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 ~

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Kiai Training

Below is an excerpt from a post at Ichijoji about a severe form of training that took place in an old school of swordsmanship in Japan. The full post may be read here.

Some time ago I wrote about the hard training methods that developed in or were promulgated from the Meiji period (1868- ) onwards. Whether these were an authentic continuation or re-creation of the experience of bugeisha in the past is a moot point. The information I could find pointed to a strong influence from sources outside the martial tradition. 

One of the traditions I described, popularised by the Ichikukai (One-nine Society) and labelled in a general way as misogi, seems to have developed from a Shinto base and developed a fierce, Zen inspired overlay (with nods to the teaching style of Yamaoka Tesshu), involved continuous ringing of a hand bell while chanting, and which lasted for a period of several days. Tohei Koichi, the famous aikido teacher engaged in this training.

A variant, or at least, a very similar style of training is described by veteran budo practitioner Roald Knutsen in his book Rediscovering Budo from a Swordsman’s Perspective. Knutsen, whose personal experience tends to pre-date many of the current crop of writers on these kinds of things, sees this kind of training relating to Shingon mikkyo, and suggests connections through to the roots of bugei, likely renewed by individual practitioners in their personal travels and connections with esoteric teachings such as those of the yamabushi.
   Early on the first morning the students knelt in formal line with a few domestic dojo members behind forming the second row. Each visiting student was handed a small handbell, or ‘kane’, to hold in his left hand. they were required to throw out their arm to sound the bell and shout a loud kiai – ‘Ei – the movement timed by the slow beat of the large dojo drum. This exercise was repeated endlessly at the same measured tempo for two hours before the practise ended. That first day they had two more sessions, a total of six hours. Needless to say, their arms became very heavy and tired; their voices, too.
   The fifth morning came and most felt better for their rest although somewhat stiff. They assembled in the dojo and put on their kendo armour before continuing with the usual kiai training, but this only lasted for an hour. Then, facing them on the senior side were a number of tough-looking senior yudansha. A violent practice followed in which there was no way in their present condition they could hope to hold their own. Each of the seniors seemed to be harder than the one before … and the practices were interminable, but at last the drum called a halt. The dojo master now announced that they would all be required later to fight one-point matches, success or failure depending on the result. They were then dismissed.

Both my Kendo informants recalled the prospect of these matches as daunting and, in each case, their respective opponents looked uncompromising and hard. With little or no reserves left within them, this situation was close to facing a deadly enemy on the battlefield; desperate in the extreme. While each steadied himself for what was to come, the senpai reminded them of the teaching:
‘Don’t look with your eyes; see with your mind!’

All three masters recalled that they took standing ‘rei’ towards their opponent, they followed it with a great kiai – and the senpai at once struck the drum to signal the match was at an end! 

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Tang Dynasty Poems, #78: A Song of Peach Bossom River

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 #78: A Song of Peach Blossom River.


A fisherman is drifting, enjoying the spring mountains,
And the peach-trees on both banks lead him to an ancient source.
Watching the fresh-coloured trees, he never thinks of distance
Till he comes to the end of the blue stream and suddenly- strange men!
It's a cave-with a mouth so narrow that he has to crawl through;
But then it opens wide again on a broad and level path --
And far beyond he faces clouds crowning a reach of trees,
And thousands of houses shadowed round with flowers and bamboos....
Woodsmen tell him their names in the ancient speech of Han;
And clothes of the Qin Dynasty are worn by all these people
Living on the uplands, above the Wuling River,
On farms and in gardens that are like a world apart,
Their dwellings at peace under pines in the clear moon,
Until sunrise fills the low sky with crowing and barking.
...At news of a stranger the people all assemble,
And each of them invites him home and asks him where he was born.
Alleys and paths are cleared for him of petals in the morning,
And fishermen and farmers bring him their loads at dusk....
They had left the world long ago, they had come here seeking refuge;
They have lived like angels ever since, blessedly far away,
No one in the cave knowing anything outside,
Outsiders viewing only empty mountains and thick clouds.
...The fisherman, unaware of his great good fortune,
Begins to think of country, of home, of worldly ties,
Finds his way out of the cave again, past mountains and past rivers,
Intending some time to return, when he has told his kin.
He studies every step he takes, fixes it well in mind,
And forgets that cliffs and peaks may vary their appearance.
...It is certain that to enter through the deepness of the mountain,
A green river leads you, into a misty wood.
But now, with spring-floods everywhere and floating peachpetals --
Which is the way to go, to find that hidden source?

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Modernity vs Tradition

There has always been a constant tension between "Modern" martial arts vs "Traditional." 

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea on this topic. Specifically, it has to do with the development of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu during the 30's in response to the advances of Kodokan Judo. The full post may be read here.


This article analyzes the transformation of a modernized Japanese school of martial arts, jujutsu (柔術), also known as jiu-jitsu, jujitsu and/or Kodokan judo, into a Brazilian combat sport. In the 1930s, the Gracies, supported by a nationalist regime, launched a comprehensive process of jiu-jitsu reinvention that evolved into a local combat sport at the same time as the inauguration of the Estado Novo dictatorship in 1937. This study argues that the Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the direct outcome of clashes pitting the Gracies and Japanese immigrants that occurred against a background of radical nationalism, violence and ideological polarization. The creation of a local jiu-jitsu encompassed a wide range of changes in techniques, philosophy and rituals borne from the clash between tradition and modernity.


Around World War I, a branch of a Scottish-cum-Rio de Janeiro family with genteel pretensions, joined a troupe of Japanese martial artists and adopted jujutsu (hereafter, jiu-jitsu) as part of their circus act. The surname of this family was Gracie. After having moderate success in the Amazon, they faced economic hardship in the 1920s upon their return to Rio de Janeiro. In the face of this, the Gracies sought to use their jiu-jitsu skills to meet the challenges posed by their failing social status during the transition from the ‘Old Republic’ to the Getúlio Vargas regime. Their trajectory might be taken to confirm the identification between the new regime and the emergent middle class, as suggested by Michael Conniff [1981]. However, the Gracies were not part of the emergent middle classes. 

Rather they can be said to fit better into Brian Owensby’s characterization of Brazilian society of the 1930s: this proposed a category of déclassé aristocrats, ‘descendants of traditional families struggling to adjust to the challenges and uncertainties of an increasingly competitive and diversified social order that had eroded the social hierarchy of mid-nineteenth century slave society’ [Owensby 1999: 45–46]. Nonetheless, the Gracies’ trajectory certainly shows that, in modern Brazil, white or light-skinned individuals from the ranks of once elite groups still enjoyed privileges within the new regime.
This context played a crucial role in the creation of what is today widely known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), an internationally successful, rapidly globalizing martial art and combat sport, which was pioneered and promoted by the Gracie family throughout the twentieth century. In the twenty first century, the Gracies are still closely – almost indelibly– associated with BJJ. 

Yet remarkably little scholarly research has been carried out into the socio-cultural and political context of its historical formation. This article seeks to redress this balance.
In the early 1930s the Gracies used their martial arts skills to replenish their cultural capital and regain social status. They did this by introducing the practice of jiu-jitsu into the newly created paramilitary gendarmerie, known as Polícia Especial (Special Police). The provisory government, headed by Getúlio Vargas, had created the Special Police (Polícia Especial) in 1932 as a branch of Rio’s police department as part of comprehensive reform which restructured the state security apparatus [Vargas 1938: 34-35]. The raison d’être of this Fascist-inspired unit was ousting Getúlio Vargas’ representative in São Paulo. The casus belli was the new regime’s failure to comply with the demands of São Paulo’s oligarchies for constitutional rule [Burns 1993: 351-352]. Also in 1932, a coalition of landowners and industrialists politically sidelined by the coup d’état in 1930, deposed Varga’s interventor (appointed state governor) and declared war on the authoritarian regime. 

After nearly three months of military engagements, federal armed forces defeated São Paulo’ troops, which were made up of state militias and volunteers. In order to avoid any repetition of such an event, the new regime organized storm trooper squads, fully devoted to Getúlio Vargas, whose primary mission was to protect the regime [Bonelli 2003: 14]. Physical prowess and martial arts skills were the most important requirements and considerations when it came to drafting new recruits, and the unit worked in combination with the political police (Departamento de Ordem Política e Social –D.O.P.S.). Throughout their existence, both forces were deadly efficient and infamously identified with the more repressive facet of Vargas’ authoritarian regime.1

As a result of their insertion into Getúlio Vargas’ security apparatus, the Gracies enjoyed protection under the new regime. In this article, I analyze how they launched a process of reinventing Japanese jiu-jitsu within a context of growing nationalism and the active construction of national identity, most notably during the implementation of the Estado Novo dictatorship after 1937.
Strongly supported by the regime, the Gracies ran their jiu-jitsu operations in Rio de Janeiro only a few blocks from the presidential palace. By contrast, rival martial artists settled in the epicenter of Japanese immigration, 400 kilometers away, in São Paulo. The rivalry between the Gracies and the Japanese martial artists reflected the existence of two competing projects for modern Brazil. The Gracies came to represent the nationalist alliance between Rio’s old elite and the new power holders hailing from oligarchies established in peripheral Brazil – an alliance that was not without xenophobic overtones. Conversely, the Japanese martial artists symbolized São Paulo’s agro- industrial elite option for immigration and multiculturalism.
The dynamic of the rivalry between the Gracies and the Japanese fighters reveals the ambiguities within in the discourses just mentioned. The Navy was the branch of the military that had pioneered the practice of jiu-jitsu, and it sponsored some of the best Japanese
martial artists in Brazil during the 1930s. At the same time, the Navy traditionally recruited officers of genteel background. In this context, their antagonism toward the Gracies reveals an inter-elite dispute within the bureaucratic apparatus created by the new regime [Beattie 2004: 91]. Accordingly, in this article, I analyze the genesis of Brazilian jiu-jitsu using two conceptual frameworks. For, the creation of a Brazilian national identity took place, on the one hand, in a context of growing foreign immigration and, on the other, in terms of a nationalist influence [Lesser 1999]. During the 1930s, the Gracies found themselves in a quasi-Hobbesian state of war against all challengers. When fighting Brazilian wrestlers, the Gracies were simply seeking to enhance their status and prestige within the new political establishment. But when fighting the Japanese, they were in a more complicated way becoming figures of national identity and simultaneously representatives a distinct local fighting style.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

A Martial Arts Vow of Poverty?

Today we have a guest post from Jonathan Bluestein on the idea that somehow, martial arts teachers should be modest to the point of poverty. Enjoy.

Do Martial Arts Teachers Vow to be Poor?

There are many myths pervading in the public about the martial arts, as a result of people having watched one too many a movie about them. One of the worst is the idea that a martial arts teacher must be modest, to the point of being poor.   

Yesterday I was conversing with a very esteemed intellectual, someone whom I do not know well, but I respect. That person wrote to me the following: "There is also, however, another polarizing issue common in the martial arts world - publicizing one’s teacher on a public forum".   
I was haunted by that statement for a few hours, having written by such an otherwise knowledgeable and respectable person. He had come to believe that martial arts teachers should not advertise their skills and teachings - not even by proxy through their own students. I am here to tell you, that such a point of view is not only technically mistaken, but is also inherently inhumane, for several reasons:   

Firstly, I have been in the martial arts for many, many years. As a teacher and author, I get to speak with dozens of other martial artists every week. I do believe that people who share an idea as expressed above, are not even one in a thousand. It is not a popular opinion in our time.   
Secondly, such a notion completely negates the need for a professional to make a living in a respectable manner. The world of the 1960s and 1970s, when people could gain a clientele solely by word of mouth, is gone. This is an impossibility for the majority of self-employed persons and professions, especially martial arts teachers. In a market wherein everybody competes over advertising, and often put much money into it also, one cannot afford to sit at home and wait for income 'to happen'.       

Thirdly, that this mode of thought belittles and depreciates the profession of the martial arts teacher, relative to others. No one would dream to demand of a lawyer, a doctor or even a carpenter, that they ought not advertise their service, or order their clients to refrain from writing good things about them in public. Why then, expect such things of a martial arts teacher?

Fourth, that this contrasts with the basic humane values of a family. In traditional martial art instruction, wherein there are good relationships, the students gradually become almost like the family of the teacher. What in life gives one more pride and joy, that one’s offspring going about the world and happily share their positive impressions of the person who taught them skills and virtues? Would that not be the delight and pleasure of any parent, that their children demonstrate such devotion, affection and allegiance? This is one of the humane pleasures we experience in life, and to view this as being ‘wrong’ is an insult to the nature of our species.

The teachings of martial arts must follow virtues in a commonsensical manner. When a notion such as modesty overrides one’s ability to put food on the table, it becomes a moot point. We must not only refrain from acting in such ways that are contradictory to success and happiness, but also endeavour to educate the general public, that they ought not expect us to be silly, just because it appeals to their mistaken conception of what a martial arts teacher ought to be.

We should remember also, is that Modesty is an extreme – the opposite of Vanity. What is to be expected by the virtuous person is not the worship of Modesty, but the application of Propriety. That is, being appropriate relative to the circumstances. Is that not one of the main lessons derived from the practice of any martial art?

Jonathan Bluestein is best-selling author, martial arts teacher, and head of Blue Jade Martial Arts International. Check out his website for more information about his books and the martial arts taught by his organization:
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