January 7, 2011

Under the Blade 2011

“As for walls, think of them as being made out of ice. If you are a man who possesses a warm heart of natural justice, Hatsumi, hitting a wall will be no problem. Walls made of ice will just melt!!”

                                                                                                       ~Takamatsu Sensei

Shinnen Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu!

Happy New Decade, Buyu! With the greatest of hope, may it be peaceful and prosperous!

My god, we survived 2010! From oil spills that couldn’t be capped, to borrowing more of China’s money, to North Korea acting as rationally as Charlie Sheen. But take heart, humorist Dave Barry said there have been much worse years, “For example, toward the end of the Cretaceous Period, Earth was struck by an asteroid that wiped out about 75 percent of all of the species on the planet. Can we honestly say that we had a worse year than those species did? Yes, we can, because they were not exposed to "Jersey Shore."

But thanks to your support in 2010, the Shingitai-Ichi Dojo is going strong. Yes, we had our own oil spill – olive – in the kitchen, which was capped immediately, by the way, and yes, we probably did buy too many goods from China – turns out these words were made in China! Man! But we did not get drunk and threaten the sovereignty of South Korea. Totally not us.

We did find ourselves back in Japan, having a terrific, challenging, and “salty” time.

I was proud to be part of the very first Resolution Group International certification course with my mentor Jack Hoban and his hand-picked team of instructors. Jack also paid us a couple of inspiring visits here that are always great fun on the mat, and off it on a steady diet of steaks and stories. Chalk up another successful ‘Midwest Taikai’ and another of our annual Gasshukus; we also welcomed new students and new Buyu. And as always, we trained, and trained, and trained some more.

But not everything bright, brought a smile. Some, like a bomb, cast permanent shadows. We lost Mark Hodel. Our dear friend and mentor, taken far younger than anyone ever should be, whose council, assuredness, and good humor will forever be remembered by those who loved him. For Mark, the struggle is over, ours continues. We will picture him, arms crossed, nodding and smiling - “Keep going,” he would say. And so we shall.

2011 is the year of the Rabbit, known for peace and endurance - qualities that will play directly into our training themes. And this year, Soke would have us reach back to our beginnings to push our capacity ever further, making Kihon Happo (季翻初崩) the theme for 2011. We normally know Kihon Happo as the method of eight fundamental ways, but Soke has written it differently, as he does each year’s theme. Now, only Soke truly knows what he means, yet these martial riddles provide good training to try and decipher. It seems to me, this one is asking us to ‘make the breaking of the form, our natural state.’

Soke’s use of poetry here is another reminder that the basics are anything but basic. We would be wise not to study the Kihon Happo as answers to our most prolific physical questions, but rather as a smarter means of solving for them. In other words, relying on a particular set of answers is not as useful as a better method to solve questions that continually fluctuate. In an old issue of Tetsuzan, Nagato Sensei writes of Kihon Happo, “If you train for a long time, you become able to see at a glance whether someone’s basic movements are correct. They don’t have to all be the same, they must just be correct. That’s the feeling I want everyone to grasp. It takes time to understand this mindset. To a certain extent, the longer you train, the more you understand the basics and Budo itself. But it is precisely when you are devoting yourself single-mindedly to mastering the basics that you can’t understand the wider principles.”

I love that quote. I think the “correct” that Nagato Sensei alludes to is the balance between principles that make us effective, and techniques that make us efficient. It takes into account the fundamental nature of the kukan – change. The variable – change’s instrument – will always, each and every time, be naturally different. And if we are to “keep going,” we must continually acknowledge and adapt to this supreme rule. Which is why I don’t believe there can be “realistic” training – only real is real. No amount of training can make us aware of all the inherent variables - life is too strange, too coincidental, too real to know every technique, every answer. We can only ever learn to stay ahead, lead even, lest we fall into the variable’s wake.

During one tough operation in Iraq, combat teams were using tactical clearing methods – flash-bang grenades tossed into homes prior to entry. At one point, when a team member reached for a door, it suddenly opened and in its place was an insurgent - their eyes locked. Without hesitating, the member handed him the grenade and the insurgent took it. The member closed the door - BANG! Now, team members weren’t trained with that particular technique and had anyone taught it as viable, they’d have been laughed off base. Yet, in that moment, it worked.

Jack Hoban said, “The combat mindset is the ability to maintain a professional frame of mind despite the physical and emotional stresses of war. Professionalism under fire can be developed through a combination of conscious ethical discipline and consistent physical training. Warrior ethics - moral protector values in action - are the “true north” that guides us through the debilitating physiological factors, stress, and emotions that typically assail Marines in the “fog of war.” The training kicks in and we do what needs to be done.”

This is the challenge – to train ourselves to be useful in constantly changing moments – under stress - seeking not to win by forcing a particular answer, but using the ‘broken form, naturally,’ ever reconciling its emotional and physical detachment we can shield ourselves with inside the kukan to maintain our ethic. In 2010, Shinobigokoro had us bridge the gap to the opponent, shape the space, limit options, and endure the moment we have allowed them. For the past several years our own themes have had much to do with the shaping of the kukan – Tsunagaru, Asobigokoro, Shinobigokoro – each a step closer, each a more refined approach. For 2011, our own dojo theme will continue the trend in ‘Ichi go, Ichi e’ (一期一会), “one time, one meeting/one chance.” Physically, it will demand more patience, awareness, and resoluteness; the ability to shape options for the opponent and ‘let go’ under stress, pressing ourselves into the void – the formless counterweight to off-balance an opponent’s intention.

Soke's "One enlightenment, One meeting"
Philosophically, ‘Ichi go, Ichi e’ can also be interpreted as ‘one moment for a first impression.’ This past year, I was contacted by a young man on his way to becoming a missionary in South America. He had schooling ahead and wanted to train just in case some native were to poke him with a spear. So, with visions of Indy running from the Peruvian Hovitos – “Jock! Start the plane!” - I mentioned I could show him spear stuff, but that was not the point of training. Without enough experience to grant us the right perspective, nothing would protect him from making his new native friends feel they had something to fear. Approaching others knowing we have ‘one moment to make a first impression,’ is to communicate to them they have nothing to fear from us, erasing ourselves as target to become anonymous. Ethically and tactically it sets a trap only the opponent can spring on themselves, for it places the onus of conflict squarely upon their shoulders, forcing them to build a bridge to carry a fight to us that would be both obvious and reckless.

Overt defensiveness contracts the kukan, implying mistrust and disrespect, forcing others to feel an urgency to react. This can lead to spontaneous, dangerous action on the part of the opponent, forcing us to react violently, instead of leading, and shaping the moment to our advantage. But it all comes down to our perspective and how we define our martial training. It is said the highest form of Ninpo is to “win” without fighting, but what does that mean? Just like our Kihon Happo (季翻初崩), we must return to our beginnings for an answer.

This past year, Soke had us training Rokkon Shojo - less about a particular school or technique and more about the process, giving us chance to reflect on our journey and its ability to purify through endurance; begging questions: Who have we become? What compels us to volunteer our time, energy, and money to this physical pursuit? Why do we train? Asking why we train martial arts is the same as asking why it is important enough to train them. It may seem easy to answer because everybody’s got an answer: spiritual refinement, self-confidence, health and fitness, and the biggie - self defense. But are these answers good enough to keep us training? After 30 years, if I’ve learned one “secret,” a secret that trumps all others, it’s that we have to stick around long enough to learn something. But the numbers for longevity are not good - they stink. See, it’s not the beginning that’s hard – lots of people try martial arts - it’s the staying that is. And experience has taught, most who begin training will not stay.

For many people who decide to train, martial arts will only ever be a pop-culture hobby, a semi-mysterious pastime engaged for a period, when not busy with other hobbies or bar hopping. As Eastern culture, medicine, and religion continue to gain foothold in Western society, there will never be a shortage of people coming through training’s revolving door, which is great news for all the business-seis out there, bad news for those who are actually searching for meaning. So, if we plan on sticking with training, we better understand how to define it sustainably, but there’s the rub.

If we had to summarize the core philosophy of a major religion, could we do it? Say Christianity – model one’s life after Jesus Christ and be ushered into his heaven for all eternity. Can we do the same with other religions, Buddhism or Islam? How about the core philosophy of a political ideology? Conservatism – the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen. Liberalism – the bigger the government, the better off the citizen. We’re on a roll. Now, let’s summarize the core philosophy of martial arts - of Budo Taijutsu, Ninpo Taijutsu. What is its main teaching, its core values we aim to follow throughout life? We should endure? We should be patient? We should live? To what extent? To what end? Are we clear enough to provide ourselves enough direction to follow throughout our lives?

Training is what we do, it’s how we define ourselves. Shouldn’t we be able to iterate a simple, single sentence that encapsulates and explains why? Religion is a philosophy of divine faith, politics, of social contract. And Budo? Is it just self-centered personal development? Then get a freakin’ life coach! Hit up a Tony Robbins seminar! We’re studying an ageless warrior art, from the last ninja alive, with lessons from stained battlefields and the survival of whole communities across the continuum of history, and all we can think of, all we can figure as the best answer for why we train is ourselves? It’s for me? That kind of thinking may be okay to begin with, but in the long run, it’s not sustainable - it’s too selfish.

Throughout history, martial arts helped to cement the social contract of communities when a warrior class pledged to protect people it felt it had a duty to. The martial arts were religious and mystical, often associated with claims to have been learned from God or the gods – not an uncommon thing in eras rife with superstition – with “special” or “secret” training giving rise to legendary status. The martial arts were political, creating a structure for the warrior class to lead by and ensure their rule. But since landing on our shores, we have tried hard to redefine martial arts for a modern age and for better or worse, pop culture has done the work for us – I got hooked on Lee Van Cleef's “The Master” in sixth-grade. Is it any wonder misconceptions still exist about their seemingly magical properties – even the courts think martial artists can cartwheel around attackers if one is “trained.”

Kuniyoshi's Rabbit Helmet "Shinozuka Iga no Kami"
On several occasions this past year, Soke made mention of the “gorin” – five rings – of weapons throughout Japan’s history – ken, tachi, jyu (gun), katana, and nuclear weapons. From the brutish ken, the skillful tachi was developed and employed at a time of Japanese warfare’s technological and strategic peak, an era when the best of warriors might fight each other alone, deciding outcomes so armies of others would not have to fight and die in vain. The importation of firearms and proliferation would lead to a reckoning that eventually foreshadowed their banishment. Enter the katana, once a companion blade to the tachi, imbued with an almost supernatural mythos to take (satsujinken) and give (katsujinken) life – the death-dealing and life-giving sword – it becomes the symbol of the warrior code, Bushido. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate weapon, but in the history of Japan they would receive twice the fire to cauterize the blood loss of a world at war, directing their nation’s will to dismantle a government-run, warmongering ethos, to seek peace and prosperity. It is interesting to me, these historical moments seem to mirror the rise of ethical values.

Soke recently spoke of the art fulfilling its role as ‘Jin no Budo’ – Budo of humankind. How can we ever live up to this auspicious, noble thought if we are confused about the nature of our own martial nature? Can we respect the life of our opponent as equal to our own, even when their behavior is not? Can we extend our protection to them the best of our ability as the situation merits? Can we release ourselves of the soft prejudices of our relative values, detaching from the form and rule of those me-and-mine-centered beliefs and recognize our inalienable universal values? Can we melt the walls made of ice? Can we ‘make the broken form, our natural state?’

I believe Soke’s message is clear - in learning to become part of the ageless history of Budo, we are bound to the intrinsic responsibility of learning to use its knowledge ethically or risk repeating the mistakes of history in our own future. For me, training is a self and others value – we begin for ourselves, but ultimately must balance it with the sake of others, teaching, coaching, providing the best opportunity to extend the art’s message of protecting and saving life.

Thirty years ago, I could think of no better reason than myself to begin training. Thirty years later, I can think of no better reason than others as to why I "keep going."

Let’s all keep going - we’ll make it!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting article and great way to start the year. It was great seeing you on Wednesday and I wish I could have trained more while in Chicago.

I will see you guys next time in Japan.

Take Care, Ganbatte Kudasai