The Samurai and the Zen Cat



In spite of all his prowess as a master of the martial arts, a certain samurai found himself incapable of getting rid of a large rat that had set up housekeeping in his home and was making a continual nuisance of itself. The rodent was very alert and extremely cunning. It could dodge any sword blow and was too smart for any trap. So the master of the house was finally driven to his last resort. He went to the marketplace to buy a cat. He found a merchant who seemed to have what he was looking for and returned home with a young and vigorous male cat. After a week of meowing, pouncing, and frantic chases around the house, the spirited young tom remained without a catch.

So the disappointed samurai went back to the market to return the cat to the merchant. The latter at once began touting the merits of his latest acquisition, a striped male cat in the prime of his life. If you went by what the merchant said, a better rat hunter would never be found.

And in truth, the new arrival quickly showed itself to be both more experienced and more subtle than his predecessor. It waited in ambush behind pieces of furniture for hours at a time. It stole furtively about close to the walls, creeping slowly so as not to arouse attention. But after a week, the rat was still running free. Furious, the sword-bearing householder returned the cat to the merchant and demanded his money back.

The samurai was in the habit of paying regular visits to a Zen monk from a nearby temple. He found himself telling the monk about his problem.

“Well,” the monk responded, “you should borrow our old cat for a while. Thanks to him, we have no rodents here.” And he took the samurai into the dojo, where asleep on a zafu, a meditation cushion, lay a somewhat decrepit, plump old tomcat, with a half-bald head that looked as though it had been tonsured. The warrior brought the old puss back home and deposited it, still asleep, on a tatami mat, where it continued snoozing away, giving not the slightest sign of knowing it had changed residences.

The attitude of the monastic feline was extremely irritating. It spent its time sleeping on the tatami, always in the same place near the fire, without getting up except to eat it’s food or see to its basic needs. You could believe that it had taken on the worst habits of certain monks, who after filling their bellies, sit zazen for hours while picking their noses!

Not a week had passed before the samurai carried this useless creature with a mouth not worth feeding back to the temple.

“Don’t be so impatient,” the monk exclaimed. “Keep him a little while longer. Trust me. I’m positive that in the end he will provide you with complete satisfaction.”

Skeptical, the gentleman took the old tom back home. One day followed another without any change in the cat’s attitude. And as the proverb says “When the cat sleeps, the mice dance.” In this case, the rat made itself more and more comfortable. It even became so bold as to sample the food waiting to be stewed over the fire, frightening the daylights out of the maid. Since the old tomcat still showed no sign of moving, the rodent now paid it no more heed than it would to a stuffed animal. And one day. as the rat was trotting by in paw range, with a sudden move, the Zen cat seized it. In a flash, it was a dead rat.

The samurai, who had witnessed the scene from a distance, could hardly believe his eyes. He at once recalled one of the principles of Chinese strategy: numb the vigilance of the enemy. He returned the old tom and made a gift to the temple. Then he meditated on the lesson he had just learned and, it is said, made considerable progress in his practice of swordsmanship.





“We learn from mistakes in training so that we don’t make them when it’s real.”

This is a common refrain heard in training classes. Highly expert instructors share this. And I don’t think this is correct.

Then there’s “Experts don’t train ’til they get it right, they train ’til they can’t get it wrong...”

Once again…don’t think so.

There is no such thing as infallibility in humans. Add stress, add friction, add the “fog of war” and the fallibility rate of course goes up…

More to the point, the goal of training is one of making fewer mistakes, to be sure.

Smaller mistakes, yes. Less consequential mistakes… that is, fewer mistakes we cannot recover from.

It’s  recognizing the mistakes we make as we go, so as to better adapt and recover from them.

And then it’s being able to recover from mistakes in the moment, or in their aftermath, so that we do not let the fact that we screwed up, or concern for the consequences of the screw up  – which in some realms can be severe – override and overwhelm our ability to continue to think and act – in other words our ability to adapt and recover from mistakes.

Once, I knew a man who was everything you would expect a tactical guy to be – big, strong, muscled, buzz cut, oozing tactosterone. He had a major flaw – he could not make a mistake…

Not that he was perfect; I mean that he could not accept that he could err – screw up, make a mistake, fail to do something required in a tactical or training event. He did fine most of the time, and was actually capable of leadership, and even reasonable critique – of others. But the cracks eventually grew. A minor flub on the range, understandable, if not ideal based on the circumstances, and he melted down and literally ran and hid. He “could not screw up like that” in front of others…

Then an unacceptable and embarrassing public incident during a competition…he couldn’t do something and just gave up. Refused the helping hands of even his teammates.

Finally, after a shooting incident – totally justifiable, but events leading up to it being questioned – he gradually spiralled down and away.

When we do not acknowledge that we can make mistakes “in real life,” we do not prepare for their possibility. If we “can’t screw up,” we end up in one of two places – hesitant and doing little or nothing to avoid the possibility of messing up, or flustered and self-hating when we err, or fail. With this kind of thinking, we did not screw up – we are screw ups.

Years ago some trainers posited the idea that they would rather train to “win” than to survive. Training to survive was a lesser goal, even lesser training.

At least that was the implication.

So likewise, the “winning mindset” is all well and good when one is actually winning. But when behind the 8-Ball, injured, hurt, beaten, overwhelmed, etc. – that is when one not winning – what may be found lacking is the survival mindset – that of not losing.

And that can be dangerous indeed.





So deeply honored that I got to shake the (prosthetic) hand of a Medal of Honor recipient today…



In a day and age when people know the names of their idol-entertainers: singers, actors, rappers, athletes….many with criminal records, or that abuse women and drugs, and play-up pissant thuggery or refuse to accept responsibility for truly anti-social violence…

I bet few know this man’s name…

To Gi or Not to Gi…

…is that the question?

There has long been a distinction made in modern jiujitsu and submission grappling between training wearing the “gi” (that is, wearing the training uniform, or keikogi/judogi) and “no gi” training. Most academies do some of each style of training.

With some, the distinction seems to be developing into more like a divide, with people practicing almost exclusively one way or the other, and the tending toward defining these different approaches as “traditional” vs. “modern,” and even casting “gi” training as sport and/or traditional versus “self defense” practice.

That there even is such a debate is curious, considering jiujitsu’s history.

Perhaps curiouser still is that it centers on the wearing of the uniform. Wouldn’t the more pressing and logical question actually be “why don’t we wear shoes?”

But that’s how it is, so let’s explore..


“Traditional” vs. “Modern”

The idea that wearing a keikogi (稽古着) is “traditional,” while not wearing one is “modern,” is not based on history or tradition.


Early Japanese grappling – including what later became jujutsu/jiujitsu – was built on a foundation of sumo. When not actually done in armor, these precursor jujutsu disciplines were probably conducted wearing only loincloths, or loincloths and what were basically sleeveless jackets or kimono, probably because that was what people wore every day.

These garments allowed for some collar chokes, but were not generally gripped in the way that the modern gi is during grappling.

Thus in a very real sense, jujutsu/jiujutsu actually began as “no gi.”

hokusai jits

(Popular representations from Hokusai – the ninja you think you see is really not there…)



This did not prevent practitioners from grabbing the belt, or even each other’s hair when performing techniques. Even in Kano’s early days – he started jujutsu around 1877 – this type of clothing was worn.



(Early photos of Jigoro Kano)

When wearing more complete or formal wear, grips still tended toward more sumo-esque than what came later. Other than some choking and collar grabs that led to or assisted throws, many attacks came from wrist and arm holds, neck and hip holds, and belt grabs. Much of this – controlling the wrists and the belt – was probably a result of the weapons-centric ancestry of the jujutsu traditions.



Another reason grips were likely done this way was practical; the lighter, looser cloth and long roomy sleeves of kimono would make controlling an opponent through cloth grips less effective than with a modern gi. Picture grabbing onto someone’s loose sweater or Hawaiian shirt vs. someone in a gi. Moreover, I am informed that kimono were single stitch garments – reinforced stitching and seams not being the norm, and the kinds of gripping done today in Judo and jiujitsu would doubtless have left the kimono in tatters, or even torn them off the body altogether.

Many classical jujutsu schools still wear actual kimono even today, at least for demonstrations, and lighter gi, because the cloth is not gripped as much or in the way it commonly is in the combat sports.

Leg grabs and takedowns were also more common, akin to wrestling…



And some applications adapted from attacking adversaries in armor were altered after people stopped wearing armor – such as neck twists derived from helmet-grips, or topknot (hair) grabs.

Kano Koshiki

                                           Kano performing Kito-ryu

Enter the Keikogi

Later, training garb began to develop and change. Ellis Amdur, one of my teachers, and others have posited that the modern gi was likely an adaptation of the Edo period (1603-1868) Japanese firefighter’s coat.

firefighter haori(BTW, any modern gi makers wanna make this in today’s competition-legal cut? I bet you’d sell a TON!)

Now here was a more robust fabric. Short sleeves and trousers – more a kind of shorts -started being worn.

Kano Gi

Kano’s keikogi – compare with the firefighter coat…


Kito Ryu Kata 004

Any idea that gi were standardized at this time is probably fanciful. And remember, back then there were still mixed matches between different martial arts, to include jujutsu and judo vs. sumo, and more.

The famed Maeda, a Kodokan member, was photographed wearing this kind of short sleeved gi – would he be allowed to compete today?

And check out the belt…



And then Tanabe, of Fusen-ryu fame:


This site has a number of pictures across jujutsu’s history for an idea of what training wear looked like – and a bit on the history of groundwork as well.

Kano apparently made innovations with the judogi in the interest of several factors: Safety was improved and ukemi (breakfalls) made easier through more secure gripping, compared to the older style which wrenched joints and necks for throws. Hygiene increased, and infection was no doubt reduced, as bare skin was not flayed by rubbing and sliding across rough tatami, canvas, or even the wood floors or open ground that people practiced on.

And I’ve heard one story that Kano lengthened the pants and sleeves in the interest of modesty and modernism, as it was a closer match to the Western suit, increasingly worn in Japan at the time.


jigoro kano

(Kano Shihan again – compare to the earlier examples of his training garb.)

In this early picture of Carlos and Helio Gracie’s academy, this style of gi is now consistent.

But instead of traditional, this is in fact the modern judogi.


“Tradition” vs. Self Defense

Hopefully the answer to whether or not the “gi” is specifically traditional has been answered. It might be better to say that it became traditional to Kodokan Judo, but jujutsu has always been far larger than one school.

But now the discussion has diverged into the realm of curious notions martial artists sometimes have about self defense. Specifically, whether wearing the gi – or not wearing it – is more conducive or practical to self defense.

Once again, if you think about it, the point is moot.

First, jiujitsu/jujutsu is not a fighting art limited to whether  anyone is wearing a specific type of clothing. That would hardly be a very practical method of fighting, and it is surprising that experienced instructors would even harbor this view, unless they are wrongly extrapolating a sport-specific approach to self defense grappling.

Jiujitsu – the “art or technique of ju“- – refers to a principle and concept with mental, physical and tactical manifestations, and though everyone typically calls it “the Gentle Art,” it is perhaps better described using other meanings of the word ju, such as “flexible” or “pliant/pliable.”

No fighting art can be effective if it is only “gentle,” or “soft” or “yielding,” which Kano himself discussed in his writings and teaching.

When we talk about tactics, jiujitsu has always been flexible: whether in gi,  or no gi.  Or the jiujitsuka is wearing a gi, and the opponent is not. Or wearing street clothes, or even armor… or not. Jiujitsu “works” regardless. The only difference is in the options one has in the particular situation.

Most people, most of the time, wear clothes. Some clothes will not hold up to many kinds of gi-grappling grips, unless the guy happens to be wearing a denim jacket and jeans. Clothing might be used in other ways, however, akin to gi grips, that could be helpful in defensive situations, and let’s not forget that people wear belts, they carry backpacks, bags, some wear robust necklaces and bracelets, neck ties, etc.

Once, I used a man’s pony tail to wrap in his mouth to stop him from biting me, and used the leverage to pin his head to allow for handcuffing. Done in exactly the manner that a collar choke is done, I passed the pony tail through his mouth and gripped it from the other side, my hand going behind his head. Collars can be used in the same manner.

In another incident, a man was getting violent on a hospital bed as medical personnel were trying to restrain and treat him. The man had been spitting blood and sputum at us previously, and was controlled by lifting up and wrapping the corner of the sheet from under him, across his mouth and cheek, and tight to the other side so that his head was effectively pinned to the bed and he could neither rise up nor continue to spit. Similar things can be done with, say, a seat belt when you are dealing with a vehicle extraction or situation and someone wants to spit or bite. You should be gathering that people bite and spit a lot in “the street.”

Controlling pant legs helps prevent being kicked, and to control the hips in different ways when trying to restrain someone – even momentarily.  There are myriad possibilities, and training with the gi opens them up and allows for creativity that could prevent escape, reduce the need to “ground and pound” an attacker, or to make tactically unsound submission attempts.

Also, having had my own clothes and gear grabbed during self defense and arrest and control situations, being accustomed to this through training gi grappling made it only a minor concern, and I had the ability to disengage the grips or change my position to maintain control.

The fact that I grapple without a gi has also had tremendous benefits. Sometimes violent people happen to not be wearing shirts, or even any clothes at all, and are slick with sweat, or blood, or other fluids identifiable and otherwise, yet still must be restrained and controlled.

Or, they have tank tops or light t-shirts, made of material which stretches out or tears or comes right off when a struggle gets intense, or the person intentionally pulls out of them, meaning that grabbing them is not always advisable – especially if you don’t want the person to escape, or to improve position on you.

Grips can also create a false sense of security, when that is all you ever train, and you forget that in real life people hit, punch, push, poke, jab, grab your throat, head butt, bite, and more.

So in the end….

To Gi and Not To Gi – That is the Answer.

That’s the way it always has been.