Understanding Initiative – The Principle of Sen

retaking the initiative - naginata

We live in a cause and effect world, and combat is no different. Combat is a chain of causality. Cause and effect follow each other in another endless dualistic cycle. The concept of Initiative (Sen) as it relates to combat is something worth considering. Sen can mean to precede, precedence, prior, future, or ahead. It has variously been described as Initiative in Budo terminology. To Initiate – to cause or facilitate the beginning of.

What is Initiative?

Several questions immediately come to mind about Initiative:

  • What is the purpose of initiative?
  • Is there advantage or disadvantage to taking the initiative?
  • Do you have to move or attack first to have the initiative?
  • How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?

I am going to suggest that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage over your opponent. Conventional thinking suggests that by taking the first step\move (initiative), your opponent is forced to react to you and abandon his own plans at least temporarily. Initiative seems to indicate that by pre-empting your opponent’s actions, you have a higher probability of winning.

Like Boyd’s OODA loop, if you can get inside the opponent’s decision cycle, you Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act faster than your opponent. Which puts him on the defensive, gives him less time/fewer options to react while giving you more freedom. In other words, you spend more time shaping the engagement in your favor and your opponent spends more time detecting and reacting to your initiatives.

Several cycles of this type of engagement, with each one giving you greater and greater freedom of action while reducing that of your opponent, would make it appear that taking the initiative has significant advantages.

Of course, your opponent is trying to do the same to you; like trying to force each other into a corner. If you are in the corner, you have fewer and fewer directions to move. You want freedom in both space (to be able to move) and time (to decide when to move). In the corner, your opponent dictates your movement options and he has a wider grasp of time (he can choose to keep you in the corner, wait for reinforcements, or force you to fight until you are destroyed, break out, or surrender).

Therefore, it would seem that the answer to the first question above is that the purpose of Initiative (Sen) is to gain advantage in the physical dimensions of time and space, mentally, and spiritually while reducing that of your opponent.

Do We Always Need the Initiative?

However, what about the second question? We can see some advantages to taking the initiative, but what about the disadvantages? If we equate initiative with attacking, we are in for a surprise. If we move against a prepared opponent, he will be ready to exploit the Gaps (Suki) inherent in our movement (Ugoki no Suki) or technique (Waza no Suki) that he can anticipate.

For example, if the attack is weak (slow, uncoordinated or at the wrong time), or anticipated (the defender plans for it, or actually depends on it for his reaction), then moving first is not necessarily an advantage.

Attacking is only one of several options to gain freedom of action, but if you are in a corner, it may be the only one left. Winning not only involves attacking, but setting up other opportunities. With an opponent trying to do the same to you, the goal must always be to react or initiate in such a way as to recapture Opportunity and/or Advantage by exploiting Gaps (Suki). A good pool player not only makes his shot, but also sets up his next shot to increase his opportunities and maintain the initiative. If he cannot make the next shot, he tries to place the cue ball in a position that makes it very difficult for the opponent to sink the next ball.

Western military science has always asserted that defense is a stronger form of combat because the attacker is required to move and strike—activities which trade off against each other and expose inherent Kyo-Jitsu cycles that can be exploited. There are many examples in Eastern martial traditions that espouse “Waiting” (Tai). “Be struck to win.”

Some martial styles have predominately advocated one or the other, but in reality there has to be a balance between offence and defence. There is a time and place for each. Higher-level Budo concepts such as the idea that offence and defence are the same thing will be discussed later (Chapter 13 – Kogeki Bobi).

Does Initiative Mean Moving First?

Initiation (Sen) and Attacking (Kogeki) are not the same thing. Like a chess player, you can strategically shape the chess board before the final engagement. In modern parlance, it is called preparation of the battle space, and starts long before the first bullet is fired. To put this into an example of a one-on-one engagement, imagine walking down the street heading to your car after seeing a movie and ahead of you are two unsavory characters.

  • You have already been proactive (taking the initiative) by studying your style of martial art and learning how to fight.
  • You have situational awareness (Kan) to determine that things are potentially shaping toward a bad situation.
  • By moving across the street to a well lit area with several other people, you are less likely to be isolated, position yourself in an advantageous position before any potential combat, and more importantly, dislocate the preferred environment of the opponents.
  • You can elicit support from allies, other people, or get the phone out of your pocket and dial 911 without hitting the send button yet.
  • You can determine which of the two opponents is the highest threat, and target any significant weaknesses of the opponent.

With the above scenario, you have been taking initiative without ever attacking and increased your probability of a better outcome than if you did nothing. You are already applying one of the three main methods of retaking the initiative from your opponent. You are mentally moving faster than your opponent and that leads to tactical speed. So, in answer to our third question, you do not have to attack first to have Initiative.

Because combat is dynamic and fluid, you are not always going to be in a position of maintaining the initiative. Your opponent may be faster, stronger, or have a particular technique that is very strong. You need to dislocate his strengths and apply yours to his weaknesses (Kyo) at the right time. There are several fundamental ways in which the Initiative (Sen) is recaptured during actual combat, and they all involve time. So now we can move on to the fourth question we have postulated about Initiative (Sen). How do we regain the initiative if we have lost it?

Budotheory.ca.

Excerpted from Budo Theory: Exploring Martial Arts Principles

by Richard Rowell.

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.)