There was a long discussion about Seitei Iai at class yesterday and last evening. Here is the upshot of all that. First, there are two kinds of Seitei Iai out there. There is Seitei the martial art, a precise, compact art form that is practiced by many people all over the world. An artform that allows practice with lots of instructors. An artform that you can really get stuck into technically.
That’s the form of Seitei Iai that I have defended for 30 plus years on internet fora and in person. In short, it’s the Seitei that I like, a lot. Ohmi sensei says he uses Seitei Iai to learn. It’s where he learns. The Pamurai suggested it was his laboratory and I agree, it’s my laboratory as well. It’s where you get some input from a senior instructor who may practice a different koryu than you do. You hear of a new idea, a new way to do a movement. Maybe you get a new story about the kata. It’s great.
Then there is the other type of Seitei, the one for winning tournaments and passing gradings. This type obsesses about the shape of the kata, obsesses about being “correct”, about “doing the perfect kata”. As if there is a perfect kata. There is obviously not, since every visit to another sensei sets off waves of “fixing stuff”. If there was a single pefect way to do Seitei Gata Iai, every hanshi out there would be teaching the same lesson. Instead, we get a lot of waving the book around and saying “have you read this?”. Or simply reading out the book. Every time I see that I assume that’s the only standardization possible. Just read the book out, don’t actually teach what you do, that’s wandering off the path. The fact that there are adjustments out there, that one sensei will have a different way to do what is in the book from the way another sensei does it, proves to me that there is no single, correct, way to do the kata. Of course you could just assume all those hanshi are poor teachers and students.
Not that the modern trend isn’t toward attempting this standardization. Making the art all technical, all the time. The ideal as the sacred. Look, it’s a good thing to approach, and attempt to grab, the perfect form. It’s really useful, but it doesn’t teach you a lot. I was a high jumper in high school and I worked on my form constantly, getting the exact runup, hitting the exact launch point, making sure all my bits and pieces were going over the bar in the right sequence. All that had to happen before I could try to jump higher. Without the perfect form it didn’t matter at all how high I could get off the ground. I beat people with worse form, and I lost to those with better form.
So pick a perfect form for your iai and try to do it. Pick YOUR perfect form. If you want to pass a grading or win a tournament, pick the form the judges want to see. Make sure you know how to find that out. The problem with being a puppet of your judging panel or of your sensei is that you are trying to do someone else’s iai, and that will always be less than doing the iai that is best for you.
What I have tried to do in my teaching is to find a student’s strong points, teach to that, and promote an iai that is bulletproof, an iai that has no suki, no openings, that is strong. All that starts, obviously (to me) with the cut. If you can’t cut all the rest is a waste of time. If you can’t hit the launching point with your correct foot, you might as well not bother with the jump toward the bar, you’re going to be wearing it across your back. (I used the Brill Bend).
So two types of Seitei iai, one a martial art where you can learn everything that you can learn in any other martial art, and one where you concentrate on the technical, chasing every rabbit that comes along, fixing stuff that isn’t broken.
The three reasons you get the second type of iai are down to easy. It’s easy to work on the technical, it’s easy to teach technically, it’s easy to practice technically, and it’s easy to judge technically. Easy can be defined as lazy. Lazy teaching is to say “do it again”. Lazy practicing is to do hundreds of identical kata, hoping that one day you will “get it”. Lazy judging is to look at the challenger long enough to find a technical mistake and drop an X on the sheet.
What’s not easy is to learn all the stuff we already know, like metsuke and seme and kigurai. We know what it is, all we have to do is practice long enough to have it show up right? I don’t think so. But remember, that’s my opinion, I’m not a big shot so you don’t have to listen to me, you can go back to practice right now.
Where do these two types of Seitei branch off? Yes, branch they do. Everyone starts by learning the technical stuff, you have to be able to count your steps on the runup to the bar, you have to know that Seitei Mae is a horizontal cut and then a vertical cut with stuff tacked on. You spend a few years (once a week practice) learning the stuff that’s tacked on. Everyone does, or you can’t do iai. So where is the branch point? Maybe it comes at metsuke, at the point where Sensei says “you have to hit someone, look where your opponent is”. What opponent? Where is he? The next bit is crucial, there are two answers. One is “look there” and the other is “can’t you see him?” The first answer is technical, look here, like this, for this long. It’s the outside. It’s charades, trying to get the audience to see what isn’t there. The second answer means “hit the target, find your target, catch him”.
There are two separate paths from there. I would argue that the technical path means that you never get beyond “look there”, you spend the next decades trying to fix stuff that isn’t broken because you never put in the work to figure out where the target is, and how to catch it.
I asked the Pamurai to tell me what she thought of Ohmi sensei’s technique. Her answer was, more or less, “I don’t know, I’m not thinking about technique when I watch his iaido”. Yes.
We talked about where she needs to go with her iai, I think she’s there technically, no more messing about trying to fix stuff. She needs to go somewhere else. Where is that? In jodo she just demonstrated that she has something beyond technique, She and Ken just went after each other hard, she did not back down, she bounced back. She fell down six times and up seven. Stubborn is perhaps close to the feeling, or more nicely, indomitable will. Sutemi, to throw your life away. Read some 18th century kendo manuals, they don’t tell you how to fake to kote, shift right and hit men. They say “throw your life away and step in”. This is something other than technique.
Fine, put that in your iaido. How? You figure out how, I can give you tools, but I can’t teach you to step in front of a bus when you need to do that.
Contrast this with kigurai, the presence of long practice. Hey sensei, how do I do kigurai? Next is “if I just practice for long enough, perfectly, kigurai will show up”. It might, if you can convince yourself that what you are doing is what it is, that the iai you are doing is perfect, then you can walk into a room with a certain presence of competance. Just make sure the floor is perfect, and the lights are perfect, and everyone is quiet and….
I’m more a stubborn fan, I’d rather my students get the job done, no matter what. That they do what they say they are going to do, always. That they don’t blame the floor, or their tools. Take what you are given, get the job done. When you can do that, you can truly say that practice, gradings and tournaments are all the same thing. It’s all practice.
So my Seitei iai is a martial art where you learn the stuff you are supposed to learn in a martial art. Last evening I asked the class to please do their 5dan gradings if they must, pass, and then forget gradings for the next five years so that they can practice a martial art instead of chase rabbits.
Seitei iai is much too interesting to make it a game of Follow the Leader.
Feb 1, 2020
U. Guelph Japanese Swordsmanship Club (Sei Do Kai): Tues. 9-11pm, Fri. 7-9pm, Sunday 1-4pm.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
To Shin Kai Jodo/Iaido classes, Clarke Hall, Port Credit, Feb 10, Mar 16
March 7, Iaido seminar, Port Credit.
March 8, Jodo seminar, Port Credit.
Apr 18, 19. Peterborough Haru Geiko, Jodo, Niten Ichiryu, MJER jujutsu, and one other I can’t remember.
May 15-18. Annual CKF Spring International Iaido and Jodo seminar and Jodo grading.