Iaido is a strange sort of budo, it’s one of the few where function follows form. In many cases, all you get is form.
In my budo career I started with Aikido where sensei would show an effortless technique four times and wave at us to do it. Of course we beginners (the entire class) would fire up the muscles and force each other to the ground by grinding bones and falling on each other. It was only months and years later that we started to see the form mattered, that posture and timing and distance and balance had something to do with it. Function and then form.
Most kata-based weapons koryu follow the same pattern, although not quite so roughly at first, after all if you muscle the bokuto around too much you end up with broken heads, or worse, broken bokuto. Still, it’s pure speed and jumping around unbalanced for quite a while until the idea that timing and posture might help.
I practiced Tae Kwon Do for many years and we practiced kata in the traditional way, with long stances and precise blocks, but stood up into a boxing stance to spar. An interesting split between form and function, the explanation being that we did kata to develop posture and balance and all that fun stuff but a boxing stance was just more functional in a fight. Kind of hard to unite form with function under that system, the connections were not obvious.
One of my pet peeves is the idea that you mustn’t learn from a book, that in fact it’s impossible to learn from a book. The classical example is the fellow who turned up at a karate seminar and did a very good kata except that he did it in zig zags across the floor. Eventually came the realization that he’d learned it from a book where the photos went zig zag across the page. Proof positive that…. he learned the form shown in the book very well, up to and including the zig zags. Of course there was no function to the zigs, or the zags, but that was what wasn’t in the book. You can get form from a book, the feeling of sensei’s hands on your chest rocking you off balance from what you figured was a perfect stance (it looked right in the mirror) is something much harder to write about.
So, what about iaido? Today I was looking at some video of a group that is not Kendo Federation but was practicing ZKR iaido. There are lots of them around, ZKRI being somehow understood as a “public” set of iai open for anyone’s use. Fine with me, nobody gets hurt and maybe we get some folks who want to grade, but my inevitable first response is “why?”. What do those folks get out of their practice if they’re not kendo federation? I can plainly see that they don’t get the “riai” of the kata. Timing is off, posture is wrong, they’ve got the form sort of right but there’s nothing under it, no feeling, no function.
Of course there must be some reason for them to practice the set, but the most likely is one that besets a lot of our own students once they start learning koryu… kata kollecting. The idea that if you learn lots and lots of forms you will eventually “get it”. Of course the hanshi tell them that they can learn everything from Mae (the very first form), and that after 50 years’ practice said hanshi is “just starting to understand it”, but the students press on learning those forms.
Form without function is empty, function without form is inefficient.
We start from form in iaido and some people never get beyond it. It looks like this, I’m doing it like that, so I know it. But you have to learn the riai says sensei, and form-boy says “I know where the opponent is and what he’s doing, you told me that the first day”.
Yup, OK carry on.
There’s a reason the Federation doesn’t demand “riai” until 7 or 8 dan. It takes that long to get over in-form-itis, the inflammation of the know-it center of the brain that causes a collection of book-learning and blocks the nerve pathways from the hara to the head.
Symptoms include brand new outfits for demonstrations with velcro fasteners to keep it neat and tidy, an excessive obsession with The Book and an over-fondness for exact angles and fist-width measurements of the sword position. Diagnosis is a complete absence of colour in the eyes as they are turned completely inward.
Of course the other disease is function-osis which causes an irrational pride in chopping up old mat covers and hallucinations of ninjers dropping from the ceiling. Diagnosis by a wildly swirling wide-eyed, unblinking stare.