Have you ever leaned against a tree and felt the wind blowing the whole trunk? It is an interesting feeling because the trunk feels so solid, yet it sways in the wind. Even a small breeze can shift the whole thing.
One Tuesday night in the Bujinkan Honbu Dojo I felt this from Hatsumi Sensei. It was so soft and subtle that it would be easy to miss. And at this point, Soke said,
“Don't do too much. Whether it's in contact or not, you're moving away. But you're not trying to do it. 力を感じさせない chikara o kanji sasenai.”
Chikara o kanji sasenai. This means you don’t let the opponent feel your power. You don’t let him feel any technique from you. Or any force, or power. You may use force and power, but you want to use it in a way that he cannot feel it! Then when it affects him, he has no idea where it comes from or how to counter it.
That afternoon I had spent some time in a bamboo grove near 関さんの森 Seki-san no mori. The breeze was quite strong. I stared in wonder at the movement of the very tall bamboo as they swayed and squeaked against each other in the sky above me. I placed my hand on one of the culms. I felt it move my palm softly.
In this way you do not telegraph or give away your intent. This is a fascinating way of using taijutsu. You are responsive to your opponent, but not fighting.
Hatsumi Sensei showed this again when his opponent grabbed his wrist. He told us,
“He will have the tendency (勝ち gachi) to relax his grab so you wait for that. Then you move with 雅致 gachi (artistry or grace) to control with your feet. Study this connection.”
He then told us we should float the opponent in the kukan. What does that mean? Well, imagine a heavy object like a bundle of bamboo. It would be hard to push around with one finger. But if it were floating as a raft in the water, you could push and turn it through the water with very little force. Even if someone were sitting on it, you could still move it easily.
This is what happens to your opponent when you float him in the kukan. Hatsumi Sensei said that one of the themes for the Jugodans in this type of training was to be able to apply a technique without really doing it. He told us to not use any technique, yet have it happen anyway.
He described it as 荒むのパターン susamu no pataan. This is a pattern of wildness. There's no pattern but it's all connected.
This is challenging to get your mind around. If you think of a technique like omote gyaku, or ganseki nage, these are techniques that you normally have to do yourself. And we train hard to learn to apply them correctly. But for us Jugodans, we have to have these techniques happen without actually doing them ourselves.
One clue for how to do this was when Soke told us to break the balance in the space. You do this by becoming the kukan yourself. If you become the kukan, there is no pattern and you can be free. This is the kind of control he wants us to embody.
The other night in Hatsumi Sensei's class I ran to grab a bokken from the weapon rack. When I returned, my training partner was waiting for my attack so he could try the muto Dori technique that Soke had just demonstrated.
When I cut down I had a great surprise. Hatsumi Sensei appeared from behind my training partner. He pushed my training partner aside so that I was cutting at Soke instead!
I thought that I hit something but Soke was beside me laughing. Somehow I missed. He said that I should learn this feeling.
This year one of the main themes of the training in Japan is Muto Dori. Anyone who has cut at Soke will tell you that he disappears or even splits in two.
That was what I experienced this time. It was like there were two of him. I hit one but that was an illusion.
I've often struggled to understand the reality behind this. Even though I can sometimes do this with my own students, the act remains elusive from any explanation.
But today I was lucky. Hatsumi Sensei gave us a big clue later on in the class. He showed a knife evasion and he said to move like the heat wave from 摩利支天 Marishiten. He said this as an aside to his uke and then he moved on.
Marishiten is a goddess I have some familiarity with. One of the very first shrines I visited in Japan was 摩利支天徳大寺 Marishiten tokudaiji in Tokyo. This place is a bit hidden in the middle of a very urban market.
Marishiten is very important for warriors and for ninja. She protects because she uses illusion to help us disappear from our enemies. In Mikkyō (esoteric Buddhism), there are mantra and mudra which are said to make a warrior invisible.
Marishiten appears like a ray of light or mirage. Her image is like a shimmering heat that bends light. Under her protection, anyone who attacks us would be blinded by illusion.
The illusion comes in rays of shimmering light. When you look, it is like staring into the sun, and Marishiten charges from within this brilliance.
When Soke said this a subtle light went off in my brain. This ineffable feeling he wanted me to understand was now more than just an odd experience I feel when I attack him. You have to see more than the illusion.
Maybe my training is to grasp the nature of the mirage and illusion that arises from Marishiten. This is one aspect of Hatsumi Sensei's lesson to me. But an odd side effect of this knowledge it is that I can now learn to counter this.
The mirage of Marishiten is a type of blindness. Once you can see and pierce through this veil, what lies beyond it grows clearer. I do not know what surprises Soke has waiting for me when I see past this layer, but I suspect it will open like the lotus blossom.
Marishiten is often depicted standing on a lotus. But her more angry form is shown standing on the back of a wild boar. Hopefully I will see flowers instead of beasts!
Based on a lucky tip from one of my favorite blogs, Japan This!, I explore deep into Tokyo’s history from when the Samurai held the high ground of the yamanote in old Edo. What I found was surprise for me and for any Bujinkan student.
I got off the at the right train stop and started walking through the neighborhood. But my map and these shadowed early morning streets didn’t make me very confident I was on the right path. I was about to enter a konbini to ask for directions, when a police officer on a bicycle rode up.
He parked outside the 7-11 and went inside. I followed. My Japanese is not awesome, but I have had good luck with getting directions from Japanese police in the past. So while he was browsing the potato chips, I approached him like the dumb tourist I was.
He seemed a bit bothered, but gave me the “chotto matte,” so he could finish his shopping. He seemed to be buying drinks and snacks for a few people. I went outside next to his bike.
He put everything in the handlebar basket and motioned for me to follow him. We walked a couple of blocks to the kouban. There were about 5-6 police bustling around the street corner. My cop took me up to a map on the wall.
Suddenly, we had an audience. ALL of the officers were very curious to see what we were looking for. As he tried to find something on the map, each one interrupted with their own attempt to help. It was a combination of testing their English on me (which was not good) and trying to explain to him where he should look on the map.
As I stood in the huddle of six cops, I was embarrassed and amused by all the trouble my inquiry had created. A crowd was gathering on the street corner, and most of the locals were staring at me. Then the boss arrived.
An officer that was much older came out of the kouban and all of the others stopped talking. He calmly looked at the address I held in my hand. He punched a finger like a dart into the map and handed the address back to me. He told me that I could not go inside the place. I said I knew that, and I just wanted to take a photo of the outside.
Then a funny thing happened. He started scolding the original officer for not knowing what this place was. I mean, it has been there for more than 400 years and all. Like I said, my Japanese is not great, but I could hear the dressing down in any language.
I thanked them, and started walking. But the senior officer would not allow me to go. He continued scolding as the original cop was unloading the groceries from his bike basket. He pointed down the street and was giving him directions. And orders to escort me, apparently.
Now I walked beside the officer. And he walked his bike. I apologized to him. He waved it off.
That was a long 15 minute walk. There was the language barrier. But maybe just a bit of touch of annoyed policeman. It has a different flavor than annoyed police in America.
He dropped me off at the historic site with one more admonition that I could not go inside. Then he got on his bicycle and pedaled away to leave me alone in the quiet neighborhood. I spent a little time observing the old architecture of this Samurai house.
On the main gate was the name plate of Takagi. This had really driven my visit. You may know that one of the main schools of our Bujinkan study is 高木揚心流 Takagi Yoshin Ryū. And the fact that this was an old Samurai house made me dream of a connection.
The Takagi family has been living in this residence for more than 400 years! I know that Takagi is a common name in Japan. But I can dream. Anyhow I took some pics and walked around the old gate.
Then came a surprise! And old man called to me from the other side of the gate. He peered through the slot and motioned me to a smaller, side gate. He unlatched it and slid it open and beckoned me inside!
This old man, maybe a member of the Takagi family, made it clear I could give myself a tour of the property. He told me to let myself out when I was done. Then he went back inside the house.
I am always blown away by the generosity of the Japanese people. So I spent about 30 minutes quietly taking pictures and admiring the architecture. It seemed like there were a number of families living on the property, so I didn’t want to overstay my welcome or intrude too much.
I tried to imagine what old Edo must’ve felt like inside and outside these walls hundreds of years ago. I let myself back out the side gate. And wandered back into the streets of modern Tokyo.
I must thank the police. It occurred to me later that the older policeman who seemed very familiar with this property might have even called ahead to let the family know I was coming over. That may be why I was allowed to enter. I also must thank Japan This! for finding this, and for all of the other wonderful reports on the blog.
五條天神社で、お焚き上げ otakiage preparations at Gojoten jinja. photo Michael Glenn
Last time I attacked Hatsumi Sensei, he disappeared. It left me very confused. But Hatsumi Sensei described it this way,
“This is a way to control. You’ve got to be a shadow. He won’t believe that I’m avoiding.“
The next day I ran some errands in Tokyo. The local shrines were already beginning their new year’s preparations. I stopped and stared at a pile of wood that was made ready for the お焚き上げ otakiage bonfire. Fire can purify and burn away problems from the previous year.
I kept thinking about what happened in yesterday’s class with Soke. How did he disappear? That was what I was stuck on.
I thought, next time I get that chance, I am going to really try to hit him and see what happens. If anything goes wrong, the year is almost over and I can throw myself into the fire.
In Hatsumi Sensei’s next class, he asked me to punch at him. I decided this time I would go for it! I really tried and he disappeared. Then I was kind of hanging there in space. I felt a finger (I think it was his thumb) very light on the back of my hand. And somehow this threw me. He said,
“This muto dori feeling is very important. One finger. Just kind of pass by. This way of moving through the kukan is important.”
What Hatsumi Sensei was teaching was how to control. I discovered much later that this type of control arises neither by evading or NOT evading. It is hidden in between.
Hatsumi Sensei told us over and over, “Yokeru yokenai!” This is getting out of the way without getting out of the way. Not evading while evading.
This is hard to understand. Obviously you don’t want to get hit by your opponent. If you can’t evade or stand still, then what?
Hatsumi Sensei gave us a clue when he said “人間の意識からない ningen no ishiki kara nai.” Don’t do it with your own human intention.
That is the problem with evading. The human intention or thought takes too long. Soke said, “I'm not avoiding. Not thinking.”
This creates a special kind of distance that is connected to nature. It is not something that you came up with yourself. If you're trying to get out of the way, then you won't be able to control anything because you are preoccupied.
You don’t want to get hit, or cut by the weapon. But if you try to evade, or try NOT to evade, you will fail. No matter how good you are. There is always someone better, faster, sneakier. So the answer lies in between evading and not evading.
What is in between? Connection and zero. This has long been how Soke describes his budo,
“You control him like this. This is the theme. Connect these ideas. It becomes zero. Connecting zero.”
You can find the middle way between evading and not evading by merging with this universal space (Hatsumi Sensei said shizento and uchuuto). Then he called it a 玉 gyoku or egg ( I don’t know what that means, but if you do, please contact me).
Your whole body becomes like the mist. I wouldn’t believe any of this, except I tried to hit Soke and that is what happened. I have been holding onto that feeling ever since.
In my own training I have discovered that in the moment you evade, you break the connection and become trapped in your efforts to evade. You escape this through play. Play sets you free. Hatsumi Sensei described it,
“This is the idea of freedom. This is the strength of freedom. The power of freedom. Because it's very wide, it's very vast (宇宙 uchuu). You want to go up into space.”
The flames from the bonfire rise above the shrine, sending sparks past the 鳥居 torii, and up among the stars. I would burn with them. There I learn the freedom of this distance.