I mentioned that sometimes you just have to admit to yourself that it’s time to leave the dojo and start your own class. Some figure this process is inevitable and is a result of “shu ha ri” the way we learn budo.
It’s not inevitable, and shu ha ri (keep break leave) is not a suggestion to learn, break away and leave home. I was lucky enough to get a day of koryu with my sensei last weekend and he put a nice definition and timeline on the process. Shu is to keep what your sensei is telling you, to copy and learn. You ought to do this until you’re about 6dan. Now he’s mixing kendo federation grades in with his koryu but the timeline is handy and he’s a fan of learning koryu from day one of your iai training. To convert to years, getting 5dan will take about 11 years. Sixth will take you another five years so somewhere between 11 and 16 years is the time you should consider yourself in the “shu” the learner’s range. Considering you can get to be a surgeon in that sort of time frame and be licensed to muck about in someone’s innerds, you can see that he’s pretty conservative. Some folks figure they’ve got it in two years, but I tend to go with my sensei’s idea.
At 6-7dan (another 6 years to 7dan and another ten to 8dan) you should probably go and visit other sensei to get other points of view on your art. In other words you should start the “ha” process of breaking down what you’ve learned to understand it more deeply. That’s a decade with one teacher before you start looking at other teachers.
Having started as a koryu student I have no problem with this timetable because it takes a long time to bleed one teacher dry, to absorb the understanding that teacher has of the art. But being in the kendo federation creates a different attitude for students. The kendo federation iai is “based on a book”. It’s external and standardized, not internal. You can go at zen ken iai from a technical point of view, you can learn it from anyone who knows the steps. The koryu system is to learn how your sensei understands the principles of the sword, the technical aspects are only there as a vessel, a holder of the underlying knowledge. In a very real way, you “learn your sensei” rather than “learn iai”. Each and every person who does an art will understand it in the bones. It takes a lot of years to feel what your teacher feels in your own bones. It takes ten minutes to learn the dance steps and a couple of years to learn how to dance with millimeter accuracy so that your sword stops exactly there. A couple of years but nothing like a decade.
Those introduced to iai by way of the zen ken curriculum will instinctively figure that there’s one way to do a koryu, there’s a right way and a wrong way and all koryu teachers will know that curriculum well or badly so you just flit from one to another and figure it out.
That’s a mistake. Sure there are koryu teachers who will teach anyone what they’re doing. I will teach “how we do it” to anyone who shows up in class with permission from their teacher to learn from me. (I tend to assume if they’re there they have that permission, but perhaps I should not, and often now I ask a few questions.) But never confuse learning the dance steps from me with learning sword from me. To do that you have to spend enough time doing koryu in front of me to learn how I make sense of it from the inside. It took me ten years to start absorbing the lessons, it will take you the same time and then you’ll be where I was 10 years ago. I don’t say that to suggest that I’m some sort of wonder-boy who knows lots, I’m just saying that you’ll know what I know, which might not be much at all.
If you learn from me that your left foot may stay at an angle on the opening cut of the first kata, as opposed to squaring it up as in zen ken iai, you have learned where to put your foot. It would take me a few hours to make you feel the difference between the two, provided you have a decade of training and can feel your bones well enough. In other words, I cannot teach you the difference if you’re less than about 5dan. Not really. I can give you things to practice but if you can’t feel the difference between the two positions of your feet while reading this, you’re not really there.
So up to 6 dan you learn from one teacher, you are in “shu” and you stick to it. Don’t confuse yourself with other teachers, they will be kind, they will show you variations, but they will only distract your learning.
At 6-7dan you start to break it down said my sensei, you start to practice with other sensei that your teacher recommends, you start to see other ways to do it because now you can understand in your bones what that teacher is showing you of his bones. It’s a delight to teacher and student to explore variations, to hear things from another viewpoint, to show a student a little twitch, give a little story for the deep brain to chew on. It can work at this level, without being a problem to either student of teacher. (The problem to a teacher is the headache you get when your student says “in my other club my other sensei says to do it like this…” Other sensei? Brain hurts.
Why would a sensei send a student to another teacher? Because no student can ever “be” his sensei. The body is different, the background is different, the injuries are different. Each student must find his own understanding. There are not many lines of koryu, there is a single koryu for each and every teacher out there. This is what my sensei means when he says you must make iai your own. He doesn’t mean you pick and choose this or that variation from the dozens of sensei you have. He means that when you try to learn your teacher’s iai, and you practice as needed with other sensei for another ten years, you will come to your own way.
And Ri? The “ri” of shu ha ri means to leave. It’s to leave the need for either teacher or kata behind. Its 8dan, where you start working on riai, on the principles of iai. Note I said “start working on”, a rank isn’t achievement, it’s not the arrival at the destination, it’s the road signs that say “turn here”. The “ri” stage is where you truly begin to define what the art means, and very few people in each generation achieve that level of understanding. It takes a lifetime of devotion to a teacher, to an art, and to the quest beyond both of those.
Respect those who have got there, because they’ve given up a hell of a lot to get there. I’m not one of them and have no desire to devote that much of my time to the quest. I’ve been fortunate enough to have met one or two and I figure I’m studying with one now, despite what he would say.