A few weeks ago my girlfriend and I decided to stop in at a used book store. This, from the start, was not a cost effective idea. We both figured that since the books were so reduced in price, we might as well buy indiscriminately. Therefore our “bargain” visit quickly resulted in a basket full of impromptu books.
Over the years I have trained my eye to catch anything that might be martial arts related, or even roughly relevant to Asian culture. Although such finds are frequently fruitless, I’ve come away with a few gems in the past. This latest trip provided one such find.
Sticking out amongst a sea of miscellaneous novels was a paperback entitled “Kokoro”. From my martial training I knew what the term meant so I was immediately drawn to it. As I soon discovered, this “Kokoro” was a novel written by Natsume Soseki, and was in fact a very famous story by a very famous writer.
The term kokoro is generally translated as “the heart of things”, which is the most fundamental and easy way to express the complex range of spirit, emotion, mind, courage, resolve, and intensity that the origin word encapsulates.
Natsume Soseki was not a martial artist (as far as I can determine), nor did this turn out to be a martial arts book. However, it was an exceptional study of the inner workings of Japanese thought and emotion.
I’ve always believed that understanding the culture upon which a martial art is built helps in comprehending the full execution and meaning of the art. While one needn’t don a hakama and queue in everyday life to practice budo, gaining a deeper understanding of the culture (in this case Japanese) can build a rich context within which we might train, learn, and grow.
“Kokoro”, the novel, is set just as the Meiji Era is ending. The story follows a young man who is trying to graduate from college and find his way in life. The young man encounters a withdrawn but studious older gentleman whom he immediately takes to and wishes to learn from. The novel proceeds to study the boy and his new mentor in great depth, examining their emotional and social baggage.
Understanding the Japanese from an external western perspective can be very difficult. This novel is a rare insight into the subtleties of some of the more “peculiar” Japanese obsessions with loneliness, self sacrifice, social etiquette, and emotional withdraw. These cultural characteristics, which are many generations old and deeply seeded, have been integral to the development and formation of budo.
Interestingly, if you are so inclined, you can read the entire novel online for free here. Apparently it has become part of UNESCO canon and has been reproduced fully with permission. That much reading can be difficult online though, so if you’d like you can pick up a paperback copy here…or just visit the nearest used book store and hope you get lucky like I did.
Thanks to reporting by Dojo Rat, I recently learned the sad news that Erle Montaigue has passed away. He was 62 years old (1949-2011).
If you’re not familiar with his work, Erle Montaigue was a strong voice in the Taiji (Tai Chi) community and a proponent of the combative elements of the art. He was most well known for his theories on Dim Mak and vital point striking.
In regards to the circumstances of his passing, I’d like to provide a few details from TaiChi Renegade, and then send you over to that resource if you wish to read more. This passage is from Eli Montaigue, Erle’s son and style successor:
“As most of you know he [Erle] had diabetes, and was controlling it with Diet and his training. And doing a bloody good job! As anyone who trained with him would tell you, how much energy he had, and how fit he was, no one could hit as hard as him!
Mum Ben Kathleen and I were all with him, I’m so glad I was here, as I live in Swansea now about an hour away.
We had just had a band practice the night before, and he was working on a song with Kathleen in the morning. Then I had what turned out to be my last lesson from him only about an hour before he left.
He was fighting fit, and had just ran up the road to catch up to Mum Kathleen and I walking the dogs, a few minutes after we were all walking back down and he just said “hold me” As he sat down on the road, he was out in only a couple of seconds. I sprinted back to the house to get his diabetic kit, and Kathleen to the house near us to get some sugar. Ben was down at his house only 1/4 of a mile away, so Kathleen called him and he ran up.
When he got there we’d already started CPR, the paramedics got there in a helicopter, we were trying for about 15 minute, then the paramedics for another 20 or 30. I was pushing all the points I could think of, and even tried the old Pen through the foot trick! The paramedics gave me a very strange look! Haha! But as it happened it was a clogged artery that caused the heart attack, so nothing would have worked.
But he got his wish, never to get old and to go out with a bang. He didn’t suffer at all, and was in his prime.” – read more from Eli here.
Although Taiji is a widely spread art these days, it is often just the energy enhancing movements that are passed on. Not too many practitioners have worked to preserve the original combative elements as well. Erle was a rare resource for individuals looking to take that next step.
Interestingly, Erle was also a source of controversy due to the scope of his work. There have been other individuals in his and other martial fields that have not agreed with his methods and conclusions. This is inevitable, for better or worse, when creating anything related to martial arts.
Personally I’ve found Erle’s work very informative and thought provoking, and I have borrowed from it to better inform my own art. Erle always seemed ready to share and demonstrate, but made sure to do it safely. He offered many books and dvds on his subject matter, but created many more that he spread for free. one quickly got the impression that he was an artist at heart with business on the side.
I’d like to say more, but I’m simply not the right man to do so. I keep a list tucked away of all the great martial artists I want to do interviews with. Erle was on that list, and unfortunately my chance is gone. Instead, here are a few videos that others have been kind enough to preserve and post, including Erle himself:
This is a guest post from one of my primary instructors, Rick Zondlo. Zondlo Sensei is a senior practitioner of Okinawa Kenpo Karate Kobudo and avid student of Japanese Budo and Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Swordsmanship. The historical development and live application of weapons is a specialty of his, and I am very pleased to share some of his work here!
In a recent video, I discussed how sai might have arrived on Okinawa and in what ways sai concept could be useful to modern practitioners. In this article, Zondlo Sensei takes us back even further into the annals of history. He digs into not only the Chinese and Japanese developments of the weapon, but the potential Buddhist and Indian influences that could have inspired the original developers of the sai shape and function. He also discusses how mythology could have played a role in the cultural significance of the weapon.
He begins in India…
Consider the Vajra, or Thunderbolt, a sanskrit term which means "the hard or mighty one". The Vajra symbolizes impenetrableness; an indestructible state of Enlightenment of Buddha. The Tibetan version Dorje means "indestructible hardness and brilliance like a diamond", which cannot be cut or broken.
The Vajra or Dorje thunderbolt has open prongs attached to a middle handle on each end and is a symbol of Varjayana Buddhism.
In ancient Hinduism the Vajra as a thunderbolt became the chief weapon of the Vedic 'King of Gods' Indra. According to legend, Indra’s Thunderbolt was made out of the bones of the great Rishi Dadhichi who was decapitated by Indra in sacrifice. Dadhhichi's skull bones gave Indra the most powerful of weapons; by its astounding energy he defeated many enemy demons.
According to Buddhist legend, Buddha Shakyamuni took the Vajra weapon from Indra and forced the destructive, fully open prongs together. Thus forming the peaceful Buddhist scepter with closed prongs.
Now take a look at the Sai. If you had the pleasure of seeing a real Sai it is forged out of Iron and not of steel or some other tubular metal substances used to make it lighter and more cost effective. Classical sai are hefty but forged in a way that is balanced for the owners hand measurements and strength. Also, the prongs or Kagi (Japanese for hook) are forged into the center blade with a tighter curve and not welded on and buffed to a gleaming shine to hide the weld, what a expert in metallurgy or sword smith would call a weak area or flaw in the design. The center blade at the base is a little bit thicker and seems stronger and longer like a lightning rod that will suck down any power from it's tip into it's ensnaring waiting hooks.
Holding an Iron Sai and training with it is very hard but it holds a remarkably different feeling of balanced power and strength. When one wields it, it seems virtually indestructible, like the Vajra or the Mikkyo Kongo. Some say this is where the design of power and indestructibility in the Sai was developed from. What do you think?
Now consider the Manji. In Buddhist scripture the Manji means "whirlwind", and also represents the Indian Monk Bohidharma, Daruma in Japanese, Ta-Mo in Chinese.
Bohidharma is said to have taught in the famous monastery Shaolin, founded in 495 in the Henan district in the northern province of China. For centuries the Shaolin temple was the center for over 400 varieties of Chinese Boxing. It is understood that here, the word "boxing" has a meaning for many manner of movement, including slow, internal methods like T’ai-Chi (Taiji Quan).
When considering the manji symbol itself, the reverse "swastika" style mon is made up of several elements:
- a vertical axis that represents the connection of Heaven and Earth
- a horizontal axis that represents the connection of Yin and Yang
- four arms connected to these axis to represent movement, the Whirling Force created by the interaction of these elements.
A related symbol to this whirling motion of elements is the Okinawa Tomoe mon.
The Manji symbol, when facing left Omote (front), represents Love and Mercy. when facing right Ura (rear) represents Strength and Intelligence.
The Manji Sai has a long history in China and Okinawa. Taira Shinken studied Sai, from 1934 to 1940 under Mabuni Kenwa’s close supervision in Gunma Prefecture.
Allegedly Taira Shinken is credited with the development and invention of the Manji Sai.
Upon going to a Buddhist Temple to pray for the opening of his new dojo in Gunma Prefecture, Taira saw a large Manji at the Temple and was impressed and thought of its shape and saw that there was a weapon hidden in it's form. He saw no matter which way it was thrown that one of the legs or prongs would stick. Upon his return to his Dojo he quickly laid out preparations for it's development and making. He is also credited for it's technical techniques of thrusting and throwing, and the kata form, "Jigen No Sai".
It is interesting to note, the Kanji that Taira uses for the kata "Jigen No Sai" can be translated as "The Foundation of Love and Compassion". Taira’s choice of kanji may be due to the way the form of the Buddhist Manji symbol faces.
Matayoshi Shinko, in his second trip to Manchuria from the demonstration given in Tokyo, went to Shanghai and studied under Kinkoroushi Kingai and learned different Chinese weapons, one which is the "Nunte". The Nunte is the Manji Sai mounted into a Roku Shaku Bo, (or six foot staff). The Form Matayoshi’s style is credited for is just called "Nunte". According to Matayoshi, the name implies "Piercing Hand".
The Mind and Spirit of Weapons Use
What it all comes down to is that most martial arts students who practice weapons only practice what is required by the curriculum of the school or style they are learning, and seldom learn more than the surface of what they see. In each weapon there is a deeper meaning, a hidden devastating power derived from generations of development. Yet there is no way to deny there are Religious, Spiritual, Aesthetic, Ancient beliefs and values that go along with the development and knowledge of the implement.
Understand the context of the time. These are feudal weapons and caring religiously for them kept the warrior or soldier alive on the battle field or in private combat. Today’s modern warrior and soldier might consider his rifle or weapon his life force which can decide his fate.
Yes, there is the “Do” aspect of training with a weapon. One bases his perfection of self through the mind and body by kata, through thoroughness and depth with ones inner self to arrive at a peaceful state of mind, upon which comes tranquility and leads to enlightenment (which is the ultimate purpose in modern training).
But training has its “Yin and Yang” or in Japanese, “ In and Yo”.
Weapons were created to destroy, and to complete the balance of training one must know how to destroy. Budo defines justice and morality based on the Confucian Five Constant Virtues: Benevolence (Jin) righteousness (Gi) propriety (Rei) wisdom (Chi) ,and Trust and Faith (Shin). But Budo is not concerned with morality alone, for if morals are not accompanied by techniques and there is no virtuous man behind that technique, it will invariably produce chaos. The moral self appears when one faces adversity, to bear hardships calmly, to make desperate efforts to persist in training and make correct judgments. It is a system of character building; a blend of ethics of Zen, Confucianism, and Taoism toned by the severity of Bushido. One must know the difference and keep balance and mind in check.
To destroy is a harsh reality. If you ever read some of the passages of “Art of War”, "Hagakure", or "Budoshoshinshu" you'll know that a warrior must make harsh decisions to maintain Peace. This why so many warriors looked for other outlets to calm the mind and keep them from insanity.
I will leave you with one last axiom to think about. If you delve deeply into it, it speaks clearly for all weapons training, sai or otherwise.
Katana wa Bushi no Tamashii! The Sword is the Soul of the Samurai!
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