Ancient wisdom locked inside the system

Following on from my demonstration at our 2022 Annual Demonstration, I’d like to offer you a follow-up article on the theme on which I spoke on that day. I hope you gained something from the demonstration in September for your own practice and I hope that this article provides you with some further detail behind my sentiment on that day. (If you would like to review the demonstrations, you can find it on our YouTube channel with all the other demonstrations from that day.)

Traditional Japanese martial arts like those practiced at our dojo employ the ancient teaching and learning methodology of ‘kata geiko’, which literally translates as ‘forms practice’, and ‘Shu Ha Ri’, the stages of martial development. The stages of Shu Ha Ri literally translate as,

  • shu (守) “protect”, “obey”—traditional wisdom—learning fundamentals, techniques
  • ha (破) “detach”, “digress”—breaking with tradition
  • ri (離) “leave”, “separate”—transcendence—there are no techniques, all moves are natural.

In the Shu stage budoka (martial practitioners) are asked to follow the teacher’s instruction with complete and unquestionable adherence. Therefore, it is so important to make sure you locate a teacher that has access to the origin of the martial wisdom being imparted. It does not matter which art or Budo you practice (the one that best suits your personality is always best and over time you will gravitate to it). The teacher and their connection to the source through a direct lineage is most important to assure you are getting an authentic budo experience and accessing legitimate martial wisdom that has been passed down through generations and tested in combat over the centuries. We are lucky at the Yoshinkan Sunshine Coast Dojo to have such access to an unbroken line of martial arts instruction dating back centuries. Therefore, when we engage unquestionably with the ‘traditional wisdom’ in the fundamental techniques during the Shu stage, we can take comfort in the knowledge that what we are doing is authentic budo and not a diminished version of the past that someone has reinterpreted under their own name. Unfortunately, however, many practitioners never persist past the ‘Shu’ stage of training, and they and other commentators and outside observers base judgements of the traditional art (be it aikido, judo, kendo, karate, or jiu jitsu etc.) solely on this early stage. I guess this is in part a consequence of the ‘now generation’ and the need for instant return on the little time some are willing to invest – something that can often be provided by other less all-encompassing pursuits.

Generally, after many years of consistent, dedicated, and intensive training, a budoka would transition into the Ha stage of their martial training. In the Ha stage budoka have a deep understanding of the fundamental techniques (the kata) and begin to ‘tinker around the edges’ and ‘break open’ the kata to explore different ways of applying their concepts and principles. Here budoka begin to digress from the simple ‘blind following’ of techniques and ask questions of the techniques to begin understanding the system more profoundly. Here is where the ‘study’ of the martial art is really evident if you take up the challenge, while unfortunately, here is also where most will stall their development as they are not willing to commit to what is needed to progress beyond this point. Here is where you really begin to realise how much you don’t know! This is what traditional Japanese martial arts call shugyo, or martial journey of spiritual development. Here is when your life and your budo begin to merge and become one… You begin to find it difficult to separate who you are with what you do.

After many decades of continued study of the art(s), budoka will reach the Ri stage in their martial development. This stage is translated as ‘transcendence’. This is where technique looks nothing necessarily like the movements of the techniques in the kata; one’s movements are the result of internalising the concepts found within the kata, they become natural, personal, and unique to the physiology of the budoka. Traditionally, this is when a budoka might leave the dojo to pursue their shugyo and travel in search of further martial learning and spiritual development. Thankfully, Mori Sensei asked me to take part in this of a sort when I moved to the Sunshine Coast. When we discussed my moving away, he prompted me to teach and explore further experiences in my training through the challenges encountered by others. This he said, would provide me with a more profound understanding and expand my capabilities; and if I didn’t, my progress might stall. As a result, I thoroughly enjoy my shugyo and I am grateful to Mori Sensei daily for his guidance and wisdom. But I must be honest, traditionally budoka would study all day every day and that decades of daily training for 8-10 hours do not equate to decades of daily training for 3-5 hours in the modern sense as in my case. We need to put this in perspective. Even though I train daily, my other commitments around work and family mean that I can only train on average about 3-5 hours every day. This is only half of what a traditional budoka would commit to daily. That said however, the effects of my shugyo on my daily life are still transformative, and I hope I can develop further so that I can share more with you all on the mats and off. Afterall, what is the point of my training if I can’t enhance my life and the lives of others – this is budo after all!

As I mentioned in my demonstration, I have come to truly believe that the wisdom is literally locked in the system in which we practice, and that kata geiko (forms training) is the mechanism with which we access this wisdom over time. From my study so far, I have found Kata geiko to display three distinct attributes of ancient genius in its construction that will never lose its relevance:

  1.  Its systematic nature is a matrix of techniques with junctions that allow for unlimited possibilities. Over time, budoka may explore within the Ha stage of their martial development the endless possibilities that each part of a kata provides. At the beginning (in the Shu stage) we see only one level of the matrix, which are all the techniques within the curriculum – the surface level. But over time, the other layers (much like a 3D version of the matrix as opposed to a singular layer) begin to appear. The junctions within each technique expand to show a plethora of possibilities that can be applied when the practitioner is ready to comprehend and explore them.
  2. Secondly, every technique within kata geiko is a vehicle for the learning of key principles and concepts that become applicable in any unique situation after many years of training. It is this vehicle that has been crafted over centuries of battle testing (and in the practice of Minamoto no Yoshimitsu – the developer of Daito Ryu Jujutsu and origin of Yoshinkan Aikido and Gracie Jiu Jitsu – who would dissect dead bodies in the 11th century to study human physiology and apply this knowledge to the development of Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu). These concepts are transmitted from generation to generation via this vehicle and the ancient wisdom is locked in this system ready for exploration and study by the dedicated and worthy budoka.
  3. Thirdly, kata geiko provides ‘hidden sensei’ (or teachers) all throughout the matrix of techniques in all its parts. Budoka in the beginning (and many ill-informed onlookers from the outside) often ‘don’t know what they don’t know’; it takes years of dedicated and continuous practice to develop the proficiency to unlock the learning within the system and gain access to the ‘hidden teachers’ embedded within each technique. Its much like a video game where you unlock new levels after accomplishing new degrees of proficiency. You may find yourself practicing something seemingly so fundamental as shomen uchi ikkajo osae 1 for a decade and then all of a sudden, an insight appears (a hidden teacher speaks to you) that you never saw before, and subsequently it further unlocks new learning across the system for you because you have conceptually comprehended something that was beyond your comprehension due to your proficiency before. This continues forever, so please be patient  The wisdom is locked within the system, and what a system it is!

Well, there is an elaboration on the points I touched on in my demonstration in September. I hope this provides you with an insight into how I feel about our training and the value that I see in what we do. Furthermore, I sincerely hope that this provides you with a little clarity around why we do things the way we do, and why it has been done this way for centuries… And I hope for centuries to come!


Ryan Slavin

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