Here’s a question from one of my students:
“How long have you been doing each art? For instance, when did you start iai, then niten, then jo?
You’ve been doing iaido for much longer correct? Or are you better at iai because you had a non-seminar teacher?
I’m just wondering because you always have so much more to say about iaido, so much more to teach beyond which foot goes where, in iai comparatively to jodo.”
We discussed this a bit in the bar last evening but I promised to write about it with a coffee in my hand so here it is. I started Aikido with Bruce Stiles in 1980, I first saw a class in Iaido in 1983 with Mitsuzuka Takeshi but consider my current iai to be from 1987 when I met Ohmi sensei. I began Niten Ichiryu with Haruna sensei in 1992 and my jodo a few years after that, probably mid-late ’90s since the book was written in 2000. I had done Aiki Jo and Ken since 1980.
Do I know more in the arts I had a local teacher? I don’t know, how do you know how much you know? What do we define as knowledge? I will be so egotistical as to say that I have seldom been “wrong” when listening to my seminar teachers tell me something I had worked out for myself. Mostly that stuff concerned the back story to a move in a kata. For instance, being told that the opponent in Soete Zuki is walking beside rather than in a doorway. Mind you, I was taught one, then the other by different teachers so which one is “correct”? What would be “wrong” anyway? What would a seminar teacher omit that a local teacher would fill in? Different teachers teach different things, the elephant and the blind men.
Knowing the shape of lots of kata?
I know a lot of kata in many schools, probably as much or more than most folks, but that’s not a big deal. If we take something like Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, if you know the first set you pretty much know the rest of the school. That is, you can pick up the rest of the kata quite fast, the basic movements are repeated through the school. If you know the kihon of Shindo Muso Ryu, you can quickly learn most of the kata in the school. Add Ran Ai, and you’re pretty much there. If you know one Japanese martial art you will find that you can pick up another quickly.
In other words, the shapes are what you learn first, and once learned you can get into the details, but even 200 shapes is simply a matter of memorization. Lots of people can memorize a lot more than we do. The number of kata you know is, more or less, a reflection of how long you’ve been practicing. You tend to accumulate them rather than learn them intentionally. Knowing more than one art is not a bad thing, comparative study allows more insight.
Knowing lots of detail?
After learning the “dance steps” we tend to start picking up detail, more and more detail, lots of detail. Especially in iai, where there is no partner to direct and correct your movements. I don’t mean you are being taught by your partner, but that they are physically present so you have a target to strike to. There it is. Get to the correct place at the correct time and cut or strike at the angle and with the grip that works. No need for words.
In Iai we tend to say “the riai of this kata is that there is an opponent there, and one there, and this one does this and then that one does that”. That’s not riai, that’s the kata, and in partner practice you have a body in space that is doing things which you can see. The “riai” mentioned above is the starting point of partner practice. It’s no secret to learn what is happening in an iaido kata, it just seems like it, and sensei telling you what your invisible opponent is doing is more words than sensei telling you what is happening in a partner art, but it’s not “more detail”, it’s not deeper instruction, it’s just setting up the kata for you to learn. As we discussed in the bar, you don’t have to say/teach as much while doing jodo because the explanation is obvious, here comes the cut, get out of the way.
If we’re talking a partner koryu, even less talking is needed. Here’s the big shape of the kata, get out of the way. “How do I do that?” “I don’t care, just get out of the way”. What if there is more than one way to get out of the way? Pick one. How do I know it’s the right one? Are you alive, if so that’s the right one. There is more than one right one. If you want to go to a seminar and someone tells you a different way, try it out. Do you want to be my student? Do it my way, or do it the way I tell you to do it. If you want to do it the way someone else does it, you’re their student. I don’t care, it’s koryu, I’m not interested in clones of me and you can do what you like in class.
Now, if you’re following someone else and you want me to “correct” you I have a problem, I’ll probably be telling you to do something that contradicts what your sensei says. Mostly I’ll correct you anyway, I’ll suggest ways to improve what you’re doing, but I won’t ever know if that’s what your sensei would have said. I may be telling you a big fat lie.
When we get to Seitei Iai or Jo we have a different animal, if you want to pass your exam you do it like your panel wants to see it. There is, in fact, a right way and a wrong way to do it. You will know what that is because you have feedback in the form of pass or fail. Unless some other criteria comes in like quotas, then you have confused feedback if those quotas are not actually stated as part of the exam. Secret criteria are secret, unwritten rules are unwritten, they are therefore useless as learning or teaching tools. Don’t apply the standards and secrets of Seitei to koryu, they don’t apply. Different goals to the training.
Being able to “fix” a student?
This is more like it. Can I “fix” you in iai? How about jo? I can fix you in both, but again, jodo is more or less self correcting. So is Aikido, it works or it doesn’t. You can force either of them but you know you’re forcing it. The presence of a partner means that you can fix yourself quite easily, you can feel the balance, you can feel the timing, you don’t have to be told. The absence of words doesn’t mean you are being taught less quickly in jo, it just means you need more words to correct iaido because there’s an absence of feedback except sensei’s voice yapping in your ear. “Stand up straighter” needs to be said in iaido, the stick hitting your head means it doesn’t have to be said in jodo.
But can I fix better in iai, where I’ve studied longer and had a local instructor? Considering that I make stuff up, I “lie to beginners” to keep them moving forward in their studies, I invent exercises and ways to see things, I’d say that in all of it, I’m equally skilled in my lies and inventions. Can you feel your imbalance at this place? No? Try this, feel it now? Yes? Good, I just lied to you, I just made something up that I wasn’t taught. I did that so you could feel the imbalance, now fix it and move on from my lies.
Does my lying bother you? They are stories then, don’t think of them as lies, think of them as approximations to reality, think of them as “good enough”. Newtonian physics is “good enough” but it’s a lie that we now know is a lie.
The thing is, I can handle that lie, I can’t get my head around Quantum physics. I don’t have the background, I don’t know the little lies well enough to understand the bigger lie of string theory or multiple worlds or whatever that stuff is that leaks out of the LHC.
Knowing the underlying principles such as Jo Ha Kyu?
This is the Hyo Ho, it’s the stuff you can read about in the Go Rin no Sho, it’s the strategy and the riai you are meant to extract from the kata. It’s also, to a large extent, something grafted onto the budo from places like Noh. Zeami was one of the biggest influences on budo, seriously, a lot of our terminology came from his writings.
Is it me or is it you?
Is it that I don’t know as much in some arts as in others and so can’t teach you the details rather than just the dance steps, or is it that you’re at the level of dance steps in some arts and beyond that in others? Do you know a LOT about Seitei iai so that I can teach you much more? Do you have less of the basics in Seitei Jo, are you still working on the steps and timing of Midari Dome and Ran Ai? Will I have learned more about those so that I can teach you more detail when you’re ready for it?
Or does the partner you have in Midari Dome and Ran Ai mean I don’t have to natter at you? That I can see you learning stuff well enough without me filling your head with more words?
Can you trust that I will make up a lie when you stall? That I will come up with some way to push you forward when you need a push? Can you trust that I teach different principles in different arts? That I tend to tell you stuff in the places where I learned that stuff? Can you believe that all the “good stuff” crosses over from one art to another?
In Jodo we have been blasting through lots of kata because we’ve been preparing for seminars. Same with Niten Ichiryu. Few of us are preparing for gradings so the Seitei Gata sets can be done with details added.
Questions. If you want words and details and in depth noodling about anything, just ask. You know how easy it is to get me nattering, how hard it is to stop me. That’s why the secret code phrase of our dojo is “kuchi waza”. This means “shut up sensei and let us get on with our practice”.
I’m calling kuchi waza now.
Oct 3, 2018
Check out the seminars below for the rest of 2018.
October 27-28 Kajiya sensei, soke of Niten Ichiryu in Mississauga. (still planning, something will happen).
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
2019 April 6, Seito Bugei Juku seminar in Peterborough.