The school is everything?

I am showing you here, an introductory letter by Sensei Dave Lowry. This letter comes by means of a first contact for someone who might be considering joining his Shutokukan style. Dave Lowry is an ultra-traditionalist, who has spent long years training in a number of Japanese arts including Kendo (the way of the sword), Aikido (The way of harmony) and Karate do. I include this letter so that you can experience the mindset of what you might consider a truly old-school martial artist. You can form your own opinions. Dave Lowry has written some superb books on martial arts ritual, culture and history. We have reviewed several of them in the book reviews section here.

So you want to join the ryu?

by Dave Lowry

Photo of Dave Lowry dressed in a hakama giving a public Kendo demonstration
Sensei Dave Lowry is an accomplished Budoka who has spent a life-time engaged in the study of traditional martial arts

I don’t care about you.

I realise that sounds terribly harsh. Even rude. And dismissive. Would it help if I hasten to add that in terms of mutual civility I care a great deal about your rights as a person and as a citizen and as, you know, like, a fellow traveler on Mothership Earth? And from the theological point of view of the Christian I care about you from a spiritual standpoint. But you have not contacted me in terms of a civil or religious context. Or on how I feel about you being a shipmate on our shared planetary voyage through the stars. You have asked me about the possibility of instruction in a koryu budo form. And in that context, we may as well be upfront. I don’t care about you.

I care—if you haven’t been so insulted you’ve eschewed reading at this point—about the ryu in which I have been entrusted with some teaching authority. It is absolutely vital for you to understand this by way of understanding my response to your request. In terms of my arts, my primary concern—and everything else is a distant second—is those arts and their successful transmission to the next generation. They are, to some extent, mine to take care of and to pass on. If you had inherited some antique or heirloom, or a similarly valuable object from the past, I would expect you to be circumspect in whom you passed it on to. You have to expect the same from me.

Yes, I know this is not good from a business perspective. And it isn’t how things are done in most modern budo. And it shouldn’t be. Most modern forms of combative arts have been specifically organised and designed to be available to lots of people. That’s one of their strengths. The koryu are different. Not better. Just different. The overwhelming motivation of all those involved in a koryu, especially at the teaching level, is for the continuance of the ryu. The principal concern is not for the members of the ryu. Of course, as we train together, we develop very strong bonds, very close friendships. But the ryu has to come first. If I had a member of the ryu in my group who was behaving in an inappropriate way, I would do everything within my power to convince him to change his ways. In the end, however, if I felt he was detrimental to the ryu, I would go about removing him. This seems cold, I know. It has its roots in a variety of feudal Japanese concepts, too deep to go into here. And you may legitimately argue that this isn’t feudal Japan. Good, though obvious point. Doesn’t matter. It’s our ryu. And we enforce the rules. If you are interested in joining, you play by those rules. We don’t have to defend them or explain them to you or anyone else, at least not at this stage. At any rate, if you can see that I’d be willing to toss a member over the side of the boat if I thought it was necessary for the furtherance of the ryu, you can imagine how little I care about you even being in that boat. You can also imagine how careful others and I tend to be about who we let into that boat in the first place.

Let me try to make this clear, from another perspective. A lot of times, for instance, we’ll hear or read about how great this or that combative art might be for young people, how it can instill discipline and self-confidence; respect for authority, and so on. These are major selling points for a lot of those arts. And all of them may be true. But none of them is a concern in koryu. We don’t care what they’ll do for you, or for young people in general, or anyone else. We care what you will do for them.

If you are interested in getting into the boat, please think about a few things. Probably the best way for you to approach me, or anyone else who is a teacher in a classical martial tradition, is like this: Explain that you have read about koryu or about the ryu I teach specifically, or that you have seen them demonstrated somewhere, and that you would like to learn more. Ask if it would be possible for you to come and watch training. If I reply—and I will—giving you the location and the time, give me an e-mail or a call to let me know that you will be there [in the case of the Skosses and the Shutokukan Dojo, filling in the application form below will achieve the same results]. Then be there. Don’t write or call a week later and say something like “Oh, yeah, I slept late. Can I come next week?” Everyone has emergencies or unavoidable changes in plans. But have the courtesy of letting me know as quickly as possible, along with an apology.

Don’t tell me that you want to join. I assume you either want to join or you want to see what it’s all about. Either way, you’re always welcome to come and watch and that’s the first step in joining. Don’t tell me how much you have always wanted to do a koryu. Don’t tell me how great you think it would be. I’m not looking for your skill or your enthusiasm or the depth of your desire. And I sure as hell don’t care about your ranks in other arts. I am looking for someone who will be good for the ryu. Someone who is likely to stick around to learn it and who can represent it correctly and competently.

Here’s another hint: If you can’t take the time to spell or use spell-check correctly in your regular or e-mail to me, if you are so sloppy you can’t compose a simple letter of inquiry, if you think it’s appropriate to address someone you don’t know by their first name, chances are very good you are lacking the deportment, the eye for critical detail, and the sense of propriety that are vital to getting along in a koryu. That’s not to say you might not be a great person. But you are probably not koryu material.

See, here’s the point: My primary responsibility is, as I’ve said, is to take care of the ryu. A ryu, any ryu, whether devoted to martial arts or flower arranging or tea ceremony, or any other arts, is like a long series of links. My teachers have been the link before me, their teachers the link before them, and so on. Now, through their efforts over many generations, they’ve formed the link of my generation. And I’m responsible for the next one. If I’m not careful, not circumspect about how I forge it, I could be responsible for weakening or even breaking a critical link in the chain. That’s why it’s nothing personal that I don’t care about you. It is that I have other responsibilities in terms of koryu that must dominate in my considerations.

I don’t wish to imply that joining a koryu is some kind of grueling, “only the strong survive” task. I didn’t speak a word of Japanese, didn’t know which end of the chopsticks to use, and would have had to make a guess about which end of the sword to hold when I began training. And all those cool stories about having to sit on the teacher’s porch or stand in the rain are mostly drama. Persistence is sometimes necessary. Mostly that’s not because you are being “tested” but rather that the teacher or the school doesn’t take you seriously yet and wants to see what kind of commitment you are willing to make. Chances are good that if you are polite, patient, and demonstrate some manners, you will be accepted.

Chances are much, much better you will find your way into a ryu if you have a stable home life, a fixed address, an education (or are in the process of getting one), and a profession. Why all that? Koryu demands a lot of time. It isn’t like being on a bowling or softball team. If your spouse or your family is not supportive, you are in for a lot of domestic strife. Again, it isn’t my problem if you’re having a fight with your wife or your parents. It will be my problem if you show up for training that night and are swinging a weapon at me and your mind is still on that fight. Unless you’ve moved in next door, you will have to commute to our dojo or training area. It is not unusual for members of a koryu to travel an hour or more to get to their dojo [in the case of the Shutokukan Dojo, we have members who drive five hours one way, once a month, for training]. And training is scheduled by what’s convenient for the teacher or the seniors. That means you may well be forced to change your daily schedule to meet our demands. If you are working a job where that’s impossible, training is equally impossible. Very often I am contacted by high school or college students who live in my city—for now. My question is: how long are you going to be here after graduating? I spend four years investing in your training and then you head off to college or a job on the other side of the country.

If you are a student asking about training with me or in any koryu, I will usually tell you that the best move you can make in that direction is to get a good education. Get yourself into a profession where you have the flexibility to locate where a ryu is located, either here or in Japan, and then you can make the commitment to the length of time necessary for a serious study of the ryu.

In closing, please note what I said earlier: it’s our ryu. We enforce the rules. We know the rules, and the reasons for them, far, far better than you do. I haven’t contacted you about joining us; it’s the other way around. If you can accept this, we can proceed. If not, I wish you the very best in whatever you would like to do and I certainly don’t think any the less of you for not wanting to accommodate yourself to the standards of koryu. They are odd and old and often harsh. But they are the game I have elected to play for most of my life now and so I have played by those rules and continue to do so. If you’d like to make a similar commitment, let’s talk about it.

This article is included under the Fair Use laws which permits the usage of short section of copyrighted material for the purpose of journalistic reporting about that material, without requiring the permission of the copyright holder.