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, October 29, 2008

Dao De Jing #28: Becoming

The Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) is one of the world's literary treasures. It's also one of the foundational texts of the philosophy of Daoism (Taosim). If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to an online version. In the meantime, here is Chapter 28, Becoming.

28. Becoming

Using the male, being female,
Being the entrance of the world,
You embrace harmony
And become as a newborn.

Using strength, being weak,
Being the root of the world,
You complete harmony
And become as unshaped wood.

Using the light, being dark,
Being the world,
You perfect harmony
And return to the Way.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

American Buddhism

A friend sent me an article from the New York times about Buddhism in San Francisco. It's very nice article and I've placed an excerpt below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article. There's a nice slide show that goes with it that you don't want to miss.

In Buddha’s Path on the Streets of San Francisco

A BLOCK off Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s Chinatown — beyond the well-worn path tourists take past souvenir shops, restaurants and a dive saloon called the Buddha Bar — begins a historical tour of a more spiritual nature.

Duck into a nondescript doorway at 125 Waverly Place, ascend five narrow flights and step into the first and oldest Buddhist temple in the United States.

At the Tien Hau Temple, before an intricately carved gilded wooden shrine and ornate Buddha statues, under dozens of paper lanterns, Buddhists in the Chinese tradition still burn pungent incense and leave offerings to the goddess Tien Hau in return for the promise of happiness and a long life.

Established in 1852 by Chinese immigrants who came to California during the Gold Rush and named for a 10th-century provincial woman who protected people at sea, the original temple burned down in the fire set off by the 1906 earthquake but eventually found its new home in this three-block-long alley.

Over the next 150 years, San Francisco would continue to water those early seeds of Buddhism planted in America, as geography, social history and waves of immigrants made it fertile ground for a once esoteric tradition now grown so popular that the Dalai Lama regularly fills football stadiums.

“Since the 1800s, San Francisco was the most important gateway for people coming from the Pacific Rim,” said Charlie Chin, artist in residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco, who also leads tours and gives lectures. “They weren’t proselytizing Buddhism, but they brought it here with their other cultural beliefs and practices.”

Today, a spiritual tourist, whether Buddhist or not, can find inspiration if not enlightenment following in the footsteps of American Buddhism on a pilgrimage throughout the Greater Bay Area.

The Buddhism the Chinese brought was a spiritual mix of traditional folk beliefs, Taoism, Confucianism and Chan, the antecedent of Japanese Zen. Though there are differences, central to both Chan and Zen is meditation, or zazen in Japanese, as well as the Buddha’s basic lessons of compassion, impermanence and awareness of the present moment.

Japanese immigrants arrived in San Francisco in the late 19th century as agricultural laborers, bringing Zen and its variations. In 1898, they founded the Buddhist Church of San Francisco in the downtown district. Based on a sect of Buddhism called Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land), America’s first Japanese Buddhist temple also burned down in 1906 but was re-established in 1913 at 1881 Pine Street, not far from the current Japantown.

Now part of the Buddhist Churches of America, whose national headquarters are nearby at 1710 Octavia Street, the San Francisco center has pews in its worship hall that make it look like a Christian church or Jewish synagogue — that is, until you catch sight of the elaborate altar with a golden statue of the Buddha in the center. On the roof of the church is one of the most sacred Buddhist monuments in San Francisco. Housed in a domed tower (stupa in Sanskrit) that is topped by a spiral that looks like a braided hair knot is a small box containing what are said to be a bit of the Buddha’s ashen bone relics, a gift sent in 1935 by the ruler of Siam. Visitors may ask to view the box.

It was not until the 1950s that interest in Buddhism grew with the next wave that migrated to San Francisco. Though these immigrants were not Asian, they did settle in downtown at the edge of Chinatown, where an intrepid pilgrim can continue to follow their footsteps.

In fact, starting in the mid-50s and continuing into the 1960s, a series of events and trends turned San Francisco into a hothouse for new varieties and strains of American Buddhism.

As unlikely as it sounds, it started at a cluttered little independent bookshop that itself seems like a throwback to another era.

At the busy intersection of Columbus Avenue and Broadway, which separates Chinatown from the bohemian-style cafes, neon-lit Italian restaurants and the block-long red-light district of North Beach, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped found the City Lights Bookstore in 1953 as the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country. Across from where entertainers like Lenny Bruce worked out new material at the Hungry i (now a topless club) and the Purple Onion (still showcasing comedy), Mr. Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” in 1956. City Lights became an unofficial headquarters of the Beat literary movement, the hangout of Mr. Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and many other authors who were reading, practicing and writing about Buddhism.

“I made a beeline to City Lights as soon as I moved to San Francisco in the 1960s,” said Wes Nisker, a Bay Area FM radio commentator who now teaches and writes about Buddhism and performs the one-man musical “Big Bang, the Buddha and the Baby Boom.” “It was the epicenter for a radical new kind of Buddhism that was beginning to flower in America. As a budding Buddhist myself, I had to make it the first stop for my own personal pilgrimage.”

In 1959, Shunryu Suzuki, a Buddhist priest from Japan, came to San Francisco to teach Zen to ethnic Japanese in the city’s Western Addition and Japantown. But so many Westerners were attending his talks that three years later Suzuki-roshi (roshi means teacher) established a separate Zen center on Page Street, down the hill from Haight and Ashbury Streets, crossroads of another ’60s movement also in search of peace, love and happiness.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Forms Training in Martial Arts

Most traditional martial arts training methods are build around forms practice, or "kata;" prearranged sequences of movements.

Ellis Amdur, a well known martial arts writer attempts to explain the benefits of forms training with regards to a specific practice, called iai in Japanese, in an article of The Aikido Journal. I've excerpted some of the article below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the complete piece. Please pay a visit.

Solo Training - Why Iai?

by Ellis Amdur

Published Online

Some practitioners of modern martial arts deride kata training, claiming that an adherence to form is inherently weak. They claim that one trains stereotyped responses by rote and repetition, thereby rendering oneself unable to respond with freedom to an unpredictable, random attack. On the other hand, one’s freedom is limited by one’s neurological organization — stereotypical patterns of action and reaction entrained through another type of kata training — the repetitive, habitual patterns of movement one arrives at simply by living. Proper kata training is, in fact, a means of teaching one’s nervous system new patterns of response. Without sufficient repetition — ideally, mindful aware repetition - the nervous system will not develop new interconnections to coordinate new patterns of response. It is, paradoxically, through limitation and delineation, that one is able to approach freedom.

There is no doubt that kata are limiting in one sense, but concentration and limitation also cause the creation of skills that would otherwise never even develop. For example, the hook would probably never have occurred to anyone, had cross-hip throws, which were a devastating counter to crude roundhouse punches, not been eliminated from boxing. Similarly, an upright posture, which gave impetus to the development of the so many of the sophisticated throws of judo, far superior to the cruder throws of older jujutsu systems, was in part, a product of Kano Jigoro’s ideals for the moral/physical education of the sport’s practitioners.

In comparison to many other cultures’ fighting traditions, solo training is not emphasized in Japanese martial arts. Chinese martial arts are an exemplar of the latter. I’ve recently become passionately re-involved with xingyi, training about two hours a day minimum. Xingyi, which literally means “form directed by the will” is, very definitely, a neurological retraining system. The most important method of practice of xingyi is solo practice. (It is true that, at higher levels, partner practice and later, sparring is considered essential, but even so, the solo form is considered the primary). I find that the incessant mindful repetition of the same movements has begun to change my “instinctive” response to unrehearsed or random opposition, i.e., sparring.

This then leads me to contemplate iai, that rather peculiar practice of isolating out a single aspect of sword play — unsheathing and resheathing the weapon, and making it either a specialized study within a ryu, or a complete study in-and-of itself. In the oldest ryu, iai was an auxiliary training method. But why was it even included in the curriculum? Many other sword-bearing cultures have never made such practice a part of their training.

Typically, iai is described as a training method to deal with surprise attack, night infiltration, or fighting in a crouch in low-ceiling rooms, etc. This is surely part of the truth, but iai served an even more important purpose. First of all, it’s a damn sight more interesting solo practice than suburi, both for its practical utility and complexity — thus, the solo practitioner had a means of maintaining interest in long periods of practice, as well as doing an activity more complex than suburi, and less contrived than practicing “one-half” of a kata against an imaginary opponent. Furthermore, it was the equivalent of a gun-safety course. There, in the preparation for the forms and the forms themselves, is the equivalent of gun cleaning, checking your load, weapon awareness and retention, etc. It was so essential that it was included in most early bujutsu, and in many systems, its absence was considered such a lack that it was later added.

Like many activities, its practice became its own reward, and iai eventually became iaido, a specialized training that, through its limitation, led to the same kind of advanced sophisticated techniques that similar limitation engendered in the aforementioned judo and boxing. It is true that such specialization only occurs in peacetime. Sophistication is a luxury. Some koryu scholars and practitioners deride more modern specialized disciplines as a manifestataion of degeneration. But how fortunate a society that has enough peacetime that its members can afford the time to create sports or disciplines of self-study out of purely pragmatic fighting methods.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Tender Years

Eddie and the Cruisers is one of my favorite movies. The movie represents one of those rare instances where a movie is better than the book that inspired it. No wonder. The story revolves around the music of the early days of rock and roll. It's tough for a book to capture that.

The sound track was created by John Cafferty. It's a classic. Enjoy.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

3 in the Morning, 4 in the Afternoon

Philosophy practiced is the goal of learning. - Thoreau


Three in the Morning, Four in the Afternoon

There was a man who liked monkeys. He had a lot of them in his house. He understood his monkeys and the monkeys understood him. It cost a lot of money to care for all these monkeys, but he was afraid to stop buying them food in case they get upset. So he tried to reason with his monkeys.

“I’ll give you three chestnuts in the morning and four in the afternoon,” he told them. But they didn’t like that.

“Then I’ll give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon.”

The monkeys were happy.

This morning, my wife had to leave the house early. A fine Saturday, I had planned to work on the landscaping, then watch football this afternoon, while helping my youngest daughter build a bridge out of toothpicks for her physics class.

She left me a note asking me to additionally clean the floor under the washer and dryer. This is the single chore around the house I dislike the most.

At first, I just didn't want to do it. I had already made my plans. I could clean the floor on Sunday. then I thought about it. What's really the difference. It has to be done.

I cleaned the floor, I got my yardwork done, I found I even had enough time take some stuff to the recycling center. I worked on the bridge and watched my football games, and my wife was happy.

Any conflict was all in my head. Am I any wiser than the monkeys in the Chinese story?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Japanese Gadgets

A friend sent me this article. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the original. The link also exists at the bottom.

Go quietly among the gadgets Graeme Philipson
September 30, 2008

Not only do the Japanese make the best unuseless objects, they know how to use them.
My travels draw me back to Japan. I've been coming here for more than 20 years, mostly for reasons related to the computer business, but this time I'm having a holiday.

The place never ceases to amaze. The Japanese like to think of themselves as unique. In many ways they are. Behind their polite exterior they have strong sense of racial superiority. Perhaps they are right. They do some things extremely well, and others not so.

Japanese politics is dysfunctional, the economy has had the problems for 10 years that the rest of us are having only now, and teenage suicide rates are abnormally high. The place is, on many levels, seriously weird.

But they have the world's best train system and they make the world's most reliable cars. They have definitely the healthiest and probably the tastiest cuisine, and they certainly make the sharpest knives.

But the thing they do best of all is gadgets.

I have in my possession back in Australia an amusing little book called 101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions by Kenji Kawakami. (I also have its sequel 99 Unuseless Japanese Inventions).
This is one of the funniest books I have ever seen. It is devoted to "chindogu", which roughly translates as "the art of the unuseless idea".

The products it describes are hilarious. A T-shirt with a grid pattern printed on the back so you can easily tell someone exactly where to scratch your back. Slippers for cats so they can polish your floor as they walk around. Umbrellas for your feet. Spectacles with wide-angle lenses so your apartment looks bigger.

You get the idea. Just because the are "unuseless" doesn't make them "useful".

Recently, I took a stroll around Akihabara, the "electric town" suburb a few subways stops north-east of downtown Tokyo. "Gadget town" would be more appropriate - if you or your teenage children can't find something totally bizarre and "unuseless" in this place, you're simply not trying.

The miniaturisation of electronics, and their vastly reduced price, has been a boon to the Japanese gadget industry. Now virtually anything is possible - limited only by the imagination, as they say.

Let's start with the range of things you can plug into your computer USB port. Most them aren't particularly electronic - they just use the USB as a power source - but it is the sheer diversity that astounds.

My favourite is the USB Humping Dog, a small plastic canine that tries to have its way with the side of your computer. Those with more sensitive tastes might prefer the USB Stretching Dog, which merely does sit-ups.

Or you might fancy a USB shirt cooler. Or USB barbecue. Or the USB Hamster Wheel, which is "an utter delight. Plug it into your USB port, load the software from the CD provided and get typing. As you type, the hamster gets running, spinning the hamster wheel around in the process - the faster you type, the faster he runs."

What fun!

What is it with Japanese and their gadgets? When I first visited in the early 1980s, a western friend who lived there told me that our Nipponese cousins like their gadgets because most of them live such cramped lives, in cramped apartments in vast cities.

At the same time, she said, they had large disposable incomes. They had to spend their money on something, and those things had to be small, because of their constricted living conditions, hence the gadget craze.

I'm sure that's partly true, but I think there's more to it.

This is a country where toilets can resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, where cab doors spring open to meet you, and where the cities resemble something out of Blade Runner. It's not just personal space - Japanese are simply technophiles.

Mobile phones are, as you might expect, ubiquitous.

But you never see people using them on trains, except to play games or send or receive text messages. They are only rarely used while walking on the street, and never in restaurants. Receive a call in an eating establishment, and you run outside in great embarrassment. Rude, you know.

The Japanese combine a mania for technology with a respect for the primacy of other people's space. We could learn a lot from this in the digital millennium.

I once asked a fellow westerner why he chose to live in Japan. "I like it because it's quiet," he told me. "Quiet?" I said, motioning my hands at the cacophony that is Tokyo.

"I don't mean physically quiet," he told me. "I mean spiritually quiet. You can live your own life in Japan and nobody gets in your way."

I often think of his comments when I am in this wonderful country. I thought of them as I walked the chaotic streets of Akihabara.

Japanese embrace technology for its own sake, even if it is "unuseless". But they do not let it rule their lives, nor do they let it get in the way of their innate respect for their fellow man.

Technology and good manners can co-exist. I wish a few mobile phone users in the western world would get the message.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Donn Draeger

Below are excerpts from an article in Black Belt magazine on the late Donn F. Draeger, who was a legendary American martial artist. He was an early pioneer. His three volume "Martial Arts and Ways of Japan" remains a classic. You can read the entire article by clicking on the title of this post.

Donn F. Drager: The Life and Times of an American Martial Arts Pioneer by Paul Nurse

Almost 25 years ago, the martial arts world lost one of its most dynamic and charismatic figures. On October 20, 1982, Donn F. Draeger, USMC (retired), budo kyoshi (full professor of Japanese martial arts and ways) and ranked martial artist in perhaps a dozen combative systems, passed away from cancer at age 60 in his home state of Wisconsin.

Draeger is remembered today chiefly as the author of more than 30 books and numerous articles about the Asian martial arts, as well as for being one of the best-qualified and most experienced Western exponents of the combative arts. The oft-repeated legend that he either had or possessed the equivalent of some 100 black-belt ranks is perhaps apocryphal, but he no doubt was among the most accomplished martial artists of his generation, perhaps of all time. He held a sixth-degree black belt in judo; a seventh degree in jojutsu (Japanese stick fighting), kendo and iaido; and a menkyo license in the tenshin shoden katori shinto-ryu of bujutsu.

During the Great Depression, the 15-year-old Draeger joined the U.S. Marine Corps, continuing his education—and eventually earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering—so he could become a career officer. He saw combat in the Pacific and Korean Wars and served for a time in Manchuria. He was also in the Shanghai area of China, although his mission there is unclear. From a mention in C.W. Nicol’s classic 1975 memoir Moving Zen, it seems a virtual certainty that Draeger was on Iwo Jima during the celebrated February-March 1945 battle that saw almost 26,000 American casualties and more than 22,000 Japanese killed.

After the war, as a young Marine lieutenant and judo black belt, Draeger made his first visit to Japan as part of the occupation forces. Although most Japanese martial arts were proscribed in the immediate postwar period, he sought out highly regarded exponents such as the legendary judoka Kimura Masahiko, with whom he hoped to train. Years later, he studied directly under Mifune Kyuzo, Sato Shizuya and Ito Kazuo (becoming the uke in the illustrations for Ito’s famous English-language book, This Is Judo).

His judo background also led to his being on the official military board of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers in Japan, where he helped decide the status and political responsibility of the various Japanese martial systems. Most of the arts that were demonstrated were banned for having been associated with militarism, although karate-do, curiously, seems to have been exempt.

An anecdote tells that while a member of this board, Draeger watched as karateka under Gichin Funakoshi demonstrated their kata at a deliberately slow pace to make it seem like a form of exercise along the lines of Chinese tai chi chuan. As the only member of the board who understood karate-do’s true nature and intent, Draeger later claimed he allowed it to pass without the other board members’ knowledge.

During his own early years on the Japanese islands, Draeger began training in the classical martial arts and was permitted to join the Kobudo Shinko Kai, the Classical Martial Arts Preservation Society, a research organization in which he was the sole international component. Believing the society’s focus too narrow, however, he eventually broke away to form what became known as the International Hoplology Research Center, now the International Hoplology Society.

A yondan in judo by the time he arrived in Japan, Draeger spent his years in the Pacific Rim living a life that would later read like an entry in a who’s who of martial arts accomplishments. Delving more deeply into the Japanese combative ethos than any Westerner before or since, he became the first non-Japanese judo instructor at the Kodokan Judo Institute (Foreigners Section); the first non-Japanese to demonstrate kata at the All-Japan Judo Championships and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; the first non-Japanese to compete in the All-Japan High-Dan-Holders Judo Tournament; and one of the first non-Japanese—and definitely the first Caucasian—allowed to enter the koryu. He also became the first foreigner permitted to compete in Japanese jukendo (mock bayonet) tournaments, eventually winning so many events that he was no longer allowed in.

But Draeger was more than a highly trained and skilled martial artist. As an author and researcher with several dozen books to his credit, he crafted works that are considered the most reliable and often the only texts on Asian combative systems in foreign languages. His most famous books are Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts (co-authored with friend and colleague Robert W. Smith) and his celebrated three-volume Martial Arts and Ways of Japan (a series composed of Classical Bujutsu, Classical Budo, and Modern Bujutsu and Budo). At different times, Draeger also served as a contributing editor for Judo Illustrated, published several issues of a journal called Martial Arts International and established Hoplos, the official organ of the International Hoplology Research Center.

While in Japan, Draeger made ends meet by living on his military pension, teaching English conversation, instructing at the Kodokan and occasionally serving as an extra, stuntman or stunt coordinator for Japanese and foreign films. While his most famous “role” was as Sean Connery’s stunt double in the James Bond opus You Only Live Twice (1967), he also took some falls for John Wayne during the comic jujutsu scene in John Huston’s Barbarian and the Geisha (1958).

While trying to establish hoplology as a recognized academic discipline, Draeger taught as a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland and the University of Hawaii. He also spent approximately four months a year on field trips in Asia teaching, visiting schools and studying combative methods, which he subsequently analyzed, recorded and sometimes published.

During the last of those journeys in 1979, misfortune struck Draeger and his team on the island of Sumatra. Visiting the Atjeh tribe, it appears that the entire group was somehow poisoned—perhaps deliberately—and as a result developed severe amebic dysentery requiring hospitalization. Although he recovered from the illness, Draeger began losing weight and grew increasingly weak. His legs swelled, causing great pain, and he found it difficult to walk or stand for very long. Serious training became difficult, then impossible.

After repeated visits to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, it was discovered that Draeger had cancer of the liver. Returning to his home state to die, he stayed first with his half brother before moving into a veteran’s hospital. It was there, on October 20, 1982, exactly 92 years after his hero, Sir Richard F. Burton, died, that Donn F. Draeger passed away from metastasized carcinoma. He was buried at Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee, a 50-acre final home to more than 37,000 American veterans. Draeger’s grave lies in Section 4, Site 377.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


A friend of mine sent me some Emerson quotes recently. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of America's great philosophers. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the Wikipedia entry for him.

While R.W. Emerson was truly a great, great thinker; I still prefer Thoreau, his friend. I just think Thoreau walked the talk a little better. The picture is a replica of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond. At any rate, below are the quotes. Enjoy.

"It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."

"What your heart thinks is great, is great. The soul's emphasis is always right."

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

"If well used, books are the best of all things; if abused, among the worst."

"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well."

Insist on yourself; never imitate...Every great man is unique.

"Men are what their mothers made them."

"A man is a god in ruins."

"In skating over thin ice, our safety is in our speed."

"Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect."

"Insist on yourself; never imitate... Every great man is unique. "