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Practice in the Art of Precision

A magnificent painting by Giotto at the Scrovegni Chapel located in Padua, Italy, the, 'Resurrection of Lazarus.'

Giotto was an artist of the 14th century, who became famous because of his move away from traditional medieval and byzantine art and became the avant-garde of Italian renaissance. Pope Benedict XI wanted to commission an artist to work on the St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.

After collecting samples of other works of art from a variety of other artists, the Pope’s emissary visited Giotto to get a sample of his work to present to the Pope.

Giotto stood firm in a traditional artistic fashion, and placed his arm at his side, like some kind of a medieval fencing stance. Using a brush in his ‘fencing’ arm he dipped it into blood red paint and then proceeded to draw a perfect circle on the canvas!

“Take this to the Pope,” he said to a slightly startled emissary. The emissary was no artist himself so was unable to appreciate the perfection of this simple thing and he asked for another example of the artist Giotto’s work. “This is more than enough,” Giotto said, with confidence and pose.

The emissary presented the works of art to Pope Benedict the XI along with the story of the circle, eyebrows were raised in anticipation. The Pope, however, understood the message from the artist. There was no need for fancy or flashy examples of artistic skill when the simple basic ability was to such a perfection that this was enough to demonstrate the ability of Giotto. He was the artist that was to paint St. Peter’s Basilica.

In a similar way to Giotto we are artists of the Bujinkan, we are martial artists and we create deadly art with our movement. The canvas of our work is in the air around and through the human body - both our own, and the uke's. The measure of the skill for a martial artist is in the quality and precision of their basics. When we talk about basics of the Bujinkan we would be forgiven to think these are the San-shin or the Kihon Happo. But this is not the basics. The basics are kamae, balance, striking, blocking, distance, movement, tempo, cadence and most importantly precision and accuracy.

To the untrained eye when Soke or Nagato, or any of the dai-shihans, are performing a waza on their uke it may look relaxed, and the strikes random. To a trained eye, however, the movement throughout the waza is through kamae and the strikes are precise. Anyone who has had a waza applied to them by the dai-shihan will know this – it is painful to say the least!

Basics are important and they need to be performed with precision, to such a level they become second nature and look like they are not precise at all.

The way I like to train in precision is using a variety of training methods. There are many different methods depending on what you are focusing your training on. For example, to practice precision with strikes is to know the kyusho points of ninjutsu intimately, to understand what they do to the body and why they are being targeted. Within this is an understanding of human anatomy and the effects targeted strikes will have on the body and brain (the sensory somatic system) – this is not always a negative effect but can be a positive one too, like how massage or amatsu is used to heal the body.

Understanding body anatomy and the effect of kyusho manipulation on the body, mind and spirit of someone is to be done slowly and carefully until there is a level of precision and accuracy that becomes integral to everything else that is performed as a martial artist.

A way I like to train with perfecting kamae is to take ‘snap-shots’ of people as they do a waza. To attain the place of perfect balance, composition, kukan, distance and power I like to pause someone mid-flow within their waza and ask them to check themselves. Do they feel balanced, do they feel their distance is safe and are they protected (totoku)? Do they feel able to freely move in the eight directions? The ability to change and adapt is important! Do they feel able to deliver a powerful strike? I find this method of pausing mid-waza, to check these things, is a good way to train in precision. By training in a way that allows a person to pause mid-waza, ensures they are not relying on speed and power in their technique.

It is through methods of training like this that the basics become refined and perfected. Nagato always says, “I don’t look at techniques to see people’s skill ... I will know people’s level of skill by their kamae. Make it look cool!”

It is the fundamental basics that will take someone to a better level of skill. This is not to say that we should favour structured and solid forms of movement. We need to understand that before we attempt complex flashy "techniques", or try emulate the dai-shihan's subtle movements, we need to have the fundamental basics down to a level of precision that is godlike.

When a Bujinkan practitioner is asked to demonstrate their skill, therefore, it isn’t about demonstrating Omote Gyaku, Musha dori or ku from the san-shin. It is about demonstrating balance, power, kamae, movement, timing, cadence, and the ability to move freely whilst still maintaining all of the above. In fact, it is not about the control exerted over the uke it is more about the control exerted over the self. Ultimately, how can a practitioner control someone else’s body if they are unable to fully control their own?

Keep training! 😊

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