At our last class we were practicing the kodachi seiho of Niten Ichiru, the short sword. At one point I told my student to separate at the end of the kata without becoming overly focused on my long sword. In other words, don’t leave her short sword in contact with my long sword down by the hip, because it is too easy for me to circle around it and obtain the upper and center position and attack again.
Instead, I said to take a position a bit higher, where the tsuba of the shoto will cover my sword, and be slightly to the right of her centerline to protect her center.
This was done faithfully but two kata later I noticed a bit of stiffness, sure enough I lifted my sword over the shoto and took center, then walked slowly down the line until my kissaki was in contact with her body.
Upon yelling at her about this she told me that she had considered moving her shoto to cover the centerline but I had told her to leave it a bit to the right side of center.
Was she winding me up? I mean, one of the best ways to tell sensei he is overly specific is to do exactly what he tells you to do and let the kata fall apart… But I don’t think she was doing that this time.
Don’t make a fetish out of anything sensei says. If he says “to the side of centerline” don’t take that as a rule to be followed at all times and then lose your life.
This happens all the time in a seitei gata because standardized kata are supposed to be standardized. The more things are clarified, the more they are described to a standard, the more those rules become fetishized and extended to all situations. In the Zen Ken Ren Iai we are told to have the tip of the sword above the hands when we are in furi kaburi (when the sword is above the head and we are in position to strike). Somewhere along the way this got translated into keep the tip above the hands all the time. That became so fetishized that form dominated function and eventually the hanshi, the top instructors, had to clarify that when you have thrust someone you can’t lift the sword up overhead keeping the tip above the hands, that would mean lifting the opponent overhead with your sword. If you are smart enough to get this, you end up doing strange movements to first pull the sword out and then shove it back into position to lift it up with that tip above the hands. Inefficient at best.
No, stop looking at the form and think of the function. If you simply raise the hilt over your head while turning your body the tip comes out of the opponent quite nicely. The problem is not getting it out, the problem is letting the tip be, at one point in the turn, below the hands when one has made a fetish of not letting that happen. Your fascination with the rule that you have invented/extended won’t allow you to let that tip be below the hands so you break the swing instead. You make the next cut into a three part thing instead of one. Pull, readjust, cut instead of just cut.
Rules do not replace reason, they are supposed to help us approach reason. Seitei gata are to allow judges to see a standard performance so that rank can be assigned, they are very good for that. They are not as efficient at teaching the principles, the riai of sword. This I suppose, is why the Zen Ken Ren Iai judging manual states that Riai becomes important as a judging criteria at 8dan.
If you hear sensei say “put the shoto slightly to the right of center” you should hear the additional explanation “so that you can prevent your opponent’s sword from taking center through your shoto because the function is to protect your center not to have the shoto to the right of center”. If he does take center by going around your shoto, for goodness’ sake take it back! That’s function over form, reason over rules, and what you ought to be learning in koryu.
What did I yell at her without thinking? “This isn’t seitei! Think about what you should be doing not what I told you to do!”