Viewing entries tagged

Be mindful of your behavior

There is a saying in budo, or "Everything begins and ends with respect" (礼に始まり礼に終わる). Last night we hosted an outside teacher from another country. The thing which made me the happiest was how polite our students were. Everyone treated each other with respect and everyone had a good time.

For the most part, the martial arts are physical and up to a point, anyone can become skilled. Reigi-saho or etiquette is one of those things which cannot be taught but can be learned.

Being a jerk reflects poorly on your teacher, your parents, your art, your dojo and most importantly you. Be careful what you say or do because it means a lot.

Happy Ninja Cat Day

February 22nd is Ninja Cat Day in Japan. The onomatopoeia of a cat's meow in Japanese is nyan nyan. The  Japanese love their homophones and thus nyan nyan become ni ni and the first syllable in the word ninja (忍者).

The kanji for nin is  忍 which means patience or self-restraint which are huge concepts in budo. The other kanji 者 is ja or sha which means person.

One of the major differences between beginners and experts is impulse control. Impulse control is nothing more than being able to control one's self in any situation. Self-restraint is then the mark of a true master. 

Happy Ninja Cat Day!

Strive for balance

A good martial artist strives to create balance. Here is an interesting take on the taiji or yin-yang symbol. It is a Japanese kamon or family crest using the properties of yin-yang or in-you in Japanese. A martial artist with balance mentally and physically cannot be moved and thus cannot be defeated.

If we are easily swayed from one side to the other then we can be moved to a place of unbalance. At this place of unbalance, even the weakest of foes can defeat us.

Balance mentally is more important than balance physically. It is said, "Everything in life begins with a thought." Our minds are our greatest weapons - they can defend us or defeat us. How we think is more important than what we do or what we say. Both of those are an extension of our minds.

What will it take for you to be defeated? A terse word or a insensitive glance? We don't always have to be punched in the face to be defeated.

The goal of every great martial art is to create this balance which we call the immovable mind. An immovable mind is one of calmness and imperturbability where can nothing unbalance us.

Awaken the True Warrior Within You

"He is awake.The victory is his. He has conquered the world." - Buddha

"Wake up!" was something Furuya Sensei used to say to us all the time to rebuke us when we would get lazy or weren't paying attention. I used to think he was trying to get us to pay attention, but now I understand that his admonishment was for us to push ourselves to a higher level.

To be awake is to be conscious or aware of not only ourselves but our world as well. As martial artists, there is a tendency to be too shortsighted about ourselves as we believe that since we are developing ourselves that no one else matters.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. There comes a certain time in every person's training when they realize that training in the martial arts isn't about them. We call this "to be awakened."

To be awakened means that one realizes that they don't exist in a vacuum. True power lies not in destroying others but in building them up. Resisting them, roughing them up or just being a jerk shows how juvenile one's level is. Helping others, making them better and building them up is the true illustration of mastery. Are you awake?

"Self-control is strength. Right thought is mastery. Calmness is power." - James Allen

"If you think you're enlightened; go home." - Ram Dass Ram Dass' quote reminds us that the people closest to us, who know us the best, have the ability to put us off balance no matter how exalted we become.

The holidays can be a huge source of stress. As martial artists, we know that the ability to be calm in the midst of conflict is our greatest asset.

The Dalai Lama once said, “Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.”

"To find inner peace, be still the mind and let go. Live in the now. Breathe." - Ryokan

To control one's self is the source of true strength. To be able to use our minds properly is true mastery. The ability to be calm is not only the goal in budo training but the display of true power. Our training dictates that we not only be strong and powerful but also kind, compassionate, patient and forgiving.  After all, it's the holidays regardless if we are warriors or not.


Anger is an energy

angerIn Japan, it is thought that people have an innate power to not only overcome and persevere but to also excel. When children get to be a certain age, they have something called iji or willfulness which causes them to act out or misbehave. It is the teacher's job to push the students to change their iji into konjou or fighting spirit. This transformation process requires a large amount of strict discipline which sometimes causes the student to dislike the teacher so much that they use this anger or hatred to drive them to excel.

The problem with using negativity as motivation is that we become vessels that are only fueled by hate, anger or fear. That negativity isn't healthy and leads one to lead their lives with a kind of "scorched Earth" way of living. Results or not, it is toxic and unhealthy and will eventually take its toll. A fake quote by the Buddha that is still apropos is, "You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger."

There is a great song lyric from punk rock legend, John Lydon is "Anger is an energy." Anger is an energy but it's not clean energy. As Yoda remarked, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” We should be careful not to let things like hate, anger or fear motivate us regardless of the reason or results. 

The enemy of achievement is comfort

mifuneI read a sign the other day, "Comfort is the enemy of achievement." This is a quote by a businessman named Farrah Gray. In terms of budo it is spot on. On the road to greatness, the main question is, "What are we willing to sacrifice in order to get good?" Not can we, but will we forgo things like sleep, money, food, or any other thing that causes us to be a little bit uncomfortable in order to achieve our goals? Most normal people won't, but warriors are not normal people.

Warriors are people who stave off pleasure for purpose. People who "need" to sleep, eat or save the money will never push themselves to get good.  There will always be something. Over the annals of time, the greatest opponent there has ever been and who has beaten millions of warriors has been the soft, warm and comfortable bed. Don't let it beat you!

So the question is, "What will you sacrifice to get good?"


Align yourself and leave no openings

rei "What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us" - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Many times in life, whether we like it or not, perception is reality and budo is no different. As a warrior, we must be forever diligent and thus must be en garde at all times. We can expect to be attacked anytime we let our guard down. Therefore we cannot leave any openings.

There is a famous Japanese saying, bushi wa kuwanedo taka yoji (武士は食わねど高楊枝) which means a "A samurai, even when he has not eaten, uses a toothpick like a lord."

Most think it means that a hungry samurai chooses pride before poverty. Another way to understand it is that if one lets on that they haven't eaten and are hungry then they will be weak and thus an easier target for attack. The perception of weakness can then lead to a person being attacked.

In training, we constantly trying to ensure that our intentions match our reality. If we want people to think that we are respectful then we must act respectfully. If we want people to think that we are humble, we should then act with humility. Conversely, if we want people to think we are jerks then we should act like a jerk.

Like it or not, people "judge" us by the things that we say and do. Our job as martial artist is to make our actions and our words line up with our intentions.




No matter what, choose to do it

ken"I took an arrow in the knee" was an old Norse saying to indicate that someone had gotten married. The arrow implies that one of the biggest decisions in one's life isn't necessarily made by choice. Just after Furuya Sensei passed away, I was working with one of my older clients and was telling him about Sensei's death. I said, "Now, I have to take over the dojo." He stopped me and said, "No, you choose to take over the dojo." At the time I did not think I had a "choice" but today I understand that it is what I chose to do. We can be in control or we will be controlled.

Today, in an arguably more civilized society, we are free and thus have freedom of choice. What is choice?  Choice is the ability to decide to empower ourselves with what it is we want. This empowerment begins by saying, "I choose to..."

Regardless of the situation or circumstance we can always "choose" how we internally address what is going on - we give it context. In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, it is called re-framing.  In Buddhism, it is called equanimity.  In budo, it is called the non-abiding mind.

Today, we don't have to do anything but we do get to choose to do whatever we want.  The choice is ours.

Just this one moment


Today's kakejiku or scroll hanging in the tokonoma is an ichigyo brushed with the single character toki  刻 which is commonly translated as time. An ichigyo is a single line of calligraphy that is supposed to elicit a response or provoke the viewer into a different mental state.

Warriors of old were always well read individuals who were not only well versed in the military arts but also in religion, literature, poetry, Japanese and Chinese classics and art.

Generally, most kakejiku are supposed to be profound and many times what is left out is sometimes more important than what is put in. This scroll is no different. Its meaning is not readily understandable by simply just reading the character.

The character toki 刻 left standing alone means "to chop or engrave." So an uneducated person could accidentally misinterpret that as its meaning. However when the character toki is added into the idiomatic expression jijikokkoku it means "from one moment to the next." From here we extrapolate that it is supposed to mean "moment," but that also is a little too juvenile. As we sit there and ponder the scroll's deeper meaning, what arises could be the Buddhist's perspective on impermanence and thus every moment that existed before or after this one moment is an illusion and that we can easy be deluded into thinking that those thoughts are real.

Since this scroll is more of the smaller size used in a chasitsu or tea house, we can theorize that its meaning is to make full use of this one moment for all other moments before may not have happened and all moments after may never come. All we have is this one moment - cherish it!

Plain and simple

seven-copyThe best things are almost always plain and simple. When something is good but in a plain and simple way it is referred to as jimi (地味) in Japanese. Martial artists naturally tend to shy away from things that are too ostentatious. This is because humility is a quality that all martial artists strive for. Something that has jimi is something taht is subdued with almost a plain sense to it.

When we look at the techniques, some may have a flashy quality but those aren't usually the most effective. The most effective are the ones that are usually the most simplest.

People are that way too. Look around at the people in our lives. I am sure that most of us will see that the people whom we regard the highest are the people who are just "working class" people who have a kind of simple and subdued nature to them. We all have that one friend who is either pompous or overly dramatizes things - those are usually the people who are the most complicated.

As we look at the great martial arts masters of old, we see just normal people like you and me. The difference is not in how flashy they are but that they simply put in the work to get good which led us to think of them as great.

Today, the martial arts is, on a certain level, completely different. People tend to laud those with the loudest voices or showiest techniques. This is not budo. In Budo, jimi is simply putting in the work.  We put in the work to get good - it's that plain and simple.

The strength to keep on going

godzilla-copy"It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield." - W. B. Yates Anyone can be physically strong, but being physically strong doesn't necessarily mean that we are mentally strong.

To be mentally strong, one needs to have an inner courage. This courage isn't blindly running foolhearted at something.  Rather it is standing up to the darkness that inhabits our inner souls despite the pain or fear that it elicits.

Yates' quote is so apropos to budo and because true budo is really just the journey that one undertakes to develop themselves.

It's like the cave scene in Empire Strikes Back.  Yoda says, “That place… is strong with the dark side of the Force. A domain of evil it is. In you must go."  Luke asks, "What’s in there?" Yoda replies, "Only what you take with you.”

When push comes to shove, what we do shows our true inner character. To be the people that we want to become, we need to have courage and be brave. Courage is the inner attitude or strength and bravery is what it looks like on the outside.

The only true strength is the strength to keep on going despite the odds and that is the definition of courage.


Let it go

let-itEvery year my birthday falls on the autumn equinox. Autumn is the season associated with letting go which is sometimes sad to me. It is a little sad because there is so much hard change in the fall. In a blog post on the website  someone wrote that autumn according to Chinese medicine is the "season of decline, release and ultimately death. It is the phase of the yearly cycle where we are encouraged, or forced to, let go of the things that are naturally coming to an end." Being able to accept or just let something be, no matter what it is, is a corner stone of budo. Not being attached to something is what the Monk Takuan talked about as the "non-abiding mind" in his book The Unfettered Mind. The non-abiding mind does not discriminate - It only observes. This ability to just observe is what one might call mindfulness.

There is a saying associated with autumn, "If it comes, let it, if it goes let it." Yagyu Munenori said that the goal of training in swordsmanship was to overcome the six diseases parallels this ability to just observe things and let them go. The six diseases are: the desire for victory, the desire to rely on technical cunning, the desire to show off, the desire to psychologically overwhelm one's opponent, the desire to remain passive in order to wait for an opening and the desire to be free of all these diseases.

These diseases can be thought of as the stages of one's development in one's training.

If we let it come when it comes and if we let it go when it goes then we can be free of the diseases that Yagyu Munenori was warning us about.

Spend your days well

archery光陰矢のごとしKouin yanogotoshi "Time flies like an arrow."

Before his passing, Furuya Sensei would often say, "There is no time left." By the time I understood his admonishment, he was gone.  So much time has passed since those times.

Upon realizing his words, the questions arise, "what will we do with our lives?" and "How will we live them?"

If there is truly no time left then life itself as we know is fleeting - It is passing us by as we speak.  Understating this reality in Buddhism is called mujo or impermanence.

To understand budo is to understand death. Death, not in its morbidness, but in its impermanence and this inevitability teaches us how to live our lives. The glass can be either half full or half empty.

To see the fleetingness of life as something bad then we are looking at the glass as half empty. To see the glass as half full, we are realizing how in which to live our lives with what little precious time we have left.

Time does fly like an arrow, but we get to choose how and what we aim it at. What do you want to do? Who do you want to be? Time truly does fly by. Spend your days well for tomorrow may never come.

Do you choose?

kendo kid copy














I Choose…

to live by choice, not by chance; to make changes, not excuses; to be motivated, not manipulated; to be useful, not used; to excel, not to compete. I choose self-esteem, not self-pity. I choose to listen to my inner voice, Not the random opinion of others.

I choose to be me.

- Author unknown

Martial artists are people of choice.  This quote could be the mantra of the martial artist.

We choose this path (the Way) which dictates that we be people of stature.  Thus we are steadfast in not only our beliefs but in our conduct too.

The road of the warrior is not well traveled.  We are the people that we are because we choose to follow the way of the warrior.  What do you choose?


Martial Arts IQ: Fumio Demura Sensei

demuraWhen I think of Karate, I think of Fumio Demura Sensei.  I know there are many great Karate teachers and probably even more practitioners, but to me Demura Sensei epitomizes Karate.  We have all seen him but may not have recognized him.  He was Mr. Miyagi's stunt double in the Karate Kid movies.  I met Demura Sensei around 25 years ago when his dojo used to participate in martial arts demonstrations organized by Furuya Sensei.  Sensei wanted to show the public "real" martial artists so he would always use Demura Sensei to represent Karate.  He and Sensei enjoyed a wonderful friendship that I think began when Sensei worked at Inside Kung-fu Magazine, but I am not sure.  Many people might not know this but Sensei was a copy editor who helped to edit many books written by famous and influential martial arts teachers in the 70s and 80s.  Demura Sensei was someone I knew I could trust and I called several times after Sensei passed away for advice. My favorite Demura Sensei story happened backstage at the Aratani Japan America Theater in the early 1990s.  Sensei organized this huge event with famous martial artists from all over the world.  We represented Aikido and Iaido while Demura Sensei's group represented Karate.  We were all backstage waiting with Demura Sensei's group as they were about to go on.  Demura Sensei and Sensei chit-chatted for what seemed like a few seconds.  We stood behind Sensei and his students stood behind him like some sort of cliched scene from a campy martial arts movie.  Very discreetly Demura Sensei looked at one of his students and with a hushed toned he nodded, "chairs" and his students immediately ran off to get chairs.  Sensei noticed this and motioned the same for us.  It must have looked like a bunch of ants running around searching for chairs.  We all brought back chairs as fast as we could like it was some kind of budo race.  We all set them down and arranged them and motioned for the other students to sit down but nobody did except the senseis.  Sensei and Demura Sensei sat down for just a few seconds as we all stood trying to be humble and not wanting to break protocol trying to get the other students to sit.  A few seconds later they shook hands and parted ways.  Sensei commented after they went to the dressing room, "Man, his students are well trained" which is the greatest compliment anyone can give to another martial arts teacher.

We refer to Morihei Ueshiba as O Sensei not because he created Aikido or because he was good at Aikido. Morihei Ueshiba has the the title of O Sensei because of all the great teachers he created.  Demura Sensei is a true teacher and is someone who fits that criteria too.

Youtube is filled with Demura Sensei's videos.  His students recently made a documentary about his life (something I wish we have done) that is coming out soon.  Here is the trailer and another video about his life.


How far will you go?

guard I recently read an article about the how despite the blizzard like conditions hitting the East coast, the tomb of the Unknown Soldier still continues to be guarded by the Sentinels.  Reading this article made me smile and gave me a sense of hope that the spirit of budo still survives.

It bummed me out when I read some of the people's remarks criticizing this practice in the comments section.  The people who criticize this time honored tradition don't understand budo.

bushidoIn Izao Nitobe's book Bushido, he outlines what he believes are the seven virtues of bushido or the way of samurai.  The seven virtues are: integrity, respect, courage, honor, compassion, sincerity and loyalty.  It is within these virtues that we can see why it is necessary to honor those who have sacrificed their lives for us.

Interestingly, it is by no accident that the seven virtues begin with integrity and end with loyalty.  One business leadership author called integrity, "The trait that ensures all others."  With that being said, integrity calls us to have ichinen or single minded purpose.  If we say we are going to do it, we do it regardless of weather conditions or whatever else comes up that might make it difficult.  The blizzard conditions are nothing compared to the Unknown Soldier's sacrifice and thus the Sentinels post guard to honor that sacrifice.

It is also by no accident that loyalty comes last.  Loyalty is the final exam of all the traits.  Will we be who we say we are when we are tested?  When one's loyalty is tested it shows their true colors or what is really in their hearts.  It is kind of a final exam because what is truly in our hearts is only really tested when the teacher dies, when nobody is looking or sometime long after anyone really cares and that is why Furuya Sensei used to say, "Always act as if your teacher is watching."  If we do that then we will always act appropriately.

Integrity dictates that a warrior does what they say they will do.  A warrior has respect for not only themselves, but other people and traditions too.  Warriors have courage to do what needs to be done regardless if nobody else thinks so.  Warriors are people of honor which means that they live the Way and thus hold themselves to a higher standard.  A warrior has compassion which enables them to stand up for others.  Sincerity enables the warriors to do things with passion.  Loyalty is the demonstration of all the traits and is the highest ideal of the warrior.

To be a warrior is to live a path that and live by set of rules that normal people cannot understand.  Anyone can guard the tomb of the Unknown Soldier on a day when it is bright and sunny with a cool breeze.  Only a true warrior can step out in a blizzard and do their duty.  How many years will the Sentinels continue to guard the tomb of the Unknown Soldier?  It depends, how long is forever?