A Different Kind of Conversation

Training with my instructor today he reminded me that “Katori is conversation.”

It’s a pretty serious sort of conversation, of course, being the sort in which, if you do it for real, somebody ends up dead.

Those stakes make it incumbent upon me as I practice to be constantly aware of what’s really at stake here: that this is a conversation of life and death. Only my mindfulness can make it so; that puts the onus on me to ensure I am bringing my full attention and my entire mind to my side of the conversation.

Even in the kata themselves, our posture, our focus, and our swords communicate, one to the other, the life-or-death moment that each strike and each block contain. The topic actually came up today as we practiced a common move in Katori: O-Gasumi.

In this technique, we find ourselves with our opponent’s sword laid overtop of our own — clearly not a position we wish to remain in for long! But the opponent’s mechanical advantage precludes simply lifting up. One way to convert this situation to our liking is to turn the sword over so that it is edge-up, and then lift the tip upwards as we step forward. If our opponent does not step back, we may cut his wrists from below, or even slice open his torso with a rising cut.

Performed quickly, it appears decisive and easy. Break it down into its component moves (or more traumatically, attempt it against someone more skilled than yourself) and you will find that your opponent can easily counter-thrust — IF you fail to maintain contact with your sword against his. That contact is what keeps the “conversation” going. You can FEEL when your opponent attempts a counter-thrust, since their sword is pressed against yours. Likewise, your opponent can feel that no opening is being provided, and has no aggressive options.

Part of practice is learning to hear this conversation between our swords — so that we are training ourselves to look for the opening when it comes, to recognize the moment so that we can speak our piece when appropriate.

Blindly performing moves, lost in our own worlds, is not the way of Katori. This practice requires open eyes, an open heart and a developed capacity to perceive what is truly being said to us.

Summer Holiday is Over!


We are now safely ensconced in our new location at Kokoro Dojo. The very fine folks of Sandokai Aikido and our little group have moved into our beautiful new home near Dupont Station as of June 15th.

Kokoro Dojo has a lovely place set back from Dupont Street amongst trees and old houses. It’s very lovely.

Enjoy thesummer and if you have any questions about Toronto Kenjutsu’s practice, feel free to drop by!

Flower photo by oui cool2

One Quick Sharp Sound

One of the things I can remember learning first from Sugino Sensei was how to bow properly at the start of a session of Katori Shinto Ryu practice. It’s a very distinctive ritual: from seiza, one bows twice, then claps one’s hands twice, then bows once.

I am not the sort of person who asks for explanations, so I never asked why we bow in such a fashion. I have heard that it is a Shinto practice whereby the clapping is symbolic of awakening the god, but I don’t know that this is the truth. What I do know is what I have come to experience after years of performing this tiny little act day in and day out: connected.

When people arrive for class, they have not yet shed their individual needs and fears. They bring their anxieties and the business of their lives into the dojo and onto the mat. They are not joined into one group with a shared purpose.

Becoming a community of mutual purpose is what the opening bow is all about. We line up together, and we demonstrate our willingness to humble ourselves. Doing it twice makes sure that it wasn’t a mistake. That it wasn’t done casually, or without thought for the meaning of the act.

When we clap, we are acting in concert, with immediate feedback as to how united we are. There should be only a single sound each time as every pair of hands comes together simultaneously. At least, when I hear that, I feel a lightness inside myself and I can’t help but smile at the feeling of connectedness that fills me at that moment.

It’s a lovely reminder of how we should practice Katori throughout the session — connected to each other, fully engaged and responsive to our partner, our instructors and our fellow students. We need to pay attention to the full reality that emerges before us, and we need to allow our responses to that reality to emerge naturally and completely, without hesitation or preconception.

And each time when we open practice I get another reminder of all that, in one quick sharp sound we all share.

Opening The Gates

One day a samurai came to see the Zen master Hakuin and asked him, “Is there truly a heaven and a hell?”

“Who are you?” the master asked.

“I am the samurai…”

“You, a soldier!” Hakuin exclaimed. “Just look at yourself. What lord would want you in his service? You look like a beggar.”

The man grew angry and drew his sword. Hakuin continued: “Oh, good, you even have a sword! But you are certainly too clumsy to cut my head off with it.”

Losing all self-control, the samurai raised his sword, ready to strike the master. At that very moment the latter spoke, saying “Here is where the gates to hell open.”

Surprised by the monk’s air of calm assurance, the samurai sheathed his sword and bowed before him.

“This is where the gates of heaven open,” the master then said.

* * *

That passage was just one of many in a lovely book J lent me after class last week: Martial Arts Teaching Tales. It’s a collection of short essays on some of the key concepts any teacher of martial arts most consider, such as “The Snare of Appearances” or “Winning Without Fighting”. Each essay is followed by a number of short tales like the one above.

Some are familiar — the story of Bokuden and the insolent samurai on the ferry, or the teachings of the venerable old ratcatcher (also picked up in The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts) — but many of the tales here were new to me, and all are well-told. Short, to the point and without commentary, challenging the reader to confront and understand them.

There are many stories of untouchable masters who are able to avoid every blow, who cannot be defeated, and a shallow sort of understanding might come away thinking that this book puts forward the notion that becoming Superman is the point of studying martial arts. But I have found myself engaged in very few swordfights over the course of my life. Very few moments of life-and-death violence. So why study? Why read a book that lists one master after another effortlessly defeating thoughtless challengers?

Because to practice is to take action on the belief that you can transform yourself. And not by getting a better job, or a cuter girlfriend, or by winning the big game. These rewards are denied a follower of kenjutsu (these days, anyway. SIGH). But simply by submitting yourself to something bigger than you — something that has no ulterior motive, asks nothing from you, that just exists, and by existing, challenges you to confront it. These stories are all like that. They want nothing from me, and if I turn away from them, they still exist. Just like the endless kata of Katori Shinto Ryu. But if I face them, and push myself to confront them, they open up within me gate after gate.

And they help me to see that at every moment, in every challenge I face, there are gates I can choose to open.

Respond With Life!

After practice tonight I was polishing my sword (no, that’s not a euphemism (and yes, I can hear you snickering back there, Joshua)) and D mentioned that while she feels like she’s able to do the stances when we’re just practicing the stances, she has a hard time recognizing them in the katas.

And I missed out on the classic “Horrible Things Great Teachers Say” moment — I totally FAILED to say, “Don’t worry, you aren’t doing them right in practice, either.” Damn. That would have been pretty funny.

What I DID say was something or other about how they’re supposed to be different, because the kata aren’t just there to link together each stance in a particular order so that you can pretend you’re swordfighting. The kata are living, breathing intellectual artifacts that only exist because people embrace them, possess them and then pass them on to others.

I said, “It’s a practice, not a formula.”

So I was riding the Ossington bus back down to King Street and listening to the Propellerheads’ version of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (which if you don’t know is MIND-BLOWING) and thinking about D’s question and how that principle of practice over formula really applied at every level of Katori practice.

When I am going through the kata with my partner, I cannot just “do the moves”. The “right” stance will be fatally wrong if my partner is doing something other than what I expect. Katori asks you to pay attention with your WHOLE self to your partner, and to adapt your body, your posture, your soul, to what they bring.

To respond with attention and focus and vitality. With life. Respond with life.

And I thought, as John Barry’s fantastic horns rose up around me, as the bus turned onto Strachan Avenue, that “Respond With Life” was just a great… I don’t know. Thing. Saying. Stance.

Hey, yeah. Stance. The “right” stance in Katori, always, is to Respond With Life. SEE what’s really there, shed your expectations and see through to the heart of things, and then see into yourself and find exactly the position, the posture, the STANCE that will make the most of it. That will be alive and vital and strong and courageous.

Respond With Life. It’s a stance.

Photo by Arty Smokes

Sword and Foot

“Sword and foot!” is one of those phrases I associate with my time at Sugino Dojo; I can clearly recall Sugino Sensei roaring that at me again and again: “Sword and foot! Sword and foot!”

He was reminding me of a basic tenet of Katori Shinto Ryu: that the sword must act in concert with the body. When the sword starts moving, the foot starts moving. When the sword stops, the foot stops. Sword and foot.

This principle is evident in the most basic fundamental of Katori Shinto Ryu, the straight head cut called maku-uchi men. As the sword rises up, the front foot draws back until, when the sword reaches it apex over our heads, the front foot reaches the rear foot and we are standing with our feet together. And so as the strike comes down; the sword begins its descent and the front foot slides forward, so that at the moment the sword completes its movement, the foot has returned to its original spot and we are once again standing at the ready.

It sometimes seems like an impossibly difficult thing to manage, to cause an external object to move in perfect timing with our own body. I joke that I have never performed maku-uchi correctly, but it’s not exactly a joke. Getting the sword and the foot to move in perfect synchronization challenges my awareness and my coordination.

Hence Sensei’s constant admonishment: “Sword and foot!”

But learning to work in concert with the world around me has been a fundamental lesson, and it seems that the better I get at making that sword move in time with myself, the better I get and doing the same with other, more abstract features of the world.

It’s not just a case of imposing my will on the world around me. That can get me to MOVE the sword, but in order to operate synchronously with it, I need to move myself in accordance with the laws of physics that govern the movement of a piece of steel. I need to enter into a more complex relationship with the sword, one that accepts and embraces its needs as well as my own.

I find the lesson over and over again in my life. Repeatedly I learn to forgo simply directing, or commanding, and to embrace connecting and joining.

Interdependence, not independence.

Especially when dealing with things considerably more complex and unpredictable than swords. Like, say, software developers. I find it very difficult to get software developers to do exactly what I want them to do. Which is probably a good thing, since I’m particularly ill-suited to telling them what to do, not really being much of a software developer myself. Doing my job properly (and by the way, I have a new job; more later) involves very little directing and a great deal of harmonizing. Connecting.

It’s kind of hard to describe. Sort of like maku-uchi. I can show you how it’s done (sort of), and I practice it a lot, but descriptions never really manage to get the idea across. Likewise managing teams. It’s all sort of mysterious and beyond the ability of rationality to encompass. These are things that cannot (and perhaps should not) be put into words, but that can only be embodied in practice.

“Tao” character from Zen Sekai

The First Lesson is Walking

It struck me a few years ago, as I practicing the first kata of omote-tachi — the foundation of Katori Shinto Ryu — that the very first thing a student learns is walking. Walking two steps.

Katori is not a practice in which one learns a technique and moves on to the next. It is an endless circle of practice, insight, and more practice. I have been doing these two steps for many years now, and I still feel that even just taking two steps backwards is a process more full of possibility than I could ever completely encompass.

The kata opens with the two participants facing one another, swords at the ready. The senior member (uketachi) advances forward, driving back the junior member (kirikomi). One step. Two steps.

That’s it. Just two steps. If you’re kirikomi, you just back up two steps and you’re done. Hardly a sophisticated maneuver.

And yet, like everything else in Katori, there is much, much more going on here than can be easily seen.

First is ma-ai — “correct distance”. At the opening of the kata, before the steps begin, uketachi and kirikomi are separated by a precise distance — just too far to reach each other without taking a step. Their swordtips just meet.

As they walk, uke pushes forward and it is the job of kirikomi to maintain ma-ai. Sometimes uke pushes quickly and sometimes he pushes slowly — nevertheless, kirikomi must maintain the correct distance. After two steps back, their swords must still be in precisely the same relationship as before.

There is also timing to consider. It is uke’s forward step that prompts kirikomi’s backward one. Tong Sensei says often that swordplay in Katori Shinto Ryu is a conversation, an exchange — as a junior student I found concentrating on these brief, simple steps a chance to establish that communication with my uketachi. A chance to listen, pay attention to what uke is telling me. One step. Two steps.

One of the ongoing lessons of Katori is that of listening. You must maintain, not just the correct distance, but actual contact with your opponent. Only by fully experiencing their presence, with all your senses, can you hope to attain mastery over them. You must be aware of their sword, their feet, their eyes, all of their intent and their spirit. From any position an opponent can launch a multitude of attacks — the only way to respond correctly is by sensing them without preconceptions and allowing the correct response to come forth.

Without total attention, you cannot possibly succeed.

And so it has always struck me how, when I first began studying Katori Shinto Ryu, my first lesson was to do nothing more than walk two steps. And when I watch new students walking backwards, with so much of their attention just focused on “What’s next? What’s next?” I am reminded that just two steps can contain lessons that always need re-learning.

Photo: Jason Conlon

Forward is Backward

One of the lessons of Katori Shinto Ryu practice is that just because something looks like it must be one thing, it’s never safe to assume that it is. And this lesson seems to go on being taught and taught again, even after you first learn it.

Beginning students often lean back in postures such as ko-gasumi or te-ura-gasumi, since they believe they are blocking an incoming strike, and reasonably decide that the further away they are from that incoming blow, the safer they will be. Even after years of practice I find myself doing that without being aware of it. It’s natural, to want to shy away from danger.

The problem of course is that ko-gasumi doesn’t have to be a block at all. You learn after some practice that many of the maneuvers that appear to be blocks, and are practiced as blocks, are in fact attacks, carefully disguised to look like blocks. If I step backward, the incoming attack is blocked; but if I step forward, the attack is avoided and instead of blocking I find my sword striking down my enemy at the exact moment he sought to strike me.

If I do it right. And he doesn’t see it coming. And a thousand other things that might go wrong don’t.

But this is one reason why when we practice our stances, we work so hard to maintain a neutral if not a forward stance. We are never really retreating, and we must never forget to maintain a forward focus. To kill the enemy is the point of entering combat; many texts talk about the necessity to forget about self-preservation and think only of cutting down the enemy, whatever the cost to yourself. These are not empty exhortations, even in the safe sort of practice we engage in. It is something I should always be keeping in my mind. Whatever stance I take, whatever response the kata seems to be asking me to take, I need to constantly consider what is happening and how I can take the initiative, even when I seem to be blocking or retreating.

At the same time, I can’t just move forward every chance I get. That’s too simplistic for Katori. There are times when increasing the distance between your enemy and yourself is the right choice. I have to wait, pay attention, and learn to recognize when an opportunity presents itself.

The kata of Katori Shinto Ryu are not simple patterns to be memorized. They hold secrets and demonstrate options, many of which cannot be perceived by the casual student. It takes years of practice to uncover these truths, and this journey never truly ends. I am forever discovering assumptions in my practice that only now am I realizing are unfounded, and can be cut apart effortlessly by someone who has seen through them.

And leaning back doesn’t help.

These Things Take Time

…and I know that I’m…
The most inept that’s ever stepped…

Okay, maybe not the MOST inept. I do try to be less self-important than Morrissey. Not that it’s hard, but nice of me to try.

A couple of weekends ago a number of us travelled up to Montreal to study once again under the watchful eye of Sugino Sensei. He had come to spend some time with Michel Martin Sensei, as he had done last year when I saw him, and we were not going to miss the opportunity to practice with him this time.

At one point in the practice session Sensei asked half the group (there were about 30 folks there) to move to the sides of the room and merely WATCH the other half practicing. “Practice with your eyes,” he said.

One of the interesting things about watching other people do stuff is that you are denied the opportunity to demonstrate your own skill and cleverness. You have to sit there and wait and watch until they’re done. You must observe.

In our education system, passive observation is what is asked of students. Because of this (I guess, little armchair sociologist for you here) we devalue the idea of “studentship”. Being a student is a phase that most of us are only too eager to put behind us, as we move into the rareified realm of “being an expert.”

As I posted previously about The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts, there is a strong thread in martial arts literature that tries to glorify being a student. The Demon’s Sermon makes the claim that only when you are truly and without expectation observing your opponent can you hope to react appropriately no matter what he attempts. That is, the master swordsman is embracing the role of the student, of the observer.

But this form of observation cannot be passive. This is why Sensei insists we “practice with our eyes”. We are not to sit back and simply let the kata performed before us leave empty impressions on our retinas. We must attentively inspect the actions of the other students; consider where their choices differ from ours, and take away from what we see lessons that we can put into practice when our turn comes. We must engage with the other students and relish the opportunity to see from the outside what it is we have such difficulty understanding from within.

A dojo without students is an empty shell. I was reading an article today about fostering learning teams, self-organizing groups that accomplish goals and build lasting social capital. The lesson of the article was that the only way to actively build such teams is to listen. By being a good listener, you create an environment where listening is valued, and it is only through listening that teams can ever truly come together. If no one is listening to each other, how can a team pull together?

A dojo where no one is observing will suffer the same fate. And just as telling a story to someone who anticipates every sentence, or keeps interrupting to expand on points they consider themselves experts on is frustrating and useless, so is practicing kata before those who will not observe you as students: without expectation, without the need to demonstrate their expertise.

Being a student is a tremendous honour and a great privilege. Only a student can never be surprised — because when you consider yourself a student, you EXPECT to be surprised. When you consider yourself an expert, you are in part claiming that you are unlikely to be surprised — which puts you at a significant disadvantage when (as invariably happens) things occur that you did not expect. A student, unconcerned with how they appear, will be able to react naturally and without self-consciousness. An expert, on the other hand, will be consumed with the fear that if they do not react appropriately, they will betray their own lack of expertise.

Sensei asked us to observe carefully and to find points that we could translate into action for ourselves. I take his own behaviour as a model; when he is watching me practice, he zeros in on the fulcrum points where the tiniest change will bring about the biggest impact on my performance. Just as he did last year, with one simple direction he changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the foundation cut of Katori Shinto Ryu.

Observing. Listening. It is so easy for me to become passive when I do these things, and so much of modern pastimes encourage a passive engagement (or rather, lack thereof) with whatever is presented to me that the habit is well-ingrained. It is useful for me to have a reminder that when I am watching, I am still practicing.

But you know where you came from,
You know where you’re going and
you know where you belong…

From White to White

It was a historic moment. For me, anyway. For the first time in my life, I was practicing martial arts wearing a belt other than the one pictured here. This was my father’s judo white belt. I have worn this belt since I was a child. It doesn’t go around me as many times as it used to, that’s for sure, but it’s stood me in good stead through my brief association with Judo at College Heights Secondary School, and more lastingly at Skoyles Sensei’s Nakayama-kai Ko-Aikido in Calgary, across the Pacific Ocean to Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki, and now at Tong Sensei’s Katori Shinto Ryu practice here in Toronto. It’s done right by me, that old belt.

I never wanted to wear anything but a white belt. Fortunately, aside from Judo I’ve never practiced a tradition that used coloured belts for anything, so it’s never been a problem.

My white belt reminds me that I am always a beginner. That I need to approach my art with humility and that everyone who practices with me is my teacher. It’s a lesson I need continual reminding of, prone as I am to thinking I’ve got things “figured out”.

One of the things I love most about swordsmanship is that there’s so little to “figure out”. It drives me crazy, but it’s that lesson again. It doesn’t matter how much thinking I do, or how much terminology I memorize, or how many different cuts I know. It only matters how much and how well I practice.

My new belt is from Aoi Budogu, a splendid outfit in Vancouver who sell a wonderful array of fantastic products for us swordsmen. Not many retailers cater to our demographic, so it’s great to have folks like this who offer the sorts of wacky things we think are important. This lovely obi is much more functional for a swordsman. Its greater width holds your sword more firmly in place.

It’s good to have fine tools if they encourage one to practice more and better. While you don’t want to get all hung up on having the perfect tools, or use NOT having them as an excuse to practice, there’s no denying that beautiful things raise one’s spirits and encourage practice. Plus it didn’t cost very much.

As you can see, my new belt is also white. It’s a little flashier than the old one, sure. Don’t hate me. But it’s still white. I would feel strange wearing anything but white around my waist. I’m a beginner. I don’t practice much. But boy am I capable of feeling incredibly proud of myself. Even though I’ve moved on from my father’s Judo belt, I don’t want to pretend I don’t need a reminder like this.

Also, this one is much longer, so it goes around me a few more times than the old one. THAT reminder I don’t need so much.

New obi photo courtesy of Aoi Budogi. Used by permission. Copyright 2007 Aoi Budogu