Added with permission from Kim Taylor Nanadan (CKF) Iaido, Rokudan (CKF) Jodo and Niten Ichi Ryu Shidoin, January 2023
I get them all the time, an existential dread that nothing makes any difference, that there’s no meaning to life, that… well that things are as they are and it’s up to us to assign what meaning we wish to assign. The miracle of existance is that we’re capable of doing just that. We exist, we are capable of asking such strange questions as why we exist, what meaning our lives have. Seriously? It isn’t meaning enough to be able to ask about the meaning?
On a smaller scale than “the meaning of everything” I’m having a small crisis of faith about budo. I worry that I’m just going through the motions of teaching kata without doing enough guidance toward the principles. Those same principles I’m struggling to understand myself. Which is a bit self-flagellating since folks keep telling me I talk too much and I should just get on with practice.
Which brings me to the point today. A fellow traveller for the last 30 years has wondered whether current practice of koryu is a genuine link to the founders of the art. We have both seen deep changes to the kata in the last 3 decades of our personal practice. What does this mean to our connection with the origins of 400 years ago?
I’m going to argue that things are just fine and haven’t changed in 400 years. First, I’d like to point out that modern arts change too. Seitei Gata Iai and Jo are coming up on 50 years old if we assume they were “invented” in 1968. We see various top instructors once or twice a year and over the decades we’ve see a lot of “changes”. These are not linear, we are not heading for a certain ideal place that will then be set in stone like koryu (hah) forever. One of our sayings over the years has been “if you don’t like the weather wait five minutes” no, wait, it’s “if you don’t like that way of doing it, wait a couple of years, it will come back around”.
We have had many different high level sensei teaching us and they all have their own ideas on various “optional” parts of the kata. They are of different ages and some teach old man stuff and some teach youthly stuff. I’ve watched jaws drop and walls go up when a teacher says “move the pommel of your hilt two inches when you’re sitting down”. Just move the hilt. You can move it back when he goes home, or maybe you’ll like it.
I’ve listened to some top, top level sensei say that other top, top level sensei aren’t to be trusted because they don’t know the latest tweaks, they live too far away from Tokyo or they didn’t show up at the last seminar. For new students this is interesting and they latch on to everything that sensei says from then on. For those of us who have been around for 30 years it’s interesting in a very different way.
Sensei ought to respect other sensei, especially those of the same rank. Yet things are not so different than 400 years ago when sensei said the same things about other schools. Those guys don’t get it. I get it, practice with me. Might be true. It comes down to the teacher and so we come to the “problem of seitei” which is that it’s a standard practice that is allowed to be taught by many different sensei. In fact, having one sensei is actively discouraged by the federation. On the other hand, there are sensei who insist that you have to treat seitei like a koryu and have a single sensei or you won’t pass your next exam. You have to decide on one single style (one sensei) after 3dan so that the judges can see who you are studying with. Presumably you have to have the right sensei, one whose style the panel will know, therefore one who is on the panel. Sort of goes along with “you have to be at every seminar given by the panel for the year before your grading so that they see your face”.
If that seems to argue against the idea of a standardized method of practice, well now you’ve got your own crisis of faith.
Things change, the way people practice changes as they get older. If it didn’t, they would be drifting from the principles. Old Man Iaido is a thing. So is old man Kendo. This is simple, what we’re doing is a martial art. If you can’t let go of the youngster jumping around banging together super-fast, super-strong sort of fighting when you get too old and injured to practice that way, you are dead. What I mean is that if your knees are too painful to rise out of seiza to beat your opponent to the first cut, and you insist in sitting in seiza anyway, you are dead. Your iai is no good. You don’t understand the most fundamental principle of a combative art, that it ought to be combative.
By all means, struggle down onto the floor and creak up to teach how it’s done, but don’t tell anyone what you’re doing is good iaido, it’s “put this foot here” not “this is iaido”.
Technique is different with different sensei and drifts with a single sensei over time. If you’re practicing seitei iai or jo and you have many different sensei, deal with it. As one of the sensei I agree with (and therefore approve of) says “some things in seitei are deliberately left open so that you can fill it in with your own understanding” so try what each sensei tells you to do. You don’t have to keep it, but if you’re sincere as a student of seitei, you do have to try it. In the end, you have to understand things for yourself.
If we go to the koryu we have none of these problems. One sensei, one way to do things and that way hasn’t changed since the founder’s time. I mean, it wouldn’t if there were proper transmission down the lineage, if students did what sensei taught them and sensei did not teach them more than one way to do each thing.
If we extend that, then there ought not be any different lines of koryu either, so if we see another lineage that does things differently than we do them, well there must be a problem in their line, one of the sensei must have had incomplete transmission and criminally passed things along in a crooked version of “backyard practice”.
That’s why we are so excited about proper paper right? That menkyo kaiden, that kongen no maki. And got in the right way too, no finding one in a used book store, no buying one off your sensei, no getting it from an old sensei who just teaches you the shapes because that’s all he’s got time for, and hopes you can fill in the gaps yourself. No, you have to earn it properly by studying at the feet of a young and vigorous sensei for at least 30 years. Oh, and then you have to look like I expect you to look.
Let’s admit that I’m heading for the bottom of my third cup of coffee and stop all this sarcasm. Life isn’t like that in the koryu world any more than it is in the “everything is written down” seitei world. Teachings will drift and shift and vary. Things will look different for every single sensei and student.
The bottom line to go with the bottom of the cup? You need to find a good teacher. Period.
Just what “good” means will perhaps be different for you than for me, but for me I want a teacher that can pass along the principles of my martial art, and if I’m really lucky, the principles of being a good man in the world. I’m a man, I’m speaking in the personal, don’t jump on my pronoun!
As a teacher of koryu myself (must be a teacher or else an egotist, I’ve written books) I don’t want little clones of myself running around. I want students who listen to my arguments, try what I show them and then decide for themselves. I want them to challenge me and if they show me things don’t work I’ll steal their stuff and pretend it was my discovery all along. After all, they wouldn’t have come up with it if I hadn’t shown them what didn’t work right?
For myself, I will try anything a sensei shows me. Some sticks right away, some I need time to understand and some just gets forgotten. What I value more than a new variation of a kata is a new viewpoint on the principles of the art.
Now that’s something worth going to class for.
PS. What principles? Umm, the founder may not have left video for us from 400 years ago, but many of them left writings. Read them. As for seitei, there is film from 50 years ago. Watch it, it isn’t so different. It wouldn’t be, it needs a committee to change it.
March 14, 2017
Annual CKF International Spring Iaido and Jodo Seminar and Grading registration is open
http://seidokai.ca/iai.seminar.html for the seminar,
http://kendo-canada.com/ for the jodo grading.