Sunday, 9 August 2015

Koryu Budo (mini-challenge!!) - Ancient arts for modern times? (Jules Robson & Filip Marić, part II)

To follow up on Jules Robsons' take on the topic of Keiko Shokon in part I of this blogpost last week, I will start by saying that I have long struggled with the question what I might learn from Koryu Budo. Whatever the reason, I am generally not very good at being a spectator while other people are moving around, so the entire world of spectator sports has always been pretty much closed to me. Of course I can watch a martial arts movie, but the movement better be quick and involve lots of the 'wham bam thank you mam' stuff that Jules mentioned last or I will get bored very quickly. But even if I don't I just want to get moving and do it myself, which has led to more than one post-martial-arts-movie skill test / altercation with my big brother back in the days and even now drives to punch, kick, grab, jump and so forth whoever is sitting next to me when I am watching a movie that involves any of that.

Anyhow, the point being, watching a Koryu Budo/Bugei demonstration can still be outright painful for me, mentally and physically, even now that I have quite some interest and admiration for them. It usually takes the people presenting about 5 minutes to walk onto the bloody presentation space, then another 5 minutes until the first two people have narrowed down the distance between them to about 3 meters and look at each other for another 2minutes. Then one of them will do some kind of attack to which my brain will say 'pfffffff baaahhhhhh whaaaaat the....???' And this attack will be answered with an even more cryptical something and...  I am looking at the youtube sidebar for something along the lines of 'Jackie Chan best stunts compilation' (which I have been looking at during the first 10minutes of the 'demonstration') aaaannnd see you later Koryu Budo. 

Let's try the following challenge together if you have a few minutes.
I should say right away that if you don't, save it for later when you do, or forget about reading the rest because there is really now point to it unless you give it the whole time (this includes the entire rest of the post). So I challenge you to watch this demonstration of the Nodachi Jigen ryu Kenjutsu school FROM START TO END and to observe your mind and all the things it comes up with. How often do you want to look away? Are you clicking around elsewhere on the screen? Text messaging on your phone? Ridiculing what you're seeing? etc etc. I will also add right away that I didn't make it through the first time myself, only just scraped through on the second, and failed to even click play on the third. Anyway, I have made it through eventually, but now it's your turn first...
Right, unless you are already an avid Koryu practitioner/admirer, and maybe even if you are, please don't tell me that you didn't ask yourself what the heck you were looking at within the first two minutes!? And even if you are used to 'kiai' (the shouting), did you not wonder at least a bit about, well... you know what I mean. But if you have made it through half the video and continue watching did you not slowly start to think something along the lines of 'hmmm.... ok... yes.... maybe... I suppose....' (of course always with an undertone of 'oh this is all so weird I think I really better get into some handgun training and do some realistic martial arts' and so forth).

I have already mentioned the invaluable three part series on the Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan edited by Diane Skoss, where I had also first come across the term Keiko Shokon. 
I will only additionally point you to Ron Beaubien's contribution in the third volume now that addresses the 'Challenges in observing Koryu Bugei' and covers exactly the issue here (Beaubien in Skoss, 2002). Roughly speaking, it touches on the following (and I suppose it could be extended to the observation of all martial arts, if not observation in general):

Kashima Shinryu Kenjutsu practice at Jikishin Dojo Auckland
Isn't it amazing how quick we are to make judgements even within a few seconds, and based on practically nothing!? Is it really possible that a group of people is preserving a historical tradition overall several centuries at times, and that there is NOTHING to it AT ALL? Can we really decide or claim to understand or even know just from a youtube video?How about after one way of participating, if we were to give it a tiny bit of our time? From which personal/cultural/ethnology/emic/martial arts perspective are we looking? How much knowledge do we have about the historical, cultural, social, environmental, philosophical, theoretical background of what we're looking at (about something that can only be known by doing, as we all agree upon; plus it has been kept secret for ages and largely still is, so the secret stuff is unlikely to be visible in demos)? What about the conditions and circumstances within which a demo is given? Is it ritualistic demonstration for spiritual purposes? Are those the best students of the school, or just those sent away to demonstrate because the others can't be bothered? Are all the same level? Do they always only do this, or do the get to 'the real stuff' eventually? Are they intending to please the audience or challenge the audience? Are we seeing the combative applications, or the basic training? Slow or fast? Is the special etiquette meant to demonstrate something as well?

The list could probably go on for a while, but I guess the greater point is this: What you learn from watching a video of this sort, even what you see and what you come to 'know', might just well tell you more about yourself, than about that which you have just seen. So maybe re-watch the video (at least in your head) and reconsider if you think the line of thought has something to it. So in the above case you could ask yourself the following: 

If you have made it through the first 4 minutes and continued watching, then how much would you like to face one of these guys coming at you with their wooden sword? Is this maybe a story about not needing a million fancy techniques but just one good one, executed with the matching spirit? Is there more even to the first 4 minutes that you just cannot see? And aside from the technical detail, how much guts would it take to get out and do a demo of this sort in front of people who might not know anything about Koryu (plus have it on youtube and be shredded apart in the comments as per usual)? Would that not be honourable and thus worthwhile learning itself!? And what about the fact that 'while the kata of the koryu bugei at times resemble combat, they are in fact primarily teaching principles believed to build the skills necessary for success in combat' (Beaubien in Skoss, 2002, p100). Or what about the fact that we are only seeing a portion of their training and there might be a whole lot more to it, from partner practice, to sparring, etc etc?!
Again, I could continue this for a while, but I mean the point is that it really challenges us to go back to beginners mind and look at things afresh. As well as ask ourselves if we are just  too ignorant and know it all anyway and thus cannot see?! Jules has touched upon this last week and I concur very much. Koryu Bugei are as about counter culture as it gets, so if you ever thought that Skateboarding (I'm using this example because I can speak from first hand experience) is really rebellious, re-watch the above video and reconsider.

In the Koryu Bugei you don't get anything fast, not on observation, and even less so as a student (matching also the fact that this is a rather lengthy article which apparently no one would read anyway). Nor do they promise that 'you will get ripped in six weeks', or that 'you will be able to go into real life combat' right after the course. In fact, maybe some of them don't even care. And again, is it possible that even the most simple of movements are not so simple at all? Was the ol' wax on wax off thing (if you have seen Karate Kid..) maybe not so stupid after all? Is there maybe more to raising your hand than just raising your hand? And finally, this being my favourite question: Is there maybe some value to practicing something that has no value at all and that therefore challenges our selfish orientation to judge everything according to the parameters of 'what I think', 'what I want', 'what I need'?

If there is any truth to the mindbody pain on observing Koryu it is that observation is much less insightful than actual practice. Of course we can watch videos, read, discuss and all that, but I dare say that once again the proof will more likely be in the pudding (rather than the puddings packaging). Maybe packaging is really just a trick after all and so it is not for no reason that McDonalds (random example) has to take really nice photos of a burger that you will NEVER get from them.. Plus, there is a McD's on just about every corner, but where exactly would you get the chance to practice for example Nodachi Jigen Ryu? Pretty rare opportunity right? 

'Recognizing the difficulties involved in observing the koryu bugei is the first step in gaining a better understanding of the arts themselves. The koryu bugei have much to offer to the modern world; it would be a shame to dismiss them lightly just because we lack the eyes to see them for what they are' (Beaubien in Skoss, 2002, p101).

If you are into oddities, rarities, weirds and wonderful's like I am, there are a few opportunities coming up in Auckland to get a bit of a taster: 
First off, Toby Threadgill Sensei of Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin Ryu is coming back to Auckland on Friday 28th August and will be looking at 'the importance of a connected/disconnected body in Budo. You can get the info from Alan Roberts via info(at)

Next, on September 12(&13) Gerry Groenemeijer will be offering an 'Insight into Katori Shinto Ryu of the Sugino lineage', one of the very old and highly revered Koryu Bugei schools. For info about this contact me via email, phone, or facebook.

And finally, apart from these one of tasters, Jules Robson will be starting a Koryu Jujutsu study group here in Auckland starting this month and you can contact him on 021 652309, and you are also always welcome to join into our regular Monday evening Kashima Shinryu Kenjutsu, or any other Aikido and Aunkai Bujutsu class at Jikishin Dojo Auckland, for they are all full of insights and practices from the ancient schools. Come around, join in, and in the spirit of the above, I promise you, it won't be fun! ;)