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.




Under the Blade

Rocky R

The carry and use of the knife came up again in conversation this past week with some colleagues. Some think of me as a “knife guy,” though I don’t think of myself as such, and don’t think the “knife community” of martial artists and makers would consider me much of one, either. Next to many of the people in that community, I know next to nothing.

Not that I am uninterested – blades are a critical piece of gear, and I take a personal and professional interest in them – and carry one every day next to a pistol, two or more when working, fixed and folder, depending on assignment. And I believe that edged weapons demand particular attention from a defensive standpoint.

And it’s not that I haven’t trained the knife: over the past three decades I’ve done of course the requisite “police knife fighting” courses from several vendors, some Chinese stuff, a smidgen of Filipino stuff – with Ray Floro for a bit; but spent more time with short blades in early Japanese traditions.

I own one book on fighting with a knife. Though it suffers from its own type of tough-guy bravado, that one book says really all that needs said. All the other videos and books that passed under my eyes ended up sold or traded, because the writers didn’t know what they didn’t know, and in a few cases were simply selling outright fetishistic fantasy.

Now I’ve never been cut or stabbed, though I’ve handled many edged weapons incidents over the years where others were cut up: I’ve seen people bleeding like stuck pigs, handled folks with knives, and taken edged weapons away from a few. I’m privy to first-hand accounts from many others who have been cut or stabbed. I don’t need to read about it in books.

And in terms of the practical, tactical, legal and likely use of the knife, I have come to depart quite a bit from the knife community at large.

You won’t find me doing much in the way of sparring with a knife, or promoting the use of the knife in a pugilistic or duelish “knife fighting” manner. That kind of thing misses the point, if you’ll pardon the pun; It just doesn’t go down like that from a defensive or counter-offensive standpoint, and I believe training like that encourages some unsafe habits and patterns in students.

Some make the argument that “if you want to know how to defeat a knife, learn how to use one.” I don’t disagree. But it’s in how we learn to use the knife – and knife-sparring etc. is not that way. Knife dueling to learn practical use of the knife is the equivalent to taking taekwondo to learn how to wrestle, or doing paintball to learn how to gunfight…some shared attributes are not necessarily shared applications.

You’ll not find me advocating the use of a knife in any way as a “less lethal” tool – an incredibly misguided idea that had some popularity a while back, but has hopefully been put to bed.

And you won’t be repeatedly slashing and stabbing an unarmed attacker when training with me, unless other situational factors justifying lethal use of force can be articulated.

Those might be present: An attacker attempting to take your firearm that is clearly capable of doing so; An attacker overwhelming your ability to handle him physically, or reasonably perceived as capable of such due to an asymmetry in attributes, with a threat of serious bodily injury or death at hand; Or you are beset by multiple attackers that intend to cause you serious injury.

It’s situation dependent.

The use of knives can be justifiable for defensive purposes, and the answers above are perfectly reasonable. I’ve had one instance where I almost, just about, coulda used a knife due to factors above: but things hadn’t quite got there yet and then they changed and the knife ceased to be an option.

But few people seem to ever ask these questions when training, or they are dealt with only perfunctorily so that the “fun stuff” can begin… …and that fun stuff is usually “knife fighting.”

We don’t train with firearms that way – at least I hope not. So why completely disregard the sober reality of the lethal tool when the weapon is a knife?

If someone asks me “how, then, should we train knife?” I’d say:

If you are learning to grapple properly, standing and on the ground, in a sense you are already training to use the knife.

If you are training how to hit hard with a few basic strikes, to a few basic places on the body, to create space to get away, you are training the practical use of the knife.

You  will be doing some things in grappling and clinching and striking that you shouldn’t do when a knife is involved, but that can be addressed by…training  with a knife involved.

If you are training so that a fight often goes on, even after multiple cuts and stabs, you are training properly with the knife.  The opposite: that cuts and stabs are always “disabling,” or that they are “fight stoppers,” and that people will stop at those things?

Be aware many people won’t. 

How’s that? …the reader might ask. Are you seriously advocating grappling with a person armed with a knife?

Of course not. The appropriate way to deal with a person armed with a knife is with a lot of backup, lethal cover, containment, and less lethal options. Absent those things? Create distance, maybe with your own weapon or maybe not, and flee.

But the reality is, time and time and time again, you won’t even be aware the knife is in play until after its begun, or after it’s over. If it’s not already too late.

Or you just might pick up on the fact that the guy has a blade when you’ve already been hit, or grabbed, or he’s already on top of you, which he has to be to stab you. And then your goal may no longer be “don’t get stabbed” but “don’t get stabbed again.” Or even “don’t get stabbed a lot.”

And then – yes, I do advocate learning how to grapple when a knife is involved.

When it is real, the way it is far more likely to happen than the notional knifely-dance-of-death – the grab-n-stab, close up, bloody minded struggle  – you’ll find that the hand control, and body control, pressure and off balancing and toppling that comes with a good close-in fighting discipline is a much more realistic way to go.

And what are you really interested in training for?


“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, a lesser reality, was even lesser training. At least that was the implication.

So likewise, the “winning mindset” is all well and good when one is winning. But when one is 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.




Balance and Consistency

Read an article about “old man jiujitsu” the other day, in which the author was talking to those “older” guys “on the wrong side of”,,,wait for it….”thirty!”


A good buddy of mine is looking at 49 and 20 years on a SWAT team.

Many people have entire police careers of 20 years. He’s had a SWAT career that long, and from the looks of it will go much longer.  He is consistently at the top on all team firearms quals and competitions, all fitness quals and competitions (we do both regularly, sometimes combining them), and is arguably the best tactician on the team.(And by that I mean I sometimes argue with him over tactics….heh)

Some may say “Well, he’s obviously genetically gifted. Been lucky and not been hurt. Had the time and freedom from responsibilities those of us with work and kids and stuff have to deal with…”

Nope. Struggled for years when he was younger to GAIN weight. He is now pound for pound astonishingly strong, and that in both “lifting heavy things” and in body weight work like pullups and the like.

Never juiced in his life. He did do the GOMAD diet for a while when he was younger and thinks it made him lactose intolerant.

Had major double hip surgery in his mid-40s. Came back better than he was before.

And no, he did not neglect his family to make sure he always got to the gym or the range, like I sadly see some so-called “action guys” do. He’s raised an outstanding young man whom he communicates with on an almost daily basis due to the foundation of time and effort at parenting he spent in the formative years.  No chaotic home life or divorce or the like, either.

His secret is no secret. Balance and consistency. He balances life and work and training and just consistently shows up. He takes it seriously every single time.

When he can’t show up all the time, he does when he can and takes it seriously every-single-time.

When injured he does what the doctor tells him to heal it, and works around the difficulty.  He has his low times, his frustrations, to be sure, but he inverts the dominant paradigm so many struggle with: he motors along most of the time functioning at a high to very high level, with occasional down times; many function at mid- to low levels with occasional highs.

This sets patterns. If we are consistently high, our baseline is high. Lows will come and go. But higher order patterns mean higher order functioning becomes habit.

That’s not easy. I wish I could do what this guy does. Watching him and emulating him has made me much better, and though I may not be able to keep pace with him, I have certainly been able, through his example, to make sure he always sees me in his rear view mirror, and not lost in a cloud of his dust.

Thank you, brother!