Bujinkan Yondan 四段: Catching the Bull

Catching the Ox, digital c-print photograph by Andrew Binkley
Hatsumi Sensei describes the journey of a Bujinkan student through the Dan ranks as being akin to the Ten Oxherding pictures in Zen Buddhism. These pictures describe the seekers journey to enlightenment.

If you haven't read my other posts in this series, please check them out. You may find them useful no matter what your rank is:
Bujinkan Shodan 初段: Searching for the Bull
Bujinkan Nidan 弐段: Discovering the Footprints
Bujinkan Sandan 参段: Perceiving the Bull
So now you've made it to Yondan. For many people in the Bujinkan this is a pivotal moment. This is a moment of getting a hold of yourself… and finding the form of the self is empty.
Woodblock print by 德力富吉郎 Tokuriki Tomikichirō
得牛 Catching the Bull
I seize him with a terrific struggle.

His great will and power

are inexhaustible.
He charges to the high plateau

far above the cloud-mists,

Or in an impenetrable ravine he stands.
I have abandoned the whip and ropes
After some years of training, you go from thinking you know something, to realizing you know very little. Then you might chase various threads and ideas or teachers to see where they lead. At some point you caught hold of something real. But you don't know what to do with it. You've caught the Ox, but you can barely hang on as he stampedes around.

Occasionally you can perform techniques that surprise even you. You feel like, with a little luck you could defeat anyone, no matter their skill level or rank. But this new found ability is uncontrollable. If you reach the point where you can hang onto this feeling, you get taken for a ride. It drags you here and there. But you will not let go.

A large hurdle for martial artists at this stage is being able to transcend aggression. Aggression may have served you in the past. It may have brought victory in certain arenas. For many who don't understand Budo, it is the heart of their study.

But you have caught a hold of something better. And to stay with it requires finesse, precision, and the ability to see. Aggression blinds you from seeing what it is you are holding onto.

Keep your form empty, and empty the self, and you will not lose the Ox.

It is awkward to let go of technique and form that you have trained many years to perfect. This feels like throwing away something valuable. You will still be fascinated by technique and encounter students or teachers that have wonderful technical details to share.

Just because you understand emptiness, doesn't mean you will lose all your habits you have built over years of training. You will still think "you" can discern good and bad technique, good and bad teachers or students, or, the true Bujinkan that you think you are studying. You will put yourself and your ideas forward any chance you get.

The surprising lesson is that all of this is a reflection of the self. If you get mired in form, you will never reach a true understanding of Godan, whether you pass the test or not.
Hatsumi Sensei describes this process:
 "The longer you train you need to be able to ignore things that you don't need.  Things that are unnecessary. And set them aside. 

As you do this, you start to see the bad parts of your own self. And you have to be able to toss those things aside as well. 

Because if you have one bad part of yourself still within you, everything will collapse later.

 So part of what Shugyo is, what training is... is discovering the bad parts of yourself and tossing them aside.

 That's what life is. Not just in the dojo."
A curious thing may happen to you here: you can be trapped in form, but also in no-form.
The opposite of being mired in form is getting lost in emptiness and inaction. As a warrior, if you dwell in the world of formlessness, you cannot fight for anyone including yourself. This is just a flip side of the trap of dualism. But still a trap.

A healthy sign of passing through this stage of "Catching the Bull," is growing humility. There are many Bujinkan teachers and students who have not found humility. Be humble. Release yourself from needing to be good or from feeling inadequate. Throw away form, but also no-form. Have this 生命反射 seimei hansha, or reflection of life as Soke describes it.

From here we will work on, Bujinkan Godan 五段: Taming the Bull


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