Monday, August 31, 2009

Decadal Gashuku Part 2: Ten Blind Masseuses

My favourite passage in the Hagakure1 is the one about the 10 blind2 masseuses. I have copied it below:
    “Once a group of ten blind masseuses were traveling together in the mountains, and when they began to pass along the top of a precipice, they all became very cautious, their legs shook, and they were in general struck with terror. Just then the leading man stumbled and fell off the cliff. Those that were left all wailed, ‘Ahh, Ahh! How piteous!’ But the masseuse who had fallen yelled up from below, ‘Don’t be afraid. Although I fell, it was nothing. I am now rather at ease. Before falling I kept thinking “What will I do if I fall” and there was no end to my anxiety. But now I’ve settled down. If the rest of you want to be at ease, fall quickly!’” – Hagakure (Book of the Samurai), Yamamoto Tsunetomo
I first read that in 1985. It's a shame it hadn't sunken in by the time of the Decadal Gashuku (training camp) held in the first 2 weeks of 1990. All the fretting I did leading up to and during that camp were worse than the event itself. But this is not to say that we had an easy time. Far from it - as you will see.

In my last post "Decadal Gashuku Part 1: The Foreboding" I described our arrival at Midmar Dam in Kwazulu Natal for what was to be a full ten days of training for 10 hours per day.

I woke at 5:10 am on the first "official" morning of the camp after a fitful night of tossing and turning on the rocky ground, trying in vain to keep pressure off my severely suburned calves.

As a black belt I was one of 4 group leaders, and it was my job to ensure everyone in my team was up by 5:15 am for a 5:30 am start. I knew from past experience that a failure to ensure a full turn-out would fall on the group leader's head. I later discovered that the punishment for this - and any other misdemeanour - involved more exercise; principally running with the kongo ken (a large, oval-shaped iron bar used in traditional karate conditioning exercises). Having roused my sleepy comrades we assembled near the kitchen tent on the lip of Midmar Dam.

On that first morning, as with many others, a solitary cloud of fog was eerily suspended just a few feet over the glass-like surface of the water. Otherwise the sky above was clear and crisp, promising yet another day of unrelenting sun and heat. We rubbed our hands and jogged on the spot as we waited for Lao shi Bob. I could feel the blisters on my feet, not yet recovered from my runs in the preceding week.

Bob emerged cheerily from his caravan and we headed off down a gravel path, clutching our "buddies" - hand weights cut from reinforcing iron rods - that we were required to carry everywhere we went.

That first morning run was a fairly typical introduction; an "easy" 14 km. On other days it varied from as little as 5 km to much as 22 km (more on the "big run" a little later).

On one occasion we did an 11 km run that featured stops to do squat kicks, knuckle push ups on the gravel and "fireman lifts" of each other up a steep hill (yet something else on which I'll elaborate in a moment).

On the way out we always ran in strict lines of 2 x 2. On the way back we were "allowed" to sprint for the last kilometre or so. Typically the front "pack" comprising Bob, his deshis (apprentices) Wyatt and Tony, ex-special forces troops and some semi-professional athletes would blast off and leave the remainder in a cloud of dust. On some days I managed to keep up with the front pack and on other days I didn't.

When we arrived back at the campsite we were required to run straight into the dam (after removing our shoes, of course). This was to cool our joints and reduce inflammation.

After that we would go straight into our first lesson - an hour of basics - comprising things like 1000 kicks or perhaps endless punches and blocks in low horse stance (shiko dachi). On some days we were spared the hard basics and had the chance to groove various push-hands drills from karate, wing chun, white crane and the internal arts (I've retained many of these drills to the present day).

Breakfast would follow, prepared by whatever team was on duty. The meal comprised a bowl of maltabela porridge. If you finished that (a big "if" - maltabela - a brown coloured sorghum porridge - is an "acquired taste") you might also get some bread with jam. And to wash it all down we had, of course, our staple gashuku drink, rooibos (a herbal tea brewed from the leaves of the Aspalathus linearis, a bush that grows in the southern Cape). Rooibos is, of course, another "acquired" taste.

We were generally given half an hour to digest the food, then it was back to mid-morning training devoted to kata (forms) and then weapons - either arnis (Filipino stick and knife fighting) or Okinawan/Japanese kobudo.

Lunch, in the form of sandwiches prepared by whatever team was on duty, came next. The "regular" students then took advantage of the following hour and a half break to sleep off the hottest part of the day - clustered in heat-trapping tents in a desperate bid to find some escape from the searing sunlight.

However there was to be no such break for the "decadal" participants; we select few (about 15 of us) had extra training to make up the total 10 hours per day (normally gashukus have "only" 8 contact hours). This "extra time" was the toughest of all; it typically comprised 2 person drills performed barefoot on hot tarmac. I remember stepping as fast as I could to minimise contact with the baking ground.

After a short break we would resume the "normal" afternoon sessions which comprised more kata, kumite (sparring) and weapons, as well as hojo undo (traditional conditioning exercises using chi-shi and ishi-sashi, stone (or in our case concrete) weights with wooden handles). Mercifully some of the late afternoon "contact hours" included meditation (which many unofficially used as an extra sleeping session).

Dinner was prepared by the teams in giant cast-iron pots and woks. These had to be washed without soap (something to do with the oil that was used in them for cooking). One team somehow managed to forget this rule and were soon seen running around the camp with the kongo ken held high above their heads. Our next meals tasted a bit soapy.

The final "contact time" in each day was, for many, the hardest to bear even though it wasn't physically demanding. I'm referring of course to the after dinner "talk around the campfire" which started at 8:00 pm. This was ostensibly a time set aside for discussing matters technical, historical and philosophical. I couldn't help but notice that even 5 minutes into the talk many of the exhausted students would start nodding off (something Lao shi Bob viewed very dimly, to say the least).

One had to tread a very fine line in posing questions that would create an impression of interest but not prolong the discussion unnecessarily. I recall asking a particular question to divert Bob's attention from the fact that a young student seated next to him (Damien) had fallen fast asleep. However the question brought a "dagger-like" glance from Deshi Tony who, unaware of my motive, was desperately wanting the session to end. As I've said before, he and I had not exactly started out on the right foot and this merely served to cement his disain for me.

That disdain was to manifest itself at the start of the second week on the gashuku. I was sparring with Tony in one of the mid-morning sessions when he caught my leg mid-kick (as can happen). I was expecting Tony to let me land gracefully as befits softer sparring. However he didn't. I caught his eye as we paused for a moment, Tony holding my leg aloft while I hopped about to avoid falling. Then Tony abruptly and decisively swept my supporting foot causing me to crash violently onto the hard African veldt.

In fact, my mid-spine fell precisely onto a sharp piece of granite jutting 5 or so inches out of the ground. I was in immediate agony - a pain that was to dog me for the remainder of the camp and many months afterwards. In fact, I still feel the effects today, and will for the remainder of my life.

About 3 months later, back in Perth, I finally went to a doctor to see what could be done. He ordered some x-rays which revealed that I'd fractured one of my thoracic vertebra. By the time of the x-ray the fracture had, of course, healed however it was clear that I had lost most of my "disc height" indicating that I'd also suffered a prolapse as a result of that fall. This is worth bearing in mind in the context of what was to come...

I spent the night tossing and turning in agony, barely able to sleep. The following morning I had no choice but get up and rouse my fellow team mates for the run. Somehow I hobbled through the day, and the next days after it, but every movement was punctuated by pain.

Because of my back pain I also started to favour one side. Indirectly this caused one of my knees (which were already sore and unaccustomed to running) to swell. All in all I felt that the camp couldn't end quickly enough.

However further disasters were yet to strike.

Our otherwise fine weather was in for a change. One or 2 nights after my back injury I awoke from my fitful sleep to a wild storm and a torrent of water flooding over me. Maureen and I went out into the pitch darkness and started digging a trench to redirect the stormwater around our tent. We finished as the sun was breaking and the storm was clearing. Needless to say, everything we had was soaked and muddy.

But worse was yet to come. On that particular morning run we again paused at the foot of a hill to do "fireman lifts" with our buddies. Maureen was partnered with a former special forces soldier who went to grab her by her "bad" arm (she was born without most of a scapula on one side). Her protests arrived too late and her shoulder was pulled clean out of its socket, tendons and ligaments snapping and tearing along the way. She spent the rest of the camp with a dislocated shoulder. A few of the ex-army blokes decided to try to "relocate" her shoulder but in hindsight we know that they merely did more damage. A lengthy road trip to a Zululand hospital also met with no success; they took one look at Maureen's private travel insurance and laughed. Her only solace lay in strong painkiller's Bob's then wife had in her medical kit.

I am still in awe of how Maureen managed, arm in a sling, to continue with the camp. In fact, her shoulder was not relocated and fixed until she had the requisite surgery some time after we arrived back in Perth.

In the cold light of today it might seem that we were daft to carry on training, however we were in the middle of nowhere with no way of getting anywhere else. We had little option but to "box on". And there was still plenty of "boxing" to do...

Next: Decadal Gashuku Part 3: Running on Empty


1. Tsunetomo, Yamamoto; Wilson, William Scott (translator) (2002). Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai. Stackpole Books. ISBN 4-77002-916-0.

2. When I was in Taiwan recently we had the option of having a massage in the hotel to ease the aches and pains of 8 hours of training each day. Stupidly I didn't avail myself of this opportunity; all my Chen Pan-Ling brothers and sisters swore by it. I still remember the masseuses - one for each of the participants of our course - arriving at our hotel on the backs of scooters, then being led to the elevators. When I say "led", I mean literally; they were all blind. It seems some cultural trends in the Hagakure (eg. massage being a profession predominantly for those who have impaired vision) are still visible in the Far East to this very day.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A glimpse into the heart of evil

By now many of you will be aware of the video below, apparently taken on 13 December 19841 at a karate dojo in Dumfries, Virginia. It shows a brutal, unprovoked and totally reprehensible bashing of a young mentally disturbed man who claimed to be a kung fu practitioner "taught by Jesus". The video has gone viral. Possibly the only good thing to emerge from this is the universal outrage and condemnation it has provoked.2 That people should have such a sense of outrage in this day and age of "ground and pound MMA" and other media violence which has a "brutalizing effect" is surprising, but also gratifying. It restores a little bit of my faith in humanity.

The now infamous video of the bashing at a Virginia karate dojo in 1984. Warning: this video contains highly disturbing footage.

For those who would rather avoid watching the video (I include it for the sake of completeness, but don't advocate anyone watching it) I can provide the following precis:3

The previously mentioned deranged man (I shall call him KFG - "kung fu guy" for want of another label) turned up at the karate dojo, possibly by invitation (apparently4 having been at an auto parts store next door). Regardless of how KFG came to be there, it is now abundantly clear that the instructor allowed him to remain for one purpose and one purpose only; so that he (KFG) could be beaten senseless for "sport" or "fun".

In the video the instructor is seen introducing KFG and inviting him to demonstrate to the students at the dojo with the words "We’re all in here for knowledge, aren’t we gentlemen?" and "Go ahead and demonstrate around him", referring to his student who was standing ready nearby.

I think it is important to note that at all times KFG makes it clear that he does not want to fight or otherwise hurt anyone. Addressing the student, he says: "You can just stand there, do not make any movement whatsoever I will not touch you," adding: "I think it would best maybe if perhaps if I just perform which is known in karate as kata." Later he says: "I just wish to teach you, I don’t wish to hurt you".

What ensues moments later can only be described as both vicious and cowardly. The supposed "karate" student throws an completely unexpected kick at KFG's groin area. A scuffle ensues in which KFG shows some reasonably adept skill (amongst some rather grandiose movements). In this scuffle it is quite clear that the student is intent on hurting KFG, but KFG holds his own while clearly pulling his own punches. The student is so inept he even falls over at one point. Nonetheless he continues swinging wildly, pressing KFG with relentless attacks.

Throughout this barrage the reluctant KFG continues to plead that he doesn't want to fight. A number of times he says: "Don't do that," and even says: "I'm not a fighter". To cut a long and distressing story short, the student continues the attack until he eventually manages to land some very nasty blows. At this point KFG clearly "concedes the match" saying "you're good" and "you've got it". His body language shows that he is giving up. The student is however emboldened and presses on with knee kicks to the unfortunate KFG's head. The assault only ends when the student stamps repeatedly on the head of the now semi-conscious KFG. The image is so disturbing that I cannot bear to look at it again.

What follows is perhaps even more macabre. The instructor nonchalantly instructs his students to drag the unconscious KFG from the dojo. As I recall he is visibly struggling to breathe and appears to have suffered serious, life-threatening injuries.

The camera then cuts to footage taken by the instructor at some later point - possibly the next day. He "blithely" points out the trail of blood left on the floor and the smears of blood on the back door where his students "drug him out" (sic).

It is abundantly clear to me that while the student carried out the beating, he was aided, abetted and encouraged by the instructor. In fact, I strongly suspect that the instructor counselled and procured the beating. Much can be gleaned from the instructor's own attitude in the following video where he lectures his students that they can do "what they want" in his dojo. He says: "So show your power. Enjoy yourself."

The instructor of the particular dojo lecturing his students about how they can do whatever they want in his dojo (in terms of beating up visitors)

To me what is most disturbing about all of this is the instructor's lack of any semblance of human empathy. In fact, he doesn't even appear to realise that others will find this lack of empathy objectionable or distasteful. In this respect he might as well be from another planet; he simply doesn't get that others will be disgusted by his words and actions. He seems incapable of differentiating the kind of beating given to KFG from a Simpsons cartoon. He would put both on an equal footing. Again, this is further backed up by his own apparent posting of the video on Youtube.4 It's as if he put it up expecting people to have a good laugh and say: "Well done! Very funny!" His own lack of awareness of the typical human reaction to his video is telling.

It is certainly arguable that the instructor's behaviour is indicative of what is known as "Dissocial Personality Disorder",5 one of the key indicators of which is the "callous unconcern for the feelings of others and lack of the capacity for empathy". Whether he has this disorder or not, I wish to pause for a moment to consider it in a bit more detail.

People who have this condition are often referred to as "psychopaths". The latter is a term wrongly associated with psychosis and/or is often inaccurately used as a short-hand reference to serial killers.6 In fact psychopaths can often live relatively law-abiding lives among us, never understanding our instinct for empathy, though sometimes learning to mimic it for the sake of social convention. However superficially charming they can be,7 they remain, essentially, heartless. And it is precisely this attribute that is most chilling.

During my time as a prosecutor I noticed that the crimes which most appalled people were not the crimes of passion, however brutal and violent. Rather, what disturbs, worries and distresses people the most are crimes that appear to have been carried out coldly and without any sense of guilt, remorse or indeed any feeling other than "glee". These disturb the bulk of humanity because we cannot relate to those who would commit such crimes. We can't explain or understand the motivation. It is completely at odds with our very nature as social beings. Without being able to come to terms with the motive, we can't begin to address the root cause. We can't prevent it happening again.

It is with this in mind that I make the following observation:
    There can be no greater evil than the absence of empathy.
Now I recognise that "evil" is an emotive and relative term. However I use this word anyway (for reasons I will discuss in a moment).

The student might have carried out the bashing, however I regard the instructor as equally, if not more, culpable. He not only allowed it to happen, he probably instigated it. He certainly was in control of the entire situation. His student was a pawn - a culpable one, but a pawn nonetheless. I don't for a moment want to suggest that the student shouldn't be liable to such punishment as he deserves under the law. That much is obvious.8 However it is the instructor's conduct that most disturbs me, in much the same way as one is inclined to focus on Hitler's actions rather than those of his henchmen. All were culpable - but one (Hitler) had overall control. Whether any of the parties can be punished in this case is another matter altogether.9

Going back to the subject of "evil", what do I mean? I am reminded of a movie from the '80s called "The Time Bandits" featuring Sean Connery. In it, the Devil cackles and rubs his hands with glee saying: "Suddenly I feel good." His henchman then pipes in: "I'm sorry Master," to which the Devil replies: "Don't worry - it'll pass."

Is "evil" some cackling persona, rubbing his hands and wishing horrible things upon us? I find this notion absurd. It assumes that there is an "absolute evil" that exists independently of us all. I can see no evidence that "evil" is anything other than a relative thing; what was "bad" for the bulk of humanity was seen as "good" by Hitler, etc.

Sinologist Arthur Waley notes in his work "The Way and Its Power" that all societies passed through a "pre-moral" phase - ie. a phase where there was no concept of absolute badness or absolute goodness. If a lion bit your friend's head off, that would be bad for your friend and bad for you. If you had a bumper crop or if you killed a mammoth for your tribe to eat, that was good for you and your tribe.

As Waley states:
    "All the 'moral' words (virtue, righteousness, kindness, nobility), unless they are recent formations, had quite other meanings earlier in their history. 'Moral' itself of course simply meant 'customary', as did also the Greek dikaios (righteous)." 10
So words like "good" and "bad" were merely relative terms. The concept of "absolute" badness or goodness (ie. independent of any person's perspective) arrived much later. We see this even today in our use of words like "virtue"; on one hand we use it to refer to "goodness" in an absolute sense. Yet we also use it in its original sense when we say things like "by virtue of". In the latter case "virtue" has it's original meaning of "power" (ie. the power we have to make things happen in a way that we want them to). "Virtue" in its original sense was an "amoral" (as opposed to a moral or an immoral) term.

So how do I reconcile this analysis with my own label of the actions of this karate instructor and his student as "evil"?

If we are to give the term "evil" any meaning today other than a purely relativistic one, then I believe we ought to proceed from the perspective of the social contract.11 Clearly we, as a society, exist because of our shared empathy. The level of empathy might vary between individuals, but at some point most of us have some sense of community. Psychopaths do not. Their entire existence is at odds with the very concept of "society". Their behaviour is not constrained by any sense of compassion or shared empathy that is the basis of our morality under the social contract. They exist outside this "sphere". Psychopaths, whether criminal or not, are as near to the "cackling Devil" as we're likely to get.

A lack of empathy can be traced to all the greatest "wrongs" done against our fellow man. It alone has the capacity to sweep aside conventions that enable us to coexist peacefully and cooperatively. While ordinary men and women can get caught up in a cycle of rage and hatred, only someone without compassion can sustain such an environment for any extended period - coordinating it for his or her own ends.

When I look at the video that is the subject of this article, I am struck by one thing over all others; the lack of any empathy shown by the instructor towards the unknown person I have called "KFG". It is, in my view, a glimpse into the "heart" of evil.


1. The date and time are volunteered by the instructor in the video footage, however others query the accuracy of this information. As an aside, that day happens to have been my 18th birthday.

2. Here is just one video of a person expressing outrage at the beating. It is fairly representative of thousands of such responses, in blogs, videos and forum posts.

A Youtube poster expresses his outrage at the beating which took place at the Dumfries dojo

The video has also been noted by television journalists. Here is one report:

A recent US television report about the bashing

3. A full transcript of the encounter can be found here.

4. Readers might find it interesting to note that it seems to have been the instructor himself who first posted this video on Youtube...

The instructor's own revealing, disturbing and incriminating "information" posted about his video of the bashing.

5. See this wikipedia entry.

6. Psychopaths need not even be criminals, as you will note from this wikipedia article which states "Psychopathy does not necessarily produce criminal and violent behavior".

7. See Factor 1 in Hare's Psychopathy Checklist in relation to psychopaths.

8. Not much can be gleaned about the character of the student. Regardless, it seems clear to me that he is acting "under orders". The Milgram Experiment changed our perceptions about how ordinary people can commit horrific acts just because they are "under orders". For a modern version of the experiment see this video.

9. It seems that there might be a statutory limitation period preventing prosecution of the student and his instructor - see this discussion.

10. Waley, Arthur. The Way and Its Power. London. Unwin Paperbacks 1977, p. 20.

11. See my discussion of the "social contract" here (albeit I'm speaking the context of healthcare, my general point about caring for one another as part of a society still applies).

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The anatomy of randori


I am about to reveal one of my personal "secret" martial art training methods. I would go so far as to say that it is the single most important way to learn how to apply civilian defence techniques in a dynamic environment. I am speaking, of course, of the sparring method we call randori.

As I have explained previously, randori is a kind of sparring analogous to the "playfighting" of dogs; the movement is continuous and flowing, takes place entirely within what I call the melee range and features strikes/punches/kicks that are controlled (rather than made to miss - see my article "Control vs. missing").

I'm sure most of you have seen dogs engaging in their playfighting. It really is the only "preparation" dogs have for real fighting. Yet I don't think any of us would doubt the ability of a dog to fight on the basis of this preparation. In fact, those of you who have seen real, all-out dog fights (and I have seen many) will attest that the inherent movement/tactics employed in such fights are identical to those in employed in dog "playfighting"; the only difference lies in the speed and the fact that the bites are not "controlled".

I am strongly of the view that this paradigm applies equally to human beings. "Randori" (the human equivalent to the playfighting of dogs) is a vital key to developing real fighting skill. It allows you to experience/immerse yourself in the same inherent melee range dynamics without real injury. It allows you to experiment and inculcate the appropriate movement by mapping neural pathways for muscle memory or reflexive movement.

But isn't real fighting completely different?

Before I get into the specifics of how one should approach the human version of "dogfighting" (ie. randori) I'll make the following observations:

I've often heard it said that when you fight for real your approach is very different to sparring. Many will argue that in a real fight you engage the "lizard brain" or the amygdala - ie. the oldest and smallest region of the evolving human brain. In some respects it can be said that we have a lizard brain "with some extra stuff on top" - in particular the cerebral cortex.1

In this regard Professor Bata Milosevic, founder of the "systema like" Serbian martial art of "Svebor", said to me: "You fight like your grandfather fought". In other words, in his view your technical training will come to nought in real fighting; you will default to your genetic predisposition. I respectfully disagree with this view.

I think fear, anger, adrenaline, malicious intent etc. all affect the outcome of a fight. However I will go on record as saying that in my experience the inherent dynamics of randori (ie. the general way in which people move in this type of sparring) are largely the same as those seen in real fighting (cf. "tag competition"). This is not to say that randori is even close to "real" fighting. Far from it. I'm merely saying that as a developmental tool it can teach you a lot about melee dynamics.

True, in softer sparring one tends to experiment more and take greater risks. Conversely it is also true that in real combat one's coordination will be affected by sudden surges of adrenalin. However once again the essential melee dynamics remain the same - it's just that under real conditions one's efficacy will be compromised by fear, adrenaline etc.

To summarise, my experience in facing a pounding has been that my movements correspond more or less to conservative randori, done fast with a lot less accuracy than I would like!

So for me randori serves to inculcuate into your amygdala (the "lizard brain") appropriate responses for fighting in a melee environment. The movements thus become reflexive - ie. they can emerge irrespective of pressure of real combat. This is the theory underlying training in the military, be it with fighter pilots or infantry; you train for reflexive responses that emerge despite any "adernaline dump" etc.

In my view many people's sparring bears no resemblance to how they fight in real conditions because they engage in faux boxing or similar "distance" sparring (eg. "tag competition") which is outside the melee range except for brief, chaotic bursts. Since the real confrontation occurs in the melee (where tag fighters typically spend only about 10% of their sparring time) they are really facing an entirely new "beast". I think it is this factor that makes some people "fight differently" in a real scenario as opposed to sparring.

How to do randori

So how should one practise randori? What are the key points?

First, you must stay in the melee range as much as possible. This is where the real fight happens and accordingly this is where you need to accumulate experience. Furthermore, melee range tactics such as blocks/deflections are designed to work in the melee range - not further out.

Second, you must flow. This means you must move continuously - ie. without any pauses.

Third, you must move at an even pace - as must your partner/opponent. Neither party should suddenly break from this pace as this is "cheating". Who are you cheating? Yourself!

I am reminded of how I was once sparring with one of my sempai Desmond Lawrence, a formidable martial artist with real street experience (and knife wound scars to prove it) but who was a real "softie" in the dojo. I recall thinking that I had the better of Des in the "3/4 speed" randori we were doing. Then my instructor Bob Davies said: "Right - move it up to full speed". I found I had nothing left to give; I hadn't realised I was already at full speed. Des picked up his pace and he was able to manipulate me like a doll.

This third point is the most important of all because it teaches you to be "in the right place at the right time". If you have to abruptly move much faster than the speed of the "flow" you know you have been "wrong-footed".

If you are wrong-footed and your partner delivers a controlled blow - take it. After all, the blow is going to be controlled, so you don't have to worry about injury. Don't "cheat" yourself by suddenly flailing out. Remember that if the speed were already at maximum you wouldn't be able to flail out and save yourself. Rather you should take careful note of how and why you went wrong and try not to let the same thing happen again.

On the same point, don't shuffle your feet about. Place your feet deliberately in each move. Little "shuffles" let you cheat by adjusting your position subtly. At full speed you won't have the luxury of little shuffles. You will be wrong-footed. If you've stepped/moved into the wrong position, wear the consequences and learn from them.

Fourth, experiment! Don't be conservative and use your tried and trusted few movements. Try to apply techniques/bunkai from kata. Extend yourself. This is the only way you'll learn.

Examples of randori

I thought it might be useful to show some examples of randori. Here are some stills taken from some light sparring I did with Sensei Jeff Cosgrove (3rd Dan). In it you'll see us applying kata movements, including some throws and locks. The sparring was unscripted.

Example 1

Jeff launches a front kick and I use a standard shiko dachi (sumo stance) 45 degree back evasion with a gedan uke (downward deflection) from the kata gekisai. I immediately counter with a reverse right palm strike to Jeff's face which Jeff (foolishly as it turns out) deflects with a left hand palm deflection on the outside of my strike. His better option would have been to deflect me by wedging on the inside of my strike as we will see from the next frames.

I continue my forward momentum with a left hand feint, knowing that Jeff is going to deflect it with his right hand (which he does). However note how my right hand swings around to the outside of Jeff's left enabling me to land a palm strike to Jeff's face.

Example 2

Jeff launches a left leading jab followed by a right reverse punch. The move appears to be a tactical blunder as I can deflect both punches with the same arm. However Jeff's move was a deliberate feint, analogous to an "approach shot" in tennis. Note how he has closed in to an optimum distance and note also that he has effectively limited me to one (obvious) counter - a right cross which Jeff already has covered.

Of course when I begin my right cross, Jeff slips it and deflects it with a forearm block (haiwan nagashi uke) throwing a right vertical fist punch into my solar plexus. The best I can do is put my own forearm in the way so that he strikes it instead of my body.

However I have already started drawing my body back in defence against Jeff's punch. And I continue to draw it back until I can use my left leg for a front kick (mae geri)2 which lands on Jeff as he pulls away in retreat.

I follow with a right cross, but Jeff intercepts it with another haiwan nagashi uke, trapping my arm with his left hand. Jeff then swaps arms (having effected a "check") and goes for reverse shuto uchi (knife hand) while holding on to my hand, aiming to do a kaiten nage (rotary throw) as illustrated in the picture at the start of this article. I am however well placed to stop the shuto with a press on his elbow which throws him off balance.

Example 3

In this example Jeff attacks with a right cross. I evade the attack by moving 45 degrees back into shiko dachi and using the secondary part of the standard chudan uke (chest deflection). I move my momentum forward taking weight off my rear (right) leg which I then employ in a front kick.2 The kick is however easily deflected by Jeff since his left hand is in exactly the appropriate position for a gedan uke (downward deflection). Note how Jeff uses his other hand to effect a high counter balancing pullback as seen in many kata such as jion or even naihanchi/naifunchin.

After his deflection, Jeff keeps his momentum moving forward with the aim of effecting his own mae geri (front kick) - again with his back leg.2 I'm moving back as I retract my own kick. As I do so I try to stifle Jeff's advance with a right cross (hoping Jeff will impale himself as he moves forward). My distancing is however such that I realise his kick will land before my punch. This is what I have previously called an "oh sh*t! moment". Accordingly I convert what was going to be a right cross into a downward deflection (gedan barai uke) of Jeff's kick together with a sideways tai sabaki (body shift). Note that I too use the high counterbalancing pullback for my low block.

Example 4

Jeff throws a committed right cross which I evade and deflect with an age uke (rising block). Because of the commitment in his punch I am able to slip under his arm before he has time to "reset" himself and pull back.

Once I have slipped under I am able to apply a kaiten nage (rotary throw) which is from Nagegata Sho (see my articles "Applying forms in combat" and "Can karate become taiji?").

Example 5

When Jeff throws a right cross I use an outside wing block (or "bong sau" as it is known in from Wing Chun). I follow it up with a low punch - deliberatly baiting a high left hook from Jeff. Jeff deflects my low punch by converting his right cross into a downward deflection (gedan barai) - again utlising his knowledge of how to deal with "oh sh*t! moments".

As anticipated, after deflecting my blow Jeff takes the bait and throws a left hook to my exposed face. However I advance (note how my right foot has moved) to intercept it early, catching his punch with my left hand on his forearm and my right forearm at his elbow (what is known as a "scissors block/deflection" and which appears in the kata seiyunchin). I then apply a move from shisochin and take Jeff down into an arm bar.3


Of course, randori is not really a "secret" - nor is it a panacea. However I see it as one of the more important things that should be in one's "toolbox" for understanding the melee range (which is, I believe, central to civilian defence).

Your randori should have the same inherent movement as real fighting - what will be different is the speed and ferocity/intent. You can never make any sparring "real" without injury and it goes without saying that randori is not trying to emulate "reality". Rather it gives you a forum for experimenting, applying techniques and inculcating (ie. "grooving") certain automatic responses in a controlled, largely safe melee range environment.

Randori won't teach you to deal with fear, adrenaline, pain and panic. You will need to employ other training methods to deal with these variables. What randori will give you is muscle memory so that you can be in the right place at the right time - especially when combined with other training measures that help you deal with the pressures of real combat.


1. See this article about the reptilian brain.

2. When you are kicking in the melee range one must be careful as to which leg you use. Broadly speaking, when you are advancing you use the rear leg. When you are retreating or evading, use the front. See the video below.

A discussion about kicking in the melee range

3. As an aside, when I was sparring (in randori fashion) with Chris, a student of Hans-Kurt Schäfer in Hong Kong, I learned some very efficient defences to arm bars based on the internal arts of bagua and taiji - but not before Chris put me into a very nice arm bar that left my elbow sore for the next week (the adjacent picture shows Chris in the process of apply that arm bar).

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Upset applecarts and the question of lineage

In traditional martial arts the question of lineage is often seen as paramount. I remember well the debates that raged from issue to issue on the letters page of the (now defunct) Australasian Fighting Arts Magazine. Various taijiquan schools would send in letters that stated: "X does not do authentic Yang style because he only studied with Y and Z while I studied with A, B and C" etc. Eventually the editor would chime in and and say "I'm not printing any more letters on this topic". But before long another, similar, debate would fire up.

The question of lineage is by no means confined to taijiquan schools. Most recently I have been made aware of a huge "lineage upset" in Okinawan goju ryu karate circles, caused by the video below:

The controversial video of Alexandr Filimonov's and Kato Tomoyuki's "succession" to the late An'ichi Miyagi

For those who don't know, An'ichi Miyagi was student of the legendary Chojun Miyagi, having trained with him from the age of 16 to 22. An'ichi Miyagi's most famous student, Morio Higaonna, is one of the most celebrated goju practitioners and teachers in the world today. He is reknowned for his power and effectiveness as well as his deep knowledge.

Higaonna's lineage is not without controversy. It is known that he trained for a lengthy period under Jundokan founder and senior student of Chojun Miyagi, Ei'ichi Miyazato. Miyazato is on record as stating that Higaonna was his student - not An'ichi Miyagi's.1 Indeed, Higaonna's early dan gradings appear to have been given to him by Miyazato.2 Higaonna meanwhile has steadfastly maintained that his main teacher was An'ichi Miyagi;3 he makes little to no mention of Miyazato when referring to his lineage.

Higaonna was awarded his tenth dan (judan) and the title "Hanshi" by An'ichi Miyagi and Shuichi Aragaki on 25 September 2007.4

So imagine the surprise of the goju world when the above video surfaced proclaiming 2 former students of Higaonna,5 Alexandr Filimonov and Kato Tomoyuki, as the successors of An'ichi Miyagi. Both are also judan grade and have the title "Hanshi". In Kato's case I note that his grading was in 20026 predating Higaonna's by about 5 years. It seems that Filimonov received his grade in 2008, as can be seen in the video below:

Another video featuring An'ichi Miyagi and Alexandr Filimonov

What does all this mean? Is Higaonna's status affected by the "surprise" elevation of other, less experienced, karateka over him? On paper, yes (disregarding the fact that the videos above are open to criticism as lacking in modesty and courtesy 7).

However in my opinion the whole business about succession is much ado about nothing.

It is far more pertinent to focus on the abilities and knowledge of a teacher than it is focus on particulars of the teacher's lineage. The latter is really only of academic/historical interest. While it might give a prospective student an indication of whether he or she will learn something preserved from the past, it really doesn't reflect the usefulness of the material the student will acquire. In some cases it will give some indication of the likely framework of the syllabus and training methods. For example, if you go to an IOGKF school (Higaonna's association) you are likely to encounter a consistent emphasis on hojo undo (conditioning) and a particular set of bunkai (applications of kata).

Whatever indication you might get from lineage, it starts to break down significantly after one generation. Ultimately every teacher has his or her own "style". A teacher can never pass down an exact copy of his teacher's style (nor would it necessarily be desirable to do so).

In Higaonna's case, I tend to ignore the lineage questions. He is a master in his own right and whether you like his approach or not, he is arguably the most influential goju practitioner of his generation. He was/is also one of the most effective martial artists around - again, whether you like his approach or not. To the extent that he has focussed and commented on his own lineage, I think it is a shame that he has felt it necessary to do so. Questions about lineage potentially distract one from his ability, knowledge and contribution. They can also distract one from his general approach/method - which should be the primary issue for consideration, irrespective of whether one is happy with the lineage issue.

Higaonna might or might not be Chojun Miyagi's lineal successor, but he arguably has a status in karate similar to that enjoyed by Chojun Miyagi when the latter was alive. This reputation is due to the fact that he is both an innovator as well as an effective martial artist. The fact that his innovations are not my preference (I prefer a softer style and consider some of his innovations to have moved further to the "hard" side of the spectrum) doesn't affect this assessment. It is worth noting that many argued that Chojun Miyagi was too "hard" for their liking in as much as he focussed on hojo undo, changed open hand techniques into closed fist ones, etc.

Accordingly, I think it is a shame that lineage preoccupies so many people. If Higaonna's style appeals to you, then it is more relevant that you follow his style than whether it is truly representative of the style of An'ichi Miyagi or Chojun Miyagi or Kanryo Higaonna, etc. After all, a day will come when people will argue about who is the true successor to Morio Higaonna...

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic


1. See this interview with Ei'ichi Miyazato.

2. In the above interview Miyazato talks about awarding Higaonna dan grades up to 6th dan and signing off for him to be awarded his 7th dan by the Goju Kai organization.

3. See for example this article in the Dragon Times online magazine.

4. See this page on the English Goju Ryu site.

5. See this article listing Filimonov as a student of Higaonna and the video below of Kato with Higaonna:

6. See Kato Tomoyuki's site.

7. See the various comments about this issue on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forum.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Decadal Gashuku Part 1: The Foreboding

It's hard to believe we are rapidly approaching the 20th anniversary of the Decadal Gashuku, a martial arts training camp held by Lao Shi Bob Davies at Midmar Dam in Kwazulu Natal from 3 to 13 January 1990. It was an international event comprising 2 separate 5 day courses. Some of us (the "decadal participants") were there for both.

For those unfamiliar with the gashuku (training camp) concept, it typically features 8 hours of training/instruction per day. The decadal participants were in for a treat; we would have 10 hours instead. It was the theme - 10 lots of everything.

To better fill you in on the picture I should rewind a little.

My wife Maureen and I were newlyweds and I had freshly graduated from law. We wanted to go overseas for an adventure but we didn't have 2 pennies to scratch together. I had a job lined up, but wouldn't start till February. So we decided to take out a loan. Given my degree and my upcoming job, the banks fell over each other to get to us.

Flush with borrowed cash, we headed off to Europe where I introduced Maureen to my relatives and she introduced me to hers. All good so far. But there was more to come. I somehow convinced Maureen to spend the second half of our honeymoon in Africa. After all, Bob was holding a special camp. I had visions of thatch huts nestled in thorn trees overlooking the African savannah; some relaxing taiji in the crisp morning air, elephants strolling by, zebras grazing in the distance. I should have known better. The only elephants and zebras I'd seen in all my years in Africa were in enclosures. And my training with Bob should have taught me that the camp would be anything but relaxing.

In "Running with Bob" I described our arrival in Durban just under a week before new year. We stayed a few days with Bob until his deshi (apprentice) Wyatt found us accommodation in student digs rented by friends of his. There I was able to rest my blistered feet for a couple of days.

Then, in the afternoon of new year's day, we set off to Midmar Dam in a small convoy; Bob and his family in their car towing a caravan, the deshis in another, and Maureen and I with one of Bob's students. The remainder of the students would be arriving a day later; we were going early to set up.

Our driver was a pleasant chap who told us that before training with Bob he had been a student of something called "Ho Chi".
     "Ja, no - looking beck, ah don't think it was a rrreal mahshall aht," he opined in a Johannesburg drawl. "Hoe Chee was probablee just made up."

I was expecting the trip to take a couple of hours at most. For whatever reason it seemed to take much longer. It was well after lunch and we hadn't eaten, so Mr Ho Chi pulled into a dingy third-world cafe on the outskirts of Pietermartizburg. Of all the unappetising choices, I ordered the least risky: chips (French fries to you Americans). But even these turned out to be half cooked, soggy and dripping with oil.

Seated there at the chipped lino tables, I caught some movement out of the corner of my eye and casually glanced over to the wall where some Zulu children were laughing conspiratorially. Peering over my shoulder I saw another kid who had walked diagonally opposite to a rough concrete trough and was washing his hands, grinning at his mates. Then I looked down at the table I saw their target: my wallet with our remaining borrowed cash. I stowed it safely in my pocket then beckoned for the kids to come over and take the chips. They swooped onto the consolation prize like seagulls and we left.

It was pitch dark when we arrived at a deserted camp. Only the distant light of toilet blocks gave hint of any civilisation. We drove down to the water's edge and worked under the headlights, setting up our tents. The night air had suddenly become quite frosty.

Our "2 person" tent had been kindly lent to us by Mr Ho Chi, with some sleeping bags sourced by the deshis. I remember prodding the uncompromisingly rocky ground with my shoe, wondering how we would sleep. I coerced a resentful Deshi Tony into parting with a quarter piece of mattress ("Ag man, I was going to use that for a pillow!" he exclaimed). I was a little nervous as this had clearly made the stressed deshi dislike me even more (somehow we had started on the wrong foot). At the same time I had a gut feeling that the little piece of mattress was going to provide our only comfort in the coming days.

By the time we finished setting up it was near midnight and we still hadn't eaten. I jumped into a car with Tony and we headed off into the ink-well darkness to find some food. Almost an hour later we finally returned from a little all-night diner, bearing curry burgers (when I asked for a burger without curry the man behind the counter stared at me blankly). I still remember sitting on the hard ground in the dark, adjusting myself so that a rock wouldn't go up my butt, unwrapping my burger and saying "happy new year" to Maureen. At least I didn't say "happy honeymoon". Oh well, it would get better, right?

The next morning I emerged from my tent to the alien world that had been hidden by the night: a harsh, brown savanna surrounding a flat dam. There was little else. A few struggling, pathetic saplings had been planted near the water's edge, and one or 2 lonely thorn trees could be seen elsewhere in the camping area; otherwise there was really no shade for as far as the eye could see.

The other participants dribbled in as the morning wore on. We helped them set up their tents, then moved to the kitchen tent. Last but not least we erected a "training tent" - an area we were to use at the hottest part of the day but which quickly proved woefully inadequate for its task; it was too small for the 30 odd participants and it also acted as a heat trap.

That night I lay awake on the rocky ground, thinking about the training with a growing sense of trepidation. I also couldn't sleep because of the dreadful sunburn on my calves - the only part of my body I hadn't covered in sunscreen. It seemed like an omen; whatever preparation I'd had was completely inadequate for the task.

Looking back now I can see that my gut feeling was spot-on. Yet I also know I wouldn't feel as concerned if I were in that position today. Perhaps that is part and parcel of having overcome challenges in the past. You learn that pain exists only in the moment. After it has gone you don't remember it. You remember being in pain - but you don't remember the pain itself. That is part of human instinct I suppose. If we could conjure up the feeling of pain just as we can the memory of a song, smell or taste then we'd all be wrecks.

None of this would have comforted me back then. I hadn't learned enough about the nature of pain. The lessons were about to begin.

Next: Decadal Gashuku Part 2: Ten Blind Masseuses

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Running with Bob

In 1991 I had a visit from one of my former karate classmates in South Africa, Peter Banks. Peter started training shortly after I did, but where I was a fresh-faced teenager, Peter was already in his late 30s. And where I was pencil thin, Peter was not. To be blunt, he had a sizable middle-aged spread.

Imagine my surprise when, almost a decade later, Peter turned up at our dojo looking like an iron man. The paunch was no more. In its place was the proverbial "six pack". It was something I never imagined possible with Peter. "How did you do it?" I asked.
     He replied: "Running with Bob".

He was, of course, referring to our teacher Lao shi Bob Davies. I immediately understood how Peter had achieved his remarkable transformation. If you could keep up with our teacher you couldn't have a paunch. The 2 concepts were mutually exclusive.

I cast my mind back to my visit to Lao shi Bob the year before. My wife and I had arrived at his house in Durban in the dead of night after an exhausting flight from Europe. We were on our "honeymoon". It was late December and we were reeling from the shock of the humid heat - especially since we had just experienced temperatures dropping as low as minus 20 degrees Celsius.

We had come to Durban to attend a special gashuku (training camp) - one that is now known as the infamous "decadal" gashuku (ie. once in a decade). One of my students, Tim Hull, had flown over directly from Australia and was also staying with Bob.

I still remember how, unable to sleep in the tropical heat, I lay awake at 2 a.m. listening to Bob potter around the house, knowing that in 3 hours time I would be out pounding the bitumen, followed by a couple of hours of training.

Somehow I managed to nod off, only to wake at 4:55 a.m. to the rude buzzing of the bedside clock. I tried to rouse my sleeping wife (who in those days trained alongside me) but soon gave up, guessing correctly that Bob would not be troubled by her absence (where he would not have tolerated mine). So I pulled on my straight-out-of-the-box running shoes (that were about to give me dreadful blisters) and headed out into the steamy half-light where a baggy-eyed Tim was waiting next to my cheery sensei and his resigned deshis (apprentices), Tony and Wyatt.

I'd not really done any training in the preceding weeks. Being in Europe with my relatives meant that I'd been spoiled with food, slivovitz and more food. With the temperatures plummeting we were forced to stay indoors in crowded, smoky rooms, chatting, eating and drinking. What little training I'd done had been strength-based. I'd noted that in previous visits, my teacher had "bulked up", so in order to keep up with him I'd gained about 10 kg in muscle, doing exercises like squats - 4 sets of 150 kg for 30 reps (or if we had no weights, single leg squats - see the picture below). Little did I know that the game had changed; Bob was now into aerobic training. And in this respect I was as unfit as a police sergeant.

Looking at my teacher and his apprentices in the gray pre-dawn light, I noted their uniform 6 pack abdominal muscles, then scanned down to my own spare tyre. Tim was chatting to them amiably, blissfully unaware of what was to come.

We set off for a "joggle" to warm up. This is Bob's description of the half-shuffle, half-run that he always does for the first 15 minutes or so. This enabled us to get round the corner from his house to where a large group of runners had assembled in the breaking dawn, most of them running on the spot and otherwise limbering up. A man with a megaphone addressed the crowd:
     "Okay people - just an easy 16 km today. We don't want to overdo it. After all, we're starting Comrades preparation next week."
     The Comrades Ultra Marathon is an annual 90 km race from Durban to Pietermartizburg (an inland city that is the capital of Kwazulu-Natal). We were going for a run with professional and semi-professional long-distance runners. I took a look at Tim's wan expression.
     "Cheer up," I told him. "It's just an easy 16 k's."

Half an hour later Tim and I were puffing and panting, plodding south along Kensington Drive. Bob, his deshis and the Comrades runners had long since left us in their wake, having set a pace I could barely sustain over 400 meters.

Since the Kensington Drive is very straight, we could make out the runners in the distance, ascending a rise. At the very front were Bob and his 2 deshis, apparently chatting comfortably as they ran. I reflected how typical this was; Bob was beating the runners at their own game and was doing it in style.

When we finally arrived back at Bob's house the deshis were waiting for us to start training. We were required to jump into Bob's swimming pool and do 1000 mae geri (front kicks) in the shallow end. Compared to the running this was a piece of cake. I was in my element (albeit a wetter one than that to which I was accustomed).

The decadal gashuku which followed soon afterwards involved running every morning (and once, in the afternoon for a half-marathon!). By the end of the 13 days on that camp we'd run over 150 km. More than a couple of people commented that my spare tyre had disappeared.

While I had adapted to the conditions, I wasn't exactly running with ease. For one thing my body was aching from strain and injury. For another, fitness is not easily acquired in under a month. What I did learn to appreciate is the nature of our limitations and how we can overcome these.

Prior to that time I'd never imagined it possible that I could achieve what I did during that visit to Bob. Quite frankly, I'd have thought the sustained running (without any prior training) was impossible. I was proved wrong.

Bob often spoke about the nature limitations and how we need to avoid putting up our own; there are more than enough out there already. What I learned on this occasion was that my perceptions about my capabilities were way off. I had underestimated myself and as a result I'd been putting up my own barriers; barriers that were in addition to the normal obstacles one encounters in life.

Copyright © 2009 Dejan Djurdjevic