One of the enduring activities of Western kobudo ka is the quest for the “origins” of the various weapons used in our kobudo. Somehow the simplest answers are not good enough. That they were meant as weapons and probably not developed locally seems somehow too boring, I guess. That identical weapons are documented in China, Japan, or elsewhere (depending on the weapon) before they were documented in Okinawa is not evidence enough. Nor is the clear historical connection between the upper and noble classes, not the peasantry, and the martial arts. Instead elaborate origin stories of local development by the peasantry have been created. Admittedly, there are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which that many of the most prominent kobudo teachers of the mid-late 20th century were fervent nativists, invested in promoting and elevating their native culture, and they promoted unique native origins for virtually everything. Some of these origin stories likely come from a simple historic process- the post Meiji movement of the former landed gentry into the countryside. Without their prior wealth they retained their knowledge but had less access to the tools of their trade, as it were. So more easily available items filled in. And voila, a generation or two later, these items and these “peasants” are the origin of the arts, and the implements used in them. Other origin stories are a bit harder to parse, but that doesn’t make them any more “true”, no matter how appealing they seem, or how invested people are in them. If you want to research the history of our arts you have to look past stories told by your teacher, common knowledge, or, that decidedly dangerous creature “common sense”.
Often, it doesn’t take much looking to debunk some of these myths. I’d like to take a quick look at one here, the tekko.[i] Supposedly they are horse shoes or stirrups that have been weaponized by locals. But if you look a little closer, that simply doesn’t track. Various fist load weapons were common in Japanese koryu and Chinese arts for centuries. It would be surprising indeed for the Okinawan warrior class to have somehow missed out on the idea completely.
And a little non-martial historical knowledge is useful here as well. First, iron horseshoes appear to have been introduced to Japan by Europeans, perhaps as late as the 19th century, and were most likely unknown on Okinawa before that. And second, if you know anything about horses, or have just seen a few westerns or King Arthur movies, you know what a stirrup looks like. The tekko looks pretty similar I have to say. Connecting the two seems logical. Common sense. Except that you might not actually know what a stirrup, or abumi, looks like. Here is a drawing describing an Okinawan tribute trip to Edo in 1790, from the Ryukyujin Gyosoki:
Note the stirrups on the horse. They look like this:
This style of stirrup was standard from the 1200s on, and Western style stirrups were not introduced until the late 19th century.[ii] So, what does this tell us about the origin stories that one hears? Well, it tells us that if the tekko is an old weapon, pre late 19th/early 20th century, it cannot have been developed from a stirrup or horseshoe. And conversely, if it comes from a Western style stirrup or horseshoe it is a 20th century development.
One of the issues with research into folk arts like our kobudo is that it is actually a pretty involved process. Knowledge of history, language, culture, and so on is necessary not to fall into simple “common sense” mistakes like this. It is cool to have a local and “ancient” origin for the things we do. But cool, or supporting the culture our arts developed in, doesn’t make things true. We have clear evidence of similar weapons being used in neighboring cultures for centuries. We have no documented use on Okinawa before the 20th century (that I know of). We have no iron or western style horseshoes or stirrups on Okinawa before the Meiji period. Finally, the kata that are done with them are all mid to late 20th century creations. What does all this say? Well, I have heard a theory that the tekko were developed by practicing martial artists between WWI and WWII, taking things like the trench knife as a model (and the Japanese certainly had exposure to things like this in that period), but interesting though it is there is no conclusive evidence for this either.
Unless new evidence comes to light using actual concrete information seems the best practice, as opposed to taking admittedly appealing legends at face value or making assumptions based on limited understanding. Based on existing information, it is far less romantic, but much more likely that the tekko were either a: imported to Okinawa at some point, not developed locally; b: added to existing arts in the 20th century, inspired by exposure to things like the trench knife; or c: a part of local arts for some amount of time and developed as a weapon, not from a local tool or other implement, by the existing warrior class, not the peasantry. It is highly likely that the current usage is no older than the late 19th or 20th century. That isn’t as satisfying, or as cool, and leaves no answer to the question “where did the tekko come from”, but the problem there might be more with the question than the answer.
[i] In our art they are considered an ancillary weapon. Some lineages don’t have a kata, some do variations on Kakazu no tekko, designed by Matayoshi Shinko’s student Kakazu Mitsuo, and others do dojo kata. Matayoshi sensei, Kimo sensei, and Gakiya sensei taught me techniques for the weapon and suggested Seisan was a good kata for practicing them. I wound up making a dojo kata for them, and later Ishiki sensei taught me Kakazu no tekko. In Ryukyu Kobudo they do Maezato no tekko, designed by Taira Shinken, and there are other kata on Okinawa. All are of recent provenance.
[ii] See Friday, Karl. Samurai Warefare and the State In Early Medieval Japan. Psychology Press, 2004.
The Christmas season has long passed, so this post is possibly a little out of date, at least if you are looking for present ideas. But over or not the season did make me think about giving and receiving and the gifts that I have been lucky enough to have come to me. Recently I wound up going through a lot of my kit. Around the same time I also made a bunch of chizikunbo, strung a couple of pair of partially made san bon nunchiyaku, made a pair of nunchiyaku from some broken pairs, did some repair work on a couple of tinbe, and started a couple of kuramon bo. As I was finishing the chizikunbo, I set a few pair aside as gifts. I’ve given a number over the years and many of my teachers and friends have been nice enough to say they really enjoy getting something they can both use and that I made for them. Putting them in with the rest of my gear, I noticed how many of the small weapons I had were in turn gifts. It seems folks who practice weapon arts, particularly if they make some of their own gear, love giving them as presents.
I have been making some of my weapons for many years. Until recently there wasn’t a decent source for some of our weapons, like sansetsukon (Shureido are excellent for our shorter form and for pair work, hard on the rotator cuff for the longer form.) as well as various hand loads, nagagama, tinbe and wooden seiryuto/paidao, among others. Some, like suruchin and kuramonbo are still pretty much unavailable. I can make weapons to the weight and size I want and out of material that will have the feel and properties I want, all of which actually makes a difference in training. While you should be able to use any version of a weapon if you need to, the techniques and mechanics function best with the weapon- weight, length, balance, etc.- that they were designed for. Indeed, changing the weapon can in turn change the techniques. Making them is a good lesson in understanding their properties. It also requires a decent understanding of them to get started, to know what you are aiming for. A number of my seniors and teachers, and my friends who train, also make their own gear. I’m sure the reasons are the same, and I will admit it is nice to work with a weapon you have designed and built, at least if it came out right. You know what it can and can’t do, how it will respond, and why. And making them can be fun.
It is also rather nice to work with a weapon someone else has made for you. They are often good weapons, and even better they sometimes come with stories. Looking over some of the gifts I have been given brought me back a bit, to when they were given. The people who gave them to me are friends, teachers, and fellow travelers. People I have been lucky and honored to know. And they’ve got stories. I think they say something, so I’ll share a few here.
1 These chizikunbo were Kimo sensei’s. A student of his was selling them for a while. Really well made, and the size and shape were worked out with sensei. He and I were training in the living room of an apartment I used to have. When I went to go dig mine out from under my bed he handed me these, which he had in his jacket pocket, and went to his bag by the couch and grabbed another pair. When were done he told me to keep them. The next day we had a great time doing a seminar with them. That weekend sometimes seems like yesterday instead of nearly three decades ago.
2 This set of sanbon nunchiyaku was made by Yoshimura Hiroshi sensei. He is my friend Mario McKenna’s teacher, the senior student of the late Minowa Katsuhiko sensei. He lives on Amami Oshima. I have stopped by to say hello and train a little on a number of my visits back to the island. He is a fantastic Ryukyu Kobudo and Uechi Ryu teacher, and I always leave with some new insights. He is also really kind and open minded. A senior teacher sharing openly with a younger practitioner of a different art is somewhat unusual, and great to experience. I remember him taking me out to his shed after training in his yard some with the sansetsukon. It was his workshop, with nunchiyaku, tonfa, and other weapons in process. His yard looks out over Naze harbor and the scene and the kind gift remind me of so many of the good things about Amami,
3 It is important to me to remember that so much of what I know in the arts has come from friends and training partners. This pair of chizikunbo was made by my friend David Nauss. He was a training partner for many years, an excellent karate and kobudo practitioner. He is also an excellent carpenter, and has taught me much of what I know about woodworking. In the early 90’s Kimo sensei spent some time doing chizikunbo with us. We didn’t have weapons to practice with but before our next training David went out, got stock, made a few pair, and gave them to us so we could keep working with them immediately. That next night it was just David, Mike Piscitello, and me in the dojo. We spent two hours jamming, grinding, and poking each other with them. We left with dime sized bruises all over, which lasted for days. I can still clearly hear the laughter, punctuated by groans and cries of pain, from that evening and the memory always makes me smile.
4 This suruchin was made for me by Yamashiro Kenichi sensei. I hadn’t seen him for a long time. We had chatted on the phone the day before about what we might do. When he found I didn’t have one with me he drilled the rocks and after he took me for a lovely soba lunch we stopped to get some cord and he finished it in his garage/workshop. After showing me some of the tinbe, tekko, and other things he had made we spend the day training. It was a fun afternoon- catching tree limbs and fence posts and hitting targets with the suruchin, working with the kuramon bo, throwing dirt with the guwa in his field. It ended with going through a bunch of kata in his dojo and then having a fantastic yaki niku dinner with his family. He had supervised my ni dan test with Matayoshi sensei in 1995, and we talked about training and reminisced about that and so much else and it was just a great day.
5 These ticchu were made by Yoshimura Hiroshi sensei. He gave them to me on a different visit to Amami, around 2011 I think. I had given him a pair of chizikunbo and we spent a really fun hour talking shop and comparing techniques for the two hand loads, and chatting about woodworking- he is an excellent craftsman. Sunset over the mountains, looking down on Naze harbor and the hills, was beautiful and he and his wife were so welcoming. I can’t help but think how lucky my friend Mario is to have such a nice and knowledgeable teacher.
6 These ticchu were given to me by Mario McKenna sensei. It was the late 90’s and we hadn’t seen each other for a while. We kept up a pretty lively discussion about training, among other things, on line and on the phone and we had been talking about training with handloads- chizikunbo, tekko, ticchu, and so on. I commented that I had never actually used a ticchu and he thought it would come pretty easily. I wasn’t so sure and we went on to other topics. A few days later they showed up in the mail, with a note suggesting I try them out. They were made by either Minowa sensei I believe, and he had had them for a while. They were a very generous gift, and are fun to work with.
7 This mugei nunchiyaku was given to me by Kimo sensei. Again we were doing a seminar, again he had some that were made by another student, most of which he sold at the seminar. This was back in the 90s. He had been using and demoing with this type of weapon for years, and I think he first introduced it outside Okinawa. Indeed, in Okinawa I never saw a pair used until about 20 years ago and I can’t help but wonder if students coming from the US or Europe and perhaps influenced by Kimo sensei inspired teachers there to do more with them. They do fall in with the quest for the “origins” of the Okinawan weapons that seems important to many Western practitioners, and the romantic “farm implements” genesis story. In any case, I helped him with the seminar and again he told me to keep the pair I was using at the end of the day. They often remind me of how much he knew about the arts, and how he was instrumental in introducing so many things here in the US.
8 These mugei nunchiyaku were made by Yamashiro Kenichi sensei. We were doing some variations on the standard nunchiyaku kata. I mentioned doing variations with the mugei and san bon nunchiyaku and he took out a couple of pair and we did a few techniques. They are certainly harder to use, though the variant techniques are not that complex. When we were done he gave them to me, which was rather nice of him. He has made a kata specifically for the mugei, and while I have never done it it looks pretty cool. One of the things I really like about Yamashiro sensei’s technique and approach is his breadth in the art. He has a vast store of knowledge and taken together with his excellent technique and deep understanding, his teaching in concert with Okinawan folk dance and music, his participation in and coaching for local competition, his understanding of his art in the context of Okinawan culture, his making his own weapons and other gear, his passing on what he was taught, and his developing his own take on the art and own kata, it points to a way of engaging with the practice that is far deeper than a quest for some “ancient secrets” or a better way to fight.
9 This kodachi was given to me by Shirasaka Kouichi san. He is a senior member of the Jigen Ryu. When I trained in the old dojo in the early 90’s he was one of my teachers. He is also an excellent chef, and ran a sushi restaurant called Satsuma for many years. I had my induction into the ryu in his restaurant, along with a few other new students. We had dinner, and got walked through the responsibilities of a mon-te, what was expected of us, and what training might be like. I was a little out of my depth I think, even though it sounds way more formal than it was. I may have been the first foreigner in the dojo, I am not sure, but I don’t remember any hesitation by anyone; I was welcomed and taught and still wish I had had time there to do more than brush the surface. Almost 20 years later, 2008 I think, I visited the dojo and after training we had dinner at his restaurant again, along with my wife and an old friend. It was a delicious meal. We talked about old times, had some shochu, and did some kata in front of the restaurant. As we were leaving he took this kodachi out of an umbrella stand behind the counter and gave it to me. He had had it for years and years and kept it there so he could practice when he was at work. It is hand made and while it doesn’t give me any additional knowledge or skill it does bring some nice memories and is a good reminder of how lucky I have been with opportunities and teachers.
10 These “crane’s kiss” were a gift from Liu Chang’I sifu. Look closely at the tips. The wood has a metal rod inserted into it; the tip is therefore a sharp metal point and can cut like knife. He had these made in Taiwan as a present. They have a special significance to me, as they demonstrate the changes that relationships can make in someone’s practice, as well as a little bit of influence I may have had on my teacher’s art. They are not “old” weapons in Feeding Crane, he added them. He would be happy to tell you that he got the idea from two places. The first was seeing Kimo sensei and me doing some work with the chizikunbo. I remember the afternoon. He was fascinated. In general he has no time for archaic weapons- they have no immediate function and he doesn’t see the point, except as entertainment. But he thought these were pretty cool. On his next visit he asked me more about them and we played some and I gave him a pair. His only issue with them was that he thought the tips should be sharper, to do more damage. Not long after that he visited Yong Chun village in China, where the crane arts come from. There is a statue of the founder there, Fang Qiniang. She is pictured holding in one hand what is probably, given the loom pictured behind her and the cultural significance, a silk shuttle. He saw her holding the implement, immediately made a connection and decided he would take that inspiration and include it as a weapon in his practice. He did some experimenting and after a few tries with different sizes and tips came away with a larger, sharper, and deadlier weapon. It can’t be used like a chizikunbo but it suits his personality and art perfectly, and the anthropologist in me, as well as the friend and student, loves it.
11 To come full circle, these are actual silk shuttles. They were given to me by the Nishi family. I trained with Nishi Ketsudo sensei when I was living in Amami Oshima in the early 90’s. (I also met Minowa and Yoshimura sensei then, but didn’t know them well.) He started training as a student of Sakai Ryugo. His wife’s family has been involved in the Amami silk business- weaving silk, designing and making kimono, yukata, and other things from it, and selling it- for generations. Her work is beautiful. One evening during a visit in 1995 we had dinner outside their home, where I was staying. After dinner some people took turns getting up to do kata, or local dance, or sing Amami songs. We had been talking about silk, and there were some tools on a bench just inside, among them some shuttles. I picked them up and used them to do a kata, I think it was seisan, extemporaneously modified to suit them. Everyone thought it was cool. When I was leaving the island a few days later Mrs. Nishi gave me these as a good bye present. It is hard to describe the generosity and welcome that family had shown to me when I was first living in a foreign country as a young man. While I don’t train with them much they mean a lot to me.
These shuttles, like many of these other gifts, remind me of the way we weave our lives, and how so many of those threads are gifts that we are given simply through the kindness of others. Sure, we do the weaving, decide on the pattern and the shape. But that cloth would be plain indeed without these threads, the things that are gifted to us. Things like friendship, knowledge, instruction, and an occasional small wooden weapon made by hand and given freely. These threads tie us, to tradition, and to change. They tie us to friendship, and effort, sometimes to confusion or conflict, maybe to inspiration, and to each other. They give our cloth some of its texture and heft. And hopefully, as time passes, we can gift of our own. If we are lucky, and attentive, and dedicated, we can add something more than a kindly given tool to the cloth of those around us.
As I mentioned a while back, I very rarely post anything on actual technique. I don’t think that this format is a good way to approach it. There is a saying in some Chinese arts: the teacher puts the art in the student with his hands. It is only through tactile communication that a martial art can actually be taught. Video or audio, spoken or written, no other source is able to transmit the practical details of any martial art. That doesn’t mean however that other media are never useful. If nothing else, they give folks a place to share thoughts and thought experiments. This is one of those.
In our Goju Ryu, as well as other Okinawan arts, there is a technique often referred to as sukui uke, usually translated as scooping block. (Terminology is an issue in karate. The same term is also used for a low sweeping block, often used against a kick, and probably other things…) It is an open hand technique, rising from low to high, palm first. In the classical Goju kata it is almost always accompanied by the other hand moving from high to low, palm or wrist first, both hands moving at the same time and the body square to the front, most often with a step forward with the rising hand side. Like this:
I would draw a distinction between a sukui uke, with a vertical rise, and a kake uke (or high ura uke) with the back of the wrist or hand, like this:
The hand position is the same but in the latter the hand moves into and then out from the center line, almost like a standard chudan uke. The point is not the hand position but the way it moves.
In the Goju kata, depending on the teacher, the sukui uke is in saifa, sesan, kururunfa, suparinpe, and possibly seiunchin. (Depending on the teacher again, the same spot in kata may be a sukui uke or a kake/ura uke.)
I remember Oshiro Yuzuru sensei of the Shodokan, a student of Higa Seiko’s who recently passed away, checking my basics and remarking that it was really important to have a good sukui uke. He said it was “an essential part of Goju Ryu”. (Mine needed work…) But in general people’s applications for it are absurd. Many start with a punch attack and end looking something like this:
Intercepting an attack with the palm of your hand and lifting it upwards? Seems unlikely. I what is probably a response to this improbability people then create other applications using it to deflect or hook attacks. But if it is supposed to be an angled deflection across the center line, like a nagashi uke, it certainly doesn’t move like that in kata. And if you are hooking the block to deflect or trap an attack to the outside like a kake or ura uke it is no longer a sukui uke. And it isn’t accompanied by an angled or side body shift away from the block in any of the kata (saifa even moves sideways towards it) so it isn’t that you evade and lift. So if you are lifting, how can it be an essential part of anything, except getting yourself hit?
I posted a while back about using a mawashi geri in the clinch. This is similar. At punching or dueling range this technique is really hard to use. I bet that is one reason it is often switched for a kake or ura uke- they can be used against an incoming punch or push. But training habits have rendered the sukui uke, an “essential” technique, not only useless, but also rather mysterious.
By training applications of the kata movements primarily against ballistic attacks starting from out of contact range you get a very different set of options than you do working from contact. As I said in the earlier post, one major similarity between Goju and many southern Chinese systems is the tight range at which they work. And by maintaining that range in training, for example from a pushing hands type platform, an array of standing grappling techniques in the kata become much more obvious.
So, from a punch or push coming from outside contact range the sukui uke is either rather silly or has to be re-engineered to be useful. But from a clinch or similar two handed contact position it gets a lot more useful as is. For example, start from a two handed neutral position (the “attacker’s” right forearm under the defender’s left, the attacker’s left forearm on top of the defender’s right) like this:
Keeping it simple, from this position do a 2 handed sukui uke movement- the sukui uke is done with the right hand: it stays under the elbow or upper arm and lifts; the left hand stays on top of the other arm and pulls in and down at the elbow. Like most of the Goju kata versions, at the same time you can step forward with the right foot, making sure the left foot remains rooted. Like this:
So instead of an improbable upward catch of a ballistic attack or a variant of a kake or ura uke, the sukui uke as done in kata acts to uproot and control the opponent. There are other applications (an arm break is one of my favorites) but the idea of splitting and uprooting, essentially using float, sink, spit, and swallow together in this technique, is much clearer at contact range. If you do this kind of training, it starts to look a lot more like an “essential” technique.
We have been training on pretty uneven ground the last few weeks. Well, ground might be a bit of misnomer; we have been training on 3-6” of compressed snow and ice. It makes for some pretty interesting footwork at times. It also, at least for me, has been drawing attention to that footwork, and to our stances. We were talking about this at the end of training Saturday. The conditions can necessitate adapting your stances- height, width, etc.. They can also affect your footwork- how fast and far you move and how you transfer your weight when doing so. For example, a couple of Wednesdays ago I wound up doing turns very slowly, as the snow we were training in was wet and thick, but with a frozen surface. That meant it was a little slick when you didn’t break through but when you did the mush underneath essentially grabbed your foot. A fast turn, particularly if one of your feet slipped and the other was grabbed by the snow, could easily have resulted in a bad knee or ankle injury. So I had to adapt. But doing so made me focus on what those adaptations were, and how I could adapt for conditions and still be able to do what I intended, to move like I was trying to. To better understand, actually, what those positions, and more importantly the movements between them, are for.
You see, I often see people talking about “adapting their stances” when they don’t need to. Or, to be more precise, when what they really mean is that they want to make them easier. When the condition is them, not their surroundings.That is a shame, as the basic body positions and the methods for moving between them are the first building blocks of a system. They enable you to get where you need to be and do what you need to do when you get there, for how that system is designed. Changing them can fundamentally change what the system is capable of.
We train in a classical system. This can mean a lot of things, but one thing it does mean is that there are prescribed ways of positioning your body (stances) and methods for moving between them. Stances are a difficult thing to learn, however, and to teach. People seem to think they are only present in formal Asian arts but there are stances in boxing or MMA, they just don’t look exactly like stances in karate or kobudo. Certainly people training these methods are taught how to carry their weight, to position themselves to use their bodies properly, and how to move. That is what stances and footwork are, nothing more.
It is easy to judge a stance on how it appears. Not often useful, but easy. There are external measures of stance. When they are poorly taught they are sometimes described like: “put your back foot twelve inches from your front foot”. The measurements are based on something universal, like inches or centimeters, and stances can be judged by their conforming to that measure. Shape is another method of judging stance- how it looks relative to other versions of the stance. But that is not very useful either. Different body types may give different shapes even when they are “correct”. Stances are primarily internal.
And judging a stance is easy, if you know what it is supposed to do. If you understand its purpose, you can judge, by look and by feel, how the person’s weight is distributed, what the various levels of tension are in different muscle groups, how the spine is aligned with the stance, where the feet are relative to the legs and core, and so on. Each of these things will be slightly different person to person in the same stance, based primarily on their body- size, proportions, strength, etc.. Certain relative measures can be useful- things like “the toes of your back foot line up with the heel of your front foot”- but even they don’t always work for every body type. The real measure is how the stance functions. Does it allow for easy movement? Does it enable generation and absorption of power in the desired direction(s)? Is it balanced? Does it protect the body as desired? If these things are checked you find that each person’s body necessitates slight adjustments in stance. And if someone has an issue they are working with- bad knee, fused vertebrae, etc.- that adaptation is even more essential.
That does not mean each person can just stand and move how they want. The goal is to shape your body to the system, not change the system. So if your legs or back gets tired or you can’t go low enough to comfortably get in the position that allows you to do x, then do more leg or core work to build yourself up. Be able to do the system. It also means you need to understand what you are checking when you are teaching and practicing your footwork. You need to build your body so it can conform to the system’s practice and build your understanding of the system so that you can know what you are doing with that body. Then you might have a chance of getting your stances “correct”.
So yes, understand your stances and you can change them if you need to. At least if you understand them both physically and mentally. If you can do what the stance is meant to do then you have a decent chance of changing it in a way that still allows you do what you need to do. If you can’t, then there is little chance that under adverse conditions you are going to be able to do what those stances and forms of movement are requiring of you. And when you are training, or fighting, in calf deep sticky snow you will really be stuck.
Right now it can feel like every day is the same. Working primarily from home. Not seeing friends, not going out, not traveling, just the same 4 walls. Training can also feel the same. Keeping distance and training outside has meant for a real change in our practice, with a focus mostly on kata. That is great, I love kata, but it is a very small slice of the pie.
And yet, as happens so often to me, training has become the vehicle for another important perspective check. Sure, the days can feel like the same day over and over, Covid Groundhog day ad-nauseam. But training has forced me to notice something else.
Every day is different.
As we’ve been pushed outside we’ve been pushed to interact with the world differently. We have always done our Saturday mornings outside for much of the year. But now even on days, and nights, when the weather is inclement we are in the park. So I’ve trained through moonrise, rain, sleet, rainbows, snow, frigid temperatures, brilliant sun, mud, large dogs running at us, pitch darkness. It has been lovely, and challenging. We feel the weather, feel the seasons change. One evening heavy clouds hung low over the area and I expected it to be really dark, as we train after sunset right now. But the cloud cover dispersed the moonlight, and caught and reflected the ambient light from the towns around. While the week before, on a clear cloudless night, it had been hard to see each other 10 feet away, this evening I could see a squirrel at the far end of the park. I suddenly remembered playing hide and seek with the neighborhood kids over 40 years ago and saying “its cloudy, its going to be harder to hide!”. I had no recollection I once knew that, but yeah.
In our “regular” lives it is easy to miss it. Much as we keep our bodies insulated from changes in the weather, the seasons, we can easily feel we are able to keep other things stable, that some things are constant and won’t really change much. But being pushed out into the world reminds you that regardless of how you are feeling inside the world around you is changing every day. And so are you. Every time we come down to train it is different. The weather, the light, the feelings and thoughts we bring with us. Right now it’s particularly easy to feel you are stuck on repeat, but we are not. And letting yourself fall into that feeling is letting all the good things happening now be wasted. The time to be wasted, never to return.
And there are good things happening. Not just silver lining Covid good, but actual benefits. In training, not being able to do certain things has reinforced how important they are, and made me think about the appropriate place of kata in our practice. Having to focus on a smaller amount of material has given me more time to just train, or just teach, without also managing a hovering set of goals and material that can feel overwhelming. Being reminded that picking that stuff up and putting it down is up to me is a huge benefit.
On top of that, with fewer elements of our practice in the mix I have had to change my teaching substantially. This has been a fantastic lesson. I’ve never taught 8-10 kata to anyone in less than a year before. But literally everyone training is running with it. It is fun, and fantastic to see. It will leave these folks with a larger body of material to draw from when we can return to our regular focus on paired practice. It will also help me continue to stretch people, to hopefully be a better teacher and training partner.
Keeping every day different is one reason we have covered so much material. Creative disruption, perhaps. While our training is subject based, as always the goal is skills not content. My challenge has been to decide what essential skills we can focus on with so much fundamental material out of bounds. One down side to having what seems to be a steady dojo experience is that it feels like things are always available, eventually. But they are not. You or your teacher can move, have a health issue, or simply get old. Life can get in the way. Sometimes scarcity is a blessing. It adds emotional weight to things, a need to learn them now or lose the chance. So I decided to keep stuff flowing, perhaps a little too fast. Keep people working to keep up. Develop the “waza wo nusumu” mindset, in part by keeping learning opportunities limited, putting the onus on students to get it before we are on to something else. Fostering skills in observation, mirroring, taking and holding information. Doing so without getting bogged down in some details we cannot address at the moment and instead pushing everyone to apply what they already know to each new thing, and hopefully see the way they are woven together. Like fighting- dealing with confusion, and not enough time.
The goal, as always, is to have the dojo be stronger, more knowledgeable, more skilled. If we use this time as a place holder, that won’t happen. You can’t pause. But so much is out of bounds it is easy to feel we are stuck on repeat and just waiting to be able to do more. That feeling is a lie. Our minds, with that sense that we can keep things stable, are tricking us; if we just wait entropy takes over and we lose skill, knowledge, and time, and we may never get it back.
Having to deal with the pandemic is making me reassess how to teach and how to interact with our traditions. It is making me look at priorities, and in the dojo it turns out they are pretty simple. Train and keep learning myself. Share what I know with people who want it, and in turn learn from them. Make sure everything we do supports our goals and if it doesn’t, discard it. There is no time for it. If there are things I am “waiting” to share, or do, stop waiting. And I want to be sure training is supporting those goals now. It must be bringing people, and myself, up faster, better, and with a personal hold on what we do right now.
As the seasons change, I can feel those changes in my body, my training, daily. It is a wonderful reminder. As we do mokuso at the end of each training I find myself listening to the stream, feeling the wind, figuring out if I have to move my feet off the uneven slippery lump of snow I am standing on so I won’t fall over (and so I can let my body relax, feel my structure, and in turn find and release areas of tension in my frame). Internal, external, they interact. And even the “inclement” days, like last week’s wet half frozen sticky snow that required the slowest ugliest turns I have ever done so I wouldn’t torque my knees or ankles, are beautiful.
We are all changing, and one point of our practice is to make sure that change is what we want it to be. Don’t get trapped by that sense that we can wait, or that things are going to stay stable. They aren’t, and even if you don’t see the changes till later they are still going to happen. Embrace it. Feel the seasons, and the discomfort, and the beauty. It may be a little hard to feel it right now, but every day is indeed different. The question is, I guess, can we see those differences, can we be part of them as they happen, and if we can what will they bring?
We’ve had a couple of wonderful training sessions here lately. We are gathering outside, keeping distance, and therefore working mostly on kata right now. I’m used to training outside. We do our Saturday morning kobudo sessions outside for as much of the year as possible. I am used to seeing the seasons change through the window of our morning training: the sun shifting, temperature, humidity, the color of the sky and the feeling of the ground varying as the months go by. But these evenings have been beautiful. A couple of weeks ago we started in the rain, expecting it to turn into a downpour or a thunderstorm, but instead ending with a rainbow and some amazing peach and purple clouds. And tonight we started with a clear blue late summer New England sky and ended with the moon up over the trees and the stars just starting to peek out. A lovely way to share some sweat with the dojo.
These days it feels like a lot is, for now anyway, taken away. I miss contact. I miss our dojo space. I miss the schedule we were keeping. But there has been a lot of good that has come out of the last few months for our dojo, and tonight, as the moon rose and we finished up I was reminded of a poem by Ryokan.
Hakutsuru, the secret crane kata. Hidden knowledge, supposedly reserved for the highest level students of the Okinawan arts. Rare, deep, powerful. And yet, for all its vaunted rarity there is a plethora of “crane” in Okinawa. Seems every dojo or group has their “secret” crane form. I’ve seen dozens. Really. The forms have names like hakutsuru, kakuho, kakufa, hakkaku, paiho, hakucho, and so on, all essentially meaning “white crane” or “crane method”. Many seem to lead back to Gokenki, most likely a Ming He (Singing or Calling Crane) practitioner. (I recently wrote a little about him here.) Others are of less clear provenance. But really, it doesn’t matter. Why not? Because there is no crane taught in Okinawa. Yes, there are “crane” forms in Okinawa, but none are any different in how they are performed than the rest of the systems they are part of and none of those systems are crane.
Seems like a pretty strong position, given the status the “white crane” seems to hold in the Okinawan traditions. Especially in those systems like Goju or Uechi that claim a direct lineal connection to crane systems this connection takes on a power that is disproportionate to its historical weight; having a connection to “Chinese” roots can be a powerful piece of both social capital and historical validity in Okinawa. But there it is. Really. Regardless of the stories told, there is no crane taught in Okinawan karate. Perhaps I should explain why this is true. The answer is pretty simple. Energy and power.
Fujian’s White Crane systems use particular types of power generation and specific body energies. That sound esoteric but it isn’t, it just means they train one to move and hit in certain ways. Two of the most common of these are whipping and shaking. They are not present in Okinawan karate. Both of these in general require elements of movement that break fundamental karate rules. To whip you have to move your arms in curves, not lines, extend 100%, no holding back that little bit at the elbow, and drop all power at impact, so no kime. To shake you often have to lift your elbows instead of protecting your ribs, again use 100% extension, and you cannot chamber or “lock in” with kime. There are plenty of other mechanical reasons, those are just examples. There are also technical and strategic examples, as well as postural and movement examples, as well as training method examples, but this is enough for now. There are similar terms used- some Shorin schools “whip”, for example- but it is not whipping in the Crane sense.
Crane Stance, No Can Defend
The point is (with the possible exception of Matayoshi Shinpo, a discussion for a different post) I have yet to see an Okinawan crane form being done with crane energy. Without the energy it is simply not crane. I think one real issue here is a basic misunderstanding of the place of kata, form. The reason the Okinawan crane forms are called crane is because they conform to certain ideas about what crane is. They look “crane like” with the open “wings” posture and finger tip and wrist techniques. Perhaps they are done “softer”, and usually contain one-legged “crane stances”. But the issue, at least from a crane practitioner’s perspective, is that these things have little to nothing to do with crane. Crane is about the power generation and strategy. The techniques in the forms are based on that, the crane is not based in the techniques. It doesn’t matter what it looks like, it matters how it is done.
So no crane. Okinawan karate with crane names, but not crane. To be clear, this isn’t bad. That would be like saying a Ferrari is bad compared to a Lamborghini. Both are pretty nice cars. They are just not the same car. Using Ferrari parts to repair your Lamborghini would not work well. Using karate energy to do crane technique works equally well. And vice versa. Thinking about The Secrets In Kata in this light, I think most of the “crane” forms in Okinawa are rather disappointing, at least if you are expecting special secret knowledge that will make you a more powerful martial artist. They don’t hold anything more than the karate systems they are a part of. They don’t really seem to add much. Except some cool factor, I guess. (Never underestimate cool factor…)
Of course that doesn’t take away from these systems! I love my Goju. It is a powerful and effective art. To return to the car analogy, I would be pretty happy driving a Lamborghini, and someone else driving a Ferrari doesn’t take away from how nice my car is, it just tells me there are other nice cars on the road. Okinawan karate has its own fundamentals, methods of power generation and movement, things that make it unique (in all its variation). Crane isn’t karate either! One is not better. But unfortunately that is part of the secret “crane”, the idea that it is somehow better. (An ancient Chinese secret.) Turns out this is an idea that is hard to defend, particularly when that crane is the same karate in a slightly different shape.
This is a saying from Ming He, Singing Crane. It roughly translates as: if it doesn’t shake/whip, it’s not Crane. It refers to the way Singing Crane (and, in my experience, Feeding Crane, albeit slightly differently) generates power, through variations on a shaking or whipping energy that is both highly distinctive and quite effective. The saying means that regardless of any other elements of practice, if you are not using this shaking/whipping you are not doing crane.
I did some experimenting with Tensho quite a while back and came away with a look at the kata that I thought might be interesting here. Concepts of structure, pedagogy, and encoding are interesting to me, as is the process by which some people move more deeply into the art and others stay in what seems like the same place for decades. Some of the structural and pedagogical ideas I see in Tensho provide at least one version of what a path onward might look like.
Tensho is, perhaps, the most mythologized kata in the Goju Ryu syllabus. Stories of its creation abound: Miyagi sensei created it from a now-lost Chinese form called Rokkishu; he created it from the deepest secretes of the White Crane system; it is the “soft” accompaniment to the harder Sanchin; he created it from the Rokkishu in the Bubishi; he learned secrets in China when he traveled there that inspired it. These are all good stories, and they play into the myths of our art perfectly- secret knowledge, information from China, the past holding deeper knowledge than the present. But to me, while these stories are great Tensho is actually the perfect vehicle for both embracing and deconstructing the myths of our art.
While all these stories are fuzzy at best, we actually know more about Tensho than many of our kata: we know Miyagi sensei created it in the early 1920’s. While for many the “secret knowledge” that supposedly went into it is the core of its meaning, I see something else. I don’t see secrets and stories, I see a deep understanding of structure and systematized content. A closer examination of the kata, plus some slightly more detailed background, to me explain a lot of the mysteries this kata supposedly holds.
The structure of Tensho is simple. If you look carefully, break it down, it is simpler still. Why did Miyagi sensei relate it to Sanchin? Because it, like our art, begins and ends with Sanchin: the first 3 punches most versions start with and the ending moriote nukite and mawashi uke in sanchin dachi are right from Sanchin. But the rest certainly holds some secrets? Perhaps, but if you look closely you see something else. The mawashi uke that is central to many of our forms is, in Tensho, simply broken down. Take a moment and look at it, do it. Each hand does the mawashi uke in its parts- first kake uke, then soto uke, then the upper palm strike. Then the outside sweep and lower palm strike. Just a mawashi uke but done in pieces, all one handed on one side. Simple. But what about the next movements? Well, in the To’on Ryu lineage there is a stand-alone sequence of techniques called, tada!, Rokkishu. It was passed down by Higashionna to Kyoda, and it would be surprising indeed if Miyagi had not learned it from their teacher. It is identical to the next 4 movements- koken up, shuto down, koken out, palm in. (It was also popular with other Okinawan martial artists- Uechi Kanei included it in Kanchin for example.) So simple again. Then the kata finishes with a complete mawashi uke to tie together the ones that were deconstructed, reinforcing the lesson.
Simple. But also genius- it does everything Miyagi sensei talked about; compliments sanchin, opens the body in a different, softer if you want, way, and reinforces the core of the system. It also incorporates “secret” Chinese knowledge- the Rokkishu his teacher passed down. So all the various stories are true, if you look at them a certain way. (The similarity of the movements to those in many Fujianese arts is also no surprise, at least if there is any truth to the stories of a Fujianese connection at all. They are common movements in so many styles trying to find an “origin” of them is a fool’s errand.)
But while these stories are good, to me the presentation of organized knowledge seems more powerful, more complete. It shows a deep and thorough mastery of the material, and a structured approach to examining it and passing it on. It takes what can become a mysterious practice and turns it into a work of art, and into something we can use, both as a kata and as a concept, to grow our own practice.
So, interesting times. Training through them is, well, different. The last session I had in the dojo was over 5 weeks ago. On a usual week, I am there 3-4 times. Sometimes less, occasionally more. The last 5 weeks? Not at all. And not surprisingly, I miss it. I miss the camaraderie, I miss the shared effort, I miss the physical contact. These things have been part of my life for so long having them suddenly removed is both startling and frustrating.
Now, before people get too worked up, of course this doesn’t mean I have not been training. It also doesn’t mean training requires a “dojo”. Or that training outside the dojo or outside regularly scheduled classes, or alone for that matter, isn’t essential. It is, and it is. Training doesn’t require anything, really, but desire, discipline, and effort. But, well, that is not entirely true. At least not if you are training a martial martial art. That requires other people.
Martial artists are, in my experience, a voluble bunch. While one ideal the community holds up is a stoic, self contained solo training machine, the reality is different. This is not a community that doesn’t care what other people think, or do! We talk about our art endlessly. Blog about it (see what I did there?). Attend class, go to seminars, write and read books. We pay attention to the most minute social details. Who trained with whom for how long, who changed teachers and why, where person x learned subject y, who was friends with who 60 years ago, who is friends with who now, people are out, people are in, these folks are full of @#$%, these folks are honest but unskilled, these folks are fantastic but annoying, this guy left and started his own dojo but was really just a green belt, this sensei is the one to look at in that dojo not the head teacher, she is a better fighter than her teacher, he hits on his students, what do you think about this technique, this person does it this way but that seems silly to me, old is better, new is better, I don’t like her, he took my lunch at a seminar once, oh my god the chatting goes on and on! We love it! My wife says our community is like a bunch of high school girls- gossipy, cliquey, and really worried about who is with whom. I gotta say, she’s right.
But is that such a bad thing? It certainly can be. If people are unkind or exclusionary, that is not ok. Lying is always bad. Close minded approaches to what is “right” hurt everyone. Spreading rumors and taking any joy in the tribulations of others is a lousy way to be. And talking instead of training isn’t a trope because it doesn’t exist. But being concerned with the connections between others? Noticing social cues and being aware of the power of relationships? Having a network of people that share a joy in the art? Sharing the effort of growing, improving, and changing? Supporting others in their growth and having a network to rely on? Those seem like pretty good things to me.
And they are, I believe, part of our self defense. What are some of the most vital things we need to protect ourselves from? The data showing that ill health goes hand in hand with loneliness is pretty clear. Particularly as people age having a community that they are a part of is very closely tied to overall mental and physical well being. For most of us physical attack is less likely to be a constant danger than the slow continuous onset of lifestyle related illness. To protect myself from those, I have made my art central to my life. It provides activity, structures a way and a desire to keep me pushing my physical and mental boundaries, and it develops my ability to defend myself and others. So it keeps my body healthy. And I share these goals and rewards with others I respect. We train, we research, we experiment. We communicate. We grow. And we share our lives. I don’t know ANY long term martial artists whose social life isn’t also full with the people they train with. None. And this sense of community is fundamentally part of any traditional art, where social connections- community, clan, family, nation- were often specifically included in the descriptions of the art itself.
So the art doesn’t just keep you healthy physically, but socially. Sure, sometimes that is a bit much. Especially when you are listening to yet another diatribe about how person x does something incorrectly. That’s rude in any social situation. But the relationships that training helps foster are essential self-protection in so many ways.
And so is the contact. Body conditioning, kakie, pushing hands, grappling; all the close quarters work we do requires close physical contact. Night after night we grab, hit, and sweat on each other. Of course it is essential to real martial practice. No amount of solo training can make you a good martial artist. You can develop certain attributes alone but there are essential skills you just cannot learn without a partner. Not a teacher. A partner. Hopefully a number of them, because no one acts or reacts exactly like anyone else. But it is more than that.
The benefits of frequent close physical contact of just about any type are clearly documented: less aggression, better immune system, greater trust, lower blood pressure, greater learning engagement, and closer emotional intimacy, among other things. These come from simple physical contact with other human beings. I spend a few hours a week in physical contact with people I trust enough to risk injury with. Not only does that help me learn to protect myself against assault, t turns out the act of making contact in and of itself better prepares me to deal with illness, aging, and navigating all sorts of other social interactions.
So without a community of people who trust each other you cannot learn a martial art. You need contact, social and physical connection. Without them your art is hollow, empty of the interaction that makes it martial. And it would also be empty of the benefits, the personal protection, that only that element of community, and the physical contact that goes with it, can bring. Taken together, training this way is indeed holistic self defense.
In these interesting times I find I am missing that interaction, that contact. A few weeks of solo training is not a bad thing. Hopefully I’ll come out the other end with improvement in some areas of my art. But the change in what has been a pretty consistent schedule for decades has made me realize how central that social and physical contact is to the rhythm of my weeks. I knew it was important, but with it taken away I see a little better what it does for me, and for the rest of the dojo. I have a slightly better window on the things that the classical arts bring to the lives of their practitioners, and some new insight into why I have found both training and teaching them so rewarding.
So yes, I hope to come through this with some good training in, and hopefully some good insights for moving forward. But in the meantime I gotta say I miss the dojo. Not the building (though that too) but the real dojo, the community that carries our arts, and their benefits, within them. I can’t wait to get back to it, feel those connections, and mix it up some!
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 November 9 & 10. 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.