So a few months back I sent out interviews to a bunch of budo teachers.Some people were kind enough to write back. Yesterday it occurred to me that I had not tackled these questions myself, and likely no one will ever want to interview me, so I might as well do it myself. So there you go...
If you happen to read this and you are a teacher in any martial arts form, please shoot me an email with your answers to the questions to email@example.com. I would love to hear from more people.
Why did you start training?
I had been interested in the martial arts since I was around 7 or 8, but my mother refused to let me participate in fighting arts. I used to spend my Sundays watching Kung Fu theatre, a show which presented a different kung fu flick every week. After that the westerns would come on. Thinking back this is probably where much of my warped fascination with the martial arts stems from. I love both the sword and the six-shooter.
In the sixth grade my world starting turning upside down. The new middle school was infested with bullies. I was a small quite boy with not a lick of fighting sense. I was fresh meat. The bullying was terrible. Every day was full of fear and confrontation. Teachers and principals largely were ineffective at stopping the harassment. Eventually the problem got so bad my mother relented on letting me study martial arts. I believe at the age of 11 I was enrolled in Master Han’s tae kwon do in Carrollton, Texas.
I trained off and on throughout my teens. I did tae kwon do for several years, karate, ju-jitsu, fencing, Northern Shaolin, and some kick boxing. When I was twenty I finally met the man who I call teacher, Russell Waddell. He opened my eyes to what budo could be, and has helped me along my path of aiki-budo.
Why do you continue to?
Now I simply cannot stop. I feel like I am wasting time if I am not training. I feel weak if I don’t train. I feel emotional unbalanced. I feel sick after a while. It keeps me sane and healthy.
Also martial practice has become the focus of my artistic, creative, and even social experiences. My writing and painting is focused around budo and the Zen aesthetic. My evenings not training are spent writing and talking to some of the finest martial artists. My vacation time is planned around training. My teachers and students are my best friends and are some of the finest people I have ever had the privelage of spending time with.
I remember one of my early martial arts teachers talking about being a ‘budo man’. Somehow he always made it feel like BEING a budo man was something that I wasn’t. Well, guess what? I am one.
Do you have a phrase(s) that sum up your ideal of martial arts practice?
“The great way has no boundaries.” I firmly believe in the possibility of a great many things. If we shut down possibility through self imposed boundaries, then we are doing ourselves a great disservice. I choose to believe in possibility. I choose to believe I can always accomplish even greater understanding.
In the following picture I am at an art show with my favorite phrase. This is the largest piece of calligraphy I have ever done - 20 feet tall!
What do you like to see in a practice?
I like to see less lecturing and more people playing. I like to see one on one problem solving. I like to see an active dojo where everyone is teaching and everyone is learning. I like to see high level teachers playing with each other, because I find typically they don’t. I like a casual environment where a new student can comfortably talk to a high level teacher without dropping to his knees and bowing. I like ukes that ride that line of being a tough, yet achievable challenge. I like to see randori, free play, done thoughtfully.
I like seeing a strong sense of zanshin. Zanshin is connection. It is awareness. It is a burning stare and staying in the moment. Practice without it feels empty to me, like it is play rather than budo. Most martial artists do not have a sense of this concept yet, and I see it and feel the emptiness.
What do you not like to see in a practice?
I do not like seeing centralized power. I do not think there is one artist, and everyone is trying to copy the big dog’s system. I loathe seeing an abuse coming from teachers towards people. I hate seeing teachers that think they are better, or a higher social standing just because they have skill at throwing people. I do not like seeing teachers that demand a title be used with their name.
I hate seeing a skilled teacher with an empty dojo.
I do not like seeing systems with without a system of free play. I do not like systems where things are forbidden, like foot sweeps. As long as techniques are safe to practice, and they are done in the correct intent – everything should be on the table.
I do not like seeing stylized attacks from predetermined ranges with no room for spontaneous and creative movement.
I do not like seeing people waste time in the dojo. In many dojos I have been trained in, I see people sitting and talking for long periods of time. I talk in the dojo, but I do it while training!
How do you define 柔/合気 ju/aiki?
Aiki 合気 and Ju 柔 – mean 合気 ‘fitting to energy’ and 柔 ‘softness’ are strategies and philosophies in martial training and budo lifestyle. In China at the Taoist temples the internal artists postulated a theory that softness can overcome the hard. They believe that challenging the mind and spirit through internal work will reward the diligent student greater results that depending on strength and power. I believe the students of ju and aiki are inheritors of this philosophy.
Early in the development of judo, Kano Sensei penned the two most important phrases in budo practice. Students of 柔 ‘ju’ should strive for mutually beneficial training practices. Also our training at all levels should be infused with the strategy of maximum efficiency with minimum effort. These simple two phrases can, if studiously followed, totally change the practice and results of a sincere budo practice. We should be obsessed with the concept of efficiency and economy of motion.
Also, I think too a serious student of 柔 ‘ju’ should be infatuated with the word softness. It should be a mantra. It should be the self analysis grading rubric of each technique thrown. We must constantly ask ourselves how we can do these same motions with less energy.
合気 Aiki to me not only speaks of a strategy, it also speaks of a lineage. If you train and teach aiki it means you are from a family coming from Sokaku Takeda. What is aiki is something largely up to artistic interpretation, so it largely has little meaning beyond that. There are a great many artists from many different martial schools that achieve it. I sometimes equate aiki with the word kung fu – meaning great acquired skill. Aiki – or harmonizing with energy is not a unique strategy in our lineage. I do have my own constantly evolving definition of aiki, but looking out into the larger community I see that my interpretation is a personal one.
What adjective would you say your technique 'feels' like?
It depends on how much of a skill deferential there is between me and my partner. Most new people I can make dance around with no pain and very little pressure they can feel. I do not do techniques to these folks. I can keep it in the realm of pure balance breaking. In Lowry Sensei’s breakdown down of techniques according to elemental intent I would say my style is ‘air’. I imagine myself a cloud, intangible, yet rippling with small lightning strikes.
When does a practice become not-ju/aiki?
Exertion of anything is that is more than is needed is when it ju/aiki fails in practice. It could be MORE of anything. If you use more speed than needed, you are not using these strategies. If you are using more strength, more pain, more time, more space, and more motion you are doing too much. These art forms are supposed to be deep studies of efficiency.
Do you have a favored technique right now?
I have deeply exploring standing shime (chokes) in aikido and judo for a while now. I have been linking trying to do Tomiki’s seventeen with a different emphasis than what is taught standard. I might do a technique such as aigamae ate (irimi nage) with the main connection with my hand, my elbow, my hip, my knees or my feet. Then I work on rippling the connections down rapidly so there is not one throw, but a lightning fast transition of connections that a nervous system cannot respond to.
If I had to put it to words I do not believe aiki is in the techniques. Aiki lies in the changes between techniques.
In judo I am working hard on my ashi waza (foot techniques). I am taking the time to go back and explore ground work very slowly and with the minimal effort mindset that I approach standing work with.
I have been also developing a system of aiki tanto work for about 6 years now also.
What is your favorite practice related book?
‘The Book of Martial Power’ is probably one of the best written. The ‘Tai Chi classics’ is a must read. The Tao Te Ching is a constant source of inspiration. I enjoy ‘Book of 5 Rings’ by Musashi. Suzuki Roshi’s collection ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ is a good one. The ‘Hagakure’ is an interesting view into the samurai mind. Saotome’s ‘Aikido and the Harmony of Nature’ is sometimes an interesting read.
To be honest I am a video junkie. I am blown away at the amount of information now available that until recently was unavailable. We has access to so much now. I love it.
What is rank? What does rank reflect?
It is an understanding between a teacher and student – going both ways. The rank system is a goofy ego trap. It as a ridiculous as it is useful.
I have successful thrown people that far outrank me, and I have been pinned by brown belts. While skill is a nice prerequisite I would say rank has to do more with knowledge of methods and strategy than it had to do with fighting ability.
I believe that people should not be ranked past 5th dan unless they show phenomenal skill, understanding, and they can articulate it well. I do not see any need for people to go much higher than that unless they are part of a large organization. To me a 7th or 8th dan rank is an indicator of leadership. By this point a person should have produced so many 5th dans that they are pushed up. I do not think a person should receive a 7th dan for being a good student alone. They should receive it for their ability to teach. Look at his students and you will know if the person is really a 7th dan. Their energy should have spread the art far and wide.
I have heard of some 9th dans that simply train in a dojo and have never taught. I do not think this is accurate portrait of rank. This would be a 5th dan with exceptional skill. The higher ranks are leadership and teaching ranks IMHO.
What principle have you been focusing on in your practice lately?
Connection or connectivity is my main principle of focus right now. For a long time I have connected then disconnected, making movements that do not have effect. In a good training session every movement should have effect. If you are connected to your opponent, you merely have to move yourself and your opponent has to move. With no connection you can really accomplish very little efficiently. Connect!
What is your relationship to kata?
When I studied Daito Ryu in Japan I did exacting formal kata every practice for three years. In my first aikido school they were big on kata and would run it over and over. I know kata. I can get a deep practice with it. It is no longer my focus.
Kata is great, but there is a point of diminishing returns in my own practice. I especially disapprove of kata if you are just trying to memorize how master _____ does it. Kata is not a static thing. It is a tool to engage and challenge. Every time you step up to a kata to explore eventually you will be brought to a place where you cannot answer the problem with your previous knowledge. Kata has a way of forcing the beginner’s mind. You must experiment from this point. I use kata as a launching point for experimentation. I do not try to fit my movement around someone else’s kata. Often know I use kata as an example of the way I don’t like the technique to be done. Nevertheless it is still a useful tool.
Rather than kata, I prefer flow drills, rezoku (continuous) attack exercises or balance breaking drills. I do not like training where the result is known. In real aiki the result can rarely be predicted, so that is why I have a hard time finding aiki in kata. I can find techniques, but no aiki. In my estimation aiki comes from an ever changing relationship that accommodates to the circumstances. Much of kata is trying to prescribe the circumstances – type of attack, range, technique...etc. For my current practice I feel that the prescription robs the interaction of life.
What is your relationship to a competitive feeling in training?
Budo is a combat art. In many aikido dojos people are not allowed to push themselves to a competitive level. I think aiki and ju tends to fail if the mind gets too competitive, but I feel it is important to let people go there when they need to. Sometimes they need to get to the frustration level where the strategy of aiki fails them. They need to tense and to struggle, so they can learn a more efficient way. Power and strength are often a valid answers in conflict. During randori I do not forbid my partners from using it. I do remind them that it is not a good aiki answer. More often now I can use that power to my own benefit to illustrate the point. Sometimes I still get hung up.
I love having judo guys shiai me. I don’t shiai back. I love the raw energy and tension of someone bent a determined to throw you. If you don’t feed into their game, if you just surf their energy I have found I can be a fearsome opponent by just going where they want me to go and doing what their body tells me to do, softness negating hardness.
I love randori (free play) I do not understand a martial arts practice that does not have it in some form. I similarly do not under how any artist can get to higher levels without spending a great deal of time in this zone. For me at least it is the place where aiki in it’s most beautiful and creative forms can be found and created.
How has your vision of practice changed as you have gotten older?
I get hurt less now than when I was younger. I tend not to take as much radical ukemi. My father is an expert billiards player. You never see him take a difficult shot. The better I get at budo I try to tailor my ukemi around what my body can safely and easily take.
The biggest difference in my art now as opposed to when I was younger is that it is entirely a creative process. I do not copy anymore. I find inspiration from nature or other artists, and then I go through a process of creative movement and thinking to solve novel problems. Many of my guys have commented that I often do not teach, instead I lead a laboratory. I make it up as a go along now, but I have a hefty tool box of experiences and principles to guide the way.
Do you have another hobby or art form that you think about in martial arts terms and ideas?
Performance magic, calligraphy, cooking, shooting, archery, and teaching children are the main ones. Really I never turn off my martial arts window in which I view the world. Principles tend to be universal. Often they work in the physical sense. More often they work conceptually, and poetically in other interactions and relationships around us.
Do you see any problems with the way aikido is practiced in the world at large, and do you have any recommendations for change?
The main problem I see is ego. Ego creeps in everywhere in the practice. For a supposedly Zen related art form ego seems to be one of the biggest traps, from the new students to the heads of systems. It truly poisons the practice.
There are many ways to practice. As long as it suits you, have fun! Remember to give other people space to practice their way. Don’t let that ego thing crawl in there.
What martial art besides the one you practice do you think is interesting?
I love so many arts. I can watch a good silat teacher for hours. I love sambo’s leg lock work. Wing chun is an art form I wish I studied deeply. Tai Chi push hands is lovely. The new wave of ground work submission wrestlers is inspiring. There are many geniuses at work pushing the envelope in this frontier. Knife and shuriken throwing is an amazing practice. A deep study of the sword is another aspect of budo I would love to have. Extreme long distance shooting is also so cool. Strategy games such as chess and go are well worth spending your life chasing after.
I just love all this stuff. I am a nut for martial study.
What inspires you?
Teachers that have attained great skill and use it to build communities and friendships inspire me. A passionate student that is absorbing as much as they can is a sight to behold. I find the images and avatars of the masters that have walked before us an interesting mythology to explore to find inspiration. Good art in general is very inspiring. Calligraphy is extremely inspiring to me. The Tao Te Jing and all those books I mentioned earlier. Of course YouTube, watching other people is great. Oh yeah, Star Wars. I like Star Wars.
Do you have any aspirations for your art, dojo or organization for the future?
I would like to continue with what I have. I like having a tight knit group of devoted teachers and students working together to create a healthy and dynamic practice.
Oh yeah, I would also like to be considered a force a nature.
Anything on your mind you would like to add?
The most important thing in budo is relationships.
Don’t get stuck in one way of thinking.
All arts have beauty. All artists are worthy of respecting, because at least they are out there practicing, which is better than most people.
The great path has no boundaries.
Be nice to your mother.
Choose to see beauty in the world.