Martial Arts  Robert Cole 2015      early writing

Sensei was the real McCoy. Older, charismatic. He knew all the major Japanese movie stars personally. He knew all the roots of all the martial arts styles. He knew the myths and legends and the famous poems and legends with which they were associated. I could tell you about the Phoenix and the Dragon, but that's another story.

We were all in our 20s and 30s (just like you).

Sometimes Sensei would get frustrated and show a draw we weren't doing quite right. Sometimes, when he did this, he might miss his return - showing his age and showing us his state of practice. The students would sort of, - look at the roof.

How awkward. After all, Sensei was older.

Then there was a time with the SHINAIs...
Class was out on the floor stepping through the evenings chaotic bustle. Everything relaxed and normal.

Everyone was trying that SHOMAN thing where you're stomping forward taking quick hits as if to an opponent's forehead. 45 degrees behind to 45 degrees front. Slapping the floor with each hit. BANG - BANG - BANG

When you do 10 or fifteen of those, brother, you're huffin'!

Well, everyone's huffin' and looking pretty weak.

Suddenly TAKAHASHI jumps up and does 70 of them. Faster than you can think.

Everyone just stood there.

It came time to play with the SHINAIs. 2nd head-student was wearing the armor because he did KENDO besides our IAI class. We were instructed about hitting the wrist. Each student, one after the other, would cautiously approach 2nd student and at some strangely varying moment pop over and slap the glove. 2nd student dutifully putting up with it all.

During prelims, I noticed 2nd student pulled a guard of the forehead, a kind of natural reaction. - Just jerking that TSUKA up quickly. I also noticed a block he'd make by twisting his wrist to the right so that the base of the "blade" would block a wrist attack. No one else bothered noticing this because it was not part of this new instruction for us.

Somehow, TAKAHASHI SENSEI needed to show us some urgent point, and put me up as an opponent for his explanation to the class.

We faced off and I edged slowly in.

Mr TAKAHASHI was telling the class how to strike the wrist. When he went for the strike, I twisted my wrist to block...
            and stopped his blade perfectly!

Before my elation could overtake my surprise, he attacked with uncounted hits in unknown milliseconds, breaking my SHINAI apart and out of my hands.

The nail hung half-broken from my shaking thumb.

But I kept smiling! - Boy, did I smile.

The Phoenix and the Dragon
The Phoenix flies over the water. Myriad brilliant stars blink
from its surface.

The Phoenix sails lazily over the waves,
  their mirrored reflections ignite his shimmering form.

He pretends to be unaware
  - as his shadow runs after him. Trying to keep up. Scurrying like a badger.

In the deep is the Dragon...

The Dragon is curious.

The Dragon knows it's the Phoenix, but the Dragon can't help himself. Curiosity is the SUKI of the Dragon.

The Dragon is transfixed
           ...maybe it's not the Phoenix...

The shadow moves hypnotically. It's silence is thunder as it roars
across the rippling veil above.

His curiosity becomes unbearable and the Dragon rises up
for that dark form - fluttering across his eyes.   - It's just across the curtain...

   and as he reaches out...

    The Phoenix grabs him up!

The Phoenix and the Dragon concerns a form about "stickiness."

Your arms are extended straight out to the side.

You are the Phoenix. Your blade is sticky. Your forearms are sticky. Your shoulder is sticky.

The flat of his blade will stick to you. You can trap his blade and hold it, even at full swing. He cannot move it.

It will stick to you and you will have him.


Makoto phones. He tells me he's going to have sword exhibition at the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan Town that next week. He needs an associate for proper explanation to the people.

I, of course, haven't done sword drawing for about two years and explain I'm completely out of shape, etc. This doesn't matter because he is completely out of shape too. That's why I must help. It's OK because nobody'll be there anyway. Just two rusty sword guys.

"Just do some SHOMANs" is how I remember his good-by.

SHOMAN is an IAI (sword draw) cut where the blade is brought in a full swing directly over the head. It is the most powerful cut and practicing it makes the most powerful swordsmen.

"1000 SHOMAN a day"
"If you do 1000 SHOMAN a day, you are strongest swordsman. This is oldest rule." 

The sword starts from an extension all the way down the back, parallel with the backbone. The shoulder blades splay, your elbows arc toward the sky. Your stomach muscles grab your chest. From the side, the veneer of sword steel swinging a broad swath through the air appears like the shell of a snail. Wider in back and pulling tightly to the front.
The arms twist the handle as if ringing a towel. You exert full pressure, with the spirit of lifting a Sherman Tank to save your child. - After all, your life's supposed to be on the line.
Five of these and your wondering when the purple dots 'll stop whirling.
I remember doing many when I did sword, but now I'm out of shape.

(Still, you're going to be on stage, pal. - Time to start hump'in!)

So I practice. I practice all day. I practice all week. I practice so much a certain part of my forearm distends abnormally. - And hurts abnormally!

By show day, my arm is weak. My arm is painful. My form is shaky - literally.

I have driven into the city. I am in my HAKAMA and GI, sitting dutifully in the mad crush of a vibrant and frantic San Francisco Cherry-Blossom Festival. Bright color and excited children swirl across the eyes. There is no let up.

Finally Makoto arrives. His martial arts gear is different. His friends with the Japanese theater group have supplied him the full bearance of a seventeenth century RONIN. The print of his tattered garment is brighter than these kids'. - Headband. Hair. - This guy LOOKS REAL!

We set up and a crowd gathers. - A large crowd gathers. The old, the young, women with babies; other martial artists. Shop keepers.

I whisper, "I'm out of shape." Makoto whispers back, "it's OK, me too." - I kind of give him a nod, a kind of questioning nod. (I'm kind of questioning all right, - what am I doing here?)

But Makoto needed my help. He'd have to have gotten up here without any help. Without any support. He started me on sword. - Esprit de corps! We'll make it through this.

Makoto does a long bit to the swelling audience about the Samurai, the martial arts, the martial tradition, modern keepers of the flame, etc. And then turns it over to me for the first

I fumbled my draw and felt my face redden at the close of my first shaky cut. I remember the snicker that crept to an old man's face enjoying the spectacle.

Lots of fun! - And I only had three more to go.
One was so-so, the rest...
            Lots a fun.

Finally it was poor Makoto's turn. I tried to tell myself the pressure was off a little, maybe we weren't actually there. Maybe there wasn't this sea of faces. Maybe they would all watch him

Makoto may have said something. His body disappeared into a small metallic ball. He did three or four, maybe four or five cuts - and a clean return within one second.

The old man's face lit with pride.

I was stunned.
        ( - I was pissed!)


    - I didn't want to be here anyway!

We were to trade places. And as we passed, our eyes glanced right to each other and I heard the whisper, "Three hundred a day."


One of the fun things you can do at sword demonstration is offer to cut an apple off the head of a three year old. To prove the mother's fears unfounded, I'm supposed to stop Makoto, suggesting we first use a styroform head as a test. Of course, the styroform head eats it.

We didn't have styroform at this Cherry Blossom demonstration but a total stranger took the toddler's place in stiff seizan and full confidence. Makoto'd been great but this was mind boggling. Makoto and I just looked each other but kept straight faces. This demonstration was proving full of surprise. Makoto declined the man's kind offer, but what with enough bananas and apples, and Makoto's - HEIGHTENED SKILLS - we trudged through. 

        (Three hundred SHOMANs...)

Makoto had told me we were to appear twice. The second was to be in two weeks at the Festival finale.

        (Two weeks...  in two weeks, there, buddy)

We bid smiling farewells. In two weeks. We'd see each other in two weeks.

Two weeks...

Did I practice?

Luckily I had the perfect place, a pre-Victorian church with twenty foot ceilings. Built in 1868 by the Druids, it had two floors, each a large room with a large empty floor.

- Two DOJOs!

I only needed one.

Two weeks. Night and day, flashing steel and KIAI. A slapping of the floors. A great slapping of the floors. The air pulsated, the windows shuttered.

Spouse gained resolve but the cats left. 

     ...And spouse started shopping alot.

But I got good. I got REAL good.

I could smear the horizon with both hands. Clean returns with both hands, - smooth as glass.

I cut a candle so both sides were left burning.

 ...And I got fast. I got REAL fast.

I worked up three KATA. Two were carefully tame. But the third...

In the third KATA, I am attacked by eight opponents. This of course requires two swords.

    (- Eight opponents require two swords)

Let's see, how did that go... I'm attacked from the front but a second attacks from the right. This doesn't require two swords, but a third comes from behind. His sword gets clasped by the guard of my short-sword and he is led through with his momentum, pulling him further than he allowed. While pushing him, sword guard  to sword guard on a line at the left, I step around to the right and cut his back. Then the rest of them attack and of course that's when the action really begins. The audience will be impressed. The audience will be REAL impressed.

Makoto WILL BE impressed. That old man will be impressed.

I'm impressed. Spouse is impressed   ...but the cats - are gone.

Nothing matters, for the day of SWEET REVENGE has arrived.

My mind is calm. My spirit is boundless. My energy contained. Smooooth. Ready.

We drive to the city.

I wait again in the still festive but now noticeably exhausted wane of the yearly party. Paper and liter stroll on marble walkways while people chase after voices and echoes. Through the clutter and clatter I see Makoto running up.


He's dressed in a suit and bounds the stairs.

"Ah, so sorry, called off." And runs away.

    The void. Used or held. A world. Or a point.
    The void of the Five Elements, Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, Void.
    Void was the aether of the Greeks; and of Europe.  It is the Black Hole. 
It is the pull of things not.
    The void was in the crevice of the swordsman's palm. That place between the Five Thousand Places of the hand. That malleable cleft between the Five, each of a thousand, lubricated with the Void.  A place of no place.

    "The Void will swallow your opponent. Swallow him up."
                            - The words of Sensei.

    The void is also in the end of the sword pommel, the "KASHIRA." What was the butt of the sword handle is now a ring, - opening a hole to the end of the world. 
    "It will suck him in."  His words were clear and stood in the air for minutes.
They are in the air still.
    When that moment of blinding violence comes, in the bright color of crisp morning, your placid mind serene before the ghastly display of scream and steel, power and death, his sword will fall into the Void. - In the pommel of your sword.

    There is no doubt.

    There on the pommel, or on the handle between the pommel and your fingers
 - he will be swallowed up.

    There is no doubt.

    But this is not the point of this form. The point of this form happens somewhere else, and without it, there is no point.  - And without it, there is failure.

    There are the secret words. The secret words that evoke the mind. That bring the secret power.
    What were the secret words? The cadence put, the inference plied in those few mumbled syllables.  Mumbled in the moment...

    Pulled from the Earth, a universe explodes in a surge before one's eyes.
    The bluest sky.
    Stretching from the horizon, the whitest little clouds like snow flakes, catch the light.
    Numbing color cascades. The mind is enraptured. Lives and earth gently caress as time is undone. The vision overtakes all worlds, its simplicity without bonds.
    The rich brilliance of color bears down.
    This is the moment. Only through this "Way," from these words, in this most delicately graceful, and long awaited now.
    Only here can life be this way.
    A coveted beauty.  A treasured beauty.
    A secret beauty.
    An evocation of greatest human power, lucidity and art; hiding in the words. Awaiting this time. Waiting in secret.

    - These are the words of Sensei.

Being ready...

Yesterday I was visiting a gal-friend (if I can call her that) who owns a small espresso spot under an awning covered outdoor stand on the outer main drag of the down town area.
The down town, at this time, has its unsavory elements. The unsavory side can weigh upon the landscape.

But this is a great gal, with a nice place - that draws a bright and cheery crowd.

We were attempting conversation between the regular flow of nab-and-run coffee enthusiasts. A newer blue truck stops about a hundred feet away. A guy jumps out and runs up. The car pulls around to the exit, its driver has nervous, darting expressions; but stays in the car.

The guy before us is lean, dressed in unwashed clothes. His skin seems taut and dark. Yet his conversation has an odd misfitting friendliness. He is "talky". He says he has to watch her, - he must see if she makes cappachino good enough - his has to be just so. He wants to know how her coffee machine is holding up. He asks about business. He thinks she will do good at this location. He is looking around to the right, and to the left.

I step around and check the license. It's out of state and a steaming cup of coffee sits in the open truck-bed.

He leans over the counter, looking to the left and to the right. Something is in his pocket. He puts his hand in and out of his pocket. His talk is designed to keep us following his conversation.

I position myself so that I can try whatever I might have to if he pulls a gun out of that pocket. I will try to crush his windpipe with a quick blow if I'm allowed the time. Otherwise, it will be wrestling with a gun.

I look him up and down and think to myself, "this guy will probably kill me."
He is standing by the door and asks if I'm the guard. I say "no, just a friend."

When I was first collecting, I was for a time also a student of Iai, the art of drawing the sword from its scabbard. One afternoon I tried my hand at sword testing. One should never try such a thing but I felt myself of good form and my Iaito sword was appropriately old and tired.

For my purpose I set up a sawhorse with several layers of foam-matting taped about the center support.

The object of sword form is cutting.  Not slicing, not hacking, not chopping. Cutting, - as one  would a steak. Developing a flawless cut with a sword is quite actually an art.

My attempts at art that day were repetitive.

Again and again,  -  I found the sword testing me!  Although satisfied with my form, after an hour the cuts remained similar.

The top layer had a one foot long cleft. The second, ten inches.

The third - eight, the forth - six. The fifth layer of foam displayed a four inch cut, the length shortening to naught in the ninth layer.

Finally I tired. An hour and a half had passed.

Setting the sword down I found myself interested in a SUKESADA WAKIZASHI short sword. A fairly well-mounted piece with a strong Tsuba or sword guard.

Nonchalantly, with little effort, I took a swipe at the foam.

All layers of foam, the center support, stand-legs and the nails that held it together were cut in a clean swath not differing in kind from a knife through butter.

From this we can understand two points:

First, a sword might be thought of as comparable to a musical instrument. It has a number of parts held as a laminate which can behave together as one unique and well-planned structure, transferring the energy of the swordsmans' stroke, magically. If the forging or structure design were lacking, the sword could fight itself or even fail and break apart.

Second, just as a diamond impregnated rock-saw slices through rock, the "tempuring" in Japanese sword blades imbues their YAKIBA with a hardness several, or perhaps many, times that of any material likely to be encountered. To these, all things became naked and vulnerable.

The balance of structure and stature of manufacturing art found in some Japanese swords created weapons capable of truly astounding feats. Swords in destiny of legend. Swords of such innate value from genius of plan and manufacture that personal circumstance has continued to fire our interest these many centuries later.


MINAMOTO YOSHITOMO joined the still obscure TAIRA KIYOMORI in the 1156 HOGEN War against his own father and 7 foot giant brother, TAMETOMO - who could catapult spears with his bow.

YOSHITOMO was in support of GO-SHIRAKAWA, Emperor TOBA's legitimate choice over brother, SUTOKU who refused to quit his temporary reign - demanding his own son raised.

A winning success at the HOGEN War was the beginning of KIYOMORI's great TAIRA influence.

KIYOMORI's lack of graces stood when he put YOSHITOMO's father, MINAMOTO
TAMEYOSHI to death - there in the face of YOSHITOMO's plea to spare him.

As a result, three years later, YOSHITOMO banded with FUJIWARA NOBUYORI against the TAIRA in the HEIJI War. NOBUYORI's career had been scuttled at the behest of Imperial secretary, MICHINORI whose influence was solely his wife's nursing and puppeteering of Emperor GO-SHIRAKAWA.

The secretary was found hiding in a cave and put to death. NOBUYORI took the reins of government, but returning TAIRA KIYOMORI set his capable son, SHIGEMORI against the rebels and crushed their insurrection. NOBUYORI was beheaded and YOSHITOMO died in flight. An obvious and permanent end to the great TAIRA rival and last of the MINAMOTO.

Normally, when one kills a father - and then kills his son, one hastens after loose strings...

On the death of her husband, MINAMOTO YOSHITOMO, TOKIWA GOZEN fled with her three boys, one an infant, to the hidden serenity of RYUMON in the YAMATO foothills, - finding the blank face of fate
             ...her only companion.

TAIRA KIYOMORI, the most powerful head of the most powerful family in Japan, scoured the country
          ...he had to have her

But his rants fell on empty eyes - and silence.

With the arrest of her mother, TOKIWA surrendered herself.

And KIYOMORI released her mother - and allowed her her sons.  Her silly sons.

She had him a daughter ...before bowing away.

And her sons...
    that last little trickle of MINAMOTO blood?

                              - They expunged his line from this earth.


TOKIWA - The Lady Eternity -  notes on the article

YOSHITOMO was the favor. It is a story of a superior man, who was envied by TAIRA KIYOMORI. Everything, intellect, charge and his woman. In support of an Imperial dispute, they were allies against many of YOSHITOMO's own. A real battle of beliefs, of rights and wrongs, pitting members within families. KIYOMORI was more into social climbing, than conscience. When battle #one was done, YOSHITOMO's father was at KIYOMORI'S descretion. He had him killed, in the face of his helpless and heart-broken son, YOSHITOMO.

This put them at complete odds, and as it happened, a failed power-grab gave the life of YOSHITOMO and allowed KIYOMORI to chase for the last prize of YOSHITOMO's life, his wife - who ran and was gladly hid, at complete peril, by all who could.

When her mother was taken, she had a choice - leave this life, that sweet nectar, -or submit to this man, who had killed her husband and love, and the whole of their family. She was as alone as any human has ever been. She had her two young boys and an infant son in her arms - and her choice.

So that they might live, she surrendered herself.

The boys were separated and sent off. TOKIWA had KIYOMORI's daughter and was able to slide away, in time - when it wore off for him -  as she knew it would.

Her sons grew to destroy every drop of TAIRA blood and took the complete power and future of Japan for the Samurai class.