Physical Training Oct 2008
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The History of Kobudo

copyright © 2008 M. Ann Phillips, PhD., all rights reserved

“If you want to study Zen it is necessary for you to give up life and plunge into the pit of death. Those who are reluctant to give up their lives are not true warriors.” (DT Suzuki)

The literal translation of the term kobudo is ‘ancient martial arts’, or ‘ancient martial ways’. Kobudo is a very old martial tradition that involves training and practice with a variety of hand held weapons – metal and wooden weapons, bladed and non-bladed weapons. Training with weapons in the martial arts is of vital importance as this method of training teaches the true value of life and emphasizes how fine the line is between life and death through knowledge of the subtle balance between the ‘weapon that gives life’ and the ‘weapon that takes life’. Weapons training reinforces the importance of and necessity for great mental focus and intense physical control as fighting with a weapon, when used as intended, that is, an extension of the human body, is much more dangerous than fighting with bare hands or the body itself (Platt, Williams and Dixon, 1998: 30).

While Kobudo is not as well known or as popular in the West as its empty handed counterpart, Karate, it has a very long and illustrious history, which can be traced back hundreds of years to a hand full of Asian countries. Many of the kobudo techniques and traditions are rooted in a feudal age of  “phantom chivalry and incessant warfare” where “social distinctions were brutally imposed by an elite few on an oppressed majority” (Bishop, 1996:9). When training in any art and especially in a physical or martial art, it is important to understand the history and origins of the techniques being used and the context in which they were developed as this sheds light not only on how they can be used today, but also on the lessons that are of value when training with or in this system as well as identifying those lessons that are best left behind. Mark Bishop notes that “weapon practice should never be an excuse for any kind of violence, but a powerful means of helping to alleviate that scourge of history” (1996:9).

As well as being rooted in a history of warfare, the history of kobudo is intimately intertwined with the philosophy of Zen Buddism. Don Draeger, author of ‘Classical Budo’, suggests that “the Do forms are indissolubly tied to Zen. They are, in fact, plastic zen. They are the means by which Zen is kept in touch with everyday life. At the same time, they act only as the vehicles by which the individual can reach high goal, only “helps” towards that last decisive “leap to enlightenment” that culminate in self-perfection. According to Zen concepts, the worst obstacle to self-perfection is self-deception. The do prevent self-deception. The achievement of self-perfection, the “enlightened” state, in a do form can be judged only by masters of the do. It is impossible to simulate this state of being. What is accomplished in the execution of a physical technique presupposes more than simply perfected physical skill. Any action well performed as physical technique fails to be mastery if the performer’s state of mind is tense and he exhibits consciousness of his actions.”

The Origins of Kobudo:

The fighting traditions that make up the arts of kobudo were handed down for many generations through word of mouth or oral tradition for many generations before ever being written down. It is therefore difficult to determine exactly where or when they began, which is likely exactly as the original proponents of these arts had intended, given that until relatively recently only certain people were allowed to train with weapons, techniques were carefully guarded and training was often done in relative secrecy. Despite the challenges in ‘authenticating’ these traditions, as many Western scholars require written documents as ‘the ultimate truth’, we can trace the roots of modern Kobudo back to feudal Okinawa and Japan, ancient China and to pre-colonial Philipines (Platt, Williams and Dixon, 1998: 30-31

Okinawan Kobudo:

According to a senior student of Sensei Kim, Patrick McCarthy, in his book Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, one of the earliest accounts of one of the kobudo fighting forms is in the book Okinawa’s 1000 Year History (1999:9). It contains an account of the Ajii (one of the ranks of Okinawan nobility) using bojutsu around the year 1314. McCarthy also mentions another book The Biography of Jiryo, which describes the use of a ‘yaribo’ during the Keicho period from 1596-1615. These early accounts suggest that weapons were used in the Ryukyu kingdom at these times but do not identify whether these weapon defence techniques were indigenous to the Ryukyu islands or were imported as the empty handed Chinese martial arts were. In China the weapon arts were and are as intricate a part of martial arts training as are the empty hand techniques.

The History of Okinawa:

Okinawa, is a part of the Ryukyu islands, an archipelago of islands that stretch from Japan in the North to Taiwan in the South. Okinawa means 'sea rope'. Okinawa, in the Central Ryukyus, is the largest of more or less 105 islands. The earliest inhabitants came from China as well as the northern islands of Japan as well as from South Asia from as early as 300 BC. The early people of Okinawa lived simply surviving off the fruits of land and sea. The Japanese to the north recognized the strategic importance of Okinawa and this resulted in successive invasions by the Japanese from the sixth to ninth centuries causing the inhabitants of Okinawa to organize themselves into villages. By around 1340 the Ryukyu islands were divided into three rival kingdoms – the North, South And Central RyuKyus. A period of a hundred years of continuous inter-region warfare was to unite the Ryukyus as one Kingdom (the Sho dynasty) around 1429. This led to a period of prosperity in Okinawa, which was to became an important trading post in an exchange network that included Japan, China, Indo-China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia and the Philipines. (Reid and Croucher, 1995:154-155)

In 1470 the Sho Dynasty on the island of Okinawa collapsed and there was a very tumultuous period before a new king So Shin came to power in 1477. As a means of controlling the rebellious warlords throughout the island, King So Shin, banned the carrying of swords by both noblemen and peasants. King So Shin then ordered all weapons to be collected and maintained under royal control at his palace in Shuri. He issued an edict requiring all nobles, who were now without weapons, to come to Shuri and live close to the royal capital. Reid and Croucher note that the approach of disarming and then decastling rebellious warloards in Okinawa predated similar actions that were to be used in mainland Japan half a century later. (Reid and Croucher, 1995:155)

In 1609, the Kingdom of the RyuKyu islands was colonized by the Satsuma clan. They invaded from the islands of Japan to the North because Okinawa refused to recognize the hegemony of the Shogun of the newly united Japan. At that time the Okinawan King was taken to Edo, where he was forced to become a puppet of the Japanese. The tributary relationships between Okinawa and China, which had been established in 1372, was to continue as the Japanese rulers both wanted and needed this contact. The tributary relationship between Okinawa and China facilitated the spread of Chinese martial arts to the Ryukyus as the nobles who went bearing tributes to China often stayed for a while and many studied Chinese martial arts. (Reid and Croucher, 1995:155)

Before the Kingdom of the Ryukyu islands and their governments were eventually taken over by the central Japanese authorities in 1879 it was a rigidly hierarchical society controlled by well defined rules and regulations that limited the freedom of both ends of the social spectrum – the commoners and the aristocrats (shizoka). The aristocrats lived a comfortable though rigidly structured life, inhabiting spacious castles or tiled villas in the capital at Shuri. The king and his family were at the top of this social hierarchy with nine lower ranks of aristocrats. The peasants at the other end of the social spectrum were tied to the land and lived as serfs. They were very poor, lived in tiny thatched cottages and went barefoot. They were forbidden to learn to read or write. They could not learn or practice martial arts. (Bishop, 1996:31).

Okinawan Kobudo Begins

When King So Shin banned weapons in Okinawa in 1477 two divergent movements were born. The nobles sought out, learned and developed te, the art of unarmed combat, while farmers and fishermen developed weapon systems based on the use of tools and agricultural implements for combat. Both of these traditions were practiced in secrecy and were for the most part confined to the respective classes – while te was practiced by court nobles, Ryukyu bujutsu became very popular among the peoples. (Reid and Croucher, 1995:158)

Ryukyu kobudo is one of the schools of ancient Okinawan martial arts that uses the wooden staff, iron truncheon, two- sectional staff, shield and machete, twin sickles and many other items. The masters of each of these weapons developed katas or forms, in order to remember the defensive and offensive principles of each weapon. The kata is the chief menchanism through which the secrets of kobudo were preserved. (McCarthy, 1999:8) It is important to learn not only the kata but to understand the difference between each of the offensive and defensive techniques. In the past kobudo did not have its own dojos. Each would-be student sought out a master although the masters would only chose the most promising and enthusiastic students.

Chinese Weaponry:

China has held a very important position in the development and dissemination of the martial arts for almost 1,500 years. Fighting systems arose and evolved in China and were exported by Chinese martial artists to other Asian countries while at the same time people visiting China or coming to trade or to study also learned the Chinese martial systems and took their knowledge back to their homelands. (Reid and Croucher, 1995:58) This was the case in Okinawa as was discussed earlier. Also, the philosophical and spiritual systems, which form the foundation of many martial arts, were developed and nurtured in China. The teachings of Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Buddha and Bodhidharma were intricately linked with the transmission of the Chinese martial arts systems as they spread to other countries, especially to Japan.

Wu-te, meaning martial virtues or martial discipline, is a term that describes the spirit of martial arts. Ta-Mo (the Chinese name for Bodhidharma) went to China from India to promote Buddhism. Before he arrived in China, Chinese martial artists trained primarily to fight and would often use their art to bully weaker people. Ta-Mo visited the Shaolin temple to teach a form of Buddhism that involved sitting for long periods in static meditation. He also taught his disciples specific breathing techniques and exercise methods in order to alleviate the physical and mental discomfort they experienced from sitting still for many hours while meditating and reading. He promoted the Buddhist texts and at the same time instilled in his disciples the ideal of practicing martial arts not for fighting, but for strengthening the body and maintaining health. Ta-Mo fundamentally influenced the physical practice as well as the motivation for practicing martial arts, although Chinese martial arts had developed long before Ta-Mo came to China. (Reid and Croucher, 1995:81)

Japanese Kobudo:

Japan has been described as a land that has been chosen by the gods, a land where the gods continue to dwell. In the Shinto tradition, the gods Izanagi and Izanami are the creators of all that exist in Japan, the land and the people. The Sun goddess Amaterasu is the greatest divinity of the Shinto pantheon. The emperor is a direct descendent of the kami, a direct descendent of Amaterasu, and is the first Shinto priest of Japan. The word Shinto means ‘the Way of the gods’ or the path determined by the gods’. This word first appeared in Japan in the 6th century. In the face of the emerging influence of Buddhism, it was considered necessary to define the old religion, hence the name Shinto which was given to all the ancestral practices, and was to differentiate from Butsudo, or the ‘Way of Buddha’ (Random, 1978: 12-16)

According to Michael Random in The Martial Arts, the word kami is often translated as meaning ’god’, but in fact it means ‘that which is above’ ie above humankind. Kami suggests all that is worthy of veneration and that kami encompasses all that is venerable. Shinto essentially defines family relationships, relationships between people of our generation and those of ancient generations going back to the beginning of time as far back as the gods, as Japanese consider than humans are biologically the progeny of the gods – born of the gods, (Random, 1978:18)

Random (1978: 92-3) notes that “it is customary to think that the Japanese masters are all inspired by the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. Far from it, all the dojos and all the old Japanese ryu are inspired by the Shinto spirit. A small Shinto shrine presides over every dojo. When Zen influence made its presence felt, it superimposed the Shinto presence which is original and fundamental.” Randon suggests that Shintoism is fundamental to Japanese martial arts and that Zen Buddhism is superimposed on top of the original Shinto beliefs, practices and traditions. The word Zen is a derivative of the Sanskrit ‘Dhyana’ and comes from the Chinese ‘chan-na’ meaning meditation. Legand has it that Buddha passed the rules down to Kasyapa, his favourite pupil and from him, 27 patriarchs continued the Buddha's teachings until Bodhidharma went to China from India around the year 600 and became the first Chinese Chan patriarch (Chinese Zen was called Chan). Zen was introduced to Japan around the 13th century, as reaction against different forms of Buddhism, which had been taught in Japan since the 6th century and which had become progressively weak. (Random, 1978: 93)

It is not possible to describe what Zen is in words, but easier to discuss all that Zen is not: “It is neither a system of ideas, nor metaphysics, not religion. It is not encumbered with dogma, not with beliefs, symbols, temples or monastic vows. In Zen there is nothing to seek nor any merit to be gained. There is no way, no faith is required, no saviour is awaited, no paradise is promised; no choice is offered and there is no attainment … Zen is a stone thrown into the lake of appearances in order to disturb the Void of all things.” (Random, 1978, 94).

Zen Buddhism is a religion of compassion and has never been found engaged in warfare. However, Zen was intimately related to the life of a samurai. Zen never incited samurai to violence but it has sustained them. Zen has come to activate the fighting spirit of the Japanese warrior. Zen has sustained the warrior morally and philosophically -- morally because it teaches not to look back once a course or path has been chosen and philosophically because it treats life and death indifferently. Zen upholds intuition as opposed to intellection. Zen discipline is simple and direct. A warrior is not to be encumbered in any way, physically, intellectually or emotionally. Emotionality and physical possessions are the heaviest of all encumbrances. There is also a historical connection between the military classes and Zen. The Hojo regime in Japan was militaristic. The Hojo regime was also very rigid and frugal. The heads embraced Zen as their spiritual tradition because Zen has no special doctrines, it is flexible in supporting many dogmas as long as they do not go against the main ideal of intuition over intellection. (DT Suzuki, Zen and The Samurai)

Bushi are classical warriors, professional warriors, or elite fighting man in Japanese. The classical warrior is the type of fighting man who flourished under the martial discipline of Minamoto Yoritomo’s bakufu, or military government, established at Kamakura in the late twelfth century. This was the first government in recorded Japanese history to be staffed almost entirely by professional warriors. According to Draeger, not all Japanese fighting men should be classified as ‘bushi’. Bushi most accurately describes “the aristocratic warrior of proto-feudal and feudal Japan, from the ninth to the ninteenth century.” (Draeger, 1973a:16). Within this time frame there were still some fighting men who should not be classified as ‘bushi’ – this included some of the conscripted soldiers and those who were bushi by birth-right, but unskilled in the combative arts and also not conforming to the bushi ethical code. Draeger also notes that there were also many levels or ranks of bushi, depending on the warrior's social status, martial merit and position of preference for the shogun’s favour. The samurai was only one of the possible ranks and it was not the highest. The term samurai can be translated as retainer, assistant or one who serves.

In the pre-Kamakura times, the term samurai referred to servants who waited on the nobility. About the only connection any of these people had with a martial environment was the fact that they usually congregated around the guardhouses where the fighting men were billeted to await orders from their superiors. Even when the term came to be generally extended to a certain type of warrior, around the fourteenth century, the connotation of service was not completely removed. In ancient Japan, the samurai were easily distinguished from other classes by the fact that no commoner was allowed to wear the daisho (two swords, one long, one short) of the bushi, although specific commoner officials were permitted to wear a intermediate length sword. (Dreager, 1973a:16)

Bujitsu are the martial arts. The Bujitsu are combative systems designed by and for warriors to promote self-protection and group solidarity. (Draeger, 1973a:19) The bujustu developed from crude beginnings concerned largely with technical proficiency and mechanical achievements. As the need and concern for combative techniques lessened in the Tokugawa period, the true ‘art’ stage of ‘forgetting technique’ and ‘forgetting self’ emerged. This is the level of the do. “What is there left to learn if one believes that a certain discipline is in itself the finality of everything, or is one’s body or soul. The practical and the spiritual opposed, if one believes in keeping for oneself all that is given, if an idea received is like a wall obscuring the horizon?” (Random, 1978, 8).

Budo means the martial way. The Budo are spiritual systems, not necessarily designed by or for warriors, for self-perfection of the individual. The Budo were not developed during the period in which the classical warrior functioned as the leader of an effective political and social ruling institution” (Draeger, 1973a: 19). In budo, many forms of art or exercise exist, the aim of which is to direct or use ki or vital energy. Budo, like all wise things, constitutes the application of the basic energy of the universe. This energy is one and knows no bounds. To be a part of it, even a very small part, enables one to understand that this energy is also an alchemy, transforming and transmuting everything it touches.” (Random, 1978, 8).

Filipino Martial Arts:

Escrima, which is also known as Kali or Arnis, is a Filipino martial arts system, which uses hand held weapons. The history of Escrima is interconnected with the history of the Filipines and a reflection of it’s culture. Fighting arts have been a part of the long and intricate history of the Filipines.

History of the Filipines:

The Archepelago of the Filipines was settled in several waves of migration, which resulted in a uniquely multi-racial society. Some historians suggest that the earliest Filipinos migrated form India and Persia, while others suggest that they may have migrated from ancient Egypt or from mainland Asia. The Malays followed from the South East. When the Malays settled the Filipines in about 200BC they brought the long knife with them. The kris, a long wavy blade from the island of Java was one of the first foreign weapons to be introduced into the Filipino fighting system. They were followed by different waves of migrating Indonesians and by the Hindu –Malays of Sri –Vishaya. (Iansanto from Platt, Williams and Dixon, 1998: 35-48).

On September 20, 1519 Ferdinand Magellan set out from Spain. Sailing under the banner of King Charles I of Spain he headed to the Southwest planning to reach the Spice islands. On March 17, 1521 Magellan sighted land -- the mountains of Sumar -- he had arrived in the archipelago of the Filipines. Magellan tried to enslave the people he found and to claim their lands for Spain. On the island of Mactan in the province of Cebu, Magellan was defeated and killed by Chief Lapu Lapu and his group of men who faced and drove back the armoured Spaniards with only their sticks and homemade lances . The Filipino stick fighters were fast and particularly deadly and their sticks proved superior to the Spaniards’ steel swords and armour. The. Chief Lapu Lapu is credited with killing Magellan. This was the beginning of 400 years of struggle between the Filipinos and the Spanish. (Iansanto from Platt, Williams and Dixon, 1998: 37).

The Filipinos were to learn from the Spanish techniques of fighting with a sword and dagger and to develop a technique called Espada y Daga using a long and short stick. As well as successive waves of invasion and attempted colonization occurred, the Filipinos observed their invaders and developed and adapted new styles to combat them. Over one hundred systems of training or styles developed over time. Once the Spanairds returned to the island with guns it was difficult for the Filipinos to use their stick and empty hand techniques against firearms. (Iansanto from Platt, Williams and Dixon, 1998: 37). The Spaniards also took advantage of regional rivalries to pit the fighting skills of different Filipinos regions against each other and ultimately the Filipino people were colonized.

In 1764 when the Spanish completely controlled the Philipines, they outlawed Filipino martial arts and they went underground, becoming clandestine arts. They continued to be practiced in the form of ‘native dances’, which preserved the combative movements and allowed the Filipinos to practice under the noses of the Spaniards.

Filipino Martial Systems:

Kali is the source from which all Escrima styles developed. It is the oldest Filipino martial art. Kali comes from the word ‘kalis’, which implies a blade. It dates back to a time before Chinese from the Ming Dynasty infiltrated the Filipine islands. Kali, which is a stick, empty hand or multi-weaponed art, defended the islanders for centuries before the Spanish invasions. Kali is the mother or ancestral art while, Escrima and Arnis are phases of Kali (Iansanto from Platt, Williams and Dixon, 1998: 35-48).

Escrima originated in the 9th century. The word means ‘to skirmish’. When the Spanish invaded the Philippines in the 16th century, Escrima was used to fend off their attack. Over the next century there were many invasions and battles and the Filipinos learned new techniques. They incorporated lessons from each invading army and developed a very complex system of fighting with empty hands, swords, sticks, clubs, staffs, lances and knives. The Spaniards only managed to conquer the Philipines and subdue the Filipinos with the use of firearms. They outlawed Escrima but it was maintained as a form of ‘folk dance’. In the Filipines, there are over 100 different Escrima systems organized by region – northern, eastern or central styles. Most Escrima styles have 12 numbers or angles that any attack must fall close to. (Iansanto from Platt, Williams and Dixon, 1998: 35-48).

Arnis is the most systematic and best known martial art form in the Filipines. The term Arnis de mano or arnis for short, came from the Spanish word arnes. Arnes was the word for the harness or armour worn by the Spanish in Medieval times. This word was corrupted to arnis and came to represent this form of martial art. Traditionally arnis incorporates espada y daga or sword and dagger; solo baston, or single stick and siniwali or double sticks which are used in a weaving motion for blocking or stricking. However, arnis is an all encompassing system of martial arts that using sticks, blades and open hands. It is a complete form of self-defense. Arnis is the modern form of Escrima practiced in the Philipines. (Iansanto from Platt, Williams and Dixon, 1998: 35-48).

Kobudo as Zen

The fighting traditions that make up the arts of modern kobudo incorporate techniques from many martial systems. All of these systems are based on the notion of training not only to develop technical excellence in the offensive and defensive manoeuvres and practices of the system but also in each of the systems there is a notion of training as self-development. Kobudo can thus be recognized as Zen in action. Zen is a reaction to or the result of Kobudo. It is the result of proper training with the right psychology or frame of mind. The two are inextricably interlinked, entwined in a cosmic interactive dance like the proverbial serpent eternally twisting around the tree of life. A dance that is not so much an outward form as an inward expression of the soul, the positive aspects of all that is human, emanating life from within. Inanimate weapons do not kill of their own accord, for it is the personality behind the wielder of the weapon that decides its use. The perfect swordsman goes beyond mere dichotomy. He or she should not use the sword as an instrument of death. The sword should be an instrument to kill the ego which is the source of all fighting, all ego. Zen teaches that intuition is better than intellection. In the last stage of swordmanship mere technical training is not enough. The warrior must be a puppet in the hands of the unconscious. (DT Suzuki )

These are the modern day lessons we can learn from practicing the art of kobudo. We learn the physical and technical skills of controlling the body, the breath and the mind as well as developing our intuition to a point where it can be trusted and finally learning how to become one with the unconscious. This is Zen, and the way is through training in the ancient and modern arts of Kobudo.

The History of Kobudo References:

Bishop, Mark. 1996. Zen Kobudo: Myssteries of Okinawan Weaponry and Te. Tuttle Publishing: Boston

Draeger, Donn F. 1973a. Classical Bujutsu: The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan. Volume1. Weatherhill: New York

Draeger, Donn F. 1973b. Classical Budo: The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan. Volume 2. Weatherhill: New York

Kim, Richard. 1982. The Classical Man. Masters Publishing: Hamilton

McCarthy, Patrick. 1999. Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: Koryu Uchinadi. Tuttle Publishing: Boston.

Platt, Sensei Wallace; Sensei Williams and Sensei Dixon. 1998. Classical Martial Arts Canada (Toronto Region) Kobudo Manual II: Kobudo, Escrima, Ken Jutsu, Iaido, Jodo. CMAC: Toronto

Reid, Howard and Michael Croucher. 1983. The Way of the Warrior: The Paradox of the Martial Arts.Overlook Press: Woodstock.

Random, Michael. 1977. The Martial Arts. Octopus Books: London.

Ratti, Oscar & Adele Westbrook. 1973. Secrets of the Samurai: The Martial Arts of Feudal Japan. Tuttle Martial Arts: Boston

Suzuki, DT. 1995. Zen and The Samurai. AudioRennaissance

Taira, Shinken. 1998. Ryukyu Kobudo Taikan (pgs 183-184)

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Physical Training Oct 2008