The Foundation Of Taijutsu


Gyaku Nage and Kyushô

The quality of our taijutsu depends on strong foundations. But what does taijutsu and foundation really mean?

Taijutsu is often understood as the sole body movement but when you are used to Hatsumi sensei’s vision of life it is always interesting to dig a little deeper and see what the word(s) really encompass it is necessary to review the various writings and meanings of the words.

First 術 jutsu is either art, means, or technique as we know but this is with the various meanings of tai that we have subtle changes in the understanding of the word taijutsu. But when you look at the three meaning of “tai” you discover that they can be applied to your training.

体, tai has 3 main meanings: 1: body; physique; posture. 2: shape; form; style. 3: substance; identity; reality. Taijutsu is a jutsu done with the body that goes from the pure omote (body) to enter the world of ura (reality). This is integrating the taigamae (体構え) and the kokorogamae (心構え). This is a self centered taijutsu.

対, this other tai expands our understanding of taijutsu by precising that it is also: 1: opposite; opposition. 2: versus; vs. 3: equal footing; equal terms. 4: against …; anti-. This new taijutsu is expanding and adds the idea of fighting the enemy and to balance the forces of the opponent. Now we are into the man to man fight.

隊, this last one means: party; company; body (of troops); or corps. Now taijutsu expands again and includes the idea of army fighting and to interact with our friends and our enemies.

The interesting thing here is that by digging through the various understanding of “tai” we moved from the apprentice training where we are alone; to the encounter with a single opponent; to the battlefield feeling. So taijutsu a general system to prepare our bodies and mind to go from the beginner to the advanced level.

Our foundations are based on the quality of the basics that we learn alone and then with a partner through years of training. Taijutsu help us to grow from the omote to finally reach the essence of the ura. In Japanese 大本 is the kanji for foundation. It reads either “taihon” (taihen?) or “ômote” (omote?). Maybe this is how we must understand sensei when he speaks of 実践 jissen (practice; practise; put into practice) and 実戦 jissen (combat; actual fighting).

On a practical aspect we have to keep in mind what sensei has repeated many times concerning the densho. “densho are for kids (beginners)” as techniques have to be taught step by step. Historically the young samurai would begin his warrior training at  around 10 years of age and at 15 years of age would become an adult and be allowed to go to the battlefield. In fact, the 15 ranks in the bujinkan were created by sensei also to symbolize this. When you begin you are a beginner and then after many years you reach adulthood and become responsible of your own actions, you are jûgodan. But without good basics your taijutsu will lack credibility. Therefore our training in the three tai defined earlier will guide us in our mastering of taijutsu. We will move gradually from taijutsu (体術) to taijutsu (隊術) which included the use of yoroi and weapons. The first tai (body) is the modern translation for the word but in the past tai encompassed also the mind, the weapons and the yoroi. If you think about it, it is quite logical. As we said earlier, young samurai (mostly kids) were not able to understand the subtleties of high level techniques including weapons. So in order to keep it K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple & Stupid) the trainers striped the techniques off the weapons and began to teach unarmed combat only. This is why we begin our training with unarmed combat. On the battlefield warriors would always carry weapons and unarmed combat would be rarely used.

The foundation of our taijutsu is a set of basics acquired in unarmed combat and regrouped by sensei in the tenchijin ryaku no maki in 1983. Once mastered, unarmed taijutsu is completed with all the usual weapons of the samurai and the yoroi to create a natural flow of movement.

This is why taijutsu (体術) is the true foundation of taijutsu (隊術).

Obon: No Class


Obon paper lanterns carrying the spirits

Next week-end sensei will not teach because of the Obon, a Buddhist ceremony of filial piety in honor of the ancestors of one’s family.

This ceremony is held around mid August (it depends on the region of Japan and/or of the calendar in use solar or lunar) and is based on the Ullambana Sutra, one of the Sutra of the Mahayana Buddhism.

What I find interesting here comes from a discussion I had the other day with Senô sensei before the class took place.

The Obon (or Bon) is a very important time for the Japanese people as this is a time where the spirits are there. It ends with the famous paper lanterns floating downstream and symbolizing the souls of the deads going back to their own world.

Even though the Obon is not a holiday, it is a custom to let the people honor their ancestors and not work on these days.

Obon matsuri

Honoring your ancestors, and filial piety are linked to the bujinkan in many aspects.

When I was speaking with Senô sensei he used many times the word yûgen when speaking of the souls of the deceased; and also of the sanjigen (the third dimension).

And these two concepts were the ones we studied respectively in 2004 and 2003 whe nwe entered the world (sekai) of juppô sesshô. When those concepts were taught by Hatsumi sensei we had no clue about their meaning and they looked like some esoteric concepts far from our concern.

After all we come to Japan to train fighting techniques, no?

In fact  all through these last years Hatsumi sensei has been teaching us more than techniques, he has shown us the Japanese culture and shared with us his vision of the world as a Japanese.

Without his very special way of teaching we would still be excluded from this world of understanding and our improvement in the bujinkan arts would be limited. This way of teaching made us go from childhood to adulthood without knowing it.

Another interesting link to the bujinkan is the term sôke because its chinese origin (Mandarin Zongjia) conveys “strong familial and religious connotations. Etymologically it represents a family performing ancestor rites”.

As always there are various meanings but one interests us more as the “sôke is the one responsible for maintaining the ancestral temple on behalf of the entire clan organization. In Japanese texts,  sôke always implied a familial relationship replete with filial duty (but) the Japanese use of this word is not limited to consanguineous contexts” (from William Bodiford, UCLA).

“Bujin” in Chinese is “Wusen” which is, as you know one of the nicknames given by the Chinese to Takamatsu sensei. Therefore the bujinkan is the “house of Takamatsu sensei.

Sensei in front of the memorial

And this explains why Hatsumi sensei is using this specific term od sôke which is rarely used in the martial arts world. In fact, in my understanding Hatsumi sensei sees himself as the “son/heir” of Takamatsu sensei and he has developed the bujinkan in order to revere his memory.

The other day when we went to sensei’s second house in Tsukuba we performed a ceremony in memory of Takamatsu sensei and we were asked by sensei to put incense sticks on his memorial. The love and respect of Hatsumi sensei towards Takamatsu sensei is obvious when you watch the dvd “Takamatsu Toshitsugu, the last ninja”.

So if you are now in Japan do not be too sad if you have no training on Friday and Sunday because the spirit of Takamatsu sensei will be there with you for the whole week-end.

Obon fireworks

Share with the Japanese the joy of these two days where obori (obon dancing), fireworks and matsuri are held,  and on Sunday night go to river outside of Noda and watch those beautiful paper lanterns going down the river to reach the sea.

Be happy!

Seiza or Seiza?


seiza no kamae

Whenever we are waiting or listening we naturally put ourselves in seiza no kamae. Over the years, this kamae has been assimilated and we do it without thinking. This is the objective we should have for every movement we learn in the dôjô; i.e. being able to do everything without thinking. By forgetting the self we forget the form and the flow is born.

One day I went with a buyu to attend a sadô seminar of the ura senke school in a Zen Rinzai monastery.

Even though we had explained to the superior priest and the sadô sensei that we were martial artists, our natural way of walking, kneeling, and standing was so natural that they suspected us from being sent by the Zen headquarters in Japan to check on them! Luckily we were not trying to infiltrate them like ninja.

seiza no sanshin (Arnaud, Beth, Eugenio)

The seiza 正座 or 正坐 (kneeling with the tops of the feet flat over the floor, and sitting on the soles) or the seiza 静座 or 静坐 (sitting calmly and quietly in order to meditate) are the same but differ in their meaning; the tai gamae (体構え) is the same not the kokoro gamae (心構え).

The first set of seiza is the one used in court when the samurai deserted the battlefields and the yoroi and began to live in the palaces. This is why one of the meaning of 正 is “righteous”. The second half being either 座 or 坐 and meaning respectively “cushion, seat, and “to sit”. From this we understand that seiza has the meaning of using the correct form of sitting 1) in general; 2) with a superior. It deals with the omote (表)

left over right foot

The second set of seiza is the one used in the temples for meditative purpose. The meaning of 静 is quiet, calm. Therefore “sitting quietly” can be done with or without a zafû (座蒲 or 坐蒲) and can be done even in fudôza (不動座). It deals with the ura (裏).

Technical tip: the left foot is on top of the tight foot to be able to draw rapidly the sword or to move from seiza to fudôza. Train these kamae.

Blue Pill or Red Pill?


Each time I return from Japan I keep thinking on the many things and ideas that sensei has given us during his classes. This is some kind of ritual that has developed into a necessary step for me to go further.

During one of his recent class Hatsumi sensei was saying: “I do not teach you death, I teach you Life”. But what is Life? Thinkers and philosophers have been dwelling on the subject for centuries and even though their conclusions are all interesting, what good is it for us poor budôka lost on this bujinkan path? To understand where we stand and discover how to handle this question we have to define “Life” according to our budô practice. Life is not death. Death is the easy way as once you are dead the physical life is no more the problem. Actually from a limited perspective death is the simplest solution but to develop our potential and become a bujin, a true human being we have to stay and build a life that is worth it.

The theme of this year, rokkon shôjô, gives us a hint. To be alive is to be happy but how to reach this happiness? Happiness is a positive state of mind that overwhelms us whatever hardship we endure. A climber on a new mountain path is often facing new challenges that push his abilities to their limits. Even if the climbing is tough and difficult, the happiness he encounters when reaching the summit is total. Actually the harder the path, the more happiness it generates. When things are easy we are pleased, when they are hard to get success makes us happy. When you learn a new movement in a class it takes time to reach this ETL (cf. previous articles on this blog). At first we are so wrong that it looks that we will never make it correctly. But after hard work and many mistakes we find the solution. We are finally happy like the climber on the summit (and if we can duplicate the movement we get even happier). Commitment to success is the key to happiness and as Saint Exupery wrote it, the most important part on the path is not the final destination but the many obstacles we had to overcome to get to the end.

Success is not given (and sometimes not achievable) but it triggers all our strength to reach it. Humans can do everything they want as long as they really try hard enough. Limiting our dreams to a dream state is wrong and the bujinkan leads us to understand that. You are what you want to be and not what the others want you to be. I see this like the blue pill and the red pill in the movie “the Matrix”. The bujinkan is the pill that breaks our illusions and gives us another choice for our lives.

So Life is about being yourself, leaving the omote and unfolding the ura. The tools we have to develop this ura are called: responsibility, courage, commitment, honesty.

Responsibility: You are responsible for your actions, always. You’d better accept it now because Life is about being “face value” and responsible. Responsibility is not taught at school or to put it better is not exactly what we are taught at school. Our educational system is mainly based on not doing things (don’t touch, don’t do this, don’t smoke, don’t drink). The power of the “don’ts” have shaped our behaviors year after year until we feel “happy” living within the norms of Society. This is not being responsible on the contrary it is blending with the common accepted life defined by others that keeps us in a “child state” during our whole life. This “sheep life” is a “cheap life”. The day you pushed the door of the dôjô is the day you have decided to be in charge of yourself and live your own life. Being responsible is the first step towards adulthood. But this requires a lot of courage.

Courage: We have to develop courage in all our actions. Courage is not something you can learn in a book it is something you build with time within yourself. It implies that you stop limiting yourself. One interesting thing about our self limitations (I cannot, I do not know, it is impossible, it’s too hard) is that you will always reach them. We are afraid of what we do not know so we create limitations to stay in the realm of the things we know. Courage is the opposite, it is going where we never went before and discovering new sensations (kankaku) and learning from new experiences. Fears are made by Society and the bujinkan helps us in many ways to push our limits and face our deepest fears and become better humans. Fear is a security attitude towards the unknown where courage is to adapt to the things that are unknown to us and for which we do not have ready-made answers. Courage is important but it requires a lot of commitment.

Commitment: Without commitment nothing can be achieved. Attending the classes in your dôjô twice a week is not commitment it is a routine! Commitment is the willingness to be the best amongst your peers. One of my favorite motto is primus inter pares or “first amongst your peers”. Being the first is ego if it is a personal decision but when the group recognizes you as the best and choses you as their leader, no one is unhappy. In the old days the chief of the tribe was the one chosen within the group to lead them to a better life. Leaders were chosen not imposed. The quality of your commitment to yourself and to your training is the foundation of your success. Whatever you want to achieve in your life requires true commitment, after all it is only between you and you and no one is going to walk the path for you. Your sensei is not going back from where he stands far away on the path to carry you on his back, you will have to walk on your own; he is a guide not a driver. Life is based on being committed and from the quality of your commitment depends your success. Being the first amongst your peers requires a strong commitment and strong values. From those many values, honesty is the one that matters the most.

Honesty: Cheating your way through life is a short vision, short term process. Be true to yourself and to others in life as in the dôjô you cannot cheat the others very long on your real value. Many high rank teachers in the bujinkan cheat their students on their technical abilities and often turns to some “spiritual esoteric path” to avoid facing the truth of their emptiness. If you have to be honest with others the main point is to be honest to yourself because you will be living with you for the rest of your life. Cheating others is not nice but cheating yourself  is wrong and stupid. Honesty is to be aware of who you are and where you stand; this is the starting point of your life as a true human being. Knowing what you are and who you are you can define the path to excellence in order to live a happy life.

Life is being able to read between the lines as sensei often says and about understanding that whatever you want you have the power within you to obtain it. Honesty gives you the starting point; commitment allows you to go further; courage pushes your limits; and the sense of responsibility makes you shine and recognized by your peers as the primus inter pares.

You can be who you want to be; do what you want to do; achieve all your dreams; and become a bujin, a true human being!

One day you have decided willingly to choose this difficult path, so now it is up to you to bloom or not. Hatsumi sensei doesn’t teach death, he teaches Life.

So, ura (red pill) or omote (blue pill)?

Be happy!

ETL (2)


In order to make myself clear I did a chart representing the exponential curve for the Error Tolerance Level (ETL). It helps to understand better what I tried to explain with my words.

Zero percent is never reached

In the diagram:

the abscissa (X) represents the number of repetitions (from 1 to 1000) and

the ordinate Y) represents the EL in percent (from 0% to 100%).

The more we repeat the movement and the smaller the EL. We strive for the perfect movement but we know that we will never reach it as perfection is of divine essence. Our goal is to reach an acceptable level of error that does not change the outcome of the fight, this is the ETL oe error tolerance level.

It is like the time paradox of the arrow shot at the target and never reaching it in Zeno’s problem (cf. Plato, Aristotle, Zeno). To the mathematician mind we will never reach the perfect movement; but to the warrior mind it is good enough.

Often in the dôjô and in life we want things to be so perfect that we don’t do them. The bujinkan is teaching us to act instead of thinking. Remember Watzlawick in “Munchausen pigtail” writing that action must precede reflection (thinking).

This is a path of action we have taken by entering a bujinkan dôjô not an intellectual one.

Don’t forget it (but don’t think too much about it).

Mistakes: The Path To Success


Senô sensei during the break

What everyone love about Jackie Chan’s movies are those last minutes at the end during the end credits of the film where we can watch the mistakes happening during the stunts sequences as if we were witnessing the shooting action.

Good stunts require many takes and sometimes end up in accidents. Once edited in the final version, the many “wrong” sequences are put into the action and everything looks smooth and perfect.

But we know this is a lie. Perfection is hard to get and will never be available on a one try movement a lot of time time, effort, and repetitive tries are necessary. Quality is an acquired result not a given one.

During Senô sensei’s class on Saturday he spoke of making mistakes during training. In the West through what Society teaches us we have been trained since kinder garden to do our best to avoid mistakes.

In fact, making mistakes is so bad that we often prefer to do nothing than to take the risk of an error. It is often related to our self esteem and ego and to the fact that we always want to look good in front of others. This is not the best way to learn budô. Thanks to Hatsumi sensei I learnt this error acceptance as it is part of sensei’s teaching. Many times in the past I would come to sensei telling him that I didn’t understand the movement he just did and many times he would stop the class and send me in the middle of the dôjô asking me to demonstrate it!

pre class discussion

How can you explain something you do not understand? You cannot! So you adapt your misunderstanding to the situation and do your best. The results at first were not good at all but through the many years with him they eventually improved and I grew up in confidence and expertise. It is good to accept to make mistakes because it makes you stronger. The judgement of others does not matter. You live and act for your own life.

Senô sensei’s approach to this “error” understanding is nice and can be easily applied in our daily lives (as long as we are ready to accept the consequences of our actions).

Basically Senô sensei explained that when we are discovering a new set of movements we are often wrong and make many “big” mistakes.

But through repetition though, the “size” of the mistake melts down until the point where the error level can be tolerated not for winning but for us not to lose. (Side note: this is why the Japanese shihan often ask us to train more slowly).

To make myself clear let’s say we do a movement for the first time with a 60% error level (EL). After a hundred repetition the EL percentage drops down to 30%. Add another 100 repetitions later we reach an EL of 10%, and a hundred repetitions later we get an acceptable rate of 5% EL.

After a thousand tries the movement will still have to be improved but the error level will be so low that only you will be able to see it and that it will make no difference on the outcome of the confrontation.

with Senô sensei

Our movements will never be perfect but through a consistent” trial and error” procedure we reach an error tolerance level (ETL) allowing us to make the movement correctly enough to survive in a real encounter. The beauty of this ETL training in the dôjô is that there is no risk at all (for us) even if the process takes many hours of training.

The dôjô is the place to study the movements so that they become permanent engrams available when necessary. Now consider the dôjô to be a laboratory for experiences and real life the field where to apply these acquired engrams (if not physically at least psychologically).

In the office, at the university or school, with your family and friends, your behavior will be naturally modified by the knowledge you acquired through hard work in the dôjô.

The ETL concept developed by Senô sensei is applicable to any activity in life. The acceptance of mistakes in our behavior frees us from stagnation and drives us faster towards the path of success.

The more we accept to make mistakes, the less we make mistakes. This is the best way to “create” and find the chance that sensei often speak about.

Be happy to be wrong as you are going to be right!

Rokkon shôjô!

Flexibility Of Body & Mind


Sumotori are flexible why aren't you?

Flexibility of the mind is what gives us access to the power of our imagination and creativity.

As we all know the direct links existing between body & mind, some of us might find it easier to become first flexible in their body and then move up to the mind.

Flexibility is a natural state of mind and an ability acquired by the body. Training the body towards flexibility will help you get the same benefits with your brain.

Remember that nagare doesn’t think…