Interview With A Shidoshi: Part 2
by Liz Maryland
(This is a much abbreviated, reworked and updated version of the original interview published in now defunct Ura & Omote newsletter)
U&O: To a certain extent you agree with Hatsumi Sensei's name change of the art?
JM: Yes, Budo Taijutsu is cool. Hatsumi decided that's what HE's going to call it and that everyone in every other country has the right to choose to call it what they want. Mark O'Brien recently wrote, in one of his "Japan Report newsletters", that Hatsumi Sensei has told him that if you want to call it ninja taijutsu, and that is appropriate for your country, then do so. Well, the Shidoshi here in America know what's best for their cities. If we feel we want to call it Budo Taijutsu as he has, and that would be received better, in our city, in our state, then that's fine. I think there may come a time when I choose to change its name, just so the guys who come in here asking, "Do we get to wear masks?" (laughter) will come less frequently.
U&O: (laughing) I know that you've studied with Hatsumi Sensei. Did you study in Japan or did you study with him in the United States? For how long did you study? Was this during your five-
year "wandering" period?
JM: No. This is actually after that period. I met Hatsumi Sensei in 1986 at the Tai Kai. Anybody who was anybody in ninjutsu was there. People like. . . Well, rather than naming names, let's just say they were there. At that Tai Kai I heard Hatsumi say, "If you want to come to Japan you are all welcome. But dedicate yourself to training." Well at that time, choices had to be made. Where would mine lead me? This was the beginning of my musha shugyo. Some of my friends were going to train in Japan while others were moving to California, Ohio... I chose to move and train full-time in Washington State. At that training, we didn't worry about what to call the training - - instead we just focused on the training itself. There were no ranks. We just trained. We had instructors who previously were ranked in Aikijujitsu, Tae Kwon Do, Hwa Rang Do, etc. but the common bond we shared was ninpo taijutsu from Shadows of Iga sources. Yet, when I met Hatsumi Sensei, I was really impressed by him. During my travels and relocation I had lots of contact with friends traveling to train in Japan. Some had visited us and told us of their journeys to Japan. When I moved back to New York, I chose to train a bit with my Shidoshi friend John who lives in Texas. He invited me to an upcoming Tai Kai. It had been a few years since I'd been to one. John helped me to reorganize my priorities a bit, showed me helped me some new forms, taught me their Japanese names and helped me decide the direction of my future training. He introduced me to Mark O'Brien and "made" me take the Godan test. One of the things that I think John liked about my skill was that I had fluid movement. He also liked the way that I hit hard... My training was quite combat oriented.
U&O: How did you rank for the Godan?
JM: I would rather the Shinsa, the exam itself, not be discussed so much. A few Shidoshi make it out to be mystical and very spiritual. But I think its a private event. Well, John just put me up for the Godan test. Just, bang! I wasn't even aware it was happening. It starts like a joke: "Joe, you want to take the Godan test?" "No." "Well, you're on the list." [laughter] Later, Sensei swung his shinai and my body moved. Some of my old training partners were there and saw me pass the test and wondered why I was there... Why was I taking the Shidoshi test? Like "Joe's training isn't relevant to what we're doing..."
U&O: Sort of like "he doesn't belong here."
JM: Right. Over the next few days that changed a bit. Perhaps, they realized I was very dedicated to training. And soon, I began to feel like I was forging a bit of a rapport with Sensei, also. It was at this time that I decided I wanted to know what the heck Hatsumi Sensei wrote in his books. There are so many of his books written only in Japanese. Now, I'm not very interested in spending the rest of my life committed to learning a foreign language or interested in moving to Japan. I'll go there and visit some times, but there are so many places in the world I also want to visit. Instead, I decided that what I was going to do is work on locating good translators and getting Sensei's books translated. I learned a bit of the Japanese language through these interactions. One of my friends, Hideaki, has been very encouraging and quite nice in sharing lessons with me. Often, when he translates something, he'll translate it into Japanese Romanji, and not directly into English. And then he'll teach me the meaning and the kanji. That's pretty much what I've done over the years. Also, after I became a Shidoshi I knew I needed to go to Japan for a little while. And it was quite a wonderful experience, too. I don't know where to begin with that. Here are some words to place images to: Training with Shihan or Soke every day, snow on the ground, warm days, freezing nights, climbing Togakure mountain, Kyoto, training at 3am because we can't fall asleep... After I returned to the States I made a commitment to go to the Tai Kai's and to train with Hatsumi Sensei, Manaka Shihan and Muramatsu Sensei, every chance I get. These are the teacher which I enjoy quite a bit; they have awesome taijutsu. For instance, Manaka Shihan is always changing every thing on me. He gives me new insights and when I go to his training and get even a moment to work with him --sometimes, I'm lucky to be his Uke-- I get the feeling that there is so much behind his taijutsu. So much. I know I have something like 20 or 30 years to catch up. (laughs)
U&O: In addition to working on Sanmyaku (Hatsumi Sensei's newsletter) as Assistant Editor,
you also have your own newsletter and I've been curious for a while as to why its called "Heart, Faith and Steel".
JM: The name for "Heart, Faith and Steel" comes from a movie I've enjoyed watching over the years. When I first heard the phrase, it stuck in my head. At that moment, it was the essence of all my training. Heart, faith and steel. There are three things that you need to start thinking about when you are involved in martial training: tenacity, loyalty to yourself & your training, and discipline. Heart, faith and steel. There were days of contemplation in which I would wonder, "What the hell do I do this for?" And a little voice, would whisper, "Heart, faith and steel." This phrase keeps coming back into my training. Often someone will say something like, "I don't understand why we have to hit so hard..." It's about the discipline. It's about learning to forge yourself anew.. . the tempering process that goes with our training. Steel. I once told a person who didn't like to get hit that there might be a time he would find himself being struck by an adversary... "Wouldn't it be grand if you took the blow and you'd smile and think, 'That's all you've got? I was hit so much harder my third day of class. (we laugh) Better try again. Let's really have a go at this.'" He liked that. Guess that's why he kept training here. When I was beginning this training I was hit very hard. I remember what it was like. When I worked in a nightclub, I was a bouncer, doorman, bartender, and finally a night manager. So I know what it's like to have a punch launched at me and a knife aimed in your general direction... you know, it's amazing! Most people have no idea of what they'll do when the time comes. When it confrontation occurs something just bursts forth (or doesn't). And later, maybe you get a chance to reflect and go, "What the heck did I do?!? (laughs) How am I supposed to tell everybody I did this cool move! What did I do?"
U&O: You speak a lot of the virtues in having heart, faith and steel. I understand those qualities
as defining a warrior. What, in your opinion, defines a warrior?
JM: Let me read something to you. "When the true warrior goes into battle he does not concern himself with his past or with recollections of his former greatness and strength nor is he concerned with consequences of the future or with thoughts of victory or defeat or pain and death. The greatest warrior knows himself and has great confidence in himself. He is simply conscience of an opponent. He is open and fully aware of the situation without thinking in terms of good and bad. What makes him a great warrior is that he has no opinions. He is simply aware, whereas his opponent, being emotionally involved in the situation, would not be able to face it. Because he is acting truly and staring through that fear, he is able to attack the enemy with effect." It's a quote from Chogyam Trungpa... and it's a wonderful description of a warrior in the midst of battle. It has the feel of "heart, faith and steel" quote. When I think of a warrior, I think of someone who aspires to the path of warriorship, never really seeking to put a name on what or who they are. They're traveling a path and sometimes other people perhaps look at them and say, "See him. He reminds me of what a warrior is." I believe that a warrior lives by doing the best he or she can everyday. Trying to help people when they can, when it's appropriate. There are times when it's not appropriate. A warrior develops himself first. Begin by finding who and what you are. Develop your self, then you can start to think about helping other people. Steven Barnes, an author, once wrote, "What is there to a man that can break bones but cannot heal them." He told me that thoughts like this have caused him to change his whole view of the martial arts and thereby changed his training. He is someone that aspires to this warrior path. Ultimately, I think a warrior is someone who seeks the path, embraces personal growth, and shares this growth with those around them.
U&O: How long have you been teaching since after you received your Godan? When did you
start having a training group again?
JM: My formal Bujinkan teaching began here in Bronxville in December of 1992. Previous to that time the dojo was run by someone else.
U&O: Someone else's ninjutsu dojo?
JM: Yes. The location was not working out for him, and he offered it to me. I lived just a few blocks from the dojo so I asked him, "How much is it?" I considered the price (I hadn't really thought of ever owning a DOJO) and then asked the people that were training with me if they were interested in a dojo... They said, "Okay" and we started. Up until that day training was always in my backyard, garage, a nearby park, etc. Now we had a dojo. I think we all agreed to do this so we could get a few more people to hit, er train with. (Smile)
U&O: What made you decide to make the transition from being a student to being a teacher
JM: Well, I'm still a student. But to answer your question Liz, the reason why I chose to teach again is because I didn't think I had any right to hoard my knowledge. I wanted to share the lessons I'd learned and I wanted to grow from the sharing of those lessons. That's essentially why I chose to teach again. I know there are things I've learned from sharing with people. I even learn from students who come into the dojo and leave after only a short time. I sometimes look at these occurances as lessons in patience. And sometimes there are people with difficult personalities who have an agenda, an attitude, or stores of knowledge from other martial arts they learned. This all teaches me to persevere over the trails of day to day life. Teaching is my way to perpetuate our training. See, when I first moved back to New York, I checked out other training opportunities. At that time, no one in the area offered a continuous program that had a level of training near my interest. Which is not an insult to anyone who offered ninjutsu in the area. It's just that some of them didn't have the same "learning experiences" that I had had. I realized that my training had taken a different path then theirs. I should tell you the very first experience I had with training with a ninjutsu instructor upon my return to New York. I was invited to his class. We were good friends but hadn't seen each other in a couple of years. At the training we did omote gyaku, I took his senior student through the motions, and I brought him to the ground. He was in great pain and I hadn't even applied the technique yet. I mean I really wasn't getting anywhere near omote gyaku. . . but I apologized. I thought it a bit odd when later the dojo owner asked me to show a technique. We did the technique with him as Uke, and when I hit him, he stopped, looked at me, his face was flushed, and then he relaxed a bit. As his students began to practice the technique, he and I spoke. "What's wrong? You looked ready to duke it out, " I asked. "We don't do that anymore," he replied. I was confused when he continued, "We don't hit hard anymore. We haven't done that in 4 or 5 years. All the training has been soft because so many people are joining and we have to worry about insurance." I looked around, felt uneasy for a moment and explained that I was sorry if... He immediately interrupted me saying, "No! Don't be." And the next thing I knew, we were training more and more. That was my first experience with looking for advanced training when I moved back. Later, I heard that other dojo were adapting my methods of teaching. This was told to me by some of their students who would come to visit and train with us. This lead me to the realization that other teachers in the area were lacking fundamental building blocks of training. These "teachers" had let themselves be placed in their teaching roles before they had actually matured into it. So, it was quite clear to me that there was very little that these individuals had to offer me. That was when I decided that I would share my knowledge with anybody who sincerely wished to learn.
U&O: What do you enjoy most about teaching and in that regard what advice can you give to
someone who is interested in training in the art?
JM: Have a "Shut up and train" attitude (smile). Actually, the teaching aspect I enjoy the most is how training can help some one to change and grow. How it makes people develop as human beings. I've found that more than just changing your kicks and punches, the training changes what's inside you because you learn to appreciate different things. For instance, I watched my friend develop from someone unable, both physically and emotionally, to do a backroll, to a man who can backroll at anytime he needs to. He had a fear of heights and yet, his martial training brought him through that. I guess what I enjoy is that there is a sense that training can change the way you view and experience life. Not just physically, but in the whole spectrum of how humans experience things. Again, this all reflects back on the personal forging process...
U&O: How it tempers your soul, essentially.
JM: That isn't exactly how I would express it, Liz. I don't want to use the word "soul" because it invites so much controversy. I believe that martial training has a potential to change people in a wonderful way. Some people do not let this change happen, are not ready for the change or simply don't want it. These are the individuals that don't continue with their training.
Another aspect of our training that I believe is quite important and which I enjoy very much is the camaraderie which we share. A "growing and learning together" attitude rather than the "us against world" attitude that some dojo have. If I can digress for a moment... One of the very first things that made me think about the martial arts differently occurred when I was offering a class at college. At that time I knew very little about real training as I had only been involved in the martial arts for a few years. Most of the classes dealt with self defense moves. My whole idea regarding the class was to share my knowledge and get other teachers to visit and share with us, too. Well, one day --about 8 months after we began this class-- this lady walks right up to me with tears in her eyes and hugs me. At the time I was thinking: "Do I know you?" But I said, "Are You okay?" Well, she apologized a bit, composed herself and told me that she used to attend class. She had come a few times, learned some of the drills and then quit because her course work had gotten quite difficult... Now, I'd seen a lot of "joining and quitting" so, I wasn't too good with faces. She continued, "I want to thank you. You saved my life. About 8 months ago I came to your classes, you taught me some things, and when a mugger attacked me, threw me up against a wall, I did the things you taught in class. He may have just wanted my money, he may have wanted to rape or kill me, too. But, I did the move you showed -I didn't think about it- I just did it. It came out and it saved my life." I've never forgotten that. In that moment, I saw how everything about the martial arts fit neatly into my life. I hadn't saved her... SHE had saved herself. The lessons I taught where hundreds of years old -perhaps, thousands- but I had created a connection between her, the training and myself in that moment. Yet, she had now made me aware of the fact that all of my training, all the difficulties I saw arising from the Martial Path, were worth it. All the pains, the hard times, the hardships of changing and adapting --even the loss you feel when a wonderful student leaves training before he or she glimpses their potential-- it was (and is) all worth it. She taught me that martial training really affects every part of your life. All because I had shared with her and she returned and thanked me.
U&O: That's a fantastic story. (laughing) We've all got tears in our eyes.
JM: Well, Liz, it changed me. You see, it wasn't about me kicking and punching anymore? Was it? It wasn't about how good *I* was? It was about having done something for someone and not ever having to be there at the moment of conflict. Someone once said, "A teacher affects eternity." But I realized that we all affect eternity. Class for me had always been about ME learning new things. But, when that lady hugged me and told me her story and I felt the enormous emotion that was there, well -- I could have just started crying with her.
U&O: Any final thoughts?
JM: Yes, we've been talking too long. We should really "shut up and train."