Showing posts with label Iai. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Iai. Show all posts

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Are You Practicing Budo in a Vacuum?

Osaka Castle Main Tower. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


I love visiting Japan. It’s a fantastic opportunity to train in dojo where there are several senior students, each with more experience than most teachers in the USA. The teachers who lead these dojo are incredible.  My teacher, Matsuda Shigeharu Shihan is based in Osaka. He doesn’t run his own dojo, but rotates around a group of dojo run by his senior students, people like Kazuo Iseki and Hotani Masayuki. Outside Japan, Iseki Sensei and Hotani Sensei would each be highly recognized, but inside Japan they run dojo and look to Matsuda Shihan for leadership. I also get to train sometimes with Matsuda Shihan’s colleague Morimoto Kunifumi Shihan.  To get to train with these people, who have 40, 50 or 60 years of experience truly is an honor and a privilege.  

However, this post isn’t about my teachers, or even training in Japan. It’s about the frame and background that surrounds them. I’ve seen people try to practice budo without putting any effort into understanding the history and cultural background of the art they are studying. To me, they are studying budo in a vacuum. It can be argued that fighting can be learned without studying the cultural milieu within which it takes place, but I don’t think the arguments are very convincing.  Without understanding the culture and history of your opponent, you will not be able to understand her goals, which leads to misjudging what tactics and strategies are most appropriate.

Budo wasn’t created in a vacuum by a bunch of guys with vivid imaginations. Budo comes from a concrete world of sweat and blood. The world of the founders of the many ryuha  was filled with obstacles that could block your weapon if you didn’t pay attention to your surroundings.  Even your own weapons and clothing could interfere with your ability to react.

The many different schools of Japanese budo are impossible to truly understand and appreciate without  understanding the history and culture which nurtured and contributed to the individual schools. There are dozens of surviving schools of Japanese budo; some with histories from the 1400s like Kashima Shinryu and Katori Shinto, as well as other,  more recently developed schools, such as Kodokan Judo and Ueshiba Ryu Aikido. Each of these schools shares a great deal of Japanese culture, but they also each have a unique history that informs the particular values of the school.  The circumstances that surrounded the founding of a school in the tumultuous era of the 15th century were different in almost every way from those that led to Kano Jigoro founding Kodokan Judo in the 1880s or Ueshiba Morihei establishing his Aikido in the 1940s.

When I go to Japan, it’s an opportunity to immerse myself in the unbelieveable depth of experience in the dojo, but also to soak myself in the culture and history that has shaped the arts I study. When I went to Japan in November, I had a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the culture and history of Japan that has influenced the budo I study and practice.



I arrived in Japan on a Saturday evening and spent much of Sunday getting adjusted to the time change and doing some jodo training. On Monday morning I got up and headed over to Osaka Castle Park. I wanted to see the dojo I’d be testing in the following Sunday, and see Osaka Castle itself.  Somehow, in nearly 30 years of traveling to Japan, seven of them spent living there, I’d never gotten around to seeing Osaka Castle. It’s the site of some of the most horrific and important battles in Japanese history. The castle tower has been built, destroyed and rebuilt several times, but visiting the castle and the surrounding park provides good perspective on the Japan of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Osaka Castle Main Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


Osaka Castle Inner Gate. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016


The castle tower is big.  It was easily the tallest object around for hundreds of years. What is more amazing are the walls and fortifications around the tower.  These are massive, and they easily give a feel for the huge armies that were involved in the wars of the 1500s that raged back and forth across Japan.The idea of carrying a sword and being part of those huge armies changes the view of what combat might have been like.

 
Shudokan Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016
 
As it happens, the Shudokan Dojo, where I was to test, is part of the Osaka Castle Park complex now.  It’s a lovely building from the Showa Period (1926-1989) built just for budo practice.  I wanted to check out the interior where my test would be, but the dojo didn’t open until later in the afternoon when I would be training with Hotani Sensei.  The outside of the building was lovely, and the sign said anyone was welcome to practice for just 300 yen. What can be rare and hard to find in America is open to anyone in Japan with 300 yen and an interest in budo. 
After several days of training, I was starting to get a little sore.  I needed a break.  So before keiko that Tuesday we went to Kiyomizu Temple to do some sightseeing.  Kiyomizu Temple is at the site of an ancient spring with pure water used for sado, tea ceremony.  The temple complex is about 1200 years old, though the current buildings date from the late 1600s. The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most picturesque places in Kyoto, so it’s always filled with tourists from all over Japan and the world.

Kiyomizu Temple overlooking Kyoto. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.



Recently, it’s become popular rent traditional clothing to walk Kyoto in. This is a new trend that I like. There were lots and lots of women in kimono, and even a few men in hakama. The city of Kyoto has worked hard to maintain its traditional buildings and architecture, and the tourists in traditional clothing fit right in. It’s not hard to imagine how the temple and city must have looked when everyone dressed that way.

Ladies in kimono at Kiyomizu Temple. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2016.


After walking through Kiyomizu Temple, my friend Bijan and I and walked around the small shopping streets from the temple to Maruyama Park. The road leading up to Kiyomizu Temple from Maruyama Park is, in this era, really a foot path, even though locals and delivery trucks insist on pushing their way through the crowds. It’s lined with small, traditional snack shops, green tea ice cream vendors, and traditional craft shops of all sorts. I bought some lovely tenugui at a little shop along the way.  When I asked the man at the register how long the shop has been there, he told me that he’s the 6th generation owner. This is not at all unusual in Kyoto, and helps bring alive the idea that the living traditions handed down carefully from generation to generation that we train in aren’t all that rare in Japan. Besides shops, there all sorts of crafts where the living masters trace their lineage back generations and hundreds of years. Kabuki, Noh, potters, painters, sword makers and sword teachers can all trace their lineages back through the centuries. In places like Kyoto, this sense of age permeates the atmosphere and brings a sense of the normalcy of such things to those of us from countries that  are younger than the arts we study.

Wandering from Kiyomizu Temple to Maruyama Park also makes some of the kata I’ve studied over the years much more practical and less philosophical. Many of the homes and store complexes have an actual gate or mon 門. If you have a kata in your system with the word mon  in the name, such as Mon Ire in Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, you can easily see why there are particular kata for fighting around a gate. The top of the gate is low and the space is not very big. You have to be careful just walking through the gate, much less trying to fight there.

Another feature of old Japanese cities are the narrow streets. I know several bugei systems with a kata called Hoso Michi 細道, or Narrow Street. The street from the temple to the park is only about 10 feet (3 meters) wide, and there are many little streets connecting to it that are only 3-6 feet (1-2 meters) wide. After you see just how many narrow streets there are in a traditional Japanese city like Kyoto, the only surprise with having kata called Hoso Michi is that there aren’t a lot more of them. There are little tiny alleyways everywhere.

The path leads past all sorts of little, traditional shops and many small temples in addition to Kiyomizu Temple.  We had a lovely sushi lunch in one.  Sushi as we know it isn’t all that old, only really dating from the mid-19th century, but some of the senbei and dango shops, like the place where I bought the tenugui, have been there for generations. Being able to walk the streets this way, you can feel the atmosphere of centuries past, and now, thanks to all the tourists wearing kimono and hakama, you can get sense of how the people may have looked as well.

Budo, like any living tradition, and any living person, has been shaped by the culture and history through which it has passed.  You can’t study budo in a vacuum. Without understanding where budo comes from, there is no way to really understand what you are doing or how those lessons might apply to the world as it has become. Those funky kata are just arm waving exercises until you can clearly see the world they came from and how they fit. Without that, there isn’t any way to connect what you are studying and practicing with the world you live in. Even the modern budo of judo and kendo are more than 100 years old in their current forms. Aikido isn’t quite 100 yet, but some of its elements are from far older traditions. Shiko, knee walking, goes back to particular styles of court dress from the Edo period. Judo contains kata against weapons of the Edo and early Meiji eras. Kendo, is, well, a sword art.

If you don’t know how the art you study relates to the world it came from, what possibility is there for you to relate it to the world outside the dojo you live in? This is especially true in the koryu bugei, but as in the examples above, it relates to more modern budo as well. In the Shinto Hatakage Ryu that I teach, there is a strange little movement during the noto that doesn’t make a lot of sense as iai is usually practiced. Iai is usually practiced with just a katana in the obi, but that’s not how the samurai who created the art and lived it for generations dressed.  They wore two swords, a katana and what we call today a wakizashi, a short sword worn beside the katana. That strange little motion looks like silly arm waving, and it is. At least, it is until you put a wakizashi in your obi next to the katana. Then the motion makes perfect sense as you maneuver around the wakizashi to get the katana back into the saya without banging the swords or your wrist. There’s a lesson here about being aware of your surroundings and moving in accordance with them that shows up in many places in budo kata, regardless of which ryuha you are studying.

The lessons of budo kata and training aren’t meant to be particular. You’re not learning about how to wield your sword in an alleyway in Japan, or how to fight in and around the gate of a traditional Japanese home. The kata chosen in any ryuha represent specific examples of general problems.  How do you draw your sword in obstructed spaces? How do you move in loose, baggy clothing, or be aware of obstacles in your environment? If you think of each kata and lesson as an isolated instance, there is no way to understand and absorb everything it has to offer. Knowing the history and background of a kata makes it possible to extract general rules from specific lessons. There is no way to make a kata for every possible variation. There isn’t enough time in one life to study every possible scenario. The creators of budo chose lessons that could be extrapolated from individual kata to the whole panoply of life.

Generations ago when the budo ryuha were being created, these general lessons were easier to pick up because the specific practices were drawn from daily life. Now we have to study not just the kata, but the history and settings of the kata before we can extract all the lessons they contain.

Monday, August 29, 2016

So You Wanna Cross-Train?

My friend and colleague, Deborah Klens-Bigman is an accomplished martial artist and respected scholar of Japanese classical dance. She often does me the honor of serving as a sounding board for ideas, and generously edits my posts to make them polished. This time Klens-Bigman Sensei responded to my ideas with an essay of her own, which I 'm proud to be able to publish here.

Deborah Klens-Bigman  Photo Copyright Iaikai 2016

So you wanna cross-train?


Previously,  two posts considered cross-training in other budo.  The first set out the benefits as a means to deepen understanding of your primary art.  The subsequent post looked at another side of the issue - that some martial arts teachers might forbid their students to seek training at another dojo.  That post also suggested that students caught up in such an arrangement may have picked the wrong person to train with in the first place, and speculates on such teachers' selfish motivations.

So - here we have two solid arguments in favor of "cross-training."  It seems like a good idea, right?  Find a different (though maybe related) art form, and go for it, right?  Not so fast.  There's a right way, and a wrong way, to train at a different dojo.  If done right, you can obtain benefit for yourself and do credit to your home dojo.  If not, well - read on.

Let's first assume that you are a student in good standing, who is also not a raw beginner.  A very-beginning student who seeks training in another art form gives a teacher the impression that you are not serious in your practice in the first place.  The term for this (at least in English) is "dojo-hopper."  The sense is that the student is in some sort of martial arts shopping mall, with various things on offer.  Come in, poke around, try a couple things on, and go on to the next store.  This is definitely how to shop for a prom dress, but most budo teachers take their practice seriously, and expect students to do likewise.  

Next, let's consider motivations.  I am not talking about jumping ship and looking for a new teacher - that's a different subject altogether (see above).  And I seriously doubt you would look around and think to yourself, "I'll bet I could deepen my understanding of the principles of [fill in name of current practice] by trying out [something else]."  More likely you saw something on YouTube or even (shockingly, but it does happen) at a live demo and you thought it looked cool and would be fun to try.  NYC is a veritable feast of martial traditions, both Asian and Western, old and new (and even theatrical and cinematic!).  It's easy to feel like a kid in a candy store.  There is nothing wrong with this motivation.  But there is a proper way to go about it.  So I am offering a list - from smartest to dumbest - ways to go about cross training in a different budo form.

1.  Talk to your teacher and ask for permission to try something else, and ask for her suggestions as to where to find another dojo.  For example, you could say, "I was thinking about trying a jujutsu class.  I wanted to run the idea past you first.  Do you have any suggestions as to who I could study with?"  Believe it or not, even in a place as huge as the Big City, many budo teachers at least know each other by reputation, if not personally.  Moreover, we know who the crank teachers are; or, at least, we have the means to find them out.    Asking for permission, along with asking for advice, accomplishes several goals - it shows the teacher you respect her, and that you respect her opinion.  It also puts you in line for a good recommendation with one of her colleagues.  Having been recommended and accepted for cross-training in another dojo also shows respect with regard to the other teacher, who then has a clear idea of who you are and may have a sense of what you might be able to accomplish by training with him.

 2.  Ask your teacher for permission only.  This is not as smart as suggestion number 1, but it at least shows enough respect to your teacher that she won't throw you through the nearest wall.  Most teachers will say yes (and if she doesn't agree, there is probably a reason, as in she doesn't think you are ready to branch out.  If you respect the teacher, you will respect her opinion and ask again later).  Some may volunteer advice if they think you might be interested in hearing it; others may just say it's fine, and you are then free to roam.  

 3. (Moving to less-smart ways).  Go somewhere else and don't tell either the primary teacher or the new teacher what you are doing.  I don't recommend this, but it can actually work, as long as you exercise some discretion.  Don't do what one of my students once did: blow off a request to perform at a demo by explaining that you have a tournament with another teacher that weekend.  Just say you're sorry and you can't make it; and you hope to be able to perform with the group at another time.  Being so up front about your conflicted schedule may send a teacher the message that you are so enamored with the new style that you are not as interested in what she has to teach (even if that isn't strictly true).  Moreover, not supporting the dojo when it asks for your help also makes you look less serious about your practice, unless it involves work or family issues.  Your perceived lack of interest may result in the teacher's attention being directed a little bit more to other students instead.  Tangentially, if the second teacher learns about your primary art form by other means than your telling him about it, you may find yourself getting the same treatment.  I'm jus' sayin'.  We like to think that our teachers have better tempers and more wisdom than lowly students (and they might), but they are also human beings (with a lot more experience than you) and they have feelings, too.  And those feelings should be respected if you are serious about your art form.

 4.  Declare that you are going "budo shopping" for other stuff to do - you say you may come back to the home dojo someday, but then again you may not.  Believe it or not, this has actually happened.  At the risk of stating the obvious, the student has given the impression that the teacher (and her art form) are interchangeable; with one practice being not any better or worse than another.  The now-former student in question was fortunate to have done this via email and not in person.  Needless to say, this person is no longer welcome (except, just *possibly* as a guest, and paying the guest mat fee).  Unless you really intend not to come back at all, I don't recommend this method.  

 5.  Just show up at a new place and disparage your primary teacher to gain favor with the new one.  As I said, we all know each other, by reputation if not personally.  Remember the six degrees of separation?  In the budo world, it's more like one or two.  You won't be accepted once the truth comes out.

 As my colleague the Budo Bum has said, there are many benefits to cross-training, and most of them won't be revealed until you have spent months (or even years) training in another form.  In my budo career, though my primary art is iaido, I have also done some training in naginata, kyudo, kendo, some empty-hand, and I am currently studying jodo as a rank beginner.  I also train in Japanese classical dance; an art form that developed in the Edo period that shares many principles of movement with koryu budo forms.   Many of my colleagues and teachers both in the U.S. and Japan also cross-train.  For the most part, all of their teachers know and respect each other, and are cross-trainers themselves.   My teacher, Otani Sensei, when I spoke to him specifically about working with another teacher, interrupted my carefully-rehearsed permission-asking speech by saying, "That's okay, that's okay.  Once you know the principle, the technique doesn't matter."  I still can't say, all of these years later, that I fully understand his point, but I knew then I had the freedom to figure it out.

Bio Note: Deborah Klens-Bigman is Instructor at Iaikai Dojo, in New York City.   The dojo website is www.iaikai.com
Deborah Klens-Bigman Photo Copyright Iaikai

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Growth Of Budo



I was listening to NPR the other day on the way to work and they had an interview with Takagi Kikue, an 83 year old survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima.


Takagi San’s openness in sharing her experience with Americans, and her ability to grow beyond the nationalism she grew up in and to embrace the world without seeming bitter even after the horrors she lived through brought back memories of my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei. He was a grand gentleman when I met him. Tall for Japanese, particularly of his era, he was already in his seventies when I first met him.

He was leading an iaido demonstration at the Minakuchi Castle ruins, It was quite the display. I remember that Suda Sensei had borrowed a suit of armor and was wearing that for the demonstration. 20 or so people swinging swords and a guy in full armor before a castle turret and gate makes for quite a site. I wish I’d taken more pictures. I was there because I’d heard there would be an iai demonstration. I started looking for iaido after I got to know the swordsmith Nakagwa Taizoh because I wanted to be better able to appreciate the incredible swords I was always seeing and handling when I visited him.

I somehow got myself introduced to Takada Sensei and asked about studying iai. At the time I lived 5 minutes from the castle, but I was planning to move to Yokaichi soon. Luckily for me, Takada Sensei was teaching in Eichigawa, just 2 train stops and a 5 minute walk from where I would be living.  They held practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the half of the community gym not being used by the local kendo club at the same time. It turned out that Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were both senior members and teachers of the kendo club as well as teaching iai.  

Both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei were Japanese Imperial Army veterans. In 1993 there were still a lot of veterans of The Great Pacific War around. Takada Sensei invited me to come train at their dojo.. He was the senior teacher, and although both he and Suda Sensei were 7th dans in iai, and both were in their 70s, I found out later that Takada Sensei was Suda Sensei’s teacher. They were both amazing, quick and strong.  

I made the effort to go to iai practice, still a bit apprehensive about being a gaijin doing a classical Japanese martial art. This was 1993, and gaijin in classical budo were still extremely rare. The only worthwhile books on the subject that I had seen were Donn Draeger’s, and they didn’t fill me with confidence that someone showing up, gaijin or Japanese, would be automatically welcomed into the family.
Takada Shigeo Sensei

Fortunately for me, Takada Sensei was a grand, warm, outgoing human being who was delighted to have someone interested in the art he taught. He had me practicing the first night when I arrived to ask if it might be ok to learn iaido. I was expecting every myth and legend about starting a traditional martial art that you can imagine. Anything was possible in my active imagination, and I envisioned scenarios from having to sit outside for a number of classes to having to perform outrageous demonstrations of my sincere desire to learn (having seen what kindergarten and elementary students in Japan often had to go through with wearing shorts all winter for school to toughen them, and some of the gatsu (guts) training that junior high and high school sports teams go through (thousand fungo drill anyone?), I was more than a little worried about what I might have to do to prove I was serious.

It turned out my biggest concern was how soon I could get an iaito, hakama and keikogi. At first, Takada Sensei lent me an old one the dojo had, but I needed to get a hakama and keikogi right away. That called for a quick trip to Kyoto. I’m always up for a trip to Kyoto, and an excuse to browse through all the budo shops around the Budo Center is always welcome.  So I found a beautiful indigo, cotton hakama. It cost more than I could afford while buying an iaito though, so I saved money by asking my sister-in-law to sew ties on an old judogi and turn that into a keikogi. Takada Sensei seemed ok with that.

Budo such as iai were born in a place and time where anyone who wasn’t Japanese had no rights in Japan, and in fact just being from somewhere else and being in Japan was a crime punishable by death. In that time and place, to be Japanese was to be sure you were the finest flowering of human accomplishment. The rest of the world was filled with barbarians who would surely benefit from the civilizing influence of Japanese culture, but were probably too barbaric to really appreciate it.

Less than a hundred years after that world came to a violent end, torn apart from within, Japan was at war with much of the world, driven in part by a firm belief in the superiority of the Japanese culture and spirit.. Takada Sensei and Suda Sense both served in that war in their youth. The budo the studied in their youth had a frighteningly nationalistic bent to it. People like me were clearly barbarians utterly incapable of appreciating the subtlety and profundity of budo and other aspects of Japanese culture.

Takada Sensei could have carried the ideology and prejudices he was raised in with him throughout his life. Instead he transcended that. Budo, which when he began it had been co-opted as a tool for indoctrinating and preparing people for military service, became much more than that. Oddly enough for things that are called “martial arts,” budo like iaido managed to grow by shedding their militaristic accretions. Takada Sensei, who started budo while being prepared for life as a soldier, transcended his early lessons. He gave up his prejudice and grew.

His budo grew with him. When I met him, he was thrilled to be able to share his iaido with me. He really loved teaching me, and all of his students. I was his first non-Japanese student, but not the last one. Even in the very rural corner of Shiga Prefecture where we were, international students started to find the dojo as both Takada Sensei and Suda Sensei made a point to let people know that international students would be warmly welcomed.

Takada Sensei enjoyed pointing to his sword, a beautiful 450 year old blade that still had the military mounting he put it in when he went off to war. He would take it out and say “This was for killing Americans, but now it teaches them.” He was very happy and proud that he, his sword, and his art, had grown beyond the limits and prejudices of his youth. Instead of an instrument of war, his sword had become a tool for bringing people together in a shared journey of growth.

Budo is not a static idea, and Takada Sensei understood this well. What budo means, the reasons for practicing it, the goals to be achieved along the path of practice are not stuck in one age or ideal. People argue about what constitutes “real budo” as if there was some point in history when budo was pure, pristine and perfect. Happily for us, that day never was.

Budo is not a something anyone can possess.Takada Sensei, with his sharply ironic comments about the change in the status of his sword understood and embodied that better than many. Budo started out as a very practical aspect of training soldiers to fight. This training blended with Neo-Confucian ideas and the influence of sado, tea ceremony practices, after the establishment of peace during the Tokugawa era. For 250 years the idea of what budo is was blended with ideas from all over Japan. With the opening of Japan new ideas flooded in. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that a backlash developed against the seemingly overwhelming tsunami of new and foreign ideas. Early in the 20th century budo was swept up in the arguments about how Japan should develop any ideas of Japanese uniqueness. By this time though budo had developed too widely to be truly claimed by any one view.

Great budo thinkers and leaders from kendo, iai, kenjutsu, naginata, and judo argued and debated whether budo practice should serve the state, Japan or all of humanity. A few, like Kano Jigoro Shihan of Kodokan Judo, had sufficient status to be able to openly disagree with the militarists in power. Most teachers did not have significant status to protect them if they didn’t agree with those in power. Those who did agree gravitated to the big, national, budo organization. Those who didn’t generally kept their heads down and their opinions to themselves.

Everyone who grew up in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s grew up doing some sort of budo in school. Boys did kendo, judo, jukendo. Girls learned naginata. It was considered an essential part of the education and development of proper Japanese spirit.

Takada Sensei was a gifted and talented swordsman, with kyoshi certificates in both iai and kendo.  I can still picture him handling his family’s heirloom sword with casual power and perfect control. When he swung it looked as easy and effortless as child with a bubble wand, and when he stopped the blade it was as sudden and solid as if he had driven it deep into a tree stump.  Like his sword, he was polished and bright.  Even in his late seventies, when I met him, his budo was bright and lively, polished smooth and shining.

He didn’t get there quickly. He spent decades and decades and decades on the path of budo striving to perfect his technique and himself. He wasn’t perfect, no one ever gets there, but he was a wonderful example to me of what the journey can be and where it can take you. From a young officer in the Japanese military to a lifetime of teaching people of all ages how to be a little bit better today than they were yesterday through training with the sword, he grew and matured. Along the way so did his budo.

By the time I found my way into Takada Sensei’s dojo in 1993 he had more than 60 years of budo practice and shugyo under his wide kaku obi. He’d been thinking about what budo was, and the budo Sensei was teaching when I found my way into his dojo was greater than just something that only native Japanese could appreciate and benefit from. Budo that wasn’t limited to training medieval warriors for life in a land of endless civil war. Budo that wasn’t limited to being a finishing school for the social elites who ran pre-modern Japan. Budo that certainly wasn’t limited to developing the spirit in Japanese youth to conquer and dominate the world.

Takada Sensei taught me and showed me budo that is for the world. His sword, instead of cutting down enemies as it was surely intended to do when crafted during the Muromachi Era, performed the miracle of binding together an old Japanese gentleman and an immature, young American. Budo grew from deep Japanese roots, but it is flowering around the world.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Organizing The Body For Budo


The fundamental skill of budo is not particular kata or even special techniques. Those are built on something else. The techniques and kata of a budo ryuha, ancient or modern, are the teaching syllabus and the textbook. The practice of those techniques and kata are the way one acquires the fundamental skills of the ryuha. 

If the techniques of a ryuha aren’t the fundamental skills being taught, what are they? The fundamental skills of a ryuha are all the things that make the techniques and kata possible. The essence of any ryuha is how the body and mind are organized. These are the fundamental lessons driven and learned through the practice of all those kata.

The kata provide a framework for learning to organize our bodies and minds. Kata only happen when the fundamental techniques are solid. Techniques are solid when the body is properly organized. That organization is what makes everything happen. How do you grip the weapon (or your opponent if it’s unarmed)? That’s a start. If the structure of your grip isn’t good, if the bones and muscles of the hand and arm aren’t well organized, the grip will be weak and the techniques ineffectual.  

How the feet, legs, hips, torso and head are organized is the true foundation and the fundamental teaching of any art. In koryu arts, this is a core secret. For Kodokan Judo though, this is open knowledge, though not even everyone who practices judo understands it. The majority of people doing judo do competitive judo and rarely train in the kata, where Kano Jigoro and his senior students encoded the essential lessons of the art.

In contrast to the low, solid, heavy stances common to in judo competition, the body is organized higher and lighter in the kata. This reflects the fact the Kodokan Judo kata are intended to teach how to handle a variety of combative situations including grabs, strikes, and weapons, as opposed to the narrow range of attacks permitted in the competitive arena. How do you organize the body to handle all of these different possibilities?

The way the body is organized for competition is optimal for conditions in a tournament where attacks come from the front. No one ever tries to strike you, No one carries any weapons. The problem I had initially with training in the kata was that the body is organized quite differently than for competition. The low, stable, immovable stance that is so ubiquitous in randori is exchanged for an upright, light, mobile posture that can quickly adjust and react to the wide variety of attacks presented by the kata.


With so many more possible ways to be attacked, and from so many more distances and angles, the body has to be organized differently. Instead of organizing my legs and hips to be able block out a throwing attack and then counter it, I have to be prepared to move to a new location quickly to avoid a punch, kick or weapon, or to enter inside the attack to deal with it. The knees will be slightly bent and the core engaged to take on the weight.  Instead of energy and strength being focused forward to meet an incoming throwing attack, the focus is more diffuse to allow quick movement in all directions.

Contrast this with way the body is organized for ZNKR Kendo and Seitei Iai. Instead of the low, solid posture common to competitive judo, or the light, upright posture of classical Kodokan Judo, for iai the posture is very upright, but with the body pressing forward, ready to surge into action the moment a foot is released. There is tension between the legs, so that movement happens the instant a foot is lifted. No time is wasted shifting weight, everything is ready. The koshi is kept engaged to provide a solid platform while the arms are light and relaxed to swing the sword quickly and effectively.
Beyond competitive martial arts, every koryu has its own way of organizing the body, and this is a core secret of the art. Historically, keeping information about this secret was one reason members of a ryuha would avoid training with anyone outside their ryu. If you understand how someone organizes their body, you know a lot about what they can and cannot do. Modern systems like judo and ZNKR Seitei Iai lay everything out in the open.

The way an art conceives combat, the situations envisioned, and the strategies employed all come together to determine how the body is organized. For something as specific as competitive judo or kendo, very specialized postures and organization develop. Budo that assume many more options have to organize that body differently. Rather than very specialized techniques only applicable to one situation, they require physical organizations flexible enough to adapt to the myriad of situations that can develop.  A good competitive bodily organization will maximize the potential within the narrow confines of the arena. Sogo budo 総合武道 (general budo) have far broader potential applications and need a body that isn’t organized for one specific match.

The more specialized the art, the more apparent it is in your body.  I was visiting a friend’s judo dojo for the first time a few weeks ago, and as I walked up to a young man I said “You’re a wrestler, aren’t you?” The way a body is organized for wrestling is a bit different from that of judo, enough that I could see that he was a wrestler even before we started working together. Karateka and competitive judoka are easy to spot too. The way we learn to organize our body is something we carry with us everywhere. It’s not something that turns off when we leave the dojo. It’s so apparent that we can learn to see it in the way other martial artists stand and walk.

How we organize the body for action is at the heart of every budo. It is basic, fundamental, and very difficult to get right. Mastering the body mechanics of an art is literally half the battle. Until the body is properly organized and moving in accord with the basic principles of the art you’re studying, none or the rest will be correct. No technique, no punch, no cut, no strike, no throw can be done correctly until the body is organized to create the platform upon which the technique occurs. Until the techniques are right, the kata don’t stand a chance of coming together with the right spacing and timing.  It all starts with how the body is organized. ( I might deal with organizing the mind another time, but that’s more difficult to describe.)

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.

 http://www.budogu.com

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