I’m Still a Man With a Stick
But Have a Goal Called 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 –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.