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.”
“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.
In the early 90s, Masaaki Hatsumi arrived to Israel for the second time. Masaaki Hatsumi, the teacher of my teacher Doron Navon, arrived with the Japanese shihans.
It was a great Ninjutsu seminar; but I missed it. I got sick a day before the seminar. My fever was so high that most of the time I was hallucinating, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch TV, just lied in bed for a few days and looked out of the window.
At the last day of the seminar all the veterans met for late dinner. 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 terribly sick, I can’t sit through dinner and chat in Japanese”.
“Sheriff, stop bickering. Tonight at seven we’ll be in restaurant ‘Turquoise’ in old Jaffa. Don’t miss sensei, be there.”
Moshe was right – I was there. My spouse helped me get my clothes on, put on a formal jacket and a tie and then she drove me to Jaffa. I sat in the restaurant next to her, still feverish. Everybody ate fish and shish kabab. Me, I was slowly sipping mint tea and wiping the sweat off my face.
Throughout the dinner the sensei made jokes and had drinks with everybody. All of a sudden he looked at me, pointed 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 said: “You’ll do 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, I’m sick, next time. Doron heard me and said: “Your Godan is tonight”.
Everybody paid the bill, put on their jackets and coats and started walking to the ruined houses, between the restaurant and the Arab neighbourhood.
There was a piece of bare ground there, next to some broken-down walls, and the rising moon lit it beautifully.
I gave my spouse my jacket, loosened the tie and set in Seiza.
There was a small problem, the sensei’s Shinai was already packed in the van that should have taken them to the airport, so Uri T- a 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 talking and laughing with Doron. I already closed my eyes, sitting down, and thought that I should have opened the top button in my collar. I was sitting on the sand in seiza.
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. That’s what I did that night, sitting in old Jaffa. I sat with my senses sharp – preparing 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 the test did not start – 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, behind me said: “Leave everything”.
I don’t know what happened to me – suddenly, after many years, after many fists fights and one real 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.
Researchers in the field of animal behavior noticed an interesting phenomenon when regarding territorial fighting fish: these fish, the males to be precise, fight each other following a breach of territory. Researchers saw that a fish that has won several times in a row has a better chance of getting into an additional fight, as well as having a better chance of winning this fight. Conversely, and with even greater statistical significance, a fish that has lost several fights has a smaller chance of going into another fight and a greater chance of losing it or retreating in the middle (see reference no. 1). These phenomena have received the terminology “winner effect” and “loser effect” respectively.
The biological reasoning behind this phenomenon is clear: a fighting fish risks injury and wastes energy in each fight, as well as elevating his risk of being preyed upon. Consecutive losses place the fish in a certain hierarchy. Previous losses affect his behaviour and he avoids confrontation when possible. Furthermore, if presented into a fighting situation, he would prefer to finish it quickly. Quite often this fish will lose the fight. This is the loser effect.
Winner and loser effects have also been studied and presented in mathematical models in the evolutionary concepts of the game theory (2).
In a research conducted on territorial mice (3) it was found that mice had a significantly higher probability of winning their fourth fight, when followed by three previous wins. Also, the time lapse of the fourth confrontation was shorter, and the probability of “freezing” instead of fighting decreased significantly. Another interesting finding was that there was a strong correlation between the number of wins and the level of Testosterone in these mice. Testosterone, the main male hormone, is linked to male sexual development as well as to aggressive and competitive behaviour and social dominance.
The correlation between rising Testosterone levels and the winner effect are further pronounced when neutered mice are used (4). In these mice, consecutive wins were not sufficient in sustaining the winner effect for long periods of time. Additionally the winner effect causes the mice to improve their chances of winning in the future without regard for their initial combative capabilities. This study shows that as with fish, the winner effect is present in territorial mammals, and it is Testosterone hormone-dependent.
There is scientific evidence that in man there is also an increase in Testosterone levels preceding an imminent fight as well as following a fight. Testosterone increases coordination, cognitive abilities and the levels of concentration during the confrontation. It was found that among competitors that won, Testosterone levels were high and dependent on the elevated spirit of the winner. This effect was found among Judo practitioners as well as among chess players. On the other hand, Testosterone levels within the losing groups decreased (5). Researchers speculated that the reason for elevated Testosterone levels among the winners has to do with the fact that they stand before more competitions in the near future, as opposed to the losers who would rather abstain further fighting and risk injury.
The loser effect has also been studied on other animals (6) and is applied to other fields such as economics (7) and politics (8).
I would like to deduce from this phenomenon on martial arts in general and the martial school I study in AKBAN.
It is difficult to defeat a veteran. It is hard for me to beat someone who wins fights with me every time over. Even if inside I know I have improved, narrowed down gaps in technique, worked on my weak points €¦ evolved. Still, some hurdles are difficult to pass.
When I begin Randuri (practice fighting) with someone who has beaten me in the past, the mind and body do not work properly. Perhaps it is the mind that prevents the body from working as it should. I think too much, react too late and surrender positions. What chance do I have of winning to begin with?
On the other hand, there are those that cannot beat me. I feel that they give up on submission too easily, do not attempt to go into attacks, do not follow through with the techniques and look rather despaired against me. I, on the other hand, feel rather confident working with them. I allow myself to be a little more adventurous in Randuri, try out new techniques without concern and put myself willingly into bad positions. Often, when these same people work with other practitioners, it is noticeable that they give more of themselves, go all the way. This is an interesting phenomenon.
People are complex creatures, at least on the emotional-conceptual level, more than any other creature. The intricate social concept enables people to learn from the experience of others and apply this experience to them. “Who is wise? He who learns from all men”.
In a group dynamic, it is very simple to identify the dominant person, the authoritative person, the leader, and follow them. On the other hand, it is also easy to spot the weak person, the lowest in the chain of command. This can be noticed in groups of children playing.
These same characteristics enable us to see who is stronger or weaker, winner or loser. Even without personal experience, from observing alone, it is possible to assess within a group of trainees who is the strongest. If I fear him before the confrontation, the loser effect begins to have impact on me, even if we haven’t yet taken a bow or shaken hands. The winner effect has disadvantages as well: excess self-esteem, disrespect to the opponent and at times a feeling of having “reached the peak” and stopping the running (9). The loser effect has an advantage: a lower probability of being hurt.
The winner and loser effects are just a part of the whole picture, of course. There are many factors that affect us prior to and during Randori: technical level, physical fitness, fatigue, daily troubles, moods etc. However, psychological and hormonal effects have a direct or indirect influence on us as well. If De La Riva comes to Israel to train with us, and I do Randori with him, I wouldn’t do a violent Randori. Not just because he is tens of times better than I am and I fear his response, but also out of a feeling of respect and the fear of injuring or being injured. These reasons are also included in the loser effect. This can also be seen in Randori with the coach when he says “work, don’t be shy”. This hurdle is also difficult to pass.
1. Yuying Hsu and Larry L. Wolf (2001). The winner and loser effect: what fighting behaviors are influenced? Animal Behavior (61), 777-786.
2. Michael Mesterton-Gibbons (1999). On the evolution of pure winner and loser effects: a game-theoretic model. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology 61, 1151-1186.
3. Temitayo O. Oyegbile and Catherine A. Marler (2005). Winning fights elevates testosterone levels in mice and enhances future ability to win fights. Hormones and Behavior (48) pp 259 267
4. Trainor B.C., Marler, (2001). Testosterone, paternal behavior, and aggression in the monogamous mouse (Peromyscus californicus) Horm. Behav. 40, 32-42.
5. Allan Mazur and Alan Booth (1998). Testosterone and dominance in men. Behavioral and Brain Sciences (21) pp 353-363
6. Hugh Drummond and Cristina Canales (1998). Dominance between booby nestlings involves winner and loser effects.
7. Anthony J. Richards (1997). Winner-Loser reversals in national stock market indices: Can they be explained? The Journal of Finance Vol. 52, No. 5, pp. 2129-2144.
Many veteran practitioners already know our multi personal work method: maintaining the last item on The AKBAN Code is too much for a single person cooperation is needed. Cooperation among people is not some simple dance. It entails some heavy arguing and disagreement. I wanted to explain why this aspect should be documented, why arguing is necessary.
Martial art and AKBAN-Wiki
One of the reasons for creating the AKBAN-Wiki is the fact that we are not sure of the precision of our technique, we are not sure of our fighting conclusions and perspectives. It might be more correct to say that we are sure of some of the conclusions and techniques but tend to sanctify their discussion, and such discussion might refute some of them.
Can martial art profit from discussion, from scientific disagreements? I believe that any field of knowledge not only needs but must have criticism. Therefore we use critical point of view to preserve the old concepts, examine them, find more adequate ways to practice and argue, we argue a lot. Sometimes politely.
Just two days ago I tried to show how to perform an ancient kata. The Tel Avivian veteran practitioner with whom I worked did not have to argue loudly with my point of view. He simply disturbed me. With time, we might find ways to do it together. This is serious work that requires years of patience: patience for the difficulties of fighting, and patience towards people.
The reasonable amicable relations in AKBAN and the many capabilities of the veterans have helped us build a structure of distribution, gathering and examining of fighting knowledge and techniques. Through semantic Wiki we created a database that enables change, improvement, comparison and further investigation. We have opened our discourse to anyone interested.
Someone might criticize our whole endeavor, saying: “This is no longer a traditional martial art.” And we can answer: “Tradition is a complex cultural structure, especially for those who rigorously observe tradition, especially people like ourselves.”
I’d like to shake up a bit the usual take on tradition, by bringing two different examples that are unrelated – neither to each other nor to traditional martial art.
Through these strange examples I thought I would show at least three things:
1. Traditions that seem frozen have undergone long periods of change and accommodation.
2. Tradition is the result of multi-voiced discourse.
3. Proper results require specialists.
Wikipedia and multi-voiced discourse the need for specialists
Writing encyclopedias is a tradition that is well-worth using for observing the process of opinion exchange and transformation. The editors’ work involves gathering information, writing, editing, cataloging and publishing. This practical work is founded upon a tradition that is hundreds of years old. The process of writing encyclopedias took place in groups that were committed to the idea of gathering information and considered themselves authorized to voice their opinion or edit the opinions of others. The encyclopedia would seem like an example of frozen knowledge after it was completed. However, the actual gathering of information is an accumulative action. The Encyclopedia Britannica epitome of knowledge and order published annual update volumes.
A look at the work process on Wikipedia discloses both the power of exchanging opinions and the reservations as to the free exchange of opinion. Many articles on Wikipedia and central entries are regularly monitored by an elite of editors, Sysops and bureaucrats. Free editing today is only possible at the periphery of knowledge. Anyone can write an entry about their favorite chocolate. But changing a single character in a central entry such as Islam or USA might immediately sound the alarm among a large number of people in charge who will then immediately provide a return to the former state.
The tradition of gathering information relies upon a backbone of entries as exact and objective as possible.
Multi-voiced discourse serves this backbone of entries and exact knowledge with one reservation the discourse must be supervised by responsible experts.
Talmud not everyone participates and the debate is worth showing
A Gemara page looks like this: a central text, itself a discussion of a passage in the Torah or of resulting texts, is framed by other texts written in later periods. Some of the texts are in Aramaic, others in Hebrew of various epochs.
Visually, the Gemara page is a rare phenomenon in religious writing. The Talmud page uses not only different languages and scripts but goes further a-field and even presents disagreement and differing points of view on the same page.
One might look at the page and see far beyond its contents see the editing considerations. The editors of the Talmud, those who signed the Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), took a decision: rather than a canonic text, they presented a mosaic of interpretations, all perpetuated upon the same, single page.
A critical overview of the contents exposes the limits of this multi-voiced discussion. Not everyone is invited to join it. The Karais, for example, are not direct writers. Their opinions are always presented in a roundabout manner, and always by one of the authorized writers. The Karais are a good example in this context since in spite of their belief in the five books of the Torah, they are not partners, by choice, in the Jewish multi-voiced discourse. The community of writers in the Talmud believes in scholars connected to the source of knowledge, on the one hand, and to the reality of community life, on the other.
The Jewish prayers, dress codes and blessings before meals are all products of a multi-voice discourse, not of Scriptural edicts. Wearing a skull cap is not dictated by the Torah. The Bible hardly mentions prayers. Until the sages wrote contents and turned them into permanent tradition, Jews hardly prayed. They offered animal sacrifices.
Karai dialogue perpetuated Orthodox fixation. According to the Karais, if the Torah says “an eye for an eye”, one must take the Law literally because of the text’s sanctity. But a community that tries to live in reality understands that the law must be interpreted so that it accommodates changing life circumstances. The Talmudic discussion surrounding the strict revenge verse indicates that the meaning intended here is proper financial restitution.
The Jewish multi-voiced discourse has never ceased in spite of the tendency on the part of a good many to declare certain of its versions sealed and signed. The rabbinical books of Q&A (questions and answers responses and later interpretations of sages) are a part of this interpretative multi-voiced discourse. Naturally, Jewish tendencies that have been pushed aside from the mainstream created separate textual and interpretative trends.
This is a big question: Is it better to debate in that same studying space, in the same dojo, on the same Wiki page, or perhaps behind one’s back? Perhaps the momentary position should be perpetuated, or a new method developed? A new dojo maybe?
I believe that taking the argument somewhere else smells of psychological difficulty. It does not serve knowledge, only the fragility of some of our features.
Someone who removed himself from our studying space in AKBAN, Mr. H., concluded this well by saying: “I prefer to walk all the way to Afghanistan to change batteries in a listening device rather than sit at my aunt’s with my family for a holiday dinner”. And this is the crux of the code: friendship is physical presence, on the same page, in the same dojo, around the same camp fire, and that is no simple matter.
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.
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 galaxyâ€¦ 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.
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:
Budo Ninjutsu is doing with the body, doing physical work.
Although Martial art helps us develop and maintain strength, power, speed, physical and mental health and ultimately becoming fierce warriors, most of these fade in time.
We can only hope for “somethingâ€ to accumulate over time. This sediment presents itself to us under the Japanese mantle: Do.
Simply put, Do is the Way, the Path, and the path requires work.
At the end what remains is the “Do”. What this means for us is that the effort is lifelong.
There is no “Kfitzat Haderech” here, this path has no shortcuts, although there will be times when progress will come in jumps, when small understandings will lead to bigger understandings.
One of the more interesting terms in the field of evolution is co-evolution, or, in other words, the evolution of different species that affect each other and evolve side by side. This field encompasses a wide range of species, having symbiotic, predator-prey or parasite-host relationships. The patterns in which these species affect each other received the term “Red Queen Hypothesis / Syndrome” (see reference number 1).
This principle was first suggested by the evolutionary researcher L. Van Valen in the year 1973. It is derived from the story â€œAlice in Wonderlandâ€, in which Alice runs alongside the queen but notices that they are not moving at all. When Alice asks the reason for the phenomenon, the queen answers â€œYou have to run at full speed in order to keep standing still. If you want to get elsewhere, you would have to run at least twice as fast (2)â€. Van Valen suggested that if species a, which is in competition for resources or is the predator of species b, were to gain an advantage over his competitor, it would be able to push the other species from his niche, and in extreme cases bring about extinction. In response, so as not to be left behind, species b will develop means to deal with species a, and thus the two are caught in an â€œarms raceâ€. Such an arms race will bring about evolution and development in both species, focusing on traits that enable them to deal with each other, a development that would not otherwise occur.
A common example for this phenomenon in nature can be found in predator-prey relationships: if the dove were to develop an ability to fly faster not allowing the falcon to catch it, the latter would have to develop increased speed as well so that its fitness is not harmed. In such an arms race, both species raise their flight speed yet their abilities in relation to each other remains the same. It is important to mention that evolutionary changes do not affect an individual but rather a particular group or population over several generations, and this change is passed on to offspring genetically. The development is expressed in a trait that a certain individual has attained, and if this trait increases its fitness, it may become an integral part of the population. However, when addressing the Red Queen Hypothesis and the arms race out of the biological context, it may be applied to other fields such as physics (3) and political science.
I would like to apply this principle in the scholastic-developmental sense on martial arts in general and specifically on Budo Ninjutsu.
In Budo Ninjutsu you learn constantly. In the beginning you learn the basis and perhaps a little too much. After a while, when things sink in, you learn new things or understand the basics in depth, this is learning as well. The veterans, from their many years of experience, can introduce new techniques and new forms, compare them to the existing ones and then break or leave some of the old. Every practice brings about new learning of technique, attention and dynamics with the training partner. At the end of each training session we test some of the things we learned in practice through Randori and sparring.
Randori, which is combative in principle, enables us to test and apply the understandings from practice together with our training partner. When Randori becomes a little competitive, it places us on Aliceâ€™s running track facing our training partner. In order to remain better than my partner, I must outrun him. The competitive instinct, which exists in some of the trainees, pushes them to progress and learn, improve and work harder in order to better deal with their Randori partners. The difficulty which arises during Randori urges us to cope, and if the partner uses a new technique on us we will try to learn it, as well as its counter, so as to be more prepared the next time. This is a non-genetic arms race, but rather a scholastic and acquired race. In this arms race, just like any other, “not improving” means stopping progression. Often a trainee reaches a certain moment when she feels comfortable and able to defeat others with no effort. This can be followed the by a realization that she has rested on her laurels, some better opponent is the wake up call. Those who she had once easily defeated, now make her surrender, thus she (or he) is faced with two options: to run faster or to stay behind. Staying behind is not a bad choice for someone who is not competitive, but a competitive individual might despair and leave, for example.
Leaving is analogous in martial arts to extinction. Running is difficult, uncomfortable, you have to learn new techniques and polish the old ones, you have to face the hardships after supposedly reaching the summit, yet this all leads to development, to evolution.
This same principle applies to an individual and also applies to entire disciplines and schools in the field of martial arts. The need to preserve the traditional and existent knowledge is obvious, and it may clash with the need to innovate, refresh and update knowledge. A discipline that closes itself up for change, that stops innovating and progressing, leads itself to extinction. When is this apparent? Whenever the veterans in the discipline begin to leave and search for alternative places to train.
Perhaps the most pronounced example of the Red Queen Hypothesis in martial arts is the competitive fighting arenas – UFC, MMA, Pride etc. In the beginning these were mainly composed of big strong men who beat up other big strong men. Along came the men of technique and showed the world different and much more effective ways to make men bigger and stronger than them surrender (for example the Gracie family). Several years passed and fighters from other disciplines were forced to learn Jiu-Jitsu in order to cope with the small man choking them from behind within a few seconds, and thus the wheels turn. In contrast to what happens in nature, evolution here is rapid, and its cycles can be seen every few years. Even inside the field of Jiu-Jitsu an arms race is going on, and we profit.
Speaking of fighting arenas, the arms race occurs not only in a technical aspect but also when dealing with illegal substances. If my rival is pumped up on steroids, I would have to act as he does in order to beat him, and, when possible, through the use of more effective drugs. This is an arms race in which there are mainly losers. This phenomenon exists also in nature, when species compete with each other and the traits they acquire bring down their overall fitness: in the forest, for example, trees compete for sunlight; a taller tree is capable of receiving more light than its competitors. This causes the other trees to grow higher, thus creating a situation where the fitness of species “a” in comparison to species “b” remains as it was, yet both species invest more resources in order to reach the desired height and the overall fitness is compromised.
The arms race exists also between the developers of illegal substances and those who are required to detect them, which is reminiscent of the arms race between parasites and their host (5), as well as within the immune system (6).
The Red Queen Hypothesis can be applied to many aspects of our lives that contain an element of competition. This interaction with â€œcompetitive speciesâ€ leads in most cases to change and development, it makes us learn more and improve, it leads to a desire to practice better Ninjutsu.
# picture taken from
# Yoshihiro Haraguchi and Akira Sasaki (1996). Host-Parasite Arms Race in Mutation Modifcations: Indefinite Escalation Despite a Heavy Load? J. theor. Biol 183, 121-137.
# Andrew F. Read (1994). The Evolution of Virulence. Trends in Microbiology, vol.3 no.2 73-76.