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, November 30, 2011

The Red Leaves Cut

How could we possibly think of heading into winter without considering not only the fading beauty of autumn, but also Japanese Swordsmanship?

Below is an excerpt from the Ichijoji blog. The full post is at Autumn Leaves and Their Symbolism. Please pay a visit.

Momiji Uchi - The red leaves cut
Those interested in swordsmanship will probably be aware of its use in Miyamoto Musashi's Gorin no Sho - in the Water chapter is a section describing the Red Leaves Cut. As noted by Victor Harris in his translation, "Presumably Musashi is alluding here to falling, dying leaves." As the technique refers to knocking down the enemy's sword, knocking it out of his hands in fact, this seems very likely.

It seems that Musashi was not the only person to use this term to denote a technique. According to the respected researcher and historian Watatani Kiyoshi, it was used in the Kyo-hachi-ryu... a term that is generally thought to refer to the 8 principle schools taught in the Kyoto area during the Muromachi period, and probably including the Yoshioka school, which, as we know, Musashi and his father both had dealings with. In fact, Watatani identifies it as being specific to the Kyoto area - as Musashi spent some time in the city, this makes it quite likely that he adopted a term already in use.

This is fairly common practice - many schools share terms for similar and sometimes quite different techniques. Some of these clearly share a common origin, while in others, the connection is not so clear.

However, the common name suggests the possibility that the name itself shared a common referent, and possibly included an additional layer of symbolism.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Comparison of the Cultural Differences in Japanese and Chinese Martial Arts

Bernard Kwan is the proprietor of the excellent blog, Be Not Defeated by the Rain. Mr. Kwan is in a unique position to comment on the cultural similarities and differences in Japanese and Chinese martial arts. 

He is Chinese, lives in Hong Kong and not only studies a traditional Chinese martial art, but Japanese martial arts as well. 

He was kind enough to provide this guest post. Please pay his blog, Be Not Defeated by the Rain , a visit.

I have been practicing martial arts since 1999, and came rather late into the game so to speak (in my mid 20s), as my parents did not want me to learn martial arts when I was young in case I accidentally killed my brother as we fought a lot. My first experience was learning Aikido in Philadelphia under Henry Smith, 7th dan Aikikai as well as some Yagyu Shin Kage Ryu under Paul Manogue Sensei who taught on the weekends in the Aikido studio. After leaving the US, I spent a lot of time practicing yoga under various "famous" teachers, and also studied Yang Taiji under Chen Han Bing (a wushu instructor in Taiwan), Chen Taiji under KK Chan (a disciple of Zhu Tian Cai) and finally settling on studying Baguazhang and Yiquan under CS Tang in Hong Kong and became a formal disciple earlier this year. I also resumed my Aikido studies under Hitoshi Nagai, 4th Dan, a deshi of Endo Seishiro, 8th Dan.

I was recently asked by Rick Matz of Cook Ding's Kitchen as to what I felt were the differences between Chinese and Japanese Budo and I wrote a couple of posts regarding similarities, in terms of the ideal of the scholar warrior and a code of ethics, but I believe there are several key differences.

1) The Individual versus the Collective

Although China has been unified for most of its history, there have been long periods of time when the country has been separated into different states. There are many regional differences, and even now there are conflicts between Shanghai and Beijing in the Chinese government. Due to the huge expanse of space, many regions were loosely administered from the center, especially towards the end of each dynasty, as corruption increased and areas descended into warlordism. Hence there was a lot of freedom for the development of the individual to take matters into his own hands, rather than rely on the state as the "Emperor was far away". Indeed in martial arts novels, many of the martial artists are inhabitants of Jiang Hu, living by their own code of justice, righting wrongs perpetrated by corrupt officials. Martial artists were often viewed with suspicion by the state, and martial arts suppressed during many periods in history, and many martial arts schools along with religious cults were hotbeds of revolutionary activity plotting to overthrow the government.

This can be contrasted against the long rule of the Tokugawa state, which has been described as the longest lasting totalitarian state in history. The daimyos were closely monitored and bankrupted by having to spend a great deal of time in the capital away from their domains. Travel and thought were closely monitored and restricted and the country was effectively closed from the outside world. An ideology of loyalty was instilled in the population and the group was promoted over the individual and social mores were rigidly enforced within each community. Hence when you read texts like the Hagakure absolute loyalty was paramount and even minor transgressions could lead to a show of contrition through seppuku. The Samurai were bound to the state by awarding them status and privileges, such as their own names and ability to carry swords and kill with impunity. Although Ronin (masterless Samurai) existed they were seen as beyond the pale and not ideals to be emulated. Miyamoto Mushashi is perhaps the exception that proves the rule.

2) Taoism versus Buddhism

D.T. Suzuki has written much on the role of Zen Buddhism in Japanese culture and indeed the role of Zen is pervades many of the Japanese arts such as tea ceremony, flower arranging, etc. Its spartan ascetic, its meditative discipline and attitude towards impermanence and death has informed the Samurai culture and is captured in many books such as Takuan Soho's "The Unfettered Mind". The role of Esoteric Buddhism is also important, if less widely known as Samurai would ask certain Gods to protect them in battle and may also have inscribed talismans and chanted mantras for protection. Ever since Buddhism came to Japan in the 800s it has remained a national religion alongside Shintoism.

In China, the role of Buddhism declined after the Tang dynasty and never regained its prominence as a national religion. Although the Zen schools originated and flourished in China during the Sung dynasty, they also went into almost terminal decline. While Shaolin is a Buddhist based martial art it has been Taoism that has been the more influential philosophy behind martial arts, especially in the internal arts. Aphorisms such as being like water, or the hard overcoming the soft, or Wu wei all stem from Taoism. Indeed in Chinese culture bagua, taiji and the five elements are pervasive through the Chinese arts such as music, medicine, feng shui, chess,, statecraft and the art of war.

3) Importance of Lineage

In the Japanese Koryu a great deal of effort is placed in preserving the art exactly as was handed down by the previous generation without any scope for substantive innovation. This is the same for many traditional Japanese handicrafts such as pottery, or sword making. In this respect the Soke or headmaster of the school is the ultimate authority on orthodoxy and the student is to defer to Sensei is all respects. Before the second world war there was still sufficient scope to be somewhat innovative as a menkyo kaiden or license to teach could be obtained after 3-6 years of diligent practice. Post war, it may take 10 or more years to obtain such a license and it may only be awarded to one or two individuals each generation making it difficult to have the authority to innovate within a school. Even in Aikido, the third Doshu is trying his best to standardize Aikido teaching at Hombu so most of the newer Shihan look the same.

In China, due to the cultural revolution the relationship between the teacher and student has become less rigid with the decline of traditional mores and broken lines, and lineage has also become a trickier subject due to the Chinese diaspora into Hong Kong and Taiwan. But even in the past, the evolution of Taiji into different schools has shown that there is room to evolve and change. In a more modern school like Yiquan, the marked difference in the styles of the various students of the founder attest to a much looser mechanism for enforcing conformity and as long as the basic principles are adhered to there is a great deal of room for innovation and change.
4) Gaman versus Heart Method

There is a emphasis and glorification within the Japanese character of the ability to "endure". Thus it is not uncommon for a student of Japanese Budo to repeat a basic exercise without question until the Sensei tells him to stop. This relentless focus on the fundamentals shows in the craftmanship of their products and also the basic skills of the Japanese players in sports where they excel, such as baseball and the the recent win by their football team in the Women's World Cup.

For Chinese students there is a corollary in that one should "eat bitter" in order to master an art. But for ever student that eats bitter, there are 10 students who would rather find out the "heart method" or short cut. Hence the glorification of stealing the martial arts manuals in wushu literature and killing your Sifu to learn his secrets.

5) Personal Experiences
In my personal experience with a Chinese and Japanese Sensei, my relationship with Chinese Sifu is more like a father and son, where I can question and challenge, but I defer to his authority and he encourages me to explore and innovate. My Japanese Sensei, will allow me some room to explore, but he brooks no argument in matters of authority and his word is the final word. He often emphasizes that the Dojo is not a sports club. I understand that not all teachers are like that and some Chinese are authority figures akin to Japanese. But on the flip side the Japanese dojo is a collective endeavor where there is a hierarchy but yet people are encouraged to progress together and to socialize together, whereas the Chinese way is a more lonely endeavor where we come together to train, but progress at our own pace and different students are taught different things according to their strengths and interests.

These are by necessity broad brush strokes but would be interested to see if other people share the same thoughts as me.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Giving Thanks for Your Training

The excerpt below is from a post at The Classical Budoka. The full post may be read here.

So the tagai no rei is done throughout a class. It hopefully develops proper respect for each other. You want to train hard, but you want to train with people who respect you enough that they won’t deliberately try to maim or hurt you because they have no regard for you as a human being. They respect you, and you should respect them. Budo is dangerous enough as a physical training system without having to deal with a psychopath as your partner. The tagai no rei ritualizes that respect. For some people, that ritualization may not mean all that much. They may still look at you as merely a punching bag at their disposal, but at least the form of respect tries to embody respect. It’s better than showing no respect at all. And if you find such a fellow student, just avoid the jerk.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Practice Slow?

Below is an excerpt from an article which was posted at The Better Movement blog. The full article may be read here.

Why Slow Movement Builds Coordination

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about the benefits of moving slowly for improving coordination. Of course, my two favorite movement practices, the Feldenkrais Method and Z-Health rely to a great extent on slow mindful movement as a primary means to develop coordination. Many people will look at very slow and gentle movements and think – how can these possibly do anything? Isn’t harder and faster better than slower and softer? This post is an answer to that question.

There are several excellent reasons to use slow and gentle movement as a means to develop coordination. Probably the most interesting reason (I’ll start with that one) is based on an obscure principle called the Weber Fechner rule. The Weber Fechner rule describes the relationship between the magnitude of a particular stimulus and the brain’s ability to sense differences in the amount of the stimulus. The basic rule is that as you increase the stimulus, the ability to tell a difference in the amount of the stimulus decreases. This is a very common sense idea. Imagine you are in a dark room with only one candle lit. It will be very easy to sense the difference when one additional candle is lit. But if you are in a room with two hundred candles, you will have no idea when an extra candle comes on.
This rule works for all varieties of sensory perception, including sensations of muscular effort. So, imagine you are holding a one pound potato in your hand while blindfolded. If a fly landed on the weight you would not know the difference, but if a little bird landed you would know. Now imagine holding a fifty pound potato. You wouldn’t be able to feel the little bird landing. It would have to be an eagle. The point is that when you increase the weight from one pound to fifty pounds, you become about fifty times less sensitive to changes in the amount of muscular force you are using to lift the weight.

Why do we care? Because if you want to make your movement more efficient, you have to be aware of when you are working too hard. If you slow down and thereby increase your ability to sense differences in muscular effort level, you increase the brain’s ability to sense and correct any potential excess and unnecessary effort. Imagine that every time you try to extend the hip, you are at the same time slightly contracting the hip flexors instead of relaxing them. This means that your muscles are cross-motivated – the flexors are fighting the extensors a little in their effort to extend the leg, making them work harder. You will be much better able to sense and inhibit this inefficient co-contraction by moving very slowly and easily. By contrast, if you move fast and hard, you will never be able to sense and correct the problem.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Daoist Piano Mover

Have you ever moved a piano? They are heavy and awkward. There's nothing good about moving pianos.

Mr. Gong was a piano mover. His method of moving pianos exemplified the principle of wu-wei. Zhuang Zi would have appreciated the way he went about this business.

Perhaps the world's premier piano mover has passed away. Below is an excerpt from an article about him. The full article may be read here. Below that is a video about him and below that is another video about moving pianos that you might enjoy.

Edward Gong, who moved 7,000 pianos, dies

Sunday, November 6, 2011
Legendary for his moving piano technique, Edward Gong of Berkeley was admired not for how he interpreted Mozart or played a concerto, but for how he moved pianos. Literally.

He did it single-handedly, although he sometimes called upon his astonished clients to roll a dolly or grip a corner.

"Almost everyone I know in Berkeley has used him or knows about him," wrote "Rinky N." on Yelp's urban legends section. "Years ago he moved a roommate's piano using the three of us weaklings as pivot points. It's like watching Superman or an optical illusion!"

"It's physics," Mr. Gong, who had a degree in that subject from UC Berkeley, would explain.

Mr. Gong died at 85 at the Veterans Home of Yountville, where he'd gone to live last year. He moved pianos until age 80 - more than 7,000 of them over 45 years - said his niece Miko Lee.

"He was the epitome of the word eccentric," she said, fondly recalling the man with the "serious giggle" she called Unc.

On the Berkeley Parents Network site, "Nicole" wrote: "He arrives with a little pickup truck and an amazing stair contraption, and uses brains and leverage to move these amazingly heavy and awkward objects. He's goofy as heck, and he chats a mile a minute ... but always manages to get the piano where it needs to go."

His piano-moving outfit consisted of checkered polyester shorts, gum-sole shoes and the bulging muscles he'd hone for hours, bench-pressing at the gym. When not working, Mr. Gong favored bedroom slippers, once showing up in snowy Munich carrying luggage filled with books but no shoes besides the pantofles on his feet.

He had gone to Europe for the World's Fair because he adored fairs, often hanging out for hours to watch a calf being born. He also danced ballet, sang opera, played instruments and studied Mandarin and drawing, making up in enthusiasm what he lacked in skill, Lee said with a laugh.

And despite limited funds, Mr. Gong attended stellar performances - often inviting his young relatives - by serving as an usher at the ballet, opera and Cal Performances.

Born Aug. 9, 1926, Mr. Gong was one of 11 children whose parents ran a laundry in Madera. An Army private in World War II, he served as a medical aide and chauffeur at Presidio Hospital in San Francisco.

Mr. Gong joined his family in Berkeley in 1947, where they opened the Victory Market at 1443 San Pablo Ave. to pay tuition at Cal for Mr. Gong and his siblings. His brothers and sisters raised families, went into business or became professors, scientists or teachers.

Mr. Gong did his own version of those things, too.

In 1988, The Chronicle followed Mr. Gong, then 62, as he maneuvered - in five minutes - a 400-pound upright piano from the rear room of a house into his pickup using a dolly, a wood box wrapped in an old rug, and an iron tube he'd laid across the truck bed.

For his second move, the story said Mr. Gong "stood on a stone step with 500 pounds of piano in his thick arms while three men half his age tried clumsily to wedge the dolly under the other end" as he schooled them in tilt and torque.

"He lived a remarkable life," said Harry Yoon, a Los Angeles film editor who shot an 11-minute short, "7,000 Pianos," about Mr. Gong at 75 in 2002.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Warrior Ethos: The Lord of Discipline

The excerpt below is from a post at Steven Pressfield's blog. Mr. Pressfield is the author of many great books, including one of my favorites, Gates of Fire. The full post may be read here.

One of his recent books is The Warrior Ethos

Chapter 26   The Lord of Discipline
In the Gita, the warrior Arjuna is commanded to slay the “foes” that constitute his own baser being.

That is, to eradicate those vices and inner demons that would sabotage his path to becoming his best and highest self.

How is Arjuna instructed to do this? By the practice of self-discipline. In other words, by the interior exercise of his exterior Warrior Ethos.

Arjuna’s divine instructor (one of whose titles in Sanskrit is “Lord of Discipline”) charges his disciple to:
Fix your mind upon its object.
Hold to this, unswerving,
Disowning fear and hope,
Advance only upon this goal.
Here is the Warrior Ethos directed inward, employing the same virtues used to overcome external enemies—courage, patience, will, selflessness, the capacity to endure adversity—but enlisting these qualities now in the cause of the inner struggle for integrity, maturity and the honorable life.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Hard and Soft in Karate

Today we have a guest article by Matt Apsokardu, from Ikigaiway. Please pay his blog a visit.

Karate’s Hard/Soft Way

I’ve noticed something as I’ve continued to research, study, and watch karate grow. In general, the art is becoming more and more rigid, snappy, and formulaic.

Attend any karate tournament and you’ll likely see deep stances accompanied by high kicks, lung punches, and extended kiai. Even among traditional circles the focus is often on body conditioning, toughness, and impact.

Interestingly, in its early years karate was intended to be a combination of both hard and soft methods. Indeed, one of karate’s branches (Goju Ryu) was originally named with such a concept in mind.

Consider some of the major influences on karate, most notably those from China. Chinese arts such as White Crane, Bagua, and Wushu utilize flowing motions. Those arts stress a relaxed body wherein impact comes from a whip-like motion as the body’s force comes together.

In the early days of Okinawa, many Chinese emissaries and merchants traveled and shared their experiences with the higher Okinawan classes. As such, we see serious influence on early karate from Chinese resources.

When one researches early karate texts and views some of the old practitioners the softness of their methods is unmistakable. However, due to a combination of social, military, and business agendas, the harder aspects of karate became favored and received overwhelming focus.

Once Japan caught wind of karate’s practice, it decided to try and integrate the art as part of their school system. Their agenda was to strengthen the youth of their nation as well as engender a sense of militarism, behavior, and nationalism early on.

America, which experienced karate mostly through military personnel in the early days, had a similar experience where tough soldiers saw and took the toughest aspects of what they perceived karate to be.

Back in the states, the most visually impressive and marketable parts of karate were those hard, board breaking, punches and kicks. It took little time for American artists with entrepreneurial spirit to bend what they saw into a salable product.

Now, with the improvement of communication and technology, it’s possible for more and more artists to see what else is out there, to view videos of the old masters, and interact with practitioners of older, non-marketed karate methods.

It’s my hope that the curtain of “hard only” on karate is slowly being lifted, and some of the more “soft” methods come back to help make more people’s karate complete once again.

Matthew Apsokardu is a practitioner of Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo. He is the author of IkigaiWay – Martial ArtsBlog.

Thursday, November 03, 2011


Below are excerpts from an article at The New York Times. The full article may be read here.

The Good Short Life


I HAVE wonderful friends. In this last year, one took me to Istanbul. One gave me a box of hand-crafted chocolates. Fifteen of them held two rousing, pre-posthumous wakes for me. Several wrote large checks. Two sent me a boxed set of all the Bach sacred cantatas. And one, from Texas, put a hand on my thinning shoulder, and appeared to study the ground where we were standing. He had flown in to see me.

“We need to go buy you a pistol, don’t we?” he asked quietly. He meant to shoot myself with.

“Yes, Sweet Thing,” I said, with a smile. “We do.”

I loved him for that.

I love them all. I am acutely lucky in my family and friends, and in my daughter, my work and my life. But I have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., more kindly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the great Yankee hitter and first baseman who was told he had it in 1939, accepted the verdict with such famous grace, and died less than two years later. He was almost 38.

I sometimes call it Lou, in his honor, and because the familiar feels less threatening. But it is not a kind disease. The nerves and muscles pulse and twitch, and progressively, they die. From the outside, it looks like the ripple of piano keys in the muscles under my skin. From the inside, it feels like anxious butterflies, trying to get out. It starts in the hands and feet and works its way up and in, or it begins in the muscles of the mouth and throat and chest and abdomen, and works its way down and out. The second way is called bulbar, and that’s the way it is with me. We don’t live as long, because it affects our ability to breathe early on, and it just gets worse.

At the moment, for 66, I look pretty good. I’ve lost 20 pounds. My face is thinner. I even get some “Hey, there, Big Boy,” looks, which I like. I think of it as my cosmetic phase. But it’s hard to smile, and chew. I’m short of breath. I choke a lot. I sound like a wheezy, lisping drunk. For a recovering alcoholic, it’s really annoying.

There is no meaningful treatment. No cure. There is one medication, Rilutek, which might make a few months’ difference. It retails for about $14,000 a year. That doesn’t seem worthwhile to me. If I let this run the whole course, with all the human, medical, technological and loving support I will start to need just months from now, it will leave me, in 5 or 8 or 12 or more years, a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self. Maintained by feeding and waste tubes, breathing and suctioning machines.
I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live. But we don’t talk about how to die. We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull. But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

And that’s the point. This is not about one particular disease or even about Death. It’s about Life, when you know there’s not much left. That is the weird blessing of Lou. There is no escape, and nothing much to do. It’s liberating.


Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, live, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.

The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.” That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with Whitney, kiss someone special, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.

It’s time to be gone.