Added with permission from Kim Taylor Nanadan (CKF) Iaido, Rokudan (CKF) Jodo and Niten Ichi Ryu Shidoin, January 2023
Surviving the critical moment
If you are at a distance in which the swords of both sides can strike at any time and you try to strike your opponent with your sword and see that this gives your opponent an advantage, that is to say that your opponent will be able to survive the critical moment (“To”) before you, you should overcome the moment before your opponent by clinging to the opponent with your body and legs.
After you have survived the moment, you do not have to worry about yourself anymore. This should be considered with the previous and following chapters.
First we ought to think about the critical moment that Musashi names here. What is that? At any moment during an attack there is a point at which the attacker cannot change their attack, and one at which the defender cannot avoid being hit. These are not always the same moment, there is sometimes a small gap in the distance, the timing or the spirits of attacker and defender. This is a hard thing to see so let’s talk about one of the easiest situations, that of a thrust to the chest. As the attacker drives the tip forward the defender can move to one side or the other. If that move is made too soon the attacker simply follows and drives the tip home. If too late the problem is obvious. So far so good, but where is that critical moment? Stand up and face the wall squarely, imagine a sword coming from the wall… hey, a new horror movie! Imagine it getting closer and closer, now turn your body to the side, pivot like a door so that your centerline comes off the line while your forward shoulder moves slightly forward. Swing your back foot offline last. If you have done all this after the time the sword tip has passed the point where your forward shoulder now is, the attacker (the ghost in the wall?) cannot change the attack. This physical prevention of the adjustment is very clear. Much less easy to see from the defender’s point of view is the place where an attack can’t be changed mentally, where the attacker can see nothing except the sword biting into your body, but at that point he can no longer adjust. We aren’t talking about taking swords away here so we’ll leave it at that. Just so you have an idea of what the critical moment involves. To escape a critical moment we must somehow have space between the commitment of the attack and the inevitability of our being struck.
As an aside, consider ki ken tai ichi in Kendo with this critical moment in mind. Do you see the importance of seme now? The importance of beating your opponent before you swing? Every attack contains an opening for a counterattack, this opening is the difference between the swing and the hit.
The critical moment discussed here is the moment when we cannot avoid being hit. One way to avoid defeat at the “we attack” stage, the stage where both attack at the same time and our opponent is about to win, is to close in tight with him. Today we might call this tai atari in Kendo, but that would not be quite accurate, Musashi had another conception of striking with the body, best to think of this as similar to a boxer’s clinch. Tie your opponent up, hang on him, make him work hard to get rid of you, tire him out.
To cling with your body and legs doesn’t mean to give him a big hug, it means to get right up beside him, with no gaps from the legs to the head, make sure he has no space to attack into. Being that close requires good posture, if he can slip a leg around yours or get a bit of space to knock you back with his arms or his shoulder it’s no good. Musashi writes elsewhere that you must face him squarely, and overlap him everwhere, that way he can’t sneak around to the sides and trip you up. Yes there are inside sweeps to be tried but those are prevented more easily than if he attacks your corners.
There are two places where you are relatively safe from a sword, outside it’s range, from where you are advised to launch your “I attack”, from where you attack first, then there is the area inside the sword, where you and your opponent sit inside the tsuba in this case. You won’t be able to get between his arms if he has both hands on the sword, but stand where you would be if you had. Right up next to him.
In the timing of both of you attacking at once you will not be able to disengage, move to an outside distance. The gap between committed attack and inevitable cut is too small. You are already moving forward for your own strike, so move forward faster and farther.
If you are empty handed this would be an excellent place to be. In this case do wrap your legs and arms around him and take him to the ground, preferably underneath you, preferably with your knee in his groin as he hits a big rock. This trying to take a sword out of someone else’s hand while he is standing up is a very tricky business, but taking it out of the hands of someone who is unconscious is not so hard. While this article deals with sword vs sword, Musashi was not unfamiliar with picking up a swordsman and dropping him on his head. Check out stories of his very first duel.