Yesterday we decided to get up off our knees and take a rest by going through two of the partner sets of our koryu iaido, Tachi Uchi no Kurai and Kurai Dori. Of course I got enthusiastic and stomped a lot, of course I further damaged my knees, but in a different way than my attempts lately at seiza so it was probably a good idea.
Apart from realizing it’s been a long time since we’ve practiced these kata, it brought to mind a story from several years ago when I was asked to teach Tachi Uchi at a seminar. I arranged folks in pairs and we were about ten minutes into the class when I noticed a peculiar look from one of the students. I asked what was wrong and he informed me that I wasn’t teaching the techniques correctly.
Since it was the end of a two day seminar and I was a bit grumpy I invited him to teach the class. Of course he didn’t take me up on it, and I felt a bit bad so I explained that if I’m teaching then my way is “correct”. If someone else is teaching then their way is “correct”. Koryu isn’t standardized and there’s a definite difference between a class of solo and partner iai. I have no problem inviting students to do it “their way” if we’re practicing solo kata, as long as their way doesn’t interfere with those around them. You fix that by shifting people around on the floor. When we move to partner practice there’s only one way to do it, that’s the same way as your partner and it ought to be the same way as everyone else. In other words, do what the instructor tells you to do. Anything else is unsafe.
The idea that there is a single way to do a koryu kata is a common assumption amongst students who are lucky enough to have had a single source of instruction for their entire career. The way they do it must be the way it is done. For us old farts who had to grab whatever instruction we could whenever and wherever we could it’s hard not to laugh when we come across this attitude. Or to get a bit grumpy at having to explain it all once more.
Tachi Uchi no Kurai was introduced to me three separate times by two instructors, both in the same lineage. Some kata were the same but some seemed quite different until I figured out that there was only one kata but three different movements of the sword depending on where you placed your foot. Once again I came back to footwork.
I don’t think I’ve ever written this story down, but one of the introductions to Tachi Uchi for me was in England, twenty years ago? Maybe more. The instructor was up at the front of the class with a big set of folded papers in his uniform. My sensei and I (and several other people) were clustered around a copy of Mitani’s book flopped open on the floor. We were all looking at diagrams and photos putting this foot here and that one there working it out together.
Having had that experience it’s a bit of a sand grain in the old oyster-brain to be told I’m doing it wrong. I know why I do it, I know where and when I was taught what I know, and I can trace all my knowledge to people who were taught by people as well as to books.
Does the idea of learning from books disturb you a little? If you are in the Kendo Federation iai and jo sections it shouldn’t. Your highest authority on your grading kata isn’t the head of the section in Japan, it’s “the book”. I find comfort in books, they are a frozen slice of time that will allow you to check what you’re doing now with what was done in past generations. If you’re lucky enough to have a book from your lineage you ought to be reading it regularly, to hear from the sensei who taught your sensei’s sensei is a rare chance.
Just don’t read that book and then tell your sensei he’s doing it wrong.
Nov 2, 2015