Be Strong, Then Soft


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During a recent class,  while we were still in seiza after the opening rei, Hatsumi sensei began to speak. He said that: “when you are under the age of thirty it is important to develop your strength and your muscular power. Only when you get older can you train the more subtle movements”.

I don’t know what triggered his opening speech, but it is a fact that too many young practitioners lack power in their techniques.
The next day, I was in the train to Atago with my friend Marco from the Nederland, and we spoke about what sensei has said the day before.

Marco has been training for a long time in jûdô, jûjutsu and the bujinkan. And he is still training jûjutsu. I did jûdô for seventeen years and a lot of other things and I was defeated quite often.

But many newcomers in the new Bujinkan generation that we see training on the mats started their martial arts training with the bujinkan. They never had to fight in a tournament or in real life and they don’t know what it is to fight.

The worst part is that we see now some new teachers with the same  “zero” experience! When sensei aura that we have to become zero, I don’t think he means that. And these new teachers teach their beginners how it is to “fight for real”. But where did they get their knowledge from?

This is a dangerous turn in the Bujinkan and we have to be aware of it. Maybe it is the reason why sensei some about it before the class.
I’m not saying that we should have competition or that we should try to test our techniques for real, I’m just saying that we have to understand that our young students need to be more physical on the mats. If we don’t do it there might be some dangerous outcomes for them.

As teachers we have a big responsibility.

Sensei keeps saying he is teaching to the jûgodan. But for many, it flatters their ego as they understand that they are so good that sensei is teaching them the secret stuff. This is a wrong understanding.

What he means is that he is teaching students who have been training for a long time and are way beyond 30 years of age. And these senior students, because they have had their “muscular” years already, can now move to a more subtle way of training. It is because you have the ability to destroy life that you can preserve it, not the opposite.

In we compare Budō training to the gearbox of a car, we can say that today’s practitioners are always driving in 6th gear but are unable to go down to 3rd or 2nd gear. Now what will they do when in need of more engine power?

Copying the Japanese Shihan subtle movements is nice but totally useless and counter-productive when it comes to actual fight.
In Ninjutsu there is a field of practice called 幻術, Genjutsu, the art of illusion, magic. And many teachers are caught by this self illusion.

So it is important to train your students in muscle power until a certain age so that they will understand how to get rid of it when the time comes. The peaceful warrior is a real warrior with the power to use his skills to kill but who chose not to in order to preserve life.

The highest level of expertise in the martial arts is to defeat the opponent without fighting, but if you only trained the “cosmic” moves, I can assure you that the wake up call will be painful.

A Waza Is A Sketch!


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My last class with Nagato sensei was full of interesting details. Once again, for those that didn’t read my blog recently, Hatsumi sensei has asked Nagato sensei to teach exclusively from the densho. And this is like rediscovering how good he is.

Obviously like every Japanese Shihan his personal style is visible but it gives even more insight on these techniques. Since we lost two of the Shi Tennō, it is nice now to have Nagato sensei showing an alternative to Noguchi sensei’s vision of the ryûha. I have to admit that I really enjoyed all the classes I had with him during this trip.

Today it was even better as Hiromi San was reading the densho while Nagato sensei was teaching it. And this was new to many of the students present today. For years I have been repeating that the densho were simple and not very precise in their explanations. We saw that today.

This apparent lack of precision in the explanation of a waza is the reason why the bujinkan is so different from other martial arts. This freedom of interpretation let students develop their own creativity within the frame given by the waza. But as Noguchi sensei said it last week, “to create variations, you first have to learn the waza”. Nagato sensei added during the class, that a waza is only a sketch that gives the general idea of the technique.

When you make a rapid sketch of a tree, everyone can see the tree, but depending on the technique of painting used, or the artist doing it, the same initial sketch will look different. Shapes, colors, volume, and rhythm will be different. This is the same in a waza.

But at first you have to recognize the global form of the tree. This sketch of a tree is the waza as detailed in the densho. Next time you open your notes, try to find first, the initial sketch (Kaname?). And only then will you be able to create variations. Today we continued with the Shinden fudō ryû Shizen shikoku no kata, the ground techniques.

In the Shinden fudō ryû, Nagato sensei reminded us that each technique can also be trained on the left side. It might be a surprise to many because if you work on the left side you give access to your “strong side”, the side of your weapon.

I have a theory about it and I’d like to share it with you. The name of Toda sensei’s dôjô was “Shinden fudō ryû dôjô” even though he was teaching many different ryû. Toda Shinryûken Masamitsu, was Takamatsu’s uncle* and first martial arts teacher. My feeling for years is that after retiring from the Nakano Academy** he dedicated himself to the teaching of Budō. And I believe that he tried to adapt the warfare techniques to the modern world. To do so maybe (that’s my guess) did he rewrite the techniques to render them suitable to the new times.

Remember that at the same time Kanô sensei’s creates the kodōkan jûdô by mixing a few old systems, Funakoshi Gishin transforms the Karate*** from Okinawa into shotokan karatedō****,  and Ueshiba Morihei, distancing himself from Takeda creates his aikijutsu that will later become the aikidō.

So it is reasonable to think that Toda sensei tried to do the same by transforming the deadly techniques of the past into some kind of educational system like jûdô, Karate, or aikido to be used for self-defense in the modern world.

At the end of the 19th century there is no more Yoroi and it is now forbidden to samurai to carry their swords. So these new systems of fighting are now more self defense oriented (the hanbō jutsu is a modern application of staff techniques to be used with a walking stick). In this evolution of Japanese society, the techniques have now to be trained on both sides.

Nagato sensei said also that each technique has an omote form and an ura form.  Because the techniques can be studied on both sides, it is important to be able to do them inside the attack or outside of the attack. Also, the techniques on the ground can be done standing up because in modern time, we should be able to perform them being seated or standing up.

Remember that our ryûha were designed and refined from the Muromachi Era (1333) through the Azushi Momoyama Era. When the Edo period was established in 1603 and the unification of the country carried out, they lost the Yoroi and the horse, but were still training in the way they have received from the past. Through a long period of forced peace*****,  my understanding is that, they lost their purity. The ryûha became a tradition rather than a fighting system applicable to its time.

Today in the Army we see the same unconditional love for “tradition”. The bayonet is the best example. The bayonet was designed for the long rifle that replaced the spear. With these rifles until WW1 you could shoot only once in battle, and if you were unable to reload your weapon then you could still reverse to the original spear by using the bayonet (cf. Jûkendō in Japan). Today’s armies still have a bayonet (mainly used for parades) but why do we still have them when our weapons do not exceed 60cm to 1m, and are able to shoot 30 rounds in a few seconds?
The bujinkan to survive today has to evolve in the same way its constituting ryûha have evolved through centuries in order to adjust to their times. Warfare techniques and weapons evolve so our techniques must evolve too. The Shinden fudō ryû of Toda sensei, in my opinion, followed the same path and tried to adapt to its time, and this is why we have these possible variations in the school today. But I doubt they were possible in the past.

I personally prefer to teach the Muromachi feeling and to think that we are still carrying the Yoroi, this is why I teach only one side in the technique. But when it comes to learning the waza, I do it both sides because waza is only a sketch.
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*yes Toda sensei was not his grandfather! (cf. The essence of Budō by Hatsumi sensei).
**Military Academy under the Tokugawa shogunate
*** 唐手 Chinese boxing (T’ang dynasty) compared to
**** 空手 empty hand. The name was changed by Funakoshi sensei so that this Okinawaian martial art would be accepted as a Japanese Budō.
*****after the unification, war was forbidden, peace was established. And the Japanese began to lose their fighting creativity.