Saying Goodbye

As many of you already know, Kimo Wall sensei passed away on Thanksgiving. I have already written something about his history here, so I won’t be going into that again. While his death is not unexpected it is sad news. The last year plus had been very difficult for sensei and so I take comfort in knowing he is at rest. And yet, while I cannot speak for anyone else, the impact sensei has had on my life is difficult to even begin to assess and right now more than anything else I am sad, and wishing we could, once more, be sitting down to dinner after training together.

I first met sensei in 1986. I was 18, starting college, and knew nothing about martial arts. I started training and sensei introduced me to a path that has shaped my life. We shared travel together- around the US, in Japan, and in Puerto Rico. Countless meals, conversations, and so many shared friends and training partners. And of course countless hours in the dojo. He has been part of my life for over 30 years now and his passing, while not a surprise, somehow comes as one.

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In El Morro, Old San Juan, late 1980s.

It is impossible to sum up a person, or more than 30 shared years, in a few words. I can’t really say much about sensei as a teacher or martial artist that has not already been said. Of course he was my teacher, and training with him taught me things I have taken into all aspects my life, lessons of perseverance, will, adaptation, and calmness that have served me well. But that is only a part of it. As he has passed I find myself thinking much more of the person, and our experiences together.

Mostly I find myself remembering little moments- sensei laughing when I dumped a straw filled with pickled jalapeno juice in Mike’s mouth when he was sleeping in a chair in Tennessee- sensei talking about his bulldogs, his “brother,” his family, his students- the deep respect and love he had for his teachers- sensei at dinner eating through what I thought was going to be a couple of days worth of sukiyaki lunches- listening to music together at a street party in Puerto Rico- him having a pan of brownies in his apartment in Japan when I arrived, saying “bet you haven’t had these in a while”- coming home to him parked in the driveway “hey hey Fred san, I am a few days (it was weeks..) early. What time is training and what’s for dinner?”. I find myself remembering his good humor, his occasional bad humor, his discipline and dedication, and what some people may not have noticed but how sentimental he was, and how sensitive to the relationships in his life.

demo dojo w sensei

Opening the new dojo, 2009. 

Of course there was training and the after-training lectures. Things like his taking my feet completely out from under me and the immediate “kamae!”, no break, no room for pause or even checking myself out- us working through part of papuhaku dai bunkai in the big gym in Totman. He hadn’t quite finished it yet, and it felt passing strange to be helping him work through a piece instead of just learning. (Help might be a strong word here, but he did ask me what I thought at one point.)- “ahm bah bunkai”-  “you no be minus, you be plus”- struggles with “chicken fight bunkai” and a room of people in their 40s instead of college students- “sometimes demonstrations go well, sometimes they don’t, let’s eat.”  But even in the dojo, right now my thoughts slide towards silly, personal moments. Yes, some are funnier in retrospect, but that too is a part of all that time.

One thing about all that time is that you come to know someone as they changed. He was not static. There was always something new. Even his last visit here held something I believe we could all learn from. I think we were the last dojo he trained and taught in, just a few days before his stroke. I truly wish I had been able to get him to go home to PR and rest, but he was adamantly having none of it. Instead, he was in the dojo, teaching and training. Utsu bo, kama (a terrifying moment with him, somewhat unsteady on his feet, holding a live blade between my legs to demonstrate a technique….) all sorts of karate and kobudo. At times he asked a student to help hold him up so he could demonstrate. What shone through was the passion. Regardless of his condition there was nowhere he would rather be than on the floor, with students and friends. But what is most important is that he knew it. This was where he wanted to be, what he was supposed to be doing. Do you know what you want so clearly?

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Smiling and training, of course. Spring 2017.

I will miss him, both the sensei I met in 1986 that scared the bejesus out of me when I came to kamae in front of him and the friend I would find sleeping on my couch in the afternoon when he was visiting, one eye opening and then dozing back off with a slight nod and a smile. He was a friend and teacher to many. Over the years and the miles many people had different experiences of him. Much of that I cannot speak to. He was a part of their lives and their practice. As a teacher and martial artist I know that the impact he has had on so many will be a lasting legacy that he can be rightly proud of. But that feels a little distant right now. For me, I will simply miss my teacher, and my friend.

Touguchi Seikichi sensei wrote this about the passing of his teacher, Miyagi Chojun. It seems fitting here.

A Tiger dies and leaves its skin

A Man dies and leaves his name

A Teacher dies and teaches death

And from a book that, for some reason, comes to mind I will leave you with this:

“I repeat again that first thing my teacher or my own madness revealed to me, on the cold stone flags of an ugly brick building, at the raw age of nineteen.

Death is before life and after it and in it all together, suffused with a light as perfect as the rays of the sun. It comes not an an insult, nor as a defeat, nor does it serve as a boundary to the free soul.”

Goodbye sensei. Aloha nui loa, and nifeedeebiru. Rest in peace.

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A Change For the Better

I just had another great weekend at the annual Okinawa Kobudo Doushi Renseikai gasshuku. Training was really good, Stolsmark sensei did his usual excellent job teaching and leading the group, and it was fun to see and train with a group of dedicated and just plain nice people, friends and fellow kobudo-ka. It also made me think about how much things have changed in the kobudo “world”. I started training kobudo in 1986 and got lucky in having an excellent teacher. In those days good kobudo instruction was rare. I remember seeing groups doing bo or sai and being confused by the clear lack of understanding of how the weapon worked. I don’t mean differences in style or flavor, I mean a real lack of understanding of how to even hold a weapon in a way that was safe and would keep it in your hand if you hit anything.

Indeed, back in the 80s while there were certainly people doing kobudo, there was little kobudo being done. Sure some teachers had some experience, a few had a lot and in addition to Kimo sensei there were certainly some good people out there. But in general kobudo was not that popular, and the average understanding and skill level, even among “instructors” was really low, at least in the kobudo I saw. I believe this was mostly due to people simply not having exposure to good instruction; they didn’t have the opportunity. But these days, I see something different.  When Gakiya Yoshiaki sensei founded the Okinawa Kobudo Doushi Rensei Kai in 2002, he also started coming to the states annually. On those first trips I remember still seeing the vast majority of people on the floor having a really hard time with the basics of moving the weapon, and of carrying their bodies in a way that would facilitate using it. But that is more than a few years ago now. (Which I will admit comes as a bit of a surprise at times!)

Under Gakiya sensei, and after he stopped teaching and Neil Stolsmark sensei took on leadership of the OKDR under Stolsmark sensei, I have seen a real change in the group. Where once most people were struggling with the basics and the elementary kata now there is a large group of people who are working with a lot of the system, training hard and bringing on their own students. Where once paired work was primarily paired basics done with a little trepidation now it ranges from beginners to seniors working all parts of the system with energy, creativity, and attention to detail. It is, in so many ways, a completely different group.

This change has, I think, been mirrored in the larger martial arts community in North America. Perhaps it just needed time, as people (to be fair, like me) who were juniors in the 80s, got their time in. But do I see much more good kobudo than I would have thought possible 30 years ago. Ryukyu Kobudo, Matayoshi Kobudo, the kobudo of various specific instructors or karate styles, there is just more of it, and better quality. To me, it is a really welcome change.

Why has this happened? Well, kobudo has certainly become more popular. Nakasone san, the owner of Shureido, remarked to me last January that all of a sudden he simply can’t keep up with orders of kobudo equipment. There are a lot more people interested for all sorts of reasons. But, to my mind more importantly, I also see a lot more quality instruction. People that were coming up under the few good instructors here in the 80s have keep learning and teaching. Other people have gone and spend years or decades in Okinawa and are now teaching here. They have shown people what kobudo can be- not karate with a bo but a deep and difficult art (as well as a ton of fun).  They have also maintained or deepened their ties to their roots, technical and social, maintaining contact with the teachers and seniors of the kobudo in Okinawa, helping it grow and maintaining standards. I believe that inspires people. While a few seminars or (gasp!) a book or video may have once sufficed in community with no real examples to emulate, now there are many more teachers with years or decades in their systems under their teachers and they are demonstrating the value of that depth of experience.

And that is what I saw this last weekend at the OKDR gasshuku. Stolsmark sensei has done a fantastic job moving the group forward. Leadership like that is hard to find. Where once I saw a room full of people excited but struggling to start their kobudo journey, this last weekend I saw a room full of excited, interested practitioners. People who would probably have stood out as “masters” 30 years ago due to their knowledge alone. How many people did I see easily demonstrate paired work with a nunti in 1988? Not too darn many, but I did see a dozen or so this weekend do so without seeming to think it was a very big deal. And most importantly, it wasn’t. It was just part of training, a step on the journey.

I am glad I can be part of a group of people so interested in and dedicated to an art that I love. It is fun just to spend a weekend training kobudo together. It is also really wonderful to see that where once there was a room full of beginners now there is a room full of people at all stages of the practice, experienced to new. Gakiya sensei told me once he hoped one day he could see a whole room full of OKDR members do Shinbaru no sai and guwa and eku, and, and… together. We did that this weekend. Seeing that growth, and knowing I have had a small part to play in it happening, is a fine feeling indeed. Makes me excited about what happens next.


Some Thoughts On Gokenki and the Transmission of His Crane on Okinawa

I will assume most of the folks reading this are familiar with Go Kenki (Wu Xianghui/呉貴賢). I have been thinking about him, his impact on today’s karate, and his possible training background lately.

Wu’s history is somewhat unclear, though his impact on the early 20th century karate world seems to have been quite extensive. Through personal relationships and especially through the Tode Kenkyukai he trained with just about all the most well known karate men of his day- Miyagi, Kyoda, Hanashiro, Yabu, Motobu, and Mabuni among others. He supposedly knew Uechi Kanbun from his time in Fuchow and it is said Uechi sent students to him in Okinawa. He knew two generations of the Matayoshi family, and Matayoshi Shinko also knew Wu’s father in Fuchow. Kata of his, or influenced by him, are officially part of To’on Ryu (Nepai), Shito Ryu (Nipaipo), Ryuei Ryu (Paiho), and less officially are a part of a variety of other systems in Okinawa. The Matayoshi family passed down an at least partial system of his, including at least 6 extant forms and 2 others that may or may not still be known. Itoman Shojo, one of Wu’s students, said he also taught a form not on the Matayoshi list, Zhongkuang, or Chukon in Japanese. Miyagi and he traveled to China together and supposedly he influenced Goju Ryu a great deal even though none of his forms were included in it. So all told a lot of contact and influence on the karate of his day.

But what did he bring to the table, as it were? It is impossible to know for sure, as no one has any clear documentation on his teachers or his system. Everyone agrees it is “White Crane”, but what white crane? It is a very good bet that he taught Ming He, 鳴鶴拳, Singing or Crying Crane, at least based on the forms he taught. Baibulien/八歩連 (Happoren), Ershiba/二十八(Nepai), and Zhongkuang/中框(Chukon) are all Ming He forms, and not to my knowledge taught together in any other system. The patterns of his Ershiba and Baibulien bear a great deal of resemblance to the extant Ming He versions, which is additional back-up for this idea. But other than that? There is very little information available, so it is hard to know.

I can’t help but wonder why? Lineages are important on Okinawa. He lived at a time when people were documenting their arts and formalizing and writing down all sorts of things. Yet we have next to nothing on Wu even though he was considered to be such an important influence on so many. I know I talk about my teachers around the dojo, on both personal and training levels. I take some pride in my lineage and have strong attachments to my teachers. So does every other martial artist I know. But there is no record from anyone he trained with of exactly who Wu’s teachers were, or even what the name of his art was. He had a few direct students, people like Anya Seisho and Itoman Shojo, but it is surprising that they never learned (or passed on) any background of the system they were practicing- what it was or who it came from. Not even the Matayoshi family, who may have learnt and kept more of his system than anyone, seem to have any idea who Wu’s teachers were besides his father, or if his art is called anything other than “Shaolin Crane Fist”.

His actual training and teaching show a similar pattern. Wu knew all the important karate people of his day. He is given credit for influencing many of them, in particular Miyagi, Kyoda, and Mabuni. But even though people talk about him a great deal, outside various versions of a form with the “crane wings” posture, a posture not really even that emblematic of Singing Crane, his actual concrete impact seems pretty limited. He had no students that continued to teach and train, with the exception of Matayoshi Shinpo who certainly didn’t work to develop Wu’s art on Okinawa. A few other people kept a form or two of his, like To’on Ryu’s Nepai (often quite modified like Shito Ryu’s Nipaipo) but they are not core parts of any extant art. There just isn’t much of his actual legacy around.

Looking at what he taught, Wu also seems to have focused on the lowest level Ming He forms. Happoren/Baibulien is the first form, their sanchin, as it were. Nepai is also a junior form. While Zhongkuang, an intermediate form, is mentioned it seems no one really learned it (at least no one who passed it down), though looking at the Ming He version some of its techniques seem possibly visible in the various Hakakku/Kakuho/ Paiho/etc, forms around the island that stem from Wu. But that is it. So if he knew higher level material he either didn’t teach it or didn’t succeed in passing it on.

But most importantly he appears to have failed to pass down the core movement principles of Ming He. None of the kata he did pass down show any sign of whipping/shaking, the base energy of Ming He. (With the possible exception of Matayoshi Shinpo, something for a different post.) Instead, they pretty much all are done with the power generation of whichever Okinawan karate they are a part of. This doesn’t mean that Wu didn’t use this method, but it seems that no one learned it from him, they instead took what they took from Wu and applied their karate methodology to it.

Looking at this together I am led to three possible conclusions:

One, that regardless of his skill he was simply not that great a teacher and was unable to pass on much of his system, inspire anyone to become his actual student, or pass on the core mechanics of his practice.

Two, that he wasn’t that great a martial artist so that while people liked him and his ideas he didn’t have much of meat to pass on or inspire, just some ideas and information that were interesting to the community.

Or Three, that the Okinawans looked at what he had to offer and said something along the lines of “pretty cool. I like bits of that. But otherwise, meh. I’ll stick with karate thank you very much.”

These are not mutually exclusive, and of course there is no way to really know, but they all speak to me of a different relationship than we usually hear about. Instead of a “Chinese Master bringing secret crane technique to Okinawa” we have a friend. A kindred spirit perhaps. A fellow student to share with. For a couple, Uechi and Matayoshi Shinko, a training partner or associate from Fuchow. For the rest, someone with experience they did not have, and insights into “Chinese” knowledge, with all that carries in the way of cultural baggage in Okinawa. But not a teacher, a master, or a bastion of White Crane the Okinawans would value enough to adopt over what they already knew. In short, his white crane was not good enough to inspire the Okinawans to do it instead of their karate. Whether that was due to the art, his ability, or some other reason is immaterial. Simply put, regardless of how important the “White Crane” looms in Okinawan karate legend, when faced with an opportunity to simply learn and practice White Crane, the Okinawans instead stuck with their karate.

Who knows, right? Wu didn’t come to Okinawa to teach martial arts, or even as a martial artist. He came looking to work as a merchant, at around 25 years old. Maybe he wasn’t a master, or a master teacher, just a young merchant interested in the fighting arts. He had some training, and was happy to share it with an active and changing martial arts community in Okinawa, a community of highly trained people who found his ideas and experience interesting but didn’t see enough there to leave their practice to take up his. Influence, interest, exchange. Friends sharing their art, masters or not. Real people interacting and learning. Not what the story is, but seems to be backed up by what actually happened.

Sharing Our Kobudo

I had the pleasure this last weekend of doing an informal training weekend with Paul and Barbara Gehring sensei(s), of the Iwa dojo in Denver Colorado and some of their students, Garrett from the Iwa dojo and Richard Bennett sensei of Bennett’s Karate. Paul is a senior member of Itokazu Seisho sensei’s Matayoshi Kobudo Shinbukai and they are all experienced kobudo ka. We spent most of our time working with the kama and sansetsukon, and had a fantastic time. I love sharing our kobudo with other serious and experienced practitioners, and wish I could do so more often! The level was, not surprisingly, high, and it was just a plain old good time.

In the spirit of full disclosure, Paul and Barbara are also old friends. Paul and I trained together at UMass, and we were in Japan at the same time in the early 90s, though at opposite ends of the country. It had been a while since we had practiced together, but the spirit of training felt immediately familiar, tempered by a lot of training and experience since the last time yes but that just added benefit instead of creating any distance.

I have been thinking about the weekend, the laughs of course but also the training, a lot on the way home and since and that last thing, the lack of distance, is perhaps what that stood out the most to me in training together. Being able to work together seems like it would be easy, since we started under the same teacher around the same time. But since then we have taken different, if similar, paths. Honestly, if we were in Okinawa it might have been a little difficult for members of the Matayoshi Kobudo Shinbukai and Okinawa Kobudo Doushi Renseikai to train together, for a host of minor but socially pertinent reasons.

To me, that is a real shame. Moving around karate and kobudo circles I have often noted what I think is a peculiar approach to variation in practice. Even more than between systems, when people share a system and differences, sometimes very small, appear in technique suddenly that becomes an opportunity, almost an imperative, to judge. Which one is “better”, or “the right way” must be established! Even when the variations come from really well trained and experienced people. Richard shared a great story about 3 very senior Uechi teachers with small variations in one technique, each one certain theirs was the best way. I have seen very similar things in other dojo on Okinawa, sometimes hours long conversations about tiny details that sometimes can be important, but at other times are obviously more flavor or preference. And yet the discussions can be interminable.

On one level that is understandable. When you spend your time perfecting a certain approach it can be threatening to see another approach to the same thing. And of course sometimes you see things that are, for technical reasons, just not that good. But before lumping any variation into that category it is really better to spend a little time understanding why that variation exists, and what its purpose is. And asking if it matters! In the Matayoshi world this seems particularly pertinent at this time. Matayoshi Shinpo has been gone for over 20 years, but he left behind a number of senior students. Many of them are fantastic kobudo practitioners and instructors. They each do tend to hold slightly different portions of the body of the system, particularly at the higher levels, and more importantly slightly different takes on how the art is practiced. Sharing this stuff would be good for everyone, I think. Especially because when examined closely these differences are often just expressions of the same thing. But for a variety of reasons- personal, social, practical (distance), and of course inertia, it is unfortunately somewhat unusual for the various groups to train together.

Of course this too is understandable. One question that starts any attempt to mix groups is “ok, who teaches the first session?”. Which teachers are willing to have their students learn from someone else? Are the teachers going to let other folks, people they may have known for decades but who may have a different expression of what their teacher taught, run a session they are in? Will they participate? How will students respond to having what their teacher has taught them questioned, even in a polite and possibly minor way? I don’t want to make light of these questions. They are real, and often about much more than personal issues or ego. Is it helpful to your students to have their technique confused a little by minor variation? What if you think this other senior practitioner actually is doing something incorrectly, not just a little differently, but you don’t want to get in a “discussion” about it, it doesn’t seem polite? How do you avoid the constant need for everyone to judge and try to figure out who is “the best”? What to do about the various branch-specific kata and drills that have been added it the last 20 years? And that doesn’t even start to address questions that can arise in personal relationships that are decades old!

I don’t really have an answer I am afraid. But I saw one approach that works this weekend. Start with treating each other with respect, and have a sense of humor. It has been a long time, over a decade, since Paul and I trained kobudo together. In that time we have been training under different teachers and running our own dojo. Plenty of time to cement technique and the reasons for it, plenty of time to get really attached to “how we do it”. But by approaching training with sharing, and a few laughs about how we got where we are, it seemed pretty easy to train together. Clarity also helped- when we were doing whatever we did we started by talking about what we were sharing and why.

I feel like I learned a lot this weekend. It was really fun, and I felt honored, to share some of my practice of the kama and sansetsukon. It was also really fun to have Paul, Barbara, Richard, and Garrett share some of their technique and theory with me. I learned a lot and not just about our kobudo. Keeping a dojo alive and growing requires a great deal more than good technique. I got to see some of the inner workings of a dojo that is functioning well and learn some of how they approach doing that. You don’t get students who are both skilled and open-minded without doing something right and I appreciate them all sharing their approach with me. Those late night conversations are sometimes where the real learning is…. Again, I don’t have any answers that will fit everyone, but it does seem a big part of that is having an open mind and self confidence as opposed to self importance. In short, Open Mind, Joyful Training. Train. Laugh. Share. What more can you ask for?


Great training! Thank you, Richard, Paul, and Barbara.


Shh, it’s a Secret!

The idea of secrecy is pretty important in some arts, and to some teachers. I have trained in a system where for literally hundreds of years no one who is not a member has even been allowed to watch training without an invitation. Where even some important training methods are not shown to members of the group until they pass a certain threshold. Many of my older teachers hate video and did not want themselves taped. If they allowed it they made people promise not to ever share the footage. I know people who will not allow details of their training to be shared publicly, or who won’t share video or historical information they have, even with a community of students of a mutual teacher who are not part of their group, because it is their secret. So many training methods, forms, theories, drills, applications, videos, etc., are often kept private. Sharing them can ruin relationships, personal and teacher-student. Secrecy can be a serious business.

From one perspective it makes sense. If you are teaching a combat art it is certainly better for you if no one but your training partners, hopefully by extension people you can trust and rely on, knows how you move and how you fight. This is particularly important, I would hazard, where there is a dueling culture, i.e. people get into violent altercations with time to prepare and learn about their opponents, and there is limited mobility, i.e. all the people you might fight live and train relatively close by. But otherwise, is it really helpful?

It does lead to some ridiculous ideas, like that techniques are hidden in kata, the movements changed and disguised so they can’t be stolen by people watching. Really? Kata are only for people actually training the system, right? And they are supposed to be methods for ingraining essential movement into the body, right? It is usually pretty easy to keep strangers away from your training, unless you train in the middle of the town square, isn’t it? So you are going to spend a lot of energy training into your body incorrect movements, ones that are modified enough that they hide the techniques from a potential observer that you can pretty easily avoid? That seems silly to me.  More like an excuse for not understanding the kata than a real attempt at secrecy. But I digress.

I deeply value the knowledge I have been gifted, and understand its worth. I also have a deep respect for my teachers, and have taken their requests to heart. But they are not the only word on how the arts move into the future. To me, most of the secrecy around the arts these days seems as silly as the idea above, an attempt perhaps at a certain mystique, but otherwise useless. Why? Well first off, most of it seems pointless, or even counter productive. Looking again at The Secrets in Kata, little of the meat of a system can be transmitted by video, text, or voice alone. It just isn’t possible. I know I can tell pretty much immediately if someone has learned something from one of the systems I teach from video, and often which video. That is because the mistakes they make are consistent. While one, particularly with some training, can get take in a lot there are certain things you can’t learn from video, or a book. So I don’t really care if there are videos of all our forms and such out there. If someone really wants to learn they need to find a good teacher and if they want to learn from video the limits they have put on their own skills and knowledge don’t really affect me at all. They are only fooling themselves.

But that is, in many ways, besides the point. Because hiding technique aside, I don’t think secrecy is helpful in engendering growth or strength in the arts. Sharing, on the other hand, is. Why? Well, I can think of a few reasons.

First, having the chance to see, even if not fully understand, different training methods and environments can do a number of good things for personal practice. It can give you some ideas for your training. It can show you variants and different understandings that can help break down places you are stuck or where you are lacking. It can inspire, and at the same time give you perspective. A more open view of your practice is almost always helpful. And sharing also means you have to be willing to let it hang out, have confidence in your practice and be ready to take criticism. You have to be willing to say your art is valuable for more than the “secret” piece of information you hold, the bits you don’t want to show anyone. That, for want of a better phrase, you can walk the walk.

Second, it can be helpful for research and preservation. How much information has been lost because someone wanted to keep it secret and then never shared it? How much nonsense in martial arts writing would have been avoided if access to valid information was easy? Sure you can’t share some of the meat unless you are touching hands, but that doesn’t mean you can’t share something of value in a variety of ways. Books, video, social media, all can have a place in learning. By making things more open many questions- historical, technical, personal- become easier to answer. A more nuanced and factually accurate perspective can be developed, and new questions can build off good information, not guess work. Of course that is a two edged sword- if your school or lineage has stories or claims that can be disproven by better public access to information that is certainly an incentive to secrecy. A pretty poor one, I think, but an incentive none the less…

Third, it can help the community. Perspective can show people who is full of @#$% , by exposing their nonsense in a more educated environment. It can demonstrate similarities and differences in approach that can be both enlightening and, at times, bubble-bursting. (What is the old line- a secret technique in one art is a basic one in another?) It can bring people together and make the larger environment more knowledgeable, and interesting. It can also expose good, solid training practices to the larger public. These days traditional arts seem to be waning. If nothing else, MMA is the yardstick by which all arts are measured and “in the octagon” many of the public presentations of traditional arts don’t hold up. While I thing that is in many ways a very poor yardstick I also honestly think that is in part because most of the folks who present themselves publicly are either primarily teaching kids or are not really a good representation of what the traditional arts can be. (Yes, that was the polite phrasing.) The groups focused on training seem to hold on to the idea of secrecy, or at least are not outward-looking. Changing that might change the public perspective of these arts.

But while the impetus for secrecy is often explained technically, as hiding one’s fighting skills, I don’t think that is the real reason. Even going back a few generations the majority of people training the Okinawan, Japanese, and Chinese arts didn’t fight very much. Sure some did, but not most. However, there are three other reasons why people might want to keep secrets.

The first is simple- lack of knowledge or skill. If your training is too “secret” to share with the world you don’t have to worry about how you compare to anyone else. Your students are not allowed to show anyone else what you do. They probably are not allowed to train anywhere else either. With no yardstick, there is no way to measure what you are doing. So while it may make you feel cool, full of secret knowledge, that falls apart pretty quick if you touch hands with someone else and get a clear demonstration of how little those secrets actually mean. To be honest, the dojo and teachers I have seen that were the most concerned with secrecy have usually been the weakest as well. The plural of anecdote is not data, but that is what my personal experience tells me. But that is just one reason, and I don’t think the most common. Thankfully.

The second is marketing, or its compatriot protectionism. I have friends who have worried that if otherwise rare practices were made public then you would quickly have people “teaching” them. That these valuable practices would be spread about and debased by improper treatment. Honestly, I think they are right, there will certainly be people teaching from video or whatever if more is made public. Shame on them. But so what? If more is made public you should also be able, pretty easily, to do a little research and know who is not being truthful about their material. Experienced people can probably just tell by looking, or touching hands. So sure, keeping things secret can protect them from people of poor character. It can protect them right out of existence as well. And this same method works equally well for training methods that are, for want of a better term, not so special. While keeping stuff in-group then is a form of protection, it is at the same time marketing. In short, it says: only we have x, you can’t get it anywhere else so if you want x come to us, because it is awesome. But we won’t let you know much about it until you join up… Indeed, at times the things being protected are tiny. Tidbits of technique, or history, or documentation, or theory. And honestly, if that is all you have you don’t really have much to offer do you? Real arts are more holistic than that. So protection and marketing are two sides of the same coin, albeit with very different goals. But either one can work two ways, preserving and destroying, hiding real or not so real secrets, all depending on who is doing the hiding, what they are hiding, and of course why. And in the end, does it help anyone grow? It can keep bad stuff from being measured, like in the first reason above. It can keep good stuff from being shared and preserved. It might keep good stuff from being devalued, maybe, but is that really enough of a reason? I don’t think it really works out, on balance anyway.

But in my opinon it is the third reason that is the most important, particularly in a world where most martial arts training is done by people who don’t live violent lives. To it, it doesn’t matter how valuable or useful the secrets are. Their technical nature is secondary to their social use. There is a huge amount of social capital that can be invoked by belonging to a group that has “secrets”. You become an initiate, a member of a special circle of people, an insider. And for the seniors and particularly the teacher you get to be the locus of this secret knowledge, gatekeepers and status holders. That is strong motivation to keep material in-group. People have a fundamental need to belong, be part of a group, and to measure status within that group. Clearly defining that group, who is in and who is out, who controls knowledge in it, makes that belonging process easier. Secrecy does that, and it also makes for easy status markers: who knows x? Race, gender, political affiliation, school, work, and a myriad of other traits or choices can create categories of belonging, ways to define a group. In the case of the martial arts, this idea of secrecy is a very powerful one. We have x, “they” don’t. We are special. But while this may work very well in some specific ways, I really don’t believe this kind of thinking, this way of developing group cohesion or identity, is very healthy.

Sure belonging is essential, but othering is kind of dangerous, and that is at the core of secrecy. However, it seems pretty easy to have one without the other. Sharing information might be one way to foster that. Make your training, your group, special by welcoming and supporting each other. By being a locus of knowledge and sharing within the group as well as a group not afraid to let go and help others grow. Most importantly by having something valid and valuable to share. Knowledge and skill are not the same as secrets. They are real; you can’t fake either. They take a lot of work to develop and I certainly think you should hunt down real knowledge and develop your skills. If you do, then you don’t need secrets. Or at least the kind of secrets you can hide easily. You can tell people about your “secrets”, even show them, but if they don’t do the work they simply can’t access them. So shed the little “secrets”, and the illusion of “specialness” they give and instead learn, grow, and train hard. Make sure you actually have something special in your training and have put in the effort to develop it. Let other people see it and welcome them to partake. That is the real secret, and should most definitely be shared.

I Was Never Told That

One myth of classical training is that it is silent. The teacher gives an occasional command and the students just work. This is usually seen as positive, time is spent “training not talking”. People say that is the “old way” when no one questioned the teacher and people didn’t want to gab instead of work out. Sounds reasonable, I guess. Certainly the other approach- lots of talking- is not a very good way to train. I have visited dojo where people spent far more time discussing the details of a technique (and often how “devastating” it was) than sweating. The term “kuchi bushi” (口武士) roughly translates as “mouth warrior”, and means someone who talks about training instead of actually training. The fact there is a common term for it means that it is something of a problem, in Japan as well as here.  But the other extreme is equally bad.

A while back I wrote a little about communicating in the dojo. If you are just working out- doing physical exercise like pushups, hitting a bag, working with the chishi, doing reps of technique or kata- not a lot of conversation is needed. Once you have the basic instruction just do it. Don’t gab. But for much of our martial arts training you need to be actively engaged with your partners. One way to do that is to use your words. They come in handy. For example doing body conditioning it is important to be working at your edge. Your partner is unlikely to know exactly where that is, so giving each other feedback- hit a little harder, a little softer, etc.- is the most efficient way to train. Instead of getting injured or not getting any benefit, just communicate.

On top of that, if you are taking charge of your own training you need feedback and information. Your teacher, and training partners, are the only place you can get that. If you don’t  communicate, ask questions, listen to answers, have your current knowledge and assumptions challenged mentally as well as physically, you can’t grow. So you need instruction. And you need to ask questions and receive answers. But how much of this is a good thing, and how much is just blather?

I have never been in a good dojo that was silent. Nor in one that was a gab-fest. Instead periodic topical conversation was the norm. Partners giving each other feedback, some instruction from the teacher or seniors, and a question every now and then. Occasionally some laughter, because funny things can happen when you are pushing yourselves. It is not a church, it is a dojo, and since we are studying what can be considered a form of communication, it is essential we do just that.

I can’t help but wonder where the myth of the silent dojo got started, especially since I have not seen them in Okinawa or Japan. It is not even a tradition. If you pay attention to the stories of Miyagi, his classes were really physically demanding, but there are also these epic lecture and Q&A sessions after training or at other times. He talked a lot! Sure there are plenty of stories of the “old days” and plenty of teachers who discouraged questions, but somehow the information got passed down… So where did the idea of a silent dojo come from?

I do have a theory. Most of the first generation that brought the arts back to the US were servicemen. They came from a “don’t speak unless you are spoken to” environment. They did not have much if any language training, and they were not in Asia for that long. Early in one’s training questions and conversation are less useful as one is working on basic movements and doing a lot of repetition. Talk isn’t needed much. And without a common language it is pretty time-consuming, and often not very rewarding, to try to talk. That seems like a double whammy to me, one that keeps conversation to a minimum. When I was living and training in Japan I noticed that as my language skills improved my teachers talked more. They were willing to explain concepts like ma’ai, kuzushi, chinkuchi and kyusho as they were relevant to what we were doing, explanations that would have been impossible earlier. That was probably also fostered by improved understanding of what we were doing- I was reaching points where the explanation was actually relevant.

At the same time I also learned how to phrase questions, and when to keep quiet. The phrasing is actually rather important. It may be a personal thing or it may be a cultural thing but I realized that there was quite a difference between “sensei, what does this mean” or “how do you do x”, and “sensei, does this mean this…” or “is this the right way to”. The first were usually met with a fairly dismissive answer, anything from “keep training, you will learn eventually” to the patently untrue but clear conversation ender “I don’t know”. The second was met with anything from “no, keep training” (especially if what I presented was particularly poor) to a long delve into the movement or idea and its accompanying practices and applications, where I was on the right track and where, and why, I was not.

That was coupled with timing. When to ask questions is important. Of course if sensei says “do you have any questions” it is the perfect time. Otherwise? It is kind of rude to interrupt when your teacher is actually teaching. If the group is doing something it is not be a good time. When you are expected to be doing something else is also not particularly timely. When then? Well, when were Miyagi sensei’s talk-sessions? After training. You can also try before training. Out having drinks or dinner. Other times might include out with a dojo group at a festival. When stopping by the dojo on a non-training night. At a fellow student’s sayonara party. If you only come to the dojo, and only see your teacher, for scheduled training times then you might not actually get any chance to ask questions. So not only do you need to train, but you need to be part of the group, and spend time with your teacher(s).

So timing, phrasing, language skills, etiquette, understanding of the system, all may be reasons why students are asked to keep quiet. But there is one more. As you get to know someone better there is more to talk about. You get more comfortable communicating. How much time do you spend talking to people you hardly know? Simple greetings, polite small talk, but not much of substance I would bet. Isn’t it the same for new students? So again, relationships are important. They can have a pretty strong impact on just what is communicated in the dojo. And what is not.

Tradition and Entropy

After some of the feedback on my post The Good Old Days, I have been thinking even more about the power of tradition. The martial arts are obsessed with passing on the tradition.  In a way no other art- dance, music, painting- seems to be we are much more concerned with conserving the past than with creativity or development. It constant- passing down the knowledge, maintaining the flame, keeping the art alive- they are catchphrases in the martial arts, on websites, dojo walls, tshirts and patches. If you think about it, it is astounding. Imagine a musician deciding that his or her main goal was to be identical to Huddie Ledbetter, or Thelonious Monk? Imagine a painter saying the epitome of his art was painting exactly like Raphael, or Picasso? That diverging from these masters was the worst blasphemy. But in the martial arts the vision is constantly backwards, to the masters of the past. They are venerated. We are told we cannot equal them. Their skill, their approach, is as good as it gets: no one now is their better and straying from their path is just ego. If you know me you know how much stock I place in what has been passed down to me. I value it deeply, and believe it is worth preserving. I am not what you would call a radical innovator. But there has to be more!

It some ways of course it is understandable. Those arts that have something really concrete to pass on can hold an incredible body of knowledge, hard won and carefully nurtured. It is knowledge that cannot be imitated by athleticism or created out of whole cloth. And while we tend to credit the founders alone for this knowledge it is really the accretion of information and skill through multiple generations that gives us what we have today. Each generation has left its mark and in deep arts the accumulation of information, the honing and improvement of the technique and teaching methods, has resulted in something greater than the original. But that is because in each generation, once the system as it is has been internalized, those that wound up passing it on added their mark to it, heralded or not.

The process of passing a folk art down through generations can be very complex. In our desire to hold the earlier generations up as examples and maintain the traditions we value I think we often refuse to recognize how much change is inherent in the transmission. Things cannot stay the same. They either change or decay. One of my teachers, Liu Chang’I has an excellent description of this process:

The best student, the one who is the most dedicated, attentive, and talented, will learn at most 90% of what his teacher has. (And let’s be clear. By this I don’t mean sequences of kata and other subjects. These can all be passed down easily. I mean the meat, what makes these things work!) This is not because the teacher is better, or the student misses something, or even because the teacher doesn’t teach something. It is because no one is perfect, and no one can, or should want to, copy another person exactly. So what about that missing 10%? It is up to each student to fill it in him or her self. That is the process of making the art your own. The bones of the art- the mechanics, theory, fundamental movements- they are what you make your contribution with, what you use to grow the art for yourself. They are what keeps the art coherent across generations and they must be mastered before you can contribute something. But, and this is important, if each generation does not add their 10% back in the art will die. At a 90% retention rate In 3 generations it will be 73% of what it was. Just 3 generations! So the art cannot, must not, remain exactly the same. You cannot just practice what your teacher shows you! Once you have the bones you must think for yourself! You must learn as much as you can and then try to move your art and practice forward. That keeps it alive, so another generation can enjoy it.

I think this is a powerful idea. It assumes careful attention to your teacher, learnt depth of knowledge and good instruction. It acknowledges the complexity and imperfection of human interaction. And it takes out the hero worship and replaces it with hard work. It is also not really a new idea. There are a number of proved, working models of knowledge transmission that essentially describe this exact idea. Apprenticeship practically and Shu-Ha-Ri conceptually are two examples. Regardless of the exact model however, the concept says three things to me:

  • You need to learn the bones of your system as deeply as you can. Without these you are no longer doing your system you are making something up.
  • When you are ready (and your teachers should help you understand when this is) you need to take these bones and work with them to grow yourself and your art.
  • No art is the same as it was even 100 years ago. It cannot be and we should not want it to be. Anyone who tells you different is lying, either to themselves or to you.

So, basically, transmission is an attempt to forestall entropy. But entropy is a given so energy must be added in to the transmission or, by the simple nature of things, it will decay. I have seen that happen to what must have been valuable arts once. Now they are shadows of themselves, forms and methods that lack life and are practiced by people who don’t even recognize it because they are obsessed with being just like the last generation, with making sure they don’t alter any part of the treasure they have been handed. And in the process they have altered it beyond recognition.


“To have been always what I am – and so changed from what I was.”         Samuel Beckett