Buddhism, Martial arts, Philiosophy

The Ottawa County Winter 2018 Middle Way Meditation Retreat Part 3: Rashomon

Preface: What did being “trapped” at the retreat do for me? The very idea that it was anything other than a retreat colored my perception staining all my thoughts and feelings. Memory and fantasy were shaded and highlighted in ways that seem grotesquely out of focus looking back. My perception of events and the path that led me to that point had to be analyzed through rigorous and correct practice before any understanding, resolution, or growth could be expected.
If you hadn’t guessed already, the two monks and carpenter came to me in the form of books and inspiration. The only way these people would have ever been able to reach me at the retreat.  Surprisingly, there were several books that made their way to me with three, in particular, that I most certainly needed to read before my time at the retreat was over.
Thich Nhat Hanh and his book “Anger” were instrumental in bringing me back to the rigorous self analysis that had given me the self honesty I once had but had lost. It’s still a valuable tool in helping to identify my emotions and my reactions to them and how to express them. There is a stack of letters written to all the Angels of my life. I’ve tried to deliver some. Most will likely never make it to the recipient.  I’ll hold them all and do what I can to get them into the hands of those that they are addressed to.
The Dalai Lama’s “How to Practice” helped me get back to basics and helped me understand that my practice had run off the rails. I had not been using the energy of mindfulness and the concentrated mind correctly. My moral compass was askew and as such my practice had become worthless to me even though my teachings in class were helpful to students. The success in helping my students and saying the wise things I refused to actually practice had inflated my ego and given fuel to my arrogance.  the book also gave me a better understanding and translation of The Heart Sutra” which I had never properly understood or even had a good translation of and as such had never properly communicated it’s meaning to others, especially Angel.
There were dozens of copies of the Holy Bible at the retreat and everyone here wanted to find light and help within its pages. I didn’t look for salvation in it so much as forgiveness. I needed to forgive myself but searched in the book for the will to forgive the people I felt I was a victim of. That false perception of my victim status fell away in the light of truth. I was really only a victim of myself. I think all the victims in this story victimized themselves first and each other second.
This is where perception comes into play. I have seen Rashomon many years ago but never dreamed I’d be deeply embedded in as twisted and fractured a plot as that. So many characters with their own perception of the reality that probably escaped each of us. It’s plainly evident now that the “truth” of any matter is only as clear as your intent when you seek it. I’m still looking closely at my intentions and am careful not to visit that of any others lest I fall into the trap of preconceived notions.

Rashomon:

The twenty minute audio recording from August 20th starts with Angel cursing and storming out of whatever room we were in. I had taken to making these recordings not as evidence so much as to have a mirror to show her how important it was to be moderate and get adequate sleep. We were both lost in the clouds you see. I hear myself pleading with her to stop. To sleep. I want to stop the argument and say to her that if she will put her figurative “sticks” down that I will put mine down and we can hopefully stop trying to verbally hurt each other. She likes the idea of sticks and leaves the room.

In the recording I follow and find her holding shinai, a bamboo sword. I pick one up and she begins the attack striking at me over and over while asking if I trust her after she has lied over and over. Each exclaimed question punctuated by the clash of bamboo on bamboo as I parry her blows.  I don’t strike back. I’ve had to do this a lot. At least they aren’t steel swords this time.

The attacks sound vicious mainly because of her tone and questioning. Her kiai in actual practice is never so intentional. Angel’s truth and feelings often came with music and pain. Wrapped in sweet smiles and tipped with venom. Her demands for my truth come with blows and viciously veiled insults.  I sometimes regretted all the training I gave her. She was already expert at inflicting pain when I met her. Her ex husband could testify to that fact if he dared offend the angels child with his own truth. He was always a coward in her recounts of his behavior. I assumed that’s why he stood so long under her assault of pain but perhaps it was love? I don’t and won’t ever know and luckily my time with her in this state was coming to an end.

I had wanted her to be safe, be able to defend herself and to understand that brute strength and size can be overcome with training. The fighting arts taught to her as an act of love and concern were to be part of my pain as much and that of my Angel. I turn off the recording and copy the file into the google drive I’m sharing with my council. Its frightening and sorrowful all at once and it’s only one of many that are here to be used as ammunition in the coming fight. I look at the sword and violin sitting on the love seat facing me. I feel nothing but sorrow. I don’t want to have these things heard by anyone. My weakness and vulnerability are starkly evident in the recordings and my love for her won’t let allow me to hurt her beyond what’s already been done. Nobody should ever know how terrible we were to each other. I won’t expose her to the world like this. These weapons must never be used. If I must I’ll bare the weight of it all myself. Better this way than to drag it all out and face the pain, shame, and suffering it would cause.

I sit back in my seat on the couch where I had been working all morning and look around the upstairs room I’ve been occupying on the farm.  The house is empty, quiet asleep. The sound of the wind and the soft vibration of the space heater sitting on the floor is all I can hear.  I’m alone and free. Away from the retreat and the Little city I had tried to bring to light then divide and conquer but still feeling like a prisoner.  My emotions and the reactions they stimulate are strong but I’m breathing and doing my best. The Retreat has been over for several days but my mind still struggles with the old habit energies I’ve only recently begun to identify and started to deal with in a correct way. I still have belongings waiting for me in my friends basement but I hate going back to that place. So many reminders of my failure, of my terrible choices. So many who know me and what has been said about me. I’ve been struggling to win against someone who I do not want to fight at all and frankly refuse to. I’ll not drag us both through that hell again. My perceptions and those of my Angel don’t match reality and likely never will. Trotting out witnesses, videos, audio recordings, and message threads will only embarrass and cause needless suffering for us both. Time to take a fall for what I love and stop the bleeding. I pick up the phone.

The retreat is the same day after day. The routine is mind numbing at best enraging at worst. Today though, like everyday has been since my visitors came to call, I have my own routine that allows me some semblance of freedom where there shouldn’t be any. The liberty I’ve found and that grows daily can never be taken away. It is a freedom born of correct action and exploration of the self. They can’t stop me from delving deep within myself. They can’t lock me away from the infinite universes that spin and twist in the depths of my heart and mind birthing new ideas and feelings with each heartbeat.

My first task as a beginner on the path was to recognize a fundamental teaching of Buddhist psychology, that the seeds of all emotions, whether labeled positive or negative, exist within me. Some large and some small but all present and inalienable. I can’t just dig them out and toss them away or shut them in and ignore them any more than I could an upset tummy or sore knee. The first seed I recognized was that of anger. It’s very active since I’ve come to the retreat. It’s a very big seed that I had been struggling with for a long time. These seeds rise into the conscious mind when triggered by the phenomena of our world. With them these seeds bring habit energy that is sometimes very strong motivates us to act.  Being unskilled, I had always reacted out of either cultivated habit or the pervasive conditioning given me by my society and environment. These reactions were almost always incorrect and caused a great deal of pain and suffering for myself and those around me. How could I learn to recognize these seeds and their associated habit energy? What could I do to put an end to the damage I do under their influence?

The first monk took time to teach me to breath again and be gentle and compassionate to myself. He said that I should take care of my anger, fear, anxiety, and other feeling in a loving and compassionate way so that their habit energy gets transformed into energy that can help the situation. The concentrated energy of mindfulness would give me this ability and lead to insight.  Compassion being a core to the work.

The other monk took me aside and showed me the divisions of the path I had been walking but not paying attention to. These, in the correct order they are to be pursued are: moral discipline, meditation, and wisdom or more specifically, insight into my motivations and those of others. I had been rigorously pursuing a concentrated mind, hoping for insight while working from a foundation of delusion and incorrect perception. No wonder I was lost. I needed to fix my moral compass.  It should have been obvious to every one involved that there was something very wrong.

My new morality: Help others who need and want it. When I cannot help others, I must do no harm ever.

Simple and to the point.  My individual liberation from the chains of my own suffering was underway and I had been gifted with the time and lack of distraction to begin that process and escape the cyclical existence I had trapped myself in. I started to cultivate a healthy concern for others and set aside my selfishness as I identified it. Turning the self serving and arrogant feelings over and over.  Poking and prodding to find my motivation.  Hopefully, with time a correct practice I could change my perception in a more permanent way building upon this new moral foundation. I still have so much work to do.  Porter boy is waiting that night to walk the fields with me  He’s more interested in me than the birds.  Just as well, I’m not carrying a shotgun.  Its a shakuhachi.  I look but don’t play.  Porter wags his tail.

Respond rather than react. It’s a core principle in how I practice and teach sword arts. The initial demonstration for the new student, after they have learned the basics, is for them to take up a guard or kame. I take one in opposition and do not immediately attack so that their mind squirrels away to something other than me and what’s about to happen. Once I see their mind wander I launch a quick faux attack. The new student invariably flinches into some kind intercepting ward or party to stop my stroke with their weapon. Often they fail but regardless, my stroke never actually lands, instead I transition into a second and sometimes third cut. While my cuts never reach their intended target, it usually serves to make the point to the student. A trained response is always preferable to an instinctive reaction. It’s like this with all things in life.

I will often repeat a movie line: “There are two types of people in this world, trained and untrained. What do you want to be?” Somewhere in loosing our way in the clouds and storm of stress, deceit, and betrayal, I forgot this fundamental truth and stopped applying its wisdom in my life. I was morally broken. Instead of being loving and compassionate, I would use almost any perceived insult or injury to justify my own desire to lye, be divisive, use harsh language, cultivate wrong views or harmful intent, and to engage in sexual misconduct.  I was acting like an animal.  Like a monster.

Correct action, morally correct action, is a foundational principal in Buddhist psychology and part of the All Japan Kendo Federations “Concept and Purpose of Kendo.” In Buddhist practice, the training, is to allow the mind to concentrate in the present moment and recognize and accept the truth of our suffering, its causes, and the way to be free from it. A concentrated mind is a powerful and energetic tool to create change and contrary to the common teaching is completely possible to obtain while under the influence of various substances. However, a concentrated but morally broken mind is a danger to every one who encounters it.  My failure was that I had completely skipped over a crucial and necessary first step in the way. I had neglected to establish a firm and correct moral foundation for my concentrated mind to work from. Without this my sword cut a swath of pain through almost everything that I loved and held dear while my music bearing fallen Angel played the devils fiddle for our finally.

I had deluded myself into believing that my actions were always justified and that I was constantly correct and doing only that which was right. The suffering and pain others were enduring was, to my warped perspective, entirely of their own creation and something they needed to fix on their own. I could never be bothered to concern myself with others or their struggles. There was a mission to accomplish. Suck it up and drive on. This delusion would soon be swept away and the reality of the five remembrances would hit me like a ton of bricks fashioned into a box that I’d help lock my self inside of.

We had recently lost our home and livelihood when our employer dismissed us based on rumor, speculation, and my hardline stance against allowing a known pedophile on my he premises. We were dismissed and told that we would never be paid for the time and work we had agreed to be compensated for. The blow was stunning in that it had come from a person we both supported and loved. We had poured everything we had into this dream and our pride had allowed us to pit ourselves against people with a more solid foundation in the community than I had imagined. My fervor for growth and change had set our organization on a collision course with others in the community.

I had gone so far as to feed information to the press and public about the leadership of a particular city beaurocracy and labeled them as pedophelia apologists. As Director of Operations and Business Development for the Foundation I used my broad authority to begin initiatives within the Temple to directly compete with the business operations of those who I saw as my competitors an detractors. I’ll leave my rant about the merits of competition and the strange protectionist mindset of this part of the nation to another post.

Regardless, I was in full battle mode with the pain and anger over the eviction and dismissal fueling the emotional storm that raged between my Angel and I, giving the monsters we hid all the more strength and influence over our actions. Our relationship turned toxic and wrapped in my own suffering I never took a moment to try to elevate the obvious suffering that Angel was enduring. The potions were exacting a terrible toll on her mind and spirit and lack of sleep coupled with exposure to the hostile environment our home at the temple had become compounded the paranoia that my lies had given birth to. Angel saw danger everywhere and in my own delusion I was becoming less trustworthy be the minute.

The first time I donned my bogu (armor) for kendo practice and told Angel to strike men uchi (top of my head) she struck like she was hitting me with a feather duster. I encouraged her with kind but firm guidance to trust me and my bogu. That I would be safe. Angel cried like a baby. She couldn’t let go of the pervasive conditioning of her childhood and trust that this was safe and that I would not put myself in harms way or allow her to hurt me unnecessarily. I also think that perhaps she had trouble trusting herself.  This is speculation though.

At the time I’d not known the lengths she would go to to punish a love that disappointed her. I didn’t understand the self punishment that she would inflict upon herself or the impact it had had on her family and all of her romantic relationships up to and including her relationship with me. I was sadly unaware. I was trying to help my wife understand and enjoy a sport, art form, and practice of personal cultivation that I used to help me be a better person.  I was sharing myself with her and showing her that vulnerability is a gift that I was willing to give to her.

I can’t speak to her feelings or motivations. I only know that it was over a year till she could start to tell me all the truths that were causing her such suffering and by then my own incorrect perception had skewed my vision and my lack of skill and understanding made it impossible for me to actually listen with love and compassion.

I’m not sure if it was too late to save her by his time. The mistakes we made were legion and at the time I could only see those working to destroy what we had led the effort in building. Everything I was was filtered through the lens of selfish intention and greed. My Angel also seemed to be seeing everything and everyone with eyes that didn’t see as they once did. We felt surrounded and set upon by enemies from all sides. Only a handful of loyal supporters stood by us as we readied ourselves for what we felt might be our last stand. We couldn’t see straight. If we had perhaps we could have saved ourselves from the disaster looming before us, so terrible in scope and aspect that we refused to look. Our delusion gave us a false sense of hope that would be our undoing.

If you do this
If you do this you’ll never have a chance to try again
If you do this you’ll never have a chance to try
It’s the same sound
Same sting
The same collapse
Of every thing
It’s the same size,
Same blade,
The same lie
-Otep, Perfectly Flawed
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Martial arts

Timing and Opportunity Within the Late Medieval Sword Arts of Japan and Germany.

In my last piece concerning Japanese and European late medieval swordsmanship, I sought to cast a wide net, drawing comparisons and highlighting similarities.  I also sought to identify some of the most obviously contrasting elements.  A net so wide could only lead to disaster and endless research and writing so I cut the piece and highlighted only some of the most basic aspects of each tradition.  I further narrowed my comparison by choosing only the Long sword in the Meyer tradition and the Katana in the styles Eishin-ryu and with the help of a good friend and teacher, Katori Shinto ryu.   While the actual tools employed by the practitioners of the arts differ in many substantial ways, the two traditions share many common principals.  We found that the foundational guards or kamae are also shared in common.  In this piece I will further narrow my focus and address the concept of timing in these amazing and complimentary dueling forms.  I will also include some examples from kendo to allow for closer tactical analysis as many styles of Japanese swordsmanship practiced today do not include fencing as part of their curriculum.

Timing in personal combat is always measured in relation to the opponent.  Both systems of swordsmanship measure engagement time in terms of initiative though the language differs slightly.  There are essentially three states of initiative. The opponent can take the initiative and attack first, the combatants can attack simultaneously, or the swordsman can take the initiative and attack the opponent first.  The Japanese call these states Mitsu no Sen naming each state of initiative individually, Go no sen (opponent initiative), Sen no sen (simultaneous initiative), or Sen sen no sen (advance initiative).  The Meyer system acknowledges these initiative states but tends to discuss them in terms of movement in the Vor (before) and Nach (after) and in terms of Gleich (simultaneously) and Indes (instantly).  As with most tactical and strategic concepts that apply to personal armed combat, there are strong parallels that can be drawn between these related disciplines.

During the onset of a contest swordsmen square off against each other closing distance evaluating the opponent and taking attack or defensive postures, somebody has to make the first move.  When the opponent attacks first, he has taken the initiative.  There are several possible responses to opponent initiative or being in Nach.  A response might be to receive the cut for parry and counter or move out of the path of the oncoming blade into a position to counter or perform Oji waza.  Japanese sword arts call this sort of response Go No Sen and it can be seen in kendo nuki waza or avoiding techniques.  Nach reisen or traveling after would be a European equivalent and can be seen in an execution of krumphauw from Nach in response to a cut. The European systems break the potential actions down further to include Indes Fechten or overtaking the opponent’s initiative after his attack has begun and beating him to the cut.  This can be seen in the “holy grail” of kendo technique, Debana waza which is an attack initiated after the opponent has begun his attack that overtakes initiative.

If both fencers attack at the same time we have simultaneous initiative.  Sen No Sen can be described as a situation where to prevent the opponent from gaining the initiative a fighter will attack in the instant that the opponent begins to execute their technique.  Debana waza is by definition sen no sen.  This simultaneous initiative or simultaneous attack is within Meyers longsword system Gleich Fechten.  It seems that with the Japanese systems we have some overlap here with the opponent initiative from the perspective of the German Swordsman.  Debana waza fits securely within Sen no sen for the Japanese but is from a longswordsman’s point of view clearly Indes Fechten.  Meyer describes Indes as being a state of quick judgment and refers to a commonly held belief that in refers to “inside” or within combat dealing with actions taken when actual combat is engaged.  Debana waza certainly fits this definition but being an action taken as an overtaking attack, is also Sen no sen for the kenshi.  Kendo is often thought of as an overly aggressive form of fencing because beginning students are strongly discouraged from any form of defensive action be they with the sword or by simply moving out of the way.  This is actually an attempt to instill within the kenshi sutemi or an aptitude for taking or overtaking the opponent’s initiative and committing to the attack.  Defensive actions, especially in a new student, will tend to train a more passive attitude during a match and unnecessarily limit a fencer’s arsenal and place them in a position where they will always have to react rather than respond.  This is why defensive techniques or Oji waza are taught later in kendo practice.

Finally, we come to the case of advance initiative or Sen Sen No Sen.  A preemptive attack made the instant the opponent commits to the attack but before they actually initiate it.  Among the Asian sword arts and the philosophies that have become associated with them this concept can take on a very esoteric feel.  The more utilitarian language of the Europeans can be of assistance in interpreting this concept.  Vor Fechten or attacking before the opponent can initiate their attack can be as simple as striking first but is in fact more a more complex action.  The initiative in a duel will constantly drift back and forth from one fighter to the other.  Meyer states that indes admonishes a fighter to have a sharp lookout and to read the opponents body language to gauge which techniques he will use.  This is the foundation of Sen Sen no Sen.  It is not so much a supernatural foreknowledge of the opponent’s intentions, but a knowledge born of experience that given what can be observed of the opponent the best course of action in to make a particular attack.  To properly demonstrate advance initiative, the opponent should be confident that they are about to make a valid attack on their chosen target.  This can be set up by the fencer in advance.  The fencer can take up guards that leave the opponent limited choices of attack or even subtly offer targets to the opponent in the hopes of setting up a chain of events that will lead to being able to make the preemptive strike.  Regardless the outcome should be that the opponent, having become confident in their coming attack does not see that they have lost the initiative until it is too late.

It should be understood that timing is fluid and that it is always measured in relation to the opponent.  Both the German and Japanese late medieval sword masters clearly understood and interpreted this in the best way that they could and explained their interpretations in the best manner available to them.  It should also be understood that despite having only three states of timing that the potential actions available within these states of timing are only limited by the system into which a fencer limits themselves.  For as we are not all of a single nature, so we also cannot have a single style in combat, yet all must nonetheless arise and be derived from a single basis.

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Martial arts, Uncategorized

Iaido and the Ronin Dojo Pro

Last night I was packing up my bags for another night of iaido practice.  Into the bag went my hakama, gi, and juban along with my obi and tenegui to mop the perspiration from my face and hands.  I check my sword bag for bokken, and sword cleaning kit.  Then I look to my sword rack and start to ponder, what blade do I take tonight?  Each one has its place on the rack and each will eventually be reviewed here.  Two iaito sit in the lowest rungs of the rack.  My trusty Minosaka basic series iaito is always a good choice.  I call it tombo and despite its basic style and fittings, it has held up to hundreds of hours of kata practice.  It is light and nimble but I haven’t used it in practice for some time now.  Next up is my Sword Store Iaito.  It’s a long 2.55 shaku blade and was the result of a very fortuitous craigslist purchase.  Poor fellow bought a very expensive iaito just to turn around and sell it to me for pennies on the dollar.  It is a spectacular practice tool.  I’ve named it Bean Pole due to its length and bean pod menuki.  It is my go-to blade for seminar and testing having struggled with me through several years of dedicated practice.  Tonight, however, my hand drifts higher on the rack to the shinken that occupy the higher rungs.

The shinken, or sharp sword, sit higher on the rack. Not because they are used any less than the iaito, but because they demand a higher degree of presence to wield than the iaito.  I question myself each time I take one up just as if it were a firearm. My hand gently flows from one tsuka to the next until it comes to rest on my oldest and most reliable of sharp swords.  My Ronin Dojo-Pro Yama Kuma, purchased through Sword Buyers Guide, has been with me since 2008 and has been through enough suburi and kata to rival my old bokken in terms of usage and familiarity.  This was my first shinken and has served me very well for the last 8 years.  As I took it into my hands I realized that this sword is truly exceptional at least from my point of view.  It is an old friend and I can trust it as I trust myself.  In this unconventional review, I’ll tell you why.

The first impression of my Ronin Dojo Pro was good.  In fact, I was ecstatic when I first held the sword.  I had owned a couple of lower priced swords of various makes that never quite felt like a real pillage and plunder sword.  As for exact measurements and details, I’m not going to put you through all that.  If you want that info, go to the manufacturer’s web site as they have it all there in its boring and tedious glory.  What I will give you are my impressions and experience in the actual, daily use of this blade for my practice of Eishin Ryu Iaido and cutting from various other ryuha.

I appreciated the Spartan aesthetic of the all iron koshirae and the soft but warm buffalo horn accents on the saya that combine to produce a shinken that I was truly excited to use in kata.  The only out of the box imperfection I could identify being that the ridgeline that runs the length of the mune deviates slightly to the right and does not continue all the way to the tip but veers to the right just a centimeter or so from the tip.  Also the saya, while very pretty, leaves a lot to be desired.  There is a lot of rattle when the sword is sheathed. Worse, it came practically filled with sticky grease that despite multiple cleanings with various implements, never seems to end.  It’s like the saya is a cosmoline fountain that was intended to house a monkey wrench.  It is the only truly inferior aspect of the sword and needed to be replaced if I intended to use the sword in my practice.  After several frustrating attempts to work with the manufacturer, I replaced the saya with one from Cheness Inc making the system fully serviceable as a kata sword.

To date this sword has been through the performance of many thousands of kata and even more suburi.  The koshirae has never loosened or been any cause for concern.  I haven’t even had to deal with the tell-tale rattling that occurs where the tsuba and tsuka meet that seems to affect most swords used in iaido.  While each of my iaito has developed the faint click that is usually an indication of substantial use, my Dojo Pro remains silent as I complete my cuts.  The ito wrap has taken the use well and hardly seems worn.  The only indication of the actual age and use to which the shinken has been subjected is the discoloration of the tsuba and fuchi where my fingers make contact and the faint scratches on the blade that are evidence of my learning to cut dry bamboo.  The sword has cut dozens of tatame mats, dozens of bamboo poles and more pool noodles, rolled newspaper, and water jugs than I can count.  My last cutting took place several months ago with a few good friends where it met with some North Carolina bamboo for the first time.  It cut very well and still produces good cuts and has a keen edge despite my developing technique.

In regards to Iaido kata practice, the sword feels very much like my Sword Store Iaito.  The weight is nearly identical although it is shorter by about 3 inches overall.  The point of balance is slightly forward making it very eager to cut but also responsive to tenouchi and very agile.  The slim, wasted tsuka is double pinned and wrapped with silk or silk like ito, is very comfortable in the hand.  I never flinch while considering a two to three hour practice as it is as comfortable a sword to wield as any after a long night.  There is no bohi or fuller in the blade making it more ideal for cutting but as a result there is very little audible feedback for cuts.

When I purchased the sword it was with the idea that I would use it as an aid to my Iaido practice and eventually learn to cut tatame and bamboo with it.  The construction of the Dotanuki style 1060 carbon steel blade was supposed to be rather forgiving of botched cuts, which it has thankfully been.  What has surprised me to no end is the fact that after all these years and after thousands of kata and suburi, that the simple iron fittings and silkish tsuka ito have remained solidly attached and only slightly worn with use.  This sword which nearly didn’t make the cut while I was shopping has never failed to impress and even when inspected by those practitioners who aren’t fond of Ronin Swords or their management,  has always comported itself with grace and a razor sharp edge.

If you are on the market for a good low cost shinken for iaido that can do double duty as a cutter, and can deal with the need for a new saya, the Ronin Dojo Pro line of Dotanuki style shinken may be just what you are looking for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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, auskf.info

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.

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Uncategorized

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.

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Buddhism, Martial arts, relationships

What are you training for?

kendo2

train·ing
ˈtrāniNG/
noun
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 many months ago 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, Dee 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.

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