Over the weekend of July 23rd, 2016, a gathering of Danzan Ryu students, Sensei, Professors, and teachers of other martial and healing arts gathered just outside of Chicago for the annual Danzan Ryu Chicago clinic.  This year, as every year, one of the central events of the clinic was the kids’ clinic and judo tournament. 

For the first two days, the kids trained and honed their arts under the direct instruction of many Sensei, including Professor Tom Ryan.  On the third day, all came together for a judo tournament.   If you’ve ever seen one of these, you know that the competition was spirited, intense, and energetic while also nurturing and empowering to all of the kids.  The young athletes were split into two divisions and then into approximately ten sub-groupings, sorting them all out by age, size and rank, and ensuring that each of the kids would be facing only appropriate opponents.   

This year my own daughter, Natalie, participated in her sixth or seventh annual clinic (I’ve lost count). Both as an assistant in the tournament and as a proud and watchful parent, it gave me an occasion to reflect on not only the phenomenon of the kids’ tournaments, but also the bigger question of their importance and their role within the DZR world.

The www.danzan.com website contains links to series of thoughtful and informative essays, many by Professor George Arrington.  In thinking about the event and all it represented, one essay in particular caught my attention.  We say we practice Danzan Ryu Jujistu, and the term Kodenkan is often used simultaneously.  We’ve all been taught that Danzan Ryu, loosely translated, means “Sandalwood mountain school.” The term “Sandalwood mountain” describes the state of Hawaii, where Henry Seshiro Okazaki emigrated from Japan, and where he established the martial and healing DZR system. 

In a piece titled,”The Difference Between Danzan-Ryu and Kodenkan,” Professor Arrington explores this in greater depth.  He writes, ‘“Kodenkan” literally means “ancient tradition school.”  He concludes, “To be absolutely pedantic, one should use Danzan-Ryu as the system name (e.g. Danzan-Ryu Jujutsu) and Kodenkan as the physical dojo building name.”  This is helpful and instructive, but as with all we study in the martial arts, any simple answer is necessarily incomplete and instead it’s almost always just a starting point.  While the distinction between a “school” in the physical sense and “school” in the figurative sense is important, I found myself considering more the literal translation, “ancient tradition school.”    

Kodenkan.   “Ancient tradition school.”   The temptation is to let that phrase casually roll out, but what strikes me is that central word “tradition.”  My own trusty and treasured ancient dictionary (maybe not ancient – it was printed in 1939) – the one that I keep within arms’ reach at my desk at all times —  defines the word “tradition” as, “The transmission of knowledge, doctrines, customs, etc., from generation to generation.” 

So, when we consider the question, What is DZR?, we need to look at it as something passed from generation to generation.  In other words, if you’re only concerned about learning your kata and getting the next belt, you’re missing something essential.  You’re missing that those things you’re learning are gifted to you from the previous generation, and the generation before that, and the one before that.  You’re also missing your own responsibility to be a link in this chain, and to bring in and nurture that generation which inevitably follows your own.

Before the tournament, my own Sensei, Sensei Fil Gutierrez, spoke quietly to all of the kids.  He told them that in their efforts and struggles to win, inevitably, some of them would cry.  He said that if you find yourself crying, don’t be ashamed, don’t try to hide it, but to let it out and let the feelings pass.  He said that we all – adults and children – black belts and white belts, cry sometimes on the mat.

In Natalie’s second match, she lost.  One of the boys in her class – a very calm fighter who pays close attention to his technique – threw her for the win after a couple of minutes of frenetic struggle.  At the moment she was thrown she knew immediately that she’d lost.  She’d given her all and was completely spent, both physically and emotionally.  She bowed, shook her opponent’s hand in congratulations, and then began sobbing and ran to me. 

Our conversation was what you’d imagine it to be.  I told her that it was okay to cry just as Sensei said, that I was so, so, so proud of her, and that her victory was in the effort and courage to step on the mat, no matter what the outcome of the match.  I held her closely and she buried her head in my chest, my gi absorbing her tears, snot and saliva. 

Over the next few minutes, all of the emotion – the exhaustion, the sadness, the fear, the disappointment – came out and also flowed into my gi.  Then, it passed, and she was called upon to get back on the mat for her third and final bout of the day.  As she stepped onto the mat and bowed to her next opponent, she made one last-minute wipe of her face and eyes with her sleeve, and the call rang out. 

“Hajima!”

One of the founding documents of DZR is Professor Okazaki’s “The Esoteric Principles of Judo.”  If you’ve never read it, or haven’t read it in awhile, read it.  It’s probably the best and clearest statement of our art, and it contains the clear and bold pronouncement “…it may well be said that the primary objective of practicing Judo is the perfection of character.” 

The perfection of character. 

The document then goes on to describe in a way that’s both elegant and eloquent, what exactly, we might understand this “perfection of character” to be.  Again, if you haven’t read it in awhile, go back to it.  (If you can’t locate a copy, it’s posted online at www.ajjf.org – click on “Danzan Ryu Jujitsu” and then on “Esoteric Principles”).

I’m convinced that this experience for Natalie was exceptionally good.  I’m convinced that she’s a stronger person because of it.  I’m convinced that the experience of feeling these emotions, and being reassured by some very powerful people that it’s okay to feel these emotions, will carry through her entire life and will serve her well.

I know, too, that Natalie wasn’t alone in having a profound and important experience on the mat.  I saw other kids facing their fears, letting their spirits emerge, digging deeply and finding a level of effort and strength that they didn’t know existed, fighting hard, and then immediately letting go of the emotion and embracing their opponents. 

One of the sessions during the clinic was a class for the kids taught by Professor Ryan.  After the class, I asked Natalie what they did in the class.

“It was a talking class, Dad.  We talked. We just talked.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Professor Ryan talked.  He talked about our dreams.  He told us that in our lives there will be people who try to tell us that we can’t do whatever we dream of doing.”

“What did he say about that?”

“He said that when that happens, when someone tries to tell you that your dreams don’t make sense, or that your dreams are stupid, you do it anyway.”

“What do you think about that?”

“It was amazing… and he’s right.”

“What did you think of the class?”

“It was amazing.”

I asked her if she told him that at the end, and she said that she hadn’t.  I told her that before the end of the clinic, she should.  She, Natalie, a little eleven year old girl should approach Professor Ryan and tell him that he taught a great class and that it meant a lot to her.  And, before the clinic ended, she did.  And I was very happy.

I know Natalie’s experiences, while unique to her, are also very typical of what happens to children in the DZR world.  They are changed.  Their characters are changed, they grow, and they’re nudged toward perfection.

This was the embodiment of “Kodenkan”.  Ancient teaching, perfection of character, being transmitted from one generation to the next.  Sensei Gutierrez often says, “Anybody can fight.  Very few can teach.”    For all of us the question becomes this – how can we, too, embody “Kodenkan”?  How can we lift up those who come after us?  How can we bring the next generation in and share what’s been so generously shared with us?

Let’s all give these questions some thought.  Whatever our answers are, let’s then resolve to actually do whatever those answers tell us. I know, too, that next year’s clinic will take place around the same time – late July. 

I can tell you that the DZR Chicago clinics are warm and welcoming events. You will be treated like family, no matter where you are on your DZR path (including, if like me, you struggle and fumble with your arts). If you have children, bring them. If they’re shy or nervous about coming to a new place – if they’re worried that they don’t “know anyone,” let me know. My daughter, Natalie, who will then be (gulp!) twelve, will happily welcome them and hang with them as they’re all further nudged along their path.   

Even though she’ll only be twelve, it’s not too early for her to begin embracing the responsibility that comes – by definition! – with being a Dan Zan Ryu jujitsuka within the Kodenkan.

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