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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Boldness does not necessarily mean Victory...

Many thanks to my friend David Mastro, who shared this book excerpt with me....

--The following eyewitness account of an actual samurai duel comes from Sakujiro Yokoyama (1864-1914), who was one of the greatest jujutsuka/judoka of his time. The account originally appeared in E.J. Harrison's classic text, The Fighting Spirit of Japan (1913):

"I can carry my memory back to the days when all samurai wore the two swords and used them as well when necessity arose. When quite a boy I accidentally witnessed an exciting duel to the death between a ronin (an unattached samurai) and three samurai. The struggle took place in the Kojimachi ward, in the neighbourhood of Kudan, where the Shokonsha now stands. Before proceeding with my narrative I ought to explain for the benefit of my foreign listeners (there were two of us present besides another Japanese gentleman) the usage that was commonly observed by the two-sworded men of the old feudal days, in order that the incident I am about to describe may be better understood. The sword of the samurai, as you know, was a possession valued higher than life itself, and if you touched a samurai's sword you touched his dignity. It was deemed an act of unpardonable rudeness in those days for one samurai to allow the tip of his scabbard to come into contact with the scabbard of another samurai as the men passed each other in the street; such an act was styled saya-ate (saya = scabbard, ate = to strike against), and in the absence of a prompt apology from the offender a fight almost always ensued. The samurai carried two swords, the long and the short, which were thrust into the obi, or sash, on the left-hand side, in such a manner that the sheath of the longer weapon stuck out behind the owner's back. This being the case, it frequently happened, especially in a crowd, that two scabbards would touch each other without deliberate intent on either side, although samurai who were not looking for trouble of this kind always took the precaution to hold the swords with the point downward and as close to their sides as possible. But should a collision of this description occur, the parties could on no account allow it to pass unnoticed. One or both would at once demand satisfaction, and the challenge was rarely refused. The high sense of honour which prevailed among men of this class forbade them to shrink from the consequences of such an encounter.

So much by way of introduction. The episode I am going to describe arose in precisely this fashion. The parties to the duel were a ronin and three samurai, as I have already said. The ronin was rather shabbily dressed, and was evidently very poor. The sheath of his long sword was covered with cracks where the lacquer had been worn away through long use. He was a man of middle age. The three samurai were all stalwart men, and appeared to be under the influence of sake. They were the challengers. At first the ronin apologized, but the samurai insisted on a duel, and the ronin eventually accepted the challenge. By this time a large crowd had gathered, among which were many samurai, none of whom, however, ventured to interfere.

In accordance with custom, the combatants exchanged names and swords were unsheathed, the three samurai on one side facing their solitary opponent, with whom the sympathies of the onlookers evidently lay. The keen blades of the duelists glittered in the sun. The ronin, seemingly as calm as though engaged merely in a friendly fencing bout, advanced steadily with the point of his weapon directed against the samurai in the centre of the trio, and apparently indifferent to an attack on either flank. The samurai in the middle gave ground inch by inch and the ronin as surely stepped forward. Then the right-hand samurai, who thought he saw an opening, rushed to the attack, but the ronin, who had clearly anticipated this move, parried and with lightning rapidity cut his enemy down with a mortal blow. The left-hand samurai came on in his turn, but was treated in similar fashion, a single stroke felling him to the ground bathed in blood. All this took almost less time than it takes to tell. The samurai in the centre, seeing the fate of his comrades, thought better of his first intention and took to his heels. The victorious roni wiped his blood-stained sword in the coolest manner imaginable and returned it to its sheath. His feat was loudly applauded by the other samurai who had witnessed it. The ronin then repaired to the neighbouring magistrate's office to report the occurrence, as the law required...."

Boldness, over-confidence (three on one), highly volotile and easily offended combatants learned the hard way, that boldness does not necessarily mean victory.

The Ronin, being older and more experienced (and most likely, beyond the "young & full of piss n' vinegar" stage), attempted to prevent bloodshed, but defended himself with a calm mind and effective technique.

It takes a lot of training and self-understanding to gain similar skills as this Ronin. Train hard, and train well!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Drive Thru: You want fries with that?

The other day, I went through a drive thru to get a quick bite before my kids kung fu class. I was running errands all day and rushing around, and lost track of time. I realized I was very hungry because I felt a hunger headache coming on. I turned into the restaurant and placed my order.

While waiting in line to pick up my food, I checked my phone. "Wow, cool, emails about class inquiries...I better get on that later!" I thought to myself.

I received my food, drove all the way back to the studio, opened the bag, and found that my order was completely wrong. The drink was the only thing correct. "Wow, I wonder if someone else got *my* food and I have theirs..." I wondered.

By that point, I was past the hunger stage and the headache had already set it. My appetite was gone, and the aroma of the food made me want to gag. I took a couple of ibuprofen and decided to sit on my meditation bench and try to breathe off the headache before the little kids arrived for class......

As I sat, it hit me. I was so busy "driving thru" my day, just trying to get things done, assuming everything will go as planned. I expected my food order to be correct, and by honest mistake, I got the wrong food order. I didn't even pause for a second to check if I had all my stuff....I just drove off....expecting things to be the way they should be. If I would have just took the time to pause for a bit to check, the situation could have been very easily corrected.

As I came out of meditation, I was happy to find my headache gone, but the lesson ingrained on my brain. "Don't just 'drive thru' your everyday life....pause a bit and check-in with yourself. If you always expect things to just fall into place on its own, you get complacent and won't check-in with yourself.

"Checking in" doesn't have to be a can something as simple as enjoying a view, sitting quietly for a moment and reflecting. Not reflecting on the to-do list....I mean "reflecting" on how you are this moment, at this place in space. No worries of trying to control everything in this point in time.....just being there, checking in, and acknowledging the experience so that your mind can ease up enough to make the rest of your day a bit less hectic. Hopefully, you can get back to your to-do list with an organized, more relaxed viewpoint, instead of rushing around like a headless chicken like I did.

Because of my rushed, stressed state, I didn't get the tater tots I wanted with my lunch. Darn it. Next time I'll go inside to order least I'll be able to see the order being bagged.

And for you, dear reader....."go inside" sometimes!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Edge alignment: The art of "cutting" through ego

When I teach Tai Chi or Kung Fu students broadsword or straightsword routines, I always try to make a point (no pun intended) to explain the details of sword handling, such as "COP" (center of percussion), "POB" (point of balance), and edge alignment. I want the students to understand their swords as well as their movements and form....that way, they are not merely waving their weapons around aimlessly.

Another thing I like to share with students, is the concept of "why" we train with swords. Its not so much that we aim to actually fight with swords, but rather, using the blade as a means of "cutting through the ego". Many sword systems teach this concept, however it does take time to get over the "coolness factor" of working with swords and blades. As I explain the characteristics of their blades, I explain the concept of "cutting through ego" in this way for students:

"COP", Center of percussion: On a well made sword, the center of percussion is the place on the blade that does not transfer vibration to the handle when the sword is used to strike or cut an object. One way to find the COP is to hold the sword in one hand, and use the other hand to tap the hand on the the sword wiggles and vibrates, look for the space on the blade that wiggles much less or doesn't wiggle at all. This is the center of percussion....the "sweet spot" where you'd want to cut with. If you cut correctly at an object, hardly any vibration travels to the hand through the handle. Just like the sweet spot on a baseball bat, the COP is where you want to focus your strike or cut. Easier said than done. After very many practice sessions at target cutting, I can only say that I can count how many times on only one hand where I've cut with the perfect COP. Its an ongoing process of adjusting the cut throughout the swing, without interrupting the flow of the cut. Yes, the targets will cut even if I don't hit the COP on the button, but I feel it in the handle, and the cut, most times, is not as clean as it could be.


Practitioners of any martial art will typically go through these periods of "vibration"....tough times where we might feel we are not progressing, sore muscles, bruises, injuries, etc. Although we might know what our true purpose of our training is, it definitely is an ongoing adjustment throughout our training. The key here is to keep plugging along until things become easier and better ingrained. The COP in martial artists, is the place where we feel that our skill and body coordination match. Knowing how to do a form is not should know how to coordinate your whole body into the movement and know the "sweet spot" of balanced relaxation and tension through a technique. This results in effective movement with minimum effort.

"POB", Point of balance: To find the point of balance on a sword, you would find the place where the body of the sword balances on the edge of a finger. Ideally, the closer to the handguard, the better, so that fine maneuvers with the sword is easier. However, POB is a personal preference. Some people like the POB to be more toward the middle of the blade, other prefer the POB to be near the hand guard. Very well made, balanced blades undergo very detailed workmanship methods by the swordmaker....a skill gained only by dedicated practice in his or her craft.


In martial arts, we should always strive to find our "point of balance". Not just our physical balance...that's a relatively easier skill to gain by constant practice in one's movements. Instead, we should strive for the perfect balance of mind/body/spirit. As with blades, some people prefer to be a little more physically tuned than mentally or spiritually tuned, and some prefer to be mentally and spiritually tuned a bit more than physically. Either way, this slight imbalace will show its results as time passes by. If we concentrate too much on the mental and spiritual, but neglect our physical body, our bodies will "feel" our age as we get older....the nagging aches, pains and physical complaints. Or, if we concentrate too much on the physical aspects and neglect some of the mental and spiritual, we become strong bodied, but prone to things like confidence issues, anger, contempt, fear of things other than martial arts, etc. Train both the body AND the mind, and we learn so much more about ourselves and how we relate to the the physical world and the Universe.

"Edge alignment": To cut properly, keeping good edge alignment is the to a clean cut. If you turn your wrist or drop your elbow in the wrong direction, it will affect the position of the edge, resulting in a botched cut, missing the target, or batting the target off its platform. To keep good edge alignment, students must practice each cutting angle diligently and follow good cutting procedures (proper posture, positioning, transferrence of cutting power from legs/hips to arms, etc). It looks so easy when you watch an expert do target cutting, but it is a little more difficult than it looks....the idea is to cut, not hack.


When a swordsman/swordswoman knows their blades and trains hard in their art, the sword becomes an extension of not only their arm, but an extension of their whole being...mind-body-spirit. During this arduous training, a sword player may get callouses, sore palms, maybe even smack themselves with the handle sometimes or even cut themselves. But the training, practice, and high awareness needed for sword work conditions the hands, strengthens the body, and reduces the likelihood of injuring oneself.

Keep in mind however, that good technique is useless if the blades are not kept to a fine edge. Maintaining one's blades is part of being a sword player....neglect the blade, and it will rust, get dull, and eventually become useless unless much repair work is done. Its so much easier to maintain the blades on an ongoing basis.

Put the training of POB, COP, and edge alignment together, and train hard. That's the way to get good at swordplay or any other martial art. No shortcuts. The techniques themselves, such as parrying, thrusting, cutting, point work, etc, are just the base on which to build the foundation of your training. Finding one's balance, one's "sweet spot" in their practice, maintaining a finely honed "edge" and knowing how to keep the edge on track.....that's what makes a great martial artist. The journey in finding the POB, COP, and edge alignment.....that's the fun part. As we discipline ourselves in our martial art journey, we find that Ego hinders our progress and actually degenerates our skills. Through consistent hard work and with quality instruction from a good teacher, we gradually cut away the Ego that binds our strength and sight, leaving full strength for the training and physical/mental/spiritual journey, good sight to see the way along the journey, time we expose the true self.

And......the "true self", it is said, is "one with the Source".

Train Well, Train Hard. JIAYO!

My missing coffee cup: Blindness with eyes wide open

This morning, I made myself a cup of coffee, warmed a pastry and sat myself down at my computer to answer emails, update my task list, and other work related stuff. By habit, I always have my coffee in my favorite mug that has a yin-yang symbol on it. However this morning my mug was nowhere to be found, so put my coffee in a different mug.

After writing a couple emails, I put some eggs in water to poach, and looked for my archery equipment. I sat back down in front of the computer, and realized my coffee wasn't there. I scanned the desk...nothing. Looked in the kitchen. Even looked in the bathroom. Looked downstairs...nothing.

"Mom!" I called out. "Have you seen my white coffe mug? I misplaced it."

"is it in your office?" Mom answered.

"No, it just got up and walked away!"

I made another cup of coffee. As I was in the kitchen, I heard my Mom laughing. I walked to where she my office, pointing at my computer desk..... and there was my first coffee cup. Still warm. "What the hell?" I thought. What the hell am I going to do with this other cup of coffee?

Mom walked away laughing.

It was then I realized that when I was looking for my coffee, I was looking for my favorite Yin-Yang mug, not the brown mug I initially had the coffee in. Blind with eyes wide open. Because I was so intent on looking for a white mug, a different mug just disappeared on my desk because my mind didn't "see" it. There it sat, waiting for me to enjoy it and I was scrambling around the house foolishly looking for it. I had to laugh at myself after feeling silly.

In a martial arts sense, this "looking but not seeing" sometimes happens to us as practitioners. When we are beginners in our art, we tend to look at each new technique with a motivated mind...we want to master it, we want to practice it till we get it down. (Sound familiar, martial artists?)

However, sometimes, as experienced martial artists, we tend to look only for the similar skills that we're habituated to. The different flavor of the new art is ignored, and sometimes we don't even hear corrections from the teacher because we might assume we already know the skill set of the similar movements.

As a result, we miss the flavor of the new activity because we are so intent on seeing "our own mug"...our own "coffee". You keep going to class but you still can't quite get the feel of it the way you expect to. Or, for some, they overestimate their skill, and see their skills as a bit better than it really is.

It is this type of "blindness with eyes wide open" that hinders our progress. We try to seek so hard for things that are already there...we try so hard to place value on our higher skills...our "favorite mug of coffee", so to speak, and we forget about the time when we had no skill. In this sight impaired state, we might even go so far as to denounce the simpler skills...sometimes putting down those with lesser skill because we avidly seek such higher skills and go out of our way to get that skill. "Baby stuff" is not in your think you're better than that.

Then, when we do find the things we look for that are right there in front of us, we wonder "what the hell am I going to do with this other cup of coffee??" After you've gone through all that trouble of manifesting that new skill that you gained so quickly because you thought you were so good, there will come a time where you'll wonder why you went through all that trouble when the process could have been so much easier if your just saw what was really there.

In martial arts, I've seen this type of "blindness" many times...not only in some students i've taught in the past, but with me as well. I'll admit i've been guilty of thinking that I was "all that and a bag of chips", and would laugh at those with less experience when they are astounded with double-sword techniques or high jumps. "They're just impressed because they can't do it. They're like little kids impressed by a simple cartwheel" I used to think. How dumb of me to forget that I was once at their level.

My advice folks: When given the opportunity, learn to "see" not just "look". Remember where you came were once without skill, remember that. Instead of dismissing those with lesser skills, help them find the skills they're looking for if they're being "blind". Just don't laugh at them like my Mom did with me. :-)

Want to know where my yin yang coffee mug was this whole time? (the sole reason why I used a different coffee mug this morning).... In the fridge....where I left it the day before.