The Four Pillars of Training

There are at a minimum four essential areas of work for Budo Taijutsu practitioners. To only practice three is to be incomplete, and to miss important roads to understanding and actual ability.

The first pillar, and the one that should be thought of as the most important by most students, are the kata. The reason that the kata should be thought of as the most important thing by most students is that most students are at a stage where kata offer them more benefits than any other kind of training. You must realize that the purpose of kata is to build a correct foundation for yourself.

Unlike the kata of newer Japanese martial arts (martial arts that are less than 200 years old), which are performed solo, kata of Koryu Bujutsu (older martial arts) are performed by two people. These are precise exercises, meant to be duplicated exactly. In this way, the correct points, as well as the feeling, of a martial art are transferred to the student. This is also how the martial arts are transferred down through history without being distorted or lost entirely. You should practice kata with the utmost seriousness and attention to detail. Do your best to duplicate exactly what you see. In addition, some solo practice should be a regular part of every student’s routine, especially in the early stages. You cannot omit these. Going over basic movements, like punches, blocks, kicks and rolls, is essential for growth. That is how you establish a high quality of movement.

The second pillar is henka. Henka literally means ‘change’, and it means exploring the variations that arise in training, and how to turn unpredictable situations into successful outcomes. Here is where you explore the possibilities, and really develop your skill to a high level. It is where your individuality and creativity is important, and when you learn to apply the principles that you have learned. Therefore, it is essential not to abandon the skills and principles that you have learned in the kata training. To do so is to create a situation where two of the four pillars actually work against each other, and growth does not take place. Do not use henka as a crutch, or band-aid– covering up the fact that you can’t do the basics and kata material. This serious situation is a major problem in our style of martial arts.

Henka is the essence of life. There are times when failure to change equals death. Change is the path toward growth, overcoming stagnation and error. No matter how long you have been on the path, when the road of your life has reached a blockage or is leading you astray, you must realize the necessity for change. The same holds true in combat. Embrace change and do not hold on tightly to what has gone before.

The third pillar is randori. This means sparring. Sparring can be done very slowly, or at full speed– it depends on your level of experience with sparring, and training in general. It is important again to not abandon the basic principles established in kata training. If you do, you are– in a very real sense– undoing all the work that you have already put in. If you attempt randori, and you feel that the experience has degraded into a poor quality situation that is not based on principles and correct methods, you should cease– and return to more basic kata and henka training. You should engage in randori training only when your foundation is so solid that you do not stray from what is right and true. There is a level of randori that we call Shinken Gata, which translates to “Live Blade Forms”, and means a very real level of sparring. This is highly dangerous, and should be performed only by the most experienced practitioners.

The fourth pillar is conditioning. Forgetting conditioning is a major mistake. Condition is realizing that your body is your weapon, and then readying your body for combat purposes. You condition your muscles by ‘working them’ and making them stronger. You condition your tendons by stretching them, during and outside of actual training. You condition your body to receive strikes and throws. You condition your hands, feet and other body weapons to be able to deliver blows without damaging them. It means getting used to using yourself as a weapon.

Let’s take a look at the four pillars in terms of kenpo, or sword training. First, there are the kata, or forms. In our case, the kata come from Kukishin Ryu Kenpo. We practice them carefully to understand the methods, body movement and footwork, targeting and important points. What is important is developing the skills to move around, and with, the other person. With the sword, it is also crucial to practice the basic cuts by yourself, to understand the dynamics of cutting, as well as other points such as correctly drawing and sheathing. This takes much work. Secondly, there is henka. This is exploration of the possibilities arising from the unpredictability of actual combat. The principles we learn from the kata are not ignored and abandoned, but represent a starting point from which all things flow. The practitioner changes as the situation changes, adapting to the conditions as they arise. Then comes randori. This means putting on protective gear, using padded weapons, and then accelerating the kata and the henka into full speed training, evolving into all-out sparring. Only in this way can a practitioner understand the realities of actual fighting. Without randori, then we are only pretending to train for actual combat. Then there is the conditioning. With the sword, this is called Tameshigiri, which is using the sword for actual cutting on a target of straw or bamboo. This is essential for true understanding of swordsmanship. It amazes me how some teachers, or “experts” of sword have never even cut one straw mat. When it comes to cutting, it is impossible to know what your talking about if you have never actually cut anything.

See to it that your own training incorporates all of the Four Pillars of training, to the degree that each is necessary and proper for you.

Ken Harding, Shidoshi Bujinkan Dojo

Ken Harding
Missouri Budo Taijutsu Dojo

Posted in Bujinkan / Ninjutsu |
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