Smoke clears, or does it. . .

Summer is waning, the smoke in Seattle has cleared, and I pause to think about some recent interactions I have had with budo colleagues, learning about their path and the broader martial arts community. Some strong men and women are excited to learn new things, dedicating their choice of location and employment to be closer to a teacher they value. Others test their skill against younger, stronger opponents, in freestyle competition. And lose, but are wiser for the experience and in a different relationship with fear. A small few combine the essence of a sublime teaching with an art they have mastered to create something new and old at the same time, training assiduously and striving to constantly challenge themselves. Others attempt the same, and combine different arts to the detriment of both, winding up with less than they started with, because they were not ready for the task.

Is it just me, or is the intensity of practice waning in classical martial arts? Through my network of colleagues, I often am sent video links to watch about this or that style of jujutsu or kenjutsu providing a demonstration. In years past, as I was excited to be able to see each different example, I didn't think much about quality per se, or intensity. But, when I watch demonstrations lately -- and I admit, because of these issues I have been watching less in recent years -- I feel like the posture and kiai and intensity of practice as demonstrated is generally weak. Maybe too many people who focus on modern budo are "cross-training" with koryu? Some rather unique arts, that were known for their intensity, are now demonstrated as if they are a generic form of iaido or aikido. Arts that can only function with precise posture, distance, timing, and position are practiced in a sloppy, rushed, wavering manner. And I sit back at a distance and wonder how they cannot see the error of their ways? Easy to do from an arm chair. Maybe, with distraction paramount, I am not paying close enough attention to what I am seeing, often briefly, on a small screen, but some of the faults are so egregious, I wind up questioning the point of all of it.

If students publicly demonstrate high-level forms of an art in a formal venue, and then do so poorly, I think it is fair to say the overall quality of the art, in its current incarnation in that school, is poor. Because poor students were allowed to learn that material without mastering basics first. And there was also enough confidence in the students to allow them to demonstrate publicly. A person watching them might come to the conclusion that they should not train there. They themselves might be able to rise to a higher level at the same school, especially if they were good or would work harder than the people they saw, given the right opportunity, but it will be hard to blame them for coming to that conclusion. Because the first set of poor examples would be the senior members of the school, responsible for mentoring the next generation. How does one undo that?

An art could have been good at one time, but with too many people training, or people training not often enough, without enough of a reason to let the art sink into their bones to the marrow, quality control can easily wind up being low. I don’t believe in the platonic ideal of a martial art -- that somehow by sleep walking through practice, we connect with the founder(s) of the art. Only by bringing a similar intensity to our practice will we ever get close to the realizations they had, and make the arts our own. Too much budo winds up looking like generic Japanese jujutsu or kendo or iaido kata, versus it being somehow different and unique and special and different from what is commonly found.

All arts change over time, and the classical martial arts have also changed, maybe to a lesser extent than recreations or modern syntheses, but changed nonetheless.

Consider that gokui (inner teachings) of a martial art, what makes it really work, are typically hidden, but infuse the quality of the art in those who know them. You can’t infer the gokui from looking at a master do kihon (basic practices), but there is often something different about how they move, how they respond, that elevates their practice to a higher level. I don’t know what the gokui of different martial arts I have not practiced are (and maybe not of arts I practice -- long is the journey), but I can tell something is better about certain lines of each art I am able to watch than others.

  • Has your practice become overly ritualized?
  • Relegated to an occasional hobby?
  • Why do you practice?

Do you practice what I will call Enbu-do (the path of demonstration) instead of Bu-do (the martial path)?

When I look at people who are very good at martial arts, and then I enquire to what their training background has been, they each have gone through periods of their life when they had the focus and attention of a skilled teacher, and trained several hours a day, every day, for a period of years.

It is amusing to me that I have friends and training partners who have one or more of the same teacher (in one or more schools) and I will wind up with very different beliefs from them about what is good and bad about different martial arts. Everyone brings a different background and perspective to their practice, but I would have thought the experience of learning a particular martial art would have normalized those perspectives maybe more than it has or more than it can. One difference I have from some other of my contemporaries is that I have also been exposed to high-level martial arts from other cultures (for example, China), and the training methodologies and body mechanics of those arts. I think that colors the lens I use to evaluate what I am seeing in Japanese budo, and maybe I am unnecesarily harsh in my opinions at times. My colleagues who only practice Japanese martial arts may think I am stupid for wasting my time on something like Taijiquan. But one benefit of that study is understanding more about relaxation, posture, focus, and balance that I wind up looking for in others. My experience in Jiki Shinkage-ryu also causes me to look for a focus and intensity in practice that I don't often see in other koryu. My guess is that at one time, that focus and intensity was commonplace. Now, without focus or intensity, and without posture, balance, relaxation, or power, I am not sure what is left. Choreographed movements that are drawn from an earlier time, and would not work now, and would not work then? I don't think it is only modern "masters" of self-invented styles of Taijiquan that have something to fear from people who are young, healthy, and train hard at pragmatic approaches that provide direct feedback to the practitioners (e.g., Judo, Sanda, MMA).

I think it is important to keep kenjutsu practice alive, even if that means it should be somewhat changing or evolving over time. However, that does not mean losing its intensity. Otherwise, we are just practicing folk dance from Japan with swords (kenbu) — keeping the patterns we learned the same but not knowing if they can really be used, but absolutely certain that our folk dance is better than the other group’s folk dance, with no actual rationale for saying so.

That seems much less interesting to me, unless we just want to just do enbu-do instead of budo. I find especially grating discussions about the privations of medeival warfare, focusing on the resolve needed to travel many miles by foot, under harsh conditions, to the medeival battlefield, and how kenjutsu will provide the psychological and spiritual depths required to succeed in those environments, when the practitioners themselves demonstrating are slow and plodding, showing little power, spirit, or focus in their movements. If your art teaches skills for the medeival battlefield, own it. Maintain a warrior's body that honors the depths of the teachings you have received. Maintain a calm and steady mind that will provide you the discernment needed when you have to react quickly and suddenly to danger. Make your teachers proud.

I think Donn Draeger, a mentor to many of the senior living western practitioners of Classical Japanese martial arts, would be perplexed at the lack of intensity many people carry in their practice.