Saturday, November 22, 2014

Modern Musha Shugyo Part 1

Musha Shugyo 武者修行is an old Japanese term for the practice of leaving one’s home and traveling around the country to learn from people, engage in challenge matches, grow, and perhaps even establish oneself. Rennis Buchner has a great article on musha shugyo over on Acme Budo. The past few weeks I’ve been on a modern version of the musha shugyo, visiting Japan, training with some great teachers in different dojo, and getting my butt thoroughly kicked along the way.

Even in the old days, musha shugyo were not endless rounds of intense duals. They were as much or more about learning and trying to find a job as anything else. Buchner’s references from various Hoki Ryu records provide a much more balanced and realistic view of what was happening than the popular myths. Sadly, my journey was not about finding a job teaching budo somewhere in Japan. There just aren’t many jobs for staff budoka anymore. Today a musha shugyo is a journey of hard training, deep learning and mental and spiritual development. For these purposes, our journey was a wonderful success.

I set out with a friend and one of her students to attend a private gasshuku sponsored by the teacher of one of my teachers, as well as to visit several dojo of my sword and jo teachers. Along the way we also squeezed in a few sites and experiences from around Japan. Budo is not just what happens in the dojo, and we didn’t want to miss the rest of the experience that is Japan.

Our first destination was the Shinto Muso Ryu gasshuku, sponsored by the teacher of my Jodo teacher. This private gasshuku is a regular event, held at an incredible dojo space in Kashima Japan, next to the grounds of one of the largest and most famous Shinto shrines dedicated to budo. The Shinbuden is a privately operated dojo space that anyone can rent. The dojo space is vast, with enough floor space to run at least 3 kendo competition areas and 2 judo competition areas simultaneously. Walking into the vast hall the first time is intimidating. It’s huge and the room echoes with your voice. There are couple of enourmous taiko drums used to call people to order, mark the start and end of meditation, and to beat out the rhythm for group practice. When the dojo is filled with budoka screaming out their kiai the sound is incredible.

Shinbuden interior during practice. Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2014

This year the head teacher couldn’t join us due to health issues, so we had to settle for three of his top students, all of whom are not just menkyo kaiden in Shinto Muso Ryu, but are also highly ranked seniors in other arts including iaido, aikido, and judo. No one was really settling for anything. We had more instructor power than we could handle.

The training was not the harsh, brutal training often depicted in movies. We trained hard, but thoughtfully, with an emphasis on really grasping and understanding what we were doing. The goal was to establish a solid base of knowledge in each participant so they could continue to grow and polish what was learned during the gasshuku after they returned to their home dojo. Training was katageiko and we drilled one set of kata for three days. Contrary to what you might think, this wasn’t abusive or boring.  It was fascinating. After going through the same group of kata so many times, and being able to see even the most senior student in attendance getting corrected on numerous fine details, I have pages of notes to implement into my training when I finally get home.

We lined up in two rows, with senior students closest to the kamiza and wielding bokuto (bokken). Sensei called out the kata and we did it to the best of our abilities. Then the three teachers corrected people on various errors, and we did it again. I received plenty of correction on everything from foot placement to timing to fundamental positions. It was great. The teachers would come over, take my partner’s place, and then we’d do the technique. They would show me quite clearly where my flaws lay. One teacher in particular took great, good-humored, pleasure showing how he could cut off your leg or head with his bokuto to demonstrate to you just how weak your position was.

The training wasn’t just in the techniques of ryuha however. We learned a lot about being members of the ryuha as well. A ryuha isn’t just a set of techniques and kata. Ryuha are ancient traditions. The youngest of the koryu budo are a mere 150 years old.  The oldest go back to the 15th century. With more than 400 years of history, being a member of Shinto Muso Ryu is much more than just learning a few techniques. The ryuha really is a sort of family society, and the gasshuku emphasized this for all of us. The hotel we stayed at was much more traditional than modern. Meals were traditional Japanese style, and we helped with everything. Members would show up early and serve the rice, tea, and miso soup for each other, preparing the table in an exercise that emphasizes each person’s membership in the group.  This is part of how the group bonds. Since this was our musha shugyo, we made sure to be there and help out. We traveled halfway around the world to be a part of this group, and working together supporting each other is part of the shugyo.

A word about shugyo 修行 might be in order. Shugyo can be anything from simple training done sincerely to ascetic exercises performed for spiritual or religious purposes.  Within budo, practice is viewed as both training in the techniques of the system and developing students spirit, heart and mind. For my friends and I, and for everyone at the gasshuku, both aspects were fully present in our training. The technique training is clear, but the spiritual side was there too. We learned to not be put off by failure, as the teachers had us repeat techniques until we could get them right. We learned to endure fatigue and sleep deprivation because the socializing with the teachers could go late and cut into the amount of sleep we got. Sleep was already a precious commodity for my friends and I because we were suffering from jet lag. In previous years I’ve gone to the February gasshuku and learned to endure the suffering of training in the huge, drafty, unheated dojo, so the November chill felt like a warm spring by comparison. By the end of the third day we were also battling sore, achy muscles and a few bruises from strikes that missed their targets and thrusts that were a little too successful. At the gasshuku though, none of this was anything to complain about. That too was part of the shugyo.

The last couple days of the training we covered some less frequently emphasized pieces of the curriculum, which was as much fun as it was frustrating.  Because these parts of the system don’t get practiced as often, you were likely see someone (like me) stop in the middle of a kata because he couldn’t figure out how to get from where he was to where he needed to be. The fun came as we laughed at our mistakes and felt great when we finally got something right. I actually managed to do kusarigama without hitting myself in the face with the fundo consistently for the first time. I also got it to wrap around the sword correctly a few times.  Now I just have to practice it several million times more to get it down.

Katageiko 形稽古 training is not the harsh, abusive training you sometimes see depicted in stories of old Japan. It’s a cooperative effort. The attacking side provides just enough speed and energy for the learning side to be able to learn.  Sometimes this means we seem to be moving in slow motion, and sometimes it means we stop with a laugh as we make a really silly blunder.

As I mentioned, the Shinbuden Dojo is next to the grounds of the largest and most famous Shinto Shrine related to budo in Japan. Outside Japan the Katori Shrine is better know because of Donn Draeger’s books, but inside Japan Kashima Shrine is far more famous and popular as a pilgrimage site.  Kashima Shrine is old and huge.  The grounds are filled with a forest dominated by massive cedar trees that range up to 600 years old and over 2 meters in diameter.

Headed Out Kashima Shrine Gate Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

During the gasshuku, we took a morning to visit the shrine, received a blessing and performed a hono enbu 奉納演武, or demonstration presented as an offering. There is a fabulous old dojo on the grounds of the shrine where we all demonstrated our skills. The dojo is magnificent. It dates from the late Edo period, with beautiful cedar pillars surrounding the dojo floor. On one side is a statue of the Meiji Emperor, who once visited the dojo. The floor is lovely, pale wood, polished smooth the by feet of everyone who practices at the dojo, and those who come only for hono enbu.

This hono enbu was a demonstration by the ryuha, so we all took part, from the newest student demonstrating kihon waza to the senior teachers demonstrating kata at the highest level of skill and ability. It was a honor to be able to view the demonstration, and an even greater honor to be able to take part. The ryuha is more than 400 years old, and joining it is not like taking up Judo or Aikido. You don’t just show up at the dojo, pay your dues and become a member. Like many ryuha, you start training, and at some point the teachers and senior members may decide that you are worth accepting into the ryuha. Membership is less a privilege and more a responsibility. At any enbu, the responsibility is to represent the ryuha in a dignified manner appropriate to the situation and to demonstrate one’s best technique and behavior. Sometimes this means sitting in seiza until your legs fall asleep. If that’s what’s required, you do it and you don’t complain.

Following the enbu, we got into the hotel bus for a short ride to the grave of Tsukahara Bokuden, to whom many of the most famous martial ryuha in Japan trace their roots. Born in 1489, he lived during one of the most tumultuous eras in Japanese history. Warlords were tearing the country apart in their quest to become lord of all Japan. Everyone had an army and skilled warriors were in high demand. He is said to have learned Katori Shinto Ryu and then founded Kashima Shinto Ryu.

Tsukahara Bokuden's gravesite.  Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Tsukahara was born in Kashima, and our hotel was nearby his reputed birthplace. His gravesite lies a little ways out of town 50 feet up the side of a mountain. A recent landslide caused the hillside below the grave to collapse and the town reinforced the hillside. We walked quietly past the graves below and climbed the steps to Tsukahara’s grave. I still find it remarkable that the grave of someone so influential in the world of martial arts remains a peaceful, unspoiled place of quiet and repose. As is customary during a visit to a grave in Japan, we each lit a few sticks of incense and said a quiet prayer. Tsukahara is one of the most significant and influential people in the development of Japanese sword arts, and the chance to pay respects to someone who had such influence on something as important in my life as my budo practice is a quiet wonder.

Offering Incense at the grave of Tsukahara Bokuden Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

After the gasshuku wrapped up, as part of our musha shugyo, my friends and I went back to Kashima Shrine to learn a little bit more about the shrine and it’s history. Kashima Shrine dates back to before the Heian Period (784CE to 1185CE) and has a rich budo history. The deity of the shrine is Takemikazuchi No Kami, who is a kami of martial arts. In Japanese legend, earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish under the earth, and Takemikazuchi No Kami is said to subdue the catfish and prevent earthquakes. His shrine covers acres and acres. It takes a good 20 minutes to walk from one end of the shrine to the other, down wide forest lanes surrounded by the massive cedar trees. The greenery is remarkably peaceful, and it is easy to imagine the Japan of a thousand years ago when most of the country was forested like this.

The path at Kashima Shrine. Copyright Deborah Klens-Bigman 2014.
Yes, those little specs are people!

Kashima Shrine Guardian Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

You’ll notice that the Shrine Guardians in the
Kashima Shrine Guardian Copyright Peter Boylan 2014
pictures  are holding large Japanese bows. This is because the bow was the chief weapon of the samurai for at least a thousand years. The sword didn’t become the primary weapon until the Tokugawa government enforced peace on the nation and made the wearing of two swords the prerogative and symbol of the warrior class.

Although there are two wooden shrines, the forest seems to be the real shrine, dedicated to the natural spirit of Japanese kami. Of the shrines, one is quite old, and was the main shrine until about 100 years ago, when it was relocated and a larger shrine dedicated in its place.

Old Kashima Shrine Copyright 2014 Peter Boylan
The setting around this shrine is quiet and dark, even during the day. The forest blocks out most of the sunlight. The roof is covered with bright green moss, and you feel its age. People walk up to the front of the shrine, toss a few coins in the offering box, clap, bow and make their prayer.

The new shrine is beautiful, but it feels new. This was where we had received the shrine’s blessing a few days earlier. Receiving the blessing can be a tough experience because you have to sit in seiza for about 20 minutes during the ceremony. Even for many Japanese this is difficult, since they spend their days sitting chairs in now too.

New Kashima Shrine building Copyright Peter Boylan 2014

Though we hear much of wabi-sabi, the old shrines in Japan were brightly painted, and that tradition is still visible under the eaves of the main shrine at Kashima. The bright orange and green wall surrounds the Inner Shrine, and the bright colors used to paint the Inner Shrine are clear under the roof.

After spending a peaceful couple of hours wandering around Kashima Shrine, we gathered up our luggage and headed for the Kansai region of Japan for the next stops on our musha shugyo.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Showing Respect: In And Out Of Japan

Someone asked me about how you show respect towards your teacher on and off the mat in Japan compared with the United States. As it happens, I’m getting ready for a trip to Japan and I’ve been thinking about that bit lately. Respect should be fundamental to any relationship, and that’s particularly true in budo, where what we’re just practicing is dangerous because of the nature of the techniques. If you don’t respect you teachers and partners, or if they don’t respect you, things can get ugly very fast.  Respect is essential before you even begin training.

I see a lot of different ways of requiring and showing respect in the West. I’ve seen dojo that made me think of images of military basic training from the movies, with everyone standing rigidly at attention and screaming out their responses to the teacher’s commands and comments.  I’ve seen other ones that were so quiet it was amazing.  The students and teachers said almost nothing. The students kneel, the teacher demonstrate something a few times, claps, and everyone spreads out to practice what was demonstrated.  All without a word. The dojo I’m most comfortable in are probably a little too chatty for optimal practice, but the same can certainly be said of me. These dojo are relaxed.  The teacher leads and demonstrates but the students are comfortable asking questions frequently, both when the teacher is demonstrating new things, and when the students are working on things on their own.

In each of these dojo, the teacher is shown respect, but it feels different, and results in a different sort of relationship with the teacher. There are teachers who expect to be obeyed instantly and who seem to stand above their students. It’s tough to imagine a student doing anything that might be interpreted as questioning the teacher’s understanding or ability, in the dojo or out of it. Regardless of what sort of person the teacher really is, the feeling generated is imposing and doesn’t leave room for difficult questions.

Other teachers seem almost like priests sharing mystic secrets. Their technique is beautiful and powerful.  Everyone works to duplicate it, but asking questions just feels out of place and rude, not just to the teacher but to the other students. The attitude shown towards the teacher shades from respectful into reverential. The teacher is the leader and the guide who makes sure you don’t become lost. Questions are inappropriate.

Then there are the chatty ones. They seem more like regular folks. They are sharing their practice as much as they are teaching. The dojo is neither a place of stern external discipline, nor a peaceful place dedicated to quiet striving. These dojo often seem surprisingly laid back. The teacher sometimes seems more like the the lead student than a teacher. The teacher is including the students in his practice and taking them along on their journey along the way, whatever way it may be. Questions are freely asked. It’s entirely possible for someone to respond to a lesson with “I don’t think that will work.” The teacher probably isn’t offended though.  More likely the response will be, “OK, let’s try it.”  The teacher is further along the path than everybody else, but she’s still on the same path and the students are exploring it with her. The students look to the teacher for leadership, but the teacher isn’t very different from the students.

That’s three basic types of dojo and teachers. I know that each can run to extremes that are awful.  The stern, disciplinarian dojo can become brutal and hurtful, abusive and dangerous to anyone who doesn’t toe the line perfectly.  The quiet, peaceful, reverential dojo can become cult-like and mystical with little room for anyone who questions the leader in any way. The relaxed, friendly dojo can devolve into a bunch of friends goofing around where no one is really teaching or leading and everyone is just there to have a good time. I’m not going to focus on the extremes here though.

Most dojo aren’t really one of these. Most dojo are some mix of all of them.  These are martial arts we’re talking about, so some sort of disciplined behavior is a requirement just for safety’s sake. There is nothing wrong with good discipline in the dojo. When we talk about budo, we are talking about a Way, a means of developing the self through the practice and perfection of a common activity, in this case martial arts. A little bit of quiet, spiritual thought and atmosphere is always appropriate. Even the hardcore, super disciplined dojo I’ve been in usually start and end class with a brief period of meditation and quiet thought. Teachers are usually a mix of all these traits.

Students show their respect for teachers in and out of the dojo in many ways. I have met a few teachers outside Japan who insist on being addressed as “Sensei” both in and out of the dojo, though these are blissfully rare. Most teachers, myself included, blend the formality of the dojo and their local culture, and separate which is dominate by location. In the dojo even the chattiest of sensei have to have a little formality to prevent injuries

In the dojo, we expect students to use formal, dojo behavior, with bows and proper forms of respect. All the bows to teachers and fellow students are clear, visible actions of respect for the teacher and your fellow students. It can feel extremely stiff and unnatural for people from cultures like the US where most formalities have been abandoned. It’s a good lesson though.

This is part of a  formal bow. Not every style uses the bowing form found in Karate, Judo and Aikido  
Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

In Japan respect is built into the culture in ways that may have been true in the US 75 years ago, but it certainly aren’t anymore. Respect and politeness go hand in hand, and Americans have traded politeness for brutal honesty and the expectation that almost any sort of behavior will be tolerated. In Japan, all of those polite formalities are critical.

The closest analog to bowing is probably the military salute. The salute recognizes and pays respect to people of higher status. Bowing in Japan does the same thing, but with far more levels of nuance. Japan is a society that is obsessed with social hierarchy and everyone’s place in it. Contrast this with the American visceral dislike for hierarchy and insistance that everyone is equal and you can see that when the two mix, discomfort and confusion are guaranteed.

It may surprise some people to find out that I’ve seen all these same sorts of dojo described above, in Japan. I’ve seen a couple of other variations as well. The super disciplined, militaristic feeling dojo are often seen in modern budo styles like kendo and karate. These are dojo where everyone lines up, screams the dojo kun, and then does all the same exercises screaming and being screamed at. This is not terribly traditional. This sort of dojo behavior only goes back to the early 20th century as the modern budo were co-opted by the military government and used as means to instill samurai values in the peasants who made up the new army. Granted, the emphasis on everyone doing the same things together was an inescapable effect of trying to train hundreds of people at the same time, but many of the worst aspects of the Japanese military of the period became common in those arts well, including hazing and abuse of juniors by seniors. Over time this has been diminished, but it still is seen far too often.

The very quiet, spiritually focused dojo is probably less common inside Japan than outside. If you look, you can still find some of the most incredible examples of excess focus on the spiritual and mystical to the detriment of practical budo in Japan. In these dojo the sensei is more like a great mystical leader and guru than a budo teacher.

The koryu dojo that I have trained in are probably the most unexpected for non-Japanese. Koryu dojo don’t have nearly as much external discipline and signs of hierarchy as are found in the modern, post-war gendai budo dojo, nor are they terribly mystical, even in systems with a strong connection to Buddhism or Shinto. Usually there are few if any outward signs of rank, and the formalities are generally less formal. That doesn’t mean everyone is not aware of their relative position in the dojo, just that external expressions aren’t necessary. In contrast to some teachers who are decked out in beautiful obi, hakama and uwagi, Kiyama Sensei often has the most worn, patched and threadbare outfit in the room. Each person comes into the dojo, bows individually, and begins practicing in a corner of the room. There is nothing visible to distinguish who the teachers are until they start giving instruction to individual students.

Regardless of the style of dojo and teaching though, in Japan everyone is intimately aware of their position in the dojo’s hierarchy. People outside Japan often ask about using dojo titles outside the dojo, or how you show respect to someone outside the dojo. In Japan, a title is not just an honorific, it is a reflection of who you are in society. When a person becomes a section head in company there, everyone stops using their name. They become “Bucho.”  Literally this means “Head of the Section”.  Even his wife may start using the title to address him. When I was teaching school in Japan, everyone called me “Sensei,” including my Japanese mother-in-law. In Japanese culture, your role in society is who you are, so yes, in Japan you call your teacher “Sensei” everywhere, inside the dojo and outside. 

Respect isn't just shown by bowing and using titles. Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis.

Another aspect of showing respect is something people who don’t speak Japanese will completely miss. In Japanese, every time you say something, you are also emphasizing your position in the social group relative to the person you are talking to, and the people you may be talking about. In Japanese, you can’t say anything without expressing your relationship to the person you are talking to. It’s not just the words you use. To conjugate a verb correctly, you have to know whether the person you are talking to is above or below you in the hierarchy. Even if you don’t call your teacher by name or title, everything you say in Japanese makes clear your relationship.

In Japanese it’s very easy to show respect just by using verb conjugations and forms that emphasize someone’s high status, or conversely, expresses your lower status. On the other side of the coin, you can be incredibly rude simply by using the wrong verb conjugation. Instead of using a form that indicates whomever you are talking with is of high status, you can use one that indicates they are of low status. Japanese doesn’t have many swear words of the sort common in English because if you want to insult someone, you can do just by conjugating your verbs differently and implying your target far beneath you.

In the dojo and out, everything about Japanese culture expresses your relationship with your teacher. How deeply you bow is important (Americans always bow too low to just about everyone). A student always wants to bow lower than their teacher. In Japan you address your teacher by his role as a teacher, so she is always “Sensei.”  This can be confusing.

When I taught in Japan, I was usually addressed as “Sensei.” Even my budo teachers would refer to me as “Sensei” or “Peter Sensei”. The confusion came as people who didn’t know me tried to figure out my role in the dojo. Once they understood that was my job, they also understood that I wasn’t teaching in the dojo. The first few times this happened though, no one was more confused than I was. Later on, Takada Sensei referred to me as “Peter Sensei” to some new students and I went into shock while my brain tried to process. He was placing me in the dojo hierarchy for them. This way the new student knew to listen to me if I said something.

When we were just talking alone, I went back to being “Peter Kun.” Kun is a honorific that is used when adults talk to children, when someone senior wants to express a certain friendliness and affection towards the junior. This happens a lot in business relationships between senior managers who will take a young colleague under their wing and mentor him. It express a certain familiarity and warmth. When Takada Sensei called me “Peter Kun” he was saying he liked me. It wasn’t a put down. He was exaggerating the social distance between us and suggesting the closeness of a teacher/parent to child relationship. In our budo relationship, this was exactly what it was.

To maintain distance with someone, the easiest way is to stick to calling them “So-And-So San” This is the bland, standard, generic form of polite address. There is no particular emotion attached to it, and the formality is fine with strangers. The generic form doesn’t connect you with someone, so it holds them out at a distance. It’s not rude, but it doesn’t invite you in either. This is how strangers address each other. It’s how colleagues at work talk to people they know a little bit but have no strong connections to. It’s also how you talk to someone you don’t like but have no reason to be rude to.

The key in all of these is “in Japanese culture.” Japan is a different culture, and different cultural rules apply. If you don’t want to be rude and make people uncomfortable, you do things according to the local culture. If your teacher is culturally Japanese, call her Sensei all the time, inside the dojo and out. If your teacher is from the US or Europe, that’s probably not a great idea and will likely make the teacher feel uncomfortable outside the dojo.

Showing respect is about letting someone know you appreciate them and hold them in high regard. It’s not about slavishly following them and praising them. In the dojo do what is appropriate for that dojo. Call your teacher “Sensei.” Outside of practice use the forms of respect that are appropriate in your culture. If you’re in Japan, call her “Sensei” all the time. If you’re in Chicago though, Ms. or Mrs. or her first name, depending on how she prefers to be addressed. Just like you do with everyone else. Don’t go overboard with the titles and trying to be more Japanese than the Japanese when you don’t even live there. Relax.

One more thing. If you really want to let your sensei know how much you appreciate her, show up for class on time or a little early, and ready to train. Train hard. Help clean up the dojo after practice. Then buy her a drink. Teaching budo is thirsty work. I can’t think of any of my sensei who don’t appreciate a cold drink after practice. 

Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How Can Iai Be Interesting

How can iai practice be interesting?  There are only about 4 real cuts (kiri oroshi, kesa giri, kiri age, and ichi monji).  It’s mostly done slowly. We repeat those same four cuts from every position and situation imaginable. We always work with an imaginary opponent or opponents. We endlessly return to the first kata in the system and practice it to death.

How could this not be boring?  What could we possibly do to make this interesting? We repeat these same few movements over and over and over. As a student and teacher, I know there is a standard script of comments that can be made, in fact need to be made, every practice with every student. What could be more boring than hearing the same critique every time you go to class? You know “You need to slow down. Relax your shoulders. Tighten your little finger. Use your hips. Move from you koshi. Don’t bend from the waist.” Every iaido teacher says the same things over and over.

Listening to sensei tell you what you are doing wrong, and knowing what he’s going to say before you even start practicing should  be one of the more mind numbing and discouraging you will ever encounter.

It’s not though. Iaido is frustrating and sometimes tedious. It is hard, physical work that takes effort and focus to do even poorly. It can make muscles ache and quiver from the effort demanded. Time and time again I can tell what Sensei is going to say before he says it because I can feel the weakness in my own performance of the kata. It’s difficult to be bored by what Sensei is saying when you can feel the truth of it in your muscles and bones while he is still drawing a breath to power his comments.

Iai is interesting because there is a chasm between knowing what you want to do and being able to do it with any sort of consistency. I remember as a new student watching Takada Sensei demonstrate for me in the old, unheated dojo in Eichigawa. The doors at each of the dojo were pushed open so we would get some ventilation, and since we were no more than a 100 meters from the shinkansen (bullet train) tracks, every time it roared by going over 100 miles per hour (160 km per hour) all other sound disappeared for a few moments.

Sensei never flinched at the sudden roar. His focus on the kata was fantastic. He was in his mid 70s when I started training, and he had perfect koshi, posture to die for, and cuts so precise and sure I would not have been afraid to let him use my stomach for a cutting stand. Sensei’s posture and breathing were so much a part of him that he could no longer stand incorrectly. I think trying to breath from his shoulders would have been physically impossible for him after so many decades of doing it right.

From the day I started, the goal was to get good enough that I could try to approach Sensei’s level of perfection. It was quite a while later that I realized that Takada Sensei was working on improving his technique in one corner of the dojo while I was in one corner of the dojo another working on mine. Initially, I couldn’t even imagine myself doing w
hat he did. It helped when a 2nd dan would attend. I could believe that what he was doing was possible for me. Looking back I understand that Sensei’s relaxed power and precision were beyond what I could understood, so I couldn’t imagine doing what he did. The 2 dan wasn’t far ahead of me along the path, so I could see myself doing what he did, and I tried.

It seems easy enough.  Draw and cut, step and cut. That’s the first kata.  Shouldn’t be tough at all. 20 years later I’m still working at it. At least now I can understand what Takada Sensei was doing, even though I still can’t approach his skills. I can at least draw, cut, raise the sword above my head, step and cut and make it look presentable. Which comes back around to the question at the beginning. How can this iai stuff be interesting?

Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

If it was just going through the motions of drawing and cutting and stepping, it wouldn’t be.  Iai isn’t about going through those motions.It’s about being and moving perfectly. All of the challenge is internal. From the outside, it looks like you’re just repeating the same few motions again and again. Internally, every time through is different. You’re working on fixing the angle of the draw so you don’t miss the target (YES! You can miss the target in iai, but that’s a different essay). Maybe you are working to keep your hamstrings and thighs engaged. A big one for me these days is the relationship of my hips to my upper body, shoulders and head.

The sequence of movements nearly vanishes from thought now. The focus shifts to improving movement and balance. Once I do that, each movement is unique. I’m not swinging and cutting over and over. Just like practicing music, each repetition is it’s own thing. Faster or slower. Harder, softer. Adjust foot positions. Get my hips under my shoulders. Get a little better. Make the next version of the kata a little closer to the ideal.

The goal is to do everything perfectly.  Draw precisely. Stop at the perfect moment. Raise the sword and bring my body together in perfect form completely balanced and completely relaxed. Swing down and cut while driving my body forward from the hips. Step out and finish the cut without tipping forward with the energy.

Photo Courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis

After a while doing the first kata over and over is fascinating because there are so many small variables to play with. Speed, strength, which muscles in the legs and back and arms to to engage. What’s interesting is how perceptions shift.

Early on in the study, the goal is to learn all the kata, to learn as many forms as possible.  The thinking is often that the more kata you know the better you are. I was anxious to be practicing all the kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, the iai system I was doing. The advanced kata include lots of cool scenarios. Multiple attackers, interesting set ups with narrow lanes or in crowds or trapped in a gate. These kata are fascinating because of the scenarios.

As I got better, these kata became more and more similar. No matter what the scenario, no matter what combination of opponents, what I’m trying to do with my body remains the same. I’m still trying to draw with precision so I don’t miss the target. I want to control the movement with as much power and as little muscle as possible. Swing so that I don’t create any openings and and don’t off-balance myself. Raise the sword and bring my feet together with my hips, shoulders and head balanced solidly above them. Snap the sword tip forward with the last fingers of my left hand. Step forward with my right foot and pull the now extended sword down with my left hand. Then catch it at the bottom with a slight twitch of my right and left hands while my whole body comes to rest with my weight settled and solid and my left leg loaded like a spring in case I have to move again.

Just as a basketball player practices endless layups and jump shoots in order to make their technique perfect, and just as an American football player spends hours every day drilling throws or blocks or whatever his position requires, and as football players practice ball handling, passing and kicking, and iai practitioner spends endless hours practicing and studying their most basic movements.

There are two main differences. The first is that until you can’t move, there is no reason to ever stop budo training.  I know people in their 90s who make every effort to practice, polish and improve technique.  Iai, and all budo, is not a mere pastime and entertainment. The lessons and training of iai and other budo continue as long as we do.

The other big difference is where this training is applied.  If you practice shooting baskets, passing, and ball handling, you will become better at basketball, American football, or football. If you practice iai, you will become better at being you. You will improve how move and stand in the world outside the dojo. You will have better control of your mind for whatever you want to direct it to. You will be able to control your reactions and breathing even under stress.

How can learning all of that be boring? If you are just looking to swing a sword around, then yes, iai will quickly become boring. If you want to learn to control and use your body efficiently and effectively, then iai offers endless lessons and challenges. The opportunities to refine your balance, movement and control never end. There are kneeling kata and standing kata and those weird tatehiza kata. As you practice, you get better and better at calming and quieting your mind so you can focus on only the task at hand.

The challenges here are endless and can keep you coming back to the dojo for decades. The value of making the these physical and mental improvements doesn’t end when you leave dojo. That’s when their true worth will appear. And the practice never gets boring. No matter how old you are.
Photo courtesy of Grigoris Miliaresis