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.


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.


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.