January 27, 2009

On Rope

This year, Soke would like us to apply our ‘no theme’ theme (think limitless) to the use of rope. I like to include any number of flexible weapons in that group as well, such as scarves and belts and anything that can be wrapped, twisted, knotted, and bound.

As soon as we try to capture the opponent with rope or force a technique, it fails, unable to withstand the pressure. It’s a timing thing. In fact, going back in time to save Lincoln at Ford’s Theater is probably easier than controlling something the opponent has already done. Yet many people seem fascinated in trying to prevent something they’ve just seen happen. The very same is true in trying to stop or control the ‘now’ of the opponent, especially when ‘now’ turns so quickly into ‘then.’ It seems the only part of time that can be reasonably controlled is that which has not occurred yet, the future.

By shaping ourselves in the Kukan we can direct the opponent’s will – the one malleable part of them that exists ‘in the beforehand’ and controls their current self to act. By efficiently closing the space around their will, like a mouse running loose inside a room, we limit their options, making them realize only what they see – our past or current self (an illusion).

Trying to capture the opponent is an effort in futility; one can only allow them to wrap themselves up as they close in on a ‘vulnerable’ defender. The rope itself becomes a trail - the tracks of Taijutsu as they occurred – used to wrap an opponent inside its twisting trails, loops, and binds that are the inevitable consequence of spontaneous creativity.

January 20, 2009

Under the Blade 2009

Shinnen Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu!

What a year 2008 was! Traveling, new directions, new students, and Ninja training! What could be better?

In February, Tomoko and I were back in London reconnecting with our Buyu across the pond. Heartfelt thanks to Shidoshi Steve Kovalcik for the invite. We also got a little sightseeing in - the Tower of London and its torture devices - creative folks those old Englanders. In April, we made our annual dojo trip to Japan and trained with Hatsumi sensei, Nagato sensei, and the Shihan; nothing quite like getting trounced by the best.

In Sept, we pulled together a regional seminar, the first (and hopefully annual) “Prairie State Taikai,” where Budoka from around the Midwest slogged through mud, rain, and wind, to teach, train, and share a few laughs all for charity. In November, we held our annual weekend Gasshuku at one of Wisconsin’s prettiest camps and had a terrific time training in open fields, stealthing around 132 acres during Night Games and attacking their 40-foot climbing tower. And just a week later, Tomo and I were back in London (our fourth trip in two years) teaching yet another seminar with Steve and the gang - all fantastic fun. And fun, it turns out, will play a large part in this year’s training. But first, let’s look at what we learned this past year.

Soke asked us to study the “Men Kyo Kai Den” of Togakure Ryu. Remember, by changing the kanji and thereby changing the meaning, he was challenging us to juxtapose different ideas. Menkyo Kaiden, is a license of full transmission, an initiation into the complete mysteries of an art. Hearing the words transmitted this understanding. But when we read the words, saw them, it nuanced the meaning. Menkyo Kaiden 免虚怪伝 is a strange way of writing and not normally used, except maybe by Ninja masters. “False teachings” is one way to understand it.

In my message for 2008, I wrote about moving away from a concentration on technique, toward a broader, macro view of training - a higher perspective, in an attempt to challenge our thinking about Budo. Many are caught up in ‘collecting’ the next technique – “false teachings,” if you will - as if any technique holds truth other than that with which we define it. Throughout the year, techniques were power for many - the concentration on brushstrokes of the painting. But for us, our focus was how the whole painting was designed, shaped, and executed; unfocused on any one stroke, but the way they all fit in the space of the canvas.

My hope was to understand ability through context, not simply follow directions for a given technique. Instead of trying to move perfectly and precisely – read unnaturally - the focus was on application of technique, not mere performance of it. The process was geared toward seeing the connected reality inherent in training, aiming to ‘own’ our movement - to move naturally, right from the start.

Our motto was “be good today,” not simply train “to become good.” This also has not changed. Life happens today and we must deal with it as who we are today as well. We can’t wish for ten or twenty extra years of experience at the moment we need it, we can only practice and gain experience over time, hoping to improve our luck in the future. But how should we practice? Rote memorization of exact movements designed to elicit reaction, so one day we might eventually internalize these performances and be considered good? And in the meantime, we’re vulnerable -children playing with the gun we found under daddy’s pillow. We know it’s a gun, but we’re incapable of respecting its power. People can train martial arts like this their whole lives.

So, our dojo’s theme for 2008 became Tsunagari, connectivity, a means by which we could connect with the opponent by understanding their intent. Knowing what an opponent wants is the most powerful means by which to defeat them. By exposing a ‘weakness’ in our Kamae, we were able to create an irresistible opportunity for attack, giving them the confidence to be successful. Waiting for the opponent gives them more options, too many options for us as defenders to try and calculate against. So, we learned to lead the opponent, see ahead of them, and control their actions by eliminating their options, until they chose to do exactly what we wanted. This led us to an understanding of honesty in training, a prerequisite to becoming deceptive. Kyojitsu’s “false teachings” was a recurring theme, as I suspect it will be again this year.

For 2009, Soke has chosen ‘no theme’ as the theme of the Bujinkan. Each year, I find any theme ironic, since they’re all connected - every thing is really one thing. Soke has also pointed out three crucial aspects he wants us to consider: Saino, Tamashi, and Utsuwa.

Saino才能 is our inherent ability or latent talent. It’s often said everyone has talent for something, or do we? Perhaps it’s simply our drive to discover and learn, our enthusiastic curiosity for exploration that determines our success. Instead of thinking we either have talent for Budo or we don’t, I like to think we can activate it.

I am reminded of one student’s mother and sister, who had never trained before, but were in town and curious as to what their son/brother actually did with his Friday nights. By the end of training, both Mom and daughter were moving with their opponent/partner to simply thwart their intent and stay safe. No ‘moves’ were shown, none were memorized, and techniques found them. An overseas student’s wife, who had only trained once the prior year, dumped her loving husband on his loving ass over and over again, with a Hanbo no less, until it became painfully apparent she had realized her connection to his offensive movements, to his intention. And my greatest example is of my own dearest, who had never trained before, but within a scant eight months, rivaled some with years of experience, and could move with the grace and perseverance she so easily exemplifies everyday. She only needed to be reminded of her instincts and her personality took care of the rest. As Nagato sensei said, we can tell what people are like simply by watching their Taijutsu.

Tamashi 魂 means soul or spirit. It is often described as having no beginning and no end, an aspect of the human condition different from Kokoro, 心 heart or mind, in that it remains unchangeable, whereas the heart can change often. To try and understand the mysteries of Budo involves reaching across the divide of time, reaching back across history itself, to try and interpret the wisdom of ancients, to know as they knew. This connection is accomplished not just through study, but also our physical connection to the past, which is why enlightened people like Hatsumi sensei play such a large role – they are links to the past. The perpetuation of beliefs, values, morals, and ethics is prized in part for its connection to history. Our own Declaration of Independence clearly defines the morays our country established itself upon – that all men (and women) are created equally.

One of the reasons Warriorship is so very important to our society is that it preserves the clarity of thought we can discover through training of its inherent “life value.” The idea that all people, beyond their own cultural values, share common instincts toward loved ones and themselves, and when provoked, will give up their life to protect those they love. In fact, the first Americans did exactly this when pushed by their British overlords when they were not treated as equals.

The principles of Budo have become embedded in the soul, the spirit, the genetic code of our collective will. In other words, people are born knowing martial arts. 10,000 years of hunting, protecting, foraging, toiling, fighting, journeying …surviving, do not simply dry up when you move to the city and get a Yahoo! account. Instincts are coded into our spirit, protecting our species, keeping us alive, and continue to this day, in spite of our best efforts. Instincts, these means of survival, only need to be tuned in, reactivated, by experiencing and realizing them through training.

So much can they be enhanced as to actually become a compass used to navigate a better life. Why guess at direction, when you can know? With this way of thinking and seeing the world, we discovered that techniques, gold of the new and old student alike, did not need to be taught as they had been, for now they simply bubbled to the surface from within to drop onto unsuspecting partners time and again. Over the course of last year, we learned we can reconnect our inherent instincts that drive ability and sharpen them into useful, uncommonly useful, senses. Budo is a way of living in tune with nature, in effect, living in tune with our own nature, our instincts, so we might become the uncommon commoner.

Utsuwa 器 is capacity. It is used often when describing generosity, as in, “Utsuwa ga hiroi,” or a narrow-minded person, as in, “Utsuwa ga semai.” I want to believe Soke is saying our capacity for Budo must be boundless, limitless, hence, no theme this year. And I can think of no other tool that has this kind of limitless connectivity than rope, the very tool Soke wishes us to study this year.

Part of having a boundless outlook is our ability to change direction, to adapt. When we first began studying Tsunagari, I expected us to readily see this connectivity and simply apply it to movements we already knew by heart. But when we tried to do so, something happened – training got harder. Suddenly, movements we used to do in our sleep were not forming like they used to. Our ‘bread and butter’ techniques and movements turned into sloppy messes. Why? We were being taught a lesson even more important and hardly realized it; something beyond waza.

“There is no such thing as surprise for the Ninja,” - famous words. I’m certain we all know them. But how do we learn to never become surprised? There are only two ways I can think of: one, know everything. Sounds easy, right? The second method is not to expect any particular outcome. With no expectation, no attachment to any single conclusion, we’re free to adjust as need be.

It turns out this ability is pretty important, lest a “memory of the future,” as Laurence Gonzales describes it in “Deep Survival,” becomes our undoing. “…We all make powerful models of the future. The world we imagine seems as real as the ones we’ve experienced. We suffuse the model with the emotional values of past realities. And in the thrall of that vision (call it “the plan,” writ large), we go forth and take action. If things don’t go according to the plan, revising such a robust model may be difficult. In an environment that has high objective hazards, the longer it takes to dislodge the imagined world in favor of the real one, the greater the risk. In nature, adaptation is important; the plan is not. It’s a Zen thing. We must plan. But we must be able to let go of the plan too.”

Training the form, memorizing the form, perfecting the form (the plan), creates an expectation, a memory of the future that can control us rather than the opponent or the circumstances. We must train to see reality, to see what is really there, not what we hope is there, or wish is there. The emotional desire to reach a favorable outcome can strongly inhibit our proper use of Taijutsu to respond accordingly. Soke has talked about living as if already dead - if one is ‘dead,’ they have no attachments. Having no attachments to a certain outcome in Taijutsu is eerily similar to what Gonzales is saying. Seeing the moment objectively and rationally, a place where emotion cannot get the better of us, allows focus on consistently doing that which protects our loved ones and ourselves. Staying open to changes of all possibilities, instead of manufacturing specific outcomes, is a way to own the initiative that allows us control of the very potential of the Kukan, the conflict, the moment.

The next step in our study of connectivity is Inryoku 引力, magnetism, drawing the opponent to us or allowing them to draw us in, strengthening the bond we have originally studied as Tsunagari. If Tsunagari is learning to drive for the first time, then Inryoku is what an experienced driver feels behind the wheel, an almost magnetic connection to the road and the cars around them. Knowing what an opponent wants through the use of our positioning allows us to discern their train of thought, their wants, desires, and goals, giving us the chance to take action. But in order to further our understanding, we’ll have to go beyond intent, by use of our creativity, playfulness, curiosity, and most of all imagination.

In 2006, I was training at the Hombu dojo with my teacher Nagato sensei. There were only six of us there that day – quite lucky. Since we were so few, someone requested Rokushaku bo techniques. After a quick demonstration by a student, Nagato spoke up, “He’s quite good with a bo, isn’t he? So, I must have a strong imagination if I am to defeat him.” How do we become more imaginative in our training? I know of two ways specifically: use limitations and be actively young at heart.

We have a saying in our dojo: if you’re stuck, make it harder. Creating limitations helps find the way through difficult circumstances and training is no different. Having trouble with sword? Pick up a second. Difficulty with that armlock? Take on a second attacker. Rope techniques a total mess? Put a knife in the other hand. Seeing the way through often has little to do with becoming better at technique. Rather, it has to do with seeing the opportunity for technique’s application.
Too often, students want to pull back, open the book, and memorize the technique, when they should be busy moving and searching for the moment of its application. Without knowing that moment, technique, any technique, is useless.

The rhythm of training is akin to the rhythm of dance. If we remain unaware of the music’s beat, we can never move effectively. So goes training. Remaining unaware of the opponent’s intent, their beat, we can never take appropriate action. But once identified, once we are tuned in to the opponent, as Tsunagari has taught us to become, we must draw ourselves closer to the beat, until the rhythm becomes indistinguishable from our own. Inryoku’s magnetic draw must be explored through imagination to dominate the moment, define it, and ultimately own it. In Japanese, this playful, creative spirit is called Asobigokoro 遊び心.

Give a child a blank piece of paper and crayons and they’ll know what to do. A child’s mind holds simple truths and enthusiasm. As we grow older, people can become cynical and pessimistic, but when so much of the truth of life is in our own definition of it, it makes sense to maintain a healthy vibrancy, an optimism ‘young at heart.’ Asobigokoro sees through adversity and enjoys the challenge of discovering a new way forward, in effect, celebrating the change and adaptability that permeates the survival code throughout all of nature. As we move ahead, each of us must become more responsible for our own training, which includes challenging what we think we know and placing limits on that knowledge, not simply to learn the next step, but to recognize the opportunity to create.

Several years ago, during a break at Hombu training when Soke was painting calligraphy, I asked for a rendition of “Shin Gi Tai Ichi,” 心技体一, normally defined as a unification of heart, technique, and body. He smiled and instead painted something I couldn’t read. In fact, no one at Hombu could read it. The following year, I showed it to Nagato sensei, who looked at it intently, “This is very difficult. It’s philosophy.” Years have gone by since I last looked at it, but when I began thinking about this year’s theme, something told me to look at it once again.

Soke’s calligraphy read, 身技体一致 – still pronounced Shin Gi Tai Ichi, but defined in a wholly different way. The kanji for Shin, 身 meaning body, is much older and refers to the ‘self’ as in ‘from yourself,’ ‘from within,’ and is used in the writing of pregnancy, connotating ‘something (living) inside,’ ‘naturally’ or ‘from within.’ Ichi suru, 一致, is to harmonize or ‘make agreement’ between two aspects, ‘match.’ The result is, “I match the inner and outer to create technique.” Or on a deeper level, “I harmonize my spirit and body to naturally create technique.” Naturally creating technique from within? It sounds a lot like Asobigokoro.

The balance between creativity and effective application must be kept through honesty – training sessions must have integrity of thought and action to maintain realism. As a tool, Asobigokoro can challenge the very way we think inside the Kukan, so we can go beyond the physical, using our curiosity and enthusiasm to drive our imagination so we might better understand the Inryoku, the magnetic rhythm, of the opponent, the opposition, the situation.

Why do we climb mountains instead of simply hiking through the valleys below? Why is our journey toward the reaches of space inextricably linked to an understanding of our origins? It is the higher perspective, the macro view that allows us the chance to see far ahead of ourselves; taking stock of where we are and where we wish to go. It is the attempt to expand our ‘reach’ into our own Kukan and translate the language it speaks back to us.

Receiving ‘Menkyo Kaiden,’ the “full transmission” of that experience, is a chance to increase our connectivity to the world around us, a chance for us to apply the feeling of that higher perception down in the valleys, where the living of life actually takes place.

Have an inspired 2009!