Saturday, 16 January 2016

3 Ways that Budo Builds Character

Note: It's been a while since I've posted anything here. Writing is not one of my innate skills, but I've found myself doing much more of it recently at work and in extracurricular activities. This demand for putting words on a screen come from nothing more than my desire to better communicate with others. I actually much prefer in person, open conversations, but will have to make due until I'm able to start a vlog like this amazing Iaido/Kendo practitioner (seriously, do yourself a favour and subscribe to his channel)

Anyways, lets get back to the budo building character thing. Over the past few months, I've been trying to develop a personal mission statement for why I do Iaido and what I want to get out of it over the course of my life. I ended up with the following 3 Pillars, each of which can be carried into your everyday behaviour:

  • Keiko - The All Japan Kendo Federation's Dictionary defines keiko as "the practice or training of budo (martial arts) and geido (arts)... [and] also contains nuances of aesthetic training to forge the body and mind (shugyo). Thus... also has the objective of reaching the ideals of "finding the truth that underpins all of the 'Ways', and contemplating how one should be as a human being". I've mentioned 3 different types of keiko in this post before, but will include regular life examples here: Mitori-keiko (Looking practice - watching a cooking show to learn a recipe and process to make delicious meal), Kufu-keiko (Thinking practice - looking ahead in traffic and deciding your route to maximize safety and time), and Kakari-keiko (Repetition - parallel parking your car again and again until it becomes second nature).
  • Kamae - Def. (AJKF Dictionary) - "A posture or stance. The state of having prepared one's stance or attitude so as to be able to respond to various changes in the opponent's situation.". Examples of the different types of kamae include: Mi-gamae (proper physical appearance - formal wear to a job interview), Kokoro-gamae (proper attitude and mindset - being mindful and present when listening to the interviewer), and Ki-gamae (proper spirit - staying calm when he surprises you by bringing in three mean-looking, senior executives).
  • Kikubari - Roughly translated, it means to "pay attention to others" -- How I spent over 10-years in budo and Japanese culture without encountering this word is a mystery, but as soon as my wife offered it as a suggestion for my 3rd pillar, I couldn't think of a better concept; perfectly showing how Japanese culture is built into the budo. This article does a good job of explaining how it works in more detail.
So where do these pillars fit into building character? Well, it all starts in the dojo.

In budo, the dojo is like a microcosm of society. We have formal hierarchies and informal social structures. We are there to learn (through practice and instruction), but we are also there to teach (through direct instruction or modeling good behaviour). In training mind and body (keiko) to be prepared for any form of interaction (kamae) with the mindset towards others (kikubari), we become better members of society.

I'd like to end with an example about Following Your Sensei:

Today, our dojo held a seminar on the chuden set of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. Ohmi Sensei tooks us through each kata while delighting us with stories of historical fact, rumours, and lineage. At one point, he called me up to demonstrate the way I do my footwork for Kata #9 - Takiotoshi. I did it the way he taught it to me nearly 10 years ago. After I finished, he said something along the lines of "Ok, but I do it this way, but you can still choose to do it that way." At some point in the last few years, he had apparently modified how he did this technique.

Now these were my options:
  1. Do it the way I was already doing it - claiming that his original way was the "proper lineage"
  2. Do it the way I see another recent 8-Dan do it - claiming that it is the closest to how they do it in Japan these days
  3. Do it the way Sensei is doing it now
So how do we decide? Let's go back to the 3-pillars - specifically #2 Kamae and #3 Kikubari. The answer is clear. While my relationship (and scaling up: society) is built on past behaviour, the only thing we can control is how we act in the present. Past Ohmi Sensei doesn't care that as a student I'm still following his way. Present Ohmi Sensei does. 
I changed to do it his way.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Pros & Cons for Grading

When grading season arrives, Spring and Fall for Iaido in Canada, you begin to hear talk around the dojo and online from both grading candidates, writing about the stress and excitement, or the organizers, writing about stress and excitement. 

Then the debate begins. Arguments for and against the act of grading, the subjectivity of the judges, or the profiting of the issuing organization are once again brought forth, and results in nobody changing anybody's mind.

Kim Taylor Sensei does a excellent job of listing out the typical Pro and Con arguments that are tossed around every time the subject comes up. I've copied and pasted below.

When I first read the list, I felt myself nodding my head to all the Pros and shaking my head to all the Cons. I like gradings. I liked quizzes, tests, and exams at school. I enjoyed the challenge. I'm part of the system now as a member of the CKF board of directors --- But then, as is my ritual nowadays, having almost completed a Masters in Business Administration (MBA), I flipped my perspective around and tried to see the validity from the other side --- and low-and-behold, it exists.

In fact, Taylor Sensei probably meant to write it in a way such that each argument is just a different side on the same coin. And I agree with that. I would even have swapped some of them in a list, because, as mentioned earlier the very definition of a Pro and Con is subject to the reader's interpretation.

Any choice you make will always have trade-offs, even if it something intangible like comfort/discomfort or like/dislike. As we mature and nature causes our brains to become less flexible to new perspectives, it's important to challenge ourselves to continuously look through other people's PoV. As Martial Artists looking to building a better society, building relationships through understanding and accepting others is the key.

I'll leave you with an anecdote that I've probably posted before:
Two years ago, Hanna and I were having dinner with Hatakenaka Atsumi Sensei (Iaido Kyoshi 8-Dan) and Tsubaki Fumio Sensei (Iaido Kyoshi 7-Dan, Jodo Kyoshi 8-Dan) at an izakaya near Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. We received many lessons over the course of an hour and a half, nothing more so than a statement from H-Sensei, of which I'll paraphrase here: 
"I learned more about being a good Iaidoka from my failures than from my success. I learned more about being a good teacher from my bad teachers than from my good ones."
What's in it for me (Grading IV)
by Kim Taylor (posted on FB 04/01/2015)  
Is anyone still listening? Does anyone care about this stuff? I suspect they do, I just glanced over a blog last night while looking for something else and noticed that the writer was reviewing a seminar. He had some concerns that the teachers had not run everyone through a shiai so that they could give them specific points to work on for their next grading. 
Since those who write tend to be on the more serious side of this stuff, I'm assuming that serious types are serious about grading. 
But I'm a bit bored, so Ill see if I can just list the pros and cons of grading from the point of view of the students. 
1. Self esteem. An unbiased assessment by your teachers is a good way to build a healthy self esteem. Especially if you have a realistic chance of being failed. Even failing a test will increase your self esteem provided you are after the good sort of assessment instead of the "participation ribbons for everyone".
2. Mileposts. Gradings give you the proof you're moving along, that kick in the pants to get out to the dojo and go for the next one will keep you rolling on down the highway.
3. Usefulness. Organizations need rank to keep the system going. Getting a useful rank so that you can sit grading panels is an incentive to grade.
4. Donations. You support the organization by paying for those grades and it's perhaps easier to write a cheque for a rank than it is to write a cheque as charity. I'm sure we can all find charities more worthy than our martial arts buddies.
5. The nail that sticks up. You become one of those if you don't grade, you become confusing if your rank doesn't match your skill level, you get noticed. If you're the rank appropriate to your skill you get to be in the big boy group at the seminar.
6. There's a uniform. Sometimes you get a nice coloured belt or fancy pants to wear. You get to be called Mr. Fancy Pants.
7. It's good for you. Grading is stressful, if you don't stress on your own about passing you can stress about letting your sensei down. This is good stress, over as soon as the grading is over. 
1. It's stressful.
2. There's a uniform and it looks dumb. They call you Mr. Fancy Pants.
3. If you grade you're one of the crowd just chasing paper. If you don't grade you get to come across all New Age and talk about how competition is the problem with the world today and how much you don't care about all this grading nonsense. Forever. As much as you natter on about your gluten intolerance and your cross-training club and hot yoga class where the women just stare at your butt and...
4. It's bloody expensive. I think my last piece of paper cost me $600. Fortunately all I needed was to write an essay and email it. My next grading will probably cost me in excess of $3000 between intercontinental flights, seminar fees, grading fees, certificate fees, registration fees, housing and feeding fees... Who has that kind of cash floating around with two kids in college?
5. Rank is punishment. After you pay all that money to get a grade you might just be expected to fork out even more so that you can go and sit on grading panels and stuff like that. No rank means you don't get asked to volunteer as often, you get to practice and go home.
6. Mileposts for mileage. You start to confuse the two. Unless you're OCD there's no real reason to focus from milepost to milepost, counting them all, catalogueing their characteristics. It's the mileage along the way that you should be enjoying, counting posts can get to be annoying to you and your fellow seatmates on the bus.
7. Self esteem issues. You can get really bummed out about failing a grading and that will just remind you that you're a vain, self-centered, entitled person who craves external validation. And who needs that?
For more posts like these follow Taylor Sensei on Facebook, or check out his blog at

Friday, 20 March 2015

Get In Line - A how-to guide for seminars

With only 2-months until Canada's largest Iaido seminar, I thought it'd be a good opportunity to bring up a topic that has been the bane of visiting Sensei' since the beginning of time: The act of lining up.

Even dinosaurs knew how to stagger correctly.

This subject is especially important in the sword arts, because of the tools we use in practice. Punching your neighbour accidentally in the face may draw swift retaliation, but most likely, someone will end up with only a couple of bruises. On the other hand, an errant swing from an Iaito, to say nothing about a shinken, has much more dire consequences. That is why it's so important to stagger.
A typical arrangement for seminars

While it is everyone's responsibility to ensure they have adequate space to train, when the lines begin to form (typically ordered by rank), the seniors should naturally be most accountable. In fact, I believe there are three individuals that are key to the arrangement of students in the dojo. Let's call them Atsuki, Baby, and Cutey - or A, B, and C.

A's role is to establish the forward space limitations - keeping in mind the distance from the instructing Sensei and observers, as well as any physical objects that could be damaging or damaged. A should keep in mind ALL the possible kata that the group will be performing, and be flexible to adjust these limits if more space is necessary. Ex. Moving the line back for Seitei-gata #11: Sou Giri

B's role is to create the standard horizontal space limits between students in the same row. Too close, and you risk hitting A (or A's sword) during techniques like Seitei-gata #7: Sanpo Giri's side cuts. Too far, and you crowd out the juniors on the far side of the dojo/gym.

C's role is arguably the most crucial, because they're chosen spot determines both horizontal and vertical spacing. If he/she doesn't stagger properly, everyone from rows 2 and up are forced into unbalanced and unsafe positions. 

Here's what it an ideal line-up will look like - Recall line #3 should be behind line #1, and line #4 behind line #2:

So next time you are lining up, take note of your responsibility. Everyone to the front and right (or more senior) is your guide; while everyone behind and to the left (or more junior) are your responsibility. Good Luck!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

5 + 1 Tips for getting back into the dojo

* Updated Feb 5, 2015 at 8:30pm EST

I hit several milestones in 2014 - one of those being the decade (Iaido) and half-decade (Kyudo) mark of training in the martial arts. Looking back at the past 10 years, I feel humbled by experiences which have enabled me to develop as a person, and given me hope for the future. Sticking with anything for this long can be considered an accomplishment. Life brings on numerous priorities that fight for a share of your time. Whether it is school, work, family, other interests, or even the challenges you face in dojo, the reasons for resting, taking a leave of absence, or even quitting, far outnumber the reasons for staying.

In our society, or even as human-beings, we are constantly drawn to the new and exciting. Our thoughts naturally value short-term profits over long-term dividends. The psychological term for this is "hyperbolic discounting".

So if you were to ask yourself: "What will I choose when faced with these kinds of decisions?" Will you take the bait and savour that Baskin Robbins "Jamoca Almond Fudge" ice-cream cake (seriously, look it up) for instant gratification, or will you stick with the Chia-Hemp Seed Mix soaked in Almond Milk for its long-term benefits. How far will you go? This Far?

Over the years, I've been tempted. Perhaps even strayed several times. But something always kept bringing me back. Those reasons are never the same, and it's important that everyone find their own personal motivations - but make no mistake, it is ALWAYS your choice. Nothing is more gratifying than recognizing that you and you alone have control over the decisions that you make.

Here's a list of a few challenges I've faced in the past and thoughts that helped me overcome them. As expected, each challenge is successively more difficult than the previous one, but isn't that how we grow?

Year 0 / Snowstorm
It was mid-February 2005. Toronto was being pelted by 20-30cm (8-12") of snow and the windchill was forecasted to be nearly -25C (-13F). The house was toasty warm and the smell of hot chocolate inviting. I could have easily popped in a VHS of Jurassic Park and watched it for the 367th time, but I thought. "Heck, why not go to the dojo?" Only about 8 others showed up, and we had one the best practices I can remember. (Tip #1: "Heck, why not?")

Year 2 / Forgot My Hakama
Have you ever gotten to the dojo, only to realize you forgot one crucial piece of equipment? Maybe it was your Iaito/Shinken (use a bokuto), or maybe it was your Obi (tighten your himo). But what if you forgot your pants? ..... Wait a minute, I'm wearing pants... That night, I put knee pads over my khakis and practice anyways. (Tip #2: Practice is what you do, not what you wear)

Year 4 / Injured Ankle
I love playing basketball. I used to shoot in the drive way for hours and hours, regardless of the rain or sun, night or day, through hot summer humidity or frigid winter winds. On the court, I played a reckless style of ball (sort of like Iverson or Wade), and due to my short stature, injuries were something I just play through. Unfortunately, I have weak ankles and tended to sprain them every couple of months.

 Let me tell you, it sucks going to dojo and not being able to practice. You watch others and think "I wonder if I could do this" or "I think I could do better than that" - you see things that you don't normally look for, then realize "I just learned something there". (Tip #3: Don't practice through injuries, but use it as an opportunity to develop you mind)

Year 8 / Lack of Free Practice & Mental Block
Our class at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto is the largest dojo (by registered members) in Canada - potentially North America (someone correct me if I'm wrong) - We have over 45 members in a club that does exclusively Iaido. Of course, not everyone shows up all at once, but a lot of the time, the floor can get pretty crowded. When safety is a concern, it's imperative that everyone practice the same kata and move at the same time. This leaves little opportunity to do free practice, and as you get more advanced, the ability to experiment, stop and think, then try different things is crucial. At one point a couple of years ago, I had thoughts of quitting - the practice wasn't fun anymore, I felt restricted.

Remember what I said about having a choice? Opportunities always arise when you have the patience to wait, the persistence to push on, and the drive to make something better. I could have decide to quit, but as it turns out, we were able to gain an additional timeslot at the JCCC for exclusive free practice - for students and for instructors. After every Saturday now, I feel reinvigorated and motivated to continue training. (Tip #4: The choice not to act is as important as the choice to act)

Year 10 / Major Life Events 
Last August, Hanna and I welcomed our first child; daughter Atsuki Roselle Suen into the world. I can't even describe the kind of joy I feel when thinking about this little bundle of joy. I've felt emotions on scales I've never felt before - either happiness when she laughs and smiles, or anger when some inconsiderate stranger makes a loud noise that scares her into crying.

When something as significant as a child comes into your life, it's important to reevaluate your priorities. What do the martial arts mean to you? In the future, I intend to write a post on the "Purpose of Iaido/Kyudo", but for now, I'll just say that I am a devote believer in their ultimate goals. See Concept of Kendo and Shin Zen Bi

As parents, are ultimate hopes and dreams is for our child to grow up happy and have a better future. The goal of my Iaido and Kyudo practices are unconditionally linked to this vision. That is why I continue. (Tip #5: Tie your training to your purpose in life)

I received several comments on Facebook with methods they use to stay on track and I'm really enjoying reading those. However, there was one that really stood out for me that I just had to add on. 

(Tip #6: Find a training partner)
This is so fundamental to my being able to persevere, that it's a wonder I left it out. For those that don't know me, or we've only recently met, I have a twin brother (see his blog here) and we used to do everything together. He was my basketball partner when we braved the winds and rain. He got me started in Iaido and later, Kyudo and even later, Kung Fu. The type of shared motivation and support is very powerful. When Hanna and I got together, that feeling again multiplied. 

Commitment to anything comes in waves. Sometimes you're highly motivated, other times you're less so. Having a training partner can help neutralize these waves: when they are high and you are low, they'll motivate you to go. When they are low and you are high, you'll motivate them to go. Hence, a mutual benefit. 

While I'm lucky that I've always had the closest and dearest individuals in my life be my training partners, here's some advice from Yoann Arrouet (Shidokan Iaido Club in Montreal) for those who don't:
"Even if I don't have relatives doing iaido, I do have dojo partners. We started almost at same time, seeing them going a step further, it kicks me and making me feel : I can't be distanced, I have to fill the gap. I try to maintain that fellowship/competitive feeling through training... And to maintain that, only one solution : go to dojo and train; no one will do it for you !"
I completely agree. It's all up to you.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

3 Ways to Maximize Your Learning AFTER Seminars

Attending an Iaido or Kyudo seminar provides benefits similar to Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) for your training. The expert instruction and intense training can do wonders for your ability and understanding of the art, and provide added motivation to propel you along your path. However, just like taking PEDs, the effect is temporary, and anything gained from your experience can disappear without the effective AND timely maintenance. 

Here's a graph showing how I would feel in a 3-month span with and without a seminar, and whether the appropriate maintenance plan is applied immediately following the event.

Continuing from my previous post on Maximizing your Experience at Seminars, here are a few things I do following a seminar that helps me retain as much as possible. They may seem obvious, but you'd be surprised how easy it is to fall back into your routine and forget everything you've learned.

  1. Reflect - This point is crucial. We all think that we have good memories, and that we'll remember exactly what we should be doing when we return the class the week following a seminar. Not true! What you've learned doesn't just sit in your head. It is constantly being massaged and compared to the other experiences and knowledge that you've crammed into that soft tissue. Those corrections that were top-of-mind yesterday, could easily be replaced by Anchorman 2 Outtakes.... So...(editor note: I started watching those again and lost my train of thought)... Anyways... REFLECT: Review your notes, ask yourself why those specific corrections were given to you or to the class, discuss with others in your class to get their perspective. Give it priority over all other thoughts in your training.

  2. Select - When we travel to Japan for training, the Sensei would often say something like "Since we don't have much time, I'm going to give you as much as possible. More than you can work on right now; so remember and take it back with you". The Sensei at seminar are thinking the same thing. They want to give as much as possible, but there's only so much you can retain and apply. So select those corrections that you find most important. Then...

  3. Neglect - Forget everything else! With work, family, and other personal commitments, we have little time to train as it is. Remember, the corrections you get from the highest level of instruction are usually what takes you to the next level. So forget everything (well almost) you've been working on before that point and time and really buckle down and train. Work on those points until it becomes second nature, then do it all over again. Practice. Practice. Practice.
(*mfmpf* Pompeii....)

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Remembering the Legend and the 'Hard Bastard': Key builders of Canadian Iaido

These last couple of days before the new year is typically a time for reflection. And while many of us will look back at 2014 with a mixture of accomplishment, regret, and nostalgia, we should also take this opportunity to reflect on those who got us to this point; and have laid the foundation to a brighter future, full of possibility.

The Legend
I started Iaido in 2004, but even before that I had started reading up on the art and its growth in Canada. Besides the usual suspects, the current leaders in Ohmi, Cruise, and Taylor, another name kept popping up: Haruna. Who was this man and why did everyone speak of him with such awe and reverence? I'll let the words of those who knew him best from his time in Canada speak for themselves:

The 'Hard Bastard'
I recently became aware that a new member of our Iaido dojo had actually started training over 10 years ago in St. Catharines, Ontario, but had to stop due to various other commitments. Back in 2003, Iaido in Southern Ontario was expertly organized and taught by one Bill Mears Sensei; a tall, bearded transplant from the UK who was affectionately referred to as a "Hard Bastard" by his many friends, colleagues, and students of Iaido in Canada. His tragic passing in 2005 of a heart attack left a hole in the hearts of many across the country and around the world. His legacy is still remembered and honoured by a tight-knit group of Iaido students; a community that he helped build.

Spring 2015 will be the 10 year anniversary of his passing, so let us take a look back and appreciate the many lessons he brought to those who had the pleasure of knowing him for years, or even only a few moments:

Friday, 26 December 2014

3 Things to Maximize Your Learning Experience at Seminars

Travelling and meeting people is one of the joys of being part of an international community1. I don't think my wife and I have taken any trips in the past several years where we didn't train, or meet with someone in the local Iaido/Kyudo community. When not heading to a seminar in Canada, the US - or shugyo-ing it up in Japan - our vacation plans inevitably include a stopover at the local dojo.

In June, I had the distinct pleasure to attend a seminar, taught at the highest level by Hanshi 8-Dan, Sakono Yasuo Sensei, at the 2014 AUSKF Iaido Summer Camp. This annual event was conveniently located in the center of Manhattan, NY and hosted by our friends from Ken Zen Institute and ShidogakuinI'll be covering my key takeaways from the seminar over several posts, so please stay tuned.

Introductory Speech from the AUSKF President

Each day opened with announcements, as well as some words from AUSKF President, Arthur Murakami Sensei. While his speeches were brief, they nonetheless carried significant wisdom that all participants could learn from. 

Simply attending the seminar is not enough. Without consistent practice and being mindful of the takeaways for the rest of the year, you're just wasting your time.

A great opening speech for seminars of this magnitude. As one of only few major, country-wide, events to host instructors of this quality from Japan, the annual summer camp is really where the best of the country find out what they need to work on for the foreseeable future. This echos one of the lessons I wrote on the Tokyo Judging Technical and Judging Seminar in 2013: On Attending Seminars and On Learning (View Now)

Here are 3 things I've learned about maximizing one's learning opportunity at these events.
  1. Be Noticed - This is essential, and probably the most overlooked, factor for being at any martial arts seminar. I'm reading a book right now called Never Be Closing by Dunne & Hurson. Why is this interesting? Because it's a book about "Selling" - And it is as relevant to the business world as it is to anything else in life. From the beginning, the writers discard the most common myth i.e. The salesperson's goal is to get you buy something you don't want or need. In reality, the standouts are those who realize that selling is about two things: 1) Long-Term Relationships and 2) Value Generation. I won't go into too much detail about the process (perhaps a topic for another post), but put into the context of a seminar, it is important to realize that theirs a value exchange going on. Obviously you are there to learn something, but the visiting instructors are also there to pass on their knowledge. They receive value when they see you learning something. So no, you are not there to show how good you are - You are there to Show Your Iai, Receive Instruction, then Show that you have improved as a result of that instruction. Be Noticed.

  2. Be Genuine - Don't try to change the way you do your Iai. You may be motivated to show more power, more speed, more feeling, etc. But that is not how you normally practice. Your Iai is what you happens when you are not thinking. When you don't focus on any particular point or theory. As my brother recently wrote in his blog: Just Do It (View Now). This is no place to experiment with your own thoughts, or even those from other students. The visiting instructors can only comment on what they see and it is in your best interest to show what you normally do - any instruction will then be salient to you and you alone. Be Genuine.

  3. Be Observant - In Kyudo, we talk about three different types of Keiko (training). They are 1) Kufu Keiko - Thinking and Reflecting, 2) Kakari Keiko - Repetition, and 3) Mitori Keiko - Looking. While many of us are pretty good at the first two points, number three is often difficult to assess. What are you looking for? What are you look at? What can you take from it? I'll probably expand on these questions at a later date, but the real question I want you think about is: Are you "seeing" or are you just "looking"? In Dan Roam's book, The Back of the Napkin, he explains the difference between these two terms. When you are just "looking", you don't comprehend the details. It's like when you commute along your regular path to school/work, and you suddenly wake up at your destination - It's like your brain went into standby and failed to receive any information for the past 45 minutes. Can you remember the last time this happened at an Iaido seminar? I can. To be observant is to not just look, but to "see" what is actually going on. When the instructor is lecturing, demonstrating, or correcting someone else, pay attention - and I mean really pay attention. Test yourself at your next practice. Start by eliminating those commute moments and you'll find the seminar you attend to be much more fruitful.
1 It really all started in 2007 and we haven't looked back since: