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, January 31, 2018

Martial Arts Training in Winter

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

There are many attributes that make Cornell unique among America’s top universities. One could choose to focus on its philosophy of undergraduate education, beautiful setting or its long and pioneering history of Asian studies. All of that is true and good. The library’s collections are stunning. And yet the campus has a dark side.

The first hints suggest themselves shortly after halloween when small signs begin to appear on campus staircases and walkways warning unwary travelers that these paths will not be maintained during the winter. One undertakes the journey at your own risk. At first all of this seems like the ramblings of an over enthusiastic legal team. The staircases and walkways in question are not in some deserted corner of “the plantations.” These signs dot the campus’ main quads. They are referring to the areas that one will likely traverse.

By January the situation comes into an awful clarity. The signage is neither alarmist nor paranoid. The university (like everything else is Ithaca) is built on a hill, one that is now all the steeper for being covered with ice. Walking from the bus to the library can be enough to test anyone’s Kung Fu.

And then there is the snow. Having grown up near Buffalo NY I am used to major snow events. “Lake effect snow” is a part of my life. I cannot count the number of storms I have been in that have dumped three feet of snow in a couple of hours. While we tend not to get quite as much snow here in Central NY, an uncanny combination of typography, high winds and low temperatures combine to make winter driving in the area uniquely problematic. It certainly makes fieldwork seasonally challenging.

To sum the situation up, in Ithaca winter starts as a rumor, and quickly escalates to a nightmare.
All of this can be a challenge for martial artists. While there are many ways of classifying the traditional Chinese fighting styles (northern vs. southern, modernist vs traditional, internal vs. external, Han vs. minority, hard vs. soft….) I suspect that one of the most salient sociological divisions has largely been overlooked. That would be individuals who train in the park (or some other public outdoor space) vs. those who train primarily in an indoor studio.
Coming from a Wing Chun, background I was strictly a studio guy. When a reporter once asked me what sort of environment my martial art had been developed in, I surprised him by answering “warehouses” rather than Red Boats or mythical temples (the answer that he seemed to be fishing for). Nor is Wing Chun alone in this regard. Many southern Kung Fu systems tend to be practiced indoors.
Various explanations are given for this, ranging from the extreme secrecy of their transmission to the traditional lack of open green space in the region’s cities. It is sometimes hard to know what to make of the conflicting explanations. Villages in the countryside tended to have open air “boxing grounds,” but in urban environments the closed studio, or rented temple courtyard, became the norm.
If pushed I would say that this probably reflected the realities of urban architecture rather than any deep seated cultural preference for walls and a roof. Yet what begins as a matter of expediency often becomes “tradition” as we create stories to interpret our own experiences. Modern cities in Southern China (and South East Asia) now have parks and green spaces. But one is much more likely to find Taiji, Bagua, or Jingwu students within them than Wing Chun or Choy Li Fut classes. Even in America my Sifu always conducted his classes indoors, even though the back of our school opened out onto a usually empty park. (Pole training was one of the few times we headed outdoors to make use of this resource). Cultural practices within the martial arts are innovated and stabilized rather than always being a product of the distant past.
Moving back to New York state has forced me to think carefully about some of these issues. Doing more weapons work, and lacking a dedicated studio for daily practice, I have found myself migrating from the ranks of “studio dweller” to “park person.” One of the really nice things about Ithaca is that the region is covered in parks and green spaces. One is never without a place to jog or train.
The downside to that, however, is that today’s high temperature is expected to be 2 degrees (the low is -7) and all of those “green spaces” are white. So should I grab by boots, hat and dragon pole to head outside for some training?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Five Crosses of Kyudo

Below is an excerpt from a post at Green Leaves Forest. The full post may be read here.

For those that are looking for secret techniques, enjoy some time in the mist, and I bet you’ll find yourself right back to the beginning. But that’s great news, because you’ll find yourself at the greatest source of technique there is,

the basics.

The longer I practice kyudo, the more appreciation I have for those who came together to make the first edition of the Kyudo Manual (Kyohon). Those teachers managed to compile a few fundamental ideas to encompass so much of the art into one modestly sized volume. To do effectively just what is written in that single volume, is well more than enough to consider yourself a master, in my humble opinion. But then again, it is more than just a few fundamental ideas, I suppose. And nature of actually putting those fundamentals to basics to action is so difficult that numerous texts have been printed since to further elaborate, and high level teachers and practitioners alike still debate over what exactly is the proper application.

But anyway, let’s talk about a couple of these basics, and attempt to do so very basically.

What is important when doing kyudo? What are the most important fundamental basics?

Well, what we’re doing when we are shooting are the Hassetsu, eight phases of shooting. We learn to do these in order, and that’s not so hard.

We learn about taihai. Those are all the movements other than actually shooting, like walking, sitting, standing, which are more appropriately called the Kihontai, Fundamental Form, which is comprised of the Kihon-no-Shisei, Basic Postures, and Kihon-no-Dosa, Basic Movements. We first practice them though they may feel separate from shooting, but eventually we learn that doing proper taihai and shooting are the same thing. Or if that’s too difficult to see, then we can say getting better at taihai will help us better hit the target.

We learn about nobiai (expansion), and that in order to have nobiai, we must have tsumeai.

Ah-ha, now we’re getting closer: tsumeai is basically the correct application of tateyoko-jumonji (tateyoko-jumonji no kiku), the Vertical and Horizontal Crosses.

The first set we learn about is the Sanjuu-Jumonji (the Three Crosses) (the red lines shown in the picture above) which are made up of  (1) our center vertical line (imagine our spine extending to the center of the earth and to the highest point in space) and the horizontal line of our feet, (2) our center vertical line and the horizontal line of our hips, and then (3) our center vertical line and the horizontal line of our shoulders. I remember being tested on this for my shodan (1st) or nidan (2nd) test, which means you’re expected to know about it and be putting it into action at this level.

The idea is that if we protect the 90 degree angles of these three crosses throughout the entirety of our shooting, then we can have correct form, and thus be better able to shoot a straight arrow. Recently I thought a lot about this basic idea, and thought that if you just do this, then that should be enough. Well, you’re definitely on the right track if you can protect these three crosses … in fact, I don’t think I see all that many people putting it in action appropriately (I am suspect as well!), but there are still a lot of horrible ways to screw up your form even with good protection of these three crosses.

And that’s were the Gojuu-Jumonji (the Five Crosses) (the five small crosses in the picture above) come in, which are made up of (1) our center vertical line and the line of our shoulders, (2) the horizontal line of the arrow and the vertical line of our neck, (3) the vertical line of the bow and the horizontal line of the arrow, (4) the vertical line of the bow and the horizontal line of our tenouchi (left hand), and (5) the vertical line of the string and the horizontal line of the big thumb on our right hand that’s inside of the kake (glove). I remember being tested on this around yondan (4th) or godan (5th) test. These crosses are supposed to be made in the full draw, and of course used along with nobiai (expansion). This is what makes proper tsumeai.

To be honest, I remembered these 5 crosses because I had to, and have been conscious of them since, but have never realized how important they are until now.

Now I see,

that they are really fricken important.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ichi Go, Ichi E; One Encounter, One Chance in Budo

Eric Pearson, over at The Dragon's Orb has a very nice article on a saying that you'll encounter not only in Budo, but in other "ways" such as tea ceremony and calligraphy.

Ichi Go, Ichi E is a very important concept in Budo.

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

In classical Japan a unique blend of visual artistry, poetry, philosophy and asthetic emmerged. Perhaps one of the more influential of the cultural phenomena to develop was the tea ceremony. In Japanese, it is called chanoyu (茶の湯) or chado (茶道;also, especially at Zen temples, pronounced sadō?). Zen Buddhism was integral to the development of this cultural activity, and this Zen influence pervades many aspects of it.

Written on many calligraphy scrolls in dojos and tea rooms around the world is the phrase, ichi go ichi e, attributed to the tea master Sen no Rikyū.

Sen no Rikyū (千利休?, 1522 - April 21, 1591, also known simply as Sen Rikyū), is considered the historical figure with the most profound influence on chanoyu, the Japanese "Way of Tea".

Ichi-go ichi-e (一期一会) is a concept connected to the way of tea; it expresses the ideal of the way of tea. Roughly translated the phrase means...

"one time, one meeting," "one encounter; one opportunity," "for this time only," "never again," "one chance in a lifetime," or "Treat each meeting as a one time meeting."

This phrase to me speaks heavily of the Zen ideas of being present and mindful in your practice. It says to me to be in the moment, to focus on the now and to treat each moment of training with the preciousness it deserves.

Monday, January 22, 2018

One Armed Kendoka

My Japanese isn't good enough to really follow the narration of the following video, but you don't really need to understand the language to get the gist of the story. I find it quite inspirational.

If you liked this post, perhaps you'd like The Heart of a Lion as well.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The Tang Dynasty Poems, #66: Mountain Stones

The Tang Dynasty was a high point of culture in ancient China. Especially esteemed were poems. There was no home coming or leave taking; no event too small to not be commemorated with a poem.

Some of the best poems of that period have been collected into an anthology known as The 300 Tang Dynasty Poems. A online version of the anthology may be found here.Today we have #66: Mountain Stones.

Rough were the mountain-stones, and the path very narrow;
And when I reached the temple, bats were in the dusk.
I climbed to the hall, sat on the steps, and drank the rain- washed air
Among the round gardenia-pods and huge bananaleaves.
On the old wall, said the priest, were Buddhas finely painted,
And he brought a light and showed me, and I called them wonderful
He spread the bed, dusted the mats, and made my supper ready,
And, though the food was coarse, it satisfied my hunger.
At midnight, while I lay there not hearing even an insect,
The mountain moon with her pure light entered my door....
At dawn I left the mountain and, alone, lost my way:
In and out, up and down, while a heavy mist
Made brook and mountain green and purple, brightening everything.
I am passing sometimes pines and oaks, which ten men could not girdle,
I am treading pebbles barefoot in swift-running water --
Its ripples purify my ear, while a soft wind blows my garments....
These are the things which, in themselves, make life happy.
Why should we be hemmed about and hampered with people?
O chosen pupils, far behind me in my own country,
What if I spent my old age here and never went back home?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Kimura Demonstrating Judo

Masahiko Kimura was one of the giants of Judo. Below is a video of him in his 60's demonstrating some techniques.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

What is a Dojang?

Colin Lee at Traditional Taekwondo had a very nice article explaining what is a Dojang (Japanese: Dojo). An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

What is a Dojang?

Dojang 道場 - where we practice 'the way'.

To many it is the venue you go for your two weekly classes of Taekwondo where you dress up, go exercise, learn how to kick and punch, struggle to remember patterns, and spar with opponents.

One of the early interpretations I've come across is that a dojang is a meditation hall. It is a place where you contemplate your journey along the way or your study of '道'. 道 is not an academic subject - it is an inner journey which you embark on. Thus it can be an activity steeped in tea, or Japanese chess, or playing the shamisen, or practicing the way of the sword, or engaging in some form of mudo like Taekwondo.

The venue of the dojang is really any place designated for you to immerse yourself in mental, physical, or spiritual contemplation. It could be that secluded wooden structure in some idyllic woods, or a basketball court in some gym, or even a garage in Western Australia.

When I talk about Taekwondo, I take an older and quite unfortunate definition, and paraphrase it to say 'tae is to kick with the feet, kwon means to smash with the hand, and do means to train with the mind.' 道 in this case of course does not transliterate to "train with the mind" but this does hint at the mental state which is valuable to those on the path.

Do ultimately creates layers of its own definition whilst the individual is pursuing some form of introspection. It may take on a spiritual context, but really it is a pilgrimage with an indeterminate end point. The purpose is to submerge yourself in the journey to simply see how it unfolds, to discover its rewards by using its trials for self-improvement.

Go past your fears. Win the day. Become a stronger person. Or retreat. Quit.

Taekwondo is not for everyone. Many cannot even think to join the dojang for fear of the rigorous training and their own inadequacy. Embark on the way, have your weaknesses exposed like a raw nerve, then quit, and maybe feel worse than worthless. In truth, no one will think less of you either in the dojang or outside either way - unless you decide to betray your own fears and your misgivings.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Sword Film: Uzumasa Limelight

Below is an excerpt of a review and a trailer for a Japanese sword film, Uzumasa Limelight. The full review may be read here. The full film may be watched on YouTube.

For some reason, this film reminds me of the statue, The Pugilist at Rest; and also the film, Pushing Hands.

Ken Ochiai once again demonstrates his talent

by Martin Hafer
In 2015, I saw a short film that simply amazed, and was the standout entrant for me at the Orlando Film Festival. Sumo Road: The Musical was not only a very funny film that made folks laugh out loud, but was incredibly creative.  I can truly say that I've never seen another film like it.
It turns out that the same man who wrote and directed this brilliant short, Ken Ochiai, has recently begun making feature films as well...and his Uzumasa Limelight is a delight for anyone who loves samurai films or is a fan of Chaplin!  Yes, I know that is a very strange combination so I'll need to digress just a bit.

In 1952, Charlie Chaplin came out with one of his greatest and most personal films, Limelight.  However, while I would rank this among the greatest films of the 1950s, audiences were left cold by the film...mostly because being a Chaplin everyone expected it to be a comedy.  Instead, it's a bittersweet little drama about an aging and rather sad vaudevillian who has seen better days.  He befriends a young woman who ultimately becomes a big star and, because of her gratitude, she helps her beloved mentor to have one last shining moment in the sun.

Ochiai's film is a homage to Chaplin's film.  While there are many similarities and parallels between the two movies, Uzumasa Limelight is still its own film and offers an equally satisfying viewing experience.  He chose the title Uzumasa Limelight because Uzumasa is a suburb of Kyoto that is a bit like Japan's Hollywood and many wonderful old samurai epics were filmed there...and I have seen and adored hundreds of these films.  Because of this, I would love to one day visit Uzumasa...and am very jealous of my daughter because she spent time at the studio a few months ago...but that's another story.

Seiichi Kamiyama (wonderfully played by Seizô Fukumoto) is an artist, of sorts.  He's created a real niche for himself in Japanese films and televisions.  But he's not a fact he's a guy many might never even notice.  He plays villains in Japanese samurai productions and has had a steady job playing these sorts of parts for a television show for decades...sort of a sword and samurai version of Gunsmoke.  However, the series is being canceled and the directors and producers want new blood for their projects...and a 70 year-old actor who specializes in dying dramatically and artistically on camera just doesn't seem to be needed any more.

Fortunately for Seiichi, he is able to find a sense of purpose when he meets a young actress.  She is going to be an extra in a new type of samurai television show but she has no idea how to make her scenes look realistic.  Seiichi is a very kind man and offers to coach her and eventually her skills are noticed.  In fact, she is able to quickly move from a stunt double to a star...thanks to Seiichi's coaching.  Fortunately, she is the grateful sort and insists that Seiichi come out of retirement for one final last hurrah.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Tai Chi Chuan: Investing in Loss

Below is an excerpt from a post at Internal Gong Fu, discussing the meaning of the phrase, "Invest in Loss." The full post may be read here.

Investing in Loss (吃亏): The Way of Internal Gongfu

The phrase "investing in loss" (吃亏) has been widely (and wildly) interpreted and yet no one to my knowledge has ventured to explain this phrase in terms of an internal gongfu practice!

Unfortunately, the phrase "investing in loss" first appeared in a reference to Tai-chi Chuan and the mechanical practice of yielding or redirecting in push-hands. I now believe that the context in which this phrase appeared has misdirected a generation of practitioners away from its true meaning. Before we get into it, let's step back and look at the bigger picture.

The Invest-Gain Pattern
In our everyday lives, we are taught to think of investing as a method to gain something; invest in learning to acquire knowledge, invest money to gain profit, etc... By the time we become adults, the invest-gain pattern is deeply ingrained in our being. Even if we implement the various interpretations of this phrase, we do so with the expectation that we will get something in return. It is not the nature of this pattern to expect the result to be the loss of something with no imminent gain on the immediate horizon.

Translating chī kuī  (吃亏)
The Chinese phrase chī kuī (吃亏) literally translates as “eat loss”. Although the primary meaning of chī (吃) is "to eat", chī in another context can also metaphorically mean "to bear" or "to suffer". The term kuī (亏) can have the meaning: deficient, loss, to wane. And so chī kuī (吃亏) translates as "to suffer or bear a loss". Thus, on the surface, translating chī (吃) as "invest" may appear to be a bad translation but probing deeper, there is an inner logic within the English language which renders this a brilliant translation but only when considered within the context of a qigong or an internal gongfu practice! And please, do not confuse kuī 亏 (loss) with kǔ 苦 (bitter). Although loss may taste bitter, and you may need to eat bitter to attain eat loss, the two are not the same.

When understood from an internal gongfu perspective, chī kuī (吃亏) "invest in loss" stands as a principle of an internal gongfu practice synonymous with other phrases such as: empty your cup, unlearn what you have learned, relax, and calm down. (For an internal gongfu understanding of these terms, please see my post titled: Emptying Your Cup: The Way of Internal Gongfu.)

Soft-Round and Martial Intent
My research and experience now leads me to infer that the meaning of "investing in loss" probably arose in the context of qigong which advocates developing a soft round body. Those who achieved the kinesthetic quality of soft round and subsequently experimented with imbuing this quality with martial intent made an incredible discovery. And as they say, the rest is history. (For a discussion of soft, please see my post titled: Tai Chi Principles: Muscular Quality of Sung.)

In an oversimplified and very generalized formulaic context: soft round + martial intent = the kinesthetic quality that is the hallmark of the highest level of ALL martial arts. Distinguishing soft round from martial intent is an important distinction. Why? Because each require a unique form of practice. It is the blending of the two that manifest a unique form of martial-oriented movement.

What does soft-round have to do with "investing in loss"? Simply, to develop soft round requires practicing chī kuī (吃亏), "investing in loss". (For an in-depth analysis of the meaning of "round", see my book Secrets of the Pelvis.)
If you want to study, begin by investing in loss. Most people who come to a loss-based, internal gongfu practice are quickly confused about the nature of the practice despite their confidence in their own preconceptions; "I know what 'investing in loss' means. Just show me what to do." With a life-long indoctrination in the invest-gain pattern, the presumption is that the same invest-gain mindset can be applied to an internal gongfu practice. Although the principles and methods may be quickly absorbed at the intellectual level (though inaccurately understood), it can take a long time to structurally comprehend what the practice actually entails. If you want to engage an internal gongfu practice, the place to start is by doing the "not" of whatever it is you think you should be doing to "get" internal gongfu. What does this mean?

Concentrating your ch'i to become soft is the only proper method to invest in loss.
As we know, the term ch'i (qi) has no equivalent in a western cultural context. It has been horribly misused since its introduction to the west and from my experience it serves no useful purpose in the internal gongfu arena. Instead, I propose thinking of this sentence in these terms: Focusing your intention on making your muscles supple is the only proper method to invest in loss.

What does it mean to make your muscles supple? Relax! Let go of emotional-muscular rigidity that is bound up in your body. From an internal gongfu perspective, loss refers to letting go of or "losing" chronic emotional-muscular tension and habituated ways of moving and being. When relax is done properly, this is loss. When on the verge of letting go of long-held muscular rigidity, fear asserts itself. Bearing fear, loss occurs. "Investing in loss" is a far more profound practice than superficially learning (adding on) a new skill; how to mechanically "yield" and redirect all the while maintaining your emotional-muscular rigidity! "Investing in loss" is not a practice about adding and refining a new muscle memory. "Investing in loss" is a practice about releasing (or losing) old muscle memories! Practice chī kuī not to get something but to lose something.

Additionally, becoming "soft" does not mean becoming "limp". Releasing/losing emotional-muscular rigidity to develop muscular suppleness occurs in the context of maintaining structure and balance.

Then you will not fear losing.
Coincident with the invest-gain pattern is the fear-of-losing pattern. Together these are a formidable barrier to allowing loss to occur. For decades I practiced Wujifa zhan zhuang both with the aspiration of gaining something and with the fear of losing something. I don't recommend this path. However, throughout my years of practice, I've also experienced countless mini-losses (let go a little here, a little there) which in hindsight represents a significant accumulation of loss! It's like the old joke: How do you eat a whole cow? One bite at a time. Letting go in a big way will get you there faster. Letting go in a small way may get you there eventually.

Once the first loss has passed, then other losses may come more easily. Repeated letting go and relaxing results in a diminishing if not an outright loss of the fear of letting go and relaxing. (This of course depends on the person and their attachment to the particular rigidity encountered.) That said, as I continue to lose, I may encounter more deep-seated fears. Being reminded of previous losses, the fear of losing may be diminished (and again, maybe not). Losing the fear of losing may require years, decades, or a lifetime of practicing loss. At some point, we are reminded, you will no longer fear relaxing and letting go. You will no longer fear losing.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

The Art of Killing / The Art of Living

Over at The Budo Bum, there was a good post on the ultimate purpose of Budo study, the Art of Living.

An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

Budo: The Art Of Living

I was watching an otherwise excellent documentary by NHK called “Real Samurai” about modern practitioners of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. It’s a very nice look at the modern practice of a great koryu budo. One thing bothered me though.

The narration kept referring to budo in general and Katori Shinto Ryu in particular as the “art of killing”. I think this may be the biggest misconception about budo as it has been practiced since the Pax Tokugawa took effect in 1604.

The documentary repeatedly talked about Katori Shinto Ryu as an “art of killing” and emphasizing the potentially lethal aspects of what is taught and studied. It seemed unable to deal with the  contradiction offered in nearly every frame and comment by the practitioners themselves, that Katori Shinto Ryu practice informs and transforms their way of life.

For me, the fact that the skills we study can result in killing is outshone by their usefulness in living, and living fully. I find it hard to imagine that even during wartime the focus of bujutsu study was killing. Despite a few folks like Yamamoto Tsunetomo who were obsessed with dying, budo has always been about living.The reason for studying these arts, even five hundred years ago, was less focused on killing than on surviving horrible circumstances and going on living. Perhaps budo is not really an art of killing. If it’s not an art of killing though, then what is it?

Without the constant threat of warfare, there would be little reason to study arts of killing. Peace encourages us to consider not just living, but how to best live. Budo as an art of killing isn’t relevant to a life of peace. But budo is just as  much about living.

Life is filled with conflicts of all sorts, and all forms of budo are intense studies of conflict, both physical and non-physical.  Methods of dealing with  conflict can also be applied throughout life.

 In budo, the first things you practice are things you’re already doing all the time. You learn how to hold your body, breathe well and move powerfully. What’s more essential to living than breathing? The building blocks of good budo turn out to be the same ones used to build the foundation of a good, healthful life. 

Monday, January 01, 2018

Happy New Year

Let's start off the new year with some vintage videos of Japanese martial arts, shall we?