The Old and The New

The inspiration for Iaido is said to have come to Hayashizaki Jinsuke Shigenobu during the Nara or Heian period.  Shigenobu is also said to have been born in 1549 in Sagami, an area controlled by the Odawara Hojo but Sagami was adjacent to Kai, the home of Lord Takeda Shingen(1521-1573), a powerful daimyo set on becoming shogun even though death claimed him before he was able to succeed.  Shigenobu’s life was certainly marked by civil unrest.  After Shingen’s death, the Odawara Hojo were dissolved by Toyotomi Hideoshi after the siege of Odawara.  Sagami would subsequently come under the control of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the eventual shogun of Japan who’s family would rule Japan for over 200 years until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  Much of what is known about Shigenobu’s life is interwoven with legend, however, he came of age during a time when control over his home changed three times.  Out of necessity for survival the inspiration for Iaido came and due to the relative peace in Japan after he was forty, Shigenobu was able to travel, test his skill, build his reputation, and acquire disciples.  Shigenobu’s time was a time of civil war in Japan and the success of a military and its daimyo(feudal lord) depended upon the ability to feed and supply the largest army, but also depended upon any technical advantage developed and the ability to maintain this advantage through secrecy.

If we come to present day, no one uses swords for combat.  State military secrets are still guarded closely using varying levels of security clearance aimed at mitigating espionage, but all Koryu, “Old Style”, have elements of secrecy that are foundational in the transmission of the art.  Explicit in Muso Shinden Ryu are Shoden, “Beginning Level/Tradition”, Chuden, “Middle Level/Tradition”, and Okuden, “Hidden Level/Tradition”.  In today’s climate, traditional koryu struggles for survival against one of its pillars of survival, secrecy.  In order for koryu to survive, it must be popularized, and once it’s popularized, it loses its secrecy and one of its elements of efficacy, surprise.

The new way is marketing, getting leads for new students, building a dojo that appeals to customers, tracking website analytics to determine how much traffic comes to the website and how long the visitors stay in the website.  The new way is totally opposite from the old where skilled teachers lived in obscurity only to be found by students who sought out the path.  The teacher scolded and refused to teach them, and only after demonstrating dedication to the art did the teacher accept the student.  Instead of a dojo in the middle of a strip mall selected for its favorable demographics with a large illuminated sign pronouncing the name to the world in neon, the dojo was down an alley with a fence and gate guarding the entrance, and the small wooden sign overgrown by bamboo and other greenery sprouting from within the garden. Instead of hundreds of students, there were only a few.  Instead of being rich, “successful”, the teacher struggled to survive barely making ends meet and put everything into the dojo and the students.  The new teacher wants to be recognized, travel across the globe and have hundreds attend seminars.  The old teacher just wants to be left alone to teach.  The new teacher sells, sells, sells; the old teacher just teaches.

The old will die unless it is passed on and infused with some new.  The old student worked to learn the art and support the teacher.  The old student brought food, cleaned sensei’s house, massaged sensei’s muscles so it was easier for sensei to teach.  The old student was devoted to the teacher.  What does a new student look like?  O negai shimasu?

Infinite Lessons

From a Western perspective, a teacher and an instructor are synonymous. These words are used interchangeably when referencing someone from whom we are learning. From a Japanese perspective these words are very different in their connotation. It is common in modern, standards-based education to think and plan lessons around the facilitation of learners acquiring skills, but there are some current thoughts around how teachers develop a student’s character as well. It is in this difference that the subtlety between instructor and teacher can be differentiated.

An instructor is focused on skill acquisition, level of proficiency, and transfer of that skill.  All lessons and shifts in instructional methods are based on the feedback produced by the learners on some form of assessment.  Modifications are made in an effort to increase proficiency levels to the point of being able to transfer the learning to a new context and thus achieve mastery.  In Japanese, it is referred to as “Shu-Ha-Ri”. “Forming-Breaking form-Releasing form.” The learner copies the form to create the correct form, then begins to break out of the form to be able to put the form back in a variety of contexts.  From an instructor’s perspective in Muso Shinden Ryu, there are clear steps taken through the Shoden level and developed before instructing a student Chuden, and then eventually Okuden.  Though technical proficiency is a goal for both instructors and teachers, it is here that they begin to diverge as the role of the instructor is complete.

A teacher’s lessons go beyond the skill, they lead to the way, or “Do”.  Furuya Sensei wrote about this in his book Kodo: Ancient Ways (1996).  He writes that after releasing form, the next stage is called “ku” or “emptiness”.  This concept was popularized in Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda when the character Po opens the Dragon scroll and finds that the scroll is blank, meaning that there are no traces of form in mastery.  Many would interpret the blank scroll as nothing there, but another interpretation is that everything is there.  The blank scroll has no boundaries, it is infinite; our learning is also infinite as long as we keep training.  O negai shimasu?

Futile System

I remember one day asking sensei why he trained in Aikido and Iaido. His response was, “How dare you ask me this question!” My intent was to discover if the same reasons for his devotion to the art were the same as mine, but what I have come to understand is that there is only one reason to study and train in Iaido and that is reason is because I must.

No one carries swords anymore; it would be a relatively useless endeavor to do so. One isn’t going to need to cut anything that would require around twenty-eight inches of sharpened steel in order to accomplish the task. A pocket knife would suffice for most daily cutting needs, or perhaps a pair of scissors to open those pesky cereal bags evenly. No one carries a sword anymore.

There are far more effective ways to defend oneself than using a sword. All we have to do is study the way the introduction of firearms to the island nation of Japan totally changed warfare and the use of swords for combat in order to determine their value for combat and defense. It wasn’t the sword’s unique self-defense qualities that led to the ban on wearing swords in 1876 as part of the Meiji Restoration. There are far more effective ways to defend oneself than using a sword.

Studying and teaching Iaido won’t make one rich. Rent and mortgages are expensive. Insurance to protect against litigious learners and the costs of uniforms, swords, cleaning kits, sageo, and other routine maintenance of training adds up to losing money or breaking even. Studying and teaching Iaido won’t make one rich.

I study and practice Iaido because I must. Try to convince a flower not to open. Try to resist the burn of the sun without sunscreen. Try to stand against spring runoff. I study and practice Iaido because I must.

I practice in my basement. I practice outside. I practice on mats. I practice on hardwood floors. I practice in the heat. I practice in the snow. I practice Iaido and trying to convince me to do otherwise would be futile. O’negai shimasu.

Simplicity in Connections

None of us lives in a vacuum.  I am reminded of this daily.  Relying upon others sometimes goes unnoticed and it’s easy to forget how intricately woven together all of our lives are.  The social hierarchy of feudal Japan reflected this by placing farmers above craftsmen and merchants.  If we don’t eat, we don’t live.

Within each person, each role can be found.  There are the aspects of ourselves that we cultivate and grow that provide sustenance to those around us, and those that protect and serve.  The relationship between teacher and student is the same.  As a student I am there to make it easier for the teacher to teach, and as a teacher I am there to make it easier for the student to learn.  This tension between each trying to make the efforts of the other easier is the gravity that pulls both together along the same path.  The efforts to walk the same path is called training.  O negai shimasu.