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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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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Uncategorized

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 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.

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Uncategorized

Shinken, Practicing Presence at the Tip of a Sword.

When I asked my teacher if I could use shinken (sharp sword) during practice in the dojo he agreed immediately.  It surprised me.  He didn’t have a great deal to say on the subject but gave me the best advice I think was possible.  He said, “Don’t feel like once you start bringing shinken to practice that you have to practice with shinken every time.”  This advice, while simple and to the point, shows my teachers understanding of the internal struggles that all people following a “way” have to contend with.

Months later, it’s Friday and I am at home for Lunch, checking my Practice bag.  Everything appears to be here. Hakama,Gi,Juban, obi, and Knee Pads are all neatly folded and tucked into my bag along with two spare Tenegui to mop the sweat from my brow. I check my sword bag. My boken and two shinai are there as usual. Attached to the sword bag via a small carabiner is the small, zippered bag that once held a calibration gauge for respiratory therapy equipment. Now it holds oil and sword cleaning supplies. I look at the sword Stand. Resting there silently, unobtrusive, plain but beautiful is my Shinken. My eyes dart to the sword rack on the wall.  Eight other examples of these ancient weapons sit on the rack. Most are in the Japanese style.  Two are different; one being a European inspired blade while the other is Chinese.  All but three are razor sharp. My iaito (practice sword) sits in its cradle, third from the bottom. Despite the fact that it’s not a sharp sword and never will be with a zinc/aluminum alloy blade; I have to admit, I love that sword. It’s long to match my stature with a high degree of curvature (sori) and simply furnished. I call it “Bean Pole” for its length and because of the bean pod menuki (ornament) tucked beneath the silk that wraps the handle. The silk is well worn from thousands of suburi and kata.  I knew the instant I held this iaito that it was for me.  It is an old friend by now.

The handle of the shinken is also worn but not to the same degree. It is a bit shorter but slightly heavier. The high carbon, mono-steel blade has no bohi or fuller cast into the blade. This would weaken a blade that was never intended to be used strictly for Iai. This is a cutting sword. It is sharp and deadly as can be. I call it Kuma because of the distinctive cuts in the tsuba that are reminiscent of claw marks and the heavy, solid construction of the sword and its fittings.  Kuma is simple but beautiful.  It is also an old, trusted friend.  I obtained this shinken before ever attending a formal iaido class, teaching myself from books and videos for over a year before I found a dojo.  I wonder, “Can I be present enough for practice tonight to use shinken?”  If I am not present for the blade, it will remind me. It has before. Gentle nudges to be “here” during noto (resheathing) and not to let my mind wonder to the bills, work, or relationships.  I keep a supply of band-aids with me now for just such nudges.  I also have my dojo mates to be concerned for.  Swinging a razor sharp piece of steel around in a room full of people is inherently dangerous.  If I take Kuma tonight, I also take on a certain degree of responsibility for the safety of those around me.

Thoughts start to fill my head.  This thing is heavy; I’m hungry, angry, tired, etc.  I take a deep breath and notice how quickly I have started to make up excuses for why I should take Iaito rather than shinken.  I nearly talked myself out of practice all together.  Here is another small test of my integrity.  I’m going to practice tonight.  Of that, there can be no argument.  I take up Kuma.  The tsuba is cold when I put my thumb on it.  The weight is instantly noticeable. I wonder; what sort of burden could this beautiful weapon truly be?

Later at the dojo, Kuma waits for me in its plain, black cloth bag sharp and ready to help me learn.  I take the weapon into my hands and check the fit and finish of the sword. It’s clean and all the fittings secure. It’s as safe as it’s going to get.  I sit in seiza and tell myself, “Be Here.”  Being with my breathing, it becomes deep and regular.  The floor is cold and hard.  The sun’s last rays are bright as they shines through the windows.  It will be dark soon.  The sunlight is warm on my back, but does little to warm the floor.  I can hear my dojo mates as they shuffle about behind me, stretching or warming up.  The distinctive, sharp, whistle of Sensei’s sword punctuates his cuts as he practices a standing kata across the room.  Familiar smells fill the air.  The sharp smell of choji oil, the laundry detergent I washed my clothes in, sweat, dust, and other less definable scents waft by and are left to pass with each breath.  My mouth still tastes of the tea I drank before class.

I think I may have tied my obi too tight.  My foot is cramping.  I’m getting hungry and thirsty.  My knees hurt!  I may need to use the bathroom. I start to wonder why I even came.  This was a mistake.  I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.  I could be at home with a beer or tangled up with a beautiful woman or listening to live blues at the brewery.  I breath and realize how quickly and totally my mind has grasped and been carried off with these thoughts.  “HERE.”

“Here.” I let those thoughts go.  They aren’t serving me.  I’m here, with Kuma and there is only one way this evening is going to end.  I perform seated reiho and tuck the slick, lacquered saya into my belt. “Here.  Breath and be here.”  I start Ipponme Mae. The first form of the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei kata set. The first I ever learned. I keep my mind open but aware. “Here,” I tell myself again and again. Each time my mind wanders to my achy knees or my car that is past due for an oil change, to my plans for the weekend or the other stress from the world I left outside the dojo, I tell myself: “Here,” and practice goes on. Kuma and I work well together.  No “reminders” to be present tonight.  I’m lucky to receive multiple corrections from Poitras Sensei.  More challenges. I need to make the corrections but can’t let thoughts of these corrections carry me away.  My ego wants to chime in and wants my mind to run off on vacation with it.

“Here”

Practice passes quickly just like it always does.  Tonight, like many nights that came before, I have done more than train my body. I have cultivated an energetic yet mindful state and been as present as possible for a much loved and valuable part of my life.  The additional responsibility of practicing with a deadly weapon has not only made me a better swordsman, but also a better human being.  Tonight, Kuma has been more than a weapon it has been an invaluable tool to aid me along my way.  I leave the dojo and step out into the chilly night air.  Breathing, in the soft light cast by the moon and the street lights, I can be “Here” and appreciate each moment as though that’s all there is.

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