On the occasion of receiving my black belt in the Hoshin Ryu I was asked by Shihan Brady Hansen for my thoughts on training in the system. This is not an easy question for me and it does not lend itself to a casual answer.
Let me start with a little background about myself. I began seriously training in the martial arts after 9/11. Early in this process I came across the works of Glenn Morris. (If you are interested in Hoshin and you are not familiar with Dr. Morris, pick up a copy of Path Notes of an American Ninja Master and get ready for a wild ride). After reading his books I discovered and joined his Yahoo discussion group around 2003. For a number of years I simply followed the conversations, contributing nothing. For in fact I had nothing to contribute to the esoteric topics that were under continual debate. The subjects that Glenn was dealing with posed a serious challenge to my long-standing view of the world. However as wild as the discussions became, the seriousness of purpose and scientific approach of both Glenn and his other moderator, Susan Carlson, impressed me. I sent Glenn a number of emails and his responses were always very thoughtful considering I was just another name in the group.
When confronted with radical ideas it is always useful to obtain other perspectives from people you trust. I purchased a number of copies of Past Notes and gave the book to a few Shihan in the other system where I was training. Later, when I asked them about the book the responses were dramatic. The consensus was that the author was full of shit and an egomaniac to boot. One of the Shihan, a PhD in psychology, took me aside at a black belt seminar and confided that he thought Glenn was clinically insane. These reviews did not have their intended effect. I concluded that if anybody could arouse so much passion and anger had to be on to something.
In 2005 after patiently answering yet another of my newbie questions Glenn invited me to come to one of his seminars in Louisiana. At the time I had two small kids, a demanding job and weekly training at the other dojo. Sadly I could not fit it in. When he died in 2006 I put Hoshin out of my mind. Still. Many of Glenn’s ideas continued to resonate with me, including his guidance on finding legitimate teachers.
One of the benefits of my job has been the opportunity to travel. During business trips I visited dojos around the country and trained with instructors that I respected. On a trip to Japan I was able to talk myself into the Bujinkan Hombu dojo. I got to meet Hatsumi-soke, witnessed a sword test, and was able to attend a few classes. The reputation of the Japanese Shihan is well deserved.
I obtained my first black belt in 2007 and continued to train. It will sound clichéd but I had a deep feeling that something was missing. I began corresponding with members of the old Hoshin Yahoo group. A senior student of Glenn’s had created his own group and was offering his version of the KAP. I went through the first level and was not impressed.
Susan Carlson had always struck me as a voice of reason and I tracked her down. At the time Susan had a website on which she was offering a range of esoteric services. I contacted her and asked if she would help me with basic meditation. We worked together for four months.
On a business trip to Denver I invited her out to dinner. The Buckhorn was suggested, a local restaurant that she had frequented with Glenn when he was in the area. Not knowing what to expect and never having seen her picture, I arrived early and waited outside the restaurant in the winter cold. I recognized her in immediately when she pulled up. She got out of her Lexus SUV and hugged me like we were old friends. Over a dinner of Elk I peppered her with questions about her own experiences and her perspectives on Glenn and Hoshin. Susan was open and warm and funny; clearly amused at my efforts to take it all in. Towards the end of the meal I asked her about the competing factions that all claimed to be Glenn’s only legitimate successor. Who did she regard as Glenn’s heir? She did not hesitate. “The guy that you want to train with is Rob Williams”. She offered to furnish an introduction. Some months later I was on my way to Yorktown, Va.
The day we met Rob greeted me with great warmth and thanked me for making the trip to his dojo. About a half dozen students showed up for that class and they could not have been more welcoming. Rob showed a range of techniques that I recognized from the Bujinkan. It was immediately apparent that Rob knew his stuff. His moves were quick fluid and brutally graceful. At the end of the two hour class Rob said that he was going to keep going in recognition of the long trip I had made. We trained for almost 4 hours that day after which Rob answered my questions for another half an hour. He was open and direct in his answers with none of the reserved caginess that I had come to expect from upper level martial artists.
As I was packing my bag to leave Rob came up and asked me what I thought. I told him that it was a great class and I wanted to learn more. “I think that one of our senior instructors is planning to relocate to your area. I’ll send you his contact information”. And so my Hoshin training began.
Training in Hoshin
In order to discuss training in the Hoshin system it is necessary to first describe the typical modern martial arts dojo.
Most dojos are franchises or extensions of a larger school or system. There is an established structure that is very helpful to the new trainee. There are set class times, well described techniques that need to be mastered, and regular public belt tests to evaluate and encourage the student’s progress. The dojo provides a strong sense of community among its students. There is a sense of a common path, shared goals and the bonding that takes place on the mat. There are Facebook pages, social events outside of class, and a program for the kids so the whole family can train together.
Most importantly the modern dojo is typically a business that is supporting one or more instructors. As a business it needs a significant number of students that each class to be profitable. Faced with a room full of students the instructor must cover a set range of material and in a prescribed amount of time. A good instructor will check on each student’s understanding and progress but the class-size and the amount of material to be covered generally limits the time that can be spent with each student.
The Hoshin Ryu is different. It feels closer to an ancient Japanese school where you had to be born into the family of an instructor or at least belonged to the same clan. Hoshin instructors all have other careers; they do not make their living from martial arts. This creates a profound difference in culture. Teachers can be selective about the students they accept and the number of students they wish to train. They are under no pressure to cover material at a given speed. My instructor conducted our training based upon my progress. Techniques that I already knew or picked up quickly received little attention. However on many occasions there were techniques or aspects of a technique that I did not “get” and we would spend a full two hour session going over it.
The high degree of personalized instruction is one of the Hoshin system’s best features. There is the opportunity for the committed student to learn quickly and at a level of fine detail that would difficult to achieve in a larger class. The individualized instruction can be intense.
Specifically, there is no place to hide. In a large class where the instructor’s attention is divided it is easy to take the night off. Not so in a small group. You have to come to every class mentally prepared. My Hoshin instructor amplified this dynamic by not announcing most of my belt tests. I came to realize that I was being evaluated every class and sometimes with every sequence of techniques. Without warning an already demanding session would suddenly get much more intense. Was I ready? Was I going to quit?
Initially this ad Hoc testing created a sense of anxiety and sometimes even dread as I drove to our training sessions in the predawn light. I could feel a fight or flight response welling up inside of me as I got closer to the field where we train. With time this feeling of dread changed to one of calm. A sense that whatever happens, I am ready for it. No matter how tired I get I am not going to quit. My body made this transition before I was mentally aware of it.
The Hoshin community is different also. Training is less frequent and less structured so the student must be disciplined and self-directed. At the higher levels Hoshin practioners explore a remarkably wide range of subjects. Again, these are largely self-directed. Notes are shared, experiences are discussed, and questions are asked amongst the group. An apt description for the Hoshin network might be a virtual clan of warrior monks who meet to discuss the visions gleaned from long periods of solitary study. Individual paths may vary but motivations are very similar. My teacher is fond of observing that Hoshin is the ultimate meritocracy. You can tell who is doing the work. And those who do the work become your brothers.
the awkward spider
Hagan Woods Dojo
-Ted May Sensei
2nd Dan Hoshinjutsu