I recently finished the book “The 47th Samurai“, by Stephen Hunter. One of the main driving forces of the book is a seemingly simple yet utterly misunderstood word: “Samurai”. Young men throughout the book cling to this idea of Samurai and are driven by it, distorted by it, and blinded by it.
For generations the notion of Samurai has shaped Japanese culture and now affects every culture around the world. The power of it has only increased as Anime and Chanbara films grow in influence. These days it is impossible to avoid Bushido, Ninja, and Samurai (and the slew of individuals claiming mastery over each).
Concepts like Bushido have been subject to centuries of nuance and development that are so subtle that practitioners spending a lifetime trying to grasp them still cannot truly put the entire philosophy into words. The greatest poets and writers have only been able to give us the essence of it.
Samurai, even during their glorious Sengoku Period, were complex creatures that were prone to as much obsession and compulsion as they were to honorable sacrifice and courage.
Modern day individuals cannot and should not be Ninja or Samurai and they should not strictly follow the code of Bushido. The reason why is because assassination and suicide are not parts of our modern culture. Nor are the rights of Kirisute Gomen, Seppuku, or Jo Uchi. Furthermore the right to kill peasants/criminals in order to test the sharpness of a blade, or to eliminate an enemy’s family through political intrigue, are seen as uncouth acts at best.
It is critical to remember that when invoking the name of Samurai or Bushido you invoke everything that comes with it, not just the parts that sound good in platitude.
Honor It Instead
Honor the Koryu arts by training in them diligently and absorbing the best of what they have to offer. Recognize the truth of the matter – that you are an individual who is bettering him/herself through ancient philosophy and applying those parts of it to your life that improve your health, happiness, and skill set. Embracing “the essence” of the art is a far more worthwhile goal than trying to join a long extinct class.
To train in the Koryu arts is to seek a better understanding of Budo. To study the way of Samurai/Bushido/Ninjutsu is to understand what it is and what it is not. If you say “I follow the way of the Samurai”, understand what you’re saying. It’s not just a couple of quotes about personal strength and courage.
Honor the old ways by avoiding fake titles, self embellishment, and delusion.
Kendo is a dynamic sport. When watching, it’s hard to take your eyes off of the lightning bolt sword strikes or the faces of the competitors as they pierce each other with intensity. If you’ve never seen a kendo match (or even if you have), check out the following video for a great example:
The zanshin of a good kendo match is always very high. It is a fine balance between keeping energies and emotions perfectly in check while still transmitting full spirit into your opponent in the hopes of intimidating or disrupting him/her.
However, even with all of that going on, the real core fundamental that every great kendo player requires, the engine that powers each thunder clap movement, is Okuri Ashi.
When first learning kendo one of my biggest problems was that I had already been a karate and kobudo student for about a decade. That means certain stancing and body movements were very ingrained into me. This was compounded by the fact that I had studied karate in my formative years and thus had it as part of my developed “self”.
As opposed to karate where most stances are optimally used to involve the whole body (especially the hips) in a variety of techniques and to weight the body down when appropriate, most of kendo’s footwork is light and crisp. Shizen tai is a very popular term in kendo and means “natural body”. Okuri ashi takes a shizen tai upright body and manipulates the footwork to allow for extremely quick forward and backward movement with minimal “dead spaces” in between each movement.
The execution of Okuri Ashi is as such:
The feet start about shoulder width apart, the ball of the left foot lining up across from the right heel. The right foot moves first, sliding forward about a half pace. The left foot then slides up to meet it, the heel lifting just a bit off the floor. Exactly how much lift you are instructed to get during this movement will vary from school to school.
Okuri ashi can be used with smooth, half pace strides to cover distance or it can be abbreviated to possess extremely short motions (while still maintaining that sliding characteristic). The benefit of moving like this is that your weight is underside almost at all times. This allows you to make quick directional changes and leap into attacks at the moment you feel them appear.
When Okuri ashi is done in multiple successions, it takes on a slight hopping quality even though the body and feet never leave the ground. To understand what I mean, observe this video of a basic drill known as Kirikaeshi:
You might take note that when moving forward the lead right foot moves first, and when moving backward the rear left foot moves first. During Okuri ashi they do not switch.
It can take years to make this motion feel natural, but it’s worth the effort. Okuri ashi has a lot to teach about keeping body weight centered and available for explosive movement. Give it a shot sometime, and don’t worry if you feel a bit awkward at first.
The meaning of Senseiship (or Sifuship) is an interesting riddle encountered along our martial arts journey. Our presumptions about being a Sensei are generally a combination of what we see from our own instructors, ideas borrowed from books and movies, and what personal convictions we bring into the dojo with us.
It’s extremely difficult to sum-up what a Sensei “is”, and attempts often lead to a list of things Sensei should or shouldn’t be. Some examples are obvious (no sexual predators) and some not so obvious (philosophical leader?).
Bill Hayes Kyoshi once talked about how Eizo Shimabukuro saw himself in such a role, and suggested that Senseiship is equivalent to being the leader of a “Journey Assistance Program”. The journey of course being the martial path each student chooses to follow; guiding them each toward the truest meaning of their art.
The trouble with this method is ambiguity. Each step along the path is not dictated, nor is it planned out in a convenient spreadsheet. Assisting every student means deep assessment of their needs, strengths, weaknesses, and potential.
The concept of assisting each student individually clashes with the limitations of operating a large school. It also clashes with the western expectation for continuity and equality among all students. Any instructor who has taught kids will attest to the adolescent jealousy that can arise among children (and parents).
Adult students can be even tougher as they have spent years building their sense of self and can easily become intolerant of course corrections that impinge upon their ingrained perceptions.
Looking Inward to Assist Outward
Hayes Kyoshi went on to mention that the only way you can truly light the path for others is if you actually understand how you got to where you are.
Deep self analysis and introspection provides you with the ability to see similar characteristics in others or a launching point to determine how others are different. By knowing what you’ve done right (and what you’ve done embarrassingly wrong) you can steer students toward a better path. This tends to go far beyond correcting the angle of a down block, although it certainly starts there.
There are many outstanding martial artists who are utterly brilliant and can compete at a championship level. Those people are not automatically Sensei. In fact, artists with an abundance of natural talent can get by with little introspection at all. On the other hand, an artist who has to grind and focus on every detail can in turn see others with a knowing eye.
Do you see how a Sensei need not be a champion as long as they are effective with an earned amount of wisdom?
Do you also see how an individual who happens to be brilliant, hard working, and introspective may become a masterful Sensei?
If this post makes it seem like becoming a great Sensei is difficult, then I have transmitted the idea as I had hoped. It also helps explain why I prefer to be called Mattsan and why I am honored when someone chooses to call me Sensei (and also why I never allow any grand titles beyond that to be used in my proximity).
A Sensei’s journey is constantly inward, but not for self indulgence. It is to better understand everyone and everything outside the body and mind. If the Sensei is lucky, he/she has students to help guide, and in the act can come to better understand him/herself.
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