Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

If there is a disaster, but I can still make it to the dojo, I train. If I have to go to another place, I train. If I feel lousy, but what’s getting me down isn’t viral, I train. If I have a rough day at work, I train. If some knucklehead says my taijutsu sucks, I train. If some dude says I’ve got great taijutsu, I train. If sensei is late, I respectfully bow at somebody and I train.

 I asked my friend, a nuclear physicist, would the increased levels of radiation above background in the Kanto region over a prolonged period mean that I might get relief from acne. He said, sure, a lethal dose will cure that, easy.

In the last seven days, earthquakes have rattled through Kashiwa City while I’m teaching in elementary schools. It is hard to continue with the lessons. I look to my partner teacher, and we wait for the shake to subside. And then we continue with the lessons, ready to drop what we are doing if the principal comes on the PA to announce emergency procedures.

Barring lethal dose of radiation or catastrophic damage of a major earthquake or tsunami, I train and work and carry on doing what I’m doing.

This post is a kind of prayer, a mediation on heijoshin, the every day heart you need to stay stable. It’s akin to 不動心, fudoshin.  It wasn’t always something I could do. I was not quite frozen with fear on March 11th, but I sure felt as though I were crawling, cringing, whincing.

I don’t know how much I can take, but I think my capacity has increased.  Isn’t that what it’s about, being able to survive the changes, and in turn, experience change within yourself?

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Am I learning something? Or am I practicing what I already learned but haven’t fully incorporated. And does it matter?

In training I was told, “Just feel it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t do it.” And then a few moments later, “Well, just try it. See what happens.”

I think I’ll take that advice.

The video is called Yuki, or snow, by the Korean and Japanese artist collective AUJIK. What’s going on? Are the children playing? Is it a dance, or a game, or a form of communication? Is the robotic tree leading, or are they? Is the robotic tree simply something they stumbled across in the landscape, or is it part of their routine?

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No women’s budo

There is no such thing as women’s budo.

There are women in budo. There is budo in women. But a human being is a human being. Hatsumi Sensei has impressed upon us the concept of 才能魂器, sainoukonki, which means we need to work with our minds and talent, our spirit and our capacity to develop this budo. Does budo have anything to do with a man’s sexuality, his masculinity, or his physical size or strength? No. So why should a woman’s sexuality, femininity, size or strength be a detriment to her budo?  Budo isn’t about being masculine or feminine, soft or hard, weak or strong. We push our knowledge, talents, spirit and capacity no matter our size, sex or shape.

Keep going!

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photomeijigateA few times week, I walk the grounds of 明治神宮 Meiji Jingu, the grand shrine in central Tokyo dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken.

The emperial couple were famous poets who composed about 130,000 poems in the classical Japanese form, waka.

Emperor Meiji was born mere months before Commodore Perry’s ships arrived in Japan. He represents the modernization of Japan, taking the recently unified states of the Japanese islands form a closed feudal society, to a modern country capable of economic power in a global economy. Here is Emperor Meiji:






As clear and refereshing

as the rising sun –

Thus might it always be

With the human heart!

Empress Shoken was a powerful, forward looking woman. She championed social welfare organizations like the Red Cross. She was a child prodigy who had mastered Japanese and Chinese literature at an early age. She introduced a court edict which required the wearing of western attire, since, she believed, Japanese traditional garb was outmoded. She wrote:






If you consult your inmost heart

And still need feel no shame,

then let the people of the world

Talk on as they please.

At the 内苑 naien gate, for 100 yen, you can get a fortune paper with a waka poem on it written by these two prolific and wise poets.

I often look in at Shiseikan, the martial hall on the grounds of the shrine. Shiseikan has a school of Aikido and battojutsu. In the reception hall, a massive screen has kanji characters as tall as I am reading 武神, bushin, or warrior gods. I asked a senior Aikido practioner, why is there a budojo on the grounds of the shrine? She told me that the shrine authority wishes to preserve important traditions of Japan, and that the Aikido and battojutsu practiced there are protected by the gods. 

Meiji Jingu is about looking back, to respect tradition, and looking forward to imagine what will be. Budo and the sprit from which it came has its roots and protection at this shrine. The shrine preserves these traditions for the future.

Meiji Jingu celebrates Japanese traditions in October and November, showcasing budo, mounted archery and other arts. The big day for budo is November 3rd, 文化の日 bunka no hi, or Culture Day, which was Emperor Meiji’s birthday.

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自由な変化: Free henka

A 先輩, sempai, senior was beside me today in training. I struggled to interpret what Hatsumi Sensei was showing us, and kept looking at sempai. What could I steal from him, stealing from Hatsumi Sensei? My 相手 aite, partner, is awesome to train with – so balanced, really hard to throw, and quite strong. I felt like I sucked at the waza.

I kept looking at sempai. What possible meaning could I derive, how could I get the better of my worthy opponent?

After training, my sempai took me aside and told me something . I struggled to understand what he was saying. Sometimes it’s not my comprehension of Japanese that slows me down. It’s my comprehension of meaning.

He was telling me something about dealing with a balanced opponent. He said something about not using power. Yet he crushed me to the mat when he did the waza on me. What?! This guy has never even talked to me before…

And then I got what he was saying – that sometimes, the waza as is doesn’t work. You have to henka. Everybody, “every body”, is different and requires the freedom of a different approach.

After we bowed out, he demonstrated on me what he was saying.

Why did he bother sharing with me? He’s got a generous heart. And he didn’t worry about my lack of comprehension of his message. He just kept going. He didn’t agonize over whether I’d get the message or not. He didn’t assume whether I had heard this before or not. He just understood that I needed to hear it in that moment.  

Right on, sempai. And thank you.

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As far as I can tell from what Hatsumi Sensei does, it is not a method, but an approach. A method is a prescribed way of doing things. His budo is an approach – chaotic, free, thoughtful, problematic, steeped in history and myth, and based on a shared 基本 kihon of the 9 schools collected together under the Bujinkan banner. He gives you room to do what you’re going to do, either adopting or adapting what he does, or completely ignoring his message. He doesn’t prescribe. He shows.

These days, I put in about 6-8 hours a week into training – with Hatsumi Sensei, my sempais and friends – and practice – on my own, or practicing with people. My budo, if you watch me, isn’t that remarkable. I’ve only been training in Japan for seven years.

But the insights I gain about the process of learning and teaching, of acquisition of language, meaning, efficiency of movement, space and timing are precious and are part of my everyday life. When something really resonates with me, I  integrate it into my work or personal life.

Budo, for me, is also a tool to learn about knowing. What is real and what is merely an artifact of individual or collective anxiety?

For me, it’s a message about patience, too. So often, I want to take my partner down right away, anxious to get “there”, but if I take my time, breathe, and have some patience with the waza, and my own ability to comprehend,  I learn a more efficient way to get there alive. It brings to mind  the Japanese proverb 「急がば回れ」, isogebamaware,  The fastest way home is the long way around.

It’s a long trip. I like it.

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A theme that came out of that session was the importance of three “hearts”, 残心 zanshin, 不動心 fudoshin, and 無心 mushin. Each of these words ends in 心 shin, a word which encompasses heart, mind and spirit. 

The first character of zanshin means remainder or balance, and together the two characters conveys the meaning of always being ready to follow through and attack again, always alert and ready for the next thing while maintaining good kamae. When you attack your partner, you need not only the intent to connect and move him, but also the intent to attack again.

Attacking is not a one-punch deal. You keep attacking and defending while protecting your center on two axes – your spine is the vertical, your hips are the horizontal.  Correct attacks, proper distance (don’t punch short, don’t punch over your center, don’t punch wide, and don’t track) and good defenses of your own tsuki are vital to help your opponent do the technique and feel where the technique is efficient and effective. We train both sides when we stay alert and ready for the next attack or defense in good kamae.

Fudoushin means being immoveable and imperturbable. No matter what happens – a physical attack, a snide comment – or where it comes from – an external force or your own mental state – you keep going.

Mushin, literally no-mind, refers to both the Buddhist concept of non-attachment and to innocence. Mushin is neither the feeling nor rational thought. Nor is it the negation of these two modes. It is a freedom to move while not hanging on to any one movement, moment, intention or emotion. An untrained, “innocent” person, early on in the dojo, may move with no thought and spontaneously and freely move. As we continue in our training, we may get stuck in the feeling and technique, focussing on the subtle places of tension and slack or obsessing on perfect technique. It takes practice in zanshin and a lot of determination to develop fudoshin in order to get back to this no-mind place.

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Vancouver August 2009

I only had a week for the trip home as the Obon summer holiday is peak travel time (airfare is out of my price range) and I had to return to some obligations here in Tokyo for September.

The trip began with crashing the gracious Amebushi – Rain Warriors dojo on Vancouver’s east side. These guys train rain or shine outside in the park. Their Thursday night session is for basics led by C. When we were done, on short notice, I asked if anyone wanted to train the following morning, and was surprised and impressed to have four takers. Despite the threat of rain, all four came to training and we put in two hours working on ukemi, receiving ichimonji, being free with our hands (not holding on like grim death), and attacking.

Saturday, Amebushi , Namiyama and Momijiki Dojos and friends came together for a three hour training session. I brought my “homework” from Hatsumi Sensei’s training – the rope theme. Staying connected to your opponent with or without weapons. Most of the movement we worked on came from receiving ichimonji. How, you wonder, can you do a three hour session on just 一文字 ichimonji? Receiving attacks from swords, kicks and punches turns one into three right away. When you start doing different directions, 八方 happo, front, back, inside, outside, and even down, you have 15 different ways to move. Concentrating on this one kamae meant that we could look at the ropey part in detail.

I sometimes suck at the use of the actual rope. I like using it, however, because it challenges my kamae. Put the rope in my hands and I agonize over my own errors in movement. Take it away and suddenly it feels a lot easier.

steven picSaturday night was more training. Namiyama Dojo walked through the wandrewmikeoods into to a secret clearing and we trained with mutodori until the stars came out. The biggest adventure was walking out of the clearing back through the woods with no moonlight, dense westcoast canopy blocking out the light, and no lights with us. The guys know that route well, but it was still impressive to be led out on a winding, hilly path and over bridges at a good pace in complete darkness. One of the highlights, pun intended, was spotting a bioluminescent fungus at the foot of a tree. No, I didn’t lick it.


oma and IThe last few days of my trip, I stayed with my 82 year old grandmother, Margareta, known to family and friends by the German endearment “Oma”. Oma is a tough, intelligent, big-hearted, practical woman. She raised six children in two countries, speaks four languages, is a master baker, capable homesteader, needleworker, charity volunteer, and always surprises with her insights and ingenuity. The last few years she has downsized the baking and gardening, and spent a lot of her time globetrotting; earlier this year she went to Jordan and Israel with her church group, this winter she’s off to Panama, and next year, she wants to come to Japan. I told her, she’s got to be ready for the training, so each morning we did 柔軟体操 juunantaisou, stretching, with a mix of yoga stuff and isometrics that she routinely does. Oma is in her tenth year of recovery from cancer. She has amazing strength from her faith, family support and sheer power of will. She’s my inspiration.

Thank you to everyone who came out to train, and to Bill, Colin, Steven, Mike and Davidd for being such tough opponents and kind hosts!

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縄 Let Loose

Bujinden nawa

On Tuesday night, Hatsumi Sensei talked about the concept of 縄の空間, nawa no kuukan, or the rope space. He alluded to the ritual use of rope in Shinto practice, and said that an alternate reading of the kanji 神, kami is nawa, homophonous with the Japanese word for rope. He said we bind ourselves to the kami with the nawa. Some months ago, he told us about 縄の関節, the joints of a rope, something which Shawn talked about on his Shlog

The concepts that Soke leaves hanging in space are opportunities and provide lines of research, and this nawa/kami idea got me looking. Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be any verification by either the people knowledgeable about Shinto or any dictionary. That doesn’t mean that he’s wrong. I just can’t confirm it. Whatever the case, he got me onto a line (pun intended) of research about the meaning of nawa.

Starting at the beginning, 古事記, Kojiki, the ancient record of Japan’s mythic past and the early imperial line, opens with the generation of gods from which Japan descended. Among the first gods is 神結びの神, kami musubi no kami. The verb 結ぶ musubi means both bind and produce, and in this context, the deity is a “Divine producing deity”, a procreative force. The logic of this is apparent – bind two creatures together and you get a third one.

At Ise, there are two rocks, called 夫婦石, Meoto-ga-seki, The Spouses, which are bound by a massive 注連縄, shimenawa, a rice straw rope of the kind usually used in Shinto to mark the boundaries of sacred space or living things like trees and sumo wrestlers. From the beach, you can watch the sun rise between the stones.

Sensei reminded us the other day about the fact that things are not as seperated as they seem. There is not one, and yet not two. Musubi is at once the binding of two things and the outcome of that binding.

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Tuesday training at Ayase, Hatsumi Sensei talked about 虚空, kokuu, which is the name of a technique in 玉虎流骨指術, Gyokko-Ryu kosshi jutsu.

But what is in the kokuu? The word 虚実, kyojitsu, means falsehood and truth. It starts with the same kanji as kokuu. The 虚 part of the word means variously empty and false, and can imply the empty thing is something abstract. The 空, ku part of kokuu is about emptiness, too, and often indicates a void in a object.

In Japanese, people often refer to the sky as 虚空. Hatsumi Sensei remarked that a dying person will grasp at the kokuu as they are departing this world.

He tells us again and again the same words – use the air as your shield.

He also made a comment to the effect that, one moment, you think, “There it is!” and the next moment it is not.

Here is a shakuhachi performance of a piece called 虚空. The sound is created essentially by air, shaped by the movements of the player’s hands and breathing, through a reedless bamboo tube. What makes the sound? The player, the air, the bamboo tube, your ears catching the sound, or your mind?

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