Iron Chef Bujinkan

I like to begin by apologizing to all of my faithful readers, I believe there are four of you now, for taking so long to present installment to the ramblings of the red bearded ninja.

Over the past couple of years in various tie ties and seminars I have use the cooking analogy to describe what I thought was the role of the Kihon Happo, the sanshin, and kata.

I have chosen to use this analogy, because there are many people in the Bujinkan, who are attempting to imitate the style and freedom of Dr. Hatsumi, without having undergone the training in a fashion that is similar to what he went through. In keeping with my analogy, they are attempting to be master chefs, or iron chefs, without ever having gone through basic culinary school, or worse, having never worked in a restaurant.

In my way of thinking, the Kihon Happo and the Sanshin-gata are the basic ingredients and the basic seasonings that a chef use in his martial recipes for dinner. We can think of the Sanshin as the base ingredients: beef, chicken, fish, pork, veal. The Kihon Happo are the fundamental spices that would be used to season the base ingredients: dill, garlic, pepper, salt, etc.

Simply hitting these ingredients in hand, or should I say in the kitchen, does not make one an iron Chef. To become a true master of the culinary arts, one must learn how to cook the base ingredients, seasoned with the proper spices, and accent them with sauces and garnishes. Without someone to guide us it could take forever to learn which combinations of spices are delicious with certain meats. We could spend years creating dishes that are unpalatable.

Through the years, in order to learn how to prepare delicious meals, people have either learn to cook by working with and imitating someone whom they thought was a great chef and by collecting the recipes for those dishes which they enjoyed and which tasted delicious to those who try them. The recipes are, in effect, the kata which comprise the fundamental techniques of our schools; and the master instructors of art with whom we study.

Dr. Hatsumi has related on many occasions the very difficult training he went through with his teacher to perfect and refine his basics. Mr. Noguchi related to me on a recent trip that he spent so much time the first two years of his training perfecting his basic rolls that his wife threatens to never ever do his laundry again, because she got so tired of washing his training gi. Our elders and the dojo spent years learning the basic ingredients and the basic spices with which they were going to cook.

Then they spent time with their respected teachers, going through the recipes which have been handed down from the ages, to study

how these basic ingredients can be combined together to make tasty meals. Eventually each of them develop their own style that was different from their teacher’s. However, this only occurred after decades of time studying being ingredients and perfecting the recipes that had been given to them.

The kata of our schools are the recipes which show how the basic techniques of our art can be combined together into most effective manner. They are also recipes which show how slight changes in ingredients can give an equally effective but different tasting result.

We are fortunate to have great chefs from whom we can learn to cook, so we rarely need to refer to the written recipes. In effect, the cut to become reminders to the master chefs; and they serve as a collective cookbook so that we don’t serve up the same meal over and over again as teachers.

EMS and the Godan Test

One Sunday afternoon, during my most recent trip to Japan, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Hatsumi. During our conversation, Dr. Hatsumi was discussing the relationship between medicine and Budo. Soke observed that we can learn much about Budo by studying the healing arts, and vice versa. One of the ladies who was assisting with translation was a doctor of internal medicine. Since Dr. Hatsumi is himself a doctor, I asked her to relate an observation that I had while recently teaching a CPR class.

When someone is unresponsive, and their heart is beginning to die, the heart typically goes from normal sinus rhythm to a rhythm called ventricular tachycardia, to a rhythm called ventricular fibrillation, and finally to asystole, or the heart completely stopping. When those of us in EMS, use a defibrillator to attempt to save one who is unresponsive, by shocking them, we are in fact, for a brief moment, stopping their heart.

Essentially, in order to save their life, we must be willing to take their life, so that their heart may have a chance to restart normally while it still can. I know full well (and I teach my CPR students) that if I do not take this action, the heart’s rhythm will gradually decay and they will die — with no chance of being saved. 

I think that this is much like the godan test. The doctor, who was translating for me related this thought , in very scientific terms to Dr. Hatsumi, who completely agreed.

So what does and AED, EMS and all of this have to do with the godan test?

In the not too recent past, and throughout most of  the history of our art, the godan test was given with a real sword. Today the test is nearly always given using a shinai  (or bamboo training sword). While the students sitting for the test can demonstrate their ability to pick up the intention of the attacker and to move out of the way, I believe the test has lost some of its true edge, both literally and figuratively.

There are many people who take numerous attempts to pass this test. Perhaps they are unprepared or should not be there for the test in the first place. In the old days, there was only one chance. It was literally a matter of life and death! It was a leap of faith. It was a test of the student’s ability to let go and completely trust a feeling from the void to save his life (call it sixth sense, a connection to the bujin, the force,  whatever).

There is a sanshin, or group of three, involved in the godan test process. The first of course is the student who is taking the test. The second is the person who is administering the test. The third, less obvious person, is the teacher who recommends that the student sit for the test.

I wonder how many of the countless students at the fourth degree level would have been willing to take the test, if the test were given with a sharp blade?

I wonder how many 15th degree black belts, including myself, would be willing to risk killing somebody, if they had to give the test with a real blade?

Most importantly, I would expect (or at least hope) that there would be far fewer teachers who would sponsor their students for the godan test if there was a significant chance that the student might die.

As a 15th dan, I have given this test but never with a real sword. However,whenever I am asked to give the test, I do so with the understanding that even the shinai, if used properly, could injure the student.  But  if I am not willing to make the cut as if I am attempting to kill this person, do they truly have the chance to pass this test and be reborn to the hidden side of our art? Or is it a test in name only?

Perhaps all Bujinkan instructors, myself included, need to seriously consider whether a candidate would be sitting for the test if a real sword were being used. I would assert that if the answer is “no”, then the student should not sit for the test, just because a less dangerous sword is being used.

There is one huge difference between cardiac arrest and the godan test. The person lying on the ground who is unresponsive did not have a choice to be there. When I am called to the scene, I do not have a choice to help them or not. We as teachers in the Bujinkan do have a choice. We are not required to, nor should we, put somebody up for the godan test unless we truly believe they could pass the test if it were being given as in the original manner.

And if an arrogant fourth dan wants to sponsor himself for the test, as has occasionally happened in the past, I say “unsheath the real steel” and show it to them. Let’s see if he still has the guts… Perhaps this kind of “pre-test” would be enough to keep it up real !

The Title’s A Lie

Since I first met Hatsumi-sensei in 1982, I have occasionally been thinking about writing smatterings of thoughts about training. I never felt marginally competent to write down some of these feelings. And I am not sure that I still do.

However, since I have reached the point where my bu-go, Akahige, is now largely a fond memory, or largely false advertising, maybe it’s time.

This blog is for me to write my thoughts. If you read them, fine. If they stimulate some ideas, better. If by a small miracle they help you take less time to reach an understanding of some small part of out art, fantastic.

I am not going to debate here. I may even delete comments from time to time, if people make any. So take this all for what it’s worth…. about 2 cents.