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Thoughts on budo



There are a lot of misconceptions about cutting things with swords. One of the main barriers to learning how to cut well is the misconception that you need maximum power in your upper body to force a cut through your target.

Doing tameshigiri properly comes down to how serious you are as a person and as a person with a sword. In terms of Japanese Kenjutsu, tameshigiri is done to check that your cutting technique is OK or improving. Of course it is fun to cut things like water bottles or thick rolls of paper, etc, but really this is just playing, not training. There is nothing wrong with playing as long as you recognise the difference.

The main value of tameshigiri is that by looking at the kiriguchi [cut face] of what you have cut, you can learn things about your cutting technique. Simply put, a curved or uneven kiriguchi is bad, a straight one is good. You can also get a good feeling of maai, [range, distance] and by cutting heavier targets such as tatami omote, you can get an idea of just how little force you need to cut. About one roll of tatami is about the equivalent of a person’s thigh, and this is about the heaviest target you need to cut.

A child can cut through this amount of tatami, katana are, after all made for cutting. The purpose of tameshigiri is to check your cutting technique, not to prove your strength. Proving you can cut through a thick target is like proving you can go over 150km/h in a Ferrari.

This kind of Conan the Barbarian personality complex has had a big impact on the proliferation of over-long tsuka on non-Japanese made katana. The idea is simple physics, Torque = Force x distance, so it would make sense that a longer tsuka gives more leverage and more cutting force. Good idea, good physics but completely wrong in the case of cutting with a katana.

People who want to measure their prowess by powering through metre thick targets are probably missing the point a bit. Although there are such exhibition tameshigiri events in Japan where people cut through multiple rolls of tatami in one cut, these are generally for demonstration purposes rather than for serious practice.

If you do want to learn how to cut and use a katana properly though, please join a dojo first.


A Zen of Iaido

Why do you do Iaido? everyone has different reasons for doing Iaido, but what is the purpose? My Sensei told me that the purpose of doing Iaido isn't to reach Satori [enlightenment] and it is not for the purpose of learning how to kill someone with a sword. So the purpose of doing Iaido is... (The sentence is left open for you to finish yourself)

In Budo and in Zen; the journey is more important that the destination, but without a destination in mind, the journey is rather pointless.

When you do Iaido, you shouldn't be thinking that the most important thing and the whole reason for doing Iaido is so you can learn how to wield a sword with deadly efficiency. But it is important to realise that unless you aim to be able to wield a sword with deadly efficiency, your training will lack focus and meaning. A parallel to this idea can be found in Cha No Yu [Tea ceremony] The purpose of Cha No Yu certainly isn't just to make a cup of tea, there are much simpler ways to make good tea, but if you don't do it with a focus on making a good cup of tea, the whole exercise becomes empty and tokenistic.


Becoming a better person through Budo

Most people seem to have an idea that by doing Budo you can become a better person. Most people who do Budo agree with this idea. But how does it really work? Just by going to the dojo doesn't necessarily do a lot to improve yourself, you have to make the effort to do that. Just like if you went to the gym and watched people exercise, you wouldn't get any fitter yourself.
The atmosphere and culture within a good ,legitimate dojo, along with it's rules and expectations, give you a vehicle for your self improvement. Not only learning how, but actually embedding into your spirit how to behave calmly and deal with stressful situations to the best result are found in the metaphor of sword training. And not only learning how, but actually embedding into your spirit, the natural state of being able to suppress your own ego when necessary is a metaphor found in the Reigi [etiquette] of the dojo.
Most training in the dojo is a metaphor for something else, as Miyamoto Musashi often wrote, "From one thing learn 10,000" and"You should investigate this thoroughly" In Miyamoto Musashi's Go Rin no Sho, he ends almost every article with words to this effect, because this is the nature of following "the way". In a dojo, you not only learn from your Sensei, but you learn from your Sensei's Sensei and so on right back to the founder of the Ryu-ha, so even though you may not understand why you do things in a certain way, there have been people before you who have understood, so it is wise to follow in their footsteps in the hope that you may understand someday too.
The idea of Budo as being a way to improve yourself is not only restricted to Iaido or Kendo, any art that can call itself Budo, including Zen, is a potentially powerful vehicle for your self improvement. If human beings were naturally able to learn any concept or art without actually practicing it, then we would feel much less need for Budo. As it is however, most of us find it helps us progress along the way if we have an activity to focus our efforts on. You should investigate this thoroughly.

Suki 隙

Suki is a gap or opening in which you can be attacked though, mentally or physically.

In Iaido, the main point of it all is to be without suki. If Suki is defined as an opening or a gap, through which you may be attacked, then you may think that it would be impossible to do anything. This is quite wrong, there are many ways to move and to be, without suki. Of course with your sword out, in chudan, it’s a very effective way of being without suki. But, what about when you move to cut, or turn to face another enemy, you can’t always have your sword facing out in front of you, nor would you desire to.

Being without suki, is actually irrespective of your sword. If your sword is in your saya, held in chudan or jodan, or just loosely at your side, its possible in all these situations both to have and to not have suki. Suki originates in your mind, or the amount of training you have. If you are relaxed, aware and ready to react in a calm state of mind [ideally munen-muso] then you will be without suki. If you can always be in such a state of mind, or your level of training is enough that that is your normal state of mind, then having no suki is your natural state.

For the rest of us mortals, what can we do to eliminate or at least reduce suki to the bare minimum? Always the best thing to do is to relax. At all times when you’re not cutting, your hands are softly, lightly gripping the sword, your breathing is calm, your knees are slightly bent and flexible, you’re aware of all that is around you and your movements are slow and smooth.

In other words, you’re not committed to any course of action until you grip your sword to start the cut. If you’re not committed to any particular action, then you have the freedom to react to any threat, and hence, there is no suki. Drawing is the same; until you’re ready for saya-biki the draw is smooth and slow, i.e. no suki. At saya-biki the cut is decided and your freedom of action is limited. It would be like playing baseball with the pitcher standing 20m away compared to 3m away.

Try to avoid being mentally or physically committed to an action and you will be without suki.


Reigi [etiquette]

Why is Reigi [etiquette] so important in Budo? The important difference is that Budo and ‘martial arts’ have a very different nuance. Martial arts are the group of fighting techniques you learn to protect yourself, or win a fight. They are not focused on honour or spiritual fulfilment. Budo is the group of arts which lead to enlightenment. Budo includes not only the Zen / Mikyo / Shinto influenced fighting arts, but also Cha-no-yu [tea ceremony] Shodo [Japanese calligraphy], Ikebana [Japanese flower arranging], etc.

There are 3 complimentary aspects to Budo; Reigi, Technique and Zen. Depending on your reasons for starting a particular Budo, in our case Kenjustu [sword arts] people tend to focus on either Zen or technique.

It is important to realise that the 3 aspects are interrelated, but Reigi is the covering concept. And its very true that whatever aspect inspires you from the start, you will eventually come to regard all 3 as the same thing. Technique allows us to cultivate our Zen spirit by providing a focus and means of ‘polishing our souls’. Zen allows us to refine our technique and become good sword practitioners by the various virtues of Zen. And all at the same time, by training hard enough to improve your technique and following Zen, you will naturally both need and get a refined sense of Reigi.

Eventually you will realize that without a well developed sense of Reigi you wont be able to train effectively because you wont have the necessary discipline to follow the way, and your Sensei and peers will resent having to suffer your bad manners and dislike training with you if you don’t know your place in the dojo hierarchy or the hierarchy of society. In other words, Reigi allows harmony to exist.

In the dojo you need to show your understanding of Reigi by following the various rules and practices that have over hundreds of years become the norm of dojo behaviour. Being a Japanese art, Iaido and Kendo naturally must follow the Japanese ideas of etiquette. As such it becomes very important to actually show that you know your place in the hierarchy. Western people judge each others feelings of respect, etc by less concrete means. So if you have a sincere attitude, everyone can understand that you do know about etiquette. But the Japanese are very good at putting on various faces to suit the occasion, hiding their real feelings behind a well seeming mask. This is why it is important in budo circles to physically show your respect of others, So we bow to each other, we respond with “hai!” when Sensei or sempai [senior member] tell you to do something, etc, etc.

This is something that we all can understand when it is explained to us, but to really know it [in our hearts] we must experience it for ourselves. Once we really know it, this is a small satori [enlightenment], but in the mean time, take it for granted and train diligently and you will feel the results in time. This is the nature of Zen, to truly understand and reach Satori, you must experience truth for yourself.


Buying a sword

Recently we had a visitor to the dojo, a person who had been ripped off by a local vendor of rubbish swords with shops selling handbags and swords in the shopping malls in Christchurch. This unfortunate visitor went to this vendor with the intention of buying a $200 sword, instead he was talked into buying a "bargain price" $600 sword from the vendors "own collection". He was told that the sword would double in value in 3 or 4 years so it would be a great investment, and that even though the vendor was reluctant to sell this precious sword, and his wife was there telling him not to as well, he couldn't resist the cash offered by our visitor.
Some time after this event, our visitor tried selling the sword on trade me, and put up a lot of incorrect information about his "authentic Japanese sword" and how it wasn't like the plethora of Chinese made fakes out there. Unfortunately However, a lot of people noticed that it was a Chinese made sword and not very different to any of the others out there. This man was keen to get his sword valued to prove all the doubters wrong, so i invited him to the dojo where I told him I would have a look at it for him and tell him what it really was.
On inspection of the sword, it was a rather strange double edged "katana" that looked like it had come out of some anime or manga story. It was also in rather poor condition because our visitor wasn't told how to look after a sword, and that steel rusts if you touch it and don't oil it. the sword was obviously Chinese made with exactly the same koshirae as on many others. The real value would have been closer to $50, for the right person...
our visitor tried to contact the vendor to complain, but was completely ignored.
There are some very valuable lessons to be learned here.
  • Most people don't know so much about swords, so get advice.
  • There are no bargains to be had these days. The time when you could be given an old sword from someone who didn't want it is pretty much over. People recognise that authentic nihonto are valuable now.
  • Don't buy a sword at a shopping mall.
  • Learn how to look after your sword.
  • Do a bit of research before you buy.
Read through our swords page for a bit of free advice.

Ki and Mana, Sitting on the Floor

Why do we put our gear, including our precious swords on the floor? Why do we ourselves sit on the floor when we are resting or doing anything with our gear? Isn't the floor a low and dirty place to put such precious things? Well, firstly it shouldn't be dirty and this is one of the reasons why cleaning the floor properly is such an important part of training. Secondly, our things accumulate Ki, in the same way that the Māori have the concept of things accumulating the mana of the owner or maker. So while we respect and look after our gear, is it really so important that we can't put it on the floor? Are you, yourself so important that your gear cannot be put on the floor? If you receive a sword from your friend, the shop or off Trade Me, the sword may have very little Ki to start with, so it is just a sword. The sword has a huge potential, and is your means to polish your soul, and it also has the potential to be life giving or life taking, so it must be treated with the utmost respect for that (and this is one of the  reasons why people say the katana is the soul of the Samurai). However, a sword only has inherent Ki or Mana from its association with people who have such great Ki or Mana. A sword that was owned and used by your sensei, a famous Samurai, or made by a master Tosho, etc has more inherent Ki, Mana and status than other swords.

But consider this; a master Budoka, the highest level sensei, would never be so arrogant to assume that his Ki or Mana was so high that it wouldn't be appropriate to put his own gear on the floor. That is a fundamental aspect of Zen. Those that have such a high opinion of themselves are far from being enlightened. others of course have a high opinion of such great people, and accordingly treat anything received from such people with the respect that it deserves.

In Japan, sitting on the floor is not only the usual way of everyday life, it is the most respectful way of being. To sit in seiza (with your legs tucked underneath you so your bum is on your heels and your shins are on the floor) is the most respectful way to sit. Seiza is written with the characters meaning "correct" 正 and "sit" 座. so if you are to sit correctly and respectfully, then your gear should also be in such a position and close at hand.


The o-chiburi in Seitei's Mae.

This chiburi seems overly flashy with a lot of seemingly useless movements, but in actual fact there is a reason for how it is done. Following the steps of the kata from the start at box 1, you can see how the angles and movements of the sword threaten your opponent's friends as well.