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

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.