- By Sensei Steve Cockell
In a scene from the Batman movie “The Dark Knight”, the Batman becomes the Dark Knight. He is what society needs him to become – the man who will do what no one else will do, even if it may not be the most morally correct thing, because it has to be done. He is a man who sacrifices his moral commitment to benefit the moral commitment of society. It is a selfless act on his part. Ninjutsu is a “dark knight”. It is a system that lives and survives in the environment where it is practiced. It becomes what it is needed to be and evolves as it is needed. It should not be confined to the ideology of its original homeland, but respect must be given to those who developed it and expanded it.
Ninjutsu has no desires or needs; it simply is. As such, it becomes what it is needed to be by those who devote time and effort into it. Ninjutsu is, at its purest level, a series of combative stratagems that physically manifest themselves into a large number of techniques that when performed correctly by a human being, allows that human being to defeat another human being or many human beings.
As a living and life long art, Ninjutsu continues to evolve as it travels through time with it practitioners – each individual contributing to it in their own way. It has a set of guidelines that we must follow, as these guidelines are the foundations of the system. These guidelines are: Distance, Balance, Timing; and the forms of Sanshin and Kihon Happo Kata. A lot of it though, is personal interpretation.
Experience moulds your interpretations. Any form of personal experience while under pressure, such as in a real world confrontation or a competitive environment or non controlled situation, can and do lend themselves to Nninjutsu,
These experiences can be passed on to others studying the art, thus advancing the system as a whole. In fact I believe this is how the original forms/techniques of Ninjutsu would have evolved. The survivors and victors would pass on the valuable skills learnt on the battlefields during life and death struggles, to those close enough to be considered family, friends or allies.
Over time as conflicts declined, these skills would become watered down or became flamboyant because the dojo is not the battlefield, and so mistakes would not be as severely punished as in the battlefield where failure meant death.
The way in which stratagems develop has to be taken into consideration. Stratagems draw from occurrences around them and must take many things into account such as;
Cultural perceptions: What are the cultural beliefs of the people developing the strategy? It’s very interesting to see that societies who are peaceful by nature will develop their strategies differently to those of the warlike nations.
Religious influence: A vast number of combative strategies take their religion into account. After all you must kill your enemy as your God wants you to.
Environmental conditions: The environment will affect strategies. For example, it was not considered good warfare to fight in winter. This practice itself is a strategy. The strategies of a desert country will differ to that of an arctic country.
Situational conditions: The strategy in question may have to be altered to fit in to a situation. In Thailand to keep their fighters sharp and ready, the rulers of Thailand allowed in-fighting within the military groups, but outlawed moves that killed. This is how the art of Muay Thai developed as we know it today. Gigero Kano developed judo so that it could be practised full power and full force without serious danger to the practitioners. He took out most of the lethal parts in Juijutsu so that Judo could evolve, and since then it has taken off.
Personality: The type of person will affect the strategy. Gandhi’s strategies will be very different to those of Genghis Khan’s. Strategies and combat techniques of The Dalai Lama will differ to those of “Jake the muss”, from the move ‘once were warriors’.
It is important to remember that not fighting at all is also a strategy. As the late great Bruce Lee puts it is “the art of fighting without fighting”.
Strategies are not limited to one on one combat. As Miyomoto Musashi had stated, if you can defeat one man then you can defeat ten; and if you can defeat ten men, then you can defeat ten thousand. I believed what he is hinting at is that the strategy used to defeat one opponent can be used to defeat many opponents if used in the correct way. When confronting one opponent, you use your feet, hands, and sometimes your teeth to defeat them. In a large scaled battle these tools become your military units. Your head is the General, your hands are the Special Forces, your legs are the artillery etc...you get the idea.
The way in which these strategies can evolve can be fascinating. I once watched an Olympic Judo gold medal match. In this match the commentator was getting very excited by the intense struggle between the competitors, when suddenly in the mad scramble of arms and legs, one of the competitors threw his opponent and won by ippon. The commentator was screaming and yelling about an outstanding throw that had won the match. The throw he was screaming about was an uchi mata or inside thigh lift. I couldn’t for the life of me see the uchi mata. I knew the classic perfect form of uchi mata, but the throw I saw certainly wasn’t that, or at least as I knew it. But then the commentator said something that stuck with me as important. He said the winning throw contained the elements of uchi mata – the essence of it, if you want a different term. This was a real kufu (moment of enlightenment) for me: Techniques/strategies have an essence that exists within them, a higher level if you will, that isn’t often seen because we focus on the physical aspect of the technique. Techniques aren’t always the perfect form in which we train them. This really opened my eyes to a deeper understanding of technique and their meaning.
Considering that Judo is practiced in Japan, which is influenced by Buddhism, we can see how the essence of things can be found in what we do. In Buddhism, practitioners view perfection as unobtainable in this physical realm. Take their five or seven levelled pagodas for example, symbolising man’s inability to obtain perfection in this physical life (an OCD’s nightmare). We strive for it, yet it continually eludes us. This can become a obsession for some people. Their sole purpose in life is to gain perfection in their chosen fields.
When we learn a technique or are shown the technique from our instructor, it is expressed and shown in the perfect form. This is so that we learn the distance, the balance and the timing involved in the technique. But the reality of fighting, or the reality of the technique, is far from what is learnt in the original form or perfect form.
Just think of the difference between the dojo and the battlefield. As with most things in life, things don’t go perfectly, they nearly always require tweaking or a degree or adaption to make it work when it counts. If we cast our minds back to our childhoods, what did we want to be when we grew up? A fireman? An astronaut? Did you achieve this? And if you did, did it turn out as you envisioned it would? Fantasy very rarely lives up to reality.
If we transfer this viewpoint to our techniques, we see them as the perfect form – the attack is perfect, the environment is perfect, our opponent provides us with the perfect crash test dummy to deliver our technique too. All this is done under the watchful eye of the instructor and the perfect form is practiced, but how far is this from the truth?
To draw another simile between technique and reality we can look to the movie “The Matrix”. The hero Neo, gets plugged in to a computer and travels to a contrived realm were he learns martial arts skills in a matter of seconds by having them downloaded directly into his brain (if only it was that easy). He goes to a beautiful and highly traditional virtual dojo where he learns a variety of fighting arts. He learns spectacular kicks, punches and flips, as well as throws and locks. And yet after a furious fight with his mentor, all that happens to Neo is that he is winded, fatigued and a little bruised. This is the perfect world of technique where everything works beautifully and the hero wins using a spectacular martial arts move.
Don’t get me wrong techniques have their place and are vital to the learning of the art. They train muscle memory and provide answers to problems we may encounter in combat situations, and should be trained till they are instinctual responses – requiring no thought to use. This usually requires (or so the scientist say) about ten thousand repetitions of one skill to become natural – to be able to be done without thought. Martial arts techniques also transmit information from one generation to the next, and so they must be perfect in their form so that the correct information and the meaning is not forgotten or mixed up as they are passed along to the various students. Written techniques could be stolen, and so the essence and secrets are hidden in the physical technique. In this way, they will only be revealed when they have been practiced enough for their essence or secret to be understood.
There is a great story that emphasises this point. A student of an ancient martial art, learns that there are four scrolls within his art, scroll one is the basics, scroll two is the first level techniques, scroll three is the second level techniques, scroll four is the secrets of the school.
After learning the basic of the art, the student approaches the master and humbly requests to be given the second set of scrolls that will take him to the next level of skill. The master shows him the techniques and presents him the scrolls, and for three years the student practices until he knows them like the back of his hand. Again the student approaches the master and displays the skills he has learnt, and humbly requests the third set of scrolls so he can master them. The master shows him the techniques and presents him with the third set of scrolls. For three long years the student practices and he masters them all. He then, once again, approaches the master to show his skills and humbly requests for the final scroll. At which time, the master gives him the last written book. Opening the book expecting the secrets to flow out, the student reads “you should have learnt the secrets from the first three scrolls”. I think this story has the same theme as the Kung Fu Panda movie.
In the second pivotal fight scene in The Matrix trilogy, the fight takes place in the “real world”. This fight is particularly violent and savage – there is a lot of blood and some major trauma delivered to both fighters. We get to see some serious injuries that will have consequences in the future, including Neo losing his eyesight after his eyes are burnt out. The fighting is particularly savage and dirty, everything is grimy and guttural – even the sound effects are disturbing. This shows the reality of violence and the less than perfect conditions that are encountered in the real realm of fighting, where no rules are found and it is simply do or die.
So on one hand you have the dojo based training in which Neo learns techniques that are clean and pretty to perform. They exist in a nice environment, and everyone knows what to do and when to do it. Then on the other hand you have the absolute brutality of actual reality based street combat, where your life is at stake and nothing is out of the question to obtain survival for yourself.
What we can learn from these two fight scenes? Well there are a number of important lessons. Firstly, technique is really a theory of what can be done in combative situations, but is relatively useless to us as a whole unless it is practiced to the point of instinctual behaviour. Secondly, the techniques are the starting point of learning. They teach us what will be required to survive or how to take the life of an opponent if need be. The techniques give us information that may well have been used to defeat an opponent in the past, and this is true in the case of Ninjutsu because we have a very diverse history within our nine Ryuha (schools).
Within all technique there is a degree of truth and a degree of non-truth. Some of the information will not apply due to the fact that a lot of techniques are and have been trained in the dojo, and therefore, will only work in the dojo. But contained in them is the simple and combat-effective principles that have survived, and will continue to survive, as long as these techniques get passed along. It is our job as students of Ninjutsu to realise what is important and what works, as well as what is not important and what doesn’t work. This process is not new and can be seen in the late 33rd grandmaster Takamatsu’s view point on many of Ninjutsu’s techniques, particularly towards old techniques such as running up walls. He simply said they are of no use and students should not waste time learning them if they want to understand combat.
I have learned after 4 years of training diligently with the Naginata that many of its secrets were hidden within the techniques, and that these secrets would only appear after the skills had become so natural that they seemed to be controlled by the subconscious. With the subconscious mind in control of the physical movements, the conscious mind could focus on other things which allowed the strategy of the technique to emerge. Much the same way as a racing car driver basically drives the car with his sub conscious mind while using his conscious mind to see where to put the car so he can go faster.
I religiously practiced on a daily basis, 1000 slashes and repeated each of the 18 basic Naginata techniques ten times each, in order to perfect the Kihon Happo of the weapon. While solo practice allowed for close-to-perfect form, if an opponent was added, the perfect form went out the window because the opponent would never do the exact same attack twice in a row.
The Kihon Happo consisted of the hand positions on the weapon, attacks and defence with the weapon, and the footwork needed to use the weapon effectively. This training showed me that there is a deeper understanding within the techniques. These techniques on the surface appear to be nothing more than a series of cuts, slashes and stabs placed in an order so that they fuse together seamlessly to achieve victory over your opponent. This form is similar to that of the punching combinations found within boxing. But once the basic attacks, defences and movements are learnt and mastered, only then do you learn what is really behind the technique which is a martial strategy. It is this strategy that instructs you on how to defeat your opponent, and will guide you when to slash, cut or stab. You will learn that knowing when to slash is of equal importance to knowing how to slash. I suggest reading about Fingerspitzengefuhl to understand about this concept more. It makes great reading, and shows Miyomoto Musashi as the revolutionary swordsman that he truly was.
I once conducted a class based on three techniques from the Koto Ryu. They were against three different types of attacks: double lapel grab, single grab and punch, and single punch (the king hit if you like). We drilled each skill for about half an hour and everyone was learning the movements well. I then said to the attackers to attack with any one of the three attacks randomly and watched to see what would happen.
It was very interesting. Nearly all the students messed up the perfect form, but where able to take aspects from the three techniques and apply them to whatever was delivered at them. They were all frustrated by this because they believed they were failing to perform true Ninjutsu. This was not the case at all. My realisation was that this is the formless aspect of the art. There are no singular techniques that are more important than the others. They are all part of the whole, and it is only us (students of the art) who separate them. Once you have learnt and mastered all the techniques, and I mean mastered to the point of instinctual responses, you can simply draw from any of them when you need to. This is the way the Ryuha would work. The strategy of the Ryuha becomes more important than the individual techniques. For example, the Koto Ryu is a strike based system in which you strike out savagely to various targets on your opponent’s body until the opponent falls down, then, keep striking until the opponent stops moving, and then start striking the next opponent. A student can and should, after hundreds of hours training, learn and understand the strategy of the Ryu by the way the Ryu deals with combative situations. It is clear to see that the Koto Ryu is a strike based system with an emphasis on defeating your opponent using strikes often delivered with the hard bone structures of your body.
Formlessness comes from knowing you have all 18 techniques to draw from and integrate when you need them, as apposed to using only one technique at any given time, which is how we are taught them in a normal class. This type of learning is in fact crucial to our training because it allows us to slowly progress in our learning.
This process is achieved by first seeing, listening, and feeling the technique. The next consecutive step are then trying the technique, writing it down, and then repeating the technique so that our muscle memory can take the movements on board and then the memory can reproduce it when we need it. It is then that muscle memory jumps into action. (For a more in-depth and comprehensive understanding, study up on neural functions and synaptic connections).
In conclusion the Martial arts are about adapting and overcoming your adversary, so change is an important aspect to any training. The martial arts are evolving continuously. New material is being added or rediscovered because the fighting arts are being used under pressure and in competitive environments.
The warrior, who succeeded using his way of fighting, taught it to others. Until the system failed, it was taught the same way. Many systems that were defeated, still teach the same way – they refuse to acknowledge their defeat and never adapt to develop methods to counter the system or absorb its strengths into their system. This stubbornness is somewhat admirable. Their faith in their system is honourable, but can also be seen as ignorant to change. Martial arts must adapt and become what they are needed to be in the situation they are put into.
Ninjutsu has an advantage in this area, it draws from all methods available and isn’t afraid to steal from other systems to improve itself. “Learn from your enemies”. Ninjutsu is a ‘jack of all trades’ when it comes to fighting.
Building a set of reliable skills that work under pressure is the goal of most martial arts systems. These skills should be multi-purposeful and able to be applied in a number of areas e.g. the triangle choke: it can be done while standing and on the ground while wrestling so it is well worth investing time in to learn it.
We should always bear in mind that QUALITY is more important them QUANTITY. As Shidoshi Michael Gent used to say “it’s not how much you train but what you train that’s important”. Hardened combat training refines your skills down to a bare minimum and these are the skills we seek. If you study the UFC (and I must add that this is only an example of isolative training because the UFC is restricted by the use of certain rules unlike a street brawl) and take all of the main winning techniques, you can start to develop a comprehensive fighting system. Here is an example:
● The Right Cross, and its variation the overhand right. These punches have resulted in many KO victories in the UFC.
With these skills and a few others added in for variety, we can start to formulate an all round fighting style. By studying these moves we see that the UFC fighters have refined their skills to a select few that they are extremely proficient in and can use to devastating effect under extreme pressure.
This type of training is what all martial artists should be training towards. Remember if you look deep enough within your own system you will find a lot of these modern techniques hidden in the recesses of the old methods of combat that you are learning. Always trace your skills back to their source. What modern martial arts coaches have done is revolutionised the way they are taught. Think of it as “re-inventing the wheel” if you like.
One of the problems I see in Ninjustu is that it is so diverse that it is impossible to learn all the Schools and Techniques well enough so that we can use them when required (we become spoilt for choice as it were). This can be seen in the old book of masters. Where, more often than not, one man was responsible for no more than two schools – usually one unarmed style and one weapon style. This is because of the time required to master any system can take a life time. Imagine devoting your life time to the Koto Ryu and Bojutsu. This individual would be highly skilled in those two styles, to the point where it would save his life if needed. There are many people in the world who know thousands of techniques within Ninjutsu, but when it comes to the crunch there is just a handful that would actually be used. The brain needs to be uncramped and simplified so that its choices become simple. Ask yourself this simple question, “how many brakes does your car have”? When an accident is imminent how many choices of brake do you have? The answer is simple: ONE. So therefore, in an emergency it is simple to respond.
The close minded attitudes of many traditional martial artists are a way of not confronting the truth within the fighting arts. “Your” system must adapt or Die. Reliance on only one method is very dangerous. A fighter/warrior who is able to move freely into any of the recognised “styles” is the one who will survive.
As Bruce Lee states “Be an athlete not a specialist, a specialist is stuck in his field of expertise, but an athlete can be whatever he needs to be at the time”. This is best summed up by the doctrine of Ninjutsu “if he kicks, grapple; if he grapples, kick and punch; if he punches, kick”.
Enjoy your Training.
Sensei Steven Cockell.