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 ~

Thursday, May 13, 2021

A Tribute to a Taijiquan Master

Below is an excerpt from a tribute to Prof. Cheng Man Ching written by Robert W Smith a few years after Prof. Cheng's death. The entire text may be read here.

A Master Passes
A Tribute to Cheng Man-ch'ing
By Robert W. Smith, 1979

On hearing that Cheng Man-ch'ing had died suddenly in Taiwan on March 25, 1975, my reaction was one of disbelief. Even knowing that he was 75 and that he had energetically graced several fields of endeavor for so long couldn't dull this edge of disbelief. But a fact is a fact: Cheng has, as old Taoists say, 'changed.' He may even have had a premonition of the approaching change. I have been told that he had been working twenty hours a day on his study of the I-ching, (The Book of Changes) treating patients, and teaching T'ai-chi. His teaching style had changed. Where earlier he guided tersely, slowly, and sometimes by indirection, recently he had expedited the training and taken a more active part in it. The hectic pace of these activities - so like him - suggest that he was aware of the limited time remaining to him.

Life is anything but even. Yang Sen, the old Szechwan warlord, is now 94 in Taiwan, full of years, with many wives, and reportedly, 43 children. Yan has nothing to teach (despite his purported yang/yin powers) and is alive. Cheng who had much to teach is dead. And yet it seems to me that the Professor's greatest teaching is that each of us has to do it for himself. He always said that there were no secrets; he couldn't give us a pill. There was only the work of relaxing and sinking (and we know how hard that is), or 'investing in loss' and thereby winning by losing. And these are better than the fact I spoke of above: These are truths.

During the week in which the tiny 12-line notice headed 'Artist Cheng Dies at 75' appeared in the Taipei China Post two other stories were given full treatment. One, headlined 'Local Kung-fu Fighter Overpowers U.S. expert' told of a local screen boxer who outpointed a young American none of us had ever heard of. The Chinese, of course, claimed he could beat Muhammad Ail. In the other story, Chinese martial artists were deriding two Americans who spent 18 months studying, labeled themselves 'Masters of Kung Fu,' and returned to the USA One now had over 300 students in California. Do you wonder why I cringe from commercialism? Our 'kung fu' heroes today with their trampolines, sound effects, trick cameras, and public relations prostitutes have so little knowledge that most would not even recognize the high skill Cheng possessed. But we knew it. Put it this way: there was not only nobody equal, there wasn't even anyone second to him.

The sadness of all this is that one of the last of the giants is gone. Each generation sees more of the brilliance of real ch'uan fa die. It is not nostalgia that puts Yang Lu-ch'an far above Cheng-fu, and he superior to Cheng. There is much credible evidence establishing this sad decline. Professor Cheng acknowledged this. He wanted to advance but circumstances when he arrived on Taiwan from the mainland prevented it. Perhaps his genius in other fields also impinged on his desire. He did not have the skill of the Yang's but he was a more complete man that any of them. Maybe he knew what Bizet meant when he said of music: 'What a glorious art; what a hideous profession.'

Cheng wanted to be more than a T'ai-chi master. And was. When I met him in 1959, Professor Cheng was already on the wrong side of 60, but not showing it. I had been told that his eyes were very high, that he was independent almost to a fault, and that he was a Chinese traditionalist. So that I shouldn't expect much from him. Add to the difficulty, I, too, was fiercely independent. But what I got from the outset and down more than fifteen years was the quality Mencius made so much of - jen, loving kindness. He could be impatient; he was never with me; he sometimes could not suffer fools; he smilingly suffered me. And all this for a man who wanted no guru except love. He knew I was studying not only his system of T'ai-chi but he himself. I used to ask the same question (how my questions must have tired him!) from a different vantage on different occasions. He would smile (probably thinking: "Smith and the same old question!") and answer.

The main thing I wanted to elicit from him was simply: what can T'ai-chi do for character? This it seems to me is the toughest question of all. He had waffled on this I thought in his Thirteen Chapters by saying that it depended on the person. I sought to draw him out on it and was able over the years to establish that Yes, T'ai-chi, by relaxing not only the muscles but the organs themselves, would quiet a person. That once quiet and secure (sinking into rooted centered-ness) a person should be in a position where anxiety could make no inroads. This should then out in jen. In Thirteen Chapters he was only citing reality: many do T'ai-chi as an exercise which, even if they become very skillful at it, is never carried over into their workaday lives. His message was that this is incomplete T'ai-chi. Of course that wasn't the only question, merely the most important. I asked him endless questions on the postures and on pushing-hands (how I wish we could term this 'sensing-hands!'). And he was always forthcoming. I never got all my questions asked. As I tried to level out the mound atop my desk today I found a note to myself to ask the Professor. It concerned some words written in 1939 by Theos Bernard, the yoga adept:

"The body is most vigorous, active, and strong and the spirit is most brisk and lively when the sky is serene and unclouded and the wind east, north-east, or southeast. Warm dry air is superior to cold moist air. Humidity causes morbidity. Intense cold is bad - it obstructs vessels." unasked question that there's no one left to answer. I wanted to ask him how important these climactic conditions were for us in practicing T'ai-chi. Life is essentially an existence of unanswered questions.

Ah, the memories. . . In Taiwan my wife went with me once to a Sunday practice. After watching a while, she asked the Professor to push her. He compiled by lightly maneuvering her off the wall. She came back to me smiling by unawed: 'It was OK,' she murmured, none too enthusiastically. He watched well. And he was watching then, sensing her indifference. Walking over, he asked me her reaction, and truthful to a fault, I told him. Whereupon he took her by the hand back to the wall and pushed her again. This time she ran back to me (one of life's sweetest pleasure is to have a comely woman run to you), her eyes sparking, her words tumbling over one another. 'It was so strange,' she said, 'when he touched me I felt an electricity-like surge go throughout my body but without the shock.' He had followed her over and laughed at what she said. 'She felt that because she was relaxed,' he explained. That bothered me. 'But I've practiced for two years and I can't feel it,' I complained. He laughed again, 'Women,' he said, 'have an advantage over men. They are inherently more relaxed. You must work hard to get where they start from.'

Once I made the mistake of taking an American nidan in Okinawan karate to meet the Master. The American was singularly unimpressed by what he saw. He wanted a test. So the Master signaled to a student who faced the karateka. He faked a high kick, the student's arm started up; the foot flashed down, the student slapped it lightly while stepping inside and touching the American's heart. Dead, he failed to realize it, for he went away scoffing at T'ai-chi. I apologized to the Master later and he waved it aside: 'One must be kind to blind men.' The inevitable sequel: I took the lad to a Shaolin friend of mine and left him to his ministrations. A week later I saw him. He had discontinued. Why? "Damn it, those guys wanted to fight!" Unappreciative of the "soft," afraid of the "hard," this one doubtless is still thrilling them at cocktail parties with his dance. Fighting it is not. The Master was strong on a sound foundation. A good teacher, a good system, and a healthy body could not but equal success. Lacking any of these, the results would be less.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Tomiki Aikido Video

Below is a lengthy (16 minutes) video of Kenji Tomiki, the founder of Tomiki Aikido, filmed in the 30's and 50's. Enjoy.

Friday, May 07, 2021

The Last Man Standing

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kenshi 24/7. It reads like a scene from a samurai movie - a new teacher arrives at a dojo and mops the floor with the senior students, all of whom had a chip on their shoulders.

The full post may be read here. Enjoy!

When Miyazaki Mosaburo, then 35 years old, walked in to the Butokuden as a newly minted kendo instructor at the end of the summer of 1927, the young busen students weren’t aware of who he was. Well, perhaps they heard rumours, but they certainly weren’t ready for what was about to happen. 

At almost 180cm, he was a good deal taller than everyone else there. His 94 kgs would’ve been equally as impressive to the lean kendoka that huddled together earlier that day and conspired together to knock him off his perch. Unlike nowadays, it was normal (even expected) for students to go full out and attempt to physically overpower those senior to them, to test them as it were. It was never going to work out how they planned… 

In 1909, the young 17 year old Miyazaki became a live-in student of the Butokukai’s head kendo instructor Naito Takaharu. He came to Kyoto to enter the Koshuka of the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo – martial art teachers development school – but why Naito chose him is unknown. Perhaps it was the potential that lay within his physical stature, or perhaps it was the young mans taciturn nature (which he would keep for his entire live), who knows. At any rate, young Miyazaki lived with Naito and his wife for a number of years (exactly how many years we are not sure, at least three, potentially more). 

We know how he spent his time there for the first three years because he kept a diary detailing his habits as well as his (and Naito’s) comings and goings (only three years worth have been found). As a a historical document it is invaluable. 

During that time he cleaned Naito’s house, looked after his wife when she was ill, prepared breakfast, attended Kusonoki sensei’s lectures at Nanzenji (often along with Saimura Goro – an article for the future),  as well as attend keiko at the Butokuden. His proximity to Naito sensei is unrivalled (except perhaps with Shinohe Taisuke), and he was almost certainly extended certain privileges in later life because of it. 

Despite not being as well known as some of Naito’s other early students (Saimura, Mochida, Nakano, Ogawa, Oshima, Shimatani), it is almost certain that he was his favourite. Naito ensured that Miyazaki stayed in in a junior instructor position when he graduated, found him a good job in Mie prefecture, and called him back to Kyoto when a Busen teaching position became available. Which is where our story started.

The number of student positions available each year at the full time Busen course was extremely limited (by this time the Yoseijo had evolved in to Busen proper). Those that managed to enrol had to be not only physically able, have prior experience, and pass a difficult entrance exam, they also needed some sort of recommendation letter as well (from someone of standing or a prior graduate). Most kendo students who went through Busen did so in the Koshuka or speciality (kendo or judo) only course. Students there did not attend academic lectures and their keiko was set at a different time (though the teachers were the same, and many full time students joined it as well). 

Many had other jobs and most stayed only for a short duration. In later years (1920s) students on the full time course would be awarded government approved teaching certificates (allowing them to find work easily). At any rate, there were two tiers of students, with full time students being the cream of the crop.

The students that Miyazaki faced in the summer of 1927 were those from the full-time course. When he himself went through Busen almost 20 years earlier (its forerunner, the Bujutsu Kyoin Yoseijo) as a Koshuka, the difference between the full and part-time students was minimal. Now, however, the full time students had an air of superiority about them.

The students plan was simple: tire the old man out and beat him up. 

The first student that was sent up was a senior, fourth year student. His job was to non-stop attack the new teacher and exhaust him, allowing the other students to beat him down. The plan didn’t work. The opening kirikaeshi was intense. By the time it had finished his fighting spirit had dwindled. When jigeiko started he tried to strike kote-men and was sent flying on his back. Striking his head on the Butokuden floor, he was concussed.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Samurai and the Squirrel

In addition to his fame as a warrior, Miyamoto Musashi was a noted artist. Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Ichijoji. The full post may be read here.

The bushi were a cultured lot – some of them, anyway – and Japan was a cultured society. Nowadays, when we look at the art of great civilisations, we tend to value it for its beauty – indeed, that is one of the things that attracts us to art in many of its forms. However, there is a lot more to art than that (as a cursory glance at any display of contemporary art will tell us) – and there always was. 

As a form of communication, art has messages and meanings beyond the aesthetic. Its value as a didactic and political tool was well understood by the rich and powerful of feudal Japan. Decorative schemes in castles, temples and residences contained subtle and not so subtle messages that their audiences were practiced in reading. They were messages about power, morals, aspiration – the usual things. The artists might also include details pointing to their lineage, linking to well-known works, thus emphasising the connection with more famous predecessors. (This was happening in the Kano school, where the sidelined Kyoto branch thought it necessary to point out that they were just as much, if not more, worthy successorsto the Kano traditionthan the politically favoured blood descendants of the founder who ran the Edo branch – their paintings were also beautiful, as you can see here). Other works of art operated on a smaller scale, with more personal messages for the satisfaction of the careful viewer.

Which brings us on to an often overlooked painting byMiyamoto Musashi: Squirrel and Grapes

As a subject, it was an auspicious one, symbolising abundance and fertility: grapes are obvious images of plently, while squirrels were seen as being like mice which were known for having large numbers of offspring. Perhaps not an obvious choice for Musashi, although it could be argued that it reflects a feeling of personal well-being and satisfaction with his position in the world. Indeed, at this stage, relatively late in his life, he was a guest of the powerful and cultured Hosokawa family in Kumamoto, far from the reverses he may have suffered in trying to establish himself in the capital. However, there is more to it than that.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Kyokushin Karate and Budo

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Martial Way, describing the Budo practice of Kyokushin Karate. The full post may be read here.

As we sit and regain our composure on the mats, Sensei talks talks about the importance of the right mindset. He poses the question, what is Karate? What is the difference between karate and sport? While closely related, obviously, due to the physical conditioning aspects, what differentiates Kyokushin Karate from sport, he tells us, is the aspect of Budō.

Budō literally translated is “Way of War” or The Marital Way. Budō is a compound of the root bu (), meaning war or martial; and (), meaning path or way. It’s in essence the modern rendition of Bushido (武士道); literally “the way of the warrior”.

Bushido was a way of life for the Samurai (warrior class of feudal Japan). This included a code of ethics and disciplines that shaped the way a Samurai should live. Though there are no more samurai, the ethics and standards still live on in the teachings of various schools of martial arts. Budō is the discipline associated with martial arts that shape the way a true martial artist (Budō-ka; 武道家) should live. Budō refers to a way of life, led by those who practice martial arts.

This is extremely important for young students, as it is the building blocks of integrity, honesty, empathy, leadership, and responsibility. It naturally builds confidence in a young person.
Like honing a sword, we are honing our spirit along with our bodies. Sensei tells us that by respecting the Etiquette of the dojo we are furnishing the noble qualities of the soul, which distinguishes Kyokushin Karate from sport, and the budō-ka  from an an average athlete. It isn’t just about being able to do an exercise or to fight. It is about doing so with attention to detail. With respect not only given to your fellow martial artist, but to yourself and the environment around you. About striving to be the best you can be.
Though Kyokushin Karate may not be descended from Samurai, Karate is descended from nobility, of both Bushidō, and Budō.

According to the karate master Gogen Yamaguchi:

“Budō did not originate in a peaceful atmosphere.  It was necessary to protect one’s life at the time, and to learn how to use Budō as a weapon and achieve one’s responsibility as a warrior.  It was the warrior’s duty to develop spirit. … It was necessary to obtain a technique to protect oneself, and one had to have a strong spirit to correspond to that.  When one could overcome a conception of death, there was an improvement of a human being as a Samurai.  When it was developed, karate-do was used in place of weapons and studied that way, so that the spirit of the Samurai was needed at the beginning of its conception to learn karate.”


Sunday, April 25, 2021

Donn Draeger, the Pioneer

I've posted about Donn Draeger previously. Below is an excerpt from an article about this giant in bringing Asian martial arts to the west that appeared in Budo Japan. The full post may be read here.

It must have been around 1977. I was only ten years old and my fascination with Japan was already going strong, with all the strength a child of 10 can muster and I was always pressuring my father to buy me any books related to it and its culture (I didn’t call it “culture” back then –it was just “anything about Japan”). Knowing that I was enthralled by the stories of an old war buddy of his, a war correspondent in the Korean War and one of Greece’s judo pioneers regarding the martial arts, one day he brought me 3 slim tomes from a series titled “Practical Karate” filled with pictures of a middle-aged rather plump Japanese and a big, tall Westerner showing self-defense applications of karate techniques; the two men were the books’ authors and they were Masatoshi Nakayama and Donn Draeger. 

This was the first time I came across the name “Donn Draeger”; with time, I would see it again and again in English-language publications related to the martial arts of Japan. But it would take another 10 years until I discovered in a martial arts’ bookstore, the only one in Athens, the work that I later found out was considered by most his “magnum opus”: the trilogy Martial Arts And Ways Of Japan comprising of Classical Bujutsu, Classical Budo and Modern Bujutsu & Budo. Like most people outside Japan, this was my first exposure to a systematic chronicle about the martial arts ofJapan and their development from the times of the Hogen Monogatari and the Heike Monogatari to Shorinji Kempo, the most modern style recorded by the time the books were written (i.e. early 1970s). And like many people outside Japan, I was captivated.

As captivating as his subjects were, was Draeger himself: he wrote with an authority displaying a knowledge of his subject far deeper than that of most academic researchers –and if those pictures of the “Practical Karate” books were any proof, it looked as if he had done some training himself so I knew I had to find out more (remember, this was pre-Internet and I was living in Greece so I believe I’m allowed some ignorance). So I started searching in books’ databases and libraries and martial arts magazines and slowly and painfully an amazing story started unfolding: this man was so much involved in pretty much everything related to the martial arts –and not only of Japan, even though he seemed to have specialized in those- that it was impossible to have trained in all of them to the extent and depth his writings suggested.

With time I came to realize that he had. Although he never went for the spotlight, others wrote about him –among them his friend and collaborator Robert W. Smith (1926-2011) an ex-marine, ex-CIA employer posted in Taiwan in the early 1960s, a prolific writer in the subject of Chinese martial arts and one of Tai-Chi’s most strong supporters and evangelists in the eastern US. Despite being very emotional (not to mention loquacious) in his writing –they were close friends, after all- his account of Draeger as narrated in his 1999 martial arts autobiography Martial Musings gives a quite detailed sketch of the man and his numerous accomplishments. And when I say “numerous” it is not a figure of speech: if it wasn’t for many eminent martial arts’ teachers and practitioners, Westerners and Japanese corroborating the facts, it would be hard to believe that one man could have done so much in just 30 years.

Sometime along the way the Internet came and access to information became much easier; in the meantime I had also developed a personal network of people who had lived or were still living in Japan so I had the opportunity to ask more about this remarkable man, Donn F. Draeger (this was how he signed most of his work and this is how he is usually mentioned in writing). And more begat more and with time I came to realize that there was little exaggeration when it came to Draeger’s life in the martial arts: he had indeed been there and done that –whatever “that” was. Moreover, he had done it well enough and earnestly enough to earn the respect of pretty much anyone who met him. In a world as subject to pettiness and small-mindedness as any, I have yet to hear one bad word for Donn F. Draeger.

When I came to Japan I started looking for him; not the man himself of course since he had been dead for over 25 years but for his footprints in bookstores, libraries and dojo. And while in the beginning I was astounded by the fact that there weren’t any, with time I came to realize that it made sense: by all accounts, Draeger was a very private person and really devoted to his work researching the martial arts and his training. His closest collaborators in his martial arts’ research were also foreigners who with time (before or after his death in 1982) had returned to their countries and even though most of them made sure to keep his memory alive in stories told to their students or in publications, online or paper (like Smith’s) he didn’t leave any students in Japan while the organization formed to function as a focal point for his research, the International Hoplology Society, was also based in the US.

So apparently little has been left of him in Japan, the country that was his home for half his life and to whose martial traditions he had dedicated his life. There are memories of him still surviving in the minds of some of the (now elderly) Japanese budoka who met him and trained with him in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s but not a record of his actual trip. This article as well as the one that will follow in a future issue is an attempt to collect some of these memories and introduce to a younger generation of Japanese this really important man.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Six Levels of Song

"Song," or relaxation (more or less) is an important concept in Taijiquan. Below is an excerpt from a post by Adam Mizner which appeared at his blog on DiscoverTaiji. The full post may be read here.

Within the traditional teachings of the Yang family, Song is divided into 6 levels. Each level dependent on the one before it and inclusive of all before it.
It’s important to understand that Song is always release, and that the six grades of Song are refinements on this one principle, much like milk becoming cream, becoming butter and so on.

松開 Song Kai – Open

When the body is closed, bound up and filled with Li, Song is not possible. In order to achieve the first level of Song, it is first vital to open the body.

Traditional training in Taijiquan involves various exercises designed to stretch, separate and liberate the tissues of the body. This openness of the tissue within the body, allows one to begin to touch the first quality of Song, namely openness. So the opening of the body allows one to taste Song, after which, Song, or release of the tissue allows the body to open. So we open to Song, and we also Song to open.

When one observes the Da Lu, performed by a competent practitioner, it is clear that all the joints of the body are open and not compressed. The tissue is released and free.

This initial stage of Song, Song to open, begins the process of allowing the Qi to move within the body, where it previously could not because of tension and blocks that needed to be opened. This is traditionally called Kai Men, or Open the Gates, referring to the energy gates within the body. When these gates are open, it allows the mobilization of Qi and Jin to travel, unifying the body from toes to fingertips.

While external methods may use contraction force, and the closing of the muscles around the bones to generate power, this is strictly taboo in Taijiquan, for it restricts Song and the one flow of Qi.

松沉 Song Chen – Sink

The second level of Song is Song to Sink. At this stage we must understand that Song and Qi move together. When we begin the training, all the joints, tissues and diaphragms of the body, act as gates or dams which are tightly closed. The first level of Song, Song to Open, opens these gates, or destroys these dams. This allows our body to function as an open conduit.

Openness allows sinking, we Song to sink the Qi. The sinking of the Qi to the Dan Tien is of paramount importance. When there is no Qi in the Dan Tien, this is considered having no Qi from the Taijiquan point of view. In fact, the Dan Tien is widely misunderstood as simply a region of the body, or something that is innate. We are born only with the Tien, or the field, but it is empty of Qi, it is empty of Dan, or the Elixir. Only after extended periods of authentic practice, with a well developed quality of Song to Sink, does the Qi begin to sink to the Tien, accumulating drop by drop over time, to form the elixir, and thus one has formed the Dan Tien.

When engaging with an opponent or training partner, any resistance within our body creates bracing, which is a quality of Li. This brings your force and center up, away from the ground, causing the Qi to float. When the Qi is floating, one becomes top heavy, clumsy and easy to tumble. Song to Sink is the antidote.

Mental activity and emotional turbulence also cause the Qi to rise. In order to achieve Song and for the Qi to sink, one must develop a calm and tranquil mind, as well as emotional stability. This calm and stable mind can then be used as a powerful tool, because the calm mind has Yi, or mind intention, at its service. The Yi is used to command Song, while the Ting is used to recognize Song to Open and Song to Sink.

In the Neijia arts, one of the most important practices is Zhang Zhuan, or Standing post. The purpose of Zhang Zhuan is twofold. The first aspect is aligning the skeleton with gravity. 

This alignment, which includes the quality of Song to Open, decompressing the joints, allows the skeleton to act as efficiently as possible, allowing the flesh to release and sink. 

The second aspect is Song to Sink. Once the skeleton is aligned and open, the sinking process can begin. Without the openness of the body, sinking is not possible - the internal dams caused by tension (contraction) and blockage, stop the downwards flow of Qi. Standing practice in this way is an excellent method for developing the initial stages of Song to Sink, and sinking the Qi to the Dan Tien.

Monday, April 19, 2021

The 48 Laws of Power, #36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have

One of my favorite books on strategy is The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene and Joost Elffers.  Where The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is written as an overview of the whole topic of strategy, seeking to provide an overall understanding of the subject; and The 36 Strategies tries to impart the knack of strategic thinking through 36 maxims related to well known Chinese folk stories, Mr. Greene focuses on how we influence and manipulate one another, ie "power".

Mr. Greene draws from both Eastern and Western history and literature as his source material. Sun Tzu and Machiavelli as cited as much as wonderful stories of famous con men. 

Each of the 48 Laws carries many examples, along with counter examples where it is appropriate that they be noted, and even reversals.

It is a very thorough study of the subject and the hardback version is beautifully produced.

One of the things I admire about Greene is that he not only studied strategy, he applied what he learned to his own situation and prospered.

Today we have #36: Disdain Things You Cannot Have.

Here is a bit of Stocism.

Remember: You choose to let things bother you. You can just as easily choose not to notice the irritating offender, to consider the matter trivial and unworthy of your interest. That is the powerful move.

Desire often creates paradoxical effects: The more you want something, the more you chase after it, the more it eludes you. The more interest you show, the more you repel the object of your desire. This is because your interest is too strong— it makes people awkward, even fearful. Uncontrollable desire makes you seem weak, unworthy, pathetic.