Hello everyone. Liu sifu has finalized his schedule for the fall. He will be teaching a seminar on his family’s Feeding Crane the weekend of October 21 & 22. As usual, it should be a great weekend of training, with excellent instruction and some great people to share it with. The seminar info and sign up is attached. Looking forward to seeing everyone and sweating together! If you have any questions please let me know.
Sometimes short conversations can make you think about your art differently, sometimes in a fairly fundamental way. I was in Okinawa in January and at one point while taking a short pause in training Ishiki sensei and I started talking about some of the smaller weapons in the system. We had been working with the tekko and san bon nunchiyaku and had played a little with some ticchu and some chizikunbo I had made for him. We were discussing the various techniques these weapons shared and how they related to the other weapons in the system. In particular we were talking about the techniques for each that emphasize concealment in deploying them, keeping them hidden until they are in use as well as keeping them hidden from sight during use. In lumping them together to more easily discuss these connections I used the term “kakushi buki”. (隠武器) It is a term used more frequently in mainland koryu arts and essentially means “concealed weapon”. Ishiki sensei made a rather sour face but was just going to go on when I stopped and asked him why the look?
“I don’t like that term”, he replied. I asked why and he had a very clear answer. “It has some really unpleasant connotations. It means you, as an individual, have decided to conceal a weapon on your person. That implies you mean to use it. Do you want to be the kind of person that carries around a concealed weapon? I don’t. I don’t want to be a thug, or an assassin, or someone who likes to fight and hurt other people. Those would be the only reasons to carry a concealed weapon, because you planned to use it.”
Ok, I answered, that makes sense. But these weapons are meant for concealment, and we were just talking about how those techniques are built into their use. Isn’t carrying them their purpose? The purpose of any self-defense weapon, really?
Yes, he said, but mind set is really important and I think the word Concealed Weapon creates a bad mind set. It moves you towards an immoral place. I like to use a different term, “Nigeru Dogu”. (逃げる道具 This translates pretty well as “tool for running away or tool for escaping”.) That sums up the real use: it is for getting away if you get in trouble, not for fighting or attacking.
OK, I thought, not much difference but sure, why not? But as I thought about it more, it is actually a much better, and more precise, term for those implements. It cuts directly to the chase- if you are attacked your goal is not to fight, not to harm or punish your attacker or surprise him with your armaments, but to get yourself out of the situation. It eliminates a bunch of the macho BS that can accompany discussions of self defense and concealed weapons, at least in my experience, by making it clear the entire purpose of the tool is to escape, to run away. Like a chicken, if that suits you terminologically. I won’t get into the possible permutations of protecting a loved one or other victim, or the differences between civilian and law enforcement responsibilities. They are not relevant- your goal if you are protecting someone is get both or all of you away, not fight or defeat someone, and the responsibilities of law enforcement personnel is a different conversation entirely.
Perhaps in part due to the language barrier we can forget our teachers have spent decades thinking about the various combative, social, philosophical, moral, and practical aspects of their arts. In this particular instance, Ishiki sensei’s perspective also has some back up from modern science- there is evidence that carrying a weapon makes one more aggressive. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/get-psyched/201301/the-weapons-effect
By re-framing the purpose of the tool internally, Ishiki sensei was saying, one can also reframe one’s mind-set around the tool. Not thinking of it as a weapon may in fact change how you act and how you respond to aggression.
Obviously there is no data to back up that particular possibility. However, the tactical perspective is pretty useful. The point is to be thinking of how to stay out of trouble and get out if you fail at staying out. It is not to be thinking about how your weapon can help you in a fight. It is also a clear moral perspective- one uses one’s art to evade and escape, not to start fights or stay and fight unless necessary.
Anyway, the conversation has me thinking about a variety of things. How our applications relate to the concept of escape and evasion. How concealing our intent is different from concealing our weapons. How surprise can be used in different ways depending on your goal. How your starting point informs your tactics. How morals are practical. That kind of stuff.
It is also nice to have a term for some of our weapons that gets to the heart of their use.
So I have not posted in a while. Not because I don’t feel like I have anything at all to say, as I am still enjoying sharing some thoughts this way, but because of two things. 1: I have been rather busy. Not totally swamped for months and months but things like visiting friends and teachers in Japan and Okinawa, work, training, and spending time with our son among others have kept me from sitting down to write much. And 2: One concern I have with this forum, like any other that is dyadic in format, is that it very easily lends itself to coming across as at least a self-perceived expert. Someone who is special.
I see this all over the net. Many people who run blogs or post regularly on Facebook can come across as if they have something they want to share it with the rest of us. Sometimes it feels more like preaching or lecturing- do it this way, you are wrong, your approach is bad, etc.. And they have something special to pass along. In some cases that is true. I see a lot of good stuff out there. People training hard, investigating, researching, developing. Sharing that stuff is great. Thank you to everyone who does! But you need to be careful, both as a reader and as an author. Because, I am sorry to say, you are not necessarily right, and you are not special.
Sure, no one else may have the connections to your tradition, or the approach to application, or the honed body mechanics, or the fitness, or the time spent doing research or cross-training, or living in the culture, or instructional skill, or one of a thousand other things. Legitimate things (and here I would not include rank, hall-of-fame status, trophies, etc.). Things that others can learn from. Sharing them can be instructive, helpful, and generous. But, and there is always a but, be careful.
You are not special. There are a lot of people these days who have spent time living and training in their art’s culture and who may understand parts of it better than you. Your application approach may be unique and very functional, but there are many others investigating and training and they may have some other approach that is excellent as well. There are other people who have fajing, martial power, excellent application, strong roots, fantastic body control, an ability to experiment and grow, and strong healthy dojo. That is just how it is.
Sure there are thousands of people, possibly thousands of dojo, out there who are training in a vacuum, training poorly, with little intent, poor fitness, and next to no understanding. But don’t compare yourself to them. All that can do is to help you feel superior. And, I will say it again, you are not. Because there are people, dojo, all over the world training hard, training well, and probably doing some things better than you. Than me. That is just how it works.
By comparing yourself to the lowest common denominator you do get some benefits. You get to know more, be more capable, have an audience you “know” needs your guidance and instruction, and perhaps most insidiously “know” you are on the right path. You can be a special snowflake. But, yes I will say it again, you are not special. I hope that does not make you sad. It encourages me. I like that there is a vibrant, if small, community of people working to grow their arts and themselves. I like being able to know less than people, because then I get to learn. I like having another reason to keep growing, and every time I see others who are pushing the boundaries of their art I am more encouraged, and often humbled.
So one concern I periodically have with the blog is that while I feel I have some thing to say that may be useful and interesting, I don’t want to start thinking of myself as special. That is too easy, and in the end just like a snowflake on a hot day, it melts away when the heat of training is applied. I hope to get some things out there to share in the near future, but if I start sounding like you all need to be following my path, please remind me, I am not…..
I recently had the chance to spend another weekend training with my friend Sensei Russ Smith. He ran a small weekend training at his dojo in Florida. Once again his focus was on the whys of application in Goju and how they relate to some of the southern Chinese systems. Whys are difficult to frame sometimes. The word “principles” has become common lately. People keep using it but I do not think it means what they seem to think it means. To me principles bind a practice. They are limiters more than anything else, taking away options that do not conform with the ideas they represent. More often I seem to see vague “principles” that instead of limiting allow the teacher to fit just about any technique that occurs to him or her into their rubric. Not really helpful, at least to me.
Russ sensei has put together an approach to training that is principle centered in what seems like a very functional way. Instead of vague ideas that sound like a translation of the Book of 5 Rings the principles he is talking about are directly linked to physical action. One example might be Strong on Weak. That can sound esoteric but in practice it simply means not using the weaker parts of your body against stronger parts of the opponent- not trying to lever the elbow out of the way with the wrist for example. Attached to the principles are simple drills that demonstrate them, so the ideas are not just hanging out there but are immediately accessible.
This last one is really important. Ideas and principles are great, but if you cannot put them into action they are pretty much useless. One nice measure of that action is if they enable self-correction. Can a student, or anyone new to the principle, use it once it has been explained and they have done some time with an appropriate drill to feel it in action? I watched people over the weekend take an approach they were using and, when it didn’t work, go back to the ideas we were talking about and try to figure out why. What principles did it violate and how did that make it fail? This is was in unscripted practice, not set drills. In this environment people new to the material were able to use it, to break down their movement and application and use the ideas that bind the art to adjust it.
That seems like a good approach to the whys of practice to me. Why do something? Because it works. Because it fits the moment. And the same goes, really, for spending the weekend training with friends. Why do it? Because it works. Russ sensei runs a good training weekend. He has a lot to share and a good platform developed to do it with. And that format is important, because instead of a lecture or repetition of forms or basics (all necessary but able to be done mostly alone, IMO) I believe we learn better by interacting, testing each other and the ideas. That is a better way to spend time than memorizing yet another drill or form or technique, doing hundreds of reps you could have just done at home, or going to “get instruction” from someone who is just going to tell you to do it their way. Instead share, grow, and have fun doing it. Taking some time with the whys can enable you to better direct your own practice. That and a glass of usquebaugh and good conversation at the end of a fun day seems like good whys to me indeed!
In an earlier post I suggested that looking at it honestly you should probably expand your definition of who your teachers are. Here I would like to suggest the opposite- reigning it in. I think it is important to give credit to those training partners and students who have helped you develop and grow. At the same time, it is also important not to try to make teachers out of people you just don’t know that well. If you have been training for a while you will probably have spent some time in other peoples’ dojo, and taken a seminar or two from visiting teachers. Some of these people might even be famous, in karate circles anyway.
Take me as an example: looking just at my karate, over the years I have spent a week training one on one in a small dojo in Amami Oshima with Toguchi Seikichi. I have had dinner with Mas Oyama and trained Kyokushin with Midori Kenji. I did a seminar on Sepai with Shinjo Anyu and have visited and briefly trained in a variety of Goju dojo on Okinawa as well as around the US and Canada. I had private lessons in Okinawa Kempo from Irei Isao, and I’ve trained some in Uechi Ryu. The list could go on, but why? These have all (or mostly all) been fun things do to. I may have gleaned a little insight here or there from them. But these people are not my teachers. I was friends with Midori Kenji and we trained some but I have no mastery of the Kyokushin of that time or his Shinkyokushin now. I was never a member of the Shoreikan, never a part of the Jundokan, and am not a Uechi or Okinawa Kempo yudansha. A few hours in a seminar hall, a visit to a dojo, a weekend training intensely or a friendship that includes some training cannot, does not, make someone your teacher. I have no right to claim any real connection to, or knowledge of, these people or their arts, and I do not.
But look around the net and you often see long lists of teachers under people’s names. Everyone they ever visited, it seems! They certainly did not have time to actually train with all these people. It is kind of a shame, really. In some ways it belittles the teacher-student relationship. It takes a long time to get to know someone. To be your teacher someone needs to know you, your personality, your strengths and weaknesses. If they do not, how can they shape their instruction, help guide you in your training? If you think that a few insights make a teacher, or that you can teach well in a standardized manner, you might think that a brief visit is enough. But it isn’t. You can learn a kind of shallow martial art that way, but you will be missing out on the real content. You will be missing the part where your teacher challenges you to face the deepest rooted problems in your art, the little but important pieces he or she only knows you are ready for but missing because they know you and how you train. The places where they push you in ways you didn’t know you needed to go. You might think you are getting something great from a short meeting, but unfortunately that may really just show how shallow your experience, or your relationship with your teacher, is. You are still missing the real content because that requires more understanding of where you are than any teacher can get in a short time.
And by thinking the teacher-student relationship can be so transitory you will also be missing the other real content, the development of a lasting relationship that is based as much in what you are doing for your teacher as what they are doing for you. Give and take, not one way, not just taking and learning but giving something in return. It is important. And if you can’t imagine doing anything for your teacher? I would really suggest taking a closer look. If they are your teacher they have been working hard for you and you really should do the same for them. If you have not, if that idea seems foreign instead of normal, you either need to take a closer look at yourself, or you might not really have a teacher at all. So to finish I’ll ask you: who are your teachers, and what have you done for them lately?
It has been a while since I posted, in part because after sifu Liu’s visit I had a bit to catch up on, both at home and at work. The visit was, as always, great fun. We trained daily, either in the dojo or in my home. We shared some nice meals, spent a day up in Maine (and enjoyed a fresh Maine lobster) and spent some time with friends in the area. The weekend seminar was excellent, and we had the usual mix of folks from all over- New Jersey, Massachusetts, Colorado, California, and so on. Great to see a bunch of familiar faces and to meet a few new people. Also excellent for our group to have a couple of new folks start training regularly with us here. Welcome!
One thing that occurred to me while sifu was here was how quickly time flies. Both in training- the weekend seminar felt like it was over in a flash- and between visits. It does not seem possible it has been a year since he was last here! Part of that is good- it is nice to be able to pick up where you left off the last time you met. And part of that is a little startling- it seems hard to find the time between visits for the practice and investigation needed to really make the training time as useful as it can be, to get the most out of our limited time training together.
You see the thing is that with my sifu so far away I do not get the benefit of daily or weekly correction and advice. Instead my development is on me. I have to work to understand the lessons imparted, and figure out how to work towards the goals I have on my own. I have to understand the principals of the art and self-correct. If I don’t do that I don’t progress, and I do not have the excuse of “sifu is not guiding me well” to fall back on.
I like this, to be honest. It is like that if your teacher is right there as well, just harder sometimes to see. But your growth is always up to you. This fits in well with sifu Liu’s approach. As he phrased it one day of the seminar: “if no one asks questions, I know no one has been thinking. They might become good students some day, but if they are not asking me questions and questioning the system then they will never really understand it”. You have to investigate yourself, not rely on others.
Of course I look forward to correction and instruction. This time around we got some good private training in, and I was introduced to some more elements of the system, ones I found very interesting. But I kept returning to this concept of time. Mostly because I feel I need to be using my time well, growing between ourr visits so I have the chance to take in whatever new material is presented. Not training the same year over and over but doing a new one each time.
One of my students asked sifu about what he should be doing to train on his own. Sifu was kind of flummoxed by the question. When pressed he went through the important elements of fundamental practice, and some personal training methods for solo training he has developed, but what he said stuck with me: “You have to understand what you need. Then work on that. I can tell you today but what about next month? That is your job. You have to use your time well, and only you know if you are doing that.”
白鶴出巣拳 White Crane Leaves the Nest
This idea kept coming up over his vist- that you need to focus and develop yourself. That you need to question. One of the things sifu and I worked on were forms outside the introductory set. While there is a list, he was clear that there is no standard order for learning them. The teacher decides what the student needs to keep growing. He was joking around some, but he looked down the list and after some translation back and forth decided we would spend some time on White Crane Leaves the Nest. “It is just what we were talking about”, he joked. And while he was clear to let me know the techniques were just part of the core of the system, and I know I have not received any “secret knowledge”, I found the symbolism both entertaining and something to take with me till our next visit. Hopefully I will have kept myself on track in the meantime.
Kodokan Boston will be hosting Sifu Liu Chang’I for our annual Feeding Crane Gong’fu seminar the weekend of October 1 & 2. The seminar is open to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Feeding Crane system.
The sign up information is below. Please contact us if you have any questions or need any more information.
These seminars are always a great time! Liu sifu is an interesting and engaging teacher, the system itself is fascinating, and it is always great fun to sweat and touch hands with the people who come train with us. The group always has a real mix of backgrounds, which gives lots of opportunity to learn something from everyone who attends. On top of that, while who comes changes some from year to year we always seem to have a really good group of people- fun, dedicated, and interested in both learning and sharing. It makes for a great weekend of training!
Hope to see you there!