The Godan or Masters Test for a Ninja

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Tn MOST MARTIAL art systems the black belt does not represent I mastery but acceptance. Earning it means you have learned the basic physical skills necessary to be accepted as a peer or advanced student. It might be considered the equivalent of a high-school degree in mayhem. The second degree or dan usually means you can teach the basics; the third means you are a licensed teacher with some special skills; fourth is often concerned with dojo management as well as weapon esoterica, and in some systems it is considered the rank at which you are a fully certified teacher or supervised teacher directly under a master instructor.

The fifth degree means you are a master of the basic physical, mental, and spiritual fundamentals with your own contributions to make to the system. You have demonstrated mastery as well as contributed something unique to the system. In other words, you are not just imitating your teacher but have your own viewpoint. You have become an artist of the darker side of human nature in a socially acceptable context. It might be said you have awakened and tamed your shadow self. It must also be said that some masters' basics far exceed the norm in subtlety, effectiveness, and teaching skill.

Sixth degree (rokudan) and seventh (shichidan or nanaedan, for the very polite) are considered the equivalent of Ph.D.s or doctors and are usually referred to as "shi" or "shihan," which means head of school. These practitioners have developed chi, and are thought of as knights/scholars in Ninpo and Budo/Bugei. Hanshi or "respected master" is eighth dan or above in the traditional Japanese Budo. The title Oshihan is reserved for a master cf higher energies or demon control who has not only developed his own source of regenerative chi (or creative spirit) but his students' students manifest. SiGung (grandfather) is the equivalent title in esoteric Chinese martial arts. In arts where spiritual training is part of the curriculum one will also have trained the intuition to separate right from wrong on a variety of levels. Not everyone will agree with this way of looking at martial ranks, but it's close enough for a generalist who considers his martial skills a hobby that has lasted for thirty-five years and resulted in eighteen different grades of black belt in five systems and three cultures with languages he doesn't speak or read.

The godan (fifth degree) test of Togakure Ryu Bujinkan Ninpo consists of the student kneeling in seiza with his or her eyes closed in meditation or terror, as the grandmaster, also in meditation, stands behind the student with a sword. When the grandmaster is ready he attempts to halve the student. It's the student's job to roll out of the way, avoiding the strike. To pass this test requires rudimentary skills in telempathy (feeling and reacting to emotions). From a mystical viewpoint, the student is accepted and protected by the Bujin (martial spirits such as tengu friendly to the Togakure Ryu). From my perspective, the student feels the sen-sei's mind change and avoids the strike, as feeling precedes thought. Because killing is not natural to the human being and must be thought about, this gives the student the minuscule advantage necessary to escape. From a Taoist perspective, the grandmaster and the student merge their spirits, and being in communion the student knows when to move. If approached from a purely physical perspective, the test indicates that your awareness has moved far enough out of your body that you can sense movement in another person's mind who is standing behind you prepared to strike. Concurrent with that sensitivity to the powers in your environment is a spinal flexibility so astute that one can be blown into a roll (or role when gathering intelligence) by the movement of the esoteric breath. All these perspectives are true to a greater or lesser extent depending on the student's perceptual abilities. In ninpo passing the sword test requires activating senses that are not normally used but held by all as part of our evolutionary heritage.

The grandmaster swings with his eyes shut, with the sword starting from above his head. The victim or person about to be promoted or dissected sits on his feet under the strike of the sword. Witnesses observe to ascertain there is no cheating, or to poke fun at each other's teaching results as Hatsumi, like justice, is blind. As it is no mystery in the ninja community, I'll describe my godan test at the Atlanta Tai Kai in 1990.

The godan test for a martial artist is the equivalent of the oral defense of a Doctoral candidate. It is the cumulation of six to twenty years of study. It's pass/fail and is over in seconds. As you can imagine, the tension is palpable. Picture, if you will, a small room packed with all the godan and above from the Western world plus the Japanese instructors and Masaaki Hatsumi. The energy from these individuals is potent. Now add in fifteen candidates for the degree whose anxiety certainly kicks up the level. Mcst of the men and women in this room were/are very powerful subtle energy generators. Trying to align yourself with a particular individual, even when it's the grandmaster, is not easy. You have to trust in him to really want to kill you, and in your ability to feel the sakki (killing intent). If the intent is not real, your protecting spirit will not emerge.

Hatsumi-soke (grandmaster) picked up a shinai (light bamboo practice sword), which is often used for this test in the West, as it is rude to kill a trusting but insensitive student. It is my understanding that Doron Navon, an Israeli and Feldenkrais practitioner, was the first and last Westerner to take this test with a live blade and one of two to pass on the first swing until 1990. He often serves as Hatsumi-soke's translator along with Rumiko Hayes. I was relieved to see this was a shinai belonging to Kevin Millis, one of the modern leather-wrapped ones that do even less damage than the traditional split-bamboo staves. Hatsumi-soke stepped in front of the table where his translators sat and said to the candidates, "As you do not get to train with me very often, Ill give you three chances to avoid the blow." Three strikes and you're out.

Dick Severence went first and set the standard for the day, as he easily avoided the cut and rolled away as the shinai hit the floor where a moment before he'd been sitting in meditation. Dick had been studying at least two years longer than I had and was in his sixties. Yondan to godan, so it went. Most of the aspirants avoided the strike on the first cut. A few took a blow or rolled too soon and were brought back to try again. My turn was approaching, my curiosity about to be answered. I'd wanted to do this for years. Could I as a hobbyist get on the wavelength of the preeminent martial artist of the world?

I crawled forward, sat on my heels in seiza, closed my eyes, and reached out with my feelings to connect. The first surprise came as I encountered "nobody home." Hatsumi was in mushin and I was in deep shit. As far as my body was concerned, no one was behind me. (There is more than one level of disappearing in this art and sometimes you don't connect things until you experience them. I had expected to be able to feel him.) I watched the white light behind my eyes and waited, saw a flicker in the phosphorous, and rolled. The sword smacked into the floor where I had been kneeling. Victory.

"Come back. No think," he said. I crawled back into position, another dream deferred! What to do? I knew I'd felt his intent but that must not be the object of this particular exercise. My mind went into overdrive as I contemplated my failure. Seven years down the tube. Oh well, what the hell! Compose yourself and see what happens.

Bam, the shinai cracks me in the skull. Strike two.

"You must not think," he says in English and mutters something in Japanese which Kevin Millis told me later was "These intellectuals always think too much." (Hatsumi-san is not totally without prejudice but he seems to direct it toward the things that matter.) At that moment I remembered Will Shepherd, who died rock climbing at night, describing his godan test as a feeling of great nausea in his stomach and not knowing whether to roll or throw up and then avoiding the strike with no conscious effort. I dropped my consciousness to the hara, or gut. My intestines were rolling, my body began to shake. I shut off mental process and waited, and waited, and waited. Suddenly I was on the other side cf the cleared space in the room with no memory of the roll, leap, or crawl that allowed me to pass the test!

When the testing was over I gave Stephen Hayes a hug and thanked him for getting me involved in ninjutsu all those years ago. One of the young American godan who I'd befriended in the past approached me after the testing and told me that from his observation I had rolled at the correct moment the first time. I've given that some thought and explain my shortcoming in this manner. It is not enough to react to the killing thought. It is necessary to actually avoid the blow. In hoshin we operate from the thought, but the ninja responds to the deeper reality of the actual attack. One may be threatened but not attacked; responding to threat alone may reveal your skills to a subtle opponent and he or she could then use that knowledge against you.

In the godan test there is an exchange of subtle energy from the grandmaster to the initiate. The stronger spirit wins. That night when I checked my spirits in the mirror with sensei Sellers Smith and Dr. Mikey Fenster, there was a new face in the crowd. A white tengu! Transfer of chi is part of the equation. The sword test establishes and guarantees a link to the Bujin. If we think of this as a ritual of connection, protection, and healing, rather than escape and avoidance, it becomes an interesting example of hidden movements in ninpo. As I reacted to the feeling of the attack, I was missing the main event of being linked up; Hatsumi would feel that no energy went out from him. Viewed from this Taoist perspective, one should "joyously race to embrace the sword." However, one's taijutsu must remain good enough to avoid a live blade.

You are supposed to be a ninja whose fate often was to be unarmed against the sword. This level of flexibility and speed is greatly facilitated by integrating the mind and body so the spirit can emerge under the blade of the inquisitor.

On a political level Hatsumi may have been informing me that I shouldn't be such a smart-ass. After all, these other testees were real hardworking ninjas and I was/am only a hobbyist amateur with the unmitigated gall and temerity to keep coming back for more. On a deep physical level the hormonal drivers of chi are activated by the adrenals atop the kidneys (or less technically, by fear), and as a scientist and practitioner of chi kung and Taoist esoteric yoga I had figured out the "magick" and was treating it too lightly. Hatsumi was going to make me sit until he felt the proper amount of fear emanating from me. "This is not storefront tae kwan do takeyurdo, this is the thirty-fourth grandmaster of the Togakure Ryu lineage about to swing a stick at your head and you should pray to all you regard as holy that he misses. Now get with the program, as the blow is coming." Although I was sitting in seiza, the way my guts were churning and witnesses inform me my body was shaking, I think I was able to achieve a state of controlled terror and respect for the workings of universal reality and harmony. I let the cosmos decide.

I don't know what my body did to avoid his cut but I have seen poorer teachers' students slammed. I wouldn't go first unless I really had internalized the ability to feel intent. I've seen the shihan of all the branches and different races exchange that "Ughn! One of yours" look as well as celebrate skilled performance. We all know who we are. It's a very small club, particularly the Westerners.

I don't know if this is true or not, but I've been told that some of us have taken the test up to fourteen times before passing. It's considered rude to inquire but I know of at least two godan who are friends who said they paid and went through it six times. Considering the drain of energy, it would be a kindness and good etiquette besides to quit on the first failure, as some of the more respected ninpo players have done, rather than waste the Bujin's time. When Hatsumi gave the test at Tai Kai '92 in Atlanta the "strike-out count" was down to two. Two, you're out.

Out means go home and study for another year, as you are still a brick. Supposedly, in the old days with a live sword, when the Bujin rejected your test, you were just executed. Eight hundred years of civil war results in some novel tests of fidelity. Treat it like the real thing and you will get more out of it. Think of it as pass or die.

A blind roll out of a sitting position when you are meditating is not an easy thing to do if you have not lowered your center. It is especially difficult if you have hardened your muscles and made rigid and unbending your mind. It is easier if you are really relaxed and your body is flexible enough to follow your head. If Hatsumi invites you to take the test, he uses a shinai. If you ask him, he uses a bokken (hard oak practice sword). I preferred not to be concussed or reduced to taking it with a helmet to protect my wounds. Some cf the failure stories are awful. I had waited three years for his invitation, and passing was second in significance only to going through the kundalini. It is both a great honor as well as a culmination of many years of preparation. But as they say on the boob box, "Don't try this at home!" It could be hazardous to your health. The test has nothing to do with hearing, and as far as that goes I tend to be a bit deaf like most middle-agers with a taste for rock and roll and automatic weapons in their youth. Some students attempt to pass by listening for the bamboo to creak since Hatsumi squeezes the shinai as he begins his strike. This counterfeit is easy to catch and embarrassing to see.

Now someone may ask what does dodging a sword out of meditation have to do with real-world fighting? The answer is speed, timing, and luck. We feel before we think. Feeling is the seat of the creative response, not the drilled response. Taijutsu will get you out of the way of the sword. Your spirit or chi will tell you when to use those abilities. If you're ever attacked by someone who seriously wants to kill you without harm to themselves, it won't be a face-to-face confrontation. These days he or she will hire some sort of filth willing to do that for money.

You get a lot of information through feeling someone's thoughts even if you can't read their minds. The intuitive range is quite great. With careful discrimination you can pick up speed traps and other fun consequences of living in this age. You find yourself next to the person you wanted to meet. You don't drive through the intersection just as the light changes as is your habit, and that is when a truck rumbles by, running the red. You bend over to adjust your shoe as a drunk hurls a bottle into the back of the chair where your head was resting a moment before.

Stories of near misses abound in Bujinkan. (I have often wondered if it would be considered a pass if the testee decided to go to a nice comfy bar instead.) Synchronicity is not to be sneezed at, like coincidence, as it is more like opening yourself to sustainable luck. Avoiding a killing strike could be described as loving your new acquaintance enough to fill the unforgiving moment with sixty seconds' distant run from the Victorian perspective cf Kipling's perfidious Albion. The survival aspect that has the most power in the fight/flight syndrome has an "1." The godan test is a proof that you can enter the perceptions of your proto-con-sciousness and are now able to begin work on your true self. It is a beginning, not an end.

In a fight seen by an unskilled or biased observer, lucky, tricky, and sneaky may all describe the devastating maneuver executed humbly at the proper moment to do the most appropriate damage to an attacker. Now, that's a secret sword! It is almost impossible to teach unless you are an artist or can tolerate a great deal of experimentation on your students' part while preserving the core that is life-giving. Intuitive decisions can be superior to analytical decisions. "No think" does not mean stupid.

Passing the godan test in Togakure Ryu Bujinkan Ninpo indicates that you have reactivated your amyglia, hypothalamus, cerebellum, and brain stem, which are parts of the brain concerned with integration of knowledge, pleasure, music, and self-protection. They are the oldest parts of the brain and are sometimes denigrated as reptilian by misguided intellects who overvalue the efficiency of the cortex and fallible eyes. (The cortex may be little more than a memory bank.) When this reintegration begins to happen, your auric corona will run light blue. In some people it begins to manifest from their trapezius dorsi and hearts, somewhat resembling faint electric wings. In others this faint halo effect spreads from the neck and head like a hood. If the higher self is involved, the effect is something like a cobra. It would be wise to consider the myths and legends surrounding those able to develop the skills necessary to inner focus and interaction with such spirit.

This reactivation of the brain stem or becoming consciously aware of subtle input is referred to as the lesser kan and li in some esoteric systems of kung fu, as it is the stage of enlightenment attainable by all if they've the endurance or guts. It is why the tengu (demon spirits friendly to ninjas with the heads of birds and who once ruled in Egypt as well as Japan) refer to themselves as "only Tengu," realizing there are higher levels to reality beyond the siddhi of invincibility. The feeling of invulnerability will pass but is real and can be drawn upon when the threat is real. A real threat to a telempath is felt by the spine and seen by the eyes in the back of the head.

Often Hatsumi-soke promotes a Westerner for only developing one side of the equation, as he takes the long view. Sometimes the spirits speak through Hatsumi-soke and he shows great compassion to a student who really was not properly prepared by a knowledgeable teacher. I have seen some teachers actually invoke Bujin to intervene for the testee because their friend is/was putting on a very bad show for the other godan and above. One should subdue the ego and the flesh before this test. It is not necessary to pass it half-assed.

In the rush to embrace the sword, enthusiasm should not presage discretion, as the traditional test was with a real sword and the man administering it is still a certified channel. You will be remembered as an example of your teacher's skills if you are not self-taught. Hatsumi does not always move of his own volition. The last time I observed the godan test he asked for more strength to keep going when a testee was stupidly and repeatedly failing. Even his Japanese shihan never know what or who will move through him. A little paranoia is in order; some of the Bujin are malignant spirits appropriate to the horror of war. I have noticed the Japanese shihan both love and fear their soke. Study on this.

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