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Shugyo.

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There are lots of Japanese terms relating to martial arts that in the West have become either talismanic or even fetishised.  I am certain that there people out there who are non-Japanese speakers who may even collect these terms and phrases.

For me, they are interesting because when you examine them and try to get a handle on what is going on you really have to figure out how they fit into the whole of Japanese culture both historical and present, and that is a challenge in itself.

One phrase that cropped up recently in a conversation over beer (as most of these types of conversations seem to be recently), was ‘Shugyo’.

I remembered an explanation by Iwasaki Sensei about three types of training; ‘Keiko’, ‘Renshu’ and ‘Shugyo’. Keiko was explained as just hard physical training, it could include all the supplementary stuff like strengthening, conditioning, etc. Renshu was like drilling, refining, engaging with the technical aspects. Whereas Shugyo was a period of total emersion, some say ‘austere training’. Sensei explained that to engage in Shugyo you had to imagine some kind of martial arts monk, someone who has nothing in his life apart from mastering his art. At the time the idea seemed appealing; particularly the bit about turning your back on the world.

But there are other ways to think about Shugyo. Does it really have to involve a split away from society? I don’t buy the idea of meditating half way up a mountain, except perhaps on pragmatic grounds (where else can you find peace and quiet?). I am also sceptical about the Taoist monk retreating from the world. I’m more for the Neo-Confucian idea that practice and enlightenment can be found in the marketplace and the hurly-burly of city living.

I am coming round to the idea that Shugyo isn’t perhaps some all-defining experience; a one-off commitment like a pilgrimage. And the idea that you are guaranteed to come out the other side enlightened and cleansed with mastery at your fingertips is perhaps a little too romantic and creates fodder for the fantasists. It also seems to leave no room for one of the rude facts of life….failure.

Perhaps Shugyo is more episodic. It is possible that some people have engaged in Shugyo without even knowing it? Maybe those times of intensity were just seen as ‘rites of passage’ but in reality ticked all of the ‘Shugyo’ boxes.  Admittedly they weren’t self-directed, but those grinding relentless repetitions were focussed, unforgiving and as near a perfect hot-house as you were ever going to get. I am thinking particularly of those long, long hours on whatever course or camp it might have been. But here’s the question I have been asking myself; if those were episodic ‘Shugyo’ opportunities were they well-spent? Or did they happen at the wrong time in our development; or beyond that, did we have the right material to work with?

From a personal viewpoint; with the right material, the right direction and the right background, the best time is…now.

Tim Shaw

10,000 hours.

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It has often been said that to an ‘expert’ in absolutely anything you need to have accumulated 10,000 hours of practice.

I am sure that in our search for quick answers and ‘sum it all up in one soundbite’ style solutions many people will focus on this factoid and be instantly comforted by the convenience of this as a theory.

But, unfortunately, like a lot of simple answers this idea supplies a generalised truth but fails to describe the whole story.

Scientists and statisticians have drilled down into this idea and have found it to be wanting.

I must admit to have been seduced by this formula, and even busied myself trying to work out how many hours a day I would need to train in Wado Ryu karate to reach ‘expert’ level. By the way it works out as about 4 hours a day over about 10 years.

This is far far too simplistic. The experts looked at chess masters and classical musicians; a good choice if you want mental capacity and high levels of manual dexterity; I would worry about the levels of physicality required for martial artists, after all, certain types of athleticism have very limited shelf-life.

But, time in service alone did not cut it. The experts found that with chess masters there were examples where it took one expert 26 years to reach a high level of mastery, while another ‘expert’ achieved the same level in two years. Statistics like this make a mockery of the ‘10000 hours’ theory.

So, what’s going on? There is of course the wildcard of ‘innate ability’, but that alone is not a prerequisite for success. I have witnessed individuals of innate ability who reach a glass ceiling and are so cock-sure of their own ability that when they reach a high level of success that they become drunk upon their own perceptions of their ability that they are then unable to empty their cup and move beyond this level –  effectively they become unteachable.

There are of course those who are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again – martial arts ‘Groundhog Day’. Those who claim to have twenty years of martial arts experience yet actually have one year of martial arts experience twenty times!

Personally, I would posit that the way to success is to maintain an active curiosity and a secure work ethic, tempered by correct guidance and a clear direction. Keep your cup empty.

Tim Shaw

Tangible and Intangible.

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I’m going to try to describe my perception of something that is really quite difficult to pin down. This is just my opinion, but it is based upon things I have seen and experienced at one level or another.

When something is ‘tangible’ it is observable from the outside; when it is ‘intangible’ it is often hidden or difficult to perceive. The tangible could be described as the exterior; while the intangible is the interior. Often we think we understand something based upon what we see is happening on the outside but the real truth of the matter is what is going on in the inside. Or we base our judgements upon prior experience and run the risk of misunderstanding what is really going on – like the story of the blind men and the elephant (Link).

When we are looking at the martial arts, specifically Budo traditions we are observing and experiencing something that is often difficult to grasp.

According to Japanese karate master Ushiro Kenji in his book ‘Karate and Ki’; Japanese arts fall into two categories; those that have an obvious outcome, an end product that is a quantifiable commodity, like the craftsmanship of a Japanese carpenter or a visual artist, swordsmith or potter. And those traditions that have no material outcome, like the Budo master or the traditional Japanese flute player; they are just as valuable but their end products are impossible to lay your hands upon, to weigh and measure, they are more ethereal, their true value is found in the intangible. Often they are part of a living tradition, one that has developed over time, but only survives through the physical human frame.

This ‘physical human frame’ is the instrument, not the finished artefact; there is no actual material artefact. So the martial artist’s body is like a musical instrument, superbly crafted in itself but it’s the output, the workings of the instrument where the real value lies.

The instrument is merely the vehicle for the music. As an example; recent studies on the prestigious violins made in the 18th century by Antonio Stradivarius reveal that there is no real difference between the Stradivarius and a well-made modern violin. Blindfold experts could not tell the difference and even favoured the modern instrument over the Stradivarius. This just goes to prove that we have to be wary of mythologies that accumulate over time.

What is also interesting is that these very rare and expensive violins are given out to world famous musicians who are considered as temporary custodians, this is an acknowledgement of the fleeting, intangible nature of music at the highest level; what is produced cannot be held in your hands, so it is with the highest levels of Budo. The exterior appearance can be caught on film, but the real value is in the intangible. Trust your feelings not your eyes.

Tim Shaw

Operating System Update.

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As an instructor (and a student) one thing I feeling strongly about is that I should be in a state of constant learning.

In the teaching profession they rightly make a point that all teachers should be setting themselves up as what they call ‘Life Long Learners’, as an example to all of the young people in their charge. It’s the same in karate.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if instructors rested on their laurels and past triumphs and conducted themselves as if they had topped out on all they can learn?

Some seniors seem to tacitly acknowledge that their cup is not full and seek to top up from other sources, without realising that the well-source of Wado has not run dry and that what we see is just the tip of an iceberg.

Recently I found my Wado boundaries being stretched by my Sensei who laid upon me yet more concepts and practical interpretations, and, while searching for an appropriate metaphor, I hit upon the idea that I had been subjected to yet another ‘operating systems update’. This useful piece of jargon from computer science seems to fit neatly with what should be happening to all of us.

Of course this metaphor can be extended, and it’s only when you meet up with other operating systems that are still running the equivalent of Windows 8 that you realise how valuable these ‘updates’ are. It’s not uncommon to actually meet someone still operating on the equivalent to a 1982 Commodore DOS and in such cases the two systems will find it virtually impossible to communicate, short of a rebuild.

Apple and Microsoft both pressure test their latest updates by releasing them before they are fully functioning and that is when they find the bugs and glitches that they can then fix with other minor updates (well, that’s how I see it anyway). This also fits neatly with what happens to me while working with my Wado updates; my body is still working things out on the hoof.

But the up side is that if you are following Wado Logic then the adjustments should eventually click in; either that or Sensei comes along and tweaks your system.

Tim Shaw

Winter Course Chelmsford.

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Report.

On the first weekend of February 2017 the Chelmsford Dojo again hosted the Shikukai Karate-Do International Winter Course with chief instructor F. Sugasawa Sensei.

This year the venue for the two days training was the Danbury Sports and Leisure Centre, which has an excellent training area large enough to cope with the expected numbers. This event seems to attract more and more students every year, and although it is an open Wado course the majority of the students who attended were Shikukai members.

We were honoured to host students from all over the UK and abroad. This year we had Dan grades attending from the Netherlands, Hungary and France. Being so close and well connected to Stansted Airport made it very easy for connections and transport. In addition, all of our visitors were able to sample the delights of Chelmsford, particularly the restaurants, bars and nightlife.

Sugasawa Sensei directed the training and introduced concepts which were new to many students. As always Sensei established a theme and then built upon it, helping the students to make practical connections across kata and kumite. Saturday training included kata at all levels, taught by Shikukai senior instructors with Sugasawa Sensei on hand to clarify specific points and add new dimensions. Sunday’s training involved kumite, across Kihon Gumite, Kumite Gata and other pairs work.

A Dan grading took place on the Sunday. Successful candidates were, Roberto Ciuffa from Shikukai Hertford for 1st Dan and Attila Jakab Shikukai Hungary for 3rd Dan.

Everything ran incredibly smoothly; airport runs coordinated efficiently and for those staying over, accommodation suited everyone’s needs. All of this was down to a very efficient team; a huge thank you to all involved.

We are already making plans for the Shikukai Winter Course for the first weekend in February 2018.

Tim Shaw

Composure.

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I am sure he won’t mind me saying this but Shikukai chief instructor Sugasawa Sensei always impresses me with his appetite for embracing words and concepts that exist in the English language. He is always searching for the most apt linguistic model to try and cross cultural and language barriers. Once he latches on to a new word, analogy or aphorism he exploits it with great energy.

One such word cropped up a little while ago.

On an instructors course Sensei used the word ‘composure’; I won’t go into detail about the context in which Sensei used this word; but it had me thinking more about what it means for us and how it is applied.

‘Having an air of composure’, i.e. what the attributes of composure communicate to others. This is without a doubt a useful and positive persona to project, especially for martial artists. But it has to be real; it should not be faked or put on and taken off like your Keikogi jacket.

Projecting composure should be a natural by-product of a balanced mind; something we should all aspire towards; easy to talk about but difficult to achieve. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t aim to become more balanced and more composed, but identifying the times when we are cool and composed; (or the reverse, flustered, angry or allowing situations or people to overcome you), are good places to start.

In Oriental philosophy Neo-Confucianists like the Japanese scholar Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714) encouraged self-examination, monitoring your behaviour and ‘renewing yourself each day’. He also said that you should listen to trusted and reliable friends and allow them to point out your errors. Expanding on this he says it is like the game of Go where the outsider/onlooker can often see the right move before the players can.

Returning to the ‘air of composure’. Your mental attitude projects outwards and is easily picked up by others. As humans we are very good at this and are sensitive to even the most subtle forms of non-verbal communication; look how we ‘mirror’ other people’s gestures subconsciously, to let them know that we are on their wavelength. A steady gaze, relaxed and alert posture, confident, (but crucially, non-aggressive) give clues and act as hints and messages to others. The reverse is also true: shifty downcast eyes, tensed shoulders are all negative messages; as are aggressive looks, pushed out chest, agitated behaviour, all red flags to others in the vicinity.

New Age philosopher and guru Eckhart Tolle in his description of what he calls the ‘pain body’ describes the burdens people carry around with them, of past anger, anxiety and pain; on to which they willfully heap new anxieties, pain, anger, creating a destructive cocktail which often has further unhappy endings.

But he also says that negative angry people act as a magnet to other negative angry people. They spot each other across a crowded floor and are drawn to each other like preening cockatoos who attack their own reflections in a mirror.

Or another example is how angry negative people are pulled into relationships with other angry negative people; their life dramas mirror each other and their destructive flashpoints cause chaos which affects all around them, but is particularly damaging for themselves. Wrapped up in their own back-story they can’t see the wood for the trees.

Composed people are a much more attractive option. They are the people you can rely upon in a crisis, they are cool, unflappable and confident; but, hopefully, they are not just a machine, they also have a beating heart. Something every martial artist should aspire to.

Tim Shaw

Apocrypha.

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“Apocrypha: A story or statement of doubtful authenticity, although widely circulated as being true.”

The truth is that the martial arts abound with Apocrypha, but I don’t think that this is a bad thing, as long as they are all taken with a huge pinch of salt.

My approach to some of the apocryphal stories about the martial arts is that I look for the kernel of truth within the myth. Not from the view that there must be tiny element of veracity lurking underneath the embellishments of stories told and re-told hundreds of times; but instead I look for the lesson or moral behind the survival of such a story – it could perhaps contain a greater truth than the fairy-tale pretends to.

Here are two of my favourites that serve to explain my thinking.

Someone told me a story about tourists being shown around a famous Chinese Temple associated with martial arts. On arriving at a particular courtyard the guide pointed out regular hollows worn into the brick paving. The tourists were told that these hollows were the result of martial arts monks spending hour upon hour in horse stance practicing their moves. However, the observant tourist might also notice that the hollows may also have been the result of weak spots in overhead roof drainage where rainwater had dripped over hundreds of years. Naturally the guide chose to ignore this very practical explanation; thus the myth lives on. Should we therefore scoff at this deliberate hokum? I don’t think so. The factual account might be wrong but the essence of the story contains another truth; more like a model, an idea, a concept. It conjures up a heightened and exaggerated admonishment endorsing the fruits of disciplined and prolonged practice, and, to my mind that makes it useful.

Another example concerns a story about one of members of the Yang family of late 19th century Tai Chi fame. It was said that if a bird was to land on master Yang’s outstretched index finger, the bird would find itself unable to fly away unless the master permitted it to do so. The explanation for this was that the master was so highly tuned to pressure sensitivity that when the bird tried to use its legs to launch the master would detect this and very subtly deny the bird a platform necessary to spring forth. Is this actually possible? Would a specialist in avian anatomy and the physiology of flight be able to tell us that this story is complete bunkum, because a small bird does not actually need to launch with its feet? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care. The concept of heightened sensitivity is vital to practitioners of all martial arts (or at least should be) therefore to cook up such a seemingly tall tale serves as an aspirational template; albeit an apparently impossible one.

There are other stories where the essence surpasses the truth. There is something about the martial arts that promotes the telling of tall tales. Obviously some of these are there for political reasons; the mythologies live on long after people have passed away. I have seen recent examples where a certain level of gloss has been applied to boost the reputations of the living and the dead. Tales retold have an inevitable life of their own.

Tim Shaw