Sunday, August 26, 2012


     Here's something to consider.  Ask any practitioner of kung-fu, karate, jujutsu, or aikido why they practice their chosen martial art.  Although some will tell you that they do it to stay fit, the vast majority will say that they train for reasons of self-defense.  If you observe the classes in which they participate, you'll see that the training is largely focused on practical applications of the various techniques to self-defense situations.  Some training will feature very old and seemingly pointless practice, such as forms...but the instructor can quickly demonstrate how the movements of the various forms can be easily applied on the street.

     Now, most of you know that aside from my daily practice of Yiliquan, I also try to get in some time to practice iaido and kenjutsu.  And I can see the look of confusion on some faces out there...why would the old man practice stuff like that?
     Well, why would anybody?
     I will probably not get up tomorrow morning, throw on a hakama, slip my katana into my obi (belt; sash), and saunter down the road looking to right society's wrongs and being a champion of the downtrodden like the samurai of feudal times.  Nope.  I will likely never (again) get into a sword fight or have to draw my blade and cut down some nasty enemy to intends to do me harm.
     And it is for these very reasons that my practice of iaido is important to me!

     OK.  Now I see even more confusion.  Why would I practice a highly ritualized, moderately-paced art which has no obvious "street application?"  The fact is that, because iaido has no modern self-defense applications, it provides an ideal environment in which to refine one's mind and spirit; to strengthen and discipline them.
     Well, isn't this also done in kung-fu training?  And karate, jujutsu, and aikido? 

     Although most martial arts which still retain practical self-defense applications are supposed to emphasize these qualities, the fact is that the majority of one's time is spent developing actual combative skills.  This is jutsu
     In the practice of something like iaido, there is no concern about developing practical combat skill...because it's never going to happen.  I'm never going to have to use my sword in battle.  I can't even practice with a partner because in iaido training, one uses a live blade.  And this is the art's greatest attribute!  ALL of my attention can be focused on refining my mind and spirit because I don't have to concern myself with the possibility that I'm ever going to have to use this art in combat.  That is do.
     Everything, from the standing position prior to bowing, to sitting (when my arthritis acts up, I practice standing), to inserting the sword into the belt to the draw and cut and blood cleaning and replacing the sword into the scabbard - everything must be done just so.  It took some time to just learn how to tie the sageo (cord attached to the scabbard) to my belt!
     I sit and relax and focus on correct breathing.  I keep One-Point.  I prepare to rise up and execute the draw...but, no.  Spirit isn't right.  Can't do it yet.  Focus!  Don't think about it.  In trying NOT to think about it, I'm thinking about it's not right.  I can feel that it isn't right yet...
     Focus.  Relax.  One-Point.  Focus.  Focus.
     Zip!  And it happens.  The draw is complete.  Rats.  Cutting edge is off just a hair.  OK.  I still go through the formal, ritualized movements of completing the kata and replacing the sword in the scabbard...
     Now let's try this again.  Relax.  Focus...
     And so it goes, over and over.  I think I can do the first kata known as Shohatto (mae) fairly well now.  It's been a year since I started working on it.  It looks like it consists of only a very few simple movements; come up to one knee and draw the blade out in a horizontal cut, then grasp it with both hands and advance one foot (still kneeling) and make an overhead cut.  Stand up partway and perform the chiburi (blood cleaning) to sling the funk off the blade, then do a "change back" step and re-sheathe the sword.  Keep zanshin and kneel back down.  Sounds simple enough.  And if you watch a master do it, it looks pretty basic.  But like everything else in martial arts, it isn't.  I practice the other kata but this first one has my full attention.  It's the most basic one and has to be mastered before the others can really be done properly.
     So I am a beginner again.  But I know where I'm going and how to get there.

     The refinement of mind and spirit gained from iaido practice is naturally carried over into my Yiliquan practice.  This would no doubt horrify most, if not all, of my kung-fu counterparts...a kung-fu teacher practicing a Japanese martial art (especially involving the sword) to refine his kung-fu?  Ridiculous!  And heretical, too.
     Yeah, well...I also practice a roundhouse kick (which is distinctly Japanese), eat sushi, and teach Japanese-style breakfalls.  I've also borrowed techniques from Muay Thai, learned from fine Okinawan karate masters (as well as Japanese), and use a number of two-man qigong training exercises found in aikido.
     So what?  It all works.  The object is to learn and develop skill

     There is a Japanese story that tells of two young samurai who were good friends.  They were about to embark on their musha shugyo; the travels through which many young warriors took to develop and refine their skills.  They agreed to meet on the bank of the river exactly twelve years later if they survived their quests.
     Sure enough, on that same day twelve years later, the two men approached each other.  However, they had approached the river on it's opposite side and it had flooded.  One man made a spectacular leap which far exceeded the skill of even today's Olympic hopefuls.  His great jump easily carried him over the swollen river.  The other samurai walked downstream a distance and paid a boatman to ferry him across the water.  What it took one man many years to develop was effectively accomplished by the other man for the price of five cents.
     Similarly, if one is interested only in being able to defend oneself, why not purchase a firearm and obtain a permit to carry it?  So you have to first ensure that your training goals are worthwhile.

     In the ancient art of iaijutsu, there is a saying that tells us, "Kachi wa saya no naka ni ari."  So there.
     For those whose Japanese is rusty, it means, "Victory comes while the sword is (still) in ths scabbard."  Physical skills alone, no matter how refined and strong, are simply not enough.  There is always someone who is stronger, someone who is faster, someone who has a better technique or dirty trick.
     Goliath had the advantage of strength but David had the advantage of spirit.  Goliath figured he had this little Jewish kid in the bag, but David was determined to win at all costs.
     The higher purpose of iaijutsu (and its grandchild, iaido), is to foster the development of the mind and spirit of a warrior; an attitude and strength of character that wins the battle before it even begins.  This is not easy to achieve and requires a great deal of training.  Attitudes of jealousy, greed, anger, selfishness, and hate must be eliminated because they are counter-productive and self-destructive; they inhibit the development of real skill.

     Another story relates how an iaijutsu teacher told his student to sit facing him.  The young man did so and the instructor told him that he was to draw his sword as quickly as possible and attack with all of his strength and speed.  The young man sat in front of the master and prepared to execute his fastest technique, but he could not.  Every time he prepared to move, something held him back.   He knew he would fail.  Finally, he told his teacher that he could not do it; he could find no opening into which he could move.  This is how one wins without emptying the scabbard.

     Now, I'm not necessarily advocating that you begin the regular practice of iaido.  But I hope you can glean something of value from this lecture and apply it to your training.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


     Most of us have seen a photograph of the “Father of Japanese Karate”, Gichin Funakoshi.  Sitting in a very straight posture, he is dressed in formal Japanese attire, holding a fan and looking rather severe.  He is a revered figure in the martial arts; the man who brought karate from Okinawa to Japan and single-handedly nudged it into the curriculum of most major Japanese universities.  Initially, the Japanese were more than a little wary of this “brutal” martial form from the “backwoods” of Okinawa but Funakoshi managed to develop it into a very popular activity, which was eventually accepted  as one of the Japanese budo (martial ways).

      Few martial arts enthusiasts ever stop to consider other aspects of the old master’s life – the difficulties he encountered and the prices he paid as he traveled the path of the budo.  For instance, when he was training in Okinawa he would go to his master’s house at night, walking along a dirt path through a dense forest (read, “jungle”).  It was so dark that the moonlight didn’t illuminate the trail and he usually carried a lantern to light the way.  Arriving at his teacher’s home, he would train for 2-3 hours and then return home to catch about 3 hours of sleep before having to go to work the next day.

     When he first began teaching in Japan he made extra money by working as a gardener at the university.  He was provided a single-room apartment at the school.  His wife had stayed in Okinawa, knowing that she would only be a burden to him as he scraped along for the first few years.  Later, his two sons would join him but his wife stayed in Okinawa and although he wanted to go back to see her, he was never able to do because the popularity of karate kept him extremely busy.

     Think about that for a while…he lived alone in a single-room apartment and eked out a living doing whatever menial jobs he could find at the university.

      Then WWII arrived.  Most of his students joined or were drafted into military service.  Ultimately, his beautiful dojo, which had been built for him by his dedicated students, was fire-bombed by the Allies.  Most of his students died in battle…and that doesn’t include one of his sons, who also perished during this terrible time.

     He was left with…nothing.  During the Allied occupation, he continued to teach – and lost his other son to starvation – and still, he produced some of the finest karate masters the world has ever known.   

     None of this, however, is reflected on his noble face in the famous photographic portrait of Funakoshi. 

     Most of us have also seen photos of Jigaro Kano, the founder of modern judo.  Kano was very sickly as a youth and took up jujutsu to improve his health.  In the process, he became one of the greatest educators of all time and some of his writings about education are still studied today. 

     But before he became so famous, he taught his new art, judo, in a small and rather old and rickety gym.  He and a handful of his senior students would often wriggle into the crawlspace beneath the gym’s wooden floor and repair it with wooden props so that it would stand up to another day’s training! 

     Aikido’s legendary founder, Morihei Uyeshiba, was a total flop as a businessman.  He tried running a print shop but it went belly-up within a couple of years.  In the ensuing years, he (and his wife) often endured times of extreme hardship – not having any heat in their tiny home or dojo, going without proper food and other necessities.    

     I could go on and on with similar stories involving other well-known martial arts personalities…but what matters isn’t so much what hardships each one endured; it’s the fact that they DID endure it and continued to move forward with their training instead of throwing up their hands and giving in.  They had come to understand that there are “toll bridges” on the path of the martial arts and anyone who travels that path will eventually have to ante up and pay the price from time to time.

     Those who have been on the path for a while understand that there’s really no end to paying these tolls…and they have come to expect it every so often.  We have decided to set out upon a way that is very severe.  Rather than being congratulated for having made it over a particularly difficult stretch, we find ourselves inundated with more techniques to master, more forms to practice.  And the further travel, the more demanding it becomes.  The slightest error, the tiniest lapse in attention is brought into view for everyone to see.  Our weaknesses and faults are laid bare before us.

      And if we continue to press on to the point where we feel certain that our teachers and senior will no longer pour criticism upon us, we find that we are expected to turn inward and examine ourselves from within.  We must look not only at our technique but our lifestyles as well and impose even more hardships upon ourselves, seeking a level of discipline that is known to only a few.

     In Japan this severe form of self-discipline is known as shugyo.  It is also sometimes known as hiya meshi o michi (the way of eating cold rice).  If you’ve never eaten cold rice, it’s an interesting experience…but it certainly isn’t tasty.  The idea is that a bowl of cold rice can make us realize that even the most fortunate of us must occasionally suffer.  Although it may not be a pleasant meal it is every bit as sustaining as warm rice – and this is much like the martial ways.  They are disciplines that are stripped of self-indulgence and ego, both of which are things that destroy the ability to travel the martial path.

     The budoka (martial arts person) accepts cold rice because he or she sees it as a way of building discipline and learning to appreciate “hot rice” when it is available.  Eventually, we can learn to appreciate the cold rice as well and when we can do that, we can accept whatever curves life throws at us.

     Our martial forefathers endured and suffered much.  They often consumed plenty of cold rice and they did so without a complaint, without blaming anyone, and knowing that it would sustain them and even make them stronger.  Can we do any less?  Those who would travel this path must do so knowing full well that from time to time, they’re going to have to sit down to a bowl of cold rice.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


     I was often regarded as a kind of hard-nosed judge when I served as an official at martial arts tournaments, especially insofar as forms competition was concerned.  I recall one occasion when a competitor in the Black Belt Division approached our panel of judges and announced his name, the style of karate he practiced, and the name of the form (kata) he would demonstrate.  This was the accepted procedure in the USKA (United States Karate Assn.) tournaments of that time.

     The competitor has announced that he practiced Kyokushin karate (a style with which I was very familiar, being a 2nd grade black belt in it at the time) and the kata he intended to perform would be Bassai Dai.


     As he began his performance, I noticed some minor discrepencies and after a while I realized that he was performing the Shotokan version of Bassai Dai; not the Kyokushin version.  The differences between the two are not great but they're there and the protocol of the day required that if you were going to perform a kata from the system or style which was different from your own, you were required to advise the panel of judges.

     What to do?

     He was actually performing the Shotokan version of Bassai Dai very skilfully.  Kyokushin and Shotokan have very different styles of body shifting and posture.  The "flavor" of their techniques is also quite different.  Although they may appear identical to the untrained observer, a person who is familiar with both of the styles of karate will notice it immediately.  Shotokan techniques are very sharp; almost piercing, very snappy, with a lot of emphasis on the movement of the hips.  Kyokushin, on the other hand, is heavier (they emphasize the development and application of great muscular strength) and the chambering of the fists is very different; Kyokushin chambers the fist on a level even with the nipple, and Shotokan prefers to chamber the fist just above the hip bone (actually, insofar as kinesiology is concerned, Shotokan is more correct).

     When the competitor finished his performance and the Scorekeeper requested our scores, I gave the fellow a 2.  The other judges gave him scores in the "eights," but not me.  One judge came over and asked why my score was so low.  I replied that the competitor had performed the Shotokan version of Bassai instead of the Kyokushin version.  My fellow official regarded that as a minor point which should probably be disregarded, but I held fast to my score.


     It was a question of being politically incorrect (although at that time, nobody had ever heard of political correctness...we were just honest and that was good enough).  That is, if we let this guy slip through the cracks, then where do you draw the line?  At what point would his performance be totally out of whack?  I mean, he could come up and do something none of us had ever seen before and claim that that was what he'd learned from his teacher (so there.  It isn't his fault)...and that it was Elmer Fudd's interpretation of Bassai (or whatever)...after all, Elmer has as much right to interpret kata as Mas Oyama or anybody else, doesn't he?  No?  Why not?  Who says so?  And by whose authority do you say so?  Who made you "king sh*t" of kata, anyway..."

     I think you get my point.

     The line had to be drawn before things got too far out of hand.  Unfortunately, my fellow officials didn't see it that way ("Well, that's how he was taught to do it by his teacher, so it's not his fault").  Before too many years had passed, kata judges had to judge competitors on the basis of "level of difficulty" (as would gymnastic officials) rather than correctness and precision of the traditional kata. 

     With the passing of a few more years, people were making up their own homegrown versions of kata and performing them in competition.  Since the judges had allowed every variation of every kata to pass as acceptable for competition (some variations were so far afield that there was absolutely no resemblance to the original kata), they couldn't very well complain and they had to judge performances based on "level of difficulty."  Since it's pretty tough to beat some bozo who's mixed gymnastics and modern dance - performing flying cartwheels, full splits, and other bizarre "martial arts" postures with something like Sanchin, Seisan, or Kanku, birth was given to the "eclectic" martial arts..."Open Tournament" came to refer to an event that accepted any and all performances.  It used to refer to a competition that allowed all styles to compete, but those days were long gone.    

     A nationally-famous competitor who I shall call Karen (a beautiful blonde who often performed her forms in a form-fitting top with a low neckline :-) and custom-fit kung-fu pants) once competed in my ring.  Bad call.  I appreciate a lovely lady as much or more than the next guy but when it comes to martial arts, I don't care what form you're  performing, if you come out in a G-string and spiked'd better be done correctly!

     Karen's kung-fu form (which she'd learned from Al Dacascos) was well done...for a while.  Then as she neared the end, she went through a series of strange movements and eventually ended up sitting on the floor with her legs crossed and her head bowed so that her long blonde hair covered her face.  Her arms were extended out to the sides.  The audience went absolutely wild.  Karen smiled and stood up (I was suddenly shocked into the reality that that wierd floor-sitting movement was actually the end of her form-) and I called Karen forward.  "What was that series of ending movements?" I asked.  She smiled and thrust her chest (?) out at me and proudly told me that it was a series of jazz dancing movements she had installed into the form.  I thanked her very politely and when the scorekeeper asked for our scores, I gave her a 1.  The other officials were stunned.  This was, after all, THE Karen of national fame, who had been in all the magazines, who had even been in a couple of movies...and I was giving her a ONE???!!

     She was furious and asked me why I had scored her so low.  I told her that jazz dancing is nice but it certainly isn't a martial art and it has no place in a martial arts event.  I gave her a 1.0 for having the guts to step out on the floor and try to convince me otherwise.  That really ticked her off...

     As an aside, I competed later in the senior men's division and took first place.  Karen was given out the awards and gave each winner a kiss on the cheek.  Except me.  She wouldn't even shake my hand.  Well, hell hath no fury... 

     I was equally touchy when I acted as an official in the kumite (freestyle sparring) ring.  I remember watching two black belt contestants slugging it out and I stopped the match.  "Gentlemen," I said, "Do you see any ropes around this ring?" 

    They looked at each other and then at me.  "," they replied.

     "That's right," I assured them.  "Because this is not a boxing ring."  Please use correct martial art technique from now on or I'll disqualify both of you."

     And that was that.  Unfortunately, my hard-nosed attitude was tossed by the wayside as more and more officials allowed virtually anything in the ring and competitors started wearing boxing gloves and hopping around on one leg like a one-legged chicken and flicking out half a dozen kicks...and "Open Competition" came into its own.  In one tournament, the black belt champion...and this is really true...announced that he'd never studied karate at all; he was a golden gloves boxer who just wanted to give it a try!  For real.  And he won! 

     Well, like the song says, you've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything.  And the martial arts judges had fallen on their butts...they all felt like absolute fools.  And they were. 

     I'm not even going to go into what weapons competition was like.  Let me say simply that I'd thought I'd seen it all until then.  From using Japanese katanas like a cheerleader's baton to forms with (and this is true, I assure you) meat hooks, butcher knives (well, some of 'em are made in Japan...), baling hooks, sheleighlis (Irish martial arts, I guess), walking sticks made from old branches (this guy claimed he practiced an American Indian style of martial arts) least nobody walked into the ring with a rolled-up, wet towel.  I'm sure they would have if they'd thought of it. 

     How did this come about?  At what point did things go so far south?  Well - remember the guy who did the wrong version of Bassai Dai?  Letting something like that slip by - THAT'S where it started.  Being politically correct; not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings by telling them that regardless of what their teacher had told them, THAT wasn't the Isshin-ryu version of Seisan...that's where it started.  Not insisting on real martial arts technique in the fighting ring - THAT''S where it started.  After all, it's a whole lot easier to teach slop than sharp technique, too. 

     Certainly there are myriad versions of the same form(s) nowadays - and there's nothing wrong with that.  But each system has its own unique flavor which should be consistent throughout the form and which should also be clearly identifiable in the way in which the competitor fights.  I remember way back when you could watch a competitor fight and easily identify exactly what style he'd studied (if you were familiar with enough styles).  Isshin-ryu people fought like Isshin-ryu people.  Shotokan fighters could be easily identified.  Goju stylists fought just like they did their forms.

     But when the tournament directors and officials began to become "politically correct" and developed a kind of "anything goes" attitude, everything got mixed up. 

     Before long, we saw the advent of "full contact karate" which was neither full-contact, nor karate.  It was, on its best day, a sort of sloppy kickboxing.  I used to insist that a decent muay-thai boxer would beat the crap out've those guys, and eventually that's just what happened.  Some pro boxers even jumped in, learned a couple of kicks (you were required to throw a given number of kicks per round)...then when they competed, they'd shoot off all the required kicks (into the air; they didn't even try to hit their opponents with 'em) and then beat the stuffing out've the "karate guy" with their superior boxing technique (which is, after all, what the alleged "karate black belt" was also trying to use).  And the audience was told that this was "REAL full-contact karate."


     It was half-contact kickboxing. 

    Then there came the UFC and you all know how fond I am of that. 

    And the Olympics.  Taekwondo managed to squeeze in and whereas their alleged art had been in a tailspin for a couple of generations, it went into a first-class nosedive.  I saw the competition this year.  I wouldn't have known what it was if the announcer hadn't told me.  Not a single punch was thrown.  Not one.  And not a single front kick, side kick, or back kick was thrown either...the roundhouse kicks were so sloppy that if these guys had been in my beginner's class, they'd have permanent scars on their butts (from me chewing on it) for kicking like that.  The announcer kept saying how lethal these guys were; how they could kill an ordinary man with a single blow...

     Bullshit.  Twice.

     My old friend Chris Smaby (a real 6th dan with the Japan Karate Assn.; Shotokan) once told me that there were some people who didn't have a clue, and then there were those who didn't even suspect.

     These bozos didn't even suspect.

     But the audience was assured that this was the real, lethal art of Taekwondo.

     I remember my old friend Mike Biggs, who served three tours in Vietnam as a green beret.  Mike said that the only nights he ever slept soundly was when he was in an ROK firebase; especially the Whitehorse Division.  Even the VC didn't mess with these guys.

     You see, the uniform of the day for the Korean's Whitehorse Division was a karategi.  For real.  At oh-early thirty, they'd line up for inspection in karate uniforms!  And instead of some bitching about early morning PT (physical training), they'd practice Taekwondo.  REAL Taekwondo - not the stuff we saw in the Olympics.  These guys were dangerous and if they managed to close in with an NVA or VC unit, they'd go hand-to-hand.  Because they ENJOYED it.  They killed a LOT of enemy troops - many with their bare hands (!!) and feet.  The enemy was so terrified of these guys that NO KOREAN FIREBASE WAS EVER ATTACKED DURING THE ENTIRE WAR!


     Wonder what happened to THAT kind of Taekwondo?  It sure isn't the same thing I saw in the '04 Olympics! 

     As for Karen’s sitting, hair-over face with low-cut top posture...I know she never heard of the Dadaodui (Big Broadsword Unit) of the Chinese Army in WWII.  Their unit motto was:

"When our bullets are gone, we use our rifles,

When our rifles break, we use our broadsword,

When our swords are broken, we use our fists,

When our fists are broken, we bite."

     These were some tough mothers and the Japanese troops were absolutely terrified of them.  They were all martial arts practitioners of various styles and they all carried a broadsword on their backs.  Really.  They especially liked night operations; they'd sneak up and jump into Japanese foxholes and kill everyone with their swords or bare hands.  They did not leave many enemy survivors.

     Wonder what happened to THAT kind of kung-fu?  Wonder what they'd think of Karen's form?