5th Degree test
By Mark S Russo
It was early morning in Japan. Five a.m. to be exact, which made it four p.m. the previous evening by Tampa time. I was looking out the window of my friend's home in Yokohama, watching for the sun to rise. How wonderful it felt to be in Japan again. I was amazed that my wife was able to sleep. A little envious in fact knowing what was ahead of me. I hadn't done well with sleep on the plane and our long flight had been made even longer with a five-hour delay. I was excited. I was back in Japan, it was my wife's first visit, and I was here to accomplish something I had been dreaming about for nearly two decades and very seriously deliberating over for the past several years…the masters level sa ki (sah kee) or "killer intention" test. The test is the official passage into master level status and fifth degree black belt, and so is commonly referred to as the godan (fifth degree) test.
The test is quite imposing. The objective is to test the development of your ability to detect or "feel" impending danger, this sort of sixth sense. Physically what the test involves is for the individual who is testing to kneel on the floor in a seiza (say-zah) position, legs folded under, back to the person administering the test, eyes closed. There is currently only one person in the world authorized to administer the exam. That person is 34th generation Togakure-ryu (Toh-gah-ku-ray r'you) ninjutsu Grandmaster Masaaki Hatsumi (Mah sah ah ki Hot soo me). For the test Dr. Hatsumi stands behind the candidate with a training sword held high above his head. His eyes are also closed. When he feels compelled to do so, at random, he will bring the sword crashing down on the kneeling person's head. The movement is silent and swift. In order to pass the exam you must move at just the right instant to avoid being hit anywhere on your body by the slashing sword. Success or failure is verified by several attending master instructors as well as the usual room full of spectators. Failure is almost always obvious.
On our first day in Japan we immediately headed for the hombu dojo training hall of Grandmaster Hatsumi in Atago (ah tah go). I enjoyed the challenging process of reacquainting myself with Japan's vast network of railway systems and perpetually bustling stations. My language skills had deteriorated significantly. What I could easily read on my last trip years ago I struggled with now. We made our last connection. It was about 11:00am. Trains in Japan are on time to the second. The efficiency is astounding. Everyone uses the trains’ daily. Our train clicked along rocking many of the passengers comfortably to sleep. Taking in the scenery I considered how different this world was from the one I live in. I watched the bobbing and nodding heads, power napping between the day's activities. Funny, I mused, if you fell asleep on a train in New York you'd probably wake up dead, or at least robbed of something.
I took out the map my friend had drawn for me. The Grandmaster's training hall is not easy to find. It is not marked and it's not obvious. You have to know how to get there. Training this day began at 1:00 in the afternoon and went until about 3:00. Following the map from the Atago train station we began to see other foreigners walking with duffel bags or packs. We knew where they were headed. Foreigners in Atago were here for only one reason. We arrived at the dojo just as the doors were being opened.
We entered the training hall, changed into uniforms and began to warm up. The dojo could have been a museum. It had all kinds of photos, paintings, and calligraphy as well as a vast array of training tools and weapons hanging everywhere. It would take years to learn the significance of everything in that room. As I scanned the room I was distracted by activity at the door. I knew Dr. Hatsumi had arrived. It is always an experience to be in this man's enigmatic presence. He made his typical entrance, casually but curtly greeting people, joking and laughing about this, that, and the other thing. If he stopped smiling his eyes could burn holes right through you. But he rarely stopped smiling and laughing, leaving you to wonder 'does this man really take anything seriously?'
Here he was, the legendary 34th generation Grandmaster of the most effective martial art legacy in the world
. On this day, like most, the room was filled with martial artists from around the world hoping to catch just a glimpse of his knowledge. Yet to look at him, he was not big, he did not look strong, his clothes looked thrown together, he did not glare and bark orders; he was so removed from the widely accepted movie or comic book image of a ninja master
…it just seemed impossible. Then training began. Instantly you were reminded that all you need do is see him move in combat and you knew exactly who he was.
Training was fast paced, punctuated by the customary tea break half way through
. Topics and techniques changed with mind-boggling speed. Attacker after attacker served as vehicles for demonstration of technical principles and variations on variations. This process was repeated every day for the following week. And every day at the end of training the grandmaster would announce that it was time for the godan exam. And day after day I would struggle with the effect that announcement had on me. And every day I witnessed someone fail the exam. Twice I saw candidates succeed. In between daily training sessions, though the sights and sounds of Japan filled my senses, my thoughts were dominated by this challenge. I turned each exam I saw over in my mind again and again searching for some clues, something that might help assure success.
Being in Japan made everything an adventure. My language skills returned rapidly day-by-day. My wife's promotion to second degree black belt some how eased the tension of my own unresolved agenda. I managed to speak with both my friend and teacher Stephen Hayes as well as my favorite Japanese master instructor Isamu Shiraishi (ee sah mu shee rah ee shee). I drew strength and comfort from both men's council. Their confidence in my skills was reassuring. Still, as the days passed, my departure date grew closer and I felt the pressure build.
It was now the morning of October 13th, the day before I was to leave Japan. Thoughts of my exam were temporarily banished by the hustle and bustle of Tokyo's colorful streets. Today was the big shopping day and we were loading up. So many wonderful things to see, so many unique things that you can't buy in the states. We made our way to Asakusa, an open market style-shopping district in Tokyo. The long walkway is lined on both sides by flea market-like booths selling everything from swords to candy, kimonos and Godzilla monsters. At the markets end is the Kin Ryu (gold dragon) shrine. It had been so many years since I was there the experience was fresh once again. I made sure to do everything I knew how by Japanese custom to bring me good luck.
The day passed too quickly and soon we rendezvoused with Stephen and Rumiko Hayes at our appointed meeting place. From there we began our journey by subways and trains to Ayase (eye-ya-say). As I sat rocking gently on the train I realized it had not taken long for my preoccupation to dominate my thoughts once again.
Ayase is the home of the world famous Budokan (Boo doh kahn. The Budokan is a convention center and training complex built by the Japanese government for Budo (martial studies. The structure has several levels, an arena, courtyards for outdoor training, and a number of training rooms. It is the largest structure of its kind in the world. Training in almost every martial art conceivable is offered, from Judo to Kyudo (classical archery). This is where tonight's training with the grandmaster was to take place. I had never been there and was very excited at the prospect of not just visiting but training in this monument to martial arts. Then it hit me. If I were to achieve my goal on this adventure it would be done at the Budokan.
The weather had been threatening all day. As we left the Ayase station bound for the Budokan it began to rain. We stopped to let some traffic pass. I was speaking with my wife when I abruptly looked to my right, strangely compelled to do so. Standing there next to me was Dr. Hatsumi. I wondered how and when he had just appeared like that. Quite casually he began a conversation with me through his interpreter as we continued toward the Budokan. He asked questions about my extensive martial arts background. When I told him of disciplines I had explored and things I had experienced his response was frequently 'me too.' We spoke of related disappointments and the unique sense of fulfillment that this art seems to bestow. Whether it was the timing of his appearance or his focus on our similar backgrounds, I felt the occurrence was auspicious.
As we approached the Budokan I was awed by the size of the place and the unique architecture, sort of a mixture of Star Trek and traditional Japanese in concrete
. 'All of this devoted to the studies of martial disciplines,' I thought; 'now there's a dojo!'
We began training that night in the usual fashion, with a traditional bow in. There had been a change of schedule that left us training in a room with a hard wood floor instead of the swain tatami mats normally used. The swain tatami mats, like the ones at our Quest Center, are much easier on your body. Clearly this did not matter to Dr. Hatsumi. He began with some brutal takedowns and throws. I imagine he felt every one in the room should be good enough to handle this. Training was very good that evening. Stephen Hayes and my friend Shiraishi-san were both there, so I had the added benefit of watching two of the best as I sorted out the complicated technical pieces the grandmaster was demonstrating. For that entire training session somehow, I was not plagued by overwhelming thoughts of the exam. Even though I knew that this night would be my last chance, I was experiencing a strange calmness.
However, about an hour and a half into the training I became aware of an annoying sensation. It was my bladder. I really had to go. That was about the last thing I needed distracting me if I was going to avoid that sword. I looked at the clock. Usually training goes for two hours, but this was my first night at the Budokan. I asked, nobody knew. I decided I had to risk it. As I left for the bathroom I whispered to my wife, 'you watch, as soon as I leave he'll stop the training.' I scrambled to take care of business.
When I returned I was tying my belt as I entered the room. 'Jeeeeez……I knew it,!' was all I could think as I looked up. The students were lined up kneeling on the floor in front of the grandmaster who was waving 'the sword' around as he spoke in his animated way. As I scurried for my place next to Mr. Hayes one of the students looked over his shoulder with a wry grin and said, "he's ready for you." 'Gee, thanks,' I thought.
Oddly enough I searched my center and I was dead calm, even as my mind raced through a litany of thoughts. Time became distorted. He pointed at me with his sword and said, "O.K. Godan test." Perhaps it was that my mind was moving so fast that there was the illusion of calm; like sitting in a jet almost unaware that you are moving through space at incredible speed. In milliseconds I thought of all the years I had invested in martial arts training and knowledge. All those years searching for something that felt real, that met my vision, which fulfilled the dream, that delivered what I knew from childhood must exist somewhere. I thought of how I had finally found it. I thought of my many other tests. So many…physically demanding, spectacular athletically… all paled now by comparison.
I remembered first hearing of this test, when my teacher had become the first American to pass the test. I thought about how this test had excited and haunted me, piquing my imagination for over fifteen years since I had first learned of it. All of this happened as I walked those few paces to the space on the floor indicated by Dr. Hatsumi's sword.
As I began to kneel, taking my place, this fascinating paradox of lightning recall and calm harmony continued. I was the eye of the storm. I was vaguely aware of my right knee touching the ground as I knelt. So strange, I thought. This is it. The moment has arrived. Success will come from letting go. The trick is to not care, just like a fight. Be in the moment…not the future…not the past.
If you become consumed by a negative outcome that is exactly what you will get. I know this well from life experience. If day in and day out you are consumed by worry about a particular thing you may in fact cause that very thing to occur. Unwittingly you will draw toward you the very energies and elements necessary to make it happen. Even modern western medical science is acknowledging the possibility that this is how many people make themselves sick.
I knew the challenge now was to be aware of this phenomenon and not have this process work against me. Here, the time frame was collapsed to a fraction of a second. To succeed in the saki test one must be centered and aware, eliminating the tension that comes with fear and worry. Awareness must expand, reaching, searching, and feeling to detect the presence of impending danger. Then, as danger strikes, to simply not be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Well, intellectually and academically all very interesting. As with most things, between theory and implementation there is a quite a chasm. How does the saying go, 'many a slip between the cup and the lip.’ And in this case it takes only one to make for a very bad day.
I was kneeling fully now. I distinctly heard the grandmaster say, "tsu shanse." In the whirlwind I understood his broken English. He said "two chances". He announced that I had two chances. What did that mean. No time to think, let it go. I felt the sword tap me on the right shoulder, then the left. Then a quick but firm tap on the head…the test had begun. My mind coached my body. Settle down, breathe. My rational mind tried hard to take control. 'O.K.,' it said, 'now every test you have seen there has been at least a ten second wait, therefore.' No! Let go, here, now…don’t think, feel…breathe, feeeeeaaaaahhhhoooow.
"Yeah! Alright, alright!" That was Stephen Hayes' voice. Suddenly I was on my feet. There were yells, there was clapping. Dr. Hatsumi was grinning broadly. He hugged me and said something in my ear I did not understand. What happened, I thought. 'You did it,' my rational mind replied, 'that's what happened!' It all came rushing in. The room, two seconds ago silent and tense, was exploding with energy. Friends and strangers congratulated me. I glanced at my friend, master instructor Shiraishi sensei; his smile was pure and broad. He winked.
Dr. Hatsumi heartily tossed the sword toward the crowd, at no one in particular. He seemed as happy as I was.
I milled about, shaking hands and taking photos, somewhat stunned. I began to settle down and I started to analyze. What had I done? How had I done it? All I could think was "it" did me.
"It" was so strong it almost blew me out the door. I felt myself beginning to disconnect from the moment, analyzing, drawn by desire to fully understand. "Oh no you don't," I said to myself. There will be plenty of time for reflection, I reminded myself. It's a long ride back from Tokyo to Tampa. Be here, now. I had my arm around Shiraishi-san's shoulder. I heard a camera shutter click. The satisfaction of a dream fulfilled rushed over me in a wave. I smiled broadly, another click. I would return from this quest victorious.