March 29, 2014

An Odd Thing

It was an odd thing that happened. 

I was in Japan at the time it occurred. I was headed to workout as I remember. I belonged to a fitness club down the road in Gotanda and was living in Takanawadai, just up the road from Shinagawa, and a hop away from Sengaku-ji. This is the temple burial ground of the famous 47 Ronin, who after plotting revenge for two years, avenged their disgraced Lord Asano in 1703, bringing the severed head of his enemy, Kira, to make an offering at the temple and collectively disembowel themselves. Sengaku-ji was just down the road.

At the time, Gotanda was known for two things: Sex and "yaks." Yakuza. Japanese gangsters that gave the impression of being both everywhere and nowhere. They were those you saw in the streets handing you sex flyers and those you did not, sneering at you from dark corners. Yakuza like to sneer a lot. The crowds attracted there were always a mixed bag, from kids to the very weird. I rarely went there at night. Today, it was different. It was daytime. A simple afternoon, for this odd thing to occur.

My thoughts were the thoughts one might have on any given day. I remember nothing special about them, in fact, I do not remember them at all. Perhaps it is this fact that the following came to light. 

As I headed down the road and down the hill, making my way into Gotanda proper, I turned a corner of a building to cross the street. I had done this literally dozens of times before - it was a short cut to the gym, which lay behind a building on the other side of an upcoming road. But on this day, as I turned this corner, an odd thing happened. I stopped.

In fact, I stopped short. I stopped for a very specific reason - the back of my body had turned inexplicably hot. It was as if a large oven door had suddenly opened and its immense heat poured over me. I remember the experience quite well. From the bottom of my heels to the top of my head, I was quickly and overwhelmingly engulfed in what I can only describe as heat.

It was not a good feeling. In fact, it so distressed me, I distinctly remember my heart racing at the thought that my body may be about work against me, as when a stroke or heart attack ensues. I stood still there for several moments, confusedly contemplating what could be my own demise.

But for some reason, a reason I can think no more of today, than I did then, I turned around. And when I turned, I saw a man. A young, slim Japanese I had never seen before, and had not seen as I turned the corner this day. This young man was looking at me. No, that isn't quite right. He clearly saw me, but possibly in a way no one had ever seen me before. And when I turned and looked into his eyes, it was as though he had just awoken. When his eyes met my own, it startled him, shaking him, like he knew the jig was up. Perhaps, from his point of view, he had been "exposed."

When two strangers meet for no good reason on a street in a modern day foreign land, I suppose we all carry with us certain expectations. Mine were not met and probably his were not either, for he quickly turned and ducked around the corner. 

The movement was so strange and his demeanor so unsettled that it prompted my next action as if it had been written for me. I took several steps forward and peered ever-so slowly around the corner. And there he was, just out of reach, dry washing his hands, looking at the ground, and shaking. His body language longing for the return of anonymity my stare had clearly stolen from him.

When he saw me silently watching him from the corner, he bolted like a rabbit, running as fast as he could down the street and out of sight.

It was an odd thing.

March 21, 2014

Gambatte (Keep Going!)

Ever ask what you thought was a pretty good question only to be told, “Keep going!”? The phrase manages to both encapsulate the spirit of Budo itself, while at the same time feeling like someone just wiped a booger on your sleeve.

If there is a secret to martial arts and its training, it is "Keep going!" This may seem trite and it's easy to understand why: If I were lost and asked some random person for directions and they said, “Keep going!” with a big grin, I probably wouldn’t grin back. In fact, I’d probably want to smack them. Let alone if I ask a navigation expert, who grinfully tells me, “Keep going!” - I’d probably want to drop a safe on their head. 

“Keep going!” is one of those non-answer answers. 
Very Zen. Zen’s not a bad answer, mind you, except if you’re drowning and would rather a life-preserver than words of encouragement. There will always be a concern about racing past underlying philosophy, whitewashing it, or worse, taking it for granted. The risk is building a house on sand. It’s good to articulate answers. As a “Stand-up Philosopher,” values ought to be articulated well enough to compel folks to assess their current ethic.

But answers can get pretty complex when describing or defining training’s “basic” aspects – turns out nothing is so easy that it’s “basic.” In fact, I can’t think of any aspect of Taijutsu that doesn’t relate to its whole - universals are like that. Imagine trying to describe the “what” and “how” of one strand of a spider’s web without explaining the web itself. That single, sticky strand is indicative of “why” the entire web matters to begin with. “Why” questions are normally the hardest to answer for they seek to clarify reason and purpose. But they also try to make sense of something deeper and more intrinsic to human nature: Motive. Motive is at the heart of reason and purpose - all values stem from it. 

I firmly believe that motivations no one can deny - our gut feeling of "ought" - take the form of core values at our deepest fundamental level that provide the basis for everything else, including physical training and our responses under stress to conflict. I'd call it the "common sense." 

Thus, clarifying our intrinsic motives - our common sense - is important if we want all that proceeds them to be free of contradictions that inevitably confuse and confound. 

This is from the preface of “Togakure no Ninja“(The Ninja of Togakure, 1987), by Chozo Shimizu, with consultation by Masaaki Hatsumi. It is uniquely fitting:

Calligraphy by Masaaki Hatsumi 
When asked what was the highest secret of Togakure Ryu Ninjutsu, Soke Masaaki Hatsumi said, usually, people judge someone’s level by how fast they run, how far they can fly, whether one can disappear, or do some high level escape techniques, but these people do not know true Ninpo. 
Hatsumi sensei was told by Takamatsu sensei, the truth of Ninjutsu is you must have "Ninshiki," perceptive consciousness, and "Butoku," martial virtue, in order to be one with the consciousness of god and constantly promise yourself to have compassion without ego. This is why Hatsumi sensei decided to name his dojo, Bujinkan - divine warrior school. 
Hatsumi sensei interprets "To" of Togakure as, "Mamoru" – to protect - and "Gakure," as hidden. What is hidden is your intention and promise to wish for peace to protect your family and those who cannot fight for themselves. 
History shows us, one will eventually lose when fighting only for yourself - even Napoleon lost. It is normal for humans to have the desire to fight for wealth and power, but in the end they are usually defeated when fighting only for themselves. 
But if one does "Shinobu," persevere, then you can receive "Kofuku," happiness, like "Shizen no Tokuryoku," virtue of nature, "Tokuyo," honorable virtue, "Futoku," virtuous wealth, and "Furaku," pleasurable wealth, among other things. 
In this way, the secret technique of Ninjutsu is to cultivate extraordinary common sense.

If patience is a virtue, then perseverance is divine. But this kind of clarity takes time. And even when we think we’re certain of that clarity, it can still remain elusive. Don't believe me? This is how we can know: 
Imagine you are given the chance to travel back in time and meet yourself prior to beginning training. What would you tell you?
In my case, I'd be going back almost 35 years. Now, granted, there may be folks out there who could think of something pithy. Perhaps specific, like, “keep your back straight” or mumbo jumbo for the new student, like, “the essence is the void,” which I’m pretty certain would lead 'beginner you' to think you’re about to spend years of your life becoming a massive tool.    

But for the majority of folks (and everyone I have ever asked this question to) their answer would be nothing less than a big smile and a shaking of the head - no idea (my wife said, "It's all good," only reinforcing my point). I mean, what could you say? 

The moment with yourself is paradoxical, for even though you recognize all that is in store, all of the triumphs and failures, the good and the bad, there is no specific answer we can articulate that can fully justify a conclusion. So, we're left with a new truth: The taking of the journey is a journey worth taking - discovery is in the exploration itself, not the destination.  
So, how could one possibly encapsulate years of training and experience and distill it into a single thought?

“Keep going!” (Answer and advice.) 

It is this little phrase that is the secret to training. Frustrating in its simplicity because what we expect is not what we find. I mean, how can a secret be a secret when everyone already knows it? Easy. When they cannot perceive what more it offers. GK Chesterton said, "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered." Training is as much adventure as adversity. And like all of the universal aspects of Taijutsu, mastery lies as much in the acceptance and command of that duality (kyojitsu) as it does in the surrender of it. The difference is in one's initiative - the timing of motivation, the sharpness of the common sense. But only the journey can strengthen our capacity to perceive. 

Some years ago, Soke wrote the following:
Gambatte (Keep Going!)
Forget your sadness, anger, grudges and hatred.  Let them pass like smoke caught in a breeze. You should not deviate from the path of righteousness; you should lead a life worthy of a man. Don't be possessed by greed, luxury, or your ego. You should accept sorrows, sadness and hatred as they are, and consider them a chance for trial given to you by the powers ... a blessing given by nature. Have both your mind and your time fully engaged in Budo and have your mind deeply set on Bujutsu. 

March 14, 2014

It's a ...! Escape-less Stratagem!

Admiral Ackbar knows better.
Recently, I taught martial arts to a group of people who had never experienced martial arts. A small group - nice and lively - we made a good time of it, exploring a side they had never seen – the inside.

The first thing I said was something like this: You’ve probably seen martial arts in some respect -  either on TV or in movies or maybe someone you know has shown you a thing or two. What we learn is that martial arts are made up of a bunch of “things.” These things are called “techniques” and are commonly known to build off each other in order to make new things until the student of martial arts eventually knows all of these things, if that is even possible. You’ve most probably seen this. But today, we won’t be doing any of that. I won’t be showing you a single technique. The reason is simple: Techniques on their own don’t work. Techniques must always be powered, applied, and adapted to their cause. What we’ll look at today is how to do that.

And so we did: Movement and maneuvering gave everyone a context for a sense of “positioning” that could out-position their partner’s position. It was fun, people grasped the concept early and easily, and hopefully they were able to take home something they had not shown up with.

Now, one of the participants, known to the others, decided he would be “difficult.” He was working with his friend on some of these most basic aspects and not cooperating. So, I tried to assist. It intrigued me as to why anyone would feel the need to challenge the training so early. It’s like a child who intentionally flouts the rules of a game, only to expect a prize for doing so.

What he told me was he didn't want anything, “to work.” He felt like he should instinctively try to prevent things from working. And so, he used his strength to manhandle his partner into doing what he wanted. Naturally, this caused his partner to manhandle him. And their “training” became a wrestling match. I tried to help. He grabbed me with all his strength. He wanted me to, “prove it worked.”

Here is what I said: Martial arts are not about creating conflict, but alleviating it. The way that’s done is not by outright force, but by lack thereof. Martial arts, unlike martial sports, do not rely on forcing an opponent to do something they would never voluntarily do. Martial arts - and perhaps we could call these “warrior arts” – are refined to present an array of options under particular circumstances that no opponent can deny. This is to shape vulnerability and create advantage. It is the great difference.

I waited to see if any of that made sense or mattered to him.

It didn't.

And that's when he moved on me.

He wound up on the floor - his leg twisted unnaturally beneath him - with me placing him into an extraordinarily compromising position. There was some startled screaming involved, but he was okay. I didn't hurt him and I didn't get hurt. In fact, he wanted me to do it again. I told him we were both "lucky," and that I was not an amusement park ride. We all got back to training. Turns out it might have actually been a good thing for him. We shook hands later and I invited him to come back.

This guy was a decent fellow - albeit hard headed - and he wanted to make sure that this stuff "worked." He wanted it "proven" to him. But here's the problem: How would he ever know? Because whatever is "proven," he will remain unaware. As a newbie, he's in no position to understand the difference between someone overcoming him because they are bigger, stronger, or faster, or they truly have martial ability. This guy can't tell the difference. All he knows is he got his ass handed to him. That is the standard by which he's judging the moment. He doesn't know "good" technique, from "bad," because he hardly knows "technique."

There is so much screeching on the internet about "resistance" in training. Interesting. The term is often undefined. Do they mean "dueling?" An MMA match? This is unclear. There is a real difference between "resistance" and "obstinance." 

Resistance comes from the mere fact that we should be honest. My honesty is such that if you don't get out of the way, you are going to get cracked. If you provide me an opening, I'll take it, to show you, at the very least, you have an opening. If your movement fails against me, it fails - I will not give in simply because it's your turn. This means I'm not going to act like a moron and allow you take wild advantage of me or let you injure me. I will attack as would attack, not as some generic opponent might be expected to.

Honesty is its own best form of resistance. But this doesn't mean dueling. The training requires a natural back-and-forth-ness, in which we engage willingly with our partner. Otherwise it becomes very difficult to improve by habituating better habits because you are hardly given the chance to habit-form. 

This other element - obstinance - is just silly. It's silly because, in essence, it is to cease an attack and simply posture - whether this is a grab or punch, or whatever. The partner becomes like a statue that you are now to deal with. However, when you act against them, you also do this dumb thing. A thing that very well may not only cancel out your training, but may also be unethical.

When your partner has stopped attacking and is posturing, why would you attack them? To do so is to inadvertently switch roles - defender becomes attacker. Chances are you have already answered their attack - you moved to a new position, one of safety. So, why are you then closing the distance, collapsing the space between you, and RE-endangering yourself and them? Things after this point can go wildly outside the realm of what you are capable of and you can wind up in a wrestling match. (I fully recognize that real-life events may require the collapse of tactical space in patently unsafe ways. That doesn't make it a viable habit for training.)

You have already provided the best course of action - you escaped, placing yourself in a position where you cannot be endangered. Defense is no longer necessary. If they are simply hanging on to you, or blocking you, or whatever, then release yourself. Now, if they keep attacking you - collapsing the tactical space - then defense is merited.

These "prove it" moments can turn into a real problem for those who are trying to bring training to others and do so in a way that minimizes the kind of risk inherent in that delivery. 

"We'll settle this the old Navy way: First guy to die loses!"
President Thomas "Tug" Benson, HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX
Martial arts involves a lot of soul searching and it lasts for as long as it lasts. In the old days, you'd go to war or duel others, and if you died, your soul searching was over. Nowadays - war notwithstanding - dueling and dying is overrated. It's making a Warrior Creed "better life" that takes guts. So, we involve ourselves mainly with authenticating and justifying whether or not stuff works, whether we can make it work, and whether it is worth our while to try and do so. 

And when some stubborn fellow, looking from the outside in, steps up and says, "prove it works," they challenge us to re-answer questions we are always out to answer for ourselves: Whether or not it is proven to us. In reality, whether or not we prove to ourselves that, "we work."

This can cause serious trouble and can get us to do things that we would never voluntarily do. The worst part is we do it to ourselves. We wind up falling into this trap - a trap of martial arts, of manhood, of pride, of ego. And we fall for it, because, in some respect, we feel like the very best outcome is one of our own choosing. But that's not always the case. When a friend in college separated the shoulder of a guy who challenged him to a Jujutsu match, I popped it back into place, which was a mistake on my part. The separation was an accident, but with me as the "expert," this poor fellow could have made my life miserable for improperly assisting him had I botched it.

In these "prove it" moments, we should always ask ourselves, is this worth calling an ambulance over? Three things we must always bear in mind: Are you going to get hurt? Are you going to hurt them? And thirdly, are they going to get hurt? We may do everything right, as we have been trained, and someone may still get injured because of the situation or their dumb self. We should be extraordinarily careful under these conditions. In my opinion, there are very few people out there that can actually prove their point and not injure anyone. Injuring someone to prove your point is a non sequitur. Beating them up may shut them up, but they hardly learn a thing except the fact you're a dick. The point is to expose their tactical vulnerabilities: That you could take willful advantage of them and they unable to deny you.  

Answering to "prove it," must be dealt with in very discerning ways. We all decide for ourselves on a case-by-case basis whether or not these kinds of things are really worthwhile and justifiable. Sure, there's a part of us that wants to engage in those "old school" ways because they are cut and dry. Simple, not nuanced, when we hope there will be no question leftover. 

That is, until the next time.

March 6, 2014

To Look Straight Forward, pt2

A conversation about Makko Ho with Tomoko Horikawa Morganelli, one of only two people in the United States who is a trained and licensed instructor of Makko Ho, a Japanese stretching art.

Can you say something about “Hodo Taiso?”

“Hodo” in Japanese means, “supplement,” and “taiso,” “exercise.” It is designed to assist to get better at Makko ho. It was not originally part of the movements, it was added after Nagai sensei. It is based on readjusting from the pelvis – the center of the body. And if your center is aligned, the whole body can readjust with it. So, we partner up and it looks like giving stretching or bodywork - one person giving and the other receiving. The person giving is stretching and doing bodywork – helping to open the pelvis and realign. There is a sequence.

It is really interesting - an extension of Taijutsu. My understanding of it was deepened much earlier by my ability in Bujinkan Taijutsu. The body weight is used to press into your partner’s body to release tight muscles and bring blood and oxygen to stagnant areas of the body. And the sequence is like a form – a kata – one for the backside and one for the front. The entire sequence takes about …

About 30 minutes to complete. Starting from the back muscles to release, then goes to the hip, then down to the leg. Then flip over and it starts from the feet and ankles, then hip joint, then going to kneeling position to work the shoulders.  

The first time we met, I remember you had said something interesting. You said, if I wanted to, I could hurt people with my Makko ho. You understand this duality of healing and the flipside of it-

You can attack people. It depends on your intentions.

Hatsumi sensei said the same thing about "kyusho," vital points. Someone had asked him if the “death touch” was real. He said, “of course it is.” And they wanted to know which point it was. He said they were the same points to heal. The difference was in the intention.    

Good martial artists understand how to heal people. People with good Taijutsu means they can be a good healer. I have been teaching Makko ho to martial artists through you and I can really see some people are really good at it and quickly understand Hodo Taiso and I am always amazed. They understand Taijutsu then showing them the movements is much easier.

When we went to the Makko ho Hombu Dojo I met some amazing people. That one gentleman, who was in his 80s, was as flexible as a four-year-old. He could do the splits and lay his chest on the floor. Another gentleman put me through the Hodo Taiso ringer in about 10 minutes. I’ll never forget he cracked all ten of my toes at once with both hands like it was nothing. Incredible.     

After getting whole sequence of Hodo Taiso, it feels like you are brand new. Lots of people told me the whole body gets really warm. Feels so energizing. Gets circulation and realigned for the pelvis. Giving Hodo Taiso also follows the sequence. The bowing movements are back and forth, so you gonna be, like, meditative - if you practice longer. Sometimes you don’t feel like it is even you giving, but feels like also receiving too. So, which one is giving and which one is receiving? Feels like more “oneness.” Doesn’t feel like I am forcing, but more connecting.        

Very much like Taijutsu. It is not about forcing people to do what you want, but giving them options they cannot deny.   

Makko ho has so much Japanese culture behind it. If you see Japanese, everyone is bowing, everywhere. So, for us, bowing is so much … into the heart; apart of our culture and who we are. We like to express the gratitude. The seated position is a very cultural thing, too. Our ancestors were always sitting on the floor so it is very natural for us. Also, the Hodo Taiso part, (Japanese) are not kissing or hugging, even in the family. But we do massage each other. That’s what I learned when I was little - my mom ask me to massage her shoulders and feet. So, we could have a physical connection and show affection.   

You learned Makko Ho while you were apprenticing in Shiatsu (a Japanese massage art) in New York?

Right. It increased my sensitivity and how to use my body. Not just the hands, but using core, the movement from Makko ho, how I can put the weight into my hands, using whole body to give bodywork. And also learning to breathe right.

How long did you study Makko ho before you got the license?

Maybe two years. Normally it takes longer. Now I have studied Makko ho for almost twenty years!

So, what has Makko Ho taught you? What have you learned?

I still remember when I knocked on the door to see my teacher in New York. First, I thought because I had a dance background and was already flexible that it was easy - only four positions and I could do everything. And I thought I would get bored – only four positions. But my teacher said, "You didn’t see it. You will know how deep it is and how layered and you will understand if you practice." She had already been studying for 30 years at that time. And I just started. And every time I practice I remember she said, “Makko ho is very deep. It’s very simple, but so many layers in it. And if you practice more you can see more layers and feels like it never ends.” It’s not just being flexible. There is something more.

My teacher was doing Shiatsu professionally. She had a clinic and said, you have to understand Makko ho first before learning Shiatsu. You could understand basic bodywork and learn how to touch people. So I practiced Makko ho and Hodo Taiso for a couple years. Then I started learning Shiatsu from her and it was easy to understand the way to touch people.

I feel like I have a mission to introduce Makko ho not just only to Japanese, but also internationally. I was asked by the Makko ho "Kaicho" and people who passed away. We have traveled to England, Japan, and through the United States to show people the true meaning. I wish we could travel more! We have so much to share. This is a wonderful exercise. And I hope lots of people could know about and experience it. I would also like to spread the philosophy the founder had of his own experience. The original meaning.

To me, it is a positive way to face life and that's what I think is most important.  

See Part1

For more information or to contact Tomoko: