A student asked me: “Why can’t I do the warm up with a T-shirt and then put on the Gi? It’s too hot in this heavy apparel. ”
“What a weak question” I thought.
With this thought I could have ended this dialoge, but I wear a heavy black canvas Gi and a combat skirt, the Hakama. That’s what I wear for work.
“…” say the horrified looks of students who, on weekends, pedal on bicycles wrapped in colored tights. “I’ll wear tights, I’ll put on branded sunglasses, a yellow Lycra hat, but a black skirt and a heavy jacket? It is unnecessary”, say the disdaining looks on the face, I’ll be a loughing stock.
It is unnecessary, but there is a reason why we are a loughing stock, a reason that relates to the concept of Respect. Practicing respect is always unnecessary, always superfluos.
When I related this exchange in the dojo, one veteran later told me: “In the trenches, at the Yom Kippur War, it was obvious that this was the end of us: we would soon die or be prisoners of war. It felt like the end of the world. I did not know if we’d see the sun the morning after”
I looked at him, I did not know what to say, I’m old, but on Yom Kippur I was in elementary school, so I listened.
“We cleaned our weapons and machine guns, then we polished our shoes.” I gave him a deep look, he never misses a training session, and on Yom Kippur war, under a smoky black sky, with artillery fire landing next to him, he polished his shoes. It seemed appropriate to me.
If one asks “what’s in it for me?” I will not supply an answer. In the old school the question is, “How do I do it?” When I try to answer the first question, I turn silent. What comes out of it? Nothing comes of it, nothing, it’s unnecessary.
It is possible that the late Professor Amotz Zehavi would have thought that this was an extension of the Handicap principle, maybe. I think it’s powerful.
Doing essential things is good, but it’s not like doing unnecessary things: treating elders and children with respect, not stealing even when no one is looking, putting on a Hakama and Gi on a hot day, being a mensch. Unnecessary.
During the thirty plus years I have been teaching, so many students have gone through groups, so many students, that I feel that the data I present is not anecdotal, it has a statistical significance.
Grit predicts success.
Success is also personal. Each practitioner starts from a different point, equipped with different initial quantities of courage, intellect and money. A different starting point affects the end point. Those who come to groups from a low starting poing will find themselves after thirty years in a better place, compared to their own starting point.
What is the unit of measure of grit? Years.
Grit is founded on decades of persistance, grit manifests in resistance to external difficulties. Grit maintains focus in front of disruptions. We sum up grit toward the end of life. Period.
A practitioner who trains for ten years is at the beginning of the road. Ten years is about tenth grade. A practitioner who has been training for thirty years is getting nearer.
Should the training be in Akban? Of course not, but there must be a comprehensive practicum, not just practicing but an initiation practicum that the apprentice is a part of.
When I look at the student’s cards, I do not see a statistically significant deviation. Long-term training predicts a student’s personal success – success relative to his starting point.
And those students who have a good starting point? Money, high IQ, crazy courage, the same students create success that can be measured in absolute terms, not only relative. Academic achievements, excellent family life, money or if the apprentice wishes to – an enterprise that improves the quality of life of many other people.
Grit means a simple but very difficult thing – training is not an option.
Exarcheia neighbourhood in Athens is Tel Aviv, 50 years ago. The faces of the old people in the streets, grandmothers carrying baskets from the market, slowly climbing the steep streets, the bookshops, the aromas of family cooking at noon, I am sure I smelled Kaptadakya and Pastitsio.
I came for the winter seminar armed with Gaby Frischlander. Gaby is the senior teacher in Niradin, a Doron Navon Shodan and an AKBAN Nidan. Gaby came to test Vasilis and Aris for senior instructor level together with me.
Gaby and me have been friends for more then forty years. We are older now, but we used to play hide and seek in the workers’ neighbourhood, fought in the same elementary school, heard music in the same high school parties and stood in awe in the same dojo. Simple things, same old Seiko watch, same old shoes that I mend all the time, same jeans, same morning training routine.
Will power, courage and dedication. This combination of characteristics is not rare, we see it in many dojos. What is rare is something that we saw in the Detant workshop, something unique to the Greek dojo, a degree of spirituality. Economical hardship, creates, in some people, wealth.
I honor this combination of courage and spirituality. Alchemists’ gold is not dependent on loans from corporations, it stems from correct work, respect and awareness.
New year is coming, with new challenges. Whenever I go on a new hike I take many looks back, to see where I came from, old knowledge, old techniques, old friends.
For the new year here’s what I send to all who work: Get over difficulties, practice daily, breath deeply, thank you, Ευχαριστώ πολύ!
So, this is a Kurd riddle: A farmer has to cross the river with his only sheep, a sack of cabbage for the winter and a big wolf. What he sees when he comes to the river is one tiny boat with place for two. It’s either him and the wolf, and then the sheep eats the cabbage, or if he takes the cabbage, the wolf eats the sheep.
You get the picture…
So it’s a simple kid’s riddle and the guy can solve it with some extra rowing, some extra work.
When my teacher told me this, I just figured it’s a lame riddle.
“Nope,” he said, “the point is not how to juggle the passage, the point is that the wolf comes with you”, he said: “you have to take the wolf”.
So I am watching my wolf, sometimes it scares me, there used to be a time it got me into trouble, many times it protected me, but for sure, my students, and many of my friends here in Israel have a wolf.
So the riddle is not one of transportation, instead it points to the necessity of being the master of the things you carry with you, voluntarily or not.
Information can be embedded into many things. If it’s an obvious, modern, WYSIWYG stuff, then even our slowly evolving wiki might not be enough. As one of the students complained: “isn’t there a way to make the Ninjutsu clearer?”.
I thought: “Clearer then this start of a Ninjutsu portal? clearer? I have to think about it, I thought it is too clear”
But sometimes people are not afraid of ambiguity, do not rush through fog or gifts that come wrapped. Sometimes we rejoice in a little mystery. Instead of trying to reveal it all one can embrace the intangible. It is happier this way, more exciting.
When I was young, years ago, we played a bad game. My kindergaten teacher gave a kid a wrapped box. Then one kid would open the outer wraps, pass it on to another kid and at the end the so called “winner” would be left with some stupid eraser. Why open it? The box can sit, unopened, till the very end of time.
It makes me smile, hiding is such an un-cultural thing to do, the exact oposite of my wiki effort. Reveal nothing, and love it.
Insights about martial arts can be this wrapped secret, this is why I love Ninjutsu Kata.
To us, modern guys, it should all be revealed as quickly as possible. This lack of patience is the mark of very disturbed kids. Everything should be understood immediately. The girl should be undressed A.S.A.P.
Hah, this is porn. Porn everywhere. Watching the unwrapped humans reveal it all, either in an adult site or inside the UFC octagon. And at the end we get nothing, less then the kindergarden eraser.
Why open it?
Maybe just a little bit, a hint. When I look at the video my Yoga teacher, Nir Adin, posted I see the Yoko Aruki step, I see work against several opponents, but even more – I see harmony. As we, martial arts practitioners sometimes guess, not all humans come to attack us, the majority just want to interact.
These insights, these experiences, are embedded inside many folk dances, from Egyptian Tahtib to the dance done during the Holi festival in Rajastan. Here is the mesmerizing thing.
Video of multiple friend – opponent dance, Rajastan
A student asked me: “Can I do the warm-up with a T-shirt and only then put a Gi on? It’s too hot inside this heavy uniform”. “That’s only logical” I thought, “only logical”.
We wear a Hakama, a little black skirt, and also a heavy Gi, we put our big backpacks and walk the desert for the desert gathering, we do not use GPS. It’s just a taste of the many unexplainable things we do. There is more to these then tradition or toughness.
I acknowledge the fact, many of these habits are unnecessary and can be made easier, but there is a place for it, it has to do with the concept of respect. Work, respect, must always border the unnecessary.
When I recounted the dialog above in the Dojo, one veteran told me: “In the Suez canal, in the Yom Kippur war, we knew it’s the end – either we’ll die or we’ll get captured by the Egyptian army. We felt like it’s the end of the world. We didn’t know if we’ll live to see tomorrow”.
I looked at him; I didn’t know what to say in front of the veterans. I’m kind of an ancient guy, but in the Yom Kippur war I was a kid in elementary school.
“And then what did you do?” I finally inquired.
“We cleaned our weapons, we checked the platoon’s machine guns, and then we tidied our uniforms and meticulously shined our shoes”. I took a good look at him – he never misses a class and in the Yom Kippur war he polished his shoes.
In our culture the question asked is: “What’s in it for me?” that’s a different way of saying: “why should I do it?”.
In any old school, the question is completely different. Rather then ask about the the functions of the anatomy we sing to the heart. When one answers a question about roses with a mathematical equation one is stuck, there is no perfume in the answer.
If a practice, a Budo, is completely logical and necessary it’s good but not powerful. To be powerful is another realm, to be powerful it has to earn the statue of a rose. It must not be fully explainable. Treating our elders well, not stealing even when no one’s looking, putting on a Hakama and a Gi especially on a hot day and, please do not forget – practicing a traditional Martial art in the modern battle field of the middle east.
Budo, with it’s health benefits, with the level of security it allows its practitioners, gets its power from somewhere else. Practicing for many years is the essence of the unnecessary, and so is the seed of personal freedom, the freedom to work hard. Zorba the greek summed it up: “This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition.”
“Why didn’t you put the nutrition program on the website along with the fitness program?” a student once asked me.
In 1985 I lived in retirement home for the elderly, for a few weeks. I slept in my dear grandmother’s room to look after her. Back then I don’t think there were foreign nurses for that. So I had to do it. The old people had three meals a day and I had to mentally brace myself for these meals. Every meal was a tough event, a herd of old people storming – I am not sure it’s a strong enough word to describe it – the food.
The tenants were focused on the goal – to eat well, lots of it, and fast. There was this one old woman who helped those who needed help sitting down, washed hands and served food for others in her table. “That’s the Rebbetzin, the woman-Rabbi”, they told me when I asked.
I know a guy, Danny, who only drinks water and a specific kind of water- spring water he drew himself and stored in glass bottles. It’s the same thing I’ve seen with the Rebbetzin at that retirement home in Katamon, Jerusalem. something that in our culture is usually directed toward another person – happens with them towards something else, to an action. I will give a name for this treatment, I call it: “Respect”. Respect like this is the un-necessary, the un-reasonable, the un-expected respect and thus – a rare commodity.
Usually respect is directed to another human being as an expression of hierarchy and that person’s social status. But there is another form of respect. In the old school regime, respect is expressed also to a technique, an object, to a way of life. Through the observation and the action one can practice respect to movement, to someone, to something.
Respect, “re-spicere“ in Latin, means “to look, to observe again”.
What are we looking at again and with what intent? What is this useless action we voluntarily take? How do we look and from what reasons? It’s very important, it’s the fundamental root of our art.
The actions can many, but not the intention. One can take the sword and perform the bowing ceremony. But early in the morning, if I myself draw it, I just hold the sword in the scabbard with both hands, I balance it and look at it, I don’t bow to the sword, I just look at it, I carried it in my backpack for many desert gatherings and I don’t bow to it now, but I remember the intention of bowing. After many years it’s not just a sword for me, the repetitive, useless observation made it into something else. And it’s not just the sword, it’s the kick in the morning, the tsuki in front of the opponent.
What are these? To what dimension does everyday act transcend if it’s respected?
“You need to work for respect” they say in Hebrew. It doesn’t just show up, it’s an effort. And this effort outlines the road between respect and weakness. To ogle pretty ladies might be re-spicere, but it is no respect. It’s not an effort.
The Rebbetzin just wants to devour the food too, but she has years of work expressed in every single action, in an elderly home of all places.
Respect does not have to be based in morals or ethics, it is based on power, the only power we can independently develop. Gideon in the bible knew enough to use it to separate the people from the warriors. Giving your seat to an old man is useless, un-necessary work and thus Powerful.
To respect the food we eat, to respect the technique or the stranger is not an easy work and not an easy choice. We don’t look for easy choices, in Akban there are no shortcuts, it’s not a catch phrase, it’s the ability to work.
Yesterday some young guy came to practice, he broke his hands three weeks ago and they took his cast off. So he came with the bandages and just did kicks and sit-ups. That’s what he did to himself and to his own core, thorough this he can breath a master’s air, through this he’s more than just a guy.
And for us, martial arts practitioners, there is an added barrier; we are supposed to manufacture respect in the midst of strife.
A year ago ten people attacked an Akban veteran from Jerusalem. They came with sticks, brass knuckles and knives. He lived to tell the tale: Just when they showed up he took the Kukishin standard battle stance- Doko Ichimonji.
In his greatest stress somthing in him remembered his genetic code. This is how he started, this is how we start being marvelous – from something we do anyway- there is no shame in our everyday practice, with us it’s Ninjutsu, for someone else it’s Karate, Tai chi, Vegetarianism, Judaism or Islam. They are all good. Respect and shame do not live together, shame and inner weakness do. The useless action, the additional look, the attentiveness – they go against the bon-ton, respect is not fashionable, it is my grandmother.
The same respect monitors the heart beats of the martial artist, the carpenter and the poet. And for this ancient monitor we set the clock a few hundred years back, with the right awareness, with useless repetition. In the Dojo it’s the Kata, in the music class it’s the ancient instrument, an old music score. In another place it’s a quill and a parchment. And when the practice walks the same path for hundreds of years, it’s a potent journey.
Our path is a deep desert gorge. There the rocks lie and wait for the careful step to move them. You put your feet in the the old Ninjutsu kamae and it happens – There are ancient footsteps on this road, quiet ones.
No need to look for it in monasteries, quite the opposite – here’s the nose and it’s right under it.
And if it’s a meal than it’s the respect for the food, it’s not a given – something died for it, someone worked hard for it, it’s the food and it can get better. If someone shares this attitude then it becomes better, hench our community.
So this is what I know, this is how the nutrition program starts, this is how the martial art I learned from my teacher goes. It’s no wonder I didn’t dare yet to publish it like the fitness program – a nutrition program that is based on respect for food can only be understood by someone who was hungry and chooses to be hungry again.
This is the obvious and also the hidden side of ‘practicing respect’ in my Dojo. Only a person who was hungry will practice correct eating without acting as if he’s practicing correct eating. Only a person, who witnessed the un-separateness of violence from life, can practice non-violence.
Respecting food starts with sometimes being hungry, when have you been hungry lately? Respect for our Budo is not punching The Buddha.
In the early 90s arrived to Israel for the second time Masaaki Hatsumi, the teacher of my teacher, Doron Navon. Hatsumi arrived with the Japanese shihans.
It was a great Ninjutsu seminar; it’s just that I missed it all. I got sick a day before the seminar. My fever was so high that most of the time I was almost hallucinating, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch TV, I just lied in bed for a few days and looked out the window.
At the last day of the seminar all the veterans met and Moshe Kastiel called me on the phone: “Sheriff, we are having dinner for the sensei before he flies back to Japan, maybe you can come over?”.
“Forget it Kastiel,” I told him, “I’m sick to my bones, it won’t work for me to sit through dinner and chat in Japanese”.
“Sheriff, stop with your nonsense. Tonight at seven we’ll be in the ‘Turquoise’ restaurant in Jaffa. Don’t miss the sensei. You’ll be there.”
Moshe was right- I was there. My spouse helped me get my clothes on, put on a jacket and a tie and drove me to Jaffa. I sat in the restaurant next to her, feverish. Everybody ate fish and sish kabab. I was sipping slowly mint tea and wiping the sweat off my face.
Throughout the dinner the sensei made jokes and had some drinks. All of a sudden he looked at me and said: “Godan!”
I didn’t get it.
The Japanese and all the Israeli instructors were there so I thought he’s pointing at someone next to me. Doron Navon said to me: “You’ll have Godan now”.
“Godan” in Japanese means “5th Dan”, a test that’s also called “Sakki” – testing the killer intention. Sensei is standing behind the person who’s taking the test, raising a sword made of bamboo called “Shinai”, closing his eyes and striking down with it. The person taking the test is supposed to dodge it.
I told Doron I can’t do it, sick, next time. Doron heard me but said: “Your Godan is tonight”.
Everybody paid, put on their jackets and coats and started walking to the ruined houses, between the restaurant and the Arab neighborhood.
There was a piece of land there, next to some broken-down walls, and the rising moon lit it beautifully.
I gave my spouse my jacket, took the tie off and set in Seiza.
There was a small problem though- the sensei’s Shinai was already packed in the van that will drive them all to the airport, so Uri T- a sharp student of Doron’s, ran to a pine tree near one of the houses, clung to a big branch and broke it from the trunk. Then he cleaned it off all the small branches and gave it to Hatsumi sensei.
There was another problem- the neighborhood was near-by and we were a big group of Japanese and Israelis- a strange sight. I kept sitting and the Shihans, my spouse and the Israeli instructors formed a circle around me so no one could see through. Hatsumi sensei burst out laughing seeing the huge branch Uri handed him. He gave the branch to Doron and walked behind me while him and Doron were laughing. I already closed my eyes sitting down and thought that I should have opened the top button in my collar. Still sitting.
For years I’ve trained for this test. Even though Doron said there is no way to prepare for it. I’ve always tried to sharpen the senses in order to hear or feel the strike and the intent behind it.And that’s what I did that night, in old Jaffa. I sat with my senses sharp- prepared for everything. At some point I felt something and jumped to the side on the ground- when I turned around I saw that nothing happened yet- Doron and Hatsumi stood far from me, looking at me silently.
I jumped because I thought I felt them. Then it got very quiet. I sat in Seiza and the sensei said behind me: “Leave everything”.
I don’t know what happened to me – suddenly, after many years, after many fists fights and one war, I stopped being prepared – I suddenly found myself to the side on the ground and everybody clapping.
While I’m writing this I’m thinking about what Dan, one of Akban’s veterans, said to me. A good summery for every method and practice.
He said: “If you’ll prepare for everything, you’ll be ready for nothing- so prepare for nothing”.
In the year of 1703, forty six Samurai cut their own stomachs open. I believe they did it happily. They left another Ronin to tell the story. That’s what happened, a guy named Kira Yoshinka caused a Daimyo to cut his stomach, commit sepuku. The Daimyo, Naganori, left 47 samurai that swore to avenge his death. After two years of working in various jobs the ronin gathered in a snowy night, penetrated the stronghold, killed Naganori’s retainers and slit Yoshinka’s neck after he refused to commit suicide.
The modern visitors who, till this day, visit the graves think of the immense loyalty, but hidden inside this myth is another, twisted, value: the ancient solution to injustices in this life – death. Ruth Stein, in her invaluable book, explains the logic of the shahid, she sums it up with the header of the first chapter: “Evil as Love and as Liberation: The Mind of a Suicidal Religious Terrorist”.
It’s Thursday today, the 17th in March 2011, 308 years ago, at the 20th, very near to Sakura, forty six smiling heads rolled on the ground. Reluctantly I join the myriad of people who got inspired by this horror. This is a horror myth that is cross cultural, from the Philistines’ Dagon temple to Karbala – death of other as the solution to unsolvable problems.
Death as the riddle solver: a peasant from Frigia ties a knot that can not be opened. Alexander of Macedon, the person who later kills hundreds of thousands, starts by killing the knot, he cuts it with his sword, and for this symbolic solution some people highly commend him.
Alexander dies at the age of thirty three from an illness or poison. In his private battle he does not dance with the sword, he dances with microscopic bacteria. It seems that he would be happy to exchange manner of death with the forty-six Ronin.
Presumably it seems like a similar thing, in essence it is deeply different. The difference between the shahid and the technician is in the right the first one claims over another person’s life. The shahid and the ronin feels just when he kills, that is the hole in the logic of the killer. To hide the illogic this hole must be shut completely with anger. Anger and hatred are strong, much stronger then many other things, but not from all things. Anger and hatred are losing this week.
Today Japan is in the wake of a terrible disaster and on the brink of a possible nuclear tragedy. At the Fukushima facility the cooling water evaporate and the fuel in the reactors slowly heats in a process that might lead many people to death they did not choose. In Fukushima there are some technicians still trying to solve this impending catastrophe. They say that there are fifty, Fukushima’s 50. I am looking at the fifty and looking at the 46. It will not be the same kind of death because the process is different.
Hatred, loyalty and bravery are watching, astonished, right now on the Fukushima compound they are loosing. Something for which we have no words for is taking place right now. Loyalty, bravery and love are getting a deadly dosage of radiation. My heart is with Fukushima 50.