Martial arts, Philiosophy, Uncategorized

The Presence Trap

Every one seems to be seeking presence these days.  Its become one of those things that every internet yogi and guru is ready to teach you.  There are literally thousands of self help  books and websites dedicated to teaching or assisting an individual in cultivating presence.  Even I dedicate portions of the classes I lead to this capacity that all humans share.  The capacity to be in the now or in the moment.  To be here and with the world around you.  It seems a simple thing.  Focus and be here, right?  Herein lies the trap.  To be here for any one thing might lead an individual to lose the very capacity that we are trying to cultivate.  Like the child so enthralled in their video game that they fail to see or hear the call to dinner, many people lose themselves in their own quest to be present and in the moment.

During my last Iaido practice I thought for a moment that I would expound on this idea.  After the opening call to mokuso I sought out my breath and realized that as I focused on my slow inhalations and exhalations that the entire room seemed to drop away from me.  The floor and walls ceased to exist.  My eager students and their shuffling faded into the ether and my breath was all there was.  It was at this point that I realized that despite my best intentions, I had become lost in an attachment.  I was grasping at each respiration and the illusion of presence.

When we go to our practice, in my case the way of the Japanese sword, we are indeed cultivating a capacity for presence.  I have spoken of it before in regards to practice with shinken, but to be only with the sword or only with the breath displaces us and takes us away from ourselves.  As we think and analyze to the Nth degree we separate ourselves from all that is actually happening around us.

This is the lesson that Zanshin has to teach us.  When we are in practice we are not just there to be present for the sword or our own thoughts and lessons.  We need to be present for the floor as we move across it and our aching knees.  We are there for the sword but also for our hands and each finger as it grips the tsuka and saya.  We need to be there for our hakama and obi.  For the sweat that pours down our face and for the students and class mates that participate with us.  Calm and aware.  We are there not just for a single aspect of any particular moment or task, but for every aspect of every action we take and for each beat of our heart and the love for this art that we share.

Martial arts

Metsuke in ZNKR Kyuhonme-Soete Zuki

Metsuke as it applies in Iaido is where the eyes focus during kata and the intention expressed in the gaze.   Per the scenario presented in the All Japan Kendo Federation English version of Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iai for the kata kyuhonme-soete zuki, “You are walking along, when a person suddenly appears from the left with the intention to attack you.”  The kata begins with three steps starting on the right foot.  The attacker is noticed at the initiation of the second step.  The eyes lead the head and start to turn as the hands take hold of the tsuka and the body begins to turn left towards the attacker.  The third step is only a half step used as a pivot to continue the turn.  The initial cut, a kesa cut from the right shoulder to left abdomen initiated during the turn and is completed when the left foot steps back.  The gaze that initiates the turn and precedes the cut must be strong enough to support the seme or pressure that is being applied on the attacker and focused directly on the imminent threat while still being wide enough to see the entire situation and not give away the intended target.

After the initial cut, the attacker is directly in front with the blade in their gut just above the left hip bone.  Metsuke is still directed forward at the attacker, focused in a wider way on the entire threat while still intense and pressing.   The right foot pivots slightly and steps back half a step into soetezuki no kame with the sword grasped with the left hand between the thumb and forefinger.  This is done with the hand held horizontally along the omote side at a point about midway up the blade.  The hand and sword are parallel to the ground.    Metsuke is still supporting seme which is forward despite the rearward movement.  The sword is then immediately thrust into the attacker’s abdomen as the left foot steps forward past the right.  The motion ends with the blade thrust into the attacker and parallel to the ground at the level of the navel.  Metsuke is still forward on the attacker who is standing with the blade deep in them.

Metsuke and the intention of the act remain with the attacker as the blade is withdrawn   The left hand does not move as the right hand withdrawals the blade first slightly rearward then by raising the right hand to chest height blade rotated over the fingers of the left hand with the point down and the edge facing down and to the right.  At this point Metsuke broadens in focus as it follows the body to the ground.  The gaze should be far away but present to support zanshin.  It remains thus through migi ni hiraite no chiburi, and noto.

Metsuke changes when taito Shisei is assumed.  The gaze is raised back to forward head level and does not change as the three withdrawing steps are taken.

Martial arts, Uncategorized

Ki Ken Tai Ichi: Unity in the Midst of Chaos

Ki-ken-tai-ichi or “spirit, sword, & body are one” are the essential elements to a yuko-datotsu (correct strike). This means that all three elements of the strike happen as one element and make the perfect strike. The ability to do this is the ideal which all practice should strive for as a goal.

– Kendo Promotional Exam Study Guide,

When I started practicing kendo at Doshikai Kendo and Iaido Dojo, I heard the words Ki Ken Tai Ichi often enough to understand that this was a fundamental concept to the practice of Kendo. It has taken a great deal of time, effort, and dedication to reach this point where I feel that I can address the subject and be confident that my treatment of the topic will be relevant. Ki Ken Tai Ichi is a state in which the mind/spirit/intent is unified with the shinai and body during the performance of a valid strike. A strike without proper demonstration of Ki Ken Tai Ichi will not be considered valid and thus will not be awarded a point.

On a practical level there are certain identifiers that will indicate that the kenshi is demonstrating proper Ki Ken Tai Ichi and has achieved yuko-datotsu.   To have properly demonstrated Ki Ken Tai Ichi, the kendo player must synchronize the impact of the mono-uchi with the landing of the leading foot. This is simultaneously accompanied by a strong kiai to express whole hearted intent and dedication to the cut. While this sounds like a simple matter of timing, the reality is that it involves a complex series of events that bring the body’s center into harmony with the movement of the limbs, breath, and shinai resulting in a cut that occurs in a single beat and is punctuated by a resounding kiai. This is the essence of the ideal strike and the only strike that will be considered valid for the purposes of scoring. I might hit my opponent over the head all day but without proper Ki Ken Tai Ichi, I will never score a point or win the match.

On a more esoteric level, Ki Ken Tai Ichi takes on a more all encompassing aspect. When we break the concept down into its individual components, the idea of a supreme unification between an individual’s KI, Ken, and Tai is very intriguing. The mind/spirit complex which tends to maintain a constant dialog in relation to the environment struggles against focus. The internal dialog is chaotic and spends most of its time over thinking and analyzing what the senses feed it. The shinai is at first an alien body in relation to the self. Initially, the student has to exert a great deal of conscious effort in controlling the shinai. This effort is confounded by the erratic internal dialog. Constant practice breeds a close, personal relationship with the shinai while repetitive training creates instinctual action that releases the conscious self from its responsibility to control and direct the shinai. The chaotic conscious mind is put to rest as it switches from the discursive mode, talking its way through the match to an objective focus on the shinai and the task at hand. The present moment is the only time in which valid strike can occur. The body, which always exists in the present moment, is the foundation that when rooted into by the mind/spirit allows the newly present and aware kenshi to manifest Ki Ken Tai Ichi and achieve yuko-datotsu.

The concept of Ki Ken Tai Ichi serves a very valuable and foundational role in the way of the sword. It is a tool that allows the kenshi to develop a capacity for mindful, correct action and nurtures a sense of calm even in the midst of chaos.


The Warrior’s Concerto

boken practice print

con·cer·to /kənˈCHerdō/ noun noun: concerto; plural noun: concerti; plural noun: concertos

  1. a musical composition for a solo instrument or instruments accompanied by an orchestra, especially one conceived on a relatively large scale.

The etymology is uncertain, but the word seems to have originated from the conjunction of the two Latin words conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight): the idea is that the two parts in a concerto, the soloist and the orchestra or concert band, alternate episodes of opposition, cooperation, and independence in the creation of the music flow. – WIKIPEDIA

It’s Tuesday night.  The air in the Brookline dojo is hot and sticky.  The wood floors have been playing hell with my hakama all night and suri ashi stepping has been a jerky painful experience.  Now, my feet are aching from the sticky floor and the constant exertion of staying rooted but mobile. My wits raw from fighting the floor for possession of my hakama, and my hands ache.   I’m gripping my faithful old bokken too tight. The wooden sword has been with me for years and shows the signs of having been through this before.  I relax and fix my eyes on those of the old swordsman standing across from me.   Lou is an aged fellow, polite, friendly, and highly skilled.  Right now his gaze is all business and his sword is held at the ready.  Lou raises his bokken to Jodan no kamae, sword held high above the head, stepping forward with his left foot.   I raise my sword to Jodan in response.  He begins his advance and I move to meet him.  We stop just within range of attack, swords held high in Jodan no kamae, threatening a blistering fast decent and death dealing cut. I tell myself that I have time.  I have plenty of time.  Lou’s sword begins its decent.  “I have time.  Let it come.”   The wooden blade drops in a painfully slow arc as my mind races with alarms, options, and reassurances.  “I have time.”  The blade is on its way.  The aim is true. My wrist is going to be severed or at least broken by the wooden blade of Lou’s bokken.  “I have time.”  I can see Lou’s face, resolute and focused.  I see his body moving toward me.  I see his sword, dropping in its ever accelerating arc.  It’s close and it’s moving very fast now. “MOVE!”  The thought echoes through my mind too late.  My body has already started to move back, the sticky floor yielding to me like water as well trained muscles take over in place of a slower active mind.  I shuffle back a half step, stretching up and back a tiny bit to gain height and distance, lifting my sword slightly higher to move the targeted wrist up and away from the blow meant to sever it.  Muscles tensed and pressing forward, yearning to engage, despite moving away from my attacker.  I see the opening I’ve been waiting for. Lou’s sword passes close but safely past the wrist he was aiming for and down the front of my body, his missed strike pulling him forward leaving his sword low.  The forward pressure in my body is finally unleashed when the tip of my bokken starts to move.  I take a half step forward, my blade falling.  My sword and body stop moving in the same instant, the blade barely an inch from the crown of Lou’s head.  He raises his eyes to mine.  He should be a dead man right now.  He straightens and I lower the tip of my sword to a point just between his eyes.  He needs to see the danger he is in.  He has lost.  Lou shuffles back a half step, gaining distance, searching for a tactical advantage or at least a way out of danger.  I’ll not have it.  He has lost and this is over.  I press forward, the tip of my sword driving forward to his face.  He retreats and as we both move I raise my blade threateningly into Jodan No Kamai.  The finishing blow is coming.  He is done.  His concession of defeat is short but formal and we return to our starting points to have the confrontation again, and again, and again.  The conversation with no words is complete.  The story is told and I have expressed an honest, earnest desire to live and succeed despite the best efforts of those who might stand against me.  Another tiny victory in a life filled with a reasonable balance of wins and losses. We switch roles.  I initiate and lose while he responds to the aggression and wins.  I know there is a lesson there.  Sensei makes corrections and encourages us to continue.  He prunes away unnecessary movement, distilling the technique to be efficiently effective.  He stresses the importance of kendo kata for both Iaido practitioners and Kendo players.  He wants us to be better.  He wants us to succeed. We continue to practice kendo kata all night.  The dojo is quiet but vigorously alive and active.  Lou and I work together without talking for the most part.  Resolutely swapping roles and accepting our fate.  Here I’m the winner, here the loser.  There I was attacker, but here the defender.  Our timing and distance, once a recurring reason to stop and make adjustments, begins to flow together.  The swords are finding the proper distance.  The kata is flowing. We have found our rhythm.  Wants and needs fall away.  There isn’t any more trying.  We are practicing with calm determination and love for the art that we share.  There is communication but it’s not obvious to the lay observer.  The sheer amount of information being exchanged is staggering to contemplate.  Every movement, no matter how subtle, has meaning.  Nobody is going to die tonight, but life still hangs in the balance.  A life spent in devotion to a practice is the life that is being put to the test.  Have I been genuine to myself and my practice?  Can my truth overcome his in this? There is a meeting in the local government offices downstairs.  Shouts and stomping from a crowd of excited swordsmen is the last thing they want to hear tonight so we content ourselves with kendo kata.  Little do the officials know the life and death struggles that are being rehearsed just a few feet above their heads.  Lou and I know.  The danger that we are putting each other in was at the forefront of our minds when class started.  These kata are to be performed with intent and strong cuts.  We strike at real targets and pull our blows mere inches before they land.  We aren’t aiming to harm each other but we also aren’t holding anything back.  If Lou or I fail to move or parry a blow in time, serious or even deadly injury could result.  The timing and distance errors were as much a result of being over cautious and fearful of injury as from inexperience or lack of practice. As practice continues and everyone relaxes into their roles a change occurs.  The adjustments and corrections dry up and stop almost altogether.  I look up in between kata and realize that this is more than just a practice hall.  This is where stories of life and death are being played out.  This is a place where ego meets truth and peace has a home.  No blood is ever spilled here but illusions and preconceptions are challenged and shattered.  Nobody ever dies here but we all lay our illusions and limitations to rest.  This is not a concerto that any musician or conductor would ever recognize, but thoughts and emotions are being expressed in as true a sense as possible.  The players and instruments are moving fluidly from opposition, to cooperation. The players strive to accomplish their individual goals, but are still part of a whole that incorporates attacker and defender into a dance that can have only one outcome.


On the Value Of Myth

We live in a unique time when much of the world, the western world especially, looks at the universe around us in terms of the strictly concrete. We try to define the world in strictly empirical terms and as such are generally unable or unwilling to step outside of the picture to look at what lies beneath the gossamer constructs of image. We look at the world in neat little compartments labeling this ‘real’ or that ‘imagination’ with the notion that the two have very little if any kind of influence or control over one another. Conversely, within every ancient culture that I have been fortunate enough to have glimpsed seems to lay the notion that the intangible or higher/lower levels of reality/existence can be affected by and can/do affect what Euro-American culture and civilization tends to view as ‘historical reality.’ While Western minds often scoff at the mytho-historical oral traditions of ancient cultures, a growing body of evidence would indicate that these tales have a far higher level of historical accuracy than has ever been supposed.1 Not only do these ancient songs and poems give historical accounts, they also serve as tools for sharpening the mind, for passing on morals and values, and they impart the wisdom of the tellers through the use of symbols. But at the most basic level, myth provides a link between humanity and creation; a purpose for existence.

I have often considered that this may be the ultimate undoing of our nation. We have no history to link us to the beginning of creation and as such have lost our purpose in existence. We no longer have myth to link us to the divine, and have consequently lost our ability to see the spiritual side of the universe. I do not wish to suggest that there is no longer myth; however our culture views myth as a story that is patently false. When we hear of a cave in a story we envision it in very literal terms – a hole in the earth. When we read stories we want to read them and understand them in a literal nature. When we look at art and architecture we do not search for possibilities hidden away, we look for obvious signposts to direct what we see; we look at the surface of artwork rather than analyzing the symbolic components that tell a story directly to our subconscious mind.

Ancient people believed that these symbols embodied concepts and forms of thought capable of imbuing those who could understand them with the ability to control their own destiny in an insecure and chaotic world. It is not a far leap to imagine then that they would consider writing a sacred thing, for in the writing of the glyph one is able to assume power over the thing named, in fact “with written texts, scribes were able to speak the words of ancient heroes, kings, and scholars, thereby opening the threshold between the living and the dead.”2 Odin, of Norse mythology, impaled himself with his own spear, hanged himself from the world tree (Yggdrasil), and sacrificed an eye to gain the knowledge of the runes.3 Prometheus gave fire to mankind, but the gods chained and tormented him for much more that just this one deed; he also taught humans how to trick the Gods when they offered a sacrifice, and taught them “the calendar, numbers, writing…et al.”4 Aeneas ventured into the underworld and “all things were unfolded to him.”5

The belief in the power of symbols, even today, pervades every aspect of an individual’s culture and way of life. It is not, however, limited merely to names and writing. Invariably, abstract symbols representing cosmological truth seem to have the ability to invoke the most passionate (and sometimes the most degenerate) emotions available to humanity, (take for instance the cross, the swastika, and the circle). Through dance, humans may become living symbols and in this manner gain entrance to a sacred place to gain additional knowledge/power over the ‘natural world.’6 Architecture, extravagant mounds, and even entire groups of cities may also become enormous symbols upon the face of the earth.7 We may even consider the earth a symbol in itself, as we can its mountains and rivers, lakes, and caves.

In examining the nature of symbolic elements we are able to relearn the religio-spiritual nature of everyday things as opposed to viewing the rest of creation as unimportant, inanimate objects constrained by the laws of physics to behave the way we expect them to. This is the key the great teachers have used to step beyond the veil of the great illusion, to see the truth of life beyond and within what we perceive as reality. What we perceive is comprised of symbols waiting to be interpreted. Color has no existence outside of perception; it is symbolic. Shapes are symbolic. Numbers are symbolic. Even spoken and written words are symbols for our minds to interpret and find meaning in. Our minds are engines of interpretation. In order to understand life, we must learn to interpret the things we experience so that meaning and value can be derived. There is nothing which is and is yet without meaning—not even you.

This knowledge of the symbolic allows us to better understand the world by showing us the idiomatic nature of elements, be they objects, symbols, relationships, or events, in addition to their surface appearance. In order to understand these basic components, we must have a basic knowledge of the meaning behind the symbols. This, then, is perhaps the greatest value of the study of comparative mythology/comparative religious studies. In analysis of and exposure to the myths and legends we reach within ourselves and touch the universe behind the holodeck of our realities, our universes, our Mind.


1 This topic is discussed in more detail in Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History, in which he presents evidence of Native contact with mega-fauna just after the last ice age, and abandoned settlements located exactly where they were claimed to have been.

2 Karl Taube, Maws of Heaven and Hell: the Symbolism of the Serpent and Centipede in Classic Maya Religion, Pg. 9

3 Michael Jordan, The Encyclopedia of Gods, Pg. 196-7. Jordan actually spells it ‘Othin’ and lists Odin as a synonym.

4 Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth 3rd edition, Pg. 111

5 Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Pg. 30-31

6 Katherine Dowdy, “Apache Culture,” class lecture 16 April, 2003. ANT 325: North American Indian Cultures.

7 Here I refer to megalithic architecture such as ziggurats and pyramids, Hopewellian and Mississippian earth mounds, as well as the Chaco phenomenon which is made up of at least two dozens sites that served as a huge seasonal calendar for the Ancient Pueblo.


The Art in the Way

Art, can be defined as the creative expression of thought and emotion through intimate knowledge of one’s perception of the self. It is the truest form of communication. To create art, one must know their medium so intimately as to be able to express the nature of your soul through the act of artistic manipulation of your raw materials. The nature of the medium must be understood to be no different from that of the artist. Communication through a medium takes place when the illusion of separation is set aside. To be a Martial artist, martialist, or martial athlete  is nearly the same thing. However, the act is as important as the effect for the artist. For the martial artist, continuation of the practice is the goal.  This may lead some to believe that artistic skill cannot be effective when confronted by technical skill.

This is a false assumption that is held by many today. Obtaining technical skill is a precursor to any artistic endeavor. An artist must know his tools well enough to communicate with them. What many martial sports have lost is a firm base in a martial philosophy. This philosophy would demand that victory over an opponent be sought as an end to any martial action. However, technical skill applied to obtain victory is not Art unless there is a component of honest self expression applied as part of that victory.  Understanding that your opponent and the self are in fact part of a single whole is the first step.  To obtain a victory The martial artist will understand that no aspect of their practice can be divorced from any other.  Separating form from function and function from intention will result in something other than art.

Art is communicative by nature and requires a deep understanding of one’s own perception and intentions. This knowledge need not be conscious but must exist all the same. This is why the truly great among athletes can be said to be artists as well. They communicate their intentions through their actions without conscious effort and thus obtain what the artist seeks. This is an accident and is rare. Even war can be an artistic endeavor under the right circumstances.

Art has no material substance outside of the minds of practitioners and admirers. Paper is paper and paint is paint. Sound is just noise until emotions and ideas are expressed through it. Only the communicative value assigned to it makes paper and paint into art and sound into a force that can move a person to tears. Thus, it cannot be owned by anyone but the individual artist and those who receive the information being communicated. The student learns from the teacher. Under the instruction of a good teacher, the student will be brought to the edge of understanding. He will learn not only the physical skills necessary to perform the techniques of the art, but he will also learn the philosophical beliefs of his master as they relate to the art. The student will also be encouraged to form his own philosophy after preconceptions have been eliminated. If the student is ready, he will make the art his own. At this point, the art becomes the possession of that student; for good or for ill, that student owns his art. He is free to do with it as he pleases.