Friday, March 25, 2011

On Being A Black Belt - Part 2

So far I’ve covered my first 15 or so years, say about 3,000 days of training. Although I’m focusing on varied studies and roles in my black belt studies my first purpose was my own training and that of my students. It was in the early 1990’s the earlier work took hold.

My Derry program had developed a solid small adult program in addition to the youth program. The changes I had made to the kyu studies were now moving students into Dan studies. Things were starting to get interesting.

The Black Belt as Researcher 4 – How to use Isshinryu

While my friends had shared their arts with me freely I didn’t have the time or access to fully become their students and learning something about the depth of their arts didn’t want to settle for something less though they would have accepted me as their full student.

My love for Isshinryu remained strong, and seeing what those programs had only gave me inspiration to understand Isshinryu differently than I had studied. This was not because my original instructors programs were lacking. Their Isshinryu is very powerful in it’s own right, I was just interested in exploring the Isshinryu system in a different way.

The truth was at this time I had more than enough technique for my students to keep us busy for a lifetime.

I had worked up some preliminary studies on the use of Isshinryu technique but taking the step to do more was just around the corner.

Then one Saturday morning before class, which was being held outside, it occurred to me to investigate what a Minimalist system would entail. A Minimalist system being the smallest number of moves that can handle any attack. Today I would accept the answer as any one technique properly applied should be able to respond to any attack, but at that time it was a new concept for me. While I had studied many responses for specific attacks trying to find answer was a challenge.

In turn I developed a system with 4 ½ moves. My starting premise wasn’t to pick the strongest techniques I could think of, instead I decided to pick techniques from forms I felt were the most obscure ones I’d be least likely to use. I selected 5 techniques from different forms and systems and using a basic principle I had determined studied their applications against right grabs and strikes, against left grabs and strikes, against double grabs, against kicks. What I discovered was each of those movements worked against anything and were as valid as any of my earlier studies.

I was learning how to study movement potential.

I followed this with another series of theme studies, such as ‘X- Blocks’, ‘the Circular Parry/Strike’ or ‘Elbow Strikes” and many others. I wasn’t worried about specific kata, instead focusing on the uses of technique in general.

Then slowly I’d select Isshinryu techniques to continue to test what is possible.

The Black Belt as Student once Again

In 1994 I met Harrill Sensei and was left asking the question:

“Who was that masked man?”

“That was no masked man, that was the Lone Ranger!”

When Garry Gerossie visited my program he told me I was doing the same thing his instructor was doing.

Garry vastly understated where I was for Harrill Sensei has a 40 year head start. The underlying principle behind technique usage may have been the same but his knowledge and practice far exceeded where I was as I was at the beginning.

The first meeting was at a clinic where he probably covered 150 Isshinryu applications in 6 hours. I had to leave on a business trip the next day but my initial notes covered about 30 of those applications. An incredible glimpse into use of Isshinryu, where to hit, the range of applications in a movement.

The next year Garry and I hosted Harrill Sensei at our school. He asked me what I wanted to see and I asked to see how he’d use Chinto, Kusanku and Sunsu. The first 3 hours he covered some of the applications within Chinto’s fires movement and finally said “Perhaps I should move onto the 2nd move!”

My students and I took a group approach, cross comparing the experiences gained and especially felt. The following day we’d observe the strike marks left on one’s body and gained a great deal about where and how to hit as well as continuing understanding of technique application of Isshinryu.

Garry and I hosted Harrill Sensei until 1990 and when possible I traveled to Western Massachusetts and Rhode Island when he gave clinics there to experience as much as possible. I always made deep notes on what was covered. Those clinics in our school, Harrill Sensei graciously allowed me to videotape as long as he got a copy for himself.

While much of my time was always focused on my students and the developing Dan group I tried to work Harrill Sensei’s material into our studies too.

First a technique is only as good as your execution. Harrill Sensei’s were not better than my previous studies, but they were focused on use of Isshinryu.

Second, attending clinics one, two or three times a year is not the same as training with an instructor. You only get what is being shown, and assuming you fully understand what is shown you still require much time to get it down well. I find it takes me about 5 years to learn something well enough to work it into my program, and when you insert one thing you most likely have to deemphasize something else.

Harrill Sensei’s teachings proved challenging especially as not having deep experience with them I’d try them and damage the student because they worked. But hours of clinic video tapes are difficult to watch and my notes were detailed but again difficult to scope in the full picture. It was a work.

Third, the more I studied with Harrill Sensei the more I came to understand that the underlying principles were far more important than the actual techniques because those underlying principles could be applied to anything with result. As time went on I worked on my own understanding of how a kata technique could work against a range of attacks and developed my own techniques. Now I’m sure I didn’t do anything Harrill Sensei had worked out himself, but by doing it on my own the value of Isshinryu became more apparent.

I should note that my brief association with Harrill Sensei was the first time since my original instructors I had any association with other Isshinryu. I had met Isshinryu karate-ka at many tournaments, but not beyond that level. Harrill Sensei’s work presented a new picture in my Isshinryu knowledge.

The Black Belt – the Internet and the Scholar

During the later 90’s I entered the Internet age. I discovered the joy and the horror at what the internet had to offer.

On the Original Isshinryu List I discovered other Isshinryu karate-ka to discuss their Isshinryu studies.

I made friends on every continent (except Antarctica) and we shared ideas, experiences, knowledge, translations and stood with each other. I also discovered how the anonymous nature of posting led to excess, and often would weigh in for truth, justice and basic politeness for all of us.

Those friends went out of their way to share video tape of a huge number of systems and topics for grounded discussion.

Then Joe Swift discovered I had studied French he requested me to translate Mabuni Kenwa’s books published in 1933 from their French translations. Eventually that led to Patrick McCarthy making similar requests for books by Roland Habersetzer and Kenji Tokitsu.

By asking I discovered how wide a range of practices Isshinryu actually held. This access to information got me thinking about many martial subjects.

I began trying to understand what the Bubishi represented in regards to Okinawan karate. I worked up a series of analysis papers on the topic, shared them on various discussion groups and a friend published them on a web site he created for me. My analysis was based on logically reviewing the available English Bubishi pulications (those of Patrick McCarthy and Ken Penland) and asking a long series of questions. A few others who had their own studies shared their own thoughts, but on the whole I never got the discussion I was seeking.

Then I turned my eye on the history of Isshinryu. I never trained on Okinawa, as had my instructors and Harrill Sensei. I did question, however, if I looked at Isshinryu founder Shimabuku Tatsuo’s instructor which lead to a series of articles on Harrill Sensei helped my research efforts on Isshinryu kobudo too.

I founded several private discussion groups, “Bunkai Unlimited” for a small group of instructors, and “Pleasant Isshinryu” a group of focused Isshinryu karate-ka sharing with each other. Those discussion have extended 10 years now.

I shared articles with on many topics. Joined discussions at the CyberDojo, various Isshinryui discussion groups, private discussion groups, with Bill Glasheen’s Ueichi Ryu discussion, Martial Talk, Traditional Fighting Arts forums and many other locations.

Always I was sharing and writing to clarify my own thinking, and seeking the occasional focused discussion on many martial topics.

The Black Belt – Jambalaya

I realize this section covering the 1990’s seems a logical flow from point to point. The reality is there were many layers of things happening continually. This occurred in my karate program as well as my personal ongoing Yang Tai Chi Chaun study and with my Tai Chi Students studies. The adult classes were spent ½ of the time in kobudo studies.

In the early part of the decade I discontinued training with Tristan Sutrisno, but the wide range of studies he had shared formed a bedrock of my own program. I continued to gain understanding from his teachings and most amazingly discovered the intersection of his studies motion within Isshinryu itself. The one study truly supported the other. His family methodology to instruction formed much of the basis of my developing program. This his aikido and tjimande drills were already present within Isshinryu once I took the self imposed blinders off of my eyes. My understanding of Isshinryu vastly improved from those studies.

I also found I had to learn to set aside many of my studies. I had learnt so many kata and techniques I couldn’t stay on top of them all, nor would any student ever be able to learn them. Always Isshinryu I began to boil off those studies to find the more meaningful long term projects.

Rothrock Loashi shared an extremely important teaching regarding the use of body alignment in technique application. Together with my long term study on the use of the lower body (really the whole body in turn) I began to work a specific dynamic to my system movement and application. I specifically chose the crescent stepping with exactitude as the foundation of those studies and that had changes to our Isshinryu execution in kata as well as Force Enhancers to merge practice to application potential to actualization.

As the years passed Rothrock Laoshi visited many times sharing his study of the Wu Tai Chi Chaun teaching form, and many drills in Jing Wo and Faan Tzi Ying Jow Pai with my students. The material was extremely credible but very difficult to integrate into our studies. There was only so much time. But going back to his body alignment study it became a core principle behind everything we use.

I now had a credible methodology to use to develop and correct a student, a way to analyze what others are doing, and a methodology to look for incorrect body alignment to exploit against an opponent.

As this was happening I was now teaching almost an entirely black belt program for the adults. It gave experience at what a black belt could become and ran up against the real needs of real students.

On the whole my adults were permanent part time students who trained for years and years. That they all worked for a living controlled how much time they could train. There was no limit to where they could go,

I didn’t draw lines, they taught me that wasn’t necessary. I didn’t provide goals I shared in my studies, allowed them to train with the instructors who taught me, directed their own efforts a bit and slowly discovered each of them worked towards their own needs, none of those needs mine in turn. I came to the understanding you develop the kyu to enter dan training where they must address their own needs first and foremost. The young will leave home not to return. The adult will train according to their world view. You can’t make them anything you can only share, direct and step back to see what the outcome becomes.

My understanding of what my own studies became was never to be theirs. That was right.

The Black Belt – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed

Among the most difficult Black Belt Lessons was to be the death of your student’s and/or friends.

It was 2002 and one of my students, John Dinger, and my friend, Sherman Harrill, both passed on within months of each other.

A year before John Dinger stopped coming to class. We thought it was just his time to move on in life. Eventually word came to use that he was experiencing a rare genetic condition causing him to loose control of faculties. When possible I would visit John and continue his studies in tai chi and martial discussion. This would remain almost to his end. In the fullest sense he embraced his martial studies with his wife, his church and his friends until the end.

It was also the time for Harrill Sensei’s passing. He had many physical problems over the years. His Isshinryu gave him focus to fight against them. Many times he’d begin a clinic so you were afraid for him and hours later, deep into the zone of his art, he end as strong as a Tiger. But his time also passed. He had been hoping I could bring John to meet with him that fall in Western Massachusetts for John had been his favorite uke from my program. It did not happen.

Let me draw from Walt Whitman writing about Abraham Lincoln

When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d – and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

O ever-returning spring! Trinity sure to me you bring

Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

Harrill Sensei’s passing affected me greatly. I was not his student and he had been very fortunate that he shared so freely what he could in a clinic setting. Sherman always told me he could only present a small part of his teaching in an open format where he really didn’t know who those in attendance were. I had maybe spent 40 or 50 hours with him during the past 8 years. They changed me.

After several months I knew I had to do something more. With a passion I pulled out each note, each email he sent me, each video tape and I started documenting what he had shared. I ended up with a document of 800 application studies from Isshinryu’s 8 kata, notes on the underlying principles behind many of those applications, and historical records for personal study. I finally printed them out for myself and found they were a book on some of his Isshinryu and named it the Sherm-pedia.

I sent a copy to John Kerker, who was selected to continue Harrill Sensei’s dojo in Carson Iowa and told him he was in charge if it was to be distributed to others. After John reviewed it he commented it looked correct but there were about another 500 or 600 applications not shared in our settings.

It brought me some closure with my friends.

The Black Belt – After

2003 brought a change in the adult programs. For different reasons my older students moved onto other activities. The next year, 2004, it was only Mike Cassidy and myself training on any regular basis, which of course meant we could work at the highest levels. Mike had been with me now almost those 15 years and he began to assist with the youth program.

During our training I was able to integrate some of my friend Joe Swift’s translations into our study. Additionally my studies into the force enhancers of our technique improved. I was able to link the exceptional grip strength Rothrock Laoshi developed with his great depth in Chinese weapons studies. This allowed me to look how the study of Kobudo was another force enhancer in the development of application potential. The need wasn’t for kobudo usage, the need was dan kobudo study for core development.

Each weapon required different handling skills. Bo, Sai, Tonfa, Kama, Stick, Tanto and Tai Chi Sword. A small core curricula was all that was required for long term dan development. The entire course build towards many subtle energies for advancing development.

The program as it developed required all of it’s aspects for best personal development.

As much as was coming together, much more was yet to come.

To be continued.


Note on the Minimalist System developed in 1992 – Smith Te

The techniques I chose were:

  1. The descending hammerfist strike to the other hand from our Goju Saifa kata.
  2. The Yang Tai Chi da lu – pullback <>
  3. One of the evasion movement patterns from Rothrock Laoshi
  4. Yang Tai Chi
    1. Brush Knee and Press
    2. Fair Lady works Shuttles

I then renamed them:

1. The Eagle Swoops Down

2. The Snake Strikes

3. The Ghost departs

4.a. The Bear wipes it’s claws

4.b. The Bear wipes it’s nose

Obviously I was having some fun but at the creator of the system I retain those rights. Who said you can’t have fun doing something? But those techniques can disrupt any attack.

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