Kamae “構え” basically means stance, yet there are several ways to approach kamae. In Japanese, we have the verb form of Kamae, which is “構える“Kamaeru, which has several meanings as well, which it means; to prepare, to adopt a posture, to be ready and so forth. Without going too deep into a Japanese lesson, let’s discuss the finer details about Kamae in general.
Kamae is first a posture or stance, it is made up of specific rations involving the shoulders, elbows, hips, knees and feet, around the spine and our cores. Whether it is shizen no kamae, ichimonji no kamae or hicho no kamae, there are similarities and specific ratios that are maintained. From, the knees and elbows when connected in kamae form straight lines to the floor, the shoulders and hips are also lined up, the feet also are lined up in most kamae, but connected to another point that makes up the kamae. There are some kamae that seemingly break these ratios, most notably is bobi no kame, but it also generally follows the same structural ratio. I want you to keep in mind, the kamae I am specifically discussing are the way kamae is demonstrated and done by Noguchi Sensei and the late Oguri Sensei there are similarities by other Dai Shihan, but they differ slightly with their approach to kamae. See my post “On Balance”.
These ratios make up the majority of what makes or breaks a good kamae in my opinion. In addition to these ratios, you have a control of balance as well as weight distribution. Generally, you should maintain a kamae without much of a shift in balance, when you raise a single foot of either the front or back leg at any given moment. Basically, in kamae you should maintain an ability to easily lift either foot. If you must radically shift your balance to either leg, you have misplaced your balance somewhere it shouldn’t be, and you will not be able to adapt quickly enough to either counter or move into a better spot if a sudden attack comes, or by the third attack you will be “cooked”.
In addition, being able to easily move with minimal shifting of balance, we must look at the general structure of Kamae and purposes. Kamae is meant to control lines, and both guard and guide attacks and defenses alone these lines. Look to them as barriers set up to control the flow of water or air. How would these kamae look in a wind tunnel? How would water flow around these kamae in a river? In addition, kamae is also intended to affect both our own mental states as well as the mental states of the opponent or uke. They are meant to create a type of pressure on the opponent. Both, easing or putting on pressure or energy in the kamae is important, all the while controlling the flow of that pressure along lines you choose. At the same time, you can increase your confidence and calm your mind in these kamae. Now, I am not waxing poetic or philosophical on purpose here, but this imagery might be helpful.
Kamae helps guard and protect vital areas on the body, it also helps hide both movements and intentions. Free use of kamae, comes from understanding your body and balance fully. Taking kamae also requires practice and should be thoroughly studied and understood. Kamae is not necessarily static, but first you need to understand your own structure and balance for techniques to be learned and acquired. Will your Kamae break or faulter under pressure, will a breeze knock it over? Yet through proper practice and time you should be able to understand kamae more intimately. Through the process of Shuhari “守破離” you will arrive at a place where Kamae simply blends into what we call “体術” taijutsu. Kamae, in addition, to balance is just one of the fundamental principles that is Taijutsu.
Everyone seems to be acquainted with balance at least on the surface since walking, standing, sitting, and running all require balance. While we can basically keep our balance in our everyday lives, but are we really all that balanced? You could argue that, “we don’t fall over so we must be balanced, right?” Well, you could argue that, yet people slip and fall, people run into things, people have back problems and sore knees. To have balance isn’t as simple as failing to fall over, it is something a bit deeper than that. For taijutsu, it is crucial to develop a better sense of balance, a maximal sense of balance. Just to remain standing and failing to fall over isn’t enough. We need to control both our own balance as well as the opponents balance. However, we must start with our own balance. So, what does it mean to be balanced?
Chushin (中心) basically means middle heart, but it is used to represent balance, balance points, and center of balance. So, this description again doesn’t help us understand what balance really is, words aren’t enough for the body to understand. So, let’s begin with an exercise to find our balance. First, let’s align the body with the shoulders, hips, knees, and feet in proper alignment. This stance is almost what we call shizen no kamae (自然の構え). I say almost, because, just standing this way doesn’t make you maximally balanced, there are few more things to align first before we can call it a true shizen no kamae.
We need our hips to be in aligned and we need to use a few core muscles as well to keep the hips in alignment with the rest the body. Our shoulders should be back and pulled down, we also should have our hips (pelvis) titled forward and our glutes should be taunt (you can flex your glutes to get the pelvis to shift into the right spot. Your bodies weight should be in the middle of the foot right before the balls of the feet. There should be a straight line from your knee to the middle point of your feet. The knees should point the same direction as the direction of your foot. To ensure, you have the proper alignment tighten the core and attempt to flex the muscles in the direction of you tail bone while tightening your glutes and extending your elbows to the floor and rotating your hands/wrists in the direction of your belt and sink slightly while having the sense of your legs extending outwards. Then relax, breathing naturally through your hara (腹[), or diaphragm, without raising your shoulders up and down. Breaths should start with the nose and end being pushed out the mouth, but through the nose only is ok if your breaths don’t raise your shoulders. Now we can call this shizen no kamae and you should be balanced. But, standing still and statically without being able to move doesn’t help much, so in make sure we can move in a balanced manner we need to find how to initiate movement from this position. But, first let’s see if we are balanced with another check.
Once you have a good shizen no kamae, you want to sink down into a squat slowly while keeping your feet flat on the floor. Your knees should start the movement as you squat, if you feel like your balance is shifting back you haven’t aligned your hips properly you should be shifting forward. Most likely if your balance is shifting backwards, you have pushed your glutes backward thus causing the shift. If anything, you should feel like you have to rise up on your toes. This keeps your balance aligned[. Now hopefully you are getting a sense where your balance is and how to maintain it while standing. However, this is just the beginning, the goal is to control your balance throughout all your movements and maintaining control of its vector. Yes, I said it, vector. A vector is a line of force, which is important to taijutsu and an important aspect to how you need to control your balance.
In moving and maintaining your balance, you must learn how to control your hips and let the knees become your feedback sensor. Basically, you must learn to listen to your body and make your body a sensor (this goes beyond balance, but it is first place to start). So, what do I mean by sensor, well I generally mean feeling the natural loading and weight/ tension on the knees and thighs and the moment your weight begins to shift over the balls of your foot. So, to illustrate this, start in shizen no kamae and slowly sink as we did in the previous balance and alignment check. Sink until you reach about 75-80 percent weight on your knees, or until you feel like you’re forced to lift your heels off the ground. This is the moment of movement, your legs, knees and feet become coiled like a spring (building torque) and you launch forward with one of your legs. The lifting leg is lifted straight off the ground and the back leg pushes forward by using the glutes. Extending the back leg fully then pulling it in reaching 50/50 with the two legs. If done correctly, you should feel an explosiveness to the movement at first, but for the sake of understanding your balance slow it down and try not to shift the weight to one leg too much. Also, try it with both legs. Your belt should be a good guide, keep it pointed straight forward towards your target, don’t twist the upper body.
If you think you have the basic stepping forward action, we will move to stepping at forty-five degrees. First off, most people step back something steeper than forty-five, in order to understand how to step back, I recommend having something square to align your foot placement better. Stepping back at forty-five you want to sink and drop into it, it should feel as if you are stepping down stairs backwards, your body weight should also be 50/50 on both legs and hips aligned the similar as your forward step. To check if you have proper balance, you should easily be able to lift either leg without pulling the leg in but lifting it straight up. Some common issues you may have is taking to large of a step or you have rotated your core and shifted your balance outside a position you can easily control or manipulate for movement (this will cause wasted movement, and allow others to read your movements.) Also, when moving you might have tendency to twist your body, twisting the body causes major shifts in your balance. By twisting I mean anytime your hips, knees, shoulders, and feet are not aligned.
When stepping back at forty-five degrees, you should sink by lifting the back foot straight up of the ground evenly. Then you should land the foot with an even amount of pressure, placing it evenly on the ground. Your placement of your feet needs to be flat, not heel toe or toe heel. The sinking, stepping, and placement of the foot should be in one even motion. To lift the back leg, focus on using the muscle closest to the hip (sartorius muscle). Focus on this muscle to lift either leg to move forward or back, focus on this muscle alone. If you have a proper shizen no kamae and simply lift the leg and sink with proper timing you should naturally fall on a 45-degree diagonal line (test this by putting down lines or find a corner of a square or triangle[).
With some practice and testing, you should have a bit of understanding of your general balance, now lets look at a few other aspects regarding specific lines using 地の形 (Chi no Kata). So, everyone should generally understand chi no kata, but doing it with precision and naturally using balance is a bit easier said than done ( I will specifically use a certain version of Chi no kata most may not be familiar with so keep this in mind). So, first begin by lifting your left arm up with a feeling of having the finger tips extending outward in an ark along a line moving and pointing of the middle finger at the left eye. Then flip the left hand as if to cut the left eye with your hand. Then move the arm on a flat line until you can no longer move it naturally back, then release any muscle tension and let the arm natural fall towards your center until it reaches the knot of your belt. From there engage your left pec and the muscle near your scapula to pull/ push the arm out into an uke nagashi. While simultaneously sinking and lifting the right leg straight of the ground with the right hand extending towards the floor as if you are trying to extend your middle finger into the ground. Do not twist, to do this movement. Your left elbow should be over your knee and your knee should be over the point behind the ball of the foot. Your right elbow should be in line with your right knee and the same point in the foot[. Moving forward, sink and rock ( or extend) forward via the knot of your belt while using the right knee and then simply pick up the back foot (Do not push off with the back foot just lift it.) In unison with the sink and movement forward, the foot, knee and elbow maintain alignment. Use the left glute to extend the left leg to get a thrust forward. The timing of the striking fist changes about half way through to the target. At the end of the strike. Sink and shift the weight by using the knees and then pull the left hand back and lift the leg in one motion back into shizen no kame.
If you can put all these points together using the body and balance in unison and precision with timing and chained motions you will have a better since of balance, as well as an initiation into what taijutsu in general is about.
Kyudo like many Japanese martial arts has spiritual aspects attributed to it. Most notably Kyudo is seen primarily as a practice of Zen Buddhism in the west. Eugen Herrigel was the first to popularize Zen in the practice of Kyudo with his book “Zen in the Art of Archery”.
In recent years, a few Japanese writers have argued that Herrigel’s view was both the result of poor or vague translations at the time and Herrigel’s aspirations to find Zen in Kyudo. The strong association of Buddhism and Zen with Kyudo doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, regardless of recent journal articles arguing against Zen’s inclusion. The relationship is so intertwined in the collective consciousness that it seems unlikely to ever disappear. This is due to the nature of religion and Japanese martial arts in general.
Buddhism and Shinto are the two main religions in Japan and they are so interwoven that most Japanese cannot tell the difference between the two. Often one will find Buddhist temples next to Shinto shrines, which further confuses the differences between the two faiths.
Kyudo is primarily used in Shinto ceremonies. The bowman will wear the white garments of a Shinto priest while performing ceremonies. Unlike Buddhist ceremonies in which pure white garments are not used. The arrow itself is a Shinto talisman to ward of evil and to attract good luck. In Zen the sword carries a heavy symbolic weight and the arrow has no symbolic significance.
Despite the utter lack of Buddhist ceremonies involving Kyudo in Japan there are an extensive Kyudo exhibitions in the west involving Zen temples. Kyudo exhibitions are never held at Buddhist temples in Japan. It seems that Zen and archery has stronger associations in the west than it does in Japan.
Although Zen Buddhism might not have anything to do with Kyudo directly, the ideas and practice of it are quite Zen-like. Central tenets like the concepts of no-mind and non-attachment are notions shared with Zen Buddhism, however slightly differing in aim and approach.
Since Shinto lacks a founder and religious texts, many attribute Buddhism to things that are primarily Shinto in origin. The Shinto/Buddhism difference is paper-thin in Japan which further perpetuates the seemingly contradictory statements about Kyudo and Japanese spiritual life.
Some might regard Kyudo as an inner and outer practice uniquely Japanese, the outer as the expression of Shinto with the inner the expression of Zen Buddhism. Regardless what is attributed to Kyudo, the practice requires diligence, concentration and Zen-like qualities to perform the elegant and sublime feats of Japanese archery.
As we pass from 2018
into 2019, I wonder what the new year will bring. I have hopes and
aspirations for the development of the dojo; the students and
location. In the hope to attract new students to the dojo I will
blog and vlog a bit this year, although I am probably the most camera
shy guy on the planet (I have a face for radio). I plan on sharing
stories, insights into training, tips, and my general methodology and
my experiences through my 25+ years in the Bujinkan.
I also want to contribute to the whole of the Bujinkan, the Midwest Bujinkan in particular, we are all flickering candle light attempting to overcome the darkness. A single candle light can lighten a room, but a million points of candle light can lighten the world. For us in the Midwest, we attempt to support other dojos and communities, we attend the Midwest Taikai and visit dojos who host teachers throughout the world. We are a bit like a family, we may not always get along, but we always care for others in the community. This year we have the Midwest Taikai being held in Michigan, with the theme being Women’s Self Defense. In the current environment of the #metoo movement, I think this theme is important. There are so many things we can learn through different perspectives and approaching the art with this in mind. The Bujinkan is more than a martial arts organization, it’s a community of friends and source of many life long friendships.
The past is the key to our future, the present moment is a result of how we have lived up to this point. As 2018 passes as memories, it becomes a support beam to build a bridge. A bridge to reach isolated islands, share inspiration, share hope, share goodwill and to make peace. We all train to be peacemakers, it is my opinion that the purpose of the martial arts is not to wage war, fight, or destroy, but rather it is to make peace from the ashes of war, fights, and conflict. The purpose of the martial arts is to endure the unendurable and make a lasting peace after weathering war. We learn to endure and transcend conflict even within the tempest of the conflict. We transcend daily struggles. To become peacemakers; we need to become strong in order to become meek. Self-defense, war, and conflict is easy, making and maintaining peace is difficult. Martial Arts educate us into being better people by influencing others in a positive manner while striving for a more moral and peaceful world.
I have rambled a bit
too long, Happy New Year and I wish everyone the best in 2019.
Budo is often difficult to define. The term budo is made up of two characters “武” and “道”. The character “武” has many meanings. It can mean “bravery” or “valor”; it can also mean “warrior” or “military arms”. The character “道” also has many meanings. It can mean “road”,” path” or “course” and “moral teachings” or “journey”. When combined we can arrive at several possible translations. However, it is unnecessary to disambiguate the two characters into precise English terms. Instead, it would be better to allow the concepts of the characters to swirl about. Nonetheless, let’s focus on the process of studying and practicing budo.
Budo is a practice. It requires continual self-refinement and self-directed diligence combined with daily practice. One doesn’t practice budo without these three aspects. Unlike religion budo doesn’t require you to believe in anything. One merely maintains a daily practice for self-refinement as an act of polishing a mirror until the mirror reveals a true reflection. Even if one polishes the mirror over and over, they might be polishing it incorrectly or unevenly. The polishing of one’s mirror requires certain systematic and pragmatic approaches, without it one might polish their mirror with sandpaper or use caustic cleaners to quicken the process, but in doing so one will destroy their mirror so that it never reflects a true image instead it reflects a distorted image. The act of polishing our mirrors takes time and diligence with an even amount of pressure and control – this is what is known as “proper practice”.
Most martial art schools have a natural progression and transmission method of teaching. In the old days, masters often didn’t teach the secrets or the principles of the movement; instead they taught the movement and instructed the student to repeat it over and over again, without ever speaking about the principles. When the student showed promise and their movements became crisp the master would initiate the student into the principles. Only after many hours of practice and diligence on the side of the student would the master speak of the deep principles of the movements.
Today, teachers may begin by teaching the principles, which in effect is akin to spoon feeding the student. This act of spoon feeding kills the progress of the student, if the student doesn’t have to rely on his own abilities he may not pursue what is just out of his reach. More often than not, even the teachers only have a superficial understanding of the principles and merely parrot what they have heard without really understanding it. The principles won’t be understood without proper practice, to the effect that a principle without practice is a song without a single note. To avoid superficial understanding of the principles proper practice is a must.
“When you go to a house you must go through the gate first; arriving at the gate is an indication that you have arrived at the house. Going through the gate, you enter the house and meet the host. Learning is the gate and not the house. Learning is the gate to attaining the way.”
Learning is not the same as understanding or attainment. Just because one has a bit of new information doesn’t mean one understands it. In the martial arts this seems to be very important as some can confuse the gate for the house. Or they confuse learning as knowing and take the bit of information as understanding.
Taking the gate to be training and the study of a martial art, and the house as understanding and being able to put into practice what one has learned, then meeting the host would be mastery of the art or the way. But in order to meet the host you must first walk through the gate and enter the house.
There are no short cuts to mastery, you must go through the gate, enter the house, and meet the host there is no other way.