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

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.