Saturday, March 28, 2009

Bushi No Te Isshinryu no Kobudo

It’s funny how it seems sustained discussion on Kobudo rarely happens, I’m sure because there is often little perceived common ground between the many different kobudo practices. I’m going to try and go a bit further, beginning by talking about my own studies and various aspects of kobudo as I practice it. I am an Isshinryu stylist who trained with several other instructors over the years.

When I started my study of Isshinryu in Salisbury, Md. At Tom Lewis IKA (the Karate Barn) I just wanted to study karate. Having read Black Belt magazine for years at that time I knew what Kobudo was in general, but had no interest in studying weapons.

I did see some of my seniors study weapons kata, but it wasn’t a regular feature of class.
Several years later when I began my study with Charles Murray, before long he started teaching me Chantan Yara No Sai, and I made a trip from Scranton down to Philadelphia to Asian World (Back when they were in North Phila on North Broad Street) in an old WWII home front store location to buy a set of steel sai and a bo (for future studies).

Still have both, the Sai have been constant training companions for over 33 years now, and the Bo is ‘Bertha’, weighs a ton and feels almost like a steel rod. A good power bo training companion.

I don’t recall ever hearing Isshinryu weapons described as kobudo. They were just the kata Charles pushed into me.

Chantan Yara No Sai
Tokumine No Kon
Kusanku Sai
Chia Fa (a long story about that one)
Urashie No Bo

And finally taught outside during thunderstorms Shi Shi No Kon No Dai Bo the day he was packing to leave his church and return to the USAF. When it started raining and thundering he’d go inside to pack and I stayed outside and practice till the rain stopped and he’d come back outside to teach me some more.

Charles also taught me the Bando Staff Set – The Horseman’s Footsoldier’s Form which he studied from Reese Rigby.

When he returned to the USAF for his career I was on my own for my Isshinryu studies over the next 30+ years.

Charles did make one important point towards the end of our time together. He told me “Vic, the first 20 years you’re art is the reflection of your instructor, after 20 years your art is the reflection of you.”

Not having anyone to train with, and never having made weapon study a part of the youth program for the most part, to push myself more than just walking through kata, the next 6 or so years I used open tournament competition as a focus of my training.

Nothing uses more energy than competing before a crowd, and I used it to compete against myself. I mostly used Shi Shi No Kon No Dai, Chantan Yara no Sai and occasionally the Horseman’s form. Eventually whatever I was seeking in competition was completed and I stopped.

During those years from 1979 to 1985 I also traveled to train with other instructors I had met. Additional weapons study was never my goal, but with several of them it happened.

After starting my study of Yang Tai Chi Chaun, the moment came where I had to begin learning Yang Tai Chi Sword from Ernest Rothrock, before I could enter the rest of my Yang studies. It continues to be my most challenging study. I also studied 3 sectional staff with him, and when he moved to Pittsburgh still working out with his Eastern Penna Schools in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre on my tai chi and ‘kung fu forms’ studies, his students shared their beginning staff and short staff studies too.

Rothrock Laoshi’s studies in weapons are too vast to describe simply. I only would touch the surface in a minor way, but that allowed me to develop an appreciation behind the Chinese Arts.

During the same period I began to study with Tristan Sutrisno, a Shotokan instructor (and a bit more). He shared his students studied with me and shortly after I started training there he taught Chosen No Kama Sho, and Chosen No Kama Dai. Later would come O’Sensei No Kon, O’ Sensei No Kon Sho, O’ Sensei No Kon Dai. Towards the end of the time I was training with him I also received studies in Tanto Drills and a bit of a Tanto kata.

I only saw a small part of his weapons arts, but found them unique in that one kata built upon the other. In the Kama and Bo kata I trained with the following kata in a string built upon the previous kata. I’m not suggesting all of his weapons kata did the same, but there was also interesting synergy in how his kata developed the practitioner.

Attending a Bando Summer camp in 83 another instructor shared his Bando ‘Hidden Stick’ form. A study in stick as a back-up weapon. One of my seniors Reese Rigby also had studied that form, but the one I learnt is a differing variation on the stick theme.

The move to Derry, NH in 85 eventually forced me to make choices which parts of my studies would remain and which parts would be left behind. I had learnt more than could be really integrated into the training time I had available.

I started a small adult program and several years later I had developed students ready for weapons training. I had made the decision not to integrate weapons into kyu studies, feeling then and now there was enough empty hand technique to study and fill the student cup.

Some time in the late 80’s I also had the chance to study Kise Sensei’s basic Bo, Sai and Kama kata at a clinic which he attended.

I also had the smallest glimpse of the late Sherman Harrill’s knowledge, bo training drills and bo application studies.

Over the decades my understanding of weapons study grew, especially when I taught them. Very different from how I studied, mostly being shown the kata and left on my own. I came to understand a relationship between karate and kobudo, how weapons increased the advancing dan’s performance, and provided at tool for the instructor in the framework I use for all of our studies.

All of my instructors are much better than I’ve ever been, but their sharing and their inspiration continue to guide my goals for my students practice.

From this sparse background I will build a few future discussions on kobudo.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

We cannot go back there anymore....

I often wonder about the circumstances that gave rise to the arts that comprise today’s Karate, and I know many others do too. Regardless of how hard we work we can’t go back to those days, the time the place does not exist anymore.

Trying to peer through Hokama’s “Timeline of Karate History” it seems the roots go back well before 1800, though the practitioners in the 1800-1900 time frame worked hard to change their art and draw upon Chinese sources in their efforts too. It will be interesting to find out if the recently published Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Encyclopedia adds more to what is available.

I believe we can make some clear assumptions about those times.

There does not appear to have been a society need for a defensive art. Okinawa seems to have been a quiet place not prone to street violence requiring guardians.

It seems to have been a private practice, perhaps for family members, friends and neighbors.

Those arts didn’t develop an extensive technical vocabulary. There was little need, it may have well have been taught on just a one to one basis as the oral history suggests. The key would be in imprinting performance instructor to student. The practice of applications solely on the direction of the instructor.

Karate was not unknown to the public. Martial festival performances have been recorded in the 1860’s. Funakoshi Ginchin contributed an article on the history of karate to the local newspaper in 1902. It’s just prior to 1905 it was not available for any sort of public consumption.

The students had to live in a walking distance from their instructor. They would have had to be able to walk there and home after training to participate in their family and work lives. Perhaps some resettled but there is nothing mentioned about such personal details.

The instructors and students would have been participating members in a very different society than most of us experience today. Even today you can see some of that by following OkinawaBBTV.com how the Okinawan festivals and traditions still consume a part of Okinawan lives. They would see the Chineese groups pubic performances. There would be the town vs town rope pulling contests, the local sumo competitions and many other social functions.
With no documentation on karate, you would have followed the Oral history shared by your instructor, and perhaps from other acquaintenaces.

We have no real idea why those individuals choose to train in most cases. No idea of how many quit, switched to other instructors, how many were forced out for various reasons, no idea how successful the training was, unless we just consider if those arts were passed along, or more correctly a wave front of those arts passages.

We don’t eat what the Okinawan ate.
We don’t walk in the dark to and from our instructors.
We don’t strip off our outer clothes to train.
On the whole we don’t practice in private locations.
We can not talk about our art because there is no vocabulary to share our studies.

We really cannot go back there, except in our imagination.

But from that unknowable past an incredible future was created and continues on its way.

Monday, March 9, 2009

All sizes do not fit....

When I think about advancing instruction for the dan student I think the most important principle I've learned is that all sizes do not fit everyone.

While training seeks to level the hills and valleys between the adepts, as time and skill increases that only occurs to a point.

We all don't have the same ablities, and those natural talents honed by our training accentuate the differences between us. This is natural for our training helps us focus the energies we generate more intensely and as a result our natural talents improve to a greater degree.

It's not enough to train, but to recognize what we do better and learn now to shape it into our personal development.

The difficulty with that is we should not neglect those things which are not as easy.

For example some find kobudo training natural, others do not. It's easy to tone down kobudo training when it's not as fun. What one doesn't realize is that the purpose of the training is what supplemental skills develop over the decades that combine with other studies.

Likewise applications that are easy to do and use too often become the choice and those that take maybe another 20 years to develop are too often set to the back burner. Doing so only guarantees that those abilities will not be there in the long run.

An instructor can only point, especially as the student advances. If the student no longer looks where the instructor is pointing, much is lost.

That doesn't mean those choices are bad ones, it just highlites how hard it to keep moving into more difficult territory.