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, May 29, 2019

Becoming AntiFragile

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb is one of my favorite books. 

Over at The Art of Manliness, there is a very good post that sums up some of Taleb's ideas. An excerpt is below. The full post may be read here.

What’s the opposite of a person or organization that’s fragile?

If you ask most people this question, they’ll likely say “robust” or “resilient.” But philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say that’s not the right answer.

He argues that if fragile items break when exposed to stress, something that’s the opposite of fragile wouldn’t simply not break (thus staying the same) when put under pressure; rather, it should actually get stronger.

We don’t really have a word to describe such a person or organization, so Taleb created one: antifragile.

In his book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Taleb convincingly argues that this powerful quality is essential for businesses, governments, and even individuals that wish to thrive in an increasingly complex and volatile world.

If you want to succeed and dominate, to separate yourself from the pack and become the last man standing in any area of life, it’s no longer enough to bounce back from adversity and volatility – to simply be resilient. You have to bounce back stronger and better. You have to become antifragile.

First, some background.

Back in 2007, Taleb popularized the idea of “Black Swans” in his book of the same name. In a nutshell, a Black Swan is an event (either positive or negative) “that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.”

The mortgage crisis of 2008 was a Black Swan event, as were both World Wars. Hardly anyone predicted them, they all had huge impacts on history, and they all seemed utterly predictable in hindsight.

Many folks walked away from reading The Black Swan with this takeaway: “Sh** happens, so don’t bother trying to predict things.” But as Taleb recently tweeted, that’s the conclusion “imbeciles” reach (one of the best parts of Taleb’s writing is that he doesn’t mince words). Rather, the main message of the book is this: “Yes, sh** happens. The trick is to put yourself in a position to survive and even thrive when it does.”

In his most recent book, Antifragile, Taleb offers some simple heuristics to help businesses and individuals thrive in a life swirling with volatility. Before he does that, though, Taleb makes the case that people/systems/organizations/things/ideas can be described in one of three ways: fragile, resilient, or antifragile.

Which category best describes you?

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Your Martial Arts Lineage

Below is an excerpt from a post at Kenshi 24/7. While it was specifically written with Kendo in mind, it applies to anyone practicing a martial art. 

Your martial arts practice was molded in a large way by your teacher(s). Your teacher's martial arts practice was largely molded by preceding teachers. 

Knowing where you come from helps to inform your practice.

The full post may be read here.

I often get email from people abroad wishing to join Eikenkai or Yoseikai pracises when travelling through Osaka, and the odd email about people wishing to look for dojo in places outside of the Kansai area. The usual format is “Hello, my name is X and I am Y grade.” After that I may get more information, for example where they practise, the duration of their experience, and – less commonly – their teachers name. People with experience in training in Japan, however, find that when first entering a dojo they are usually asked these questions in the reverse order, i.e. the initial question asked is “who is your sensei?”

Over the net, if someone tells me their age, duration of experience, and grade I can make a pretty good guess of where I think they should/may be technically. Generally. However, this is just what it is: a guess. I can’t possibly know how they do kendo or – more importantly – their attitude to it. This is where telling me your teacher becomes very important. If I know your teacher – either personally, through word of mouth, or reputation – its a much better indicator to me about your method, style, and purpose for practising, which is arguably more important than simply how good you are. Even if you are not so experienced now, if your teacher is well thought of then I know that you are going in the right direction. These people – i.e. those I can easily profile – I am more inclined to spend more of my time to help out. In the same vein, I know that the initial treatment you receive when attending a new dojo in Japan can be affected (both positively and negatively) depending on your answer to the initial “who is your sensei?” question.

Of course there are many times when people mention instructors whom I don’t know, and at that time mentioning your teachers-teacher can be useful. Since I study mainly under a couple of teachers, one being relatively well known (in Japan) the other not so, I often qualify the other sensei when I go to a new place by telling a little bit about his background.

How many people actually know their teachers teacher and what qualifies as a ‘teacher’ anyway? These questions might seem sudden, but they are an important part of this discussion. Let me tackle these questions in reverse.

A teacher is someone you learn from and study under for a (somewhat long) duration. Someone – at least in the earlier stages of your kendo career – you simply copy. If they are a good teacher you will never outgrow them. They should hopefully also be someone who has reached a proper teaching level. It follows that I do not – and I hope you don’t either – consider someone my teacher if I do kendo with them at seminars once or twice a year, even if that spans multiple years or even decades (if they are Japanese then they almost certainly don’t consider me their student in that situation anyway, despite what I or you may wish to believe).

Your teachers teacher is obviously someone that your teacher spent many years studying under, and is possibly someone who you have never met. What good is it knowing about them anyway? If your teacher is serious he/she probably limited themselves to a small number of instructors and studied under them for a good many years. What they learned from their teacher is what they imparted to you. So your teachers teacher has, in effect, influenced your own kendo as well (fundamentally so). So when someone asks you “who is your sensei?” or “whats your experience?” its not only much more useful (to the experienced questioner) but may even be more ‘correct’ (in a traditional manner) to tell them not only your immediate teacher, but your teachers teacher as well (especially if your teacher is not well known). If you list a few dojo’s or multiple names (or heaven forbid, you can’t think of anyone who you would gladly call your ‘sensei), then I’d say you’ve not just gone of on a dangerous tangent, but you are not doing ‘Kendo,’ at least in an orthodox manner.

Kendo is – as I’m sure you don’t need a reminder of – a physical tradition that is taught not through websites, books, and certainly not through video, but is a living tradition taught and learned physically and verbally. If knowing your teachers teacher is to (start to) know your own roots, then it follows that not having a teacher means you have no base.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Shinai: More Than a Bamboo Sword

Below is an excerpt from a post at Tozando Blog. It's about the history and meaning of the bamboo sword used in Kendo practice. The full post may be read here.

A ‘Shinai’ is commonly known as a practice tool replacing a live blade in Kendo and Kenjutsu. And yet, it goes beyond being simply a tool in that it’s treated with reverence. More than just being a bamboo sword used during practice or competitions, by standing in for a real sword, its usage vicariously approximates life-or-death duels. Naturally, given this state of mind, certain practices apply when, for instance, you place the Shinai on the ground. This includes not straddling the sword, not holding the sword with your left hand and pointing the tip to the ground when standing up, or even rolling the sword on the ground.

The kanji characters ‘木’ (read: boku, moku, or ki) and ‘刀’ (read: to or ken) are read as such – ‘bokuto’ (wooden sword). In contrast, Shinai (bamboo sword) combines the kanji characters ‘竹’ (read: take) and ‘刀’ (read: to or ken), but the reading – ‘Shinai’ doesn’t reflect that. One theory states that this word is rooted in ‘撓う’ (read: shinau), which means ‘to bend flexibly’, and that it gained this exclusive usage in Kenjutsu circles. Originally, before the Shinai was introduced, blunted swords or wooden swords were used during practice. In those days, practicing with such equipment would result in serious injury whenever practitioners made full contact, so it naturally followed that they shifted almost exclusively towards drilling forms. This meant that they’d stop their sword right before contact in paired forms or drills training, but a single mistake in gauging the amount of force would often result in unintentional contact; one misstep would place a student’s life on the line. Such was the type of practice back in the day.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Dao De Jing, #71: There is Nothing Better Than to Know That You Don't Know

The Dao De Jing is not only one of the world's great classics, it is one of the foundations of Philosophical Daoism. A free online version of the Dao De Jing may be found here. Today we have #71, There is Nothing Better Than to Know That You Don't Know.

There is nothing better than to know that you don't know.

Not knowing, yet thinking you know—

This is sickness.

Only when you are sick of being sick

Can you be cured.

The sage's not being sick

Is because she is sick of sickness.

Therefore she is not sick.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Photo Essay: The Legacy of Huo Yuanjia

This came to my attention via the Kung Fu Tea blog.

Huo Yuanjia was a famous Chinese martial artist who was active around the turn of the 20th century. Some of his exploits were the subject of the Jet Li film, Fearless.

Huo was one of the founders of the Jingwu (Chin Woo) Athletic Association, which still exists today and remains his legacy.

Here is a link to a photo essay from Xinhuanet, which focuses on Huo Jing Hong, a fifth generation descendant and inheritor of Huo's system. Enjoy.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Third Option

Below is a post from Steven Pressfield's blog. Steven Pressfield is the author of books such as The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gate of Fire. 

While the post isn't specifically about martial arts, it applies. The full post may be read here.

The story of David and Goliath is one of history’s greatest reruns—played out on repeat in books and boardrooms and battlefields.

Big Guy goes after Little Guy.

Little Guy finds inner strength.

Little Guy taps into inner strength.

Little Guy fights Big Guy.

Big Guy falters.

Little Guy knocks Big Guy’s lights out.

The David and Goliath story is the story of the “win.” Think Luke against Darth Vader, Daniel Larusso against the entire Cobra Kai dojo, and pretty much any Disney classic (insert any princess or talking animal against any evil witch or demented talking animal here.).

The opposite—the story of the lose—plays out in two forms: Little Guy goes after Big Guy and is squashed by Big Guy (think of all the companies Gordon Gekko crushed before being sent to jail) and Little Guy hides from Big Guy, only delaying Big Guy’s deathblow (think George McFly and Biff Tannen before Marty went back to the future).

Then there’s a third option—when David ignores Goliath and Goliath moves on. And it comes with the realization that David and Goliath don’t always have to face off in order for someone to “win”—and that the definitions of “win” and “lose” aren’t so clear cut.


There are a million great lines in the movie Bull Durham. One of my favorites:

This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Think about that for a while.

Think about it. There’s always a third option.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Wudang Taijiquan

Cheng Tinhung was a real force in Hong Kong Taijiquan in the 1970's and 80's. He was known as a fighter.

In a nutshell, his Wudang Taijiquan seems to be branched off of the Wu Family style, but with an entirely different Neigong set.

One of

One of Cheng's most notable students was Dan Docherty, then a member of the Royal Hong Kong Police, who went on to win the South East Asian Chinese Martial Arts Championship, which was a full contact affair.

Docherty moved back to Scotland, taught many students and has overseen the Practical Tai Chi Chuan organization since.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Testing a Calm Mind

If asked, I’d have to say that the main reason that I study taijiquan is to help cultivate a calm mind.

That it is also an excellent exercise for a man my age (61) which helps with leg strength, flexibility, range of motion and balance is also true, but secondary.

As a man my age has no business getting into fights, self defense isn’t really on the agenda for me anywhere.

The organization I work for was hosting an event over several days at a hotel. We had around 150 registered guests. After our closing banquet on the last day, we had opened a hospitality suite for our party.

As a member of the staff, I was one of the first ones there to make sure everything was going to go smoothly. A couple of our more prominent guests were there and I joined them. Everyone else was still in the banquet room.

I’m standing there talking to our guests when a stranger kind of bursts into the room like he owns the place, grabs a beer and just walks up to our conversation. It was clear that he was quite drunk. He was loud, but he was funny, so we humored him. My idea was to let him have a beer and ask him to leave before our people started showing up in any numbers.

Well, he was loud and sloppily spilling drinks. He started becoming abusive towards the bartender.

When he cracked open another beer, I told him that was enough. He wasn’t a part of our group and he had to leave. He didn’t like that.

So here I am, nose to nose with this guy who is a good twenty years younger and in far better shape than I am. He was really worked up.

I found that I was dead calm. I was firm and assertive. He couldn’t get a rise out of me.

Other people from our group started filing in now. The bartender had his hand on the house phone; to call security I suppose, if needed.

He kept flashing his credit card and a wad of money around. He couldn’t believe that I was kicking him out. He could buy and sell the whole lot of us he said. I wasn’t backing down.

Maybe he became embarrassed by getting faced down by an old man, but at this point, he finally left.

We could hear him at the hotel bar which was across the hall from us carrying on and learned that security had asked him to leave there a little later.

For cultivating a calm mind, I think taijiquan worked.

Addendum: they told me at the hotel that this guy got into a fist fight with someone else later and was  evicted from the hotel. He was there with a work group, apparently and I imagine will have some explaining to do.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Contemporary Duelling

One of the reasons that I enjoy the book The Secret History of the Sword, is that it contains recounts of real duels both in English and translated from other European languages. It's a little easier to wrap one's head around than translations from Eastern languages.

It seems in some German universities, there has been a tradition that goes back a couple of hundred years, of intra mural fencing with sharpened swords.

The rules are rigid. The fencers must maintain their position on a line. Protective eyewear is worn, but little else in the way of facial armor. Basically, the goal is to scar the opponent's face.

Do you know the famous Heidelberg Scar? That.

The author of the book took part in one of these duels (and drank beer afterwards).

Below is a short video on the phenomenon. Enjoy.