Browsing the blog archives for January, 2014.

Some Thoughts for 2014


Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about why we do what we do. For me, the reasons are obvious, and I’ve written about them repeatedly – I’m seeking a means to change current trends in society, and believe history holds the answers to questions that are bothering us some. But I also have come to see that many people today are training in the martial arts for entirely the wrong reasons, and would therefore like to take the opportunity offered by the New Year to raise the mirror of internal deliberation to us all. Because, as martial artists, we must first hold the clear light of introspection up to our own selves before beginning to evaluate the motives of others- failure to do so simply means that we are not, in the end, martial artists, no matter how much we portray ourselves as such.

A friend of mine recently gifted me with Hank Reinhardt’s books (which I had not read), and  – gosh darn boy howdy – I came to realize that – yea verily – as it turns out I am indeed a student of Hank.

Reinhardt was a prolific author of articles on swords and knives, and wrote a column on “swords in the movies” for Blade magazine. He produced videos on the sword. He played an integral role in the modern day HEMA iconic documentary Reclaiming the Blade, detailing his experiences in the Historical European Martial Arts. He had a book on the history of the sword in progress at the time of his death at 73, which was published after his death by Baen Books as “The Book of The Sword” – I will quote from this book shortly.

I knew Hank between 1984 and 1986. He was in his early fifties at the time, younger than I am today, but at the time was already a cantankerous old f@®τ who did not suffer young fools lightly, a disposition which apparently improved (or got worse, depending on how you look at it) over time. There were many things about Hank that I did not come to understand except after the decades passed and I had matured myself.

One of my senior students, Stamatis, offered the following observation a few weeks ago:

“I noticed,” he said, “that you care nothing about technique or training; you look at how a student stands and how he moves, what he emanates, and you know where he is in seconds.”

“Well, yes,” I responded, “and not only me. Every senior martial artist is like that. It doesn’t matter what a student knows or more accurately what he thinks he knows. What is important is what he is. We can see that immediately; there is no need for him to do anything but stand there. That is how we judge each others’ levels as well.”

“I’m beginning to understand that.”

“I know.” (Stamatis recently completed Level Four.)

“So how do you get that across to students? How can you get them to understand what is important?”

“You don’t. You can’t. They will never accept it, which is why some leave, and why many think they know better.”

“So what do you do?

“Train the ones who stay. They are the only ones who are capable of grasping what we are discussing anyway.”

When I was training in the Bujinkan in the 80s, there came a time when students discovered “the ryu-ha kata.”  Gosh darn boy howdy, you were no one if you did not know that special Gyokko ryu kamae, or how many variations of Yama Arashi kata the Kukishin ryu densho had, or if Takamatsu Sensei was suffering from a particularly bad hangover on the day he decided to put a specific technique down on paper. All completely irrelevant, of course, and commonly expounded upon in Japanese philology (One is reminded of the lesson of the samurai who was taught by a master while working as his servant and getting smacked on the head with a piece of wood in the middle of the night). But it didn’t matter to students – gosh darn boy howdy, if you didn’t know all the details of the ryu-ha kata left and right, you had no business being in the teacher’s chair, and if you did, well – gosh darn boy howdy – you surely deserved the stripes you were wearing.


I mention this piece of ancient history simply for the reason that many students of HEMA today have come to view the fechtbuch like students of the Bujinkan viewed the ryu-ha kata back in the 80s and 90s –  as a holy gospel to be spread amongst the masses. Each particular exponent, of course, has been visited by the Holy Spirit in turn, and as such, is the Only One whose particular brand of dogma represents the Truth regarding the fechtbuch. (Can you give me an Amen? Can you give me a Halleluiah? Praise the Lord!)

Here is Hank’s perspective:

(From Hank Reinhardt (2009-08-11T04:40:21.645000+00:00). Hank Reinhardt’s Book of the Sword (Kindle Locations 3315-3329). Baen. Kindle Edition, )

“In the past several years these many European “fechtbuchs” have been translated and have been made available to those interested. I have read only a few of them and plan on reading more. However, I have a healthy skepticism regarding most of these books…

Let me explain my hesitancy in embracing these manuals with wholehearted enthusiasm. First, these books were written several hundred years ago. Language and convention have changed considerably since that time. It is quite possible that comments were not made in the books simply because everyone at that time knew what the author was talking about. It could also be that some things were left out deliberately so as to gain students where these things were explained by personal instruction. Above all, these manuals are not clear in their depiction of movements from one position to another and thus many of the movements are not fully explained.

However, many people today will look at one of these manuals and proceed to state that this is the way swords were used at the time of the writing. This is equivalent to reading a modern martial arts manual and drawing the conclusion that this is the way street fights are conducted, from someone who has never been in a street fight. Watching many of these drills and exhibitions taken from the manuals, I will admit that they look pretty good, but a close examination will show that these are well choreographed, and bear as much resemblance to actual combat as do fights in the movies.”

What he said. (Back in the 80s we only had 3 fechtbuchs that Hank had photocopied from museums in Europe: Silver, a version of Talhoffer, and a Dutch manual that showed wrestling techniques and joint-locks (don’t make me look it up)). But any book that shows a man half-buried in a pit fighting a woman, or people bashing each other with weird shields in order to establish which man God has decided is in the right, has to be examined with the proper degree of anthropological skepticism.  Fighting a woman while half-buried in a pit to establish whether or not she has had pre-marital or extra-marital sexual relations, for example, really has nothing to do with the battlefield – and yet such depictions are included in a manual purportedly dealing with life-and-death combat.

I am distrustful of such accounts precisely because of what happened with the popular perception of the samurai. I have often written of the Hagakure, compiled by Tsuramoto Tashiro from his conversations with the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo between 1709 and 1716. The problem with this book is that the samurai class had already been defunct for almost a century at the time of these interviews, and Tsunetomo himself had never seen combat – he was presenting his view of history the way that he wanted it to be.  The Hagakure forms the core of the established version of the samurai in both Japan and abroad – but Professor Thomas Conlan recently debunked much of the philosophy presented in the volume as inconsistent with historical reality.

And yet, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hagakure was held up as a philosophical beacon in Japan by a fascist dictatorship that resulted in the death of millions and atrocities beyond recall. The military in Japan established almost complete control over the government in the early 20th century. Many political enemies were assassinated, and communists persecuted. In 1933, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations because she was heavily criticized for her actions in China. Indoctrination and censorship in education and media were complete. Navy and army officers occupied most of the important offices, including the one of the prime minister. The Hagakure, presented as duty to the Emperor in itscontext, played a critical role – a role such that simple working men and women, farmers and tailors, would view themselves as loyal samurai, self-immolating in service to the Divine Emperor.

The lesson is that, as Westerners, it is our obligation to constantly shine the cold light of reality first and foremost on ourselves. Hank was waaaay ahead of the curve. It is a pity I was too young to realize this at the time.

Hank goes on in his Book of the Sword to establish what is truly important and useful in historical close-quarter combat. And ironically, despite what I’ve stated previously regarding the Hagakure, much of what is useful in armed combat today was indeed recorded in Japan during the 17th century:

“The Japanese manuals that I have read (always in translation) rarely, if ever, deal with any of the physical aspects of swordplay. Instead they deal with the mental side. They stress the development of the mind and the spirit, and to the Westerner, this is rather confusing, as it is stated in terms of Zen and many of the other spiritual concepts. It is sometimes stated that these concepts cannot be properly explained in writing, but require a teacher. Now, a cynical person might say that this was done in order to encourage individuals to enlist in the school that the writer favored or even taught. I have no doubt that this was true in some cases, but I also feel that many merely wished to share knowledge. It is also true that some things have to be demonstrated and even explained in person. Therefore, it is up to the individual to draw his own conclusions on the works that he might encounter whether they be Western or Eastern. There is no question that the most difficult manuals to understand are those written in the Far East. There is the real poetic terminology which, when coupled with Zen Buddhism, can present quite a challenge for the Westerner. Terms such as: Moon in the Water, Beating the Grass to Scare the Snake, The Empty Mind or The Stillness of the Placid Pond. These are lovely phrases, and once you understand what is meant, why, they all make sense. But it can require a great deal of effort to learn what is meant, while in the West information is imparted in a much plainer fashion.”

(Hank Reinhardt (2009-08-11T04:40:21.645000+00:00). Hank Reinhardt’s Book of the Sword (Kindle Locations 3334-3345). Baen. Kindle Edition.)

Stance. Movement. Mind. Philosophy. Martial arts all come down to these Four Cornerstones. There is nothing beyond them.

In Pammachon we progress along four levels. I first became aware of these levels in the 80s while studying Buddhism and meditation, martial arts, combat sports, and literature.  They have been referred to in both Eastern and Greek philosophical texts, and I will not dwell on them overlong in this post.

The first stage is simply physical. In this stage, the fechtbuch indeed play a role, because you are learning how to stand, how to move, how to engage an opponent tactically, how to protect yourself. But there is no real threat level involved – it is all theory. Hence, the only part of your nervous system that you use, is your neocortex, the conscious part of your brain, the “Angel” in our terminology.

The second stage is emotional. You engage your limbic system and learn how to control yourself and others when influenced by your amygdalae and hypothalamus. You come to terms with your emotions and they no longer run the show during combat or altercation. This is the “Monkey.” (For neuroanatomical purists, forget about McLean’s model for a second and work with me:  consider the fear circuit and the pleasure circuit as specific neuronal circuits that form what might best be called our “emotional neural network.”)

The third stage reflects the purity of Mind. You engage your basal ganglia and react to an exterior threat with stillness of mind and purpose, without pause and without the burden of suppressed emotion. This is the “Dinosaur.”

The fourth stage reflects our entire being; this is the Mollusk. Neurologically you learn to control and employ your enteric and autonomic nervous systems. Like a mollusk, you are flooded by the sea of Being around you, the smells and tastes of your surroundings washing in and out of you and imparting information, data with cause and effect.

These are the foundation of martial arts. Nothing else matters.

This is what Reinhardt was trying to say. This is what I have been saying all along.

I know it is difficult. To accept the above, you must, as Hank says, accept that there are teachers out there who “merely wish to share knowledge.” You cannot judge them, and they can defeat you without working up a sweat. You know this, whether deep down inside or right up front, and it gets your gall, because in the Epoch of Information that is the Internet, you may have even been so bold as to state “well – gosh darn boy howdy – I have the same books in my library as he (or she) does, who do they think they are?” But it doesn’t work that way. You can look at Picasso and Gauguin and say “wow – genius” if you are at a level aesthetically to comprehend their work, or you can say “dude, yuck yuck yuck look at that yuck he scribbles like a kid yuck yuck” or “titties uhuh yuck yuck.” Your opinion will not have altered Picasso or Gauguin’s portfolio one iota – what will have transpired is that you will no longer be in a position to enjoy their inspiration. Your choice. Your decision, and it is a binary one.

How can you tell if a teacher is legitimate? He will have discussed the things I am referring to in this post repeatedly, long before you read them here. He will not be predatory – where there is smoke, there is fire.  If a teacher is charging inordinate amounts for “certification,” or is (routinely) sleeping with teenagers, or even is inordinately “glamorous” and vain (for reasons I will not get into here), then run. If the show is all about the teacher, then run. If the teacher does not question himself constantly, run. If the teacher does not hold his own teachers and his own self up to moral standards, run. If the teacher justifies his own failings or the failings of his own specific interests for whatever reason, run. Demand perfection, though you will never achieve it. The universe is binary, you see: you cannot be a little bit pregnant, and you cannot make a baby in one month by making nine women pregnant. Things either are, or are not.

And trust me on this: neither the specific application of Yama Arashi, nor whether the foot is placed left or right as described in one of Liechtenauer’s verses has anything whatsoever to do with it. Liechtenauer himself knew this.

Happy New Year.