice in too. I don't get it, who doesn't like catching hell for doing things that don't show up on video anyway? I mean really, what's wrong with doing five takes that look identical on film and being yelled at for the first four?

I'll try to avoid doing that tonight... want to bet that the gym will be closed now that I've made plans?

Jan 6, 2016

Permission to improve

At a certain level of practice you really do need to give yourself permission to improve. Not to improve your own ability to copy and understand what your sensei has been telling you, but to improve the art as a whole.

Yes, you need permissions for this. Permission from your sensei for one, which is usually not given explicitly, but by subtle hints like "get out of my dojo I've got nothing more to say to you", or "why are you asking me that?". You know, little hints.

You also need permission from yourself, permission to go beyond what your sensei has taught you. Beyond what you can find in the books and videos. This is the unknown country, the place where you aren't following anyone else. It sounds very brave when you put it that way doesn't it? But it's really not. Your sensei went there, and his before him. It's just that at some point you run out of things to learn from the tried and true formulae and now you need to go find stuff out for yourself.

Stuff that's specific to yourself, like how to do a jumping spinning side kick with two fake knees maybe. Carefully would be my advice on that one. But there is other stuff that isn't quite as dramatic as that, stuff that you learn from the kata, which you can now probably pay attention to. Stuff that you ignored ten years ago because it wasn't handed to you by sensei, but that now just makes sense. Give yourself permission to listen and learn while you're teaching.

I'm assuming you're teaching by this stage, if you're still in class just ignore me for a while, you don't need to go off in strange directions, half-cocked as they say, to come up with ideas that are half-baked as they say. When you are teaching and you're explaining some point or other, a strange comparison may pop out of your mouth. Listen to this, it may provide a valuable insight to the art as a whole. Your students will miss it 90 percent of the time so don't count on them to remember and pass it along. Take it up yourself.

Then there are the other ways to improve the art, one of which is to get some beginners into the system. This is becoming a problem, the average age of martial artists these days seems to be drifting upward. I used to think that you had to study until you were 50 before you started to "get" this stuff. Now I'm beginning to think that maybe I was looking at guys who only had ten years in and started at 40. I'm talking about the budo I do of course, not the competitive stuff that appeals to kids. At any rate, we always need new blood and one way to do this is to heed the wise words of your sensei when he tries to kick you out of the dojo. Go, start your own, give yourself permission to screw up some students.

It's not that dire. You can always fall back on that old sensei trick of saying "I told you that because you weren't ready for the real stuff which I will now reveal to you" when you find out you've been teaching it wrong.

It's all good as long as nobody twisted their leg off.

Jan 5, 2016

And one bokken to rule them all

I've been thinking about rules lately and I've decided they don't belong in budo.

Way back, we got strong men who dominated the tribe. Might begets right and all that. Later, as groups got larger, the strong men started to invent new reasons they ought to rule, other than "I can thump ya". The most common of those were "tradition" (What? I've always been in charge) and divine right (God said I'm the guy).

Eventually though, some time around Hammarabi maybe, society got a bit too complex, or rulars got a bit lazy and they started to invent law codes. This left rulers to do what they did best, slob around with their dancing girls and a jug of wine instead of having to listen to the other kinds of whine from all the disputes over all the missing goats. You invented judges for doing that sort of stuff.

It's all a sort of good idea and I'm sure the rulers agreed, until the common folk decided that even a king was subject to the law. Now there's a nasty turn of events, the guy who invented the idea becomes subject to that same idea. What a turnup.

Still, rules are good for places where they are needed. Large groups who can't reach common consensus by sitting around on Saturday night with the local version of a beer and shooting the breeze. That's called culture by the way, the making of rules that "everyone knows" because we all hang out at the watering hole together.

Rules are a good thing, I'm not against them generally, except when they begin to take the place of the strong man. In this case, that strong man is "common sense" which is just a bit of thinking tinted with the local culture. You need to figure out what needs doing and then you need to temper that with the fact that you have to get along with the neighbours. Substitute rules for that and you get lawyers instead of neighbours.

Rules are what let us get along when we aren't all at the local having a skull of kava. Rules aren't things to try to rule with. If that ever worked we'd have rules that say you have to vote for the local strong man. Unfortunately for that guy, he's got to be strong enough to enforce those rules. It comes back to thumping people, but at one remove. You'll do it or I'll thump you becomes you'll do it or I'll have my local rule enforcers thump you.

What's this got to do with budo? Well quite a lot actually. We deal with thumping people, and to allow that sort of thing to be a school of instruction, we need some way to prevent it being the biggest, fastest, fittest kid who just thumps everyone (and presumably takes over as sensei). Schoolyard bully style isn't very elegant, you don't get pretty out of that sort of thing, so we make rules (which are rarely written down) like "you will not just paste your partner the first chance you get, you will do what sensei tells you to do instead". Those are good rules, they let us all work toward an elegant thumping style.

What those rules don't cover, I'm afraid, is all those cases of frustrated ego where we get juniors telling seniors they aren't doing it right. Or those even less subtle contests where we get students with secret information ("I was just in Hong Kong and the sifu there said it's done like this...") trying to lord it over the rest. In most budo this sort of thing gets taken care of by a good thumping in the back alley, as in "how does it go again? Let's see if it works". Some budo, like iaido, unfortunately are deemed just too dangerous even for trying stuff out, so sometimes you'll get attempts to make rules on things like "when is it permitted to tell a senior that they are about to hit me with their sword because they have wandered out of their assigned place".

Bad idea, you see budo is about getting rid of the need for those kinds of rules. It is about learning to open your eyes, think, learn from experience, and accomodate to others so that you can get along without eight foot high fences between you and your neighbour and let's go to court because that fence is three inches on my property!

In short, it's about teaching common sense.

So here are the rules in my dojo, they aren't written down, but we do discuss them over fermented yak milk at the post-class gathering in the cow-shed.

1. Pay attention
2. If someone else is not paying attention and is about to hit you with their sword, tell them so.
3. If that person gets all bent out of shape because you talked to them, suck it up Buttercup, anybody gets to fix dangerous situations. Anybody.
4. Thou shalt not correct your betters. Never. Unless you want to be shown why that way of doing things isn't done that way in this dojo. Your seniors have likely seen it, and will happily come straight up the middle with a stick to poke you in the chest.
5. Number four does not apply to sensei, if you have a better way of doing something, sensei wants to know. If sensei is doing it wrong, sensei wants to know. There are two reasons for this rule. One is that sensei may learn a new thing, which is something sensei enjoys. The second is that sensei may have forgotten that there is now a different dance move required to pass the gradings and he really does want you guys to pass your gradings and the third thing, wait there are three reasons for this rule and the third is that sensei wants you to get it out of your system before you irritate a senior student and get your chest poked.

Let's see, speak up before someone gets hurt. Shut up and learn. Yep, that about covers it. Of course the option to speak up to correct your seniors and sensei and learn by getting thumped out back in the alleyway (sensei isn't going to allow that sort of thing in the dojo, which would result in a false sense of permission to be irritating but hey, the alleyway is a place where sensei can pretend he doesn't know what's going on) is always available.

Rules? Too many rules on this sort of thing just get in the way of learning common sense and so they don't belong in the dojo. Kids need to grow up (learn some common sense), and too many rules will get in the way. I've seen kids come to university right out of a silk cocoon expecting that their noise will be tolerated, nay indulged, as it has been up to now. They don't do as well as the kids who have been allowed to fall out of trees. If you rebel in the dojo and get mildly thumped it just may save you from running a red light and getting t-boned by a transport because you don't believe that actions have consequences. Too many rules create expectations of others following them.

Or bothering to read them.

Jan 4, 2016