Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Since I suspect MiLK deserves a response...

"Wars not make one great." -- Yoda.

As I have mentioned several times in the past, I have an extensive martial arts library. But realistically, there are only a handful of books that I reapeatedly return to on a regular basis. One of those books is Living the Martial Way, by Forrest Morgan. I reread it at least once every six months.

Mr. Morgan is an Air Force officer with extensive experience in several different martial arts. He is, by almost any definition, a warrior. His whole book is dedicated to the notion that proper practice of the martial arts can (that's can, not will) enable someone to become a warrior.

When someone with his credentials says anyone can be a warrior, I listen. He believes warriors can indeed be found in every walk of life, not only in the profession of arms. In the section he devotes to this question, he points out that doctors, teachers, even waitresses can be warriors. These are people who demand excellence from themselves and those around them. They meet challenges head-on, and do not blame others for setbacks -- and certainly not their own shortcomings. They are standard setters for those around them.

Is he right? I still think there is a difference between those who willingly put themselves in the way of danger, and the rest of us. But I think his point is not to be taken lightly. It even has some history behind it. There are stories from Japan about masters of fine arts being accorded the same respect as samurai. The important trait was the dedication to excellence that made a master.

On story speaks of a teamaster who was challenged by a swordsman to a duel. He sought instruction from a samurai so he could die with dignity. The samurai sensed that this pursuit of even meager instruction in handling a sword indicated a pursuit of excellence. So he asked the teamaster to perform the tea ceremony as if it would -- as well it could -- be his last. The teamaster centered himself and went through the ceremony without a flaw. The samurai showed the teamaster the daijodan high posture and taught him to properly cut down from this position. "Do this with the same conviction you give the tea ceremony and you will at least die with dignity." The teamaster went to his duel and took up the daijodan posture. His opponent studied the teamaster for several minutes and finally bowed and left. He could sense the serenity of the teamaster in this single act. The swordsman might well have killed the teamaster, but he would not beat him.

Apocryphal? Sure, but it indicates that even in classical times, warriorship had many definitions. There are still times when I stumble on my journey to even this kind of metaphysical warriorship. I have decided that the trip is worthwhile because it makes me a better person.

I was a little angered by MiLK's dropping of the "whenever I return home..." paraphrase. This comes from Robert L. Humphery's Warrior's Code (which I'll quote from my sometimes shaky memory):

Wherever I go, everyone is a little safer.
Wherever I go, everyone in need has a friend.
Whenever I return home, everyone is happy to see me.

Mr. Humphery was a Marine in World War II. He fought on Iwo Jima. He knew warriors. And this was his distilled essence of warriorship. His Code was brought into the American Bujinkan community by Jack Hoban.

So while I do still think there is a difference between Warriors and warriors, I defer to men who have been both to help me see the similarities.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Too far?

For some weird reason, the subject of torture comes up with macabre frequency among my training partners. It is, of course, a purely hypothetical subject for us. But when you study a warrior's art, I think conversations of this sort bare something of the speaker's soul.

There is an apparent weight shift toward the permissive view of the subject. That is, the belief that sometimes nothing else will do seems to have most of us. I am in the minority that does not think "torture" is an appropriate act for the United States. I like to think that the permissive view holds sway among a group of macho, Right-leaning guys because it is a hypothetical topic for us. After all, no one wants to appear soft on terrorists.

I came across this article -- yes, from the Left-leaning New Yorker -- that shares many (not all) of my views and says them better than I can, so I'm going to post it here. Among the many views of mine that it shares is that the permissive view is growing in popularity because of the TV show "24." Even my mother-in-law, a dyed in the wool Liberal herself, loves Jack Bauer and how he can make the tough decisions. Whenever the subject of torture is brought-up by my classmates, they always invoke the "ticking time bomb" scenario, and I can practically hear the distinct "beep-beep" from "24" in my head as they press me to agree that in that circumstance torture might be necessary to stop a catastrophe.

Well, yes, if it looked like drilling out a terrorist's knee was the only way to stop a multi-megaton nuke from going off in downtown Manhattan, I admit the option will begin to look good. My problem is in deciding where the threshold is: what if it is a pipe bomb attached to a single child in Kansas? Yes? No? Maybe so? As the article points out, ticking time bomb scenarios are actually very rare.

One of the other problems is that there is no commonly accepted definition of "torture." Which is why there is still much hand-wringing over the "aggressive interrogation techniques" the present administration wants to use. Like pornography, we know torture when we see it. Scenes from the Saw horror movies, or Hostel definitely count as torture. But is sleep deprivation torture? I'd say allow some techniques that disorient a subject. At least it is easier to draw lines around non-physically abusive techniques.

Senator John McCain is no stranger to torture, he experienced it first hand as a POW, and you never hear him say anything positive about it. He never says, "Oh yeah, it worked on every one of us. We sang like canaries after the thumb screws." He'll tell you it stregthened the captives' resolve. It is pretty widely known that torture will make people talk, but it doesn't always get them to tell the truth -- which just degenerates into a cycle of more abuse to keep the person talking.

It's always easy on "24," they always have the right bad guy, the act is usually accomplished quickly, and then the subject (victim? I know it's hard to sympathize with scum) always tells the truth. I like to remember the USA Network show "La Femme Nikita." They used torture regularly too. It didn't always work. In one episode, they brought in a terrorist and told her in great detail how they planned to break her. She looked straight in the eye of the torturer and lifted her hands off the table. Then the terrorist reached out with one hand and started breaking her own fingers. The torturer nodded and left the room. "We'll get nothing from that one," she told her boss. But that's just fiction, right?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

From Dale Seago

OK, the following is "cut and paste" from a forum in which Mr. Dale Seago, Bujinkan teacher, posted about his experiences filming for the TV show, Mythbusters.

The Discovery Channel TV show "MythBusters" ( is doing an entire episode on fact vs. fiction about "the Ninja", and they got in touch with me for information (having done enough research to realize that my teacher in Japan, Masaaki Hatsumi, is the inheritor of the last known historic ninjutsu traditions). I shot three segments with them last Friday; was able to set them straight on a lot of things, though I don't know how much will get used that wasn't actually in the filmed segments. (They're also doing a lot of other stuff regarding "ninja gadgetry" that I'm not involved with.)Probably the most dramatic is going to be where they explore the myth (?) that shuko hand claws can stop a sword cut.
None of my folks were available at the time they wanted to shoot it (10 AM), but fortunately Joel Elliott, instructor for the Sacramento dojo came out to help. It really wouldn't have been the same without him, as I needed someone who really knew his way around a sword to show the realism of it. And fortunately I was able to first explain on-camera the tactics that allow you to do something like this. They were surprised to find that we were going to be actually moving around, jockeying for position, etc.
Insurers insisted we use a mogito -- steel blade but not sharpened, which could still be really nasty if it hits you. They also wanted me to wear a helmet, but I declined and signed a release for that.Then we just did it. Cold, no rehearsal with each other beforehand; and Joel was giving me such a good "real fight" feeling that it didn't even occur to me to just stop the sword -- I kept flowing and did the sort of thing I would have had it been a real situation and "killed" him. We did about 20 takes of that, all with the same result, as they wanted to get it from different angles.
Then they said they wanted to have one of their crew try to get me with the sword. Much to my surprise it turned out to be Kari Byron. Again, we did it cold (but from a stationary start, and I didn't "kill" her), though I did first show her how to "get the distance" by placing the sword on my head in the "finished" position and then taking a step back. We did about ten or 12 takes on that one, and what she lacked in form and technique she made up for in sincerity as she tried to split my skull.
In the afternoon we filmed some other stuff, starting with Adam & Jamie coming in and observing a class in session for a while, then asking me some questions, and finally Adam wanting to try some stuff out. I invited him to play with the Kukishin ryu kata we were working on, but he said he'd rather just attack me and try to kick my @$$ (his own words) and see what happened. The results were predictable.I should have the air date in about a week; right now it looks like sometime in April.
I'll keep you posted.

Sofia Vergara

Appearing in your home on "Knights of Prosperity." Yes, on free, network television. Ain't America grand?

Rank, and its "privileges..."

My Saturday afternoon training session featured a quick comment that held loads of implications.

One young man joined our training a few minutes late. He was kidded, and our Fearless Leader joked that it was fine by him if the young man chose to be late because, "The world needed Green Belts too." (A note, our system only has three color belts: white, for no ranking; green for the kyu ranked mudansha, and black for the dan ranked yudansha.)

One of our Shodan, and a frequent commentor on this blog, continued the joke by saying, "I out-rank him, and he was here when I started." FL thought this might make for a good blog topic, and I agree.

Our young friend does represent an unusual situation, but not unheard of. And our Shodan points out the differences between the concepts of "seniority" and "rank" in the martial arts.

"Seniority" is bound up in the concepts of Sempai and Kohai. These are terms relating solely to the time one has spent in a particular martial tradition. If I join a new school and new art tomorrow, all of the current students and instructors would be my Sempai. They would have certain responsibilities regarding me, as I would be thier Kohai. They would be responsible for showing me around the school, instructing me in the peculiar rituals of the class or art, and generally making sure I don't muck it all up. Basically, this comes down to "showing me the ropes." The instructor, usually termed a sensei, is there to share instruction in the art, but teaching me how and when to bow, or how to wear my dogi is the job of my senior students.

As Kohai, my job is to learn and graciously accept the hints and suggestions from my seniors. I also accept the responsibility to share this information with the next student to join the class. When that happens, I become his Sempai.

This arrangement reflects the old idea of the Ryu, or tradition. Ryu is one of those Japanese words that holds many meanings, one of which is "flow," with a connotation of "flowing through time." The nature of the Sempai/Kohai relationship stresses the continuing flow of the tradition ever forward in time. Someone taught my teacher, who instructs me, and I will pass it on to the next generation. We are all responsible for passing on the small rituals that form our tradition.

Sempai are not, however, a privileged class. As they advance in seniority, they are expected to take on more responsibility in the school. In a truly traditional school, it is the senior-most sempai who are responsible for cleaning the dojo's practice space. It is the brand new student who has the luxury of arriving just as class begins. Sempai are their to serve and provide examples for the Kohai.

My school is not the image of a traditional dojo. It is an efficiently run, store front with all the amenities of mats, equipment, and other tools. It doesn't take one long to realize this is not the much derided "McDojo," despite the large number of small children enrolled. It has a staff that takes care of the basic maintenance of the space. Even so, I have my jobs as a senior student. The most ritual of those jobs is to light the candles on the Kamidana, or spirit shelf, before class.

There are other little things I try to perform as actions for others to see. For one, I always start as the Uke when we work on kata or other techniques. This is, in fact, a traditional role of the sempai -- and one much neglected. Many students want the more advanced person to act as the Tori or Nage in order to see who the technique is done one more time. No. In traditional thinking, the model for the technique or kata is the teacher. The reason the senior student goes first is that presumably he has seen and done the technique before and has a better understanding of how and why it works. It is the sempai's responsibility to correctly initiate the technique. Perhaps you've heard the joke: "Like many beginners, your attack is completely wrong." There's actually a degree of truth in that. Each attack prompts a particular response. The sempai must correctly attack for the technique in question to be practiced correctly. To change the punch, or the distance, or the timing... That cheats the Tori of good practice.

If you don't believe me, consider the last time you worked with a partner who was sloppy. Did things work? Probably not without great difficulty. Now, that's a form of training too, but we all know it is "perfect practice" that makes perfect.

To bring this train of thought to a destination, each of us is a Sempai and Kohai to some other student. We need to remember the essential point of the relationship, which is respect for the passing on of tradition. We shouldn't get caught up in the politics of who outranks who, or I've got more time in that that guy. By acknowledging those aspects, we are simply paying respect to a particular person's dedication and involvement in the art. We also need to understand that seniorty brings not privilege but deepening involvement and commitment to the art and our fellow students.

Study on this well.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Diplomat Tactical Pants

As many of you know, Royal Robbins 5.11 Tactical Pants have dominated the market for "concealment" or "low visibility" tactical wear for several years now. They provide a very practical alternative to solid color, miltary style BDU trousers, wear well, and have an assortment of useful features. Interestingly, they really did not enhance the features that appeared on their ancestor garment, the Royal Robbins climbing pants that appeared in the early Nineties. Even the 5.11 Gear name is a nod to the original purpose of the pants, which were for outdoorsman trekking to their favorite rock-climbing spot. The 5.11 pants are now pretty standard issue to a veritable who's who of federal, state and local agencies.

And maybe that's why there have been no competitors until recently. Woolrich, an esteemed outdoor outfitter jumped in last year with a near copy of the 5.11 pants. Now there's the Diplomat. These pants also do not depart too radically from the 5.11 pants, but they still have some differences: a couple of cleverly placed additional pockets and velcro tabs at the ankle. They retail about $5 cheaper at the online sites I've located for them. My personal R&D budget has dwindled, so I do not have a pair of these for review, but I will say they look promising. If anyone jumps in to get a pair, please let me know what you think of them -- especially if you can compare them one-to-one with the 5.11 pants I love so much.

Litigious Dorks

Put your hands in the air if you've heard of Konigun Ninjutsu. Anyone?

I thought as much. This appears to many to be another group of wannabe ninjas who mix a little mumbo-jumbo together with second-rate karate and call anyone who questions them a bunch of liars and spoilsports.

The problem is... they sue people who have the nerve to ask questions about their legitimacy. Okay, I won't ask any questions, nor will I call them frauds. I will simply post a link to their website and you can decide for yourselves... You shouldn't need a Ph.D. in Japanese History to smell something fishy.

Now, you might ask why they would sue anyone about this nonsense. Easy, they want someone to be the straw man so they can get a court in the United States to certify that they are a ninjutsu system. Consider this, can you prove, to a reasonable person to the standard of "more likely than not", this negative: Konigun is not a ninjutsu system? Keep in mind that the average, reasonable person has no clue about martial arts, let alone the complicated history of ninjutsu. You'll need to prove there was no mysterious, lone Konigun ninja who taught the current master before dying and leaving no trace -- as a good ninja would.

Also keep in mind that it is still difficult to prove to elite, highly educated martial artists that Bujinkan and the other X-kans are teaching legitimate ninjutsu. (Especially since I don't think Hatsumi will be willing to leave Japan with the authentic densho to produce what evidence he can to a court of law.) At a minimum, Konigun walks away from a law suit with "proof" that the X-kans are no more legitimately "ninjutsu" than their art. And they can use that in their phony advertising.

What is it they say about wrestling pigs in mud?