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?

Friday, February 27, 2009


Here's a great video that skewers all the old cliches about training in swordplay. Hilarious! Thanks for sending it to me, Kim.

One of the things I love about this video is the way the performers start cracking up, just like in all the best SNL skits. I'll never forget that Chris Farley motivational speaker bit, where he throws himself into the coffee table. The table is obviously designed to break, but Farley hurls himself into the table with what is clearly more force than anybody expected, smashing it to smithereens, and the rest of the performers can barely carry on with the skit.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

An Iaido Story

A few years ago, there was an earnest student who learned swordsmanship from a kindly old master. The master was well past his heyday, and his body was weak. His arms and legs shook if he practiced too hard or too long. Neither his hearing nor his vision were quite what they used to be. Nevertheless, he was devoted to his art, and practiced as much as he could. When he wasn't practicing, he researched the history of the art, and wrote down pages and pages of notes.

The student was happy to have such a master. Because he was old, and lived far away from the city, the master had few students, so most of the time they practiced together, just the two of them. The master was strict, but fair, and after seeing that his student had reached the point where he was ready, he began teaching him the local koryu that he had learned from his own master.

Sometimes, the student would attend practices in the city. In the city there was a large group of people who did the same koryu as his master. When they found out that the student was learning koryu, and who his master was, they laughed. "That old fool? He has no idea what he's doing! He does this wrong, and that wrong, and he's too stubborn to admit that he's wrong. He used to train together with us from time to time, but I suppose he got tired of us telling him all of the problems with his techniques!" The student asked them how they were so sure that they were right and he was wrong, since their original teacher had died many years before. They answered, "Because we have a videotape of our teacher, made before he died. This tape is the final authority on what is right in our koryu. We tried to show this tape to your teacher, but he said he doesn't need to see it. He's so stubborn, he doesn't care about right and wrong technique!"

The student was hurt and angry to hear people talk about his teacher in this way. He went back home and at the next practice, told his teacher what the others had said about him.

"Yes, it is true that there is a tape made by our master before he died. I have seen it, and in fact, I have a copy of the same tape. But what the others don't know is that my teacher always considered those others to be too arrogant for their own good. He sent me a letter - I have it here, with his personal seal on it - detailing all the things that are wrong with his performance on that video. He has gone through step by step, point by point. For example, the others always told me that I do this part too slowly. But in the letter, my teacher explained that he is doing the motion too quickly - it's not good budo to do it in that way. None of the others knows about this letter."

"Master, did your teacher perform the techniques wrong on purpose?" asked the student.

"Not at all, but he was human. Our actions and our intentions are rarely the same. He did the best he could, and then he analyzed his own techniques and found this long list of problems, which he passed on to me, but not to the others."

"Well, then, you have to go to the city, and show the letter to the others! Then they will realize that they were wrong about you all this time, and they will have to respect you!"

"Why do I care whether what they are doing is correct or incorrect? It has nothing to do with me. I'm old now, and you're my only student. I only care that you do it the right way, and that you try and teach your students the right way."

"But master, don't you care about the Truth?" asked the student, who was getting quite upset. "Don't you have a responsibility to make sure that the Truth gets passed to the next generation?"

The master said: "Don't confuse telling the Truth with being recognized by everyone for telling the Truth. You want to be rewarded and respected by everyone because you know better than they do. This is vanity, and vanity is self-deception. It is enough to know the Truth, and to do what you think is right."


And that's what the student told me. As you may have guessed, it's a true story, which is why it's hard to pull out any clear morals. I sometimes feel that, in the koryu arts, (like in religions) Truth is treated like a commodity to be bought and sold. "You want the Truth? Get it here, and only here! Only from me, everyone else is wrong!"
What about the master? Is he just as bad as the others in the city, jealously guarding his secret knowledge, content in knowing that he has a higher version of the Truth? Or is he enlightened, knowing as he does that, in the end, he's going to die and none of it will ever really matter?

Friday, February 20, 2009

New Year's Practices

Hi. Sorry it's been a while since I've posted anything. I'm so backlogged that I've got a little hand-written note in my bag, with about 7 ideas for blog posts written on it. I'm going to start with my iaido New Year's practice.

New Year's practices are quite common in Japan and the custom has spread to other countries, too, I'm sure. We (by which I mean, "my club") used to do them in Canada every year, although I don't think I ever attended one! In Canada, they often did a toshigoshigeiko, or a "span the New Year practice" where you start in the evening on the 31st and practice through midnight and into the New Year. And then, from what I hear, you drink a whole lot. It sounds like fun!

Here, it seems that toshigoshigeiko are pretty rare. I've only ever done the paired "Bounenkai" (end of year party) and "Shinnenkai" (New Year party). Two parties for the price of one! Double the drinking! (Which reminds me: Ozaki Sensei was talking about the meaning of Bounenkai. It is written 忘年会 which means forget-year-gathering, so most people assume it means a gathering to forget about the troubles you may have had in the past year, and get ready to welcome the new one. Ozaki Sensei said that the name and the custom actually came from China, where it carries a meaning closer to "forget-age-gathering". In other words, old and young come together and forget about their respective stations in life, and the rather strict Confucian hierarchy that is attached to age, and everyone drinks and has a fun time together. I like that idea.)

In any case, early in January we had our first practice of the year. As I have been moaning about endlessly to anyone who will listen, my knees had been bothering me quite a lot prior to New Year's, so I had taken a bit of a break from practice, and so I was really rusty. Unfortunately, our New Year's practice was to take the form of an extended demonstration. The entire club would go and show their best techniques, in embu divided by rank: ikkyu, then shodan, nidan, sandan, and so on. Everyone showed up, so we had a lot of people crammed into the small dojo.

Somehow (just my luck) I was the only 5th dan present, which meant I would have to demonstrate by myself. I felt a little bit nervous before going out, but as I am the only Muso Jikiden practitioner in my dojo, I knew that whatever I did (mistake or otherwise) everyone could basically write it off as a stylistic difference.

I started my embu and after standing up following chiburi on Mae, I switched my legs and ... somehow sent my back leg into a convulsive tremor that made my entire body shake! I couldn't stop it and I could barely keep my balance. Was it nerves, or muscle fatigue? Probably a combination of the two, but in any case, it was very embarrassing and threw me off for the rest of my short demonstration.

Afterwards we all went to a nice Japanese restaurant for my favourite part of any practice: the drinking. Sake and beer were flowing freely and I found myself voicing something that I might not have had I been more sober:
"Sensei", I said, "today I was really nervous, and it showed in my demonstration. My techniques completely fell apart. Isn't iaido supposed to be about building concentration and mental focus? Sometimes it seems to me that I haven't made any progress in those areas."
Sensei just laughed and said that iaido meant something different for everyone. But if I felt nervous, then I was missing the point of iaido. I was thinking about the crowd, or thinking about myself, but the one thing I definitely wasn't thinking about was the threat in front of me. If you let your attention get sucked into thinking about people watching you, he said, or on the other hand, about thinking about your own demonstration, then you'll probably get nervous and fall apart. So, the way to do a good demonstration was not to think of it as a demonstration. There is no audience, there is just the imaginary opponent, who is everywhere all at once.
The only thing that counts is something that isn't even real. Very zen.
I thought about that for a while as I got drunker and drunker. There was a moment there where I think I understood it, but I kept drinking and destroyed those brain cells that may have gotten his point. Easy come, easy go, I guess.
At the end of the evening, after the room was almost completely cleared out, Ms. T., one of only a couple women in the dojo, who was also quite drunk, grabbed hold of my wrist, gleefully exclaimed "Iai is not the only martial art, you know!" and then did ikkyu or nikyu or some damned wrist lock on me and threw me to the floor. I was too drunk for much of the pain to reach my conscious brain, but somehow my body knew enough on its own to flip itself to the floor. I was laughing so hard I could barely get back on my feet, and as soon as I did, she screamed and threw me to the floor again. This continued four or five times until Sensei came back in and said, "Quit messing around you two! Time to pay the bill."
So, it was a humiliating day in a few ways, but also quite enlightening.