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?