Saturday, February 28, 2009

Minimum Criteria

Watching the Nihon Kobudo Embu Taikai the other weekend, and seeing a couple rather lackluster demonstrations (only a couple, mind you, out of 40) got me thinking about efficacy in martial arts - again! It's a strange cycle to fall into. On one hand, after thinking about things for a long time, I finally conclude that "combat effectiveness" doesn't matter one iota to what we're doing. And then, I see a demonstration of something that strikes me as obviously bad, and I start to criticize it as ineffective.
I was running these ideas past my friend Keith, and he asked me a very simple question that cut right to the heart of what I was struggling with. "So, what are your minimum criteria for iaido? Even if you know nothing about the particulars of the style, what do you need to see to think something at least has the possibility of being good?"
I thought about it, and I think it's pretty simple. Here's what needs to be present for iaido to be good, in my opinion.

1. Zanshin. The iaidoka must be aware of what's going on around him, and must at least look at his targets before he cuts them. (I have learned a style of iaido where you look at a target, cut for it, and actually look away a split-second before you cut into it, to spot the next target; this still meets my criteria.) After cutting, there must be zanshin and readiness. I have heard that someone I know is developing this idea right now: What separates budo from sport is zanshin.

2. Balance. When I see someone throw themself way off-balance after cutting through a piece of bamboo or a straw bundle, I am always unimpressed. It doesn't matter what he cut through or how great the actual cutting was, if he ends up off-balance, it strikes me as useless. How many opponents stand stock-still and allow themselves to be cut? If you were to commit that fully to a cut and missed, you would probably end up spinning yourself into the dirt like a baseball slugger who misses what he thinks is going to be a sure homerun.

3. Hips and tips. This is Kim Taylor's catchphrase that sums up iaido from a technical point of view. It encompasses my point #2 because, to have good balance, your hips must be in place. Basically, you must move and wield the sword from your hips. (I've never been completely satisfied with that term "hips" because I think the Japanese term "koshi" is a more figurative description of something like "center of gravity" not just a body part, but still ...) "Tips" indicates that the iaidoka is aware that cutting is done with the tip of the sword, and so puts power and awareness into the kissaki. Movements should begin with the tip of the sword, unless there is some overriding reason not to do so - a specific situation in the kata, for instance.

4. Dignity. This is a hard one to describe, until you've seen somebody doing kata to music in a Stars & Stripes gi, cutting apples off the heads of his students. Swordsmanship was about killing, and now, if it's about anything, it's about confronting death. It should never be entertainment.

These are my minimum criteria. Anybody have a take on these points? Any I've missed?


Blogger Guelph First said...

That's about it Jeff.
Nice article.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is nicely thought out. I feel rather strongly that these sword arts are composed of quantifiable "elements" so, for myself, identifying the good from the bad really is a question of how well one has trained these individual factors. Too often we vieiw everything through the filter of our own art right? Still, if we look at the criteria and realize there is an interpretive aspect, it becomes easier to discern who is dilgent in training and has done the time in the dojo. So, we can judge and apreciate each other as folks who practice martial arts, but, at the end of the day you know the obviouse. We should spend our time on our own training first before spending time judgeing others.
...staying on the path is a pain in the ass sometimes, but it does keep us honest about ourselves.
I have enjoyed your posts from a distance, you write well and really add to greater good. So, I want to say thank you for shareing your thoughts and experiences. Please keep up the good work.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Jeff said...

Thanks for your kind comments.
Ken, I'm looking forward to seeing you in Japan in April!
Anonymous, thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree completely. I try to follow the lead of my teachers, who are extremely picky and thus obviously critical, but who are always gracious and never comment negatively about other styles.
I don't always live up to that ideal, however.

5:19 AM  

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