That thought occurred to me the other day, as we were going through a set of koryu jo we don’t do often enough. Mostly we were just memorizing the dance steps, but occasionally I was teaching, as in “here the sword is attacking so you need to wait before you respond or you will be cut because you just opened up”.
I’m sure those who have studied this set daily for twenty years with a sensei would have told me that I had no business talking about it. That I was risking contaminating my students with false information and perhaps even ruining the art with wrong interpretations.
In other words, I was being arrogant and presumptuous because I hadn’t been taught what I was teaching. Since I’m the one who brought this up, I cannot but agree. I do feel arrogant for teaching beyond what I was taught, always have felt that way. It’s called Imposter Syndrome.
On the other hand, I do it because I’m arrogant, and because I can. To those who don’t teach, or only teach what they were taught directly, I might, after a few beers, call them lazy or perhaps unimaginative. Of course they would call me impure in turn. I also do it because there’s nobody else to do it. This is what we do here in the West where we have only occasional contact with big ranked sensei. We fill in the blanks. Again, horrors.
Yet I’ve been doing this for 30 plus years and I will often say “hey that 8dan stole that from me” when one of them comes up with something I “invented” years ago. My inventions seem to be mostly on the right track. I can remember a handful of times when I was simply wrong in my assumptions about what was happening in a kata, and I can remember another handful where a high ranked sensei was confused about a step that I was confused at. As in “what the blazes is happening here?” I hasten our answers are usually identical “keep him off balance and drive him back while you do that”.
To those who worry that I will change the kata, pass it along with incorrect interpretation, I ask that you not worry. Even for those kata that I’ve been taught well, for decades, I change the story regularly through a student’s career with me. One day it’s the sword side that leads, the next it’s jo. One day it’s a block, the next it’s avoid and strike. My teaching isn’t consistent, so no “wrong way” will develop, except maybe to make my students think that there isn’t a “right way” to do a kata, only a way that works for them at that time of their life.
Stop, lift and drive someone into the ground? Maybe when young and genki, but at 60, or with a torn shoulder? Maybe avoid, take the balance and guide softly into a heap on the floor. I admit to being inconsistent, absolutely, and I hasten to add that my sensei were inconsistent as well. For a long time I thought that it was me not remembering things correctly, but after I started writing stuff down I figured out that sensei was telling me a different story.
Maybe that’s where those confusing spots in a kata come from, great-grand-sensei tells grand-sensei something that sticks and gets passed along to sensei without him seeing where it came from. I have faith in the kata, so I keep practicing and one day, in a panic over some student who is faster than I think they are, I “get it”. That’s happened more than once.
I obviously think that arrogantly teaching what’s going on in a kata I just learned the dance steps, is OK, I do it. So what is my justification? More importantly, what is my advice for other teachers, study group leaders or whatever you call yourself (I say sensei if you’re out front teaching, but I’m simple, I don’t understand subtle things)? It’s this, extrapolate from what you’ve been taught, the longer you’ve been studying an art, the more accurate your extrapolation will be. When you’re introducing a kata and you see your students doing something that seems to make no sense, rely on your experience in the rest of the school, and apply that knowledge to the kata at hand. Even Seitei Gata Iaido, derived from several different koryu, is now drifting toward a common set of principles derived from Kendo. Square hips, drive from the back leg, keep the tip above the hilt at furi kaburi. So the new kata? If you have to explain it, refer to the school as a whole.
Can you fill in a Niten Ichiryu kata with Karate? Yes you can. Should you? It depends on the principle, “use your hips”, yes. “Block a strike with your forearm”? Perhaps not, we are talking swords here, block with your own sword.
To return to the Seitei sets, in Iaido it is becoming easier to refer to other kata when extrapolating to a new one, but there is some difficulty here. You can’t assume the same chiburi, the same noto. For Seitei Jodo, all of which came from the same koryu, it’s a lot easier to apply the lessons of previous kata, and of the kihon, to newly learned kata because there is a lot more consistency. So do it. Be arrogant, be a sensei and make up stories for your students. Next month you can make up a new one, and when the high ranked sensei shows up and tells you a different story, adopt it instantly and be happy if it’s the same one you were using two months ago.
All we are doing is returning to the oral society we were before the printing press was invented. It was only with print that a “correct version” of a story became “a thing”. Before that we learned the shape of the story, the lesson, the twist, and we filled in as we went along. Those who were story tellers for a long time told better stories, but even the novices got the point across.
If you’re standing in front of the class, you need to be arrogant, you need to teach. So teach.
Aug 25, 2018
Check out the seminars below for the rest of 2018 These are all confirmed. Be arrogant enough to assume you will be going to the seminar, that life won’t get in the way. Sign up today!
September 1-3 Tombo dojo Niten and Kage seminar, also Montreal intro to jodo seminar
September 8-9 Ueda sensei in Santiago Jodo seminar and grading
September 22-23 Kurogo sensei in Mississauga koryu Jodo seminar
September 29-30 Fredericton iaido and jodo seminar/grading
Novemer 3-4 Ohmi sensei in Peterborough koryu iaido seminar.
November 23-25 Mansfield Sensei, Mississauga, Jodo seminar and grading
December 1 Etobicoke Iaido grading
2018 April 6, Seito Bugei Juku seminar in Peterborough.