What else might this imply in terms of this separation from
reliance on one’s teacher? Let’s look at some individual aspects:
Seminar attendance: regularly attending seminars is a great
way for obtaining and absorbing a breadth of information. I rarely see a
seminar as being a chance to do hundreds of forms but rather a learning
activity of new matter OR the same matter but explained and demonstrated in a
different way. One gets to learn from
potentially higher graded and more experienced teachers than one’s own dojo
teacher as well as the much underrated experience of learning from one’s peers
and even juniors. I think that every single person has something to offer in
terms of learning martial arts, which although sounds a bit woolly, I should
add means not that everyone can directly teach something of the art but, for
example, watching a complete beginner struggle to get through a technique is in
itself valuable and interesting data.
Reading and research: by this I mean to not limit absorption
activities to just reading the written word as I am aware that there are many
other sources to learn from including video and audio media. Reading the
thoughts and opinions of very senior teachers has been very inspiring
personally and is another underrated and underused form of study especially
when it comes to Koryu.
Taikai: yes, here it comes, the banner flying for taikai
against all forms of criticism! Yes, budo is not a sport and maybe a
competitive spirit is not in alignment of the budo spirit (or so some might
think) but surely any activity which pushes the individual to try their very
best to “beat” another person is exactly the basis of all martial arts. I have
personally learned so many aspects of budo, both standardized and Koryu, from
taikai I can’t understand why people limit themselves by avoiding them. Surely
just coming to watch some spirited performances would be a useful insight into
Self-critique: I am going to emphasise this again as I’m not
sure I convey how important this is. Limiting one’s self-evaluation to using
your own eyes in realtime while doing a form has limited use as a) perspective
is important (parallax error being a great example of how to mess up angles
terribly) and b) the act of observing itself is likely to change what one does
during a form. I like the idea of using mirrors although that in itself suffers
similar problems to those immediately above. Video, from various angles and
heights, is an indescribably useful medium for learning about one’s own
The body you train with: this might be a new thought to many
people (albeit not those who have done any kind of coaching course I am sure.
Looking after your own health is an important and instrumental part of one’s
martial arts training – isn’t it? I don’t believe that in martial arts the
student should rely on their teacher to tell them how to look after themselves
in terms of health. Why not? For the same reason that I don’t ask my sensei
where I should park my car when I come to training or which way to drive to the
dojo or from which bank account to pay for dojo subs. They are all strongly
associated to my personal application of martial arts training but are probably
utterly irrelevant to everyone else. I know when to say to a dojo member that
they should warm up and stretch more than they do but I am not keen on
providing life coaching to anyone. That is a responsibility that each student
must assume for themselves. I won’t tell anyone that they should lose weight,
gain weight or lose a limb – that’s up to them. However, from this student’s
perspective what is important about bodily health? It’s a fairly general term
but I think it applies to a number of criteria:
Cardiovascular fitness: this means that a
general amount of exercise doesn’t leave you lying in a heap on the floor.
Neither Iaido nor Jodo are generally aerobic enough to create or demand an
athletic level of fitness but it certainly doesn’t help if exhaustion is
holding back one’s training during important parts of a training episode (like
when at the end of the seminar the sensei says “and now for something
completely different”). Doing some work to maintain a good level of cardio
fitness will often contribute to the other following criteria.
Limb and core strength: meaning muscular
strength in the arms, legs, connecting joints, trunk and back. Iaido and Jodo
for me seem easier to perform well when the legs are feeling strong, warmed up
and able to carry oneself quickly and efficiently around the katas. Building up
some strength in the arms means that less consciously applied effort is
required to make sharp and powerful cuts, strikes and thrusts. Having good core
strength improves stability of posture and reduces the effort required to move
Flexibility: this is so important to asymmetric
arts like iaido which is strange when one thinks about what are important
physical actions in the kata i.e. sayabiki, the ability to turn and look
fluidly. Iaido can destroy flexibility and it requires it as well. What does
this tell us? It says that we have to supplement our normal training to drive
that inflexible condition away. I leaned a couple of years ago that Morishima
Kazuki Sensei (Ishido Sensei’s star pupil) did about 30 minutes of stretching
before he started training. I’m sure that’s not the sole cause of him being so
good but it must surely be a significant factor. As soon as I started applying
a proper stretching regime to my training I found my legs and feet starting to
be used in a constructive manner rather than being long blobs of tripping
So, that’s quite a long diatribe concerning passing
gradings, something that I can sit smugly and cast advice about. What I really
mean to convey though is that as the gradings get more advanced, especially
around 4th dan, candidates need to start taking care of their own
training, progress and preparation.
Getting back to the taikai, it was very interesting to judge
as there were four Iaido koryu styles present and various subsets within those
Suio Ryu – generally the whole group under
Robert Rodriguez Sensei
Muso Shinden Ryu:
Poznan (Adam Kitkowski) under Ishido Sensei via
Momiyama Takao Sensei
Wroclaw (Michal Szczepanski) under Murakami
Czech Republic (Tomas Kyncl) under Ogino Sensei
Gdnia (Dariusz Leszczyński) under Ishido Sensei
via various sensei’s
Other parts of Poland (Krztof Górnicki) under
Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu:
Katowice (Lukasz Machura) under Oshita Sensei
via Henry Schubert Sensei
Krakow (Michal Nowakowski) under Iwata Sensei
via Neil Kemp Sensei
Tamiya Ryu – generally the whole group under
Patrik DeMuynck Sensei
With all these potential variations it was impossible to lay
too much emphasis on judging on technical correctness (there was no seiteigata
in the taikai). Robert spoke to the judging group and said to judge on what you
could perceive from the heart of the performance.
The taikai started and the judges sat down ready (feeling
slightly bemused, or was it confused?) but within a short period of time we
became used to judging not on the minutia of the technique but other things,
more difficult to describe.
For me it began to resound with something that Ishido Sensei
had spoken about before in articles and explanations. This issue had been
explained to him by his father, Ishido Sadatoro Sensei, as the essence of
Niku-Sanke, a nature which is present in styles of Iaido.
Rather than present my own memory of this explanation I have
pasted in below the article excellently translated by Richard Stonell and
published in Kendo Nippon in an article with Ishido Sensei:
My father was not the kind of man to make
detailed comments when I was training like this. He would only repeat a single
phrase occasionally: “remember the ‘two ku’
and ‘three ke.’”
The ‘two ku’ are ochitsuku
(calm and relaxed) and hayaku
(quickly). The ‘three ke’ are metsuke, nukitsuke and kiritsuke.
These are, regardless of the school or the technique, the absolute fundamentals
of iai. I came to realize more and more that no matter what kind of practice
you are doing, these ‘two ke’
and ‘three ku’ should be the
foundation. However, at the time my father was telling me this, I didn’t yet
understand properly, so I thought of these words simply as something my father
liked to say.
From this I tried to
spot these elements in the competitors’ performance by asking myself the
exponent calm and relaxed so that the techniques are soft and sharp
this softness build into natural speed and power (hayaku)?
maintain good metsuke which shows clearly where the opponent is?
nukitsuke (or opening attack) performed with decisiveness and clarity?
kiritsuke (or finishing attack) delivered with a sense of finality and natural
I started trying to vote on these criteria and found my
voting to be closer to the other judges (rather than standing out like a plum).
Judging and deciding became a lot easier once stability also became a part of
Towards the end it became obvious who was going to reach the
finals. It was a very interesting experience trying to develop a method of
judgement when adherence to geometric form no longer became under critique.
At the end of the presentations I offered a prize to one of
Robert’s students who I thought, while his embu wasn’t beautiful per se, it
showed what I thought were lots of the five criteria listed above.
In the next and possibly final part of this posting I want
to discuss how these criteria reach into the notion of “Setsuninto Katsujinken”.