January 30, 2014

Fake it 'til you make it! No, wait. That's dumb.

Good ole Ben Franklin said, “There is much difference between imitating a good man and counterfeiting him.” This applies well to training. If we’re mimicking our teachers, chances are our movement will fall apart - we’ll be in the wrong space, at the wrong time, doing the wrong thing, for reasons inexplicable to us. We’re trying to imitate their movement, but all we wind up doing is counterfeiting it. 

In 1997, I received my black belt in Japan - I had been training just over a year (although I had 15 years prior experience before arriving). Not only that, my teacher jumped me several ranks, so I thought I was "hot shit."

I decided as part of my 'hot shitness' I would begin training with "scary" Nagato sensei, who at the time had quite a rep for bad assery.  

When I first started training with him all those years ago he would say, "Move like me. Imitate me." So I did. But just a few years later, he was no longer saying that. His sentiment had evolved into, "If you need a place to begin, move like me. Otherwise, move like you." And just a while after that it was, "You are not me, so don't move like me. Move like you." This was my experience - he even told one of my most senior guys that he moved too much like me and should try to move more like himself. This realization was huge. 

When we observe our teachers we can make the mistake of trying to, "move like them." But our teacher's movement is there to inspire us - we may see "what" they're doing, but not understand "how" they're doing "what" they're doing. 

This is why things get confusing. Their expression is made with their Uke, in their moment, with their movement. And instead of putting ourselves through a similar process of experience, we imitate their response. In other words, we try to recreate their solution for a problem that is singular to us - our partner is ours, in this moment, with our movement.   

Try imitating a great comedian or musician – we'll always come up short because copying the inspiring thing they do is not the thing we're actually looking to do. What we want is the "secret" to making that thing inspiring in the first place. But like a great magician, what we see is not what is actually occurring. The "secret" is behind the scenes, hidden in their movement. So, we wind up counterfeiting for a basic reason: We cannot fake good habits. But how do we achieve “good habits?”

If we were painters-in-training would we rely on mimicking every single thing our teacher did to advance our own ability? From squeezing out a turd of paint onto a palette, to specific brushstrokes? If we relied on them for everything, at what point would we become a painter ourselves? At what point would we become an "artist" in our own right? Shouldn't we be artists from the get-go? We're already responsible for our actions and consequences even without training. So, why shouldn't we take responsibility right away? 

Ever hear the phrase, "Fake it until you make it?" This is dumb. Don't do this. It's what stupid people think is smart - what they say instead of providing sound advice because they suck (besides, even if you could "fake it," why would you want to?). You can't fake martial arts. You can't fake protecting yourself or others. Can you fake driving a car? Of course not - either you can or you crash.   

Don't believe me? Then take 20 minutes YouTubing some of the frauds out there - they are not hard to find. Watching them, like watching any nonsense, will make your brain ache because it's to see baby seals disarm hunters and club the shit out of them. It might be what you hoped for, but it's totally fabricated. In the real world baby seals always die.   

Watching fakes will also make your heart ache because at our deepest level it violates the common sense - not only do they not "know the ought" they don't even know they ought to know it. 

My advice: Make it (and you won't have to fake it). Instead of watching our teacher and trying to recreate their movement, watch the “outcome” of their movement, and try to recreate that. The outcome is more than likely observable and accomplishable. What happened to the Uke? Where did their balance go - forward? Backward? Did they fall to their butt or their back? Read the outcome like directions on a map. Sure, we may not be able to get to that destination right away, but heading in the right direction is a better start than being clueless as to which way we should even face to start the journey.

I'm certainly not saying we shouldn't pay attention to, observe, and be inspired by our teachers. But relying on them is simply not enough. Recreating the outcome at our level of ability is exceptionally important because it’s the only way we come to understand circumstantial "proportionality" – the inscrutable "how" to do the "what" it is we're trying to do.

January 23, 2014


Years ago, I met and trained with a high-level Kung Fu expert, who trained around the world. This guy had it all worked out - every kind of attack had its particular defense. For a straight punch, you do this ... when this happens, that. Everything balanced out like some crazy Algebraic expression. His martial art was boxed, compartmentalized, "curriculurized," and "syllabized." I remember thinking how tiresome and confusing his training must have been.

Questions will always surround training because methodologies and pedagogies are indicative of core values. As I've stated, everyone has their own reasons for training, emanating from their own sense of these values.

Close. What I really need is a gun
that shoots machetes.
Part of our martial training is being able to adapt to circumstances, but since we have no clue what exactly those circumstances might actually be, we have to rely on history and current events to tell us what has happened, presently happening, as well as our own educated guesses. But all this belies the point - the variable will always be change itself.

So it stands to reason that the real world (and training) requires us to respond by “generality,” not “specificity.” Specific techniques we may have intuited through memorized and repeated reenactments - oftentimes speaking to the "preservation" of martial art - may have instilled those performances into our reactive movements, but not provided us with the perception of spontaneous adaptability crucial to the actuality of their use. In other words, “performing” kata is not the same as applying its underlying principles – the stuff that makes kata relevant (and I would argue “viable”) in the first place.

When Soke says there is no "specialization" in the Bujinkan, I take him literally - I don’t think he means just weapons, but everything, including tactics and strategies. For example, if we set out to learn the Japanese sword, that’s different than being able with any kind of sword or blade. The only way I know how to accomplish this broad ability is to track the universal principles and, by them, apply the details of specific techniques in proportion to the circumstances.

We actually do this in our everyday lives. If you’ve ever ridden different sized or types of bikes, driven different vehicles, used somebody else's tools, supplies, or shot somebody else's weapons, you’ve probably done just what I’m writing of. You tapped into your core understanding and applied a universal set of principles to specific and possibly unfamiliar techniques and mechanics. It's actually a simple process, but in martial arts, extraordinarily important.

I don't believe in any singular “right” way to do any technique in Taijutsu. There are “common” ways to gain fundamental feeling and exposure to certain movements as well as habitually better ways to accomplish and apply those techniques as they are needed based on one’s ability to create alignment under the circumstances.

Haters gonna hate.
When we want to know the “way” to do some technique, we should first ask, “what’s the context?” Under what conditions, scenario, or circumstances do we wish to use it? If we’re a painter looking to paint an image of a tree, the optimal question is “What is the context we want to place that tree in?” We all know what a tree looks like, but our image changes if it’s Fall or Winter. When the context changes, so does the application of technique. Are we shielding ourselves or escaping, protecting others or defending them? Or are we attacking an imminent attacker? 

This is partly why Taijutsu is inscrutable. The “no specialization” aspect of training creates an anonymity in movement because the universality of Taijutsu doesn’t look like anything specific. Taijutsu is and should be a variable itself. The definition of a variable is to be subject to change or variation. In other words, it changes as it needs to or when it deems it is worthwhile. 

The difference in context makes the difference with how we are going to apply our understanding of technique. This highlights the gap between performing knowledge and applying it prudentially as wisdom. 

January 16, 2014

Under the Blade 2014

Shinnen Omedeto Gozaimasu! Happy New Year!

A busy year, but I have to say, we had better training than ever! And while I was stuck in school, several of the boys took a Japan trip - Joe Bunales put his name on the wall, Kris McKinney and Michael Govier passed their Godan tests, and we have several new Shodans. I couldn’t be prouder – congratulations all around!

Japan 2013

In April, we again hosted Jack Hoban for another great Chicagoland seminar, as well as taught law enforcement trainers at the annual ILEETA conference. We also filmed the latest RGI Combatives video on ground defenses with Craig Gray. 

And by September, Tomoko and I were on the road to see Jack again for Buyu Camp and the RGI certification course. Quite a trip! 

Our little dojo held a year worth of seminars, performed and demonstrated at Anderson Gardens – the largest Japanese garden outside of Japan - held its 15th annual Gasshuku, officially opened two new chapters - SGTI Dojo Los Angeles with Shidoshi Govier, and right here in Chicago with Shidoshi McKinney - had another great Bonenkai, and if all that wasn’t enough, even expanded the family – Shidoshi Jim Delorto and wife April welcomed a son, Emmett Anthony.  
Buyu Camp 2013
May 2013
This past year was most significant for me because I graduated from my master’s program. And what did I learn most from school? What did I take away? That’s easy: I am done with school. Honestly, what is wrong with you PhD folks? Your heads are broken or something.

The Beginning is the End is the Beginning

Ninja Santa says, "Keep Going!"
Last December our in-house armorer, Carmelo Grajales (Bujinkan Weapons) unveiled his newest creations: A six-and-a-half foot Nyoibo, an O-Gama, and a Nodachi

Rudolph makes me feel funny...
It was like Christmas morning in Ninjatown and Santa is pouring Glenlivet served by reindeer magically transformed into fur-bikini-wearing supermodels looking for laps to sit on. 

We “played.” Trained. Made a great time of it.



Army "Man"euvers.
A couple days later I get this question: How do we make sure we aren’t using those big-ass weapons like a goof? 

[Note: I understood “goof” to mean not simply straddling the nyoibo to sport one’s manhood continuing the rich tradition of dick jokes throughout history of men straddling large objects – cannons, trees, monuments, et al – including some samurai ages ago who 
undoubtedly could not have resisted the size of that nyoibo all to the delight of other men whose

"Morning Monument."
duty it is to applaud for they would assuredly have done the same had they thought of it first. (No commas!) More to the point, I understood “goof” as using the weapons in a way that got one killed.]

We make sure we aren't a "goof" with big-ass weapons (or any weapon or ourselves) the same way we make sure we aren't a "goof," period. Keep training viable: Capable of life. 

In essence, do what training is supposed to do to begin with; do what makes it "matter."

Mentality over Technique

In my New Year message of 2013, I made a bold claim: Martial arts were moral and no one engages in training without answering to their inherent ethical considerations. What do I intend to study? How do I intend to study? From whom do I intend to study? These interrogatives evolve into far more consequential aspects when student becomes teacher: What do I intend to teach? How do I intend to teach? Who do I intend to teach? Regardless of any articulated answer, our participation itself is the vote we cast.

Ethics relate to action, but no action can be had if we lack, not simply the will, but an understanding of what makes ethics relevant in the first place. This relates well to training. Techniques are great, but if we lose the sense of what makes them “matter” to begin with, then why are we training?

"Don't be a dumbass."
Tsakahara Bokuden
In Funakoshi’s, “Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate,” he tells a story regarding Tsukahara Bokuden, a swordmaster and predecessor of Miyamoto Musashi. 

As the story goes, a high level student of his with “extraordinary technical skill” passed by a skittish horse that kicked at him. He “deftly turned his body to avoid the kick and escaped injury.” Bystanders were so impressed they related the story to Bokuden himself, who reportedly said, “I’ve misjudged him,” and promptly expelled the student.

Unable to understand his reasoning the folks set to force Bokuden to react to the same circumstances by placing “an exceedingly ill-tempered horse” on a road they knew he used. Secretly watching, they were surprised to see Bokuden give the horse a wide berth and pass it without incident. Confessing their ruse, the swordmaster said:

A person with a mental attitude that allows him to walk carelessly by a horse without considering that it may rear up is a lost cause no matter how much he may study technique. I thought he was a person of better judgment, but I was mistaken.

Funakoshi uses this story as a way to explain “mentality over technique,” but never defines what he means by “mentality” or why it should be “over technique.”

I suppose he could mean anything – a certain wherewithal for applying one’s ability or perhaps one’s manner, character, for doing so. What is clear to me from the story is that losing one’s sense of “mentality,” or worse, being willfully ignorant of it, can be life-threatening.

An actual sign. In the actual world.
I submit that “mentality” here actually represents one’s “common sense.” I’m not here talking of “common knowledge” - the sun will rise tomorrow is common knowledge. 

And lately, the phrase “commonsense/common-sense,” has been slapped on various issues like a “Hope and Change” sticker, as in the mantra, “common-sense approaches to gun-control” – a sly use of the phrase to undermine dissent by manufacturing an illusion of “reasonableness” supported by some apparent “majority.” (None of which, it turns out, the actual majority finds reasonable or supports.)

If it were left to me to define, I’d say the common sense is “knowing the ought,” whether that’s survival, martial arts, or ethics. Bokuden dismissed his student for a simple reason: He had lost touch, as in, you “ought” not be careless with your life, dumbass. (Bokuden may or may not have used the word, “dumbass.” In my telling, he always does.)  

Double “Ought” Buck

From survivalists, like Tom Brown and Larry Dean Olsen, to Jon “Lofty” Wiseman of British SAS fame, shelter is the priority for survival situations in harsh climates. In essence, this is to position or reposition oneself to endure the situation.

In terms of training, conflict and violence represent “harsh climate,” thus, positioning is the priority. Sort of. There is something even more important than positioning: Knowing you ought to position.

“Knowing the ought” means you are not in denial of a situation that can kill you. It means you are “present” about what’s at stake and can thus make the decision to act. Any technique of sheltering or martial arts is useless if we are oblivious to, deny, or willfully ignore “when” it should be used – when it ought to be used. In fact, once we have a clear understanding of “ought” we also gain a clear context to apply any technique.

An example: Last year one of my guys brings in a friend for training. Nice guy, smart too - works for a major tech company. “Newbie” folks almost always wait for the “expert” to teach them exactly what to do. It’s intuitive and seems reasonable. 

But rather than make him memorize kata or drill some technique, I’d rather expose him to a method so he can teach himself. I’m with Swanson here – fishing is not that hard. In fact, I’m convinced we already know how to do it and folks just need a little reminding. But to do this I have to reconnect this guy with his own common sense.

After giving this fellow an “Ukemi Primer” to get him used to the floor and shaping his body to manage his movement, I bring him out to train with everyone else. I was reluctant to do this next part. I handed him a fukuro shinai and took one for myself. “We’re going to play a game. It’s a simple game. I’m going to bash your brains in. All you have to do is prevent me from doing that without running away.” I left it at that. I hadn’t told him what to do or shown him anything. He gave a tittering laugh, like, “That’s funny.” Only I wasn’t laughing. His eyes shot toward the exit. That was good. 

In reality, I had no intention of bashing anything, but I knew we had to maintain some aspect of “threat” – hell, he’s out on a floor with strangers who train martial arts, so he has already accepted some form of threat to himself. I raise the shinai over my head and move on him.

Happy to say, he does exactly what I hoped he would do: Put the shinai between himself and me, leap back about ten feet, and keep moving – maneuvering – to prevent me from hitting him. With zero instruction and no technique he was able to provide for himself a manner of movement from which he could thwart me. After about a minute, we stop. I’m wearing a big grin. So is he. He got it.

Turns out, fishing is not that hard.

“Why” tells us “How”

Was our friend’s movement sharp and resilient? No, it was sloppy, but far from oblivious. I can’t work with oblivious and he can’t learn from it. Whatever it is he takes home he must have some context – he must understand why it is important.

This is true of training at all levels and all methods. Reactivating the common sense is how we teach ourselves “what” we are supposed to do and “how” we are supposed to do it because we are trying to protect and defend a very clear comprehension of “why” we are doing it in the first place.

This has little to do with known kata. Kata are not “how to” instructions or procedure sets, despite the use of them as such - they are tools, just like a big-ass Nyoibo. All tools are a referential means to ask better questions. This can sometimes get lost in translation as we are more apt to ask, “How can I perfect my technique?” instead of the more helpful, “How can I move in a way that I don’t die?” This latter reductionist view is important if we want to advance our ability – think “less wrong,” instead of “more right.”

Do we get to dress up? I'm in.
I’m certain some were thinking earlier: Why waste your time training with ancient, big-ass weapons? It isn’t like you’ll find a Nyoibo, Ogama, or Monpa on the street when you’re attacked. And even if you did, why would you grab that over something immanently more practical? What’s next - lightsabers? Harry Potter’s broom? Seriously, why not just train with guns and knives?

I’ll never forget the online argument I had with a chap years ago (at a time when I thought online arguments were actually worth having) about training with Naginata, a Japanese halberd. According to him the damn things were a waste of time - not worth the wood they’re made of. You’re missing the point, I told him. What you’re talking about is like basing one’s philosophy on the fact it’s Monday and then changing it because it’s Tuesday.

The Naginata does not represent anything inherently different than any other tool in training. Yes, it requires different application, like any weapon does, but with the very same tried and true strategy, tactics, and principles that we are in constant pursuit of.

I’m not trying to master the Naginata, I’m trying to master the essential elements that allow viable - life-preserving - use of any tool (including my body), such as the Naginata. To deny some tool or aspect for arbitrary reasons is to deny ourselves access to a “holocron” of limitless adaptability within Taijutsu itself, our ability to comprehend it, and make it our own.

Reconnection to the common sense provides the context that allows us to intuit the shape of movement and its proportionality. Expanding the palette of training’s options, like moving with big-ass weapons, is to challenge the very perceptions of what we believe Taijutsu is capable of. This expansive training places the burden of use upon us as we try to recognize the requirements that calibrate us toward viability. These requirements are all meant to protect that which makes training “matter” to begin with – the “why,” our most fundamental motivation no one can deny: The value of life itself.

A Warrant for your Attest 

The deep-seeded and intrinsic value for human life is the warrant that authenticates and justifies the reverence human beings hold for all manner of metaphysical "oughtness” at the heart of humanity’s transcendent notions of worth and obligation, namely values, morals, ethics, justice, and rights (and martial arts for that matter). And that’s just about everything.

In other words, every notion of oughtness is only made relevant by the value humanity places on the dignity and worth of human “being” – a state of innocent life. All our supercool “ought” notions only matter because life itself matters. 

I'm no Indiana Jones, but it looks like he just won an award
for his dong. Is he polishing it? #Italians.   
[Note: “Warrant” is a fancy philosophical term and means that which creates the authenticating justification for something else. It connects a "reason" to a "claim" and answers the question, “Why is this reason relevant?” For example, the “reason” men straddle things is to make a “claim” about the size of their penis. But the “warrant” that authenticates – makes relevant - the “reason” these dick jokes are made in the first place is the fact that since ancient times and around the globe, from the big-
Yes, this is like a whole thing in Japan.
dick frescoes of Pompeii to the billion-dollar Viagra industry, male virility has been celebrated. It is epitomized by the exemplary man, the man’s man - the guy with the huge dong. And all men – ALL MEN – appreciate dick jokes. If they do not, they are not men. See: Women. Some women do not appreciate dick jokes. I don’t blame them – they are not men.]

This “life as warrant” is self-evidently true when we examine the contradistinction:
Bravo, good sir. #slowclap
There is no value that warrants human life and qualifies it as relevant, meaningful, and valuable. If there were then it should be perfectly justifiable in the threatening, harming, and taking of innocent human life for the outright protection, preservation, sustainment, promotion, and respect of that stated value, whatever it may be.

For example, if freedom is construed more important and valuable than innocent human life, then threatening, harming, and murdering it would by rights be justifiable for freedom’s “sake.” But life and protection of the value of life is that which provides freedom its relevancy - it’s why freedom exists as a value at all.

Values cannot be moral, justice cannot be served, and rights are not self-evident and inalienable if they do not acknowledge that the value of human life ought to be protected, preserved, sustained, promoted, and respected. The same is true of martial arts – they would not exist if life didn’t matter.

Maintaining viability in one's training means going back to the roots of what makes it all matter in the first place: Protecting our ethic as effectively as we can under the circumstances, whatever they may be. The ethic is simple: Protect yourself, protect everyone around you, and protect your enemy, if possible. These are the levels of ability, and I would add, maturity. The higher our ability, the better our chances of accomplishing all three. The higher our maturity, the more we realize why all three ought to be accomplished.

Theme for 2014

Over this past year we looked at, “Shingitai-Ichi.” In particular, we paid attention to the “I chi,” or “agreement,” that is necessary for any intuitive perception of the key notions of Taijutsu, namely the integration of the body (Tai), tactics of usage (Gi), and most importantly, the superseding strategic essence (Shin) that necessitated the warrior ethos that would discover and refine the martial arts themselves.

Sutekki by Bujinkan Weapons
By examining and distilling these parts we were able to locate the edges of our own ability through successful expansion of the principles themselves: Positioning, leverage, and initiative. And now that we have a clear grasp of where (at least at this point in our journey) the sidewalk ends, we have a greater understanding of where the core lies and thus the manner in which we should orient ourselves. That core in 2014 will be an examination of the Kihon and Bojutsu.

To give us a better understanding of our most basic aspects I decided to focus on as basic a tool as I could imagine. It’s probably man’s oldest weapon and a near constant companion since humans first walked the Earth – the stick. But not just any stick, a walking stick - the Sutekki. The word has no kanji associated with it I am aware of. It’s simply the phonetic pronunciation of the word “stick” (katakana: Su-te-kki).

The modern Japanese word “suteki” means “wonderful.” This is supposedly derived from “walking stick” because as Japanese culture began to assimilate Western dress – derby hats and high collars – it led to various iterations, like “haikara” (high collar) meaning more or less, “fashionable.” The same is true with suteki, for if you carried a walking stick, a “sutekki,” then you were the epitome of class, style, and elegance.

The “Core” of Core Values

The motives for participation in martial training is a never ending landscape of the sublime and the banal; the good, bad, and ugly results from the tool known as human reasoning. Some may overlap, but ultimately everyone trains for the reasons they believe are relevant.

Making sense of all that is futile as no agreement can be had. Except for this: No one trains martial arts to get worse at martial arts. No one trains to gain less understanding, less ability, and realize after 20 years of consistent training that they’re a moron who is worse off mentally, physically, and spiritually than they were when they began. No one does that.

Every single one of us trains to get better, gain understanding, enlighten ourselves, whatever. Even the weirdos on YouTube filming “ninja” videos in their living rooms dressed in a Power Ranger getup their mom sewed, think this in their own mentally ill way. And it is this universal motivation that gets translated and articulated into the plurality of reasons and values folks train martial arts for: Self-defense, discipline, spiritual refinement, honor, what have you.  

We can all list a variety of “worthwhile” reasons to train - the martial arts are full of great core values. But here’s the thing: If our movement is such that we can protect ourselves, protect everyone around us, and even protect our enemy, if possible, then we already accomplish the essence, the root, the core of every core value that any commercial school has ever painted on a wall: You don’t get “honor” without respect for the value of life.

Thus, if one is competently able to accomplish these three levels (and very few are), what more is there to do? Seriously. What else “ought” we do? Reduce property damage?

Protecting yourself and others – all others - is why martial arts matter. 

Knowing the “ought” to, keeps them viable.

Have an inspired 2014!