It’s always a good idea to review some of the common language we might use in the dojo. The list is not exhaustive, but it is a good place to start. Please ask your teacher if you have any questions about the language of your art. It is important to speak a common language.
Recently, many of my more advanced students have been out for one reason or another. Health, career, family, pets, vacation are all valid reasons to miss training. We need to go out into the world to come back refreshed and attack our training with new vigor. I think this is the reason for so many of Furuya Sensei’s words connected to beginner’s mind. We can all remember the infatuation we had at the beginning of something almost to the point of obsession. This fades quickly as the day-to-day reality begins to sink in and we begin to see things we don’t like. The key is to try to maintain an openness for discovery. I have only been training in Iaido for eighteen years, so I discover something new nearly every time I train or teach.
Because the students who are further down the path are away, I am able to focus on our beginners more closely and work on the fundamentals. Already I see them developing their bases for cutting and developing extension, and discovering their centers and working on maintaining their stability. It is a gift to be able to watch them discover and it made me wish all my students were there so they could revisit their beginner’s mind. I will just have to be patient and wait for them to be back in the dojo. O’negai shimasu.
We were training some years ago and Furuya Sensei said something like, “Don’t drop the tip,” to a fellow student, and the student’s response was, “I am?” Sensei’s response was not aggressive, or frustrated, but it was matter-of-fact, “Duh, I wouldn’t have said it if you weren’t doing it.”
When the teacher corrects us, we need to implement the correction immediately, yet many times we have an automatic response, physical, vocal, or mental that indicates that our mind is not on the training. This particular student’s ego thought it was doing the technique correctly and uttered the comment in line with its discord. His response required Sensei to say that he was, indeed, dropping the tip. This is a second correction on the same moment. This is inefficient in training, but it happens very frequently.
The goal of the teacher is to get the student to learn the content, and when the ego is an obstacle, it must be addressed. Though the response was not indignant, it did require a follow-up.
In batto, the right hand follows the line of the sword so that sword and saya may work together. The right hand should never cross the center line over to the left side of the body. This movement creates an opening for attack and puts the sword in an inefficient position creating a reduplication of movement. Reduplications create gaps in timing that a trained opponent will exploit.
I was teaching someone how to do the initial batto as part of our noto practice, and I told him and showed him how to do it, and then he tried to do it, moving his right hand to the left side of the body and he said, “Like this?” I said, “No, like this,” and showed him how to do it again; he tried again and said, “Like this?” again taking the right hand to the left side of the body. I said, “No. Like this.” I again showed him how to perform the movement and added, “The right hand follows the line of the sword and never crosses your centerline to left side of the body. He tried again, “Like this?” again crossing the right hand to the left side of the body. “No, like this.” This interaction continued in a similar fashion and I am sad to say that I’m not really sure if the student ever got it right because his mind and body were not connected. His mind/ego, was too busy focused on getting affirmed, with his repeated, “Like this?” He was looking for me to say, “Yes, very good,” so that he could feel good about himself instead of thinking about doing it correctly. When the body and the mind are disconnected there is no point in training. Mindless exercise is not the purpose of a Do. Had I confronted his ego, I might have gotten him to learn it then. This is a failure of mine as a teacher, just as much as it is a failure of his as a student.
Somehow we must get past the ego’s defenses so that we may learn together. O’Negai Shimasu>
Movies are so wonderful. They provide us with an opportunity to indulge our imaginations and see what may be possible in reality. They are not reality, though. It is common for me to see people hold a sword or bokken and they are busy playing out a fantasy in their minds. I suppose this type of catharsis is important so that we don’t look for opportunities in society to live out these fantasies; that would be terrible, but on the mats or training halls of dojos, there is no place for these types of fantasies. To learn how to really use a sword, one must train in reality and focus on the sword’s movement, one’s partner, spacing and timing, balance, and relaxation.
I was watching a video on a traditional Ni Ten Ryu School. The video was in Japanese, so, sadly, I didn’t understand anything that was being said. This is a great tragedy in my life, that I haven’t studied the languages of my greatest passions. It did make me focus on what was being shown and the movements of the techniques. The one benefit of not knowing the language is that my mind is not cluttered with trying to process both visual and auditory information that may not connect. They school’s headmaster produced, what I assumed was, a very old bokken with kanji carved in it. I believed it must relate to the legitimacy or transmission of the art.
The piece that was an echo of Furuya Sensei was that when they demonstrated the partner techniques, there was an initial strike and then the decisive counter move. One, two, or three movements was all it took, and that’s reality. A committed attack that would be effective in dispatching an enemy will either be successful or it won’t. In the event that it is not successful, there has been a counter move that has rendered it ineffective and thus the result is an attacker’s end. There aren’t long exchanges of sword clashes that go on with a crescendoing soundtrack. Instead, there is an opening or there isn’t. When there is an opening there is an attack, and since the counter to an ineffective attack is a counter attack, the stakes for effective attacks are much higher than those in a fantasy, or movie.
We must train the effective attack through thousands of suburi.
If an engagement is more than three movements, both participants are ineffective, not masters. A true master would not even be in the fight, he would probably not even be watching the fantasy of fools.
originally posted January 1, 2003
Yesterday, the day before New Year’s, I went with my student to have a new saya made for his sword. I was sitting there talking with my friend who has been making saya for the last 30 years now. He was looking at my student’s sword and recognized his work, both the old saya and the tsuka or handle.
Looking at the handle, he said, I don’t do this kind of work anymore.
Surprised, I said, What do you mean? I remember how long it took for him to catch the gentle center taper of the handle.
He replied,Nowadays, all the Iaido guys who do tameshigiri are complaining that the handle breaks too easily so I make it thicker and straighter now.
I had to laugh to myself and suddenly realized that there is NO compromise in the way sword must be taught. As I teach my students over and over and over again, most people put too much power in the arms and hands and the power is never projected to the monouchi or upper, cutting portion of the blade. My students are always frustrated to catch this point. When I heard my friends comment, I realized that these people are not cutting properly so all of the impact of the blade is focused in the hands, not the blade itself. This is what causes the handle to crack and break so easily. If you cut properly, the handle will never break. In addition, this tapered style of handle was popular in the late 16th century at a time of fierce battles and proved itself over and over again as the superior grip.
There is no way to compromise sword training. It is either right or wrong. It is black and white. I think this was a sign from my long gone teachers and it came right at the last day of the year at a time when I was most discouraged! It must be a sing I think! I will continued as I have before in my teaching, whether it is outdated or not, in or out, popular or hated, accepted or not accepted. It was good enough for me teachers, and still good enoug for me, I don’t know why it is not good enough for people today. I teach to pass on the teachings of my teachers and hopefully preserve this art for your generation, I do not teach to gather numbers of students, be popular, or personally profit from it or enhance my personal image. Whether students want to learn for me or not, is purely their choice, not mine, and I should not be crass or greedy enough to try to sway or attract them to me. As long I can focus on this, I will be fine. . . .
I have kept my opinion and perspective out of Furuya Sensei’s posts purposefully. I have edited some of the misspelled words due to his frantic typing as opposed to his lack of skill, and I have edited out some unrelated responses to people who wrote to him and to whom he addressed specifically.
There are some reoccurring messages. One of these is that many who practice swordsmanship today really have no idea how to use or experience with using a sword. Much of the swordsmanship we see today is colored by still images of famous martial artists, or is changed from what it was. The U.S. occupation of Japan at the end of WWII is partly responsible for this as many of the martial arts had to go in front of an approval board that removed pieces of the training that were too martial or instilled the spirit of sacrifice that made the Japanese such a formidable enemy. The Kendo that emerged from that time was very different from the Kendo that predates WWII.
More than the U.S. occupation and its influence on the process of teaching and the techniques taught, was the Meiji Restoration and its employment of a conscript army that received little, if any, training with sword. Western military strategies and weapons after the Tokugawa isolation and the subsequent dissolution of the samurai class pushed many remaining samurai to sell their swords, move to isolated areas of Japan, or, in some cases, sadly and honorably, end their lives.
Further, still, was the influence of the Tokugawa hegemony itself. At the end of the warring states period, the relative 268 years of peace that followed transitioned the samurai out of their roles as warriors and into bureaucratic roles where wearing a sword was the extent of their swordsmanship. Training with a sword became a duty as opposed to a necessity.
The last time swords were used as an element of combat on a large scale was over 400 years ago. Of course, the Tokugawa Period allowed the best swordsman to refine and develop the practical techniques from their days on the field and develop and test their ryu against other ryu through sponsored tournaments and back alley duels. Swordsmanship goes through an incredible refinement, but the number of people using swords begins a steady decline as well. History happens, and aside from very few who seek to learn the art and preserve it, exactly as it was taught to them, swordsmanship is lost.
This is the core of Furuya Sensei’s first message. When we find a teacher who knows swordsmanship, we must copy and remember every single element. It is our duty as students to guarantee the transmission of the art exactly as it is was given to us. We must train and practice and keep every lesson unique. If we have multiple teachers over the course of our lifetimes, we must keep each lesson and technique from each of those teachers distinct from the lessons and techniques of our other teachers. Most importantly, if we become teachers ourselves, we must resist the urge of the ego to create and teach anything other than the exact techniques and methodologies passed down to us from our teachers until we have guaranteed the complete and accurate transmission of techniques and methodologies. If we fail, or stray from this path, Furuya Sensei’s fear will be realized and those who practice swordsmanship will just be pretending and role-playing their fantasies and will really have no idea how or ability to use a sword.
originally published as part of a post on December 27, 2002
IAIDO – OVER OVER OVER AGAIN: Last Evening’s Talk In Iaido Class: More and more, I feel that it is necessary to give you more time for individual training. From my observations, you need more time to practice and less instruction, actually, you have heard over and over all the instruction that you need – you just haven’t had time to swallow and digest what you have. It is like eating and keeping all the food in your mouth!
When you do have this opportunity for individual practice, take one basic and practice it over and over – who cares if you are doing the same thing for an hour – you need it. Each class, a little of this and a little of that will no longer do you any good. You are only doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Work with something such as your suburi or chiburi or noto, until you really begin to feel comfortable with it, until you become one with it. If you practice suburi over and over, you will begin to feel some kind of transformation through deeper understanding.
Becoming bored and distracted, only means that your mind is not focused and balanced. Like watching television, the bored mind needs all kinds of different stimuli to keep it occupied. This is like baby-sitting – trying to keep a little child distracted so he won’t get into trouble – this is not the learning process at all. Please do not make this mistake!
As you repeat the same exercise over and over, you will also develop a stronger sense of focus and concentration so essential to good Iaido. When you are finally beginning to gain a deeper understanding of what you SHOULD know, then we can go on to the next level. . . . .
Just do not baby-sit yourself, you must awaken to the fact that this is not a learning process. Learning is much more profound and deeper. . . . . something much different than what we are doing most of the time. Please keep up your training.
originally posted December 20, 2002
In Class Briefly: Last evening, I had this talk with my Iaido students: We must not limit our Iaido to mechanical movements, but be mentally, emotionally and spiritually active on our practice as well.
Not only in the technique itself, but in how you move, walk, talk, think, see, hear, in everything, you express your art. In counting off to do our beginning exercise, by the delayed and lackadaisical manner in which everyone sounded, it is easy to tell that no one has their heart in it. WSe are being so mechanical and so not there. Just by counting, one, two! we are not even paying attention, how can you expect to draw a sword? Just because your body is there standing on the mat, does not mean you are practicing. You must be here, in the moment, physciall and mentally, 100% – it is only in this manner can we get a glimpse of what training really means.
Perhaps, in everything we do in our lives, we pass through in a dream-like state, half here and half somewhere else. Maybe we can get away with it and some are actually very good at it, but, in Iaido, it does work at all. From ancient times, we say, the sword is like a mirror. It reflects everything you do and your mental state as well. In Iaido, there is no place to hide, there is no one to fool, the sword reveals everything. From this perspective, one great sword master said, the sword is merciless.
Although we are so busy during this time of year, please keep up your training as much as possible! You are the only one who loses. Even though we are busy, we still brush our teeth and take a bath each day. We do this because it is a part of the quality of our lives. We take care of our bodies each day, it is reasonable we take care of our minds and spirits as well. This too is the meaning of training.
To practice one hour, one gains one hour of practice. Miss one hour of practice, means to lose 5 hours of practice. In training the body, we always gain, in training the mind, we always lose.
Mean Sensei Again: Some people came to watch Iaido the other day and at the end of class, one comment to me was, Iaido involves a lot of concentration, doesn’t it!
I replied, Well, of course, – – it is a martial art! Then everyone laughed.
I think my students were embarrassed at me and laughed because later someone said, Sensei is mean.
Actually, I was quite surprised at what this person said and really didn’t know how to reply to him. I was shocked that he didn’t understand that Iaido involved such a high degree of concentration and focus, so I simply expressed my feeling at the moment. I thought everyone knew that already!
I was not trying to be mean but I am so surprised at the things people say to me. I am sure that he will never return to my Dojo.
It reminds me of something I overheard, that happened many years ago in Little Tokyo. Before the renovation of Little Tokyo with the new Japanese American National Museum, there was a tiny restaurant called, Koharu on the site. I think they served the best Japanese food in the area and we patronized them for years. Not years, decades! Unfortunately, the renovation of the area and construction of the new museum totally eliminated them, instead of preserving them as a part of Little Tokyo. I will never understand this!
The owner, Mrs. Shibata, was an elderly lady but full of fire! One day, sitting at the counter having lunch, one lady customer complained, I think this fish has too many bones in it!
Shibata-san looked at her and without hesitation and in a split second replied, Well, bring me a fish without bones and I will cook it for you!
When this person, asked me this question about having concentration in Iaido, this is what crossed my mind. Iaido without concentration is like a fish without bones! I mused to myself.
Some people thought Shibata-san was a little mean, I suppose. Although she was the nicest person you ever met. Maybe I am mean afterall!
Furuya’s Law: Only a complete fool will answer you totally honestly.
originally posted November 24, 2002
Today, we had an interesting discussion in our Iaido Class. In practice, we work on our techniques and follow a step-by-step process of getting each movement correctly. However, as we progress, we must begin to think about the movement and the “empty spaces” between the movements as well. It is like viewing a Japanese ink painting. The empty spaces of the composition are equally important as the painted in areas. In Iaido technique, the empty spaces are equally important.
In each movement, there is a contrary or contradictory movement which is created simultaneously with each movement. This is the “yin” and “yang” of all movement or we can say the “kyo” and “jitsu” of the technique. In other words, the “reality” and the “falsehood” or “empty space” of the movement. As much as we fill in the actual movements in our normal training, we must also cover the “empty” movements as well. This is what we must begin to consider in our practice.
As we cut and raise the sword above our heads to make the second overhead cut, for example, there is an “interval” or “empty space” in the time in between the first and second cut. How do you “fill” it in? It is this space of “false” or “negative” movement where we are vulnerable and open to attack. It is this “suki” or opening which we must begin to “fill in” in our training.
In Aikido we think about the “out pouring” of our ki energy. Most of us think that this is the way to create power in our techniques against the opponent. There is another aspect of this as well in practice. The outpouring of ki is much like the strong outpouring from water from a spring. This outpouring also creates “no space” where another energy can enter. . . . . It is in this same respect, that we create a strong outpouring of energy that we also create a pose in which there is no opening as well.
In an old Japanese ink painting, we immediately look at the painted in parts and areas of ink. We should look more carefully at the treatment of the “empty” spaces as well – these spaces of “non-painting.” In Aikido and Iaido, we look at the movements but now we see the “non-movement” aspects of each of these techniques. This is not easy to understand – and harder yet to explain! Please continue to practice hard. . . . Good luck!
Furuya’s Law: All movement has its contrary or opposite movement. There is no true form without content. There is no true content without from.
It is often the case, where the teacher must make the art easier to understand. This is not an easy task. It helps greatly, if the student makes himself easy to be taught. Some students are just very difficult to teach. It is not that they have a hard time learning, they are just difficult to teach. It doesn’t make the job easier, please think about this.
When I was very young, I had a very hard time learning Aikido or anything. In concentrated and focused my attention to this and eventually was able to catch on. Whatever technique or strategy you use to learn Aikido, there is nothing more important than just wanting to learn it very, very much.
I can’t stand it when students treat Aikido like a buffet, bouncing here and there, trying a little of this and that. You know, as everyone knows, a buffet never make the best meal – you are only satisfied because you can have quantity but not necessarily quality. What kind of way is this to learn Aikido? I knew a chef who never put salt or pepper on the tables of his guests. He was so proud of his skill in cooking and prepared the best meals he could with the best ingredients he could find, he felt that they would never need it – and he was right! This is the real meal – and this is the real way to enjoy Aikido.
Miyamoto Musashi ate like a poor man and dressed in rags and really didn’t care about it. But his swords were always of the finest qualily – this is how a real warrior acts and thinks. He wrote this as a rule to himself and followed it all of his life.
Please don’t do this yourselves! But in your practice, there should be no compromise of quality. This is the point!
originally published on October 25, 2002
What people have the biggest misunderstanding of in this world, I think, is the misconception in regards to: “receiving is not taking,” and “giving is not losing.” I think if we can clear up these two simple issues in our lives and in this world, this existence will become a slightly better place to live in. I truly believe this and think about this every day of my life. Indeed, I think this is what Aikido is trying to tell us.
Today, is sword class in our Dojo so I hope everyone will really try hard to catch the fundamentals. I think students may misunderstand that sword is simply swinging a wooden stick around but it is much, much more than that. If you have the opportunity to closely examine a real samurai sword, you will find that it is truly a magnificently constructed, highly precision work of art of great skill and tradition. I think you will immediately appreciate that this is not a crude or simple weapon to master. Swordsmanship is far different from what you see in the movies. So many students misunderstand that what you see in the samurai chambara movies and actual swordsmanship exist to two completely different worlds. Please do not be mislead by what you see in the movies or you will be greatly disappointed in real training. Finally, swordsmanship is becoming a “performance” art nowadays and this is completely wrong and not true swordsmanship at all. “Posing” and twirling swords like batons is not swordsmanship either. This is only “dance” with swords and this again is something competely different.
In over forty years in the martial arts, I have only encountered a few who I thought really taught true swordsmanship. I can count the numbers on one hand. These teachers did not have many students either so I understand that swordsmanship will never be popular if you try to stick ot its true path. Many years ago, my teacher said to only teach a few and it is not necessary to teach many people the sword. I thought that he meant that I should keep its techniques confidential and not reveal them. But now I understand much better, I now think he meant that it is much too difficult and most people will only misunderstand and criticize what you are doing. If you want to learn sword, you really have to committ yourself to the sword, there is no other way. . . . .