This past weekend, I flew up to Baltimore, MD for a very rare seminar with Shihan Mark Lithgow teaching. The theme of the seminar was “Koppo no Ken.”
Of course there was the excellent training we participated in. But there were also fun stories shared, new friends and connections made, and an inspiring show of support from the people in the Bujinkan.
Our seminar host was Shihan Phil Legare, 15th dan in Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, founder of the Bujinkan Taka-Seigi Dojo and Shinken Taijutsu.
I’ll give a moment by moment account of the weekend, but first here is a little background info about Shihan Lithgow:
Shihan Mark Lithgow
Shihan Lithgow has lived in Japan longer than any other gaijin studying the Bujinkan martial arts (more than 25 yrs). You will see him almost every Sunday under the Kamidana training and translating for Soke.
In addition to his Bujinkan training, Shihan Lithgow also has studied Shinkage-ryu kenjutsu (swordsmanship of the “New Shadow” school) as well as kyudo (way of Japanese archery) for many years.
Because of his long residence in Japan and extensive study of Budo, Shihan Lithgow is in a unique position to see how Hatsumi-soke’s budo and the Bujinkan have evolved over the last two or three decades. This gives him insight to be able to guide the rest of us in our own training.
Friday night’s training started with a quick talk about “koppo.”
On one level, koppo refers to koppojutsu. Most folks initially think of koppojutsu as “bone breaking skills.” But on a deeper level, koppojutsu refers to the use of your skeletal alignment to give structural integrity to your taijutsu.
On an even deeper level, koppo refers to “bone.” This is in the sense of the bone of your taijutsu or the core of your taijutsu.
If we were to take a cross-section of our thigh, our femur bone would be at the core of the leg.
So in essence, one of the major themes of the seminar was about developing your core. And of course, the koppo of budo lies in the kihon (fundamentals). The bone of your taijutsu must be solid before adding the individual stylistic features. Without solid bone in your taijutsu, all your techniques will be limp and weak.
Another key point of study was “jinchu.” Jinchu means “center of man.”
Most often when we refer to jinchu, we think of the kyusho of the philtrum.
Jinchu in this sense meant the direction of your centerline and structure for strength. The strength referred to here is not brute muscular strength, but in the natural strength contained in your properly aligned skeletal structure.
These two concepts, koppo and jinchu, were the bone of the seminar.
Shihan Lithgow wished to see the current bone of our taijutsu by having everyone simply run themselves through kihon happo several times.
Then we broke down the movements of ichimonji no kata and hicho no kata. The breakdown of the movements came from Shihan Lithgow reading his copy of the Tenchijin Ryaku no Maki in the original Japanese.
One unique thing about this was that his copy specifies the kyusho (weak point) to strike in the techniques.
Again the emphasis was on being aware of your jinchu and koppo in the techniques.
After training, Shihan Legare had set up a nice reception for those in attendance. It was good to get to talk with old friends and make new friends (shout out to the Boston crew!).
We relaxed with a couple of beers at the hotel bar after the reception.
I always encourage folks that attend seminars to join in the dinners and post dinner drinks. One reason is you get to know the people you train with. Another is that you will often learn something important that wouldn’t normally come up during the actual training sessions. Shihan Lithgow talked a little about the other arts he’s practiced (kyudo and Shinkage-ryu) as well as the concept of shu-kei-ko.
Lately in the Bujinkan, folks have talked and written about the shu-ha-ri training model.
- Shu = learn
- Ha = variate
- Ri = depart
The progression is linear.
Shihan Lithgow talked about shu-kei-ko.
- Shu = learn
- Kei = practice
- Ko = create
This progression is cyclic.
We continued with breaking down kihon happo according to the Tenchijin Ryaku no Maki. We began with jumonji no kata again with special awareness on the koppo and jinchu concepts.
Then we started in on sword training.
Wearing the Sword
Shihan Lithgow showed different ways to wear the sword.
- Professional method: wearing the sword on the left hip so that the koshira comes into alignment with the solar plexus. This would be the equivalent of a police officer with a nice holster for his pistol.
- Ronin method: wearing the sword on the left hip, but with the tsuka a little to the left of the left hip. This would be the equivalent of the young punk that stuffs his pistol down the back of his pants.
How to tie the sageo (cord) of the sword varies from school to school.
Some schools simply sling the cord over the saya (scabbard) so that it hangs freely between the saya and the left buttock. Other schools wrap the sageo around the belt in front of the right hip joint. The advantage of these methods are that you could easily remove the saya to use it as a weapon or simply discard it so that it doesn’t hinder your movement.
Another method is to wrap the sageo around the saya and belt on the left hip several times. This somewhat immobilizes the saya so that an opponent couldn’t easily remove your sword or push the saya forward preventing you from drawing the blade.
Yet another method would be to simply carry the sword in your left and so that you can draw the blade with the right hand and discard the saya quickly. This would also allow you to move the weapon freely in close quarters.
Te no Uchi
Te no uchi literally means “inside the hand.” This refers to the grip.
Each school has it’s own te no uchi, but the form Shihan Lithgow showed us was just simply logical and practical.
The point was to align the skeleton properly to provide structural strength to support our actions with the sword whether it was in kamae, cutting, or blocking.
The details of the grip he showed were contrary to what I (and probably most others in attendance) had originally learned.
One additional detail I’ve noticed from using this te no uchi, is that it also prevents the blade from wavering during a cut. Keeping a straight cutting line is very important in tameshigiri (test cutting).
Shihan Lithgow showed us three basic blocking methods with the sword on Saturday. That’s about it. I think we spent about an hour on each method. But this established an important teaching/training point: not to collect a bunch of sword techniques, but to develop some bone, some koppo, in our kenjutsu.
On Sunday, Shihan Lithgow taught some more subtle movement with sword technique. The movements were fairly straight forward on the surface appearance, but the details were intense. The focus required to move correctly and develop the bone of the technique was brain frying!
Shihan Lithgow spoke about some concepts on kamae; particularly on the idea of threat and bait.
Take daijodan no kamae for example. Daijodan no kamae means “great upper level posture.” The sword is held in both hands and raised above the head ready to strike down.
Visualize your opponent in daijodan no kamae. The threat is a 3 foot long razor blade ready to cut you down. The bait is the opponent’s left wrist.
This can also be applied to taijutsu postures as well.
No Wasted Lines!
I think the essence of this concept is that when making a cut, you cut a target line rather than a specific target. This way if the opponent changes in a certain way, you may not cut the neck, but you’ll cut the wrist. The specific target may change based on the distance, but the cutting line stays the same.
And there should always be the ability to stab at the end of a cut. No wasted lines!
Raffle for Shihan Greg Heeg
Shihan Legare arranged for a few items to be raffled off at dinner Saturday night to raise money to help out Shihan Greg Heeg, 15th dan.
Shihan Heeg has been going through an extremely fierce battle with cancer.
The raffle raised $3000 to go to Shihan Heeg and his wife, Colleen to help pay medical expenses.
A huge thank you to all that helped with this effort!!!
As I wrote above, the point was to develop some “bone” in our movement, not to collect a few sword techniques. In fact, I think the actual number of sword techniques we learned was around 8 (kihon happo again???) techniques.
I think anyone that came to collect techniques probably wasted their time, money, and effort. Those that came to improve the bone/koppo of their movement got much more out of the seminar. I know I did!
So, I highly recommend that if you have the chance to train with Shihan Lithgow, definitely do so!