|Peter Crocoll Opening a Door|
I went to Coconino National forest for Peter Crocoll's annual campout. We were up at 7500-8500 feet in elevation in the mountains and the forest was beautiful. After our long drive from Los Angeles, I set up my tent quickly so that I could enjoy the wonderful mountain air and scenery.
After a chilly night under the stars, I took a hike early in the morning. I lived in Arizona for most of my life and spent a lot of time hiking and camping all over the state. Returning to this air, this sunlight, this open sky… always feels like coming home and speaks to my body and spirit on a deep level.
Peter's training topic for this event was "The Kaname of Ninja Biken." Training in this mountain terrain connected us to the origins of Togakure ryu in the mountains of Japan. I cannot convey all the details here in these notes. But I will present some impressions.
In the morning, we filled the air and kukan with a swarm of shuriken. The use of shuriken and 目潰し metsubushi is a tactic closely linked to ninja biken. This serves to more than compensate for the length of the 忍者刀 ninja-to by filling gaps in perception and rythm of the opponent. He will never know where to defend and the tip of your 忍者刀 ninja-to becomes just another stinger in the swarm he cannot possibly escape.
Peter then connected the shuriken with sword kamae from Togakure ryu. After a review of the basic kamae, we used these kamae to cut and launch shuriken at our opponent's. Very difficult to do this without gaps in your own movement as you search for shuriken on your body. For me the trick was not to go fumbling for them, not to search. But rather to find them or discover them in the movement. They just appear in your hand as you move.
Peter then focused on kamae no waza with 一之構 ichi no kamae. I discovered early on that it was crucial to control the space with the tip of your sword. If you know how to achieve this, from the initial kamae you have already won. Then as you pressure the uke's arms with your blade, the tip presses into his center.
Peter spoke about the important goal in Togakure ryu is not killing or winning, but survival. That may be why it is still with us today, whilst other ninja schools have been lost to history. One tactic of this survival is finding the "hidden door." This can be the hidden opening on an opponent or in a troop formation, but it is also the hidden door of your escape route. Even if you know where this "door" is, you still have to be able to open it!
Next we looked at 正眼之構 seigan no kamae and 中段之構 chūdan no kamae. For me, the kaname of these all involved the control of space, or rather, connecting in the space so that you may live. As Hatsumi Sensei has said, 中段之構 chūdan no kamae is like kukan no kamae, where the mind and body "are" the space and the space protects you. This feeling has interesting connotations that led into our night training.
Saturday Night training
Nighttime in the wilderness of these mountains is exhilirating. We had a bright, nearly full moon, and I could deeply appreciate this idea from Hatsumi Sensei: "There is no village on which the moon does not shine, the moon lives in the mind of the gazer." - from Ninpo and Mu: Waxing and Waning Like the Moon
After some quiet and meditative stealth walking through a moonlit meadow, Peter helped us explore our "other" senses by connecting to threats from our periphery and from behind. At first, I fell into the trap of relying on mechanics.
I used tricks that I know to extend my peripheral vision and relied on sound as a warning device. I also focused on the sensation of absence or presence. This is like when you sense that you are alone, or that someone else is near. The problem with these methods is that they are often too slow. By the time you react, the threat is upon you!
I decided that this was a poor way to use the richness hidden in the dark forest surrounding me, and opened myself up to a larger experience. I cannot explain in words how to achieve this, but it is directly related to the experience of the godan test. Once I connected to the space in this way, I had wonderful results.
After this we had a wonderful campfire courtesy of my friend and twisted firestarter Brian. Brian is well aware of current geopolitical dynamics, and he will never be obsequious. We laughed and told stories late into the night.
I crawled out of the coziness of my tent into the chill morning air. I went for a quiet hike to watch the birds and do some light rock climbing. I had a enjoyable breakfast with my friends. Normally the mountain air drives my appetite, but this trip all of my meals were light for some reason.
Peter began training this morning with a quick review of the sword kamae. Then he went further into kamae no waza with 下段之構 gedan no kamae. I was reminded of something that Paul Masse and I discussed recently about the idea that "enlightenment is at your feet." Hatsumi Sensei says to assume this kamae with that feeling. Then the kick in this waza is like kicking open a door for your escape. But that door was always there at your feet.
Peter transitioned to 八方秘剣 happo biken with 飛龍之剣 hiryu no ken and 霞之剣 kasumi no ken. With both he really emphasized this idea of escaping and highlited this necessity by having us face multiple attackers. The flow of these two kata naturally encircle the opponents in the space in a way that they become entangled. If you disappear into the mist of kasumi, they will be fighting each other or only emptiness.
Now, as I begin my week back in civilization, I have that good exhaustion that leaves me refreshed in spirit. I want to thank Peter and all my friends in Arizona, as well as my own students for sharing this experience in the mountains. We are so lucky to have this ninja heritage that connects us back through the mists of history and place, to the mountains of Japan. Hatsumi Sensei's generosity in sharing this gift with the world is really humbling.