Not a book about martial arts at all, but one that relates to the martial arts.
Professor Michael Puett is a Harvard professor who lectures on oriental philosophy. His classes are oversubscribed and often host around 700 students (how is that even possible?). The popularity of the lectures comes out of the promise that these lectures will change your life!
Puett repackages the teachings of Confucius, Mencius and Lao Tzu, etc. for a modern age and presents the ideas of these ancient Chinese teachers in a transformative way. The book contains material from the lectures compressed into themes and chapters making it all very accessible.
Confucians and Neo-Confucians have always had bad press because they have been blamed for Chinese rigid class and social structures, reinforcing gender discrimination and even promoting insular selfishness within the society. This is all a bit lazy for me. The rigidity of the last years of the old Chinese national structure, pre-Mao, was epitomised by the Civil Service exams in which the applicants were expected to memorise huge amounts of the ‘Classics’ to demonstrate their worthiness. Although this served the Chinese well in the earlier centuries the decaying husk it turned in to just proves how things go when they develop into ‘institutions’ and lose their meaning becoming fossilised relics of what may have originally been fresh intelligent philosophies on how to live the good life.
This re-packaging of ancient Chinese philosophies gives a refreshing perspective on ideas that are woven into most oriental martial arts and we can easily discover these ideas within Japanese Budo. Have you ever wondered about how ritual is used within Japanese martial traditions? Puett’s unpicking of the importance of ritual in Confucius’s ideas is a revitalising breath of fresh air that blows away the fustiness of institutionalised ‘rites’.
Mencius (372 BCE – 289 BCE) comes across as the voice of reason and has always been a particular touchstone of mine. His views on humanity, development, growth and spiritual cultivation all fit in neatly with the ideals of the man of Budo.
Puett challenges us to think differently, he questions some of our very basic assertions and asks us to re-frame our references; this was refreshing and made me think that perhaps some of my own assumptions need a more rigorous grilling.
The section on Chi is a real myth buster.
His explanation of spontaneity and how it can reach a high level only after prolonged prior training follows the exact model that most martial artists adhere to.
It is a very thought-provoking read and deliberately breaks free from entrenched ideas about how with think the world should work. Definitely worth more than one read-through.
In another posting I mentioned the importance in Wado karate of focussing on Principles. Here I am going to present another angle to maybe supply a slightly different perspective.
Principles are not techniques; they are the essence that underpins the techniques. These work like sets of universal rules that are found within the Ryu. Don’t get me wrong these are not simple; they work at different levels and in different spheres. An example would be how these Principles relate to movement. There is a hallmark way of Wado movement; something that should be instilled into all levels of practice, from Kihon and beyond. If in a Wado training environment technique is prioritised at the expense of Principles of movement then students are learning their stuff back to front. The technique will only deliver at a superficial level; the backbone of the technique is missing.
This is where I think that learning a huge catalogue of techniques in itself is of limited application, and particularly mixing and matching techniques from other systems; it may work but only to a certain level. To me personally this approach lacks ambition and has a limited shelf life.
The underpinning Principles are not modern inventions, they originate way back in in early days of Japanese Budo and were forged in a very Darwinian way. These were created and adapted at the point of a sword by men who witnessed violence and blood; these things were deadly serious, no delusion, no fantasy, instead sharp reality. Those days are gone but the Principles stretch forward into the future, but they are vulnerable and the threads can easily be broken, we ignore them at our peril. It sounds dramatic, but in a way we are the custodians of a very fragile legacy.
If we look at the life of the first Grandmaster of Wado Ryu, Ohtsuka Hironori, it could be said that he had one foot in the past and one foot in the future. There is a connection between him and the men of the sword who experienced the smell of blood, particularly his great-uncle Ebashi Chojiro who we are lead to believe experienced the reality of warfare probably in the Boshin Senso (but that needs to be confirmed by someone more knowledgeable than me.). Traditional martial arts supply a direct line into the past and their values come from concepts that underpin Japanese Budo of which Wado is part.
Principle is the key that unlocks multiple opportunities and techniques. This works surprisingly well. The human psycho-physical capability is amazingly sophisticated. I have often come across students asking about the problem of learning techniques on both sides. My reply is that personally I have had no trouble switching from one side to the other. I remember hearing about sleight of hand magicians who have to learn a piece of complex manipulation with one hand and spend hours and hours of laboriously practice (and failure) to master the trick. But if the one-handed trick was to be switched to the other hand then the learning time was dramatically decreased. This is an aspect of body memory and it is not to be underestimated, it is complex, multi-faceted and amazingly fast when compared to a more calculated thought-based approach.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.