Kata – Two Meanings – Model or Shape

Kyudo as Kata

Kata are a Distillation

Kata are traditional keystones of all martial arts study. Passed from generation to generation, these movements teach the rich history and concepts behind the martial art you study. Kata are the skeleton upon which we hang everything else. They are a distillation of successful combat concepts and techniques.

Too often today, the priority of martial artists is the number of Kata they can do. This superficial skimming of sequence is truly sad. Studying Kata in depth opens you to a world of exciting and inexhaustible study. The number you know is not important; understanding the depth of each is.

Also observed in martial arts today is the separation of Kata from combat. Some feel Kata is unimportant and, therefore, practice only a few fighting techniques almost exclusively, not even bothering to look at what they can learn from them. And yes, they may become good fighters, but they will only attain the skill level that coincides with their physical ability. I will still put money on the person who studies Kata in relation to combat. His progression in skill may be a little slower than the other, but when his knowledge matures, he will be a strong fighter. His ability will coincide not with just his physical skill, but with his knowledge as well. Being a Budoka is impossible without intelligence.

You can look at Kata in several ways including their history and geographical influence, as well as their symbolic, cultural, and practical meanings. Kata evolved over periods measured in centuries. People who succeeded in the realm of combat added their understanding to each generation. Martial art traditions would not have survived to the present day if there were not some important lessons to be passed on.

The Model and the Shape

Kata - two different KanjiThere are two ways to write the word Kata in Japanese and each one is important in its study.

The first implies a model or Mold (see figure). Part of the character uses the radical for “earth”— something that is fixed. If we consider a drinking cup, using a mold when making a cup allows us to consistently form each cup the same way, the same size, weight, shape, thickness, and contours. This Mold is given to you as a beginner. Kata are standardized movement series exposing you to its movements while teaching basic concepts of your martial art. The beginner in the Doing (Gyo) stage of training learns this standard model of movement and techniques. He copies and practices with little thought as to the reasons behind the movements, because he is striving to learn the sequence and perform them correctly.

As you mature in your understanding of Kata, they start to take on a different form. The standard mold is transformed into a flexible shape.  Like our example of the drinking cup, we can appreciate that there are many different kinds of cups. Large, small, delicate tea cups, plastic cups, ceramic cups, glass cups, wooden cups, stainless steel cups, green cups, red cups—the variety is seemingly endless, but they all have the basic principles of a cup. They all hold liquid and usually stand stable on a flat surface. The second way of writing Kata uses the water radical and emphasizes something more flexible and fluid. Cups come in all shapes and sizes, but there is something “cuppiness” about all cups. The Shape still adheres to principles of being a cup.

Graduating from the Mold concept, you now explore the Shape concept or pattern of the cup. This is the Disciplined Training (Shugyo) stage of training. You now see how movements are related, and why they are performed the way they are. Exploring the depth of the Kata, you see new insights into the stances, movements, transitions, and engagement postures (Kamae). You study the applications of techniques (Bunkai), reverse techniques (Gyaku Waza), Variation (Henka), throws (Nage), and even the hidden techniques (Kakushi Waza). You see Duality (Kyo-Jitsu) in each movement and develop  coordination of Energy (Ki) within the body (Kiai) and how to express it to the Opponent (Aiki). The Kata becomes an integral part of you. Now you are studying Kata in the sense of the second character shown.

Returning to Simple

Finally, you return to the simple movement of the original Kata as it was given to you, but now that simple movement has forever been transformed. Although it looks like a simple movement there is now depth and freedom to your Kata like a wide river. There are many kinds of rivers, some are deep, some shallow, some flow fast, some flow slow, some are cold, some warm, some straight, some meandering. They all have something in common, however: they are all rivers and yet they are all different. Kata using the second character is like this.

Both ways of looking at Kata are important. The first gives the solid foundation of transmitting information to new generations of beginners. The second adds depth to the concepts found buried with. A good teacher knows this and teaches Kata using either way based on the student’s understanding and experience.

There are other concepts to be gleaned from Kata to help you become not only stronger in technique, but stronger in many aspects of our lives.

Budotheory.ca.

Excerpted from:  Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell

Kogeki Bobi – The Unity of Offense and Defense

Kogeki  is a term meaning to attack or cut down and refers to offense and Bobi means defense. The term “Ko Bo Ichi” or “Kogeki Bobi” refers to the principle that offense and defense are one. Hundreds of examples exist that can be used to illustrate this concept.

Upper body shifting to defend and attack simultaneouslyOne example that collapses the distinction between Offense (Ko) and Defense (Bo) is Upper Body Shifting (Jo Taisabaki – shown right). Here, the body rotates in defense, and the same rotation drives the attacking punch.  Using this type of technique takes a thorough understanding of timing (Hyoshi) , distance (Ma-ai),  Initiative (Sen No Sen or Tai No Sen) and most obviously, confidence.

Blocks used to deflect an attack are used to break an arm at the same time , seriously degrade the opponent’s offensive capability, and collapse his structure (Kuzushi). In Kendo a number of terms describe the concept of attack and defense being equal by taking the center line where a downward cut is used to both block or deflect the opponent’s sword while striking at the same time. Examples include:

  • Kiri Otoshi – ‘Dropping Cut’ from Itto Ryu 
  • Gasshi Uchi – from Yagyu Shinkage Ryu
  • Hitotsu Tachi – ‘One sword’ from Kashima Shinto Ryu

Offense and defense can be considered as two separate entities, part of a spectrum, or something inseparable.

Short Time Slices Blur Distinctions

At the tactical and technical levels of strategy, smaller and smaller time slices between offense and defense transitions can merge the two. To fight this way requires strong ability, mental fortitude and flexibility, which shows a high degree of understanding. I remember when I was first introduced to fighting using Sanchin Dachi, a very short upright stance. A visiting senior instructor from another Dojo in Kumamoto was training with us. I learned very quickly that close in-fighting is incredibly fast and combined offense and defense at the same time. Punches were sticky and curved around my blocks like a snake only strike and at the same time prevent me from retaking the initiative. I came away with a very important lesson. Never underestimate small movements, and offense and defense really are the same.

There are many other examples of this concept. These short paragraphs do ill justice to the depth of this area of study. Look into your Kata and find it.

Budotheory.ca.

Excerpted and adapted from: Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell

Shinogi

“Peeling the Shinogi” – or – How the Sword Ridge Can Teach us to Block

Blocking - taking a deeper look

What is Blocking?

Have you ever considered what blocking is?  I mean really considered what you are trying to accomplish. Is there something beyond the obvious of not getting hit? Are there some common principles or logic that can help us appreciate all those blocks that we see in martial arts such as Karate, Aikido, Kendo, and Iaido.

I’m going start by using three analogies to look at the spectrum of blocking.

Blocking - static defenceWe’ll start with an asymmetrical engagement between a man with a bow and you being a strong castle with thick walls and high ramparts. Your walls can block the opponent’s attacks through sheer mass. An arrow hitting your stone walls will be lucky to make a small chip. In this case, your ability to take punishment is greater than the opponent’s ability to strike. This is one kind of block. This is attrition in military terms – the ability to take more punishment than the opponent. It is combat paid in full. In other words, you block with mass and then counterattack with your weapon. Mobility is not important.

Let’s move down the spectrum and place two opponents with equal offensive and defensive ability against each other. If each is capable of injuring the other with a punch or sword strike, then avoiding the opponent’s attack becomes more critical. Mobility and the approach to blocking become important.

But let’s change the scenario once more. Let’s give the opponent a very strong weapon, in this case, a high powered rifle. And let’s give you a shield made of thin plate steel that if hit squarely by your opponent’s bullet will penetrate and kill you. How do you block now? Mobility and approach to blocking become critical.

In the first scenario, we absorb the punishment and then counter with our own strike.
With the other two scenarios, we can take several approaches to blocking our opponent’s attack.

Understanding Dislocation

One approach is to make the opponent’s attack be in the wrong place or wrong direction. This is called in military science Positional Dislocation. By Shifting (Sabaki) out of the line of the attack, you dislocate the opponent’s attack.

A second approach is called Temporal Dislocation. This approach uses timing to pre-empt or change the tempo of the engagement and manipulates the time dimension to make the opponent’s strength irrelevant. In the martial arts, there are several timing types we use to create temporal dislocation including Initiative After the Intitiative (Go no Sen), Against the Initiative (Tai no Sen) and Initiative before the Initiative (Sen no Sen).

Typically we use both approaches in combination (body shifting and timing techniques). Nothing I have said so far is anything new. In fact, this is a classic example of how our understanding of Hard and Soft Methods (Juho and Goho) change as we increase our experience. In unarmed combat, blocking with a Hard approach tends to give us bruises on the arms and legs, the opponent’s technique bounces off our block only to be free to attack again. Using the Softer approaches of Shifting (Sabaki) and Timing (Hyoshi) we can dislocate the opponent’s attack and position ourselves in both space and time for a strong counterattack. This is the essence of Combining Hard and Soft (Ju Go Awase).

There is a third type of dislocation we can look at and that is Functional Dislocation – rendering the opponent’s strength dysfunctional by blocking or guiding the opponent’s attack. In the third scenario above, you could change the angle of your shield to deflect the bullet. Even though the shield would not take a direct hit, a glancing blow may deflect the bullet and allow you to survive and counter.

Blocking – Putting it All Together

So, what are we really trying to do when we block?  My answer:  we want to avoid getting hit, but equally important, gain tactical superiority by using all three dislocation methods were possible. I remember Sensei explaining that moving out of the line of the attack is blocking (positional dislocation), attacking can be blocking (in this case hastening contact with the opponent before he is ready e.g. Sen no Sen or Tai no Sen = temporal dislocation), and finally physical blocks that guide or trap the opponent and put him at disadvantage is also blocking (functional dislocation).

And this brings me to the concept of Shinogi.

Shinogi

Blocking - ShinogiThe word Shinogi has two Japanese homonyms (words sounding the same but with different meanings) that can give us an avenue to further explore the concept of blocking.

  • Shinogi can mean the ridgeline of a sword or blade.
  • Shinogi can also mean to endure, stave off, or pull thru—even to survive bad times.

So how do these two words allow us to explore the concept of blocking?

Blocking - ShinogiTo a beginner, a block is a reactive thing. Your opponent strikes and you react. We stick our sword out to meet his attack with little consideration of the blade—we just don’t want to get hit. If you use the cutting edge to block, your blade is going to become chipped and dull in very short order. As we gain experience, we learn to use the side of the blade (the Ridgeline or Shinogi) to deflect the opponent’s strike. Not only does it provide more surface area to catch an opponent’s strike, but it also preserves the offensive capability of your sword (the cutting edge).

Using the Shinogi

Leaving Positional and Temporal Dislocation to the side for now. Let’s examine aspects of Functional Dislocation using a block.

Catching the Attack

Blocking - different types

For a block to work we have to intercept the strike or attack somehow. So let’s look at an example that is the opposite of catching an attack. A modern fighter pilot does not want to “catch” an all aspect air-to-air missile. It will ruin his whole day. So what does he do?

When an enemy fighter fires a missile (think of this as the opponent punching or striking with a sword), the defending pilot immediately has to make it difficult for the attacker’s missile to hit him. The best way to do this is to make the tracking solution for the missile to be as complicated as possible. This means pulling as hard as you can into the missile so that you are at ninety degrees to the missile flight path (A). This makes it harder for the missile to hit. The pilot is using positional dislocation to defend against the missile. If you are familiar with Body Shifting (Tai Sabaki) this is a great example.

With blocking, you want to do the opposite. You want your arm or sword to intercept and make contact with the attack before it hits you. One way is to let it hit you or your blocking arm, surviving the hit, and then countering (B). Like our castle example above.

Another way is to cushion the attack (C). If you are a hockey player, one of the first things you learn in receiving a pass is that if you put your stick out stiffly, the puck hits your stick and bounces off, thereby making it more difficult to control the puck. You learn to give a little and cushion the pass in order to catch and control the puck. Another example would be tossing a water balloon up in the air and catching it. If you do not want the balloon to break, you catch the balloon more gently—giving in as you make contact.

A third approach would be to hit the attack as you sweep your block in front of you, making contact and deflecting it (D). Sweeping your arm across in front of you perpendicular to the attack is precisely the wrong approach because it maximizes the chance that you will miss contact (like our fighter pilot trying to avoid a missile A). Any miscalculation in timing results in you being hit. Most beginners try to hit the punch or strike out of the way in this manner, and may even be successful, but this approach does not ensure tactical control of our opponent. In unarmed forms of fighting such as Karate, this is no different. Our blocks meet the opponent’s punch with the aim of hitting the opponent’s arm out of the way, but as we learn rather quickly, if the opponent bounces off our block he is still free to continue his attack, sometimes with the same arm.

By angling the blocking surface as it sweeps across (or is stationed) in front of you maximizes the chance of you intercepting the attack and deflecting it (E) and gives longer control of the deflection.

Another approach is to use the width of the blocking object like the prow of a boat or wedge and force the water to either side allowing the boat to move forward with as little drag as possible (F). Using the Shinogi is like this.

There is a Japanese term “Shinogi o kezuru” to “peel the shinogi.” The phrase describes a closely fought contest between two opponents, but the idea is to use your sword so that the attacker’s sword glances alongside the Shinogi rather than meeting it straight on. The nice thing about using this type of thinking during blocking is that it can be done within the full spectrum between defense and offense. You can receive a strike completely defensively and let the strike angle off like rain hitting a roof and running down the eaves. It can also be used to deflect an attack as you attack. Like rowing your boat upstream—the water is deflected as you move forward.

Thinking about Shinogi gives you whole new ways to explore Kata and understanding of blocking beside avoiding being hit, such as:

  • Dislocating your opponent (positionally, temporally, or functionally),
  • How blocking can be used defensively and offensively,
  • Using blocks in combination with Shifting (Sabaki) and Timing (Hyoshi),
  • How Shinogi can be used to increase tactical control of the engagement, and finally,
  • How blocking be applied using both Hard and Soft Methods (Ju Go Awase).

Exploring the concept of Shinogi and learning to ‘Peel the Ridgeline” teaches us how to endure, pull through and tide over in many ways in and out of the Dojo.

Budotheory.ca

by Rick Rowell

Muto (No Sword) and a Man with a Stick

I’m Still a Man With a Stick

But Have a Goal Called Muto (No Sword)

Muto - no sword

I remember practicing Staff Basics (Bo Kihon) in the dojo with Sensei Akutagawa watching. He corrected me and then said something that at once surprised me, then was so totally obvious that it was one of those slap in the forehead moments (why didn’t I see that before!).

He said that all staff techniques were the same as the unarmed techniques we used in Karate. The blocks were the same, thrusting with the staff was the same as the punching, and the bottom of the staff rising upward was just like a front kick. To anyone who studies Kobudo (“Old Martial Way” but commonly used to reference Okinawan weapons such as the Bo, Sai, Tonfa and Kai), the Okinawan weapons such as the Tonfa and Sai are used as extensions to our existing unarmed technique. This is nothing new. In fact all weapons as an extension of our bodies.

But then, Sensei continued with his stick analogy using an inductive reasoning approach (going from a specific to a generality) and took me to a new place of thinking about my Karate, Kobudo and Iaido. He went the other way. He reversed the question and instead of saying the Bo was an extension of the body, he said the body was an extension of sticks. The structure of our body was really a bunch of connected sticks, and we use those sticks just like we use the Bo.

For example, we use the end of the Bo for striking, and when we make a fist, we are striking with the end of the bones in our hand. When we strike with an elbow or knee, we are doing the same. Even when we kick, for example, front kick, we are kicking with the ball of the foot which is the end of the tarsal bones and metatarsals.

While the ends of the Staff are used for striking, the center portion of the staff is used for blocking, controlling and deflecting, just like we do in Karate.  Many of our blocks use the forearm to catch and deflect an incoming punch. While there are a number of notable exceptions to this generality, this way of looking at the body gives you a tool that can be used when you pick up a weapon or as you practice unarmed technique.

A weapon becomes an extension of those sticks in your body. When I first started Iaido, the sword felt awkward in my hands, but as a came to realize that it was and extension of my existing linkage of sticks (bones), the sword began to take on a familiarity.

There are three training stages you go through when picking up a weapon.

First you are a man with a stick (or man with a sword, gun etc.)—meaning the stick and the man are separate things—no connected. The weapon is a distinct and apart from you. I’ll use an analogy of chopping wood with an axe. If you are using an axe and swinging it like a hatchet, your technique is likely to suffer. Trying to swing your axe with a quick chopping movement using your wrist is likely to be inefficient and weak. Whereas swinging the axe with the arms in a full arc will be much more effective. Here the length of the tool requires it to be used with larger movements. Likewise swinging a hatchet like an axe is likely to be equally ineffective and possibly dangerous to you. Each tool has a natural swing and has a natural cadence.

The second stage is where you are a stickman (swordsman, or marksman)—meaning the stick and the man become extensions of each other. There is a familiarity with your weapon, you know how it balances, your muscles feel comfortable with its weight and you know how to use it naturally. But what happens when you loose your weapon or have none to begin with when you need it?

The final stage is when the man and the sword are one Muto - definition and kanji–meaning there is no man and no sword, just a single entity. Understanding the body is made up of a series of connected sticks (bones) means adding one more does not make any difference. The arm becomes a sword if you don’t have one, if a stick is available then it is used. This is the essence of a concept called Muto (No Sword).

Muto, however, goes well beyond technical  application  and  is  not  about  technique,  but  more  a  state  of  mind.  When one  has  reached  the  state  of  No  Sword (Muto), one does not need a sword. Yagyu Munenori, a famous seventeenth century swordsman describes  some  of  the  aspects of Muto Tori in the following:

“If  you  can  adopt  as  your  sword even the one you take from your opponent   when   you   do   not   have   one, shouldn’t  you  be  able  to  make  use  of whatever else you may have on hand? Even with a fan, you should be able to defeat  an  opponent  equipped  with  a sword.  No-sword  means  the  readiness to do this.”

His  statement  is  actually  very  profound.  It  refers  to  the  ability  to  meet the  opponent  in  a  fluid  and  confident way, were one is able to see the possibilities of the engagement all around him.  This  means  the ability  to  use the  environment  around  oneself  to defeat the opponent. All possibilities exist—because you are the weapon.

Stand under a tree limb to prevent the  opponent  from  slashing  downward. Use a stick to parry the cut. Maneuver  the  opponent  so  the  sun  is  in  his eyes.  These are  all ways  you  can  utilize  the  surrounding   environment.   The   ability   to even  take  the  opponent’s  sword  and  use it against him is also a possibility.

Taking  this  idea  of  No  Sword  (Muto) further,   Yamaoka   Tesshu,   founder   of Muto  Ryu  (No  Sword  Style)  describes  it this way:

“Outside   the   mind   there   is  no sword.  Therefore,  when  facing  an  opponent, there is no enemy in front and no self behind. Miraculously, all boundaries are extinguished and no trace remains. This is No Sword.”

Sounds  remarkably  like  Zen—and  the collapse of Duality.

When it comes to Kobudo and Iaido, I’m still a man with a stick. Which means I still have a lot of quality time in the dojo to look forward to. When it comes to Karate, I have 206 sticks that I still am learning to coordinate in new and wonderful ways. Even though Sensei Akutagawa has passed away, I know he is smiling down at me knowing that my head is full of sticks (literally and metaphorically).

I still maybe a man with a stick (probably one too many), but I have a goal called Muto. Or in the case of the Staff – Mubo (No Staff). Which means the concept I am really after is Mushin (No Mind), but that is another story. I still have sticks in my head that I have to gt rid of.

by Rick Rowell

If you would like to learn more about concepts such as Muto, consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles.

Engagement Posture – Kamae

Kamae

I read a great little piece of translation at Kenshi247.net attributed to Nakayama Hakudo, founder of Muso Shinden Ryu Iaido, on the subject of Kakashi Jodan, and it got me thinking about Engagement Postures (Kamae) in general. Read this short article and then continue reading here.

“Kakashi’ means someone who takes the outward form of something for the sake of status or pride despite their lack of ability to do the thing they say or attempt to do. It can also refers to scarecrows – they look human, but they aren’t.” 1

Kamae (Engagement Posture) is a term with a broad meaning that includes physical posture, readiness, deception, and attitude. Engagement Postures are related to Timing (Hyoshi), Distance (Ma-ai), and Stillness (Tomari); can be used to produce confusion and to deceive; and can be related to the number of opponents you face. Kamae is definitely related to mental status and can even cause an opponent to hesitate or give up attacking.

There are hundreds of Engagement Postures used by various Budo disciplines. Understanding them is a study unto itself, but all are related to a position that is equally ready for attack, defend, or both. Many have specific applications and have wonderful names. Here are some examples from the Chito Ryu Karate Kata:

  • Earth Posture (Chi no Kamae)
  • Peaceful Bird Posture (Chinpi no Kamae)
  • Expanding/Tension Cloud Posture (Choun no Kamae)
  • Cannon Ball Posture (Hoken no Kamae)
  • Open Hands at Eye Level Posture (Kaishu Ganzen no Kamae)
  • Both Hands Invitation Posture (Kaishuho Sasoi no Kamae)
  • Cloud Fist Posture (Kenun No Kamae)
  • Bow Power Posture (Kyusei no Kamae)
  • Heron Wing Posture (Ranchu no Kamae)
  • Dragon Tongue Posture (Ryuzetsu no Kamae)
  • Heron Posture (Sagi Kamae)
  • Heaven and Earth Posture (Tenchi no Kamae)
  • Horned Posture (Tsuno Gamae)

Some names above are descriptive of an animal, bird, or the offensive and defensive strategies they resemble. Others imply deception or purposely show an opening that is really a trap for the unwary. Some Engagement Postures hide the length of a weapon whether it is a sword or staff.

Essentially, Engagement Postures are ways of minimizing exposure of weak (Kyo) positions to our opponent on all three levels (physical, mental and spiritual), and prepare us to exploit any weakness in the opponent—a balance between offence and defence.

At the same time, with deeper Insight (Kan) into Kamae, an Engagement Posture is a symbol of your opponent’s thinking—of what he will do. How you present yourself to your opponent tells a lot about you and your level of experience. In addition, by observing how your opponent approaches you, you are seeing his reaction to how he perceives you.

Rigid adherence to a particular Engagement Posture shows a lack of flexibility and indicates likely reactions to attack. Adopting a posture to mentally dominate an opponent (such as Jodan Kamae) but lacking in credibility might appear on the surface as a solid Kamae, but in fact be a weakness (Kyo) that can be exploited. This is really what the article on Kakashi Jodan referenced above is all about.

The most basic, and arguably the most important, Engagement Posture is the Middle Engagement Posture (Chudan Kamae). Regardless of which martial art you study, I would even include modern military combat shooting and western fencing, this engagement posture is used in every combative art.  There are differences based on whether or not you hold a weapon, and the type and nature of the opponent’s threat, but there are some basic principles you can see right away.

“To understand Engagement Posture you must thoroughly understand Chudan Kamae. Chudan Kamae is the heart of the attitudes. If we look at strategy on a broad scale, Chudan Kamae is the seat of the commander, with the other Kamae following the commander. This should be examined carefully.”
Miyamoto Musashi, Go Rin No Sho

Examining the Middle Engagement Posture (Chudan Kamae) we can see many things:

• Stance is oriented to provide maximum stability toward direction of force or opponent.

• Knees aligned and bent toward opponent to protect them, provide protection from a kick to the groin, and maintains a strong hip position.

• Body is upright paying attention to the Vertical Axis (Seichusen), and center of gravity is stable. 

• Both legs aligned for kicking.

• Upper body turned into a Half Front Facing (Hanmi) position to minimize profile to opponent. Although modern Kendo Kamae is less so, older Bujutsu favored this.

• Forward hand or sword protecting the centerline of the body.  Makes it difficult for a direct hit and forces a glancing blow (like the glacis on the front of a tank.)

• Forward hand or sword tip points toward the opponent’s face, locked on target.

• Forward hand or sword in a central position so blocking movements whether inside or outside only have to travel half the width of the body. Up and down movements to block low and high are minimized.

• Rear hand is targeted toward opponent and ready to be used as circumstances permit.

• Chin is slightly down in case the face is struck. Still maintains eye contact even if hit. If the head is turned away then you cannot see what is going on.

• Teeth slightly together to help protect jaw if hit.

• Body weight distributed evenly between forward and back foot. Allows for movement in any direction easily, either foot to kick or otherwise use (e.g. for sweeping).

Studying the Middle Engagement Posture can give you Insight (Kan) into other Kamae and helps identify their strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly not to fall into the deception that many carry.

Natural State – Shizentai

Shizentai to a vast majority of people in the martial arts means “natural stance” and that is the end of their search for understanding. Shizentai is one of the highest expressions of Budo. Shizentai does not just mean to stand in a natural position, but it also means being prepared to deal with any situation.

While in Japan many years ago, I was given a small cast metal wall hanging by my instructor.  The piece depicted Miyamoto Musashi standing in a relatively relaxed position holding two swords. I had read Musashi’s book, the Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho), and had visited the cave called Reigando near Kumamoto where Musashi lived for the last six years of his life and where he penned this work in the seventeenth century.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my wall hanging was based on a famous portrait of Miyamoto Musashi (picture at right). To the less experienced, he looks less than impressive, but the man survived over sixty encounters with other able swordsmen, and was quite clearly a very experienced swordsman.

There had to be more to this picture.

The Engagement Posture Musashi is depicted in is known as Happo Biraki or “open on all eight sides.”

This type of Engagement Posture is sometimes termed the Engagement Posture of No Engagement Posture (Mu Kamae no Kamae), meaning that the concept of Engagement Posture now becomes irrelevant to combat, but that does not mean Kamae is not used. It means the person has reached a state in which he can adjust to his opponent in a fluid manner according to the situation. His mind is not attached, his body is not attached, yet both are integrated and completely ready to engage the opponent. In the words of a friend, “if I was the attacker I would have to pause and consider if he was just nuts, or like a coiled rattlesnake.”

In this case Musashi is obviously an integrated individual. His Kamae shows no Gaps (Suki), even though he looks innocuous.

Kamae is a reflection of thinking. You understand this, you begin to see Gaps (Structural, Movement, Execution and Mental) and understand what you will do from this posture—and that creates Gaps that can be anticipated. Having no Kamae makes you unpredictable and very hard to read.

Shizentai is actually the epitome I strive to find in my Budo. It encompasses not only the relaxed body that embodies Eye Position (Metsuke), Breathing (Kokyo Ho), Abdominal Convergence (Tanden), Stance (Dachi), Timing (Hyoshi), Distance (Ma-ai), Changing Speed (Johakyu), Coordinating and Expressing Ki (Kiai and Aiki), and Voice (Kake Goe), but also a mental state that we describe as Immovable (Fudoshin).

Shizentai is found in any stance—every stance has a Naturalness (Shizen). Shizentai is not just standing naturally, and yet, it is.

Recognizing Shizentai for what it is, has expanded my understanding well beyond Budo. I can see this Natural State (Shizentai) in artists, painters, gardeners, poets, authors, craftsmen, orators and philosophers. My search for truth by studying Budo has led me to a much broader understanding.

I have a question for you at the end of all this. Is the long-eared owl shown at the top of this article, showing Kakashi Jodan? Is he a scarecrow, or a Musashi of the night sky? How was he thinking of me when I photographed him? What was he telling me? And finally, can you see how your postures and those of others during everyday situations reflect a person’s thinking?

Engagment Posture (Kamae) is a reflection of thinking.

by Rick Rowell

Interested in delving deeper into many martial arts principles? Consider Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles as a reference.

References:

1. Kakashi Jodan. 2011. http://kenshi247.net/blog/2011/11/09/kakashi-jodan/ accessed 10-Nov-11

The Essence of Iaido – Cutting the Carp’s Mouth (Koiguchi o Kiru)

Iaido = giant carp

I remember when I was preparing for my Iaido shodan exam in Kumamoto. After practice, I had a quiet moment with Tashiro Sensei. I asked him what he considered the essence of Iaido. His answer though seemingly simple was yet profound and made me think about my martial journey differently from then on.

Iaido is the Martial Way (Budo) of drawing and striking with Iaido - definition and Kanjithe sword. Iai means to “Reside in the Present” or to “Unite with the Present” and Do, means “path or “the way.” Combined, the term can loosely be described as “The way of residing in the present. I began my study of Iaido as a way to learn more about Karate

Tashiro Sensei looked at me and said “Koiguchi o Kiru,” which means to cut the carp’s mouth. For those of you not familiar with Iaido or the Japanese sword, the koiguchi is the mouth of the scabbard and it resembles the mouth of a carp.

Iaido - Cutting the carp's mouthCutting the Carp’s mouth is shown in the figure at right. It looks like a insignificant movement. Just pushing the sword guard (Tsuba) with the thumb to free the sword. And yet this is what Tashiro Sensei considered the true essence of Iaido. It wasn’t the cutting, it wasn’t the kata—it wasn’t the technical application of using the sword at all, and yet it was all of that. Tashiro Sensei said “Everything after cutting the carp’s mouth is just Kenjustsu (Sword art – or application of the sword). 

The sword is made from the application of intense heat and pounding, the steel is shaped and then tempered. Its formation evolves with much skill and perseverance of the sword smith.

We undergo a similar process through our study of Budo. All of us will be faced with life circumstances that will help forge our constitutions into good steel if we have faith.

And as we study the practical application of using the sword or our martial art (Bujutsu) we also forge in ourselves, fortitude, perseverance, resolution, and will. This means our steel develops Strength. The practice of Iaido develops good steel.

Developing skill with the sword is essential, but not the heart of Iaido.  

What is Cutting?

Using the sword means cutting, but have you ever considered what cutting is? Cutting is separating something from something else. It creates a boundary.  

We cut things figuratively every day.  We use words to cut. We use actions to cut. Sometimes we cut with purpose and at others we cut indiscriminately. We can cut to destroy, or create.

For example, when you scold a child, it is not to cut with the purpose to destroy, but to cut with the purpose of pruning. The hope is that better fruit (our children) will grow when we limit less desirable characteristics.

The act of cutting is one you should consider carefully. Your temperance and prudence is critical in the decision to cut. When you destroy one thing, you create new circumstances. There is an old saying – “Battles have long tails.” Killing your opponent may bring further misery, or liberation – depending on what or who your opponent is. Your opponent can even be yourself.

Negative self-talk (I am not good enough) cuts you away from self-fulfillment. Consider carefully what you wish to prune and so separate. Many cut indiscriminately, pruning pieces of happiness, love, empathy, and wonder from themselves and others. Before you cut the carp’s mouth consider what you may be cutting. Yelling at your son, daughter or spouse may only cut you away from intimacy, love and respect. If you cut happiness away from yourself, you weaken your steel.

Sometimes cutting is necessary to separate yourself away from negative relationship, practice or habits. Just like a surgeon prunes dead and diseased tissue, sometimes it is necessary to destroy in order to heal. The real test of wisdom is to know when to cut, and to cut with purpose and design.

This is not to say that you should hesitate in cutting. It means you have considered these things before you ever have to cut the carp’s mouth. To me this is a high level expression of Initiative Before the Initiative (Sen no Sen). It means you have decided the circumstances for which you are willing the cut the carp’s mouth. Once you have cut the carp’s mouth you are living in the moment of the action you have engaged in, whether it is combat or helping a friend.

This is the essence of Iaido.

Cut in the Positive Direction – Make Things Better

One wouldn’t think that using a sword could show beauty and yet when combined with the wisdom of positive purpose and the strength good steel, skill, and fortitude–beauty is the result.

There is the death giving sword and the life giving sword. The life giving sword stays in its scabbard the majority of the time. When it is employed it is honest, used for the benefit of others and cuts swiftly and cleanly. 

Iaido shows us a wise path – the wisdom to know when to use the sword. Practicing cutting (bujutsu) allows us to cut with strength when it is appropriate to apply our skill in different circumstances. Remember you can cut with a real sword, or figuratively with your words and actions. 

I am reminded of these things every time I see or touch a sword.

 When you have strength, wisdom and beauty inside – you become the sword.

The knights templar were charged to never draw the sword unless convinced of the justice of the cause in which it is engaged, nor sheath it until his enemies are subdued.

“Do not draw me without justice, Do not sheathe me without honor”.

In the west, the two edges of the blade signify right and law, that the poor are to be defended from the rich and the weak from the strong.

Iaido uses a sword with only one edge. It teaches that the edge is to cut in the right direction and the back is capable of showing compassion even after you have drawn the sword.

Iaido does not mean some esoteric fluff with the sword. It combines application of martial techniques (Bujutsu) with a consideration of both positive and negative purpose. We sometimes loose sight of the essence of Iai because we love to feel the technique when the sword slides from the scabard.

I have learned that the simple push of my thumb to cut the carp’s mouth has opened a whole new avenue to explore my understanding of not only Iaido but all Martial Ways (Budo.)

Ways to look at Budo – Great Way, Small Way

Different ways of looking at the Way

Big Things Can Come in Small Packages and Vice Versa

I reviewed some old notes scribbled down hastily after a lengthy conversation with Akutagawa Sensei, and I found a little gem to share. We were discussing the concept of Do or ‘Path’ as it relates to Budo. Sensei Akutagawa is no longer with us, but the echoes of his thoughts in my notes allowed me to reflect on these ideas after all these years, and he still teaches me.

Daido - Great RoadDaido can mean a main street or highway, but in our Budo context, it can mean a great principle. Sensei described Daido to me as the main stem, like the trunk of a tree, the spiritual or intangible truths, the core of our being and our martial journey.

He contrasted this with the Small Way – Shodo, by comparing it to a single branch tip—to a single technique, action, or experience.

We all start our training in martial arts by learning little truths; for example, how to make a fist, or hold a sword. That little branch tip of information that your Sensei shares with you, along with others, merge into a twig that encompasses how we use our fist.

Shodo - the branchEven though I learned these small ways from my teachers, there was always something about my teachers, something deeper that made me want to learn from them. Was it their knowledge, wisdom, ability, and confidence? Yes, all that, but there was something else. There were all these intangibles that I wanted to acquire—something deeper that I could somehow feel but not experience directly. I had to train.

But I saw that deeper intangible in their Shodo—their technique, the way they helped me learn, the way they were hard with me when I needed that too. Another interesting thing that Akutagawa Sensei said to me was that Shodo is always inspired from Daido. The beauty and strength we see and appreciate in a well-executed technique is created from something deeper in the individual. We see only the downy tip of that creation, and yet, as a beginner it was technique that inspired us to want to learn more. To capture that something is what drives us to train and strive.

As I think about these ideas, I realize that Shodo gives me the pathway I can use to understand larger principles in myself from a single technique. Will the pathway be exactly the same as my Sensei’s? No. It may merge with a different branch, just like all trees are different. But if I follow it back far enough, my branch will merge into a single trunk and then into the soil. That soil is the same soil my Sensei’s tree grew from.

We spend a lot of our time out in the branch tips seeking new technique, action and experience. As we struggle to integrate these into larger meanings in our life, we realize that our roots are embedded in the same matrix as everyone else.

The point of this essay is that our teachers show us only the tips of their branches—their Shodo—because we can never directly experience the deeper core of their being. When our tree touches theirs, a new twig emerges in our tree. That new downy branch tip can sometimes drive our understanding straight down to the trunk like a lightning bolt, can whither, stay dormant, swirl around for years in the high branches, or reach further down to something deeper—the core of our being.

We need to experience the Small Ways (Shodo) of our teachers to seek the Great Way (Daido) underneath, and we need the Great Way in us to inspire us to search for the techniques, actions, and experiences that shape who we are. When Shodo becomes Daido is something hard to figure out. One can’t exist without the other.

Our techniques, actions, and experiences (Shodo) are created from something deeper in us (Daido). At the same time the Great Way in us is inspired by the Small Ways of our teachers. And that is what we call the Way.

Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Rick Rowell