Riai, what is it good for? – Nov 25, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

Iaido is a strange activity, you’re waving a sword around in the air fighting an imaginary enemy. This brings up several ways to approach the art.

The first is to dance. Take the descriptions of the movements or watch sensei and then copy it. You may not know what’s going on but you can certainly memorize the dance steps and do them. This is the traditional way to learn and to teach, just copy the old texts and eventually you will learn how to recognize and read them.

In the case of the zen ken ren iai, the standard set of techniques for the kendo federation, you can even read the book and know with absolute certainty that you will now be doing the movements exactly as the best swordsmen in the organization do them. There should be no arguments anywhere with what’s written in the book, and I have found none over the years. You point to something in the book and even the hanshi say “oh, good spot” and change their practice.

Reading the book you’ll also find descriptions of what the opponent is doing. In the case of the first kata it starts off something like “sensing the ill intent of the man sitting in front of you, draw your sword and cut across his eyes”. Is this the meaning of the kata? The meaning of iai? To defend yourself from attack by anticipating it and acting first? Is the riai of iai passed along by sensei telling you what the imaginary opponent is doing at each point in the kata? I know in the west we tend to start off with this story, giving the students a bit of a leg up to focus their rather wild sword swinging.

But no, it’s just a better way of dancing. After all, it’s one thing to fling your arms around in the middle of a crowded dance floor, another thing to dance with a partner and react to each other’s movements. Much more complex, much more clear. Flailing your arms here and there by yourself could mean just about anything, moving your arm that same way as your partner comes around into that position beside you is quite a lot more satisfying to see.

So we do iai with the idea of an imaginary opponent in our heads, we visualize the situation and respond to it and those observing will see a different level of practice… if they have eyes to see of course. It’s not the riai, it’s not the underlying meaning of iai but it’s important to that meaning.

It’s also written into the descriptions of the movements where it’s not explicitly described in the book. Many years ago we figured one of the kata was done with four opponents at the corners of a square with you in the center. The kata is done by moving to each of the corners in a certain order but we soon found that if we put people into those corners we missed the last two following what it said in the book. It says turn 90 degrees to the right and then 180 to hit the last guy. The problem is that we have moved a step forward to cut the second guy so the 90 degree turn doesn’t hit the opponent…. what to do? We decided that for reality’s sake we had to turn 90 degrees “plus a bit” and then 180 degrees “plus a bit” to hit the last two.

Umm, wrong reading. The book doesn’t say the opponents are in a square, it might say roughly square (I haven’t read it for a couple of months) and what I read is a translated version which I’ve been told sometimes misses the phrase “ya ya” which could be read as “around”, “roughly” etc. The bottom line was the book stated 90 degrees so our opponent is at 90 degrees. There was no need to speculate and be told in “secret oral teachings” that it is 90 plus a little, ya ya 90. The description of the kata tells us who, what and where. We turn 90 and now we’re square on to the opponent, he’s exactly as far away from us as it takes to swing the sword after stepping toward him with the right foot. No further away, no closer. In other words our first imitation of the movements was also telling us where the bad guy is. We already know what’s going on, we don’t need sensei to tell us the secret and that knowledge isn’t riai.

A principle isn’t specific. By definition. Knowing where to cut in this kata isn’t a principle of the sword and certainly not a principle of the art, it’s an Arthur Murray footprint painted on the floor.

Right, so we go a step further and start to look at intentions, maybe that’s riai. After all, we got told that the enemy intended us harm as we started the kata, we cut him across the face because of his intention. Maybe that’s the riai, if someone intends to harm you, kill him fast and first. It’s certainly a philosophy that a lot of folks hold.

Problem with this to my thinking is that I have enough trouble knowing my own intentions, let alone those of an imaginary opponent. A couple of classes ago we did the exercise where you move your sword into the path of your partner just before he starts to move toward a cut on that side (or the other, in which case you get a tap on the ribs). Is this proof that we can read the intention of our opponent? Not really, it’s a bit of a confusion of the word. By starting the exercise we know the intention of our partner, it’s to move to one side or the other and hit us in the ribs. What we’re reading is not intention but the beginning of a movement, we’re learning how to see earlier points on the motion chain we know is coming because we actually know the intention of our partner.

Think that would work while walking down the street and having someone passing suddenly swing at you? It might if you suspected everyone 100% of the time. I think my heart would explode with stress if I lived that way, better to think “you’ll get the first one in but you’d better put me out because if I come back off the sidewalk you’re done”. I once worked for a guy who put five guys down in a bar, it was a bet and he won because they were just sitting and having a beer when some stranger started punching. One of them got back off the floor and my boss was pulped… but he won the bet.

So riai isn’t reading what your opponent is about to do, that’s just good reactions backed by paying attention. Not a bad combination at all, but hardly the principle of a budo. Let’s go back to Mae, that first kata once more, the book says “read the intention and strike him”. If we can’t really read the intention of our opponent, and if governments don’t accept a defence of “he was going to kill me so I killed him” (they’re getting there) then does the practice of iai start with a murder?

As a beginner maybe you figured iaido was “quick draw” for the sword, that would match the get him before he gets you idea, but what did sensei say. “Slow down” maybe? Why would he want you to slow down? Surely the idea is to whip it out as fast as possible on the least excuse? OK I’m actually one of those guys who believes you ought to get to the principles on your own rather than being spoon-fed. It sticks better if you have to work a little so my question to you is to consider why sensei says make your draw slow.

In other words, riai, what is it good for? Iai, what are you practicing for?

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