January 28, 2012

Shameless plug: Bujinkan Weapons.com

Many years ago I purchased a bokuto from Japan and to this day I have yet to see any comparable design. It was hand made from kashi, Japanese white oak, cut at a select time of year; it was nearly 45" in length, a full inch thick, and 1 1/2" wide.

This was no ordinary bokken, or even a suburi-to, this was a "Shiai" bokuto, or "match" sword - a weapon in itself. Carried by samurai units it could be employed against blades with the intent of breaking them, leaving enemies open to attack by sword-wielding allies in the wings.

Being the artist he is, Carmelo Grajales faithfully reproduced this Shiai bokuto in Ipe (Ironwood) for me and the result is an incredible working piece of art. His attention to detail is amazing - side by side to the original, they are duplicates, but the Ipe is far heavier. The feel is tremendous - he got everything right.

I don't normally speak up about gear or training tools, but Caremlo is a terrifically talented artist, who has created an incredible piece, so I'll go so far as to say this: this isn't just a professional tool for serious practitioners - there's plenty of those out there. To me, this is more than that - it's the sword one wants to be remembered by. Yes, it's that good.

Carmelo is now hand making this dramatic design in various woods for those interested. If you check out his website http://www.bujinkanweapons.com/ you'll find a link for the Shiai bokuto as well as a variety of other tools, from octagonal staff weapons, to kunai, even wooden training shuriken. He'll even engrave something if you like.  

Carmelo is a good man and has quickly become the official armorer of the dojo. Contact him, he's happy to work with you.

January 23, 2012

Under the Blade 2012

On the passing of Oguri sensei - my sincerest condolences to his family, Hatsumi sensei, the Shitenno, his own students, and the Bujinkan community. His legacy now contributes to the ageless wisdom and mystery of Budo. A kind man and wonderful teacher. He will be missed.

~ James

She’s the Youth Director for her church, on a mission of hope and compassion, to provide relief for these stricken people. She is there to build a school - that’s what residents of the tent camp want; a school to learn English and other skills needed to save their lives, because for them, life isn’t about living as surviving: unemployment is 65% - everyone is desperate for money; no running water or regular food sources - everyone scrambles for it daily; no sewage system - infections and disease are rampant; no electricity - you don’t go out after sunset, good folk aren’t out after sunset.

Silvi, a suburban mother of four, and my student, has just landed in Haiti …

Shinnen Omedeto Gozaimasu!

2011 was the most profound year of my life - I turned 40, got married, and began school for a master’s in Applied Ethics.

It was a busy training year nonetheless: I was at the assistance of the Chicago Police Academy – always an honor; received certification in Verbal Judo from its founder, the late George Thompson; published in “Black Belt” magazine for my article “Ethical Warrior”; taught again at the Midwest Taikai; hosted another successful Gasshuku; continued the great work of team Resolution Group International (RGI) led by Jack Hoban to provide clarity in values, morals, and ethics; and wrapped up the year at our annual Bonenkai. And all amidst teaching three times a week, saying “I do,” and reading Aristotle to Scanlon. Whew!

School’s been fun. Mid-semester I was walking campus, quietly thinking; how for years I’d searched for my place in this world, and that maybe, this university, with its history, opportunities, wisdom, staff, and students was a great fit. And I smiled … and ran into students role-playing Harry Potter’s “Quidditch” (much like the photo below).

Yes, people do this.  
Ya know, I never really appreciated not running around with a broomstick between my legs imagining I could fly until I saw others imagining they could fly with a broomstick between their legs. My favorite part of the match was when a rowdy pack of Mathletes stormed the field and stole everyone’s cape.

In 2011, Soke introduced training with the feeling of Kihon Happo (季翻初崩) - a broad concept I understood as challenging us to redefine the “basics” (Soke’s theme for 2012 is “Shinryuyogo,” (divine dragon, essence protect) which I’m sure we’ll hear more about throughout the year). Our own theme, “Ichi go, ichi e,” (一期一会) asked us to lead and shape the moment of “chance,” our moment of opportunity and enlightenment.

My conclusion was the basics are not techniques, but instead fundamental, immutable principles. I know no technique necessary for the operation of Taijutsu. Techniques are more plentiful than principles precisely because they are applied as needed, never relied upon.

However, principles are absolute and necessary for Taijutsu to occur, in fact, Taijutsu could not operate without them. When it does, when we instead rely on power and speed and strength, our movement ceases to connect with those immutable principles of position, leverage, and initiative, and therefore ceases to connect with the Kukan – the moment - precisely because we have numbed ourselves to its touch.

To be able to break someone’s kamae – their physical, mental and spiritual fortitude - to lead them to contribute to their own demise, to provide them enough room to fail – at will - is exceptionally powerful. But the power Budo offers is far more than just the ability to exist and survive, it also provides the power to live “a better life.”

What makes one powerful? Is it the gathering of power? Or the giving away of it? Neither is altruistic in itself. A wise man can amass knowledge and experience choosing to keep it, perhaps because he finds no one worthy to receive it. A dictator can freely give power to others so they might fulfill selfish gains to solidify his rule. It seems a balance must be struck - we have to know why we are keeping power and why we might give it away.

The physical example I’ve been using to make my point is the most powerful technique in the world. It’s literally thousands of years old, spans cultures throughout the globe, and has done more good and probably saved more lives than any other technique … the handshake.

"A most moving and pulse-stirring honor--
the heartfelt grope of the hand,
and the welcome that does not descend from the pale,
gray matter of the brain
but rushes up with the red blood of the heart."

- Mark Twain, the Begum of Bengal speech, 1907

The handshake is historically known as a display of peace, demonstrating no weapon. A handshake legend from West Africa specifically uses the left hand, as their culture dropped the weapon from the right and the shield from the left, expressing they had no attack and no means of defending one.

I can’t think of a better way to express Taijutsu than the handshake (I would also say bowing in Japan is Taijutsu; it is the same expression by physical means). What are we trying to do when we shake hands? Just touch hands? Perhaps if they’re someone important. But normally, it's never that simple. We are conveying and discerning something from the person we are meeting; perhaps trust or a sense of equality. If you don’t so, think about offering your hand to someone and having them refuse it. How would that make us feel?

Shaking hands is capable of shaping a single moment: approaching someone with an extended hand and warm smile creates an opportunity to lead and channel the other to do the same by means of our “intention” – an expression of vulnerability, an opening (just like every kamae). But this opportunity to shake also creates a shield of protection for us, for any movement outside of reciprocation indicates non-compliance or worse, danger.

In this sense, the handshake is not simply a technique for shaking someone’s hand, it’s part of a strategy to discern who they are and convey what we wish them to know about us. It is both true and false at the same time. A handshake is Kyojitsu.

The thing about Kyojitsu is it’s not simply deception - that would do its notion a disservice. However, it’s not truth either. In fact, Kyojitsu is a paradox – it’s both true and false at the same time and its definition lies at the heart of its contradiction. But just like power this is a constant balance and rebalance between these points, not simply one or the other. Which is why to embrace it, rather than training something specific, we must broaden our own perspective, our own perception in order to realize it more fully.

Taijutsu must also be true and false at the same time; it must lead others, shaping the physical-ness of a single moment. Inviting someone to shake hands is the very same thing as inviting our opponent to attack us in a particular way. Just like the handshake is a method to display our intent toward another, Taijutsu crafts and shapes our “intention,” an opening, for others and provides it at the moment of greatest impact.

As noted earlier, this “opening” is not just a means to survive, but also a means to live. For we have the capacity to inspire as much as we demoralize, we can protect, just as much as we can destroy …

The Republic of Haiti was a French slave colony until a rebellion in 1804, but has seen little peace since. Unrest, coups, government largesse, and corruption has kept the beleaguered nation on the brink of chaos for years. In January, 2010, Haiti finally tipped. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Port-au-Prince, its capital city. Deaths were 220,000 or higher. Haitians were left largely to fend for themselves, and despite the millions in aid that poured in, it was difficult to account for and much of it may have been absconded.

Silvi convoys from the airport with her group – you travel in a group to minimize kidnappings and muggings - to the camp, dropping off desperately needed supplies and meeting with the camp “president,” a young man, for there are few old people in Haiti - life expectancy is just 48.

Camp entrance.

The school itself is modest – a concrete slab, plywood walls, and corrugated roof - but its worth to the tent camp may be beyond measure. It has been reasonably successful, teaching English to almost all age groups, employing a small staff, and even attracting ‘outsiders’ – Haitians from around the city - to its promise. The school and Silvi’s mission is also humble enough not to be noticed by local officials, who might be looking for payoffs.

Silvi’s mission is not to run the school – it is a gift to the camp, they are expected to grow it. To that end, she incorporates a school board, made up of residents. It was at their first meeting she heard about the violence.

The camp president and principal of the school wants $150 to pay off eight men – also residents of the camp - who have already vandalized the school, threatened staff, and nearly beat a teacher. They punched holes in the walls and told the president if they do not get their money, they’ll tear apart the school, they’ll raze it. Silvi knows well this cycle of threats and payoffs in Haiti and the fact payoffs only lead to more payoffs. She makes a decision – she wants a meeting.

The schoolboard with a member of the "eight" at the end on the left.
Silvi is to his left.

Despite concerns from her church, that any meeting with these men could result in violence, she presses and gets it. She opts to meet in open space, in full view of camp residents, with plenty of witnesses. But the eight refuse - they want a one-on-one with Silvi in the school. She agrees.

Surrounded, the first thing she does as they sit is ask their names. They grudgingly tell her and then reiterate the threats. She listens. She’d like to give them money, she’d like to help them, but there are just too many starving families who need it. “You have the power to destroy this school,” handing back to them their own threat, “It’s up to you to decide” which is more important – your wants, or the needs of this community. Silvi places the school’s future in their hands. They quiet. Then in no uncertain terms she says if they continue to threaten, vandalize, let alone perpetrate violence, she will pull her team out and never return; her church’s support and their resources will disappear for good. “Would you like to see me again?” Silence. Then the nods come - yes, we want you to come back.

And for the time being, the eight quiet and return to their lives. That was October. But by the end of November, they were at it again. But this time, perhaps emboldened by Silvi’s actions, the camp president did what he did not do before – he took them to court, where they were threatened with jail. And all Haitians know, if you go to jail, you may never come out. That does the trick.

First frame, October 2010.

Silvi activated the eight’s respect for life, their Life Value, by weighing their petty wants against their entire communities’ needs and empowering them to set the balance. She gave them the opportunity to live “a better life” when she gave them the power to decide the same for others.

Silvi is a happy, humble, wonderfully strong woman and we wish only great things for her and her mission. The school itself is expanding. Now, with 400 registered students and two-hour classes morning and afternoon, it’s thriving. And they’re adding classes to the roster in computers, Spanish, and even a course for a driver’s license.

Life in the school.

Silvi never resisted the intention of her opponents. In fact, she acquiesced to their initial demands for a direct meeting. When she gave her name and asked for theirs she let the eight know she considered them all equals, even though their behavior was clearly not. She even told them she would pay … except for all those other starving people. What I like most is the fact she used against them the very threat they were using against the school. She used their own technique, their own intention, even, against them.

At my wedding, my new mother-in-law told me a proverb: 念ずれば石をも通づ (nenzureba ishi o mo tsuzu - if one prays, focuses the will, focuses the intention, one can pass through a stone). In other words, with a strong will, one can do anything. “Ishi” (石) means stone, however “ii shi” (意志) means intention. So - 念ずれば意志をも通づ - if one focuses intention, one can pass through that intention. In other words, we can make our own luck.

This idea is about getting out of our own way. If we can erase the “wanting” to treat opponents differently, erase the “wanting” to do a technique, we can edge closer to erasing any hint of duality in our own physical awareness that both leads our opponent to an intention of opportunity, while also serving to protect and shield ourselves and others from that very intention.

Bear in mind, if it’s simply one or the other, we can be exposed and have it used against us, which might threaten ours or others’ survival. Rather, it needs to be both at the same time – true and false, vulnerable and protective, opportunity and trap, surviving and living. We can take a step closer to shaping that paradoxical movement, but we have to “pass through” our own ‘wanting’ – our own will/intention - to “make it happen,” to “force it” to occur. In other words, what would be the point to forcing someone unwilling to shake our hand? Would it hold any meaning at all? A handshake doesn’t force – it offers in a way that cannot be refused and does not resist when accepted. This will be our own dojo’s theme for 2012.

We should be able to approach everyone with an extended hand and a warm smile, regardless of what we may know is true in our heart. This “contradiction” is perhaps a glimpse of Taijutsu’s universal connection between people, when one extends their hand in friendship, the other does as well, and they shake in earnest to make physical the goodness of their spirit.

Have an inspired 2012!