There have been a number of times in human history when a newly created technology would forever change life thereafter. The knowledge and ability to utilize fire is one such development, the development of agriculture another, and the use of electricity can be seen as a more modern example of this kind of revolutionary leap. It's through these leaps forward in technological prowess that civilization is made possible. I tend to think it's important to also note how technology moves forward due to an ever increasing body of knowledge. For example it's not reasonable to think that the jet plane could have existed before the motor car, or the internet could have existed before the light bulb. So if modern life is the result of thousands of years of human progress then one tool stands out as a truly fundamental pillar of civilization and that is cutting blade. Archaeology claims that as early as 50,000 years ago our ancestors were using flint and obsidian blades. The incredible range of uses a sharp blade provides should be obvious and so it's no mystery why early humans would seek to develop better and better blades. Slowly over many thousands of years flint and obsidian would give way to copper, then to bronze, then to iron, and finally steel and modern alloys were developed. These developments were fundamental to our progress as a species. So much so that we name the some of the epoch's of human history after the technological level of the metallurgy being done at that time such as the Bronze Age, Iron Age etc. The advantage of a cutting blade would have been wholly revolutionary to an early humans and two main types of weapons would be created with these blades that would remain vital to humanity right up until modern times. They are the sword and the spear. Both weapons have been made in numerous styles and sizes throughout history and exist in virtually every society and civilization that has ever existed. Between the two weapons the thing makes the sword unique is that it is better suited to be an individual fighters weapon, whereas the spear is best utilized by groups of solders in rank and file. This has lead the sword to become synonymous with personal power and in the end it became an anchor in our collective unconscious as a symbol of both strength and justice. Truly no other weapon commands such an important place in both history and myth as the sword. From the legends of King Arthur's sword Excalibur to the incomparable Japanese Katana, from the Roman soldier's Gladius to the great sword Andúril in the Lord Of The Rings Trilogy. Swords are everywhere and play a fundamentally important role in both fiction and real life. This is an interesting phenomenon in that despite the glowing high place swords keep in life and ritual/symbolism the job they do is really quite gruesome. It begs the question of how a tool designed to hack people apart came to be a symbol of Justice. Originally I think it was spears that really changed our ancestors lives the most directly. A spear could allow a person to fend off an attacking wild animal and generally gave early humans a huge boost in establishing humanity at the top of the food chain. Swords really are built much more towards human on human violence. They are largely the ultimate individual weapon and as civilization grew so did the concepts of empire and conquest. This meant the idea of self defense took on a newly important role in the life of the average person. Its here that the doubled edged nature of technology presents itself. If someone was viciously attacking me with a bladed weapon then I would definitely prefer to have a similar weapon to use in my defense. If not then I would prioritize taking the attackers weapon away and using it against them if necessary to bring the attack to an end. So the sword can do great harm or it can prevent great harm from being done. But a world without the cutting blade is one where we could not have developed society very far. So this issue cannot be resolved by getting rid of blades. It's for this reason that a good martial arts school will devote some amount of time to training with blades both in the sense of how the blade is used and also how to disarm a bladed attacker. Of all the kinds of weapons that get used in assaults a bladed weapon is the most common. At this time in history such attacks are almost always one kind of knife or another. Anything from a pocket sized switch blade, to a hunting knife, or even a common kitchen knife can be a deadly weapon. However regardless of which one is being used they all must be wielded within limitations of what a human being with two arms and two legs can do with a cutting object. This means if you learn to deal with any kind of knife you will have developed a fighting chance to deal with any other bladed weapon as well. To be sure though any fight with a cutting blade is absolutely deadly serious and should be treated as such. There is an old saying in Japanese Kenjutsu/sword fighting schools that a person going into a sword fight only has a 33.3% chance of surviving. Not good odds and not something to be taken lightly. Much of martial art training is purposefully directed towards absolute worst case scenarios and this is a prime example of that. This means that standing and fighting someone with a blade is the last possible thing one should do. Get away, give them your wallet or whatever else, anything else than can be done to avoid a blade being swung towards you is priority. However that being said if there truly is no other option then one must fight such an assailant in a severe and deadly serious way in their defense. So by now we can see that cutting blades are an intrinsic part of the human world. And since people do not seem likely to stop attacking each other any time soon then it is distinctly advantageous to know how blades are used as weapons and how to defend against such attacks. This truth is exactly the kind of truth that martial arts are built upon. Seeing things as they are and working tirelessly towards the best possible result within the constraints reality presents. It's like the old head on the sand analogy, if your heads in the sand then you have no real chance of surviving a hurricane. However if you face the storm and do what you can to avoid getting killed then you at least have a chance. This is the truth of the blade. Things are as they are, so how are you going to respond, that is what matters. It is a very delicate truth. In the Aizu Clan of Japan from which the Takeda Family and the Daito Ryu comes from there is a old saying that the truth lies on the cutting edge of a blade. This makes the truth a precarious thing that must be treated with delicacy and great care just a real live blade is. If this can be understood then it can finally be understood how the blade can be seen as the perfect embodiment of the truth. Like the truth it cuts deeply and when used carelessly can do great harm but without it the world could not exist as it does. It is for this reason that the way of using a blade has been of enormous value to me. It has given me what I feel is a deep insight into life and so I am honestly grateful to have come to know the cutting blade and because of that to have gotten a glimpse of the truth it reveals. I hope you find the same for yourself someday.
Think of your opponents hands and feet as swords.
The seminar was divided into three main parts.Friday night we went over the Two Person Tai Chi Form. The Two Person Form is very much like the single person form most often seen when people train Tai Chi in the parks. It is like a endless method of countering any kind of grab or strike. It was developed by the Yang Family but largely kept secret. I consider the Two Person Tai Chi Form a jewel in the study of Tai Chi. Saturday in the first part of the session Sensei Mortley taught a Tanto or Knife Kata. This form is taken from the Daito Ryu Tradition and it another fairly rare form. It covers all the fundamental concepts of knife fighting and self defense including blade positioning, cutting angles, drawing the blade, disarming techniques and more. The final session was on a Traditional Karate Kata called Hangetsu. This Kata to a large degree represents a halfway point between the Naha-Te and Shuri-Te traditions respectively. The Kata translates as Half/Crescent Moon which refers the the stance used in the form, called hangetsu dachi. Hangetsu stressed breath control and strongly rooted stances. It is related to the Kata Seisan and uses a few similar movements. After everyone had absorbed as much information as they could we all took a break for lunch. It was beautiful day and the walk outside refreshed our minds and allowed for some hearty conversations. Once the meal was finished we returned for the grading. Gradings are always worth watching as they show people in their truest form. When you step up in front of a panel of black belts and perform your Kata there's no way to hide. It's a very important part of a persons development to grade. Unlike the seminars they are open to the public so if your curious about viewing one feel free to contact the Dojo and we can arrange that. Then it was over. Sensei Mortley and Sensei Leahy left to catch a ferry back to the island and I cleaned up the Dojo. The experience left me feeling uplifted and reflective of the deep gratitude I have for being able to walk this path. It is in that spirit that the way continues. Domo arigatou gozaimashita to everyone who walks their path in the spirit of compassion and humility. See you on the Dojo floor 🙂
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.
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.
- Ann is not a real person but rather a composite of several students used to illustrate this idea
The Art of Peace is medicine for a sick world. -Morihei UeshibaThe 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.
“The name of a thing is merely a word”. -Shakyamuni BuddhaIf 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.