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


The Secrets in Kata

So, kata has “secrets”. Yup. I guess. They certainly carry information. But I don’t want to get into what techniques are hidden in our kata (sorry if that was what you were looking for). I am more interested in how that information is held, and how it is transmitted. How to access it.

Kata are pretty easy to teach. They are essentially short combinations of movements, in the Okinawan arts usually taking a minute or so to perform. A professional dancer would probably be able to learn and repeat a sequence of similar or greater length and complexity to the most difficult karate kata in a single training session, and would learn dozens a year taking class. If you know how to move and how to learn, they really are not that hard to take in.

But we spend years working on the same forms. Why? Here is the secret. It is not in the sequence of the forms, as important as they are, but in how they are performed. This is why a dancer could probably learn any of our forms in an hour or two but not be able to do them quite properly. They wouldn’t know HOW to do the forms. Internal muscle work. Posture and structure in our art as opposed to theirs. Breathing. Power generation and direction. Intention (yi). The things that are more important than the sequences.

I see lots of bunkai that emphasize the sequence of the movements. This arm does this, you move here, etc. etc.. Ok. That concept of kata, that the sequence of movements in itself holds the key to using them is pretty appealing. It means if you learn the sequence you can then learn the application. By learning more sequences you learn more applications, and by extension have more skill. But it is also a very shallow understanding of form, of what kata is doing and how it fits into a system. It says anyone can do the applications if they know the sequence. It implies the shape of the movements holds the key, as opposed to what is inside that shape.

To make the kata movements work, and make sense, you have to contextualize them within the system. This is really not complex. It means they have to be used in concert with how the system works. What is the range preferred might be one element. One of the most important elements when looking at kata, in my opinion, is how the body works. How does the system generate power. How does it move. How does it deal with strength and structure. And so on. Looked at this way the kata are not isolated “textbooks of technique”. They are part of a system. That means they don’t function on their own.

For example, a movement that looks like a press, the palm edge rotating down from a defending position at mid extension, might actually be a strike to break bones if the system focuses on short power development but could never be interpreted that way if that type of power development was not in the practitioner’s body. What looks like an extended arm deflection might be a powerful throw if the system has good methodology for developing the “frame” and waist-shoulder-arm connection and power, an option that would again be invisible or impossible if you don’t have that skill.

So while learning a bunch of forms might teach you some interesting techniques or combinations, it really won’t help your art grow any. Those techniques will all be bordered by the skills you have. You will see in them what you already know. This may or may not be what the system was designed for…

That is one of the difficulties with kata. They do hold application for the system. But this may look mysterious or seem confusing if you don’t have the system’s approach in your body and mind. (It may still, but a topic for a different time!) It may lead to some pretty convoluted, or conversely really simple, applications if what you are doing, probably without knowing it, is working out an application that doesn’t include the attributes of the system, that is actually working around the skills you don’t have. It may even resemble the movements at the end, and so how to say it is wrong? But starting with the system’s foci- power, range, structure, etc.- might lead to some very different answers.

And this is where taking in lots of forms can be very misleading. It is nice to think that by learning the “highest” kata in a system you have been given some secret or special knowledge. You can even (shhh!) short circuit the system by learning the highest forms from another source, even from video. But if the secrets to the application of these forms are not in the sequence but in how they are done, you have not really short circuited anything because you have not learned the skills that make these forms work properly. You don’t know what you don’t know.

An analogy I have used is dropping a Ferrari engine and transmission in a pick up truck. With some effort you might be able to get the truck to go, even to haul things. But it won’t really work right. The transmission probably won’t take the load from the engine with a bed full of gravel. And the other way around? The truck engine and transmission won’t really get the Ferrari to move like it could with the right insides. What a shame… In much the same way the applications in the forms require the right engine. That is the lens to see them through. Different engine, different capacities, different answer.

This really comes to the fore when learning forms from other systems. Without also learning their engines all they do is reflect what you already have. I’ve had the pleasure to experience a number of good systems in seminars or from friends. I have enjoyed and learned from it. But if I were to do a Hsing’I form it wouldn’t be Hsing’I. It would be Goju, or Feeding Crane, or Kingai, or the mix of those that I brought to the form. If I examined it for application I would find applications I could do, ones that ran off my Goju, Kingai, and Feeding Crane body skills and tactics.

So secrets in the kata. Yup. They are there. And they come out through the basics of the system. Not what we often think of as basics- punches, kicks, etc.- but the real basics. Power, structure, sensitivity, options, position, all the choices inside these variables the system prefers. Using those as a lens opens the kata in a very different way.

Athleticism and Martial Art

So I have been struggling with injury recovery for a little while. It has me thinking about physical capacity, physicality and our training. And the difference between athleticism and martial art. This is a slightly convoluted topic. It is not that complex, really, but it is easy to head down the wrong road when looking at physicality in the martial arts. The reason I think it is simple as there are two different categories of skill and development we are talking about here. 1) Straightforward physical capability- strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.. and 2) Martial skill- power generation, sensitivity, technical capability, bodily knowledge of strategy and tactics. Simple. But also complex, for two reasons.

  1. A lot of the second category can be imitated by elements of the first. You can make up for certain amounts of power and technique with strength, you can make up for certain elements of strategy and technique with speed, etc. So it is easy to seem like you are a good martial artist if you are simply strong, fast, and well coordinated. It is equally possible to mask poorly developed arts with excellent physical capabilities. A good athlete will be able to get things to work, especially against someone with lesser capabilities, even if these things are not really that well thought out.
  2. They are not completely independent. You can’t actually be a good martial artist if you are not in good condition- strong for your body, and able to move. And, to add complexity to that, different arts require different capabilities, so that you really need to have the right musculature, flexibility, etc. to perform the art. Without that combination it doesn’t really matter how good the art is, you can’t do it.
Image result for arnold conan the barbarian what is the secret of steel

What is the riddle of Steel?

So what does this mean? Well, first it means that physicality alone is not a good indication of martial skill, and fit students are not a good indication of a good system in and of themselves. As an example, strength is really useful, and discounting it would be foolish. However, it is not the same as power. Martial power is about delivering force where you want, when you want, the way you want, and in the systems I practice often over very short distance, right down to striking impact from contact with no pull-back. This cannot be imitated by strength, but with just a little space a really strong person can often hit pretty darn hard while a weak person cannot really generate short power so it is easy to confuse the two if you don’t know what you are looking for. Training can reinforce this, depending on how you train. If the training methods pit strength on strength really frequently, with no real tools for using skill to control strength, being stronger will make it seem you are more martially capable. If you can change speed in drills you can pretend you are better at timing by being faster or speeding up to “win”. So take a close look and see what is being rewarded. A lot of time and energy can be wasted, invested in something with difficulty but no depth.

The other side of this coin is that you cannot mask physical incapacity with technique. Or, to be more precise, you can but it requires certain training modes. If you are always working with compliant partners your techniques will always work. That means you can be out of shape, simply incapable of doing the technique against a reasonably fit or intent opponent, and possibly not even know it. Your “devastating techniques” can have their fictions maintained and reinforced by the way you train. Combat has a pretty central physical element. You need to be able to push, pull, lift, turn, duck, hit, tear, etc.. So if you see training that ignores physical capacity, that insists “only the technique matters and it can be done by anyone”, take a closer look and see what is really happening. Think about it in relation to other physical activities. How well will a person in poor physical shape perform in, say, Olympic wrestling, tennis, or parkour? These activities require very specific and highly developed skill sets. And the skills developed in those sports require a certain physicality to make them doable. While technique is essential it cannot function without physicality. The physical skills required are often pretty complex and difficult, and at the highest levels of any real art require a highly trained and conditioned body, one capable of expressing the art properly. That doesn’t mean you have to be young and absurdly developed but it does mean you have to be capable of what the system demands.

Image result for little person fighting big person

I don’t think he has taken in quite enough Chanko nabe to be ready for Sumo….

Marrying the two is where real training is at. A good system will have methods for developing martial skill and good strategy. An example might be oppositional sensitivity drills, things like pushing hands, but where the drill is developed and practiced to focus on specific technical elements, minimizing (but never eliminating, that isn’t possible) the effects of pure strength or agility. Testing, as it were, for the skill in question. Good training will also develop you physically, so you are capable to doing what the system requires. 

I have found that the two then reinforce each other. The system has certain attributes it requires for functioning properly- if you can’t get your body to do what is required you can’t do the art. So it develops these attributes. An example I have seen from my Feeding Crane sifu is that a number of times he has taught seminars and included certain techniques. These are often meant to give a flavor of the system as much as anything else. People will often dissect them and demonstrate how they are unrealistic. They will say things like “this won’t work, no one can really do that”. Sifu will laugh and say something along the lines of “well, it will work if your fajing is good, otherwise, no, it won’t. It won’t work for you because you don’t have short power.” And then make it clear he could get the technique to work. As can other people there, those with the correct martial power. But developing that is hard work-  lots of it, painful, tiring, and time consuming. Don’t do the work, the system will fail for you.  The corollary: do the work in a poor system and it will fail for you too.

So in a good art it is a web- physicality supporting techniques that are based in part on the physical and martial attributes developed by the system. In some ways a feedback loop. One of those things that make a system a system, and make it different from other well developed systems.

Anyway, long story short, don’t confuse being really fit with being a good martial artist. Good arts are far deeper than fitness, strength, and agility. They develop and do things that you can’t replicate with fitness alone, no matter how fit you are. But for goodness sake don’t call yourself a martial artist if you are not in good condition. If someone in poor shape is telling you their training will make you a good martial artist, or a good fighter, don’t believe it for a second. It just doesn’t work that way. At least not that I have ever seen.

Succession in The Martial Arts: the Master on the Mountain pt2

So the idea of succession, of passing on information and of maintaining a lineage through generations, has been on my mind a lot lately. While most people think they understand what this entails, I am not so sure. The model most of us use to think about the lineage of our teachers, especially the head teachers of any system, is pretty simple. The leadership of the system is passed on to the “senior student” of the former leader. This makes sense: the senior student is supposed to be the one who best represents the former leader’s art and so has the mantle of leadership bestowed upon him or her either by the former leader or by universal acclamation of the other members of the group.

The ideal is also that the leader shows a marked difference in skill compared to other members. Here in the west that is often easily accomplished. Especially in the early days of karate in the US the teachers had no peer group. They were the only people with knowledge in the dojo, so it was obvious who the leader was. In many ways I believe this, along with a desire for clear hierarchy, has deeply colored westerners’ view of the student-teacher relationship, and what it means to be the head of a system or dojo.

In a well-established dojo the concept of direct lineage is much more complex. As an example, let’s look at Goju Ryu, and the Shodokan (Goju Ryu Kokusai Karate Kobudo Renmei) branch in particular. The leadership of this lineage is:

Kanryo Higashionna – Miyagi Chojun- Higa Seiko- Takamine Choboku- Higa Seikichi- Kurashita Eiki- Gushiken Zensei.

Looks pretty simple, doesn’t it? It is an unbroken line of succession. But I think the real question is: what does this succession mean? Not exactly what it appears, at least as I look at it. Starting in the first generation, while it is commonly understood that Miyagi was Higashionna’s successor Kyoda Juhatsu started training a bit before he did and never stopped. Some say Kyoda sensei was the only one to learn sanseru from Higashionna, which implies he received knowledge Miyagi did not. And Kyoda and his students certainly do not accept Miyagi as the successor to Higashionna. So even in what seems like an uncontested transmission we have a first generation successor who is not the senior, or the successor, from another, equally valid, perspective.

The second generation is more complex. Higa Seiko trained with Higashionna along with Miyagi and Kyoda. Since they were both students under their teacher the lineage is not perfectly clean, teacher to student. It is also quite possible Higa received instruction or information Miyagi did not, just as Kyoda did. Later, when Higa founded his dojo there were other long standing students of Miyagi around, Yagi Meitoku and Miyazato Eichi among them. They did not take Higa as their teacher. So while in the Shodokan Higa sensei is the lineal successor to Miyagi that is not the case in other Goju Ryu lineages; his “successorship” is not universal, nor therefore is his status as “senior student”.

As both Goju and the Shodokan get better established, things get yet more complicated. Takamine became the next leader. In his cohort were a variety of other people, including Fukichi Seiko who had acted as assistant instructor in the dojo, Toguchi Seikichi, who had gone on to study under Miyagi and founded his own dojo (the Shoreikan) and of course Higa Seikichi. So while Takamine was the successor he was not the only success story in dojo- he had peers and, rather importantly, seniors. Higa Seikichi then became the leader after Takamine, but there were people in the dojo (including Takamine) that had started training earlier.

When Higa Seikichi passed away the leadership went to Kurashita sensei by decision of the senior teachers and at that time there were quite a number of people that had been ranked senior to him and had started before he did, people like Kiyuna Choyu who some referred to as the “technical director”. They were never his students, but he was still recognized as the head of the group. The successor. The same goes for Gushiken Zensei. Does this take away from their leadership or skill in any way? Absolutely not! These are some of the best martial artists Okinawa has produced. But it does make the question of succession much more complex.

Look at it this way: much as Kyoda may have had knowledge that Miyagi did not, the various seniors around the current leader of any well established dojo may have insights, information, or skills the leader does not. The paths training takes get complex: person x started 5 years earlier but took 7 years off when he worked outside the country. Person y started 2 years later but was independently wealthy and so trained 4 hours a day through his 20s and 30s while the current leader was at work. Person z was considered the best in the dojo until a car accident left him unable to move properly. Persons w,v, and u all started the same year as the leader, but one focused on kata, one on application, and one on fitness and basics and none was that interested in other aspects. Person t was a far better teacher than practitioner and many people relied on him to help them improve in ways others could not. Person s left to form his own dojo and so while still friends and senior to almost everyone in the group is no longer considered formally part of the lineage.

Then add to this that teachers change what and how they teach as their understanding changes. This means students with equal amounts of time might learn slightly different things depending on when they trained with their teacher and what their interests and attributes were. Not to mention that personal relationships might also affect how and what a teacher teaches.

In short- some may have different knowledge, and some may have more focused specialization. So where does that leave the succession? We want to have a simple answer to the question: who was teacher x’s top student? But that answer may not exist. A leader is often, indeed should be, chosen for a variety of reasons. Of course they might simply stand out as far superior to their peers in ability and understanding. They may be a better teacher than anyone else. Hopefully they have the skills to keep a dojo together and maintain the support of their peers in this task. Who is the best student? Answering that question needs to start with defining best.

Sometimes, in wanting “the best” but not defining it carefully people dismiss things. I have seen students disappointed visiting Okinawa and training not with the head teacher but with one of the other seniors. I have seen people ignore valuable insights because they did not come from the head teacher. (Because they came from a Westerner asked to teach…) This is foolish. If you were not there for the decades leading up to the current leader’s taking charge, how could you possibly understand the web of knowledge around him or her? Why would you ignore someone with vastly more experience just because they are not the figurehead? Particularly if the leader has asked them to teach you.

For me this comes back again to: who are the leader’s friends, training partners? Who does he or she look to for assistance or guidance? The simple model: this person is the old teacher’s senior, so he is the new head of the system and the main authority on it, is comforting. It makes understanding roles simple. But it is weak. It ignores all the other knowledge and experience in the system. It ignores other branches of the system. So don’t accept the simple answer; give some credit to all the other people around the head teacher or successor. They are part of the lineage too.

The Good Old Days?

Training was better in the old days. It was more real. The old masters were better than anyone now. The arts have declined, lost something important. Students are lazy now, not like before. You hear these things constantly in the martial arts. Everything was better in the past. And you know what? It is nonsense. Was that a gasp? Am I saying that the old masters didn’t have something up on the McDojo down the street? Or that some of the developments in modern karate here and in Okinawa are not troubling to me? No. I am saying that there was no golden age, that the old masters had issues too, and the old days were just as screwed up as today. And, most importantly, that the imaginary past is not the place to go to learn.

Shaolin Temple

Your dojo?

It is an appealing idea, isn’t it? That there was a time when the old masters had true wisdom and the confused mess we find ourselves in now was simpler. You see it everywhere. Hesiod wrote about the golden age that the Greeks of his time (750-650 BC) had fallen from. Adam and Eve got themselves tossed out of the garden. We live in the Kali Yurga, the time of compassion and truthfulness behind us. Before our era there was an Atlantean (Hyborean?) age of advanced culture and science, since lost to the world. America used to work, back in the old days. But really? I guess if you take Greek mythology factually, or for that matter are a devout Christian or Hindu, these ideas will resonate as truth. But taking just the last one, if you compare crime rates, discrimination, poverty, life expectancy, and so on life is actually better for most people now, as messed up as the times we are dealing with are.

But this whitewashing of the past seems to be built right into us.  We may even be cognitively biased towards thinking the past was better. However, I think the real issue is that the past is simpler. It can’t talk back. You can ascribe anything you want to people and actions, especially if, like the martial arts, they are poorly documented. Motives, what training was actually like, personality, effectiveness, it can all be chosen. If you have an image of the “perfect art” or “perfect teacher”, then it is pretty easy to project that on the past; it can’t refute you. And the present can never live up to an idealized image like that.

In The Analects Confucius wrote (and what is a martial arts blog post without an ancient sage chiming in?) “I transmit, I do not create.  I trust and love the ancients.” You can see the draw. If the knowledge was once perfect then all we need to do is find a way to access that knowledge and we too can be…..  And the idea has other benefits too, more prosaic ones. Certainly it is hard to contradict your teacher if his or her authority comes from ancient wisdom. Are you going to say the old masters were wrong? But relying on authority instead of information is dangerous stuff. It can lead to things like new forms and ideas being ascribed to an “old teacher” or “mysterious old man” who passed them down as secret knowledge, people vainly searching for “roots” of arts that were developed recently but are said to come from ancient times, people believing their arts’ founder fought a tiger and won, and to people trying to “train like the old masters”.

This last can be particularly insidious; since that training was not well documented it can be constructed just about any way the current generation desires. But most importantly it can be constructed to eliminate the mistakes the old masters made, making corrections without even knowing it. And the old masters made a lot of mistakes. The Daoist alchemists included cinnabar in the elixir of immortality but it turns out mercury sulfide is rather toxic. The ballistic stretching done in some versions of junbi undo was how the old masters did it but it turns out it is not very efficient, or very good for your body.  A number of old training methods are pretty effective if your life expectancy is 40 but not that great if you are going to be dealing with the consequences when you are 70. It turns out not everything older, even in the arts, was better. But somehow it seems more acceptable to couch modifications to what has been passed down as “getting back to the roots” than to call them growing.

It is easy to see how the idea developed. First we all have our images, especially before we start, of what the martial arts can do, can be. They are mostly built of fantasy and media, be it from old legends or modern movies, and they can create some cognitive dissonance when facing the reality of humans training:  If this is all there is then something must have been lost! A veneration of the past is also a cultural feature of many East Asian cultures, particularly those strongly influenced by Confucianism, and as I noted above there are some powerful incentives for teachers to emphasize the “ancient” nature of what they are teaching. But I think the most important part is personal. Most of us form our opinions of our teachers early in our training. Especially when we first start our teachers seem nearly superhuman, able to do things we simply cannot. And as we grow they do as well, so that a good teacher, one who is still learning, seems better no matter how hard we try. And then, probably through the same process, they tell us about their teachers. This person, able to do things that seem impossible, is telling me his teacher was immensely more skilled. And his teacher said his teacher was even better! That guy must have been superhuman! Nothing like the teachers of today! Ah, if only I could have trained with, could be like, the old masters!

The corollary here though is, if we want to be honest, “not like the crappy teachers of today”. Because if you are looking at your teacher and in your heart believing he or she is a pale shadow of the teachers of the past, on a fundamental level you don’t respect that person. Why not? Do they know the art? Do they have good skills? Do they show something to aspire to? Can they teach? Are they a decent person? Is their, for want of a better term, shit together? If you can answer yes to these things, just exactly what is it the ancients had up on your teacher? If you are looking for super-human powers, perhaps adjusting your expectations to a more realistic level might be appropriate before looking to an imaginary past. If your teacher lacks skills, teaching ability, morals, then perhaps looking for another teacher might be the answer.

Because there are great teachers teaching today. And these teachers are the only bridge we have to the past. With the advent of video, since the 70s really, we now have some records of some of the last generation or two, though these records are snapshots, incomplete and often inaccurate. But for anything before that we only have stories. And their students. Ishiki Hidetada said something to me last January that resonated. We were talking about people visiting the Kodokan and treating it like a shrine. “What do they want?” he asked me. A link to the past, I said, to touch something famous. “Why? They can’t learn from a building. And they can’t learn from anyone who is dead. Don’t they want to learn?”

Isn’t learning what we want? To develop our art (to be like our image of the old masters)? To do so we need to train in the present. I don’t really like this idea of a golden age. It seems patently false to me. Maybe things were better in the past but I don’t see much evidence for it. Regardless of political rhetoric things have actually gotten measurably better for the vast majority of people over time.  We have improved. (Take a look at Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker for a closer look at some of the ways in which things actually are better, along with a discussion of why.)

And in the martial arts? Well, if they had not spread to the international masses, which so many seem to lament, we simply would not have been able to access them. (You might say, yes, but I would have gone to Asia and found a teacher. Really? In an art you had never heard of? One that has possibly died off due to local lack of interest?) And we know lots more about training than the old masters did. Not getting hit in the head repeatedly to avoid CTE and the other benefits of sports science, things we might take for granted like better methodologies around HIIT training, plyometrics, nutrition, recovery, etc.. We have a much better understanding of and pay more attention to unhealthy power dynamics and sexism in the dojo, have better pedagogical tools, and understand the difference between training and selecting students. In general we have more leisure time so people other than the wealthy can train and that is coupled with mobility that allows one to train with someone other than whomever is teaching in the village. These things are improvements, both for practitioners and for the arts.

Sure there are problems. Many teachers are simply not good martial artists, or good teachers. I bet though that was always true. Of course some teachers have sold out their arts, bastardizing them to make a buck, and others have simply made stuff up and are selling that, but a little attention and you can avoid those folks. And again, I bet this is not a new thing. Some effort and you can find a good teacher, because they are out there. And as for standards, who cares what other people are doing, how low their bar is or what direction they are taking the art? So what if there are a lot of them and some have social or government support? Are they forcing you to do the same thing? Set your own standards and then meet them. It is up to you, now. It always has been.

What it comes down to for me is that if there is a real golden age, it is the future, not the past. Change is not automatically bad, it is just change. And it is inevitable. Believing that the only good times are in the past prevents you from growing. In the end, it kills the art, demanding stagnation. To learn, to experience the art, you have to look to today, to “where you are and what you are doing”. In my opinion if you are hoping to learn a martial art you need a guide. Someone to teach you the art and aid you in growing in it. To help you get to the point where you can take it forward to the future, when they are gone. Without that link to the art, you are either making it up or being what so many decry, an imitation, a fake. Because I am not saying the old teachers did not pass something real down. I believe they did. I see, I have experienced, the difference between arts with solid foundations and those with little behind them. But the only way to access this transmission is through the current generation of teachers. These are the people who deserve our respect and attention. They are the living art. Not the images we hold dear of the now passed masters. And certainly not an imaginary past.

Simple Answers Are Hard to Find

In the martial arts people get very attached to their understanding of history. I find it particularly interesting that this history is often based on next to no concrete evidence. Nevertheless instead of accepting new information as it comes in or trying to look more closely at the stories and legends passed down people seem most attached to simply believing and defending their lineage’s view of the past. Why? Well one reason may be that historical research into our arts is difficult. There is a paucity of clear documentation. There is also conflicting information passed down orally. That is then compounded by the fact that most of the investigators have little training in just how to do that investigation. While you don’t need a degree to do good work, the skills that come with research training are valuable. Look at it in relation to karate: is someone who has never had a teacher, or who has perhaps trained for a little bit at some point, going to have the skills of someone with a decade of training under an excellent teacher, surrounded by other dedicated and skilled students and teachers? In much the same way, having academic training can make doing historical research more valuable. It can also make it much more complex.

Let’s take an example from our kobudo. One of, if not the, most common bo kata in Okinawa is Shushi/Suji no kon. (周氏の棍). It is in Matayoshi kobudo, in Ryukyu kobudo in a variety of forms, including sho, dai, chu, and koryu depending on specific lineage, in Yamane Ryu, even in Maeda bo and other smaller systems. Many dojo that teach just a few kobudo kata also use it. Stylistic differences aside, these kata are clearly variations of the same form. It is often the first, or one of the first, kata taught and therefore forms a base for a huge portion of the kobudo in Okinawa.

Since it is so common, such a core piece of Okinawa’s martial heritage, you would think that its history would either be really well known, or a simple matter to research. That doesn’t seem to be the case however, leaving some with a desire to know the “real” history of the form. So how would one go about finding that out?

For most the first stop would be their teachers. Just ask, right? Ok, but this may lead to some conflicting and sometimes strange answers. I have heard that it is a village name from Okinawa. I have also heard it credited to Soeishi, a noble from Shuri, as well as to Chinen Sanda, and Soeishi’s son Soeishi Ryoshu. I have also heard it credited to a Chinese immigrant named Shu (Zhou), and to the Shu (Zhou) family from Kumemura. The lesson here, it seems, is that asking one teacher, even a well respected one, may not result in a clear answer. Or to be more precise, asking one teacher is only going to get one answer, while there are some other equally reasonable answers around. If you are interested in supporting your lineage’s claims, one answer is fine. If you are interested in discovering the “truth” that single answer is probably not enough.

Let me be clear here, I don’t think any of these people lied. Well, except perhaps for the village answer which seems like a “I don’t know so I will make something up that sounds plausible to other non-Japanese speaking Westerners” answer to me. But the rest, they are probably what these folks were told by their teachers or thought for some other perfectly good reason. You don’t need dishonesty to have different oral histories. You do need time, lack of documentation, maybe some lack of real interest in history, and perhaps some partisanship. These create confusion. But how then do we figure out what is the right answer? Working with oral histories there are methods for recording, filtering, and analyzing them. They require some training and require a non-partisan approach, but in many ways they boil down to not taking them at face value and looking for data outside the actual story that may tell us more about it.

Working from the oral histories, the next step would be to look at written sources. The benefit of good training would be that you could go to original source material, in the native language. There is a lot written in Japanese on the Okinawan martial arts. Like anything else some good and some bad, but it is a far better resource than most all English language sources.

So looking at the written information we still find variation. Here are the examples I know of:

  • Nakamoto Masahiro, a student of Taira Shinken and a very well known kobudo teacher who has published a number of books on Okinawa kobudo writes in his Okinawa Dento Kobudo on p. 95 and 172 that Soeishi sensei was the architect of the bo kata that bears his name and it is quite possible he was the creator of Shushi no kon, as it possesses many similarities to Soeishi no kon.
  • In the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, 1978, p. 911 it says Shushi no kon was made by Soeishi.
  • Ryukyu Kobudo Jokan by Inoue Motokatsu says that Soeishi was a noble from Shuri and a master of bojutusu; Choun (not the same as the Matayoshi one), Shushi and Soeishi are his product.
  • Patrick McCarthy, the well known karate and kobudo researcher, writes on his website ( that Suji no kon was developed by Chinen Sanda.
  • In his Timeline of Karate History, trns Joe Swift, p. 29, well known karate researcher Hokama Tetsuhiro writes that it is said that in 1831 a bojutsu master from Shanghai named Shu (Zhou) came to Okinawa and lived behind the Sogenji temple in the Asato area of Naha. His bojutsu became known as Shushi no kon.
  • Both the book handed out at the memorial demonstration for Matayoshi Shinpo in 1999 and the liner notes for the video the Kodokan dojo did in the 1990s say the kata was passed down over 100 years ago by Mr. Shu (Zhou), a Chinese man who lived in Asato, Naha.
  • In Okinawa Kobudo Kyohon compiled by the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei in the section on Shushi no kon, between pages 14 and 15, it says that after the war (most likely referring to WWII) there was instruction given in Shushi no kon, which is named after Shu (Zhou), an old Chinese man from Shanghai who lived in the area of the Sogenji temple in the Asato area of Naha who was a master of Chinese kempo and bojutsu. (Thanks to Mike for pointing this out.)
  • To add to the general mix of information, in the 1938 Karate Do Taikan by Nakasone Genwa Taira Shinken demonstrates the kata but calls it Kongo no Kon, using the characters 金剛, which refer to diamond or other indestructible substances, but more importantly to the god Indra’s weapon, the Vraja or thunderbolt and a Buddhist symbol for indestructible truth. This is the only place I have seen this name for the form.

So we have a number of different possible answers, many coming from very reputable sources. What do we do next? If we look closer, as standard research methodology would require, it gets a little simpler. We start with sources. Nakamoto, Inoue, and the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten all say the same thing. That would imply three sources. However, the BRD information is credited to Inoue and Murakami Katsumi, both students of the Taira line, as is Nakamoto. That traces all three sources back to one likely origin, Taira. The two direct Matayoshi sources agree with Hokama, who was also a student of Matayoshi Shinpo, and the ZOKR is made up of Matayoshi’s students, possibly creating a single source for those three as well, though there are some slight differences between them. I have seen no other sources for the Chinen origin, but that does not mean they are not out there.

So what does this mean? To me it looks like two oral histories- Soeishi and Zhou- that stem from two lineages that now have multiple teachers, and then some outlying theories or oral histories passed down in specific dojo. In short, no perfect clarification from the written sources. When we look at the documentary background of the sources this is not surprising- they all consist of oral histories written down in the late 20th century. So how might we address this?

Well first we could look at the interesting difference in dates two of the Matayoshi related sources give us. Records for the 1800s are sparse so it is unlikely we could positively determine if there was or was not an expatriate Chinese living in Asato in the 1830s. In the post-war era it is much more likely that either US occupation records or local Okinawan records could confirm the presence of an expatriate Chinese living in Asato and a search of the relevant records – residence, medical, tax, mail, death certificates, etc.- would be possible and something a trained historian or anthropologist would be able to do. (I have not, just to be clear!) It would probably not prove anything if there was no record, unless there is very clear data suggesting the records are complete. Since the kata was known in Okinawa considerably before the war (it was included in Karate Do Taikan in 1938, and so it is fair to assume Taira learned it at the latest by the early-mid 1930s) finding someone there with that name wouldn’t conclusively prove that was the source of the kata, but it would probably end the search given how well it would correlate with the ZOKR information and it would then be easier perhaps to either extrapolate or to do a more focused search of pre-war documentation. However, if the search is inconclusive what else may we do?

We look at the words themselves, and how they are used. The character Shu (周) is indeed a Chinese name, Zhou. By itself that lends a little credence to the idea that the kata is Shu’s bo kata. Additional support is added when we look at how the term is used. That naming tradition is very common in Okinawa- Sakugawa no kon, Chatanyara no kon, the Matayoshi lineage Choun no kon, Soeishi/Shiishi no kon, are all named after people the same way. The second character (氏) can mean Mr./Mrs or can refer to a clan, so together it could mean Mr. Shu  (Zhou) or the Shu (Zhou) clan. Either of these readings lends credence to the idea that it is the kata of a fellow named Shu, possibly a form associated with his family or clan. Since Zhou has been, according to Wikipedia, one of the 10 most common Chinese surnames since the Yuan dynasty (1271) there is no way to connect it to any specific Shu (Zhou) family, but it is easy to include the possible connection to the Shu clan from Kumemura as opposed to only one individual living in Asato (though of course that individual could be connected to the Kumemura clan).

To be thorough we should also probably check into what other relevant connotations the characters have. While the character Shu can refer to a cycle or circular idea, this is not a primary use of the character and attaching that to the movements or meaning of the kata seems quite the stretch. However Zhou is the name of a Chinese dynasty and as such would be commonly recognized. It is also the surname of a number of famous military leaders in Chinese history. Any of these connections could stand as a reason to name a kata Shu (Zhou). A native would recognize the connotation, and the implied direct connection to any of these backgrounds would add some cultural weight to the form.  But while these connections are interesting, they do not answer the original question: where did Shushi no kon come from. Neither does the fact it is a name, unfortunately. So where do we go next?

We can look at the incentives of the various sources to try to eliminate one or more due to obvious partisan influences. Does anyone have an incentive to promote their version; does it give them influence, validity, or make their lineage somehow more “real”? In the Taira sources the history ties Shushi closely to other forms in the system which is nice but doesn’t seem to be enough reason for anyone to create that story since bo forms not tied into that loop are also passed down with equal validity. In the Matayoshi version it draws on a variety of cultural connotations and martial arts tropes around Chinese masters and Chinese knowledge but since the forms in the system also come from a variety of sources this doesn’t seem enough to warrant making up that story either. The Chinen Sanda story does connect the most common Okinawan kata to Yamane Ryu, but again that doesn’t seem to have enough value for anyone to create the story. Looking at incentives there is not enough to point clearly to one source and none of the stories are so clearly partisan as to eliminate them.

So where does that leave us? This is where past experience with problems like these can be helpful, though it can be tricky and somewhat subjective. These stories all boil down to two ideas- the kata is a local creation built on existing traditions by a known teacher or the kata is an import named after the guy who imported it. Does either of these patterns conform to other patterns in the local historical or cultural landscape, in a way that weights one over the other? To me the local development, while more prosaic, seems more likely. It feels less “legendy” and there is certainly a vast amount of similar development that we can clearly document. That said, I get stuck on the name. If it were a local development the name seems really unlikely. Unless there is a connotation I am unaware of (certainly possible) it is hard to see why any Okinawan would name the kata Shushi and attach it to a common naming convention. (The Kongo no Kon version of the name Taira uses would certainly point more towards a local development, given its connotations and that it adds no connection to a possible Chinese immigrant. However, that name seems a real outlier and I don’t weight it much.)

It seems we just don’t have the information we need to verifiably answer this question, at least now. That is what research into tiny elements of local history like this can often lead to. I think that is one reason people often just take their teachers’ stories at face value (or make stuff up). Even though we come up with a much better informed understanding of the problem the effort that can go into coming up with a non-answer is often just not worth it. Of course we can dig even deeper. Period linguistics, period political and social movements, naming conventions from other art forms, comparing the structure and surroundings of the name to other elements of a larger web of multi-style and multi-generational training environments, searching multiple kinds of historical records in a variety of places, all may help create a clearer answer. To a historian or anthropologist this stuff may all fit into a larger framework in a very interesting way. But to a martial artist curious about the origins of a piece of his or her art it certainly is unsatisfying.

So in the end, we seem to be left where we started, with the stories our teachers pass down. Some can be collaborated, some cannot, others can be proved incorrect. In my opinion this process of educated investigation is valuable in itself as it gives us context and understanding simple stories do not. But it doesn’t often give simple answers. In this case, until more evidence comes to light  I can’t see a way to prove either of the main versions, though eliminating some of the nonsense seems nice to me. All said I find the kata being named after the creator, in accordance with a standard Okinawan naming tradition, the most plausible answer. But not by much. And I am a Matayoshi practitioner, so maybe some partisanship is showing through after all. With cognitive bias being what it is, who knows?

And Whose Fault Is That?

Lots of thoughts about my teachers these days, and the simple seeming idea of lineage, of the passing of information from one person to another. I remember sitting in the budokan in Okinawa with Gakiya Yoshiaki and Yogi Jyosei. A group from the Midwest was visiting the island and were asking about kobudo training. One of the first questions Yogi sensei asked was who their teacher was. When he didn’t know that person he asked who his teacher’s teacher was, trying to understand their connection to karate in Okinawa. That got resolved (it was a pretty distant connection) and then Yogi sensei asked who they were training with. They were visiting a number of dojo during their trip and Yogi sensei bluntly asked them why, what they were hoping to do. They answered, essentially, visit, see some different things, learn what we can from different teachers.

Gakiya sensei was pretty quiet during all this but Yogi sensei got rather animated, and started a short lecture on having a teacher. He listed a number of reasons to find a sensei and focus- you don’t really get much from a teacher until they get to know you, you can’t really move forward unless you get a strong foundation, you need to learn and develop good manners and behavior, you should be developing strong personal relations. (These last hold far more weight in Okinawa than most people understand.) The group essentially yessed him but were happy to hear that he and Gakiya would be willing to teach them some kobudo, starting the next day. As they were getting ready to leave one commented to me that “the Okinawans are so obsessed with lineage! Who cares who your teacher is, isn’t your skill the issue?” Gakiya caught the look on my face, and asked me what they said. He and Yogi had a quick back and forth in hogen and Yogi looked at me and said with a smile: “I want to know whose fault it is. If your teacher is no good it is not your fault, and we can help you fix that. If your teacher is good, it’s your fault and there is probably nothing we can do.”

066-Gakiya and Yogi senseis

Indeed. Your teacher, your lineage, doesn’t give you anything by itself. A good lineage is just a chance. If you don’t have a good teacher, at least in a traditional art with a deep foundation, you simply don’t have a chance to access the system. It isn’t your fault. Of course if you do have a good teacher and you are rude or have poor skills, if you have a chance, then whose fault do you think it is? I can’t do Yogi sensei’s impish smile, but if you know him I will let you picture it.


One of the core elements of our art is body structure. It sounds esoteric, but it really isn’t. It is just learning how to align the bones, the structure, of your body so it can absorb and transmit force. Two examples might be 1) if your hips and shoulders are out of alignment (your frame is broken) pushing with your legs won’t transmit force well to your arms and energy taken by your arms can’t be absorbed by your legs, or 2) if your elbow is out in a straight punch you won’t be able to transmit the force from your torso and legs, and when you hit the energy will be taken into your shoulder joint. The maximum power will be at the weakest connection point. With weapons the idea is the same; for example if you don’t have your elbow and body behind a gedan uke with a bo it will be pushed aside by a strong hit.

So structure is important for generating and controlling power. But to me it also does one other very important thing. It makes you faster. Not physically faster in the sense of who can run the 50 yard dash faster but martially faster, in the “leave later but arrive earlier” sense of faster. When your structure is good you don’t have to engage your muscles as much to do whatever you are trying to do, the proper structure and the mechanical advantage that confers essentially amplifies your strength. Of course this can help a smaller person be functionally stronger, but more importantly it limits extra tension in your body. When you are tight, you don’t move fast. To move in a different direction you have to first loosen the muscles in question then tighten them again to start the new movement. When they are relaxed you can just start the movement. Try it. Tighten up your arm and shoulder and then try punch as fast as you can. Now relax your arm and shoulder and do the same thing. Which happened sooner? Was faster? (Which more powerful?)

Now, taking that gedan uke with the bo example: when your structure is out of alignment you need to use whatever muscle you can to hold off the incoming strike, as getting hit would be bad. So you are tight, probably throughout much of your body, certainly your arms and core. Assuming the block works, to counter strike you then need to relax the muscles you have engaged and get them started on the strike. Your body goes from tight to loose to tight, and most likely with a broken base and from a bad position. If your alignment, your structure, is good, you just have to move from loose to tight to strike, and likely with a strong base. Fewer motions, less time, faster.

So sure structure is about balance, strength, absorption, but for me it is also about relaxation and speed. At least it should feel that way to my opponent…

Gasshuku in the UK

I would like to say thank you to the members of the Matayoshi Kobudo Association of Great Britain. The group and its leader, Michael Clayton sensei, invited me to come and teach our kobudo at their annual gasshuku. It was held in Leeds, England, from November 17-19 and people came from all around England (and Wales!). I had a great time. Michael sensei and the group were really hospitable, and did a great job with a lot of new material. I got to meet some people I have communicated with on line but never met in person, like Gary Lever sensei and Andy Moorehouse sensei, and that was also good fun.


Training group Friday night.

Michael sensei is leading a really good group of kobudo practitioners. The energy, enthusiasm, and attention to detail over what was a long and full weekend was fantastic. While the seniors, not surprisingly, showed a good understanding of the material they already knew and had a lot to draw on to help them with the new material we covered I was particularly impressed with the large group of junior students who attended. They took on some usually senior material and handled it really well, getting into it and enjoying working with it right away. It speaks highly of the group and how they are led, as an atmosphere that allows people to grow, share, and experiment is essential but sometimes hard to develop.


Michael sensei and I, just before the farmer roared up on his tractor, wondering if we were poachers…

I also had a nice time seeing some of the area around Leeds and York, with some visits to historic battlefields (which also included a farmer who was very curious about the two fellows doing nunchiyaku in his field…), the city of York, and some time in the Royal Armories Museum in Leeds, where the Leeds MKAGB group trains. What an atmospheric and beautiful space! We spent Friday night training kobudo surrounded by a variety of East and South Asian antique weapons and armor, a truly unique experience for me.

Thank you again Michael sensei and the whole group for your attention and enthusiasm. Everyone put in a lot of effort over the weekend (I think my favorite comment on Sunday afternoon was “what fun! I am physically and mentally shattered..”) and I could see people processing the new information and enjoying taking it in. I could also see a lot of smiles as people were training and working hard and that says excellent things about the group to me. I hope everyone had as much fun as I did, and I look forward to another opportunity to train together. Otsukaresama desu!

Feeding Crane Seminar 2017

Hello everyone. Liu sifu has finalized his schedule for the fall. He will be teaching a seminar on his family’s Feeding Crane the weekend of October 21 & 22. As usual, it should be a great weekend of training, with excellent instruction and some great people to share it with. The seminar info and sign up is attached. Looking forward to seeing everyone and sweating together! If you have any questions please let me know.

feeding crane kung fu seminar 2017