The carpenter I hired to help me restore an old farmhouse had just finished a rough first day on the job. A flat tire made him lose an hour of work, his electric saw quit, and now his ancient pickup truck refused to start. While I drove him home, he sat in stony silence.
On arriving, he invited me in to meet his family. As we walked toward the front door, he paused briefly at a small tree, touching the tips of the branches with both hands. When opening the door he underwent an amazing transformation. His tanned face was wreathed in smiles and he hugged his two small children and gave his wife a kiss.
Afterward he walked me to the car. We passed the tree and my curiosity got the better of me. I asked him about what I had seen him do earlier.
“Oh, that’s my trouble tree,” he replied.” I know I can’t help having troubles on the job, but one thing’s for sure, troubles don’t belong in the house with my wife and the children. So I just hang them on the tree every night when I come home. Then in the morning I pick them up again.”
He paused. “Funny thing is,” he smiled, “when I come out in the morning to pick ’em up, there ain’t nearly as many as I remember hanging up the night before.”
The idea of the trouble tree is similar to the dojo. Sensei often said, “Cut off your head and leave it outside the door.” One of the first truths in Buddhism is that “Life is suffering.” The dojo is supposed to be a place of refuge where one gets the opportunity to leave the problems of the world at the door so that we can get the space to work on becoming better. Better what? Better martial artists? No. Better people.
The lessons learned in the dojo aren’t about felling opponents. Rather the lessons in the dojo are about how to defeat the self. Sensei always said, “The lessons of training are to be used to better one’s life.”
Often, people tell me about how hard it is to come to the dojo because of some problem they are having and how training is interfering with them dealing with this issue. What they don’t realize is that like the problems in the story, they seem a bit smaller when they come to pick them up after class.
Got a problem? Training can help. It is not a magic pill but, rather a respite from the daily grind where one can come shed the woes of the world and work on getting better. That is why like the Trouble Tree we must leave our egos and our problems at the door.
A kiai (気合) is a shout or scream one emits some time during the technique. Ki気 is one’s energy and ai合 means to bring together so from their definitions we can see that the kiai is supposed to bring together all of one’s energy and spirit and is thought to be the pinnacle of one’s power.
It turns out the use of the kiai can be backed up by science. Sounds like screams or kiai fall into an auditory spectrum that directly triggers the part of our brains that control the fight or flight mechanism. According to a recent study, “The higher the roughness, the scarier the sound, said people asked to judge the screams. The researchers also monitored brain activity in study subjects as they listened to screams and other sounds. Screams triggered increased activity in the amygdala, the region of the brain that processes fear response. Interestingly, when scientists manipulated non-threatening sounds to increase their roughness, the listeners’ fear responses increased, as well, with more activity in the amygdala.”
The kiai not only activates you as you summon all your power it but it can also trigger your opponent to lose his. In the history of Aikido and in some current iterations of Aikido there still exists the usage of the kiai. However today, the use of a kiai has evolved out of use.
One of the reasons that it has evolved out of use has to do with where one finds themselves in their training. Beginners need to summon all of their power to steel themselves and make the techniques work so there is an importance on “activating” oneself. As one evolves as a martial artist they come to understand humanity and therefore it becomes less of an emphasis on “activating” oneself and more of a need for us to be balanced, calm and steadfast.
If you lived to be 100 years old you would have only lived 36,500 days. Isn’t that incredibly weird? 36,500 days doesn’t seem like a lot of time and that is because it isn’t. Naively from our childhoods, we think that we have all the time in the world. As we get older and, presumably more wiser, we realize that as Sensei used to say, “There is no time left.”
If “there is no time left” then that would compel us to use our time and lives wisely. Whatever we have been putting off must get done. Whatever we have wanted to say, needs to be said. Life is too short to leave things unsaid, undone or to have to tolerate things.
Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” From there we can say, “Live you life as if you would die tomorrow and train as if you would live forever.” Please train hard because there might not be a tomorrow.
Sessa takuma is a Japanese idiom or yojijukugo which roughly translates to mean “to improve together through friendly rivalry by encouraging each other.”
Setsu (切) and sa (磋) together mean to cut or scrape something in reference to something hard in order to change its shape and taku (琢) and ma (魔) mean to polish something in order to bring out its natural beauty.
The dojo is supposed to be a place of community where we all work together to improve one another. It is supposed to be a place of sessa takuma.
When we perform the techniques on our partners, we should try and do the techniques to our fullest ability and not hold back. This will enable us to grasp the understanding of how to fully use our power and it will give our partner the opportunity to learn how to fully receive the technique.
However, this doesn’t mean that we do it with the intention that we hurt our partners. We do it fully with the intention to make them better. If our technique is too strong, they will have to work harder to take better ukemi. If we hold back our technique, they will never grow or improve. You might be thinking, “What if they get hurt or get mad?” This can happen. If it does, first check your intention and make sure your intention wasn’t to hurt them. Secondly, if they do get hurt or upset then you should apologize. Also if you see your partner struggling, you should quietly with hushed tones explain or help them with their ukemi. This is sessatakuma.
We have to remember that our uke is giving up their body for our benefit so that we may improve – which is a compassionate act. Knowing this, we must use this opportunity with the best intention and do our best to not waste their sacrifice. Of course, we cannot abuse them either.
If we can put our emotions and intentions in check then we can push ourselves and our partners to be the best they can be and insure that our dojo is a community which is trying to foster “sessa takuma” or a place where we make each other better.
“Strive to be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.” – Boots Williams
Congratulations to the people who took their tests over the weekend. Regardless of the outcomes, it took a lot of courage to show up and try.
For those of you who passed, please remain hungry and humble. Arrogance is the number one killer of those recently promoted. My grandmother said to me, “Go forth with the heart of a tiger,” after I passed my shodan test. Now is the time to double your effort.
For those of you who didn’t pass, please take this as a call to work harder. As Shakespeare once wrote, “Nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so.” Take this set back as an opportunity to let your true metal shine through. It is nothing more than the calm before the storm. Please work hard for the next test.
Our eyes are our greatest asset, but sometimes our brains can trick our eyes into seeing something that is not there or into not seeing something that is there.
I am told that our eyes can only take in something like 4,000 bits of information despite the fact that there are millions of bits all around us. That means at any given time, our brains are filling in the blanks with previously stored information. The place where the brain fills in the information is called a blind spot and this happens because the place where the optic nerve enters the eye has no photo receptors and this cannot receive any sensory information.
Sensei once told us that to hide the blind spot in our eyes we should turn our heads slightly away from the target. He said that there are more rods and cones on the outer parts of the eye which makes sense and would minimizes the blind spot.
After long bouts of meditation I also notice that my field of vision increases. So one could improve their field of vision with some type of guided exercise or meditation.
I also read an article that using cellphones, computers and tablets is causing people’s field of vision to decrease. So on one hand our new technologically advanced lifestyle could hurt our ability to be good martial artists.
For a martial artist, the moment when one blinks or when the vision is obscured for even a moment is the moment when the opponent will attack. Understanding this calls us to study just how our eyes work and take great care of our eyes. Our opponents are just waiting for us to blink or look the wrong way in order to move into our blind spots.
I found this website with a bunch of tests that illustrate blind spots and how are eyes work. I have posted a few and added the website below if you want to try more.
Instructions: Close left eye and fix right eye on the cross. Place eyes about 12 inches (30 cm) away from the monitor (distance may vary depending on the screen resolution) and notice the dot disappears. .
This is a nice Sukashi tsuba of the Owari school with a crab.
Sensei wrote a comment about crabs in reference to the martial arts in an earlier Daily Message on November 17, 2004.
There is another type of crab that comes onto the beach with the tide and quickly burrows into the sand. Japanese love to eat these crabs but they are hard to find in the sand and it is a lot of work to dig them up because they are very small and very quick. The way they catch them is to take a pencil and start poking the sand. The poking effect seems to resemble the effect of the tide rushing onto the beach so the crabs will poke their head up out of the sand so the water will carry them back into the sea. When the crabs pole their heads up, they are grabbed by the hungry fisherman.
Anyways, we can be caught very easily – when the opponent understands how we act.
I recently ran across this interview with World Karate Kata Champion Rika Usami who had recently retired. I found some inspiration as she spoke about her sensei and her training. I have posted this article in hopes that it inspires you. I have also added a video of her performing.
Imagine this sound:
12,000 people giving somebody a 5-minute-long standing ovation.
Now, imagine this “somebody” is a tiny Japanese girl, performing kata in the middle of a huge arena!
Her name is Rika Usami.
At the 2012 World Championships in Paris.
That’s the incredible power of her kata!
Rika Usami is truly one of a kind when it comes to the technical execution of kata.
Her merits include gold medals from huge competitions such as the Japanese National Championships, Asian Championships, World Championships, Istanbul Open, Jakarta Open, Dutch Open, Paris Open, Salzburg Open and other events in the international tournament scene.
I’ve been filming her top-class kata performances for a long time.
You’ve probably seen her Bassai Dai, Seienchin, Koshokun Dai, Koshokun Sho, Tomari Bassai or Chatan Yara Koshokun many times if you follow my YouTube channel.
However, not until this weekend did I actually interview her!
And the result was epic…
J (Jesse): Okay, Usami-san! Let’s take it from the beginning: When, where and why did you start practicing Karate?
RU (Rika Usami): “I started Karate when I was 10 years old, by joining a Goju-ryu style dojo located near my family’s house in Tokyo. The reason was because one day I saw a cool female fighter on TV, which made me really curious about the martial arts. Back then, my older brother had already been practicing Karate for a while, even letting me wear his gi on occasions, so that helped me a lot when I decided to eventually start practicing Karate myself.”
J: And at what age did you start competing in kata?
RU: “My first tournament was when I had green belt. I was in elementary school at that time, 12 years old. It was a pretty small tournament though, consisting mostly of kids from nearby towns’ dojos. I actually did not participate in any bigger tournaments until I was 15 years old.”
J: So how long did it actually take before you started winning most of your tournaments?
RU: “I was 17 years old when I won a big tournament for the first time. That was the national high school championship. So, it actually took me 7 years to win my first tournament in Karate!”
J: And you’ve been winning a lot more since! Why do you think you’ve had such great success in tournaments anyway?
RU: “Probably because I truly love Karate more than anything else. Plus, I get a lot of support from people around me. Those are the reasons, I think.”
J: Speaking of people around you, can you tell me about your sensei? What is it about your master that makes him so special?
RU: “You mean Inoue sensei? Well, first of all, he teaches me not only the physical aspects of Karate, but he also helps me improve my mental abilities. It’s the spiritual aspect. Also, the main thing that separates Inoue sensei from other instructors is that, unlike many masters, he spends a lot of individual time together with me, to make sure I understand each ‘waza’ (technique) very clearly, practicing together with me for long hours.”
J: And apparently it’s working! So, before you won the female kata division at the WKF World Championships in Paris, how did your actual training/preparation schedule look like? I can imagine it was intense!
RU: “Yeah, in order to prepare for the World Championships, I naturally went to Tottori, where Inoue sensei’s dojo is located, for some very intense training. Around this time there were many other international students there too, training together to win in Paris, like Antonio (Diaz). Along with these dedicated athletes, I sometimes practiced from 10 am to 10 pm. Many times I practiced by myself too, even after finishing the group training sessions.”
RU: “Strength training is the starting point for my techniques, and it’s actually very important for this reason. You must do it. For any technique to be properly stabilized, basic physical strength is essential. Therefore, I perform strength training with the following philosophy in mind; great technique in kata can only be achieved with having a solid foundation of strength. That’s my opinion.”
J: And if anyone doubts that, you are living proof! So what about kumite? Do you practise kumite? A lot of kata competitors seem to shy away from it. Explain your thoughts on the relationship between kata & kumite.
RU: “After I started to seriously participate in kata tournaments, I started to train some kumite as well, to complement my basic (kihon) training. The main difference in the relationship between kumite and kata is that there is always a physical opponent in front of you in kumite, whereas in kata you are performing alone. But, you have to keep in mind that there is someone in front of you when you do kata too! So, kumite has really helped adjust my kata based on that conception.”
J: That’s an incredibly valuable insight. Now let me ask you a trickier question: What is your opinion about the difference between so-called “traditional Karate” (as a martial art), and “contemporary Karate” (as a sport)?
RU: “Hmm…. that’s very difficult [laughs]! *Long pause* Well, my thinking is that you shouldn’t consider those two – traditional/contemporary Karate – as separate things. Instead, try to find where the vital areas shared by both approaches converge, and focus on those. That’s very important, I believe. The most valuable aspects of Sports Karate and Traditional Karate are the ones that will overlap.”
J: That’s an important concept indeed, yet hard for people to grasp! Speaking of important; if you could choose the top 3 most important attributes a person needs to become really good at Karate, what would those be?
RU: “The first one is basic physical preparation. The second one is Karate strength/conditioning and the third one has to be technique. The fourth one is… Oh, sorry! I could only choose three, right? Okay. That’s it. Or, no, wait a second! Here’s a better answer: Body, mind and technique.”
J: Ah, you mean ‘Shin-Gi-Tai’ [Mind-Technique-Body]?
RU: “Yeah, exactly. Shin-Gi-Tai!”
J: Hah, I almost expected you to say that! So, if we flip the script: What are the top 3 biggest mistakes you see people making when practicing Karate?
RU: “Since I cannot speak for others, this answer is based on myself only, okay? The first mistake is, you lose against yourself. Secondly, you fail to properly listen to your master [laughs]. Finally, you just need to keep practicing, repeatedly, and not giving up too early.”
J:And 99% of those three mistakes are based on the mind! So, what kind of mental attitude do you think is actually required for somebody to perform a world-class kata? And how does one train to foster that mindset?
RU: “This answer is simple: To be able to perform your best at a tournament, it is important to simply act as normal as possible. And for that, you need to be very mentally focused during regular training time.”
J: That is indeed super important. Train as you compete, compete as you train. Now, let’s talk about your victory at the 21st World Karate Championships in Paris. A crowd of 12’000 people were giving you standing ovations before you had even finished your final kata. Unbelievable. Explain that feeling.
Rika is the Japanese Champion – several times in a row.
RU: “Yes. When I won the World Championships that was absolutely the happiest moment in my entire career. And then, when I realized that people around me were even more excited about my victory than myself… I became overwhelmed.”
J: I even remember your sensei crying of joy after that incredible final. Yet, you are not longing for an encore. Explain your recent decision to retire from Karate competition – what are your future plans?
RU: “Before I won the World Championship title, I had received an offer for advancement to Kokushinkan University. So, after achieving this major Karate goal of my life, I felt I was ready to retire as a competitive athlete and move on to my next goal – to become an instructor for the Karate club at Kokushinkan University. Right now, I’m studying real hard for this, and although a lot of people have different opinions about what I should, or should not, do with my career – I’d like to continue my education while sharing my experience as a Karate teacher in order to help the new generation.”
J: Commendable. Although a lot of people will miss seeing your kata performances! Lastly, what is your message for everyone who aspires to achieve your high skill level in Karate, and kata specifically?
RU: “Everyone has a goal. Whether that is to become a world champion or not doesn’t really matter. Although your goal may often look hard to achieve at first, if you continually make efforts toward your goal, then your time, energy and commitment will never have been wasted. So, keep it up as much as you can. Stay strong until you win against yourself. And at the end of the day, you will always be the winner.”
J: Wise words from a wise champ! Thanks a lot for your time Usami-san, and good luck with your new career!
“An inch of gold can’t buy an inch of time.” – Chinese proverb
Don’t wait for tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come. We always think, “there is more time,” but there is no time left. “The moment has passed, “was something Sensei used to say to us often whenever we blew the chance to do something or tried to fix a mistake.
The hardest part about life is that sometimes we wait to long for the perfect opportunity to arise only to miss a descent opportunity laid at our feet.
Training is no different. Right now, we have the opportunity to train and we are “able.” We are the youngest we will ever be, but if we wait too long the moment will pass. When it does pass, we might not be “able” to train anymore and nothing is more painful than regret.
Life is to be lived. Train hard. Do what you want to do. Go forth with the heart of a tiger. Don’t let the opportunities of life pass you by.
The Founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba was born in Tanabe which is in Kumano. O Sensei said “I am the godsent child of Kumano” and “Aikido is the manifestation of the Divine Breath of the deities of Kumano.”
I found this short video on vimeo about Kumano. It looks really spectacular. I had the chance to go there a few years ago, but had to pass. After seeing this video, I wish I hadn’t. Maybe someday I will get the opportunity to go. Until then…