Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Tingjin in Taijiquan

Below is an excerpt from a post that recently appeared at the Thoughts on Tai Chi blog. It examines Tingjin, or "listening" in Taijiquan. The full post may be read here.

Why is tingjin, “listening”, or sensitivity skill so much emphasized in Tai Chi Chuan? Why does Tai Chi rely on sensitivity instead on the eyes? The experience of Tai Chi practitioners says that relying on sensitivity to decide your actions is faster. Well, sensitivity is faster.

Simply explained, there’s a delay in your brain for everything you do to become aware of it by 0.5 seconds. Yes, everything. To become aware of something takes 0.5 seconds. This has been scientifically proved. However, it has also been equally scientifically proves, that if you would touch a hot stove with your hand, it would react on the heat and pull it away by a merely 0.1 second delay. So your sensitivity is definitely faster than your thought.

So for sure, the reaction in itself is fast, but does sensitivity really let you decide what you do faster? Don’t you need to decide what to do? Shouldn’t the process of following, guiding and handle the opponent involve the same process as if you watch something with your eyes?

Well, sort of, but here is the thing: this assumption does not reflect his how the how the decision-making process and the consciousness work. You see, there’s not only a 0.5 second delay for something external reaching your consciousness. There’s a 0.5 second delay for your decision itself and the start of your action to reach your conscience!

Did that sound awkward? But it’s true. Science have proved that the decision-making does not start on your consciousness, but first after when you have started doing something, your consciousness catches up with and realizes it and believe that it made a decision. By measuring the activity in different parts of the brain, researchers have found that you become aware of what is happening later than the action itself. Because of the delay, the mind even backtracks 0.5 seconds to catch up with the action.


Sunday, June 30, 2024

Uke and Ukemi

Over at Peter Boylan's excellent Budo Bum blog, there is a post about the distinction between uke and ukemi. Below is an excerpt. The whole post may be read  here.

Nearly everyone in the gendai (modern) budo world talks about taking ukemi (receiving a technique), and being uke. Real ukemi is not something you take, and uke (one who receives a technique) is not a passive existence. The character in both “ukemi” and “uke” is “受け” “to receive or incur”. Being uke is really about receiving your partner’s technique and how you absorb it, and it is a very active role. There is nothing passive about it.

Gendai budoka, be they judoka, jujutsuka, aikidoka, or any other group, will say that they “take ukemi.” What they really mean is that they put their body out there for a partner to apply a technique to without offering resistance. The only time resistance shows up is during whatever sort of randori training their group does. Their ukemi is passive, and their job as an uke is to present no difficulty or opposition to their partner. The only real requirement for the job is that you be skilled enough to survive whatever technique is being practiced. 

  The real depth of the role of uke becomes clear when you look at the structure of uke’s role in koryu budo, or classical Japanese arts. The teacher, or other high level senior, takes the role of uke.  They are actively engaged in what is going on, not just passively “taking ukemi.”   In all of these precursors to the various gendai budo, uke’s role is considered critically important, and a beginner cannot understand what is required of a good uke.

Uke indeed receives their partner’s attack, but not passively. If stand alone techniques are being practiced, uke has to decide how they will receive the attack. If the attack lacks a critical element of timing or kuzushi, if the attacker is not well-balanced and solid, uke is under no obligation to let the technique succeed. If any of these elements is missing uke may decide to simply stop the technique from continuing, or they may decide that their practice partner needs a stronger lesson about the suki, or opening, that they are leaving and counter-attack into the suki. Uke has to be skilled enough to understand what suki are being presented, and be able to execute the counterattack without endangering the tori (there are many terms for this role, I use tori because it can apply to any art or weapon being practiced).

This is true whether what is being practiced is some sort of empty-hand jujutsu or even if weapons are involved. My students know that if they leave too big an opening during an attack that my sword will fill it, stopping their attack and showing them their weakness. It’s not me showing off. The trick is judging when the kata is broken and attacking an opening. Students are learning, so of course they leave openings. I’m constantly calibrating my responses for individual students. Someone learning a new kata gets a lot of leeway to make mistakes while they learn movements. The same student practicing something they should know well doesn’t get much room for mistakes at all. If they were practicing with someone who wasn’t already skilled in the art, they would end up practicing all sorts of incorrect movements, spacing, and timing,  embedding these mistakes in their bodies.


Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Time to Go

Sometimes, it's time to leave a dojo or school we have been associated with for a long time. There are endless reasons to do this.

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kenshi 24/7 about the author's decision to leave the dojo he had been associated with for over 20 years.

 The full post may be read here.


So, yeah. I’ve been a member of the dojo in question for twenty years. I was appointed to a teaching position pretty early on, and turned down a director position once about ten years ago, before accepting it finally about four or so years ago. In the meantime my official position evolved from “instructor” to “senior instructor” (just a made-up title for a senior member under director).  This was fine, but by about 15 years in I already had the inkling that I had outgrown the dojo.  

( “Outgrown” can mean many things: in this case it refers not only the technical sense, but the groups use as a place of shugyo. ) 

My sensei passed away in 2021 and it is really at that point where I should’ve left. As I said above, I was ready to leave before but I decided to stay because he always showed me kindness and I respected him, a decision I don’t regret. Anyway, so after he was no longer around the group morphed into something else. A senior member who I respected left early on in this process, and I should’ve probably exited at the same time. For better or worse I tried to stick with it, but in the end I knew it was no longer the place for me. 

This is not the first time I have left a dojo. In 2014 another sensei who I respected passed away, and in 2016, after 11 years in the dojo, I felt as if I had no choice and departed. That time was different because I wanted to stay but felt that I was being kind of picked-on by the new teacher (hachidan = infallible). I already had a role in the dojo and would’ve almost certainly taken up a more senior position soon had this not happened. I remain close friends with my peers in the dojo (all of whom run the group now) and they often ask me to come. About once a year I pack my bogu and shinai and visit the dojo for some degeiko, but never go when the head instructor is there – which is unfortunate because I actually like his kendo…

The title of this article – “Ri” – you of course recognise: it is the last part of shu-ha-RI. Just to refresh your memory, this is from an older article of mine:

The ri (“separation”) stage is one that few ascend to. It is the point where the student has finally soaked up all that their master can teach and, combining it with their own discoveries in the ha stage (both the good and the bad), they create something uniquely theirs. They now become independent of their teacher.

The term Shu-ha-ri (“protect – break – separate”) comes originally, as you would expect, from military tactics. During the 1700s it began to be used in Sado circles, eventually being picked up and popularised for use in budo by Chiba Shusaku sometime in the 1800s. 

[ btw other terms were also imported from cultural arts into budo in the late Edo period, e.g. Shin-gyo-so (Shodo) and Jo-ha-kyu (Noh). ]

In very general terms, this shu-ha-ri cycle exists for anything that is taught and learned. The process of learning/mastery seems to be far longer in budo circles than in many other forms of study, at least nowadays. Is budo mysteriously somehow more difficult to acquire, or is there something else to it? If you look back a few decades or so you will see that the very long gestation time we see nowadays didn’t seem to be the norm. An easy example is that kendo grades only went to godan (people involved with increasing the grades post-war later wrote that in hindsight they shouldn’t have bothered). Anyway, I seem to have gone off-topic.

I guess my point is that after many years of practice at a particular place, it is natural to feel a re-adjustment of your position. You get older, your life changes, people come in and go out. Maybe the older members, including your sensei, pass away or are now no longer able to keiko, and you find yourself in a position of responsibility. As you have aged so to have your priorities changed, and maybe even your passion. Your role in the dojo as well as the dojos role in your life have transformed. Things happen.

I kind of fought my initial feeling to leave the dojo, but it built up over time to such an extent that it was probably obvious to everybody that it was no longer the place for me… it is time I made my own place.



Monday, June 03, 2024

Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

Over at the excellent blog, Ichijoji, there is a good article unpacking Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, which is the oldest surviving martial tradition in Japan. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


 Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryū is one of the oldest extant schools of martial arts in Japan, with an unbroken lineage from late medieval times, blessed (until recently) with an open and charismatic sōke who oversaw the teaching and passing on of his skills and knowledge to the next generation while managing to maintain quality control at the same time as expanding its popularity.

It was also notable as the principal koryū studied by Donn Draeger, and through his influence became the point of entry for many non-Japanese interested in older martial traditions. Because of this connection, it was also featured in the BBC documentary ’Way of the Warrior’, becoming familiar to another generation of practitioners outside Japan and it was because of both of these that I learnt about it first myself.

It has a broad technical repertoire utilizing a number of weapons and, unusually in traditional Japanese martial arts, involves quite long kata which are done at speed (and also, at least at one time and depending on the circumstances, also practiced out of doors). Seen from an outsider’s perspective, it is often difficult to tell exactly what is happening in these kata, especially as targets are substituted for the real target to allow a longer sequence and to hide the true nature of the attacks from outsiders. There are several videos online of Otake Risuke demonstrating and explaining parts of these kata, and one can only assume this is the tip of the iceberg. Although such explanations give us an insight into the meanings of the kata, it must be viewed as a partial explanation of the system as a whole - there is, no doubt, very much more that is kept within the teachings. However, it gives enough to have good idea of how deceptive surface appearances can be. 

At first glance, the kata appear more combative than those of other schools - there is much clashing of bokken and the pace is fast. In fact, they look like the kind of choreography you might see in a movie. When Otake explains the techniques it opens a window to understanding, but there is more left unexplained. Two of the points he stressed were that targets are predominantly those areas that would be left minimally protected by armour, and that the targets which are shown in the kata are not the real targets. Strikes made in the kata are typically blocked (for want of a better word) by the opponent’s bokken, or avoided, and although it is sometimes easy to see where the cut is aimed, often the intended target is purposely obscured.

Looking at the kata more closely, there are several other points common to much of Japanese swordsmanship. Many schools of sword stress the ability to make a straight downward cut; their kata feature this as an attack (albeit often an unrealistic one) and often begin with a number of cuts that are obviously not directed at the opponent. (You can see this in the introductory kata of the TSKSR.) Putting aside considerations of reigi (proper behaviour and respect, custom, even religion) that may have influenced these kata (and these aspects should not necessarily be downplayed) what purpose does this have? I believe it is intimately bound up with the style of fighting, one which relies on assessment of line and distance, and one which sees attack as the best defence. These initial cuts are a means of establishing one’s own awareness of the line of the sword, the line which you use to attack and, vitally, must defend against. Understanding and being able to see this line is a vital component of effective swordsmanship: creating and manipulating this line within oneself is an important step towards this.


Friday, April 19, 2024

Whole Body Movement in Taijiquan

At Thoughts on Tai  Chi, there was a good post about whole body movement. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

I try to follow some content creators, YouTube Tai Chi channels, etc. Recently I have found the vast majority of what is published and shared annoying, shallow and frankly said – useless for the common practitioner.

In the older literature and Tai Chi classics there’s no mention of “fascia”, there are no elaborate explanations about how to use “yi”. And if you haven’t read much of the older literature, you will have a very hard time find any passage or paragraph where you can read about how to “use Qi”.

Nowadays everyone try to explain what is actually very practical, simple things, that need hands-on learning, in a complicated, intellectual manner, while mixing Chinese and Western terms in the most confusing ways. I often have a feeling that they are more interested in themselves than in their students. What they say is certainly of very little help even if they speak more truths than just mumble-jumble.

Again, you won’t be able to read anything, or at least only a very little, of this in the texts and books written by older masters. And still those old masters could control and throw people away effortlessly.

The biggest trap is the intellectual process in itself. It makes students focus in the wrong direction, it teaches students to “think” about what they are doing, rather than to “feel”. You just cannot “do”, “be aware” and be present in the moment if you try to “think” about how to do something, at the same time as you are doing it.

But being present in the moment is absolutely essential when it comes Tai Chi. Why? Because Tai Chi in practical practice, against a partner or an opponent, is actually very fast and direct. To make something work in Tai Chi, you must react directly and instantaneous on what is happening. You need to attach yourself to your opponent, on distance as well as upon touch, in a way you can react directly and spontaneous on every small change.

Upon touch you need to completely empty your mind so you can let your tingjin, “listening skill” take over. This means to only rely on what you feel, the sensory feedback, and react to what you feel. All your knowledge and experience are preserved in your muscle memory. This is what you need to be able to access, instantly and without conscious thought.

Your intellectual thought process is just too slow, it has no chance to do adjust what you do in the present. You actually need to access another part of your brain, and to do this you need to use your brain differently and tap into your nervous system in a way that is incompatible with logical figuring things out.

To explain this further and hopefully in a physiological way you can understand this process better, Muscle memory is defined as a neurological process that allows you to remember certain motor skills and perform them without conscious effort. Muscle memory is achieved when you reach the autonomous stage. It means that whole of your performance, all your movements, are smooth and accurate, as your brain’s main activity switches to the basal ganglia, the region involved with automatic functioning.

If you are not present in the moment, as in trying to “think out” what and how to do something, you cannot access this part of your brain. Again, instead of acting spontaneously, you will act clumsy, hesitant, and also probably forget all what you have learned about song and sinking, how to follow, react and act.

The mind-state known as “no-mind”, or wuxin, is the key to be able to access the muscle memory and let your accumulated knowledge work by itself. The more you practice, the more hours you spend working with a partner in push hands and other exercises, the more knowledge and experience will be stored in your brain, nervous system and muscle fibers. Some studies suggest that muscle memory causes muscle cell changes that last for at least 15 years, which, if this is true, it means that you can accumulate a whole lot of knowledge and experience you can access through your muscle memory if you keep up your practice for many years.

You really need to get rid of the mind-set of “figuring things out”. If you approach your Tai Chi with intellectual curiosity only, which is by all means in itself not a bad thing, it will be easy to get stuck in this mind-state and let it color everything you do.

You need to focus on how things feel through your awareness.

It is said the skill is transferred by touch, from a master’s hands to a student’s. This is absolutely true. You need to experience first hand how a skilled teacher moves, act, feels. In terms of development, five-ten minutes personal on-hand instruction with a skilled teacher, is worth more than many hours of push hands practice with a partner of the same level, and more than one year of solo practice.

It is not what the teacher says that is important, but to experience the skill first hand.

Sunday, March 17, 2024

What is Your Training Style

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kenshi 24/7, on different personal styles of Kendoka. The full post may be read here. 

What's your training style like?

Seito-ha (正統派)

My kendo is, I’d say, 95% bog-standard, super orthodox kendo. Sure, there are things that I do my own way, and some waza I prefer over others, but in general my kendo is basically of the margarita pizza variety: easy to prepare/make, mostly satisfying, and very little can go wrong with it (=not much to complain about). Sure, it’s ok, but not many people will travel to a pizza shop in another town just to have some.

In other words, even if you haven’t done kendo with me before you pretty much know what to expect:

Practice menu
- Lots of kihon
- Lots of kirikaeshi, uchikomi, oikomi
- Emphasis on correct execution of individual waza

Oji-waza choice
- Against men: debana men, degote, kaeshi-dou
- Against kote: kaeshi-men, aigote-men, suriage men

Jigeiko style
- Proactive “makko-shobu” style (see below)
- Fundamentally my central goal is to defeat my partner by debana-men

As you probably realise, my kendo can be kind of predictable, and isn’t flashy in the least. Maybe it’s even boring.

However, this type of “seito-ha” kendo – that is, the “orthodox style” – has an important (and highly attractive, at least to me) feature: a proactive “makko-shobu” style based on debana-men.  “Makko-shobu” (真っ向勝負) refers to a proactive, confrontational style. There is no (or we at least try to minimise it as much as possible) running way, blocking, use of the dreaded “amashi” waza, and overly flashy techniques or hikiwaza are generally de-emphasised. Debana waza (in particular: men) is where it’s at. 

 “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

All the quotes in todays article are said to be from Marcus Aurelius

(I suggest re-reading the popular five-part “Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo” series, a translation of an essay by Morishima Tateo sensei)

As you already know, when two “seito-ha” kenshi face each other (assuming they are of equal skill) it can look a little bit (to the inexperienced kenshi) un-energetic or even boring I dare say. Seme is subtle and done with a combination of the spirit, kensen, and right foot, not feints, mysterious twirling of the shinai, and – of course – with shinai-to-shinai contact. The last one is extremely important, as the very conduit of communication is via this. 

Seito-ha kenshi know one another when they meet, and enjoy the battle for debana men. If they are struck, they admit defeat graciously. 

Nanken (難剣)

Like the section above, this part will be generalised… even more so because of the nature of what’s being discussed. 

 “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

Literally, nanken means “difficult sword.” This term has been used throughout the history of kendo to refer to those whose kendo was, to put it nicely, awkward. This doesn’t mean that they are weak or don’t have shiai (or grading – at least in the past) success, just that your average  “orthodox” kenshi struggles to cope with them. Perhaps their timing is different, their rhythm feels“off”,  their swing is larger or smaller than normal, they favour non-standard waza, and so on. It is almost as if they are speaking a slightly different language. Some other “features” include:

- their kendo is usually based on hitting and not being struck, so they like to evade or dodge, often bending their head or even body out of the way of attacks;

- sutemi is often lacking, which leads to hitting while standing in place (with no fumikomi);

- hitting out with their arms (zero fumikiri and often no fumikomi) then running away backwards (related to the above);

- overuse of feinting or whirling of the shinai;

- it is very common for them to just stand and wait for something to happen with no forward pressure;

- some (generally older people) fight from a very close distance;

- there is zero “aiki” so it doesn’t feel “friendly.”

(Some of these factors of-course lead to the timing being “off” as mentioned above)

Obviously, anyone who does jigeiko or shiai before acquiring a good grounding in basics will go through a sort of “nanken”phase. Only “sort of” because your average beginner will often honestly attempt to convert kihon into jigeiko use, which is very difficult even for the experienced. Usually, the less experienced will go back to kihon, work on it, then attempt to use what they have worked on in jigeiko, cycling round and round slowly getting out of the beginners phase and into a more “orthodox” style. 

However, some people never seem to get out of their “difficult” phase. Why, I am not sure. This is different from my kendo experience, so it is hard to comment on, but I’ll try anyway!

1. They believe that their kendo is effective.  By doing or acting differently you can often surprise or even deceive people in a manner that opens them up to be struck. Of course, this is perfectly “valid” in a competition and ippon may be awarded, reinforcing their tactic. This is of course absolutely fine (and to an extent is expected) in shiai for lower ages and ranks. Some, however, will persist in doing this during jigeiko (not only shiai) throughout their entire kendo career. 

2. They don’t care. This is of course connected to the above. It might also be the case that kendo is just a hobby, something they do for fun sometimes. They aren’t aiming for hachidan or anything, and have no interest in it above and beyond having fun. That’s cool too, I guess (it’s not me however).

3. They don’t practice enough and/or have no direct model. A “model” of course refers to both an instructor (physical skill) as well as a teacher (guide). Again, this is something that is difficult but not a disaster: it just takes time, travel, and extra effort to improve… assuming the desire is there.

4. Something perceptual inside them is different. This is hard to explain and I am not a scientist or anything, but some individuals seem to have a different perception of time (3D space, interval, distance, etc) than others. Of course, this is wholly in reference to myself (perhaps it is me who is “off”). This is something I’ve become acutely aware of as a teacher of high school students (and younger) for over 20 years. This is not something that can be “cured” or “fixed” rather, it has to be understood for what it is. I believe that this is probably the most influential factor in the “nanken” scenario. People like this can still have successful kendo careers despite being “out of sync” with the majority of others. 

So yeah, some people end up having non-standard “difficult” kendo. Numbers 1 and 2 above can be problematic, but the potential for change (should the person wish it) is there. Number 4, however, is different. 

“Because a thing seems difficult for you, do not think it impossible.”


Monday, March 11, 2024

The Universal Humanity of Taijiquan

"The  Universal Humanity of Taijiquan" is the title of the second episode of a series on YouTube of Chen ZhengLei, a successor of Chen style Taijiquan.