The Tao of Butchery

From Chuang Tzu, translated by Bruton Watson:

Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee-zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music.

“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wen-hui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now-now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes, Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year-because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month-because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as thought it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room-more than enough for the blade to play about in. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.”

“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety until-flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

“Excellent!” said Lord Wen-hui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ting and learned how to care for life!”

This has always been my favorite passage out of what I know of ancient Chinese literature/philosophy. I am told that part of the point is the paradox of The Way existing in such unclean work as butchery. The direct analogy of the enlightened butcher to studying “The Way” of martial arts—especially swordsmanship—is uncomfortable to contemplate. But that is the paradox of studying the arts of war for peaceful reasons.


Injury Rates from Street Fights in the UK

Research from hospital patients in Britain show that in fights “people who had been kicked were most likely to suffer serious injury – even more so than those who had been attacked with a blunt or sharp weapon.”

BBC News Report
Journal Article

At first glance, this would seem to validate the tried and true martial arts strategy of training in kicking techniques over the currently popular emphasis on ground-fighting based on the dogma “that all fights go to the ground.” Kicking was 44% more likely to cause a serious injury than punching.

But as you read the news story, it turned out that people were often kicked after they had “gone to the ground” the wrong way.

[A]lcohol was a large contributing factor in the use of kicking in fights as drunk people were more likely to fall over.

So indeed, fights do go to the ground rather than being stand up kickboxing fights (no surprise). But on the other hand, this is a good reminder that the ground is a very bad place to be if your opponent’s friends are still standing.

Once you are on the floor, you’re at great risk.

Just because the fight is going to the ground doesn’t mean that you want to go there with it.

There are also lessons to point out from the other side. This does succinctly and brutally reinforce the Yachigusa-Ryu philosophy of kicking:

  1. Never kick above your waist.
  2. Always kick to the head.

Some other points from the study worth mentioning:

  • There was a significant increase in severe injuries when there were three or more assailants.
  • The greater rate of injuries from feet over blunt objects does not look to be statistically significant.
  • Blunt objects (and of course feet) caused more significant injuries than sharp objects. This could be because attackers pull back sooner after cutting somebody or it could be due to the fact that may of the cuts were only due to broken glass.
  • Patterns of violence are likely to be different in other countries, both due to cultural reasons and the differing availability of firearms.
  • Kicking was the mechanism of assault in only 7% of injuries surveyed in the hospital. Blunt and sharp objects each represented 11% while punching represented 55% of cases. In other words, kicking might be dangerous but it is rarer than other attacks.
  • Victims were more likely to sustain serious injuries in middle age, with 47 being the peak age.
  • More than a quarter of treated victims were women, which is a higher percentage than in previous studies. Women were less likely to be severely injured than men, unless they were the victims of multiple attackers.

Powerstrike Forza, Go!

A few years ago, at about this time in the holiday season, I was wandering around Midtown in New York. At Rockefeller Center, among all the joyous Christmas schmaltz, a little TV in a window caught the corner of my eye. I could have sworn I saw a legion of leotarded women swinging bokken around (nah, couldn’t be). When I turned around to look back at the TV, it was just quick cuts to views of perfectly normal aerobics classes; but I kept watching and sure enough the sword-aerobics clip came back on.

I had discovered Powerstrike Forza. “Also known as Samurai Sword Training, the one hour class is a supercharged workout that blends elements of two Japanese sword fighting techniques – Kendo and Aikijujitsu.”

Just imagine if you traveled to Tokyo and saw a roomful of people with baseball bats doing synchronized batting practice to music.

Actually, as much as I’m amused (bemused?) by visions of Samurai Jazzercize, I’m all for the idea behind this. Kendoka extol the virtues of suburi, exercises with a heavy bokken, for training strength and technique after all; this is what you get if you remove the kendo from suburi—and replace it with house music. From a Western perspective, it sounds like a fresh and fun take on the hoary old idea of training with Indian Clubs. Given what a hard time people often have getting a good upper-body work out with aerobics, it’s a great idea. In fact, pretty much anything that can get folks excited about exercise is a good idea.

But still, the silliness can be a bit much. It seems hard for the marketing/press folks to avoid describing these classes as “learning sword fighting” and they always seem to pull out the word “empower.” Plus, some of the pictures really do look goofy (this from a guy who wears a pleated “skirt” while he swings his sword around).

The snob in me desperately wants to know what sort of “aikijujutsu” sword fighting the creator has trained in (a bio says she got a “black belt in Shorinjiru Karate and a brown belt in Aikijujitsu, and has trained in kick-boxing for four years”).

Somewhere on a news clip, I heard an instructor say “Just keep your body straight, it’s all arms.”

“The Pulse” Magazine
The Official Book

The New Guy Speaks

Well, this is my first contribution to Yachigusa-Ryu’s blog. I was asked to talk a bit about my impressions of my first tameshigiri class – what I expected, what happened, my thoughts on the accident, etc.

Yachigusa Ryu is my first step into the martial arts. At the time of this writing, I have had exactly one month of training. I joined for two reasons: first, to find out what martial arts is really about. It’s been “Hollywooded” to death, but what is it really all about? The second reason is that I wanted to develop mental discipline, and if there’s anything I’ve heard, it’s that the study of any martial arts teaches discipline. Okay, I have to confess, there is a third reason, and that is I just love the samurai sword… I’m a shameless geek, and my love of swords is part of it, but I’ve always felt the samurai sword stood head and shoulders above all others in terms of beauty, function, and mythology.

So by the time we break out the straw mats at my first tameshigiri class, I’m like a kid on Christmas morning. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a Paul Chen sword, which I was going to use at this class. I really did have my doubts about whether it would actually cut, because the blade really didn’t seem too sharp to me, but then what do I know? Sensei assures me it’s fine, and sure enough that straw mat was cut straight through, no effort at all. Wow, this thing is real! In another time and place, that could’ve been someone’s wrist or neck I just severed.

At this point, the evening continues to go by well. I got some good solid cuts and I had some embarrassing misses. I’m the new guy, after all! Then the next student goes up to cut. He cuts the mat, no problem. Then he looks down. He says he just cut himself. He did????? Where’s the blood? I didn’t even see anything! But Sensei sits him down, grabs the first aid kit, presses gauze against his foot, and sure enough the red shows through. Then the student starts to grunt in pain. Sensei has to wrap the student’s foot together tight as a mummy to be sure that the wound doesn’t open wider. (Sword cuts are supposed to get bigger if you keep moving…yes, somebody thought about this…pretty morbid, huh?). Thankfully, the student is able to get himself to the hospital.

Looking back, it happened so fast. No one saw it coming, and no one saw it when it happened! The blade moved so fast, and cut so efficiently, the student didn’t even feel any initial pain.

The next week, I took a look at the stitches on his toe. Now my impression when the accident happened was that he only cut the top of his foot maybe an inch. Imagine my surprise when I see stitches starting at the tip of his toe, and going back at least three inches!! Good Lord, I think to myself. That sword is deadly!

As fascinated as I am with the katana, this incident reminded me, loud and clear, that it is a weapon, the loaded gun of its day. Its every inch is engineered so that it could carry out its single purpose: to kill. The sword wasn’t a toy or a show piece; people died on the end of these blades.

This incident, along with what I’ve learned in kenjutsu thus far, has shown me very clearly how fragile life can be. We deal with weapons that can pierce flesh so well, the victim is sometimes not aware he is being cut until it’s too late. We’re learning to go for the femoral artery when attacking the leg, or how to slash at the throat when attacking high. How easy it is for life to be lost! Life is all we have. If it is lost, nothing else matters. To see how something so important can be so fragile speaks volumes on how precious it really is.

Yachigusa Ryu is not about learning how to beat someone up. It’s not that shallow. This discipline was developed during a lawless time in human history, and as history has shown, adversity breeds greatness. The Yachigusa family developed this style of fighting not because they wanted to kill, but because they wanted to live. These people developed their art against the backdrop that any minute, they could die. So it’s only natural that everything to do, teach and believe would be saturated with that impetus to live life as well as possible. The result is an art that was rooted in everything that makes a human great: discipline, patience, strength, courage, honor, self control and even compassion. Perhaps the greatest paradox in what we do is that by learning to fight and kill, we learn to become better people so that we don’t have to fight and kill.

I hope I’ve only taken the first few steps of what will be a lifetime of learning. There is no greater way to live then to improve oneself constantly. I now say a prayer every once in awhile in thanksgiving that I live in a time and place where I can learn the martial arts to become a better person, and will never have to use it in anger.

-Piya Wannachaiwong

Some Thoughts on the Essays Regarding the Top 10 Principles of Yachigusa Ryu

Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.

Alexander Hamilton

Now that I’ve spent almost three months writing down the top ten principles of the Yachigusa Ryu martial art system I have to admit I’ve learned a lot. Yes, it’s true, I definitely learned a lot from this experience.

You see, it’s one thing to explain things orally or with physical demonstrations, and a totally different thing to describe the same things in writing. Writing clearly takes more effort and lucidity, since there is no opportunity to discuss the matter or answer questions that may arise during the explanation.

Because I finally made the effort to sit down and explain our principles in writing, I had to really examine the science within them, and figure out the best manner in which to explain them. This is something I had never really done before. I never felt I had to do it before.

In order to complete this project, I also had to do a lot of extra research. That is something I do routinely, but I normally have no set goal or motivating factors.

However, I didn’t have to do all of the research on my own this time. I had a lot of help from my students. Not only did we have a lot of discussions and debates about each principle and the best way to explain them, there was also a lot of discussion which techniques we should use to illustrate them.

In addition, many of my students aided my endeavor by sharing their expertise, and I really appreciate all their efforts and patience in taking the time to see that I fully comprehended the material they shared. I’ll be the first to admit that mathematics and physics were not my strong points in school.

To be honest, without the aid of my students, and their cooperation during a lot of physical trial and error, this project would still not be finished.

I also want to thank one “blog” reader from Texas who was the first to ask me to write about these principles, and kept e-mailing me with encouragement until I was done. It’s nice to know someone is actually reading this stuff, and appreciates the effort.

While I’m not totally satisfied with many of the essays I wrote (the perfectionist part of me always feels I could have done better no matter what others may think), and question how valuable the information really is, I know I did my best. At least I did my best with the information and transmission skills I have at this time. Hopefully, as I improve in the future, so will my abilities to explain these principles in more precise and intelligible detail.

For now, I know I’ve learned a lot of new information, and gained valuable insights into the intricacies within the principles themselves. That alone was worth the effort, and the insights I gained will definitely improve my skills as a student of the martial arts and as a teacher of life-protection skills.

While I know I benefited from this experience, one of my main goals when I decided to explain these principles was to get other people to share what they knew regarding them.

I know for a fact that these principles are not unique to the system of martial arts I teach. While we may call them by different names than other styles, everyone utilizes these principles to some degree or another. After all, science is science, and there are only so many ways the body can be manipulated and various forces applied.

Like I’ve said many times before, teaching martial arts was never something I thought about when I was young. The fact that I’m teaching today, and that people think I have something interesting to share still amazes me at times.

Of course once I started teaching, I made up my mind to be the best teacher I could be, and to never stop learning. There is an old Latin Proverb that states “By learning you will teach, by teaching you will learn,” and I can honestly say I’ve learned a lot by teaching and listening to what my students have to share. Furthermore, I’ve definitely learned that sometimes the simplest question can lead to so many new discoveries.

William Ward stated:

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.

It is my hope that by sharing these principles I willinspire others to come forward and share what they know on these topics. I, for one, would really like to learn more about them, and I promise to investigate any leads, and/or share any and all information I think will help to clarify each topic.