05 Apr

The Forms: Kata Sanchin

  group sanchin   I was 17 years old, the fire in my mind was burning strong but the demands of school and time had been creating a lot of conflict in my life. I was generally in open defiance of authority and much of my life wasn't going in what would be considered a positive direction. Most of my leisure time was spent learning Slayer riffs on guitar and I had given up on finding anything interesting within the public school system. It was at this turbulent time that I walked into a Dojo for the first time. I had been training at a local kickboxing gym for about a year but it had gone out of business. A good friend recommenced a Karate Dojo he had been training at and it turned out that my brother had also trained there as a child. I recalled the little bit of Karate my brother had done years before when we were kids. It seemed like it involved kicks and punches and loud shouts, all things I was eager to do. So I went and I was deeply impressed with what I saw from my first class. The Sensei at the Dojo seemed to know endless techniques and I wanted to learn them all. I took to the training eagerly. The Dojo was teaching the Karate style called Goju Ryu and so the first Kata I ever learnt was Sanchin. Kata is of course the main vehicle upon which the knowledge of the Karate is transmitted. Each one profoundly combines the of most ideal body mechanics and breath control with proven combat principals. This makes each Kata is a treasure trove of information and a serious student of martial arts must cultivate them with care and purpose. Sanchin however is quite unique in that is doesn't focus so much on fighting techniques as it does on the perfection of the most minuscule aspects of muscle and breath control. In the style of Karate I originally learnt Sanchin was practiced as the founder of Goju Ryu Karate, Chojun Miyagi, had taught it. Miyagi Sensei is said to have spend many years training in Southern China and learnt everything from Tai Chi Chuan and Bagwa to White Crane Kung Fu and Qi Gong. What he exactly learnt or not is a subject of some debate but it can be assumed with a high degree of certainty that he learned a version of Sanchin most often practiced by White Crane Kung Fu schools. White Crane's Sanchin doesn't look much like the Karate Kata Sanchin.  White Crane's Sanchin is most often done in the low horse riding stance and uses quick open hand movements that somewhat resemble a crane opening it's wings and then striking with lighting speed.  I was taught a White Crane Sanchin Form once but didn't see the resemblance to the Karate Kata I had been practicing. It would be years before I came to understand how the two Kata were teaching the same thing. Other styles, notably Uechi Ryu, perform Sanchin with open hands but in a more upright stance than the White Crane Form. It is said that Miyagi Sensei was the one who changed the open hand movements to closed fist movements and added the upright stance of sanchin dachi. This might seem like a totally different technique but the key is that regardless of the shape of the hand the mechanics of how strength and kinetic energy are transferred through body is a constant. Having only two arms and two legs means that the only way to achieve maximum efficiency in a movement is to coordinate the whole body as one. It is in this regard that Sanchin is a supremely brilliant form. In the writings of the internal Chinese martial arts, particularly Chen Style Tai Chi Chuan,  there are references to the the idea of weaving a fine golden silk thread, often times simply called silk reeling. This spiraling flow of energy can be visualized as a string that coils up from the feet around the legs, through the torso and out around the arms, ending at the hands.

silk 1

All movements in martial arts are designed to utilize this flow of power through the body. The illustration above also shows that the spiraling thread passes through the lower abdomen, an area called the Hara in Japanese and the Dandien in Chinese. This specific place is of critical importance and is discussed in greater detail in the Blog article called "Center Point" at the link below.

 https://vancouverdojo.com/center/  

By tying the silk reeling and breath from the Dandien together in the Sanchin Kata the KarateKa (Karate practitioner) is putting all of their being into every inch of the Kata. Watching a skilled practitioner perform Sanchin is an awesome thing to see. All the muscles of the body ripple with  controlled and coordinated tension and the fighting spirit of the warrior is displayed at their fullest ferocity. There are times when I practice Sanchin that I get the sense of my body being like a great gnarled tree root that has the strength to drive right through stone.

It is in this sense that all versions of Sanchin are singing the same tune. Whether the White Crane Form or the Karate Kata both are designed to teach the student of the martial arts to synchronize every millimeter of movement and breath in their body. Often when a student is being drilled on this form they are slapped along the arms and legs as well as being (lightly) kicked and punched to help them learn to remain stable and rooted even when being attacked.

Sanchin is considered to mean the three powers or lessons. Each one is part of the fabric that all martial arts are woven from. They are, mind and body as one, sight with perception, and breath with spirit. Each one is a lesson that is really only learnt through endless practice of the form. The general consensus within the Goju Ryu schools I've trained with is that to truly master Sanchin it should be practiced seven times a day for seven years.

I've often heard it said that martial arts are like a great web and you can't pull on one strand without effecting all the other strands. In this way Sanchin is a cornerstone Kata. It develops the basis of all other movements and directly cultivates the shift of brainwave function to the meditative awareness that makes the martial arts what they are. It is a work of genius and of sublime insight. It is not a surprise then that the Kata has been adopted by many styles of Karate. I would recommend all KarateKa learn this Kata in whatever style they can.

And so even though it has been many years since I was a teenager Sanchin has remained a steady companion for me. It reminds me that no matter what might come my way if I coordinate my mind, body and spirit into the task at hand I can overcome even the greatest obstacles on my path.

       
15 Mar

Receiving And The Martial Arts.

  pic 1   Ann joined the Dojo roughly two years ago. She had done two Tai Chi Chuan sessions at the local university and wanted to take her training further so she joined the Karate classes that are a main component in my teaching schedule. In the past two years it has been obvious that the training has benefited her greatly. The usual benefits like better health and a sense of centered and peaceful confidence have been apparent. On top of that I have started seeing her getting more and more capable of using the techniques of Karate to the point of being able to throw around some of the physically larger male members of the Dojo. Being able to actually defend yourself against a larger and stronger opponent is always an empowering experience and when the student is a petite women it tends to make the achievement that much more empowering. However as exciting as it is to be able to help women develop the skills necessary to be able to honestly defend themselves it is only the beginning of what the martial arts are designed to do for the individual. The real test is to overcome the self. And that is something Ann, along with every other person who trains in these arts, can only achieve with long term disciplined efforts and tremendous personal strength. It is often said in martial art circles that the real goal of training isn't to defeat another to but to overcome the shadows and fears harbored deep in the psyche. Self-defense serves as a key component of that process however it is only one step along a life long path, albeit and without a doubt, it is a very important step. This then begs the question of what kind of strength does it take to walk the path and overcome yourself as it should be obvious by now that I'm saying physical strength by itself is not enough. Dave Lowery has a great article (uke article) on the meaning of the term "uke" which points out that the ability to receive an attack is the superior method of measuring strength in martial arts. This might seem contradictory as most people tend to think of strength as being measured by how much weight a person can lift or how many boards they can break.  In stark contrast to this notion is what traditional arts have to say about strength both in technique and philosophy. In every traditional art the highest level of technique is to turn the energy of the attacker back against the attacker. If you ever get a chance to to see a truly skillful Sensei or Sifu demonstrate it can look like it takes no effort at all to throw a 200lb man clear across the room. This is the strength of receiving in action and to receive an attack is a yin energy concept. It is said in Daoist philosophy that all things come from the void and that all things return back to the void. Lao Tzu called this idea the "mother of the world" and so gave it a feminine connotation. Yang energy then comes forth from this void and in the end returns to it once it's energy is spent. This idea obviously parallels with the Gaia concept as we all are born of the earth and in the end return to it as dust and bone. So if the highest from of strength is to receive then the void is essentially infinitely strong because it receives all equally and nothing can truly harm it. It is why Tai Chi Chuan is the 'grand ultimate" and the "aiki' in Aiki-Jujutsu and Aikido means to blend or be in harmony, and for the KarateKa is holds a deeper meaning of the term Kara-Te as the open hand art. Kara can mean void making Karate the "void hand way". All of this then points to the idea that the way is one of softness and harmony. So how does that make sense in terms of the core purpose of the martial arts, that being to conquer oneself. Well just as when a larger opponent attacks a physically weaker one using strength against strength is not going to work. So it is when one faces themselves and their internal shadows. It simply won't work to be aggressive and forceful during an internal battle. In fact it can only cause more harm. Instead, whether male or female, the individual must receive what is being thrown at them. Only by doing this can the internal battle be won. Time will tell if Ann can find the courage to face her demons as we all must. I hope she does, as I hope we all will.  
  • Ann is not a real person but rather a composite of several students used to illustrate this idea
             
24 Feb

The Purpose Of Training.

The Art of Peace is medicine for a sick world. -Morihei Ueshiba 

The world today has so many options for people looking for better health both physically and mentally it's bewildering. We are at a time in history when ancient traditions are advertised like soap commercials along with the newest fashion trends. On any given day I will see ads for Shamanic workshops, miraculous Energy healing methods, and even "secret inner teachings" of various arts advertised on my newsfeed on social media. It's a stunning time to be alive as many of these practices (if they are honestly a traditional practice) have come out of the far corners of the world to be available for us to simply click and try. It is in many ways something to be grateful for. However there is a downside to the commercialization of these traditional arts and medicines. And it is not that money itself is the problem. Teachers need to eat and expenses need to be covered. Most Sensei, Sifu, Shamans, or Medicine Men/Women need to ask for monetary payment for the service but most of them will tell you it's not the money that has gotten them to commit themselves to their chosen art. They have sacrificed a huge part of their lives in both practicing and teaching their arts because they feel it is important for the world. They know that they're taking part in a massive and profound effort to help humanity find a better way of living than the one which has wrought such destruction and suffering in the world as exists today. The famous quote by Mahatma Gandhi reminds us to be the change in the world that we wish to see because that is the way forward. This is well understood by the truly qualified teachers of various arts like KarateDo, Tai Chi Chuan, and other various Bujutsu. It is why these arts focus on teaching individuals to achieve their own best results. The idea being that the external world is not the source of the problem. The issue lies within the human mind. Nature doesn't need us, the solar system doesn't need us, but we need it. It is humanity that must forge a better way forward, not the animals, or the natural world. The problem in the human mind can be described as what might be called the mentality of the consumer culture. We're used to buying products that are designed to need to be upgraded every few months or years. There's always a new movie to go see or new band to listen to. You can do a retreat for a weekend to unleash some primal and intense energies but then go back to hanging out a Starbucks and feeling anxiety about whether or not your socks are fashionably correct. In the end very little, or just as often, nothing actually changes. Treating the idea of internal transformation like a TV show you can turn on or off without consequence is a fundamentally flawed and even dangerous idea. Even when the idea of personal transformation is regarded as a positive direction to take it often gets completely derailed by the desire for everything to be experienced as only bright and sunny and personally pleasurable. The quaint saying that growth occurs outside ones comfort zone is an absolute rule and cannot be any other way. Very often people will use the difficulty that developing these arts present to justify excuses and quit. Not only does this change nothing for the better it actually can push a person further into disharmony and regression. I cannot count how often I've listened to someone say things like, it's to hard, I'm just not that good, or you don't understand how tough this is for me. Then use those ideas to quit training. It's something that has caused me a fair amount of frustration as they are exactly right. It is a very hard to learn Karate or Tai Chi, and you are not good at it, especially at first, and nobody can possibly know the depths of any other individuals personal challenges. These are all very true statements but they are also precisely why training is so important. It works like this. Training is designed to truly change the habits and patterns that hold us back in our own lives and as collective species. It has been well documented that there are several measurable brain wave patterns that are the foundation of all brain activity. The most important one for this discussion is called alpha wave pattern. This wave pattern (which is steady fluctuations of electrical activity in the brain between 8-13 cycles per second) can be associated with feelings of inner peace and the clarity. High level Yoga practitioners, mediators, and martial artists have displayed this pattern during their practice. This aspect of brain function can be tied in to high level athletes, dancers, and many other practices as well. What makes Karate, Tai Chi and things like Yoga unique is that they are designed to teach a person to consciously connect to that brain wave state whenever they wish to. In the terms of psychology this is known as the id or unconscious. This part of the brain is responsible for more than just us feeling at peace and content. It also regulates and monitors all the bodily systems like the heart rate and digestion. An enormous task but one it is perfectly suited to managing. What gets in the way is largely things like anxiety and guilt. These feeling take much needed energy from the unconscious and reallocate them to the frontal lobes where abstract thoughts of doubt and fear can hamper every aspect of a persons life. This throws the entire system out of balance and is what eventually leads to disease in the body. More than that this is also where the roots of the problems that we face as humanity stem from. So the way forward is to keep our minds at peace and allow ourselves to think and respond from that state as deeply as we can. This is the real value in training. By practicing a Kata or the Tai Chi form we reconnect ourselves to that all important mental state. This in turn acts like a fueling up for all the other aspects of ones life. A teachers job is to guide a person to ever evolving and deeper understanding of that process. By combining the personal home practice with regular class training you can literally keep yourself always connected to that profoundly important task of staying centered and living in peace. And by doing that you are doing the most important thing in the world, you are being the medicine the world needs.  
03 Nov

Shaolin, Shorinji and the Zen Way of the Fist

The name of a thing is merely a word”. -Shakyamuni Buddha

  If you were to ask any random person on the street what the word Shorinji meant they'd likely have no idea. The word Shaolin however might get some recognition. Thanks to TV and movies the term Shaolin has gotten some general public attention. And of course there are the modern, traveling, Shaolin Monks that can perform quite amazing feats of physical skills and mental focus. However the performing acrobatics that are called the Shaolin today are not really what the term had come to represent in the history of martial arts in China. The real history of what is being referred to as the Shaolin is not very well known. However it is one of the most important elements that make Asian Martial Arts so unique. Through the philosophy of the Shaolin Ch'an or Shaolin Way a complete spiritual mind-body way of life was developed. One in which expert self defense abilities became perfectly entwined with the path of self development that in a Zen context would be called enlightenment/Satori, or in a Daoist context the Dao/Tao realization. Shaolin is a Chinese word and Shorinji is simply the Japanese translation of Shaolin. This is not a coincidence. In terms of purpose, spirit, and focus the Shaolin is one and the same as the Shorinji. Any differences of expression are incidental and misses the point. There's an old Zen saying refers to this kind of misunderstanding that goes,”As soon as you ask about a difference you've already stuck your head into a bowl full of glue.” If you were to translate the Chinese word Shaolin/Si Lum directly you would find it means something along the lines of a small or young forest. The stories handed down from the past say that in around 496 AD a temple was build in the Honan province of China that was situated in a small forest grove hence why the name Shorinji/Shaolin was chosen. The temple might have been just one more temple build in the very long history of Chinese temples except that it would receive a visitor from India, and he would forever alter Asian Martial Arts and philosophy. He is often called Bodidharma but also can be written as Tamo. He is said to have traveled alone from India to China and possibly passed through Tibet. Considered by historians to be the first Ch'an or Zen Buddhist teacher in China he is often depicted as swarthy, bearded man with a balding head and wild eyes. There are many legends about his accomplishments and teachings. Some tales are quite fanciful while others more believable. However story one stands out as most relevant to the relationship Tamo had to the history of the Shorinji. After a poorly received audience with the Emperor of the time (Emperor Wu-ti 502-549 AD) Tamo approached the monks at the Shaolin Temple as a teacher and was refused. The kind of Buddhism Tamo lived and taught was not what was usually practiced by the other Buddhists in China at the time. Undaunted he set about to demonstrate his knowledge and abilities. After some time the monks became convinced that he was an authentic master and began to study under his guidance. Tamo had brought Zen with him and Zen has never been an exactly easy thing to study. Called Ch'an in Chinese and Dhyana in Sanskrit, Zen is a very distinctly direct and pragmatic form of Buddhism. It's worthwhile to note that many scholars have speculated that Zen is the nearest existing practice to the one the original (Gautama) Buddha taught, and I am inclined to agree with that. The words of O'Sensei Richard Kim come to mind as he would often say, “do you see what your eyes see?” This seems to well describe what Zen's purpose is, seeing things as they truly are. The core of the practice is to essentially maintain a deeply cognizant and highly attuned meditative awareness in every moment. Tamo taught that to achieve this state one had to find balance in the body and the mind. He quickly found the monks at the Temple to be unfit for the meditations he was showing them. So to help them gain the strength and stamina necessary for the study he began teaching them in various exercises. Tamo was raised in an upper class of the ancient Indian caste society and so would have been instructed in many Yoga's systems as well as the related Indian Martial Arts systems befitting someone of his birth at that time.Tamo obviously chose a life of meditative study and must have learned many things from many teachers. This along with traveling a long and dangerous path to arrive in China would have given him ample time to develop a thorough sense of health and balance both physically and mentally. So began the Shaolin as a place where physical exercise became an important part of the meditative studies taught therein. Of course China has another, older, and equally relevant spiritual philosophy that would have been well known to the monks of the Temple called Daoism/Taoism. Daoism has no known beginning dates. It seems to have evolved from earlier ambiguous Shamanistic type beliefs coming out of the late stone age. The Daoist tradition has always been interested in using the physical body as a vehicle or tool in personal and spiritual development. It has laid much of the foundation for Qi Gong and Chinese medicine. Both of which are as old as anything in China's history and have many important similarities to Yoga practices. Both seek to find a unity with the flow of energy in the universe, both utilize the idea of the body being the main vehicle for developing insight and ultimately enlightenment itself, and both strive to see the world as it truly is without judgment. There are many more similarities but from those alone it can be easily understood how Zen and Daoism became so deeply entwined in the development of the Martial Arts of the Shaolin/Shorinji. So from these two great traditions the monks at the Shaolin Temple developed their arts. According to most accounts the exercises taught by Tamo were not specifically martial. They were more like a flowing Yoga or Qi Gong practice. Over time the exercises would take on more and more martial art aspects. It is reasonable to assume that the practical advantages of learning self defense were not hard for the monks to see. It is also worth noting that many Daoist masters throughout history have been noted for being extremely effective at hand to hand combat. The reason for incorporating more and more martial and self defense movements can be understood best when one imagines the world the monks at the time lived in. At that time in history there was no police force as we have today. A group of monks living in a temple in the forest would have had no choice but to deal with the myriad of dangers that existed by themselves. What might be called outlaws and bandits were commonplace. Rouge soldiers from various armies would often join such groups and they would be quite skilled in military fighting arts. There was also many wild animals that could have been problematic for any people living in that time. In most of China there was 3 species of Leopard, Tigers, in some area's poisonous snakes, large constrictor snakes and a dense population of large apes. All of these things would make knowledge of self defense very useful and practical. So the combining of the Yoga/Daoist meditative health practices with self defense applications would have been a fairly natural one. This idea was brought to it's zenith as it was seen that the skills a martial artist required served amazingly well as maintaining health physically and mentally. According to my research the third Abbot of the Shaolin Temple after Tamo began the training with weapons in the Temple and made the martial studies a core component of the teachings. Once the realization that learning self defense was uniquely beneficial to the aims of Zen practice an apotheosis seems to have occurred. Some accounts of a dialogue between the third Abbot of the Temple and other Buddhist sects shows the core perception and misunderstanding that still occurs to this day about how a peaceful and nonviolent art can be so profoundly well versed in deadly techniques. The answer to the apparent conundrum is in the unavoidable reality of violence in the world. Mankind has always been violent both to itself and the world in which it has existed in. Seeing this as unquestionably true a person who wishes to avoid taking part in violence can only hope to achieve that goal by learning how violence works so as to not get caught up in it's machinations. Anybody who remains ignorant of the violence of the world will have no option other than victim-hood when they are confronted with a violent situation. And being a victim of violence is not at all congruent with the teachings of either Zen or Daoism. It means one has lost one of the most important things they have, their ability to chose how they respond to the world. This then is the most important core ethic of Shaolin/Shorinji martial teachings. That in order to remain a compassionate sovereign individual one must be able to deal with anything that may come their way and still remain grounded in compassion and humility. The monks at the Temple achieved this by becoming exceptional martial artists as well as deeply conscious and compassionate individuals. The monks would take lessons from wherever they could. In this way the core animals styles like dragon, tiger and snake were developed. Watching nature has always been an important method of learning in the Shaolin and such animals proved to know very well how to defend themselves. Over several centuries the arts at the Temple became as skilled as anything that has existed in mankind's history. In many ways this marriage of martial skills with Buddhist morality was truly exceptional and is unlike the way martial skills were developed in any other society at any time. Many types of warrior classes have played important roles in almost every culture that has ever existed but it was with the Shaolin that such skills were fundamentally attached to a sense of timeless pacifism. The Temple would actually be put to the torch several times for refusing to take part in the various political struggles but the monks would simply rebuild without nursing any grievances and so their teachings have continued to this day. The history of the Temple is of course deeply woven into much of Chinese history. The Shaolin became known as Shaolin Ch'an/Way it's teachings became the root of all martial arts that teach honor and respect are paramount to how many punches one can throw or how high one can kick. If course in many places in the word the idea of a skilled warrior that upheld the common good was well known but the Shaolin style of balancing compassion with deadly skill took the way of the peaceful warrior to new levels both in and outside of China. Most notably this way of being seems to have taken a firm root in Okinawa. The Okinawan (Okinawa being a small group of islands south of mainland Japan) people had deep ties to China from as early as the mid 1400's. The legends of that time state that though there was an indigenous fighting art on the island before then it was only after a trade partnership with China had begun that the Okinawan people started to learn the elements of the Shaolin way. This way of maintaining both skilled martial abilities with an absolute sense of seeking non violence suited the Okinawan situation very well. This is because Okinawa had accepted a ban on weapons to facilitate it's trade ties to China. History is vague as to exactly how and when the deeper aspects of the Shaolin teaching penetrated the Islands but a few notable people who obviously learned such skills were Chatan Yara, and Takahara Peichin. These men fostered and developed the concepts of the Shaolin into the needs of the Okinawan people at that time and found a profoundly harmonious match. At later years other Okinawan practitioners of these arts would use the term Shorinji to describe their art, which became known as Karate. This was not because they practiced exactly the same movements that were studied in the Chinese Shaolin Temples but rather because they studied their Karate in the same spirit as their comrades in mainland China. Of course the core principals of movement can't change that much from style to style if the main goal of maximum efficiency and effectiveness are sought in the training. However a comparison of old Shaolin techniques with modern day Karate is not the purpose of this essay despite being quite interesting. So when Karate masters like Bushi Matsummura and O'Sensei Richard Kim called what they taught Shorinji it was to honor the history of the Shaolin Temple system of thought and intent. My teacher, Sensei Douglas Mortley, has often told me that Karate and martial arts in general are simply a way of using physical exercise to achieve enlightenment. And so in this endeavor we can look to the history of the Shaolin Temple as a great source of inspiration. The Shorinji represents a history that resonates with anyone who seeks to find a sense of peace and passion for living in this world. The history of the Shaolin is far from being described in it's totality by this essay but the essence of it can be felt in the words of Karate Master Chojun Miyagi when he said, “My conviction is that the way of the fist and Zen are one and the same.” This is the real history of the Shaolin, the balance of self empowerment and compassion as it was cultivated over centuries throughout Asia and other places.
30 Sep

Points of Pressure

As famous as anything in Martial Arts is the idea of pressure points. Often blown out of proportion and taken out of context these small areas of the body are the cause of a great amount of misunderstandings by both the general public and many martial artists themselves.

These specific spots throughout the body are known as many different terms in the various medicine traditions throughout the world. Acupressure spots, marma points, and many other names are all referring to the same thing, although, sometimes in different ways. So what are they and why are they important? One of the best explanations I've heard came from my Sensei many years ago. He said that pressure points are like windows to your inside. If eyes are the windows to the soul then pressure points are windows to your internal organs. This is because they are physically places where nerve endings become very highly packed and these nerves are all linked to various organs other vital body parts. So to affect the nerves where they surface then affects the functioning of the body on a deeper level. There is a constant exchange of information going on between all parts of the body. The varying circumstances of life require this feedback loop for the body to respond to it's surroundings in order to avoid harm and seek balance. The electromagnetic energy that travels along the nervous system is that information. As the Daoist traditional has often said, keeping a harmonious chi (energy) flow is the most important component of maintaining good health. This is how things like acupuncture can have beneficial results for maintaining good health. By smoothing and sometimes increasing the flow of energy throughout the body a higher level of health can be cultivated. I have often said that this system is like plumbing, it works best when everything is flowing without any blockages. The martial artist uses this knowledge as a means to achieve the most efficient results when the necessity of defending ones self is required. Focusing on strikes or other applications to pressure points allows a greater effect in bringing the attack to an end. By striking or pressing on these points, which are roughly the size of a dime, the attackers mobility and ability to maintain focus are dramatically altered. Unconsciousness and even death are possible with correct techniques if a person is well trained in knowledge of these spots and how to use best affect them. Like many other things in life the most effective results often come from knowing the most direct way to affect the situation. By directly affecting the nervous system for health or for self defense you can powerfully change the very state a body is in, and that is a most useful point to learn. I have attached a diagram of the basic pressure points that every martial artist should be aware of. My advice is to simple look at the picture and let the image burn itself into your mind. Eventually these spots will be easily seen in your training and you'll find yourself naturally aligning your techniques to them in both Kata (forms training) and when working with partners. cheers and good training Sensei Lucas Cheers  

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11 Aug

Soldiers of Humanity: from Zen Flesh-Zen Bones

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Soldiers of Humanity.  

Once a division of the Japanese army was engaged in a sham battle, and some of the officers found it necessary to make their headquarters in Gasan's temple. 

Gasan told his cook: 'Let the officers have only the same simple fare we eat.’ This made the army men angry, as they were used to very differential treatment. One came to Gasan and said: 'Who do you think we are? We are soldiers, sacrificing our lives for our country. Why don't you treat us accordingly?' 

Gasan answered sternly: 'Who do you think we are? We are soldiers of humanity aiming to save all sentient beings.' 

This story is from the collection of Zen writings titled "Zen Flesh-Zen Bones" which is highly recommended reading for any Martial Artist or simply any person who might seek some wisdom. 

Sensei Douglas Mortley once remarked that the life force energy within a single blade of grass is equal to that of any person. Such intangible things as life force energy cannot be measured nor can it be owned. It simply is and the way of Zen is built upon seeing it as being equal amongst all living beings. 

Zen can be many things and at times it can even be fiery and fierce. That is when one remembers what they are fighting for. 

13 Aug

Center Point

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Whenever someone new comes in the Dojo it is usual to have the first part of the class focus on learning about their center. Without knowing your center it can be very difficult to know where to begin with any of the movements or breathing concepts in traditional martial arts. This center point is just a couple inches below the navel or belly button. Called the Dantien in Chinese, Hara in Japanese, and in Yogic Traditions it is known as the sacral chakra. This specific spot on the body is of supreme importance to Karate, Tai Chi Chuan, Jujutsu, Aikido, and every other traditional martial art. So why is this spot of such importance, well first it's best to establish just what all these arts and exercises are designed to achieve.

The basic premise from a purely physical standpoint is to focus on the idea of achieving the maximum potential the human body is capable of. This can be in terms of balance, overall strength and endurance, as well as feats of awareness. The pursuit of achieving the perfection of the possibilities of the body is where Yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, and Karate all begin from.  It is also why the Hara/Dantien/sacral chakra is of such importance.

It sounds logical then to say that in order to achieve the highest potentials of the human body a person must develop all the movements and expressions of their body to it's maximum levels. To do that all the movements must be coordinated to work together as one powerful and fluid whole.  This is why the martial artist is constantly striving to connect the turning of their ankles with the twisting of their torso and to carry the movement through into the rotation of their forearm, and finally ending with the clenching/snapping/twisting/pushing/punching of their hand. It is an old saying that to have a strong punch you need a strong leg. What connects the legs to the arms is the torso and the Hara is the center of exchange point between the two.

Throughout history there has been numerous warrior castes. The Sparta, Maori, Inca, and Norse peoples all had powerful warriors in a variety of expressions and fighting skills. Yet they all had the same basic body movements to work with. They all had to obey the limitations and dynamics of having two arms and two legs connected by a torso with a head on top. No other way is possible. This knowledge of how to properly transfer kinetic energy through the entire body via the Hara must have been known by all highly trained warriors throughout time to varying degrees. It is simply the product of seeing things as they are. You can see this when a baseball pitcher throws their pitch, or a hockey player shoots a slapshot. They have to use the torquing of their hips in perfect coordination with their arms and legs. And whether they are aware of it or not they also have to coordinate those motions through their hara.

In Karate and other traditional martial arts this observation of the Hara being the center of all powerful physical movements is only one facet of the importance of that spot. The Hara is also considered to be the center of ones qi flow and therefore the center of ones entire being.

In all traditional martial arts the idea of qi, or chi or in Sanskrit prana all refer to a kind of energy that has numerous characteristics and descriptions. The most common theme however is to call it "life force energy" as it tries to identify the very energy of life itself.  A person with great qi is healthy and full of vitality while a person who's ki is low is likely ill or at risk of disease. The masters of old recognized the relationship between physical health and ki and so designed their arts to also increase a persons level of ki as it flows throughout the body. This increase of ki flow was found to also dramatically increased the power and abilities of the the person's self defense. Something anyone can come to know personally but only as a result of ones own training and effort.

The increasing of ki as it flows through the body is done by a specific kind of breathing technique. In the total scope of what's available there are dozens of various breathing techniques that all claim to increase vital energy but they all start with, and are based on, deep diaphragm breathing.

If you take your hands and connect the thumbs then align the fingers to cross over each other sort of triangle, then place yours thumbs in your belly button the spot where the fingers cross (it should be a couple inches below the navel) is your Hara. Sit or stand in a comfortable position then breathe into this spot. Focus on keeping a straight spine in whatever position your in and breathe deeply into your belly or Hara. Feel the incoming air expanding that area like a balloon while your exhalation contracts the stomach inwards with mindful and subtle flexing of the abdominal muscles. Breath in through your nose and out through the mouth allowing the tongue to rise to the roof of your mouth on the inhalation and then lower to the floor of your mouth on the exhalation. Do this while releasing all tension in the body and you will begin to cultivate ki. This kind breathing is the starting point for all physical body-mind meditations like Karate or Yoga but also the beginning point for the sitting meditations of Zen and Taoism.  All the masters of these arts say to aim at breathing like this all the time.

HARA breath

By breathing like this a person can develop the ability to alter their state of consciousness. Past studies have shown practitioners of Zen and Yoga display an alpha wave activity during periods of meditation. A martial artist develops the alpha wave state in the practice of Kata but all are linked to breathing with the Hara. So we come full circle and see that this center point has many layers of purpose and meaning. It really is a critical concept for anyone seeking to develop themselves physically or spiritually.

By simply being aware of your center you gain a position to grasp the power of your total being and you then will have seen the goal of the martial arts practitioner. To seek for total perfection of their entire being is is an infinite path to follow as perfection cannot be achieved but only sought after.  So Like the beautiful mandala art of Buddhism it all begins with the center point and spirals out to infinity suggesting that to develop a relationship with your center allows the universe to follow.

 
19 Apr

Tai Chi And The Way Of The Fist

“It is a self defense exercise that can make your body strong. In the use of this exercise, there are a hundred benefits without one harm. 

-Ts’ai Chueh-ming

It is common these days to see pictures of people doing Tai Chi or Tai Chi inspired postures alongside advertisements and newsletters in various health publications. Tai Chi has been slowly entrenching itself into the alternative medicine world as a profound practice with many similarities to Yoga. It has also been receiving some attention by mainstream medicine as many of it's physical health benefits are easily documented within the requirements of scientific study. These things are great for both the world and the art itself and I hope the awareness of Tai Chi's many benefits become even more understood and accepted by society in general. However as a traditional practitioner I am also concerned that the art does not become watered down as an excuse to make it more palatable for the general public.

Tai Chi is a term that stems form China's very old and very profound system of knowledge known as Taoism. One of the basic premises of the Taoist world view is an understanding of how all phenomenon that exist, exist within a balance of polarities. There is light so there must be dark, up-down, left-right, masculine-feminine, and so on. It is understood that when you have one you by necessity must have the other.

In the case of Doaist philosophy the two core polarities are called Yin and Yang. All things are considered to be a balance between these two fundamental energies and the goal of human life is to attain a perfect balance of Yin and Yang within yourself. This idea of perfected inner balance is similar to what many people think of as enlightenment.  It is in this sense that any gifted artist can attain a kind of tai chi level of skill in the context of their art. It can also mean in a more general sense that one can achieve tai chi in their own life. .

It is here that the misunderstandings often stem from. The graceful and meditative movement art practiced as Tai Chi requires the term Chuan added on to make it an accurate description of what the practice was originally developed to be.

Chuan simply means fist. Anyone familiar with martial art history or even it's movie history will be familiar with hearing about the fist, way of the fist, fists of fury, seven star fist etc. This is an obvious acknowledged of the critical importance of the clenched fist in any Martial Art.

The fist not only allows the strongest martial way of holding the hand but it also can be seen as the aligning of the elemental energies of fire and metal in the body. More than that the fist is completely unique human ability. Our great ape relatives cannot make fists. The fist truly does hold a unique and special place in our evolution. Without it we could never had made tools, tamed fire, or created anything really.

Now it was during the time of Yang Lu Ch'an (1799-1872) that the term Tai Chi Chuan became distinctly applied to the art now practiced the world over. Before that time there was no specific art called tai chi. But there was something sometimes known as  "Cotton Fist" practiced by the Chen Family of the Chen Village. But that art was largely unknown due to the secrecy of the Chen family who had maintained their version of the art for many previous generations.

I have read a number of accounts that it was after a demonstration by Yang Lu Ch'an that a well known Chinese poet first used the term Tai Chi to describe master Yang's art. Master Yang was proving that his "soft' art was a viable and effective martial art by a willingness to face any and all fighters in hand to hand combat, something he spend around ten years doing. He was never beaten, nor as accounts go even reasonably well challenged.

This is why the word Chuan is used in the title.  Tai Chi can be many things but Tai Chi Chuan is specifically a martial art study. This also reflects why the deepest and most profound benefits of the art are embedded in the learning of it's martial applications. I often use the analogy that Tai Chi is like a great mansion with endless rooms and passageways. When you begin training its like being offered keys to the front door but if you don't learn the martial applications it is like living in a tent in the yard.

This idea may seem hard to understand initially but if one spends some time reflecting on what the knowledge of self defense offers it will begin to make sense. Compassion, humility, and honor are the fruits of spiritual labor and to develop them one must have confidence. A lack of self valuation is like poison to any personal progress and must be addressed if one is to gain inner clarity and know peace. In learning an effective self defense a person can literally embody the principles that will allow them to take care of themselves regardless of what may come their way. This is crucial to health both physically and mentally.

The grace of the movements and the strength of the fist are simply aspects of the yin and yang. They nourish and strengthen each other. There are countless examples. Stability and core strength improve memory and mental clarity, fluid movement improves oxygenation of the blood, visualization and intention harmonizes hormonal balances, and self defense abilities calm social anxieties.  

11 Apr

Martial Arts One Absolute Rule

"Do not strike others, and do not allow others to strike you. The goal is peace without incident.

- Chojun Miyagi

 

In martial art training the question inevitably comes up of how teaching people to be so skilled at combat can be a method of instilling compassion and mindfulness. The idea can seem almost counter intuitive.  The key to this apparent contradiction is found within the concept that each technique is solely an expression of defense. This can be understood by an imaginary scenario in which two people are involved in a conflict. Unless one of them physically attacks the other no martial art techniques are necessary. It is only in the moment of being attacked that the trained person will use their skills and knowledge. 

This moment of actual defense can be likened to an attempted sale. Whenever someone desires to sell something an offer is first presented and then the individual must decide if they want to purchase the offered item or not. We all can agree that if you don't want to buy something then no one has the right to force you to buy it. The problem that many face is the issue of knowing how to say no to certain kinds of offers. Almost everyone has at certain points in their lives bought into some idea that doesn't pan out very well. So of course a physical attack is an obvious one not to accept. 

This then is the one absolute rule of martial art training, that no one has the right to lay a single finger on another without consent, and conversely, that every individual person has the right to refuse any unwanted offer.  Once this fundamental issue is understood then the next thing to comprehend is the absolute consequences of physical encounters. Unlike a nasty argument when one person physically attacks another the damage can be, and often is, permanent. A broken knee never fully heals, a punctured eye won't see again and then the worst case scenario being an attack ending with a death. These things cannot be repaired and so must be dealt with accordingly. 

This leads us to an idea, self defense is really a kind of mirroring. If one person offers or expresses a violent attack on another the energy created must be dealt with. So the most logical and compassionate solution is to give the attacking energy back to the person who created it. Thus the idea that one mirrors the attack. So if the attack is vicious then the mirroring will need to reflect that reality.  

It is constantly stressed in every class that martial arts begin and end with defense. Then that the defense necessary is to only bring the violence to it's end as quickly and safely as possible. Even if a martial artist uses their knowledge to achieve a successful resolution to an attack the result is still tragic. It is always a grievous and unfortunate thing when one person attacks another. The sole purpose and one absolute rule of martial arts can only be upheld when this understanding is taken into one's heart. This is the morality of martial arts and whenever I think about the relationship between fighting skill and morality I always think of the words of Richard Kim, my Sensei's Sensei. 

Sensei Kim addressed this issue in his book The Weaponless Warriors when he said "Where the morality of Karate is missing, there is no Karate." Karate in this sense can be likened to any traditional martial art. The following story is from that book and it's one which I have always thought of as being a perfect example of how this sense of morality is absolutely crucial to understanding the value of traditional martial arts.

After Word War Two, during the occupation of Japan, residents of a quiet street in Osaka were startled to hear cries of men in anger, and the anguish of a man in pain. It was the early morning. 

The people streamed out of their homes to find the source of the commotion. They stopped as they saw seven foreigners beating up a native Japanese. The native was on the ground bleeding.

"Please help me!" the beaten one yelled.

No one made a move. Japan had just lost the war, and the Osakans were afraid of retaliation from the occupying authorities. They watched helplessly as the drunks continued the beating.

Suddenly, someone pushed the drunks aside, lifted the badly beaten man, took him to the edge of the crowd and said, "Take this man to a hospital, quickly." Then he turned to face the drunks.

The drunks exploded in anger and attacked the lone samaritan. They punched and pushed the man around, venting their hostility and outrage on the man they considered spoilsport. They tried their best to knock the man to the ground in order to kick him, but the man did not go down. He bled from his nose, and a small trickle of blood came out of his mouth. Otherwise he was unhurt. He stood calmly and watched the seven men pound his body.

"Why doesn't he fight back? It is obvious he can take their blows. They may as well punch an Oak tree for all the damage they are doing. They are like small children milling around a grown man," the people muttered among themselves. 

One by one, the drunks realized that they were not making any headway against this man. They suddenly realized their fun was gone. The man was smiling as if to say, "Now little boys, don't you think the game is over? Go on home." The seven stopped punching and slowly backed away from the man. They could not take their eyes off him. Fear set in. They looked at the crowd, suddenly panicked and fled. 

The man, who was the recipient of the unprovoked beating by the seven, calmly wiped the trickle of blood from his nose and turned to the crowd. He bowed and calmly left. 

In the crowd, a young man who had watched the whole scene, tuned to an elderly man who was standing next to him and said, Sensei, I recognize him. He is a Karate Sensei. He could have finished up the seven. I wonder why he let them beat on him like that?" "You saw and example of the morality of Karate. He knew the seven would have killed the poor man they were attacking, and he let them beat on him and vent their rage because he could take their blows."

So true martial arts can never be used as an expression of anger or domination, it can only serve to empower individuals to do what is truly right, from a place of compassion and a recognition of martial arts one absolute rule. 

 

 

 

 

 

11 Mar

Shifting To See Whats There

photo

Just over a week ago the years first new years buds poked their way out on the local ornamental cherry trees. This along with a few other flowers popping up has shown us that spring has just begun it's cycle of growth. Spring has always been one of my favorite times of the year as I really enjoy seeing new life pushing up towards the sky. It's like nature is waking from a deep sleep and along with this growth comes warmer days and brighter skies.  It feels like endless new possibilities are pouring out into the world like an overflowing cup.

This symphony of natures energy in bloom can be quite cathartic in its affect. It ultimately can be downright transcendent when the right conditions are met.  Nature is like that, it doesn't so much offer us engagement as much as it simply is engaging if we pay attention to it. I was given the gift of growing up in rural and often quite isolated areas so nature was not something I had to make effort to visit, I was surrounded by it. That is not the case for several generations of people in the western world and I think this has caused many of our societies health challenges as well as numerous other problems.

It really is not a surprise then that getting out into nature has many positive qualities. However it often needs to be rekindled in the minds of many so as not to be forgotten in the hustle, bustle and mind numbing advertisements of city life. Of course simply being in nature isn't quite enough you still have to be mindful enough to let nature soak into you.

Leaving the city and starting a self-sustaining farm may to far from most peoples concept of possibility but such dramatic life changes are not required to initiated a shift towards a better relationship with the source of all life on this planet. Like all things it's much more important to simply be aware. Flowers may be beautiful but they have very limited time to be in bloom and they cannot alter their process to suite us so we must be mindful enough to notice them.

Most cities have parks throughout their different neighborhoods and many are now developing community gardens so there is always some greenery around. I highly encourage everyone to grow a small garden if they can.  If you ever doubt the power of growing a garden go talk with someone who has grown a garden for many years. They will tell you that the garden cultivates them as much as they grow it.

Another obvious and important method that most people can access nature by is to take a day to hike into some mountains or along a seaside. These require a bit of planning but are very rewarding as they engage one in nature much more fully than a city park ever could. They also offer some great physical exercise especially if they are on a rugged trail.

Of course most peoples lives are already full to the brim with the various things they already do. It can be very difficult to convince people to do virtually anything new, even if it's obvious that it will dramatically improve their lives. However I would think that if your reading this blog then it's likely that you at least are open to the idea of change for the sake of bettering of your self.

Here is a very simple and profound thing you can do anyday and everyday to grow towards that goal, shift your awareness. Right now nature is pushing forward life's splendor as intensely as it can, so notice it. Take a moment to stop and really look at the patterns of growth in a tree's new buds, get down low and really look at the designs of flowers, see the richness and beauty of their colors and patterns. Stop and really listen to the birds, hear the rhythm and flow of their songs merging with the flow of the wind. Nature is always there sharing it's quite secrets, always.

This applies to gardening and hiking as well as daily life. Stopping to smell the roses so to speak really does change ones perspective. In those moments of deeply engaging with the sight of a flower or feeling of a breeze, or the sound of robins chatting about the day is truly how you can allow yourself to be more fully in the present moment.

It's said that an artist is someone who can bring out the sublime from the ordinary. I say it is the artist who can see the sublimity in the ordinary world. This way of thinking is really a way to notice what's already right in front of us and so doesn't necessarily require any  new purchases or scheduled time allotments. Spring is a time of very distinct growth and so a perfect time to plant the seed of mindful awareness in daily life.

Nature is right in front of us, so notice it, it's that simple.

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