The following is the first article of Reader Week II. Every article published this week comes from submissions by IkigaiWay readers. Their experiences and backgrounds are diverse, providing a wide range of topics. Today’s author, Benjamin G. Bradak, is a veteran Airborne/Air Assault infantry CQC specialist with the US Army 101st Airborne Division, and has served in two branches of the US military. He currently holds a 3rd degree black belt in American Kenpo Karate and is an expert swordsman. He has co-authored the acclaimed Lessons on the English Longsword (Paladin Press) and forthcoming titles from the same. He is the co-founder and head instructor of the Dragons Tail School of Defense.
The Poem of the Pell
Greetings, readers. I’d like to introduce the “Poem of the Pell” and put something new on your plates that you may not be familiar with; traditional martial arts of Western origin. This piece, specifically, on swordsmanship. Actually, what I’m giving you here is my modern English rendition (something I have not before seen, and actually quite difficult to do) of the most complete version of the poem.
This poem is one of the few known surviving true martial arts instructional works from England prior to the fifteen-hundreds. It is anonymous, and seems that it was written in the 15th century, probably the early half. Given its context, I think it to be a reasonable theory that it could very well be a contemporary transcription of an earlier edition.
It is actually an extremely valuable instructional text on the use of the sword and shield in training against the static pile. It gives very pertinent information on techniques, exercise, the value of cuts vs. thrusts, focus and mindset, footwork, and other training insights.
In the modern era, this poem has been kicked about in varying circles since at least 1876, when it was published in The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England, By Joseph Strutt & William Hone, which is still in print. Unfortunately, that book only contains a four-paragraph version.
The poem itself is simply a small excerpt from an anonymous medieval book on the Art of War entitled Knighthood and Battle, in the Cottonian library of England. This medieval book is actually a verse-form update of a book written by Flavius Vegetius Renatus (a 5th century Roman generally referred to as Vegetius) called De Re Militari.
Alas, were things otherwise, I had hoped to include this complete poem, translation, and explanations of its teachings in our book (Lessons on the English Longsword, via Paladin Press), though circumstances proved unfortunately problematic. Perhaps in the future, if all goes well, we can do something of the sort.
The title that this poem goes by is a modern one, given in lieu of anything else, as the original excerpt has no title per se. To tell the truth, I am not even sure where the exact term “pell” comes from. Though the device has had several names throughout history, I have found “pell” in no pre-modern literature, despite the ubiquity of the term now. In this poem, for example, they refer to it as a “pile,” which is still a term used and defined identically today: an upright beam or post in the ground.
With that in mind, here is the Poem of the Pell:
The discipline and exercise of the fight was this: To have a pile upright
Of a man’s height, thus the old and wise do write
With this a bachelor, or a young knight
Shall first be taught to stand, and learn to fight
And with a fan of double weight he takes as his shield
And a double-weight mace of wood to wield.
This fan and mace, either of which are of double weight
Of shield, swayed in conflict or battle,
Shall exercise swordsmen, as well as knights,
And no man, as they say, will be seen to prevail,
In the field, or in castle, though he assail,
Without the pile, being his first great exercise,
Thus write warriors old and wise.
Have each his pile up-fixed fast
And, as it were, upon his mortal foe:
With mightiness the weapon must be cast
To fight strong, that none may escape
On him with shield, and sword advised so,
That you be close, and press your foe to strike
Lest your own death you bring about.
Impeach his head, his face, have at his gorge
Bear at the breast, or spurn him on the side,
With knightly might press on as Saint George
Leap to your foe; observe if he dare abide;
Will he not flee? Wound him; make wounds wide
Hew off his hand, his leg, his thighs, his arms,
It is the Turk! Though he is slain, there is no harm.
And to thrust is better than to strike;
The striker is deluded many ways,
The sword may not through steel and bones bite,
The entrails are covered in steel and bones,
But with a thrust, anon your foe is forlorn;
Two inches pierced harm more
Than cut of edge, though it wounds sore.
In the cut, the right arm is open,
As well as the side; in the thrust, covered
Is side and arm, and though you be supposed
Ready to fight, the thrust is at his heart
Or elsewhere, a thrust is ever smart;
Thus it is better to thrust than to carve;
Though in time and space, either is to be observed.
Copyright July 2010, Benjamin “Casper” Bradak, revised June 2013
About the Author
Benjamin G. Bradak is a veteran Airborne/Air Assault infantry CQC specialist with the US Army 101st Airborne Division, has served in two branches of the US military. He currently holds a 3rd degree black belt in American Kenpo Karate and is an expert swordsman. He has co-authored the acclaimed Lessons on the English Longsword (Paladin Press) and forthcoming titles from the same. He is the co-founder and head instructor of the Dragons Tail School of Defense.
Images sourced from: http://www.thearma.org/essays/pell/pellhistory.htm
Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo was known as one of the finest karateka of his generation; his abilities in kobudo became especially well known over time. His teachers were a collection of many great karate minds, including Nakamura Shigeru, Matayoshi Shinko, Matayoshi Shinpo, Kakazu Mitsuo, etc. He was also a contemporary and friend to many important practitioners, including Toma Shian, Oyata Seiyu, Kise Fusei, and more.
In 1989 Odo Sensei was recognized on Okinawa for his lifelong contribution to the martial arts. A promotion ceremony was arranged, led by Odo Sensei’s colleague Kise Fusei. It was at this ceremony that Odo Sensei was officially recognized as 10th Dan and received a new red belt.
Not all organizations on the island recognized this promotion, which was their right, but in general Odo Sensei was noted as 10th Dan after that point.
Odo Sensei’s senior students in America were quite delighted to hear about this promotion, and expressed their congratulations accordingly. That same year (1989) Odo Sensei visited the United States and was presented with a congratulatory plaque from a number of his senior students. Not feeling satisfied with this effort, the seniors decided to organize something more official for the following year’s gathering.
In 1990, during Odo Sensei’s next trip to the United States, multiple officers of the OKKKF (Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo Federation) and other Okinawa Kenpo seniors constructed and signed a certificate of recognition which was presented to Odo Sensei by Bruce Heilman in Reading, PA.
The following video showcases that ceremony (originally filmed by Mike Kriegisch Sensei, now of Kriegisch Martial Arts):
The certificate presented to Odo Sensei is copied below for posterity and accuracy:
* Richard Gonzalez, Kyoshi. Executive Director/U.S. Representative
* C. Bruce Heilman, Kyoshi. Director International Relations
* Dean Stephens, Kyoshi. West Coast Representative
* Joseph Bunch, Kyoshi
* Victor Coffin, Kyoshi
* John Snyder, Renshi. East Coast Representative
* Paul Ortino, Renshi. Hawaii Representative
The USKA also honored Odo Sensei with the following certificate, signed by James Hawkes, Robert Jordan, and Bruce Heilman:
As Heilman Sensei stated in the video these certificates were not actual promotions conducted by the students, but recognition of the rank given to Odo Sensei and a reconfirmation of Odo as style head. It should also be noted that this ceremony did not involve all Okinawa Kenpo seniors, some of whom were not part of these organizations and had the opportunity to honor Odo Sensei in their own way.
If you’d like to learn more about how 10th Dan works and the history of how it came about, continue reading here.
This is a continuation of the interview with Ronald Lindsey, Shihan. Lindsey Sensei is a senior in Matsumura Seito karate of the Hohan Soken lineage. Lindsey Sensei is a military veteran and author of Okinawa no Bushi No Te, a comprehensive examination of karate history and Matsumura Seito concepts. In Part 1 Lindsey Sensei discussed his early experiences on Okinawa, Hohan Soken’s students, Matsumura Seito history, and more. In Part 2 Lindsey Sensei continues discussing his experiences with seniors like Kuda Yuichi and Odo Seikichi, and what it was like bringing karate back to the United States.
In this video Lindsey Sensei demonstrates a series of Matsumura Seito fighting concepts:
Q: You’ve seen Matsumura Seito spread out over the course of a generation. What do you think of the developments and changes or lack thereof?
What you have to understand is that Okinawan teachers and culture did not have a longing need to preserve a style 100% as it was. Instead they follow a principle known as suhari.
Suhari (su-ha-ri)….su means that the first time period (5 years, 10 years, time varies with the individual) you emulate your teacher and try to make everything exactly like him or her. Then the “ha” is another time period. During this time it is natural for you to make some changes according to what you need and can do as long as it doesn’t violate the principles of the ryu. The “ri” is when everything becomes automatic and it just “boom” happens. Really Suhari is the natural way of doing things.
This used to really bother me. I knew my kata were drifting from what I learned in Okinawa, which was natural since I was built different than an Okinawan. Over a period of time my kata became my kata although I try to keep them like Soken Sensei did, especially in principle the kata will change some what. Anybody who says they are doing Hohan Soken’s kata are not really telling the truth. They think they are, but kata drift according to what their body can do the best. This is not to mention the age factor which also alters the kata. When Hohan Soken died, his style died. The principles and how they can be applied are still alive, but my kata became uniquely mine and so it is with all karateka.
Q: How did you come to meet Yuichi Kuda Sensei and did you train extensively with him?
I knew him in Okinawa and trained with him; but, I really started studying under him when I got directly involved with his organization (we were all Matsumura Seito). Kuda SEnsei blended Okinawa Kenpo with Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito to found Shorin Ryu Matsumura Kenpo. I actually switched from Fusei Kise’s kata to Yuichi Kuda’s kata one afternoon; my senior student Charles Tatum and I switched once we saw how Kuda was teaching and performing his kata.
Fusei Kise is a brilliant tactician and his fighting techniques are very good. Kata-wise he does a bit of blending, and shortcuts, and his own “thing”. On the other hand Kuda Sensei was very precise and his teachings were very precise. He was not as flamboyant and flashy, but nevertheless he had really good fighting techniques too. Kuda Sensei was a bigger physical person than Sensei Kise which suited me well since I am also a big person.
It’s important to note that although there were differences between their methods, at a high level they were executing very similar concepts. When you hear these heated arguments about small details, this teacher did it such and such a way vs. the way of another teacher, it really misses the point of what the teachers were doing. They are merely executing Suhari.
One thing I think a lot of people are missing in their training is the experience of seeing the old masters train on their own. When teachers like Kuda Sensei and Kise Sensei trained on their own it was different then when they taught classes. They would ad lib and add different timings, alter techniques and other similar principles.
In the old days kata was a live thing, not meant to be set in concrete. It was a set of principles that could be tweaked and used to explore and teach and learn. In addition, using the concepts of the kata the teacher would optimize it to each individual. He would walk behind and around you and make mental drawings of your procedures and how you stand, etc. and how it could be optimized to you. Their methods would make you stronger just by correcting your kata.
Q: When you returned to the United States did you begin developing a school and association right away? If so, what were some difficulties you experienced at the time?
I noticed in the United States that there was a lot of focus on getting quick promotion. There was a big mindset (and still is) of wanting to get a one up on someone else. The problem with a lot of organizations is that they are not really organizations, they are cults. I did not do that.
We had a quality standard and I wanted people to meet that standard. Rank has a tendency to devalue over time and become worthless if there are no high standards being met. I tended to bring Okinawan Sensei over and we held a large camp to spread the cost and make it affordable for everyone involved. Not too many other people wanted to do that because they wanted extended personal time with the sensei instead of sharing that time. There was a lot of ego involved with spending time with the sensei. All of these ego trips made it difficult to teach traditional karate.
Q: When did you meet and train with Odo Seikichi Sensei? Could you talk a bit about your experiences with him and what you were able to learn from him?
I met him when I was on Okinawa and trained with him for a while there. I got to the point where I was ready to test for Sho Dan in Nago (the location of Nakamura Shigeru’s dojo), but I was already a black belt so I couldn’t see the point in getting another one.
When I trained with Odo Sensei I wasn’t so concerned about emulating his physical technique specifically, but I liked his mental attitude and the way he treated his students. He would encourage you and would always be in good spirits. He said things like “don’t try TOO hard”, or “take it easy”. One thing he really liked to say was “kill him a little bit”, and that meant to slow down, learn the technique right, and focus on quality over raw speed or power. He was a true gentleman.
Q: How did training on Okinawa when you were there differ from what individuals might experience nowadays?
One very key difference is the military factor. If you were in the Army, Marine Corps and Navy in Okinawa you had to take, twice a year, a combat proficiency test. You trained continuously to get ready for that test which was of course getting ready for the act of combat. We started our work day way before dawn. We conducted the army ‘daily dozen’ and then finished that with a 4 mile run. After that we went to work for the US Military; at the end of our military work day, we repeated the Army Daily Dozen and the four mile run. Then we went to karate training for a number of hours. We did this five to six days a week. If you were in the Marine Recon you did a 20 mile run every day.
Going over to train in Okinawa now is less strenuous. Today visiting students don’t get up before dawn and undergo vigorous work outs before day light. Their training is different from what we did some 40 to 50 years ago. We lived a Spartan lifestyle.
Okinawan GIs (American Service men during the 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s) were on the island at a special time. There were masters on the island who trained directly with older masters who were, in fact, Samurai (Shizoku). What was learned by them and initially passed down to us was the old art. That time is now gone. According to men like Kuda Yuichi and Nakaza Seiei there is more old karate now in the United States then there is in Okinawa, tucked away with the Okinawan GIs. Okinawa Sensei are now much more focused on business and sport karate. There are just a few teaching old karate and you’d be hard pressed to find them.
Q: In a lot of modern dojo we often hear the term “oss” or “osu” used. Did you detect a lot of that on Okinawa?
We never heard it on Okinawa. It was not said on Okinawa when I was there. I asked Kuda Sensei about it one time because we had a number of Shito Ryu people at one of our camps and they were doing a lot of oss-ing. Kuda Sensei said it was ok if they wanted to do it and that it just meant “hi”. I also asked Shimabukuro Zenpo, Tomoyose Ryuko, and several others all of whom said that it was not a term the Okinawan masters used.
Q: You recently released a book called “Okinawa no Bushi no Te”. Could you tell us a little bit about this work and what readers might gain from it?
The book started to be written shortly after I got back from Okinawa in 1970. I started gathering historic material while I was in Okinawa because I wanted to learn the history. I am somewhat of an amateur military historian. In my civilian job I was in the agricultural extension service, which meant I wrote thousands of newsletters and newspaper articles and pamphlets. I have written a lot of stuff over the years. Previously I had written a karate magazine for a while called “Maishin Shorinji” which was all educational. I tried to steer clear of politics and saying bad stuff about anybody because there is nothing to be gained by doing this. I tried to focus on history. Of course, there will be people who will disagree with my history and findings, and that’s totally fine. The thing about Okinawan history is that it greatly depends on who you get it from, depending on how they slant that history, and what they want you to know. All you can do is present the facts as best you can.
So I had all this material, boxes and boxes, some of it was no more than slips of paper or research notes. I got it all out and sorted into subject matter piles and reduced it down and organized it. Then I took that information and created something coherent. The book itself is divided into two main parts: first is history. I go into who the Bushi class were that developed karate and kobujutsu. Then I discuss the warriors themselves, including Matsumura Sokon and his lineage down to Hohan Soken.
The second half of the book is called “My Walk with Matsumura”. This involves more of my own personal history on Okinawa and in Matsumura Seito. I broke this second section down into four major strategies that in my opinion are essential to the learning of any martial art. These are:
* Kokoro no heiho – proper mental attitude and spirit.
* Minari no heiho – strategy of appearance. This is about what the kata is trying to teach us.
* Maai no heiho – strategy of combat distance.
* Chushin no heiho – strategy of the center.
I include a lot of little stories about warfare and how these strategies have been used and how they relate to kata and martial arts.
I never like to get too bogged down when I’m writing. I kept the book simple and wrote it to be what it is: an old man telling stories in a way that you can read and understand and retain. It is user friendly.
Q: Where can people go to get this book?
Generally I will autograph the book and write a little something in there. I try to get the book out the day after I receive an order.
Q: What could you tell the next generation of karateka to help them preserve the essence of Okinawan karate and kobudo as you have come to understand it?
In terms of passing the arts to the next generation…there are a lot of people who studied in Okinawa but have not contributed much after they left the island. They have not produced high quality students, or they have taken long extended breaks in training and then come back and want you to treat them with respect. Hell…they have moved back toward a beginner, not forward! Maintaining training and contributing to the next generation is key to becoming a true karate senior.
In terms of advice, I would have to say this – you cannot learn every kata invented, so don’t try. Find a school and learn the core curriculum. Knowing 25-30 kata does not mean you know 25-30 times more than a person who knows less kata. We (including myself) have made the mistake of trying to learn too many kata. Learn a few kata well instead of many halfway. Be stubborn and do not quit.
Thank you very much Lindsey Sensei for your great insights and stories!
To hear more from Lindsey Sensei visit “Tales From the Western Generation”. This book contains extensive interviews with a number of senior karateka.