Bujinkan Strategies of Control

雪吊り yuki zuri at 六義園 Rikugi-en. photo by Michael Glenn
The train rattled by the Bujinkan Honbu dojo. I looked down at the knife in my hand. I looked up at Hatsumi Sensei who called me to stab at him. I plunged the knife toward him. He made a kiai that came out like the creaking, groaning sound of an old iron gate.

It was not a human sound. And he was in my face, laughing. I fell to the floor. He asked me to speak and share what I just felt with all of the students in the dojo. All I could say was that his smile made me drop.

It has been difficult to write about my training with Soke during this trip. Not because I don't have anything to share. But because writing or talking about it is a distraction from the experience itself.

I didn't want my own thoughts or preconceptions to intrude on the direct transmission of the teaching that Soke is giving us. So I waited. Just absorbing as much as I can. And now I feel I can begin to share.

In every single class, Hatsumi Sensei tells us not to fight, but to control. In fact, he says that this is the theme that he is teaching from. He uses the 外来語 gairaigo (borrowed from English) pronunciation of the word control. In the Japanese pronunciation this becomes コントロール kontorooru.

He tells us that what he is showing us cannot be taught. He says,
"I'm not teaching how to fight. I'm showing control. If you try to fight then it's a very low level of budo. Please learn to control."
Why can't this be taught? Because it's control, not waza. Waza (techniques) can be taught. But this is not waza. It's control.

Soke says he's not teaching technique anymore. He told us to have this control of あも一寸の玉 虫 amo issun no tama mushi.  In a real confrontation, this "amo" is very important.

Hatsumi Sensei's classes are all about control. But first you have to control yourself, only then can you control the opponent. He demonstrated this over and over by controlling his opponents without even touching them. It happened to me every time I faced him. He explained it like this:
"You have to be able to not do a technique yet have it happen anyway. This is the theme for the 15 dans this year."
One of the ways he does this is kukan no コントロール kontorooru… to control the kukan or use the kukan to control. But here is a warning: Any method you use to try to do that will probably not work! That is the mystery of this strategy.

Since I cannot possibly share everything I am experiencing here in Japan in just one article, I will write a series of articles. Maybe I will call them Bujinkan strategies of control. If you want to receive all of them, make sure to subscribe here.

When I attacked Hatsumi Sensei with the knife, he asked me to share the feeling I got from him. In that moment it was overwhelming, so I couldn't say much except that his smile made me drop to the mat. But now that I've had some days to consider what happened, my feeling is that he used one of the strategies I will write about next. 次次次… The next one is the best one!

Snow on the Bujinkan Honbu Dojo

Snow on the Bujinkan Honbu Dojo
Last week when I arrived in Tokyo, it was cold and dark. Much colder than anyone expected. Tokyo hasn't had its first snowfall in November for 54 years. And breaking an even older record, this was the first accumulation of snow in the city center since records began in 1875.

It was dark when I arrived, but I pressed my face to the cold glass of the train to get a look at it. I knew it would melt quickly. So I made a video and you can just see it outside the train: Ninja True: How to get to the Bujinkan Honbu Dojo.

When I arrived at the dojo, a man doing construction near the train tracks called it a November surprise. He thought I was funny because I was poking at the snow and taking pictures. I told him I live in Santa Monica and we never have snow.

Even though it was cold on my arrival, the reception I got from my friends here in Japan has been very warm. The Bujinkan is truly international. I got warm greetings from Spain, Australia, Florida, Canada, Estonia, Colombia, France… and more!

The Japanese teachers always have a smile for me! They always tell me, "welcome back" before hurting me in class. And the classes have been great.

Senou Sensei seemed to be carving up his opponents with his fingers. With almost every technique, he manipulates his fingers to change the opponent's balance and attack. In fact, he started one class by intertwining his fingers like you would for 暗黒透視術 Ankoku tōshijutsu.

Then he used that grip to receive the attack. The fingers became pivot points as they interlaced (かわす kawasu) with the opponent's body. It seems impossible to move someone with one finger, yet he did this to me and I moved!

Hatsumi Sensei has also been carving things up. He did this with a ninja-to, but he also seems to carve up the space itself. I tried to attack him, but he changed the space, and I was moved again!

Hatsumi Sensei told us that for 42 years since Takamatsu Sensei's death, he's changed the Bujinkan theme every year. In these yearly themes he taught us techniques. But this year he's teaching something that goes beyond or transcends that.

He began to demo this feeling or "mood." He showed the connections between being punched, a double lapel grab, tehodoki… and even sword. He said you have to have this "mood" to be able to use any weapon. This word "mood" was both English and Japanese. He said ムード muudo but also in Japanese 無道 mudō or 武道 budō.

Soke said this means you are being led by the martial arts into zero. You think it's there but it's not. You don't think it's there but it is.

He told us that the Bujinkan has come to this high level, so he thinks things will be very interesting from now on (此から先 korekarasaki). Since this was just the beginning of my training here in Japan, I have no doubt things will be very interesting in the coming days.

This will be the first of several articles about the training I am currently doing in Japan, to receive all of them, please subscribe here: Bujinkan updates  

Bujinkan Kuden: 自然行雲流水 Shizen kōunryūsui

根津美術館 庭園 photo by Michael Glenn
We have a Bujinkan kuden, 自然行雲流水 Shizen kōunryūsui.  This is sometimes translated as going with the flow. It originates from an old Chinese poem. But in Japan it became an essential mindset for zen.

It is having a mind that is light and carefree like the journey of the clouds through the sky. No matter what wars are being fought on earth, or what pain and emotion is being expressed, the clouds just float by. What if your mind could be light like that?

But this saying also suggests we can flow along like the water in a river. No matter what obstacle it encounters, it just keeps going. It is ever changing and persistent. What if your mind could run deep like a river?

The river and the clouds are connected of course. The clouds drop rain and snow which feeds the river. Then the water might evaporate and rise back into the sky to become a cloud again.

In Bujinkan taijutsu, this mindset is expressed as natural and smooth movement. This kind of taijutsu is not an attack or a defense. When we are unattached to results, victory appears.

The Yari Kuri of Bujinkan 槍術 Sōjutsu

Michael Glenn thrusts into emptiness with the Yari, from a recent video on rojodojo.com
In a recent class we were training 四方技 shihō waza. This form has an important secret for all of Bujinkan 槍術 sōjutsu. Soke calls it 槍繰り yarikuri. This can be translated in various ways, like repetitive thrusting.

But we must consider why Hatsumi Sensei explains it this way. What he tells us about yari kuri is that,
“the thrust is kyo, the kuri is the jitsu.”
This means we should employ 虚実 kyojitsu in our thrusting with the yari. Where the thrust is the illusion or falsehood, and the repetition is the truth.

This means that each thrust with the yari can be either true or false. So how do you decide which is true and which is false? Hatsumi Sensei described this moment in terms of our bojutsu gokui, when he says
“realize the moment of truth, thrust in, and only after you feel a connection with something does the force naturally flow into it (the thrust).”

I recently made a video about this Bujinkan gokui


In this shihō waza, our first thrusts are probing. Then as we step out to the right we probe further. This second thrust drives in deeper. And there we make a grip change that is unique as the left hand draws the spear back to the right hand.

This creates the distance for striking with the ishizuki. But the deception continues because you quickly flip into another thrust. If he manages to block that one, you finish with a rising strike to the groin.

This is how the yari can play in the field of time (遊ぶ光陰). And time is nothing but the play of light and shadow. Learning to thrust with the yari this way is a revelation for your study of Bujinkan sojutsu.

Bujinkan Kyūsho: 呼吸 Kokyuu, 指 Yubi, and 目 Me

柴又八幡神社 Shibamata Hachiman Jinja, photo Michael Glenn
In the past few years, Hatsumi Sensei has been exploring more than one theme every year. And some of the Bujinkan yearly themes have actually stretched across more than one year. For example, one Bujinkan theme this year of “skipping stones” I first heard from Hatsumi Sensei during one class back in September of 2014: The 間 Aida of Skipping a Stone Across Water

Another Bujinkan theme that Hatsumi Sensei has been expressing the last few years is the use of 呼吸 kokyuu (the breath), 指 yubi (the fingers), and 目 me (the eyes). These three are not to be taken individually. They must be connected in the same way that the ripples on a pond are connected by the stone that skipped across it.

In one cold December class Hatsumi Sensei described this for us,
"(the eyes and the breath are) connected like skipping a stone. It’s connected together but really you disappear. Take the eyes and the fingers for jissen. In a real situation you don’t want to just go for them, you just kind of let them happen along the way. Take the eyes, the fingers, and stop the breathing."
These three things can be thought of as kyūsho. They are weak points on even the strongest opponent. If you attack the eyes, you destroy his ability to fight. The fingers are very sensitive to pain and break easily. And if you stop or interrupt the breath, the entire body and mind stops with it.

As always, Hatsumi Sensei embeds layers of meaning and wordplay into the things he shares with us. The word 呼吸 kokyuu means breath, but it also can be translated as a knack, a  trick,  or a secret for doing something. Hatsumi Sensei described one of these secrets in another class I went to,
"Don’t grab and hold, just move like this with the body.  The finger hooks on here. With this timing, with this rhythm."
Even though it wasn’t translated directly, Soke actually said 呼吸から愛人 kokyuu kara ai jin, this is the harmony of the breath between lovers. This means you match your movements or your breath to the same rhythm as the breath of your opponent. You harmonize and become one with him. Then when you break that rhythm, it shatters him like a wine glass.

In case you haven’t seen that happen, a wine glass can be shattered by sound (the breath or voice of a singer). This happens because the glass has a natural frequency at which it vibrates. The singer first resonates with this frequency, then breaks that by going beyond it.

Hatsumi Sensei said we can use the finger to attack the rib cage in a way that interrupts the breath. I witnessed this, but since it is a kuden, I would have to show you in person. Don’t be afraid to ask me to hurt you next time you see me!

Hatsumi Sensei added that this is why we don’t have to avoid a strike. Instead we interrupt the opponent's breathing. This becomes like sutemi. Here we find the feeling of being able to control with just one finger.

The word for eyes or eyesight in Japanese can use different kanji as well. One of them is 目 me which can be translated as insight. Another is 明 mei which is a brightness or clarity of vision.

And the finger indicates the connection or link between these things. We must open up to these connections when we train on the Bujinkan themes. Remember the real training happens in your own breath and your own insight.

Make the Opponent Empty

a rare empty hall in Ameya-Yokochō, photo by Michael Glenn
I've been writing lots of articles for my personal Bujinkan mailing list which you can sign up for here: Bujinkan Training Notes

The other day I wrote about something very important in our Bujinkan training. It starts with a question that everyone forgets to ask:

Who is it that fights? When you are in a fight or an argument, who does the fighting? Is it you? Your opponent? Does it just happen by itself?

Obviously any fight requires at least two participants. Unless you are fighting with yourself. But in that case there are still two because you are divided against yourself.

What if you didn't participate? Remove yourself from the fight. What happens?

The fight dissolves. Almost as if it was never real. Leave the opponent to fight with himself.

In a recent class with Hatsumi Sensei, he told us how NOT to avoid a sword,
"If you evade, you will die. Move without any intention to fight. Make the opponent empty. Make him forget his own intent to fight. Make him forget that he’s fighting or trying to strike you."
Make the opponent empty. Make yourself empty. The fight is an illusion that you have created. You can stop believing in it.

Hold 間 Ma in Your Mind For Heijōshin

Mural wall art at 明治神宮前駅 Meiji-Jingūmae station, photo by Michael Glenn
I have an important suggestion for you if you plan on training in Japan. When you show up to the dojo, put yourself in the proper mood for training. I suggest a state of 平常心 heijōshin which is a steady and calm presence of mind. Otherwise you can quickly become lost in the depths of what you have just jumped into.

If you’ve ever been to one of Hatsumi Sensei’s classes, you know that a lot depends on the mood. Yes, the Bujinkan Hombu Dojo has a mood. There is a feeling or sensation in the air. Where does this come from and how does it affect our training?

For example, during one recent class I was tired from training 2-3 classes every day for two weeks in Japan. But I showed up to the dojo in an expectant mood. In fact, it seemed there was a mood of anticipation among all of my training friends in the Hombu that Tuesday night. But, when Hatsumi Sensei arrived, his mood prevailed over all of us.

And during this class, he told us,
“I’m not teaching budo, I’m teaching the feeling of contemplation of a divine poem.”
Well, I can only speak for myself… but I don’t think any of of us anticipated that this would be tonight’s lesson.

Before I describe more of what he taught that night, let me lead you back to heijōshin. Because this lesson is beyond what we think about martial arts or combat. It begins from owning the kukan in your own mind.

We often hear about 空間 kukan in Bujinkan training. It means space. Training helps us examine the spatial relationships between fighters, between ourselves and our opponents, and even the physical location of the fight.

But you may not know that 空間 kukan is both internal and external. The fight takes place in the minds of you and your opponent maybe more than in actual physical combat. We must use a fighting strategy that uses both the internal and external space.

That same night at the Hombu dojo, Hatsumi Sensei said,
“You have to be able to take the opponent with the kukan itself.”
This is puzzling if you think only in terms of the physical. Yes, you can corner someone, or strategically position yourself to win through the proper use of space. But the real victory is when you own the internal space. Capture the opponent’s mind while freeing your own.

The word kukan uses the character 間 ma. This is a deep idea in Japanese thought. Where time is not linear, instead it is contained in the circle of nature. Space is not empty, instead it contains everything. Ma can be the space between things, between moments, or even between thoughts.

Ma can refer to the space between the technique you want to do in your mind and what you actually do physically. It can be the space between what the opponent expects you to do and what really happens. But it also can be the ability to see all of this at once as if from outside the fight.

That is another type of kukan. The space to see the whole fight including the internal struggles in the minds of both combatants. You might call that a divine insight. What if you could use that perspective?

Hatsumi Sensei used that perspective as he taught. First he showed us a technique and then watched us fighting to repeat what he demonstrated. But he didn’t let us struggle for very long. He gave us a tip for how to use this space in our minds,
“Don’t think of it as a contest. Don’t think about making it a fight. It’s not a contest. This is heijōshin. Don’t think anything.”
This kind of 間 ma in the mind is necessary for heijōshin. That is one of the great challenges even in just entering the dojo. If we can’t even show up to class with that kind of mindset, what chance do we have in a fight?

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