We Cannot Go Back
Very few of my students or students of my students will have any idea what this building represents.
The few who do recognize it will likely be heartbroken to see it in this condition, a rundown water department depot in a small Ohio village.
In the 1980s, ninjutsu (and eventually To-Shin Do as 21st Century ninjutsu) got its start in North America in what came to be known affectionately as “the barn dojo”, or just “the barn.” This was a 3,000 square foot aged wooden structure originally built as a tobacco drying barn in little hidden-away Germantown, Ohio. When we were in Ohio, An-shu Rumiko and I ran classes and workshops at the barn. When we were in Japan to study or in the dojos of our friends and students to teach, we just locked up the barn.
In my book Ninja Volume 6; Secret Scrolls of the Warrior Sage, I describe in detail the 3 phases of learning traditionally ascribed to the warrior arts of Asia – shu, ha, and ri. In my life, my first years of martial arts training – the shu phase – were spent searching for and then studying with my ninja teacher Masaaki Hatsumi in Japan. In shu, I imitated everything I saw my teacher do, even when what I practiced did not make complete sense to me. I never much questioned why; I only pursued how.
I returned to America in the early 1980s when my Japanese residency visa ran out, and then Rumiko and I visited Hatsumi Sensei for training every spring and fall for several years. I was a student in Japan for months of the year, and a teacher in the USA and Europe the rest of the time. This was my ha phase – years of exploring, testing out, and adapting what I had learned by imitation in the earlier years.
In the west I ran into kickboxers, speed-slash knife fighters, and wrestlers, all of whom posed problems that were outside standard solutions provided in the literal form of the kata in the ancient scrolls of my teacher’s lineage. I learned ways to make the classical martial arts I studied in Japan work under the conditions I encountered in the West. These were the “barn days” of the 1980s. These were my ha exploration years. These were the years of why and yes, but what if.
I posed as a teacher, but I really was an explorer. In addition to trials of my ever evolving taijutsu, I spent time each year as security escort for the Dalai Lama of Tibet after meeting him in 1986. That exposure caused me to further develop my martial art as a compassionate (though no-nonsense) protection system underpinned by an intelligently spiritual view of why and how violence erupts in the heart.
By the 1990s, my daughters’ school schedules made it difficult to jet to Japan twice a year with my family, so we made Japan trips in late summer and I taught in my newly-founded SKH Quest Center dojo the rest of the year. The barn was too far outside the city to serve as a daily dojo, so we settled on Far Hills Avenue, Dayton’s Main Street. Shu imitation and ha exploration was now behind me. My ri “new creation” phase was the advancement of To-Shin Do as ninjutsu principles and techniques interpreted for 21st Century Western world students.
Some of my friends were surprised by my martial destination of To-Shin Do, though it is the only place my shu-ha-ri could lead in the most real for me of ways. Some missed the barn so much that they could not even bear to visit my Quest Center to see how much I had grown. Like an elderly aunt who just cannot grasp that her mischievous child nephew has become an adult professional with a family, some are confused by growth. I was often cajoled by some friends to backtrack to my ha barn days identity of my 30s, or even further back to shu of my 20s in Japan.
No. I cannot – you should not – go back. You no longer fit the now outgrown identity, and you might even look ridiculous or pitiful trying to fit into the ways of the days now past. Be proud of your growth and enjoy the new friends that you have attracted in your phase of maturity.
Back in the days of the barn, people from all over the world told me it was the coolest dojo they had ever seen anywhere in the world, and it really was. But that was then, and now the once-glorious building is just sad to behold. But be of good cheer. You can come to my beautiful SKH Quest Center dojo right on Main Street in Dayton. It is the perfect dojo for these days, I have truly incomparable material to share, and it is the ultimate destination we were headed for all those years.