出花 Debana: Seizing the Flower of Intention

Lupin, anime figurine, Kadena-Cho Okinawa Japan. photo by satori.image
Timing is basic to combat strategy. Whether it is unarmed, iaijutsu, or even gunfighting. This variable and how you manage it contains hidden lessons.

Consider this example from a gunfight in William S. Burroughs' "The Place of Dead Roads,"
Suddenly Kim flicks his hand up without drawing and points at Mike with his index finger.
     He throws this last word like a stone. He knows that Mike will see a gun in the empty hand and this will crowd his draw….
     (With a phantom gun in an empty hand he has bluffed Mike into violating a basic rule of gunfighting. TYT. Take Your Time. Every gunfighter has his time. The time it takes him to draw aim fire and hit. If he tries to beat his time the result is almost invariably a miss….
     "Snatch and grab," Kim chants.
     Yes, Mike was drawing too fast, much too fast.
     Kim's hand snaps down flexible and sinuous as a whip and up with his gun extended in both hands at eye level.
     "Jerk and miss."
     He felt Mike's bullet whistle past his left shoulder.
     Trying for a heart shot.
     Both eyes open, Kim sights for a fraction of a second, just so long and long enough: the difference between a miss and a hit. Kim's bullet hits Mike just above the heart with a liquid SPLAT as the mercury explodes inside, blowing the aorta to shreds.
Violent and descriptive. Thank you Mr. Burroughs for an example that obviously comes not just from an imaginative writer but from real gunfighting experience.

In basic taijutsu timing, you can be early, current, or late or all the moments in between. In reality, making such distinctions has little to do with the reality of time as experienced in combat.

Time becomes elastic. People experience time differently depending on their age, psychological state, or even cultural background.

Burroughs' gunfighter, Kim, uses an early timing with his finger bluff. Let's consider this type of early timing. How do we define it?

The other night in my class we were training the kata 隼雄 Shunū . In this kata, as your opponent moves to draw his sword, you enter before he can execute his draw and while his sword is still partially in the saya. At one point I moved in really early before my uke had acted at all. You might say  I jumped the gun (heh). From the outside maybe it looked like I made a mistake. But the timing felt right. And the results I got confirmed that to me.

Many people train this kata unrealistically. Largely because the attacker has a terrible draw that never had any intention of being completed, or was so poor in execution it never had any chance to cut anybody. But if you train with a competent swordsman the timing changes.

Here's the reality. If a competent swordsman has correct distance, and you attempt to enter when he starts his draw, you will be cut down. The only hope at this moment of timing is that you are facile with kyojitsu or you abandon your entrance entirely.

A good swordsman has ways of adjusting his draw to catch you coming in, retreating, or standing still. So entering early in this context has a different meaning. Hatsumi Sensei references this timing with the concept of 出花 Debana,
"Attacking the opponent before their own attack has formed; this is the art of seizing the flower before it blooms. The expression "debana" can be traced to the Fushikaden by Zeami ("Flower of Appearance," a Noh drama book of the 15th century). It refers to the state of a flower just before blossoming."
This timing is not the same as a preemptive strike which is an even earlier timing. Like paying a visit to your opponent's house the night before while he is sleeping. Even though preemptive strategies can be useful, that are largely illegal. The "出花 debana" timing catches your opponent just when his intention shifts.

That is where the secret hides. As Zeami wrote, “秘すれば花  Hisureba Hana” - "That which is hidden is beautiful" or, “when you keep a secret, a flower blooms.” To use this timing you have to notice and be aware of your opponent's shifting mind or intention. He of course attempts to keep that flower hidden. So how do you find it?

Hatsumi Sensei says,
"Use kyo-jutsu (present truth) to discern the hidden aim of the opponent and strike them before they can execute the move." 
This is your tool. Use 虚実 kyojitsu. If he responds to the 虚 kyo (illusion), give him the 術 jutsu (true form).

This is exactly what Burroughs' gunfighter did in the example above.

This can't be taught in writing, but must be experienced. So how do you know when you've got it? Well, in my own class the other night, my uke was startled by my entrance and froze. In my own experience, whenever I've executed 出花 debana correctly, my opponent stutters, freezes, or hesitates in his attack. It's like you interrupted the signal from his brain to his body.

During this interruption you have ample time and space to watch the flowers bloom.

Why Do You Take Ukemi?

photo by rick manwaring
Bujinkan ukemi doesn't look impressive. It's not supposed to. It has other goals.

In my Tuesday night class we were studying koshi kudaki. There are many levels to studying such a simple looking technique. First you need to understand the attack which is normally a type of hip throw like o goshi or harai goshi. As we were studying the attack, one of the students who also studies Judo was taking proper Judo ukemi. I suggested to him that this was creating a bad habit. His ukemi looked great, so what was bad about it?

It is important when studying any martial art to understand the goal of the study. In many modern arts, the goal is sport. In sport, there are judges to determine points or winners. But the judging gets more insidious. Your teacher naturally judges your form or technique. Your fellow students judge as they watch you. You even judge yourself. All this judging creates an impulse toward pretty form. Clean moves. Flashy kicks or throws. Satisfying slaps on the mat during ukemi. Even tapping out becomes part of the aesthetic.

Then ukemi training becomes very formal and repetitive to develop form and instant response.

None of this is real. It is all set up under false conditions that would likely never occur in combat. Hatsumi Sensei says,
"Don't take ukemi. When you take ukemi you create openings. In the moment you think, "I have to take ukemi here," you're actually open because your mind is occupied with something else. Don't take ukemi. Just let it happen. For example, if you use your hands in taking ukemi, you won't be able to use weapons against your opponent and you'll be killed as a result. You're occupied."
Bujinkan ukemi is more about natural response in the moment. It has few flashy moves and is not a big crowd pleaser at martial arts demos.

The Bujinkan sometimes faces criticism in the martial arts community because it doesn't have this aesthetic appeal. People don't understand what they are looking at. It is often hard even for experienced Bujinkan students to understand what Sensei is doing even as he does it right before their eyes.

What are some of the goals with our ukemi?

One is safety for the uke. Being able to survive being kicked, punched thrown, grappled, stabbed, shot at… whatever the situation demands. Survival ukemi isn't showy. And no two incidents look alike. In many martial arts dojos you walk in and find students all falling the exact same way repetitively. In Bujinkan classes, rarely do you see any pair of students falling or taking ukemi the same way. Training cookie cutter, repetitious ukemi can build bad habits that can get you injured.

Another goal of our ukemi is escape or evasion. You won't see this in any competition. So the training that sports martial arts do also has this large gap or absence in their curriculum. And, the ukemi they teach may be corrupted and dangerous because of this.

A third important aspect of our ukemi is countering. Often, the ukemi is the counter. Sports martial arts do have this but their end goal is different: i.e. pleasing judges (or the audience), a tap out or submission, maybe KO). These end goals again corrupt the use of natural ukemi that is a very powerful tool for countering.

Our ukemi has other goals as well like kyojitsu, searching and situational awareness, or accessing weapons.

Natural ukemi rarely looks impressive. It looks sudden, clumsy, chaotic or when done superbly, just blends with the attack to appear like nothing at all. But if it meets any of the above goals, then it was correct ukemi.

Hatsumi Sensei says,
"Those who take ukemi as Budoka are just amateurs."
For those of you who study arts besides Bujinkan, please ask your self next time you hit the mats: Why fall this way? Why be thrown this way? Why slap the mat? What is the purpose of your ukemi?

Jōtai 状態: The Art of the Situational

Making His Move, photo by Petteri Sulonen
Hatsumi Sensei often speaks in English. Of course his accent is Japanese so you may not notice or understand. One English phrase he says often is "case by case." When he says this the translator will often repeat it just because it is hard for ears not accustomed to the Japanese accent to catch the meaning.

What might he mean when he says "case by case?" In English, when someone says to consider something on a case by case basis, it means to judge each situation independently and as unique, even though it may appear similar.

Hatsumi Sensei also uses the word 状態  jōtai which is the current status;  condition;  situation;  circumstances;  or state. This suggests the ever changing state cause by the bufu blowing through the kukan and our connection to this.

When we study fighting in class, our actions often become fixed. The opponent repeats the same attack as we attempt the same technique over and over to study it. This is not real. And students often get confused when they realize this. A question that I often get from them is, "What if?"

What if the opponent changes his attack? What if he had a weapon? What if there are multiple attackers? My opponent would never let me do this, what if he resisted?

So of course, each individual situation is unique. We can't study them all. So we build adaptability and flexibility into our taijutsu. Like a rope.

Jōtai can be written with different kanji: 縄体 meaning rope. Hatsumi Sensei has used the rope as a tool to help us reach this understanding. And I highly recommend this study. In my Sunday classes we are making a thorough exploration of Hojojutsu, Hayanawa, and all flexible weapons. It is challenging indeed.

Here's something you can try. Take any kata. One that you feel you know well. You know you can do every step blindfolded while eating tacos. Then introduce a rope into the movement. Try to use the rope during the kata.

What happens next is that the rope has a mind of it's own. It will do it's own thing. So every time you do the kata it will be unique. Most people's results end up being sloppy and awkward as their taijutsu is abandoned while they try to cope with the chaos of the rope.

One hint is that the effective use of the rope is in connection. Connecting to your opponent through the kukan. The rope can physically represent this connection like in a game of tug of war. Or the connection can just be through your kamae. Or even further, the connection is not just with your opponent. It is like the spider web from heaven in Hatsumi Soke's Daruma painting.

One day in class Soke said that Takamatsu told him,
"What works most effectively is to make the connection and then push. Don't think of doing anything, just think of making that connection there."
Sensei then went on to remind us of our larger connections and responsibilities,
"When you're fighting or  tied up like this, and you think of trying to take a lock or something that doesn't work - these things are very effective. This is martial arts. Therefore don't teach anybody bad. Only good people. Just know budo and teach those people with good hearts and keep going."
Even though I am too young to have met Takamatsu, it's nice to feel that connection from Hatsumi Sensei back through Takamatsu and to all the Bujin that have gone before.

死門 Shimon: Gates of Death

Old City Gate photo by cliff1066™
Hatsumi Sensei tells us that we should awaken to the fact that we are only living in the space between life and death.

I've had a lot of death in my life recently. Every year that goes by, it seems that I know more and more people who are no longer around. That is natural as I grow older I guess. But in noticing this I also determine that death is always there, I just am not aware of it.  This awareness is an important quality in Budo.

People can misunderstand the famous quote from Hagakure, "The way of Bushi is the way of death." I think Soke is leading us to different understanding of that phrase. He says,
"All worldly things are impermanent; life and death are but one. Bushido is what runs through the Wabi and Sabi (transient beauty) of nature. Yet I feel compelled to say that enduring to the end no matter what happens, persevering with life despite being prepared for death at any time, is actually the secret of Bushido."
This "secret" has opened up important lessons for me in my training and my life. That space between life and death exists in the kukan. One day in class Soke told us to make space in the kukan where we could live. It confused me at the time. But I'm beginning to discover how to use that in the midst of danger. This is one aspect of the idea 九死一生 (kyuushi isshou, nine-deaths-one-life), meaning “a narrow escape from death,”

Sensei quotes the famous Zen Samurai Suzuki Shōsan,
"Knowing life and death; therein resides enjoyment."
Being aware of death in this way can get us intimately aquainted with the effects of impermanence. Shōsan taught that no one should forget their own mortality. But how does one find enjoyment in that?

As I write this, the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs just passed away. Here is his take on death awareness,
“Almost everything–all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure–these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement Address
If you take this lesson to heart you won't waste time being a 八方美人 (happou bijin, eight-directions-beautiful-person) or someone who tries to be all things to all people. You may quickly find yourself at the 死門 shimon gates of death. In buddhism this is the gate, or border of death, leading from one incarnation to another.

As I think of all my friends and family that I have lost recently, I try to remember that there is a connection from birth, through life to that 死門 shimon. I cannot honor the joy that their lives brought me without also accepting their death. Or that my own path will follow theirs. Sensei says,
"Life and death are connected. Like In-Yo. Like a magnet and metal, life and death are attracted to each other, always getting closer."
So if you truly want to understand our training, it won't be morbid or wrong to do as Shōsan suggested: "Make the one character "death" master in your heart, observing it and letting go of everything else."

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