December 7, 2008

There and Back Again and Again - London, November, 2008

We have just arrived home from another trip abroad – our fourth in two years. We simply love London and all our Buyu across the pond, they really are such wonderful people (honestly, there are folks still training with us since our first trip over there!). Much thanks to Shidoshi Steve Kovalcik for once again inviting Tomoko and I over to train and share what we have to offer. Steve is one of my very good friends and a terrifically genuine person.

The trip itself was low key and laid back – unless you count being sick while watching Bond’s new “Quantum of Solace,” I seem to remember there was a car chase, maybe some shooting. But as the week rolled by, training intensified. We covered a variety of aspects, but were still building toward the weekend. When it arrived, there was plenty to cover.

The weekend revolved around the idea of “connectivity” – discovering the position, leverage, and timing rather than following directions telling one where they should be. I have found that allowing people to discover their training is far better than simply telling them what to do or following the technique and doing it, “the way it’s supposed to be done.” I am of the belief that Budo is about breaking forms, not following them. Much of training involved the activation of instincts that I consider all people to possess, but have not fully learned to take advantage of. At one point I was happy to have my thoughts proved.

One the participants had brought his lovely wife, who had only trained once last year and had apparently not enjoyed it in the least, walking out at one point. But she and her husband had come to Tomoko’s Makko Ho class on Friday night, very much enjoyed herself, as well as meeting us as much as we had meeting her. So, she decided to come to Sunday’s training and followed along as best she could. At one point, we started using a Hanbo and I was trying to demonstrate to everyone this idea of connectivity with limited success – folks who have been training for sometime, learn to perceive training in certain ways, making new approaches sometimes difficult to understand. But with this gentleman’s wife, she had no formal training, she had not been taught to seek or even value the technique, and so was free to comprehend what I was explaining in as natural a way as she was capable. I simply told her to hang on to the Hanbo, lead her husband instead of wait for him, and knock him off balance whenever he tried to move against her. She proceeded to do so with much vigor and effectiveness, much to her husband’s surprise.

I asked the room to stop training, called the two of them onto the floor, and let her rip. She not only dumped him on his ass over and over again, but did so in the most creative ways – I’m sure I saw Oni Kudaki and Ganseki Nage in there. Jaws slackened around the room during her performance and when it was over, I looked at everyone and held up my fingers, “Two days training.”

This stuff works. When you allow people to realize their training, their movement, and take advantage of what they know they can do, techniques find them, and their understanding of how to apply techniques into the moment they are needed, increases exponentially. Later, refinements can be made with technical application, for more precise training. Experience becomes the greatest of teachers, and in time, we learn to teach ourselves.

Let’s do it all again next year!


November 4, 2008


I watched the sunrise last Saturday – it was a hazy beginning to an otherwise beautiful weekend. November 1st and 2nd was our annual Gasshuku, a training retreat, and I was optimistic about what we had in store: the site was 132 acres of prairies and pine woods, located on the banks of the pristine waters of Lake Beulah, Wisconsin. I had lined up some of the most talented Midwest teachers in the Bujinkan to share their ability, created some challenging night training, and Sunday morning we had a 40-foot climbing wall to conquer. And we had a blast.

The theme of the weekend was Kyojitsu, deception, and we explored it through the principles of Taijutsu, namely: position, leverage, and initiative.

When using the word position, I’m not referring to anything stationary. Position in Taijutsu relates to Kamae and Kamae are anything but stationary. Kamae are active, vibrant, living examples of one’s will connecting with an opponent’s intent. Unless we first understand this connection, any talk of Kyojitsu is premature. Kyojitsu lies in the luring, confidence building that occurs when we have effectively connected with the opponent to get them to believe something with four possible outcomes: something that is …
1. True that is true.
2. False that is false.
3. True that is false.
4. False that is true.

The Kyojitsu Tenkan Ho, interchange of the concepts of falsehood and actuality, are the means by which the four outcomes above are juxtaposed within the Kukan to present reality as illusion and illusion as reality. The primary means of training deception are the very means we use to train regularly, except employing a different perspective.

We began by examining various Kamae for their intrinsic and extrinsic values beginning with the basics:
- Seigan no Kamae
- Ichimonji no Kamae
- Shizen no Kamae

Each Kamae has a slightly different feel and purpose. Each Kamae captures space, allowing us to connect with the opponent in different ways and by examining the ‘positives’ and ‘negatives’ of each, we can soon see stark differences. For example, Seigan is a resolutely protective, expansive Kamae, meant to interrupt and even stop an attacker’s advance and precede a counter-attack. It severs the connection to the opponent by closing off any gap they may be lured into taking advantage of. It commands the Kukan, pressuring the opponent to stop resisting, allowing us to take advantage of the opening created at the moment their Kamae is broken.

Ichimonji no Kamae is a defensive, contracting movement meant to draw opponents into an attack and become the target of a debilitating counter-attack. By acting as bait, we lure the opponent to willingly enter our trap and seize control of us, only to find the bait and the trap are one in the same.

With Shizen no Kamae there is no obvious offensive or defensive movement connected with it. It is by far the most difficult Kamae to master because it relies on no formal positional nature, much like a castle without defensive walls, it is simply a bare, natural, everyday position. It begs the question, what is it that protects one in Shizen no Kamae?

Once we understood the concept of position and how it could be employed, we looked at leverage, which can be thought of as the position within the position. Just like the macro view gives us the greater perspective, so too does the micro view give us the detailed understanding. Leverage is the means by which position becomes effective. Position locates the gap in the opponent’s defense and leverage is used to exploit it. If we learn to manipulate leverage, juxtaposing truth and falsehood – real leverage from simply perceptive – we can in turn manipulate the opponent toward a quicker loss, an easier end, a false survival.

How well we are able to take advantage of that position has to do with when we decide to create Taijutsu. Timing is the glue that binds position and leverage together. Without it, there would be no cohesiveness to the moment, the canvas upon which Taijutsu is rendered. To use timing deceptively, we must first understand the way of timing.
When is the time to capture the initiative?
- Initiative before the attack
- Initiative at the moment of attack
- Initiative after the moment of attack

Like every part of Taijutsu, timing is linked to the next phase of the wheel, position, thus providing the inertia for Taijutsu’s constant movement, its own perpetual motion. When we look at how to deceive an opponent with the use of timing, we must realize it is an issue of position and leverage, how we connect with the opponent. This ‘Tsunagari’ leads to the comprehension of the opponent’s intent and the beginning of how to lead them astray by providing them with true, false, or irrelevant information to confuse them.

And so went our first training session for the weekend. But like all great retreats, it was the participants making it all worthwhile; their enthusiasm and energy kept morale high. I need to thank Shidoshis Jeff Patchin, Joe Bunales, Kevin Clarke, Jim Delorto, and Roger Rutz for their outstanding teaching and guidance. Thanks, guys.
Let’s do it all again next year!

September 23, 2008


On Saturday and Sunday, November 1st and 2nd, 2008, I’ll be hosting our annual Bujinkan Shingitai-Ichi Fall Gasshuku, at Edwards YMCA Camp in East Troy, Wisconsin, about an hour and a half outside Chicago. I’ll be assisted by a variety of instructors and a full plate of subject matter:

Outdoor survival skills
Escape from capture
Stealth and evasion
Team movement
Night training
Night Games
Makko Ho Japanese stretching
Climbing wall and grapple

Camp Edwards is 132 acres of marshlands, pine forests, prairies, and wooded dells, all with easy trail access. We’ll be staying at the Runge Lodge, which has a sunken fireplace, cathedral ceiling and loft balcony just like an old-fashioned ski resort. The lodge sleeps 32 people - six rooms with shared bathrooms and two rooms with private bathrooms, and offers three separate meeting areas, a snack kitchen, an outdoor deck, TV/VCR, a fireplace and even a piano.

We’ll enjoy family style meals in the cafeteria for dinner on Saturday and breakfast on Sunday including a fresh vegetable salad bar, soups, hot and cold foods, and desserts. Coffee and tea will be available all day long in the main lodge.

Registration is $100.00 and includes lodging, meals, and training. For Shidoshi interested in attending, please contact me.

This is a preliminary announcement, specific information will be forthcoming. Save the date and start packing, a gear list will follow soon.


September 15, 2008

Taikai Wrap up

Despite the storm, almost incessant rain, and discomfort, two dozen Budoka accepted the challenge to attend the 2008 Prairie State Taikai. We traveled for miles coming in from Madison, Wisconsin, St. Louis, Missouri, and across Illinois. Representing five different dojos, we gathered on a muddy, rain-soaked field and started training. Very soon, the rain was forgotten, replaced with a steady focus on concepts, techniques, and feeling of the art that binds us together. We left that evening, tabi soaked, gi pants a muddy, sandy mess, but with renewed ties that characterize Buyu.

I wish to sincerely thank all those who supported the Taikai with their attendance as well as those who helped get the word out, but were unable to attend. All proceeds will benefit the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.

Let’s do it all again next year!

Buyu Ikkan,


September 3, 2008

Kokoro wo Shinobu

From a student:
"Ukemi is for preventing harm. I suppose this can be expanded. It can mean preventing harm done to yourself physically by reacting/taking movement in the correct way. Mentally, by ensuring you have the right priorities and you are not being led down dangerous situations (politically at work or in religion for example). It can mean preventing harm done to others either by protecting your heart so you don't become dangerous/bad to those around you or protecting other people's feelings/heart. Ukemi is such a vast subject. If you want to take ukemi and protect yourself - you have to train correctly with the right intention and attitude so we are taking 'ukemi' just by showing up to training. I suppose this is related to the kanji for self defence - protecting the heart."

Great hearing from you! You seem to be picking up more and more aspects of training on both a conscious and subconscious level, especially with your recent experiences at carnival. You’re maturing in the art and it’s great to see.

I really like your thoughts on Ukemi, especially the notion that preventing harm goes beyond the conventional aspects of mere physical training. Ukemi as well as concepts like Kamae and Taihenjutsu all overlap at some point. Being able to distinguish each from the other is one way of paying them attention, while we actually put them into practice. The idea of “thinking ahead” and “leading” our opponent is not something to be underestimated. We need to consistently be mindful of those around us, our environment, and our interactions with them, not on the scale of being paranoid, but as much as is necessary. In your experience at carnival, you had just the right feeling while there: you enjoyed yourself, keeping a steady eye out, and when the trouble started, you were already on the way home.

In our dojo, one of our main themes is the idea of living up to the image we each have of our better self, thus becoming the person we all wish we could be. Last week, someone asked me how they could effectively do this, when they were always assuming others were going to attack them, whether at a bar, or out on the town. In their mind, they were trying to “think ahead,” but at the cost of enjoying themselves. Their own mental image was not one of utter vigilance, which put them on edge, but of inner activation with a calm demeanor. They were perplexed about how to attain this.

What I said was not to be concerned about being attacked; that vigilance, alert watchfulness, was not a normal warrior mindset. Instead, I used a metaphor about shopping. You know when you’re out looking for something, a shirt maybe, but you aren’t settled on exactly what you’re looking for? So, you visit a few shops, and you’re looking at the merchandise, but not for anything in particular. You see everything, but only as much as you need to, not focusing on any one thing, until maybe you find what you think “matches.” A warrior’s normal mindset is kind of like this: seeing and experiencing everything, taking it all in, but not focusing on it, unless it demands focus. This is most often described as a kind of radar. Now, whereas most often radar is spoken about as identifying bad stuff, it can also identify good stuff just as well, such as wonderful people we may meet, or poignant situations and circumstances that can hold greater lessons.

So, what we are really speaking about is a level of sensitivity attainable through training. This sensitivity allows us to interpret the world in a clearer, more definable way, which impacts how we then choose to interact with it. Training raw physical protective movement, based on the structure and resiliency of our body, allows us to intuit the phrase, “the body has no corners.” Once this is understood, more formalized Ukemi and Taihenjutsu techniques can be introduced and eventually applied to the student’s feeling for martial posture/positioning - Kamae. Deeper training can be attained hereafter.

The wheel that is Taijutsu looks simple from the top, but viewed from the side, reveals itself to be multi-tiered. Ukemi, as a physical lesson, actually manifests itself in very non-physical ways when we are training correctly, that is, applying techniques beyond mere performance. From what you are saying, it sounds like the care and devotion you have put into your training is paying off - you’ve looked after your training, now your training is looking after you.

August 9, 2008

Budo Taijutsu Workshop, 15/16 November 2008, London, England

In this workshop, Shidoshi James Morganelli will once again focus on the Bujinkan Dojo's theme, Togakure Ryu Ninpo Taijutsu, to further explore the concept of Tsunagari, "connection," and its relation to the art's core principles. Using examples of the Tonso Gata, Happo Bikenjutsu, Togakure Ryu ukemi as attack, and the application of weapons, James hopes to refine not just the technical aspects of Taijutsu, but expand the very perspective by which it is understood. Please bring a hanbo, shinai, rope, knife, bo, training shuko, and shuriken.

Tomoko Horikawa will again lead morning and afternoon sessions of Makko Ho, a Japanese stretching art, focusing on Hara Kokyuho, abdominal breathing, and Hodo Taiso, supplemental massage techniques that use Taijutsu to improve the circulation and well being of another. Makko Ho has only four poses (similar to the Ryutai Undo of Junan Taiso) and concentrates on core strength of the Kosshi, lower back, and Tanden, lower abdomen, through breathing and bowing movements. Tomoko is one of only three licensed instructors in the United States.

James' training philosophy replaces static, repetitive imitation of techniques with a direct connection to the ebb and flow of martial principles that are in constant flux. This focus results in efficient and contextual understanding of the art's intent, fostering the continuous creative adaptability necessary for students to claim ownership of their training to 'be good today' instead of always training 'to become good.'

James has participated in martial arts for more than 28 years, studying Eastern and Western styles. A graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, with a major in philosophy, he moved to Japan in 1995 to study under Dr. Hatsumi and his Shihan. In 1998, James passed the Godan, fifth-degree black belt test, shortly before leaving Japan, becoming one of a select group to receive a Shidoshi, teacher's, license from the Bujinkan Dojo. James currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, USA, where he teaches through his Shingitai-Ichi Dojo.

Time: 11:00 - 17:00 (both days; please arrive early to register)
Venue: London Buddhist Arts Centre, Eastbourne House Bullards Place, London, E2 0PT
Fee: £55 - Please notify Shidoshi Stephen Kovalcik at of your intention to attend.

Additional training opportunities:
On Thursday, 13th Nov, James will lead training at Shidoshi Kovalcik's dojo, from 19:00 - 21:00. The fee is £5. Everyone is welcome to this session, particularly those who have never met James before.

On Friday, 14th Nov, at the London Buddhist Arts Centre, Tomoko will lead a class solely focused on Makko Ho. Everyone is welcome (bring your partner!). This session will be from 19:00 - 21:00. The fee is £10, but only £5 if you are attending the seminar over the weekend as well.

If you would like to attend any of these sessions, or have any questions, please feel free to drop Stephen an email at .

James' website:

July 29, 2008

Budo Taijutsu Workshop, 08/23/08

We had good fun at last Saturday's workshop, which included plenty of training, questions from friendly passersby, a download of info from my recent Urban E&E seminar, including escaping capture from handcuffs and flexcuffs, and even an impromptu Taijutsu demonstration for curious officers of the Chicago Police Department. In fact, we had such a good time, I'll be hosting another workshop while we can take advantage of the weather.

Come join us on Saturday, August 23, 2008, from 12:00pm-6:00pm, at the same location, the park located at Lawrence Ave and North Simonds Road, just next to Lake Michigan in Chicago. Take a left onto N Simonds Road (which doubles as the parking lot), training will be near a small grove on the right-hand side, about 60 yards in from Lawrence Ave.

We'll again look at Togakure Ryu, Happobiken, and of course, Tsunagari "connecting" with the opponent. This will be outdoor training, so pack a lunch, drinks, and snacks. And you may want to bring something to grill, as we may have a hibachi with us. The cost will be $40.00.

Please let me know if you plan on coming by shooting an email off to me. Thanks!

Hope to see you there,


June 29, 2008


In the absence of formal Taikai around the world, many folks have begun scheduling their own over the last several years and so far, regional efforts have been quite successful. The Bujinkan’s yearly theme for 2008 is not only Togakure Ryu, it's also a time Hatsumi sensei wishes all those training to form a greater union amongst ourselves, strengthening the ties of friendship and support. It is with this spirit I have reached out to all Midwest Shidoshi, instructors, and students to participate in the “Prairie State Taikai,” an event that invites everyone to train together as Buyu and donate all proceeds to charity.

This first and hopefully annual gathering will take place on Saturday, September 13th, 2008, at Illinois’ Sand Ridge State Forest, just south of Peoria. Instructors from around the great state of Illinois and across the Midwest are slated to come together and work cooperatively to demonstrate and elucidate ideas on a variety of aspects. Subject matter will include unarmed Taijutsu, bojutsu, sword, and the Bujinkan’s yearly theme – Togakure Ryu - as well as answering questions from participants. Rather than assign timeslots, we’ll be using a ‘hoop-training’ theme, so we can include more instructors, provide them more opportunities to contribute, and keep all instructors engaged and teaching throughout the day.

Participation will be $20.00 paid to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, “serving military personnel who have been catastrophically disabled in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and veterans severely injured in other operations and in the normal performance of their duties.” See for more information. Checks can be made out directly to the fund.

If you have interest in participating as an instructor, please contact me at:

Check back for updates and thanks for your support!


June 25, 2008

Serve the meal, not just the ingredients

Imagine sitting down at a restaurant and ordering your favorite dish. You take a sip of vino and stuff a napkin in your collar, but when the food comes, it’s not a meal at all, merely the ingredients to it, raw and uncooked. Had they been prepared together, it might have been something tasty, but as they stand they are simply store bought, separate parts of an uncompleted whole. Last Friday night I tried to avoid that when a visit from a couple of out-of-town guests, brought in by one of my students, turned out to be his younger sister and mother. They were passing through and wanted to see and experience training for themselves, but had zero experience between them. I took it as a challenge.

I like to think I can teach martial arts to almost anyone, but these were certainly not our typical student types. So, we started with an overview and I used instances from their own lives to show them how they already thought “tactically” in certain situations. For example, when given a scenario about being followed, they gave all the right answers about what they should and shouldn’t do. I explained training as the physical interpretation of that way of thinking, as we practice to out maneuver opponents, gaining leverage to prevent them from harming us or others. Then we sat on the floor and I showed them how to use their weight and posture to give way to gravity as the first method of experiencing Ukemi, injury prevention. I used images like ‘the body has no corners,’ and showed them how to spread out on the floor as they moved, like a water balloon, instead of like a ball. In about ten minutes they had a good feel for it.

They also seemed to get the rest of the night as well, learning to move their feet first, breaking balance with their movement, instead of looking for some technique to escape the various grabs and punches the gang were giving them. By the end of the night, they were even changing their movement, using Henka to escape. It was all pretty cool.

What I didn’t show them was how to perform anything “correctly” - no form, kata, techniques - I felt it would‘ve wasted their time, muddled their contextual understanding, and even bored them, turning them off to even the possibility of training in the future. It seemed to work, as Mom and sis had a great amount of fun and sis was intent on learning more.

Too often, it seems to me, we can get caught up ensuring the freshness, origin, or pureness of the ingredients, and forget our role is that of chef, not the freshness-origin-pureness patrol. Chefs fit ingredients together at the time they need to use them, noting how they apply to the whole. This creative preparation is a challenge to make certain every meal is edible, nutritional, and tasty.

June 6, 2008

Is Life the Highest Value?

Recently sent to a radio personality:

I think the world of you and your show. However, I just listened to your, “Ultimate Issues Hour – Is life the highest value?” and in saying that it is not, I have to disagree with you, in part.

There is a subtlety to this question I believe you have missed. In asking if life is the highest value, you are really asking if your life is more important than the obvious set of values we have based our great nation upon. You did not believe, of course, this to be true, which you stated. Who honestly believes their own life is worth more than truth, freedom, or democracy? But the question of whether life is the highest value is more complex.

We take chances with our own lives everyday – we cross the street against traffic, eat foods that are bad for us, and take up habits that can ultimately do us harm. We do so with full knowledge of their consequences and yet continue them. Why? Simple, we take our own lives for granted. You must ask yourself the real question here – are the values of our nation higher than the value we place on the lives of our family and loved ones? Patrick Henry did not say, “Give me liberty or give my family death!” At the moment Pvt. First Class Ross McGinnis dived on a live grenade in Iraq, did he do so to uphold truth, freedom, and democracy? I have a feeling he sacrificed himself for a much higher and nobler reason - to save the lives of his friends, which he did so, magnificently. His belief in American values may have brought him to Iraq, to serve his country faithfully, but at the moment of truth, it was his humanity that protected others.

Around the world, human beings define themselves tribally, where cultural values are relative - not everyone extols freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (even in our own country). But the real value of life transcends any and all cultural value, affirming mankind’s single most important impulse since the dawn of our beginnings, as well as the key to true human equality. This “life value” states unequivocally that people of all cultures and creeds from around the world share one vital instinct - they each value their life and the lives of loved ones the same as we do and will give up their life to protect those they love. Beyond any cultural, relative value, it is man’s single connection to our fellow man and is expressed by the desire to be viewed as equals. I doubt Islamic terrorists actually believe they are out to kill their equals – it is far easier to justify killing an infidel than a fellow human being. The life value is our inherited, sacred, unwritten law - if the Golden Rule is, “Treat others the way you wish to be treated,” then the Life Value’s Golden Rule is, “Treat others the way you wish them to treat your children.”

Early Americans fought against the tyranny of the British and were willing to sacrifice themselves and place their own families in jeopardy from British reprisal, precisely because England violated the life value by not treating us as equals. This nation’s greatest values – truth, justice, liberty, freedom, and democracy - are all life-affirming and expressions of this life value – the desire to be treated as equals, the recognition that your life and the lives of your loved ones are just as important to you as mine are to me. All of this was captured within the spirit of our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” May we all be so disciplined, as to read it every July 4th.

Those who violate the life value, such as those who seek to kill innocents, violate our basic human nature, alerting the rest of us as to who the bad guys really are. When we activate the life value by treating others as our equal, we cultivate compassion for our fellow man, fine tune our moral compass to live fearlessly, stand up for what is just, and are willing to protect and defend others even if it means sacrificing our very life.

Keep up your great work!

With warmest regards,

James Morganelli
Chicago, Illinois

May I suggest this book: Values for a New Millennium, by Robert Humphrey. It is a brilliant work.

May 21, 2008

Pick a card. Any card …

The other night, one of my most senior students was unsure about his ability to keep and control his partner’s balance. Upon initial capture he wasn’t certain he could keep it even when pinning the weight on one foot or another, feeling that might be an opportunity to regain their equilibrium and either escape or fight. But he’s good enough now to be looking at a bigger issue in his training – studying not only the physical side, but also the non-physical, control over the opponent’s will.

We are only ever going to get so good at any particular strategy, tactic, or technique, and there will come a point when we will simply not get any better physically. Which is why so often younger, stronger competitors beat older and more seasoned fighters – they simply cannot keep up. Whether it’s boxing, MMA, or any other form of martial sport, if a practitioner’s training is purely in the physical realm, it will become untenable. This is even more important in Budo. If we rely on the solely physical aspects of training and overlook the natural progression into the non-physical, we inadvertently place a cap on our ability, which could cost us our life or the lives of people we love.

Capturing the balance of an opponent in a safe way, automatically ensures we own the tactical space to control them; it’s good training and a must if we are to progress to any higher level. But solid training should not only make us aware of what is happening in the “now,” it should also constantly be looking ahead to what is, “next.” Only then can we hope to attune our sensitivity to interpret and make sense of the signals all around us that are not yet fully defined – like experts do when piecing together streams of data that make up terrorist “chatter.” Nakadai sensei used to tell me himself to, “push back my feeling (behind me),” to take in that which I could not see. To ensure our best chances for survival, we have to push past the physical to recognize the intent of our opponent and be able to own the moment, just like great magicians do.

There are (at least) two parts to any successful magic trick: the trick and the magic. The trick is the actual physical technique of whatever card switch, sleight-of-hand, or illusion performed. But the magic is in the connection you make with the audience and the confidence you build within them to accept that which their brain tells them is impossible. Great magic starts and ends with this connection, the actual technique occupying only as much time as is necessary to ensure the former. A trick never begins with, “Check out this awesome coin sleight I can do,” but rather, “Hey, can I tell you a secret? I have this power …” In many ways, Budo emulates this very concept in the teachings of Kyojitsu Tenkan Ho.

By controlling the Kukan from the get-go through Kamae, we can severely limit and possibly disallow an opponent from making any physical choice that we have not provided them with. This is a far cry from simply showing up and waiting for our partner/opponent to do something and then trying to defend against it – that is thinking too late. Instead, we can think ahead and activate our opponent into doing our will – shinnenjutsu – by providing them with the most tactically viable target and a sense of urgency. Either way it works for us and against them – if they take the viable target, it’s a trap ready to be sprung, and if they choose another target instead of the “best” one, it places them in an even worse position. By restricting the options of our opponent, we change an essay test into one of multiple choice and as we get better, single choice. This is training the non-physical in a physical way and allows us to control the potential of the moment, the Ku.

If we can learn to naturally take subtle yet complete control of the opponent’s will - their mental balance - controlling their physical equilibrium will be as easy as, well, performing the amazing separating magic thumb trick for a second grader, right before their very eyes.

May 12, 2008

Invisibility? Two words – smoke bombs

Recently, I was reading an article on how to improve stalking in wilderness environments. The author emphasized not just the importance of masking one’s physical presence through scent reduction, appearance, and movement, but also wrote about, “camouflaging the mind.” Essentially, this is the concealment of one’s intent during any stalk; important since animals can tune in that intent, in turn, tuning us in.

It’s no different in training. Concealing one’s intent/intention during training is essential to be successful in Budo. Intention is tied to ego, pride, selfishness, and desires; unless we can control these aspects, we unwittingly place limitations on our ability. History is rife with those whose wills were broken by enemies exploiting their weaknesses.

To begin, we can let go of the attachment toward completing technique in training. Once we remove ourselves from the want and need to perform any technical goal, we can focus on simply maintaining kamae - maintaining our safety - and allow events to unfold as they must, making certain they occur justly with only the barest minimum of involvement. Learning to ensure outcomes are a direct consequence of our opponent’s recklessness, grants us a high level of survivability.

In this way we sever any communication we might unconsciously have with our opponent in crucial moments. When an opponent has no information to base an attack or defense upon, they are left with aggression driven by conjecture, a lot like driving at night without headlights. The concealment of our intent not only masks any response, but works toward stripping away our physical signature, further cultivating our ability to move ambiguously, spontaneously, and ultimately “invisible.”

Or you could just throw a smoke bomb or something.

April 10, 2008

Lost in translation … or is it technique?

When Nagato sensei asked if there were any questions, I saw this guy raise his hand, “What if you’re on the ground? How can you fight from there?” he asked.
“Why are you on the ground?” Sensei asked.
“If someone is kicking you and you are on the ground, how can you fight from there?” He demonstrated, lying on his back and flailing his legs against an imaginary opponent.
Sensei looked at him as if he hadn’t heard the question right.
“You get up.”

Another question at the same session, “What do I do against a knife attack in a dark alley?”
“Don’t go down the dark alley,” said Nagato. After the student massaged the point, Nagato advised him to sew metal rods into the sleeves of his jacket, effectively creating a hybrid version of Japanese Kote armored gauntlets.

The answers I myself took away from these questions were not found mired in the technical details of some particular leg trip or sweep, or how to increase the chances of survival by how many steel rods we can sew into the fabric of a jacket.

For my training, Nagato sensei had offered his best advice in its sincerest form: keep training. The fact is, you would get up, for it’s terribly difficult – especially unarmed - to maintain a distinct tactical advantage in an unknown situation on the ground against a more mobile opponent/s. As for the alley, it’s not that we need to avoid all dark alleys, but we would avoid that dark alley – something about it hopefully wouldn’t feel right.

It’s these higher lessons, devoid of specifics, that I feel actually help keep me on the right track for it provides us a glimpse into the path the Shihan are on.

February 28, 2008

Confidence, Shmonfidence …

Got a great question the other night regarding confidence. How can we know if our confidence is real and not simply a false confidence?

There is plenty in the Bujinkan we can base confidence on: our teachers, our history, and our tradition, for starters. Trust is at the core of confidence. Do we trust our teachers? Our history? Our traditions? If we do, then we can transfer that confidence to ourselves and the path we’re on.

But this question spoke more to our individual understanding, our own personal ability and skill, and the confidence or false confidence that can manifest through our connection to training. In a sense asking, if we didn’t have our teachers, history, and tradition to rely on, is there a way we could know if our ability is high and take confidence in it?

My answer is, yes, I think there is - it starts with honesty. If we can be honest with ourselves and our training partners we can begin to create the kind of confidence that is not easily questioned, not by us or anyone else. But this requires a level of awareness that must be adhered to in and out of training; the same kind of self-awareness necessary to answer most of life’s little moral questions in anticipation of the big ones.

Sincere training is the best we can offer each other. Our partners have to know that we are sincerely going to strike them, throw them, move against them if they don’t counter our movement. In response to that kind of sincerity, we must always direct ourselves toward the art’s intent – to persevere – until we can feel honest Taijutsu.

Sincere attacks can only be answered with honest defenses, meaning, we must apply the kind of freedom of principle needed to survive the moment and own the next. This is movement that is not simply good, but true, and gives us the chance to realize ability we can not only take pride in, but also rely on.

Sincerity and honesty lay the groundwork for trust, not just in our partners, but in ourselves. And if we can trust in ourselves and our own understanding, confidence is not far off.

February 21, 2008

Ukemi, Youkemi, Hekemi, Shekemi - Shidoshi Suess

I was asked an interesting question the other day concerning Ukemi. The questioner wished to know if he was missing any key points to improve his own movement. In fact, he was having difficulty returning to a position of balance. The only way I know how to do this is by learning to give way to gravity and control our spine to activate our posture.

If we think about how a ball rolls, smooth and symmetrical, we get a sense of a body 'with no corners.' If we can then imagine how a water balloon rolls, we get a sense of giving way to gravity and the spine's activation in doing so. The trick is knowing when to be the ball or the balloon.

The best way to learn this is not on your own, but with a partner. Controlling the space between us and them allows a firm grip on how our bodies can be manipulated to 'take up' or 'give up' space inside the kukan. Unless we become experienced with this, we can only ever hope to have 'by the book' ukemi, such as front rolls and so forth.

Try having a partner throw you with any kind of joint lock; don't resist the lock, just get a sense of the where and the how and the when they're using to throw you down. Once you've experienced this several times, try it again, but with the anticipation of what's in store. Just before your partner commits to the lock/throw change your positioning to break his balance and throw them instead. This positional change should be reflective of the nagare of multi-directional movement and should allow us the freedom to change our kamae while breaking theirs.

Training this connection allows us to expand our sense of mobility and in turn internalize the movement for our own.

February 19, 2008

On Her Majesty's Shinobi Service

Tomoko and I have just returned from our second (my third) trip to the UK and as always it was utterly brilliant.

Some have been with us right from the start - Gary, Miles, Rik, Hanzo, Hassan, Dermot, Mags, Murrough - but this time 'round we met plenty of new Buyu including Alan from Malta, Rex from Ireland, and a host of others from around England we hope to see again. I'd also like to thank Shihan Norman Smithers for coming out on Sunday - it was terrific to meet him; he made the day especially enjoyable. Special thanks to Rie for videotaping (a copy should be forthcoming) and of course Steve Kovalcik who's been with me since the early days and made the seminar happen.

Tomoko and I were very busy: in addition to the weekend, I taught twice during the week and she took her own night on Friday, teaching the finer points of Makko ho and its Hodo Taiso. Turnout was strong, including folks who didn't train, and everyone sincerely enjoyed it. We also managed to do some sightseeing in and around London: we saw Windsor castle, the Tower of London, and also caught a matinee of "Cabaret," which had lots of naked people in it - it gave "bangers and mash" a whole new meaning.

I can say without hesitation this was our very best seminar to date. Not only did I feel more connected to everyone there, but I think the message was taken to heart. Bujinkan training is a very special thing - sacred in a way - and I wanted everyone to experience the chance to discover a new perspective for themselves, one that grants ownership of their training. I'd like to say we achieved that.

There is plenty of information constituting the "what" of Bujinkan training - katas, wazas, kihon, sanshin, weapons, and natural skills. But the "how" - the perspective from which all of it is trained - is far more interesting to me. It is simply not enough, in my opinion, to be technically proficient in the "basics," which are at best reference material to guide us. The challenge for everyone last weekend was to own their training by stripping the "what" of the very elements practictioners are so overly focused on.

However much you put into training, you'll get double back. But when we focus too much on the details and not enough on direction, we take one step forward and two steps back, resulting in achingly slow progress or worse, Budo purgatory. Efficient and contextual training is like finding a well-worn trail in the woods, allowing us unimpeded advancement. But we have to decide to use it.

I am proud of everyone who stuck it out through some very tough training last weekend. All of us could have been doing anything else, but we chose to be there and I know I came out better for it.

February 6, 2008

Under the Blade, 2008

Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu!

Once again, here we are, another year behind us and in wonder of what the new year holds. But if this one is even half as good as the last, strap yourselves in! Our little dojo had a terrific 2007; we picked up some great new students, made lots of new friends, and set ourselves in an incredible, new training direction, with utterly amazing results!

Jim and April married and moved to Nevada and are already making plans to move back home - apparently not big fans of the desert. Roger and Etsuko also married in a beautiful ceremony with dancing Japanese women, expensive kimonos, and a toast from yours truly, in which I forgot all the Japanese I had memorized. Miguel got engaged and pregnant with his significant, Jennifer, and are incredibly excited, as are we to have the first Cuban/Korean ninja to add to the clan. We expanded the dojo and now have four Shibu, each helmed by very capable Shidoshi. We sure have come a long way since our 5-hour Friday night training sessions so many years ago, but I’d say we’re better for it.

I also took some fantastic trips – I was in St. Louis with Shidoshi Angie Smith and London, England, twice, with Shidoshi Steve Kovalcik. There are some great folks ‘across the pond’ and Tomoko and I are anxious to return and keep training, sharing, and Makko-ho-ing our way across the countryside, or at least Central London. We, of course, had our annual visit from Jack Hoban, who never ceases to challenge what we think we know and how well we know it. And we made it back to Japan for truly inspiring training with Hatsumi and Nagato sensei. ‘07 was full of serious changes for both the Shingitai-Ichi Dojo and me personally. In many ways it really was my year – I was born in the year of the boar. I not only learned much, but realized what I need to learn next. So, let’s get to it.

Soke’s Kakejiku for 2008 reads, 免虚怪伝 “Men Kyo Kai Den.” Menkyo Kaiden is a license initiating one into the full mysteries of an art and is associated with traditional martial Ryuha. But Soke has written the kanji so as to change the meaning completely allowing us to read it in several ways. Perhaps he’s saying this’ll be the year of full transmission of the feeling of Ninpo’s Kyojitsu. Or could it possibly be a warning against those offering full transmission of false teachings? Whatever the case, it’s up to us to figure it out for ourselves.

This year we’ll be studying Togakure Ryu Ninpo Taijutsu, which has at its core Kyojitsu Tenkan Ho, methods of juxtaposing truth and falsehood. Whereas last year’s theme of Kukishinden Ryu was grounded, armored, and solid in its movement, expect Togakure Ryu to be higher, lighter, and more nimble. Deceptive attacks and defense will keep our touch light and our Taihen and Ukemi strong.

Deception is difficult to train and only possible when we understand sincere and honest movement first. Take our trip to Japan last year, when we had an experience with honesty I can only describe as a divine test. What we went through challenged our resolve and the very faith we have in ourselves, since we almost believed something patently untrue.

Like so much of this art, perception guides direction and I suddenly realized just how much I was taking for granted in my Taijutsu. As I studied and experimented to secure this vulnerability, I came to understand a new perspective toward training, one focused on our art’s intent. For almost 30 years, I had been training “martial arts” and I realized I had finally come to the end … I needed to change direction.

Unlike Japan, America is not a warrior culture. Martial arts as we know them have not been mainstream in the U.S. for very long and since their rise in popularity, Americans have struggled to make sense of them. Made famous through pop culture, they have been exaggerated, their teachings made mystical by their origins, and in many cases their knowledge held for ransom, restricted from eager students, who only wished to better themselves. We can see much of this still playing out today in commercial martial arts business, where practitioners have morphed from student to consumer, allowed to choose the subject and schedule of their training simply by paying for it.

The modern model is to view martial arts as a collective of information to be studied and practiced for a number of years before applying it to one’s life or situation; similar to reading through an entire library before considering yourself smart. Schools have curriculums that students slowly work their way through, usually practicing to chain movements together for their next rank test. It seems, unfortunately, to be patterned after our own modern system of education: read, memorize, regurgitate, repeat.

But wouldn’t it be great if instead of reading and memorizing ideas, we were led to discover them for ourselves? And instead of regurgitating, we made our own realizations, ones we could understand contextually and internalize instantly? And what if we could do this with the training of martial arts? I think we can.

If someone we cared about was going to war and they wanted us to teach them martial arts, but we had a single day in which to do it, could we? We could teach them a technique, in fact, we could teach them a bunch. But I doubt they’d be worth anything - idealized techniques have a habit of breaking down under unpredictable, brutal combat. This is teaching someone from the perspective of abstract situation – would our first driving lesson be how to do 70 on the interstate and steer with your knees, while you dial your cell and scratch yourself?

Skill to perform techniques is acquired through repetitive practice. Boxers and judoka have excellent skills, performing them in competition. But in reality, being able to utilize technique, any technique, to possibly save our or a loved one’s life, is only arrived at through understanding how to apply them, not simply perform them, under the combative circumstances at that moment. Overtraining the mechanical use of techniques under dojo conditions may also contribute to the formation of a very bad habit – the desire to “checkmate” instead of “stalemate” an unpredictable situation. Forcing our will onto another in the hopes of overpowering an unknowable outcome may just get us killed. I think it’s more important to focus awareness on the intent of training.

Martial thought is very old. In fact, I think it’s as old as mankind itself. Derived from our collective primal nature to survive, early communities would have used the very same instincts that led them to hunt, fish, and farm the land, to protect their families and tribes. Some of the earliest archeological sites contain the remains of weapons, which aside from hunting, indicates knowledge of their use from individual combat to warfare. The Bujinkan’s divine warrior arts inherited the drive to persevere, endure, and survive - this I believe is the intent of training. We can internalize this if we realize the right perspective for training and apply it to fulfill the intent.

Is the Bujinkan merely the sum of its parts or is it something else, something intangible we cannot likely see, yet can experience through Hatsumi sensei as well as our own training? If it is all about technique then I can understand why some choose to crosstrain in other styles. Some feel the Bujinkan has weak groundfighting, so they crosstrain, or weak striking, so they crosstrain. There are some who crosstrain with groups for sword, knife, Judo for throws, Boxing for punches, perhaps even spear and naginata. But at what point does crosstraining supercede Bujinkan training? Are we so determined to search for some ultimate technique, one single move that can somehow defeat all others? It seems to me, kata and technique have replaced our reliance on speed and strength as the new crutch. There is power in information, but it can be-devil one without the forethought of how it should be applied. Remember, the difference between two masters of history is one knows how to apply it to predict the future, making them an historian, the other is simply a trivia expert.

In the end, one can do all the crosstraining one wants, but the intent of these other schools is not necessarily the intent of the Bujinkan. Intent must permeate the very fiber of the will to direct movement in ways necessary to fulfill it. It’s the same with other arts, their intent directs their movement, whether it’s to compete and win, become spiritually pure, or gracefully refined. There are other martial arts whose intent is also to survive and it’s the same with them as well. The difference as I see it, is in training a “martial art” or something better, something sustainable that doesn’t rely on resolute physical power or techniques to overcome enemies and challenges - there needs to be something more. Practicing physical skills, like a boxer, like a judoka, like a technique, is totally different than the perspective of sharpening one’s instinct to interpret and adapt to spontaneous, ambiguous, savage combat. If everything one trained in the Bujinkan was viewed through this prism, the perspective makes itself perfectly clear – focus on the intent and move in such a way, so we don’t die.

Superman is invincible – bullets, bombs, Lex Luthor – nothing on Earth can stop this guy. But we can’t train to be Superman, even if kryptonite didn’t exist and we actually were aliens enhanced by Earth’s yellow sun. Now Batman, he’s just some guy who’s trained himself in extraordinary ways, ways to become undefeatable. Not because he’s super tough, but super smart. He’s undefeatable because if needs to run, he runs – he throws a smoke bomb from that sweet belt. He has cool weapons and gadgets specifically fit to the situation, like anti-giant clam spray or something. Enemies can never trap him and just kill him, he’s always one step ahead, one moment out of reach. James Bond and Indy Jones are the same way – turn your back on Bond and he’s off the laser table stabbing you with a knife from his shoe; Indy’s dodging blowdarts to literally grab the next flight out of some South American country where they still shoot blowdarts.

The point is, our mindset plays an incredibly vital role in the formation of self-awareness. If we are simply trying to master a set of physical skills that have been gathered together to form a “martial art,” it holds no potential except the physical strength we infuse it with. How much faster or more powerfully can we actually punch or kick or joint lock as we grow older? And certainly our understanding of technique will not protect us – it might in fact give us a false sense of confidence. But if we understand a martial way, a martial perspective – read in between the lines of the martial art – we learn to live and think and look at the world from a tactically mindful and instinctually aware consciousness. In fact, we might, in a sense, see the world the same as early man viewed his world, where you lived cautiously to survive each and every day.

Let’s say we want to become a nicer person. So, we join a group that meets weekly and at each meeting discuss everyday ways we can become that nicer person: leave bigger tips at restaurants, learn to drive more mannerly, or help little old ladies cross the street. But at the heart of all these good intentions lies a simple philosophy, one which, if we knew it, would alleviate “becoming” a nicer person, and simply allow us to “be” them today. If instead of receiving weekly techniques about future situations that may or may not ever present themselves, what if on our very first night of training, we were told, “to be a nicer person … simply treat people the way you want to be treated.” This is a perspective that helps fulfill our intent. Now, instead of receiving weekly skill sets we must practice to perfect and utilize, we have a broad, contextual understanding that we can apply across the board to our lives today. Absolutely everything we now do, and say, and think can be distilled through this perspective. Techniques now make themselves available to us and we can focus on sharpening our instinct to observe the opportunities available to fulfill our intent. This allows us to interpret and adapt to the spontaneous, ambiguous, savageries of – not becoming that nicer person - being them.

We can apply this directly to training. If we connect to the core movement of the principle of distance, we can internalize awareness contextually, giving us a broad, macro understanding that we can then refine through the use of strategy, tactic, and technique. We can then layer training with various changes to distance, balance, and timing and focus on the opportunities that become apparent. Into these opportunities lie the options for the infinite changes of Taijutsu.

To capture a mouse running inside a room, don’t chase after the mouse, section the room off and control the space the mouse is using, until it has no more space. It’s the same with Taijutsu. By not taking anything for granted we can shape the tactical space around ourselves and our opponent through the use of kamae/kuraidori, even before we cross hands or swords. We need to do so relaxed and stress free and be confident for a successful outcome. After breaking their kamae and capturing their equilibrium, we must seize the initiative by continuing to shape the tactical space until our strategy of escaping, defending, or attacking in complete and our intent fulfilled. This is how I would teach my friend who is off to war, by giving them a fundamental understanding of instinctual movement and layering in variables. I might not even show them one specific technique. Again, with this type of training, techniques find their way to you; we must simply learn to recognize them.

How we fit together in the tactical space, the Kukan, takes up the lion’s share of my training now. I call this fundamental point, to begin learning the bond between us and the opponent, Tsunagari, meaning “connection” and it’s one of our dojo’s main themes for 2008. Tsunagari is also the first step toward understanding the higher concepts of Inryoku, Ninshiki, and Butoku. Inryoku, magnetism, is explored as we realize how we connect and fit together and how to draw or repel the opponent. Ninshiki is perceptive consciousness, in effect, becoming so sensitive to our opponents, our environment, and events around us, so as to actually predict outcomes before they are apparent. Butoku is martial virtue, knowing the manner to use our potential toward the justice and good of others.

Ninshiki and Butoku seem to be two halves of a whole: we cannot hope to perceive the unperceivable without a virtuous heart and cannot become virtuous without first directing our consciousness to connect with the wants and needs of those who love us, need our service, or seek to destroy us. But for me, it all begins with connecting to the art’s intent.

In 2008, let’s rediscover the intent of training with our unique warrior’s perspective so we can more fully understand the, “way of the ninja.” If we stop training a martial art and start training a martial way, a martial attitude, we can remove the blinders on our limitations to reveal the truth – there is no disadvantage, only failure to see opportunity. From instinct and principle, we can build toward skill and technique and instead of constantly training to ‘become good,’ we can ‘be good today.’

Have an inspired 2008!