Beginners Wanted

There are many teachers in the United States and worldwide teaching martial arts. Training with Izawa Sensei has provided me with opportunity to train in Japan, Romania, and even teach in Hungary. I am very blessed to have had these opportunities and impressed with all those Aikido teachers and students from around the world. It is beautiful that people from different cultures with different languages can come together and exchange in a language of Aikido.

People seem to come to train in Aikido and Iaido for many reasons. Some students want to increase their health and approach the class with an exercise mentality. Some students want to learn about the tradition and culture, while others want to recreate a fantasy that they saw in some form of entertainment. Some are doing it because their parents make them and others because they are compelled to do it. All those reasons are discarded once training begins; they must be discarded and left behind so that we may stay safe. When someone is attacking, there is no time for reasoning. We must get out of the way, or blend, or get hit. As beginners, we get hit a lot, but the physical confrontation is not lasting, instead it is the confrontation of the mind that lingers. It is the ego that gets hit the hardest and the chain of the ego’s mechanisms of preservation begin, if we let it. Someone with a beginner’s mind will accept the failure and work to succeed. This is a healthy, growth mindset and usually results in quicker learning, but many beginners do not accept the failure. I see this most in adults. Children seem to be much more flexible with learning. They expect to struggle and fail, because they accept that they don’t know. Adults tend to expect to know how to do things, and forget that they are beginners. A child has only had a few years of life, but an adult…they’re supposed to be experts, right?

The adult “expert” then goes into trying to make himself look like “an expert” and mask his vulnerability exposed by failure with speed, or power, or both. This usually has really bad results. He either hurts himself, or, worse, someone else. He tries to force the technique by muscling through the movement. If he is using a sword, this results in cutting the saya, straining a muscle, being off balance, or damaging the sword. If he is using another person’s body, then his partner experiences pain in some way: being overstretched, being thrown down in a rough way, or having the person fall down on top of him. This is bad, and it all leads to more ego confrontation resulting in embarrassment or injury.

The “expert” is interested in results, and only focuses on results. The “beginner” focuses on learning and the process of learning.

In my training, I try to be a beginner. For many years after I became Shodan, I still wore a white belt. Even after Nidan, I still wore a white belt. I only wear a black belt because Izawa Sensei requested me to do so, he believed it would confuse people who didn’t understand or were new to the dojo. New people always want to know what rank we are, and when they can wear a hakama. I usually try to discourage these people from training because they aren’t usually interested in learning the art. Their thinking is focused on the superficial body, but not the internal mind.

I remember Furuya Sensei telling me I should wear a hakama to assist with the teaching of the Children’s class so that the kids to tell me apart from the other students, and Gary Myers Sensei was standing there and said, “You mean the beard won’t be enough?” I can’t remember what Furuya Sensei said in response, but he wanted the children to be able to tell between teachers and students. There were adults in the class who were students, but it goes to the core of my philosophy on teaching and learning. All our teachers are still learners, they are just more experienced learners. They are not “experts.” They may have already walked the section of path that we find ourselves treading, but they are still discovering what is in front of them. The moment is the master, and we are all its students.

As you walk your path, do it with a beginner’s mind. Be kind to yourself when you fail. Shed your expectations and discover. O’negai shimasu!

The Stable Center

In the beginning of Iaido training, the focus for most is on the sword. A beginner often wants to “cut” and hear the “whoosh” of the sword or bokken. At the very least, the beginner wants to hold a sword and swing it. It’s probably what brought the person into the dojo in the first place. The beginner receives instruction from the teacher about grip, stance, arc, timing, visualization, and relaxation, but the beginner wants to see and hear the results of training hard by swinging the sword and creating movement and playing samurai. After a while, the fantasy fades and real training begins, or the person quits because real training is not what he thought it would be.

Posture is paramount. The head and hip should be vertical and form a stable axis around which everything can move. Stability of that axis, once established, remains the focus as movement is added. Extending one’s arms shouldn’t pull the body one direction or another. The added weight of the sword shouldn’t alter the axis as the cutting motion begins, ends, or meets an obstacle/target. The stance in its varied width and breadth should support the stability of the axis so that all movement is connected to the cutting motion and the cutting portion of the sword. A stationary axis is easier to control because it’s easier to identify the different forces acting on the center.

Then, movement of the axis is added. First, up and down, then forward, then …let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The center must remain stable. If the center is not stable, any movement will pull the center off its course. As dynamic beings, we are in constant change and motion. As we travel through our lives, there will always be forces that try to pull or push us in one direction or another. If we are to continue, we must be able to resist those forces and maintain our paths.

To move our center up from a seated, seiza position, there is a force that builds in the center and finds vertical movement as the place of least resistance. This force pushes our center up and we find ourselves on our knees with our toes curled. The center expands as one foot steps out creating a triangle with the ground as its base and our center as its apex. Tension continues to build from the connection that our feet have created and our center is propelled further until we are standing. The expansion is complete. One foot is forward, the other is behind on parallel lines shoulder-width apart. The back leg is straight. We are stable. We then bend the back leg and begin contraction, lowering our center to the ground until our knee from our back knee comes to rest on the ground creating a straight line from the tip of our heads to our knee. Then the front foot slides back so that both knees are on the ground, toes lie flat, and we lower the center back to seiza. The whole time the head and the hip are in a straight, vertical line.

A stable center is necessary for the transfer the maximum power to the tip of a sword, or any tool. Only from a stable position can we act in any way that can have impact.

Dojo-A Place of the Way

Looking up the definition of “dojo” in a translation dictionary, one may find “place for practice or tournament (martial arts).”  The literal translation has been “do”=”way or path” and “jo”=”place”.  “Place of the Way/Path”  In all the arts that have “do” at the end: Aikido, Kyudo, Jodo, Kendo, Iaido, Judo,…. there is a differentiation between the “technical” or “justu” and the elevated, transcendent, lifelong, “do”.  One could be proficient in Iaijutsu, but miss the higher, unexplainable Iaido.  This differentiation is the essential component of a dojo.

The path is a solo journey.  There may be others near by, but the path is an individual’s to take.  There will be times when there are many people around and going in the same direction, but there will also be those times when there is no one to be found, except ourselves.  It is ourselves that we must confront. It is ourselves that we must accept. It is ourselves that we must inspire and love.  And it is ourselves that we must transcend.  This is the “way”, “path”, or “do”.

A dojo is a place for the practice of that journey so that when we confront the world we can accept the problems, inspire solutions, love the work, and transcend.

The teacher’s role in a dojo is not to just teach the jutsu, it is also to create an experience that invites the student to walk the path.  It is not idle, friendly chit-chat.  Creating the experience can be direct instruction, observation, and/or modeling.  It is never empty.

The student’s role in a dojo is to steal as much as possible.  Squeeze as much knowledge out of every moment.  Analyze every movement, word, and intent; then do it again to interpret it from another perspective, then another, and another.  To be a student is to never stop thinking about the lessons so that learning is infinite.  Then, the world is the dojo.  O’ negai shimasu?

 

Injured Life

Injury frequently gets in the way of training. There are many types of injury, too. Some injuries are physical, some are mental, some are emotional, but they all require rehabilitation. Some injuries present little difficulty in recovery, these are minor, but others require a large amount of time and detailed, consistent, professional work in order to get back to an operational state.

From September 2006 to March of 2007, the greatest amount of tragedy, to that point, occurred in my life. September brought the death of a grandmother and two uncles. November brought the death of my step-father, and March brought the death of Sensei. Five deaths in six months created a hole in my heart that for many years became the defining factor of my existence. I would often find myself weeping after the impulse to pick up the phone and call the missing loved one, but slowly, I began to smile at the memories. It’s eleven years already, and I frequently find myself laughing at the things they would say or do.

My heart was injured, but that’s because I used it. My body gets injured, but that’s because I use it. If I am to bring honor to anything, I must use it to the best of my ability, with the greatest care, and though I never have the intent to do harm, it is inevitable that there will be injuries, after all, that’s living.

Common Language

Iaido Tanshinjuku glossary

It’s always a good idea to review some of the common language we might use in the dojo.  The list is not exhaustive, but it is a good place to start.  Please ask your teacher if you have any questions about the language of your art.  It is important to speak a common language.

Reforged

One of my students has a sword that was forged from what we suspect was a bell like this one at a Buddhist temple in Kyoto.  It is pictured below.  It is a beautiful sword and Furuya Sensei indicated that its smith, Masataka was one of the well known modern smiths who had studied under the two top smiths of the Showa period, Kasama Shigetsu and Takahashi Sadatsugu.  The sword was made using metal from the main hall of the Narita Shrine in Narita.

It’s amazing how a material like metal can be reforged to make something completely different.  Intense heat, and the pounding out of impurities, tempering, and polishing are all labor, time intensive skills.  It makes me think how each one of us can reforge ourselves through training.  O’negai shimasu.

Beginning Again

Recently, many of my more advanced students have been out for one reason or another.  Health, career, family, pets, vacation are all valid reasons to miss training.  We need to go out into the world to come back refreshed and attack our training with new vigor.  I think this is the reason for so many of Furuya Sensei’s words connected to beginner’s mind.  We can all remember the infatuation we had at the beginning of something almost to the point of obsession.  This fades quickly as the day-to-day reality begins to sink in and we begin to see things we don’t like.  The key is to try to maintain an openness for discovery.  I have only been training in Iaido for eighteen years, so I discover something new nearly every time I train or teach.

Because the students who are further down the path are away, I am able to focus on our beginners more closely and work on the fundamentals.  Already I see them developing their bases for cutting and developing extension, and discovering their centers and working on maintaining their stability.  It is a gift to be able to watch them discover and it made me wish all my students were there so they could revisit their beginner’s mind.  I will just have to be patient and wait for them to be back in the dojo.  O’negai shimasu.

Keiko


Reflecting on the past is what allows us to move forward in an informed way.  Much of culture operates from traditions.  In our training, we must be mindful and make sure that we are carrying the traditions of the past and bringing them forward into the world with honor and respect.  Tradition happens for a reason.  It worked.  We must study why it worked and then bring that function forward into our art, not try to press our art into the tradition.  Can you understand?

Ready To Learn

There are so many obstacles one must navigate in order to train.  I think about the distance to the dojo, the traffic, the outside obligations that must be fulfilled, the body’s readiness, and mental attitude.  Making training a priority is at times a challenge.  Izawa Sensei reminds us of a hierarchy from time to time when we miss class:  Health is number one, followed by family, then career/job, then training.  Training of course can have a very positive effect on our overall health, so number one and training are connected.  For Furuya Sensei, his dojo was his family after the passing of his parents, and he was a full-time Aikido and Iaido teacher, and, sadly, all of those things combined, eventually, cost him his health.  The dojo became his everything.  He put his students and their growth before everything.  This dedication to his students is very admirable and was palpable.

I remember on several occasions turning around and going home an hour in traffic after sitting an hour in traffic to get to the dojo if I knew I was going to be late to class.  I didn’t want to disrespect Sensei and the other students by arriving late.  Sensei was serious, and I wanted to make sure he knew I was serious as well.  What I didn’t know is that he would have rather had me come and train even if I was a little late than to have me miss.  It was my shame of being late that prevented me from training, but slowly I got over that shame and realized that any amount of time spent training, was time spent that would move me closer to the ultimate me.  If my heart was in the right place and an unavoidable obstacle was in the way, Sensei would understand.  I remember a student once cut into the trim on the bottom of the second floor with his sword and Sensei said nothing because the student’s heart was apologetic.

What he did not understand was people who habitually arrived late, or arrived with a laissez-faire attitude, or arrived late to an early morning weekend intensive practice.  He knew there wasn’t any traffic between 5-6am on a Saturday morning.  He knew that the student had been out late, or over slept, or had been drinking the night before and was too hung over for practice.  These things were inexcusable to Sensei, because the heart was not in the right place, and the scoldings Sensei unleashed for that were epic and unforgettable.

Every teacher is lucky who has one student who is eager and ready to learn.  O’negai shimasu.

The Customer Celebrity

To live a life that is disconnected from technology is very difficult.  Author Daniel Quinn discusses how it is our nature to develop air conditioning and computers and all the screen time, after all, technology can be employed by a primate that uses a stick as an eating implement; as the ants walk up it, the primate eats the ants off the stick.

I recently had a very strange experience.  It is probably very common today.  My wife and I decide to buy a car.  We have purchased several cars before, but this experience was totally different.  For those of you who have purchased a new car recently, it might not be that shocking, but for me it was unique.  We went to a dealer after some initial comparisons and research.  A salesperson greeted us in the typical “Sharks in the Water” method, but he was respectful of the distance I required to feel comfortable, he showed us a car, got the key, and turned on the car so I could hear it and see the engine running.  He offered and encouraged a test drive, but we didn’t have the time, and we left after a handshake, exchange of a business card, and I articulated that I would return.

Pretty normal so far, right?  I returned to the dealership when I told him I would, but he was busy with another customer and a hand off was made so that we could take the test drives we needed to make a more informed decision.  It was good that we did, because we were able to settle on one of the models because of the test drive.  Typical back in the showroom to look at the numbers and negotiate, but we knew we would not be buying a car that day in spite of the sales team’s efforts to have us sign then and there.  I like to think about things and do a little more investigation after I’ve done my initial research.  I like to sleep on it and see what my dreams tell me(nothing exciting.)  The next morning I woke up, and, over coffee, my wife and I discussed the price and purchase options and strategies for negotiation.  I did a little more research and searched what people in the area were paying for the model we were considering.  Within an hour I had been contacted by two dealerships and the original dealership asking me for my business and trying to beat each other’s prices.  It felt like a feeding frenzy!  I was the chum, and the sharks were attacking, but I also felt like some type of celebrity.  Emails, phone calls, quotes, incentives, there were so many from which to choose.  I felt so important.

I suppose a water buffalo that has two lions on its hind quarters and one on its back could feel important and desired, of course, the result of that is probably not very positive for the water buffalo.  I think it is seductive to be desired.  We all want to be admired and wanted, but this is not the path.  The path is work.  My desire for the learning is what keeps me bowing in and training, not so that I can be called Sensei or feel strong and use my skill and knowledge to subjugate others to my will.  Instead, I am happy to have a few students and teach traditional Iaido.  I don’t run after and chase my customer celebrities.  It is quite the opposite, I practically run them off!  They are students, not customers.

We train because we must; it is the way.  O’negai shimasu.