September 20, 2010

Ode to a Warhammer

So, I bought a warhammer. It’s nice – handmade from maple. It’s remarkably balanced. I named it “Gary” after the fellow who made it. I bought it at the Midwest Taikai in August. It’s my first warhammer.

When I brought Gary into the Ann Arbor ballroom and started moving with it, some folks approached me with consternation, “What are you going to do with that?” I was taken aback. They may as well have been asking what I intended to do with a hanbo, or sword, or rope. “Train with it,” I replied. They smiled, “Yeah, but … how?”

Now, “how” is a good question. But here’s a better one to me – “How do you not know how?” Isn’t this the Ninja art? The one supposed to grant us the ability to pick up and utilize any weapon whatsoever and use it to our advantage effectively? It seems to me, if we don’t know how, there might be a disconnect somewhere – with our basics.

Much of the talk at Taikai revolved around basics – how we needed to concentrate on them, practice them more often, make certain we understand them more fully. All of which begs the question: what exactly are the basics?

Most folks seem to agree the basics are the Kihon, Kihon Happo, and Sanshin no kata, some of the most fundamental aspects of our art. But here’s the problem … they’re not basic. They’re like a thousand years old, culled from actual battles, and collectively represent some of the most refined and advanced movement in the history of mankind. The Kihon, Kihon Happo, and Sanshin share something else in common – they’re all techniques; vehicles, models that illustrate, illuminate, and otherwise point us toward understanding the basics. In the use of Taijutsu, elements from all these techniques can be used, and probably overlap with each other along the way, but they’re not essential to the functionality of Taijutsu, they are mere examples - reflections - of it. But the basics are absolutely crucial to every and all movement in Taijutsu; we literally cannot move properly without them.

So, then, what are the basics? Well, let’s say we wanted to teach our little 8-year-old daughter “Jill” martial arts. How would we do it? Would we start her with the Sanshin, the Kihon, and Kihon Happo? About how long do you think it would take Jill to become effective using all of those techniques? And who is she going to use them on? Her friends? Bullies in the schoolyard? To be honest, I’m not so worried about them. I am however, worried about kidnappers, pedophiles, rapists, and murderers. Do we actually believe Jill could successfully perform Sanshin or the Kihon Happo to protect herself from any of them? At eight? Or nine? How about 10? Even after two years of training, I myself would be doubtful Jill could successfully use these techniques. And why? Simple, they’re not basic.

Here’s what I would like my little Jill to know how to do. I’d like her to be able to run as fast as she can. I don’t want her trying to Omote Gyaku herself away from some sicko, I want her outrunning them. I’d like her to be in shape, to be able to scramble up and scale things, run, tumble, and jump nimbly. I’d like her to be strong, be able to climb a rope, and have upper body strength. I’d like her to be able to squirm out of any wrestle, grab, hold, or lock I can place her in and get away. I’d like her to know she can spit, scream, cry, kick and scratch her way out if someone tries to pick her up and Daddy won’t be mad at her for doing so. I’d like to be able to hide or move quietly when she needed to. I’d like her to become more aware of herself and her surroundings and to always be thinking ahead, not waiting for somebody to tell her what to do. And she could learn to do all of these things in a matter of months, in some cases, weeks, even – no techniques, just games, fun games, that provide serious skills. Later, I would begin to layer in techniques - a twist here, a shuto there - but only as she matured, only as much as she understood her own role.

This to me is reasonable. This to me is basic. Why? Principles are the basic: distance, balance, and timing. Getting Jill in shape, and giving her a raw, visceral understanding of advantageous position and leverage on an opponent, at their weakest, most inopportune time grants her the very best chances to escape and survive. Not fighting back, mind you, escaping. Ninpo Taijutsu is based on escape; every aspect of the Shinobi’s life was dedicated to this ideal. They didn’t duel like the samurai, they used their Taijutsu for deception. They created all kinds of funky, freaky tools to assist them, while feeding the superstitions that would expand their legend and create hesitation in the mind of their next enemy. Ninja took the notion of the Bushido warrior and flipped it on its head, because they knew, if they didn’t return with the battle plans, or the reconnaissance map, or the secrets of the enemy, they knew people were going to die. Maybe their own people.

Principles make us effective. Techniques make us efficient. Why would we want our Jill to be efficient without being effective first? And if all of this is true, why would I train adults any differently? Why would I show them all the techniques and none of the principles? Why would I try to make them efficient before making them effective? Techniques on their own don’t work. And what’s worse, they can be lethal to us if utilized that way. To be effective, techniques must be powered, driven, applied by principle; gas is not the principle behind a car, the combustion within its engine is.

So, when asked “how” I would use my warhammer the answer was simple - with Taijutsu. But the better question, “how do you not know how?” is answered by our training perspective. Are there warhammer techniques out there? Yes, Shinden Fudo Ryu has some. Do I know any of them? Not yet, but I imagine I will at some point. Does it matter in the interim? Not really. When we can clearly comprehend the principles, opportunity and advantage become apparent, allowing us to capture the kukan in the right place, in the right way, and most importantly, at the right time. Techniques then fit into the captured space.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying we shouldn’t master our most fundamental models – the Kihon, Kihon Happo, and Sanshin are remarkable tools to expose and enlighten us to principle. But memorizing and programming their techniques, or any techniques, as solutions to lethal questions is, to me, leading us precisely to “how do you not know how,” where we must be instructed on every aspect of training, told and directed by the numbers as to how to move, how to respond, and in essence, how to think. Reacting with pre-programmed responses has never seemed as important to me as creating a spontaneous moment through principle that we can take advantage of.

The techniques of our art are there to guide us through the mountains and pitfalls in our understanding of advantage. Position, leverage, and initiative are the adjustments we make in our application of technique. But if we cannot recognize those foundational concepts, if our movement becomes myopic and intent on ‘winning,’ we lose the vitality of the kukan, and the space around us contracts, choking us of the few precious moments we may need to get home to Jill.

I'd want her to own this understanding. I think she'd want me to own it too.