Coming down from the mountain

As many of you might know, in addition to my regular interstate commute to train with Jack Hoban in New Jersey, I also teach every week at Bujin Philly in Pennsylvania. We wrapped up 2016 training there on Dec 18th and at the end of class I provided my own tie-in (click here for a great book on tie-ins) that reflected my thoughts on my own training. It was met with a lot of positive feedback so I decided to write it publicly in my blog so that perhaps others may gain from it.

It all started after my teacher made his most recent return from Japan. Now, I'm not saying that my classes usually go very well, there are always gaps and weaknesses in my training, but that first night when he got back I was for the most part utterly lost. This left me feeling somewhat disturbed, what was I doing, or not doing that caused me to "not get it"? Had I finally lost grasp of the fine thread of training? Did I need to train more, or less, or change my training altogether? My mind was whizzing all the way home and for several days and classes afterwards.

As I thought about it more, my perspective broadened from where I was then, to where I had been. I thought about my entire experience of training. 10 years ago I started training with my teacher, at that time I had already been training for 15 years. As well as training at my then local dojo, I had been to Japan, I had been to seminars and classes with high ranking Shihan, attended a few Taikai, and had cross trained in other martial arts, but I had stopped growing as a martial artist for a while. In terms of training, I had reached the top of my little mountain, I had peaked.

When I first started training at Spring Lake I could see that Jack and several of his students were at a higher level. I couldn't quite understand why, or how, but in some way I could just sense the level of my teacher, he was on this big mountain which towered over mine. Now I knew that I really wanted to get to the top of that mountain too, I imagined the glorious view from up there, and I was all set to climb. There was just one problem, I couldn't simply fly upwards from where I was. There was no cable car express to the top.

For months, maybe even a year or more, I tried to figure out why I wasn't really progressing. Why couldn't I just go up! Finally it occurred to me. If I want to climb that big mountain, then the first thing I have to do is come down from my own. Go all the way back to the ground, seemingly giving up all the ground I had gained and starting from scratch. Ugh! But, what choice did I have. And so I did. I just shut up and listened and went from the ground up.

Then, years later I was still climbing that mountain with my heart set on the top, when I looked back I saw that old mountain, which now looks like an ant-hill. Yeah, I felt pretty good. Suddenly a voice comes from far away in my subconscious and asks me, "what are you doing?". 
"Climbing the mountain", I reply. Silence for a while.
"Well we aren't climbing that mountain any more Tony, we are on this new mountain now.....".
I turn and look up where the voice comes from, and there, previously shrouded by the mist is a taller and steeper and more impressive mountain than the one I am on.
"But.........", I look down. I look across, I look up "..I'm still climbing this one....", my voice trails off.

I already know that I have reached that point. The point where I have to decide, shall I keep fixated on the peak of this mountain? Or shall I embark on a new course now that it has been revealed to me, one that requires me first to descend from where I am.

I have learned that sometimes in order to reach new levels we have to throw away a good portion of what we think we know, what we think we want, and in the process even a part of ourselves. Not just once, but many times over. Sometimes we have to come down the mountain.

Buyu Camp 2016

It is almost December. Just over two months ago I was at the Buyū Camp East in Wickatunk, NJ. A younger version of myself would still have the techniques and conversations floating through my head, but that is not how it is for me now. 2016 has been a whirlwind, in my paid vocation several large projects were completed, in my private life milestones were reached and difficulties survived. I traveled, competed, organized, studied, supported, laughed, cried, trained, lived and loved. Buyū Camp was indeed fantastic, many there said it was quote "The best one yet!". I agree, but even the best moments can be swamped by a hectic modern world. My teacher Jack Hoban said to me recently "When I was one years old, a year was my whole life. When I was two, a year was half my life. Now....". Well, you do your own math on that one and see for yourself how you fare.

Jack teaching Ura Shutō

Nevertheless, the feeling of Buyū Camp still remains, and what a wonderful feeling it was. Tucked away in the woods of New Jersey, dozens of martial artists from all over the continental USA are joined by visitors from Europe and sometimes further afield. Sharing training experiences and ideas, working together to cultivate an environment which is particularly hard to define in words.

Sabine Fröhlich of Germany

A feeling of welcome is present for certain. Jack talked about his early days training with his teacher Sōke Hatsumi Masaaki in Japan. At that time there was no Honbu dōjō, there was no internet, signage was almost exclusively in Japanese, there was limited translation, and a limited number of members training at the dōjō, most of whom had been training many years already. Jack reminisced how he must have been back then, from a different culture, a different background, and looking to learn from this tight group of hardcore students. It would have been quite easy to be excluded, certainly in my own experience budōka can be very resentful of their own training being slowed down by dealing with an "outsider". But that is not what happened to Jack. Efforts were made to on-board him into their training methodology. Jack made it quite clear that to this day he appreciates that hospitality and intended to do unto others as had been done unto him.

Ed Martin of Pennsylvania

Of course there were some technical themes during the camp. On Friday night a solid grounding in the Sanshin forms as well as the Kihon Happō. On Saturday morning the day began with kata and variations from the Gyokko Ryū Joryaku no Maki. In the breakout session the themes varied; Mutō Dori, Sanshin, Rokushakubō, Taihenjutsu, Shinken Gata, Newaza, Kihon Happō and Tantō. On Sunday afternoon Kenjutsu. A mighty showcase for a diverse set of teachers, tools and concepts. The feeling however was studious, everyone wanted to learn and take the opportunity to explore what others were thinking or doing, using this opportunity to refine or experiment with their own training. We trained hard as a group, but we had fun with it and made light of our mistakes and kept going.

Steffen Fröhlich of Germany

There was indeed a sense of continuity. It might be that many of those at camp only get a chance to meet this one time of the year, yet the friendships keep growing and the purpose of training slowly becomes clearer to all. This was probably my tenth Buyū Camp since moving to the USA, and although some of the original inspirational Buyū are no longer training with us in the physical world, their vision continues through others. Life is change, at the end of the last day Jack revealed that the venue would have to change for 2017 as the owners were selling the facility. Referring back to Hatsumi Sensei, Jack said "Tsugi!" which means "Next!". Always looking forwards to the next iteration, the next step.

Murray Taylor from Great Britain

Perhaps in the end there was a sense of "Wow I was here for this!", and I thoroughly look forward to enjoying that same feeling in 2017. In the meantime here are more photos of Buyū Camp East 2016 : Facebook Album (no account needed)

Craig Gray from Michigan

Please also look check out the BuyuKai in Germany for 2017 :

The Sunday Group

Ethics, Tactics, Technique revisited

About 6 years ago I wrote a blog essay about ethics. It was overly wordy but managed to get a modest number of views. Eventually I decided I was no longer happy with it and took it down, besides, there is much better sources in the form of books. It was really just a desire to share what was for me a major observation from training in a class with Jack Hoban, in case others found it useful.

I still remember that class. It had been a class much like any other, Jack would say one thing, and I would do another. I was not being a bad student deliberately, I was actually training very hard and paying attention. It was just that something key was missing in my training. For years Jack had tried to impart upon all of us the importance of having the right ethic, of controlling the space effectively, and how to apply a technique efficiently. It made sense in words, I could see and feel the application in action, but when I went to do it my habit was to fight for a winning technique, or finishing move. Sacrificing all else in the process.

In this particular class we studied Sanshin no Kata, some of the most "basic" movements in the Bujinkan system. Jack was explaining how the ethic drives the tactic which drives the technique in this controlled scenario. Somewhere around the second form I suddenly saw something and internalized it, "from that space there, he is safe, if he is unethical and goes in this way he will break his tactical advantage and get hit, if the opponent moves in however he can stay safe and can defend himself very well". Not very exciting in words I know, but my mind started to buzz with new possibility. My first realization can consistently be ethical, and tactical and do a technique!?

Not impressed? Well of course, in words many things are easy. But in reality, my own life experience and years of martial arts training had not led me to hold much confidence in being ethical when it came to violence. And even when it came to tactics, the most common tactic that seemed to work was to be stronger, faster and more ruthless than the opponent. Being unexceptional at all of those, I'd barely managed to fight or run my way out of trouble on several occasions in the past. Being ethical, while also surviving, seemed like a lofty ideal. But suddenly that night, it was demonstrably possible, even in basic form, even for me.

The next observation was that, actually, being ethical was not just possible but better! That was the main realization. It was absolutely clear, if I lose the ethic of protecting self and others, my mind would cloud, I would perhaps get angry or panic, I would freeze or rush into something, and it would be little more than luck if my forced technique worked. On the contrary, keeping ethical kept me thinking tactically, and eventually allowed me to find the right form for the technique. True, it would require me to change the way I trained, it would take time to develop any level of proficiency, but if I was not prepared to evolve and put the work in, I had essentially reached the end of my training anyway.

There is often a joke on the internet about "what has been seen cannot be unseen". What I saw was a better approach to my martial arts training than what I had been doing up to that point. 6 years later I certainly have not mastered it, but I am happy with the progress and look forward to many more years of growth and development. In that regard too, it is a better life.

Riding the wave into 2016

One particular lesson from 2015 still stands out for me. I was struggling with a larger and tight muscled opponent, and every time I felt resistance, I also tried to get stronger, and my technique became unsafer and less effective as a result. This did not escape the attention of our teacher.

After stepping in to demonstrate without issue, Jack asked me to focus on being in the right position to deal with the opponent's force, and to go with the opponent rather than fight him. I followed this advice as best I could, the result was not perfect but much improved on what I had been doing. Jack asked my partner "what was the feeling?", and my partner replied that he "Didn't really feel that much" comparing to my earlier attempts. Then Jack said something funny, he said when you do it right your partner should say to you "Wow! I never DIDN'T feel anything like that before!".

Although it had me smiling on my commute home from the Dōjō, this statement certainly made me more aware of what I felt, or didn't feel, as techniques were applied to me during the rest of the year. Which gradually became less and less feeling towards the end, especially in Japan, training with so many high level members of the Bujinkan and in such a Budō rich environment.

It seemed in stark contrast to how the training had started in January and for much or the year. Working on the Sanshin, Kihon Happō and basic Kata of Kukishinden Ryu Dakentaijutsu, we often communicated with our training partners regarding specifically the feeling, trying to coax each other to achieve more efficient Taijutsu. Now the forms were often flowing and adjusting according to the Uke, becoming less and less like specific recognizable techniques.

This kind of training was hard to maintain though, can I put this? I was not quite able to employ the required level of Taijutsu consistently. My foundational skills were not quite up to scratch, my experience was not quite there, my understanding had not yet fully developed. I often looked for insight as to what specifically I was doing wrong, but after demonstrating something I could not comprehend, Jack would simply say "I can't teach you this, this can't be just have to keep training". That actually made me happy in a way, that there are levels of this art which are out of reach to those that do not study diligently.

Soon enough though, January 2016 arrived, and we spent our first class of the year again working on Sanshin and Kihon Happō. This time however there were new details for me to observe, refinements to take into consideration. As a fellow student quipped "advanced basics".

The 52 week cycle of learning has begun anew for us. Not quite as impressive as the current 42 year cycle of the Bujinkan, but a cycle within a cycle. Who knows where 2016 will take the training for us, but just like a surfer, one must ride the wave, and go with the flow.

Nami Nin - Wave man
by Hatsumi Sensei Bujinkan Sōke

Japan Trip Review - The Skipping Stone

When I first arrived at the new Honbu, I was incredibly impressed by its fresh character. A lot of thought had gone into layout and facilities, while a bright and well decorated interior provided a clean backdrop for Budo training. As much as I miss the old training hall, it definitely felt like an upgrade. The famous chalk board schedule still hung upon the wall, and I was excited to see that I would have the chance to train with many Shihan during my stay.

The first class was with Nagato Sensei, and immediately my attention was drawn to his movement. It seemed that as he demonstrated the initial grab, punch, or kick attack would be the same, and he might even travel in the same initial direction, but from there it would change each time. As the attacker fought back or readjusted balance, the defenders flow would just continue, circumventing the opponents strength and patiently letting a technique unfold naturally.

Nothing was really completed, one moment it appeared that an Omote Gyaku was going to be applied, but then it would suddenly transform into Ganseki Nage, in this way I saw a full flow of Kihon Happo techniques demonstrated, I felt this significant and so it stuck in my mind.

Grandmaster Hatsumi Sensei was of course the heart center of inspiration. I actually had the opportunity to see him teaching five times during my trip and all my observations have since overlapped. He mentioned that this year he had been focusing on Muto Dori, but it felt like he was trying to explain that this represented more than just empty handed defenses against a sword wielding attacker. There was a feeling to it, which was always there, regardless of whether he was armed or not.

Often he repeated the importance of not 'evading' the attack quickly, but to find the right rhythm and space. He also demonstrated the use of very light touch, sometimes using just a finger to control a cover point on the attacker. On a few occasions he didn't even need to touch the opponent, simply covering the important spaces was enough to alter the opponents next move. In fact, he even said not to see the opponent as an opponent to be beaten or defended against, but rather as a collaborator.

He often used his elbows to control, leaving his hands free to strike, or take other points, all in a natural flow. He likened this to the concept of the skipping stone, bouncing across the water. I felt that much like the skipping stone, the outcome is predetermined by the conditions, but any slight variation in those conditions appear to cause vastly deviating visual results. He said the important thing to do was to keep going along with the flow, and to have faith that one will survive.

Another notable concept was his usage of fulcrums and levers, especially when employing a sword or staff. He often found a way to set himself up, so that a simple soft movement of his body exerted incredible natural force against his opponent. Sometimes he even asked for multiple opponents to attack, and he was able to leverage them against each other. He did warn us not to take his Muto Dori too seriously though, and went on to show us how as a swordsman he could easily cut by utilizing the same flow and feeling as if he had no sword.

Hatsumi Sensei actually had an extra class for his Birthday. He talked about how he had spent the last 42 years working on what he had learned in 15 years with his teacher Takamatsu Sensei. He finally feels that he can do justice to the titles he received, and later mentioned that it is sometimes necessary to grow into a title or award, which has been received in advance of reaching the required ability.

He said that he has had a good time during those 42 years, he did a lot of travelling around the world teaching and spreading his art during less turbulent decades. Now however, it might be that as Budoka we have to step up to become examples for future generations as the world itself is changing. This change, and need to evolve was referenced often. Next, next, next....what is going to happen in the next cycle, it felt like a lot of that is really up to all of us now.

I studied with all of the Shihan that made themselves available, my cup was full and emptied several times. I realized I could not take back home their techniques or form, but their advice and training methodologies were certainly something I could work from. Apart from which, their skill and ability are all an inspiration to keep going, reference points to what is possible if I just keep pushing.

Hatsumi Sensei also talked about this, he said that when one hits a wall, one should not give up, but keep trying to find a way through. He said even if the wall is really strong, you can broadcast through it, and that way still reach the other side. That we should not let these walls be such a determination of who we are. With such motivational words, it was really a powerful training environment.

There certainly was a great deal of energy at the Dojo, I was awestruck not just by Hatsumi Sensei and his skills but also at the entire atmosphere he has created. It was very hard not to be distracted and I was reminded about Jack's teaching on the combat mindset during the year. I began to wonder in the skipping stone analogy whether we are supposed to be the skipping stone, or the water.