The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

In Search of Kyudo

Below is an excerpt from a very nice article from the Washington Post, where the author, an archer, goes to Japan to investigate Kyudo. The full post may be read here.


“This is where you’re supposed to be,” she says.
Then, without another word, she’s gone.

I inherited my interest in archery from my grandfather, Richard Earl Henion, a retired military man covered in faded blue tattoos. His passion for bows stretched back to the South Pacific during World War II. One day, on an Army scouting mission, he walked around a mountain pass and came upon a tribesman traveling in the opposite direction. My grandfather had his gun drawn. The local had a bow and arrow raised. They could not speak each other’s language, but they somehow managed to persuade each other to lower their weapons.



Richard Earl accompanied the man to his village, where they spent the night cavorting around a campfire. Before leaving, he bestowed upon the local a pack of smokes. The man, in return, gave him the bow that could have killed him.

My grandfather and I never found time to pursue archery together. But years after his death I started shooting traditional long and recurve bows under the guidance of a neighbor in the Appalachian Mountains. We live not far from where the “Hunger Games” movies were filmed, and my teacher — a mountaineer who can make bowstrings out of tree bark — encouraged the instinctive shooting style made famous in the films.

Japanese archery seems as far from Appalachia’s intuitive, wild-woman approach as I can get, geographically and metaphorically. Kyudo is one of Japan’s oldest martial arts, and it remains one of the most respected. The practice was banned by occupation forces after World War II. But in 1949, the All Nippon Kyudo Federation introduced a standardized method. Suddenly, anyone could study it.

The samurai-warrior practice is closely associated with Zen Buddhism, and it draws from Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto and onmyodo. Its ancient formality runs against my shoot-from-the-hip nature, which makes it all the more important for me to be here. I’m only 5-foot-2, but I take up a lot of space. The first word I learned, by necessity, while navigating crowded stations to get here:

“Sumimasen.” Excuse me.

My kyudo teacher, or sensei, Kazuhisa Miyasaka, didn’t set out to be an archer — or an innkeeper.
Like me, he’s at Uotoshi Ryokan because of his grandfather.

Miyasaka — a man with bushy eyebrows and unruly wisps of gray hair — studied archery briefly when he was a child. But it wasn’t until much later that he started to take it seriously. When he left to attend university in Tokyo, he never thought he’d return to the inn, which was founded by his grandfather and later run by his parents. But that changed when their health failed.

It was around that time that he encountered a kyudo teacher on campus. The sensei told him that — if he was going to return to the ryokan, which uniquely included a shooting place — he should study kyudo and become master of his own dojo. Ultimately, archery inspired Miyasaka to come home.

“Destiny?” he says of the timing. “I don’t know.”

Miyasaka has changed into the formal kimono he wears for demonstrations. We walk to the shooting hall, which is sided in rusty metal. The entire town of Yamanouchi is alive with surface streams that run alongside roads like veins. You can hear them, even when you cannot see them.

The entryway of the dojo, or training place, is a bridge.

Matos — hollow targets made of round wooden frames and black-and-white paper — line the interior of the shooting hall. One side of the building is composed of garage-style sliding doors. Miyasaka rolls one open to reveal a hidden courtyard. We’re across from a target house, where a roof protects the sand dune that holds matos in place. To reach it requires shooting over a kudzu-trimmed pond, approximately 90 feet.

“Almost same as battlefield space,” Miyasaka says.

When Miyasaka first took up archery, he was only interested in winning competitions. At one point, when performing an examination to advance to the next level of kyudo he consistently made his target. Still, he did not pass.

“My teacher said I was hitting very well. But my form was not beautiful,” Miyasaka says. “To some, archery looks like sport. To some, it looks like spirit. If you ask one hundred people, you will find one hundred different answers. ... Body remembers correct action. If we are not thinking, we get the target natural.”

It’s a case of matter over mind. And Miyasaka takes the challenge seriously. Sometimes, as a test of muscle memory, he turns off the dojo lights and shoots in the dark.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Dao De Jing, #65: Curing Problems

The Dao De Jing is not only one of the world's great classics, it is one of the foundations of Philosophical Daoism. A free online version of the Dao De Jing may be found here. Today we have #65 Curing Problems

The actions that were handed down by those who followed Dao in the past were in opposition to what was considered intelligent by the rest of the people.

They were regarded as being foolish.

Most people's difficulties come from the way they choose to cure their problems.

That's the way they perceive things.

Therefore, that's the way they perceive the rest of society - as though the rest of society was out to rob them.


Because they don't understand how society works, society controls their De.

Always try to understand both of those things, and look for the flaws in attempting to follow those patterns.


Always understand that looking for flaws in those patterns is correctly described as the mystery of De.


The mystery of De requires inquiry.

Always being on the move.


When things work together to see the other side, in that way they reach the greatest agreement.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Warrior Philosophy of Enson Inoue

Below is an excerpt from an article at Must Triumph. It is about walking the path, the dao, of being a warrior as articulated by Enson Inoue, the famous fighter.

The full post may be read here.


“I can’t say I was a better person than all of these fighters because back in our day we didn’t have the fame, spotlight, and the money. So if I grew up in that game maybe I’d be attracted to that type of style... But in our day it had no money. There’s no crowd, there was no fame, there was nothing. We fought for honor, we fought for our pride. I fought for building my manhood and building myself as a person.

When you fight to become a better man, that adversity is where you grow. Adversity is where you hit a wall you’ve never hit before and feel like giving up. And the moment, the second that you feel like giving up ... you’re building your character and your spirit...

I wasn’t out there trying to get this win so I can get this sponsor, so I can get this next opponent, so I can get this win pay. For me it was about testing myself. Putting myself into a situation where I would want to quit and see where I go from there. Learn about myself as a man.”

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Sign of the Mantis, the Way of the Cricket

Today we have a guest post by Jared Miracle, who has spent quite a bit of time researching martial arts in both China and Japan. Enjoy.


Vernacular Crickets and the Mystery of Shandong Mantis Fist
Jared Miracle

There is a lot to be said for the relationship between insects and the martial arts. Sure, we’re all aware of the multitudinous “praying mantis” styles thanks to the Shaw Bros. One entrepreneurial gentleman in China has even created a unique (and I do mean unique) cricket form, replete with wing flapping and not a small degree of violent juddering. I once pulled my diaphragm while attempting one of the basic forms. What perhaps fewer readers may know, however, is that China boasts quite a long history of employing crickets for a kind of dueling. I’ve explained “cricket fighting” elsewhere, but what I’d like to discuss now is the importance of distinguishing between classical and vernacular tradition. This point is important for both martial arts and what I’ve taken to calling cultural entomology.

Shandong Province, located on China’s East coast, is the birthplace of a particular incarnation of praying mantis kung fu, as well as a hotbed for combat crickets. In 2015, I set out to study both. The crickets turned up first. In a slightly seedier section of urban Qingdao, there exists a retail establishment proffering all the accoutrements needed to raise, breed, and train a stable of arthropod warriors. The proprietor is a veteran of the game. He presides over a vast assortment of clay pots, nets, plastic tubes, wicker baskets, jellies, and prodding implements. The shop is occupied by a congregation of middle-aged men, mostly well-to-do business types. In their off hours, they relax, play Chinese chess, and pit their athletes against one another in bouts of unexpected violence.
The fights are not slow affairs. When one gentleman’s boasting has reached a sufficient degree that someone challenges him, the two sit on opposite ends of an oblong plastic arena about six inches across. Their fighters are dropped from carrying tubes and manually agitated via lengths of straw (fancier options made of materials like horse hair exist, but no one uses them in contests). Once sufficiently ticked off, the beasts engage in a fast-paced round of wrestling and kicking. The loser is evident as he will invariably retreat to the other side of the enclosure. It’s enamoring, I assure you. Naturally, one longs to participate. How do you learn this? The veterans were happy to explain: you simply do it.

Talk about bamboozled. In preparation, I’d read every scrap of information available on the topic of Chinese cricket domestication. Much of the literature makes reference to characters like Jia Sidao (“the Cricket Chancellor”), as well as several classic texts on choosing and rearing the ideal gladiator. The volumes go so far as to break down gradients of color in relation to fighting ability. Having scientific classification on par with anything in traditional Chinese medicine felt familiar, if not empowering. But these erstwhile Cus D’Amatos were telling me they’d never even done the required reading. I was an overeducated fool.
The reason I bring this up in the context of (human) martial arts is due to a curious experience while hunting for the local Shandong style of tanglang chuan, mantis fist. That took some months, but eventually a distant connection introduced me to Master Ge. We met—at some ungodly hour of the morning—and he had me do a bit of fisticuffs with one of his students. The most dedicated martial artists from around the province sought this man out for instruction. He was grumpy, abusive, stank of cigarettes and vagrancy, and generally everything a Midwest farm boy grows up wishing for in a kung fu teacher. Following an investigation of my ability to take blows to the head, he agreed to accept me in spite of my unfortunate foreign birth. We can't all be perfect. When I asked how to learn his style, he said the process was quite straightforward: you simply do it.

Due to historical accident, East Asian arts in the Western hemisphere have, until recently, primarily been Japanese brands. The appeal is immediate. Progression in most Japanese arts is broken down into digestible segments that maintain ostensible order and reason. Products like Shotokan karate and Kodokan judo lend themselves well to reproduction. Even the older Japanese styles (that is, the koryu budo) have their own idiosyncratic systemizations. Not so in all combat disciplines, however.
My mentor, the great anthropologist, Thomas Green, has spent the past several years coaxing information from practitioners about an American style of fighting with murky origins and murkier transmission. Most famously known as “52 Hand Blocks” or “Jailhouse Rock,” what he has uncovered is a vernacular martial art (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/487393/summary). Like vernacular language, these styles don’t exist in a single formulation, but are instead living entities in a perpetual state of change. As it turned out, Master Ge felt the same way about his Shandong mantis fist. “Just watch me,” he said before executing a form. “OK, now go do that for a while.” I sometimes convinced him to let me take video. Coming from a background in classical and modern Japanese arts and Western boxing, it was a jarring realization when I compared two shots of him doing the same form in very different ways.

Just like in the cricket parlor, this was not instruction based on explicit tradition. Here was the vernacular. Street kung fu. When I expressed concern about a particular hand motion causing more damage to the user than the target, he lit another cigarette, grabbed one of his younger, fit, taiji students, and told us to go at it. “Figure it out.” Was my foot pointed to precisely the correct angle? In what order do I learn the forms? "If it works, it works. Go practice some more.”

So that took some getting used to. Later on, I found myself back in rural Japan, alternately studying under two gentlemen who were not acquainted with each other. Both had highly formal training backgrounds, with documentation and achievements on file at various organizations. They also both had informal, vernacular educations. My sword teacher and I would rehearse a particular cut, then we’d put on kendo gear and have it out. An onlooker might have mistaken it for hockey played with the wrong equipment. Jissen, he called it, meaning “real combat.” My other teacher had a colorful CV, even by fighting arts community standards. As such, he’d been around. In midnight sessions in a creaky, abandoned old dojo, he knocked me around with techniques he hadn’t performed in decades. He used vague words like taijutsu and kempo to describe what we did, but it was along the lines of informal, perhaps even dirty, karate and grappling. He, too, was prone to describe this as jissen.

These avenues of study would have remained invisible without a street education in Qingdao. My point here is that we sometimes find ourselves so stuck on the idea of proper lineage and documented history that we forget how real life works. Like music, language, and cuisine, there are well-publicized proper traditions, but also informal, confused folk histories. In a lot of ways, it’s easier to only see the clearly-defined martial arts school with a big sign out front. Much harder—and often more meaningful—is tracking down people who don’t think of themselves as tradition holders at all. The vernacular is never easy and systematic in the way we want it to be, but that very informality keeps it alive.

As in language, vernacular martial arts can even be self-contradictory. All the more reason to carefully analyze what’s really being put in front of us. Like American Chinese food, vernacular fighting methods exist in their particular ecosystems with good reason. Historian Elliott Gorn lays this out extremely well in his groundbreaking article on backcountry fighting (http://ejmas.com/jmanly/articles/2001/jmanlyart_gorn_0401.htm). One need not put on a uniform in order to throw a punch, nor do you have to read the manual before entering your first cricket fight. I believe vernacular styles to be the dark matter of Martial Arts Studies. They make up the majority of material, and yet have been documented only a handful of times. As a call to action, then, I propose that the reader reexamine what is on offer through your training group. Sure, there are the forms you’ve been working on for the past six months. But what are your school’s extracurriculars?

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Shaolin 13 Hammers


Today we have a guest post by our frequent contributor, Jonathan Bluestein. Below Jonathan reviews the instructional video by Joshua Viney on the Shaolin 13 Hammers Form.

 
Thirteen Hammers of Shaolin – A Review

I was recently provided a copy of a new instructional video, titled ‘The 13 Hammers of Shaolin’, for the purpose of reviewing it. A trailer for this fine instructional and a link for purchasing it, are found here below:




This instructional video has been produced by shifu Joshua Viney. I have been following shifu Viney’s work for some time now. Shaolin Kung Fu has been a common ‘brand name’ throughout the world for nearly half a century now, and this is the first time, in a long time, that I have seen someone working it out to be new, novel and fresh.

Shifu Viney has spent over a decade in the vicinity of the Shaolin Temple on Song mountain, collecting knowledge and skills from authentic folk teachers. The temple has been commercialized to an obscene degree in recent decades, full of controversies and financial schemes. Yet surrounding it are still maintained many of the original traditions, some centuries old, and these are the ones to which shifu Viney had access. That is very fortunate, as through his sincere efforts and diligent training we can learn from and witness serious gongfu which is still seldom taught outside of China.

This instructional video, coming at a sizable bite of just over two hours, concerns itself with traditional, folk Shaolin gongfu. Specifically, a short form called ’13 Hammers’, which shifu Viney takes great care to break down and expertly explain from many angles, positions, tactics, strategies and possible scenarios. Half the video is dedicated to form learning, and the other half to its many possible combative applications. In between there is a short section explaining some of the proper shen fa (body method) of the style, which is very important and seldom explain well in martial arts instructionals.

Let me tell you, that I cannot remember the last time I sat through an entire martial arts instructional video without skipping at least a few of the sections. Generally, I tend to not be a fan of the genre, and find I have little patience for much of the chatter in such videos. This one though, I watched eagerly and continuously, and was glad I did.  My formal and primary engagement with the internal arts did not at all interfere with my enjoyment of this presentation of a rather external approach, for any authentic demonstration of Chinese fighting traditions by a skilled practitioner can be a beauty to behold and study from, and this one certainly is such a case.

The 13 Hammers form, as shifu Viney correctly explains, is technique-driven. Meaning, that specific techniques shape the form, rather than the form attempting to convey more general movement principles which could be interpreted in countless ways. This simpler approach is very newbie-friendly, and eases the overall understanding of the presentation. For me as a teacher, it is obvious that shifu Viney is well-aware of his broad audience, and this is apparent for instance in his choice of plain, short clothing for the actual teaching (rather than the traditional Chinese clothing for the demonstrations), which helps the viewer see what he is doing with his body.

The techniques taught in this instructional, I found to be quite practical and full of common sense. A few of them I even teach myself, with slightly different movements, in my own classes at my academy. Shifu Viney has a mature, honest outlook of real fighting situation and their requirements, with his practice and teaching stressing reality-based combat. Striking, locking, grappling and throwing are all found in his 13 Hammers form, and addressed appropriately.           
The way the form itself approaches fighting is by using a lot of evasive movement and smart angles, much like the general strategy of Western Boxing, but this is done in very different and original ways. Shifu Viney is keen on showing the viewer how to remain erect and stable even when positioning the body at strange angles, and explains well the importance of this habit. He also brilliantly extrapolates much of the traditional lore and cultural meanings behind many of the movements, which is key for understanding their usage.

It is difficult to put into words the visual editing style and choice of colours by shifu Viney (who was also the director and editor), but his video productions are always an eye-candy in the best possible way. I could only wish all martial arts instructionals had such awesome production value. There is a very dynamic, flexible and young vibe about shifu Viney’s videos, and that is a lovely thing.

Although it is usually impossible to study the actual practice of martial arts from a video, the form featured in this production can in fact be learned to a degree by someone with a little bit of experience in the martial arts. The video narration appears to assume some familiarity of Chinese martial arts on part of the viewer, and I gather that this is reasonable. Those who are practitioners of traditional Chinese martial arts will benefit from watching this video, and those who specifically have studied in depth traditional Shaolin gongfu for at least a number of years, are likely to be able to even pick up a basic practice of this form and add it to their martial arsenal. It would not be wise, however, to leave that as it is, and anyone who began the study of these skills and methods from the video should at one point seek a qualified instructor such as shifu Viney to deepen his practice and understanding. Otherwise, it would be a waste. In any case, it ought be noted that this is a form intended for beginners, and not seasoned practitioners, albeit the teacher presenting it showcasing the movement at a higher level himself.         


For those who are not practitioners of the traditional Chinese arts, although they cannot truly ‘study’ anything from this video, they can learn much from it as well. Firstly, as this is an exceptionally good documentary of real Shaolin martial arts. Secondly, as by viewing this instructional it is possible to deduce many ideas for training methods and applications for one’s own art, regardless of style.

I would therefore highly recommend those who have been positively impressed by the ‘trailer’, to check out this wonderful production in full. This would certainly be a worthy addition to your martial arts video collection.


______________________________________________

The author of this article, Jonathan Bluestein, can be contacted directly at:  jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com . Shifu Bluestein is a practitioner and teacher of Xing Yi Quan, Pigua Zhang and Jook Lum Southern Mantis. These arts are taught by him at his academy in Israel, and also in seminars abroad. Shifu Bluestein is also a best-selling author on the martial arts. Be sure to check out his popular books:  Research of Martial Arts and The Martial Arts Teacher



You may also subscribe to shifu Bluestein's youtube channel, which is regularly update with rare and fascinating martial arts videos




All rights of this article are and the pictures within it are reserved to Jonathan Bluestein ©. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission, in writing, from Jonathan Bluestein. Jonathan may be contacted directly via email:  jonathan.bluestein@gmail.com

Monday, November 06, 2017

Succeeding in Tai Chi Chuan

Below is an excerpt from a post at Tambuli Media. The full post may be read here.

Over the years, I have observed a few things about the difference between folks who succeed with tai chi (taiji) and the folks who don’t.  In this context, I define success as both finding what we are looking for in the art, and also being open to experiencing benefits you did not expect. We might, for example, discover the calm and peaceful refuge we were hoping for in the practice, but also find that our moods are less labile and that our nagging back pain is gone. In addition to being a spectacular system of self-defense, tai chi’s benefits generally include a boosted immune system, improved sleep, greater strength and flexibility, and a calmer, clearer mind. It is also the ultimate exercise for the body’s muscular core.

The primary characteristic of the successful tai chi practitioner is the ability to make friends with bewilderment. That means to gradually learn words, terms, and concepts that are unfamiliar; to accept that for the first few months or so we won’t really have much of an idea of what’s going on. It also means shutting off any competitive or self-defeating tapes in our head; no worrying why the person next to us seems to be “getting it” so much more quickly than we do, no more applying pressure to ourselves to be where we thought we should be after a certain amount of time. It means being okay with having to think for a moment about which is our left foot or hand and which is our right. It means accepting that there is a reason why millions of people over thousands of years have engaged tai chi and the practices from which it derives, and to accept the teacher you have selected as a reasonable conduit of ancient and valuable information. It means bumbling and stumbling through basic coordination drills and choreography for a while before the real lessons about relaxation and mental state actually begin to take hold.




Friday, November 03, 2017

Praciticing Martial Arts in the Right Spirit

Brought to my attention by Walt.

Karlfried Graf Von Durckheim was a German diplomat, psychotherapist and Zen Master. He was one of the earliest westerners who studied Zen and wrote books introducing it to the west.

Below is an excerpt from one of his books, Zen and Us, which describes "right practice" in martial arts training. Enjoy.

The point of every exercise in which a specific skill is practiced is not improved performance as such, but what happens to the performer.|

Improved performance remains, of course, the immediate goal -- but the point is the person achieving it, who purifies and transforms himself by seeking to perfect the exercise in the right way. What practice means in this case is not at all what it means when performance per se is the issue.

Practiced in the right spirit, as a means to the Way, exercise changes a person completely; his transformation then becomes not just necessary, but sufficient to perfect his performance. Skill always shows that a person has practiced, that Being has made over a person and itself expresses the change. This is why the East speaks of a Tao of technique, in which Tao and technique become one within the individual, so that technique expresses Tao.

The most striking account of the change wrought by prolonged practice of a skill is given by Eugen Herrigel in his book on Zen archery. He shows that archery, "to the extent that it is a contest of the archer with himself," is a life-and-death matter. Why? Because it is an exercise in which "fundamentally the marksman aims at himself and may even succeed in hitting himself."

Endless repetition is common to all exercises. Total concentration is needed at first, but as the actions slowly become automatic, the ego tension, which is rooted in purposive effort, gradually relaxes until ego and implement, the instrument, but also the skill itself as process, become one. Only when the purposive tension is no longer necessary can its vehicle -- the ego -- be neutralized. And only when the ego disappears can the spirit come into play and mastery burst unchecked and of its own accord from the adept's true nature. At this point, mastery is no longer the product of conscious effort, but the revelation of true nature in a particular exercise.

The stages in the process, as described by Herrigel, are as follows: relaxing completely and shedding all tension, concentrating utterly, penetrating the mystery of breathing, mastering the "form" (external technique) completely through endless repetition, allowing the "spirit" to open so that the arrow can be loosed without effort -- all of this shielded, sustained, and carried forward solely by constant, tireless exercise, endlessly repeated and ever more unquestioning. Persistent exercise is the barrier that brings many people to grief. Not all exercises are hard in themselves, but doing them properly is hard.

-- excerpted from Zen and Us, by Karlfried Graf Durkheim

Tuesday, October 31, 2017