A Lesson in Osae Waza: As a Branch Bent in the Wind
February 24, 1999 · 2:13pm EST · Posted by T. Ishihama
Fujiyama Dojo
P.O. Box 20003
Thorold, ON, Canada
L2V 5B3
(905) 680-6389
There is an old quotation attributed to a teacher named Hiraemon Urabe, who taught in Kamizato Kamigawa district in the early Edo Jidai, that states: "All techniques of control must be viewed as a tree branch bent in the wind."

As puzzling at this might sound, the more that we train now, the more we understand what that teacher meant, but not from the start.

We still remember how ackward some the earlier techniques felt as we first learned them. Our hands tangled in what we thought were cumbersome maneuvers, and our initial impression was something like "I will never do this in a real situation!" Still, we kept on repeating them, in the hopes that soon we would be taught something less convoluted and "practical". Only our deep respect for our teacher, and the knowledge that making a "technical critique" is akin to an insult or a challenge, stopped us from making disfavourable comments. Nevertheless, we thought about it.

As we lost the skin of our knuckles and, ripped our jackets and struggled to ignore the pain of various bruises, we also pondered the value of our efforts. I was not born into a samurai family, as most of my dojo seniors are. To the best of my knowledge, the only old tradition in our family was the art of making and selling kotatsu frames, and that is hardly a martial tradition, so my martial pride had to develop from the start. My admission to the dojo was facilitated (morally and financially) by my maternal uncle who has been a swordsmanship adept all his life. To save face with him, I was obliged to persevere. And belonging to an obscure no-frills dojo did not provide me with the added incentive of being part of some popular art or a glamorous organization with plenty of press coverage. Basically, the sweat I poured and the blood that I shed (there was plenty of the former, but just a little bit of the later, to be honest) were acknowledged only by me, and was no "big badge of sacrifice" in the eyes of any of my dojo mates.

What does all that have to do with osae waza, you may ask? Well, quite a lot indeed, because in that frame of mind my approach to technique was more ritualistic than spiritual, more mechanical than instinctual. Of what was offered, I took some of it and discarded some of it arbitrarily. I listened idly to some of the brief explanations we were given and repeated over and over the techniques, convinced that my partner fell because he was being cooperative, but if that was a true brawl he would never grab me that way, or I would probably have to resort to biting off his ear to truly subdue him.

Then, as so often happens in Budo training, something happened that turned on the bright in those usually dim lights of mine...in two steps!

When applying a technique that ended with a pin, applying pressure at two different points of the partner's arm, our teacher became agitated and scolded me rather sternly.

He shook his head and came to us saying "No, No. Such a way of doing that technique is utterly useless. You are doing nothing because you can see nothing. Your opponent is free. Your technique is worthless."

"My technique?!", I thought, "I am just doing what you taught us! And my opponent is not free! If he is, why is he tapping the mat?"

And right then, as if he was replying to whatever was buzzing in my head, he used the quote about seeing all osae waza as a branch bent in the wind. "Can you guess when the wind will stop and the branch will become straight again?" he asked. "You must keep in mind that this may happen. You are just applying the pin and then it is all over in your head. You can see nothing more. That way is worthless!".

I could not argue with the old man. I am not well versed in philosophical symbols, but I was not really trying to understand either. After all, I never thought much of applying any of that training to anything remotely practical, so I was not quite receptive to much of what was being said there, beyond the "do it this way" and "do it that way".

Regardless, the phrase stuck in my head for some reason. That was the first step. The second step happened at the hospital where I was working, when one of the patients became aggressive and we were called to offer help. I was the closest one to him, so I attempted to grab him. He reacted badly and tried to hit me, and I found myself actually using one of our "cumbersome" techniques to bring him down with a minimum of harm. And it worked! Better yet, I had him pinned to the floor! However, something flashed in my head as I did this. I can not recall if I felt him struggling first and then thought of it. Or I was already thinking about the phrase when he began to fight back. But the fact is that he did not tap the floor and stay there. He wiggled and struggled underneath my pin, and tried as he could to use the rest of his limbs to strike me... The branch was becoming straight! And I did not just shut off my head after I applied the first control. There was something of an instinctive follow-through that was not the result of any logical thinking, nor even a conscious choice of what I should use. I cannot really tell, in detail, how it happened, but I applied a second osae, a more complex one. One of those I was certain I would never use. And this one also worked and gave time to the rest of the staff to come to my aid. I had absolutely no need of biting off anyone's ear. I was not hailed as a hero (restraining patients is not a rare occurrence in that hospital, and others in the staff are much more efficient and experienced at doing it than I am). I got no praise from anyone, and the whole thing lasted but a few seconds, even though in my novice's mind it felt like quite an epic. But the value of the moment is that I finally understood.

I had heard the term zanshin being tossed around in class, but never took it quite seriously. Now, I had a glimpse of it, applied to osae waza. As a beginner, the reality of my training all came together in one point, and nothing seemed so absurd, so senseless or so old any more.

Of course, this is not an earth shattering experience. Others have experienced satori in a life and death situation and came to terms with the fundamentals of their art as one hears very close thunder, seconds after one has seen the flash of lightning. And that must be a glorious feeling. But still, this was my eye opening, or better yet, my heart-opening moment. In my next class I felt like I entered the dojo for the first time. The dojo was the same, so were the techniques. It was I who was different.

I still appreciate that lesson very much, as modest as it might sound to others.

There is no true end to technique, even when we appear to be in control. A simple lesson, but a valuable one. And as we train we must remember it.

Today, I train with a different spirit. Not just because I am older and wiser, since I still nick my thumbs when trying to fillet suzuki(which means I am safer with a sword than I am with a sashimi-bocho) and forget where I left my glasses even when I am wearing them on top of my head, but because I have learned to appreciate what I do, what I have received from our ryu, and I tip my hat to our teacher for not losing his patience with a foolish person such as myself. I feel ashamed when I think about how many times he had to repeat the same advice, and how much time he wasted teaching me.

As for today, I apply that old quote to everything in life. To be prepared for everything because there are no guarantees. The wind may suddenly cease and the branch might straighten up at any moment. Knowing it, accepting it and preparing yourself without anxieties is also part of the training. Absolute control is a temporary illusion. We take advantage of it for a brief moment, but the instant we become so deluded as to take it for granted we lost it. In truth, I learn a little more about that every time we practice osae waza, and I am certain so does every one else.

I have not yet understood it all, but fortunately there is still time... or then again...


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