New Bujinkan Book, "Dancing Embers" by Sleiman Azizi

Warm People, 日本民家園 Nihon Minka-en, photo by Michael Glenn

My friend Sleiman Azizi has a new book out called Dancing Embers. I’m not sure if Sleiman wants anyone to know, but besides being a martial artist, he is also a poet. Being a poet myself, that was one of the things that drew me to him.

I met Sleiman many years ago during one of my trips to Japan for Bujinkan training. He was not one of the loud, in your face foreigners that one often enjoys in the raucous atmosphere of the Bujinkan dojo. In fact, I may never have noticed him at all had my teacher not introduced us.

I felt a quick bond because of the subversive twinkle in his eye. I often gravitated towards his corner of the dojo during my many visits. Over the years we continued to trade training ideas along with plenty of dry humor.

One day, without knowing why, I turned to him for advice about a pending complication with my upcoming godan test. My mind had been in turmoil for days because of a premonition I had about it. Sleiman gave me a quick suggestion that immediately felt right. I thought, “ok, that’s what I will do.” My premonition turned out to be correct, and it was Sleiman’s advice that carried me through.

For this I owe him my kansha (gratitude) for being a kansha (person of sense).

But, like so many of the people I meet in training, I never felt I really knew him. This connects with one of the central ideas of his book, that you cannot really know budo because it is not there to be known. Especially with Hatsumi Sensei’s expression of Budo. It is like like the sun trying to find a dark place to hide.

So how did I begin to know the author of this new book, Dancing Embers? One day I discovered his poetry. Poetry can reflect the inner world of the author. Poetry and budo have a long history together. This poetry tries to express the inexpressible nature of life and death. The writer may fail, but in the effort we can find beauty.

And it may bring us the closest to knowing the essence of budo.

The closest I can get to knowing Sleiman is by following his thoughts. Or, as he suggests in the book, his 随筆 zuihitsu are the miscellaneous writings he shares so that we may follow the brush of his thoughts. This is like my own experience riding along with him on the train after a great class at the Hombu dojo.

Remember that subversive wit I mentioned? Well, while applying poetry to thoughts of budo, Sleiman often confronts himself and the reader with the ridiculousness of it all. It is like the sufi story where Mulla Nasreddin was throwing handfuls of crumbs around his house. "What are you doing?" someone asked him. "Keeping the tigers away." "But there are no tigers in these parts." "That's right. Effective, isn't it?

With the teaching methods of a trickster, Sleiman’s thoughts and writings often pass judgement. But it is the judgement of fire that burns both the judge and the accused. No one escapes. Not even the author.

This is a common trickster approach. Some of the deepest lessons in Budo are found in this space. Sleiman writes,

“Just as a good chef can taste the mindset of the person who made the food being eaten, so too a good reader can read the mindset of the person who wrote the words being read.”

If you wish to approach your budo from an oblique angle that will provide insights that cannot be found elsewhere, get a copy of Sleiman’s book, Dancing Embers (Amazon link). You will be included in the private conversations and thoughts of someone who has lived many years in Japan and studied Hatsumi Sensei’s budo with a heart full of reflection.

A New Beginning and a New Bujinkan Shodan in My Dojo

The Belt Exchange, Michael Glenn promotes Jesse to Shodan
Yesterday a new 初段 shodan was born in my dojo. My student Jesse proved that he has what it takes both with technique and heart. But he also showed something more which proves his understanding of what it means to be a Bujinkan Shodan.

I don’t give out rank easily. As the day grew closer for Jesse’s initiation, I checked my records to see when he started training. I was very surprised to see that he began exactly 5 years ago! I hadn’t planned for his black belt to fall on that anniversary, but sometimes everything lines up just right.

Jesse doesn’t know yet what it means to be a black belt in the Bujinkan. And of course everyone’s experience is different. I wrote an entire series about the black belt ranks that begins here: Bujinkan Shodan 初段: Searching for the Bull

For me personally, It was a new beginning. It took me a lot longer than five years to get my black belt. Getting there symbolized a re-dedication to the passion I had for Bujinkan training that began in my youth. But also a more mature relationship with training and how it fit into my life.

I have watched some of the same things happen for Jesse. But in ways unique to him. The kind of training we do means that Jesse has had to grow as a person to improve with the martial art.

This is because there is an invisible barrier in the Bujinkan. It is found in your own heart. If you don’t find it and discard it, learning (and often training itself) comes to a stop.

I watched Jesse struggle over the past five years to find that and discard it. It was clear when he did. And his training improved. Now he is a strong example for the younger students. He is also a great reflection to remind the senior students where they’ve been and what training is all about.

Shodan means beginner level. As Jesse’s teacher I personally guarantee that Jesse has well begun! Thank you Jesse and Ganbatte!

What if I Give Everyone in the World Bujinkan Rank?

The Crowded Path to 弁天堂 Benten-dō, photo by Michael Glenn
This could be one of my silly or offensive posts. But, you may already know my personal feelings about Bujinkan Rank. Or, about how long it takes to get a Bujinkan Black Belt.

I remember when Hatsumi Sensei marked the occasion when he awarded the 3000th godan. We all stood and applauded. That was some years ago. He recently said there were 400,000 Bujinkan members worldwide. That seems like a lot.

So what if I just promote everyone in the world? I'll make up my own rank and promote everyone because I think my (fake) numbers may surprise you. I'll call my fake rank the "Rojodojo Bujinkan Level."

Out of an estimated 7 billion people on earth, what is Your Rojodojo Bujinkan level?

(my made up levels are not proven by science, so don’t check my math too close)

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 0

  • about 5 billion people (about 70% of the population)
  • These are people who have never heard of martial arts or don’t care

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 1

  • about a billion people (about 15% of the population)
  • People who like martial arts movies.
  • Maybe learned a technique from their friend.
  • Called a dojo once to check prices.

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 2

  • about 100 million people (about 1.5% of the population)
  • People who took a martial arts class when they were a kid.
  • Or studied a couple weeks at the gym.
  • Maybe they bought a book.

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 3

  • about 10 million people (about 0.15% of the population)
  • Someone who achieved rank in a martial art or studied more seriously as an adult.
  • Still probably never heard of the Bujinkan.

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 4

  • about a million people
  • These people are actively studying a martial art.
  • Some have even heard of the Bujinkan.

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 5

  • about 100,000 people
  • People who actively study the Bujinkan.
Hatsumi Sensei says it’s more than this, but most Bujinkan members haven’t even trained once this month. And to me, once a month is not very active.

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 6

  • about 10,000 people
  • Have reached Shidoshi level or close to it.
  • Some even run their own dojos.
  • Maybe they visit Japan occasionally.

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 7

  • about a thousand people
  • Jugodan ranks.
  • There may be more or less, but it’s growing close to this number. 
  • Some are actively training/teaching. Some are not.
  • Some have died and we miss them.

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 8

  • about 100 people
  • Shihan.
  • People who are top rank and actually know what they are doing.
That’s 100 people in the whole world!

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 9

  • about 10 people
  • the teachers I train with in Japan.

Rojodojo Bujinkan level 10

  • Hatsumi Sensei
(since this is my list, I can put whoever I want on top)

You might notice that if someone is one or two levels above you, they seem cool. Three levels above and they start to seem a bit strange. If you examine someone four or five levels above, they are just crazy. Anybody above that, you should just run away from them.

Going the other direction, people one level below you seem ignorant. Two levels below are assholes. Beyond that, are they even alive? I mean can they fog a mirror?

Do you think my numbers are even close? Where do you fit in there?

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