Friday, January 18, 2013


A friend of mine was commenting on someone’s metsuke, and how she really wouldn’t want to cross it.  I’ve known a number of teachers like that.  My iai and jo teachers are particularly fierce.  Just their glance is enough to make any sensible person back up and rethink their options.  Their whole being seems to fill their eyes and their gaze.  

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 and .  is pronounced “may” in this case and is pronounced “tsoo-kay”.   is the kanji for eye, while 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.
If you’re looking at your partner’s eyes, you’re going to have the same problem, only worse.  Not only can’t you respond to what she is doing in time, but you can easily be led to even further weakness through eye feints and bluffs. If you’re staring at their eyes, you’ll react when they do something besides look back at your eyes.  The worst part is that staring at your partner’s eyes really won’t tell you anything about what they intend to do if they are any good at all. Kiyama Sensei has quite clearly corrected me on this point.  He says develop the strength and look your partner in the eye.

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.  


Dan Pearson said...

I like your essay, and find much of value in it. However, in my experience in Shindo Muso Ryu jodo, Kaminoda Sensei has a different practice with metsuke. He looks directly into your eyes. All his top students do this.
I can only speculate about why teachings are different among jodo teachers, but jodo being a policing art, and Kaminoda Sensei being police, follows a practice that one would expect of a policeman--they look right into the other person. It gives you levels of communication that looking at a "point" on someone's forehead can never communicate.
I would encourage you to try it in your jodo as I believe it adds to the precision of the weapons and also the intensity of the exchange. But I understand if your other teachers have articulated a different understanding that you follow what has been addressed.
Dan Pearson

Ronin scholar said...

My experience reflects Dan Pearson's. I once took a naginata seminar and while we were all patiently working on our kata, the teacher suddenly began chasing a student down the floor, yelling at him all the while. After she had finished making her point with him, she explained to us that she had told him several times to look her in the eye. She said you can read an opponent's intentions in her/his eyes, and to not look there implied you trusted your opponent when in fact it was generally better not to.

That said, other styles/art forms have other ideas. The best route, if there is any doubt, is to (as always) consult the teacher.

The Budo Bum said...

Hmmm. With hearing from so many people I respect about where to focus the gaze, I'm thinking I need to go back to my teachers and see if I haven't badly misinterpreted somethings they have said. I'm looking forward to my next trip to Japan so I can talk with them in depth. In the meantime, I think I'll have to break down and write some letters in Japanese.

WAX3D said...

All of you have good points,and my comments are only my perspective and what I have come to understand as "Metsuke".The moment we focus on one point of our opponent,(physical or mental)and we rely on that point or spot to tell us anything about our opponent,we have lost.You can not ignore distractions around us either.
But must take in the whole situation as a whole,EVERYTHING,down to the last detail.The wind,a smell,a bird chirp in the distance are all relevant to the seriousness of the
situation. We must only act and react to stimulus with the movements that we train ourselves to be mindlessly programmed to do.
To do any more or less will result in failure,and in ancient times would have resulted in death.This is the state of mind and FOCUS point that Metsuke refers to,not so much a actual physical point,as it is a state of mind.Sometimes concepts are lost in Japanese Budo translation.Words are not always the best way to communicate such things.
Eric Parafin

The Budo Bum said...

It’s time for a formal Mea Culpa. I was talking with Kiyama Sensei the other night about a couple of things, and decided to ask him about metsuke while we were at it. As for the location for fixing your gaze, I had a bad misunderstanding. It took Kiyama Sensei about .02 seconds to realize this and straighten me out. Dan and Ronin Scholar both said the eyes should be the target of the gaze, and Kiyama Sensei was clear and unequivocal that the eye is where I should be focusing. I apologize for getting this wrong, and am kicking myself for not realizing this sooner.

Draven Olary said...

Interesting but I know that peripheral vision is the one that senses best the slight motion - you can't appreciate the speed though. That gaze from the beginning is a way to engage your peripheral vision. I can't activate it when I focus on a detail like the other's pupils/eyes, I need to look through him - that is I was told and it works in both, sparing or kata. If I am remembering that Musashi was preaching to close the eyes slightly when in fighting situation, trying to focus on the half closed eyes of an opponent with the intent to read his moves, is worthless. At least for me. You need the gaze to detect the 1st movement, after that focus is on. Otherwise, you will be tricked by the guy in front of you if he realizes you are staring at his eyes, not at him.