It has been ten years since I left Japan, and left Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki. Though I took very little knowledge away from that place, I still miss the experience of going there and practicing with the many skilled swordsmen (and women) who gathered every Sunday morning to share their knowledge and craft.
Sozen Kusano Sensei was of course one such practitioner. I would have certainly learned even less from my limited time at Sugino Dojo without him, for my hapless efforts at Japanese bore little fruit, and Sozen Sensei’s ease with both Japanese and English (all the more embarrassing to me since neither are his native tongue) helped clear up many mysteries surrounding the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu. And his constant good humour and gentle wisdom only emphasized the general atmosphere of good company and tolerance I always felt at Sugino Dojo.
Tong-sensei arranged for Sozen-sensei to join us this summer for a special weekend seminar, and despite a bout of food poisoning as intense as any sickness I’ve endured, I did manage to drag myself down to St. Catharines to join the final session.
(First I need to rave about the Tokumeikan facility in St. Catharines. Set out in the countryside west of the town itself, the dojo is a lovely long building set next to hundreds of acres of cornfield. Boasting a polished hardwood floor, high ceilings, washroom, changeroom, Instructors’ private room, and even a recessed Kamiza, it is truly one of the most beautiful dojos I have ever seen outside of Japan.)
Sozen-sensei’s lesson this day focused on the difference between what he termed the “bones” and the “meat” of the forms. Performing the movements correctly, with proper stances and angles carefully measured, he called the “bones”. One must have good bones as a foundation for good health, of course. But bones are nothing without meat to move them and give them life. For Sozen-sensei, the “meat” of Katori Shinto Ryu’s two-person kata is the interchange between the two swordsmen, the energy that flows between them and transforms these ancient patterns into something alive and thrilling.
When swords cross, as they often do in the Katori kata, there must be energy in that contact. Not violence, or brute strength, but a sort of “communication”, which requires presence on the part of the practitioners. When one acts, the other must react. Without thought or premeditation; just as the natural flow of the energy in the movements.
A cut downwards is met by a block in ko-gasumi. The blades press against one another, and when uke-tachi (the receiver) breaks the contact and raises the weapon to strike, kiri-komi’s (the attacker) sword naturally bounces up in response from the release of pressure, exposing the left side for uke-tachi to cut do-giri. Without kiri-komi’s reaction, the opening is not provided for uke-tachi to exploit. And part of the wisdom of Katori is found in that no effort is made by kiri-komi to block the opening; it MUST happen. But knowing that it must happen enables kiri-komi to survive and even take advantage of the opening.
Katori is an endless spiral formed by two figures opening and anticipating and re-opening. There is no end to its depths, no point at which a swordsman can sigh in contentment and say, “That’s it, I’m done.”
I also saw “meat and bones” when I witnessed Sozen-sensei entertaining questions from the audience. Watching Sozen-sensei handle difficult questions and alternative theories on the interpretation of the kata made it clear how much richness Katori can truly express. When so confronted, he in his uniquely Zen Buddhist way welcomed all theories, never shutting down any possibility.
“That’s fun. Yes. That’s very interesting.”
He responded with energy and an honest presence to all incoming challenges. His natural flow brought all possibilities back to the center of all practice.
“Here’s how I was taught. Here’s what I was shown.”
When two minds meet, the individuals can focus on the bones of their communication — ensuring that all the formalities are met, that a veneer of politeness is maintained — and still experience no meat in that communication.
It is only when the meat is engaged, when there is true presence in those minds, that an energizing, transforming interaction and a real understanding can take place.
Ten years ago, Sozen-sensei gave me a beautiful painting of the characters “mu-shin” — “No Mind”. I finally got around to framing it this summer, and he gave me a new one, with the character “ken” — “Sword”. I know there is a reason he gave it to me. Perhaps The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts might provide a clue to the reasons why he gave it to me:
“Swordsmanship is also like this. Facing your opponent, you forget about life, forget about death, forget about your opponent, and forget about yourself. Your thoughts do not move and you create no intentions. When you are in a state of No-Mind and leave everything to your natural perceptions, metamorphosis and change will be conducted with absolute freedom, and practical application will have no obstacles.”
Witnessing Sozen-sensei handle questions and challenges was witnessing the same “meat” that his practice with the katana demonstrated. He offers the possibility of communication beyond the mere bones of politeness. His honest presence and accepting nature make conversation a source of transformation. It is a true communication, if only those of us on the other side can respond in like fashion.
Thank you, Sozen-sensei, for the sword and for No-Mind. For a wonderful weekend and the good times. For the joy of practice and the words of wisdom.