Sotoku-doji: the chicken and the egg, the zen master and the disciple 啐啄同時

There is a Japanese phrase from zen teachings that reads:

啐啄同時 – Sotoku-doji

The image it suggests is this:

Imagine a chicken and her egg. When the chick is about to hatch it makes a scratching noise inside the shell. Hearing it, the mother chicken comes along and gently taps on the outside of the shell, aiding the chick to step out into the world.

In zen this refers to the relationship between the master and disciple. After years of strict shugyo the disciple reaches the cusp of enlightenment. Sensing this, the master says the right word or does the right thing just at the right time, leading the student to comprehend, to finally perceive Truth, to reach enlightenment.


Long time kenshi 24/7 readers probably already realised that I spend a lot of time reflecting on not only how to teach (kendo), but watching how it is taught by others. Over the years my initial approach to teaching has changed massively and, although I hope I still remain quite a flexible person in this regard, I have come to develop/realise my own preferred style of both teaching and learning. In particular, I don’t like overly verbose instruction and will only rarely (and to direct students or kohai) give advice. Even then, any advice given is always done with a caveat, allowing the advised to reflect and decide what – if any – change or response is needed, and in what manner. After all, even 15 year old beginning students are independent individuals who must take control of their own progress.

Living in Japan and thinking like this can be difficult sometimes. First is the expected role of the teacher in Japanese society, in both the classroom and the dojo: instruction occurs in a single direction with generally no option for discussion. Dojo in school environments are usually highly regimented and strongly hierarchical. Teachers can sometimes seem like overlords of sort, shouting and barking orders (sometimes even on the shiaijo). Any success of school teams is often attributed to the teacher’s instruction rather than the students hard work (remember that students stream in and out whereas some teachers can stay decades in the same school). Outside of the school environment things tend to be much less one-way but, still, the hierarchy exists. If a hachidan says that water is wine, there may be little you can do but agree.

Modern kendo (as well as Japans education system) was, of course, developed in a highly militarised period of Japanese history and, after the war, many teachers (again, in the classroom and in the dojo) had a background of military training and/or service. This, I suspect at least in part, helps to explain the current situation.

Anyway – somehow I’ve drifted in a different direction – the reason I am thinking about this now is that the other day someone gave me unasked for advice. Of course there was no ill-will involved, but I couldn’t help thinking that the person wasn’t taking into account the possibility that I might be busy working on other things. His advice was actually quite useful but – and this is the key message of this article – I didn’t actually need nor want it at just that time. (Please don’t think me ungrateful … I was actually busy working on something else at that time.)

Lets go back to the beginning: had the mother chicken broken the shell too early then the chick may have hatched underdeveloped and died or lived a short life. If she hadn’t heard the noise of the chicks scratching, and had it not been strong enough, then the chick would’ve never hatched. In the same way, the true zen master would only give the right advice at the right time.

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Things to perhaps consider when teaching

* Asking questions vs giving advice

Sometimes it’s better to wait for the student to ask a question before dishing out random advice, this way you can respond to what the student is seeking/working on, rather than deciding by yourself what you think they should do. If they don’t ask questions then leave them be.

* Giving advice vs sharing perspective

I often embed advice in stories of past experience or discussion about what I am personally working on. Although it might seem a roundabout way, I think that some students are more engaged and interested in these informal chats.

* Causing reflection rather than giving orders

Of course, how you teach depends a lot on the personality of the individual students under you but, in general, I think reflection and self-realisation/decision is one of the keys to not only progress in general, but the students long-term shugyo strategy.

* Having a spirit of empathy and understanding

Teaching requires that you are in-tune with your students and you understand their needs. Don’t attempt to force the students to do exactly as you do…. because they are not you.


For more info about Kendo Coaching Tips and Drills, please click here.

Even if you are wearing steel sandals, find a good teacher 良い師匠は鉄の草鞋をはいてでも探せ

The first half of this article is a short translation. Enjoy!


Up until I was a third year junior high school student (14/15yrs old) I lived in Tottori prefecture. I started kendo in first year but was very weak and lost many competitions. I was so weak that sometimes people would even taiatari me out of the shiai area.

After graduating junior high school I moved to Osaka and naturally joined the kendo club of the senior high school I started going to. However, of course, as I was so weak at kendo, I was treated as nothing more than a burden, and my sempai often got angry at me.

In my second year of high school (16/17yrs) I started attending keiko at Shudokan, the dojo inside Osaka castle park (pictured top). One day a small statured gentlemen walked into the dojo and it was obvious that he was someone of importance by the way he was treated. When keiko started all the Shudokan teachers – those of 6dan and 7dan level – lined up to keiko with the small statured sensei and I was amazed to see that none of them could even touch him. He destroyed them all.

Steeling myself, I joined the sensei’s line for keiko. When it was my turn I stood up from sonkyo and, all of a sudden, I froze: “What should I do?” My breathing became laboured and I felt as if my legs and feet were bound, as if I were paralysed. The atmosphere had suddenly turned severe, making me both scared to strike or be struck. The pressure was intense.

This is kendo!”

I remember feeling both physically paralysis and mental fear in that instant. “From today I’m going to make kendo my life” I thought, and spent that entire night sleeplessly thinking about nothing other than kendo. This was the first time I met Ikeda Yuji sensei.

From that day on I started attending those dojo that Ikeda sensei taught at: “Strike large with a vigorous spirit!” – this is what Ikeda sensei told me every-time I had a chance to keiko with him. The majority of the instruction I received from Ikeda sensei was uchikomi and kirikaeshi, on which he forged my kendo.

Fast forward to 3rd of November 1984: I was standing calmly in the middle of the Nippon Budokan – it was the final of the All Japan Kendo Championships. “Hajime!” I stood up and almost immediately – and unconsciously – struck a large men. I fought at my own pace and managed to win the competition. After the award ceremony was over, with the certificate in one hand and the Emperor’s cup in the other, I sought out Ikeda sensei to say thank you. He said in a quiet tone: “Harada-kun, congratulations!” At that time I recalled clearly that first keiko I had with Ikeda sensei in Shudokan all those years ago …..

– Harada Tetsuo, Kyoto Police Dept., 1993.

In 1984, at the age of 29, Harada sensei won the All Japan Championships and was a member of the winning Japanese team at the World Kendo Championships. He is now kyoshi 8dan. Check out his tachiai at the 2011 Kyoto Taikai. It starts 3 minutes into this video, Harada sensei is facing the camera:


Ikeda sensei mini gallery


Comment

Ikeda sensei died in 1991, before I even started kendo, so of course I never had the chance to meet him, but – in a way – I could be described as what’s termed his mago-deshi, that is, his “grand-student” (the same grand as in grandchild). Although a seemingly vague relationship, it exists because I have spent over 10 years practising at the dojo he was mostly associated with in Osaka – Yoseikai – and have studied kendo under some of his direct students. It’s impossible to know how much of Ikeda sensei’s kendo exists within mine (perhaps/probably little) but I’d like to think that it might, if even a little.

For a more complete bio on Ikeda sensei please read this article.

btw, the article’s title – Even if you are wearing steel sandals, find a good teacher – emphasises the importance of studying under a good teacher. No matter how long you walk, no matter how long you search, if your sandals are made from steel (rather than straw or cloth) they won’t wear out. Keep going and going until you arrive at the thing you seek… which is, in our situation here, a good sensei.

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Source

追想生涯一剣士 池田勇治先生。勇剣会。1993発行。非売品。

Year end, year start 年越し、元旦

Happy new year !!!! I hope all kenshi 24/7 readers had a great xmas and Hogmanay/new-year period.

Japan, being a non-Christian country, basically doesn’t stop for a holiday break until December the 29th or 30th depending, and even then many shops will remain open throughout the whole period, perhaps closing only on January the 1st. Although this is depressing work-wise, it does mean that kendo doesn’t stop! In fact, with the combination of school holidays (i.e. lots of kendo renshu-jiai and godo-geiko) and year-end kendo drinking parties, it often feels like one of the busiest kendo times of the year. Yay!

Here I’d like to introduce a couple of special types of keiko that regularly occur in Japan during this time, both of which I attended this year: toshigoshi-geiko and gantan-geiko.


Toshigoshi-geiko (年越し稽古)

“Toshigoshi” basically means “year end” and refers to keiko that happens on December the 31st. There are many different variations of the style of keiko, some happen during the day of the 31st itself, some start in the evening and end just before midnight, whilst others start at 11pm and go through midnight into the new-year.

I’ve been attending toshigoshi-geiko on and off for about 10 or 11 years now. The style of the dojo I mainly go to for this type of keiko is relatively simple: we generally roll-up around 9 or 930pm, warm-up with some kata practice, then get our men’s on at 10pm. Shinai kendo then continues until 1140-50pm, whereafter we take our men’s off and go into mokuso. When mokuso is finished it’s already the new year!! We bow, thank our sensei and friends, and – after perhaps a small cup of sake or a beer, head home for bed.

btw, check out the third picture in the gallery below: this is this years dojo motto written/painted (complete with Chinese zodiac inspired picture) by one of my favourite sensei and hung up on the dojo wall in time for toshigoshi-geiko. It reads 「一年の心 勝る 一年の心」which I take to mean something like “exceed yourself this year more than the last” and refers to the onward shugyo of working continually to become a better person. 頑張ります!


Gantan-geiko (元旦稽古)

“Gantan” is simply the “first day of the year” and refers to keiko that happens on January the 1st. Even though some shops are closed on the 1st, public transport continues unabated… such is the beauty of Japan!! Gantan-geiko sessions are quite common in Japan, and are generally just free jigeiko sessions.

This year I attended a large, open gantan-geiko practice held in the north part of Kyoto. On the way it was a little bit chilly and there were flakes of snow to be seen… however, while we were doing warmup stretches and suburi a full-blown snowstorm erupted!!! By the time we left the dojo everywhere was covered in 3-5 inches of snow and I could barely feel my feet due to the bitter cold.


Feeling happy and motivated!

It at time’s like these where I feel lucky/privileged to be in a situation where I am able to do so much kendo. I guess back home in the UK I’d simply have spent the time boozing and eating, which was fine when I was in my 20s but not so fine in my old age! At least this year I spent the holiday period relatively healthily!

Wishing everyone a successful, and most importantly healthy and injury-free, 2015. Cheers!

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Pictorial look back over 2014 振りかえる

I promised myself and kenshi 24/7 readers that I’d write at least one or maybe two new articles before the years end but, hands up, I’ve run out of time. Mainly this has been because kendo doesn’t slow down for the end of the year, it speeds up !! So for the last post of the year I’m going to be a chicken and simply re-post some of the best pictures that were used in articles this year (plus a couple of videos).

Thanks for reading kenshi 24/7 – see you next year !!!

Kendo Mode

December is generally a relaxed time of year for me work-wise, but kendo – as usually – continues unabated right up until the end of the year (and re-starts again only after a short break). This gives me a little bit of extra time to reflect back over the last past 12 months and see to what extent I have achieved (or not) my kendo goals for the year. Although it might not be of interest to kenshi 24/7 readers, I’ve decided to this years reflecting out loud. I have many technical things that I am working on, of course, but what I’m going to talk about below is an experiment in the deliberate change in the mode of my kendo over the past year, not of execution.


2014-asageiko

Asageiko (morning practice)

I’ve been attending weekday asageiko sessions (100% kihon) on and off for about five or so years now. Before being invited to the sessions my asageiko happened only on the weekends, and then generally (not always!) at a civilised time (starting 9am). Until 2014 I attended the weekday sessions only when I had a bit of space work-wise, i.e. during the academic holiday season or during exam time, therefore my attendance was more off than on. Starting in January this year (2014) I decided, however, to make the effort to attend every practice even if I my work started at 830am. Since the dojo and my workplace are pretty close together I reasoned I could – if I prepared the next days’ work the evening before, and showered/changed after keiko quickly – manage to be in-time for work.

With this in mind I started in January quite positively. I think I managed to attend three weekday asageiko sessions starting at 7am (I’d crawl out of bed at 5am-ish, and leave the house at 550am) maybe over 95% of the time until July and my trip to Scotland. Re-booting after this break in rhythm, however, has been very hard, but I think I managed it semi-successfully until September, when my pace slowed down (it finally rebounded back during November).

The inspiration, btw, for the decision to focus on asageiko sessions this year was one of my sempai. As he works in the evenings he spent the last 10 years or so doing very little keiko, so he, starting a couple of years ago, begun attending asageiko session (at a different dojo from mine) three times a week. I was – and am still! – not only highly impressed by his continued dedication, but was also struck by what one of the sensei told him:

It requires a special strength of will to get up early and constantly do asageiko. Those that continue it become not only technically better, but mentally tougher.

Here’s what the last nearly-12 months of asageiko has taught me.

I hate mornings. I really can’t stand getting up early. However, if I manage to get up and drag myself to keiko, I often have a very satisfying session… sometimes the best of the day.

The more keiko you do, the better. I now do about (on a genki week) 10 practices/week from Mon-Fri (then more on the weekend). To truly understand what shugyo is you need to put yourself out of your comfort zone (see the first point above!) and do loads and loads of keiko. There is no alternative.

It’s healthy, the world looks better, and breakfast is tastier! There are fewer people on the trains or roads (I often travel by bicycle to the dojo) and mornings are more relaxed. The whole exercise-in-the-morning (before breakfast) sets the mood for the whole day. After asageiko I am blatantly in a happier mood that everyone at work or on the train!

Creates bonds with like-minded people. Most people won’t get up in the morning to do keiko, especially if it’s a hard kihon session before work. Those of us that attend the session regularly have, I think, a mutual respect based on the fact that we are aiming towards the same things. The particular session I attend is very high level – I sometimes feel out of my depth – yet there is little explicit teaching per se: we are there to work, and we respect each other for sacrificing sleep (and social life the evening before) to do so.

As a side-note, there are some people that I have been doing kihon with for a few years now that I have never done jigeiko with. We don’t judge the other on how good they can fight, but on their commitment to improving their kendo through kihon (i.e. discipline/shugyo).


There are other things I could’ve mentioned, but I’ll leave it here. I guess the point is that – for me – asageiko is now an essential part of my kendo. I can’t imagine my kendo life without it. The major problem I have is getting up!!! My sempai mentioned above said about this: “the first year is hell, but you’ll get used to it” ….. I hope so.


2014-degeiko

Degeiko (travelling to other dojo for practice)

For many years here in Osaka I’ve shied away from attending random degeiko sessions generally because – being the only non-Japanese person in most occasions – I was immediately a target for wide-eyed staring or overly-pushy instruction. I don’t like to stand out or enjoy being treated like a “gaijin” (some people seem to love it … not me), and there’s nothing I dislike more than people trying to teach me without respecting the fact that I do actually have my own sensei (if I go explicitly for instruction then thats another matter). Anyway, sensing the need to step out of my comfort zone for the benefit of my wider shugyo (as noted above) I decided to be brave and go to some open degeiko sessions during the year and see what happened.

Maybe it’s because having lived in Osaka for 10 years now people have become used to seeing me, or perhaps it’s because I’ve improved technically over the past few years – or more likely some sort of combination – it wasn’t as bad as I feared. And anyway, the kendo community being as small as it is, I soon realised that in any gathering there will always be somebody I know. It’s possible that maybe I just had some sort of complex!!!

At any rate, I attended some random keiko-kai’s over the past year and immediately the benefits were obvious:

A sense of nervousness/tension. Having attended the same dojo’s for years, it’s pretty easy to become used to the environment and the people. At a degeiko session however you may or may not know some or all of the people, so you have to not only be on your best behaviour but be ready to do your best kendo… all the while remembering your will be watched and judged.

Also, I found that I put more time into pre-planning when I attended sessions like these, for example checking shinai and cleaning my dogi, which can only be a good thing.

Degeiko as shiai. The kanji for shiai is 試合, the SHI (試) meaning to test, try, or experiment, and the AI (合) meaning to meet. Thus a “shiai” is simply a mutual trial of skill. In a degeiko situation you will face people who you have never done keiko with before. Not only that, you may have no idea who they are at all: their age, their grade, their background, etc. Thus, with the nervous tension described above, you meet them fair-and-squarely to see if your kendo works on them or not. You have to read people and their kendo style quickly and adapt strategy if you have to.

Unlike competition, this type of situation has no particular winner or loser, and you and your partner judge yourselves, so it’s a far freer, and perhaps more honest experience than competition (assuming, of course, that you are the type to admit defeat when struck and refuse to accept an ippon if you are not happy with it).

Meeting like-minded people. Again, like the point I mentioned above, I found that during open degeiko sessions it was possible to meet people who were there for the same reasons as I was. They believed that degeiko was essential to their development as kenshi, and weren’t scared about putting themselves out there.

Luckily I’ve even met one or two people who I immediately clicked with and whom I want to seriously study from. This was an unexpected, but greatly appreciated, bonus.


As in the above asageiko section, I could probably write more here, but I think I’ve covered the main bases.

Degeiko-wise, I think 2014 was a good year for me. I visited some new dojo, made some new friends, and managed to widen my kendo community considerably in a short time. Also, as I discovered, once you are connected to the right people then invites to other keiko-kai’s increase dramatically. Next year I intend to broaden even further, perhaps to other prefectures. I’m looking forward to it!


2014-eikenkai-02

This post has been more of a personal type explaining a deliberate change in the mode of my kendo shugyo through 2014. Of course, the core of my kendo training still lies in kihon-heavy sessions at work, jigeiko with my sempai and sensei in the evenings, and constant study (reading) of kendo books, but after years of doing this I decided that I needed something new to stimulate technical improvement as well as deepen my shugyo. I hope the addition of constant asageiko with a sprinkling of degeiko can act as the catalyst for these changes.

A slightly different kind of post from my normal ones, I hope kenshi 24/7 readers can find something useful in this article or perhaps it will serve as some sort of mini-inspiration for a change in your own kendo mode next year… let me know!