When people pick up a sword or bokken for the first time under the watchful eye of a teacher, they usually find the sword, for all its outward simplicity, to be very complex. Swords are not like lightsabers; they cannot cut through anything in any direction. There is a specific cutting edge, and even within that edge, the first third(from the tip)is for cutting-the “monouchi,” middle third for deflecting-the “nakahodo,” and the third closest to the hands is for blocking-the “tsubamoto.” [This is the common wisdom, but we were taught that the back of the sword-the “mune”- by the hands was for blocking(You cannot block a sword. You have to get out of the way!), the sides of the sword-the “shinogi”-were for deflecting, and the edge-the “ha”-was for cutting, with an emphasis on the monouchi.] Most beginners struggle with the grip and leave their hands to the side with their thumbs on top. This grip is the easiest to disarm because the thumbs are weak compared to the hands. It takes many years to get comfortable with the proper grip.
With the proper grip, the extension and arc of the sword must be developed. Many beginners use the sword like a club and think that they must “hit”. This is very common for Kendo practitioners who begin Iaido. Because they are so used to using a shinai, their focus is on hitting instead of slicing. Furuya Sensei would say, “Contact, not impact.” The sword slices on an arc. It’s shape tells us that. It is not like a Scottish Claymore use to cleave through or pierce heavy armor. Training the correct grip, sword arc and timing requires a lot of input from the teacher, and a lot of time. These movements are not natural and are quite difficult to learn. It takes years to learn the proper cut. The impurities of the “natural” movement surface and must be corrected or the student will never learn the proper way to use a sword. This type of training is called “Renshu” or “Forging Practice”. This type of training is often difficult as it makes us confront the frailty of our own egos, but that is the way.
In this confrontation, as the student is trying to reconcile the way he is doing it with the way the teacher is telling him to do it, the reasoning behind why it is done that way surfaces. Japan’s history is interesting to study, but all history is interesting. Learning about how we developed as a species and all the individual cultural perspectives allows the learner to become more human. Patterns emerge from the contrasts in the respective cultures and that allows a broader perspective on what is truly a human impulse as compared to the unique forces of a given time and place. The samurai in the Satsuma clan were well known for their and skill in battle. Their particular calling card was an unstoppable overhead strike. After battles, it was common for swordsmiths and strategists to walk over the battlefield to see what could be learned from those who lost their lives. Why had they failed? The pattern that emerged was that many of the dead were found with their own swords embedded in their skulls cross ways with another vertical slice creating a “+” shape. It was determined that they had tried to block the overhead strikes of the Southern Satsuma samurais. The resulting logic was to teach the samurai facing the Satsuma not to block the strike. Instead, techniques for deflecting the strike and countering were developed as well as techniques to get out of the way of the strike. Hence, Sensei’s lesson about “You cannot block a sword. You have to get out of the way!” This type of learning can only be passed down through “Keiko” or “Reflecting on the Past.” From Keiko, we are able to discover the “Why?” to all the techniques of swordsmanship. Keiko is even more valuable today than it was just 150 years ago because no one engages with swords anymore. We must look to first-hand accounts and documented engagements in order to learn the “why?” behind the technique. Otherwise, our technique becomes empty fantasy that has lost the martial and is only left with art. This is one of the reasons Furuya Sensei recommended that we read The Sword of No Sword: Life of the Master Warrior Tesshu. Master Tesshu’s way was grounded in Keiko.
After a learner has been through Renshu, reasoned with Keiko, that learner could be ready for “Minari” or “Watching and Learning.” Minari is a type of training that allows the viewer to consider the renshu and keiko of others along the way. It is common for students to get injured as a natural part of the aging process, the older we get just sleeping can cause injury! Some injuries prevent us from stepping on the mats of the dojo, but that does not prevent us from training. Minari allows us to see and learn things we may have missed, and feeds into our keiko, or its evolution “Shugyo”-“Religious/Spiritual Training”.
The types of training unfold to us with each successive step along the way. It always starts with Renshu, which leads to Keiko, that inspires Minari, which develops Shugyo, and after more time a learner will have been “Kyoiku”, “Raised/Nurtured in the teachings”, which makes it possible for the learning to leave the dojo and create “Sumikomi”, “Live-in Training” that can be seen as training in every moment of our lives. O’Negai Shimasu.