Nintai Jisei 忍耐自制

Tuesday 1 August, 2023 - Articles

Nintai Jisei 忍耐自制

Nintai Jisei


By Alex Meehan, Namiryu

"When you can say something is ‘painful,’ it's really not. If it's really painful, you can't even scream! This is something I learned from Hatsumi-sensei. For whatever reason, I once happened to say 'ouch!' in training. Sensei scolded me. ‘If you can say that, it's no big deal. If it's really painful, you can't even shout!’”

This quote is by the late Oguri Koichi Sensei, one of Hatsumi Sensei’s oldest students. He said said this in an interview with the martial arts magazine Hiden Budo & Bujutsu, in early 2001. Oguri Sensei started training in 1962 and continued right up until his passing in 2012, and he was renowned for his ability. He was a lovely man, always kind and helpful.

I was thinking about this quote last night after class, and about the concept of Nintai Jisei. This phrase means endurance and self-control. Hatsumi Sensei owns a painting that was done by his teacher Takamatsu Sensei and given to him that touches on this. It’s attached to this post.

The painting includes the following message:

忍体とは心を養い、技をはげみて、末永く辛棒こそ、真の忍者なり。戸隠流忍術三十三代 高松寿嗣

"Nintai towa kokoro o yashinai waza o hagemite suenagaku shinbō koso shin no ninja nari. Togakure Ryū Ninjutsu Sanjūsandai Takamatsu Toshitsugu"

In English, this reads approximately as:

“The true ninja is one who cultivates their mind, works hard to train their body and endures over time. Signed Togakure Ryū Ninjutsu 33rd generation Takamatsu Toshitsugu”

Both Hatsumi Sensei and Takamatsu Sensei have written extensively about the importance of this idea of ‘nintai jisei’. But what does it mean to endure? To persist? Is this a quality that someone is born with or something you can develop? Is it perhaps like a muscle, something you can exercise and build up?

I believe it is, and I think that’s part of the purpose of our training. I think this happens in subtle ways. Take the concept of enduring pain in training. We practice kicking, punching, locking and throwing – even done with restraint, these things hurt to be on the receiving end of. And yet, over time, we can develop the ability to just not mind these things as much as we once did.

Pain is important in training. I often say this to students and if they’re new and haven’t come across this idea before, they look at me strangely. To most people, pain is entirely bad and to be avoided as much as possible

But it’s also true that it’s impossible to avoid pain and discomfort in life, both physical and emotional. In fact our relationship to pain and discomfort plays a big part in how effective we are at achieving our goals. We all learn at a young age that sometimes we have to do things we don’t enjoy in order to gain a valuable outcome – going to school, studying, going to work, saving up money etc.

In the dojo it’s the same, but I explain that there is a difference between pain and injury. Injury is bad, and should be avoided at all costs but pain is just 'data', information from your nervous system that tells your brain that something uncomfortable is happening.

It exists as a useful warning system in our bodies – pain tells us that injury could be imminent. But pain itself isn’t actually injury and it can be helpful to remember this. In a good dojo, there will be lots of pain but very few injuries. (Ideally there will be no injuries at all, but sometimes accidents happen.)

It’s important to be able to accept the risk of injuries as something natural, as well as embrace the idea that if you’re going to learn budo, you’re going to be uncomfortable and experience pain. Why is this important? Why would anyone want to do this? There are a few reasons.

The first is practical. Fighting is a physical activity, and if you engage in it, you’re likely to get hit, punched, kicked etc. If you haven’t experienced what that feels like, you’re likely to be shocked by it. It’s impossible to fully replicate the experience of fighting safely, but you can inoculate yourself to some of the effects by increasing your tolerance to pain.

By slowly and gradually exposing yourself to more pain, you can build tolerance over time. Sometimes new students are a bit shocked by how hard the black belt students hit and throw each other in class. Likewise, when I’m teaching, I sometimes appear to apply a lot of pain.

And it’s true if we did that with new students, it would be overwhelming and they probably wouldn’t come back. (They’d probably be right, too!)

But the senior students have been training for years and have built up this tolerance. It’s also true that I push them a little in training, as part of my role as their teacher, but I know them well and have a good idea how far to push things.

The second reason for engaging with this kind of pain is that it can build resolve, and a kind of ‘spiritual power’. Being able to sit with uncomfortable feelings is extremely important in life. People who can’t are tossed back and forth by the unavoidable events in their lives. People who can gain a kind of breathing space in which they can act rather than be forced to react.

Most people with some life experience will already know this. What’s interesting is that training is a place where it’s possible to practice this and grow your ability in it.

This is a kind of perseverance, something the ninja were so well known for that this is what the term Shinobi no mono, or ninja, actually means. Person of perseverance. People who can persevere through hardship are able to achieve a lot more than others.

One thing it’s important to say at this point though is that the level of physical pain a person experiences in the dojo should be ENTIRELY up to them. It’s not for anyone else to decide how much you should take or be able to take. That’s up to you.

In my dojo, we teach students to tap two or three times on their body, the mats or their training partner’s body as soon as they approach too much pain. It’s an absolute rule that as soon as you become aware of a training partner doing this, you must let go and stop immediately.

Failure to do this is a big deal. If there is a pattern of this kind of behaviour, the person not respecting this convention will be asked not to come back pretty quickly. Training is a matter of trust. We lend our bodies to our partners so they can learn and in turn, allow us to do the same.

But training must be conducted in a respectful manner. Everyone is expected to be working towards increasing their pain tolerance, but that’s an individual journey. It must be undertaken in good faith – nobody wants to have a reputation as someone who gives out pain but taps immediately when someone else applies a waza on them – but it’s worth reiterating, nobody else has the right to push you further than you want to go.

As a teacher, I conduct training using a method I learned from observation of Hatsumi Sensei. In his interactions with his students from all around the world, he tries to meet them where they are. Whatever you bring to him in terms of attitudes and preconceptions tends to get reflected back to you.

So I try to meet people at the level that they come to me. So it’s up to the student to ‘teach’ me what kind of learning experience they want. I try to remember that I have no idea what kind of day, week or month a student has had when they walk in the door.

Sometimes people come in and they’re totally up for hard physical training and they want to be pushed to their very limits. But sometimes the same person might come in and actually getting to the dojo might be as much as they can handle that day. In such a situation, I could easily break them mentally and physically if I decide that’s the time to push them.

It’s a case by case thing. In the past, I’ve had students who couldn’t really understand this approach – they lacked a certain kind of imagination, in that they couldn’t easily see things from other people’s perspectives. They had a fixed idea about what toughness was, and expected others to conform to that.

To each their own. I don’t worry about such things. I’m much more interested in building people up than breaking them down, and I remain amazed by the capacity of the practice of budo to bring about real lasting and positive change in people.