martial arts

my weekend: Seido Aichi Benefit tournament and 20th anniversary celebration

On the bus for the trip to Ise Shrine with the Seido crew. Time for a quick update...

First, unrelated to the trip -- very good news about our friend Ian Hesford. He's been waking up and talking a little, even making jokes. Not to minimize the long road ahead, but this is amazing news.

Anyway. I'm in Japan! Took some complications to get here. JAL canceled my flight from Boston to Tokyo last Wednesday due to a maintenance issue. (On a new plane, no less.) Apparently they didn't the have the necessary part and had to have one brought from LA. They rescheduled for Thursday and put us up at an airport hotel for the night.

This blew a hole in my plan to hop from Narita (the Tokyo airport) to Kansai (the Osaka one), rest in Osaka for the night, and take the train to Nagoya the next day. I did get then to fly me from Tokyo to Nagoya so I got to Nagoya late Friday night -- after another delay at Narita.

Stumbling bleary-eyed from the airport to the train station, I heard someone call "Sensei Tom?" It was Sensei Hiroaki Kondo from the Seido Aichi branch, who was coordinating with foreign visitors and was coincidently there to meet another arriving karateka. So nice to see a friendly face! He got me pointed in the right direction. I got to my hotel and just about collapsed, too tired to get much sleep.

Saturday morning, tired but happy to be here, I went to the workout at Atsuta Jinga, one of the most pre-eminent Shinto shrines. Atsuta Jinga is said to hold Kusanagi no Tsurugi, the sword that is said to be a gift from Amaterasu Ōmikami and one of the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan. I'd guess about 100 students, children and adults, attended.

We started with a brief Shinto ritual -- these are not really "religious" in the Western sense, as Shinto really doesn't have domga, but a mythology and a set of attitudes that it tries to cultivate. For this we were let into one of the outer sanctums of the shrine, past a fence where ordinary visitors have to stop. It's not like we got in to see the sacred sword itself or anything, but I think that we were brought in and permitted to have a brief workout on the grounds shows the respect that Kaicho Nakamura and Seido Karate enjoy in Japan.

Then we lined up for the workout. I think we ended up in aot of tourist photos that day! Kiai echoed over the shrine grounds as we did basic techniques, Kaicho exhorting us to give it our all. Then each rank group got to do a kata.

Yondan and more senior students did Sai Kata Ganki Dai. (The folks at Customs got a kick out of my sai, by the way.) And in my gut I like to think that the fact that I did a sai kata on the grounds of the shrine that is the repository of such a sacred sword, somehow charges them up with mana.

Most inspiring, though, was a young yellow belt student in wheelchair. I believe he had cerebral palsy or a similar condition. He was taken out of his chair and sort of knelt or sat on the ground (the gravelly ground), throwing his legs and body forward with each step of the kata. An amazing display of the "non-quitting spirit"; it made me proud to be a Seido student.

After the workout, those who wished (and paid a small fee) were invited to a special ritual, a blessing of sorts for Kaicho and Seido. It included a stunning dance by two priestesses, very precise and forceful; and ended with a sip of sake -- a practice of which I heartily approve!

After a nap, Saturday night I headed over for the anniversary banquet. I gave a small present (a Maryland flag signed by many students with congratulations) to Jun Shihan Toshihide Sawahira, Seido Aichi branch chief. I also had a gift for Sensei Kondo, in appreciation for all of his help. (He has been absolutely amazing in coordinating things. As we ride back from Ise I see that he has fallen asleep in his seat, a well-deserved rest.) Of course the speeches at the banquet were in Japanese. and even with a translator summarizing, I'm sure I missed much. But the affection and admiration that the students have for both Jun Shihan Sawahira and for Kaicho Nakamura needed no translation. I also got to meet several students from New Zealand and from Honbu and Johshin Honzan. So many new people to meet I fear I'll never remember everyone's names!

Sunday, the tournament. Yondan students were not eligible to compete, so I was a judge. (And as I was still pretty exhausted maybe it was best that I didn't compete.) I ended up as chief judge for junior brown and yellow belt kata divisions, and with a bit of help on translation I think things went smoothly. (It occurs to me that sometimes you have to give someone some help before they're able to help you or others, a thought worth further exploration.) I also helped judge shodan men's kata (saw a lot of Seienchin!) and was a kumite corner judge for junior green belt boys, lightweight (I think, the weight classes are a little different) black belt men, and junior black belt girls. Everyone showed strong spirit and good sportsmanship. Especially moving was a mildly handicapped shodan who competed in kata. I believe that the young yellow belt I'd seen at Atsuta Shrine also competed. They were wonderful reminders that the purpose of these tournaments is to help push each of us to be our best.

Right after the tournament I had to go back to the hotel, get online, and deal with an emergency at the day job. Sadly this made me late for the "uchiage" (after tournament) party. But I got there (and, this being Japan, was mildly scolded for being late), and enjoyed several drinks and conversation with fellow karate students, as well as a rousing sing-along of "YMCA" led by Jun Shihan Sawahira.

Today, a bus trip to Ise Jinga, another one of the most pre-eminent Shinto shrines. Again there was a special ritual dance ("kagura") dedicated to Kaicho and Seido karate. Just amazing. Watching it I could feel the stress of the past few weeks leaving me; such a feeling of gratitude to see something like this. I had planned to visit Ise on a previous trip to Japan, but ended up missing a train -- if I'd gone then, though. it would have been nothing like what I got to experience today.

After lunch, a sudden heavy rain soaked us as we returned to the bus, the sort of soaking that makes everyone laugh. (Glad I bought an umbrella before things got bad, so I'm only soaked from the knees down!) A wonderful end to the trip. Bus back to Nagoya now, where I'll probably rest up and do laundry tonight. Off to Toyko tomorrow.

fear and pain in the dojo, and out of it

One of the most memorable scenes in The Karate Kid (the original, not the Jackie Chan remake) was when Daniel and Mr. Miyagi visit the Cobra-Kai dojo. John Kreese, the nasty Cobra-Kai sensei, yells to his students, "Fear does not exist in this dojo, does it?"

"No, sensei!" they reply.

"Pain does not exist in this dojo, does it?"

"No, sensei!"

bullying kills: a personal reflection

Bullying kills. If you did not know that, Dan Savage blogs about Jamey Rodemeyer, a fourteen-year-old from upstate New York who apparently took his own life to escape the abuse of his peers:

It sounds like Jamey had help—he was seeing a therapist and a social worker and his family was supportive—but it wasn't enough. Whatever help Jamey was getting clearly wasn't enough to counteract the hatred and abuse that he had endured since the fifth grade, according to reports, or Jamey's fears of having to face down a whole new set of bullies when he started high school next year.

...

The point of the "It Gets Better" project is to give kids like Jamey Rodemeyer hope for their futures. But sometimes hope isn't enough. Sometimes the damage done by hate and by haters is simply too great. Sometimes the future seems too remote.

Dan's It Gets Better Project has done a lot over the past year or so to bring attention to the problem of the bullying experienced by LGBT youth. I don't want at all to take away from their work, or from the fact that LGBT youth are frequently bullied; but I think it would be good to broaden the discussion a little bit.

LGBT aren't the only ones who are bullied to the point of making them feel suicidal. I know, because thirty years or so ago I was a straight kid (despite the fact that "gaywad" and "faggot" were among my tormentors' favorite insults) who was bullied to the point of contemplating suicide.

It's hard to dredge up those memories, to think about how hurt and frightened I was for years of my life, and about what might have happened if things had gone just a bit differently. If I hadn't had a chance to make a fresh start at a distant middle school with a "gifted and talented" program, where I could escape the bullies and meet friends, at least for the school day, though coming home to the same fears and threats; if I hadn't been able to get permission -- and parental support -- to go to a high school out of my normal district; if I hadn't found the practice of karate...looking back, the path that kept me from just giving up was awfully narrow at times.

I'm feeling much better now, thanks.

The important thing is this: the kids who get bullied -- gay, bi, straight, trans, queer, whatever combination of preference and gender -- are so often the ones who grow up to become pretty damn great adults. We're strong, because we had to be to survive it. We're brave and independent, because we learned that the opinions and judgments of others are not a measure of our success. We're ready to help, because we know both how terrible it was when no one was there to help us, and how wonderful it was when someone was. And after the years of bullshit, when we get out in the world and get to have so much more of a choice of whom we associate with, we find those who can see and appreciate that strength, courage, and compassion.

And so a suicide like Jamey's isn't just a loss for those who knew him and loved him. It is a loss for us all who might have known the man he would have grown up to be if things had gone just a little bit differently.

It does get better. Not just for LGBT kids, but for all of us who are different and become the targets of insults, assaults, and harassment for it. But it takes luck and support to get through, and not everyone will find them. So as I shed a tear for Jamey Rodemeyer I also look back at my own life and think how easily that could have been me.

And if the next Jamey Rodemeyer, the next kid ready to end it all, reads this -- please, please, please, hang in there. Don't let the bastards win. Because we need the fabulous adult that you will grow in to being.

"Buddha is grass shoes"

A Facebook post by a friend reminded me of one of my favorite Zen stories. This comes from the Korean "Kwan Um" school of Master Seung Sahn, and is told in his books The Compass of Zen and Dropping Ashes on the Buddha. Like many Zen stories, I think that it also has relevance for students of the martial arts and many other disciplines. It goes something like this (this is my gloss on it, not a direct quote from Seung Sahn):

Three centuries ago there was a monk called Sok Du, which means “Rock-head.” As that name indicates, he was not
the most intellectually brilliant fellow. But he had a great determination, and so even though the sutras were beyond him and even sitting meditation was too intellectually challenging, he stayed at the temple doing “working Zen” – laboring in the fields and in the kitchen.

When the master of the temple tried to help him out and asked if he had any questions, Sok Du said, “Well, Master, you are always talking about Buddha. What is Buddha?”

The Zen master answered, “Buddha is mind,” which is a fairly stock Zen answer. But in Korean, “Buddha is mind” sounds a little bit like “Buddha is grass shoes.” And that’s what Sok
Du heard.

Of course this puzzled him, but he was confused by this Zen stuff most of the time anyway. So he stuck with it. “Buddha is grass shoes. Buddha is grass shoes. What’s that mean? I don’t
know, but that’s what the master said. So Buddha is grass shoes.” This was his thought, his meditation, all the time for three years. Buddha is grass shoes.

Then one day, he was out in the hills gathering firewood. As he walked down the path, he slipped and his straw sandals – his “grass shoes” – tore loose and flew up in the air! In that
instant, he had an enlightenment experience.

He went rushing back to the master. “Master! Master! I understand!”

“Oh? Well then, what is Buddha?”

And Sok Du smacked the master on the head with his broken sandal!

“Is that all?” said the master (who was probably used to uppity monks trying to show enlightenment with outrageous behavior).

“My grass shoes are all broken!”

“Ah! Wonderful!” said the master, and burst out laughing.

Knowing that intention and determination are more important than fine points of method, we don’t have to wait for a perfect teacher or perfect circumstances or perfect understanding of technique; we can begin, right now.

"Zen practice under duress"

There's an aikido group that meets over at the Baltimore Zen Center, Sword Mountain, that I've heard good things about. Since they train on Tuesday and Thursday nights -- the same nights I teach karate -- I've never been able to drop by and check them out in person. But their website has a very interesting description of the relationship between martial arts and Zen: "Aikido is Zen practice under duress, the study of one's self within the context of physical threat".

"Zen practice under duress." I think that we could very much apply that to Seido karate. For those who aren't familiar with Seido, our founder, Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura, very deliberately integrated Zen meditation into our practice.

Having "fallen off the cushion" many times over the years, I've found that some of us need something a little less subtle than shikantaza ("just sitting"). We hard-headed folks need that element of "duress", some literal smacks upside the head to help us wake up. It took me many years of practicing Karate Zen before I was prepared enough to develop a somewhat-reliable zazen (seated meditation) practice, as minimal as it is. Your mileage may vary, of course: I'm an exceptionally unsubtle guy.

On the other hand, perhaps training in "Zen under duress" has the advantage of a more robust result. It's one thing to sit on a cushion in a quiet zendo with incense burning, but how is your practice out in the noisy, stinky, always-pushing-your-buttons world? Karate Zen or Aikido Zen introduces that element of difficulty right from the start.

As an instructor, I'm now at the point where I'm often providing that "duress" for others. For example, last Saturday we had two students testing for promotion at my sensei's dojo, including one young lady testing for her advanced brown belt. This is the last test she'll take here in Maryland -- her shodan test will be at our Honbu (headquarters) in New York City -- so it's something of a big deal. My job, while sparring with her during the kumite portion of her test, was to push her out of her comfort zone, mentally as well as physically; not just to test her fighting ability, but to show her that she's stronger than she thinks, that she can keep her center even under difficult conditions.

That's a lesson she can, hopefully, carry into every aspect of her life.

karate instructor as (ugh) role model

I was out for my usual Wednesday run this morning when I passed two women out walking a dog (a Bull Terrier, cousin to Spuds Mackensie). As I passed, one of them said, "Are you Sensei Tom?" I turned around to see that one of them was the mother of one of my students, a boy who started training a few weeks ago. We chatted for a few seconds as I ran in place, and as I took off up the hill I said, "Tell him you saw me out exercising!"

Every once in a while, it's driven home to me that as a karate instructor, I'm in some ways a (horrors!) role model for my students, especially the kids. For example, a few years ago I was at the annual Seido Karate benefit tournament at Hunter College in New York. A tournament like that is hours of waiting around with nervous energy, punctuated by a few minutes of furious effort. At one point, during the hours in between my events, I was walking down a hallway munching on a pear when I walked by a mother and her son, both fairly new students (blue belts, if I recall correctly).

Now, in Seido Karate people of yondan rank and above get to wear slightly fancier gis, with the kanji for Seido and for their title (Renshi, Kyoshi, and so on) embroidered on, rather than a sewn-on patch, so even though I didn't know these people they knew I had a bit of rank in the organization. Usually, that doesn't mean much; I still have some vague discomfort about the whole hierarchical ranking thing. (When I stop and think that I've now reached the same rank as my first instructor, Sensei Neal Pendleton, and compare my skills and exploits with his -- forget it. I should just go put on a white belt. But that's a rant for another time.)

But on this occasion as I -- a genuine and authorized Karate Instructor, in a Black Belt with a couple of extra hash marks on it -- walked by eating a piece of fruit, the mother turned to her son and said, "See, I told you, if you eat your fruits and vegetables...!" I had to stifle a laugh.

It's all very well if young students see me exercising and eating right. But, you know, not everything I do is appropriate for kids. Sometimes I wonder about some young student deciding to model my occasionally Dionysian relationship with the grape and the grain, or my unorthodox romantic life. Or there's the craziness I engage in at events like Free Spirit Beltane or FSG or Starwood or PDF.

I'm not ashamed of any of these things, obviously; I'm quite happy and proud that in many ways I don't fit into the usual cultural norms. But it complicates the whole "role model" thing in a way I still haven't resolved.

Maybe the deeper answer is to be a role model in "following your bliss," wherever that may lead. But that's a little more complicated than being seen eating a pear.

saluting the Irish and the Japanese

Four years ago, March 17, 2007, I celebrated Irish Pride Day in a bar in Osaka, Japan. It was part of a three month stay in Japan that changed my life -- my forthcoming book, Why Buddha Touched the Earth, grew out of things I wrote on that trip. (Got my first nibble from a literary agent about that book this week, by the way.) I'd been to Japan for shorter stays twice before that, and visited again in December 2007. And I've longed to return.

I only spent a little time in Tokyo, and never got as far north as the area devastated by the recent tsunami and earthquake. But like everyone who's been fortunate enough to spend time in Japan, my attention has been riveted on the horrible situation over there. While most of the people I met are much further south in the Kansai region, I've also met students and teachers in our Tokyo area Seido karate programs. So far as I've heard, all of them are safe, though I'm sure they're all affected by the difficult situation and it's probable that some have lost family or friends in the disaster.

There's a lot of attention focused on the nuclear disaster; there's good ongoing coverage at Mother Jones's "Blue Marble" blog. And there are certainly long term implications for energy policy there. Even if total disaster is avoided and the health effects are small enough to be lost in the statistical noise -- not at all a sure thing at this point -- the resources that could have been used to aid earthquake and tsunami survivors but had to be diverted to prevent a meltdown, are a stark example of the hazards of fission power.

But the other half of this -- the beautiful half, the half I hope more people see -- is the stories of how the people of Japan are dealing with this disaster. No looting or price gouging. Instead, a sense of community and a quiet resilience and forbearance.

And so tonight, as I do this time every year, as an American of partially Irish decent, I salute my Irish ancestors. But also tonight, as a student of Japanese martial and healing arts, I salute my forebearers in those arts, and all the people of Japan.

Kagami Biraki

I've been meaning for a while to do more blogging about martial arts training and my life as a karateka. And it seems to me that a good point of departure is the traditional New Year's celebration that many martial artists who train in systems originating in Japan have engaged in over the past few weeks: Kagami Biraki.

(Before continuing -- for those who know me from other contexts, here's my karate background in brief. I started training in Seido Karate in 1985. Pretty much slacked off it in college, but got serious about karate again in grad school, and started acting as a teaching assistant when Jun Shihan Kate Stewart started the Seido program at the Howard County YMCA in the early 90s. (That program actually started at the Catonsville YMCA, and there's a whole story about that which I won't get into now...) I made black belt in 1995, and started teaching at my own tiny program in Catonsville in 2002. I hold a yondan, fourth degree black belt, ranking -- where I've just about reached the level of my incompetence!)

Kagami Biraki literally means "opening the mirror" or "breaking the mirror". Like many aspects of Japanese culture connected with Shinto, its origins seem to be lost in time -- not surprising when you realize that some of the roots of Japanese culture go back over 10,000 years, while writing didn't come in until the sixth century, brought along with Buddhism from China. But the celebration may have some connection to the winter solstice myth of Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess who hid in a cave after her brother offended her, plunging the world into darkness until the other kami lured her out with her own reflection in a mirror. According to one story, in ancient times there was actually a practice of covering up mirrors for a time around the New Year, and Kagami Biraki was the time to "open up" or "break out" the mirror.

As it's practiced in Japanese homes today Kagami Biraki tops off the New Year's holiday season. There are special kagami mochi, "mirror pastries", that are placed on the family's shrine leading up to Kagami Biraki, and then are eaten on that day. Or at least, that's the way it was until recently. Modern Japanese families may get their kagami mochi encased in a thick vinyl coating, which keeps them from going moldy but also renders them unsuitable for cooking -- when I was in Japan over New Years in 2003, not quite knowing the deal, we tried cutting them out of the wrapper and toasting them up. Not recommended! The plastic-coated mochi is sort of like the plastic Christmas tree, combining symbolism with convenience.

(Mochi, by the way, is often translated as "rice cake", but they are not at all like the puffed rice cakes you might find in the health food aisle of your grocery story. They are made of pounded rice flour; my favorite variety of mochi, yomogi daifuku, is filled with sweet red bean paste and seasoned with mugwort. Kagami mochi are just plain rice flour, though.)

In modern martial arts dojos, Kagami Biraki is celebrated as a time of renewing one's training, generally without any religious significance. Each school tends to have their own traditions. In Seido Karate, Kagami Biraki celebrations involve a good workout, lots of sweat and lots of kiai. My own instructor, Jun Shihan Kate, is fond of starting us off with 1,000 punches -- I could definitely feel that the next morning.

According to martial arts researcher (and outstanding teacher and all around fascinating fellow) Shuseki Shihan Chris Caile, a special Kagami Biraki training is a budo tradition that, like so many others, goes back to the master of masters, Jigoro Kano. Kano was the founder of judo and the man to whom we owe much of the philosophy of modern budo as well as the belt system and dan and kyu ranks.

When we consider martial arts as a path to self-improvement, the metaphor of the mirror is a powerful one. In Zen, mirror symbolism goes back to at least the Sixth Patriarch, Hui Neng, who earned his position in a sort of poetry contest on the topic of mirror as a metaphor for mind. (At least, according to the legend. Scholars debate whether Hui Neng ever even existed, much less whether he said and did the things attributed to him.)

According to the twentieth century Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn, "When the mind becomes clear, it is like a mirror: red comes and the mirror is red; yellow comes and the mirror is yellow; a mountain comes and the mirror is a mountain. Your mind is the mountain; the mountain is your mind. They are not two." The mirror accepts and reflects whatever is put before it, without discrimination.

You can see that martial arts training provides a strong incentive to develop this sort of mind. When an attack comes, my mind must accept and accurately reflect the reality of the situation. No good to have a mind attached to "I just know he's going to throw that left front kick!" as my opponent's right roundhouse kick makes its way to my head. Getting hit is a pretty simple form of conditioning, suitable even for slow learners like myself. Hopefully, we can then take that reflective, non-grasping mind out into the world, and use it for higher purposes than just not getting kicked in the head. (That's not to say that not getting kicked in the head is not a good thing. I'm all in favor of not getting kicked in the head.)

The mind-mirror reflects not only the outside world, but our own self. It's part of the human condition that we each carry around in our mind a self-image, and (excepting a handful of perfectly enlightened individuals, if you believe in that sort of thing) that image is distorted to some degree. Kagami Biraki, then, is an opportunity to "break" that old mirror, let go of that distorted image.

But if this all seems too esoteric, there's another meaning to Kagami Biraki that I think is very important. Kagami mochi are not the only flat, round, vaguely mirror-shaped objects that are involved in New Year's celebrations. There's also the lid of a sake cask!

According to the website of the Gekkeikan sake company (perhaps a biased source), "Kagami refers to the lid of the sake barrel and biraki means 'to open' so kagami-biraki literally means 'opening the lid.' Because of the lid's round shape, the kagami is a symbol of harmony. The kagami-biraki, therefore, represents an opening to harmony and good fortune."

We might therefore, roughly, equate "Kagami Biraki" with "tapping the keg". And as it happened, this year our Kagami Biraki celebration at the dojo fell on the same day that I had my birthday party, so I got to experience that meaning as well!

RIP Sensei Marion Ciekot

Sensei Marion Ciekot was the branch chief for Seido Karate in Maryland for many years, from (I believe) its founding in 1976 until the early 1990s. He was my sensei for several of the those years, and all of the senior instructors now teaching in Maryland (Jun Shihan Kate, Jun Shihan Marc, Kyoshi Sandy, Kyoshi Karen, and I) trained under him.

While Sensei Ciekot eventually chose to leave Seido for reasons of his own, and I had not seen him in many years, still he was my sensei and a profound influence on my life. And he helped lay the foundations for Seido Karate in Maryland.

Osu Sensei. May you rest in peace.

Zelda's Inferno exercise: Sensei

Zelda's Inferno exercise: Pick a specific person and write about them without revealing who it is.

I thought of him the other week, as I
played the role that he once played for me
leading a young student through the movements
of a classic form of karate's art

its more than twenty years gone by since when
I met my first sensei, who taught me this
old dance of forceful punches, kicks, and leaps
I wonder where he might be found these days
indeed if he still walks the earth at all --
no young man was he when he first taught me
these ways of strong and forceful violent grace
and more than that, the spirit and the mind
and heart it takes to walk the world a man

I called him sensei when I was a boy
and now this boy I teach calls me the same
in years to come will he remember me?
a link in a great chain of legacy
that reaches back through centuries of days

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