死門 Shimon: Gates of Death

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael Glenn

Old City Gate photo by cliff1066™
Hatsumi Sensei tells us that we should awaken to the fact that we are only living in the space between life and death.

I've had a lot of death in my life recently. Every year that goes by, it seems that I know more and more people who are no longer around. That is natural as I grow older I guess. But in noticing this I also determine that death is always there, I just am not aware of it.  This awareness is an important quality in Budo.

People can misunderstand the famous quote from Hagakure, "The way of Bushi is the way of death." I think Soke is leading us to different understanding of that phrase. He says,
"All worldly things are impermanent; life and death are but one. Bushido is what runs through the Wabi and Sabi (transient beauty) of nature. Yet I feel compelled to say that enduring to the end no matter what happens, persevering with life despite being prepared for death at any time, is actually the secret of Bushido."
This "secret" has opened up important lessons for me in my training and my life. That space between life and death exists in the kukan. One day in class Soke told us to make space in the kukan where we could live. It confused me at the time. But I'm beginning to discover how to use that in the midst of danger. This is one aspect of the idea 九死一生 (kyuushi isshou, nine-deaths-one-life), meaning “a narrow escape from death,”

Sensei quotes the famous Zen Samurai Suzuki Shōsan,
"Knowing life and death; therein resides enjoyment."
Being aware of death in this way can get us intimately aquainted with the effects of impermanence. Shōsan taught that no one should forget their own mortality. But how does one find enjoyment in that?

As I write this, the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs just passed away. Here is his take on death awareness,
“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address
If you take this lesson to heart you won't waste time being a 八方美人 (happou bijin, eight-directions-beautiful-person) or someone who tries to be all things to all people. You may quickly find yourself at the 死門 shimon gates of death. In buddhism this is the gate, or border of death, leading from one incarnation to another.

As I think of all my friends and family that I have lost recently, I try to remember that there is a connection from birth, through life to that 死門 shimon. I cannot honor the joy that their lives brought me without also accepting their death. Or that my own path will follow theirs. Sensei says,
"Life and death are connected. Like In-Yo. Like a magnet and metal, life and death are attracted to each other, always getting closer."
So if you truly want to understand our training, it won't be morbid or wrong to do as Shōsan suggested: "Make the one character "death" master in your heart, observing it and letting go of everything else."

Kill Assumptions with 捨て身 Sutemi

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael Glenn

Hatsumi Soke Painting For Me
Assumptions are deadly. They kill the chance to learn anything in class, and they can get you killed in combat. Sometimes they are subtle and you are not aware that you are making them. One simple interaction I had with Hatsumi Sensei illustrates this.

I was training at Hombu dojo one Sunday. Sensei was generously making calligraphy and ink paintings for the students. When he had my blank shikishi 色紙 board in front of him, he took one look at me and said,

"You like manga right?"

For some reason this question threw me. Sometimes Sensei takes requests from people. People often request calligraphy of a certain phrase or kanji that is meaningful for them. Some people just let Sensei decide.

In the many times Sensei had painted something for me before, he had waited for my request. This time he did not. He just asked that question.

So what were my assumptions? I had two. And they were both off the mark.

One had to do with my poor understanding of Japanese. When he said the word "manga," in my mind that translated to Japanese comics. That's how most people define manga back home.

But Soke may define manga differently. He says,
"I am expressing inner secrets in three ways - through painting, pictures, and a combination of pictures and calligraphy. It is my sincere wish that people can grasp a feeling of the inner secrets."
"Here we use the word manga 漫画 for picture. Change the characters and it becomes "infinite pictures" 万画. Flip the order and change the characters and it becomes "perseverance" 我慢. Indeed, it is because we persevere that we receive the power to draw the infinite pictures."
The day before, when I was thinking about what picture to request from Hatsumi Sensei, I thought I would just let him decide in the moment unlike other times when I had requested something specific. But when he said manga, all of my presumptions about what that meant and what he thought I wanted jumbled up in my mind so that I had no response to his question.

He didn't wait for my answer. He just seized the moment and made a beautiful picture for me. I went home with my picture and everything was fine, but for some reason this moment stuck with me.

Another assumption I made was that he would have just done this regardless of who he was painting the picture for. But as I thought about this, and I looked at all the pictures Sensei has made for me over the years - I realized that I almost always requested some sort of picture rather than any specific kanji.

Hatsumi Sensei probably remembered this when he saw me, and that's why he asked that question. It never occurred to me that he would remember out of the many hundreds of paintings  he makes every year.

If I make assumptions about things this simple and I am wrong or muddled in my understanding, what other faulty assumptions do I make about my teachers and what they are teaching?

This is an aspect of sutemi 捨て身, throwing yourself away or sacrificing yourself. My friend Paul Masse describes it as "Being caught in yourself means stopping the flow." Throw away your assumptions before you come to class or you will be as lost as I was.

百景 Hyakkei: One Hundred Famous Views of My Mind

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael Glenn

Footprints, Gifu Prefecture, Japan. photo by tallkev
Well I've done it. Something no one else in this office would ever have thought possible. I've done something that most would consider a foolish and wasted effort. Something that only history will judge in it's fickle wisdom:

I've written ONE HUNDRED blog posts. This one makes 101.

I never set out to do that many. In fact, I don't know what I set out to do exactly. I simply started writing. One every week. And then I persevered.

Just like people start with training. They start for many reasons. None of those reasons matter so much. Just starting and then showing up for class every week. It's the perseverance that leads to growth and enlightenment in our art. You eventually find yourself with a lot of knowledge under your belt. Enough knowledge so that you are courageous enough to admit you know nothing.

Hatsumi Sensei says that he didn't start out to teach:
"When I first started accepting students, it was not truly for the purpose of teaching but rather for my own self-study and training"
I started my own classes here in Santa Monica for the same reason. And I still conduct my classes with this goal. The side effect of this is that some students join me on my journey, and as we travel the path together, we go further than we could by ourselves.

The funny thing is, I didn't realize I was starting my blog for the same purpose. I thought I was starting it for two reasons. One was to share, because when I was a young student in the Bujinkan I would have loved to have a weekly blog to read.

The other reason was that new students always ask me for a training manual. I don't really believe in training manuals, so I thought posting my thoughts on a blog would help my students with some information they were seeking.

But, as my blog grew, the reason for doing it evolved. It became about my own "self-study and training" as Hatsumi Sensei described. But more than that, as I started getting visitors from all over the world, It became part of my connection to the Bujinkan community and this path we are all on together.

Together the path becomes greater. We may travel farther.

I heard Hatsumi Sensei say a couple of years ago that even though his teacher Takamatsu had passed a long time ago, Takamatsu was still growing and walking ahead and Sensei was still following along in the footsteps of his teacher. May we also continue in the footsteps of the Bujin and the warriors who have travelled before us.

The Natural Form of Gogyo Hidden in Steam

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael Glenn

Steamed Hokkaido potato seller, photo by robizumi
The study of form. It is where most classes begin. But it also leads to some of the biggest failures and flaws in martial arts training. So much so, that Hatsumi Sensei constantly reminds us not to focus on or memorize forms.

Yet, it is hard to teach or learn anything without using form as a starting place. How do we resolve this paradox? We can look at one of our basic forms to seek answers to these questions:

Gogyo no kata: why and how does form corrupt our training of this basic concept?

I will give two examples that have far reaching implications in the Bujinkan worldwide.

In the first, it comes from a natural human tendency to take something new and compare or relate to something else we already are familiar with. This happened many years ago in the Bujinkan with the Gogyo. It was the concept that the gogyo should be a spiritual concept like the godai.

Sensei has said this isn't the correct approach:
"We are training with the gogyo no kata: chi, sui, ka, fu, ku. If you think of this as something as religious then that can be a really bad mistake. Some people try to make this a study of "godai no kata" from a religious aspect but then you lose track of the real martial arts. Experience the gogyo no kata as a universal form - the natural form."
This seemingly small choice to compare gogyo to godai has travelled the globe and the decades so that the misconception persists very strongly even today. To the extent that people will insist on it. So if I am learning a form from someone who insists on this approach, what am I learning? What is the form in the form?

Form inherently limits freedom. Of thought, of movement. This brings me to my second example.

If you learn any form in a specific way, you end up memorizing it with your mind and body. Then the form gets repeated. A lot. It is supposed to be some kind of practice I guess. Memorizing and repeating form is substituted for real learning.

So if you are shown a new way, or are corrected, it is difficult to change. In the gogyo I see people all over the world perform it in a way that can be traced back to poor understandings from the '80's. I have even watched Sensei try to correct them. Over the years he continues to correct when it comes up. But bad habits die hard.

In my own classes, I sometimes have people join us for training who learned different versions of the gogyo. No problem. I show them my version. Then I ask them to share their version so we can learn something new. But often, everyone is so attached to their own form that they cannot even do another. Even after being shown it repeatedly.

I observed this same lack of flexibility when Sensei corrected the gogyo he saw people doing. They were so trapped in their bad habit, they understood nothing he was saying or showing them in that moment.

Form is a container for ideas that cannot be seen. We can take some feeling from the Sui of gogyo. But what is the essence of water? How do you contain it? Even today science does not comprehend all of its properties. Sensei says he is teaching steam:
"In martial arts it's common sense to think of water as something that flows from high places to low places. But in places you can't see, this water turns into steam and rises up into the heavens."
This is a hidden lesson of water. Another is that it does not memorize the form of the landscape it flows over. Every rock and twist of geography, or falls in elevation. Water just flows or changes state as needed.

So if you look at the form that is being shown in class, look further. Sensei says,
"Always understand one step beyond what is being shown. then be able to go on to the next step. Even if a bad person uses some fantastic techniques, you'll always be able to go beyond that and defeat them."
Do you see that in the form of gogyo you practice?

Purifying the Senses with Less Muscle

From Bujinkan Santa Monica by Michael Glenn

photo by davco9200
There are different ways to consider the words rokkon shoujou.  When Hatsumi Sensei put this idea out for us as a theme for 2010, many of us gave the concept a lot of thought and smiles (he did say it was the purification of the senses through laughter). But it is not only about thinking. To succeed with rokkon shoujou, we need to include it in our everyday practice and training for it to have any effect.

Our training consists of fighting and combat. How does one purify the spirit while fighting?

I can give you something to work on in every training session that will get you started. But first please consider how training reflects your spirit. Maybe you've heard a song of the gokui that says,
"If you possess a heart like clear water, the opponent is reflected as though in a mirror."
Well the opposite of this is also true: if your heart is muddled and confused it will be reflected and magnified in your taijutsu. Another gokui reflects this idea,
"Bottomless waves that reflect on the water's surface, it is humiliating for my mind to be known."
One of the easiest ways to spot this in yourself or an opponent is the over reliance on strength or force. I know you've heard this from your teachers before. "don't use force," or "do it without muscle…"

So you seek to remove force. This is an act of purification. Overuse of strength and muscle in training reflects something about the spirit of the forceful. There is something in your personality or in your heart that seeks that release of power (or fear).

Hatsumi Sensei says,
"In the case of any technique you are practicing, it is necessary to absolutely eradicate any excess strength or power from your technique - in essence you must purify yourself of these ways."
If you do this every class - focus on this one simple aspect of training - then you will be living the practice of rokkon shoujou. And you may discover that one natural way to remove too much strength is to train with laughter and a light heart.