Posts from November 2007

Forecasting by stupidity

By Yossi Sheriff

There was once a naqshabandi who wrote on the mosque wall: “The idiot-teacher’s corner”.

He requested his students to watch people as they entered and responded to the inscription.

“A passer-by responding to the writing in a certain way is ripe for studies. Another who responds differently will not be able to sustain more than a brief period of studying”, said this sage to some of his students, and asked them to be attentive.

It is said that eventually, although he never inquired about the matter, his forecast proved to be precise.

I have no gift of foresight, no such good insights, but I would like to have them.

Budo Ninjutsu is a martial art with no shortcuts. Years of perseverance are the only way to contain the huge accumulation of material and to practice it. Therefore, the instructor invests enormous efforts in his pupil. This is a lot of work measured by the needs of the practitioner, the instructor’s experience, and the strengths possessed by both.

If I had the gift of foresight, I would spare myself futile effort.

On the Sisyphean path one encounters those who stop. When a veteran pupil ceases to practice, I still sense that “oops” feeling anyone gets upon realizing that a unique, single copy of the dissertation he had been writing for over seven years has been deleted from his computer. Not just deleted, deleted with no backup.

“oops” indeed.

It would be helpful to foresee who is “capable” and who is not, who is worth the investment and whom one had better reject to begin with.

One evening, ten years ago, an expensive dinner at a restaurant in Jerusalem put an end to my attempts to foresee who is “capable” and who is not. I forecasted that Guy R. (who has since only intensified the frequency of his training) would stop training, and I even betted with Lior the price of a meal. If my memory has not been totally softened by the blows to my head, I recall that Gadi, Michael and Yoav also came along for the bet so I had to pay a lot for my mistake. It was nice evening, although the kebab was nothing to write home about.

So guessing didn’t work.

What did work prior to that dinner and still works today is an altogether different mechanism called filtering.

Such filtering mechanisms are scattered like mines, even where they seem quite innocent. I would like to stress that these are filtering, not testing mechanisms. There are people not “capable” of Budo who are quite capable in many other fields.

I wished to remain with those “capable” of many years of practice.

Some of the filters are straightforward, warm-up (Himum) for example. A person who looks for comfort and shirks work will not last more then several weeks. Another filter is the never-ending demand to show one’s training partner consideration (“sensitivity” in the code of ethics). Whoever cannot overcome his egocentricity in class will develop strong frustrations that will undermine his determination and will.

The pupil faces yet another obstacle. It has to do with the fact that I am an average human being, and sometimes there are problems between us because I am also a mediocre teacher. In this relationship I am sometimes in a position of a relatively young person teaching older and smarter people than myself, or alternately, teaching people much younger than myself for whom I represent much more than I actually am.


It is big problem because some of those who can, who are “capable” of long years of Budo practice trip against this stone after many years on this path. As Dan once said:

“If we watch people walking along a riverbed, often one person slips on a stone, and then following him, many others will slip on it, just the same way he did.”

I don’t know what exactly are those stones that make veteran pupils trip after years of practice, but I do recognize a large, obvious, much earlier stone: in the relations between a teacher and a novice. It is a fictional image that the beginning pupil projects upon the teacher. In martial arts one stumbles upon into this stone incessantly.

At times the teacher willingly puts on this image and cooperates with this honey-trap which means trouble for both teacher and pupil.

The teacher who must always prove to be omnipotent, who has spent fifty years at the Shaolin monastery, who has been Israeli and European champion of the secret dragon society and is 11th Dan and head master of the most excellent method in this part of our galaxy… this nonsense knows no limits. If the young pupil buys it, no great harm is done. But if the teacher, after years of illusion, believes this story as well, then no doubt this is not a mere obstacle but an unbridgeable rift for both.

Filtering out those romantic vessels who wish to train only with Bodhidharma or Musashi themselves is simple: one must simply say one’s personal, unpleasant truth I too burp occasionally, my technique is not impeccable, I am the teacher and still I lose many fights, sometimes I’m sad, at others too merry, and from time to time I seek some good advice.

Another human being.

Although I am neither a naqshabandi nor mevlevi, this now seems to me a fitting heading for my locker at the dojo: one day it’ll say “The private locker of a mediocre, sometimes very stupid Sensei”. I cannot foretell by people’s response to it whether they are “capable”, but I seem to prefer teaching only those who can live with this truth: human beings are so much more than headlines and titles.


Why is it Worthwhile to Stop Training in Martial Arts?

By Yossi Sheriff

We have a saying: “don’t give steaks to babies”, this article is a thick steak. To a beginner who might read it, it would be unintelligible. “What is this all about?” he or she may ask, and we would reply “well, this is about something in the distant future. Now finish off your apple, you’ll eat this food many years from now “don’t worry”.

for years I have been receiving an occasional phone call from a brave student who tells me: “Yossi, I’m quitting training “it is just no longer suitable for me”. I listen and say “Mazal Tov! But “maintain your fitness, or otherwise you’ll never be able to come back”.

I think of it as a landmark of maturity, a road sign for what can be subtly referred to as: spiritual progression in martial arts.

I clearly remember this time, all of a sudden, getting onto the training mattress became the most difficult and loathsome thing in the world, like eating cockroaches. Every single movement during practice was a struggle. The body, the mind, the heart, no longer wished to be there, everything I am made of wanted to be elsewhere. The movements of fighting, the techniques that up until that point I was so enthusiastic about, now bored me to death. Randori, sparring, the center of dojo life, seems childish, tiring, and small. “How silly it is” I thought “to keep training in this situation is a waste of time, it may even cause spiritual damage”

– “I will start swimming or maybe run a little more, anything but coming back to the dojo”.

And then, if you quit, guilt filters in. Boaz Fyller wrote about this in the old newspaper, (I have to find it and post it), he wrote: “To feel like vermin”.

Today I received a phone call from Mr. Y. who told me he was quitting, that he had realized, in the past two weeks, he wants to be a man of peace, that it is no longer suitable for him to fight (In AKBAN dojos, lest we forget, we fight at every practice, there is not one training session without fighting). Then he said he was taking a break for a few years and that it was not yet clear whether he would ever come back to train. I listened; I have a big place for him in my heart. Y. has been training with me for many years; I thought that people have been training here together for so many years, that the problems we face in our school would not arise if students changed every five or six years. These are real and mature problems.

Beginners often quit after a week, a month or two years of training. But to quit after so many years is something unique, a watershed point in life. After tackling all the obstacles, after fighting and defeating laziness, the fear of being hit, the friends who leave the dojo, the break up in high school from the beautiful girlfriend, the looks from the wife before we head out to practice, the difficulty of leaving the kids in the afternoon and out to our place, the injuries and healing from them”¦ after all these victories comes something that can leave a sense of loss.

I don’t think it’s a loss; I think and feel this point in most of the veterans as great progress. This is the time when all the motives that brought us here, no longer exist, there is no motive, and there is no real reason to train. Whether we were interested in strength, speed, combat ability or peace of mind “ we have already got it “ now what?

People may imagine a Zen monastery as a cool and mystical place, Ha! Perhaps for a tourist, maybe for a month, but after a year, this is serious business. A monastery is the most boring place, that’s why it works, because it is so boring. There are no pictures, no television, and no “time after practice”, there is one day after another to sit and stare at the wall. The practitioner with himself, that is all. Confronting myself, not a practice partner or enemy, this is the most difficult task. In the middle of the ring, lights on, gloves on hands but without an opponent, without an audience. When you reach a point where practicing is like dry straw, no one is watching, no significance to an opponent, practicing is no longer interesting. Then it is very strange, very strange and very lonely, even if you’re surrounded by many people who continue, this is always a solitary and individual decision.

“What now? What do you do when there is no reason to train?”

What difference does it make, up until now it has been interesting, but something new is beginning, and what is it that begins only now? Do begins now, Zen, a “will“ begins, a place we haven’t been to before.

Sometimes the actual dojo experience might be confusing and contradictory to Do because at first it appears there is so much to be excited about, maybe it’s because of me, due to the explanations I give in practice.

It is difficult to be a teacher because I need to pretend that beginners’ interests really interest me too, I need to explain: “this is an efficient technique and this one is not”, “Ninjutsu can be a deadly discipline” “ as if this matters, as if I care. Well, this is the work of a teacher, there are babies who need appropriate food and if they don’t receive it at the beginning, they will not be able to eat properly at the end, they will not be able to eat the food of the masters. A child needs to work hard, “swords are made in fire” is what we say. You have to work hard and exhaust yourself in martial art, no matter which one, you have to do all this because there comes a point when “it doesn’t matter”. You cannot skip steps along the way, there are no short cuts, “there is no Kfitzat Haderech”.

When we get there, what do we do? What happens when we’re strong enough, when we are no longer scared of the bad kid on the block, no longer need the group for company?

There are those that simply sit themselves down with a thump and don’t get up, that’s ok. It is ok because being a veteran for many years entitles you to rest. And then there are those that having understood there is no longer anything to look for, just get up and walk around, like kids, just keep walking and looking. It’s a matter of character.

I simply love Zen stories since they fit anything.

One time, in the hills of Japan, during autumn just like we are having now, two beginner monks, children really, from different monasteries came to meet.

– “Hello there, my brother”, one child said, “Where are you headed to?”

– “I am going to wherever the wind blows” answered the second child “goodbye”.

The first child went back to the father of the monastery, told him the story of the meeting and asked him for advice: “I was speechless, please give me an idea, a spiritual answer, what do I tell the child tomorrow?”

– “Ask him where he will go when the wind stops blowing” advised the old teacher.

The next day the children met up again.

– “Where are you going?” asked the first.

– “I am going to wherever my legs take me”, came the response immediately.

The upset child went back to the father of his convent. “Sensei, the child said today that he was going to wherever his legs take him, I didn’t know what to say!”

– “Well then,” said the old monk,

– “ask him: Where will you go if you had no legs?”

The next day the child ran with great excitement and reached the crossroads in the woods long before the second. He waited there until he saw the other child approaching. Running, he went up to him and asked:

– “Where are you going today?”

– “I am going to the market to buy vegetables”.

See you at the crossroads, the dojo.