Clouds in the West

Clouds in the West: Lessons from the Martial Arts of Japan
Dave Lowry
Lyons Press, 2004
Purchase from Amazon (paid link)

Having just finished reading Dave Lowry’s newest and best collection of essays, I find myself picking it up to read again. It’s that good. Unlike his previous collections, Moving Toward Stillness and Traditions, which were composed primarily of short and pithy Black Belt columns, these nineteen essays are feature-length and the added space results in added depth. Several of them will be familiar to habitues: we have an earlier version of “Classical Japanese Martial Arts in the West: Problems in Transmission” here on the site, and there’s been a link to its sequel “Confessions of a Navy SEAL” at ever since it came out. Both essays have been updated and enhanced–particularly amusing is the postscript to “Confessions”:

After this originally appeared in Furyu, The Budo Magazine of Classical Japanese Martial Arts and Culture, the editor there, Wayne Muromoto, received a terse letter. It was from an organization that roots out false claimants of fraudulent Navy SEAL Team members. They wished it to be known that there were no official records of a Dave Lowry ever having served on any SEAL Team or having been listed among members of any class of SEAL Team trainees. They requested he publish a retraction of my claim. Seriously. Wayne responded, informing them of what was obvious: The piece was tongue-in-cheek. My claim was preposterous on its face. It was, like, you know, kind of supposed to be “funny.” They replied with a letter identical to the first, again demanding a public retraction of my claim. Wayne thoughtfully ignored them. Just to set the record straight: I am not now nor have I ever been a member of a Navy SEAL team. I am, however, participating with a secret, elite squad currently protecting Earth from certain intergalactic forces that seek to enslave our species through brainwashing techniques disguised as music videos.

The irony is simply delicious, which is how Lowry likes it–and serves it–best. And now I know why he’s taken to wearing nothing but black.

But, I digress. Lowry’s crusade to enlighten the average American martial artist is woven throughout his parables, which also manage to illustrate many little known facets of Japanese history and culture. Do you know why there’s no seam in the underarm area of a traditional yukata (Japanese cotton printed lounging robe)? Who is Myojin-dono Daiunshu Godaikoji and why should we care? What’s the essence of nakaima, “in the middle of now”? What do old black cats and menkyo kaiden have in common? The answers to these questions and more lie within. Lowry also narrates the decades-long tale of a black belt, and shares with us the “true” legends of the ninja.

Okay, I guess I’d better admit to a slight bias. This book gets a big thumbs-up from me partially because my wonderful black cat, Mr. Wizard, is mentioned in its pages. On the trip described in “Kata as a Protection Against the Arbitrary,” Dave was accompanied by several of his students, one of whom was just out of college. Several years later I heard about the near heart-attack Mr. Wizard gave Jeremy during that visit. Mr. Wizard, who was then sixteen years old, used to like to sleep on top of the enormous seventies-gold beer refrigerator we had stashed in our basement. Jeremy went down to collect some beverages for the gang. He opened the fridge door, and became quite concerned when Mr. Wizard moved not a muscle. He grabbed the bottles, clanking them together, and still Mr. Wizard stirred not a whisker. Jeremy delivered the refreshments, then quickly and quietly drew Dave aside. “I think the cat is dead. What should we do?” I’m glad to report that accounts of Mr. Wizard’s demise were premature and he kept us company until his nineteenth birthday, in late June of this year. He has been duly succeeded by a pair of mischievous Norwegian Forest kittens.

Back to the topic at hand: Clouds in the West. At $21.95, this lovely hardcover volume would make a wonderful gift. The dust jacket is graced with Lowry’s own calligraphy. You owe it to yourself, your students, and your teachers, to buy this book, read it, and buy copies for all your martial artist colleagues.

Diane Skoss

Copyright ©2004 Diane Skoss. All rights reserved.