Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, 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 ~

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Teachings of Ben Lo

Scott Meredith is a direct student of the late Ben Lo. Below is an excerpt from a post made by Scott, remembering some teachings of Master Lo. The full post may be read here.

Master Benjamín Lo: Teachings

Compiled by Scott Meredith

These teaching points have been compiled through decades of personal experience of Master Lo's teachings. They are not published per se in any other book or publication, either in Chinese or English to my knowledge, though any article or interview with Master Lo will naturally reflect similar content.

The Power of Zero

Ben told us, after demonstrating his usual total ease in moving, pushing, or throwing a much larger, stronger, and more physically more impressive opponent:

“Normally we think that if he has 100 pounds of force or power, I better have 150. But then if I get 150 pounds of force, he may have accumulated more himself. Or there’ll be somebody else with more. So next time it will be my 150 against his 200. Then I’ll need to go to 250... and still, there’s always going to be somebody with more than me. It's an arms race in that direction. So I need to reverse my approach. I need to take my own power down to 0. Then there’s no chasing or spiraling. Nothing can change. If he has 100, I have 0. If he has 150, I have 0. If he has 200, I still have 0, on and on, whatever he has, I’m always beneath it, it doesn’t change or affect me. I’m not chasing his attributes, or competing, or catching up, or exceeding him. That’s Taijiquan.” I’m not saying this idea and practice is easy for ordinary students, like ourselves, to grasp. But it is food for thought from the master, who could always demonstrate it on anybody - no matter how large or how tough or how experienced a fighter.

Finding your own Beautiful Lady's Hand (美人手)

This is the procedure Ben sometimes teaches to help us find 美人手 correct position:

Stand close to a wall. Place your entire forearm up against the wall, with your palm facing the wall, and with your fingertips together, pointing upwards, extended naturally along the wall's surface. Don't force your arm against the wall, but conform to the flatness of the wall in a relaxed way. The base of your palm is very lightly touching the wall surface. Let your forearm and straight hand and fingers align and rest naturally, let them be slightly heavy against the wall. This is approximately the shape and feeling of Beautiful Lady's Hand (mei ren shou 美人手 in Mandarin).

Which Taiji form posture is best for static holding practice?

People sometimes ask Ben whether one or another of the 37 postures of the Cheng form is especially good for "holding" practice (keeping the same position for many minutes to check your form and relaxation). When I asked him this, he said: "No posture is 'best', all are good. Same thing as going to a party, you can always find at least one friendly person to talk to, and you can eventually find a practice posture that suits you very well."

How can we practice Taiji in a very limited floor space?

Ben told us two main ways to handle a space-limited practice condition:

  • If you have room to stand up at all, you can probably stand in one of the Taiji form postures. This is actually one of the main practice methods taught by Ben for general usage, not only space-limited. It is called 'zhan zhuang' in Chinese (see Teaching #3), and it can be extremely arduous - particularly if you really try to maintain the full 5 Principles at each moment ... as time passes. Obviously this method is available to you wherever you have room to stand up.
  • But once when I pressed Ben with this question about doing the entire continuous form in a limited area, he surprisingly showed me that the entire Cheng Taiji set can be performed in just four square feet of space! I can't describe each adjustment here, but actually it was very intuitive, just stepping back or moving in place where you would have gone forward. You can maintain all the 5 Principles and complete the entire 37-posture sequence in just four square feet of space. So, no excuses for non-practice!

What is the best way to work on basic fixed step push hands practice?

When I first started with Ben, students would work mostly on fixed-step, double-hands tui-shou. It got extremely vigorous and, frankly, competitive at times. After I'd been there a few years, Ben came up with a new emphasis. More and more he emphasized an alternative practice format for fixed-step push hands, whereby one person would be the designated pusher and the other the designated yielder. The yielder should not actively push, but simply try to neutralize the incoming force of the designated pusher. Every 15 minutes or so, we'd switch roles. I think he felt that people were better able to control their inherent ego and aggression under this more controlled format. I certainly learned a lot from working in this way.

He also introduced me to another variation on that theme, which was that I was to stand in 70/30, using Left Wardoff shape (but on either side), and the designated ‘pusher’ was to have 3 individual chances to push me out (move my foot). This is not a continuous exercise, each attempt from the challenger is to consist of one integrated move, not devolve into a continuous tussle like normal push hands.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Book Review: Aikido Comes to America

Aikido Comes to America by Antonio Aloia is published by Tambuli Media

This is a really different book on about aikido. This isn't a book about techniques or philosophy. It's about the rise and decline of akido in the US. 

I love the history of martial arts, particularly that period from the 50's through the 70's where martial arts practice in the US was emerging and forming. 

Aloia recounts how servicemen stationed in Japan brought back karate, judo and to a lesser extent, aikido and began to establish dojo. Americans began to brush up against Asian cultures and interest began to stir in Asian martial arts. The seeds of the idea of budo training were being planted

I have dim memories of Honey West. Certainly Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet was a shot in the arm. When the one-two punch (ha!) of The Kung Fu TV series and Enter the Dragon arrived, then asian martial arts experienced a boom and aikido road the rising tide along with everything else.

All along, the major aikido styles: AikiKai, Yoshinkan and Shodokan (Tomiki style) began to send senior instructors to the US and Canada to help foster the growth. Americans began to travel to Japan, learn aikido and eventually return to establish themselves.

Love or hate him, Steven Seagal was responsible for a huge boom in interest, unique to aikido, that arrived when his movies were released, beginning with Above the Law. Whatever you may think about him as a person, an actor or even about his aikido, he filled dojos.

 Aloia doesn't shy from describing the politics that took root. Where judo for instance, is pretty straight forward in what it is - it's philosophy and practice; aikido , for better or worse, is not. 

Philosophically, what aikido actually is depends on the practitioner. And so, with many American teachers reaching mature rank, and more Japanese senior teachers arriving, rival organizations were established, some split and split again. He describes it all.

There has been a decline in interest in the practice of martial arts. The UFC has helped to buoy up mixed martial arts and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but all martial arts are in decline and aikido is under-performing. 

Citing a survey, only 15% of active aikido practitioners (at the time, probably less now) had been practicing for less than 4 years.

Alioa explores some of the many reasons for this. His description of the poor state of martial arts practice in general and aikido in particular was written before Covid has taken a wrecking ball to the industry. 

Many dojo have closed and most of them will likely not reopen. 

Near my last home, a mixed martial arts gym was just about to open. The owner had finished his renovations and moved in his training equipment, when Covid caused a statewide lock down. He never opened his doors. I hope that the would-be owner survives the financial loss.

Near my new home is a well established karate dojo that hosts a small aikido class during normal times. I joined, but instead of 6 to 8 students practicing aikido, there are now 2 or 3 of us practicing iaido; keeping the training habit, working on skills that applicable to akido once the lock down is lifted, and biding our time.

Aloia goes on to offer suggestions for what the martial arts community at large and aikido organizations and teachers specifically can do to help turn around or at least mitigate the trend so that our practice is sustainable for the future.

I liked Aikido Comes to America and I think that you would too.

Vintage Silat and Weapons video

Below is a vintage video feature Silat and it's associated weapons.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

What is Karate?

At the Shotokan Times, there was quite an article that broke down just what Shotokan Karate consists of. Below is the table of contents. The full post may be read here.

Shotokan Karate: The Fine Martial Arts

Table of Contents

What is Shotokan Karate? A Definition

Shotokan (松濤館) is a Japanese martial arts. It belongs to the fighting and self-defense system Karate (空手). Karate itself has been developed on the islands of Okinawa. 

According to the famous karate blogger, Jesse Enkamp, Shotokan is the “world´s most popular style” of Karate.

Shotokan Karate comprises a wide range of techniques like:

  • Keri-waza (kicks),
  • Uchi-waza (punches), and
  • Uke-waza (blocks).
Karateka execute all techniques from a variety of stances called tachi waza. Fighting on the ground and the application of an elaborated set of tosses and throws like in Judo or Wrestling is not part of the style. Shotokanka prefer to face opponents in a standing position. 

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Chinese Internal Martial Arts Master B.P. Chan

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kenneth Cohen's QiGong Healing website, as a remembrance of one of his teachers, B.P. Chan. The full post may be read here.

On March 17, 2002, B P. Chan, one of the first generation of qigong teachers in North America, passed into spirit. Chan, born on May 30, 1922 in Fujian Province, China, lived for many years in the Philippines, and, finally, moved to New York City, where he lived for the rest of his life.

When Chan arrived in New York City in 1974, he planned to stay for about six months, long enough to teach a basic course in Bagua Zhang, one of the “inner martial arts” (nei jia quan) related to Taiji Quan, at the studio of his friend and colleague, William C. C. Chen. Not wishing to miss the rare opportunity to study with a teacher and person of Chan’s caliber, students flocked to his classes. Six months later, he decided to “visit” a bit longer, to teach the next level of Bagua Zhang, as well as an introductory course in Xing Yi Quan and Chen Style Taiji Quan. Within a year, he had decided to remain in the United States.

Chan began studying Chinese healing, contemplative, and martial arts as a young child. He learned Taoist meditation and qigong from monks and masters at the An De Guan (安德觀 Monastery of Peaceful Virtue), not far from his home. At age 11, Chan began training in Northern Shaolin Boxing with Master Lian Dak Fung, and not long thereafter learned Taiji Ruler Qigong 先天氣功太極尺 from Lui Chow-Munk, a direct student of the system’s greatest proponent, Zhao Zhongdao. 

He also studied with the famed Master of Wu Zu Quan (Five Ancestors Boxing 五祖拳) Chen Jingming 陳景銘, from whom he learned Fujian White Crane Boxing, Standing Meditation (Zhan Zhuang), and various qigong techniques. Chan was deeply connected with the tradition of Sun Lutang 孫祿堂 through his training in various arts (most likely Xingyi Quan 形意拳) with Sun's famed disciple Zheng Huaixian (1897-1981) 鄭懷賢. 

In the Philippines, he continued cultivating the Tao and learning Bagua Zhang and Xingyi Quan with Liang Jici 梁紀慈 (Leung Kay-Chi in Cantonese), with whom he taught for many years. I have also heard from some of Chan's other students that Chan may have learned Xingyi Quan from Chow Chang-Hoon, though I was unable to corroborate this during his lifetime.

Chan probably had other teachers as well, including combat instructors in the military. He knew and taught Yunnan Consecutive Step Boxing 雲南連步拳, which was part of standard training for Nationalist troops during the Second World War. I have pieced these details together over the years, through bits he shared, conversations with colleagues, and research. Chan rarely spoke about his background. He was an incredibly humble and honorable man who did not wish to attract attention or admiration; nor did he seek fame because of his lineage. He taught qigong and martial arts out of love of the arts and in a spirit of service. 

Chan was an avid reader and deep thinker. He especially admired the book "A Study of Xingyi Quan" 形意拳學 by Sun Lutang 孫祿堂 and often, during private classes, quoted passages from it. He also loved the inner martial arts writings of Jiang Rongqiao 姜容樵. Chan was constantly refining his practice and teaching style.
A biographical sketch gives little indication of the extraordinary range of B. P. Chan’s skills. When I lived in New York City during the 1970s, he was teaching classes in Yang and Chen Style Taiji Quan; Bagua Zhang; Xingyi Quan; Yunnan Boxing; Taoist Meditation; Taiji Ruler Qigong; Lying Down Qigong (Wo Gong); Standing Meditation, and more. Yet, Chan was no dilettante. He had a comprehensive understanding of the systems he taught, and when students were ready, he organized intermediate and advanced level classes. Xing Yi Quan students progressed from the Five Element Exercises to the Twelve Animals, to fluid “linking forms” that combined elements and animals in graceful choreography, and, finally, to two-person martial application sets.

Similarly, the Taiji Ruler course included multiple levels of training. At first students learned gentle rocking exercises in which the hands make vertical or horizontal circles, designed to build a strong reservoir of qi in the dan tian. Later they learned the rarely-taught advanced techniques, such as the Taiji Ball. While standing, the student holds a stone or wooden ball between the fingers or palms, several inches in front of the dan tian. This develops qi and strength. Or he or she rolls the ball on a table top to develop tactile sensitivity and “listening” (聽勁) ability– a student who can “listen,” that is sense energy, can feel blockages and detect illness in the body and, in the martial arts or other sports, can anticipate an opponent’s moves.

Monday, January 04, 2021

Takuma Hisa, Daito Ryu and Aikido

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Aikido Sangenkai. It has to do with Takuma Hisa, who was a student of both Sokaku Takeda and Morihei Ueshiba. 

The full post may be read here.

Takuma Hisa occupies a unique place in the history of pre-war Aikido. One of the major students of Aikido Founder Morihei Ueshiba in Osaka, he also went on to became one of the major students of Daito-ryu Chuku-no-so Sokaku Takeda, Morihei Ueshiba’s instructor,
Born in Kochi Prefecture in 1895, he made a name for himself as a sumo wrestler during his time as a student before going on to become the Director of General Affairs of the Asahi News corporation in Osaka.

Here is the classic (and oft-repeated) story of how Takuma HIsa met Sokaku Takeda, in his own words:
On June 21st 1936, when we were training in Aikido under Ueshiba Sensei, a man came to the headquarters reception desk thrusting an iron staff suddenly with his right hand and holding a fine sword in his left “I am the Founder of Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu, Soke Sokaku Takeda. I have heard that you lads are learning from my student Morihei Ueshiba, but he is still inexperienced. If you have the will to learn true Aiki-jujutsu then become my students now and learn from me!”. Before anybody could say a word he took the security guards into the dojo. Keeping the fact that I was the division head a secret, I snuck in after the security staff and was astonished to see the reality of Takeda Sensei’s secret techniques. I went to Ueshiba Sensei right away and informed him of the appearance of the Soke, Takeda Sensei. I thought that Ueshiba Sensei would immediately go to beg his teacher’s pardon, but contrary to my expectations he became extremely dismayed and ended up withdrawing! So it came about that Ueshiba Sensei’s students would receive instruction in the early morning as before at the Umeda dojo, and then in the afternoon we would train with Sokaku Takeda Sensei in the night duty room of the headquarters building. At some point he left for Tokyo without any farewell to Asahi whatsoever, but Sokaku Takeda Sensei became increasingly committed and started to appear with Mr. Tokimune Takeda. According to the records:
  • First Time: June 21st 1936 to July 25th, 36 days
  • Second Time: November 1st 1936 to November 30th, 30 days
  • Third Time: August 17th 1937 to September 30th, 44 days
  • Fourth Time: October 22nd 1938 to November 14th, 22 days
  • Fifth Time: March 26th 1939
    Takuma Hisa – Menkyo Kaiden and eighth dan
    Yoshiteru Yoshimura (吉村義照) – eighth dan.
    Masao Tonedate (刀祢館正雄)
He gave us the certificates and left for Hokkaido. As I look back now, it is almost fifty years since I began to learn Aikido. During that time, beginning with both Takeda Sensei and Ueshiba Sensei, then Director Tonedate and Security Chief Yoshimura, everybody has passed away. I am the only one left alive. I am eight-four this year, and have been stricken with paralysis, but I would like to use what strength I have left to transmit these techniques to future generations and somehow repay my debt to my Sempai.
 “The Appearance of Takeda Sensei”
Menkyo Kaiden Takuma Hisa, 1982 – Takumakai Kaiho issue #50

Friday, January 01, 2021

Plans for the New Year

What are your plans for the new year? Have you really thought about it? 

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Raptitude. While it isn't specifically
directed at martial arts, I think these thoughts are quite appropriate for us. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

I keep imagining a tradition I’d like to invent. After you’re established in your career, and you have some neat stuff in your house, you take a whole year in which you don’t start anything new or acquire any new possessions you don’t need.

No new hobbies, equipment, games, or books are allowed during this year. Instead, you have to find the value in what you already own or what you’ve already started.

You improve skills rather than learning new ones. You consume media you’ve already stockpiled instead of acquiring more.

You read your unread books, or even reread your favorites. You pick up the guitar again and get better at it, instead of taking up the harmonica. You finish the Gordon Ramsey Masterclass you started in April, despite your fascination with the new Annie Leibovitz one, even though it’s on sale.

The guiding philosophy is “Go deeper, not wider.” Drill down for value and enrichment instead of fanning out. You turn to the wealth of options already in your house, literally and figuratively. We could call it a “Depth Year” or a “Year of Deepening” or something. 

In the consumer age, where it’s so easy to pick up and abandon new pursuits, I imagine this Depth Year thing really catching on, and maybe becoming a kind of rite of passage. People are already getting sick of being half-assed about things, I like to think.

Having completed a Depth Year would be a hallmark of maturity, representing the transition between having reached adulthood chronologically and reaching it spiritually. You learn not to be so flippant with your aspirations.

By taking a whole year to go deeper instead of wider, you end up with a rich but carefully curated collection of personal interests, rather than the hoard of mostly-dormant infatuations that happens so easily in post-industrial society.

Someone’s Depth Year would be a celebrated cultural moment in their community. Oh, Sam is starting his Depth Year this winter! Maybe he’ll finally read his copy of Moby Dick, and start learning complete songs on guitar instead of just bits of them. There could be a bar-mitzvah-like ceremony on the eve of your Depth Year, which would create a bit of accountability. Maybe at the end of the year your peers present you with a special ring.

A big part of the Depth Year’s maturing process would be learning to live without regular doses of the little high we get when we start something new. If we indulge in it too often, we can develop a sort of “sweet tooth” for the feeling of newness itself. When newness is always available, it’s easier to seek more of it than to actually engage with a tricky chord change, the dull sections in Les Miserables, or the dozens of ugly roses you need to paint before you get your first good one.