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 ~

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Time to Go

Sometimes, it's time to leave a dojo or school we have been associated with for a long time. There are endless reasons to do this.

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at Kenshi 24/7 about the author's decision to leave the dojo he had been associated with for over 20 years.

 The full post may be read here.


So, yeah. I’ve been a member of the dojo in question for twenty years. I was appointed to a teaching position pretty early on, and turned down a director position once about ten years ago, before accepting it finally about four or so years ago. In the meantime my official position evolved from “instructor” to “senior instructor” (just a made-up title for a senior member under director).  This was fine, but by about 15 years in I already had the inkling that I had outgrown the dojo.  

( “Outgrown” can mean many things: in this case it refers not only the technical sense, but the groups use as a place of shugyo. ) 

My sensei passed away in 2021 and it is really at that point where I should’ve left. As I said above, I was ready to leave before but I decided to stay because he always showed me kindness and I respected him, a decision I don’t regret. Anyway, so after he was no longer around the group morphed into something else. A senior member who I respected left early on in this process, and I should’ve probably exited at the same time. For better or worse I tried to stick with it, but in the end I knew it was no longer the place for me. 

This is not the first time I have left a dojo. In 2014 another sensei who I respected passed away, and in 2016, after 11 years in the dojo, I felt as if I had no choice and departed. That time was different because I wanted to stay but felt that I was being kind of picked-on by the new teacher (hachidan = infallible). I already had a role in the dojo and would’ve almost certainly taken up a more senior position soon had this not happened. I remain close friends with my peers in the dojo (all of whom run the group now) and they often ask me to come. About once a year I pack my bogu and shinai and visit the dojo for some degeiko, but never go when the head instructor is there – which is unfortunate because I actually like his kendo…

The title of this article – “Ri” – you of course recognise: it is the last part of shu-ha-RI. Just to refresh your memory, this is from an older article of mine:

The ri (“separation”) stage is one that few ascend to. It is the point where the student has finally soaked up all that their master can teach and, combining it with their own discoveries in the ha stage (both the good and the bad), they create something uniquely theirs. They now become independent of their teacher.

The term Shu-ha-ri (“protect – break – separate”) comes originally, as you would expect, from military tactics. During the 1700s it began to be used in Sado circles, eventually being picked up and popularised for use in budo by Chiba Shusaku sometime in the 1800s. 

[ btw other terms were also imported from cultural arts into budo in the late Edo period, e.g. Shin-gyo-so (Shodo) and Jo-ha-kyu (Noh). ]

In very general terms, this shu-ha-ri cycle exists for anything that is taught and learned. The process of learning/mastery seems to be far longer in budo circles than in many other forms of study, at least nowadays. Is budo mysteriously somehow more difficult to acquire, or is there something else to it? If you look back a few decades or so you will see that the very long gestation time we see nowadays didn’t seem to be the norm. An easy example is that kendo grades only went to godan (people involved with increasing the grades post-war later wrote that in hindsight they shouldn’t have bothered). Anyway, I seem to have gone off-topic.

I guess my point is that after many years of practice at a particular place, it is natural to feel a re-adjustment of your position. You get older, your life changes, people come in and go out. Maybe the older members, including your sensei, pass away or are now no longer able to keiko, and you find yourself in a position of responsibility. As you have aged so to have your priorities changed, and maybe even your passion. Your role in the dojo as well as the dojos role in your life have transformed. Things happen.

I kind of fought my initial feeling to leave the dojo, but it built up over time to such an extent that it was probably obvious to everybody that it was no longer the place for me… it is time I made my own place.



Monday, June 03, 2024

Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu

Over at the excellent blog, Ichijoji, there is a good article unpacking Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, which is the oldest surviving martial tradition in Japan. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.


 Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryū is one of the oldest extant schools of martial arts in Japan, with an unbroken lineage from late medieval times, blessed (until recently) with an open and charismatic sōke who oversaw the teaching and passing on of his skills and knowledge to the next generation while managing to maintain quality control at the same time as expanding its popularity.

It was also notable as the principal koryū studied by Donn Draeger, and through his influence became the point of entry for many non-Japanese interested in older martial traditions. Because of this connection, it was also featured in the BBC documentary ’Way of the Warrior’, becoming familiar to another generation of practitioners outside Japan and it was because of both of these that I learnt about it first myself.

It has a broad technical repertoire utilizing a number of weapons and, unusually in traditional Japanese martial arts, involves quite long kata which are done at speed (and also, at least at one time and depending on the circumstances, also practiced out of doors). Seen from an outsider’s perspective, it is often difficult to tell exactly what is happening in these kata, especially as targets are substituted for the real target to allow a longer sequence and to hide the true nature of the attacks from outsiders. There are several videos online of Otake Risuke demonstrating and explaining parts of these kata, and one can only assume this is the tip of the iceberg. Although such explanations give us an insight into the meanings of the kata, it must be viewed as a partial explanation of the system as a whole - there is, no doubt, very much more that is kept within the teachings. However, it gives enough to have good idea of how deceptive surface appearances can be. 

At first glance, the kata appear more combative than those of other schools - there is much clashing of bokken and the pace is fast. In fact, they look like the kind of choreography you might see in a movie. When Otake explains the techniques it opens a window to understanding, but there is more left unexplained. Two of the points he stressed were that targets are predominantly those areas that would be left minimally protected by armour, and that the targets which are shown in the kata are not the real targets. Strikes made in the kata are typically blocked (for want of a better word) by the opponent’s bokken, or avoided, and although it is sometimes easy to see where the cut is aimed, often the intended target is purposely obscured.

Looking at the kata more closely, there are several other points common to much of Japanese swordsmanship. Many schools of sword stress the ability to make a straight downward cut; their kata feature this as an attack (albeit often an unrealistic one) and often begin with a number of cuts that are obviously not directed at the opponent. (You can see this in the introductory kata of the TSKSR.) Putting aside considerations of reigi (proper behaviour and respect, custom, even religion) that may have influenced these kata (and these aspects should not necessarily be downplayed) what purpose does this have? I believe it is intimately bound up with the style of fighting, one which relies on assessment of line and distance, and one which sees attack as the best defence. These initial cuts are a means of establishing one’s own awareness of the line of the sword, the line which you use to attack and, vitally, must defend against. Understanding and being able to see this line is a vital component of effective swordsmanship: creating and manipulating this line within oneself is an important step towards this.