Martial arts that display various sword positions with specific postures and thereby appear strong and fast are to be regarded as lowly.
Such martial arts that while concentrating on the smallest details bring various techniques in accord with special rhythms and thereby appear magnificent and exceptional are to be regarded as middling.
The martial arts of the higher level look neither strong nor weak, nor angular, nor fast, nor magnificent, nor bad, however they always appear large, straight and calm.
This should be carefully deliberated upon.
The first reading of this article would tend to convince us that Musashi simply doesn’t like flash and trash. I suspect he would laugh at the movie styles of today, and in fact he might also have laughed at the martial arts demonstrations that the street vendors of the early Meiji performed to attract customers. “All show and no go” or as the folks in Alberta would say, “all hat and no horse”.
But I think his objections are a bit deeper than this. A practice that includes “fancy” sword postures and works to be fast reminds me of those kendo beginners who want to do jodan or nito after a couple of months practice, who figure the best way to get a point is to swing smaller and faster than the other guy.
If you’ve ever seen a kid’s class in iaido or karate you see a lot of dramatic looking poses, we have even adopted a name for a pose from a kid’s class, we call it “heroic stance” and it really does look like a painting done in Maoist China. Very inspiring, very superficial. The name reminds us not to stick out the chest and puff up the samurai face at this point.
Then we come to the middling arts. Ones where we concentrate on the smallest details and various techniques with special rhythms. I don’t know about you but as an iaido instructor of a couple of decades experience this just screams middling level iai to me. You know the folks, those who have about 5 or 8 years in, who can put the tip of the sword exactly on the same spot over and over again, who can move in the same timing repeatedly so that their kata are just the right length of time. When I did my nanadan I was told that I had to finish between 5 minutes 45 seconds and 5 minutes 59 seconds. This with 5 kata that were chosen just before the exam so that I didn’t know what I was going to show. No problem, I simply practiced until I knew exactly how much time I had to fill and adjusted the kata accordingly.
That is impressive I grant you, as is being able to stop a sword swing so that the tip of the blade is exactly the right height and angle, not the yokote at the ha mind you, but the kissaki, the very tip. I’m impressed that anyone can do that, or that archers can split their own arrow. The difference is that stopping a sword isn’t our fundamental aim, it’s driving it through the target. Archers want to hit a target at long range so their aim is to hit the target. For an archer to work on their heroic stance for any reason except to help hit the target is to practice something other than a practical martial art. For an iaidoka to concentrate on hitting the grading points rather than hitting the opponent is to practice something other than what Musashi practiced.
That doesn’t mean Musashi wanted slop, we’re not talking electric fencing here, where it sometimes seems that the goal is to make the buzzer sound rather than to hit correctly (and even there, we’re talking a 3 foot needle, make the buzzer sound and you’ve put a hole in the opponent). Posture is important in that it carries the weapon correctly through the target, but that posture isn’t the point. Even the grading iaido set of the kendo federation (seitei gata) is supposed to “make sense combatively”. It should not be a simple game of putting the body and the sword into various positions at various times.
My ideal for an iaido kata has always been to perform a technique for my class and then have them ask me what technique I just did. The goal is to have no flash, and no hitches that anyone’s eye could catch on (like pausing at a grading point where no pause ought to exist). It would have to be an audience that knows what it’s looking at, novelty alone will catch the attention of beginners, but for students who are used to seeing, what would catch the eye is anything that doesn’t fit the shape of the kata that they hold in their mind.
We come now to the highest level of practice, the one that Musashi says is large, straight and calm. The one that is entirely unremarkable if we read carefully. It is not fast, sharp, strong or weak. It is not magnificent. To me, all this says that Musashi’s highest level of martial art is efficient. As I have told my Niten Ichiryu students for many years, “just walk up to your opponent and kill him”. Is this easy? Not on your life, I am still trying to understand this, I still get dragged back to posing and pushing and trying to go faster, or slower, or whatever the latest expert tells me to do. I have to remind myself over and over that I need to move at the correct speed, I need to be in the correct posture, I need to… well you get the idea. If you are moving fast you are moving faster than you need to be moving. If you are strong you are using too much strength. Your actions have to be invisible, neither strong nor weak, not anything at all, just correct.