Combat, cultivation, battle or betterment…

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After almost 40 years of practicing abdominal breathing, I can say with 100% confidence that a persistent, protracted study of abdominal breathing will bring huge benefits to any martial artist—regardless of what their goals are.

So, the following is meant only as a very brief overview of a few facets of abdominal breathing, based upon a combination of associated scientific research and my (www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009132148739) experiences.

First things first, what then is abdominal breathing?

Simply, it is where the abdomen is fully utilized in the moving of the diaphragm—which means, the abdomen expands as you breathe in and contracts to its resting position as you exhale.   Or, to put it another way, it is virtually the opposite method of breathing to that employed by most adult humans even though as infants we all breathe abdominally and it is the method employed (as far as I know) by every land mammal on the planet.

Onto the benefits…

A large body of research has demonstrated that our typical negative reactions to potential stressors can be reduced through abdominal breathing.

It does this by enervating and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which then triggers a massive release of endorphins which causes tremendous calm and a sense of well-being, as well as an increase in emotional disengagement.14

Beyond these inherent effects of abdominal breathing on the PNS, additional effects arise when the abdominal breathing is deliberately slowed and paced.

Control of the pace and duration of the breath brings changes in the individual’s heartbeat in terms of its frequency and smoothness during every inhalation and exhalation, which in turn leads to reduced emotional arousal and blood pressure, as well as—as with the PNS—a general sense of peace and well-being.12

And even though during prolonged, intense martial arts training is impossible to always maintain a slow, regulated breathing pattern, it is considered likely these positive effects will persist to some degree beyond the sessions in which it is practiced—even though the duration of this has not yet been researched, so far as I know.13

Additionally, these enhancements of the heart’s beating produces an “energized and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making.”15

That these phenomena (when taken as a description of “mindfulness”) are genuine is reflected in the increased attention paid to them by the military over the last decade as part of their attempt to not only reduce the level of stress felt by soldiers prior and during combat, but also as a way of alleviating PTSD.16

And if the above advantages weren’t enough to make any martial artist—or anybody else—immediately start breathing abdominally, there may yet be additional reasons to do it…

As well as providing the ability to remain calm but alert during times of stress, I know not only from personal experience but from the testimony of others that eventually abdominal breathing produces significantly increased levels of physical energy and physical endurance.

Hold on though, that doesn’t seem right given that as described above abdominal breathing both suppresses the “flight or fight” reaction and activates the PNS and its orders to “rest and digest”.17

Surely, the last thing that should happen then should be for energy levels to increase? This is the reason why it has been noted that, “it would be dysfunctional to have PNS predominance during times requiring high energy and arousal, such as when under threat or attack.”18

What then is happening? Do the increased oxygen levels that abdominal breathing presumably brings and the aforementioned changes in the heart beat, serve to not only nullify the energy-dampening effects of the PNS, but also leave enough left over to boost the individual’s energy beyond normal levels?

It would be fascinating to know what is actually going on!

For some martial artists who experience these elevated energy levels part of the explanation—as well as the source of yet more benefits—might be found in the variations in abdominal breathing they practice.

A potential deficiency of the studies I have seen is that they do not address the differences between “normal” abdominal breathing and the variations on it such as the one that specifically focuses on the part of the abdomen that sits roughly in the pelvis—a variation I shall very imaginatively refer to here as low abdominal breathing.

Low abdominal breathing involves not only a greater movement of the muscles in the lower abdomen, but also a decrease in the movement of the upper abdomen–except during high demand, physical exertion.

So, while I have no supporting scientific evidence, it feels to me like the low abdominal breathing allows for an even more movement of the diaphragm, so perhaps this results in a corresponding increase in oxygenation.

However, another cause may be more psychosomatic in nature…

Advanced exponents of martial arts that practice low abdominal breathing combined with a persistent focus on that area (the hara/tanden/lower dantien, etc) appear to be capable of a greater level of intellectual, emotional and sensory self-manipulation.

Perhaps, these factors equate to an even greater reduction in the physical tension/stress which normally serves to reduce our energy levels and shorten our stamina. Or, in other words, the low abdominal breathing may allow us to liberate more of our innate energy.

Hmm.

So, low abdominal breathing may enhance the effects of the “normal”, garden-variety of ab breathing, however it would seem that by whatever combination of processes, the use of abdominal breathing prior to and during dangerous and other potentially stressful situations creates the ability to simultaneously manifest the useful symptoms of both the PNS and the SNS’ “flight or fight” reaction, while also avoiding the potentially negative aspects of both—essentially allowing an individual to “have their cake and eat it too”.

Because of these awesome abilities—and others—I can’t imagine abdominal breathing not being at the center of every aspect of my martial arts training,

That said, for me, the study of abdominal breathing has rarely been anything even close to easy and I have never known anyone who has pursued it with the necessary dedication to find it less than extremely challenging.

But for so many reasons, for any martial artist—whether they practice aikido or kyokushin, iaido or kenjutsu, tai chi or BJJ—I guarantee the struggle is worth it…so, so, so worth it!

(The above essay is adapted from a section of the Kindle book “Flawless Deception: the truth behind the samurai schools.” (https://www.amazon.com/Flawless-Deception-behind-samurai-schools-ebook/dp/B014OMZ0EA ))

Endnotes:

12, 13, 15, 16, 17. Milton Z. Brown, Ph.D., Regulating Emotions through Slow Abdominal Breathing (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Center of San Diego (www.dbtsandiego.com)

  1. Rick Hanson, PhD, Relaxed and Contented: Activating the Parasympathetic Wing of Your Nervous System (Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom (http://www.wisebrain.org/ParasympatheticNS.pdf), 2007)

  1. Monique Moore, PhD, David Brown, PsyD, Nisha Money, MD, MPH, ABIHM, Mark Bates, PhD, Mind-Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System, (Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (www.dcoe.health.mil), June 2011, Version 2), p7

What is a genuine samurai martial art?

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So, what is a genuine samurai martial art?

If we’re talking about those koryu that developed during or shortly after the Sengoku Jidai—and in this essay we are—for anyone that knows anything about the subject the answer is simple:

In the photos above, the guys on the right are doing a genuine samurai martial art, but the jokers on the left aren’t—even though on Facebook they refer to themselves as Genuine Samurai Martial Arts of Dallas (GSMAD).

Sure, on the surface what GSMAD is doing seems to be like what those “genuine” guys on the right are doing—more so, even—in terms of replicating the battlefield combat these koryu were primarily focused on.

But this is what a reviewer said about GSMAD:

“Fake. Not genuine. Makes false claims of being more genuine than the real martial arts schools.” (https://www.facebook.com/genuinesamuraimartialarts/?ref=page_internal)

Since that happens to be the Page for the school I have had the privilege of training in for 38 years you would perhaps imagine that I would be insulted by this scathing characterization.

But nope, not a bit of it. In fact, I encouraged it.

The reason for the inclusion of Genuine in the name was actually an attempt to provoke (emphasis on “provoke”) discussion about the school’s legitimacy with the hope that this would in turn eventually lead to debates about the meaning of “genuine” as it applies to the extant koryu of the Sengoku Jidai—hereafter referred to as “early koryu”.

I mean, it’s not as though when I chose to put the Genuine in GSMAD that neither I nor my students didn’t appreciate our school’s deficiencies in the “genuine” department.

We’ve often laughed about how mightily suspicious my and the school’s “backstory” are as well as the seeming absurdity of my claim that Tenshu Shindo Karato Ryu (a name I mostly made up) could be a koryu let alone one from the Sengoku Jidai—for more details on that topic see https://koryumatters.wordpress.com/2016/04/30/elephantintheroom/

You might ask then, why do any of the few students I am permitted to have stay with Karato Ryu? Because some do! In fact, I have a very high success rate. Out of the approximately 10 students I’ve had in 20 years, those that have made it through the first few years have stayed 5, 10 and 11 years respectively—and another two might well be still training if I hadn’t terminated their memberships. And it’s not as though membership is a casual or easily maintained affair, rather not only is the training exceptionally demanding, but students are expected to not only attend almost every class but to demonstrate that they are training extensively in their own time.

Well, those that have stayed have definitely not done so because they’re weak-minded or otherwise easily gulled. In my experience and opinion, training in Karato Ryu isn’t for anyone who isn’t psychologically robust, skeptical and ruggedly individualistic…not to mention intelligent…and a tad nuts.

So, one reason for them hanging around is that I give my students video proof that I at least didn’t make up the huge curriculum and that decades ago I had an instructor and we (and other students) were doing what I am now passing on. So, while I might be a fool, my students can be sure that at least in this regard, I am an honest fool.

Another reason can at least in part be, frankly, my high-level of technical skill.

But most importantly, my students see that although what we do contrasts greatly in several fundamental ways with what they can see online or read about in English with respect to virtually every “genuine” early koryu (indeed, koryu as a whole), the training makes them gradually start to re-think what “genuine” means in the context of an early koryu.

And this new definition of genuine and the consequent change in the student’s priorities is recognized by them (as it was by me) as something so much more personally valuable than that which seemingly is offered by the actual surviving genuine samurai martial arts.

But just thinking something is “genuine” doesn’t make it so, right? Or does it?

An online critic of my school who most decidedly views Karato Ryu as a fraud used as part of his argument to support his position a dictionary definition of genuine.

He wrote, “The definition of the Oxford English Dictionary is: “Genuine: ‘Truly what something is said to be; authentic’” (And he was right: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/genuine)

“said to be”? Why not “what something is”? It’s because the definition of what is genuine is frequently not an immutable absolute.

Simple example: while the official definition of an antique in the USA requires the item above all else to be a minimum of 100 years old, I discovered while working in that industry, in at least Texas, to many dealers and members of the public, not only did a genuine antique need to be only 50 years old, but the term could often be acceptably applied using more subjective criteria.

Let’s now look at knighthood…

Modern English knights such as Paul McCartney or Richard Branson are as 100% legitimately knights as any other in English history since all had the title legally bestowed upon them.

This is so despite the fact that their title now requires none of the medieval, martial expectations—there will be no Sir Paul McCartney “in shining armour”.

So what is “said to be” genuine can be subject to change.

And now let’s look at those genuine early koryu—whose members, even more than the medieval English knights, would have had a very high expectation of having to test their martial prowess in battle.

Today, these koryu earn the title of genuine through satisfying a couple of criteria:

First, the date they were founded and, second, that they have managed to maintain an unbroken transmission of their school’s teachings from that date.

The same critic who cited the genuine definition above also listed a few other possible and “less commonly” applied considerations:

Student teacher dynamics.

Being battle tested.

Peculiarities of Japanese Culture

Training syllabus

Training manner.

And, while not a criterion as such, he rightly said, it is extremely likely that a genuine koryu would appear in the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten—a highly respected listing of known koryu (“If it is a koryu, nine times out of ten the style should be listed in the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten” (http://www.koryu.com/library/wmuromoto4.html))

(btw, the translation I have of the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten does not include the name that my instructor used for our school—I guess it must be an example of that one out of ten times mentioned above J)

Now looking at the above criteria, what is interesting to me is that as with today’s English (well, British) knights, apparently there is no requirement for the development of combat prowess in the students of these surviving early koryu.

That being said, in the excellent Budo Perspectives (https://www.amazon.com/Budo-Perspectives-Alexander-Bennet/dp/4990169433) Meik Skoss (an extremely knowledgeable koryu adept and scholar) provides his own list of criteria that appears to both explicitly state and also infer that developing actual combat skills is a characteristic of a koryu:

“the classical Japanese martial  arts (koryu bujutsu) are usually:… 3. Primarily concerned with developing effective skills for battlefield combat and/or personal self-defense…4. Not amenable to sportive competition, by virtue of the skills and methods used to train warriors for combat…5. …a way of training body and mind in a way similar to that of their ancestors.”

And Diane Skoss in her Koryu Primer essay at koryu.com (http://www.koryu.com/koryu.html) states:

“A few traditions still exist that were actually used on the battlefields of pre-Tokugawa Japan, and in these systems effectiveness of the killing technique is still paramount.”

Further,

“For the most part, however, the techniques of the koryu still retain an element of danger; protective gear is typically not used. Safety is less important than efficacy; though wooden weapons are usually used in place of live steel blades, these can still do considerable damage if an error is made, and one learns to function out at the edge.”

However, I think it is telling that when in Mr. Skoss’ essay he addresses, “What attracts Americans (or Japanese) to the koryu”, he does not include in the possible attractions a desire to become competent fighters in any sense—whether for battle, dueling or bar-fighting. In fact, by stating that “classical martial arts are archaic methods of fighting, with little or no practical use in modern society”, Mr. Skoss is in my opinion clearly reflecting the lack of emphasis on practical skills in the koryu since the skills required to stand a chance of proficiency in a medieval melee most certainly can translate in many ways to other forms of fighting, and I believe Mr. Skoss would realize this if his training had been sufficiently practical in nature.

And while Ms. Skoss says, “in these systems effectiveness of the killing technique is still paramount” there is no indication that these techniques are practiced within a method that is geared towards enabling the students to successfully employ said techniques—“An element of danger” and having to function “out at the edge” while both potentially indicating high levels of risk could also, with respect, mean something far less extreme depending on the sensibilities of the student.

And the argument that these koryu no longer strive for combat-effectiveness is further  bolstered by the impression gained from watching virtually every demonstration available to the public of koryu (both early and later) and by reading 99.9% of the reliable English resources on the koryu.

Consequently, it is my conclusion that developing actual combat skill is of little more importance to the typical early koryu today than it is for the English to have Sir Elton John be proficient at jousting.

Karato Ryu, on the other hand, places huge emphasis on combat effectiveness in its methodology/regimen. Our primary goal is to train in a manner that recreates to a great degree the physical and psychological challenges that samurai would have faced not just in battle but also any other period form of combat.

So does that give Karato Ryu the right to say it is genuine?

For the critic cited above, the answer is obviously an impassioned and resounding “no”, and there are many, many others that feel the same way.

However, being genuine requires authenticity, since as the definition above reminded us:

“Genuine: ‘Truly what something is said to be; authentic’”

And here’s what the same dictionary says when defining authenticity: “Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.”

Yep, that means koryu are authentic—and therefore genuine—and that Karato Ryu isn’t either one of those.

But another definition of authentic from the same dictionary is:

“Based on facts; accurate or reliable.” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/authentic)

And yet another definition listed is:

“Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.”

Now, it is inarguable that early koryu are today different from their original forms in any number of ways beyond the emphasis of developing combat proficient exponents.

As I state in Flawless Deception:

“The fact is that from the way the weapons are being wielded to the terminology being used both logic and observation suggests that there is almost nothing about an extant koryu that might not have been changed in some way since the Sengoku, and possibly quite drastically.”

(https://www.amazon.com/Flawless-Deception-behind-samurai-schools-ebook/dp/B014OMZ0EA)

Therefore, no koryu from the Sengoku Jidai (and probably any other period) is entirely authentic and by extension none are entirely genuine either.

So, “genuine” becomes a matter of which definition is applied.

So why not continue using that first definition? I don’t hear anybody in the koryu community grumbling about koryu being defined in this simple way.

For a start I think it is rather disingenuous. I don’t think there is any doubt that when most people hear that an early koryu (or any koryu) is “authentic” or “genuine” there is an assumption of a far greater degree of similarity to their original model than there actually is—especially as regards the techniques employed and the methodology.

However, I am not suggesting that the current need for either proof of age or of lineage/transmission be discarded, instead I am saying that both definitions should be utilized.

With that we can start talking about judging a genuine samurai martial art in terms of degrees of genuine and types of genuine, rather than with what is to my mind a rather simplistic, “yay” or “nay”.

And in addition, when determining any given early koryu’s genuine “score”, we should include whether or not, or how much, that koryu still attempts to make their students hypothetically capable of functioning effectively in a medieval-type combat.

But, hold on just a second! Isn’t this crazy idea of “fixing something that ain’t broke” merely a ruse to somehow justify the claim that Karato Ryu is, as the reviewer said, “more genuine than the real martial arts schools.”?

Well, here’s what our Page actually says:

“…more genuine in that it provides its students with training that is closer to the original model and which is far more able to create battle-ready warriors.”

So, not a general claim of being more genuine.

Yes, I think that Sengoku Jidai, koryu-taught samurai would be turning in their graves if they could see what their koryu have apparently become—martially speaking.

And yes, I think those same samurai if faced with the option of Karato Ryu’s method and regimen or that of other extant koryu (based on their image today), would choose ours every time.

And, finally, yes, if I could provide the required bona fides for Karato Ryu I think it would be more genuine than any other extant koryu that I am aware of—based on what is available to the public of their practices.

However, until I provide proof of both the age of Karato Ryu and that there has been unbroken, direct transmission of its teachings over the centuries, I have to conclude that those koryu that can do both those things will always be more genuine than Karato Ryu.

And yet despite that, I know that the version of genuine that Karato Ryu offers is not only considerably more preferable to myself and my students, but in my opinion the emphasis on combat practicality and prowess is an essential element in the maintenance of what is most valuable about the early koryu.

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Please, Like our Page if you think we’re Genuine enough

(https://www.facebook.com/genuinesamuraimartialarts/?ref=page_internal)

Koryu: the Agent Smith connection

 

In truth, I would have very much liked to have called this essay, “Koryu: The Matrix connection” because while just about everyone has heard of those movies, probably fewer are aware of the Agent Smith character in them.

But I thought that title might imply that I was going to say ridiculous things like koryu training could “free your mind” and allow students to do “bullet time” stuff or discover new ways of perceiving existence, and that’s obviously just ridiculous.

Actually, later I will be touching on two of those three things—because, in fact, koryu training will allow the student to do them. However, regardless, because the theme of this essay is overwhelmingly “purpose”, it is on Agent Smith I must focus.

In the first Matrix movie Agent Smith’s purpose is perfectly clear: to protect the matrix as a suit-wearing Sentinel. The movie makes this clear by telling us that Agent Smith was created for this simple purpose and by showing him tracking and killing our heroes throughout—well, until bloody Neo gets involved.

And the koryu’s purpose is just as clear-cut: as samurai “schools” originating from a time of prolonged civil unrest/war and whose defining outward characteristic was the practice of martial arts, their purpose was of course to teach and practice individual combat skills.

OK, so the koryu’s and Agent Smith’s connection is clarity of purpose. Or maybe not…

The reason I called my book “Flawless Deception: the truth behind the samurai schools” (www.amazon.com/Flawless-Deception-behind-samurai-schools-ebook/dp/B014OMZ0EA) is because of the number and variety of misconceptions that are associated with the koryu, and while in Flawless I do discuss amongst other things the question of the koryu’s authenticity, their methodology, their effectiveness, who created them and their effects on their students I did not think it necessary to broach the subject of their purpose because THAT at least seemed clear.

However, in his essay “Off the Warpath: Military Science & Budo in the Evolution of Ryuha Bugei” (https://www.amazon.com/Budo-Perspectives-Alexander-Bennet/dp/4990169433?ie=UTF8&qid=1164065381&ref_=pd_bbs_sr_1&s=books&sr=1-1) Dr. Karl Friday (a world-renowned authority on koryu as both scholar and adept) makes the argument that although koryu training was focused on developing individual combat skills, a koryu’s ability to create warriors that could handle themselves well in a fight was not actually its primary purpose, there being, Dr. Friday states,  “little basis for that hoary assumption, beyond the fact that war was endemic in Japan when the first martial art schools appeared.”(A)

(Darnit!)

The main reasoning behind Dr. Friday’s thesis seems to be that neither their focus on the long-sword, nor the skills the koryu focused on developing were very applicable to the style of warfare of the time and even if they had been this same style of warfare meant the value of individual martial skills to a samurai was in decline anyway.

Okay, while all these things are true to varying degrees, I do not agree that they are sufficient to support the position that the koryu’s primary purpose was therefore not to make their members more capable fighters, and here’s why…

(You might want to get settled in for a riveting but I think necessarily long ride…think Captain America: Civil War.)

 

PART ONE

First, let’s examine whether the weapons the koryu trained to use were not suited to the style of warfare of the time—I know that in his essay Dr. Friday focuses on the long-sword, but other weapons popular with the koryu fall into the same category.

It is undisputed that formations of pike-wielding infantry played a progressively larger role in 16th century Japanese battles

However, just as speedball training has no literal place in a boxing match but that it nonetheless enhances the boxer’s performance in a match, so training with and/or against weapons that were unlikely to be found on a battlefield could still be extremely useful as part of a samurai’s combat training—and not just because it is preferable to the relative tedium of pike-fighting.

If we look at three “unsuitable” weapons that can be found in koryu curricula (and which I have spent 37 years training with), it is easy to see how each is especially suited to test and/or develop one or more aspects of a student’s combat-athleticism better than pike practice could.

So, wielding the long glaive (naginata) is generally good for developing physical strength and when it’s held in the middle especially so—not to mention handling it at combat-speed requires that the user learn how to keep their upper-torso muscles relaxed while they are extremely tired and under load. Also, my experience is that as a swordsman “fighting” a naginata in a kata (when it is held in the middle and can therefore utilize both ends very quickly) demands a unique combination of agility, speed and fine judgment of distance.

Like the glaive, the spear can also be handled in such a way as both the blade and butt –end are utilized. However, the spear can require a considerably higher level of dexterity due not only to its greater speed but the ability to rapidly lengthen and shorten the weapon in the hands. Because these factors give the spear the ability to be effective at a wide variety of distances it makes it particularly useful for developing not only judgment of distance but also very fast reflexes in both the spear wielder and his opponent.

Training with and against the long sword does not offer quite the same level of specialized athletic challenge as the other two weapons except perhaps in the rapidity and variety of attacks it can deliver.

Given this, it is not surprising then that the sword is also less effective than the spear or glaive in regard to the other reason for training with these weapons, namely the psychological challenges they offer.

In a well-designed partner kata the aforementioned characteristics of the above weapons can be cunningly manipulated so that depending how the kata is performed there is the potential to generate something not that far (in my experience/opinion) from a combat level of stress.

And nor does this psychological discomfort necessarily apply only to the person facing the weapon, since a kata can just as effectively utilize the weaknesses of a weapon as it can its advantages.

Also, the presence of stress also demands that in order to complete the kata successfully, the student must demonstrate a proportionate amount of courage.

 

Then there is the matter of whether the weapons actually were anachronistic.

While the long, held-in-the-middle glaive may indeed have become a completely impractical option by the 16th century due to (aside from anything else) the large amount of space it required to wield, shorter versions of the glaive I would imagine continued to see some action during at least the first decades if indeed the nagamaki (a very short glaive or a very long-hilted sword depending on how you look at it) was still present on the battlefield in the mid-1500’s…I read that somewhere seemingly reliable but can’t recall the source.

However, it is the spear that I find the hardest to see dying out during the 1500’s.

I must confess that even after reading everything in English I can get my hands on that might help, I have never really been able to get a handle on how the samurai component of a 16th army was distributed/utilized in battle—with the understanding that this probably changed considerably as armies became larger and more organized over the century. I assume that any cavalry was going to be made up entirely of samurai and there seems to be agreement that the common soldiery were eventually overseen at least some of the time by samurai “officers”.

However, where I am confused is, first, if this then accounted for all the samurai, and, second, if not then what did the other samurai do? And if the battle was not suited to cavalry employment, did the mounted samurai stand idly by? Seems unlikely.

I am assuming that as in Europe there was typically a link between a warrior’s financial (and therefore social) worth/standing and their place in an army’s hierarchy. Therefore, given that there was a wide discrepancy in samurai in this regard (my instructor said to differentiate between the lowest samurai and the peasantry was to separate “pigs from swine”) then did any non-cavalry/officer samurai serve only to support their superiors as part of a bodyguard? And/or did they mix with the pike-wielding common soldiers? Or did they form their own pike units? For what it’s worth, I was told that Karato Ryu exponents typically served on horseback as mid-level “officers”, but I never thought to ask who it was they were commanding!

(Incidentally, I believe my confusion about the samurai’s tactical uses stems from authors frequently not making it clear when discussing “foot soldiers” if they are referring to infantry samurai or common soldiers.)

All this relates to the practicality of the spear (and the impracticality of the pike) because not only was a spear the best non-projectile weapon to carry on horseback, if a samurai acting in an officer capacity over infantry (and assuming that he wasn’t following the Greek hoplite tradition of actually being part of the phalanx) found his unit being overrun, or for whatever other reason he himself being compelled to fight, a spear is again the best choice.

Additionally, just as there were scenarios where cavalry were redundant, similarly there were those where pike formations couldn’t be applied or maintained and as a result battle-lines were less defined and/or combat became more open-spaced—think assaults/defenses and/or unsuitable terrain. During these times, in whatever capacity a samurai was being used he would take a spear (or a sword) over a pike anytime.

And speaking of swords, while wearing the long-sword may have been standard practice for samurai throughout the 1500’s, for reasons touched-on later this does not automatically mean this was a reflection of its popularity/practicality as far as its use in actual combats. As just mentioned, when fighting out of formation, if a spear wasn’t handy, the sword would have been preferable to a samurai over a pike (or of course the longer glaive) so it seems likely that it would still have been employed at least sometimes.

 

Next, the argument that the skills that the koryu concentrated on developing did not have “a great deal of direct applicability”(C) to the style of warfare of the time.

I couldn’t disagree more with this part of Dr. Friday’s argument.

Not only were the skills applicable, but in several ways the quality of koryu combat training may have been significantly superior to that found in any other culture.

(A far more detailed explanation of all the following skills/attributes can be found in Flawless Deception)

First, the method theoretically had the ability to allow a warrior to maintain his psychological equilibrium during the sensory and emotional onslaught of battle and thereby fight with a much higher level of effectiveness. I say “theoretically” because I have not been in a battle of any type (I am extremely glad to say), however my reaction (or lack thereof) to high-stress situations I have encountered (not least of which being advanced Karato Ryu training) leads me to believe that it would be up to the ultimate test.

Second, and of almost equal importance to maintaining mental equilibrium, was the increase in a battle of what we today refer to as situational awareness—or the ability of a warrior to recognize what the hell was happening around him and how it impacted on him.

Remaining calm certainly played a part in a warrior’s level of situational awareness if only because it prevented the sensory restrictions that the sympathetic nervous system’s reaction to stress brings with it. However, beyond that factor, the koryu method also allowed for even greater clarity of perception due to its promotion of what might be described as objectivity.

And third, there is supposedly the enhanced ability to not only perceive and understand what’s happening around you but to be able to react appropriately. In other words, being aware of the enemy pike coming towards your head AND being able to perform an appropriate action to deal with it.

Fourth, the combined influence of all the above attributes enabled the koryu adept to theoretically increase his physical ability by liberating a higher percentage of his innate potential with respect to speed, timing, judgement of distance, agility and stamina.

And while the above abilities were especially useful in battle, they could also be applied to training sessions, which in turn made the sessions considerably more useful as preparations for actual combat.

The effectiveness of kata training–no matter how sophisticated it may be in terms of kata design or performance–is virtually always significantly reduced by students predicting the kata’s component parts—even when they are convinced that they are not.

The above psychological “skills” were (are!) eventually capable of allowing students to perform kata Spontaneously (as I call it in Flawless Deception). I do not mean by this that they are not thinking about what is going on—quite the contrary—simply that they are in such a state of mind that to them the kata just “happens” to mostly end up in the form of the kata.

The ramifications of Spontaneity are that it makes kata immeasurably (and unimaginably) more combat-realistic, and therefore equally more thrilling and challenging to perform. As a result, training (both solo and partner) is never again anything less than exhilarating no matter how many thousands of times a kata is performed. Yeah, really. It is quite something to watch one of your students finally get a inkling of training in this way and see how it changes his approach to training forever.

A further advantage is that not only are the kata performed with a  higher degree of combat-realism, the degree of that realism can go way beyond what would normally be considered practical due to the danger of serious (if not fatal) injury it would seem to produce.

It should be noted that another of the benefits of these psychological skills is the ability to use them to generate a sense of threat even when it isn’t physically present, so partner kata can be stimulating when done slowly and solo kata practice becomes an exercise in “practiced paranoia” as you respond (both intellectually and physically) to non-existent but felt threats from different directions.

And lastly, even if the above effects felt in training didn’t actually transfer to battle, that they not only make long hours of training enjoyable but instill confidence (whether warranted or not) in one’s prowess are two potentially very significant advantages of the methodology–not only was the koryu-taught samurai likely to be more physically conditioned for battle, but his confidence would have lessened the level stress he needed to overcome.

 

And lastly there is the question of whether the style of warfare in the 1500’s meant the value of individual martial skills to a samurai was in decline.

The growing dominance of formation-based tactics would most certainly have reduced both the opportunity and need for a samurai to fight independently.

However, as already discussed above, there were still situations where formation tactics couldn’t be applied  and where a samurai could consequently find himself fighting if not alone then with less, or no, cohesive unit support.

Were these conditions sufficiently common that the koryu would have thought they justified a thorough study of individual combat skills? That would seem to be a very difficult question to answer.

However, if it wasn’t sufficient it doesn’t automatically mean that the motivation for developing individual combat prowess could only have been to stimulate abstract psychological change.

Being able to exhibit martial arts skill (in the form of kata training), no matter how unlikely it is that it’ll be used in battle, was potentially important for a couple of other reasons:

Even if the creators of the koryu weren’t seeking military advancement themselves, any students that were could have seen kata demonstrations as a means to attract favorable attention from a superior—not just because of how innovative kata practice was for the time, but because skilled kata practice is excellent at suggesting that it requires and develops the mental attributes needed for military leadership.

Second, all koryu students were from warrior families and so had been brought up in a martial culture that respected and expected individual combat prowess—even if it was acknowledged by them that such skills were now less likely to be literally useful.

Another reason could have been some combination of wishful-thinking and insecurity.  Surely, many 16th century samurai would have hoped that the current dependence on common soldiers would pass and that the samurai would once again become the central figures in a battle?

While such dreams of returning to “the good old days” might appear romantic, naive and irrational, they would have been very reassuring to a warrior class who quite reasonably saw their social and political position being threatened by their decline in martial relevance. Sure, for some samurai the move into less combat-orientated leadership roles would have been an opportunity to reassert and maintain their importance, but not only would this change in roles not always have been appealing, but for how many of the lower-class samurai would the circumstances to allow it have come their way?

So, developing and demonstrating (through kata) individual combat skill might not only get a koryu member noticed by a lord, it could be seen as a warning to the peasantry that their samurai were still a force to be reckoned with, and at the same time simply bolster a samurai’s own sense of importance and worth in troubling times.

And these factors explain why the sword would appear so frequently in a koryu’s kata syllabus, for as Dr. Friday says, “swords achieved a singular status as heirlooms and symbols of power, war, military skill and warrior identity.”(D)

And lastly, though it might seem a small point, I would suggest that regardless of the unrest of the period or its limited military relevance, another reason why many samurai (koryu creators/members or not) would have striven to acquire individual combat skill was because they wanted to. As with any culture, there is always a percentage of the population that is driven to want to learn how to fight even if there is no particular social, political or economic imperative to do so.

Almost certainly the founders of the koryu (and probably the vast majority of their early students) were of this persuasion otherwise they were unlikely to either have been as successful in combat as they were and/or they simply wouldn’t have spent the time developing their methodology.

 

PART TWO

So, I don’t agree with Dr. Friday that the aspects of the koryu just discussed are necessarily an indication that the koryu’s primary purpose was other than individual combat skill.

However,  I do (perhaps unexpectedly) agree with him that koryu training is excellent for what he argues was their actual goals.

Dr. Friday suggests that the koryu primarily sought to generate in their members positive psychological change in the vein of the various Ways that appeared in the same period(E).

He also suggests that the training led to increased “tactical acumen”, however it is unclear whether he thinks this skill was part-and-parcel of the Ways changes and/or the result of applying tactics learned in the individual combat training to generalship.

Either way, the reasons provided for this military goal are both the declining use of individual combat skills in battle that mass formation-based warfare brought with it and the growing appreciation of, and need for, generalship it produced.(E)

So, Individual combat skill was “a sprat to catch a mackerel”, or in other words, the fact that it made the students better at combat was of less importance than other effects it had on them.

In Flawless Deception I argue that the koryu’s training methodology actually has the potential to be even more effective at stimulating the aforementioned “psychological change” than any of the many Ways designed specifically for that purpose.

It might seem counter-intuitive that an occupation focused on the butchery of one’s fellow-man would be more suited to this than “calligraphy, flower arranging, music, drama, painting”, “poetry composition, incense judging” or “the tea ceremony”(G) .

However, during combat some modern soldiers have recorded feeling things that could be interpreted as being very similar to the ultimate goal of those Ways that appeared around the same time as the koryu.

Discovering “the momentous truths about ourselves and this whirling earth to which we cling”(8), or that ” ‘I’ passes insensibly into a ‘we’ “, or feeling so much “part of this circling world”, so much alive that, in seeming paradox, death no longer matters to them.”(9) . (H,I) sounds to me very akin to the attainment of “universal Truth”(J)  the Ways sought.

In my experience, it is the ability of koryu methodology to routinely reproduce the same, or similar, states of mind (using some of the same stimuli) that sets it apart from not only contemporary Ways but also more martially orientated ones that came later.

As with many other moments of existential epiphany, I would argue that those just mentioned are in good part merely(!) the result of the soldiers for the first time perceiving existence with a perfectly focused and objective mind.

I have found that kata training can eventually routinely reproduce such a state of mind so long as the kata (either solo or partner) are appropriately designed and performed. (btw, that was the “discover new ways of perceiving existence” part I warned about at the beginning)

While the process to facilitate this is complex, the key factor is stress (specifically fear), both real and perceived.

This serves (basically) to silence the student’s incessantly jabbering conscious mind and place his mind entirely in the moment, often with his only concern being whether or not he has the willpower to continue.

This effect can be so powerful before the student learns to adapt (for lack of a better word) that I have witnessed countless times students after a class struggling to remember where they parked their car, or what their plans were for the rest of the day, or even having trouble talking. Often their minds have been so effectively cleared of social, emotional and intellectual context that they barely talk for several (or many) minutes as their minds slowly revert to “normal” functioning.

Where this methodology is superior in my experience to the other Ways is that without this kind of combination of stress-incentive and psychological testing the exponent must rely upon a level of self-imposed concentration and willpower during the “performance” of their art that I believe to be almost superhuman, and therefore certainly not generally achievable.

That is not to say the exponents of these other arts will ever notice (or accept) the difference in the effects of their efforts since it is, in my experience, extremely unusual for a student to be able to conceive the clarity of mind I have very briefly outlined until they have achieved it. Before that time, their “chattering monkey mind” is such a ubiquitous part of their existence that trying to perceive it is like trying to get someone with decades of stress in their shoulders to feel that stress before it is relieved.

The second main advantage the koryu have over non-martial Ways is the added difficulty that combatively-practical martial arts (and especially those utilizing weapons, armor & adverse training environments) bring to attaining “universal Truth” this being due to the multitudes of incessant distractions they create—be they physical, sensory, emotional and/or intellectual. However, this also means that if a koryu student is able to overcome these challenges they will find it relatively easy to apply and maintain in everyday life the psychological experiences that have manifested during their koryu training sessions.

This is why the martial Ways (such as kendo, iaido, kyudo or aikido) do not offer the same level of challenge or therefore the same degree of change: all of them having in some areas either deliberately or inadvertently removed some of the aforementioned “incessant distractions” from their method.

A third advantage that explicitly combat-orientated training has—one which also seems counter-intuitive—is simply that students are going to spend less time thinking about how they are progressing in their journey towards “universal Truth”.

This might be because the student is primarily interested in developing prowess and/or because of the nature of the training, but either way less time is available (whether out of choice or necessity) for reflecting, deliberating, and conceptualizing about anything related to their progress in non-martial matters.

Alternatively, a student that undertakes a Way with self-development as their main motivation will find it extremely difficult to not be constantly assessing their training experiences looking for signs of progress or meaning.

This is significant because much of the benefits of the Ways depends upon the student allowing the changes in him to develop without his conscious interference. Thus, conscious analysis will typically slow progress (if not stop it entirely) while, alternatively, being entirely concerned with the activity itself (rather than its psychological impact) tends to open psychological “doors” more quickly and ultimately “reveal” more of them.

 

Dr. Friday also raises the question of why there were so few koryu during the Sengoku(K). The inference being to my mind that if developing combat skills was the primary goal of the koryu then there would have been more of them given the unsettled times.

I would argue that if there were as few koryu as it appears then it is because adapting the Ways principles into a combat-practical curriculum took far, far more than simply being a seasoned warrior—of which there were many. Just as it seems only a small fraction of modern soldiers have the profound experiences I discussed earlier, so only a comparably small number of samurai would have had both the combat experience and (most importantly) the vision to see the martial potential that kata training has, let alone to then create the kata and methodology.

 

And lastly, as the final argument against Dr. Friday’s thesis I would like to take an extremely brief look at the late 14th century, Italian fight-master Fiore dei  Liberi. He taught noble mercenaries primarily battle-orientated martial arts and like the Sengoku-era koryu, not only was he apparently extremely unusual for his time by having a formal curriculum (there are extant copies of his treatise), but also this curriculum was in key ways seemingly unsuited  for the style of warfare that his clients would engage in.

However, Italy had no Ways that can be used as an explanation for Fiore’s technical “deficiencies”, and while the reason for his teaching‘s failings cannot be proved, all the socio-political factors I’ve presented above as rationales in the Sengoku to learn individual combat were present in Fiore’s italy.

 

CONCLUSION

As previously stated, I don’t think that the arguments that Dr. Friday uses are enough to determine that the koryu’s primary purpose was to develop psychological skills for purposes other than combat, but that being said I happily acknowledge how capable the koryu can be in this regard.

I also accept that the benefits of koryu training in regard to self-development and generalship may not have been inadvertent and even that these may have been of great importance to the koryu creators. I just don’t think this means they were the primary goal—“hoary” though such a perspective may be.

So much then for the Agent Smith connection I claimed of clear, unambiguous purpose?

Maybe so!

But Dr. Friday’s thesis (if accepted) would create another connection. Not only then would both Smith and the koryu have had their primary purposes taken from them, but the consequences in both cases would be just as drastic, because as Agent Smith so rightly says (albeit slightly edited), “It is purpose that guides us, that drives us; it is purpose that defines”.

That said, although for the koryu the consequences would be “drastic”, they wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic.

In the Matrix movies when Agent Smith finds that he has been “unplugged” from the system clones abound, skies darken, matrix chaos ensues…

By contrast, the effect of changing the koryu’s purpose would be very subtle.

Martial arts study would still be the central aspect of koryu membership, but the re-purposing would serve to assist in de-emphasizing the importance of actual combat training—by which I mean, training that will prepare a student for combat—which in turn would lead to a reduction in the level and quality of the martial character of the koryu.

“So what?” you might say.

Ah, but not only would few argue that a high level of martial character was an original component of the koryu, but the fundamental point of Flawless Deception is that martial character also happens to be crucial to a koryu’s ability to generate certain kinds of psychological change in its senior student’s—change which is incredibly important for two reasons.

First, it is essential to a deep understanding on both a technical and “spiritual” level of any sufficiently authentic koryu, and is therefore necessary to prevent their degradation.

And second, because the psychological changes the koryu methodology can eventually generate—as well as the methodology itself—are in my opinion the most valuable things the koryu have to offer the world, and to lose them would be a great tragedy—greater even than the decision to make the Matrix sequels…especially the third one…which was just horrible.

 

“We’re here to take from you what you tried to take from us. Purpose.”

Agent Smith

 

ENDNOTES

Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from “Off the Warpath: Military Science & Budo in the Evolution of Ryuha Bugei”

(A)  P255: “All these questions become much easier to answer if one sets aside the premise that bugei ryuha originated as instruments for teaching the workaday techniques of the battlefield. And indeed, there is little basis for that hoary assumption, beyond the fact that war was endemic in Japan when the first martial art schools appeared. The received wisdom rests, in other words, on what amounts to a post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy.”

(C) P250: “Nor did the skills that late medieval bugeisha concentrated on developing have a great deal of direct applicability to sixteenth-century warfare. In fact, even the earliest of bugei ryuha were, at best, anachronistic in this regard.”

(D) P256: “Viewed in this light, the prominent role of the sword in medieval ryuha bugei is much easier to understand. For, their secondary role in battlefield combat notwithstanding, swords achieved a singular status as heirlooms and symbols of power, war, military skill and warrior identity.”

(E) P256:“More importantly, however, the martial and other arts also ‘”shared a sense of ultimate-true-purpose, defined in the medieval Japanese concept of “michi,” or “path.””. P256: “It held concentrated specialization in any activity to be an equally valid route to attainment of “universal Truth”.

(F) P255: “Why did bugei ryuha emerge when they did-at a time when generalship, the ability to organize and direct large forces, was rapidly coming to overshadow personal martial skills as the decisive element in battle, and the key to a successful military career?”

(G) P255: “During the Muromachi period, virtuosos of calligraphy, flower arranging, music, drama, painting, and the like began to think of their approaches to their arts as packages of information that could be transmitted to students in organized patterns, and to certify students’ mastery of the teachings with licenses and diplomas.”

P256: “Ryuha bugei, emerging within this cultural and philosophical milieu, took its place alongside poetry composition, incense judging, noh drama, the tea ceremony, and numerous other medieval michi.”

(H) (I) Flawless Deception: the truth behind the samurai schools: 8. J. Glenn Gray (Introduction by Hannah Arendt) The Warriors: Reflections On Men In Battle (Bison Books, 1998), p21. 9. J. Glenn Gray (Introduction by Hannah Arendt) The Warriors: Reflections On Men In Battle (Bison Books, 1998), pxi-xii

(J) P256: This construct, born of implications drawn’ from a worldview common to Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, saw expertise in activities of all sorts-from games and sports to fine arts, from practical endeavours to religious practice-as possessing a universality deriving from its relationship to a common, ultimate goal. It held concentrated specialization in any activity to be an equally valid route to attainment of “universal Truth”, asserting that all true paths must lead eventually to the same place, and that therefore complete mastery of even the most trivial of pursuits must yield the same rewards as could be found through the most profound.

(K) P255: “Why were there so few ryuha around during the Sengoku period, and why did they proliferate so rapidly during the early Tokugawa period, after the age of wars had passed?”