Today, it seems, some martial artists are so busy changing their art to suit them that they forgo the opportunity to let the art change them.
My Shinto Muso-ryu teacher, Nishioka Tsuneo Sensei, and I had commenced our training one morning some years ago, performing kazari — the traditional bow where the sword and staff are set out in a triangular shape on the floor prior to commencement of the kata keiko (paired form study). Usually, following the first part of the bow we would return to the weapons and complete the bow by taking control of our respective weapons once more. On this occasion, as Sensei moved towards the weapons, he paused and then, moving to one side, he indicated for me to join him in seiza. Nodding towards the crossed weapons he said, “For some 70 years I have performed kata keiko on a daily basis. I have come to realise that each day I practise, I am challenged by the jo and tachi (staff and sword) to perfect myself. Their inner and outer natures are fixed and perfect…they will never change. It is I who must ‘come to them’. It is I who must seek to modify myself to harmonise with their perfect nature. At the outset, our bodies will be unable to form the correct grip or take the correct posture; however, it is us who must change – the sword and staff are fixed and cannot change to suit us. As students of bujutsu, we must be careful to avoid making our own style.”
I’ve thought about this instruction over many times since that day and have come to understand why it was so important to him. And of course it doesn’t just apply to weapons arts, being equally important in the world of unarmed combat. In part, I’ve learned from watching people come in to the dojo over the past 25 years assuming that the technique will be changed to suit them; in many instances, these people not only expect that the technique will change, but that the entire dojo will undergo the same change. Etiquette will be downgraded, sloppy bows will be okay, lack of punctuality will be overlooked, failure to wear dogis will be acceptable, training standards will be modified to suit their lack of fitness, and so on. Needless to say, these people are always disappointed.
In part I’ve also learned from my own experience. When I first went to Japan to train 20 years ago, the joke was that ‘the training will make a new man of you’. What wasn’t mentioned was that the ‘old man’ would be killed in the process. How does that work? When we’re born, our eyes pop open and we begin to breathe. As we get a little older, we stand and then begin to walk. From these experiences we believe for the remainder of our life that we can see, breathe, stand and walk…and it’s true that to some extent we can. But what if we were to receive coaching from an expert in each area and we learned that for each of these life basics there was in fact a ‘best practice’ method we could study and make our own? Why would anyone default to the ‘natural’ basic when they could, with a little effort, achieve their personal best?
This is what the dojo, the weapon and the technique did for me. They challenged me to get outside my comfort zone and do all I could to make ‘best practice’ my personal practice. I was in a class being taught by that wonderful aikido teacher and statesman, Inoue Kyoichi Sensei of the Yoshinkan, when one of the other students asked him, “Sensei, this technique seems almost impossible and I feel I can never achieve it. Why should I try to achieve something that may well be impossible for me?” Inoue Sensei’s response was simple and eloquent: “We struggle against the most difficult challenges to polish ourselves, and along the way we build the spirit and the skills to achieve what otherwise may have seemed impossible.”
Maybe I’m turning into a grouchy old bastard, but it seems to me there aren’t many places left in an increasingly commercial world where standards are upheld and where people are encouraged, supported and sometimes driven to reach for them. Even in the martial arts world, students have become clients or customers with the power to negotiate or even demand that their expectations are the ones that are met. This change in relationship is a dangerous one with many pitfalls. Not the least of these is the relationship between the student of budo and the standards that have been maintained, polished and passed down generation after generation.
I know that for myself at least, I now regard the sword and staff not only as the immensely practical weapons that they are, but also as reminders of the opportunity to refine myself on a daily basis to be the best person I can be.