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.)