Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More Jodo

Last night, we had a very small group at Jodo class, for whatever reason. It was a really, really good practice, because Sensei had a lot of time to wander around giving us individual attention.
I spoke last time about "quick fixes" and about how they're pretty rare. Well, I was working on using the right hand properly when doing hikiotoshi and, sure enough, Sensei came by and said my movements were too small and I wasn't using the left hand enough! I should have known better; focus on one thing hard enough, and everything else falls apart.
Something really struck me last night - something that I know rationally, but hit me full force anyway. I always knew that Jodo is all about technique, and "strength" has nothing to do with "power". But seeing and feeling Sensei blast my sword out of the way, over and over and over as he was explaining a point to someone else - "Not like this, like this. Not like this, like this..." - and there was no strain in his voice, no sweat on his brow; in fact, he wasn't even really paying attention to me, he was mostly looking at the other guy he was talking to. He was hitting my sword with all the apparent strain that I would use to flip the pages of a magazine, but almost wrenching the sword out of my hands every time.

The other kind of funny thing was that everybody was commenting (again) about how tall I am. Masui Sensei had been watching me practice, and I guess he got to thinking how short and silly the jo looks when I am holding it. He said that, in reality, I should be using a jo that's 20 cm longer than the standard one. Of course the jo length is standardized so that we can trade weapons when we shi-uchi kotai, and also so that we know how far to step back to avoid strikes. But he said that, by rights, I should use a longer, thicker jo; one that comes up to about halfway between nipple-height and collarbone height. I should also use a longer sword. Since I use a 2.7 shaku iaito, a 2.7 shaku bokuto seems reasonable. I'd like to try it someday.
Talk of big people and heavy weapons led to a discussion of how Muso Gonnosuke was large, and so was Miyamoto Musashi. This led to some other interesting speculation between everyone, which I'm recreating here, in this group conversation:
"They say Musashi carved that long bokuto out of what ... an oar, right?"
"But the thing is, a seasoned fighter like Musashi would never have tried out a weapon for the first time in a duel to the death. Maybe he was actually carving an oar on his way over to the island, to relax his mind, but he must have prepared a long bokuto in advance and practiced with it."
"Yeah, that makes sense, he wouldn't leave anything to chance..."
"Because a long sword is heavy, but a long bokuto, being made out of wood, would be a bit lighter, and so you could swing it faster."
"Well, I don't know if you could say that for all kinds of wood. Good, hard wood is pretty heavy."
"Hmm, maybe he carved the bokuto to be thin, and fast."
"No way! If you carve it too thin, it's going to break!"
And so on. Sensei mentioned that Gonnosuke's jo was more like a bo, as it was almost 6-shaku (6 feet) long. I'm not sure where that information comes from, but most Japanese wouldn't be able to wield a 6-foot stick in the way they do a jo, so it makes me wonder ...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Quick fix for Hikiotoshi in Jodo

There are few "quick fixes" in budo, or at least few that I have found, stumbled onto, or been taught. But occasionally, you do get something that instantly fixes a problem you've been having. Sensei had us do an exercise the other night that really helped me, and I thought I'd share it.
When we do hikiotoshi, most of us start out too stiff and rigid, and don't use our arms to full advantage. To fix that, most of the teachers I've met have emphasized using the forward hand. Let's say you're standing in "right hikotoshi", so you're looking at teki over your left shoulder, your left hand is over your chest, and your right hand is down by your right thigh. Most of the time, Sensei will tell you to use more left hand, squeezing as you strike. This is good, but it leads to another problem: neglecting the right hand! Of course you need to use both hands to their fullest to get a powerful hikiotoshi.
So, the other day, Sensei had us go into hikiotoshi no kamae, then just let go with the left hand, and do the strike using the right hand only. It's okay to "cheat" a little bit here and choke up on the jo by 10 cm or so. The feeling is almost like you are doing a one-handed sword strike to teki's sword. Suddenly, without the support of the left hand, you are using the right hand properly, thinking about things like "hasuji" and getting your hand and wrist in the proper position. You are also more-or-less unable to stop the jo, so you naturally do a beautiful follow-through after the strike. One-handed, I was doing better hikiotoshi strikes than I usually do with two hands. Remembering this feeling, I returned to the two-handed grip, and did some of the smoothest, quietest, most effective hikiotoshi strikes that I've done in a long time.
Try it and see if it helps you!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kendo World magazine

If you read this Blog, and you haven't subscribed to Kendo World magazine, then there's something wrong! Kendo World is the leading - no, the only - print magazine devoted to kendo, with sections on iaido, jodo, and koryu bujutsu. It is a real labour of love, and if you want it to stay around, then please show your support and subscribe. Reading the worn-out, dog-eared copy that gets passed around your kendo club is cheating!
I think Kendo World had some problems with subscriptions in the past, so they are having a special now: get 4 issues for US$49.95 - This is 30% of the individual price - in other words, if you subscribe, you get a free issue. Subscribing is also the best way to make sure you don't miss an issue. This special offer is only going to last until December 25th.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Recent events

I've been falling behind with my posts lately. There are two main reasons for this: one is that I could be going through a period of listlessness and can't be bothered to write anything. The other is that I'm busy with something and just don't have much time to write. Fortunately this time, it's the second reason.
I have quite a few things I wanted to mention. One is that I think I've fixed the problem with my cut. (Readership: "Hurray! We were all losing sleep over that!") Sensei had been watching me with a sense of annoyance. I thought it was just annoyance at me for being unable to fix my swing, but now I'm guessing that he was a bit annoyed with himself for being unable to get to the root of my problem. A couple weeks ago, he got me to change the timing of my footwork with the cut. Before, I was doing a kind of 1 .. 2-3 timing, which means the front foot steps, I cut, and the back foot comes up at almost the same time. He tried to get me to do everything at the same time - not possible, in fact, but that's the feeling. I couldn't get it at all, until I started imagining I was doing kendo. Then I got it.
One thing I've learned since I've come to Japan is that there isn't one way to do things. You could be forgiven for thinking so in the west, at least for a while. You have a seminar, and a bigwig comes over and tells you, "This is THE way it is done." You silently think to yourself, "But X. Sensei told us to do it THIS way last year ... but I guess it's changed. Okay." The fact is, though, that not only does Seitei iai change from year to year, but it changes depending on whom you are learning from. This is a good thing, to some extent: everybody has their own way of doing iaido. Why should there be ONE way to do everything? If you analyze the way the top dozen golf pros hold their clubs, I'm sure you'll find a couple who do it differently than the others. But if they can all hit the ball roughly the same distance, with the same accuracy, who's to say who's right? Same for tennis, same for baseball, same for iaido.
The bummer part is that most teachers think they're right, and so whenever I have changed teachers, I have gotten some criticism that runs directly counter to what somebody else has just told me. Oh well; it keeps me from getting complacent, and that is a good thing, despite all my whining. All of this is just my long-winded way of saying that I've fixed my cut, for now, but when I change dojos again in the future, I'll very quickly be working to fix it again.

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I was thinking the other day at jodo practice about "winning" and "losing". Even though it's already decided that the Jo side always defeats the Tachi, there is a dynamic within the kata that means that there is a "real winner", I think. I don't want to overstate this, nor do I want to make anybody think that the point of Jodo is to be the winner. But sometimes it's hard to ignore. You know you've "won" the kata when:
-you're the tachi side, but your kiai overwhelms that of your partner; his kiai is weak and unconvincing
-you make your partner blink a few times with a look of, "What just happened?" on his face
-you have to slow your movements down because your partner wasn't ready to block the strike you were preparing
-when you're on the Jo side and you drive your partner back almost into the wall; then he goes to step back and bumps into the wall because he forgot the wall was there, he was so focused on getting away from you
-when your partner can't look you in the eyes
-when you're on the Jo side and you almost knock the bokuto out of your partner's hands, and he is clearly thrown off-balance, mentally, by this
-conversely, when you're on the Tachi side, and your partner does a strike which doesn't work, or has little effect

Basically, I'm not saying that your goal is to beat your partner up - although there seem to be many people in the Jodo world who think so! But if you can maintain an unperturbable mental state, while throwing your opponent off-balance mentally, then you've won.

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The "Dai To-Ken Ichi" or "Big Sword Market" was held in Tokyo a couple weeks ago. I went to this event a few years before, and it was like Shangri-La; more swords in one place than I could ever imagine. And not only swords, but spears, naginata, matchlock guns, suits of armour - it was absolutely incredible.
Well, as often happens with me, I forgot when it happens, exactly, and so it had been a few years since I checked it out. About a month ago, I was at the Japanese Sword Museum. I met a gentleman from Australia who asked me if I was going to the sword market, and I confessed that I had no idea when it was happening. As it turned out, it was the following weekend, so I made plans to go. I think I offended him, though, because when he asked me, "So, do you study swords?" I told him that, while I thought swords were beautiful in their own right, I could never imagine spending hours and hours studying who was the student of whom, and learning what combinations of nioi and nie and jigane and hamon were representative of what school. When he heard that, he said, "Well," and turned on his heel and walked away.
But at least I learned when the event was. Here are a few pictures:

I'm guessing that there were 30 dealers or more, so imagine this scene multiplied by 30. Enough swords to make your head spin, and each sword worthy of hours of study and examination. Of course, barbarian that I am, I just wanted to pick them up and swing them.
I was looking for swords in my "length range", i.e., swords that I could use for iaido. I use a 2.7, so I was looking for swords over 2.5, basically. It's kind of a funny thing that swords look a lot longer when they are out of their furniture. I kept thinking, "Oh, that one looks pretty long!" but when I checked the fine print, it was only a 2.4 or something. Nosyudo had a fantastic 2.64 sword by Kanefusa, stunning hamon, only $8,000 or so. I had to give it back because I was salivating all over it.

A few suits of armour, too. Strangely, the armour was quite a bargain compared to the swords. I suppose it is just the fact that armour is large and difficult to store, and so not in demand? I think the above suits were going for about $20,000 each. That seems like a lot, until you realize the sheer number of swords which were going for $30,000 and up. I think the same principle is in effect when you consider that small, compact objects like netsuke and inro have been commanding high prices for much longer than swords. In fact, tsuba used to be the valuable parts of swords, until collectors in the west learned more about the blades. I think this is because tsuba are small and easy to store, and the workmanship is easier to appreciate. I dunno.
So anyway, my dream sword can be mine for just $8,000. Guess I'd better start saving my pennies.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Moving Zen

My iaido teacher, when asked, sometimes tells the story of how he got into the martial arts. He was originally drawn to Zen, but was unable to find a Zendo in the area, so he figured he'd start martial arts, thinking that they were kind of the same thing. Turns out he was right.

My sixth reason for "Why Somebody Might Study a Sword Art" was that it could be a type of moving Zen practice. I've been putting off writing this piece because I'm simply not qualified to say much about it. (I know being unqualified has never stopped me before...)

Of course, like everybody else out there, I've read some books on the topic, but I've also read opinions that the links between martial arts and Zen are overstated; that there really is no deep connection. People sometimes state that martial arts are much more closely connected to Shinto, Confucianism, or Shingon Buddhism. I can't comment intelligently on any of that, so instead, here are some random thoughts. (Hey, it's my blog, and I'll ramble if I want to...)

I think Zen has had such a deep and wide-ranging effect on Japanese culture as a whole that it is impossible to deny the influence of Zen on any Japanese art. To my mind, it would be almost like denying the influence of Christianity on Western culture. Historians of the future might argue, "Oh, so-and-so was an atheist, so his works were not influenced by Christianity." But that would show that they failed to recognize the extent to which the culture as a whole has been shaped by Christian beliefs, so even someone who was not specifically a believer, or who never went to church, would still have been educated and brought up surrounded by Christian values.

Moreover, I sometimes get the feeling that people who deny a historical connection between martial arts and Zen are just trying to be contrary, or stirring up controversy. But at the end of the day, I'm not a historian, so I just don't know.

What is clear is that in the modern era, martial arts have been imbued with a connection to Zen that may or may not have been there historically. Kendo and Iaido practices usually begin and end with a period of mokuso, or meditation. While it is often brief, it is a time to clear the mind and focus on the present.

When we are practicing, we are encouraged to remain in the present moment; not to intellectualize. Although questions during iai practice are fairly common in the West (in my experience) they aren't asked much in Japan. It's just "do it ... now do it again". You're not supposed to think about it too much, but let it seep into your bones through repetition.

Zen tells us that everything is one; there is no difference between "this" and "that". When we practice iai, there is no difference between our state of mind when we are sitting quietly and when we are slicing our imaginary opponent in half, nor when we are looking out over his bleeding corpse. When we practice kendo, we have to "become one" with our opponent - the ideal is not that we move in reaction to his movements - cause and effect, attack and defense - but rather that we move at the same time, or even slightly before he knows he is about to move.

Increasingly in the modern world, we are able to spend hours and hours in a purely intellectual world. We stare at computer screens, thinking about abstractions, writing to people who aren't present, while our legs fall asleep. Practicing the martial arts, we remember to breathe; we feel the pain in our knees and ankles, the floor beneath our feet, the sweat trickling into our eyes. We look into our partner's face, and when everything works right, we reach the end of a kata and realize, "Hold on ... What just happened? I must have done it correctly because he didn't split my head open, but ... I honestly don't remember the last 5 seconds at all!" It is as though we ceased to exist for an interval, before our brains slammed on the brakes and brought us screeching back to the present.

In "Opening the Hand of Thought", Uchiyama Roshi talks about how Zazen practice is not really the act of sitting there with an empty mind, but rather the act of stringing together short little intervals of "empty-mindedness", interrupted by random thoughts that bubble up from our brains like gas from a swamp. Zazen is exhausting because you have to constantly struggle to let go of those random thoughts, to obtain brief windows of silence - of nothingness. I believe I have experienced nothingness in the middle of kata practice.