We are entering the Japanese year of the Boar (Inoshishi) and I thought it would be good to take this time to extend new year's greetings to my martial arts colleagues, including readers of these essays, and write a bit about entrances and boundaries in traditional martial arts schools.
In Jiki Shinkage-ryu, we view our practice as constituting the true or correct Shinkage-ryu and also as being a divinely revealed tradition of Kashima shrine. The patron war deity for many ryu is Marishiten (sanksrit, Marici), who in Chinese astrology is one of 24 celestial beings. As a tantric Buddhist deity, Marishiten is depicted in both peaceful and wrathful aspects. The wrathful aspect, an example of which is provided below, typically depicts the deity as having three heads and six arms, holding sword, spear, war fan, and bow, and riding a wild boar.
When entering a classical Japanese martial tradition, traditionally one will at some point make an oath to perservere in their training, hold themselves in good character, not reveal the teachings of the group to outsiders, and not engage in combat before being deemed ready by their teacher. Much of this is to protect the reputation of the school, but it also serves to put the prospective student in the correct mindset to begin to learn the art. Often, such pledges were framed as oaths to Marishiten, with the penalty for breaking the pledge being incurring divine wrath. This medeival version of a non-disclosure agreement helped frame the boundaries for practice, and allowed a student to begin to be admitted to the group. The practitioner's standing once taking the pledge is sometimes referred to as nyumon (入門), entering the gate. The oath itself is called a kishomon (起請文).
In the Jiki Shinkage-ryu group I practice with, this is typically done once a student has practiced the basic walking and cutting drills, and begins to learn the first kata of the art. For my training group in Seattle, I have carried forward the tradition of requiring a similar pledge, to frame the practice as a serious activity not undertaken lightly, and the teachings are correctly used.
Just as the nyumon process sets up certain boundaries and responsibilites, as a teacher of martial arts, I operate within the boundaries of the schools I have trained at and continue to learn from and participate in. In my case, that is North American Yin Cheng Gong Fa for Chinese martial arts and the Hobyokai for classical Japanese martial arts.
In Chinese Martial Arts, there is a ritual with some important similarities and differences called Bai Shr, where a student applies to become and becomes recognized as a formal disciple of the teacher, entering the inside door of the school. The same ideograms are used to describe the status of the student (入門). At this point they are a lineal member of the tradition and must maintain good standing within the martial arts family. In some schools not all students take this step, and some members can train a number of years before doing so. I performed a Bai Shr ceremony in 2015, after about ten years of training in Chinese martial arts. As a result, I am a formal student of my teacher. I am, however, not authorized to accept my own lineal disciples. Teachers with that authority have formally "opened their door" and possess a second document certifying that standing. Instead, I have permission to instruct others in order to continue my own practice, and do so in a semi-private manner.
In Jiki Shinkage-ryu, I have a license certifying my proficiency in the art to a certain technical level from my teacher, and similar permission to begin teaching others to maintain my practice. My license is issued as part of the Hobyokai organization by David Hall, who received a traditional license from Namiki Yasushi and his permission to teach others. Students who train with me in Jiki Shinkage-ryu at the Gassankan (Moon Mountain School) learn Jiki Shinkage-ryu in a traditional manner, but would generally not receive a technical license unless done so under the broader auspices of the Hobyokai.
I have adopted the same entrance oath for members of my school regardless of whether I am teaching Chinese or Japanese martial arts, but this is an entrance condition, and not a certification of a particular level of skill. A person does not have to believe in Buddhist war deities to participate in the Gassankan, but should still do their best to commit to diligence in their training. The entrance oath requires them to keep matters of the school private, and uphold a standard of diligence in their practice and character in their daily life. With these attitutes in place, it is possible for me to teach fully, without reservation.
Om Marishi-ei Sowaka
Marishiten, the Deity Embodying the Rays of the Sun,
Tadachika, mid 19th century.
Boston Musuem of Fine Art.
A person who does not uphold their kishomon can be expelled from the training group. Students of traditional martial arts should take their oaths seriously, even if they no longer train with a particular group.
In my case, I stopped training with Sugawara Budo after attaining the level of mokuroku in their branch of Katori Shinto-ryu. I wanted to focus my efforts on internal martial arts, and was having trouble practicing multiple arts simultaneously. I do not have a teaching license in Katori Shinto-ryu so do not teach that art. But, I continue maintain a practice of iai and kenjutsu drawn from Katori Shinto-ryu, and am exploring how my knowledge of Jiki Shinkage-ryu and Chinese internal martial arts has affected my movement and mindset. Because Jiki Shinkage-ryu has such a refined and condensed curriculum, it is helpful to examine its ideas tactically with respect to other traditions, in addition to kata and free practice (gekken). To avoid any confusion, I call this examination Gassan-ryu.