To be serious in the study of bujutsu there is one path which must be traversed, to train. Not to teach, not to talk, not to live in the memory of training you once did; to challenge oneself with honesty and humility, to question all that is taken for granted and to bathe in the magically golden elixir of martial wisdom known as sweat.
As fun as it is to debate the principles of martial study, the variations (henka) of a specific kata, which is the best Bruce Lee film or who’d win in a fight between Chuck Norris and J… who am I kidding we all know Chuck would win!
As fun as it is, it is not real, not when it comes down the harsh reality of stepping on the mat. This is not to say that serious learning, study and development of understanding are not important, on the contrary they are essential. What I mean is that if it isn’t backed up with rigorous practice you will forever only be a master in the dojo called fantasy.
Great teachers inspire this in their students. They often lead by example as not just custodians of their arts but lifelong students. They create the challenge needed to motivate every student to train longer, punch harder and throw faster. Despite this many still struggle to push themselves throughout the entirety of their 1 hour lesson twice a week or even to attend each lesson without fail. This is only training as a novelty and is not the training required from serious students. Most students who can train consistently with their sensei eventually reach the standard of Yudansha (Black belt) but for the most serious this is still not enough, most can’t overcome the hardest dojo in the world.
I once visited a friends dojo for training together. As the evening approached a kickboxing class was due to start so I took one of the small side rooms to train on my own. This was a particularly busy class, all of the kickboxers turned up with all the gear (the customary badbreed shorts and spray on tops), they trained with rock and metal music playing (for ambience) and I still struggle to recall occasions where I’ve seen more shaved heads. The class, about 40 strong, began as did I in my small side room. A began with a basic warm-up before working out on my own with basic kihon, kata, strength and flexibility exercises. 40 minutes later I emerged to get a towel to wipe my glasses completely pooled with sweat dripping and thoroughly in need of a shower! The kickboxing class however was still going but the difference could not be more stark. There was little more than a warm glow on only the most enthuasic students. They moved onto the bags and there was a complete lack of power, speed or purpose. It had all of the markings of a “martial arts class” from the outside but the outcome was vacuous. It dawned on me that the 40 strong class was in most cases pretending, imitating training but lacking the very basic challenge needed to grow.
The hardest dojo in the world is the empty mat. The space open in front of you as you stand at the edge alone. If you train as part of a small class then you may have experienced the rare time where no-one else has turned up, most at this point turn back and go home rather than take the opportunity of the open floor. When no-one else is there to motivate you it just comes down to your own will and determination. As you begin you start to feel your muscles tire and each movement starts to become more difficult as if the weight is increasing. There isn’t anyone else to go faster than or to keep up with, if your slow it’s your fault. You have to see your own mistakes which can often be the biggest challenge. You need to be critical, brutal almost at every point to push your own limits because no-one else will. When doubt creeps in you need to set it aside and push through, always with the goal of just one more. As the great Mohammed Ali once said,
“I don't count my sit-ups; I only start counting when it starts hurting because they're the only ones that count”.
You have to find it within yourself to step out in cold in the winter and head to dojo. The will to put on your keikogi when you ache before you start. You need to reflect on what you see in the mirror and assess it against the image in your mind’s eye. Everyday training is a basic requirement that so few achieve. Without this your mind will hope for the technique but the body will not be conditioned enough to produce it.
This struggle is the battle of Shin Gi Tai (Spirit, Technique and Body) and the conflict of Sanchin Kata between the mind, body and spirit. To unify all is the hardest test of all. Initially the enthusiasm of Shoshin (Beginner’s mind) will carry you through. At the start of the year we are all full of “determination” to improve, change and challenge ourselves. It is only through the resilience of Fudoshin (Immovable mind) you can be resolute and steadfast enough to be unshaken by hardship and power through when the optimism at the outset of training fades. The journey itself builds within you Fudoshin. Can the mind be immovable if it untested? Can the once immovable start to slide by the almighty traction of life. For a martial artist the only way to achieve Mushin (no mind) is not to ponder the meaning of life the universe and everything on a rock somewhere but to train. To train until your mind bleeds and you must push through the wall. Train until there is only technique. Train beyond until there is only the breath; the short desperate inhale which you quench and control, to the long drawn out exhale. Let the breath carry your doubts and the cold and then breathe again. Train until it makes sense, then train some more. Dojo means “Place of the way”, and the irony is the way is a personal journey you find within. To battle the hardest dojo in the world is to overcome oneself, perhaps the only route to Seishin, the enlightened mind.
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