Le Corbusier prints an illustration of a pipe and labels it “a pipe”. Magritte paints a pipe and labels it “this is not a pipe”. If you haven’t seen this painting your art history class was a bust.
In order to fully understand Magritte’s statement you should know what it is responding to, everything is call and response. There are no artworks that arise out of a void, despite what their makers may say.
Even Musashi’s Niten Ichiryu, those five kata for two swords that seemed to arise from nowhere did not. Parenthetically, for those who are about to say they came from Katori Shinto Ryu, please read Musashi’s comments on that school in his book. We don’t know where those kata came from, but we do know, a little, where Musashi learned how to swing a sword, and that will be the root of his school. The early instruction and the later investigation results in the final work.
So we move to iaido, as we often do, and we now perform a kata saying in our minds “this is not iaido”. A surrealist statement? Not at all, a comment on the confusion that happens when the image is mistaken for the object, the illustration for the pipe, the performance for real life. The first glance at Magritte’s painting tells us this. But the deeper investigation, the extension of our question from “what is this?” to “what does this mean” is also necessary.
The very surface of an iaido kata, let’s call it Mae in Seitei Gata, tells us a story, you cut across the face and down to finish the opponent, you shake off the blood and put the sword away. Pretty simple story and when you perform the motions you might say you were “doing iaido”. Your teacher then says “grading coming up” and starts reading you the book and telling you the latest timing from Tokyo. You work on precise angles and arrange your uniform just so and get out a stopwatch to time your etiquette. Now, you say, “this must be the real iaido, after all I am receiving a rank for this performance”.
But, says a small analytical voice in your head, are you doing iaido or are you grading? Is this performance “iaido” or “rank”, or is it just an illustration of iaido, a painting of rank?
Look deeper, look back through the chain of statement and response that is human understanding. Seitei came from old schools of iaido. Seitei is a standardized form of the koryu, it is not something newly burst from the brows of the original committee like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. (Even Athena came from somewhere, from the ingestion of Metis by that big-mouth Zeus). The committee took what they knew and agreed on a common performance. From the Mae, the Shohatto of the Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu lineage came the Mae of Seitei. And in that standardization was created what is most distinctive, most important in the new kata, the standardization. From now on everyone will paint a pipe as Magritte painted a pipe.
So we have found our image and found where it came from and now we can say that Mae is not a pipe, not “iaido” by comparison to Magritte’s treacherous image. Does that mean that the koryu from which the Seitei Mae was painted are the real iaido? Which koryu? Each line of instruction has its own standard of performance handed down from master to apprentice. Are these any less a treacherous image of the real thing? Where then is the real thing? What is the real thing. Must we go back further than the koryu? Is that possible?
Perhaps we ought to ask a different question, perhaps we ought to ask the painters, the makers of the images, the creators of the performances what it is they are modeling. Perhaps we ought to read what the old teachers are saying to us in that other treacherous image, the written word. What is it that the old sensei tell us about iaido? That it is an exact performance of precise angles and tick tock timing? Some sometimes certainly, but not always and not at the core of their instruction. Iaido is something other than the performance of Seitei Mae, and hints may be had from the koryu, from the teachers within those koryu traditions (they still exist) from the writings of those teachers who died before Seitei Iai (those writings still exist) and from the intuition of long-time students of the art. Yes, your intuition is of some value, despite what your teachers may tell you.
Your intuition at seeing Magritte’s pipe may be to say “sure it’s a pipe”. Were you wrong? Seeing Magritte’s painting, showing it to someone who has never seen a pipe, could you expect them to recognize that object should they ever actually have one in their mouth? It may not be a pipe but that image can point to a pipe. The finger pointing to the moon.
So what can you learn from Seitei Mae? What does it point to? Our first understanding says that we cut an opponent across the eyes or the forehead (I forget which, despite being told not a month ago). Perhaps you have been told “intuiting the intention of our opponent, we strike first”. So what have we learned? The Japanese art of the sneak attack? Pearl Harbour? The ultimate lesson being that you’d better hope that this time the giant truely continues to sleep? (Insert vertical cut here).
References, lots of obscure references, are you getting them all? You must find those obscure references, perhaps find the one that describes nuki tsuke and the meaning of jo ha kyu in this precise movement of Mae.
To cut your opponent across the face before he can begin to draw. “This is not iaido”.