Saturday, December 10, 2016

Kurushi 苦しい ([Lame] Excuses)

Kurushi 苦しい ([Lame] Excuses)

There are many words and expressions for 'practice' in common usage. Renshu 練習 is a term derived from metallurgy, meaning to forge (strengthening, adding whatever characteristics are meant to be imparted while removing impurities) but has been used for centuries in reference to practice (initially, meditation).

Keiko 稽古 is a slightly more holistic term a compound of two kanji (chinese characters) kei (consider, ponder or think [about]) and ko (old). Keiko implies a marriage of practice and study with an eye toward appreciating the roles of previous generations reflected in our traditions. There are also far more specific turns-of-phrase for things like austere practice (Shugyo)

As you may have gathered from previous blog entries, the notion that consistent practice is integral to acquiring any worthwhile skill is a one that we hold near and dear. Creating (and maintaining) a meaningful Nichijo no Renshu (daily training) can be difficult; not everyone has the inclination or interest to do it, and even for those who do, there are no guarantees of Awesomeness, only proficiency (and even so, not quickly). Let's look at some of the most commonly heard excuses.

Before we start in earnest, for the purposes of this essay, let's define practice as: a means to connect the observed (external) to the soma (comprising mind and body- the internal), creating cohesively consistent and usable 'assets', girded by the basics and principles of your art or way (which can then be used both internally and externally). One key component to 'practice' is repetition, but unlike training*, practice can't be done mindlessly (ultimately, good training can't either...); if training is about reinforcing core mechanics, practice is how you express those taijutsu (literally, body skills).

It takes too long/I don't have the time”

A period of focused, mindful, practice is of far more use than a much longer (but scattered) session. In truth, many arts' basics can be done in a relatively short period of time. Realistically at the beginning of an art, you can do everything you know in well under 20 minutes. With a greater volume of material comes a requirement that you select what you will devote your time/energy to during any individual session (FWIW, Kihon [fundamentals] should still factor in).

I'm not in the right shape”

And you plan to get into shape by doing... what now?

When beginning in an art, you'll spend some time doing conditioning (even if you are in competitive athletic shape). Why? Because each system has unique requirements for things like balance, connection and flexibility that being 'in shape' will be good for, but miss the mark. After achieving a baseline, it is necessary to maintain or surpass that conditioning level, lest you come to an intellectual understanding with no means to physically manifest your art. Does that mean that you will be an olympic-level athlete? No, not unless you train to be, but for every art or way there are some specific things that make learning the method go more smoothly; conditioning is high on that list.

I tried training but I didn't seem to be getting better”

If you're at an early stage of training, it is likely that you won't feel the improvement; that doesn't mean that there isn't any though. Later, you will hit plateaus or even start backsliding- (often what seems to be regression a good sign in part because it heralds the transition from forcing things to work to actually making use of the appropriate basics).

With that said, if your daily regimen is the same at year 5 or 8 as it was at year one, something may be hinky** By the time you've been around for a while, even if the amount of time that you spend practicing daily is the same as when you started, the focus will necessarily have shifted. Rather than taking days-off and bargaining, making the choice to engage in a consistent daily practice is of far greater use than skipping days and doing marathon 'make-up' sessions (if you can regularly find hour[s] in your day though [outside of livelihood, familial responsibilities and sleep/health maintenance] do that!) So maybe changing the concentration of your time may make a difference.

I can't remember what we did”

How good are your notes? If you aren't taking them, you're depriving yourself of a critical study tool. If you are but still get home and can't figure out what the heck you meant, you may need to find a better method. Some folks use pictures, descriptions, outlines or combinations of some or all; the idea is to find something that works for you (check with seniors, teachers and classmates, they might have helpful suggestions).

I don't want to do it wrong”

Okay, let's change contexts for a moment (just to fully appreciate what an insanely counterproductive notion this is)- imagine a child saying, “I'm not going to read (or practice reading) until I can read perfectly.” That makes zero sense. Here's the bad news- if you practice, you're gonna spend some time doing it wrong, but, there's good news too- if you've done the preliminary training, you can only do it 'wrong' for so long; at some point, principle, body method and theory meet*** to steer us in the right direction (sometimes, despite our brains' best efforts).

I need to be better first”

This is, in some ways, a continuation of the previous excuse. Improvement through practice assumes that you aren't starting from 'perfect'; the process of shedding unhelpful tendencies/habits while building-in more useful ones (liken that to creating a sculpture from a block of raw material) simply doesn't happen without practice (or to strain the allusion, carving). The sculpture gets better the more you carve to a point. Beyond that, it's no longer a matter of removing material but of polishing to bring-out the fine details. Even if the competence is obvious to you, that polish and 'finish' work allows the intricacies to express themselves.

Now it's true, we're not blocks of wood, granite or marble. We're complex(ish) creatures with bodies that (usually) aren't ideal and are never (totally) free from discomfort. With that said, what daily training offers to those willing to participate is the process of working with those raw materials of body and mind (and to, through exertion, develop ourselves into something more today than we were yesterday. Not ideal, just better.

I get enough from class, I don't need to work at home”

Maybe that's true. However, if even a chance exists that we gain more through the process of practice and study itself than merely the acquisition of 'skill;' perhaps expending effort every day offers rewards beyond getting good at punching, kicking, throwing and using tools. Heck, one might even suggest that training is, itself, some kind of path...

Yours in Renshu,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*We are drawing a distinction here between training (conditioning and development work for strength, posture, alignment, etc., usually in service of integrating core structural and movement principles), and practice, which points to acquiring, understanding and refining those principles. To be reductionist, training (development and observation of your body, position, power uses, spinal and joint placement, etc.) is the scaffolding that allows you to do things that you're expected to; practice (observation of the external and bringing it into your sphere as developed through training) lets you build more complex structures, so as to do things that you want to.

**At that point, have you been training in your art for 5 years, or, as people are fond of asking, “have you had the same year five times?”

*** This is not to say that it is impossible to misunderstand or think about things incorrectly, only that with correct training the physical expression will out... eventually.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Benpo 便法 (Shortcuts)

Benpo便法 (Shortcuts)

One very deliberate feature of the dojo website is that the links are fairly ecumenical. Since the intent of the site is to be informational, we've included a number of arts (many, that bear no connection with ours but that may prove of interest to readers) as well as to (Japanese and English) language resources and study materials. It is not uncommon to receive E-mail from people suggesting new links, some of which are great fits, others, less so. Several months ago we were contacted by someone from a "Cliff Notes"-type site suggesting it for inclusion. Our response was:

While recommendations are gratefully accepted, sites of the type that you suggest run counter to the ethos of traditional arts.

My concern is that inclusion of such a site might encourage, even tacitly, the impression that reliance on secondary sources in lieu of (rather than as a supplement to) personal research is acceptable. For us, us there simply is no substitute for exertion in both practice and study.Thank you for your suggestion.

With that bit of correspondence sent we could get back to (continuing to ignore) long-neglected projects... but unfortunately, the seed was planted; so, what place do shortcuts have in traditional arts and ways?

Translated from Japanese, benpo presents a (Sanskrit-derived) term, meaning expedient method. Considering that its original use was tied closely to transmission of esoteric meditation practices, the implication is of being efficient while undergoing arduous training. Curiously though, despite the rather strong association with the (purportedly quicker) 'immutable path' it does not point to the skipping of steps or avoiding of hardship, both of which only seem like perks early on (it is often not obvious until too late the ways in which it manifests as a curses; There are a number of reasons for this, not least of which is that built-in to many arts are links between, seemingly, disparate bits of information*.)

For most of us, training (and the surrounding/supporting activities) is not a full-time endeavor. No matter how genuine the desire to develop expertise, it is unreasonable to expect that anyone is going to go home from a long day of work and/or school, fulfill familial duties, do chores, and then spend time training, learning a new language and familiarizing him/herself with connected cultural practices. Modern life is complex and we are overbooked. Don't we need/deserve some kind of shortcuts to make practice easier or more fun?

Well, unless your days begin with you or a member of your household having to fetch cooking and bathing water from a nearby well, stream or river, you grow and/or hunt for the bulk of your food, and routinely have to forego opportunities to read (or otherwise deepen your training experience with research) by remaining daylight (because your artificial light alternative is a fire of some sort, which you must create, then tend yourself) to dig a new privvy or build/repair some portion of your hovel, probably not. Most of us who live in the modern West already exist in far more physical comfort by default than did most (even the very wealthiest) humans in history... The convenience of having nearly unfettered access to life's necessities (and many luxuries, just consider how a series of developments lead to the relative ubiquity of the internet in our homes, allowing us to view the bulk of preserved knowledge, music, science, art, etc. on demand, while in skivvies; beyond the initial barriers of acquiring hardware and maintaining a connection the only hard limits are one's free time and level of curiosity) raises an expectation that everything should come so simply. It hasn't, doesn't and shouldn't (always).

Despite the prevailing attitude that it is possible to hack anything and everything to achieve peak efficiency, sometimes the best hack is to just 'do the work'. Grit, determination, resiliency and other traits fostered through the process of earnestly trying (and failing often, though hopefully learning to avoid making the exact same mistakes in perpetuity), are nurtured this way.

Proceeding along an art or way (particularly when traditional cultural trappings figure heavily) tends to shift one's perspective. Instead of chasing instant gratification, we come to appreciate that adopting and holding to a regular practice is to tread the same ground as previous generations, itself, a type of shortcut (by not having to constantly reinvent the wheel). So despite moments of wishful thinking, we find ourselves genuinely grateful for clear transmission from good teachers**, and see that this (coupled with rigorous personal practice) are all the shortcut we can use. By moving too far away from those unreasonable expectations, we risk cheating ourselves.

Yours in the struggle,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

* A friend coined a great phrase, describing the population of her school (who range in age from 6 to late-teens, all with hearing-loss up to and including profound deafness, many of whom had not been exposed to a formal sign language before starting school) as inhabiting, "islands of knowledge." That is the case for us all- we each bring specialized bits of information and experience into our training. Guided exploration (with an instructor or senior) in conjunction with personal practice and study encourages those islands to connect, bridging them tenuously at first; those links become far more important and robust than one might guess.

** Actually, if fortune provides, a good teacher can, by example and pedagogical method, alter one's practice radically with just a question, phrase or through observation and correction. To use the image of a garden, we are like loam; training in basics makes an ideal planting medium for seed (the principles contained in our arts). A skilled, attentive teacher, like a master gardener, knows through experience when to further condition the soil, when to water, to harvest, and when conditions are right for the next round of planting. S/he also knows how to pull weeds and even thin culms to strengthen the plants that are most beneficial.

Friday, October 14, 2016



Kuden (verbal instructions) are important and universal enough to span centuries and cultures; every art, profession, and avocation has them. Unfortunately, though, these gems of simplicity tend to be ignored and forgotten once they've done their jobs. If you are in a position to teach or mentor, you've no doubt already come to appreciate these nuggets of wisdom; if you aren't (yet), still don't be too quick to discard kuden. Like any true friend, it's not just that they are/were there for you when you needed them; the memory of them can provide strength and guidance when there's no one around*.

To use a common modern example, take something as simple as 'look both ways before you cross the street,' a phrase so ubiquitous that it may be hard to remember the first time someone said it to you. Chances are that the introduction came from someone senior to us (a parent, guardian, older sibling or teacher); though it comprises words that we know, the phrase probably didn't mean very much because we lacked the practical experience of why people slow down when approaching an intersection. After a while, it sinks in that this idea is rooted in experience and that it isn't just some arbitrary suggestion, but a legitimate tool, and that looking out for one's safety is a shared responsibility (we can't expect that motorists and bicyclists will always be aware of pedestrians.)

Once we're old enough to start traveling without supervision, there may be an occasional flash of memory of someone saying, "look both ways before you cross the street," but in large part, you don't have to think about it. That kuden has served its purpose and expands to controlling vehicles as well. So, if a phrase as simple as 'look both ways' can inform your decisions, not just as a pedestrian, but as a bicyclist and driver, what untold fount of magic powers are contained in the kuden of something older and/or more esoteric?

Without going out on too much of a limb most are pretty mundane, detailing things like which "foot initiates a turn." The simplest aim is creating and maintaining consistency in (at first, exclusively) physical mechanics. Once those kuden have done their jobs, something interesting happens. Beyond the obvious detailing of foot placement, there are core alignments suggested (maintaining 'directional agreement' between toes and knees, which strongly implies how to position hips, center, trunk etc.). Somewhere in the process of manifesting these principles, Kuden become a part of how you inhabit and move through physical space. It is notable that a 'turn' of phrase so simple can help integrate a body method, especially one that proves key to everything from 'doing techniques', to power generation, use of weapons and even manual therapy/bodywork... not too bad for five words.**

Yours in appreciation,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*More than just convenient mnemonics, skillfully crafted kuden cue appropriate responses from us when there is no teacher or senior whence to solicit assistance.

**Often, the original renderings (in Japanese) can interesting/telling in their own right.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Kata (Forms)

Kata (Form)

Without changing the outward form, we must never do the same kata twice- this is a waste.

Note: Following the Japanese standard, 's' will not be used to indicate plurals.

Can you image the infomercial? “Check out this amazing tool that can teach and hide 'secret' material at the same time! How much would you expect to pay for this amazing, all purpose tool... $800? $200? Well it can be yours now for the special introductory price of...” The word “Kata” (kah-tah, not kadda), means 'form' and they are one of the chief means of passing along information in traditional Japanese culture. Kata often comprise a series of postures and gestures that, when performed in sequence, transmit principles of an art. Interestingly, modern research indicates that assuming certain postures or positions do more than just change our bodies- they can effect mood, behavior and even thought patterns.

Training in Kata (forms) despite their reputation, is more than rote learning through slavish repetition. Good kata practice must consist of pushing back, asking questions (of oneself and the sequence) ultimately, pulling them apart to find potential beyond the bunkai (discussion) and and oyo (applications). Oyo also separates the uchi/ura (inside) from the soto/omote (outside)- many oyo are not immediately obvious (even to participants of a tradition, let alone to those watching a form from the outside) and require explanation and demonstration by a senior or instructor.  Receiving oyo is predicated on a certain amount of confidence in the character of a student, that the lessons won't be misunderstood, neko ni koban (coins to a cat or as we say in English, casting pearls before swine) or misused.  One way that this determination is made through observation of a students' Kihon (fundamentals), which provide both tools and technology to perceive and (eventually) manifest the skills contained in kata.

In this context, Kihon exist as a means to inculcate a series of consistent and dependable mechanics (things like turning, transferring weight, correct grip and manipulation of tools, etc.) that function without conscious thought. The more thorough one's grasp of kihon, the more reliably they work, which in turn means the more efficiently you can learn, practice and implement the lessons of kata, particularly under pressure.

Building on the foundation of Kihon, students begin to learn Kata.  A key component to making the jump from the external imposition of forms into a usable skill is built-in to sound practice: progressive stress testing. What the heck does that mean? That before 'sparring' as such*, 'unpredictability' is introduced while completing forms with a more skilled uketachi (receiving sword) or uchitachi (swinging sword) senior partner. Once shitachi (performing sword, the junior) has learned the overall series of movements, uchitachi begins to make alterations, sometimes quite subtle, to the timing, distancing, rhythm and applied force of a kata without changing the overall sequence. It is the job of uchitachi to provide shitachi with practice 'at the limit of his/her skill' without exceeding that point (discouraging the junior by just beating the tar out of him/her or moving faster than the junior can respond to properly**.) Having to adapt to this pressure can evoke very real physical symptoms of being in 'live fire' situations such as “fight or flight”, “adrenal dump”, “hyper-vigilance” and other strong biological responses but without incurring some of the poor habits that free-play can bring. Shitachi is forced to be adaptive without panicking or abandoning the sound mechanics imparted by kihon, and always against a slightly stronger opponent than is comfortable.

Although this happens under controlled circumstances (E. G. both Uchitachi and Shitachi know the general shape that the engagement is going to take) there is a plasticity required to reacting appropriately as you come to embody the underlying principles. This method is ingenious for the ways that it causes stress and provides solutions to those stressors, leading Shitachi to make (stylistically and situationally) appropriate choices lest he/she get whacked, bumped or cut, sometimes severely. At the same time, Uchitachi is being trained to tinker with the junior's perception of timing, distance, connection, power and intent, all while leading the engagement with sensitivity (changing the ways in which one engages).

This holds true for waza (techniques) as well; unarmed kata, rather than treating striking and grappling (or therapeutic bodywork for that matter) as merely a technical repertoire, provides a 'seiteigata,' an idealized form of how principles can, or perhaps ought to, be articulated together. If these seiteigata are a vehicle for transmission, the oyo are something of a map***... the course and speed of your journey depends, in part, on the interplay between Tori the (taker or 'winner' of a technique) and Uke (the receiver or 'loser').

In the best case, Uke (again, the more experienced person) moderates the level of feedback (ranging from almost leading at the beginning, through level-appropriate resistance, to eventually, actively countering) that forces Tori to stay aware of the very real possibilities of unexpected changes. This type of practice eliminates the 'Geez, I can't wait for it to be my turn to actually do something other than just get beaten-on' feeling that can permeate one's experience as Uke; It also keeps Tori from developing a false sense of competence, believing that 'winning because the script calls for it' is an expression of skill. Being able to feel how minor changes from Uke can majorly alter (or utterly wreck) the interaction is a gift. . . even if it doesn't feel like one at times.

So where does the notion that kata training is solely the mind-numbing practice of arbitrary sets before we get to the 'good stuff' even arise? It may be that early Western students (of traditional Japanese arts anyway; other cultural tradition's reasons might be different) didn't, in large part, have language in common with their teachers- it would have been simple to get someone to follow along with exercises, forms and free-play without requiring in-depth explanations. Some of it may also come down to fundamental pedagogical concepts like Shu-Ha-Ri (essentially 'learn, embody, transcend [a form or method]') carried over from pre-modern Japan. Contrast that with Western models (outside of guild systems), in which one spends significantly less time in emulation and more time in 'application' or free-play (this is not to imply that good teachers did/do not continue to engage their charges with some pattern practice- to wit: Italian fencing schools in particular are known to have featured some esoteric training through form; much of that information has, unfortunately, been lost to time).

Wherever it derives though, bridging the conceptual gap between “boring/repetitive” and “engaged/lively” can fundamentally effect the ways in which one approaches forms. In return, those forms deliver to us new ways of, at first moving and gradually experiencing things by shifting perspectives.  By fully integrating a series of somatic responses, their intended meaning and accompanying mental/emotional components one comes to appreciate the brilliance and care that went into their formulation and transmission.  Ultimately, well-designed kata offer far more than proscribing where you put your hands and feet; they provide a (meta)physical connection with our traditions themselves, linking us directly with the experience of practitioners of the past and present while charging us to hold the teachings in trust for the future.

Yours in appreciation,
Jigme Chobang Daniels, Instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

Reader's note: you may notice that there is no mention made of solo forms here. Sure, when many people hear the word 'kata' the image that springs to mind is of a bunch of people, clad in white keikogi, doing the same individual 'kuroddy' form in unison (either unarmed or equipped with boating/farming equipment). Despite that powerful image, the omission is purposeful- I am not familiar enough with the teaching and practice of Karate no kata**** (training forms of Karate) to offer any thoughts of use. As for Japanese arts, Tandoku Renshu (literally, solo or single [person] forging) do exist and serve valuable roles in one's physical, biomechanical and proprioceptive development. However, these methods cover a lot of ground- everything from stretching/strengthening, tendon/fascia development and alignment exercises to full-on solo forms with and without weapons- these tend to be pretty specific to individual traditions though. In the tradition to which I belong, we have some interesting examples with a couple of tools that are designed to be done as both Tandoku and Sotai (partnered) Renshu and function well without alteration both ways (but, as is often the case, really 'make sense' with another person providing 'pressure').

* Which can, without sound kihon, degenerate quickly into competition on the order of doing anything, including sacrificing principle, good mechanics and strategy in order to win at a slightly more dangerous version of tag.

** Displaying a gross distortions of transmission not beneficial for either the senior (who is usually displaying ego) or junior.

***These oyo can, depending on the art, run the gamut from overt to cryptic.

**** An important linguistic note- Karate no Kata are the forms of Karate. Karatekata means false, fake, made-up, etc.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Futsutsuka (Inexperienced or incompetent)

(Rude, inexperienced or incompetent)

The Ballad of Doug Peters

Luke:  Is the Doug side stronger?
Yoda:  No.  Quicker, easier, more seductive it is.
A (perhaps mis)quote from Star Wars Episode V:  The Empire Strikes Back

It needs to be said that I've never (within memory at least) trained with anyone named Doug Peters; the moniker was coined by my older son in response to an anecdote* so apologies to anyone that it may offend. While it is a male name and male pronouns are used, it is meant without gender; anyone who would escort you to the far reaches of sanity is Doug Peters.  Finally, the name is a catch-all/composite of a number of people (including, unfortunately, me.)

Doug Peters needs for you to understand some things.  Sure, he may be a novice at your system, but his period of training, often with well-known teachers (seminars count, right?**), has been fruitful.  He has a 'martial' CV as long as a leg and filled with accomplishments.  Or, Doug Peters is super interested in your school- he'll call you to ask you the some handful of semi-esoteric questions, schedule a visit, not show-up, fall off the radar for a year or two, then reappear to repeat the process with the same questions that you've already answered.  Or, he'll question the relevance of Kihon (fundamentals) for him because, while he works out at the gym every day, it's hard to find time or space to fit those in,  and besides, he knows how to "do something like that anyway."  Or the Doug Peters who doesn't train outside of class because he, "doesn't want to do it wrong" but never takes notes or integrates suggestions made in class by seniors and teachers.

In every case, Doug Peters requires exceptions to the standards of your school, but that's okay- his situation is singular; he's not like everyone else... just ask him.

A handful of things characterize the Doug Peters Experience TM:

1) The want/need to have (possibly legitimate, if irrelevant) experience acknowledged as expertise- for example, just because you have real training in karate doesn't mean that you should teach sword without proper instruction, same for taking a few misunderstood drills from Filipino arts, and teaching stick and knife. . . that dog won't hunt.

2) The ability to quote chapter and verse on how other arts do things, but failing to make the effort to see things as new or allow them to exist outside of that filter... despite (theoretically) undertaking to learn a different method.

3) Hearing in a way that twists answers to 'match' his preconceptions (which are often, just plain goofy.)  This can lead to some clarifying questions that are so wacky and out of left-field that it's like he's in some other class .

4) Your problems are your problems, whereas his problems are . . . also your problems. This often comes with 'plug your ears and run'-levels of oversharing.

5) His time is precious.  Yours, not so much.  He'll blow-off class and go off the reservation for weeks, then apologize with (nigh-unreadable) missives (overlong and rife spelling errors and missing punctuation) that require a Doug/English translator.  Or, as bad, long, painful telephone conversations, usually right when you're in the middle of something else (like work.)  Expect for things said  to not match objective reality, as they have been through a mental 'fun-house mirror' (see item number 3.)  Also, don't be surprised to find out that that 'sick relative' or 'work emergency' was actually just some sporting event or party for which he blew off class... he may even post photos on social media. . .

6) A deep abiding love of talking about how important 'the arts' are to him and how strong their influence, virtually no reflection of this in his conduct or affect; not surprisingly, very little actual time is spent working on or off 'the mat.'

7) A lack of sensitivity to the environment- this includes failing to pick up on cues or even overt instruction.  Details matter***, but not to Doug Peters; except for the ones that he remembers from somewhere else, to which he will ardently cling .

8) Possibly most injurious to his own development and drag to those around him is a fundamental inability or refusal to participate or engage honestly****, he's easily offended with a strong negative reaction to critique, no matter how mild (see number 4.)

In the early- to mid-1990's, two friends/training partners and I attended a school with a Doug Peters  The three of us would get together regularly outside of class to work on material; the approach that we took stood in contrast to the formal classes at that school (we made contact, hard and often.)  That Doug Peters spent almost a year talking about how much he'd love to join us.  When he finally did, it took about 43 minutes into our three hours together before he suddenly remembered that he had to be . . . elsewhere*****.

What did that Doug Peters take away from this?  That it was a "cool experience" and that he'd, "let us know when his schedule opened up" enough to come back. The underlying message was that he liked his mat-time much more without being made to feel uncomfortable, let alone punched in the head, choked unconscious and/or joint-locked and thrown 8-ways from Sunday.  He eventually quit the school******, and moved on to other endeavors, but he lost out in a big way that day, and not because of any skill that we had.  What he missed was a chance to investigate his fear and bruised ego and work to get better with people who were willing to provide honest feedback.  Unfortunately, many Doug Peters (Dougs Peters?  Doug Peterses?  How about just Futsutsukamono [rude people]) tend to be drawn to the trappings of accomplishment (things like belts, ranks, titles, etc.) but aren't compelled to undertake the arduous work of refining themselves.  Those
Futsutsukamono want to hobnob with people who've put in the effort, (because . . . um, osmosis . . .) but they're only willing to wait for so long- at some point, being around skilled people often compels one to enter their world through practice... not good for the business of being a Futsutsukamono.

Acquiring skill, or even laying the groundwork to do so, rarely happens in a 'bolt from above' that many
Futsutsukamono of the world cling to with a fervor.  Embracing the struggle of incremental progress through consistent training and practice, lacks "magic."  The results though are concrete and repeatable (of course, good training partners are worth their weight in gold and tossing in a bit of study never hurts, either.)  The process of finding places where we are stuck and working at them can be slow; it certainly doesn't have a convenient "resting position."  It is far easier and more seductive to keep things in the realm of the theoretical- the kingdom that Futsutsukamono can rule without annoying things (like objective indications of inadequacy) entering the equation.

When confronted by the possibility that we aren't good, or worse yet, have been mistaken about a whole art or method's efficacy (and have wasted untold resources of time, effort and often, heaps of money), humans either accept and move on or seek creative ways to cope.  The person who knows that he is, or used to be, awesome and/or from a school with "all the answers" is a tough nut to crack.  Here's the thing though, those who never allow themselves to reach that point of discomfort (realizing how much more work there is to do) remove a chief impetus for growth, after all, why work hard if you are already perfect?  Ironically, though, struggling to push beyond wanting to be recognized as "good" or needing to be praised for minimal effort, offers untold richness, texture, and detail which will always lie out of reach of those who opt to delude themselves. 

We are all, to some extent (unobservant of details, rude [sometimes without meaning to be], inconsiderate of others' time, lazy, boastful, untrustworthy, etc.)
Futsutsukamono.  If training is to be transformative, can we spot those habits and curtail them in ourselves?  Can we make alterations to our own patterns, and at least set better examples?

So, every once in a while, just ask yourself, "Am I being Futsutsuka?"  If the answer is no, excellent.  If the answer is even remotely, "maybe," breathe deeply, relax, be present, forget your narrative (of who and what you think you are), allow for a outcomes outside of your expectations and expand your awareness to see what's actually happening- there's big beautiful world just waiting to be seen.

Yours in the struggle,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*A fellow who trained at the dojo briefly asked (with a straight face) if when I say every class that everyone ought to practice basics every day, that included him.  To add emphasis, he said, "So to be clear, are you saying that I, 'Doug Peters,' should be practicing kihon?"  The name stuck and it's hard to imagine life without it now.

 **Hint:  Nope, it usually doesn't.

***E.G. The ways in which one wears clothing is important for some- tools have their 'homes' and dressing correctly for one's tradition puts those tools to hand in a way that are part and parcel of the art.

 ****Looking at that list, it seems to hinge on two key issues. . . weird.

*****That training session itself wasn't vicious, though in general we tended to abandon politeness to see if we could make that art work under pressure.  Our goal was to offer each other training with an eye toward finding genuine physical competence under duress.

******As did those training partners and I, though for different reasons.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Gishi (False History)

 Ayamachitewa aratamuruni habakaru koto nakare.
If you make a mistake, don't hesitate to correct it.
Japanese proverb

 (Falsified History)
Lies, Damned Lies and Martial Arts History

It is unfortunate that no literary wit in Japan took on the mythos of knighthood with the ferocity and brilliance of Cervantes with Don Quixote; the often hilarious skewering of delusional and self-serving behavior and oceans of justification masquerading as chivalry (as it never really existed) still resonates.

By contrast, Japanese men-at-arms have had the opposite in authors like Nitobe (who did not train in combative arts and married an English Quaker), author of Bushido (at best, an apologist tract, at worst deliberate obfuscation of feudal-era history; it is not hard to imagine that he would have found himself at a loss to explain Japan's bloody past to those in his new social circle and so sought ways to compare bushi to the similarly mythologized knights errant of Europe), and Herrigal, author of Zen in the Art of Archery (a German national who, despite living in Japan for some time, never attained any level of proficiency in the language and was, by his own teacher's accounting, 'confused' about what was being shown- any implicit meaning, Herrigal seems to have ascribed to 'Zen' even when that was not remotely the point); not to mention Ratti and Westbrook's fantasy, Secrets of the Samurai, and untold other material that helped to forge some fairly heavy misconceptions.

Due in to books of this type, the party line (in English, at least) has for more than a century been that the warrior caste (bushi or samurai) were protectors of peasant farmers, exemplars of decency and morality, holding honor above all things while adhering to the ancient bushido (warrior way.) It is, as Capote said, “pretty to think so” however, it's wrong; romantic, but wrong nevertheless.

While there certainly were folks who distinguished themselves as paragons of virtue, they were not the norm. In fact there was a 150+ year period in which the easiest way to get ahead was to either kill your boss outright or switch allegiances part-way through a battle and pick-up the pieces after. Even the Tokugawa family (who ruled Japan for over 200 years) did this to ascend to power*.

It bears mention, of course, that it's not just the cultural stuff that were hit with a veneer of untruth either. Applications (jumping, spinning and flying kicks were used to unseat cavalry, oi tsuki from karateka bored holes through armor, re-purposed farming implements were the first line of defense against brigands, etc.) and personalities (Ueshiba Morihei studied a number of arts that contributed to Aikido's creation and he was called O Sensei due to his excellence as an instructor) both received the treatment as well.

So what? Why does this matter, after all, they're just stories and if they have inspired generations of students, who are we to mess with the natural order? Where's the harm? It's simple- many of the stories that we read and heard as a young people were of uncompromising loyalty, fealty and honor; of invulnerable masters accomplishing improbable feats. If part of a traditional transmission includes passing on lore (providing cultural context) are we not doing our juniors and students disservice by continuing to perpetuate fiction? Perhaps it's time for us, as a community, to not take as gospel the many stories (or even the meanings of forms) that we've inherited, and to make research an important component of our training... perhaps strongly encouraging our juniors to do the same. Yes, it's a lot of work and in the short-term, we lose a single (but important) component of tradition. What we gain though is better understanding of not just the history of our arts but the context in which they came to be (and with that, how and why they were designed to work as they do.) Who knows, we may come across some great new stories... and heck, maybe these un-embellished bits of history will be things that we can proudly pass on- not as myths, but as true and important parts of the living traditions that we devote so much time and effort to practice, study, embody and teach.

Yours in the joyful spirit of research,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*Tokugawa Ieyasu (who established the dynasty) promised his terminally ill mentor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, that he would serve as one of five regents to Toyotomi's son, Hideyori, ensuring the latter's succession to the role of Shogun. Instead, following the death of Toyotomi in 1598 and his most loyal regent in 1599, Tokugawa reneged on his promise, and continued to consolidate power; in 1600, victory at the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara, heralded the last major hurdle to uniting most of the Japan into a single nation, under single rule, as begun some 40 years earlier by Oda Nobunaga and continued by Toyotomi.

So happy-endings all around, right? Except, what of the young son, Hideyori? His castle was attacked by the Tokugawa government in two famous campaigns (responses to claims that he'd been disloyal by actively plotting an insurgency- charges that seem to have been baseless) and was forced to commit seppuku (a form ritual suicide 'reserved for the bushi' that entailed disemboweling oneself with a knife while 'attended' by a trusted swordsman to act as kaishaku [second] whose job it was to remove the head [while leaving a flap of skin to prevent the head from rolling away] after the requisite cut had been made but before the principal could utter a cry or otherwise dishonor himself) in 1615, just a few months shy of his twenty-second birthday.

Monday, April 20, 2015


Hayatochiri (Coming to a [False] Conclusion)

Quick disclaimer from the pitiful excuses department of the dojo- Happy 2015- things have been busy but I'll be making a greater effort to update this blog.

The human brain is a remarkable instrument, capable of astounding feats of calculation, memory, reason and piercing insight.  It is, however, when combined with our limited sensory abilities (compared with most other species on earth) and propensity to rationalize, easily fooled, coerced or outright convinced into stupidity.

In the context of learning almost any art or way, we as students find ourselves confronted with some bit of oral history that has been 'repeated enough to be true.'  An easy conclusion to draw is that because one's seniors are, well, senior, that they must have some kind of special knowledge, borne from years of training...

This can encourage the repetition of dumb tropes (the Bushi [Samurai] were paragons of virtue and honor) dangerous myths (OUR Super-deadly-technique-X TM will always work in every situation and against all comers) and just plain idiocy ('the reason for the zenkutsudachi [long front-stance posture adopted by some modern karate schools] is because when the samurai threw their spears...*' )  Beyond repeating factually incorrect things though, it's not uncommon to come to conclusions about our own experiences that we (genuinely) believe but objective listeners might find less convincing.

A particularly striking example of this was overheard when two retired law enforcement officers (and longtime practitioners of combative arts) were exchanging stories recently.  One, a big, hearty fellow, related that during an arrest he found himself engaged in a three-plus-minute grappling session for his service weapon- the upshot of this for him was that his training provided him with superior stamina which allowed him to triumph.  While it's easy to be glad that the 'bad guy' didn't succeed in wresting control of the pistol away from the officer, that conclusion seems... dubious.  Yes, conditioning is essential in combatives.  Beyond that though, it was luck- had the 'bad guy' been in better shape, that story could have ended very differently (and probably not told by the officer.) Wake (wah-khey- reaching a conclusion based on judgement and research) proves to be a better tool than Hayatochiri.  A number of us present for that story had the same reaction, "I'd change the way I train." Just as with any stage of practice and study, there will be times when facts aren't comforting, but continuing to cling to impressions that we drew as younger people doesn't help and in fact, often serves to retard growth.  That is especially true when looking at the 'technology' that underlies our art(s) of choice.  No art does everything, but earnest training, learning what the strengths and weaknesses of what we do and honest appraisal about where we are in that continuum are hallmarks of a mature practice.


*Every... single... thing about that is not just wrong, but so utterly nonsensical that even just typing it elicited a cringe.