Saturday, December 27, 2008

Parks in the cold

Bright sun with bitter cold and wind in Tokyo today – perfect chance to bundle up in layers and start moving outside.

I make a few circuits through tai ji 48 outside my home but the sunlight is blocked, so I venture off a few hundred meters to Kami 3 Hiroba, a small park-like area where I used to practice near-nightly a few years back.

The sunlight is good but the exposure throws me off a bit. There had been a good border of overgrown trees and shrubs which provided a feeling of sanctuary. I could hear the people and cars passing by on the street, but they would have to be really looking to see me.

Earlier this autumn the city came in and cleaned it all up, leaving only the large trees standing and a perfect view into the park from the road.

No reason not to perform in front of people, so I got down to work, continuing the 48 form and almost instantly forgot the gawking passersby anyway. I stopped now and then for a sip of hot water from the thermos and sat at a make-shift table on wobbly benches. Rather uncharacteristic of Japan, where everything is new and bright and shiny. This table and benches have been out in the rain and wind for several years now and they show it. They have also hosted their share of late night drinking sessions and are thus much appreciated. I hope they will remain for many years to come, broken down and rough.

Sitting in the wind in the park took me back to Tao Ran Ting, the park in Beijing where Liu Jingru Laoshi sips tea and teaches each day. My first trip over there was in late October and it was chilly and windy, though the harshness of Beijing winter had yet to descend. No, it was still reasonable outside, though we warmed ourselves with regular sips of tea.

I learned a form using the yuan yang yue there, a pair of curved, pointy, multi-bladed weapons written about elsewhere in this blog. The motions of the form took me up high and down low, and weaving back and forth across the practice area, occasionally halting suddenly to avoid a hapless, totally unconcerned passerby ( If I were walking through a park and saw a crazy foreigner running around with bladed weapons, I might take it upon myself to take a few steps to the side, rather than stop, stare, and then continue walking directly into the practice area….). I changed clothes midway through each practice to avoid catching cold from sweat-soaked shirts.

Liu Laoshi was quite worried about me catching cold. Beijingers, of course, had nothing to worry about because they had grown up in this climate. One day, a long-time student of Liu Laoshi’s dropped by. It was colder and windier that day. He started walking ba gua circles. A growl from Liu Laoshi and his stance got lower. Another growl and he paused to remove his coat and shirts. Liu Laoshi kept him circling several more minutes, until sweat was dripping and steam was rising – and still he circled. Maybe the lesson was for me after all. Once it was my turn again, I got down lower, swung out wider – and didn’t feel the cold.

I now recall another park, this one in Lincoln. Out by Holmes Lake, on the opposite side of town from all the usual university environs.

One night three of us went out for a dip. It had been a long night of practice – the kendo was exhausting on its own. Then there was about three minutes to change and get a swallow of water before the really exhausting workout began, karate. But those were the good old days when my energy was inexhaustible. Tell me what to do, and I did it.

So when, after karate one teacher asked me and a fellow brown belt friend to go out for a swim, neither of us hesitated. The dojo follows a pretty strict, traditional hierarchy and there is little interaction between those with and without dan ranks. The teachers were not elevated to cult status by any means, but this was clearly a special event, a chance to see something of the teacher outside the dojo, in the real world.

We drove across town quickly on the late night streets. In the car, everything was nice and toasty, though a small pit was growing in my stomach, wondering what was in store for us.

We arrived at the lake, got out of the car…and into the cold. Did I mention it was winter? And there was not exactly a lack of wind, if you know what I mean. Damn, it was xxxxing cold. A thin coating of ice ran around the edge of the lake – it hadn’t yet frozen over, but our first few steps into the water would have to break that thin layer.

I moved toward the water, trying to psyche myself up a bit, then hesitated. Of course we had all left our coats in the car – this was to be some special winter training, after all. I figured we might wade in up to our knees, or maybe really go after it and go waist-deep. But our teacher had just started – off came the top of his karate gi or uniform, then the trousers. Friend and I looked at each other, shrugged, and shucked. There was no way to back out in front of the teacher. Off came the last shred of protection from the wind. Now it was cold.

Our teacher shared none of my hesitation – he was already plowing through the water. Nothing to do but steel oneself. There was an instant of cold as my first foot entered the water. Another step, and another, as the cold rose up my legs. Then it was like the cold had turned to heat. NOW it was fucking cold.

Once in, why not go all the way? Leap up in the air, submerge totally, bounce off the sandy bottom and leap up again and feel the wind. A brief moment of exhileration, maybe even a second submerging and leaping. OK, wet in the wind, this is beyond cold. As expected, we ran through a few kata in the water, maybe chest deep, trying to appear oblivious to the cold. Whew, enough of that, plow through the water and out into the cold – which in the wind, seemed colder than it had been in the water.

And then NOT as expected, our teacher went back into the water. My friend and I looked at each other, shrugged again, and moved back into the water, trying not to betray any lack of enthusiasm. Was it colder the second time around? I don’t know. It was just damn cold, beyond comparison.

Another kata or two, then it was time to finish up, dry off, and shiver in front of the heaters going full blast. Hell yes we ran the heater on the way back – we weren’t, after all, masochists.

Monday, December 22, 2008

kobudo and ba gua zhang

A good teacher friend was telling me about his kobudo system. What struck me was their open attitude toward practitioners from many disciplines – something which reminded me of the way the art of ba gua zhang began.

Kobudo, or Ryukyu Kobudo, is a system of weapons forms from the Okinawan Islands. The curriculum includes bo staff (the fundamental weapon of this group), nunchaku, tekkou (brass knuckles, basically), sai (pair of short metal weapons), tonfa/ tunfa (pair of short wooden weapons), kama (pair of scythes?), eku (oar or paddle), and the tinbe/rochin combination (turtle-shell shield and short thrusting weapon).

There is much cross-over with those training in Okinawan karate styles. Our teacher is of Shorin Ryu lineage in karate and naturally teaches both karate and kobudo. Some people start kobudo after years or decades of karate work; others follow the reverse pattern, and still others begin both nearly simultaneously.

People come in with deep experience in a different karate ryuha or school – they go through the same basics in kobudo as everyone, but have a tough time shaking old habits (i.e. spot the xxx-ryu guy with his extremely deep shiko-dachi stances: way too deep for us, but correct in his system).

Here is the point- people of all stripes are welcomed; it is inclusive. Of course everyone is expected to move nearer the “correct” style for our particular group – but there is also much understanding and respect for differences. This, to me, is especially refreshing after years in Japanese budo, which are extremely exclusive – things must typically be done exactly THIS way, or not at all, there is the door.

To maintain the tradition, there must be sameness and uniformity…to some extent. The answer, I suppose, lies in balance between faithful continuation of the tradition and realistic recognition of variation. Listening to my friend, I felt strongly that this group has an excellent sense of that balance.

Ba gua zhang (pa kua chang) was created well over 100 years ago and one person is recognized as the originator: Dong Hai Chuan (董海川). He had several main students – and each of them began ba gua having already trained for extended periods in other martial arts. And Dong taught each of them differently, according to the styles of motion already inherent in their bodies. Thus, several lines of ba gua zhang remain extant today, each still reflecting characteristics of the arts already mastered by those who later began ba gua zhang (xxx was a master of Shuai Jiao “wrestling” – his branch of BGZ has more grappling applications). They were actively encouraged to develop their own styles of BGZ while remaining true to its principles.

These two arts differ in the sense that (virtually) no one is encouraged to develop his / her own style of kobudo (then again, perhaps things were different as the roots of kobudo were developing. And there is certainly no single “founder” of kobudo). But the similarity in terms of openness or inclusiveness really struck me.

Much has been written about the many similarities between ba gua zhang and aikido, and there is supposition that aikido founder Ueshiba encountered/ studied ba gua zhang during his secretive years of travel in China (see posts at Dojo Rat in particular).

But this is the first time I have thought much about similarities between ba gua and kobudo. The physical motions bear no resemblance. Yet at a deep level, both serve as the same type of model for welcoming and encouraging practitioners while maintaining a good balance between adherence to tradition and acceptance of difference.

The photo shows two people, each demonstrating a different version of the same basic ba gua zhang posture. One is a master. One is obviously not. (from the 105th anniversary celebrations of Sha Guo Zheng's birth, in Kunming)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

F Street

Some 15 years back, I attended tai ji class at F Street Recreation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska on Sundays. Tai ji was new and fresh to me at that time, and each class was an adventure.

Winter classes were the best. I can still hear the soft hiss of steam coming from the radiators there on second floor, the only sound to guide our motions. And I can still see snow falling through the window, slowly piling up outside.

Classes began with gong fu basics as warm-ups, then we might work on the 48-style. We were so happy to move on after what had seemed an eternity with the 24-style. And here I am in Tokyo, still working on that 24-form, two classes on Wednesdays and other classes elsewhen.

It has been cold and rainy all day. This morning, during the push hands segment of class, I glanced out from the second story window of a local community center and could see the circles rippling out from where raindrops hit the large puddles in the playground area out back. There are no radiators (have never seen one in Japan) but otherwise the setting took me back to F Street and its playground area in the rear.

I found myself wishing for snow, for the large wet snowflakes of spring in Nebraska. I wanted to ride my bicycle through snow-filled streets, then bask in the warmth of F Street. Those Sundays were so relaxing – not the least because I was in the heyday of my karate training and every class was intense and physically exhausting. For me, tai ji served as a good balance or counter to the heaviness of the karate dojo, and Sunday afternoons were a time when I could bask in lightness and empty some of my stress.

I have written in other posts about losing contact with Di Ma over the years. A couple weeks back, I found her at last on the internet. I emailed someone who emailed someone who emailed her and was quite pleased when she wrote back. I got another, longer email from her yesterday, which might explain today’s memories of taiji in Nebraska.

We’ll have to meet again in the future and of course I would welcome her instruction and guidance again. And given that her family lives in Minnesota, there is a good chance there will be snow falling outside when we do meet again.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

If I were a true master...

…I would have played a tune upon it, without an instant’s hesitation.

As it was, or as I am, I managed only a single note.

I was outdoors, doing the first of the Sha family tai ji forms. It would have been a nice variation on shou hui pi pa or “strum the lute”, which pops up all over the place in various branches of tai ji. That is a fairly nice and benign motion, except for the fact that the application involves smashing an opponent’s arm from opposing directions, probably doing considerable damage to any joints like the elbow, which might get caught up in the action.

Would have been, except that I was doing dao juan gong, “reverse reeling”, though I prefer its alternate name, “repulse the monkey”. Your body is moving backward although one hand is exerting force to the front. One hand reaches back behind yourself, then pushes forward, scraping over the lower hand, which moves in toward the body while sinking down to the level of the dantian.

The Sha family version has in interesting, seldom seen variation, in which – while the body is stretched to the maximum in opposite directions, hands front and back – you lift the front foot up to the lead hand before stepping down, moving back, and pushing forward with the upper hand. This version requires much more balance and dexterity - and is quite beautiful when done well.

The first three in the series of four had gone smoothly. Just when I had reached back on the fourth and final, and stretched myself maximally in opposing directions front and back, I felt the string, plucked it with the hand behind me. It was stretching from neighbor’s house to our tree, having been blown down lower by the previous day’s wind. I had been watching it a few days, above me as I practiced outdoors. But this time, unknown to me, it had fallen within my reach. I stretched back in the motion, happened to touch it, became aware of it, hesitated an instant, moved my hand slightly, and continued the motions of the form.

Somehow, I did not break it, only gave it a good shake, probably gave a good scare to the spider who had spun it. Being freed of all constraints of ego, I of course felt no satisfaction in my martial accomplishments whatsoever. Those non-masters of lesser martial accomplishment would surely have snapped the string, after all. But me...I had shown the light touch of mastery not to an opponent, but to a hapless spider on its web.

These spiders suddenly appear in late November. Out of nowhere. One morning, the beginnings of their webs can be seen everywhere, single strands of web stretching from branch to branch and from roof to tree. They are called jorou gumo, which could be literally translated as “prostitute spiders”, or more loosely as man-snarers. Japanese folklore links them with waterfalls and pools of water and the ensnaring of the unwary. Perhaps they are not so hapless after all.

You can read more about them here: and you can see some here:
There is also a story by Tanizaki in which they figure in the title, and which was later made into a movie.

I have always been fascinated by these spiders and their webs, which sometimes stretch for several meters through the air. They fly through the air on gusts of winter wind, carrying a strand of web with them as they go, reaching out and crossing vast distances in the spider world. I like the idea of something both fragile and strong, shaken but not blown down by the wind. I always take care not to disturb these webs when gardening or trimming trees in the spacious one meter of “garden” surrounding my house.

So I must admit a guilty streak of pleasure upon realizing the lightness of my touch, the softness of my reaction as my fingers played upon that strand behind me. But at the same time, I must also recognize the instant of hesitation I felt, that moment of awareness. Sigh, the path of True Mastery still lies far ahead of me.

Meanwhile, all the jorou gumo are gone, vanished as suddenly as they came. I actually wrote the first (and better, if I may) version of this post last night, and JUST as I finished, some evil entity entered my laptop and wiped out everything I had written but the links. Were I not a True Master, I would have uttered some few strong words under the cover of darkness and solitude.

This morning, I went out to take more pictures (you can find one back on the “REEEEEEEN” or however-many E’s post), but they had all disappeared, the spiders and their webs. So I am left with memory traces of the post written last night and that instant of slight stickiness and awareness as my fingers caressed a string but produced no sound.

(picture from one of the Universities which hosted an Olympic event, probably wrestling, in Beijing)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

end of the year approaching

Days, weeks, months are slipping past too quickly and another year as well. I may have had less practice time this year than in any of the almost 20 prior years, before things got serious. Being slightly under-employed at the moment, I am racking up some nice end-of-the-year sessions but it can’t make up for the entire year of not-quite-enough.

Still, I am happy to have as much training time as I do, and regular access to the best teachers. It has been a year of both broadening and deepening my overall experience, and the stage is set for much more of the same next year. Yet I will be striving more for deepening than broadening, digging in more deeply in the current areas rather than exploring so much around the edges. It is time to go back and re-examine and strengthen my foundations.

I have already been assigned my main theme in training for 2009 – to get my middle section moving much more. My hips and shoulders have gotten looser, but that vast expanse between them has been neglected. Above dantian/ tanden, below the collar bones – nothing is happening there, or precious little, when I move.

Just three weeks until the new year and so many events on the horizon. Another demo/ tournament this coming Sunday, one in January, another in February. March will likely see another trip to Kunming and the Sha family. Somewhere in there I will get down to Okinawa. A trip to see Liu Laoshi in Beijing this spring would also be good, before his annual summer visit to Tokyo.

And in between, the challenge of everyday practice. Having a single goal for an entire year seems a bit much, but when I think of how quickly the years have been passing recently, I almost wonder if even more time will be needed to work on this one point which creeps into all the Chinese arts I practice.

(picture from a bell tower in Beijing which became (in)famous during the Olympics

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Beijing leftovers (6): more Liu Laoshi sightings

should be cleaning my room or studying languages or SOMEthing but here I am, buzzing around the internet and I find back-to-back Liu Laoshi references. Once at where there is a Joseph Crandall translation of a book co-authored by Liu (and I thought I had everything of his in English and Chinese...), once again at where there is a new post with some (probably commercially available) video footage of Liu Laoshi running through 八大掌 or the 8 big/main palms (and I thought I had most of his readily available video...). The rest of the night is clear: close the laptop, put on some shoes and start walking the circle outside.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

random thoughts and meetings

1. was running a bit late for my afternoon job today, mumbled bad words to myself upon just missing the train that would have gotten me there on time. hit the bottom of the stairs to the train platform, rounded the corner, and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, one of my teachers coming down the stairs from above. 10 seconds faster, and I would have been on the train that just pulled out, would not have even seen my teacher. as it was, we rode in sometime-silence and sometime-conversation. talking about the future, what I will do if/when back in the US. it was a much-needed and long-overdue talk. chance is like that, bringing us unexpected meetings and opportunities if only we keep our eyes open.
2. about a year back, I was making one of my many pilgrimages across town for a shot at kendo 4-dan. I was a bit ahead of schedule and sauntered onto the slow train rather than rushing for the express. I plunked my gear down, looked up, and saw a 8-dan kendo sensei at the opposite end of the train – I knew him from lunchtime practice at the Postal Ministry, though not well. still, it was an odd coincidence. weird. my gaze returned to directly in front of me – and there sat A. Shihan from my karate organization, Kenkojuku Shotokan. moving across town on his way to a karate event. weirder. there was over a century of martial arts experience just in those two men on the train. we chatted across town. I had faded pretty well out of the organization at this point but still see him each year for an interpreting gig, running J/E for he and some foreigner kids who came for a brief “this is karate” experience while on their university exchange program here in Japan. the signs were auspicious, but I didn’t pass kendo 4-dan that time, either.
3. tonight’s practice – not such an influence of chance, just a good one. we have a twice-monthly sword class with the teacher mentioned above – tonight, his off night, a few of us gathered for group self-practice. I have plenty of complaints about how a lot of people study both Chinese and Japanese martial arts in this country. I am hopelessly old-school and lack the patience to put up with various foibles and annoyances. but tonight those of us who came fit together very well. I am not a fan of practicing with others without a teacher – far too much time is wasted on inane points and pointless discussion, far better to practice alone. but tonight was special – we had just the right feeling and practiced together well. we each remembered and shared different points from the teacher and really moved ahead as a group (working on Sha Style tai ji jian / sword number 1). plenty of repetition, mutual self-correction with just the right feeling. also some runs through a sequence of 长拳/ long fist -based sword motions. this, too, went well – helping each other remember details, good balance of sheer reps and occasional discussion, everything one could ask for in a practice.
4. tomorrow is Happy Wednesday – practice with Mr. T in the morning, again in the afternoon, and yet again at night. I keep work out of the picture, still have time with my daughter.
5. the other night, just before the local mitaka tournament I FINALLY found mention of Di Ma on the internet, she having taken part in a healing festival. I immediately wrote the contact information and requested their help in contacting her (my main tai ji teacher back in Nebraska, all those years ago). no reply yet, but I feel that things are moving in a good direction. what led me to try that particular (successful) combination of words on a google search that particular night??? once again there were auspicious signs, but my demonstration of the 杂式捶 za shi chui form from xing yi quan was not good enough to win an award even in the admittedly small mitaka tournament…

Monday, December 1, 2008

Chen Shadows

after Mitaka's small-but-good tournament...


Finally got a follow-up lesson in Chen Style over the weekend – spent a morning in the park reviewing the old and plunging further into the new than expected. There is no regular class for this one, so there are some long gaps between lessons, long sessions of self-practice. That approach has worked well for me in areas in which I have some grounding, some foundation. But Chen Shi is so different from the other styles of tai ji I have studied.

Once again, I dug out that old video of me working through a Chen form with Di Ma back in Nebraska almost fifteen years back. On a whim, I tried yet again to find a trace of her on the internet, having lost contact over the years. This time, I found something, a healing festival in which she had participated (she had begun to teach much more Qi Gong just about the time I left Lincoln). Still waiting for a reply from the contact addresses I found on the site…

My movements were so stiff and clunky…maybe I will look back on my current self, fifteen years down the road, and say the same thing again. But these cycles can only lead up – the clunkiness of 15 years ago, of 10 years, 5 years back. What I may come to see in the future as the clunkiness of 2008…surely the level of klunk is moving upward?

Spiraling upward, not merely circling on a flat, horizontal plane. That kind of spiraling is supposed to be a key element of Chen Style, though you wouldn’t know it from my current level of klunk. For now, it is all corners, but they will be slowly rounded down and made beautiful. I have the feeling I am going someplace good…