I don’t know if it’s the humidity here on the east coast but the first evening of the seminar here in Antigonish featured two diatribes on spirituality in iaido.
I honestly can’t remember the first, we’ve been out for beer. The second was all about kasso teki. He’s the guy who is the opponent in iaido of course. He looks like you, he sounds like you, in fact, Bill Mears used to say that he was everything about you that you didn’t like. All the terrible things you do and say that you wish you didn’t.
Oh, and for a beginner, he’s just a little bit too slow and stupid to ever win, so each time you do a kata you kill a little bit of what you don’t like about yourself.
Kasso teki has to be a bit less skilled than your beginner self because otherwise you won’t learn. Think of your badminton instructor, you know, the one who is an all-state champion, who can send you home black and blue like a trip to the local…. never mind, the guy who can send you home black and blue from birdie bites. What would you learn if he just screamed them past you from hour one? Nothing? Absolutely, nothing. To begin with he’s got to lob them over the net so that you can learn to return them. He’s got to lose to you, just like kasso teki. Think of this like your invisible opponent is lobbing, oh, I dunno, your cigarette habit over the net. Not too hard to beat that one is it Mr. ashtray licking kisser?
But eventually you learn the basics of badminton (or iaido) and it gets a bit easy to beat your simple self, you know, the nasty habits you want to get rid of anyway. Eventually you get on to stuff like “beer: drinking too much thereof”. Oh yes, now your kasso teki is just a little bit better than you. This is your badminton coach staying just a tiny bit ahead of your skill level so that you learn. You have to learn or you end up getting beaten over and over again. So you try hard and you catch up a bit and he stays a bit ahead of you.
This is most of your iaido career, your imaginary opponent remains a bit better than you are, and you get a bit better for trying to stay alive, for having to struggle to beat him day in and day out.
But that’s only most of your career. Eventually kasso teki gets mean and nasty. Around when you’re old, let’s say sometime when you feel like I do most of the time, perhaps when you’re 70 or so, kasso teki ends up being your 18 year old self. Young, healthy, full of wastewater and acidic substances (piss and vinagre I think I mean), and he can wipe the floor with you. In fact, kasso teki does wipe the floor with you. Every time you step into the dojo you notice you are another step behind, that it takes a few seconds less time for your younger self to defeat your present self.
You move from humiliation to humiliation every practice.
And yet, knowing that you are beaten and will be beaten you show up in the dojo and put your sword in your belt. You do it knowing your students can see your weakness, you do it knowing they see you defeated each and every kata you perform. You do it simply through the sheer effort of will it takes to be beaten but still show up for practice.
This is all you have to give your students eventually, your example of going on in spite of losing a bit sooner, a bit worse every day. Of losing to the swordsman you once were, but showing up anyway to be beaten again. It is this spiritual determination, this mental toughness that you can give, all you can give, and you give it every day.
This is the joy of iai, the ability of old men to continue past the time when they would have been chased from the dojo by the young bucks in sports where the opponent is real, not invisible, not one’s self. Physical abuse of the body, bruises and breaks will stop an old man’s career simply because the body can’t take it, even if the mind can, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Past this place, the kasso teki of iaido will allow these old warriors a few more years to be battered but not quite beaten in spirit.
I hope I can be one of them when my time comes.