An Unexpected Trove

Since coming to Toronto, I had heard rumours that the Royal Ontario Museum held an exceptional array of Japanese swords in its archives, unavailable to the public. Finding a way to get a look at those swords has been on my mind for years now, but thanks to some very well-connected friends, Toronto Kenjutsu was privileged to go behind the scenes at the ROM and examine some of its many treasures.

The rumours were well-founded. We stood around in stunned amazement as tray after tray of fabulous works of art were presented to us. Swords of the like I never thought I’d get a chance to look at, much less handle (after very stern lessons on proper handling of priceless artifacts), lay before us in stacked rows. It was truly an amazing experience.

One day was not sufficient to go through all the treasures, but we found plenty to marvel at. There were gorgeously detailed koshirae, classic katana and a number of very strange swords, difficult to classify but fascinating to consider and wonder about. We passed them around, our hands encased in thin gloves to shield the ancient artifacts from our skin and its oils. There were swords that had been made for battle, and many bearing signs of heavy use (though whether on the battlefield or just getting thrown around by an incautious owner, it’s hard to say), and then there were some in breathtakingly perfect condition. And not only swords; we examined daggers and spearheads and other edged weapons.

While not everyone finds the Japanese sword AS compelling an object as most of us do, there’s no denying the elegance and beauty of these artifacts, and the careful detail that goes into them.

This little moth pattern appeared on a kurigata — the little knob on the sheath to which the cord is attached. It’s no wider than your little finger, and yet so much care was lavished on it. We saw item after item like this, until the mind could scarcely take it all in.

But this attitude, of attaching importance even to the smallest of details, is paramount in our practice. The angle of the feet, the line of the cut — if these are not understood and performed to the most exacting standards, the sword will not cut. More importantly, if the mind is not fully present, and not truly aware of all these tiny details, then opportunities slip away, and vulnerabilities are not seen or attended to.

It’s not that there is only one ‘correct’, or ‘perfect’ way to perform the kata. But as I practice, as I strive to attend to every conceivable detail (and Sensei is always able to find yet another detail I am not attending to), I learn to open my mind to what is truly in front of me. To let go of my preconceptions and prejudices and see clearly that which is actually there.

This last illustration came from a massive sheath — carved from a single piece of ivory that can only have come from an elephant’s tusk. It was covered all over with carvings of this sort of detail and delight. Full of samurai pursuing each other, swinging swords and naginata, on horseback or on foot, beautiful images of fighting men in poses and stances that we practice to this very day.

We will never use our arts for the same purpose they did. We will never kill or face death at the end of a sword. But the wisdom those long-ago men learned in that violent, terrifying fashion still serves us today.

We are very grateful to the staff members at the ROM for accommodating us and making this visit possible. It was honestly a dream come true for all of us, and we will always remember that day.

Forging Imperfection

Is there a perfect blade? A perfect cut?

If there is, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one, or at least, I’ve never recognized it as such. That may say more about my powers of observation than anything else, but while I’ve been astonished at the beauty of some blades, and some cuts, it wasn’t perfection I was seeing. Any piece of steel forged by hand will have irregularities in it. Connoisseurs of Japanese blades seek out irregularities and celebrate them. Smiths strive to produce just the right irregularities in just the right places, to elevate the steel, to display its natural character or to create a specific effect in the viewer.

A beautiful blade is not perfect. My sword, pictured here, is hardly perfect. The afore-mentioned connoisseurs will probably point out that it’s not particularly beautiful, either, but never mind them. But I do love my sword, and I have grown to appreciate the beauty it has more and more over the years.

When I watch Sugino Sensei perform the kata of Katori Shinto Ryu, I don’t see perfection. I couldn’t possibly imagine how it could be improved, but I can see that his version of the kata is different from his father’s. It’s different from Ishida Sensei’s, or Iwata Sensei’s. It’s of course different from Otake Sensei’s as well. All the great masters that I have had the privilege of observing have performed the kata differently.

Those differences appear to me now like the grain in the steel of my sword. Subtle (or not so subtle) variations, all of which work together to make the steel strong and beautiful. If the steel had no grain or flow to it, it would be mechanical and lifeless, but Katori flows through its students, moving onwards from one to the next, and nobody does it ‘perfectly’. Everybody’s version is irregular somehow.

Through practice, those irregularities can be constrained, or directed, but if they can be eradicated, well, it doesn’t seem to be happening in my case. But just as a great swordsmith brings out the natural, inherent character of the steel when forging a sword, perhaps steady practice in Katori can do something with my own natural, inherent character.

Clean Mats, Clean Mind

Clean Mats!One year comes to an end, another begins.

We spent a portion of a year-end afternoon washing the mats at Toronto Kenjutsu. It was a good chance to reflect on cleanliness and renewal in a dark time of the year.

Miyamoto Musashi warns us against spending too much time keeping everything looking good:

“Do not overvalue the things you have.”

“Do not become obsessed with having splendid weapons.”

And martial arts tales are full of disreputable characters in grubby robes who turn out to be great masters.

And yet, cleaning and maintaining my space and possessions helps me to clean and maintain my mind. Scrubbing the mats, restoring their shine and luster, helps me to come to the dojo with my mind clear and unclouded. Not to mention that a couple of hours in physical labour with good friends is a fine way to spend an afternoon.

And a fine way to look back on 2010 with thankfulness. We were invited to demonstrate at Haru Matsuri at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Center, a great honour for us. Our practice expanded to two classes a week, and is still going strong. We traveled to Sherbrooke to study with Sugino Sensei. And S├ązen Sensei came out for a wonderful weekend seminar that students here are still talking about. New students joined, and our little community has grown over the year. 2010 was very exciting. We wrapped up the year with a bonenkai party at Jigan Dojo, a great chance to visit with other Katori Shinto Ryu practitioners around Southern Ontario.

This past year had many great moments for Toronto Kenjutsu. Now that our mats are clean and shiny, we look forward to 2011 in anticipation of many more!

The Principle

The most important truths in life are few, and yet so hard to set down in words. This is why literature endures, century after century. Each generation, each society, has to find new ways of expressing the same truths. There are many paths to learning these truths — literature is one that has long held value to me. Likewise, swordsmanship. There are deep truths buried in the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu — but expressing those truths is almost impossible.

We had another lovely visit with Sozen Sensei this past July. A gifted practitioner of Sugino-style Katori Shinto Ryu (he holds a fifth dan in the style), I know Sozen Sensei from Japan, where we practiced together for years at Sugino Dojo. This year, instead of working on one kata after another, Sozen Sensei spoke of the differences between “principle” and “technique”, and we spent the weekend exploring the myriad techniques that arise from the principles of Katori Shinto Ryu.

For example, an early move that must be learned is a way by which uketachi (the partner who receives the attack) may receive an incoming cut from kirikomi (the partner who initiates the attack) in such a fashion as to not only deflect the blow, but place his own sword in position for a thrust, forcing kirikomi to retreat. The principle is simple enough — bring your sword down in time with your opponent’s, the tip directed at his center. Actually performing it is not quite so simple, of course.

And even when it is performed correctly, the purpose of such a move is not always obvious. “If both our swords come down together, ” a beginning student may wonder, “why does kirikomi retreat and uketachi advance?”

Katori is a style in which what is seen is not always what is happening. The principle — the action that is practiced over and over again until it becomes automatic — is not in fact the technique. We practice the principle in the kata, because in the principle is the simplest truth that must be manifested in that moment. Match the timing, keep your tip in the center. You need not know what you are doing at this point, but if you simply practice it again and again, the techniques that are available in this principle will begin to reveal themselves.

Strike the enemy’s sword down. Cut the wrist. Lean in and cut the throat. Slide back and thrust in deeply. These objectives, these desired results, are all techniques, and in any given manifestation of the principle, some techniques may be possible and others may not be. It is impossible to know ahead of time which technique ought to be used. But the principle is always valid.

When we practice the kata, at times these techniques may spontaneously arise, and this is fine. But we should never lose sight of the principles themselves, and we should always return ourselves to these simplest truths that Katori reminds us of. Maintain one’s center. Understand the lines of engagement. Manage distance.

Katori is so rich, so full of meaning and depth, that I could never imagine mastering every possible technique. Sometimes I discover a new technique that opens doors throughout my mind. This happened in July, watching Sozen Sensei demonstrate some of the techniques hidden inside hakka no tachi. He pointed out the similarity between one movement and the basic cut of Katori Shinto Ryu, maki-uchi, and I had a sudden moment of revelation. I could only laugh as astonishment flooded me. Hidden inside this kata lay the most basic principle of Katori Shinto Ryu, and I now see it everywhere. What was once a matter of technique has become the flowering of a single principle.

It’s impossible to share these insights. They cannot truly be transmitted through words, but that makes them more, not less, important. Our words are a technique. A novel is technique. A cut to the wrist is a technique. The wisdom that lies behind the cut, the novel, or the words — that’s principle.

Great instructors like Sozen Sensei are able to reveal the principles to their students, and share in the boundless techniques that arise from them. We are very fortunate to have such people join us in our practice.

The Gift of Attention

This past May I was thrilled to be able to attend Sugino Sensei’s seminar in Sherbrooke, along with a large number of other Katori Shinto Ryu practitioners from both Ontario and Quebec. For three days we practiced under Sugino Sensei’s keen eye. The experience brought back to me thoughts I’d had years ago, about how precious the gift of attention can be.

And while of course receiving such a gift is something to be treasured, in recent days I’ve been thinking of how simple it can be for any of us to GIVE such a gift as well.

When I face my partner in omote-tachi, or even when practicing kamae (the stances that form the foundation of Katori Shinto Ryu), I am most useful to them when I gift them with my full attention and spirit.

I don’t mean that we must put on a fierce face and pretend to be locked in mortal combat, or try to intimidate or startle them. But we can give our attention to them completely, letting nothing distract us from their action. Not only with our eyes, but with our entire being as we perform the kata alertly, attentively, and with a fully present spirit.

It is so rare in our lives that anyone truly pays attention to us. Most people spend every moment consumed with self-reflection, condemning themselves or praising themselves — usually without nearly as much cause as they imagine — that they have little energy left over to consider others. Our own lives and worries are so important to us that we ignore the people all around us. This behaviour keeps us from learning, but just as important, it makes it hard for those around us to learn as well. When they do not receive our attention, they do not receive useful feedback that they can use in their efforts to learn and transform.

The practice of Katori offers us an opportunity to put our self-centered concerns aside and engage with others openly, presently. When we perform the katas, if we remain trapped in a selfish inward struggle, we fail to give our partner what they most need at this moment: our attention. This is one of the qualities that makes a teacher like Sugino Sensei so effective — he sheds himself and focuses entirely on what the student is doing. It is a lesson to myself that regardless of how poor my technique may be, or how tired I am, I can still be of tremendous value to my partner simply by paying careful attention to them.

Photo courtesy of Michel Martin. Sugino Sensei is seated at center. Weins Sensei is seated at right and Mr. Reid (me) is seated at left.

Now Twice the Katori

We are happy to announce that Toronto Kenjutsu will be offering classes twice a week starting in April.

Classes will now be held every Monday and every Wednesday at Kokoro Dojo, both nights at 8:30 pm.

We are thrilled that our classes have been popular enough to warrant such a step. This group started in 2008 with very modest objectives — only to provide a space for interested folks to practice Katori Shinto Ryu in the center of Toronto. With the support of senior instructors like Tong Sensei and Wiens Sensei of Tokumeikan, Toronto Kenjutsu has been able to grow and flourish, providing a chance for students of Japanese swordsmanship to practice this legendary art here in Toronto.

Katori Shinto Ryu is best practiced in small groups — only through direct communication can this subtle and demanding style be properly learned and understood. Each practitioner must have time to listen and absorb what they are learning. Opening a second evening of practice allows us to maintain our small class size and still accommodate more students.

We are very grateful to the tremendous folks who share our practice with us and have made this possible, and of course to Tong Sensei and Wiens Sensei whose support has made Toronto Kenjutsu possible in the first place. Thank you all, and we look forward to seeing you twice as often!

Haru Matsuri 2010: A New Year

Toronto Kenjutsu was pleased to take part in this spring’s Haru Matsuri festival at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre on March 6, 2010. We performed there under the supervision of the senior Canadian instructors of Katori Shinto Ryu, including Wiens Sensei of Tokumeikan, who is Sugino Sensei’s senior student in Canada. Also present was Tong Sensei who teaches at Dragon Fencing Academy in Richmond Hill.

This was a great honour for our group and we were very excited to be able to bring the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu swordsmanship to the public in this fashion. The Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre has long been a supporter of our art, and we greatly appreciated this opportunity. We have participated in this event for several years now, and it is always a fantastic event. This year was no exception.

Katori Shinto groups from around Toronto came together to practice and to demonstrate traditional Japanese swordsmanship to the many folks attending Haru Matsuri. These events are always a great chance to practice with folks we don’t usually practice with, and to learn new techniques and share our observations on this ancient art.

Working with new people means paying very close attention to each detail. When you always practice with the same folks, you get used to each other’s styles and can unconsciously start to anticipate each other’s moves. If I start anticipating my partner’s moves, then I’m not using my senses to understand what I’m seeing and respond — I’m interfering in that process with my expectations and my ego. One of the gifts of practicing with new people is that I am stripped of my expectations and am forced to observe, and react solely to what is there, rather than what I expect.

Of course I hope I can act this way even with people I am familiar with, but it’s useful to have these chances to put that to the test.

Thanks again to the great people at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre and Tokumeikan for allowing us to take part in this event.

Photos by Owen Jacobson.

Severing the Edge

It may seem odd to illustrate a comment on Takuan Soho’s The Unfettered Mind with an image painted by Miyamoto Musashi, given that Soho is billed on the front cover of this Wilson translation as “Writing to Yagyu Munenori, Musashi’s great rival”, but when I read Soho’s piece on “Sever the Edge between Before and After” I immediately thought of this image.

Steph also brought this piece to mind in a discussion recently about taking action, recalling the decisive stroke that forms the body of the branch the shrike here is sitting on. That stroke is so full of boldness and uncompromising direction, giving life to the concept of “severing the edge” as I understand it. Soho writes:

This [severing the edge] means one should cut right through the interval between previous and present. Its significance is in cutting off the edge between before and after, between now and then. It means not detaining the mind.

Soho’s text echoes with meaning for me, even knowing as I do how the English translation must necessarily strip layers of richness and allusion from the original. But this idea, of severing the connection between past and present, resonates especially.

Musashi’s line in this image admits no indecisiveness, no clinging to possibilities. Because it seems to me that indecisiveness is just that — an inability to let go of past truths and untruths, to choose a single present and commit to it fully. If we sever the past from our present, we are left with only the present moment, and we can act with full intention and focus.

In Katori Shinto Ryu, when I practice maku-uchi men, it is this total presence that I am trying to achieve. My aikido instructor Sensei Skoyles used to say that iai practice was all about “cutting away at ourselves”, ridding ourselves of weaknesses or failures to seek victory over ourselves. Every cut is an opportunity to loose failure, to let fears and anxieties fall away. Every cut is a chance for perfection, but perfection can only exist in this moment, never in the past where we are powerless to act.

When I raise my sword over my head, I try to release all thoughts, to let my mind move as it must and simply make the cut, fully present and fully engaged, holding nothing back.

It is very very difficult, but not nearly as difficult as doing it WITHOUT the sword. For the true value of this practice is learning to act with such presence and focus in my day-to-day life. Katori shows me a way to be but it is up to me to use that vision and apply it to the rest of my life.

The Mind of the Form

I’m getting a lot of mileage out of The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts. I was re-reading this lovely book recently and found yet another pearl that has stuck with me.

In the tale of “The Transformation of the Sparrow and the Butterfly” we read about how the sparrow envies the butterfly, for the butterfly has transformed from a lowly worm into a beautiful, free-flying butterfly, while the sparrow expects to transform from its current free-flying state into a clam, with no power of movement and forced to exist in the mud and filth of the ocean floor.

Predictably, the butterfly scoffs at such worries, and chides the sparrow for trying to project its current mind into its future form. The butterfly says:

“The mind of the form follows that form. When the form is extinguished, the mind of the form disappears, too.”

When I read this most recently, I thought of how the kata we study are composed of a series of forms — postures or actions. And how often I will have my mind in either the form ahead or the form behind the form I am currently presenting. If I make a mistake, I berate myself through the next several forms, paying little attention to the forms I carry on with. Likewise, if I know a difficult move is coming up, I will anticipate it several steps ahead, reminding myself to get ready, and often moving too soon or without proper mindfulness.

But this is why I practice. The “mind of the form” will come, if I learn to correctly take the form. If I practice my body, my mind will follow. I cannot practice Katori by imagining, or by reasoning, or by any mental process whatsoever. Only practice will bring my mind to the correct place. And once the form is completed, spending any further mental energy on that form is futile. The mind of the form has disappeared.

This is why questions in the dojo are so often unhelpful. It is rarely the case that new information will improve a student’s form. Practice is what is required. Until the form is correct, the mind of the form cannot be grasped.

Photo by Lida Rose

The Right Place To Be

This past August, I was fortunate to be able to join with Weins Sensei and others at his dojo in St Catherines, to practice and study with Sozen Larsen Kusano Sensei, of Kakudokan Norway.

Sozen Sensei is a 5th-dan practitioner of Katori Shinto Ryu, under Sugino Sensei. He is a big man, affable and energetic, with a passion for the art that comes across in all his demonstrations and instructions. Spending a couple of days under Sozen Sensei’s expert eye is worth years of practicing alone or with one’s peers.

Last year Sozen Sensei emphasized the importance of Responding, as opposed to blindly following the dictates of the kata. This year he spoke about how our practice should not be about trying to “reach” our opponent, but rather training ourselves to end up in the right position.

When one performs the kata with a partner, and has to make a cut, there is a very strong temptation to try and actually reach one’s opponent’s body as they retreat. Indeed at times I know I myself feel like I’ve failed if I haven’t made contact.

Sozen Sensei emphasized that what’s much more important than making that contact is to ensure that one comes to rest in the correct position, ready and balanced, available to make whatever move might be appropriate. Actually connecting with the blow is of lesser importance, and certainly one should never REACH out, extend oneself, in the hope of scoring a “touch”. The swordfighting game is not about touching, it is about cutting, cutting deeply, cutting one’s opponent down in a decisive blow. If the blow does not come naturally, then one should not reach out in the hopes of making it. Instead, finish the cut, maintain awareness, and adapt to the ongoing situation.

Miyamoto Musashi touches on this with his description of the Chinese Monkey’s Body — “the spirit of not reaching out your arms. Get in quickly, without extending your arms, before your opponent strikes.” Sozen Sensei demonstrated how, once the urge to extend is eliminated, the swordsman can move in for a cut or keep a respectful distance, by stepping forward or back. The motion of the cut and the attitude of the body and arms are identical whether stepping in or staying back — it is only through positioning that we choose between contact and distance.

“Chance favours the prepared mind,” said Louis Pasteur. One might suggest that in mortal combat, chance likewise favours the prepared body. In our emotional and social interactions, we could say that chance favours the prepared spirit. In all our affairs, there is a correct manner of conduct, one that brings us to a balanced, stable stance, regardless of how we position ourselves. We may step in deeply, or we may stay clear of entanglement, but either way, the correct conduct remains the same. Acting decisively is a matter of conduct; acting effectively is a matter of position.

Photo by Leia Mendes Cook