I notice on one of the forums that a student has once again commented on the zen ken ren iaido as being the beginning set. The set you begin with could I suppose, be called the beginning set, but it isn’t a set that was designed for beginners.
I recently spent some time in Calgary (before the floods hit, hope folks are going to get a chance to dry out soon) and managed to write a bit on the “riai of seitei iai” which has a nice ring to it. Here’s an excerpt from what is supposed to be a seidokai resource, but of course I’ll end up putting it out there for everyone else. The ego knows no bounds.
“The origin of the All Japan Kendo Federation Iai was as an introduction for kendoka to iaido. This was so kendo players could learn how to handle a live blade in a situation beyond the bokuto work of the kendo no kata, itself a set of techniques which intended to improve the use of the shinai by showing how a blade is properly used. Being for the benefit of kendo players, much of the fundamental movement of Seitei Iai agrees with that art. Such things as the importance of a correct furi kaburi (attacking position), square hips, and the ability to follow through after a strike are built into the bones of Seitei Gata iai and they remain there today, stronger perhaps than ever before.
While the intent in 1968 may have been to provide a training aide to kendoka, iaido under the kendo federation has become more than an adjunct to shinai practice and there are now many kendo federation members who practice only iaido. It should be remembered always that an introduction is not always introductory. By that I mean the Zen Ken Ren iai (usually called Seitei Gata Iai or representative forms of iai) was not a set intended for beginners to the sword or to be used as an introduction to iaido. Those who developed the Seitei were senior practitioners of various koryu iaido schools, and anyone who practiced iai at that time, was similarly a member of a koryu. Seitei then, was a representative set of kata which demonstrated the variety of movements and the use of the live blade to kendoka who were likely quite senior in that art and wished to go deeper into the meaning of the sword. Seitei was not intended as a set of kata to teach beginners. Those who wished to learn iaido would have been expected to join a koryu.
The reality today is that Seitei Gata has become, for many, their introduction to iaido. Iai clubs under the various kendo federations worldwide use the Seitei set as their grading curriculum and so instruction in that set begins early if not immediately. There are, in fact, many clubs worldwide that practice only Seitei. The International Kendo Federation claims no authority over any koryu iai schools, and so when senior instructors are sent officially to teach they are required to focus on Seitei Gata exclusively. While many of the senior iaido sensei in the kendo federation may also teach koryu, this is done on a private basis. All of this has created a situation where the Zen Ken Ren iai is in reality a school of iaido in itself, and should be considered as such by its students and instructors. Over the past several decades the iaido committee has interpreted, clarified and in some few cases, modified the original instructions so that the school has become more internally consistent. What was once almost an accumulation of kata from various old schools has become an entity in itself.”
So there you have it, seitei is something you start early, but that’s your introduction to seitei. Don’t think of it as an introduction to koryu, that’s something else altogether.