Monday, 3 August 2015

Koryu Budo - Ancient arts for modern times? (Jules Robson & Filip Marić, part I)

It is no secret that I am enamoured with the traditional martial arts. I have mentioned this on more than one occasion (e.g. here and and there) before and of course wouldn't be practicing them otherwise. Nonetheless, the question that always comes up in regard to the traditional martial arts and maybe especially with the Japanese Koryu Bugei is: What point is there in practicing them today? Are they, or at least can they be relevant for us today? Simply put, are the ancient traditions relevant for today? And if yes, then how so?

Having recently read the highly recommendable three part series on the Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan edited by Diane Skoss, the term Keiko Shokon came up repeatedly, quintessentially emphasising the importance of asking these questions, and seeking to answers them through practice and study, rather than exclusively the latter. These question and search are actually quite central in my life, be it in my martial practice, my practice as a physiotherapist and Shiatsu practitioner, my philosophy studies, or my (ongoing...) research between all of them. Luckily however, I am far from the only one asking and researching these questions and so I am quite excited to post this two-part blogpost with you that I am sharing with Jules Robson, a good friend and co-conspirator when it comes to Keiko Shokon efforts, though we tread on slightly tangential paths. So without further ado, here is Jules' bit (followed by my two cents worth and a little more about Jules and some other interesting info in part II, which I will post next week): 

Keiko Shokon 
"I still vividly remember the day I first walk onto a tatami almost 30 years ago:
70 plus university students crammed into a slightly dirty and smelly dojo hidden in the basement of an old Victorian building in Clifton, Bristol.  A bit of Kodokan derived self-defence would be of value I thought – little did I know that this would, in time, be transformed into a passion that has fueled my global adventures to train, teach and live in foreign climes. 
Jules Robson
 Cardiff Nationals in March 1992

Modern self-defence (Gendai Goshin) Ju Jutsu has always been my main love.  That is not to say that I have not enjoyed cross training in a rich variety of other Japanese arts, but the direct application and ‘wham, bam, thank you mam’ approach has always resonated with my persona. Or should I perhaps more correctly say my ex-persona - for a remarkable and unexpected transition has occurred over the last few years.  Just when I thought I had reached the end of a journey, another door has opened that has empowered me to revisit the very basics of my studies, as well as transforming my teaching pedagogy for Gendai Ju Jutsu.

Two years ago I met Toby Threadgill, Kaicho of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin ryu, a classical school of Ju Jutsu.  He and his instructors in Hamilton, New Zealand (Robbie Smith and Chris McMahon) have opened my eyes to a paradigm shift in my approach to budo training and I have recovered the passion I relished in my early Bristolian days. There are many other types of traditional schools out there.  Each has a rich heritage and its own story to tell through its libraries of Kata.  This year I have had the veritable delight of also studying at the Sadohana Dojo in Vancouver, BC.  Under the exquisite tutelage of Michael Seamark Kyoshi, I have been immersed into the principles of Kokodo JuJutsu (a Nihon densho budo derived from Hakkoryu ryu Ju Jutsu).

The value of Kata
I always thought Kata were boring.  Too often in Budo they are seen as archaic parts of the syllabus and hence relegated to superficial study immediately prior to black belt promotion seasons. Some grading panels compound this by switching off in these segments of the gradings, more keen instead to move onto the ‘real’ test - the shiai. The problem with that is of course that we have lost Kano’s intention of incorporating Kata in the syllabus over time. 

One of the greatest benefits of Koryu to gendai arts is that the stories and meaning of the kata have been preserved in Koryu and their study can unleash the full potency of the original kata. My Instructor Robbie Smith was blown away by the joys of discovery and how TSYR gave insight to Otsuka’s Wado ryu kata and I am likewise enthralled with slowly unlocking the hidden meanings in Kano’s and Tomiki’s kata. 

Thanks to my novel engagement in Koryu I can already see that Kata are like an onion, just when you have successfully completed peeling one layer, a new one appears, just as intricate and fascinating in design.  They are not a list of rigidly prescribed dead techniques (waza) simply to be rote-learnt and performed in the correct order. They are alive with the vibrancy of the story that they were specifically designed to weave: the fundamental principles that underlie all martial training.

Studying Koryu Budo for the first time
Koryu budo is a strange and somewhat eccentric fraternity. After all, only true budo nerds would relish the somewhat catatonic experience of hours spent in solo training, silently drawing a sword.  Many believe that it is hence not for beginners. Takamura Sensei of TSYR reputedly said that other schools are for beginners and would himself only accept students with a nidan in kendo, judo, aikido or karate.  My 17-year old former self would certainly not have had the patience to endure Koryu.  Most of the beginners I have met in Koryu are well versed in a range of arts.  Of most import however is that new students willingly subjugate themselves to the lessons hidden in the new kata.  That is not to say that they must clear their minds of past training, but they must enter with the mind of a novice, malleable enough to allow the kata to direct their change and development.

Toby Threadgill Kaicho with Jules Robson
TSYR seminar in LA, July 2015 
The method of training is slow and repetitive – far from the instant gratification that our high-octane media-driven modern culture desires.  Progress is internally rather than externally motivationally driven, Kano’s coloured belts are mostly absent, and only after many years of study may a student be awarded with a teaching license. 

Koryu is a big word and so it is hardly surprisingly no two clubs are the same.  Look at the instructor –is he/she an inspirational teacher?  If a satellite dojo - how close are they to the source i.e. do they travel and train at Hombu regularly?  What do the students contribute to the dojo i.e. is it a real dojo family, and do they respect their special home by cleaning it each session? Etc. etc.

That said, what do I know?  I am but a beginner in Koryu.  The more I learn however, the more I realize I have to learn.  I am back to struggling as a white belt again.  I have never been so happy…." (Jules Robson, Auckland NZ, 29 July 2015).

Part II following soon...