Posts from January 2012

The unnecessary

Yossi Sheriff
Translated by Oded Levi – AKBAN Canada

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.”

AKBAN rose



Yossi Sheriff
“Where’s the AKBAN nutrition plan?” A student asked me. (answer at the end, please wait)

In 1985, I lived in an old age home for only a few weeks. I slept in my grandmother’s room to take care of her.
The old people ate three meals a day and I had to prepare myself emotionally for each meal. Every meal, a herd of old people, herd is not a strong enough word to describe the scene, would devour the food. The tenants were concentrated on a goal – eat fast, eat a lot. It was not a good experience, neither for the elderly nor for me.

I observed a woman there. She did not carry a samurai sword, she did not fight in any arena, she did not speak much, but she had an aura of power and humanity around her. This old women helped those who had to sit down, religiously blessed and washed her hands and then served food to others before she touched the food. “That’s the Rebbetzin,” they told me when I asked. She did a practice at every meal. I will give a name for this practice: “Honour.” Unnecessary honour, unnecessary, unreasonable, not obvious, and therefore an item that can not be understood in economic reason.

When you think of honour, you think of a relationship that is directed towards another person, a relationship that expresses hierarchy and social position with someone else. But there is another respect, an honour directed at a technique, an object, a way of life. Through our gaze and action (and this must be practical) we respect, we honour, a technique, someone, something. In English we write: respect, re-spicare in Latin, in the sense of “look again, look again”. What do we look at again with intent? What is the unnecessary thing to do? How do we look and for what reasons? This is very important, it’s fundamental.

What we do is important, but it is not the essence of practicing honour. You can just take the sword and pull it out. But the ritual that precedes the retrieval, the unnecessary ritual, the physical, is the one that establishes practice of honour.

“For honour you have to work,” goes the Hebrew proverb. It does not just manifests, it’s an effort. And this effort is a path that separates respect from weakness. Looking again and again at pretty girls, well, that may be re-spicare, but there is no respect in it, because it is not an effort. We need an effort, the woman naturally feels like attacking the food but she doesn’t, and I want to sit all day at home, drink cola and gnaw at cheese.

Gideon, in the Bible, understood that respect separates humans from animals. To stop, (stop!), to drink water in a dignified way, to bow, to give a seat for an old man, unnecessary, unnecessary, and therefore – a gate of honour.

Respecting the food we eat, respecting the technique or the person is not an easy job and not an easy choice. I’m not looking for easy choices. “There are no shortcuts,” is the motto of those who can walk long distances.

Yesterday a practitioner came to the dojo. He broke his hand three weeks ago and took off the cast. So he came with a bandage and just did the kicks and the sit-ups. It’s his honour to his practice, that’s how he breathes the air of a master, that’s how he is more than just a creature.

For us it is Ninjutsu, for someone else it might be social work, Karate, Carpentry, Tai Chi, Vegetarianism, Prayer.

Shame and honour do not live together, shame and inner weakness live together. The unnecessary act, the additional observation, the attention, not only go against the bon ton and fashion, they produce a cycle of discipline and power. A circle that does not have to use a boxing bag to draw its boundaries, you can draw a circle of honour with a cup of tea.

Honour sets the heartbeat of the martial artist, the carpenter and the poet. Only those who use respect can have strength and precision.

I set my clock to a time a few hundred years ago, measuring the time according to the correct attention in the technique, not surprised by having to do repetitive work. And the clock is my frame of reference for practicing honour. Every one can measure his attention with an individual inner clock. In the dojo it is the Ninjutsu technique. In another classroom it’s an old musical instrument, an old musical score, in another discipline someone purifies himself before writing precise Hebrew letters using a feather on parchment.
And when a tradition has been using honour for hundreds of years, it is an even stronger . What do I mean? You put your feet in the Ninjutsu’s Kamae, you stop, stop, and listen. You can hear it, that’s the sound of ancient steps, quiet, quiet steps.

You do not have to look for honour in a group of fighters, you do not have to look for it in monasteries, on the contrary – here’s your nose and there’s the honor, just under your nose.

No wonder there is no Akban diet program. A diet plan of honour and respect can only be understood by a person who has been hungry and chooses, every meal, to be hungry again, like the Rebbetzin. Chooses not to attack food but chooses to exercise power and discipline and wait a little, while hungry, especially when hungry.
So, blessing the food, an honour technique. Giving a bow to the sword, an honour technique. Saying ‘thank you’ every morning, an honour technique. Wearing a silly skirt for training, an honour technique. Sitting quietly before a training, an honour technique. Giving a bow, an honour technique.


Kefitzat Haderech

Yossi Sheriff
Translated by Oded Levi

One practitioner, the head-teacher of a Zen temple, was trying to make a sign for the temple’s gate.

Calligraphy is Dō. More accurately it’s a Dō called Shodō. I think it’s interesting that calligraphy is Dō not only in Japan but in many places, From the Benedictine monks in the middle-ages, through the beautiful Arab calligraphy and to the ancient Jewish profession of hand writing the whole Bible – Sofer Stam. Maybe that is how Dō develops, out of the need to write down a grocery list, out of the duty to write in your tax form, out of the wish to preserve the scriptures.

I firmly believe that these are the precursors for Dō: when the necessary allows itself to become a matter of choice, and the will attends a repetition of that choice, morning after morning, day after day, decade after decade, Then the alchemy happens. The respect, the awareness and the repetition transform the mundane deed into gold.

These ingredients are known to every calligrapher, every Zen monk, every pianist and every Sofer Stam: repeat, attend, respect. But there is something else, I have to use a Hebrew word for this because I know of no other equivalent, I’ll use the term “Kefitzat Haderech”.

I’ve read this story somewhere – Kossan dipped a huge brush into the ink.
The temple’s head student was there to assist and hand the big sheets of paper that were on the meditation room’s floor.

Kossan wrote down the words: “The first principle”.

The student watched and said: “Not bad, but it can be a bit better”, and handed a new sheet of paper.

Kossan concentrated, and wrote down the words: “The first principle”.

The student watched and said: “this was not as good. I think the lines are a bit forced. The first one was better”.
Kossan helped move away the paper and prepared the brush for another attempt.

Kossan, again, wrote down the words: “The first principle”.

“Terrible” said the student, who probably had some Israeli hutzpa genes.

Kossan wrote forty-eight first principles.

Then the student had enough of his teacher’s failures. “Excuse me, teacher”, he must have said, “I need to take a pee”, and left.

The teacher took this opportunity and with a worry-free mind he quickly wrote: “The first principle”.

“Wonderful!” exclaimed the student upon his return. “Masterpiece”.

And it’s there, to this day to remind me: “There are no shortcuts”, but there is a Kefitzat Haderech.

To the Kefitzat Haderech!