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 ~

Monday, November 30, 2020

Friday, November 27, 2020

Classic Japanese Martial Arts Documentary

Below is the classic documentary on Japanese martial arts, with the unfortunate name; Budo: The Art of Killing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Toshiro Mifune Iconic Samurai Performances

Toshiro Mifune was an actor who was most famously known for his portrayals of samurai in the many movies of Akira Kurosawa.

When I was a young man, there was a Kurosawa film festival at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where each of his movies was shown in chronological order every Sunday evening for months. My brother and I watched them all.

Below is a light hearted video which celebrates Toshiro Mifune's many performances. Enjoy.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Critical Review of 12 Features of Isshin Ryu Karate

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at the IsshinDo blog. It is a critical examination of 12 features of Isshinryu karate which serves to distinguish this style. The full post may be read here.

First, before I go into the twelve features of Isshinryu I would ask anyone who is an Isshinryu practitioner to provide me the "author" of these twelve features of Isshinryu. Can anyone provide the author's name? Can you validate it with at least two acceptable sources? I can tell you I can not provide any such information or documentation. 

It might actually be something written by Harold Long and it is believed that it is quoted in his book, "Isshinryu Karate - The Ultimate Fighting Art." I don't have a copy so I cannot confirm it is located there but depending on the year of publication vs. when it first came out in the Isshinryu community would help a bit determining the author. 

Read also "Isshinryu Statements of Fact - NOT [or maybe] where I say, "Some of these quotes are meant to be conveyed as the unique traits of the Isshinryu system and since I have found those traits to be less than accurate I can only say the only "original defining characteristics unique to Isshinryu" at its naming are the vertical fist, the thumb on top of the vertical fist, and the muscle forearm block. I would add that this is important that these particular features/traits, etc. were applicable in the late fifties but today are not exclusive to Isshinryu anymore because many have adopted this stuff." - ... ot-or.html

Lets take a look at the features as they stand at one site:

1. The elimination of “fancy” techniques.

I don't feel from my studies and views of the systems practiced at the time that any of them actually utilized complex techniques. We will assume that since the systems of the late fifties as taught to the military under limited time spans mostly taught strikes and kicks, etc. Only a few remained longer to gain any knowledge of grappling or vital point type training. In the Isshinryu communities I feel confident that most of the military came back with only a rudimentary knowledge and understanding of the system. This was the actual physical stuff, i.e. the upper and lower basics, kata and some predefined kumite drills. 

It is apparent from other systems such as Goju and Shorin, the two major systems Marines were exposed to in those days, that complexities were non-existent to them unless, and I mean maybe on this, they remained for extended tours or returned for additional tours. 

2. Combines the best of Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu to form a realistic, basic system of self defense. 

No one can say this with any validity unless they can demonstrate with authority that these features came directly from Tatsuo-san. We can make some assumptions that Tatsuo-san took what he "perceived" as the techniques he desired from the two systems to form Isshinryu but we still cannot say they were the best, in a blanket statement. The best of anything is dependent on individual interpretations and perceptions. 

As to any combinations actually Shorin is the dominant system of influence with a lesser influence from goju. Just look at the kata of Isshinryu, i.e. two from goju and five from shorin and one in essence a creation for Isshinryu.

3. Kicks thrown below the waist (for power and balance hand techniques thrown above the waist. 

The original intent may be perceived that kicks were taught to strike below the waist but then again many photo's display higher kicks. I wonder sometimes if this comes from the matches or tournaments that flourished in the fifties, sixties and seventies. I can only state that when I took Isshinryu on Okinawan my Sensei actually taught and fostered the lower kicks and in-close strikes of the hands, etc. He also advocated very close in strategies, etc.

Now, as a feature to distinguish it from other systems on Okinawan I have observed the use of lower kicks and a tendency to rely heavily on hand techniques. Since it could be observed in other systems it might actually be a Okinawan empty hand feature and not be an exclusive Isshinryu feature. Observe Goju and Uechi ryu, many kicks are below the waist. 

I feel strongly that my studies would indicate that the lower kicks were the essence of all Okinawan empty hand martial arts. It can still be seen in kata of Goju, Shorin and Uechi, to name just three. Since those were the main stay of empty hand at the time it works for me. 

4. The use of short, natural stances, which allow better mobility, eliminate wasted motion along with major shifts in the body, and are more adaptable to the American physique

First, this is standard fundamental principles of martial systems. It is not something special indicative of a system like Isshinryu. It transcends any system, style or branch of martial arts. It is what makes it work, not something we spout out to indicate just how cool and effective our system is. It is what makes any martial arts work, effective and efficient. Mobility, economic movement, body mechanics and adaptability are indicative of everyone regardless of body type, etc. - a fundamental principal of all systems.

Second, I understand that the lower stances actually came about from the efforts of Funakoshi Sensei to gain acceptance in Japan for Okinawan Karate. It is also used as a means to teach stances and structures as well as build leg strength. Some how the transition to more natural stances at later levels of proficiency got lost and I suspect it may have been due to the sport orientation that took over the martial aspects of karate in the mid 1900's. 

5. A balance of hand and foot techniques in the Katas. (often said to have "equal" hand and foot techniques depending on the form presented)

Originally, the one I received, said equal instead of balanced. Both are inaccurate because there are more hand techniques than foot. Take a look sometime. Have several practitioners view the AJA video's and count the hand techniques. Then have different practitioners count the foot or leg techniques. You will find that the balance is not so balanced in the literal sense of the word. You will find this true of any martial arts system.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Tang Dynasty Poems, #77: Song of an Old General

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 #77: Song of an Old General.

When he was a youth of fifteen or twenty,
He chased a wild horse, he caught him and rode him,
He shot the white-browed mountain tiger,
He defied the yellow-bristled Horseman of Ye.
Fighting single- handed for a thousand miles,
With his naked dagger he could hold a multitude.
...Granted that the troops of China were as swift as heaven's thunder
And that Tartar soldiers perished in pitfalls fanged with iron,
General Wei Qing's victory was only a thing of chance.
And General Li Guang's thwarted effort was his fate, not his fault.
Since this man's retirement he is looking old and worn:
Experience of the world has hastened his white hairs.
Though once his quick dart never missed the right eye of a bird,
Now knotted veins and tendons make his left arm like an osier.
He is sometimes at the road-side selling melons from his garden,
He is sometimes planting willows round his hermitage.
His lonely lane is shut away by a dense grove,
His vacant window looks upon the far cold mountains
But, if he prayed, the waters would come gushing for his men
And never would he wanton his cause away with wine.
...War-clouds are spreading, under the Helan Range;
Back and forth, day and night, go feathered messages;
In the three River Provinces, the governors call young men --
And five imperial edicts have summoned the old general.
So he dusts his iron coat and shines it like snow-
Waves his dagger from its jade hilt in a dance of starry steel.
He is ready with his strong northern bow to smite the Tartar chieftain --
That never a foreign war-dress may affront the Emperor.
...There once was an aged Prefect, forgotten and far away,
Who still could manage triumph with a single stroke.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Wing Chun of Robert Downey Jr.

The actor Robert Downey Jr had a troubled past. He even did some prison time. He hit bottom.

Unlike many people, he was able to pull himself up out of the hole he had dug for himself and is today a very successful actor.

He did a LOT of work to straighten himself out. Among the things he points to in his straightening out his life, is the practice of Wing Chun, which he began in 2003.

Below is a video of Robert Downey Jr and his Wing Chun.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Flying Phoenix Sword

Below is an excerpt from an article from Kung Fu Tea. There have been some sword smiths making excellent replicas of Han dynasty jian swords. There has also been a movement to recreate the fencing of that era. 

KFT takes a look at a specific sword and interviews the sword smith. The full post may be read here.

Over the last year many Chinese martial arts students in the West have become aware of the replica Han dynasty weapons currently being produced by LK Chen in Guangdong.  These high-quality pieces are all the more attractive given their relatively modest price.
I first became aware of LK Chen’s work after seeing early reviews of some of his products on popular YouTube channels including the ones run by Swordsage and Skallagrim. After that I stumbled across LK Chen’s webpage and started to watch his own videos.  Some of these discussed the research and construction techniques used in the creation of his Han jian and dao.  Other videos focused instead on the use of these weapons in either practical cutting or solo-training.
It was really these later videos that caught my attention.  There is no doubt that these swords can cut. Yet many of the weapons used during the Han dynasty are unlike their more familiar relations from the Ming and Qing.  An examination of jian and dao from museum collections suggests that many of these blades were very long and narrow by the standards of modern Chinese weapons, with proportionally short grips.  Repolished or well-preserved specimens might at first appear to have more in common with a rapier than a relatively short modern jian.
Archeological finds and existing artwork suggest that swords were encountered in a wide variety of contexts during the Han dynasty.  Individuals (at least the sort likely to be memorialized on tomb walls) are often shown wearing swords as part of their daily routine.  Soldier in combat, on the other hand, might carry a dao or a jian in one hand and a large shield in the other.
While the archeological record has left us a rich trove of surviving swords and art, no complete martial arts texts survive from this period. While contemporary library catalogs suggest that a number of texts on fencing were produced, and at least some found their way into imperial collections, we are left to wonder how these elegant weapons were actually used.

Given my prior research on the invention and recreation of martial systems, I became fascinated with efforts to revive the Han jian.  Not only were the swords being produced by LK Chen beautiful, but there seemed to be a small group of a martial artists who were using them in an attempt to recreate an ancient fencing system.  I wanted to know more about this project.  After some initial emails I was able to make contact with LK Chen who graciously agreed to do an interview for the readers of Kung Fu Tea.
And then I made another discovery. He had just shipped a sword to Ithaca NY!  After some enquires the customer who bought the piece agreed to let me to take a look at it.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that it had been purchased by a friend of mine at Cornell who also has a long-standing interest in the Chinese martial arts. He was happy to loan me the sword for a week so that I could take it for a “proper test-drive.”
While I was reluctant to do any practical cutting with a borrowed sword, LK Chen’s Flying Phoenix did become a part of my daily practice of both basic techniques and taolu.  While certainly heavier and more solid than the sorts of “wushu weapons” that one often encounters, individuals who are used to practicing with solidly built late imperial and modern swords will probably be impressed by how light and lively this blade feels in the hand.
One would not think that a sword measuring close to 42 inches (106 cm) in length would weigh in at a svelte 810 grams. Given its diamond shaped profile this feat has been accomplished through a combination of distal taper, minimalist fittings, and a blade that comes to a surprisingly narrow tip. 

All of these features also appear on historic blades from the Han period.  Indeed, those pieces are often longer and more elegant than cheap modern reproductions (which often seem to be taking their design cues from earlier bronze swords) might lead one to suspect.
The Flying Phoenix feels shorter than it actually is due to its perfectly placed point of balance.  I was actually a bit surprised how well it adapted to my morning form work, and even phrases with more complex moulinets or plum blossoms weren’t that much of a challenge.  Mind you, the sword did not “feel” like most modern jian (at least the ones I have used), but it seemed to be able to handle a full range of techniques.  The blade itself is beautifully constructed and the metal has a lovely grain structure with no forging issues that I could see.  It is both very sharp and fairly flexible, though I didn’t do any “torture testing” as this was a borrowed blade.
The hilt of the Flying Phoenix is one of its most interesting features.  My hands are on the larger side and I found its cord wrapped oval profile quite comfortable.  Coming in at about eight inches, it is long enough that one might be tempted to call it a two-handed sword.  To test this hypothesis, I tried out some Ming-era double handed swords and sabers material. I found the hilt to be a little short for these sorts of applications.  But as I previously noted, I have large hands so your results may vary.  

On cold winter days when I practiced with gloves the hilt itself was comfortable enough.  But when I practiced double handed sets without gloves I found that the slightly sharp edges on the cast bronze guard would bite into the webbing of my top hand.
My grip on the hilt was certainly more natural with one hand and the guard ceased to be an issue.  Indeed, one hand is all that is necessary to wield this particular blade, though it really excels in situations when a second hand is occasionally called for (certain Wudang sword sets come to mind).  

Rather than being based on a specific historic example (as some of LK Chen’s swords are), the Flying Phoenix is very much his own attempt at constructing the “perfect” Han jian.  The blade, weight and hilt length all fall within the standard distribution curves of known examples, but Chen was seeking to create a blade that was capable to facilitating a variety of modern training practices while also expressing the essence of its ancient forebearers.
All in all, I have really enjoyed my time with the Flying Phoenix and I am not looking forward to giving it back!  While I have not had a chance to examine LK Chen’s complete range of swords, I suspect that those looking for a more “conventional” jian might want to checkout the Magnificent Chu.  And if I were to ever order a dedicated two handed jian I would probably go with the Roaring Dragon.  Still, after spending a week with this sword it is not hard to understand why LK Chen has chosen it as his personal favorite.
This brings us back our interview.  I have lightly edited the questions and responses for both length and clarity.  Much of the following conversation focuses on what inspired LK Chen’s interest in Han dynasty swords and how he has attempted to recreate them. There are many ways to read a text like this.  As a social scientist I think it offers us a peak into the values and desires that are driving some exciting new trends within the development of China’s weapon-based fighting practices.

Monday, November 09, 2020

Elements of the Karate Spirit

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at The Shotokan Times where the author describes the "Five Elements of the Karate Spirit," focusing on the fifth: Senshin, which is not as widely known as the others; Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin and Fudoshin. 

The full post may be read here.

Senshin (先心) means the purified spirit and enlightened mind. It is the fifth element of the karate and budo spirit every karateka should cultivate and strive for. In his monthly column Shotokan Essence Thomas D. McKinnon examines how Senshin is related to the other four budo spirit and how one can achieve it.

During the last several months, we have explored a number of concepts. Four of which are elements of the full Mantle. Zanshin, Mushin, Shoshin, and Fudoshin make up four fifths of the seamless, shining armor of the advanced karateka or budoka. 

Zanshin raises your total awareness, enabling you to see everything, not missing anything. Mushin releases you from anxiety. Acting and reacting without emotion allows your training, skills and abilities to function at maximum proficiency. Shoshin frees you from the frustrations that often accompany learning, giving you the sight to see what you may have missed. Fudoshin provides the confidence to stand your ground in the face of overwhelming odds. 

Senshin to Complete the Mantle 

The fifth element, Senshin, has no exact, literal translation. We know, from our study of ‘The Sen Principal in combat’, that the meaning of the first syllable, Sen, is a Japanese term for before, ahead, precedence, future, previous, or it can mean enlightened. The second syllable, Shin, can be mind, heart, spirit, or true. In Chinese Medicine, the heart is the location of the mind, which is probably why the most common translation for Shin is mind or heart. So, concerning the karateka/budoka, Senshin is ‘the state of the enlightened mind’. Senshin completes the five spirits of budo, or the full Mantle. And the advanced karateka/budoka becomes a Spiritual Warrior

Senshin transcends and harmonizes the first four elements in a spirit of compassion to reconcile discord and hold all life sacred. Fully embracing Senshin is to become enlightened. 

You can learn as many physical arts as you want, and I’ve studied a few. But unless you take on the full Mantle you will only skate across the surface. The physicality of the arts will only be a sequence of moves. Consequently, in combat, whomsoever is most inspired on the day will be the victor. 

This Mantle I speak of doesn’t just find you when you train, study and learn the physicality of your art. You must actively seek it out. Prior to beginning my traditional Shotokan training, I had been a British Parachute Regiment soldier and so, quite naturally, Zanshin was the first constituent of the Mantle that I cognitively understood. 

Zanshin (残心): Lingering Mind 

‘Zanshin: being still within, while aware of one’s surroundings and totally prepared, for anything. Zanshin is a state of totally calm alertness; a physical, mental and spiritual state of awareness before, during and after combat.’ 

Intellectually, I understood, quite early in my Karate-do, four of the five elements of the Mantle.  

However, my cognitive knowing of Mushin, Shoshin and Fudoshin took a little longer to realize. 

Following a particularly adverse situation, avoiding a potential disaster, I would suddenly realize that I had done so by exhibiting one of the Mantle’s features. 

For instance: while employed in high risk security, it was my habit to size up a situation and plan several, rational, contingencies so that I might not be taken by surprise in an unfolding situation. I was in actual fact limiting my options by overthinking the situation. A completely unexpected situation arose one day, which I came through smoothly, reacting in the most appropriate manner at several twists and turns. I then understood, cognitively, the concept of Mushin: trust and live in the moment.

Mushin (無心): No Mind 

‘Mushin: not over-thinking things, being open and ready to receive whatever might come. Without the clouds of judgement, driven by emotion, the uncluttered mind deals with life from the moment point.’ 

The element that makes most sense, and is so obvious, took me the longest time to cognitively realize was Shoshin. Again, I tended to overthink and complicate things. All I really needed to do was clear away preconceptions: simplify. 

Shoshin (初心): Beginners’ Mind 

‘Shoshin: beginner’s mind is the quintessential mindset for learning. In the beginner’s mind there is openness, eagerness, a lack of preconceptions. With Shoshin there are many possibilities no matter the level of study.’ 

The fourth element to click into place, for me, was Fudoshin. Your skill levels need to be fairly advanced but, more importantly, your belief in yourself needs to be flawless. It is important to hone your skills to the point where ‘you believe’ they will emerge when and where you need them. You must erase any doubts. 

Fudoshin (不動心): Immovable Mind 

‘Fudoshin: a peaceful state of total determination and unshakable will. It is the state of a spirit that is determined to win. Filled with courage, endurance and self-confidence through self-knowledge, Fudoshin provides you with the resolve to surmount any obstacle.’ 

Finally ‘the enlightened mind’. What does that even mean? I never tried to intellectualize Senshin. ‘The enlightened mind’ sounded a little too airy-fairy. However, once Fudoshin slipped into place, Senshin, the final element, settled upon me like a Mantle. Henceforth, I knew the comforting surety of the full Mantle.

Senshin (先心): Purified spirit and Enlightened Attitude 

‘Senshin: the enlightened mind of the advanced karateka/budoka. Holding all life sacred, you strive to protect and be in harmony with all life.’ Seeing the best in humanity, you endeavor to foster compassion even for those who would do you harm. With Senshin, recognizing the universal connectedness of life, you understand how one simple act affects every aspect of life. You see the dilemma and the worth of life with your heart, mind and soul.’ 

Senshin is achievable. However, not only must the mind be enlightened but the spirit must be cleansed too. Only the advanced karateka/budoka – with the enlightened attitude and purified intention – will achieve ‘the full Mantle of the Spiritual Warrior.’

Friday, November 06, 2020

Budo and Competition

I know plenty of people in martial arts that abhor competition, however if your mind is in the right place, there are tremendous upsides to competition. This is the purpose of competition in Kendo, Judo, etc.

Below is an excerpt that appeared in The Shotokan Times on Karate, Budo and Competition. The full post may be read here.

“A sign of character.” Thomas Prediger about Competitions and Sports Karate

Competitions can have an educative effect. But only when they are done right. We talked with Thomas Prediger, chair of our advisory board, about the value of competitions for karateka and how karate tournaments will evolve after the dismissal of the WKF from the Olympics 2024. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

The Competition Against Oneself

Christian: I would like to go a little bit deeper into the educative role of competition. Do I understand your argument right: While in Sports Karate the competition is the end, in Karate Do it is just a means to an end?

Thomas: In Karate Do, tournaments are a forum or they should be a one. It is a space for experience. And it is a space where you have to be honest to yourself. Without the opportunity to compare myself I will never truly practice. Everything I have learnt in training might stay theory until I face pressure and an opponent. That not only counts for Kumite but also for Kata. Without this exposure one will lack necessary learning experiences that are highly important to develop one´s own Do.

In my opinion, even an examination is a competition: A competition against yourself. During a tournament, we add another factor of uncertainty: the opponent. That is a challenge and it creates pressure. There you have to show how strong your Do is. Are you capable to fight honestly and loss with a smile? That is a sign of character.

Without this test, Karate Do will be cheap talk. Only a test can show whether I have incorporated the Do during training.

Competitions and the Experience of Limits

Christian: So, are tournaments a compromise between “absence of violence” (Dojo kun) and the martial arts dimension of karate do?

Thomas: Yes, you need a media and forum to experience yourself. Competitions offer this option in a peaceful and regulated way. This regulated and supervised way of conflict is necessary for socialization of human beings and for the society in general. I must experience my limits and boundaries. Maybe a little bit like stones in a river. They grind each other and become round after a while. At the end, they fit perfectly together. Thus, competition can be an integrative means. This goes also for children. They must learn to asses their own strength. If we do not open them a regulated and supervised forum, they become a factor of uncertainty in the future. Because they will not know how to handle and apply their strength in a positive and fruitful way.


Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Taijiquan and Communism

The Yang 24 short form was developed at the behest of the Chinese Communist party. They wanted to develop and promote a standardized version of the Yang form for their own purposes. 

Today, they are attempting to do the same thing with Chen style taijiquan. Below is a link to a podcast by Jonathan Bluestein discussing this development.

Taijiquan and Communism.