Showing posts with label kata. Show all posts
Showing posts with label kata. Show all posts

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Forging The Spirit

Tamahagane, traditional steel, is filled with impurities and requires repeated heating and hammering just to get the impurities out. Only after that can you start shaping a sword.

精神 - mind, soul, heart, spirit, intention
誠心 - sincerity
清心 - “bright, clear” & “mind”
正心 - correct mind, righteous mind

These are just some of the 14 meanings that come up when I type in “seishin” ”せいしん” into the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary. Japanese is a wonderful language. It’s possible to write the word phonetically and thereby imply any or all of the above, or sometimes meanings diametrically opposed to the above meanings. 成心 is also pronounced “seishin” but means prejudice. This can make Japanese a tricky language to say things in; profound but filled with pitfalls.

I’m thinking about seishin because I was visiting with a friend and discussing all things budo over a pint in a Dublin pub. He was wondering how to get from the mindset of destroying one’s opponents to a more wholesome attitude; one that doesn’t require destroying his opponents to achieve goals and mastery.

There are lots of different mindsets that we can take in budo. When we start though, we almost have no choice but to be concerned with winning, with dominating and destroying teki, our opponent. As a beginner in judo, I had to really focus on attacking my training partners and throwing them down. If I didn’t, I was so quickly dominated and thrown down myself that I couldn’t learn anything from the practice.

There are many ideas about states of mind. Fudoshin and mushin are great to talk about, but how on earth does one get from being a beginner who is just trying to not get crushed to becoming, first,  somewhat technically proficient, and then all the way to a point where you are relaxed and acting without prior intent, just moving in harmony with the situation as it develops?

The koryu bugei seem to offer the most time-tested path to these special mental states. The journey is not exciting. Like most practices undertaken to develop the mind/spirit, a lot of effort has to be put into just keeping up the practice.  It’s not generally exciting, especially in the early stages and late stages.

Japanese has long used the phrase seishin tanren to talk about the real nature of training, budo training in particular. “”Tanren” is 鍛錬 and means “forging”. Forging is not exciting work, whether it is making swords or martial artists. In Japan it means repeatedly hammering and folding the steel for the blade until all the impurities have been beaten out of it.  

The Japanese equate budo training with this kind of forging. Seishin tanren or “spiritual forging” is a good way to describe koryu budo training.  It can be harsh, repetitive and boring, but if you don’t drive out the impurities first, the final product will break easily.

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Koryu budo training is built around kata practice rather than sparring.  Sparring is fun and exciting, but it doesn’t build the skills or the mind in the ways necessary for spiritual training.  Look at how a boxer or an Olympic judoka or an MMA fighter trains.  They mostly train kata as well. Oh, I know they don’t call what they do “kata,” but that’s what training drills are. Kata are training drills, pattern practice for techniques, skills and mindset.

You can’t effectively spar until you’ve attained a certain level of technical and mental skill, and that is nearly impossible to get from sparring alone. There has to be a reason that paired kata training remained the dominant training methodology in koryu budo from the 16th through the 19th centuries. The reason is that paired training drills, pattern practice, kata, or whatever you want to call them, are the best effective way of mastering physical technique and developing a quality mental state.  

Beginners are overwhelmed by all the details of learning a new art. The best they can do is pick a couple of points and focus on them. As a beginner, one has to focus intently just to approximate what a journeyman practitioner does without thinking. This is the first step on the path to the mental states of mushin and fudoshin. It’s only when a beginner has advanced far enough that they don’t have to focus on each step of a given movement that they can begin working on the rest of the staircase.

Partnered kata practice gives a student a controlled environment in which to to experiment and develop. The teacher can adjust the intensity of the regimen to the student’s technical level so they get the most from training.  Early on this might mean walking through the kata slowly and without any pressure.  As the student becomes proficient at performing the outer shape of the kata, the teacher can increase the pressure, go faster, attack more strongly, and then add new kata that emphasize different lessons about timing, spacing or technical application.

Over thousands of repetitions the student polishes her fundamental techniques and learns to move without focusing on the details of movement. Now the teacher can begin to vary not just the intensity but also the timing of the kata. One potential danger of partnered kata training is that it may become nothing more than a choreographed dance wherein you know how and when your partner will move or attack. This can lead to empty forms and stagnating mental development.  The teacher’s responsibility is to continuously manipulate the timing and spacing so no two repetitions of the kata are identical. It is at this point that  mental development really begins for the student.

At first a student reaching this level may try to anticipate her partner’s movement.  She knows what her partner is supposed to do next in the kata, and she responds to what her partner is supposed to do. The thing about training in koryu budo is that your partner is teaching you, and koryu budo teachers can be harsh. If my student anticipates my action and moves first, I’m going to attack the opening she gives me rather than do what the kata says I should. One of the lessons of budo is to act in accord with that is suitable for the situation, not just do what the script calls for. If she anticipates my movement, she’s already left the kata and I’m free to attack however I wish.

This is when students really start developing their minds, forging their seishin. It’s also when I, as a student,  was most likely to come home from practice with whacked knuckles and bruised wrists. At this stage, I was  still thinking about when to move and how fast to move. This meant I was often moving too late to get out of the way of the attack. When you’re late, sometimes sensei will let the strike land so you learn how vulnerable you are.

The kata hasn’t changed, but the timing and intensity have. As the student gets more comfortable with the mechanics of the kata, she learns to watch and not move until the right moment, neither too early nor too late. Students who want to dominate and control everything in order to crush their opponent are eager to move and easily drawn into moving before it is safe to do so. Students who are thinking too much will wait to long and get whacked. Through forging,  hammering and folding, through countless repetitions of the kata, the teacher drives out excess thought that gets in the way of quick, clean movement. The tendency to anticipate your partner, thereby creating gaping openings, is slowly forced to the surface of the mind until it is sloughed off like slag being hammered out of piece of tamahagane steel.

In my case, I was so prepared to defend against an attack that I knew was coming that I was often incapable of waiting until it actually happened.Alternatively, whenever I became too anxious to move, like a spring that was overloaded with tension, my teachers would hesitate a moment and draw me into moving. It’s the teacher’s job to provide learning experiences, to change the timing just a little, or maybe a lot.  As I learned to quiet my mind and stopped trying to outguess my partner, I learned to see what teki was really doing.

The student keeps up the repetitions, working the impurities out of her mind. One day it will happen. She’s doing a kata at a high intensity level without thinking about it, without reacting. She’ll be calm and relaxed and act in accord with her partner’s speed and timing. It will be beautiful. The next repetition will be disastrous. She will consciously try to duplicate the previous kata and utterly fail. My experience was much the same..

Fudoshin and mushin are states of mind that involve getting out of your own way. The irony in this is that if you are trying to get your mind out of the situation, your mind is already actively in it. Mushin is all about just being there and not forcing your conceptions on the situation. But - If actively trying to quiet your mind is guaranteed to not get you where you want to be, how do you get there?

You could try breathing through your eyelids.

In Bull Durham, Annie tells LaLoosh to “breath through your eyelids.”  It’s a great tactic. He’s been overthinking everything he does, and as a result can’t pitch well. His mind is wound up and in the way. He can’t do anything right. By distracting his mind with the impossible, Annie frees the skills he’s acquired to act smoothly and naturally. With koryu budo, we don’t tell students to breathe through their eyelids. We forge their minds in the furnace of paired kata practice (and if you don’t think paired kata practice is a furnace, let me introduce you to a couple of people).

Good teachers and training partners gradually turn up the heat. When a student starts, she is busy worrying about the mechanics of the kata. Over time, the teacher pushes a little more and a little more until she’s not worrying about the mechanics. Now perhaps she’s worrying about not getting hit. With enough hammering in the right places at the right moments, fear of getting hit is also driven out of her mind.

Over time, the repetition and gradually increasing intensity levels hammer out other mental impurities. Too much intention is a common stumbling block.Having an attitude that you are going to dominate and destroy your partner is problematic, whether you are doing kata or sparring. It creates unnecessary intent, which is a stumbling block on the path to mushin. With enough practice, enough forging, the student will no longer need to convince herself that she will dominate and control.  She becomes confident that she can handle what’s out there, and doesn’t need intent. Now she’s ready to just relax and take whatever her partner has to throw at her, without any particular intent.

Now she’ll begin to touch mushin and fudoshin. It will be a rare thing at first, a happy accident that can’t be repeated intentionally. With more practice, this student will learn to let go of intentions and expectations. She’ll be able to take a breath in and let her worries, fears and mental noise go out with the exhalation. Mushin will happen more often now and the worries, fears and mental noise will grow weaker and quieter, until they are almost gone.

At this point she’s not a student anymore. She’s a senior helping other students travel the path. I doubt anyone ever reaches a perfect state where they maintain fudoshin and mushin 100% of the time, but the great teachers get so close that the rest of us never notice the lapses.  Seishin tanren is all about forging the mind. It’s not a quick or easy process. Just as forging a sword requires hundreds of repetitions through the process of heating and hammering to get rid of the impurities found in tamahagane steel, and then further heating and hammering to shape the blade, the raw ore of a student is heated and hammered in the furnace of kata practice until mental impurities have been forged out of her and she is a calm, relaxed budoka. Seishin tanren is simple. It’s definitely not easy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Demonstration Budo Vs. Training Budo Vs. Doing Budo

Michi - the character for way, path or road.

Budo demonstrations are great fun. I love watching them, going to them and occasionally even doing them. If you go to some of the big enbu in Japan, you can see legendary arts demonstrated by some of the top people practicing them.  The Shimogamo Jinja Enbu on May 4 and the Meiji Jingu Enbu on November 3 each year offer the chance to see rare and great budo demonstrated. And the Kyoto Enbu Taikai every May 2nd at the old Butokuden in Kyoto is an endurance test for the spectators that can run for 10 hours of nonstop budo.

I was going to say “But they aren't real budo.  They're demonstrations.  They are for showing about budo.”  After putting in the time to think about it enough to develop the idea into a post, I realized I was wrong. Those demonstrations are real budo, especially when done with good spirit. They aren’t nearly all of budo, but they are some aspects of it.

Often we think of demonstrations as being scripted set pieces for showing off our art in the best light possible. Not really the time to go out on a limb and do things we’re not completely comfortable and familiar with. Most budo practice is scripted too though.

We do kata, scripted exercises, with a variety of purposes and goals. Granted, in practice we never approach an exercise with the goal of making the audience go “Wow!” but that’s just one more thing we try for in a demonstration.

What else might be going on in a demonstration?  Beside the obvious goal of trying to impress the audience, there are lots of other possible goals. When we demonstrate modern arts such as judo, aikido or karate one goal is often to show the fundamental principles principles of the art, such as kuzushi or blending or power generation. Being able to manifest the fundamental principles of your art at any moment is clearly part of doing budo. If you can’t manifest the principles, there is no way you can do the art, regardless of whether it is practice, a demonstration or in the midst of a conflict.

When demonstrating an art, you want to show it at its strongest and most powerful. Except when you don’t. Koryu budo systems from Japan, arts founded before 1868, have a tendency to be profoundly suspicious and untrusting. Historically, practitioners of many arts wanted to keep the essence of their art secret because facing someone who had seen one of your demonstrations was a real possibility. For these folks, deception was an essential part of any demonstration.  Do a distinctive kata, but in such a way as to lead anyone watching to an incorrect understanding of how your art handles timing or spacing or other essential elements of the ryuha. Deceiving your opponent into unwise action is found throughout budo training. Using a demonstration to do this is just an extension of training into a practical application.

We also conceal our weaknesses during demonstrations. Just as the classical ryuha might change their kata slightly to deceive potential opponents who are watching the demonstration, they wouldn’t have students demonstrate things they aren’t fully competent at either. It makes no more sense to reveal your weaknesses than it does to show all of your strengths. Demonstrations are scripted in part to avoid displaying weaknesses that could be exploited. Students demonstrating things they do well and with confidence shows their strengths without exposing their weakness at aspects of the art they are still learning.

Modern artists don’t generally worry about the potential of facing members of the audience in a fight. For us, often the concern is presenting an interesting and impressive demonstration that might attract a new student or two. It’s also a chance for students to display what they have learned, regardless of their level. The world has changed, and in this case I have to believe it’s for the better. Where once a major concern was not revealing too much about the strength of the art and the weaknesses of the students, modern arts can show nearly everything. Judoka can demonstrate their most impressive and powerful throws. Aikidoka can show off their most subtle and sophisticated blending techniques. Karateka can demonstrate not just their kata, but also the bunkai of the kata, as I saw at an Cherry Blossom Festival a couple of weeks ago. 150 years ago these would have been closely held secrets. Now those secrets are the very things we put on display. I’m thrilled the world I live in is peaceful enough for this to be.

I’ve often seen people distinguish between “budo training” and “doing budo” as if what we do outside the dojo is somehow more real than what goes on in the dojo. Budo training is practicing all the elements budo, not just the ones that we are confident enough to put on display.  We learn the techniques and the kata. Really learn them. Soaking them into our skin and absorbing them into our muscles. In the dojo I am always working at, as my friend Janet Rosen so eloquently puts it “sucking at a higher level.” I can’t think of a day in the dojo where I didn’t work on things that I’m not good at. No matter how long I’ve been on this path, there are still parts of it that are rough going for me. Certain techniques I need to learn (anyone want to help me with my uki otoshi?). Principles I still have trouble expressing on a consistent basis.

Changing ourselves and moving us along the path of budo is what practice and training is all about.. This is where we grow our understanding of budo and develop ourselves as budoka. We learn about spacing and timing and good structure. We practice how we move and learn that we can choose how we respond to a particular situation  instead of just reacting. It’s not “doing budo” in that the practice may not be spontaneous application of budo techniques and principles to life. It is “doing budo” because we are working on changing and improving ourselves, becoming better grounded in the lessons and more fully internalizing the principles of our art.  That certainly seems like “doing budo” to me.

Doing budo is all these things. We don’t practice or demonstrate every aspect of budo at the same time. Budo practice involves choosing what aspects of budo you want to work on polishing on any given day.  Budo isn’t something that only happens in the midst of violent conflict. Budo is a path, a Way, and the principles of that Way should be applicable to anything. Talk to me about cooking, and we’ll be discussing timing. Talk to me about work and perhaps we’ll be talking about using breathing to control our mind and maintain calm under pressure and threats. Talk about play and I’ll surely be talking about a recent round of randori at judo practice.

Budo is the whole path, every place and every footstep along the journey is “doing budo.”  Practicing budo technique and kata is doing budo. What else could it be? Each time you do a technique or a kata you are working on manifesting the fundamental principles of your art. When you do an enbu, a budo demonstration, you are are doing budo. Whether you are showing the highest expressions of your art, or purposely deceiving your audience as to the true nature of what you do, you’re doing budo.

Artificially limiting what budo is becomes an easy trap to fall prey to.  We think “Budo is martial arts, so it’s only budo when I’m fighting” or something similar. But budo training involves the optimal ways to stand and walk and breath, so when we are doing any of those things according to the principles of budo, we’re doing budo.  It’s not just when we’re in a fight. It’s all the other time too.  If budo was only about fighting, it wouldn’t be near to worthy of the devotion and time we invest in it. Budo is about how we do everything. It’s all budo.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Problem Of Kaso Teki

Photo Copyright 2014 Grigoris Miliaresis
There is no opponent in front of him, but you can tell he sees where teki is anyway.

Someone asked me about the difference between solo practice and partnered practice. It’s a good questions.  I do iaido, which by its nature has to be done solo, but I also do judo and dabble with aikido, both of which are pretty much impossible to do solo.  There are lots of arts such as karate that have both solo and paired practice.  They all have the problem of teki.  Teki is opponent or enemy. Budo practice makes the assumption that we all have one. In training, we have to make sure we have the right teki and that we understand teki properly.

This can be more difficult than it seems at both ends. I’ve written about uke for paired practice.  For iaido, how do we know where teki is, what they are doing or when they are doing it? The questions of maai and timing are critical. Beginning students have enough trouble just remembering which foot goes where and which direction the cut should be. Often when I tell beginning students to visualize teki their form disintegrates and chunks of the kata get completely forgotten.

Iaido is often described as a sword drawing art. I’ve don’t really liked that description because sword drawing is really just a tiny fraction of what goes on in iaido.  The draw and simultaneous attack, while important, is only one of a number of lessons emphasized in the iaido systems I’ve encountered. Iai teachers spend a lot of time getting students to understand why each action is critically important for dealing with an aggressor in each situation modeled in the kata.

That aggressor is the teki. The problem that students can stumble over for years is trying to visualize and understand what teki is doing and why various actions in the kata are determined by where we imagine teki to be, and what teki is visualized as doing. Just drawing a sword and waving it around is not iaido. Like all real budo, iaido is very particular about what is happening and why you do everything just so.

Most koryu budo train in paired exercises, so what is happening is clear. You know where teki is and what teki is doing. The reasons for choosing one response over others is generally pretty clear. Since iai is usually done with a sharp blade, which makes mistakes particularly tough on training partners, we’re stuck with practicing iai without a live partner for the most part.  We talk about kaso teki a lot because talking about our imaginary enemy doesn’t sound as cool.

How solidly we can visualize that imaginary enemy has a huge effect on the quality of our practice.  It’s easy to see when someone is just going through the motions without investing any intent in their practice. Beginning students always seem a little shocked when a teacher says “You completely missed teki.”  

As you train, you learn to see things better, including things that aren’t there. New students are generally so occupied with remembering how to hold the sword and when to breath (if they remember breathing at all) and keeping their chins up and a hundred other little details. They can’t see where teki really is or why knowing that is so important.

Iai teaches a lot about how a real sword is handled, but we also have to learn why the sword is used in particular ways. WIthout a teki, it’s just empty arm waving. Where do we attack? When do we attack? How do we attack? All of these questions are driven by teki and if you can’t visualize where teki is and what teki is doing, the kata are meaningless.

The first kata in many systems is some variation of an aggressive teki in front of you.  The iai student draws and cuts horizontally in one motion, then raises the sword and cuts down.  Why do we cut horizontally and not at some other angle? How far to we have to move to reach teki with our blade? Why do we need a second cut?  Kaso teki provides the answers to all of those questions.  

We cut horizontally to both wound teki and drive teki back and off balance so there can be no counter attack if we miss. This doesn’t make a lot of sense without a strong visualization of teki and their movements. This is just the simplest of the iai kata.  What happens when things get more complicated, perhaps with multiple attackers and turns and movement shifts?

Adequately visualizing teki is far more difficult than people initially think. It usually takes students a couple of years of practice before they can start to do it effectively. Once they acquire enough confidence and facility at the basic movements of the kata that they can stop thinking about them all the time, they can start thinking about why the movements are done.

I said iai is a solo practice, and that’s mostly true. Mostly. The truth is though, that without some partner intervention, I was not able to accurately visualize teki. I’ve found this to be true of all of my students as well. This is particularly true for kata that involve turns and angle changes. There is a common technique, often called uke nagashi, for combining the deflection of an attack with a counter attack. In every system I’ve seen this done in, the practitioner has to shift their angle of attack slightly.

In iai, I have never seen a student who could accurately visualize how far they had to turn to accurately target kaso teki through visualization alone. Until someone gets out some sticks or shinai, and physically models teki for them, students all want to rotate too far around. If they turn too far, they miss teki. Even when they get a partner, students will over rotate a few times. For all that iai is a solo practice, without a few run throughs with a partner there to act as a physical target, students can’t visualize kaso teki well enough to hit their target.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot of repetitions with a partner to get these sorts of details right.  It does take a few though.  Because of this, I can’t really say that iai is just a solitary practice. Rather, it becomes a solitary practice once you understand many of the details and principles. To get to that level of understanding though requires some partner practice.

Another aspect of understanding this is knowing just how far and fast an opponent can move. Every iai system I’ve seen has a full compliment of standing, moving kata. Visualizing these kaso teki is even more complex than envisioning an aggressive teki sitting in front of you. I found that my understanding of iai kata exploded when I started doing a few simple kenjutsu kata. Suddenly it was very easy for me to understand where teki is and how teki will move. I could easily see where teki was, and why teki would react in specific ways based on what I did in each kata.  Until I had some basic experience with paired kata though, none of this was clear to me.

I’ve seen the same epiphany in my own iai students.  They can practice the kata as much as they want, but kaso teki is still a vague, fuzzy image. Once we add a few simple, paired, kenjutsu kata to the practice regime, suddenly all sorts of things about teki become clear.  It’s as though they’d been trying to visualize teki while looking through a crack in the curtains over a foggy window. The kenjutsu kata practice opened the curtains and wiped the window clear.

This all leads me to the simple conclusion that iaido isn’t really a solo practice. Experience with real teki are required before solo practice can be done effectively.  It doesn’t take a huge amount of paired practice, but some is required. A few of the critical elements students have to learn from paired practice to make their solo practice with kaso teki effective are: how teki moves with the weapon, where teki really is when attacking, how teki responds to both the defense and offense of the practitioner, and how fast teki really is.

So to answer the question that started this, “What’s the difference between solo practice and partner practice?” the main difference is that in solo practice you have to have developed the ability to clearly visualize where teki is and what teki is doing.  If you can’t do that while you are doing the kata, you’re just waving your arms in the air. To fully develop this ability takes a little bit of paired practice to to learn what teki can and can’t do, and why. Only after you’ve developed your kaso teki can you really do solo iai.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Competition In Budo: A Guest Blog by Kim Taylor

Every few years I seem to go through a crisis and start looking for the benefit of budo. I read all the latest papers dealing with the ethics and psychological benefits of sport and martial art and think about it quite a bit.
My attitudes never change much, I just need the reminding I think. I'll do a bit of thinking here on the idea of competition in budo if you don't mind. 

First, kids like competition. They move from play to competition as they head toward adolescence and I think that competition is a part of their breaking away from home. It's a part of asserting themselves as individuals, a way to separate themselves from "the other" by "making their mark". 

So we do the tournament thing because the kids like it and they start and stay in the art. So the story goes at least.
Gradings are the same, a way to separate from the pack, a way to distinguish oneself. Kids love grading.
So goes the thinking, and there's me organizing gradings to go along with the seminar coming up. The thing is, I don't teach kids and I haven't been one for a couple of years now. I don't like tournaments or gradings and I find that most of the adults I teach are of the same opinion. Why is that? I think one usually grows out of competition. Adolescence doesn't last our whole lives, at least not physical adolescence. The time of serious competition also spans a very short period. Steve Nash just retired from Pro Basketball at 41. I was stunned to hear that he had still been playing. No wonder he can hardly walk. 

Competitive sport, despite the hype, isn't very good at making better people. The research says so, don't take my word for it, hit Google Scholar and read. Sport, be it martial (kendo, judo, MMA) or otherwise is about playing to the rules, beating the other guy and winning. It's really not about getting along with everyone, cooperating (except maybe with your team if it's a team sport) or dealing with real life... well maybe modern business where we must crush the competition and win that corner office. (What ever happened to being a good craftsman and selling stuff we make to people who actually need what we make?)

A martial art is, at it's heart, about life and death, it doesn't exist in a separate "playspace" like sport, it's connected to some primal stuff that goes pretty deep into our brains, fear and anxiety and stress and most of what we pay doctors to fix these days. Cooperation in the martial arts is absolute, except during the competitive parts. Training is cooperative, the attacker is the instructor, the defender is the student and the attacker never competes, only offers challenges the student can answer. Was it ever any other way in combat? We don't want to defeat our fellow soldiers, we want to have the best guy we can have at our side. If his shield collapses we pay the price too. We don't select soldiers for their fighting ability, we select for the ability to survive the training, then we train them. 

But we compete on the battlefield don't we? The politicians may think so, they may be playing the "Great Game" of empire or, nowadays, getting elected, but the soldiers only ever survive or die. They aren't playing to win they are fighting to live. There is a difference despite the confusion of metaphore and reality in the news broadcasts. 

One of the core benefits of the sword arts is the kata, and I am beginning to believe that's in the final move, the witholding of the killing blow. Kata is only ever cooperative, it's about moving together to higher levels of sensitivity and it's about the final sacrifice of the attacker (uchidachi) and the witholding of the blow by the defender (shidachi). What I guess I'm saying is that the closest sport comes to this is the coach, but coaches are focused on technique for winning. A focus on technique is constricting, not creative. You don't look for new ways to win at a sport, find one and the rules committee makes a new rule against it. You look for ways to exploit those rules, which is not very creative. Finding a new way to survive a sword strike? You have to be a pretty strict cultural-artifact type not to appreciate that. 

To make a kata-based art into a competitive sport is not something I can get behind, no matter how many kids we can attract to the classes by doing it. Performing a kata to win a medal is... a waste of good training time even if you're the most enlightened competitor out there. A full day of tournament with ten minutes of waving the sword around is not good time management. 

Kendo is a sport, let's admit it. The ZNKR spends large amounts of energy trying to fight that opinion and they declare the benefits to society and world peace, but when it comes down to it, the most expensive line item of most national kendo organizations is the team they send to the world championships. It's a real problem for the organization because the kids who are competing are driving the sport in one direction (they just wanna have fun) and the old guys are forever pushing back. I'm not alone in my concerns over competition being somewhat opposed to the benefits of budo. 

And grading? Colin Watkin sensei, Shihan of the Kage-ryu has explained the grading system to us few students. There is none. Your "grade" is survival on the battlefield.
OMG, so does 3dan mean that I "mostly" survive a fight? 

Musashi had 60 duels from age 13 to 27 and won them all. His own assessment was that he was lucky or they were kind of poor swordsmen. He spent the next half of his life trying to figure out how he could improve. 

Good enough for me, I'll leave the competition to the kids.

Kim Taylor
Mar 26, 2015

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kata's Hidden Wisdom

Practice is always good, even when it’s bad, but last Saturday was exceptionally good. There is a lot to be learned from exploring kata, even when it’s one you think you know well. This morning we were working on the kneeling kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. We had out our usual assortment of training tools and were working through the kata using swords.  Some of us have live blades and some are using iaito (unsharpened practice swords that let you keep your fingers if you make a mistake).

Iaido, unlike pretty much all other Japanese koryu bugei, is practiced solo. It’s difficult to learn essential concepts such as ma’ai (combative spacing) and timing without a partner. On the other hand, it’s tough to find new partners when you are using a live blade, or even a blunt steel weapon.  Mistakes happen.  Wooden weapons leave bruises. If you’re lucky, steel will only break things. One of the key purposes of iaido is to learn precisely how it feels to handle genuine swords. So we compromise and practice iaido solo for the most part, and do paired kenjutsu practice with bokuto (wooden swords, also called bokken).   

We had the swords and iaito out and were working our way through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. There is one kata in the set that is similar to the kata “Kesa Giri” in the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Kata. That one has always made sense to people.  There is another kata in the set that starts the same way, with a rising kiri age kesa cut, but then switches to a perfectly vertical cut, straight down the middle.

The basic scenario isn’t much different than the Kesa Giri style scenario, so what’s going on here?  Just going through the solo kata over and over again doesn’t seem likely to reveal all the wisdom and secrets that might lie embedded within the kata, but then the question becomes, how do we tease out everything there is to be learned from the kata? We can play with the kata at different speeds, but to really get at it, something more is needed.

I’ve mentioned before about learning by investigating kata, and on Saturday we decided it would be good for us to take my advice. So we put away all our metal blades and got out some bokuto and shinai (bamboo kendo swords) that I have for just these sorts of occasions. Shinai are great because the split bamboo stings if you get hit, but it won’t break anything.

We started by modeling the kata slowly and looking for openings and weaknesses in the movements.  The spacing is envisioned slightly differently from a Kesa Giri scenario, and we discovered one thing right away.  Even though the initial cut forced teki back, it wasn’t likely to injure or stop him. My partner could recover and counter attack faster than I could get my sword flipped around at the top and make my following strike. Even with shinai, getting hit in the head is no fun. At that point the first feature that Kiyama Sensei has always emphasized leaps into focus.

In this kata we don’t cut any higher than absolutely necessary.  This means the sword stops with the tip still pointing at teki’s face.  With a partner trying to counter attack this stop makes a lot more sense. With the sword tip right in front of his face, teki can’t recover and attack. He’d either impale himself in the face on the sword, or cut off his own arm trying to bring it down.  Ok, so that stalls teki.  The next move is a sweep around that moves through a uke nagashi position to a big downward cut. 

The reason for the sweep and the particular way it’s done quickly made itself clear. As soon as I lifted the pressure of the sword tip from teki’s face, he could counterattack.  If I brought the sword up past my ear as in some Kendo Federation kata, or dropped the tip too far, the counterattack landed on my head. When done properly, the sweep provides  necessary cover for my skull.  When doing the sweep, if you move the sword as if doing uke nagashi, it smoothly covers you against the counterattack.

Unfortunately, even after you do everything right your position is still lousy.  After you do the rising cut and drive teki back, hold him there with the sword tip and then sweep your blade around through an uke nagashi block to protect yourself, you are still sitting within easy range of someone who is also holding a long piece of sharpened steel and intends to use it to bisect you. This presents something of a problem.  The best you could seem to hope for is to cut your opponent at the same time he cuts you.

My partner tried cutting into me at an angle thinking perhaps he could knock my sword out of the way, but at best we still ended up smacking each other in the head.  When we went straight at each other we ended up smacking each other even harder.  This is not an auspicious way of ending a kata, so there has to be something else.

There is a technique, most famously found in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but not uncommon in other sword systems, where you cut straight through your opponent’s sword as she is cutting you. Your opponent’s sword is driven off her target and yours continues smoothly to your target. It’s not an easy technique and it takes quite a bit of work to get right. It’s subtle and looks mysterious if you aren’t familiar with it.  It works quite well in this situation.
My partner swung straight at me and I cut straight through his sword. He missed and my shinai landed on his head.  Problem solved. Expect that then we had to spend some time working on cutting through an opponent’s sword while he’s attacking with it. We work on all sorts of these things like this, and the whole time we are practicing the kata.

Kata are often derided as being outmoded learning tools. I think that comes from fundamental misconceptions about how to practice kata. People seem to think that the only way to practice them is to drill them endlessly, in what basically amounts to rote practice.  I’ve seen karate and TKD schools do this with large groups of students repeating the same kata over and over together, everyone maintaining exactly the same timing and spending more time worrying about running into their fellow students than they do about how variations in speed, timing, and spacing might make major differences in how the kata is conceptualized and imagined for practice.

Kata aren’t rote exercises. One of the keys for understanding that is realizing that there are many ways of practicing the same kata.  Whether the kata is solo or paired, you don’t want to do the kata at the same speed and visualizing exactly the same spacing and timing every time you do it. My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is great at messing me up by playing with the timing in kata. He’s as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen with a jo, so I’m always racing to keep control when he is my uchitachi (senior who takes the losing role in paired kata). Except that he’s also brilliant at putting a sudden pause in at critical points in the kata. If I’m not really sharp, I’ll move the way I need to for what I expect Sensei to do, instead of what he’s actually doing. Sensei then gently cuts me in two in as he points out my woeful lack of awareness during the kata. That’s a simple way to mix it up within a kata.

If you’ve got what is a solo kata, that’s fine. Practice it solo. You don’t have to though. I’ve never seen it written anywhere that you can’t grab a partner or two or three and work through a solo kata with them to deepen your understanding of the envisioned timing and spacing, and to understand exactly what is going on with those attacks and defenses.

Yes, I’m sure you’ll have to slow some things down. Maybe you’ll have to use different training tools. Instead of a steel swords, maybe wooden ones, or bamboo shinai, or even foam boppers if those are what’s available and most appropriate for what you’re working on. You’re training and those are all tools for training. Don’t forget that at some point in the past, bamboo shinai were the latest in high tech safe training equipment.  This is training, not a major public demonstration. It’s ok to look silly as you are figuring things out.

Take out the appropriately safe equipment for whatever you want to experiment with and start experimenting. You’ll learn a lot from the exercise, and you might surprise yourself with what you can understand about the kata without being told, just by changing the way you approach it. I can’t even begin to list all the neat tools and equipment my students and I have come up with over the years so we can work on various things without hurting ourselves, the dojo space, or some expensive piece of special equipment like a real sword or a live person.

That was the core of our practice Saturday. We practiced and studied the kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. It may not have looked like we were practicing a bunch of solo iaido kata, but we were. No, we didn’t always have metal swords in our hands, and no, we didn’t always do things solo. Sometimes we did solo practice, and sometimes we found a partner and explored aspects of the kata together. Sometimes we used bokuto and sometimes we attacked each other with shinai and sometimes we even did the kata just the way it is taught in the system. We had lots of questions about the kata, and lots of different tools for exploring those questions from different angles. We explored the kata and looked at what could be done and what happened when we did things differently.  We learned a lot about the kata and improved our understanding. That’s what I call a good practice.