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.

Understanding the Teacher-Furuya Sensei repost

originally published February 15, 2002

As strange as it may sound, the old rule of teaching students successfully is, “don’t teach!” In the old traditional Japanese martial arts systems, they used to say, “I don’t teach you my art, you have to ‘steal’ it from me.” Nowadays, as martial arts become more of a business, we go by the oft-used adage, “the customer is always right!”

Many years ago, I had a student who I desperately thought could do very good in Aikido and I really tried to teach him well. In everything, I corrected even the tiniest mistake but the final result was that he resented me. He interpreted my efforts to teach him well as harrassement only thinking that I was picking on him. I guess, more important than learning the art, was his own pride.

Often, when I am teaching, I have no qualms of correcting my students if it is wrong. I am sure this is not “good business” practice, but how will they ever learn it right?

One of the most important aspects of teaching and learning is sincerity, commitment and trust. Without it, no real teaching can take place. “Why?” you may ask. It is because in teaching, we are dealing with very long term results and the teacher must really continually consider the future growth of the student. It is not simply to entertain him or occupy his time for the present class or in the present moment. I constantly must think of how will what I teach the student today benefit him tomorrow and the day after and the day after and help him to grow and become stronger and more skillfull.

With immediate results, it is easy for the student to judge. If I push you and you fall down. Immediately, you can say, “You hurt me!” If I push you down and you realize that you were pushed out of the way of a car or out of a dangerous situation, you can judge that the push was for your own benefit and you say, “Thank you so much!”

When the result is not immediately seen, even though I am pushing you ahead further and further, without this trust, some just say, “Oh, this is no good.” When you can truly trust your teacher, you don’t mind him pushing you because you have faith that he is pushing you always in the right direction. We are much too concerned with “instant gratification” and immediate results so we always jump to conclusions much too quickly. We can’t even tell when someone is hurting us or really doing us a big favor!

Even the Buddha had difficulty in teaching people. In the Lotus Sutra, there is a parable of the burning house in which he teaches us, “hoben.” This means “skillfull means” and even a “lie” is useful if it can be used effectively to teach the student. I think it is important to always be honest with the student so I hope he doesn’t mind that I correct him honestly. I know it hurts, I don’t like it myself! Who likes to be told that this is wrong and that is wrong? Yet, with trust and committment, something like this can take place and something wonderful happens…

Some people call this the “mother’s heart” or “heart of the parent.” The mother will scold her child very severely not to do this or don’t do that. But the mother scolds the child because she loves the child, not because she wants to be mean. In many ways, the teacher must be like a parent who will scold the child for his benefit even if the child misunderstands and resents him. The teacher must have the heart to sacrifice himself for the sake of the student. Is it all worth it? Yes! But only a teacher can understand and appreciate this, never the student himself. Please try to understand your teacher!

Fantasy and Reality

Movies are so wonderful.  They provide us with an opportunity to indulge our imaginations and see what may be possible in reality.  They are not reality, though.  It is common for me to see people hold a sword or bokken and they are busy playing out a fantasy in their minds.  I suppose this type of catharsis is important so that we don’t look for opportunities in society to live out these fantasies; that would be terrible, but on the mats or training halls of dojos, there is no place for these types of fantasies.  To learn how to really use a sword, one must train in reality and focus on the sword’s movement, one’s partner, spacing and timing, balance, and relaxation.

I was watching a video on a traditional Ni Ten Ryu School.  The video was in Japanese, so, sadly, I didn’t understand anything that was being said.  This is a great tragedy in my life, that I haven’t studied the languages of my greatest passions.  It did make me focus on what was being shown and the movements of the techniques.  The one benefit of not knowing the language is that my mind is not cluttered with trying to process both visual and auditory information that may not connect.  They school’s headmaster produced, what I assumed was, a very old bokken with kanji carved in it.  I believed it must relate to the legitimacy or transmission of the art.

The piece that was an echo of Furuya Sensei was that when they demonstrated the partner techniques, there was an initial strike and then the decisive counter move.  One, two, or three movements was all it took, and that’s reality.  A committed attack that would be effective in dispatching an enemy will either be successful or it won’t.  In the event that it is not successful, there has been a counter move that has rendered it ineffective and thus the result is an attacker’s end.  There aren’t long exchanges of sword clashes that go on with a crescendoing soundtrack.  Instead, there is an opening or there isn’t.  When there is an opening there is an attack, and since the counter to an ineffective attack is a counter attack, the stakes for effective attacks are much higher than those in a fantasy, or movie.

We must train the effective attack through thousands of suburi.

If an engagement is more than three movements, both participants are ineffective, not masters.  A true master would not even be in the fight, he would probably not even be watching the fantasy of fools.


Compromise in Training-A Furuya Sensei Repost

originally posted January 1, 2003

Yesterday, the day before New Year’s, I went with my student to have a new saya made for his sword. I was sitting there talking with my friend who has been making saya for the last 30 years now. He was looking at my student’s sword and recognized his work, both the old saya and the tsuka or handle.

Looking at the handle, he said, I don’t do this kind of work anymore.

Surprised, I said, What do you mean? I remember how long it took for him to catch the gentle center taper of the handle.

He replied,Nowadays, all the Iaido guys who do tameshigiri are complaining that the handle breaks too easily so I make it thicker and straighter now.

I had to laugh to myself and suddenly realized that there is NO compromise in the way sword must be taught. As I teach my students over and over and over again, most people put too much power in the arms and hands and the power is never projected to the monouchi or upper, cutting portion of the blade. My students are always frustrated to catch this point. When I heard my friends comment, I realized that these people are not cutting properly so all of the impact of the blade is focused in the hands, not the blade itself. This is what causes the handle to crack and break so easily. If you cut properly, the handle will never break. In addition, this tapered style of handle was popular in the late 16th century at a time of fierce battles and proved itself over and over again as the superior grip.

There is no way to compromise sword training. It is either right or wrong. It is black and white. I think this was a sign from my long gone teachers and it came right at the last day of the year at a time when I was most discouraged! It must be a sing I think! I will continued as I have before in my teaching, whether it is outdated or not, in or out, popular or hated, accepted or not accepted. It was good enough for me teachers, and still good enoug for me, I don’t know why it is not good enough for people today. I teach to pass on the teachings of my teachers and hopefully preserve this art for your generation, I do not teach to gather numbers of students, be popular, or personally profit from it or enhance my personal image. Whether students want to learn for me or not, is purely their choice, not mine, and I should not be crass or greedy enough to try to sway or attract them to me. As long I can focus on this, I will be fine. . . .

Practice-Furuya Sensei repost

originally published as part of a post on December 27, 2002

IAIDO – OVER  OVER OVER AGAIN: Last Evening’s Talk In Iaido Class: More and more, I feel that it is necessary to give you more time for individual training. From my observations, you need more time to practice and less instruction, actually, you have heard over and over all the instruction that you need – you just haven’t had time to swallow and digest what you have. It is like eating and keeping all the food in your mouth!

When you do have this opportunity for individual practice, take one basic and practice it over and over – who cares if you are doing the same thing for an hour – you need it. Each class, a little of this and a little of that will no longer do you any good. You are only doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Work with something such as your suburi or chiburi or noto, until you really begin to feel comfortable with it, until you become one with it. If you practice suburi over and over, you will begin to feel some kind of transformation through deeper understanding.

Becoming bored and distracted, only means that your mind is not focused and balanced. Like watching television, the bored mind needs all kinds of different stimuli to keep it occupied. This is like baby-sitting – trying to keep a little child distracted so he won’t get into trouble – this is not the learning process at all. Please do not make this mistake!

As you repeat the same exercise over and over, you will also develop a stronger sense of focus and concentration so essential to good Iaido. When you are finally beginning to gain a deeper understanding of what you SHOULD know, then we can go on to the next level. . . . .

Just do not baby-sit yourself, you must awaken to the fact that this is not a learning process. Learning is much more profound and deeper. . . . . something much different than what we are doing most of the time. Please keep up your training.