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How long is a piece of string?

How long is a piece of string?

“How long is this going to take?”, I asked. We were in Eagle St where Chiba Sensei and his family were living at the time. I had been ruminating over his advice received only a few weeks earlier. It was profound. How much so was difficult to say just yet but I knew what he meant, he was speaking the truth. That honesty continued when he replied to my question, “It depends on how deep in your ‘consciousness’ it is.” That was Chiba talk for “how long is a piece of string?” I was quiet and whilst not feeling re-assured by his answer, thought to myself, “What answer did you really expect?” I had been in San Diego for two or three months, I can’t remember, but no more than that. The intensity was so high that all I could think of was to do this, finish it as quickly as I could and leave. Instead, I would have to bed in, not deeper, that wasn’t possible just yet but sustained. This was going to be hard.

I can’t remember the order of events as we were working hard to build the next dojo, the one in North Park on University Ave. A rougher and less cliquish area than Hillcrest. It was an evening weapons class and the warning signs were there for all to see, if you were looking that is. It was the end of class and we were all lined up for closure when he stood in front of us, leaning on his jo, his jaws clenched deep in thought. He was building up for something as he eventually turned around and looked at us. The class was a good size, maybe 12 or 14, which was huge for those days. He got our attention and started his lecture. “We all have limitations. In order to transcend these, we have to address what it is but this is not enough.” He continued, “We have to work on it, chew on it and study it until we break through.” He was deadly serious.

Then after a pause, he looked at someone, I think Geraldine “Do you know what you have to work on?” He asked. “Yes Sensei” she quickly answered back. “And what is that?” She answered in detail when he asked “Are you working on it?” The answer was a yes and he agreed showing his approval. He moved on to one or two other students with pretty much the same approach. Back and forth the questions and answers went, with the same general approval. There was a little nod here and there, usually where improvement could be made. Finally, it was my turn and he seemed to be even more wound up. “What do you have to work on?” He said, his tone a shade below menacing. I replied, repeating the advice he gave a while back. “Yes, that’s right and are you working on it?” He said firmly. “Yes, I am,” I said. He then cut me down as surely as any bokken strike. “No, you are not. How long have you been here?” The answers didn’t really matter by now, this much was evident. I could have said ‘Jack and Jill went up the Hill to fetch a pale of water…..’, his answer would have been the same. His reply was pre-determined and nothing would stop its delivery in front of my new training colleagues. Class ended and I would join Yahe outside a supermarket grabbing some beers. He got out of his VW bug looked at me and asked “What do you think of him talking to you that way?” “It’s the way he is”, I said, “I can take it or leave it but he will stick by his guns, regardless.”

The next evening I was chatting to some of the members as I was stretching when a yell came from the office, “Ismail!?” “Yes Sensei,” I replied. “Teach the class.” That was it. Knock them down then build them up. Carrot and stick, in this case, stick and carrot, as old as mankind himself. One moment I was a lowly student not worthy, wasting my time and the next the unworthy was teaching in the master’s dojo. His method was old school, direct and at times brutal. I wonder how that would be seen today?

The question of how long to stay, however, had not been answered. That would take more time. More exposure to training and directly with Chiba Sensei himself. Life would continue as did training and at some point, I think 2 years, I would leave for travel and the UK. Whenever the opportunity to see Sensei was there I would take it up. Multiple summer Camps, visits to London and so on. I would eventually return, first to Albuquerque New Mexico where I would teach as the head instructor and then I made the decision to return to San Diego and resumed training with him. By now I was in my late 20’s, very fit and versed in his method of teaching and training. Yet I couldn’t help feeling that the job was incomplete. There was more to this and he addressed that back in his house all those years earlier. I could remain in New Mexico, undoubtedly a good life and teaching would have continued but instead, I became his Uchi Deshi. July 1990 I would move into the dojo and attempt to answer the question of my training. I wanted to get to the bottom of it. 21/2 years later I would leave and the rest of my journey would continue. The string? It still goes on, under my own steam and in my own way.

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There was something remarkable at that time in the dojo. Needless to say, it was physically hard, without doubt, but there was a crazy mindset, even a good dose of idiocy to the training that weighed heavily on me. Sensei pushed just about every button he could and found a couple more you never knew you had. It was exhausting and inspiring and frustrating and maddening at times. A maelstrom sounds about right. So often it felt excessive and I would ask “Why?” I was exasperated by him and no answers would come back. Not straight forward ones. More like “What it is and what it isn’t is what it is?” Yeah I know, go figure and no intellectual answers will suffice, that much I can say.

It then took shape, something that could only happen in the cloistered setting of a dojo like this. We were living in the dojo with Sensei with no end date in sight. There was no time for “graduating” in this. If there was a fixed period, it would give one an escape from it, or a crutch to lean on. That is a definable end point where psychologically you know it will end and you go. I had no such option. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was no contract, no “military” type agreement to serve: just dedication and a lot of stubbornness. There was loyalty and fear played an ever present role and it was not what most people thought we were dealing with. There are just a handful of guys who will know what I mean but Yahe and Juba are the ones who most immediately come to mind. In that intense bubble, there was the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Without it, there could not be a breakthrough, at least not of this nature. What about the other students who lived outside the dojo or stayed in for a limited time? I can’t answer that question as each individual has to look in the mirror and make their own mind up. They have to decide what they feel they accomplished under Chiba Sensei’s shadow.

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