2017 A year in review with Jack Hoban

On Sat November 11th (Veteran's Day) I attended the Year in Review Seminar with Jack Hoban. This seminar began a little earlier than usual and was well attended. Aside from Jack there were teachers from at least 7 different dojo in the north-east attending.

Jack opened up the class by verbally explaining some of the themes for the year. We had focused on a lot of Kotō Ryu, Mutō Dori, and controlling the balance point.

On the subject of Kotō Ryu, Jack said that he wasn't really teaching Kotō Ryu as a standalone art, nor did he feel particularly qualified to do so. His point was that in all the years he has seen Soke work on the different schools, he stills sees the same overall Bujinkan Taijutsu. He said that a better way to describe what we were doing was Bujinkan Taijutsu using the Kotō Ryu kata as a reference point. We weren't doing a historical reenactment but rather finding a modern relevance in the form.

With that in mind, training began. We began with the Shoden Gata of Kotō Ryu, in the first two techniques the attacker is attempting a throw. Jack pointed out the important difference between trying to resist the throw by stiffening, which gave the attacker a better "sense" of how to throw you, versus moving to a better position where the attacker was temporarily unbalanced.

In Yokutō for example, the basic evasion is done using yoko-aruki, but where and when is this movement done? We were instructed to find the place where our movement captured the opponents balance and allowed us to freely strike the opponent. With trial and error, and watching the instructor's example we could start to find a good tactical position. Having good feedback from the Uke was critical in this regard. The tricky part was the timing, that was something that just had to be felt and hopefully one day understood. Once the initial move started to work, it was much easier to capitalize on the Uke's response with a koppō, keri, and shako.

The next kata Ōgyaku was a good example of this; after breaking their kamae by pressing on the back of the hip and extending their spine the Uke attempted to straighten up. This allowed us to drive into their butsumetsu with a shitō fist quite easily, felling them with mostly their own movement.

In Koyoku the attack was a punch, and rather than waiting we covered the attacking arm and intercepted the attack by striking the Kimon with a Niōken, followed by a Ganseki Nage. The key part here, again, was finding the correct position and having the correct timing to intercept the attackers center, breaking their kamae from the very beginning. Now the key became space management, and creating a lever in their arm such that when the Uke fights and resists they progress themselves to the ground. As Jack demonstrated it, it almost looked fake watching the Uke fall down. As Uke though, you felt how it worked and realized that appearances are very deceiving.

For Shitō, Hosoku, and Hōteki we used similar principles, creating Gyaku, striking with Kikaku, or performing Taki-otoshi. Leverage, Juppō Sessho, Kukan, and Kaname. Jack mentioned that we keep reviewing ideas and concepts from previous years but always from a new perspective or deeper level of understanding.

After a lunch break we returned and changed gears to practice dealing with multiple attackers.

Here the principle was the same as with a single attacker, except we had to utilize the one Uke against the other. Pinning them together and seeing the balance point to control two individuals together. This was no easy task, but a good puzzle. Jack gave us pointers, trying to coax us to move in the right direction. In this way we began to at least get an idea of what we should be doing. Finally we had a demo of using the same principle against three attackers, so much to learn.

Next we moved on to Mutō-dori, which Jack explained as much deeper than just "unarmed against a sword", perhaps more in the line of dealing with opponents that have an advantage of any kind. We began though with the traditional sword, and a Shomen strike. At first we moved in a way similar to shown at Buyū Camp, where we moved just enough to avoid the outside of the cut and at a distance which exceed the sword's reach. Then once we started to feel the timing of this movement we looked at a new space, which involved us moving into and beside the cut. We were instructed not to "dodge" the sword and instead improve our timing, physically moving as little as possible. It was OK to be hit a few times with the padded training weapon while we tested our distance and timing. We were experimenting (playing one might say).

The attack then changed to a horizontal cut, and then a tsuki. In all cases we had to focus on the timing of the space and avoid staring at the sword. Here more than ever we could see and work on the positioning with our partners, but getting that good sense of timing would take practice.

Finally we switched to a Tantō, a weapon with reduced range but increased maneuverability.  From a slash, a hold up, even pinned against a wall, we had to focus on the same principles. Balance, timing, space. Not easy in such a confined and would-be dangerous situation. There was definitely something to be said for the concepts, even if we could not yet fully grasp and execute them. "Don't mess around with the knife!", Jack pointed out. It was better to injure and disable the attacker rather than try to wrestle their weapon away.

After we thanked our training partners we took a moment to discuss another talking point from the year. How different parts of the brain work, and how under stress we often rely on our cerebral cortex to make very non-tactical and reactive decisions. Jack talked about how humans have beaten any animal on earth using intelligence, but we could never beat a dangerous animal using only instinct. In fact much of the Taijutsu we use requires some rational awareness to recognize and execute in the moment. At the same time, if we are too intellectual we might lack the innate skills to recognize and react to danger in the first place. So part of training is the ability to toggle the consciousness according to the situation. As an example; he talked about highly trained members of SWAT teams practice their methods over and over again, often under stress, so that in the real world they do not panic. Correct methodology, frequent repetition.

Of course, this led me to a realization, the Kotō Ryu, the Mutō Dori, the Mindset....these were not the true themes of the year at all. It was the same theme as every year...Bujinkan Budō Taijutsu!

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 : http://www.buyukai.de/

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 was....you 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, because...how 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 taught...you 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