Changes of Perspective

10 minute read

Looking back on the blog Inner Dharma, I provide some insight into what drove me to write about the topics I did. I also provide some candid thoughts on what it means to go through a process of challenging assumptions, cultivating higher levels of skill, and my perplexity at people who continue to follow teachers who are deceptive or abusive.

My first update to this set of essays in over a year, this retrospective is meant to put my previous writing in context. I recently was able to reconnect with two of my older students, and in thinking through what I had taught them, I wanted to put what we did in appropriate context, especially how I shifted from what I had been doing to my current interests and also explain why I have the current interests I do. Also, after visiting my kenjutsu teacher recently, I also wanted to provide context for my explorations of the different sword arts I have practiced over time, and why I have settled on what I currently practice, now that I am teaching a small group in a traditional manner.

Essays on Aiki and Jujutsu

Many of the earlier essays I wrote on Inner Dharma were concerned about the concept of internal versus external martial arts, especially in terms of attempting to answer the question of whether a given art was internal or not, especially in the context of arts developed outside of China that may exhibit high levels of skill, or had Taoist influences (via Mikkyo, Shugendo, or other practices).

I was at the time struggling with the question of what to preserve or abandon from my first long-term martial arts practice (which I had been told was an old form of aiki-jujutsu akin to Daito-ryu) after I had begun learning more traditional Baguazhang, and realized I had been training in what was in essence a modern style created in NYC instead of a classical or traditional approach to martial arts. I will call it a form of goshin-jutsu (self-defense) below, to avoid any confusion with classical or neo-classical approaches (e.g., koryu jujutsu or Daito-ryu aiki-jujutsu).

I found the technical principles contained in Baguazhang more sophisticated than the goshin-jutsu I had learned. At the same time, I knew of the stories of high-level skill surrounding figures like Ueshiba Morihei and Takeda Sokaku and struggled to put those stories into the context of the world of Chinese Internal Martial Arts I had started becoming exposed to. This was hard to avoid doing, especially having thought for so long that I had been a student of a form of traditional aiki-jujutsu.

While the goshin-jutsu I knew was practical and leveraged interesting applications of human anatomy, it was largely based on the application of raw muscular power, compared to an art like Baguazhang. More traditional Japanese arts I later encountered, like Daito-ryu Takumakai, were much more sophisticated than what I had first learned, and now I know with good reason, being legitimate inheritors to the legacy of those historical figures, versus a callous pastiche put together in imitation, as I came to realize the goshin-jutsu to be.

I was struck with a choice of abandoning everything I knew, or viewing maybe a subset of what I had first learned as a supplement or cognate to my Baguazhang practice. I might have been better off doing what I recommended some of my students do, and actually start over in Daito-ryu or other koryu jujutsu. But I already had learned Gao Baguazhang and found that a deep and rewarding practice. So, I began to view what I had learned previously through the lens of internal martial arts, and discarded what seemed incompatible with Bagua ideas.

The result of the examination and distillation process of what I had first learned in the context of more advanced approaches to martial arts was something I named after my dojo (Gassankan Jujutsu). What I wound up with, working with my student Ben Lawner, I felt to be a vast improvement on what we had started with, obtained not by adding to, but by taking away. This was part of a process of re-examination of all my values, based on where I found myself, realizing my future lay in Bagua instead of mixed martial arts. At the same time, I did not want to leave my student Ben stranded along the way. However, to be clear, any improvements we may have developed (in my opinion) were the result of skill obtained at Baguazhang and mapped back to the previous practice of grappling, locking, and throwing, and not some ressurection of what classical jujutsu or true aiki might be. We were left with something liminal, in-between old and new. For ideas like what aiki might be, I remain at a bit of a loss, even watching demonstrations by and speaking with people skilled in Daito-ryu. This is one reason why now that I have been studying internal martial arts for a number of years (longer now than I studied goshin-jutsu) I have mostly given up on trying to translate concepts across cultures.

I consider our efforts not wasted. Lineage aside, I wouldn't recommend getting into a fight with Ben. But, we can all improve from where we are, and it is not clear it would make sense for others to walk that path. What we developed was a good adjunct to the curriculum I learned in Gao Bagua from the teacher I had access to at the time, but I did not have the standing to make what we did be of interest to others. My Gao bagua instructor shifted his interests to Wu Style Taijiquan around that time and I followed him, continued my training by entering a group called Yin Cheng Gong Fa (YCGF). I am grateful to have learned portions of Gao style, but now focus my bagua practice on Cheng, Liu, and especially Yin styles of the art as taught in YCGF. Meanwhile, my old student Ben still is a jujutsuka at heart.

Now that I have continued my focus on traditional internal martial arts for several more years, I don't always see the parallels I once did in other arts. My perspective has evolved over time, and I view the condensed jujutsu curriculum I converged on to be something transitional instead of an end state. It served its purpose at the time and helped me deal with the trauma of leaving a group I had been a part of for so long, and left my student with something cohesive he could choose to retain or abandon as he saw fit.

That effort took set the stage for the perspectives I expressed in my subsequent writings. Since that time, my views have continued to evolve, and I am trying to explore Chinese internal martial arts in of themselves, and finding more than enough applications to keep me busy, without a separate form of jujutsu at their side. Some of the essays I wrote at the time might still be of use for those grappling with the identity of their practice, and trying to see how it might fit in with the larger structure of martial arts concerning themselves with cultivating higher levels of skill.

But as to whether a skill expresses aiki or not, despite practicing an art derived from Aikido for many years, I am not qualified to say. My later essays talking about winding down my commentary, and focusing on training, were written with that perspective in mind.

Essays on Shinto and Shinkage Ryu

Later, I provided on Inner Dharma several windows into my thought processes surrounding different koryu kenjutsu I had the opportunity to learn, what I liked about or struggled with each, and how I came to be set on my current path. Especially as more has become known about the history of Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto-ryu (TSKSR) in recent years, due to the effort of my friend Ellis Amdur and others, and recent schisms in the art have taken place quite publicly, I find it interesting to reflect back on the idea of maybe having given too much benefit of the doubt at times to an art or its teachers. This was something I was guilty of in my youth, with a level of enthusiasm and energy I am at times nostalgic for. I was so happy to finally be doing what I thought I had been doing for so many years, (a classical Japanese martial art!) that I overlooked a lot of warning signs, until they could no longer be overlooked.

As I get older, I have become more critical, and thus wound up (not surpisingly) with better teachers. I can, however, still feel surprised at times.

I am surprised so many Aikidoka still train in Sugawara Budo. I find the direction its head is taking their version of Shinto-ryu to be misguided. In some ways it is a worse situation than the modern goshin-jutsu art I described above, because it started at such a high level of skill and potential and has fallen so far, without its members really noticing. I still have a good friend kind of half-in and half-out of the group and I don't really understand what his colleagues find so interesting about the way they practice at a high level: so fast, light, and utterly divorced from the functional use of a Japanese sword. At least my friend is trying to examine other perspectives and bring his experience in other arts to bear to the art. Who knows to what extent this is possible, or if he is making good choices, but at least he is an active practitioner and researcher of the art.

As I began learning other approaches to kenjutsu, I realized that while the basics taught in Sugawara Budo were sound, and the art relatively complete from a technical perspective, the choices its leadership have taken towards cultivating what they take to be high-level skill, are in my opinion completely misguided. For me, it really was not worth continuing with in that environment.

Maybe a more direct explanation of the rationale behind my essays comparing the two arts is that I find value in both, but strongly believe koryu should be taught in small groups and without major changes to their composition. To their credit, at least in Sugawara Budo, the core of their art is intact, simply de-emphasized. It is an odd situation where one might be better off in a group as a mid-level practitioner rather than a senior practitioner, but stranger things have happened in martial arts.

With respect to TSKSR, I do find it sad and ironic that even if a person were to abandon Sugawara's approach, as I have, the so-called "main line" of the ryu has split in two, with one person teaching thousands of people, and being publicly expelled (you can check Wikipedia, what a world we live in), with duelling narratives in place on-line about who should be able to select the next generation leader of the art, shihan or soke. Meanwhile, several other extant lines of Katori Shinto-ryu continue to practice, with a lower public profile.

Some, it turns out, are quite good.

So, all is not lost. Just most are lost. Maybe that is not surprising. Consider how good Takeda was supposed to be. Consider how good most Aikido practitioners are today. Similarly, how rare it is to find someone with actual internal skill in Taijiquan, Baguazhang, or Xingyiquan.


Apologies, perhaps, for subjecting readers to both of these trains of thought, but as you can see from the above, it took me a couple tries to get to a set of arts and groups I could make peace with. Training is always a struggle, but I wonder if things had to be so difficult at times. As I have settled more firmly on my current path, I have found myself training more and writing less, so I am being quite candid in the above, and risk some ire as a result.

In any case, I have kept the old posts intact below in case they may be found to be of some use to someone, and wanted to provide some context on what I was wrestling with mentally, looking back on what I had written. I thought about taking the essays down, and wound up feeling that was misguided (there is always the internet archive to trawl through, nothing is ever really deleted online). But I wanted to provide some context, and maybe a small amount of advice, so as I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, readers can more easily take a more direct line to higher level skill than I have. I am grateful I had friends who helped me through stumbles and falls and teachers who saw value in my continued efforts.