July 19, 2009

Beers after Training

The Bujinkan has been a lightning rod for controversy over the years and no less of it seems to exist today. There are ongoing debates, arguments, and flat out name calling (mostly online) when it comes to training’s whos, whats, wheres, whens, and hows. Attacks come from both within and without about a variety of subjects – rank, authenticity, practicality, ability, etc. I quite understand someone who doesn’t train in the Bujinkan having difficulty seeing it for what it is, since many of the Bujinkan’s own seem to have trouble as well. (My only question to those outside the art who would criticize it is: why do you care?)

The Bujinkan is purposely indefinable. There are no curriculums, syllabuses, manuals, books, or videos, detailing requirements for training from Hatsumi sensei. With the exception of a single test, for Godan, there are no rank requirements from Hatsumi sensei. This isn’t to say requirements don’t exist, plenty of people have created their own, but I have never seen any released and continually advanced by Soke himself.

Soke has published countless books and videos, many with cool step-by-step photos. The “Bujinkan Bible,” Soke’s purple book, published some years ago, is often used as an ad-hoc training manual, but this is solely the choice of the user; Soke doesn't regularly say, “Oh, and make sure you know everything from my purple book."

The Bujinkan places the individual at the helm of their own training. Why do this? Why not have standard rank tests, or standards period? Why allow the extreme variation from one training perspective to another? Hasn’t the Bujinkan lost seemingly good people, people who should ‘know’ better, but left because in their view the Bujinkan lacks focus on basics? What’s wrong with a curriculum anyway? What’s wrong with being told what to do? Why can’t everyone just ‘meet the standard’ before being ranked to “mega-dan?” Why not do all these things?

Simple. Soke is not interested in teaching his art to make people good. He “teaches” and I believe has always taught, to see who gets it.

One might view all of the above elements – curriculums and standards and what not – like a ladder, just put one hand over the other, and rung after rung, you too can climb to the promised land. There are plenty of precedents and other schools that behave in exactly this manner. Here’s what you need to know next, learn it, perform it for the test, good job, here’s your rank, here’s what you need to know next, learn it … For some, this may be the manner in which they feel most comfortable training and can measurably judge their progress. I don’t have a problem with it, in fact it can be a good tool for those who need it. But therein lies the rub.

It’s one thing to standardize those who need it, it’s another to standardize everyone. As a rule, instead of an exception, egalitizing the masses forces them to an un-chosen path of training with sets of standards and curriculums, information and performance of that information, and funnels them through the strict gates by which they will be judged. Doing this creates a median level that everyone must attain and can create the opportunity to draw up those who would not, could not, attain such levels on their own. The problem with it, like any kind of socialization, is in drawing up the least of us, we also hold back the very best of us. We inevitably, and inexplicably, revoke the opportunity to excel.

In stark contrast, Soke has given us as much freedom and liberty in our training to become as good or as bad as we wish to be. This perspective allows the best to track out of the wilderness and discover their own way, while assisting those who might not be able to do so. In the best sense, our training really has as much freedom as possible with as much assistance as necessary. This empowers and cultivates the artist within, while celebrating the burden of personal responsibility. Remember, it will be the best of us that usher the Bujinkan to the future, not arbitrary “standards.”

The standard is not why art thrives, on the contrary, it’s what remains to be placed in museums to be remembered by. Taijutsu happens in the moment, and it cannot be captured in photo, picture, video, or other medium; it cannot be categorized, or defined in a way to teach those struggling with its form. Function is the form of the Bujinkan, which is why kata holds no answers, only the means to ask better questions. If not infused with the moment, there is no life, no lifeforce, and art becomes simply a performance, an image, a perception of reality, like so many martial arts practiced today. Like all teachings in the Bujinkan, there are contradictions: what we see is not how it really works, and how it works, is not how we might use it.

As Soke walks his own martial path, I don't believe he's interested in how many follow. Something tells me, he’s looking for those who walk beside him.


Anonymous said...

"Function is the form of the Bujinkan."

Well said James.

Happy Birthday!!

Take care,


Anonymous said...

Happy birthday James. Looking forward to seeing you in November.

Function is the form - I really like that.

There are times when I often take a bleak view on the organisation as a whole, only taking solace in the training environment that I choose to work in. I question the 'management structure’ and ability of those I meet and see who have spent many more years in this art than me. I suppose I'm basing this on my personal understanding of rank/ grade which may not be correct in a Bujinkan context.

Also, I only have my experiences to compare the Bujinkan as an organisation with - eg. It would be disastrous for a growing company to elevate a person who is unable to demonstrate competent business practice to a position that allows them to open their own office. They may give poor customer service through a bad approach and this will have negative effects on the brand.

It's a great observation that having a set structure allows people to progress but can be limiting while having a free environment means some people have the ability to progress to infinity while others have poor understanding. The only problem is that those people with poor ability have been led to believe that they have a good undertstanding (the Soke has told them so by awarding them a rank) and therefore feel comfortable showcasing the art on youtube etc.

I suppose the free approach is a great way to manage a martial arts organisation if it's clear the majority of people training in that environment are getting it. I can only judge that from what I see using my own standards. The answer will be different for everyone.

Thank you James. See you soon.