Class with Senô sensei

Japan trip 41 update:

I am just coming back from a class with Senô sensei, it is always a fantastic moment of taijutsu. We did a lot of hanbô techniques as the hanbô is very similar in its use as the tachi. We finished with tachi techniques, mainly  mutô dori against tsuki.
A very rich class indeed, I wish we could have more classes with him.


Connecting through the sageo

When using a sword, we are often bothered by the sageo, this is the long flat rope made of silk, leather or cotton, hanging down from the kurigata (the little piece of wood on the scabbard through which the sageo is inserted).

Peace time samurai would use it as an adornment with a fancy way of knotting it onto the scabbard. Obviously they were not fighting anymore and had the time to spend making beautiful but useless knots. In traditional sword schools (from mid Tokugawa, Meiji and until today) there is a whole set of etiquette on how to fold, put it on or in wearing it; however this has nothing to do with its original use. On the contrary it looks to me that the modern Japanese had to find a way to put it into use because they had no clue about what to do with it.

The Bujinkan deals with the Muromachi period of warfare, and making knots was not a priority for these warriors. Sensei commented that the “real sword masters were the tachi masters and that those using a katana used it because they did not know how to use the tachi”. Even though it seems a little harsh, this is right, when you become aware of the power of the tachi you understand the devastating possibilities created and how it can benefit your fighting abilities. To get a clear image of tachi waza think about the military world of today. Military men carry the equipment they have to be more efficient, they don’t wear equipment to look good. In order to stay alive they “adapt” their gear to their body, and to the situation. This brings us to the conclusion that the sageo had to be useful in some way.

First the sageo is a rope and a rope is used to tie. Tachi kumiuchi implies the use of yoroi (Japanese armour) and the upper part of the yoroi is supported above the hip bone by a big large obi (belt). Remember that the yoroi is moving quite freely around the torso because when you ride a horse the cylinder of the has to be able to move up along the body. Actually there is a lot of free space between your flesh and the plates of the yoroi. This kûkan gives dynamics to the yoroi and permits to receive heavy blows while dissipating the power of the hit.

 This belt was thick and round to support the and had three major uses: 1) It positioned the above the joint of the hip to free the movements of the leg. Without it the would cover the hip bone and prevent the legs from moving. Try the yoroi without it and you will be stuck in your footwork. 2) The is made of a heavy metal plates that would crush down the sides of your hip bone and create a lot of pain. The belt cushions the weight of the onto the hips. 3) The belt would carry many weapons by sticking them to the body/yoroi for easy use.

Using the belt for carrying weapons however does not concern the tachi which was hanging down low on the thigh and not on the hip. A tachi is not a katana and the holster bears two strings separated by about the width of the hand to hold the scabbard of the tachi. In comparison the katana is held at the koiguchi (tip of the scabbard). The holster is continued by a long sageo tied around the body and/or the waist to keep the sword in place and allow easy drawing in any situation. The sageo is tied up in the same way you tie your hakama. You do not make knots but fold it half crossed until the final knot.

Actually the sageo is connecting the sword to the body making it a “natural” extension of it. In 1991, I remember that sensei taught me many ways of tying the sageo around the body and the waist in a nearby temple in Noda for the sake of taking pictures (all pictures came out blurred). I forgot all about it until recently when we began to study the tachi kumiuchi.

Tied up properly, the sageo is an important device when using the tachi as it keeps the blade from swaying away from your hands and body and keeps it always ready for drawing. In tachi waza, the tsuka goes to the hand by the momentum created by your footwork. You do not grab it because you don’t see it as your vision is impeded by the kabuto (helmet) and the mask. With the sageo your movements and your sheathed blade are connected at all times.

Last year, when we studied the nawa we learnt the concept of connection, that all our movements were connected like a rope and that our weapons should move like a rope.  During daikomyôsai, sensei insisted that we should not severe the connection with a) our environment, b) our opponent(s) and c) ourselves. That was “en no kirinai”.

Because the tachi is used katate (one hand) and because the movements are very similar to those of hanbô jutsu, we can manifest this connection with the tachi as we are able to change hand (right to left and left to right) many times during the fight to get uke’s balance. Uke is blinded by the multiple angles created and cannot interpret our moves and therefore cannot counter them. The quality of our connection to nature, is “dis-connecting” him from himself, uke is only able to react to our multiple moves until it is too late for him.

But the quality of this connection isn’t limited to the manifested level of things by is also deeply related to Life. Playing with Japanese language, as usual, we have to see the connection between “sageo” (sword knot) and “sagasu” (to seek, to look for). So we can “look for” a deeper understanding of it. At a more spiritual level we see that further to our connection to the weapon (physical world), all our actions are linked to nature, and to the kami (spiritual world).

We are able to use the kanjin kaname, the eyes and the heart of the gods in our actions and stay fully connected to the ten chi jin of nature. In a Bujinkan dôjô each class begins with the following uta (Japanese transmission of wisdom):

 Chi-Haya-Buru

Kami-no-Oshie-wa

Tokoshie-ni

Tadashiki-Kokoro

Mi-o-Mamoru-ran

In his book “Chi-haya-Buru, a Japanese cultural treasure”, Craig Olson explains the deep meaning of it. “The Japanese Uta”, he writes, are “originally a form of oral transmission, (…) [the] venerable ancestor to the Haiku, (…) a link back to the origins of Japan (…). (page 3). A few pages later, when explaining the second sentence meaning “the teachings of kami” he writes: “the implication is that there was a personal connection between the composer of this uta and the kami that was passing along valuable lessons”. (page 51).

What we see, what we perceive is not the full reality. The quality of our connection makes it possible to integrate unseen information in order to survive and to live fully. “Developing the ability to understand the nature of our interaction with things that we cannot see is vital to our survival” (page 61). Tachi kumiuchi is bringing us to this level of understanding sensei’s budô.

Tachi kumiuchi is the key to encompass nature in our movements and the proper use of the sageo is what is connecting us to this new dimension. Positioned at the hip level, the sageo links the upper part of the body to the lower part; the ten to the chi and allows us to be moving like a jin (kami?).

So why do we wear a sageo? to be connected, to become one, and finally to become zero.


Are you a true shidôshi?

Sunday – Honbu dôjô – April 4th

Each Japan trip, the first class with sensei is always some kind of event and this Sunday was not different. He began by a long speech about chivalry playing with the meanings of kan – kanroku (dignity, presence) and kanpeki (perfection) which I found interesting after what we said about perfection in the last post.

Even if the “path of perfection is as important as the path of failure” (HS – March) our attitude has to be the one of a knight (kishi) focusing on his goals even at the risk of his own life.

Yesterday, sensei reminded us that Japanese words always have several interpretations, so we might see here a link with the “ku-kishi(n)” and become a knight without intention. As he said, “tori has to become transcendent, clear because this is the way of rokkon shôjô. (…) We should be able to have the creativity of a music composer and do techniques sometimes with a touch of humor, with a smile” (HS – March). But the technical aspect of our actions is not important, what matters is the result in becoming a true knight, a true human being.

To develop this chivalry (kishidô) attitude is a long process and many practitioners are not close to achieve it, but it goes here as well as with everything, perfection takes time and a lot of work. You can move the needles of your watch forward (technique) but this will not change the time passing (feeling). Kanpeki (perfection) is a long process requiring patience and commitment.

In India it is said that an elephant knows the time of his death. Death is the inevitable end of life and we must be aware that it is coming at one point. As sensei said yesterday we have to understand that what we learn in the dôjô is the link between life and death. A real knight should not be afraid of death as it is the logical end of the path. In March he said that: “”If you can smile in the face of your enemy you are a real master – if your enemy dies with a smile in his face – thats rokkon shôjô“.

Even though it sounds a little serious, we have to keep this ability to laugh in any situation and face the consequences of our actions without having any second thought. I often tell my students to be “face value” and responsible of their actions. Whatever we do in life is interfering with others and we should act properly. What we are learning through budô is a way of Life not a set of techniques. The techniques are the excuse to help find the solution to the questions we have. By training death techniques we learn how to become more human and to be alive. Every action bears some kind of knowledge and even if our experiences are not nice to live we have to learn from them this is the true meaning of “shikin haramitsu daikomyô”. Through permanent training in the form we discover that whatever we experience is positive at some point.

This is always a win win situation.

By understanding the values of chivalry, by becoming a knight we accept death and laugh at it like a real master. This is what the Bujinkan is all about.

By the way, did you notice that kishidô includes shidô, “samurai code” or “chivalry”? One of the meanings of shi being death therefore a shidôshi can be seen as a human who died to himself to become a perfect knight, i.e. a bujin, a military spirit connected to his environment.

So are you a true shidôshi?


Efficiency, beauty and elegance

Narita 4:15pm April 3rd

This is Saturday in the middle of the day. The custom process was so long that I miss the bus to Kashiwa therefore I have to wait two hours. This 41st flight to Japan went fast, I slept.

While queuing I was watching the efficiency of the Japanese officials at the immigration compared to the ones in Paris. After more than twenty years visiting Japan to train with sensei, I am always amazed at their working attitude. Back in 1980, I remember watching a man sweeping the street and staring at him for a long time. He was acting as if the whole economy of the country depended upon the quality of his work.

Efficiency here in Japan is not only a word it is a philosophy. This is the same when it comes to training in these ancient waza regrouped in the nine schools of the Bujinkan.

What is efficiency all about? It is about surviving, about staying alive. In a highly competitive society or in a fight the rules are the same. One has to do what is necessary not to be destroyed. Too often, the westerners are looking for something looking good, or exotic. Fighting or living is not about beauty it is about keeping your life.  And if you can reach the beauty in your actions this is on top.

It is like the sword. We have heard many teachers for years saying that you should not damage your sword when fighting and always block with the mune. Even if it is always better to do that in order to keep your weapon in good shape, the real question is: “do you prefer to save your blade or your life?” In the classical 47 ronin depicting the values of samurai, the author explains at the end during the final battle in Kira’s household that the hero whose name I don’t remember right now was fighting so much during that day that his sword resembled a saw at the end as the ha was totally damaged! I guess that he decided to protect his life rather than protecting his blade.

In my opinion this worshipping of the sword is quite modern and must have taken place when Japan was already pacified and under the strict tokugawa dictature (1603-1862). But in the old days, the ones of the Tachi, only efficiency on the battle field mattered. The image of the invincible samurai spread by the Japanese government during world war II to gather the national feeling and relayed extensively by westerners having no understanding of the Japanese culture is the reason for this mistake.

The Bujinkan is about training in the ways of the muromachi era where those modern values didn’t replace yet the true value based on the individual. So do not be so concerned about looking good. As sensei said it recently, “the path of success is important and the path of failure is as important too”.

In 2004, we entered the world of Yûgen no sekai or the world/dimension of elegance. The whole idea was to counter the attack before uke actually launched it. In short, we are blocking the decision before the attack comes. Funnily the Japanese language considers this ability as being elegant. The least we can say here is that this yûgen/elegance is pure efficiency and pure beauty.

Now if we look at it from a different perspective, we understand that beauty and elegance exist already when they are not manifested, not visible yet (we move before the attack). From that we can draw the conclusion that beauty is not physical, but that it is a truth transcending our vision of the reality perceived by our senses. Maybe this is why sensei introduced shiki, the sixth sense the year after during the kasumi no hô year.

Shiki is total awareness and this is what brings efficiency in everything we accomplish. When shiki is within your actions, then mushin can be attained.


The importance of Basics

I was speaking the other day with a young teacher, student of mine and I was happy to hear that “kamae and ukemi” were the key to understand the whole Bujinkan taijutsu“.

For this teacher, this was like a revelation! Sometimes in our lives we find a book that opens up a total new perspective of life. This comment to me is of the same quality. After training for many years and thinking that you know your basics,  you become suddenlyaware of a different quality in your basics. As Durckheim wrote one day: “the quality of the depth depends upon the depth of the quality”.

By repeating and teaching those basics (here kamae and ukemi), one day you cross an invisible border deepening your understanding of the whole picture.

The foundations of taijutsu lie in the permanent polishing of your basics this is why they are so important. Whatever your rank, training and teaching those basics is the key to generate new freedom in your own movements and reach this natural movement that sensei refers to.

Each class, whether you are a beginner or not (this includes also the high ranks) should “generate” this new depth in your understanding.

I always push my students to open their own dôjô to give them a chance to get to this “enlightenment” more rapidly.

One day I remember sensei telling me: “arnaud you have to teach what you have to teach, and you have to train what you have to train”. It took me along time to understand this Bujinkan koan. Today my feeling is that through the teaching of your students, you are actually teaching yourself more intensely that if you were attending a class. The teaching process forces you to find solutions to problems you never suspected before because each one follows different mental patterns. 

To use a metaphore, I would say that you understand the plate in which you are serving the food. The student is mainly interested in learning as many techniques as possible, and as a teacher you supply them endlessly. At one point though, you begin to consider the plate itself (the support) without which the food could not be served. This plate, this support in the Bujinkan are your basics;

Remember that a teacher is only an old student, even if too often high ranks tend to forget it. When in Japan, my mindset is the one of a true student and I make the same mistakes as everyone during sensei’s and the shihan classes. But this is how we get a chance to evolve, and we have to create this chance as often as possible. Now what gives us access to this are the strong basics we keep training and teaching in the dôjô.

Natural movement cannot be attained without a permanent study of the basics. And these basics well understood will, one day, unveil a new reality. In a way this is exactly the process detailed in the shu ha ri (see previous posts).

So, next time you come to teach or to train in your dôjô and once the class is over, please ask yourself:

“what did I generate today?”