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.


What are you training for?


noun: training

1. the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or type of behavior.
2. the action of undertaking a course of exercise and diet in preparation for a sporting event.

I am a member of several groups that actively engage in the martial arts. The various arts are of Asian and European origin but are all decidedly American in attendance.  The American cultural attitudes and expectations are all present and accounted for.  In many cases the lust for quick results and desire to purchase a quick fix often taint the students perception of the art.  A focus on the martial aspects of any martial art is a common occurrence for both teacher and student.  A student preparing for a tournament, testing, upcoming fight or other event is surely training.  A student who is still mastering the basics of an art form  is certainly training the body.  The question arises then, why continually train and for what?

It is important to be impeccable with ones speech as much as possible.  You see, I am the student that once became focused on the goal.  A goal, any goal implies an ending.  The very use of the word training implied that I was training for something.  Whatever am I training for?  There are always tests, tournaments, seminars, and of course the odd brawl among my martial arts brothers that I am always ready for.  So again I ask, what am I really training for?  I’ve devoted a substantial amount of time, treasure, and energy into the martial arts and learning all I could about my chosen path among them.  What do I gain?  What have I achieved with all my training?    I gained all those things that are advertised about the martial arts; fitness, discipline, confidence, skill.  I gained all of that, years before and in many different aspects of my life.  I didn’t need the martial arts to gain these attributes.  Of course the training in the arts reinforced these traits but I didn’t need the martial arts for this.  Maybe I wasn’t training for anything.

It came to me one day when I was leaving for the dojo.  Everything ached that day from a rough night with my kung fu brothers.  I was not looking forward to Iaido and a sticky, hot summer dojo.  My best friend sent me a text as I walked out of the house telling me that she hoped I would have fun at training.  Fun was the last thing I thought would happen but at the same time I realized that not only was I certainly not going to have fun but that I wasn’t actually training.  Some where along my path I had failed to notice a change in my goals and motivations.  I wasn’t doing this for fun and I certainly wasn’t training for any goal.  The only goal was to continue exploring this amazing world where violence and pure communication come together.  I want to make art and this is not something I can train for.  I can train all the skills to death and become an amazing technician of martial skills but I won’t be an artist until I let go of any kind of goal driven motivation.  To strive for only the benefits granted by a dedicated pursuit of the martial arts isn’t enough.  I am striving for something more but also something far less.  I’m not looking for belts, titles, a legacy or fighting skill.  I don’t want to teach these things or achieve recognition.  I am not training for anything.  I am making art.  I am offering up a story for anyone willing to come see.  My sword is not a weapon.  Its a tool and I’m going to use it to cut the story of my life out of the fabric of reality.

I am not training any more.  I have moved past the desire to obtain anything from my art.  I am maintaining a practice of personal growth and cultivation.  A practice that leaves the dojo with me every day.  It permeates and influences all of my thoughts and actions.  I have a practice that includes and is centered in the martial arts but touches every aspect of my life.  Regardless of my location or status, my dojo is with me every day at all times.  My practice lives in me.  My vision of what that will come to envisage is as blurry as can be and I like it that way.  I can’t tell you how this path will end, or even remember how or when it began for me but I can tell you that today, I am not training.  I am going to practice.


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.


My path of Cultivation

For many years, I have included mindfulness meditation as part of my daily routine. I initially undertook this practice as a means to reduce stress and fatigue but found it also helped me to maintain a sense of presence and calm awareness that was integral to my practice in the martial arts. Over time I began to research the foundations of this meditative practice and have come to the realization that I have been following a very similar path to that of the Buddhist path of cultivation in my practice of Iaido.

As a rule, I endeavor not to have any fixed beliefs or ideology that cannot be changed when faced with evidence to the contrary. This is not to say that I have no beliefs, only that I do not allow a fixed set of values to rule truth. In my opinion, truth is the ultimate goal of any practice and should never be discarded when it conflicts with long held personal values. I endeavor to assert conscious, logical direction towards my personal development so as to prevent my environment and society from randomly shaping who I am and how I react. As a learned more about the philosophical foundations underlying the notion of the path of cultivation I realized that my practice of Iaido had begun to fulfill the same function.

Traditionally, Buddhism is not really a system of beliefs so much at it is a path, way, or an activity to be undertaken. Generally there are four different notions of “the path” they are the path of Cultivation, the path of Letting Go, the path of No Path, and the path of Service.   Here, I will try to explain how my practice of Iaido has become an exercise in Cultivation that mirrors the Buddhist path in many ways.

The Buddhist path of Cultivation can be broken down into what is referred to as the threefold training. This consists of training the attributes of Ethics (integrity), Concentration (presence), and Wisdom (insight). After the basic movements of each kata in are learned, the challenge becomes one of perfecting these movements and applying foundational principals. It is in this environment that the physical and mental stresses of working to achieve a very high standard begin to transform the physical exercises into a vehicle for transformation of the mind, body, and spirit. Through constant challenge, the way of the sword becomes the way of personal growth and transformation.

My first and most enduring challenge in Iaido was an ethical one. I practice with Poitras Sensei on Friday evenings in Brookline, NH. Four, two hour practices each month is not sufficient to develop the high level of skill that I see on display among my instructors. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Growth towards a high standard required that I practice on my own and do so regularly. This is where I found my own integrity tested on a daily basis. It is amazing how inventive I could be in finding reasons not to practice. I love my practice and enjoy doing it but would regularly try to make excuses not to. I might be tired, or hungry. Maybe I had just eaten a large meal or perhaps I had a sore shoulder or knee. Perhaps I would find work to fill the time I would normally have used to practice. I realized that I was not being honest with myself and to my practice and began to take note of when I was being insincere about my motivations. I still struggle with devoting my valuable time to practice, but the realization that it was a question of integrity has made it easier to dismiss the excuses and devote time to my practice as an exercise in being honest to myself and my goals.

When I enter the dojo I bow. This simple act of Reiho as I enter the dojo helps me to divest myself of the world outside while demonstrating sincerity and respect to the dojo and to those inside. During Mokuso, I center myself within the walls of the training hall. The dojo, those within, my sword and body are the whole of the universe for a few hours. Leaving the cares of the world outside the dojo and limiting my awareness to the dojo is relatively easy as practice begins, but when the sweat is pouring and my body is screaming that if I sit in Tatehiza once more it will be the end, is another matter. Trying to keep fundamental concepts in mind while simultaneously applying Sensei’s corrections can not only be a test of my integrity towards my practice but can also tax my ability to concentrate and be mindful of the fact that I hold an instrument capable of killing in my hands. I found that Iaido demands that I be present and learn to be mindful of my body, sword, and the space around me. In basic mindfulness meditation you learn to be with the breath and to faithfully return your attention to the breath when the mind wonders. You also learn how extremely active the mind is and how it tends to resist focusing on a single point. In Iaido, focus and concentration are keys to development within the art but these attributes once internalized can be employed in any situation where they might be of benefit. Iaido has been instrumental in giving me the ability to be almost instantly present and to focus razor like concentration on the tasks that must be performed during situations that might previously have been stressful or frightening.

Cultivating wisdom or a sense good judgment is not as measurable a benefit as an increased capacity for concentration or as evident as a profound sense of integrity towards the practice but wisdom or insight is a definite benefit that I see the potential for in my practice. The initial cut in ZNKR seitei kata is always executed in response to an immediate threat. The kata all begin with the hands off the tsuka. The sword always begins in the scabbard because we are not the aggressor in the scenario. The initial cut and all subsequent actions are correct and ethical when it is realized that within the scenario we are not the initiators of force but are reacting to the aggression of another. Each cut, step, turn, chiburi, and noto is correct for the situation. In response to my practice of Iaido, I began to examine how I react to various situations within my own life. As a result of my Iaido practice, I feel that I have a greater sense for choosing the correct course of action for any given situation. The insights gained through my practice of Iaido, also take a more personal form. Through examining my motivations, intentions and how I integrate my practice into my life I have come to know a great deal more about myself as an individual and how I perceive the world around me.

What do I hope to gain through the study of Iaido? The short answer to that question is that whatever I hoped to gain when I started has been forgotten or cast aside as preconception. I am in the process of becoming a better person as a result of the gradual path of cultivation that I follow while practicing Iaido. Through a continued practice of Iaido I have discovered truth within myself, a calm and present mind, and a capacity for taking correct action. Iaido as a practice allows me to cultivate these attributes on an ongoing basis.



Training in many different martial traditions has given me an impressive arsenal of stretches, exercises, and drills to draw from for my daily practice.  However, there is one seldom taught tool that all deliberate seekers of self-mastery, and not just martial artists, should be familiar with and make use of–meditation.

Part of walking the path of cultivation is actually putting in the time to develop the concentration necessary to manifest intent through technique.  This is the essence of martial expression.  Many will initially rely on emotion to manifest intent during practice but this not an ideal way to express intent.  By relying on emotion the individual links the ability to manifest intention to the physical body and the active mind.  Emotions are often directed by the needs or wants of the body and ultimately act as a limiting factor in the development of art.  Lust for an outcome or fear of failure will often paralyze an individual and prevent proper action from being realized.

To properly develop the ability to manifest intent and apply it the the course of action, the seeker or artist has to act out of a state of equanimity and wisdom.  An honest practice of meditation can help develop the ability to be relaxed yet alert and to be fully present in any given situation.  Recognizing the proper course of action and knowing how to implement that course of action comes with practice that is, ultimately, rooted in ethical awareness.

In budo, correct technique is the starting point for developing concentration.  Constant, honest practice coupled with sitting meditation and the feedback of a caring, knowledgeable  teacher can help form a durable foundation for the development of art and spiritual growth.

-Rev. Abel