Mustard Sensei speaks of it often…
(The traditional Japanese method of knowledge transmission.)
By Yukio Takamura, edited by Nanette Okura
“Shu-ha-ri” literally means embracing the kata, diverging from the kata and discarding the kata. The pursuit of training in a classical Japanese endeavor almost always follows this educational process. This unique approach to learning has existed for centuries in Japan and has been instrumental in the survival of many older Japanese knowledge traditions. These include such diverse pursuits as martial arts, flower arranging, puppetry, theater, poetry, painting, sculpture and weaving. As successful as Shu-ha-ri has been into the modern era, new approaches to teaching and learning are altering this traditional Japanese method of knowledge transmission. Whether traditional Japanese arts and endeavors are successfully passed to the next generation of practitioners is up to the sensei (teachers) of today and their wisdom in confronting the inherent strengths and pitfalls of Shu-ha-ri. In this essay I will focus on Shu-ha-ri and its unique application in the honorable martial discipline of Takamura ha Shindo Yoshin ryu jujutsu.
Shoden/ The beginning level of training
Shu (Embracing the kata)
The kata or form is the educational core of all traditional Japanese knowledge schools. It is the most visible representation of a schools knowledge packaged into one seemingly simple set of movements or concepts. Because the kata is so accessible it is often mistaken to be the most important aspect of determining a students ability or progress. In fact, properly taught the kata does contain within it the ura or hidden level of information, but this information lies beneath the surface or omote of simple observation. Without first devoting oneself entirely to the mastery of the omote of the kata, the student is destined to remain forever a beginner, never able to progress towards the true depth of knowledge that rests hidden in the ura before him. To experience shu and embrace the kata, the student must first resign himself and his ego to a seemingly random series of repetitious exercises. Often these beginning or shoden level kata are by design intended to challenge the students concentration levels and devotion to learning. In some of the more rigorous traditions, kata are intended to create physical discomfort in addition to this exercise. Overcoming physical discomfort in this type of kata is just the first level of training the student to mentally focus exclusively on one task. As the student progresses thru the various kata, different aspects of stress and distraction are encountered. As these challenges grow more intense the student’s mind learns to process information and stress in a much more efficient manner. In time different neuro-muscular processes become intuitively ingrained in such a way that they are no longer consciously realized by the student. Once this level of kata is absorbed and executed satisfactorily, the student has reached the first level of his or her training. Other more advanced kata will be presented throughout training which present greater and more diverse challenges but the mental methodology for learning is now in place. The most basic reason for kata training has been achieved.
The pitfalls of teaching at the shoden level
At this level it is possible for kata to teach all by themselves. They are after all physical repetitions which challenge and instruct in an almost totally private experience. Although it might seem an exaggeration, anyone who knows the basic movements of a kata can take a student to this first level of training. It is even possible for some students to reach this level of training entirely by learning from a device like a book. However, this hands off approach to learning by the sensei places the student in a perilous situation, especially in the teaching of paired kata. The most common downfall here is a sensei’s lack of diligent attention to physical form and proper timing. Simply stated, many low level instructors teaching ability suffers due to their own mediocre instruction. Due to this they now instill poor habits into their students which must be unlearned at a later time. This is not only potentially dangerous but can be quite frustrating to the student. This teaching flaw has resulted in many excellent prospective students becoming disenfranchised with their training experience and discontinuing their pursuit. Diligent instruction even at the most basic level of kata training is absolutely mandatory. Basics are at the core of any pursuits proper execution and should never be undervalued.
Chuden / The intermediate level of training
Shu, at the chuden level
At the chuden level kata study includes a new element. This element is the application or bunkai. The deeper reason for the kata and its construction is now presented to the student. The scenario in which the kata exists is also studied and evaluated. This study and evaluation is however strictly limited to the pure execution of the kata without variation. Only thru this strict study can the kata accurately demonstrate its relevance to the student at a level he can comprehend. During this process the sensei helps the student begin to grasp the existence of the ura, those aspects that lie hidden beneath the surface of the physical form. For some students this realization is a revelation while to others it has been obvious for some time. Either way, the sensei must now accurately present basic concepts on a more abstract level than before. This paves the way for the second aspect of Shu-ha-ri.
Ha (diverging from the kata)
In the traditional Japanese concept of Shu-ha-ri, ha is the first hint of creative expression allowed the student. It is when the henka waza or variation is first experienced. It has been called the “divergent form existing within the form” or the “orthodox variation that co-exists within the confines of the strictly defined greater kata” . This is when the student is encouraged to consider any response to a failure within the pure kata. Extremely attentive instruction is required by the sensei at this juncture because too much deviation will lead to sloppiness or bastardization of technique, while too much restraint can cripple any underlying intuitive talent. Encouraging intuitive creative talent is the purpose here but this creative experience must be diligently tempered by the confines of the greater kata. The kata must remain recognizable as the kata. If the kata diverges too far from the norm, it is no longer related to the original kata and becomes an altogether different expression of technique. It is imperative that such a deviation be avoided at this level of learning.
Ha, at the chuden level
Once the student discovers the boundaries of his training within the greater kata he will find the possibilities of learning almost endless. Progress comes now in leaps of ability not experienced in the past. Most excellent students first demonstrate their real potential during this stage of their study. The concepts and forms of the ryu integrate in a manner that intellectually stimulates the students mind. He now more fully appreciates the kata and recognizes the technical wisdom that exists within it. Consequently, many sensei find this time the most rewarding in a students progress. The fruits of a sensei”s labor demonstrates itself powerfully during this period.
The pitfalls of teaching at the chuden level.
Strict adherence to the core concepts of the particular tradition must be adhered to at this time. To deviate from the core concepts that define the ryu will allow the student to proceed in a direction not intended by the Ryuso (founder). The boundaries of the kata must be adhered to for the ryu to maintain its identity and focus. Stepping beyond the confines of the kata at this point can be disastrous and a student”s ultimate potential compromised. Sensei often fall into the trap of becoming too unstructured in their teaching at this level of training. They misread the students progress and take him too far beyond his level of comprehension. The students mind and technique must be constantly challenged during this intermediate stage of learning but occasionally an overzealous student will attempt to move too far too fast. This tendency must be avoided or it will compromise further progress and learning.
Joden / The advanced level of training
Ri ( discarding the kata)
Some practitioners of modern martial traditions dismiss kata and Shu-ha-ri as being too confining or old fashioned. In truth, this position is flawed because the purpose of kata is misinterpreted by them. Like so many arm chair experts, they have not been properly trained beyond the shoden level in kata and are commenting on a subject they simply are unqualified and therefore unable to comprehend. Like most observers outside the experience of deep study they see the kata as the art itself instead of a sophisticated teaching tool that is only a surface reflection of an arts core concepts. The kata, in their flawed interpretation “is” the art. This is like the flaw of assuming a dictionary to be a complete representation of language. Unfortunately numerous older martial traditions in Japan unintentionally reinforce this misinterpretation by overemphasizing the kata. Often with these schools significant core elements and knowledge have been lost to antiquity so that all that remains is the omote or outer shell of the kata. With nothing left but the kata to embrace, these schools often reinterpret their mokuroku (technical syllabus), making the kata the primary driving force of the ryu. When this happens the ryu inevitably degenerates into a simplistic dance where the ura and applications of the kata becomes of secondary focus. These traditions are effectively dead. They are like skeletons attempting to represent a total person.
Ri, What is it?
“Ri” is difficult to explain as it is not so much taught as it is arrived at. It is a state of execution that simply occurs after shu and ha have been internalized. It is the absorption of the kata to such an advanced level that the outer shell of the kata ceases to exist. Only the underlying truth of the kata remains. It is form without being conscious of form. It is intuitive expression of technique that is as efficient as the prearranged form but utterly spontaneous. Technique unbridled by the restriction of conscious thought processes result in an application of waza that is truly a moving meditation. For one who has achieved ri, observation becomes its own expression of reality. The mind is now free to operate on a distinctly higher level than previously possible. To the casual observer it appears that the exponent has become almost psychic, able to recognize an occurrence or threat before it actually exists. In truth the observer is just fooled by his own minds mental inertia. With ri, the lag time between observation and cognitive response is reduced to almost imperceptible levels. It is “ki”. It is “mushin”. It is “ju”. It is all these things in combination. It is the manifestation of the highest level of martial ability. It is what we refer to in the Takamura ryuha as “wa”.
The level of technical execution associated with ri is realistically beyond the ability of many practitioners. Most people are simply incapable of reaching this, the most advanced level of expression of a ryu’s potential. Frequently however, practitioners who never reach this level of technical execution make excellent sensei, able to take a student to the edge of mastery even though they themselves are incapable of making the jump to the intuitive execution that is ri. Some observers try to dismiss this recognition of limitation as elitist. I find this thinking odd. I would like to remind these observers that not all human beings are innately capable of mastery in all pursuits. As individuals we are endowed with certain talents and deficiencies. It is these individual talents and deficiencies that make us humans the diverse and unique species we are. To try to deny this truth is to deny what makes up our individuality. With this in mind it is imperative to remember that the humble individual realizes that mastery in one pursuit does not guaranty even average talent in another. Likewise, technical expertise does not necessarily guaranty teaching expertise.
Pitfalls of teaching at and beyond the joden level
Once a student has reached the level of realizing ri on a regular basis he has essentially achieved all the technical ability a sensei can strictly teach him. The process of instruction and teaching must now evolve. The relationship between teacher and student must be allowed by the sensei to evolve as well. At this point the student is charged by the traditions of his ryu and the vows of his keppan to maintain control of his ego and recognize that without the sensei and the ryu he would never have achieved his ultimate potential as a student. He must acknowledge that he owes all that he has learned to his sensei’s devotion to teaching and his sensei’s sensei. His behavior must reflect that he is forever in debt to the ryu and that he is compelled to be humbled in his teachers presence. Likewise the sensei must now allow autonomy and self expression by the student in a way never previously permitted. More a leader and pointer of the way, the sensei should proudly stand beside his student with a glad heart. He is likewise humbly compelled and called by his responsibility to the ryu to continue to live up to the principles and standards he impressed upon his student. His task of teaching is over. He is now a grandfather instead of a father.
Unfortunately it is at this time, the time of a sensei’s highest calling to the ryu that many fail. Instead of demonstrating confidence in themselves and pride in their students accomplishments they fall prey to vanity and insecurities of the spirit. The failing of a sensei now is usually associated with a perceived end of respect from the student, an end of respect that doesn’t actually exist. Frequently this problem manifests itself when the sensei attempts to reintroduce a strict student-teacher relationship that prevents the student from realizing his mature position of authority within the ryu. At this time some sensei perceive deviation from their own path as a students rejection of their teachings. In truth some of a sensei’s teachings must be denied for a student to reach the highest levels of self expression within the ryu. Some sensei are also unwilling to recognize that a deviation from their own teaching at this level is actually a manifestation of the students individuality and mature confidence. This confidence it must be remembered was imparted by the sensei’s own teachings as part of the bargain between student and teacher. The sensei must remember his duty and charge as simply a member within the ryu. He must humble his heart and reacquaint himself with his own past as a student. This he must do to remain an effective leader of “the way”.
Conclusion / White, becomes black, becomes white again.
It is the calling of every member of the kai to acknowledge his charge and regularly peer into the kamidana’s mirror, the mirror that reflects undistorted truth. And to humbly ask the kami to assist him in viewing his own heart and motivations with a critical eye, to scrutinize that small voice that is the harbinger of vanity and rationalization. Only thru the expression of truth can the process of Shu-ha-ri successfully embrace student and teacher in the charge of passing the knowledge and wisdom of our kai’s ancestors forward responsibly.
– Y. Takamura , 1986
On why Aikido has no competition:
“Inaba Sensei: It was one of Master Ueshiba’s suggestions that aikido not have competitive matches. One explanation is that we don’t want to make a champion or “number one” person. It’s more important that individuals reach their own highest level.
But if we think about it deeply this is probably not the reason. Real martial arts are not about winning or losing. They are about the kind of fighting you can do. A long time ago, if you lost a match, this was shameful. It was either win or die. In sword fighting this was especially true. Now perhaps this is true with guns. How can you fight with a gun?…..”
If you want to know more, click the link..
By Yvonne Zacharias on Sep22 2009
The Vancouver Times
Beware The Man In The Angry White Pyjamas
The following is an article from the Vancouver Sun, September 18, 2009 (email@example.com):
From the outside, the dojo in Burnaby looks like a pretty ordinary place.
Step inside and you will see bodies flying everywhere and hear a portly but powerful looking sensei by the name of Robert Mustard shouting instructions.
Nothing unusual about that.
What is practised here at Aikido Yoshinkai Burnaby is yoshinkan aikido, a particularly physical martial art that is deemed mandatory for Tokyo riot police and all female police officers there.
Check further into the dojo, however, and you will find that it offers a curiously named intensive course called Angry White Pyjamas.
That is your first clue that this dojo has an unusual story.
Few here know that the controversial Mustard was once the chief foreign instructor at the martial art’s headquarters in Japan and is considered by many to be the best non-Japanese instructor of yoshinkan aikido in the world.
What’s more, he is a central figure in the book Angry White Pyjamas. It was written by Oxford poet Robert Twigger, who took an 11-month, brutally demanding course of training at the dojo in Japan under Mustard and other instructors in the mid-1990s.
Twigger, hailed by the New York Times as a deliriously clever writer, didn’t paint an entirely flattering portrait of Mustard. He called the towering man unstable, impatient, warped, a masochist and possibly brain damaged. At one point, Mustard’s seemingly insensitive ways had Twigger considering ways to kill him.
Curiously, few around Vancouver seem to know this story, which has become legend in other parts of the world.
Having read the book, I wasn’t sure I wanted to meet a man who was so reviled in print and who had stirred up such loathing. But I called the dojo anyway, Mustard answered and immediately invited me to meet with him. With a crusty laugh, he said he’d be happy to talk about Twigger, Angry White Pyjamas and yoshinkan aikido.
Stepping inside the Burnaby dojo is like stepping into another world. The atmosphere is a curious mix, religious yet militaristic. Students wearing stark white Gi’s prostrate themselves, before entering the large matted area, in front of a portrait of yoshinkan aikido founder Gozo Shioda or, as he is known in Japan, Kancho Sensei.
They then proceed to throw each other in every direction using deft body positioning and wrist movements as their tools.
In this arcane world, there is the steady bark of orders in Japanese, the steady thump of bodies being thrown to the mat — and an awful lot of bowing, exaggerated politeness and repetition of the hissing word “oss,” a kind of all-purpose greeting.
Mustard has blue eyes that seem to bore into your soul. Before our interview, he teaches a children’s class that is both playful and structured. He makes it fun, while reining in the kids when they become too wild.
He says afterwards he likes to teach the kids to respect him as a teacher, but he doesn’t want them to be afraid of him. Perhaps he knows that without his smile and his easy way of speaking, he could instil fear.
The children certainly don’t seem to be afraid of him. He fits little contests into the class, games that resemble dodge ball, and sword fights using big orange “swords” made of soft material.
In the adult class that follows, Mustard welcomes a new student and explains that yoshinkan aikido is the power of the body and mind working together. It involves using your opponent’s energy against him, which Mustard easily demonstrates with Farshad Ardestani, a slim eager student with facile quickness and absolute dedication to Mustard.
After the demonstration, students divide into groups so they can practice the art of flipping and throwing each other to the mat. (It’s no doubt more complicated than that, but to the uninitiated, that’s how it appears.)
Every now and then, someone calls “seiza chumoku” and everyone scrambles to form lines on their knees in front of Mustard, giving him their entire attention.
There is something oddly comforting about being in a black-and-white place of strict rules and no coddling.
There is no doubt that Mustard’s students, including several women, are devoted to him.
Vicki Smart, who can beat the crap out of most of the guys here, doubles as Mustard’s administrative assistant. Michelle Unrau, who has a PhD in pharmacology, is an ardent fan of Mustard’s who trains in the adult class and in the kids’ class with her son. Mustard says he is always quick to heed Unrau’s advice.
He hardly seems angry.
But still you wonder …
Mustard recounts how after one class, a student came up to him and said, “You’re not a bastard at all.”
In any other dojo, the remark would seem odd, but since Twigger’s book was published in 1997, that is the burning question. Is Mustard really the monster he was made out to be in Angry White Pyjamas?
Twigger, who has won awards and prizes for his writing — including the William Hill sports book of the year in 1998 for Angry White Pyjamas — said Mustard threatened to punch him in the face and kick him out of the dojo in Japan if Twigger didn’t show him more respect.
“He kept up an atmosphere of insecurity,” Twigger wrote of Mustard. “A momentary lapse would result in a sweeping denigration of all efforts.”
Mustard “was so much on my case that when I made one mistake at the beginning of a session, he barked, ‘No good.’” wrote Twigger.
After the book was published, Twigger sent Mustard a copy along with the message, “Sensei, here is the book that you probably haven’t been waiting for.”
Mustard read it cover to cover in one sitting.
“It was bizarre to see my name in ink. I didn’t even care that he called me crazy and unbalanced. Who knows, maybe I was. Basically, he loved me, then he hated me, and then he loved me again. So he had come full circle.”
Twigger does seem warmer to Mustard at the two book ends than he does in the middle. But, I asked Mustard, was it really like he portrayed it? He answered with an unequivocal Yes.
Twigger’s descriptions of the yoshinkan aikido practiced in the Japanese dojo weren’t exaggerated.
You do knee walking around the dojo until your knees bleed. You work so hard that you sweat and vomit and faint. There’s plenty of screaming, yelling, bleeding and smashing.
But, Mustard said, “I let them smash me, too. I let them hit me really hard.”
That is just the reality.
“My job was to kill them or make them strong.”
He had to do whatever it took, he said, to get the poet through the brutal 11-month course.
“Basically everything he said was kind of true, although it cut a bit too close to the bone.”
Mustard holds nothing against Twigger for writing about it. He’s a “great guy” who was a bit too stubborn and would sometimes fight the strict code of conduct in a Japanese dojo. One of his weaker students, Mustard gives him credit just for finishing the course.
He didn’t think he’d ever see him again.
One day while working in the Burnaby dojo — well after the book was published — Mustard looked up; who should be standing there but a slightly nervous Twigger.
“I think he was really scared because he had called me crazy and unbalanced,” Mustard said.
Mustard’s wife, a Japanese-Canadian whom he met in Japan, and their daughter were away on Vancouver Island at the time, so Mustard invited Twigger back to his place.
The two wound up eating pizza, drinking a bottle of whiskey and talking about Japan “and all the crap” until the wee hours of the morning.
By the time Twigger came to town for a second visit, he had written several more books, all of which he dutifully sent to Mustard. Hemingwayesque, Twigger wrote about crossing Western Canada in a birchbark canoe and hunting for lost oases in the Sahara desert and for zombies in Haiti.
Mustard never was able to get through those books. He’d make it about halfway and then put them down. Nevertheless, he went out for Chinese food with Twigger on his second visit and, once again, they talked until the wee hours of the morning.
Mustard knows he’s probably changed since his days as chief foreign instructor at the world headquarters. A friend told him so over lunch a few months ago.
“When I first met you, Mustard, you were a hard, tough, son of a bitch,” said his friend. “You never really smiled. You were martial all the time.”
Mustard thinks the world changed for him when his daughter, Emily, was born 11 years ago.
“I take aikido very, very seriously, but I don’t take myself that seriously,” he said.
He’s a tough taskmaster, but he doesn’t ask his students to do things he has not done. He says he operates a traditional dojo because most people are inherently lazy and need strict structure to keep them going.
“They talk about living under the sword so when you are out there training, you are prepared to die. When you get tired, you want to stop. In a traditional dojo, you have got to push it a bit.”
Mustard’s body isn’t as supple as it used to be, bearing some of the scars of so many years of hard training, but he has quit smoking since Twigger’s book was written. He still likes beer, but he figures that’s okay. “I have a strong spirit. That gets me through.”
As for the book, it’s given him a certain amount of notoriety, drawing e-mail from people all over the world and leading to some interesting friendships. It is particularly popular in Europe and Australia. “When I went to Australia two years ago to teach, everybody brought their copy and asked me to sign it.”
They all ask the same question: Was he a bastard?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think so. Maybe. Most people love me. When I left, a lot of people were quite sad.”
He is so devoted to yoshinkan aikido, he says he will die in his dogi. Maybe they’ll bury a copy of Angry White Pyjamas with him. Even if, in the end, he wasn’t all that angry.