This temple/shrine in Shinjuku is on the way to Hombu Dojo.  I passed it every morning on my way to train in 2011, and I made a little meander there this past winter.  It is one of the most peaceful places, and, yet, it is surrounded by one of the most populated areas in the world.  There are many temples and shrines all over Tokyo, it just takes a little walk off beaten paths to find them.  That’s the first step.  We get away from what everyone else is doing, and then look around.  Then we have to climb the steps, wash our hands and mouths to purify, and then we are ready.

It is the same in the dojo.  Learning requires effort.  Learning requires the preparation of our bodies for the actions we will perform, and our minds for the thoughts we will confront.  This is one of the things that turn “jutsu” to “do”.  O’negai shimasu.


A Little Grooming

The Snow Monkeys in the Yamanochi region are really something else.  The first time I saw them was in a film, Baraka.  It was very calming to watch the monkeys soaking in hot springs.  The hot springs, as it turns out, were built by the Japanese of the region for the monkeys to keep the monkeys out of their fields and from raiding food stores.  The Japanese decided to feed the monkeys near the hot springs and the relationship was formed.  In the United States, ranchers and farmers usually hunt and destroy the pests that would pick on their livestock/crops, but in Japan they created and support a space for the monkeys.  Now, the Snow Monkeys are a tourist attraction in the Winter, and subject of documentaries.

One of the behaviors that I observed was in the grooming habits of the monkeys.  The monkeys groom each other without concern to social structure.  There are relationships within the monkey group, and a social hierarchy, but the alpha male will groom any and will be groomed by any.  They don’t view the task as being burdensome nor as beneath themselves.

There is a social hierarchy in the dojo, but I have seen Izawa Sensei down on the mats wiping and cleaning just like everyone else.  The chores in the dojo are a part of everyone’s tasks, not just white belts.  The tasks in the dojo are just as much a part of the training as suburi, or tenkan exercise, and they create a community of mutual respect.

Bushido to Mogido-Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted on April 14, 2002

Bushido to Mogido: Bushido means the “way of the Warrior,” or the samurai who stood for courage, duty, patience and loyalty. It was these qualities which made the warrior what he was and it was these qualities which made him a great martial artist as well. Nowadays, we do not talk about the “Way of the Warrior” or Bushido. Nowadays, we are follow Mogido, “The Way of No Shame.” Occasionally, such as the other day, I meet old friends who still aspire to the Samurai and it makes me feel good. Perhaps, these ideas may seem dated and outmoded to most and may be they are not relevant in today’s world. Yet, I find great comfort in these qualities and still I want to see them in my students. Indeed, another name for the way of the warrior is the “way of humanity.” And ultimately, it is through the way of the warrior that we become true humans in the world.

The other day someone quoted one of my Furuya’s Law: Great potential equals great hardship equals great achievement. Even today, I still find it so true.

The Ego’s Defense

We were training some years ago and Furuya Sensei said something like, “Don’t drop the tip,” to a fellow student, and the student’s response was, “I am?”  Sensei’s response was not aggressive, or frustrated, but it was matter-of-fact, “Duh, I wouldn’t have said it if you weren’t doing it.”

When the teacher corrects us, we need to implement the correction immediately, yet many times we have an automatic response, physical, vocal, or mental that indicates that our mind is not on the training.  This particular student’s ego thought it was doing the technique correctly and uttered the comment in line with its discord.  His response required Sensei to say that he was, indeed, dropping the tip.  This is a second correction on the same moment.  This is inefficient in training, but it happens very frequently.

The goal of the teacher is to get the student to learn the content, and when the ego is an obstacle, it must be addressed.  Though the response was not indignant, it did require a follow-up.

In batto, the right hand follows the line of the sword so that sword and saya may work together.  The right hand should never cross the center line over to the left side of the body.  This movement creates an opening for attack and puts the sword in an inefficient position creating a reduplication of movement.  Reduplications create gaps in timing that a trained opponent will exploit.

I was teaching someone how to do the initial batto as part of our noto practice, and I told him and showed him how to do it, and then he tried to do it, moving his right hand to the left side of the body and he said, “Like this?”  I said, “No, like this,” and showed him how to do it again; he tried again and said, “Like this?” again taking the right hand to the left side of the body.  I said, “No.  Like this.”  I again showed him how to perform the movement and added, “The right hand follows the line of the sword and never crosses your centerline to left side of the body.  He tried again, “Like this?” again crossing the right hand to the left side of the body.  “No, like this.”  This interaction continued in a similar fashion and I am sad to say that I’m not really sure if the student ever got it right because his mind and body were not connected.  His mind/ego, was too busy focused on getting affirmed, with his repeated, “Like this?”  He was looking for me to say, “Yes, very good,” so that he could feel good about himself instead of thinking about doing it correctly.  When the body and the mind are disconnected there is no point in training.  Mindless exercise is not the purpose of a Do.  Had I confronted his ego, I might have gotten him to learn it then.  This is a failure of mine as a teacher, just as much as it is a failure of his as a student.

Somehow we must get past the ego’s defenses so that we may learn together.  O’Negai Shimasu>

Shita-ji &Shi-Age: A Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted April 11, 2002

Shita-ji & Shi-Age. This concept of “shita-ji” and “shi-age” is present in almost every traditional Japanese art. In polishing a sword blade, rough stones are used to correct the form and shape of the blade and remove any flaws. This initial step to correct the blade and prepare it for the final polish or “shi-age” is known as “shita-ji.” If the “shita-ji” is not done correctly or improperly or steps have been left out, it will always show up in the final polish or “shi-age.” Amateurs may not notice it because the blade will still appear shiney and the temper clearly visible. But an expert can tell immediately that the blade has not been polished properly or the polsih was done very cheaply. The inner beauty and quality is simply not there. More often than not, the initial or basic work is much more time consuming and difficult, than the final polish itself.

In throwing a bowl or vase, the clay must be prepared properly and this often takes much longer and involves more effort than actually throwing the vase itself. If the clay is not properly prepared, the final glaze will not hold or the whole piece will not do well in the firing.

In lacquer work as well, if the surface is not prepared properly (shita-ji), the application of the lacquer will be difficult and the desired result will never be achieved (shi-age).

In studying Japanese art, we learn to recognize the outer beauty of the work (shi-age) but we also learn to understand how well the inner workmanship has been executed or how well it has been constructed or put together (shita-ji).

In many ways, people and our training follow these same rules. We often judge a person by his outer appearances only (shi-age) but we never try to understand the inner person (shita-ji). Sometimes, the outer appearance of the bowl looks very good (shi-age) but many times, because it is not constructed well (shita-ji), we begin to see problems.

In a good handle wrap for the Japanese sword, for instance, the binding only gets better as you use it more and more. This means that the basic work has been properly executed. Sometimes, a sword handle wrap looks good at first, but when you begin to use it, it unravels or begins to looks bad beause we see that they started off with inferior materials.

Many, many years ago, I tried to encourage a new black belt by allowing him to teach class. He was so full of confidence and had good strength so he began to study other martial arts on the sly thinking that it would improve his own Aikido or impress everyone around him. He thought that he could hide his other training but it clearly showed up in his Aikido. Of course, when I could no longer have him teach class, he immediately quit the Dojo. For many students, it never occurs to them that studying Aikido more, is the way to improve one’s Aikido. We always think that “more (of something else) is always better.” Maybe most people can understand the “shi-age” because it is the most obvious and easiest to see, most people cannot see the underlying “shita-ji,” or the underlying quality. This is an essential important quality to develop in one’s training and in all things, I believe.

I sometimes see black belts trying to jam beginning students in Aikido practice. Competing in strength and trying to show off one’s strength to others, especially one’s juniors or those weaker, is not following the principles of Aikido at all. Sometimes, they think they are impressing their instructor, but it only makes me very sad and disappointed in them. I am not impressed, I only think, “How come they don’t know any better than that!” They may think they are impressing others by showing off their strength or knowledge but in this case, the cheap “shi-age” cannot hide at all the faulty and improper “shita-ji” lying below.

No matter how beautiful the outside skin of the watermelon is, the true test is the taste inside. How disappointing it is to pick the nicest looking watermelon in the store but take it home and find out that the taste inside is so bad and not what you expected at all. This also holds true to human beings as well. To forge the development of your innner self is the same as preparing the “shita-ji.” If you truly train your inner self well, the “shi-age” or final polish will always come out beautifully.

On the other hand, if you do not develop the basic techniques well, whatever “advanced” techniques you try will always look awkward and ineffective.

Tasks in and around the dojo

A dojo can be in any space.  I have been in permanent dojo spaces like Hombu dojo in Japan, or the Aikido Center of Los Angeles, I have been in flexible spaces like those in recreation centers that have mat rooms for a variety of programs, I have been in sublet spaces that required students to put down mats before and after class, I have been in seminar halls where basketball court size spaces were covered in wall to wall tatami.  There are really old dojos where there are groves in the hardwood floors from the effects of countless kata, and I have been in new dojos before they are finished with the drywall.  Every dojo has a community of people who make the dojo work, and there are different levels of engagement from those members.

At the old dojo in Los Angeles, the tasks of maintaining and running the dojo were also differentiated.  Everyone cleaned the mats after class and rinsed and hung the rags on a wooden rack.  Black belts wiped down the wood surrounding the tatami.  A few different black belts had the task of sweeping the stairs down to the main floor where it was vacuumed by another black belt.  This was everyday after the last Aikido class.

Before class during the week, a black belt, one of the most trusted, washed down the garden after collecting and taking out the trash(although, sometimes, the trash was the last task of the night on the last black belt’s way out), on the weekend during winter, washing down the garden was done after class, or after lunch with Sensei.  Before classes on the weekend, the Iaido group would sweep the alley, pick up trash, cigarette butts, and when it was dirty, wash Sensei’s car.  After class on the weekends, a black belt fertilized the bamboo in the garden.

There were also annual maintenance tasks.  We washed the rocks out in the garden.  Deep cleaned and scrubbed the tatami, cleaned out the dressing rooms and closets, and vacuumed behind photos, artwork, the safe, under the tire, the water cooler, inside the shoe shelves and bookshelves…many hands made light work, and teams were assigned to tasks, usually in an unspoken sempai/kohai structure.

These tasks created community.  They were performed diligently and thoughtfully.  There was very little unrelated chatter, but there were opportunities to engaged in conversation around our lives and the things that were important to us if we were outside, or listen to and engage with Sensei if we were inside.  If everything was being done to his satisfaction, he was very jovial and made jokes and laughed with us, and if the tasks were not being performed to his satisfaction he would instruct how to perform the task.  Training began to extend beyond the mat and into everyday tasks.  In this way, Sensei designed a method and helped his students to make the training a part of every moment.  O’negai shimasu.


from John Stevens’s translation of The Sword of No-Sword: Life of the Master Warrior Tesshu

Perfect when clear,                       “Harete yoshi

Perfect when cloudy,                     kumoritemo yoshi

Mt. Fuji’s                                          fuji no yama

Original form                                 moto no sugata wa

Never changes.                               kawarazari keri”

Can you understand?

A Yamaoka Tesshu Thought

In John Stevens’s book, The Sword of No-Sword: Life of the Master Warrior Tesshu there is a translation of one of Yamaoka Tesshu’s Calligraphies.

The pure, rich tones of the koto,

The quiet sound of a cool breeze in the pines.

We love to listen to the old tunes

But few today can play the melody.

Please keep up your training.

Saho-A Furuya Sensei repost

originally posted March 31, 2002

More than anything nowadays, we like the break rules, not keep them. Breaking rules expresses our freedom, I suppose – at least, this is how we think nowadays. As a teacher, it only means the student does not understand the purpose of these rules – especially in Aikido and especially in a Dojo. Rules are not to oppress or humiliate, rules are there to create a good sense of harmony among all members and to create a sense of order in which we can study and practice. In Japanese, this is referred to as “etiquette,” or “saho.” “Saho” is made of two kanji characters, one “to make” and the other, “order.” In other words, “to make order.” This order is very important to create a good atmosphere in which to train. We should never forget this.

However, order is not simply “following” or “mimicking” various rules – bowing when you have to bow, saying ‘hai!” when you have to say, “hai!” More than anything this saho is a spiritual practice. Saho is practice of the mind and spirit. If you cannot bow with the proper mental attitude and spirit, it is not a bow, no matter how much you lower your head. It is something you must practice with the proper spirit. It is like someone telling you, “thank you,” although it is obvious that he really doesn’t mean it. You don’t feel that your kindness was appreciated at all, in fact, you may feel badly that you efforts were neglected or unappreciated. This bad feeling is always the cause of dis-harmony.

To show proper spirit in saho is a very difficult part of practice. This is only because we think of ourselves too much and not others. Thinking of others, we learn how to appreciate their efforts, only thinking of ourselves, we never have time to care for others. We become selfish people and this is not Aikido at all. In fact, it is contrary to all Aikido principles.

Practice saho in the Dojo and learn to practice it with the proper mental attitude and spirit – maybe this will be the most difficult of all to learn – more difficult than the hardest throw or pin. Once you master it, then practice it in your daily life.

I once had a student who never said “thank you” for anything. One day I asked him, “Why don’t you ever thank a person when they do something for you?”

He replied, “My mother never taught me how to say ‘thank you.'” (Blaming everything on your poor mother, how sad!)

“How silly” I thought to myself. Later it turned out that he never appreciated anything from anybody, he was much too busy thinking of himself. It is not any pleasure at all to teach someone like this – they would never appreciate it anyways. What a waste of time!

When you know that someone appreciates your efforts – you feel good and warm and you feel like doing more and more for others – this is what we mean by “harmony.” When people think only of themselves, it creates an atmosphere of selfishness. “If he only cares for himself, I might as well think only of myself as well!” What kind of world is this we are creating?

Saho means to create order. Ultimately, we create this order by thinking of others. What is so bad about this? How silly to break the rule of such a wonderful practice!

In all practice, watch your “ma-ai.” We see Aikido as an exercise or sport, this is why we are not conscious of our spacing. We only appreciate this “spacing” because we are practicing a martial art. Please be careful in this!

We do this because this “sports” consciousness permeates our present culture so deeply. We must be careful at all times not to bring this attitude into our practice. This is how martial arts is changing today. . . . How sad!

When someone attacks with katatetori or menuchi, for example, we start talking so busy gossiping away or wait for the blow to make contact – this is sport. As soon as we “sense” his attack, we are already blending with him and moving out of the line of attack – this is martial arts.

After we throw, we pat him on the back or begin yakking away again, this is sports and exercise. After we throw, we try to maintain our spacing and timing and focus our zanshin on the opponent, this is martial arts.

When we come to the Dojo, we chit-chat away in the dressing room so it takes ten minutes to put on the uniform, this is how we act is a sports gym or health club. When we come to the Dojo, we change into our uniform as quickly as possible to get onto the mat to begin warming up, this is the proper attitude in a martial arts dojo.

When we come and go in the Dojo, we always make a proper greeting to the Sensei, this is a martial art. When we come to the Dojo, we always treat the Sensei as a waiter or janitor or clerk, this is a health club or spa.

When we come to the Dojo, we bow with the proper spirit of respect and modesty, this is a true martial arts Dojo. When we come to the Dojo, we are too busy yakking away with others and finding out the latest gossip from our classmates, this how we act is a fancy beauty salon or coffee shop.

Paying Dues and Paying Attention

There are a lot of gyms out there.  I think there are even some martial arts that market themselves as a sort of gym.  A gym is where there are weights and equipment that any member can use as long as that member puts them back.  There are even some gyms that have people to clean the used equipment so that the members don’t have to bother themselves with such a task.  The management of the gym doesn’t care how often its members come or if they are getting more or less fit as long as membership remains high and people pay their fees.  It’s probably better for them the more people they have on automatic withdrawal who don’t show up; then there is less for them to clean!

A dojo is not like this.  It is a “place of the way”.  “The way” is a path of self-development and enlightenment, and it is not bound by a specific location.  The goal is to where every moment is in the dojo.  Many people treat the dojo like a gym.  They want to come in and have idle chit-chat so they can fulfill their social interaction quota, or they want to come in and sweat and get their heart rates up so they can meet their fitness goals.  A dojo is not like this.

Dues in the dojo go to cover the overhead of the space.  The dues cover insurance, air conditioning, the cost of mats, electricity, and the rent/mortgage.  Dues go to supporting the travel and lodging of guest instructors.  They do not go to the lavish lifestyle of Sensei. Furuya Sensei slept in a recliner for the last thirteen years of his life.  He didn’t even have health insurance.  O’Sensei lived in even more meager conditions and his family suffered so that he may pursue Aikido and its development.  Dues are just paid to cover costs.

A dojo requires its members to pay dues, but it also requires them to pay attention.  If the teacher is showing something, the student should copy it exactly the way the teacher shows it.  Timing, spacing, extension, posture, balance,…everything the teacher shows should be copied so that the student may internalize the movement and learn.  The teacher does not come in willy nilly and think, “Hmm, how am I going to fill all the time we have today?”  This is a waste!  No, the teacher is trying to figure out how to get the technique to manifest itself accurately through someone else’s body.  A student of a martial art must be able to see the technique one time and be able to catch it, steal it, copy it, repeat it, and master it.  How many times did a samurai get to see his opponents’ techniques?  Once.  The opponent either died because the samurai’s technique was better (probably because he paid attention to his teacher!), or the opponent killed the samurai.  A dead samurai cannot see anyone’s technique, he is dead!

I remember Furuya Sensei scolding a few students one day because they repeatedly cut the inside of their sayas and continued to train.  He made a rhetorical comment asking them that if their lungs made that sound would they go see doctor.  He wasn’t upset about them cutting their sayas once, anyone can make a mistake, it was the repetition.  The students weren’t paying attention.  The students hung their heads and gave the abashed look, but Sensei didn’t stop there.  He pointed out another student and asked them to watch.  The students watched.  Then Sensei spoke, “Do you see how __________ uses and moves his saya?”  They nodded.  “No one taught him that.  He watched and copied.  He is paying attention to the movement.”

This is the same in Japan.  No one talks in the dojo.  The teacher demonstrates, and the students practice and try to copy.  Please, pay attention when you are training and try to copy the technique exactly as your teacher shows you.  If you don’t, you are disrespecting your teacher and dismissing what is trying to be communicated.  Instead, what is communicated is that you know better and that you don’t need the teacher.  This is very bad.  This behavior does not belong in a dojo.  I am actually not sure where that willful behavior belongs, maybe when trying to lift weights.