But what is “metsuke” 目付？ Checking in the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary gets you a meaning completely unrelated to the term’s use in budo practice. There, it is “lower superintendent officer (in the feudal age)”. Great, a profound budo term has its origins in a bureaucratic title from the feudal age. Doe this mean it’s really about having a gaze like a low level bureaucrat? I’m pretty sure that’s not the meaning we’re looking for.
The kanji that make up the term metsuke are 目and 付. 目is pronounced “may” in this case and 付 is pronounced “tsoo-kay”. 目 is the kanji for eye, while 付 is the kanji for to attach, to apply (and many other uses). In this case, it is means something like “sticking eyes to ~” or “attaching your eyes to~”. That’s what we get from the kanji. The lesson we can take from this is that reading kanji and trying to understand the meaning without knowing the context won’t give you a useful meaning.
In practice, metsuke is really about what you’re looking at and how you’re doing the looking. Kendo teachers are fond of the phrase enzan no metsuke 遠山の目付, which they use to describe how to fix your gaze in kendo. The idea here is that when you look at something in the distance, you perceive things close by in your peripheral vision without focusing on them. This counters the all too natural tendency to stare at your opponents weapon, or just as bad, your intended target.
Where you look is pretty fundamental. We humans are exceptionally visual creatures, and for anything beyond the grappling range, seeing is our primary means of connecting with our adversary. We have to connect with the whole of our adversary, not just the tip of their weapon, or our own. Beginning students have a habit of staring at the part they think is going to hurt them, whether it is a hand, sword, staff or giant peanut butter spreader. If they think that’s the thing that’s going to hurt them, they stare at it, and forget all about the person it’s connected to. Do this, and what you are staring at will hurt you, because you won’t be able to respond in time to what your partner is doing to avoid getting hit.
Enzan no metsuke is a good starting point for developing metsuke, but in the koryu budo I study, my teachers have pulled my metsuke in a lot closer than a distant mountain. My teachers have me looking at a point a little above the bridge of my partners nose. They are very clear that I am not to be looking in anyone’s eyes. With this gaze, I can see my partners whole body at most distances, and I can sense intentions from subtle changes and shifts in posture. I can respond to attacks without taking my gaze away from this point, so that I don’t become locked onto the attacking weapon, leaving me unaware of what’s coming next.
This is important. You can start out well but then have your focus stolen by movement or attack. Even when the attack comes from an angle, you must maintain your focus on your whole partner and not let it slip away to something peripheral. The video here is a good example. While the weapon may come from straight ahead, the left or the right, both people maintain their focus on their partner. The partner is the adversary and real source of danger. The weapon is a tool and gains all of its direction from the wielder. If our focus slips off the person wielding the weapon and gets stuck on the weapon we open ourselves up. If we are following the weapon and we knock it to the side, we will follow the weapon to the side, leaving ourselves wide open to the opponent who is still in front of us.
It takes a tremendous practice, and often not a few bruises, to learn this focus. Great practitioners have incredible focus. You can almost feel the weight of their concentration on you when you face them. This is what my friend was talking about. I remember the feeling when I was first studying jodo and training with one of seniors, Kohashi Sensei. Kohashi Sensei is a tiny woman, maybe 4’ 11 inches (148 cm). She looks like someone’s kindly grandmother, at least until she picks up a weapon and prepares to attack you. Then you become the focus of her entire being and the world is blocked out by the strength of her focus. She is really, truly frightening, so much so that her metsuke becomes a weapon of its own.
Kohashi Sensei’s metsuke is exceptional, but all of the experienced budoka I have met have strong metsuke. The power comes from their well-developed and practiced concentration. You are the subject of their focus, and that focus is pure. There is nothing distracting them. There is no part of their mind that is wandering about wondering what they will have to drink after they have reduced you to a grease spot on the floor. There isn’t even a part of their mind thinking about reducing you to a grease spot. They aren’t thinking about their sword, or yours. They are purely focused on you, and you can feel this. There is no room in them for distraction.
A person with a developed metsuke has a powerfully honed mental focus, and the strength of their gaze is an outer manifestation of this. The focus and concentration of their gaze is a mirror for the focus and concentration of their mind. They are seeing you as the only thing in their universe. A person who has mastered their metsuke can shut out all the distractions around them and maintain focused concentration on just one thing. As a student of budo, this regularly means that senior teachers are bringing all of this focus and experience to bear on you.
Over time, as you become proficient enough that you stop thinking about which foot goes where, and what is the proper stance for this situation, and you remember to breathe regularly without having to tell yourself to breath, you begin to be able to focus on your teacher. To me, this is when you really start learning budo, when you can stop focusing on yourself, and start focusing on the conditions you are dealing with, without letting them overwhelm you. It’s not something that comes full blown. One day you’ll have it for half a kata, and then from time to time you’ll manage to hold your focus together through an entire kata.
Metsuke, and the underlying mental focus and concentration takes time to develop. Without it though, you can never really be proficient at any form of budo, even if what you do doesn’t use the term. I study metsuke everytime I go into the dojo. I’m looking at what my teachers are doing, and what my juniors are doing, and trying to figure out how to improve my own. I’ve also noticed that my peers, the people I started with, have improved their metsuke tremendously over the years. I’m still in awe of the focus and intensity of some of my teachers.
I’m particularly impressed by those who can project this intensity when doing iaido. With no partner to provide a focal point, and no weapon actually attacking them, they have to generate 100% of the intensity and concentration from within. This level of focus is something I’ve only recently come to think I am getting a handle on. When I first started iai it was all I could manage to move my hands and feet at the same time and not stab myself with my own sword. Now I’ve learned to visualize my adversary well enough to be able to bring some of the focus I have in paired arts to my solo iai practice.
It’s still a work in progress. It’s very easy to start looking at your own weapon during iai, since it’s the only thing in your field of vision that’s moving. Keeping focused on the adversary is always difficult, but when she only exists in your mind, it gets really difficult. Watch people when they do budo, whether it is solo kata, paired kata, or some sort of sparring. What do they do with their eyes? Where are they looking? Are they giving away control by looking at their opponent’s weapon or eyes? Are they distracted by something else going on in the room? Do their eyes move in coordination with their body (this is a tough one to describe. I’ve done whole practices on this). If they are doing solo kata, can you tell exactly where their adversary is from the way their eyes, body and weapon work together and focus? If they are working with a partner, does the combination of their focused attention, body and weapon all come together to create a single barrier between them and their adversary.
Those are some points I’m working on for myself, and I always notice when I see video of myself. I’m never completely satisfied with what I see in my own practice. Some of them I get fairly consistently and some need a lot of work. But that’s budo, and maybe a bit of mental metsuke as well.