Pythagoras Sensei


Posted by admin | Posted in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, Mental, Physical | Posted on 28-09-2012

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Too often have I encountered a Bujinkan class where gata are summarily dismissed, and “henka” are “studied” instead.  (I have actually heard “teachers” refer to gata derisively, actively advocating against their study.)

Although I believe I understand the source of such an opinion, I find myself vehemently disagreeing, and look to Pythagoras Sensei to support my differing opinion.

Pythagoras Sensei?

Pythagoras’ most memorable contribution to mathematics is the Pythagorean Theorem, a2 + b2 = c2, which we use to determine the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

If ever asked to use the Pythagorean Theorem, a2 + b2 = c2is blurted out almost immediately.  However, if asked to prove the Pythagorean Theorem, a2 + b2 = c2is also blurted out almost immediately, which is incorrect.

I will readily admit that up until I was exposed to the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem—which took me aback with its simplicity—I also would have blurted a2 + b2 = c2.

For most of us, just knowing the Pythagorean Theorem has limited value, as determining the length of the side of a right triangle may not be an active part of our lives.

However, taking the time to prove and understand the Pythagorean Theorem instead of just using its conclusion can potentially yield many insights beyond the basic properties of right triangles.

We all typically associate the Pythagorean Theorem with triangles, but its proof requires two unequal squares, or “equilateral rectangles:”

We know from fundamental geometry that the area of a square is the length of a side multiplied by itself, or squared; the area square with a lateral of length x is x2, thus the area of the smaller square is c2, and the area of the larger square is d2.

If we take the smaller square and place it within the larger square in such a manner that each small square vertex is also a point on each large square lateral, we have:

From this perspective, it should be obvious that the area of the larger square is equal to the area of the smaller square plus the areas of the four triangles.  However, at this point, knowing only the length of the hypotenuse of any triangle, we are unable to define the triangles in any meaningful way.

If we use such vertices on the laterals to define the points in which each lateral is segmented into two, we can state that d = a + b, and once again use fundamental geometrical principles, we can assert:

Fundamental geometry also gives us the area of a right triangle by multiplying both laterals on each side of the right angle, and dividing by two, thus the area of each triangle depicted is ab/2.  Using geometry, we have been able to fully define each square and triangle, and can assert relationships between them.  Knowing that the area of the large square is equal to the area of the small square plus the area of the four triangles, we can craft the algebraic equality:

d2 = c2 + ab/2 + ab/2 + ab/2 + ab/2 or d2 = c2 + 4(ab/2)

Since we have already established that d2 = a2 + b2, we can rewrite the equation:

(a + b)2 = c2 + 4(ab/2)

Which expands into:

a2 + ab + ab + b2 = c2 + 2ab

Algebraically reducing:

a2 + 2ab + b2 = c2 + 2ab

a2 + b2 = c2

For the above proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, we needed both geometry and algebra, two distinct mathematical disciplines.  In order to use such disciplines, an understanding of arithmetic is also required.  To use the symbols a, b, c and d to identify the unknown lengths of the laterals requires the use of abstraction, which ironically, does not necessarily require the understanding of abstraction…but now you know of its existence.

The difference between understanding the proof of the Pythagorean Theorem versus using the Pythagorean Theorem is that simply using it requires no understanding, but is also severely limited in its use, while understanding it exposes us to the fundamental “disciplines” that allow it to be true, which also significantly increase its potential value in determining more than just the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

The Egyptians effectively reversed the Pythagorean Theorem to ensure the corners of their structures were indeed right angles, effectively demonstrating the foundational basis of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Certainly, there must be other proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem that require understanding of other mathematical disciplines, such as trigonometry, et al.  It is conceivable that by using the Pythagorean Theorem as merely a seed, understanding or at least exposure of advanced mathematical disciplines is possible.

As presented to us, the Pythagorean Theorem is merely a concise and simple codified proscription of sequences that must be done in order to obtain a single answer.

Any insights that proving the Pythagorean Theorem yields will be individual and likely differ as such; each of us will understand what we are ready to understand.  Returning to study the proof periodically will also likely yield additional insights.

Just like a kata.

What’s also interesting is the Pythagoras Sensei did not even know he was a teacher; he was merely studying.  But that’s another topic…


Raw notes from flying to Japan…


Posted by admin | Posted in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu | Posted on 25-09-2012

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I wrote these notes on the plane during my last trip to Japan, with the intention of sometime going over them and restructuring them into a semi-coherent post.  I leave in 8 hours for my next trip to Japan, and find myself having not done anything with them yet.  I will likely be inspired to write more notes down during my new journey, but I am compelled to share my thoughts from the last one, although they will be in “raw” form, with basically little editorializing.  Please be aware that they’re not all in their “nicest” form.  Also realize that these were spontaneous thoughts at the time, and reflect my opinions; feel free to challenge them, but I will likely not entertain derision, since I’ll think you’re an asshat and thus not worth entertaining.

  • The role of uke is not about winning; it is about helping tori.
  • Kata are not fighting techniques; they are teaching techniques developed from battlefield insights.
  • Although tori is scripted to win, tori should mindfully enter kata with the purpose of studying the lessons inherent within the kata.
  • Although it may be conceivable to view kata as a viable fighting technique, it is important to realize that kata are essentially codified patters of movement, and thus present a predictable sequence; predictability is easily defeated.
  • If kata are can be easily defeated, then why study kata?
  • When done purposefully and mindfully—taking the time for proper inspection—it is not difficult to not only identify fundamental techniques, but even the fundamentals within those fundamentals, the “meta-fundamentals” or kiso.
  • The proper study of kata inherently implies a deep understanding of fundamentals.
  • A potential analogy for a kata is to equate it to a cargo vessel.  Cargo vessels contain crates, and each crate it contains in turn contains pallets, which in turn contain a collection of smaller items, ad nauseum.  If the kata is the cargo vessel, the crates are the fundamentals—kihon—within the kata, and the containers within the crates are the fundamentals of the fundamentals.
  • Properly studying kata should make each and every one of us question our basics, and such questioning should in turn make us study said basics.
  • Big things are made up of little things.  I often hear how as individuals we wish to improve the “whole,” whether that “whole” is an organization we may belong to, family, humanity, or even universe, depending on our current level of existentialism.  Due to ego, most of us don’t realize that as “knots on the net,” we as individuals are part of the “whole,” and thus by simply improving ourselves, we can in turn improve the “whole.”
  • When we study kata, and get to a point within the kata we don’t “get” or understand, instead of succumbing to the ego-driven response to move through the sequence faster and stronger, in an attempt to “ensure” our “victory,” we should instead realize that the failure of the kata is likely due to a failure in our basics, and that by improving our basics, we will improve the kata, and in the process perhaps get a glimpse of what secrets and treasures the kata contains.
  • Too often I encounter a “class” where we will spend 5-10 minutes on a kata before moving into “henka.”  (Sometimes, a “class” will just “do henka,” but rarely is it explained what kata it is a “henka” of.  I’m starting to realize that to many “teachers,” “henka” just really means “I’m pulling this right out of my ass.”  Learn to discern this and avoid such “teachers,” as your time would be better spent drilling basics than trying to understand the horseshit they’re peddling.
  • How worthless are kata?  About as worthless as you want to make them.
  • Beyond being a vessel containing static fundamentals, kata also provide not only contexts to such fundamentals, but transitions between them.  So in addition to providing us with the opportunity to self-inspect the fundamentals within our fundamentals, kata also give us the opportunity to self-inspect the fundamentals within our transitions.  (Are we in kamae between our kamae?  Are we breaking namba?  Etcetera…)
  • Perhaps the inyo of kata is that by providing a repetitive and codified pattern of movements—predictable and defeatable—kata also provide us the tools and incentives to better understand our art and even ourselves.  Perhaps it is only through kata that we can become free of kata.
  • Over the centuries, the only constant to our art is the shoden within the densho, since kuden and taiden are and will always be open to individual perspectives, interpretations, and “filters,” and shinden is personal.  It is my personal belief that our ultimate goal is to discover the “treasures” of the densho, and we do this by “learning” from those that have been “studying” longer than us.  At the risk of sounding silly, from the kuden and taiden from our “teachers,” we strive of the shinden of the shoden.

Find Your Way Home


Posted by admin | Posted in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, Mental | Posted on 09-05-2011

Note:  The ideas presented here are not mine.  I am personally incapable of original thoughts.  As an engineer, my ability lies in taking the ideas of others, turn them upside down, inside out, push it, pull it, smash it, analyze each little piece, put it together again, et al.  Once I have gathered enough perspectives, I combine it with another idea that has undergone the same process, and examine what such a combination yields.  Most of the time, it yields crap.  Sometimes, there will be an idea that may have some merit, as I think this combination does.  I have not disclosed the sources of the ideas that formed the bases for this blog, as I have not yet received direct permission from them to do so.  If you are interested in the sources, please let me know, and upon consent from the original authors, I will privately share them.

Very early in my very short martial arts “life,” my teacher—at the time—talked about suki.  Of the many definitions of suki, the one that captured the basic premise of that evening’s lesson was:

Suki:  chance or opportunity, chink (in one’s armor)

The concept—as I understood it—being taught was that confrontations are typically “turn-based,” that is, the first person strikes, the second person receives, the second person strikes, the first person receives, ad nauseum.  However, in Koryu, the aim is to create suki—opportunities—that ultimately deny the other person’s “turn” to strike, essentially turning the confrontation to the first person strikes, the first person strikes, the first person strikes.  As Koryu, budo taijutsu aims to teach us to think this way.

For the past three years, this has been a dominating thought in my personal training, but I have never been able to develop an adequate analogy that could successfully convey the idea.

I recently read a blog written from a Bujinkan instructor I deeply respect—who has already been the catalyst for other key epiphanies I’ve had—that provided such a clear analogy that I would be foolish to look for a better one.

Tennis versus pool.

Many—if not most—martial arts, especially competitive ones, are much like tennis matches:  both sides are given the same set of conditions as well as the opportunity to react to the opponent’s actions.  In addition to ability, the victor will also likely be influenced by speed and strength.

What we are trying to learn with budo taijutsu, however, is not to become tennis players, but to become pool sharks instead.

When playing pool, it is one person’s turn as long as that person can retain it, or until that person “screws up.”  Pool does depend on ability, but speed and strength are not only irrelevant, they can be used against one.

The objective of pool is to end the game as soon as possible, and if the opponent doesn’t get a turn, the chances of being the victor are considerably improved, although never guaranteed.  There is always a chance—albeit small—that each shot may fail.  As such, not only should the opponent not get a turn, but to minimize the chances of failure, the fewest number shots should be taken.

My interpretation of the purpose of budo taijutsu is that the ultimate objective is always to get home.  Home is where loved ones are and where I’m most comfortable at.  I believe that any action that delays one from getting home is not congruent with the spirit of budo taijutsu.  A martial art that influences one to “stick around” during a confrontation is either ego-based—such as sports or competition-oriented disciplines—or duty-based—such as those taught to military infantry or law enforcement, whose job it is to “stick around.”  Sticking around can get you hurt.  Sticking around can get you arrested.  Sticking around can get you killed.

Just as there is no guaranteed pool shot, there is also no guaranteed budo taijutsu technique.  It is my belief that budo taijutsu teaches us techniques with higher-than-average chances of success, and the purpose of training is to increase the chances, but there will never be any single move that works 100% of the time.  (If there was, why learn anything else but that single move?)  The more moves it takes one to “go home,” the lower the chance to actually “go home.”

Mathematically, three consecutive “99% moves” yields a 3% chance of failure; four such moves yield a 4% chance of failure.  For those that learn better graphically:

Personally, I’m a big believer of the “80-20” rule, which means that my first—not necessarily final—objective is always to reach 80%.  If I apply the “80-20” rule to myself, that means that in order to give myself a minimum of 80% chance of “survival,” I can’t use more than two 90% moves.  If I train very, very, very hard, and am able to guarantee “95% moves,” I’m still limited to 4-5 moves.  Of course, that is assuming that every move has the same “guaranteed” success rate, which is simply not realistic.  (Anyone that claims they can do or even teach a technique with a guaranteed chance of success is simply full of crap; I’m using the charts to help illustrate a point.)  The bigger assumption is that I’m actually even able to do any move with a 90% chance of success.  Hell, in my short life as a martial artist, I doubt I can reliably maintain a 55% average.

For an interesting opinion on “real” self-defense, read Marc MacYoung’s website, specifically the discussion on martial arts as self-defense.

The paragraph that gripped me was:

Our standard for an effective self-defense strategy is that it gets you out of danger in three moves or less (under five seconds is another way of looking at it). If it can’t do that (or doesn’t teach that) then it is a sports style that someone is trying to sell as self-defense.

In my opinion, the first strategy for any confrontation is to not be in one.  However, due to the unpredictable nature of violence, that choice is sometimes taken from us.  Hopefully, that will never happen, but if when it does, the strategy then becomes not only to go home, but to go home taking the “fewest shots” as possible.

What is your reliable chance of success?

Summer Training Epiphanies


Posted by admin | Posted in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, Mental | Posted on 15-11-2010

Overall, with all aspects of life thrown in, this year has been a difficult year for me.  Way too much stress, way too many things going on.

However, looking at individual components, some areas of life this year do shine in such a way that has kept the year a good one.  Specifically, my martial arts training, and the epiphanies I had during the summer.

I’m not the smartest guy around, so I like to keep things simple.  As such, in my martial arts training, I try to simplify concepts, usually to something in the Tenchijin, but sometimes, at the risk of oversimplification, even beyond.

The first epiphany was a statement that one of the instructors made during the first Colorado regional training.  There was a great turnout, and several new faces were introduced.  During the regional training, one of the instructors said that every ninjutsu “move” could be divided into three distinct stages:

1.       Protect your centerline

2.       Take the opponent’s balance.

3.       Tenderize as desired.

Pretty simple.  Now when I look at any technique, I “judge” it by this new standard.  If a “move” takes too much time, it’s because it doesn’t follow these parts.  From what I’ve learned in my short three years, ninjutsu is not about “sticking around,” it’s about “going home.”  The longer one sticks around, the lower the chances of getting home.  Epiphany!

This epiphany eventually led to the next one:  The purpose of the kihon happo.  Over the years, I’ve seen “lists” of the techniques considered “kihon happo.”  Some lists are more inclusive than others, and I never understood the reasons, nor had I received a satisfactory explanation of the differences.  However, everyone agreed that the kihon happo is important, and rightly so.

But what is it for?  Well, when I intersected the kihon happo with the three stages of a technique, it became obvious to me—perhaps incorrectly, but it has so far helped me immensely—that the kihon happo fit nicely into the second stage, “take the opponent’s balance.”  That was it!  If instead of looking at the individual techniques within the kihon happo individually, I look at them as basic techniques for taking the opponent’s balance, the kihon happo takes on a completely new meaning (for me.)  Now, I don’t see Omote Gyaku as a brutal technique to potentially break a wrist; I use it to take the opponent’s balance.  (I can always use it again in stage 3.)  I began testing the techniques in the kihon happo, but with a different focus, and this is what I found:

There are three techniques that have exactly the same effect on the opponent’s shoulder (and thus the spine.)  These are:

  • Omote Gyaku
  • Oni Kudaki
  • Musha Dori

These techniques all have the effect of seemingly “opening” up the opponent.  (If you look at the opponent when these techniques are applied to them, their spine ends up nearly in the same position.)  I have come to refer to these three techniques as the “omotes” in the kihon happo.  (These terms are for my edification only, and are not “official” terms by any means…)

Three other techniques also have the same effect on the opponent:

  • Ura Gyaku
  • Muso Dori
  • Ganseki Nage

These techniques all have the effect of rolling the opponents shoulder forward and “closing” the opponent.  I refer to these techniques as the “uras” of the kihon happo.  (Again, for my edification only…)

Additionally, when you look at the above six techniques from the perspective of locations on the body, they only “touch” three distinct points in the opponent’s arm:

  • Wrist
  • Elbow
  • Shoulder

Processing and working with these concepts over the summer, I came up with the very basic chart:




Omote Gyaku

Ura Gyaku


Oni Kudaki

Muso Dori


Musha Dori

Ganseki Nage

The above chart—which should only be construed as a personal training tool—hopefully illustrates just how basic the techniques in the kihon happo are.  They weren’t just randomly chosen.  Yes, individually, they are all powerful techniques, but within the kihon happo, they just may be potentially grouped for a reason, which at my point in my training, seem to be to take the opponent’s balance.  The fact that the kihon happo is found in the Ten Ryaku no Maku—and that taking balance is the second stage of a technique—lends credence to this, in my humble opinion.

But that still leaves three kamae in the kihon happo:

  • Ichimonji no kamae
  • Jumonji no kamae
  • Hicho no kamae

Of all the available kamae, the inclusion of this subset into the kihon happo must have some significance beyond the basic definition of “kamae.”  In the spirit of simplicity, if the previous six techniques in the kihon happo can be taken into the context of taking the opponent’s balance, then it is possible that the inclusion of the three kamae into the kihon happo is to provoke the study of how to use these specific kamae to take the opponent’s balance, essentially progressing the idea of kamae from a “static” idea to a dynamic one.

So over the summer, the kihon happo—in my limited understanding—evolved from a “list of basics” to a grouping of basic concepts, most of which I have been able to glean a rudimentary understanding from.  Epiphany!

However, I must admit that during the three years that the kihon happo has been taught to me, I always struggled with hicho no kamae.

Why is this strange-looking kamae in the kihon happo?  Who would stand in that way?  I admit that I have always looked at hicho no kamae as the red-headed stepchild of kamae.  I also got the impression that I wasn’t alone.  (I also apologize to any red-headed stepchildren that may be reading this post for the comparison.)

When taught to me by several instructors, the “definition” of hicho no kamae seemed to focus on the “lifted” leg, the “kicking” leg.  However, during the last seminar of the summer, the instructor made a comment about having 100% body weight on a single leg.  That single statement shifted my definition—and opinion—of hicho no kamae!  Epiphany!

Once I started analyzing how often I spend with most of my body weight resting on a single leg, I realized the importance of hicho no kamae.  The focus of hicho no kamae is not about the kicking leg, it is about the “back” leg; the ability to kick with the other leg is evident, since most kicks have to be supported by placing most of the body weight onto a single leg.  When looking at hicho no kamae in diagrams, attention is always drawn to the position of the kicking leg because of it irregular position.  What is not as intuitive is that the only way to position the kicking leg is by placing 100% of body weight onto the supporting leg.

How often do we find ourselves resting on a single leg?  Reflect upon waiting in line at Starbucks, or ordering drinks at a bar.  We spend the majority of our time on a single leg.  Hicho no kamae may just be the natural position we find ourselves in the majority of the time!  That alone would justify its inclusion as a “basic.”  Based on how often we are in it, hicho no kamae may just be the most important kamae to learn!

Despite all of the other stress points that have weighed heavily upon me this year, these epiphanies I have fortunately experienced have helped make this year an absolutely positive one.

Upon further reflection, the source of each of these epiphanies—even though ultimately I’m certain they all funnel up to a single source—came from different instructors.  I have discovered how important it is to obtain different perspectives on the same subjects.  We don’t grow by following a single perspective without question; it is important to gather a broad source of perspectives so we can integrate with our experiences and develop our own perspective.  Therefore, I now strongly believe that although it is important to have a consistent single source of instruction, it is equally important to find alternate sources of perspectives to help us triangulate the concepts we are working on.  Those alternate perspective sources come to us in the forms of seminars.  Epiphany!

You’re Already Dying!


Posted by admin | Posted in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, Mental | Posted on 20-11-2009

Shiken Haramitsu Daikomyo.

“Each moment has the potential for us to reach enlightenment.”

In our dojo—and in every Bujinkan dojo worldwide—every class starts with these words.   Shiken Haramitsu Daikomyo.

What does that mean?

(As I’m finding out, Japanese is a very contextual language.  Any word or set of words in Japanese can have completely different meanings, depending on the context.  But as I’m also learning, such “duality” also contributes to the “mystical” nature of the language—more than one meaning can be intended with a single statement.  With a single statement, not only can the “how” be communicated, but also the “why.”)

The first interpretation I was given for “Shiken Haramitsu Daikomyo” was “each moment has the potential for us to reach enlightenment.”  Depending on who you ask, the words may differ, but the context is usually the same.

Beyond that simple translation, I wasn’t given much more instruction.  Sure, I’ve had discussions with my teachers on it, but it is usually left to me to find out.  As it should be.  Each one of us needs to take the concept, and make it our own, something that makes sense to each of us.

Initially, I used the statement to add focus to my life.  I interpreted it as becoming aware of what I was doing each and every moment, realizing that what I was doing at that specific moment was a choice that I had made, and ensuring that all my attention was focused on what it was that I was doing.  After all, I made the choice.  Why would I half-ass it?

Such an interpretation has helped me out immensely, and I still continue to see it that way.  But as with any concept, it’s meaning evolves as I evolve.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch Warren Miller’s new film “Dynasty.”  (Warren Miller produces a film about skiing—and sometimes similar sports—each year.)  I had seen some of the other Warren Miller films before, and I find them all to be quite inspiring, pushing me to be become a better skier by showing me what is possible.

In “Dynasty,” there was a particular segment that caught my attention.  This segment was about “disabled” athletes and how they had overcome their disabilities in order to do what they loved.  Ski!

Disable SkierThese guys were incredible!  What they can do on a slope was breathtaking.  However, as amazing as these athletes were, it was within one particular scene where it struck me.  In this scene, painted across the back of the seat of one of the “rigs” these athletes use, were the words “DIE LIVING.”

Die living?

From the moment we are born, we are already dying.  In geologic time, one could argue that we’re already dead.  Sure, our bodies go through several changes throughout our lifetimes, but the result is invariable.  We die.  Most of us, at some point or another, will imagine ourselves when we are in our golden years.  However, not only are we not guaranteed those golden years, we are not even guaranteed tomorrow!  Death reaches us all.  “Live dying” is more accurate.

How many of us feel caught in the same morose routine day in and day out, trudging along in this world full of absurdity?  Are we happy at work?  Are we happy in the city we live in?  The state?  The country?  Are we happy with our friends?  Our health?  Our dogs?  Our neighbors?  Are our dreams only dreams?  What if we died tomorrow?

We are dying.  Might as well be.  We have so little joy in our lives, that we latch on to every little bit of happiness so tightly that we cause it to fall apart.

Die living?

Is it that simple?  Can we just turn the words around and change our outlook?

Why not?  Why am I unhappy with work?  With dogs?  With friends?  Why am I not actively pursuing my dreams?  If my state of mind is a choice, why am I not choosing to be fantastic not only every day, but every single moment?

I don’t want to live my life in such a sterile environment that doesn’t have room for risk.  Risk is where the fun is at!  I want to enjoy my life!  I want to skid into death at 100 miles an hour, with body worn out from all my adventures, yelling “what a ride!”

Anything short of that, then I might as well be dead already.

I have a choice then:  “Live dying” or “die living.”

Guess which one I’m making.  Right now.

Shiken Haramitsu Daikomyo.

Better than Best!


Posted by admin | Posted in Buddhism, Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu | Posted on 06-11-2009


Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645) is one of Japan’s most legendary warriors, credited with having never lost a duel.  By the age of thirty, he had already fought over 60 duels.  However, after thirty and until his death at 61—although his understanding of technique appears to have advanced exponentially—Musashi fought barely 10 duels.

What happened when Miyamoto Musashi turned 30?

“At the age of thirty, I reflected, and I saw that although I had won, I had done so without having reached the ultimate level of strategy.  Perhaps it was because my natural disposition prevented me from straying from universal principles; perhaps it was because my opponents lacked ability in strategy.”

Miyamoto Musashi (Gorin no sho: Writing on the Five Elements; ISBN-13: 978-0-8348-0567-5)

Miyamoto Musashi, considered the greatest warrior in Japan, was able to objectively look at himself and conclude that not only did he have much room for improvement, but also that his past successes “may have been lucky.”  Miyamoto Musashi had conquered his ego.

In martial arts, I have found that ego is the largest obstacle to learning.  When the teacher demonstrates a technique for us to learn, some students will:

  • Attempt the technique very fast, trying to demonstrate how instant they absorbed it.
  • Resist the technique, trying to show how that technique is ineffective on them.
  • Perform a different technique that they know, trying to show how successful they are, even without the technique being taught.

(The list above is not exhaustively inclusive; these are just some of the things I have observed not only in other students, but in myself as well.)

The source for all such behaviors is ego.  We are so good at what we do that we don’t need to learn any more.  I am better than you.

In a dojo, I have found three sources of feedback: the instructor, our training partner, and ourselves.  The first two are external, although students may tend to treat them differently.  Generally, students will always listen to the instructor’s feedback.  (Even then, ego will sometimes prompt the student to raise an excuse as to why the instructor’s feedback doesn’t apply to “them.”)  It is much more difficult to accept feedback from our training partner.  They just learned the same lesson too, and our ego tells us that we are smarter than them, and thus we know the lesson better.  Our techniques always work; we don’t fail.  Our ego tells us their feedback is incorrect, although only our training partner has firsthand knowledge of the effects of our actions.  In a large class, the instructor will seldom be able to simultaneously observe all students, but our training partner is a constant source of feedback.

The third source of feedback—ourselves—is internal, and can also be further categorized.  The first category is “extraspective.”  This is the feedback from our senses; our tactile and visual inputs usually, but all of our senses.  Our ego will sometimes interfere with how we interpret these inputs, but we tend to believe them outright.

But the hardest feedback source from which to eliminate ego from is introspective; taking a look inside ourselves.  True honest introspection requires us to admit that there is something about ourselves that could be better, that we are “suboptimal.”  It forces us to realize that there is such a thing as “better” than “best,” as Musashi was able to conclude.  With honest introspection, we realize that if we didn’t get the technique to work, it’s because WE did something wrong.  We realize that although we managed to take down our opponent, it was because we did something else, or applied extraneous strength and/or speed.  We realize that although we did manage to do the technique properly, we don’t know why it worked.  We learn.  We improve.

Ironically, being honest with ourselves first also makes it easier to accept external feedback.  Once we acknowledge that we can improve, we look for information that will help us improve.  The easiest sources are external, and we actively seek them.

If suspending my ego accelerates my learning martial arts, what other aspects of my life can it help me improve?

All of them!  Taking a hard, critical look at ourselves helps us discover—and acknowledge—those important areas in our lives in which we are performing suboptimally, and the steps we have to take to improve them.

The same sources of feedback apply.  A martial arts teacher is an “authoritative” figure, akin to a parent, supervisor, et al.  A training partner is a “peer,” akin to a coworker, a sibling, a friend.  The same tools are available!

But how do I eliminate my ego?

Begin by assuming that it can’t be done instantaneously.

A simple yet surprisingly effective tool that I have used in the past is the Tendai-Mikkyo meditation Sange Mon:

  • Warning:  Sange Mon is a meditation that can be done alone.  However, the exercise contains a subtle power capable of adverse effects when the mind isn’t completely open.  It is difficult to properly convey the full instructions—and the potential pitfall—of the meditation in written form.  I highly recommend finding a “guide” to lead the first iterations of the meditation.

1)      Clear your mind.  (Everyone has a method that works best for them.)

2)      Review your events and actions from a period.  (Usually the previous day.)

3)      Identify an event in which you acted suboptimally.

4)      Understand that each of your actions stems from a choice or decision that you made; take responsibility for those decisions.  Identify the decision and the point in which it was made.

5)      In your mind, relive the relevant actions that took place exactly up to the decision point.  Make the same decision that you made.

6)      In your mind, play out the consequences of your decision exactly as they happened.

At this point, you may be swarmed with negative feelings.  Regret, embarrassment, chagrin; these are all consequences of your decision, and are part of the meditation.  NEVER stop here.

7)      In your mind, once again relive the relevant actions that took place exactly up to the decision point.  This time, make the optimal decision for that situation.

8)      In your mind, extrapolate the consequences as they would have played out based on your optimal choice.

There are numerous effects to this meditation, and two people will never feel the same.  There is no guarantee that it will even work for you.  It is simply a tool.  I can only attest that it works for me.

It’s Mine! It’s Mine! It’s Mine!


Posted by admin | Posted in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, Mental, Spiritual | Posted on 29-10-2009

In my short “life” as a martial artist, working with weapons is one of the most frustrating and ironically most rewarding training experiences.  The 6-foot bo staff helps me identify and correct my physical balance weaknesses.  The wooden sword helps me identify and correct my weaknesses in discerning the optimal angles.  All weapons help me judge appropriate distances.

(Best that I can tell, Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu is not a school designed to teach weapons, but instead uses weapons as training tools.  Nathan Paris—one of my teachers—once said “weapons show you how bad your taijutsu is.”  However, like any tool, if we’re going to use weapons as training tools, we must learn how to use properly use them.  I could be very wrong here…)

Working with weapons, I have found that I become so focused on the weapon and what I am doing with it that whichever technique I am working on seldom works.  On a few occasions, I am such a loss as to what to do, I end up ignoring the weapon and reverting to the basic taijutsu I am comfortable with, never using the weapon; at least I know that works better for me.  It’s not that the weapon is ineffective; it is ineffective in my hands.  I feel that because it is in my hands, I must use it.

A man with a weapon is the one at a disadvantage

“The man who pulls a knife on you is at a disadvantage.  He will clearly lose the fight.  The reason is very simple.  Psychologically, he only has one weapon.  His thinking is therefore limited to the use of that single weapon.  You, on the other hand, are thinking about all your weapons:  your hands, elbows, knees, feet, head.  You’re thinking 360 degree around him.  Maybe you’re considering some form of escape, like running.  He’s only got a lousy knife.  Now he might throw it at you.  Let him.  You still have a chance to avoid it, block it, or he may miss you.  You’ve got all the advantages when you think about it.”

Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do, p. 23.  (ISBN-13: 978-0-8048-3132-1)

In training, when I wield a weapon, I become so attached to it, that I forget my best weapon.  Me!  Body, mind, and spirit.  I am still available.  By attaching myself to the weapon, I reduce my effectiveness.  I should still be aware of the weapon in my hands and its capabilities—through training learn to also discern when the use of the weapon enhances my effectiveness—but I should rely on the basics of taijutsu, which always apply.

Becoming attached reduces options.

It’s not just physical attachments.  One particular class, we were taught a simple and effective technique, which we practiced one-on-one.  We then progressed to doing the same technique three-on-one.  Even though I felt comfortable with the technique, when it was my turn, it was a disastrous failure.  Based on the multiple incoming threats, I “selected” which one to do this technique on first, with the idea that I’d move to the next threat when I was “done” with the first one.  Even though I still feel I “chose” correctly, as I was performing the technique on the first threat, I became aware that the other two threats were converging on me from either side.  Because I was so determined to get the technique to work, I tried to accelerate it, which only contributed to me overlooking the proper distance, angle, and timing of the technique, thinking I could compensate for them with speed.  Result:  I was simultaneously struck on each side, with my hands on a third fully-balanced person.  (You don’t have to be a martial artist to realize my predicament; I’m just glad it happened in class.)

I had become so attached to the technique prevented me from realizing the simple option of just letting go and taking a step back.

Attachments can keep us in places we know we don’t want to be.

Within the context of martial arts, I discovered how “attachments,” whether physical—body—or mental, constrain my options.  Limit my freedom.

Analyzing my epiphany, other questions arose.  Do attachments affect other aspects of my life?  Can there be “spiritual” attachments?  If so, do they have the same constraining effect?

A single glance at my dogs revealed the answers to me.  I love my dogs, but am I “attached” to them?  Anytime I have to travel, I now certainly become aware of the physical attachment.  I am not “free” to make travel plans without ensuring for their proper care.  When I start to miss them during an extended separation, my emotional—or spiritual—attachment comes to light.  Yes.  I am attached to my dogs.

Could you detach yourself?
Could you detach yourself?

If attachments—and their effects—consistently apply to both martial arts and canine companions, what else do they apply to?  Relationships?  Religion?  Jobs?  Income?  Where we choose to live?  Social status?  Shoes?  What attachments do we have that we can identify?  How do they affect us?  Which ones are created by our egos?

I’m not advocating eliminating our attachments.  I’m certainly very okay with my attachment to my dogs; the benefits they provide me far outweigh the “loss of freedom” they incur.

I am advocating becoming aware of them and analyzing their benefits.  What happens after that is up to you.

(To triangulate my opinion on attachments, you should also read my redheaded friend’s rant about the round holes.)

The Big A


Posted by admin | Posted in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, Mental | Posted on 22-10-2009

Note:  I rarely have original thoughts.  As an engineer, I’m well suited to using established methods to develop solutions.  I don’t create.  My blog posts are not original thoughts.  What I do is take a topic I have learned, turn it upside down, inside out, push it, pull it, smash it, analyze each little piece, put it together again, et al.  Once I have gathered as many perspectives on a topic as I possibly can, I mix it with another topic that has already undergone the same process, and examine what such a mixture yields.  This blog is an example of that; the result of mixing two topics.  Without the topics, I have nothing.  I would like to thank the two people that shared each topic with me, Roger Choat and Ethan Capers, who also happen to be my teachers.  Thank you!

Remember learning how to write?  Back in first grade?  I don’t know about you, but I was given a rather large sheet of paper with several horizontal lines; some of them solid, some of them dashed.  I’m willing to bet that the first letter we were all taught was the “big A;” capital A.  Stay within the solid lines, use the dashed line to come across.  I’m certain that everybody’s first “big A” looked strikingly similar.

We are taught to write in such way because at that developmental stage—for the most part—we have no concept or perspective whatsoever of writing, and the “Big A method” is the best proven method that provides such perspective.  The Big A method is the simplest, quickest—the most efficient—method to get everybody writing.

When was the last time your written capital A looked like that “big A” you learned in grade school?  Since being taught that “big A,” we have “personalized” it, then learned the cursive form, and then personalized that!  Depending on how often you handwrite—an art that is being lost—your writing may have “evolved” to a mere chicken-scratch.  (Not only am I aware that mine has, I even know how and when it happened.)

Learning a martial art—especially for the first time—the rudimentary basics are taught first.  This can be tedious and boring.  Very boring.  The “big A.”  Not only is the “big A” taught, it is repeated numerous times until the importance of the impeccability of the “big A” is somewhat understood.  Then, once one thinks that they know all there is to know about the “A,” the “cursive big A” is introduced.  The “cursive big A” means exactly the same as our first “big A,” but it is done differently; a different perspective on the “A.”  The “cursive big A” is easier to learn than our first “big A,” because the concept of the “A” is already present; it builds upon the “big A.”  The “cursive A” introduces the perspective of how the “A” can “connect” or “flow” with the following letter, whichever it may be.

As the “writing” progresses, each one of us develops our own methods for making it more efficient.  Our personalized “chicken-scratch” develops.  We each feel that our “chicken-scratch A” is the most efficient form of handwriting an “A.”  (One of the dangers to keep in mind is that if our “chicken-scratch A” becomes so unintelligible that nobody—sometimes ourselves—recognizes it, it will cease to function as an “A” and hence be “A.”)

One of my personal epiphanies was that learning a true martial art not only a life-long devotion, the true “learning” doesn’t begin until the attainment of black belt.  All studies up to black belt are designed to prepare you to learn a martial art.  It is tantamount to the fundamental basics learned in grade school being the preparation for study beyond.  The “big A.”

It is easy to become frustrated with this process; especially in Western cultures, where we are increasingly becoming dependent on instant gratification.  Why put any effort into such a time-consuming process?  Can’t I just use money and get it now?  (Unfortunately, some black belts can essentially be purchased.  However, such purchased black belts don’t come with the experience, knowledge, and/or wisdom that come with one that was earned.)

Let’s extrapolate the “Big A method” beyond the context of martial arts.

I’m certain that the majority of us can recognize when the Big A method is required.  When looking at a near-vertical mountain that must be climbed, we recognize the value of a mountaineering class.  When looking at a river colored white by rapids, we see the need of a kayaking school.  Both use the “Big A method.”

However, we may fail to recognize that the Big A method is used in essentially every aspect of our lives.  Learning to drive.  Learning to parallel park.  Military basic training.  Swimming.  New job.  Engineering.  Mathematics.  Pretty much anytime we tackle something new.  We may not realize it because we may feel it’s menial or insignificant.

Expertise—in anything—is not something that we can create instantly, especially within ourselves.  If we truly desire to not only learn but also understand what we learn—not just the “how” but also the “why”—we must build a solid foundation of the basics.  We must learn the “big A.”

Now think of how many things each one of us jumps into without the basics?  Do we struggle with them when they get difficult?  How about the “big A” of relationships, communication?  Without fully understanding communication, do our relationships progress?  What else can you think of?

Learning Through Triangulation


Posted by admin | Posted in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, Spiritual | Posted on 18-09-2009

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It’s only been two years since I have taken up a martial art.  I’ve seen plenty of blogs written by 15th degree black belts, and although I can directly see how useful they are, some of the concepts they write about are so abstract to someone at my level that I often struggle to understand their thoughts.  I started blogging for an entirely different reason—a spiritual reason—but as I have progressed on my path, I have come to realize that the three aspects of my journey—physical, mental, and spiritual—are so intertwined that concepts from one easily apply to the other two.

The particular martial art I practice is Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, a system comprising of nine different schools, the details of which are so easily found on the Internet that I see no point discussing them here any further.

After two years of training, I have finally realized that I am not being taught a martial art; I am being taught a martial science.  All the techniques and basics I am being taught are effective because they are based on physics.  My sensei, through his own “art,” is transmitting to me the science of Budo Taijutsu.  What I personally develop from the science that I learn will become my own individual art, the “tenth” school of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu.

The problem is, how do I discern between my instructor’s art and the science he is trying to transmit to me?

Although it took me quite some time to realize it, the answer had been in front of me for quite some time.

As an aspiring mountaineer—even in my distant past as a sailor—I have learned to determine my (roughly) exact position on a map (or chart) by triangulation, taking bearing from at least two points as dissimilar as possible, preferably three.

By taking bearings from at least 2 (preferably 3) dissimilar points, we can approximate our position.
By taking bearings from at least 2 (preferably 3) dissimilar points, we can approximate our position.

A year into my martial arts training, my real job required that I travel to and remain at my customer’s site for two weeks.  Instead of taking a two week break in my training, I searched for and found a Bujinkan dojo in Minneapolis, the city I was going to be at.  (Being an international organization, Bujinkan members can train in any Bujinkan dojo worldwide.)

Training in a different dojo during those two weeks provided me the opportunity to “intersect” my instructor’s “art” with the “art” of another instructor.  Just like in navigation, such an intersection of bearings or “perspectives” allowed me to pinpoint the science of the technique.  This is done by focusing on the similarities of the perspectives instead of the differences.

Venn diagrams use "spaces" to represent "sets" or "perspectives."  The intersection of the spaces is the where the core of the concept lies.
Venn diagrams use “spaces” to represent “sets” or “perspectives.” The intersection of the spaces is the where the core of the concept lies.

By intersecting the differing perspectives, I was able to understand the science not only better, but faster as well.  Direct feedback from my instructor confirms that the multiple perspectives I have studied have indeed accelerated improvement in my technique.

However, in order for a concept to be true, it must be universal, by which I mean that should hold true regardless of application, conditions, or environment.  (I refer to this as “universality,” but I tend to make up words…)

What if we were to apply this concept of learning through triangulation to religion?  If instead of looking at the differences between religions, we instead found the similarities, we might find that they do not differ that much at all.

But religion is too easy.  Let’s take a harder look at ourselves and the opinions we hold to be true.  If we were to intersect our perspectives and opinions with those of others—especially with those with whom we seem to disagree the most—what would we learn?