Martial Arts Training in the Land of the Living

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning. - Thornton Wilder

The well known American swordsman John Ray visited JMAC several years ago. It was a wonderful moment for me to meet someone who had lived an experience similar to my own ... moving to Japan, studying iaido for years, having success there, and returning to teach in the US. After watching our practice and chatting with my students, Ray Sensei left us with this thought (it's been a few years so I'm paraphrasing):

"A great teacher is so much more than a collection of skills. You should watch your Sensei's techniques carefully ... that's how you get better at the technicalities of your art. But there's more to pay attention to. Watch your teacher's small gestures, the way he moves, pay attention to his choice of words, try to soak up the intangibles. That's part of the magic of direct transmission."

 Yamaguchi-Katsuo Sensei

I've written many times of my obsessive approach to learning from my iaido teacher, Yamaguchi-Sensei. I truly "emptied my cup" in his dojo. Our four years together (and our later training when I returned to visit Japan) were transformative for me. To say I loved my teacher does a poor job of explaining the connection. There's so much shared history and nuance in my feelings for the man who transmitted iaido to me, it's almost impossible to put into words.

Missing from Our Lives

The extraordinary musician, the exemplary painter, the best writer, the gifted singer, and the exceptional martial artist share a unique sort of magic. There's a depth to their performances that only a keen eye can see, only a sharp ear can hear. Their notes are not just notes, their brush strokes are not just brush strokes, their words are not just words, their voices are not just voices, and their kata are not just kata. Instead, they're a deep expression of a collection of meaningful experiences, distilled through countless hours of practices and years of reflection.

If you watch, read or listen carefully enough, you can sense the depth of their technique. If you're lucky enough to have seen their teachers or role models, you'll also be able to see echoes of their predecessors in their art. That's an extraordinary expression of love ... granting immortality to an artist by ensuring that his or her art is preserved in your body, mind and spirit. The level of your tribute corresponds to how well you internalize the nuance of his technique and how well you understand and give life to the principles he held dear.

Today's martial arts world is dominated by light weight players. By that I don't mean people who are small in physical stature. Instead, I mean people who are small in character, technique, and aspirations. Consider carefully the school you plan to attend. Is the approach all about rank? Does the curriculum change frequently ... is it more focused on variation than on depth? Are the lead instructors out of shape, mean spirited, or simply poor technicians?

Training in the Land of the Living

Life is too short to aspire to mediocrity. It's better to shoot for the stars and only reach the moon. Nowhere is this more true than in the martial arts. To animate your martial arts with the spirit of greatness, choose the most profound role models you can find and follow them with an obsessive devotion. That's your best chance to receive the direct transmission of the deep spirit of your martial art. If and when you receive the direct transmission, keep in mind that it includes everything - the sounds in the room during your training sessions, the rare smile of your Sensei, the warm air coming in through the windows, the pain of learning, the salty tears of exhaustion, the crushing pathos of washing your teacher's gravestone and the incredible energy of great martial arts techniques executed with clarity, energy and joy. The complexity and emotion of your martial arts should be very profound indeed.

Seize the Day

It may not be easy to find such incredible role models or to recognize them when you do meet them. One way to hone your skill at discerning greatness is to get in front of it and pay close attention. If you want to be an exceptional martial artist in the true sense of the phrase, you have to train with an exceptional Japanese master.

That's it. Thinking back on your training, will you be able to say, "I truly did everything I could to give myself a chance at greatness"?

I have faith in you, and will continue to have faith in you until you have faith in yourself and put yourself on the path to greatness.