Posted on: Wed, 05/25/2016 - 09:34 By: Tom Swiss

If I walked into the room to teach my youth karate class, found a mess, and asked my students, "Who is responsible for this?", they would probably think I was trying to find out who to blame. Whose fault was it that this had occurred? We often think of words like "blame" when the word "responsibility" comes up.

But there's another sense of the word which is right there in the pronunciation, if not in the English spelling: "response-able". Indeed the word comes to us French "responsable", and the 1913 Websters gives one definition as "Able to respond or answer for one's conduct". We can trace it back to the Latin "spondeō" meaning "I promise, bind or pledge myself."

What Is A Black Belt?

Posted on: Sat, 04/09/2016 - 20:37 By: Tom Swiss

I spent this past weekend in New York, at the headquarters dojo (Honbu) of the World Seido Karate Organization. Dozens of students were testing for black belt levels, and I was there to support my fellow students from Maryland and to help out a little with the testing. That included getting up at 5am to help with the sparring Sunday morning. There are very few things in this world for which I will wake up at 5am on a Sunday, but getting to be part of the story of someone's black belt test is one of them.

Who's The Best?

Posted on: Mon, 02/15/2016 - 00:28 By: Tom Swiss

Imagine that you have two stacks of wood. One pile of very fine and straight boards, and one pile of knotty and crooked ones.

And imagine that you give these two piles of wood to two woodworkers. You give Alice the knotty and crooked wood, and Bob the nice straight boards.

Both Alice and Bob build tables with their wood. Bob builds a nice table from his nice wood. And from her poor wood, Alice builds a table that's okay. Not as nice as Bob's, but okay.

Who's the better woodworker here, Alice or Bob? Bob's table is nicer, but he started with an advantage. We could argue that though Alice finished "behind" Bob, she came a lot farther and demonstrated more skill. Of course she also had more opportunity to show skill, so we shouldn't jump to the conclusion she's the better woodworker; maybe Bob would do a little better with that crooked wood. The point is that we can't trivially judge based on final results alone, we have to consider starting points.

One Thousand Punches, One Hell of a Bird

Posted on: Mon, 01/18/2016 - 00:07 By: Tom Swiss

Spoilers ahead for the penultimate episode of the most recent season of Doctor Who. If you're a Whovian and the second part of this article's title doesn't make you say "oooh!", come back after you've caught up, I don't want to spoil one of the BEST EPISODES OF A TV SHOW EVER for you.

Like many dojo, we have a special New Years class. "Kagami biraki" literally means "opening the mirror"; in traditional Japanese homes, there is a celebration around January 11th involving breaking apart a rice cake (somewhat in the same vein as "breaking bread" in Western cultures) whose round shape suggests a mirror -- or opening a cask of sake, again with a round lid -- that marks the end of the New Year holiday season. But in the traditional budo kagami biraki is a New Years intense training session that is an opportunity to renew our spirit and our dedication for the coming year.

Defending the Non-Self

Posted on: Sun, 01/10/2016 - 02:43 By: Tom Swiss

Years ago I stepped in to break up an incipient fight at a Fells Point bar. (It's something I've done more than once; while I can't really recommend playing amateur bouncer as a hobby, I'm constitutionally unable to sit back and let violence happen in my presence.) Two guys got into an argument, there was a certain amount of chest thumping and some pushing; it's a script I've seen play out dozens of times. One of the gentlemen involved -- let's call him Smart Guy -- decided it wasn't worth the hassle and started to leave. The other guy -- let's call him Dumb Guy, maybe that's uncharitable but it will do -- started to pursue him, and stood in the doorway yelling threats.

I had already interposed myself between the disputants, so I was also standing in the doorway, facing Dumb Guy and the inside of the bar, blocking his way and trying to talk him down. (Inventive dialog like "C'mon, it's over dude, let it go, chill.") So when Dumb Guy decided he was going to chase Smart Guy down the street, he had to push past me.

I decided to not permit this.

Girls Kick Butt

Posted on: Thu, 12/03/2015 - 00:03 By: Tom Swiss

Last Tuesday (the class before Thanksgiving) we had a bit of a milestone in my youth class. If we don't count myself or the brown belts who were helping with class, we had more girls than boys in the class. I think that's the first time that's happened since we started that class. We usually have more men and boys than women and girls.

Shen Leads Qi

Posted on: Thu, 11/05/2015 - 16:57 By: Tom Swiss

In Chinese Medicine, we say that "shen (神) leads qi (氣)". Shen (in Japanese, shin) is our spirit or mind, and qi (ki in Japanese) is our energy, though we don't mean "energy" here in the same way that your physics teacher does.

Sometimes it's said that shen leads yi (意 -- focus, concentration, studying memory) which then leads qi. And sometimes we say that qi leads blood (血) or jing (精, essence), both of which are sort of seen as more solidified forms of qi. But the important point is that the mind leads the rest.

Umpqua: Stopping the Spear

Posted on: Sun, 10/04/2015 - 17:08 By: Tom Swiss

These were the notes for my mediation lecture on October 1.

There was another random act of violence today, several people killed at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. We don't know the details yet, don't know who did it or why. But usually when you have a crime like this, what you find is someone who's given up on their own life. They expect to die in the attack, or else spend the rest of their lives in jail and so effectively end their life as it exists now. There's an occasional exception, someone who acts from a political motive, but usually you find someone in who's completely disconnected from everyone else, lost and hurting.

And they're so full of rage, they just want to take some other people with them. They think this is the only way they can leave a mark on the world: with bloodstains.

Thirty Years, a Funeral, and Ikigai

Posted on: Sat, 09/05/2015 - 23:49 By: Tom Swiss

It was September 1985, thirty years ago, that I began my training in Seido Karate. That's longer than I've done anything else in my life that's not a basic biological function -- longer than I've been driving a car, longer than I spent in school, longer than I've lived in any one place.

(Ok, I did go on my first date before then. So I've been dating longer than that.)

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