Ki ken tai ichi. A student recently asked me about the relationship of ki ken tai ichi to seitei iai and jo. It’s a fundamental concept in Japanese budo but it’s not difficult to be confused by it. It breaks down as:
Ki 気: Yes, that ki. The one that folks argue about endlessly. In this case it is will, intent and energy.
Ken 剣: This ken is read tsurugi when it stands alone. It’s the same ken found in “kendo”, and it traditionally refers to a straight, double-edged sword common in Japan from about 450 to 950 c.e. that was superseded by the curved tachi. In this usage it represents any weapon you might use.
Tai 体: This character is read karada when it stands alone, and it means body.
Ichi 一致: Ichi is the difficult bit in this little 5 character phrase. It means “to agree, to conform, to be congruent, to be in concert, to be united, to cooperate, to be in accord”.
Intent, sword and body as one. Ki ken tai ichi.
Will, sword and body in accord. Ki ken tai ichi.
Intent, sword and body in agreement. Ki ken tai ichi.
Because the English and Japanese words only overlap as very poor Venn diagrams, there are numerous translations. None of them are 100% right, but each captures some of the spirit of the Japanese. There is no fragmentation;here can be no divisions. Your kokoro (heart/mind), your body and your weapon must be combined into a single unit.
When you move, do you do it with hesitation or doubt? Is the sword a tool in your hand, or is it an extension of your body? Can you feel what is going on in your partner’s body when you cross swords? Does your body move as a coordinated whole? Does your will and intent express itself instantly in your body and the sword?
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My student is quite familiar with ki ken tai ichi from his deep experience with koryu. However the Kendo Federation has ki ken tai ichi broken down almost to a science. There are particular markers to look for when someone does seitei iai or jo that indicate whether or not the will, the body and the sword are in accord.
Does the whole unit reach the conclusion of the movement together without any separation? This is the central clue. Teaching this concept to students starts with the mechanics of how to swing the sword. From there teachers have to backward engineer the timing from the point where mind, body and sword all arrive at the completion of the movement together and become as one.
Moving backwards, the student has to consider that the hands are faster than the body, but for a sword cut the hands and sword have further to travel than the body. If the body and the hands begin their movement together, the body will finish its movement and come to rest followed by the sword. If the body and the sword are united, the full power of the body will be transmitted through the sword. If they are not united then the sword has only the power of the hands when it makes contact. For the full power of the body to be transmitted through the sword, the sword tip has to begin moving first and the body begins moving next so they will complete their action together, united in power and timing.
Breaking down the timing of a sword cut into fine segments makes it a little easier to explain and teach the outer aspects of ki ken tai ichi. A little. Students can start work on training their hands and body to move in accordance with the timing of the sword to transmit the maximum power through the blade. However, just because a student has mastered the timing of their movements doesn’t mean they’ve achieved ki ken tai ichi. This is much harder than simply copying the timing.
One thing you may have noticed that is missing in the above description is the intent, the will, the ki. Even after you train yourself to move hands first, then body when cutting,, you still haven’t achieved ki ken tai ichi. You’ve got the sword and the body, but the intent, the heart/mind is much more difficult. This is a lot more like achieving mushin. You can’t be thinking about anything else if you want to achieve ki ken tai ichi. Your mind has to be quiet and still so that your intent comes naturally in the situation and your body moves as the intention occurs in the heart/mind, so there is no separation such as thinking and acting. Intention and action become one as body and sword are one.
Combining intention and action into one is much more difficult than bringing body and sword into accord. After you’ve got your body and weapon acting as one, it takes a great deal of additional, focused practice to unite the mind with the body. This is an ongoing effort. Any little thing can disrupt the unity of will, sword and body. A bad day at work. A fight with a friend. Worry over someone’s health. All of these and an endless list of other things can knock your mind out of sync with your body. Mental stillness is difficult to achieve, and that much more difficult to maintain.
気検体一致 Ki ken tai ichi. Intent, sword and body in accord. First practice until the sword is an extension of your body. Then teach your body to move so the power of body and sword are united at the instant of contact and they finish moving together at the bottom of the cut. At that point you have the outer form. Now learn to still your mind so that nothing separates intention and action. When intent, body and sword are united, that’s ki ken tai ichi.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for editing.