2 Bujinkan Godan Test Lessons, Plus 1 Secret

Tokyo Tachikawa, Cinema City / CINEMA TWO. photo by Dick Thomas Johnson
If you have taken the Godan test this may sound familiar, if not you have something to look forward to. If you think you know this stuff already, I suggest you consider it again at a deeper level.

These two lessons are: the meaning of training itself and embracing fear. I will explain what the Godan test teaches about these things, but first why do we need to be taught these lessons at all?

The Godan test is an instant in time, but it echoes forward and backward. All the days leading up to that instant and all the training after. Which is longer? These two challenges will continue to confront us before and after. So what has changed?

For the first lesson, let's look at a common problem for both pre and post Godan students:

People lose their passion for training. If you have trained for a long time, you probably have achieved some of the goals you originally set out to achieve. Maybe one of those goals was passing Godan. If you achieve your goals you are left with only questions like:
So now what? Do you keep going to class? What if everything you're being taught feels repetitive or you've already seen it?  Maybe class feels like a chore. Training used to be fun, now it's become boring.
But training hasn't really changed... your dreams have. And your dreams are now too small.

Another serious problem for both pre and post Godan is fear:

Fear leading up to Godan is maybe about the test itself. But actually fear shows up long before that. Fear is a dream killer. It is the silent inner voice that pushes away our passions to seek safety that doesn't exist. Your goals for training are overcome by doubt and you never have the chance to get bored in class because you stop going!

Many people never make it to Godan because they were overcome by fear of this type. 

And after Godan? Well, the same insecurities and doubt may be strengthened by a feeling that test was no big deal or was fake somehow. You forget what really happened in that moment. It is very easy to re-frame an instant in time when you have the rest of your life to reflect on it.

So what does the Godan teach us about these two things? The test is like a mirror. If you don't already know, training is often a good mirror for life… so I can pretend to be your life coach for a moment. Don't worry, I won't take advantage of my self appointed authority.

Leading up to the Godan and right after is a great time to reassess training in general. If your goals are too small, training becomes boring. Why are you training? If you don't know now, you knew why when you started. But the goals you started with are too small. You have grown and changed. You need bigger dreams.

The way to get bigger dreams is to ask again, "Why are you training right NOW? If you don't know, or can't answer…  you can look at your life. What problems in your life does training help you with? What do you think it could help you with?

The Godan contains infinity in that moment. If you can't find big dreams there, then you must revisit that instant.

You can find in that instant of the Godan a new reason to go to class. And your attention in class will change to reflect this new focus. A strange thing will then happen: a blast of new ideas and secrets from training will appear. You will sheepishly realize they were always there, you just could not see them.

Training will be fresh and new again.

Embracing fear is another lesson connected to the Godan. You must shine a light on your fear. Look at it directly. If you don't it feels much bigger. Give fear permission to have it's way with you. (you might want to do this in private). Fear passes quickly when you allow it passage. This is the secret: open yourself to fear.

After it is gone, notice what it did to you. Are you still intact? This is an odd feeling from the Godan test. When it is over you are left only with yourself. For some people this echoes on for a while… If that happens you probably need that time with yourself.

Bonus Secret:

Here is one lesson from the Godan that can take you far beyond Godan: Thoughts have speed; passing the test requires no thoughts.

The Changing Flame of 変火 Henka

Ghost in the Rain, Hyodo Rinsei, The Sanyutei Encho Collection at Zensho-an
I have been studying something in my training for 3 years. Ever since I witnessed Hatsumi Sensei show some henka during training that seemed to come from another place. But his explanation of the source was what was astonishing. It was a source of power that I had never considered in my training before.

Despite what you read here on my blog, I am largely a practical, show me, kind of guy. I like to read and write about the mysterious, but in the end, If you don't get out of the way, you get hit. But Sensei made the mysterious real for me that day.

To understand the source of what he was connecting to, I have been trying to connect to it myself for the last three years. And, as I have pointed out here, and in my 稽古記録 Keiko Kiroku training notes, I have had some success. Results which have astonished me.

It is difficult to explain this source of power. Hatsumi Sensei has been explaining it for many years, but if you are not ready to hear it it is meaningless. We can begin with an innocent question:

Where does henka come from?

A simple question that everyone thinks they know the answer to. I did. In fact I wrote a blog post about how to create henka!  It's not that my tips were wrong, they were just directed at someone who is just learning how to create henka. Or, someone who is training from their own intellect or ego.

I think it is important not to throw away this kind of training because it is very useful for discovery. And we need a foundation to grow from. So I stand by the tips I wrote about.

But the kind of henka Hatsumi Sensei showed he has compared to a changing flame. 変化 Henka can be read as 変火 Henka, changing flame. A flame seems to have no discernible form as it flickers and changes constantly.  It also changes effortlessly no matter what obstacle it encounters. And it burns out without warning. It is there, then gone. quite mysterious. Soke explains how we can glimpse its essence,
"The crucial thing for humankind when handling fire is to know that fire is an apparition, a ghost, and we should pursue this image."
He compares it to the spark of life. It is like that which causes birth, death, or the change between elements and states.

Soke says we can find the ghost of the essence in the writings of San'yūtei Enchō, a Japanese author / rakugo performer of the late Edo and early Meiji eras. He was/is known for classics in Japanese horror stories. You can imagine what feeling that horror would bring to your taijutsu!

When I first opened my eyes to this source in my training, it was because Soke framed it in terms of connecting to this immaterial essence that causes change. He had been hammering home the idea of connecting to your opponent. To his rhythm, technique and spirit. The concept being that if you had this connection, you could use it to protect yourself or counter his attacks.

This connection happens through the kukan. So naturally Soke suggested we open up the connection to something bigger than the two (or more) combatants embroiled in that momentary drama. This connection was to be made to the source of henka, of birth, death, flames…

In the three years since I have been training on this, I have developed my own strategies for making this connection. They are many, because this concept brings you to straight to the infinite. I will happily share some with you when I connect with you in training!

Like a Walk Through Yūgen 幽玄

Uto, Scenes from the Noh Theater, Tsuskioka Kogyo (1869-1927)
A sudden change in the atmosphere. The kukan shifts. The air itself feels alive. Only to be shattered by the tip of the bo.

This was the feeling I tried to communicate in one class. It was something I had experienced with Hatsumi Sensei and I wanted to share. But how to teach that?

How does this occur in a technique? How does the body and weapon come alive in that instant? And to make it absolutely crass, what are the mechanics?

In fact, the mechanics are super basic. Yet as with all basics, they quickly grow profound. We've been doing a lot of walking practice, or 足馴らし ashinarashi, in my classes recently. It's difficult to understand taijutsu without understanding this. Not just in our art.  Many disciplines start here, including Noh theater,
The walk is so important in Noh dancing that the highest compliment that can be paid to a player is that his walking is good. - Carl Wolz, 1976
The experience I had with Hatsumi Sensei was of the movement through the kukan having a particular quality to it, a particular way of walking. Sensei described it this way,
"You've got to walk like a Noh actor moving through yūgen 幽玄."

I've written about yūgen 幽玄 before, but how exactly are we supposed to walk? What do you do with your feet and legs? How do Noh actors walk?

There are many styles of walking in Noh, for example:

Ashibumi 足踏み : stamping
Uchimata 内股に: inward walk
Waniashi 鰐足: pedaling
Sotomata 外股 : outward walk
Tsumasaki 爪先: tiptoe
Yokoaruki 横歩き:side slide
Yokoaruki 横歩き: side cross step
Ashi o horu 足放る: side stamping
Shikko 膝行: squat walk


But before a Noh actor learns any of those comes suriashi 摺り足 or Hakobi 運ビ. This comes from 舞 Mai which is an old style of traditional dance. Mai means "to circle." In Mai the feet mostly stay in contact with the ground. While the arms gesture slowly and gracefully. This walking  has the soles sliding along the ground so lightly the performer appears to float.

If you study this movement through the kukan and Yugen, you may look towards Noh as an inspiration. The artist John Brzostoski gives a great description of the feeling of Yugen in a Noh theater,
"It appears upon the blank stage almost as if in a cinema, in slow motion, at the wrong speed of a recording, a stretched tape about to snap, pulled into intolerable pauses of holding breath, lack of breathing, lack of thought, the complete comprehension of all movements. You know where everyone has been and where everyone is going."
For me, that is what control of the kukan feels like. When I get it right anyway. The advanced form of this walking has a quality of 引張り間 hippari ai, pulling something or someone towards yourself. And if we go back to the roots of Noh Zeami tells us to walk so that, 目前神後 "the eyes look ahead and the spirit looks behind"

Kukan no Kyūshō 空間の九勝: Twisting Around a Moment in Space

Blue Biker, Kyoto. photo by nWevurski
Lately I've been studying Kukan no Kyūshō 空間の九勝 in my classes. When Hatsumi Sensei introduced this idea at the 2011 Daikomyosai, not many seemed to have heard of it before, but it made sense in the way elegant mathematics make sense. In other words it just felt right. But that doesn't mean I knew what to do with this feeling.

I decided to look into what I felt and observed from Sensei's classes. What is a good way to study kukan no kyūshō? If you've been receiving my keiko kiroku training notes you have seen me describe various strategies for doing this. To get my mind around this concept and be able to use it in my taijutsu requires studying it from many angles.

One idea we were working with the other night was a movement Soke described as 撚り型 yorigata. This involved spinning the sword through the kukan after twisting the body. The twisting action begins with with exposing your own 隙 suki to discover or open up suki on your opponent. For example if you want to strike the opponent's left side you first expose your left side. Then when you twist or pivot there is the opportunity to connect to kukan no kyūshō in that moment.

Hatsumi Sensei describes what may happen in that moment as "二転三転 niten santen," which is to change again and again or be in a state of flux. The truly odd part about this is if you have found the right kyusho in the moment, these changes will be hidden from your opponent. From there you can strike or act freely, without danger. Soke says,
The place where one cannot see, it's here where changes to the extraordinary happen.
I definitely witnessed these extraordinary changes while in Sensei's classes. And in my own training there have been moments from this study that have surprised me and created wonderful results. Those moments are some of the gifts to be found in our training. You can find them too- they are just there waiting for you in the kukan!

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