Meat And Bones

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.

Haru Matsuri 2007

I had a great time at the 2007 Haru Matsuri at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. I’ve been attending Tong-sensei’s Friday night classes for about a month now, and it’s been wonderful working with someone who actually knows how the forms are SUPPOSED to work, and can at least attempt to correct the spectacularly bad habits I’ve picked up over ten years of teacherless practice.

And on Saturday, those of us in that Friday class, as well as a variety of other folks from the area who also practice Katori Shinto Ryu, got together up at the JCCC and practiced together in full view of thousands of adoring spectators.

Maybe not “thousands”.

Maybe not “adoring”.

Not even, to tell the truth “in full view”. Half the dojo space was sort of around the corner and out of the way.

But it was still tons of fun. And very educational. You really learn when you practice with someone who’s studied with others. Everything is different — timing, distance, speed. All the little things, all the things that add up to complete unfamiliarity. You have to pay attention.

It’s one of the things that make paired kata practice so much more sophisticated than it first appears. The need to constantly adjust and respond to your partner’s actions forces you into a sharp alertness and drives home those basic lessons again and again and again

Ma-ai. Correct distance. Just trying to maintain your correct distance from someone who’s leaping and twisting about, flailing a wooden stick in the air, is immensely challenging.

Zanshin. Awareness. Even after you’ve finished, even when you’re not practicing, staying aware of all that is happening around you. I find this lesson constantly needing renewal — it’s so easy to trick my focus into a narrow world and to forget that all else is really and truly part of the same system that I’m in. The guys practicing behind me aren’t a distraction or something I need to shut out of my senses; they are part of the environment that I share, and as I practice, I must retain my awareness of them and where they are.

If only to avoid getting smacked with a piece of oak.

And of course for a teacher, which all of us are in some capacity, it’s critical to have that wide awareness. That’s something of what I was seeing in Sugino Sensei; how he would catch someone’s movement halfway across the dojo and run over to interrupt and share some detail. Zanshin.

And just learning the basic stances and cuts again and again. You try and copy what Sensei teaches you, practice it and practice it, and then realise you’ve misunderstood something and have to overcoming all the conditioning you’ve already put in to the incorrect form. And then you do it again.

And you encounter other folks who learned a different emphasis, some other way of completing a movement. Sometimes it feels alien and awkward, sometimes it sets off a light bulb in your head and suddenly you understand so much of what you’d never understood before.

My understanding of a simple set of moves in the third kata got revolutionized by Dennis’s patient instruction, and a whole sequence appeared to me in a new light. Tong-Sensei’s explanations of o-kachi has made me wonder how I ever conceived of doing it otherwise. I have so much to learn, and it is such a joy learning it.

There is no goal in all this. There is no point at which I will finish learning and correcting and trying. I will never complete this journey, except in my death, which will come all too soon, I’m sure. But in the meantime, I hope I can continue studying and practicing this lovely, lovely art, for in that practice I find I learn far more than just postures and motions.

Thanks to Tong-sensei, to my practice partners for the day Dennis and Andre, to Lynne and Steve for coming out and giving moral support, and of course to Steph, not only for being a part of it but for all the great pictures. And of course, to everyone who took part and made it so exciting.

I Wish I Was In Sherbrooke Now…

“Corey, no, no, no! No, no, Corey!”

The familiar ring of Sensei’s voice carries all across the gymnasium and I know I’m doing something wrong.

I don’t know what, so I just stop where I am in the sequence of moves forming the first of the omote tachi kata and wait for Sensei to explain what it is I’m screwing up. There never seems to be a shortage of mistakes and misapprehensions on my part, that’s for sure.

But one thing I learned studying martial arts — or at least studying with teachers like Sugino Sensei in Japan (and now Sherbrooke) and Skoyles Sensei in Calgary — is that correction is a gift, a gift that must be treasured and embraced and deeply considered. When Sugino Sensei comes running over and grabs my arm to pull it into the correct posture (usually laughing at my awkwardness as he does so), he is gifting me with his attention. And the attention and consideration of a man like Sensei is nothing to be treated casually. He has spent decades learning this craft, learning from his father and the piled-up ages of experience within him, which now reside in the son. It is a rare and precious thing to be granted even a small portion of that experience.

Not only does Sensei know swordfighting (at least the form swordfighting takes within the Katori Shinto Ryu curricullum) inside-out, he also a gifted instructor, who knows just what change to make to a student’s stance so that they will understand a particular move better. With one adjustment of my right wrist Sensei completely changed my understanding of maku-uchi men, the basic overhead cut of Katori — the very first thing I ever learned at his dojo fourteen years ago.

Watching Sensei at the class at Sherbrooke was wonderful. He would wander between the rows of practicing students, seemingly aimlessly, and then something would catch his eye and his whole body would electrify, and he would rush over to one pair or another, stop their activity and offer correction and guidance. Usually he would laugh his good-humoured booming laugh and then be on his way again, wandering without apparent direction until something else caught his eye. If I’m paying attention, I can learn nearly as much watching him correct others as I can having him correct me.

The parallels with writing are, perhaps instructive — as much for the similarities as the differences.

When someone reads my work and offers comments, I find that if I can treat their comments as a gift, and accept them humbly and with gratitude, they are far more valuable to me than if I get defensive — thereby denying the validity of my reader’s feelings. I have learned to avoid trying to explain myself, even when it seems that someone has misunderstood my intent. I might ask a question to establish that the reader did in fact read the words that I wrote, but I try never to challenge my reader’s impressions.

I try. I’m not actually very good at behaving this way — the urge to explain and to try and demonstrate my own cleverness is strong and I often give in to it, but I recognize that this is empty, pride-fueled behaviour.

You can’t reason with Sensei. Asking questions serves little purpose when receiving correction — typically when I do ask questions I’m simply trying to make Sensei realise that I REALLY DO UNDERSTAND. That I’m wise and clever and skilled. It’s the same in writing.

The only required response to ANY feedback is “Thank you.” Whenever someone takes the time to consider what I’m doing and offer their input, I am required to thank them for their efforts. I don’t have to say anything else. I don’t have to agree with them or demonstrate my acceptance of their correction, but I do have to thank them for the effort.

“Arigato, sensei.”

But in writing it’s rare to have access to a Sensei. Writing stories doesn’t have the kind of rigid standards that Katori Shinto Ryu has. In Katori, if my foot isn’t turned out, that’s just wrong. It isn’t “my style” or an interesting challenge to overcome; it’s wrong. Turn the foot out. In writing stories, ANYTHING can work okay if I can make it work okay. Experience is valuable, to be sure, but anyone’s point of view has something to offer me as a writer.

Erin mentioned the notion of “Beginner’s Mind” at dinner the other night — the idea that if you can approach your life from the point of view of a beginner, and lose your attachment to your own self-image as an expert, you learn more and are happier thereby. This idea is coming up a lot in The Fifth Discipline — that living with humility and a willingness to learn from others provides a life of richness and constant learning.

In life, even more than in writing, a Sensei never really shows up. Nobody can show me how to live my life — because nobody else is living MY life. Who then can I learn from? Well, from everybody. If I’m willing to accept correction and feedback as the precious gift it is, and if I can remember not to react defensively or pridefully when people offer me the benefit and aid of their experience, everyone can be a Sensei to me. I’m certainly not qualified to be an expert on any subject whatsoever, so it ought to be easy enough for me to find teachers wherever I go.

Which does seem to be the case. Certainly everyone I met in Sherbrooke had much to offer lonely little Anglophone me. Folks were tremendously hospitable and welcoming — Patrick who took me to lunch, Michel who graciously lent me one of his hand-made bokken, Izad (I’m almost certainly spelling that wrong) who helped me with re-learning yoko-men, and of course Martin Sensei and Tong Sensei who were responsible for my being there in the first place. I learned an immense amount.

Now (and this is just as true in writing as in swordsmanship) the challenge is for me to take all the feedback and correction I’ve received and try to turn it into action. It’s one thing to hear and accept that information — it’s quite another to use it to transform myself.

Ah, well, that’s what makes it fun, I guess.

Back To The Bottom

I went back to the Eishin-Ryu dojo at UBC this weekend and enjoyed myself immensely. It’s very liberating coming into a new dojo; you don’t know anything, and everyone knows you don’t know anything, so there are no expectations on you to know anything. You just sit back and watch everyone else and do whatever they’re doing. You can learn from EVERYONE.

Having not been in a dojo in many years, it’s wonderful. And set me thinking about how and why the dojo is structured and operated the way it is.

Steph and I talk about this sometimes; how learning requires submission and the dojo “system” is designed around that basic idea. In order to learn anything you have to accept that you don’t know something — every time we learn we have succeeded in beating down our ego enough to admit that we didn’t know that.

The traditional dojo does a really good job of giving people an environment in which they will accept their own ignorance. Having a strict hierarchy of sempai and sensei means you always know who’s a worthy teacher for you — everyone senior to you is (of course, there comes the day when you realise that those junior to you are also worthy teachers). There’s no need for debates or arguments. If you disagree with what sensei says, well, too bad. Do it his way while you’re in his dojo.

And more often than not, in my experience anyway, after you’ve done it sensei’s way for a while you find that maybe it isn’t so wrong after all.

The dojo is also good at making you leave your ego at the door. Bow, sit in seiza, put your sword on the left, or on the right, all the little rules of ritual make it harder and harder for you to bring your own issues into the practice. By submitting yourself to the elaborate rituals of opening that most dojo provide, you start down the path of preparing to learn.

This is why it’s so important to perform all these rituals with every bit of intensity and focus that you would bring to your cuts and stances: not because they’re important in and of themselves, but because by doing so you make your own learning easier.

Just like accepting the hierarchy of sempai and sensei helps you. It’s not just respect, which is how bowing and whatnot often get described in Western literature. Of course there’s respect, but there is more importantly submission. The Western tradition denigrate submission (the American branch especially), and in doing so I sometimes think we’ve lost touch with something powerful and important. If you won’t submit to anything, you’ll never learn anything. Even de Bergerac was willing to give way to courtesy and romance.

So here I am at Eishin-Ryu UBC, not even knowing how to bow properly, and it’s just so wonderful. A room full of teachers. Life on the bottom is good.

Funny Thing, the Internet

So in browsing about looking for stuff on my beloved Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu, I come across this Blogger post about a story on Sugino Dojo, where I studied during my little sojourn in Japan. And realised it sounded very familiar, mainly because I myself wrote it.

Quite a surprise.

That was a long time ago now. Nearly ten years have passed since I came back from Japan, and in all that time I have not found another teacher to guide me. It’s been hard. I went back to Calgary a few times and received teaching from Sensei Skoyles, who first set me on this path, but that’s only once or twice a year. And Sensei Skoyles has no background in TSKSR anyway.

So I’ve been practicing by myself for these years. I did study briefly with a ZNKF Iaido group, but it was deeply inconvenient to get to and the style was a difficult transition for me from TSKSR, and I abandoned that practice. I’ve been practicing off and on at the YMCA, and in the summer I go down to the beach every so often to startle the locals.

My company’s new office, however, includes a gym with a racquetball court and I’ve now been practicing there twice weekly. A couple of folks at the office have demonstrated interest in practicing as well, and there’s now a couple of us. I’m showing them the fundamentals of the TSKSR Omote-Tachi kata, though I take great pains to tell them I am in no way a qualified teacher. I just really need somebody to practice with.

We are careful to avoid risk — without a qualified instructor present the risk of injury is high. We go slow and maintain careful distance from each other. It’s startling, though, how different it is training with another person. The TSKSR kata are paired kata, and practicing them all these years by myself has taught me many bad habits.

Fortunately I was never very good to begin with, so I couldn’t have slid too far backwards.

Seeing so many articles about the people I studied with around the Internet has been very inspiring, though. Waka-sensei looks well, and little Hideo is all grown up! Time rolls on by, don’t it just.

Osafune Kiyomitsu made my sword

So I finally got around to investigating the origin of my sword.

I bought a katana many years ago when I was living in Tokyo. I’d been studying at Sugino Yoshio’s dojo for about a year when I approached some of the senior students about finding me a reasonably-priced antique katana that would be good enough for a humble barbarian wanna-be like myself.

One fellow had a friend who was a collector and was planning to get some of his high-end blades polished, so he was looking to sell some of his crappy blades to raise the money to do that (katana-polishing is very expensive). The fellow looked over his selection and brought one to me.

At the time I knew almost nothing about swords. And my Japanese was never terrific, so communication was always a problem. But the sword was beautiful, if obviously flawed in a couple of respects (two chips, one right at the tip, and some minor corrosion), and I bought it, having faith in the people who were teaching me how to use it. There was a signature on the tang, which I was interested in, but I understood that it was considered probably a forgery.

Note that that doesn’t mean the blade is worthless; it means that the guy who made the blade figured he could get more money for it by passing it off as the work of a superior smith. It’s still a properly-made and antique weapon, it’s just not made by who it says it was made by.

Okay, enough preamble. My copy of The Samurai Sword arrived the other day and I just spent the last couple of hours inspecting the blade and figuring out what it says and what the rest of the weapon’s qualities can tell me.

I’ve owned it for nine years now, and I’m just getting around to verifying what people told me. Nine years after I spent several thousand dollars just taking their word for it.

Anyway, the tang inscription says “Bizen Osafune Kiyomitsu” which is a reasonably well-known smith from the mid-1500’s. The blade is of size and shape and style consistent with smiths of that time, and although the hamon (the temper line) is quite a bit smoother than the one verified Kiyomitsu blade I found online, it is very similar in terms of form (ridgeline, general shape, grain of steel and tang) and I think it’s reasonable to say it’s from a smith who knew Kiyomitsu’s work pretty well. I’m pretty sure it’s not a mid-Tokugawa sword, as I once thought, as the grain is very pronounced, which apparently is rare in the later swords, so I think I’ve got a Muromachi or an early Tokugawa sword.

That’s what I’m going to believe, anyway. And I thought it was cool and that I would tell you lot. So I did.