If You Only Do The Densho Version of Bujinkan Kata, You're Doing it Wrong

Bujinkan Honbu Dojo and Summer Grasses, photo by Michael Glenn
In a recent class in my dojo we were studying the Bujinkan kata, 彈指 danshi. It is important to note that the waza is not in the densho. The densho cannot capture the fullness of the technique. The waza is transmitted from teacher to student as densho PLUS kuden. If you just do the densho version, you are doing it wrong.

This was evident when I had a student read from the densho and show the technique. Then I showed the actual waza as I learned it from my teachers. There are many subtleties not contained in the densho that make the technique real and functional. Some of these are burned in my own memory from experiencing them in person, some I recover from my personal training notes.

For example, when striking with the boshi ken, there is a particular way to trace the anatomy to the target. This comes from Hatsumi Sensei who shared 切紙  急所説明 48穴当込みの場所 , 口伝。This art of paper cutting (kiri kami) is used to show the kyusho locations of 48 openings for striking, and it is a kuden (verbal transmission).

Another example comes from Soke’s use of 親殺 oya goroshi. I rarely see him do this kata without emphasizing this aspect.  It has an out-sized effect on the outcome of this kata. But it is not in the densho.

To finish, I shared some of the feeling from my two Japan trips so far this year. We move beyond the waza to defeat the opponent using 繋がり tsunagari alone. The ability to do this supersedes all form. And it is one basis for the theme this year.

繋がり tsunagari means connection, link, or relationship. And maybe the most important connection in the Bujinkan is to the lineage of the art in Japan. Strive for the most direct connection possible. Go study there yourself, or study with a teacher who does. In my opinion, I think you should do both of those things.

Go Ahead, Ask Me About Sanshin Again...

Michael Glenn, Bujinkan Honbu Dojo, Last Month
Sometimes I go on a rant in my personal Bujinkan training notes. I usually don't share it publicly on my blog. But this one happens SO often, I will just hit you with it.

Not a week goes by that someone doesn't ask me "how" to do sanshin. This week, I'm really annoyed with this question. For two reasons: one, this question always comes from people who don't even know what they are asking... and two, because they never listen to my answers!

Anytime I do sanshin, I am reminded of my last class with Oguri Sensei and him teaching us these movements. He studied these even to the end. More than 45 years of Bujinkan training, and in his last class on earth, this is what we studied.

If you need a quick summary of sanshin in the Bujinkan, I wrote it: Sanshin no kata, are you doing it wrong? But nobody listens. People do whatever their ego tells them.

I know this because of the wide "variety" of basic versions I have seen from different teachers and at different dojos over the years. The one that I focus on is directly from the Japanese text as shared by Hatsumi Sensei.

But I have watched him teach it this way, and people ignore him. Even in Japan!

It always surprises me when people bring their baggage with them even to the Bujinkan Honbu Dojo. You would think after all the expense and effort it took them to get there, they would be ready to learn something. But something else happens...

Hatsumi Sensei will show them how he would like the form practiced and studied. But they never let go of their baggage of how they learned it from some teacher outside of Japan. People make excuses and call it henka, but many times it is just wrong.

They can't even bother to try it his way even right in front of him at the Honbu dojo. Then they go back home, and continue to show their badly formed kata. I feel sorry for their students.

The saddest part is, they or their students never actually "see" the lesson Soke is sharing. So they think they are studying the correct form. And will even argue with someone who tries to help.

I admit, "seeing" what Soke is teaching us is often a challenge. And I screw it up too. But people who never trained in the Bujinkan at all will argue with me. And even "experienced" Bujinkan students who are trapped in their so-called "kihon" that they never understood in the first place will debate with me about it. It gets really old.

The kicker is, you don't have to take my word for it, why not just copy Soke? That seems straightforward, but with sanshin, people don't. But I guess you can't be bothered because YOUR teacher taught it differently.

I say YOU because no one ever thinks it is them. It is always that other dojo over there that is messed up.  When I have this same discussion face to face with someone, they nod like they agree. But what they agree with is that OTHER people do this, never themselves.

So please, don't ask me "how" to do sanshin unless you are "really" asking and prepared to forget all that you already think you know about it. I hope my rant doesn't prevent you from blindly continuing to do what you think you know!

Bujinkan Nagamaki in the Mountains with Peter Crocoll

Robert, Peter, and Michael in the Forest of AZ
I went to the annual Arizona Bujinkan campout in the mountains of the Coconino national forest. This is an event I have been participating in for more than 20 years. Big thanks to my teacher, Peter Crocoll, and all of my friends in AZ who welcome me back home every year.

After an 8-9 hour drive from Santa Monica, we arrived mid afternoon to our campsite of over 7000 ft elevation. We set up camp quickly because this time of year, afternoon rain showers are common. But the rain came in the evening.

Heavy and loud with lightning. But I was happy to curl up in my sleeping bag in the cold mountain air for some rest. Adjusting my heart and lungs from sea level can be hard work.

During the night, the rain broke. I woke up with moonlight illuminating my tent. I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. There was a dark silhouette crawling up the wall. I thought a big insect had gotten inside so I poked at it. It was a tiny frog!

The next morning, I had a very early hike. Then my student, Robert Grove prepared a very hearty breakfast. It turns out I didn’t need to pack any food at all, because he was quite the camp chef.

My teacher, Peter Crocoll began the morning session with nagamaki kihon. Then we moved into some bisento kata he did with Someya Sensei in Japan. The nagamaki has no formal kata in the Bujinkan, so the bisento forms are a useful starting point.

I did some of these forms with Someya Sensei myself during my March Japan trip. They are short, direct, and deadly. A sword on the end of a polearm is a formidable weapon!

During the whole weekend, I would find myself getting too flashy with the weapon. I wanted to twirl, cross step, and brandish it. But Peter kept reminding me that straightforward taijutsu was the best approach. This was also my experience with Someya. This is why it is so important to remain a student, because you never see your own movement clearly.

We trained all day, then had a dinner break. Now it was time for night training. I will not reveal much about this because it is meant to be experienced.

We start when it is dusk, but still plenty of light. Peter asked me to show some muto dori I did in Japan during my recent trip in July. Then he asked my friend Nate to share some of his experience.

As the light faded, our eyes adjust. But away from the city, and out in the wilderness, it gets quite dark. The moon wasn’t rising until early morning. So the darkness was nearly absolute.

Imagine doing muto dori in these conditions. We can’t even see our opponent, much less the weapon. Soon, it did not even matter whether you were facing the opponent or not, since you cannot see even your own hands.

Some people had revelatory experiences in these conditions. I felt myself become the darkness. And that was pure fun!

Afterwards the time around the campfire roasting marshmallows was very relaxing. We shared many jokes and old training stories. Normally this goes pretty late into the night, but many people were exhausted after training all day. I stayed to put the fire out around 11 pm.

Then I went for a solo hike in the blackness. No flashlights. Just pure sensory blending with the dark forest.

Later that night, I awoke in my tent to find the moonlight streaming in. The tiny frog was crawling up the outside of my tent again. I must have parked my tent on top of his home! or maybe he just liked all the dew that condensed on the fabric of my tent.

Next morning, I was up quite early for a hike. Robert again prepared a great and hearty breakfast. I told him that I decided he must come along on all of the camping trips!

Peter continued with bisento waza using the nagamaki. He showed the basic form and the ura waza. Peter takes detailed and extensive notes during his Japan trips. So he always shares the little details that reveal the secrets of our art.

I gave Robert a surprise promotion to nidan. He performed well in this stressful ambush I prepared for him. He already had a shodan from another dojo when he started training with me a year ago. But his martial arts background goes back more than 30 years.

It was hard to say goodbye to my friends (really more like family). And the mountain forest. Training in this environment brings me a bit closer to the experiences of my ninja ancestors from the mountains of Japan.

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