Monday, October 3, 2016

”The" Way, Ways, and our Assumptions

The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind.
Truly, “Only he that rids himself forever of desire can see the Secret Essences”;
He that has never rid himself of desire can see only the Outcomes.
These two things issued from the same mould, but nevertheless are different in name.
This “same mould” we can but call the Mystery, Or rather the “Darker than any Mystery”,
The Doorway whence issued all Secret Essences.
                        Arthur Waley (1)


The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.

Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery -
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
                D. C. Lau  (2)

These are just two of the many translations of the Dao De Ching that have been done in English. No one translation will ever be definitive. Some are much better than others, but I don’t think any of them is completely wrong. Each carries something thing of original Chinese, but each also carries much that comes from the assumptions and understandings of the person doing the translation, and the language into which it is translated.

Languages and cultures are so deeply intertwined I doubt it’s possible to separate them. Cultural assumptions influence how language is used. Linguistic assumptions and rules frame how culture is viewed. What are our cultural and linguistic assumptions that might contribute to how we think about and conceive the budo we practice?  

We assume this or that, that things are clearly black or white. Japanese culture assumes that instead of “either/or”, things can be “both/and”  Dichotomies make things simple to understand, but that simple understanding masks the interconnected reality of things that can be both this AND that at the same time.

English imposes certain frameworks that we don’t notice until they are removed by learning a language that doesn’t use the same frames. Two examples can immediately impact how we think about the above passage from the Dao De Ching.

Articles (“the”, “a”) mean that for countable objects we have to immediately decide if something is unique, and use “the” to denote this, or just one out of many, and use “a” to denote that.  What if you read the above translations without the articles? Does that change the feeling? For some reason, English speakers long ago decided that singular occurrences of things had to be distinguished from multiple occurrences. When Chinese and Japanese developed, the question of one versus many wasn’t an issue.

So what happens if we change the all the instances where nouns are translated as singular above to plural?  Chinese doesn’t divide objects into singular or plural, thereby forcing the verb to adjust to these categories. Things don’t have to be exclusively “the”.  There is an old saying that there are many paths up the mountain, but they all lead to the same place. What happens if we accept the ambiguity of not clarifying singular or plural?

It’s amazing that so many questions can be raised; so many possibilities, so many things can be changed just by recognizing a couple of the assumptions we weren’t aware we were making.  The language we speak provides a theoretical framework for understanding the world. We absorb that framework as we absorb the language, when we are small children. We don’t question the framework that our mother tongue provides until we start learning a language that uses a different framework.

Learning budo means stepping into a world dominated by a completely different framework, one that comes out of 1000 years of Japanese culture and language. Like American culture though, it has roots that go far deeper and draw on ideas that are far older than Japan. The United States looks to ancient Greece and Rome for the origin of ideas about citizenship, democracy and what it means to be a member of society.

Japan has been drawing upon the wealth of more than 3,000 years of Chinese thought. The works of Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu and Yang Hsiung, as well as all manner of Buddhist thought have influenced Japanese culture, language and philosophy since perhaps the 4th century C.E.  Japan has a very different culture from that of China, so just as English speakers impose our unconscious frameworks on Chinese translations, the Japanese have looked at Chinese writings through their own framework. Over the centuries Japanese culture and language have worked their magic and created wonderful new ideas and ways of understanding things.

One wonderful set of ideas and concepts comes to us in the forms of budo.  What preconceptions and frameworks do we bring to budo practice from our language and culture? One of the first examples that leaps to mind is mind, or better, 心 kokoro. This is also the character read as shin in mushin 無心, zanshin 残心, and fudoshin 不動心.

We all know that mushin is no mind, and that zanshin means remaining mind and fudoshin means immovable mind.  The problem is that they do mean those things. We have a tendency to learn those meanings and then stop because we think we’ve got it. Kokoro is more complex than just meaning what English speakers think of as “mind.”

In English, the mind is thought of as the seat of reason and intellect. It’s sheared off from the emotions, which are conceptualized as residing in the heart. If you think about it, this is kind of strange, since we now know that emotions and reason are all tied up together in the brain. In Japanese, they have always conceived of reason and emotions together.  They call it kokoro 心.

Most translators (including me sometimes) just go with translating 心 as mind. It takes extra effort to explain that it really means what is both heart and mind in English. Then you have to come up with a way to express that more complex meaning because English doesn’t have a word for it. What happens if we change the words we use to translate these?

        Mushin   -   no mind    
mushin   -  no heart     
mushin  -   no emotions
        Zanshin  -  remaining mind
        Zanshin  -  remaining heart
Zanshin  -  remaining emotions
Fudoshin - Immovable mind
Fudoshin - Immovable heart
Fudoshin - Immovable emotions

The meanings become more nuanced, more complex. It makes sense that budo deals with the emotions as much as the intellect.  Making someone angry so they’ll make mistakes in the heat of emotion is a tactic as old as humanity. All that talk about the mushin, zanshin, fudoshin  and similar terms addresses the emotional just as much as the rational. It’s not enough to quiet your thoughts if your emotions are running riot. It doesn’t matter if your rational mind is solid and steady as the foundation of a house if your emotions can be tossed about like a dry leaf in the breeze.

One instance where my experience as an independent-minded, independence-obsessed American teenager really got in the way of understanding what was going on was the area of reigi or etiquette. This is a huge topic in Japanese culture, so naturally it is of great importance in Japanese arts like budo.

Americans spent a lot of blood in fights to make sure everyone was equal before the law, and that no one earned special treatment simply by virtue of who their parents were. We work hard to make it clear that everyone is equal. I call all the Americans I work with, from the kid just hired to empty trash cans to the general manager, by their first names.  This was the expectation when I first walked into a dojo.

Japanese people also hold everyone equal before the law, but that’s where concern with equality ends. Culturally, Japan is obsessed with the nuances that make us different. Things like age, who your teacher is, and how long you’ve been training, in addition to what rank you may hold, are all of vital interest in figuring out relative social position. English speakers are worried about whether we’re dealing with one or many. Japanese speakers can’t even conjugate a verb until they know what their conversation partner’s relative social status is.

Verbs are literally conjugated differently whether you are talking to someone of lower status (teacher to student for example), equal status (students or teachers of the same level) or higher status (student to teacher). With social status that intrinsic to the way people think, etiquette quickly becomes a major issue. Using the wrong verb form is one of the classic ways to insult someone in Japanese. Fights can be caused by the inadvertent use of the wrong verb form. The intentional use of the wrong verb form does start fights.

One of the many uses of etiquette is to communicate information about relative social position and understanding. If you don’t know the basic etiquette, it’s clear that don’t know anything else about the art either. Without the etiquette you can be certain you’ll offend someone. I got treated with the indulgence of a small child when I first went to Japan, and thank goodness for that. Small children and big foreigners aren’t expected to know how to behave, but both are expected to pay attention and learn.

I saw many non-Japanese who were satisfied with the social assumptions they arrived with and didn’t make any real effort to learn new ways of thinking about social relationships. They didn’t go very far in Japan. I didn’t either until I gave up the ideas about social relationships that I assumed were natural and best. Once I stopped clinging to what I knew, and accepted the fact that Japanese ideas and assumptions about social relationships and etiquette are just as natural to them as the ones I grew up with were to me, I started to make progress in being part of Japanese society.

It took longer than I care to admit for me to realize that trying to force what my assumptions of what was natural only caused friction and got me gently excluded from social occasions  that I might mess up.. It was only when I stopped asking why people couldn’t see the good sense of my way, and just asked myself “What is their way?” that I began to get any degree of acceptance and respect. It seems obvious from this distance, but when I was in the midst of it, letting go of my own assumptions was tough

We have to make assumptions to get started in budo. If we don’t make any linguistic and cultural assumptions we can’t take the first step on the journey.  We need a framework in which to place what we learn and to link our budo to the rest of our lives. Those assumptions aren’t bad. They’re only bad if we don’t go back and reconsider them as our understanding deepens. We have to be ready to knock a support out of our framework from time to time when we discover it’s interfering with our growth and replace it with a new structure that better accommodates the growing understanding. 

 1.  The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, Allen & Unwin, London, 1934.

2. Tao Te Ching Penguin Books, 1963

Monday, September 12, 2016

Budo and Non-action

I haven’t written anything in a few weeks, which I’m sorry for.  Life has a way of happening that has nothing to do with plans or intentions. Family emergencies and work just get in the way. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been doing budo. It just means I haven’t been doing formal budo practice.

What I have been doing is applying budo. Breathing while balancing stillness and movement. Budo isn’t life, but it is a way of living, of doing, and being. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Stillness is tough though. All of our instincts, and much of our socialization is to “do something.” The classic trope is  “fight or flight.” This reduces our options to a ridiculous degree, and ignores one of the more powerful options: “stay calm and do nothing.”

All of our education and life preparation is about doing things, being active. Don’t wait. Be proactive! The early bird gets the worm. Don’t just sit there, do something!

Then there is chapter 10 of the Tao Te Ching:

Understanding and being open to all things,
Are you able to do nothing?

What does it mean to be “able to do nothing?”

Early on in jodo I learned the importance of staying calm and doing nothing. Sensei would move forward in the kata and stretch out the timing and spacing until the mental tension made me snap into doing something.  Sensei was perfectly calm. He could attack or not. Either was fine with him. I couldn’t wait and do nothing. I had to take action.

Of course, as soon as I moved I was dead. Sensei hadn’t given me any reason to move. He was just standing there, within attacking range, not doing anything except making my mind and pulse race with worry about what he would do. Then I would move and he would cut me down (gently, and with great good humor, but cut me down all the same).  I’m a slow learner sometimes; it took me a while to learn the simple lesson to breathe and accept the moments when I don’t need to, and should not, do anything.

In chapter 37 the Tao Te Ching says
            Tao abides in non-action
Yet nothing is left undone.

Like the Dude, the Tao abides, and abiding was something I had to learn to do in jodo. Non-action isn’t inaction. For someone who enjoys working with words as much as I, it seems strange that I can’t give a clear, straightforward definition of “non-action.” I have come to my present understanding slowly, over many years, and like budo, it’s not something I can fully verbalize. I prefer to use the Chinese term in my own thoughts: wu-wei.  For anyone coming to the Tao Te Ching for the first time, I realize that term is useless. Until you’ve got some experience with different translations and some sort of physical practice, “wu-wei”  is meaningless, and “non-action” will have to serve to get you started along the path.

Budo training is physical philosophy. The lessons of any budo art are really found on the dojo floor as we work the kata. In the dojo, words are like the finger pointing at the moon in Chuang Tzu; they are there to direct you in the proper direction. But - Once you’re going in the right direction words become just a distraction from the real lesson.

Once I learned to just accept that I don’t set the pace of these kata, I was able to begin learning jodo. Learning to accept things as they are and not waste energy trying to change what I can’t control is tough lesson to learn in the dojo. It’s even more difficult to apply outside the dojo where there are so many more factors to be concerned with. In the dojo it’s just you and your partner that you have to worry about. Outside the dojo things are rarely that uncomplicated and concentrated.

The more comfortable I get with wu-wei, with non-action, the more relaxed my jodo becomes. Once I stopped trying to force the kata to to go faster than my partner wanted, I stopped getting hit when I anticipated an attack and moved too early. Learning to let go of that need to push things along at my own speed allowed me to stay relaxed and loose. Stiff, tight muscles are slow. Breathing out, remaining relaxed whatever my partner does, or does not do, I can respond more quickly and more fluidly.

When I leave the dojo and rejoin the wildly complicated everyday world, does this lesson still apply? I seem to find new places to apply it every day. When I don’t rush to “win” a conversation, I learn so much more. When I can be quiet and just wait in negotiations, often the person on the other side of the table gets so anxious for a conclusion that they give me what I’m looking for without my having to argue much of anything.

The most frequent application is dealing with all the little things that don’t go as fast as I think they should. The little things like traffic that’s too slow, a child that won’t move, a teapot that won’t whistle. When I let the world take its own pace without trying force things, I discover the traffic pattern that is the most efficient and soon find myself outdistancing the guys trying to weave from lane to lane for a one-car length advantage. Engaged in a battle of wills, a six-year old will dig in until they explode in a tantrum. Faced with a battle of patience, they soon become distracted and once they’re distracted they’re easy to move. Teapots, well, nothing I can do is going to make the water boil faster. That’s one of those things where being able to do nothing is its own reward. The other option is to be impatient and annoyed and upset by things I cannot influence.

Chapter 48 of the Tao Te Ching:

Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.

It’s a lot like lessons in judo. The more I try to do things to my partners, the harder I work and the less I accomplish. When I let go of whatever strategy or technique I’m clinging to and stop trying to force it on the match, I begin to  flow with my partner. Instead of getting frustrated because I am having difficulty doing the technique of my choice, I am delighted to discover that a range of techniques become possible. Blinded by my focus on doing a certain technique, I can’t see the opportunities my partner is giving me. Relaxed and clear minded, it’s possible to see the patterns of my partner’s movement and turn their strong movement into a natural fall.

Doing the same thing outside the dojo is far more challenging, but as much as the level of difficulty increases, so do the rewards. It’s nice to flow into a natural technique in the dojo. It’s satisfying to respond to attacks as they really are without trying to create openings and trying to force things. The satisfaction is that much deeper at home or work when I get out of the way and let things develop naturally.

In the last few weeks there have been a lot of events in my life that I couldn’t influence. The best I could do was stay relaxed and not let them disrupt my heart and mind. Relax, breathe and abide. It’s enough. I don’t have to attempt to fix the world, or even my little corner of it. Most of life is beyond my control or even influence. Can I breathe and abide until it is time for me to move? When tragedy strikes and no one can fix things, breathing and letting people be is tough. I want to help, to fix things. Understanding that I can’t really do either,  just waiting calmly for a space in which I should act, is far more difficult than anything I do in the dojo. However, the dojo practice of waiting for Sensei to really strike, remaining calm and still and prepared to move when the moment actually calls for it, has prepared me.

Sometimes the finest thing you can do for those around you is to be there and do nothing. Wait, watch, be aware of what they are experiencing, and only act when there is a need for it. So easy to write, so difficult to do. In the dojo we practice breathing and being and just standing there waiting for Sensei to attack with a big stick. If we can learn that lesson, it’s amazing how often we can apply our budo in the world.

Are you able to do nothing?

Monday, August 29, 2016

So You Wanna Cross-Train?

My friend and colleague, Deborah Klens-Bigman is an accomplished martial artist and respected scholar of Japanese classical dance. She often does me the honor of serving as a sounding board for ideas, and generously edits my posts to make them polished. This time Klens-Bigman Sensei responded to my ideas with an essay of her own, which I 'm proud to be able to publish here.

Deborah Klens-Bigman  Photo Copyright Iaikai 2016

So you wanna cross-train?

Previously,  two posts considered cross-training in other budo.  The first set out the benefits as a means to deepen understanding of your primary art.  The subsequent post looked at another side of the issue - that some martial arts teachers might forbid their students to seek training at another dojo.  That post also suggested that students caught up in such an arrangement may have picked the wrong person to train with in the first place, and speculates on such teachers' selfish motivations.

So - here we have two solid arguments in favor of "cross-training."  It seems like a good idea, right?  Find a different (though maybe related) art form, and go for it, right?  Not so fast.  There's a right way, and a wrong way, to train at a different dojo.  If done right, you can obtain benefit for yourself and do credit to your home dojo.  If not, well - read on.

Let's first assume that you are a student in good standing, who is also not a raw beginner.  A very-beginning student who seeks training in another art form gives a teacher the impression that you are not serious in your practice in the first place.  The term for this (at least in English) is "dojo-hopper."  The sense is that the student is in some sort of martial arts shopping mall, with various things on offer.  Come in, poke around, try a couple things on, and go on to the next store.  This is definitely how to shop for a prom dress, but most budo teachers take their practice seriously, and expect students to do likewise.  

Next, let's consider motivations.  I am not talking about jumping ship and looking for a new teacher - that's a different subject altogether (see above).  And I seriously doubt you would look around and think to yourself, "I'll bet I could deepen my understanding of the principles of [fill in name of current practice] by trying out [something else]."  More likely you saw something on YouTube or even (shockingly, but it does happen) at a live demo and you thought it looked cool and would be fun to try.  NYC is a veritable feast of martial traditions, both Asian and Western, old and new (and even theatrical and cinematic!).  It's easy to feel like a kid in a candy store.  There is nothing wrong with this motivation.  But there is a proper way to go about it.  So I am offering a list - from smartest to dumbest - ways to go about cross training in a different budo form.

1.  Talk to your teacher and ask for permission to try something else, and ask for her suggestions as to where to find another dojo.  For example, you could say, "I was thinking about trying a jujutsu class.  I wanted to run the idea past you first.  Do you have any suggestions as to who I could study with?"  Believe it or not, even in a place as huge as the Big City, many budo teachers at least know each other by reputation, if not personally.  Moreover, we know who the crank teachers are; or, at least, we have the means to find them out.    Asking for permission, along with asking for advice, accomplishes several goals - it shows the teacher you respect her, and that you respect her opinion.  It also puts you in line for a good recommendation with one of her colleagues.  Having been recommended and accepted for cross-training in another dojo also shows respect with regard to the other teacher, who then has a clear idea of who you are and may have a sense of what you might be able to accomplish by training with him.

 2.  Ask your teacher for permission only.  This is not as smart as suggestion number 1, but it at least shows enough respect to your teacher that she won't throw you through the nearest wall.  Most teachers will say yes (and if she doesn't agree, there is probably a reason, as in she doesn't think you are ready to branch out.  If you respect the teacher, you will respect her opinion and ask again later).  Some may volunteer advice if they think you might be interested in hearing it; others may just say it's fine, and you are then free to roam.  

 3. (Moving to less-smart ways).  Go somewhere else and don't tell either the primary teacher or the new teacher what you are doing.  I don't recommend this, but it can actually work, as long as you exercise some discretion.  Don't do what one of my students once did: blow off a request to perform at a demo by explaining that you have a tournament with another teacher that weekend.  Just say you're sorry and you can't make it; and you hope to be able to perform with the group at another time.  Being so up front about your conflicted schedule may send a teacher the message that you are so enamored with the new style that you are not as interested in what she has to teach (even if that isn't strictly true).  Moreover, not supporting the dojo when it asks for your help also makes you look less serious about your practice, unless it involves work or family issues.  Your perceived lack of interest may result in the teacher's attention being directed a little bit more to other students instead.  Tangentially, if the second teacher learns about your primary art form by other means than your telling him about it, you may find yourself getting the same treatment.  I'm jus' sayin'.  We like to think that our teachers have better tempers and more wisdom than lowly students (and they might), but they are also human beings (with a lot more experience than you) and they have feelings, too.  And those feelings should be respected if you are serious about your art form.

 4.  Declare that you are going "budo shopping" for other stuff to do - you say you may come back to the home dojo someday, but then again you may not.  Believe it or not, this has actually happened.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the student has given the impression that the teacher (and her art form) are interchangeable; with one practice being not any better or worse than another.  The now-former student in question was fortunate to have done this via email and not in person.  Needless to say, this person is no longer welcome (except, just *possibly* as a guest, and paying the guest mat fee).  Unless you really intend not to come back at all, I don't recommend this method.  

 5.  Just show up at a new place and disparage your primary teacher to gain favor with the new one.  As I said, we all know each other, by reputation if not personally.  Remember the six degrees of separation?  In the budo world, it's more like one or two.  You won't be accepted once the truth comes out.

 As my colleague the Budo Bum has said, there are many benefits to cross-training, and most of them won't be revealed until you have spent months (or even years) training in another form.  In my budo career, though my primary art is iaido, I have also done some training in naginata, kyudo, kendo, some empty-hand, and I am currently studying jodo as a rank beginner.  I also train in Japanese classical dance; an art form that developed in the Edo period that shares many principles of movement with koryu budo forms.   Many of my colleagues and teachers both in the U.S. and Japan also cross-train.  For the most part, all of their teachers know and respect each other, and are cross-trainers themselves.   My teacher, Otani Sensei, when I spoke to him specifically about working with another teacher, interrupted my carefully-rehearsed permission-asking speech by saying, "That's okay, that's okay.  Once you know the principle, the technique doesn't matter."  I still can't say, all of these years later, that I fully understand his point, but I knew then I had the freedom to figure it out.

Bio Note: Deborah Klens-Bigman is Instructor at Iaikai Dojo, in New York City.   The dojo website is
Deborah Klens-Bigman Photo Copyright Iaikai

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Cross Training

What is the value of cross training?  Why do I consider it essential to development as a budoka?

There are tremendous benefits to getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that are new and different. Every art is built on assumptions about the armament, training and intentions of your imagined opponents.  Judo is great against the kind of attacks that are assumed. Judo training against weapons is pretty lousy. Shinto Muso Ryu is fabulous against guys with swords. We’re a little less sure of what to do against spears and grapplers.  

Classical Japanese systems originated in an era when people were assumed to be armed, and wearing armor was common.  For both reasons, empty hand striking arts never got started.  It wasn’t until Okinawan empty hand arts were brought to the main islands of Japan that empty hand striking was seriously considered. By the time that happened in the early 20th Century, armor was mostly relegated to history and Japanese society was peaceful enough that few people went about armed.

Martial arts developed to solve specific problems. The great sogo budo 総合武道 of Japanese history - arts such as Katori Shinto Ryu, Kashima Shinto Ryu and Kashima Shinryu - all evolved in a particular era with very clear needs. In the centuries before the Tokugawa Shogunate unified Japan and enforced peace, war was the norm. Warriors were not specialists, but generalists, learning a variety of weapons in systems where the fundamental principles were applied to everything, whether they were armed or empty handed. Combatants were most worried about surviving battles where they would be armored and facing a variety of weapons and foes.

After the Tokugawa forces brought peace to Japan with musket barrels, martial arts continued to be practiced. New arts arose to suit the new conditions with different expectations. The concern was no longer armored foes on the battlefield, but duelists, angry drunks, thieves and rebellious peasants. The arts that developed in this period reflect very different expectations about the sort of violence people would face.

Every art makes assumptions.  Sometimes we don’t even notice them. When I first started judo, a friend who was doing an art that makes different assumptions showed me some of my assumptions about what people would and would not do. I then learned that competitive judo’s assumptions about the opponent’s face don’t travel well. It’s a good thing to have your assumptions challenged.

Competitive judo has a polite rule about not attacking the face.  It’s a nice rule, particularly for all the randori (grappling sparring in judo) that we do. Going to work and going on dates with a face covered in bruises all the time would be less than ideal.  When you train like that all the time though, It’s easy to forget that not attacking the face is nothing more than a polite agreement between practitioners.  My friend Paul didn’t train in an art with any such agreements, so he casually reached up and moved my face.

Forgetting that these sorts of assumptions are made for the safety and comfort of long term practice is simply and quickly corrected by training with folks who have different standards of what is polite and respectful practice. Being a judo guy, training with a friend who does TKD does wonders for exploding unconscious assumptions on both sides. Judoka don’t have an aversion to getting a hit a few times if that will allow them to close and throw. Strikers will be happy to make a mess of your face long before you get close enough to throw them.  Strategies that work well in the narrow confines of your home art can become disastrous as soon as you step out of the dojo.

A little cross training can open up whole vistas of realizations. Judoka make all sorts of assumptions for training purposes that are silly outside the dojo but are perfectly reasonable from the perspective of making regular training safe.  For example, we don’t make an assumption about when the fight is over.  It’s over when both people agree it’s over, especially in dojo randori where you’re not competing for points. That became interesting for me when I started training with aikidoka  from time to time.  Many people in aikido assumed that once uke was off balance and being thrown, the action was over. I didn’t know about that assumption, so I surprised quite a few people when I  counter attacked while being thrown or even as I was being slammed into the mat. That’s not a problem with aikido, it’s a problem with training. Since then I’ve gotten to know some great aikidoka with exposure to judo. They enjoy my attempts to counter attack in the middle of their techniques, and the challenge of finding ways to stop me.

Another eye opening experience was when I took up jodo. I’d played with some methods of taking weapons in judo and aikido. I thought I understood something. Then I started training with jo and sword. I quickly came to a new understanding. I understood nothing about weapons, spacing with weapons, or timing.  Unarmed spacing and timing is a different beast from armed spacing and timing. My teachers could reach me at distances where I was sure I was safe. That staff was in my face before I was even aware they were moving.

You don’t have to go so far as to take up another art to gain significantly from cross training. I’ve learned loads from getting thrown around by my friend Chuck (yes, that’s really his name). Chuck does an interesting style of jujutsu, and he was happy to test all of my assumptions and preconceptions. I would say brilliant things like “You can’t do that.” and Chuck would promptly do it to me. I’ve been rolled, pinned, mashed and chucked all around the dojo, learning the whole time. I haven’t taken up studying Chuck’s style of jujutsu, but I’ve learned loads from playing with him.

Just doing something outside your specialty can open your eyes and clear out myths. Kim Taylor used to host the best cross-training event I’ve ever been to.  He invited all sorts of senior teachers from various koryu to Guelph, and we’d each teach a 2 hour introduction to some aspect of our art. Then we’d go try everyone else’s stuff. In one weekend I got to do jujutsu and naginata, a couple of styles of iai, maybe some jutte or spear, and a little kyudo. Afterwards we’d all go out for dinner and quiz each other about everything we’d seen and try to get answers to some of the million or so questions that leapt into our minds while we were trying all of this new stuff.  I saw experienced aikidoka go from thinking they knew something about swords to deciding that they really needed to take up a sword art. I saw sword people conclude that some of those “dinky” weapons weren’t so silly after all. Lots of people from all sorts of arts developed an interest in jodo.  A particularly thick-skulled judoka who was sure he’d seen pretty much all there was to see in Japan got schooled in just how limited his experience really was. For three days we’d train and ask questions and then train and ask questions some more. No claims of superiority, just loads of honest curiosity and a willingness to have all of our assumptions and preconceptions shattered.

I believe cross training is critical to fully developing your understanding of budo. If you only do one thing, that’s fine. If you only know about one thing though, that’s not. Get out of the safe zone of your dojo and go play with folks who do something different. We all look great at home where everyone moves and reacts the way we assume they should. What happens when people don’t move and react as we expect? Does our art fail us, or do we fail our art? If we don’t get out and challenge our own assumptions by cross training from time to time, we fail our art.

Having preconceptions and making assumptions about what will work and why is unavoidable as long as we’re human. Not doing anything to challenge those preconceptions and assumptions though is is a sad failure of our duty to our arts and ourselves. It’s especially sad when it’s so easy to find a way to check our thinking. Sign up for an open seminar with a different martial art. If you do empty hand stuff, try a weapons art. If you only do weapons, try an empty hand art. Step out of your safe zone and do something completely different. You may be amazed at what it can teach you about your art.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Teachers Who Can't Share

I run into people all the time who sincerely believe that training in another art or with another teacher is a terrible and disloyal thing to do. I also bump up against teachers who tell their students they should never train with anyone else, and that their art is the best so they shouldn’t try anything else.  

To me, this is pure foolishness and unrestrained ego. No art is 100% complete and perfectly prepared for every possible turn of events. Even the great sogo budo that were born in Japan’s Warring States period (circa 1467 - 1603) and include a range of armed and unarmed skills,  - even techniques for fighting while in armor or street clothes - don’t have or even attempt to have a kata for every conceivable situation.

I think back to the great martial artists of the last few hundred years in Japan, and I can’t think of any who trained exclusively with one teacher.  Even now, I can’t think of any arts that expect and demand 100% exclusivity all the time. I know of arts, such as Kashima Shinryu, that ask beginning students not to train in other arts without getting their teacher’s permission, but this is more about making sure students learn good fundamentals without getting them mixed up and messed up by training in systems with different - or worse - conflicting principles. Even then, they don’t insist that a student train only with one teacher.  Once the student reaches sufficient proficiency with the fundamentals, training in other systems is not forbidden.

Historically, I look at teachers like Kano Jigoro, Ueshiba Morihei, and Kuni’i Zenya, and the subsequent  development of their own systems. None of these teachers and developers could have achieved anything close to what they did without training under multiple teachers in multiple systems.  Kano Jigoro received licensing in two different koryu jujutsu systems before he founded Kodokan Judo. Even after founding the Kodokan, he continued to train and learn from other systems, most notably adding instruction from Fuse Ryu to strengthen the Kodokan’s groundwork.

Ueshiba Morihei studied a lot of stuff. He studied judo in a dojo his father established with a teacher brought in for the job. He studied jukenjutsu in the military. He learned a chunk of Yagyu Shingan Ryu.  Even after he had mastered Daito Ryu and founded Aikido, he continued to study and learn, taking keppan with Kashima Shinto Ryu.

Kuni’i Zenya was the soke of Kashima Shinryu. However, he was sent to train in Maniwa Nen Ryu as well. He took what he learned from Maniwa Nen Ryu and used it to refine Kashima Shinryu (don’t let anyone tell you that koryu budo never change.  They are like rivers. They continue as the same river.  The Nile at its headwaters is very different from the Nile as it enters Egypt, and even more different as it passes through the delta into the sea.) Kuni’i Sensei would not have become anywhere near the martial artist he did without exposure to more than one system.

I look at my teachers, and none of them has been exclusionary in the own practice or in their expectations of their students, so I suppose I am prejudiced in favor of being open with students because that is a notable element of my background. I started my budo journey in Kodokan Judo, and my teacher there encouraged his students to take advantage of any training opportunities in the area. Almost as soon as we knew the etiquette well enough to not make any major faux pas Earl started suggesting visits to another local judo dojo to train on days we didn’t have keiko at our dojo. I got over to the dojo at the YMCA fairly often, got extra keiko and a different set of critiques on my technique.

My sword teacher, Kiyama HIroshi Shihan, may well be the poster child for cross training. He has 7th dans in kendo, iaido and jodo, as well as decades of koryu iai and jo practice. He also has dan ranks in Shito Ryu karate, jukendo, and judo.  There may well be other stuff that’s just never come up.  

Matsuda Shihan, my jodo teacher, has a license in Kukishin Ryu as well as in Shinto Muso Ryu,  plus he has dan ranks in iai and karate to go with his 8th dan in jodo. He actively told me to go train with a senior jodo teacher he had great respect for.  He said I should take any chance I got to train with this man.

So my background definitely predisposes me to be in favor of being open with my training. My teachers have always been open to me learning from others.  There are limits of course.  If I’m doing iai with Kiyama Sensei, I would never object to anything because some other teacher I had seen did it differently from Kiyama Sensei’s way. I have too much respect for my teachers to insult them like that. Kiyama Sensei was a senior teacher before I was born. I can’t imagine that I’m going to come up with anything that he hasn’t seen dozens of times already.

Matsuda Sensei is perfectly open with my questions about things I’ve seen or heard from other teachers. He’s happy to talk about these things in the right time and place.  During his lesson is clearly not that place. If we are doing free practice, or outside the dojo, that’s the time and place.

All of these experiences with my own teachers make me suspicious of teachers who won’t ever let their students train with anyone else. In such a situation, who gains? I don’t see any great benefit for the students, or for the teacher. I can see the point of limiting the outside training of beginning students who are just starting to get control of their own bodies. I can understand teachers who don’t want students to confuse themselves and slow down their development by mixing their learning with multiple instructors giving them potentially conflicting advice. This is a temporary situation, though. Once a student has a firm enough foundation, they can train with other people, even take up additional martial arts without damage to the art they started with.

Not allowing students to train with anyone else is a red flag to me. This is not the early Tokugawa Era with people wandering around challenging each other to duels with live blades or even wooden substitutes. People aren’t in danger of losing their government stipend or even dying if they lose a challenge match. We aren’t protecting our techniques and strategies in order to to give us an advantage when we have to fight our next duel.

This is the 28th year of the reign of the Heisei Emperor, or the early 21st Century to much of the rest of the world. Duels don’t happen that often these days. This is the age of YouTube after all. There aren’t many secrets left. Almost everything can be found somewhere on the internet with the minimal effort of a Google search.

When I hear of a teacher who won’t let students train with anyone else, I always wonder what their reasoning is. And then I wonder if the problem isn’t with the students, but with the teacher. I’ve never been able to come up with a valid reason for limiting students’ training myself. I have  seen a number of reasons that reflect poorly on such teachers though.

There are teachers who are quite capable martial artists, but who are also insecure human beings. I can see how an insecure teacher would worry about students liking another teacher better.  Telling them not to train with anyone else is a simple way to make sure they don’t discover someone they like training with more. It doesn’t solve the problem of students leaving, but it may slow them down, and maybe it makes the insecure teacher feel a little more in control.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen people who had an overabundance of confidence and no actual skills. They tell great stories, often about how they trained in Japan or China with secretive masters. Their descriptions of the awesome secrets they learned and how powerful their skills are can be truly amazing. Their only concern is that if their students train with other people, they might realize that all their teacher has to offer them are some great stories, and no real skills. These folks have a genuine concern. If anyone were to check with folks in Japan or China or wherever they say the trained, their teachers would be even more mysterious, because no one could find them. In this age of Facebook, it takes about 15 minutes to find experts living anywhere in the world who can check on things like this. Best for these teachers if their students never talk with other martial artists, and definitely don’t let them train with other folks. Students figure out pretty fast that what they’ve been taught is empty sound and fury when they are repeatedly knocked on their rear ends by strangers.

Teachers are humans too, with all the possibility of the angelic and the risk of the demonic. The vast majority of teachers strive to be the best example they can be in the dojo, and lead students to higher levels of being, not just higher black belt ranks. There are others who are there only for what they can get out of it, whether that is the satisfaction of lording their rank over others, having people show them respect and excessive deference, or just collecting a lot of money from students every month without having to give anything more than the illusion of teaching something.

Even when a teacher has a lot to offer students, if they are so insecure, or so into controlling others, that they can’t bear to see their students get some training from someone else from time to time, they are crippled as teachers. Someone like this will feel threatened when a student gets good enough to be a teacher herself. Their own fears and insecurities will hobble them and prevent them from giving students their best teaching. Behind every decision and every interaction will be the fear that students will leave.

I can’t recommend that anyone train with a teacher who can’t stand to see them train in some other art or with another teacher if a good opportunity arises. For me, cross training is essential to understanding my primary art. Training with a good teacher is essential to learning an art deeply. I can’t see how a teacher crippled by insecurity or mad with the need to control others can be a good teacher for anyone. If a teacher says you should never train with anyone else, that should be a loud warning signal to find a different teacher.