Category Archives: Kendo Thoughts
Ichi-gan, Ni-soku, San-tan, Shi-riki are terms with a very interesting and important sequence of priority as well as other layers of meaning. The general meaning is: “The four essential elements of Kendō training, listed in order of importance: 1) Vision (esp. Konnome) 2) Footwork (esp. the left leg) 3) Resolute spirit 4) Assertive execution of techniques.” For me these terms also seem to indicate the essential sequence of attacking. Each term in this sequence has a mind and body aspect that must be followed in order. The master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi makes similar metaphors of the body, regarding small and large strategy, in his “book of five rings.” Ichi-gan (1-seeing) is both seeing and perceiving the mind and physical intent of the opponent. Ni-soku (2-footwork) is mobility based on the opponent’s intent, by either moving into position to attack or preparing to counter attack, this is maai or distance. San-tan (3-abdomen, three inches below your navel) move forward from your center, balance, life force, ki, this is seme. Shi-riki (4-strength) is the actual striking using strategic (seeing the opening) and technical strength, this is ki-ken-tai-ichi.
In kendo and iaido we use the term metsuke to make the point of focusing our attention on the eyes of the opponent. Enzan-no-metsuke is also a common kendo term that means to see the opponent as if he were distant mountains, or to try to see as much of the opponent as possible. Both Metsuke and Enzan-no-metsuke terms have a combined mind aspect as well as a physical meaning that includes another type of seeing, that of seeing the truth of the situation and the state of mind of the opponent, as described in the term Kan-ken-no-metsuke. Kan-ken-no-metsuke consists of two types of seeing ‘kan’ and ‘ken’. Kan-no-me is defined in the dictionary as “the way of seeing with which one sees the essence of things” and “ken-no-me is the way of seeing with which one sees only the surface phenomenon.” Kan-ken-no-metsuke emphasizes the importance of using “kan” or seeing the truth and the opponent’s state of mind without any outward or physical indications along with “ken” what we physically see. Skill in kan-no-me and ken-no-me as with everything that must be learned takes a period of development. The great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi understood the importance of seeing the opponent’s intentions or the essence of things and states this Way of seeing many times and in many ways in his “book of five rings”. The use of kan-ken-no-metsuke requires a calm, pure state of mind this takes practice and diligent study. Although we say metsuke or enzan no metsuke we mean using both ways of seeing or kan-ken-no-metsuke, seeing the opponent’s mind first then seeing the opponent physically. It is said that the difference between a beginner and a master is practice.
In kendo kata it is often said that the higher ranked person is the ‘uchidachi’ or the person striking first and the ‘shidachi’ or the person counter striking as being the lower raking person. Kendo kata shows us that learning is a matter of allowing the opponent to strike for the lower ranking person and that teaching is allowing the lower ranking person to counter strike for the higher ranking person. There many ways of learning and teaching kendo but these two ways are the most important. The higher ranked teacher must sacrifice himself to the student so that he or she will learn the techniques and the lower ranked person must only attack when there is an opening. This is the essence of teaching and learning kendo. Without this understanding of the roles of teaching and learning, kendo would merely be an exercise of who is better than the other.
There are many competitive kenshi searching for the next best technique in which to win in a tournament. Yet there are really no new techniques only variations of old techniques or a rediscovery of an old technique. Many people are at a loss with what to do when it comes to weaker or stronger opponents. Your ability to deal with these changes demonstrates your level in the use of strategy. I am not a kendo champion yet sometimes I am asked what techniques I am working on, to this I usually answer this or that technique. The method I most often use to overcome an opponent is the method used by the great sword master Miyamoto Musashi who states that his Way is the way of water. The way of water is always changing depending on the circumstance, it is a frame of mind, the Way of strategy is not any particular old or new technique. Musashi mentions in his “book of five rings” the difference between a swordsman and a strategist is the strategist applies strategy to other occupations and everyday life circumstances. Musashi’s point is to practice different strategies all the time, so that one is able to see the truth in what the opponent is trying to do, no matter how hard he tries to conceal his motives.
Authentic samurai swords were made of two types of steel a hard type to give an incredibly sharp, hard edge and a softer steel on the inside to give it a non breakable durability. The hard steel was pounded out many hundreds of times as a straight sword until the last process where the soft steel was inserted into a groove in the back of the sword. Then the straight sword was heated to a precise temperature then cooled in water to give the sword its unique samurai sword curve. The samurai swords were developed without the of benefit of science yet they are still works of remarkable technical ingenuity. The best metal forging minds in Japan that developed the samurai sword, were followed by the best military, and fighting minds that developed the martial art of kendo. There are many reasons why kendo training is so hard and why the methods and concepts are so simple and elegant. The many reasons are a result of many great minds developing a martial art of remarkable technical ingenuity. Each kenshi adds to this rich kendo history, each kenshi contributes and is important in fabric of kendo, that the next beginner will learn from. As we individually rediscover the teachings and follow the path of “the Way of the sword”.
One of the most basic of teachings in kendo is controlling the center. Most likely the majority of kenshi may say that controlling the center is to dominate the center or the kamae of the opponent. As controlling the center implies never physically giving up the middle ground or pointing the sword at physical center of the opponent. It is a fact that there are attacking and counter attacking techniques in kendo and that neither attacking or counter attacking is considered separate from each other. Since counter attacking has the same effect as attacking, the basic teaching of controlling the center means that your mind is controlling the center of the opponent’s mind, and not just the physical kamae. Counter attacking allows the opponent to briefly control the physical center but never your mind. Although it is easy to attack at anytime, counter attacking relies on a certain amount of sophistication of letting the opponent think he is about to win. Controlling the center with both the mind and kamae gives one a greater amount of mobility. There is an unseen dimension that one conquers when striking, you must strike the opponent’s mind with either an attacking or a counter attacking method.
In his book the ‘five rings’ Miyamoto Musashi states that one should pay attention to the small things. This idea seems to be a cautionary statement. Consider how our mind overlooks a great many small but important aspects of kendo just because we are comfortable in our ways. It is important to constantly endeavor to address and perfect all of the aspects of kendo no matter how small, for example: Such as when striking it is important to swing the sword in one continuous motion. When breathing it is important to breath continuously exhaling slowly and inhaling quickly. Simply allowing the opponent the slightest movement to strike or begin to strike is an advanced detail many learn only over many years of practice. There are many small aspects of kendo, all are important and all are slowly improved as one mindfully and constantly practices over the years. Just as the major kendo concept of ki-ken-tai-ichi (spirit, sword and body as one) teaches us there are many parts that need to work together to make a perfect strike, or perfect kendo.
Kendo can be understood in many ways depending on what level of kendo development you are in. It is fairly common nowadays for a beginning kendo student to search the internet to learn about kendo, and even proclaim themselves an expert on any subject just by reading a few articles on any subject. This is not the true Way of kendo. Kendo is both a physical and a mindful path and simply reading about something does not mean it is understood, at best it is merely a superficial and the first step of the concept that the reader understands. The great sword master Miyamoto Musashi tells the reader of his “book of five rings” ‘one should not merely read his book but study and constantly practice kendo to really understand his concepts of the Way of strategy’. The concepts of kendo can only become fully understood and meaningful through a personal realization of each principle. Realization of the principles of kendo takes hard work, many years of practice and maturity of mind. So all those suburis and exacting exercises add up overtime and years to wisdom. Realization of the concepts of kendo must be both a physical and mental combination, it is shown by the physical movements and methods of a master swordsman.
In kendo we use the term fudoshin to describe concentration. The dictionary defines fudoshin as; A state of mind which is not moved or distracted by anything: A flexible state of mind able to respond to various changing situations. At first the beginner must master the all the physical aspects of kendo. Gradually with the proper training and years later an intermediate kenshi will start to acquire fudoshin. Advanced kenshi will sense or feel what is real and become unmoved by false situations, only responding to the truth in the opponent’s actions or non action. Just as words or thoughts only have meaning when we place importance/attachments to them, it also applies to the opponent’s actions and what meaning or attachment we place on them. There are many levels of fudoshin. Fudoshin at a masters level is truly not moved by any distraction. One must see the essence or truth in everything.
Miyamoto Musashi the great master of the sword was not the only sword master in ancient Japan, he was one of a few masters to see the opponent in terms of strategy. Musashi states that harmonizing or being in rhythm with the opponent was more important than a faster speed. This simple idea of speed not being the true Way is fundamental to improving in kendo and what many over look. Of course too fast or to slow is not good. How else can one reconcile the fact that as one gets older and hopefully higher in rank that one relies on the mind rather than the physical speed that manifests itself in youth. How many of us in todays world can dispute the wisdom gained by so many life and death matches won by Musashi.
Budo is the collective name of the martial arts that practice the “way of the warrior.” Budo as a term was first coined in 1919 by the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai (at the time the governing organization for martial arts in Japan) to describe the new names for various martial arts such as kenjitsu, ju-jitsu, and kyujutsu and others, changing them to the new names of kendo, akido, judo, kyudo, iaido, karate-do and others. It is not likely that you will discuss budo in any of these martial arts yet it is carefully passed down from person to person. These ways of the warrior are stoic demeanor, awareness, respect, loyalty, gratitude and sincerness for each other, and other practices of all traditional budo martial arts. Budo is not learned by reading about it, it literally is a way of life, a path of life in which the practice of the budo martial art infuses the very outlook, and conduct that you have in daily life. Budo stresses the spiritual nature of life, it is the physical path to enlightenment. Recently the term budo has been used loosely to define any Japanese martial art. Think carefully of all the traditions and the ways of kendo and you will gain a greater appreciation of budo, the way of the warrior.
The kiai or yell as mentioned by Miyamoto Musashi in his book the ‘Five Rings’ are divided into three categories. The ‘sho’ or pre-kiai, the ‘chu’ or during-kiai and the ‘go’ or post-victory-kiai.The ‘sho’ (pre-kiai) is made to encourage us and show our spirit, it is a strong and loud yell used to intimidate the opponent. The ‘chu’ (during-kiai) is made just before a strike is an intimidating, strong and loud yell used to give rhythm and timing to the strike also to surprise and confuse the opponent. The kiai is never made simultaneously with the delivery of a strike. The ‘go’ (post-victory-kiai) is the kiai associated with the zanshin (follow through) portion of the attack, it is the victory kiai or yell. The chu and go kiai are used in ki-ken-tai-icchi (spirit, sword and body as one) it shows the spirit of your strike. All the vocalized kiais are produced from deep within the abdomen and should never be the last of your breath, this is so that you may attack at any instant during or after the kiai concludes. Indeed when watching closely the videos of Masashiro Miyazaki one of the most famous masters of kendo in recent history we realize how frequently he makes short kiais as if to keep the opponent on edge all of the time never knowing when an attack is coming. The dictionary defines ‘kiai’ as “the state of mind where one is fully focused on the opponent’s move and one’s planned moves. Also it refers to the vocalizations one produces when in such a state of mind.” The kiai encompasses the focused mind on the opponent and adjusting your pending attack to the rhythm and timing to the movement of the opponent.
In the writings of the legendary swordsman Yagyu Munenori he describes the “Returning The mind” this notion is the same as zanshin. When you strike your opponent with your sword and think, “I’ve struck!” the mind thinks “I’ve struck!” stopping at this thought the mind is distracted in the recent past. If the opponent continues to strike your original strike will be have lost its meaning and you will be defeated. Returning the mind as Munenori explains is not to return your mind to the place you’ve struck rather to turn your mind back and observe your opponent. Munenori goes on to explain that the ultimate state of mind is not returning your mind at all but to continue the attack striking a second or third time, also stated as “having no space to slip a single hair.” The original teachings of kendo are still revelant today.
The path of kendo is a physical, mental and aspirational path. We see others begin to follow the path in the dojo in the way beginning students try to learn to strike, moving their bodies and learning what we take for granted. If we observe still others we can see that many have traveled far in the path of kendo and their movements seem natural and effortless. What everyone shares is the same simple kendo strikes. Both student and master strike yet one is learning to strike perfectly while the other is practicing the perfect strike in an ordinary way. To see the master move is to aspire to someday use the sword as one would use “no sword”, meaning to strike without the thought of how to use the sword. Through the realization of suhari, or making use of all that the master has taught him the student has internalized and made the teachings his own. We see as time passes the student eventually becomes a master. The master never stops learning ever new aspects of kendo. Indeed the path of kendo can be seen today in many dojos.
There are some words in kendo that describe a specific level in individual development “kigurai” or strength of presence is one of them. Kigurai is the strength of presence an advanced kendo person projects with only a posture, kamae, glance or the slightest of movement. Kigurai is not arrogance or smugness it is an unshakable calm confidence in your abilities. The dictionary defines kigurai as: The strength or commanding presence derived from confidence acquired through repeated training. The term kurai is defined as: The degree to which character is combined with ability. The difference in spirit and skill when facing an opponent. Kigurai is important because it allows you to welcome any attack the opponent may throw out, and more importantly allows a certain amount of control over the opponent. Kigurai is the sense that one does not need to rush but respond with perfect timing and control. Kigurai can only be obtained through constant training and becomes stronger over many years of training.
A friend passed on the following passage to me written by Professor Okazaki, founder of the Okazaki style of jujitsu also known as Kodenkan Jujitsu. The passage reinforces many of the goals and practice of kendo. Use Your Mind When anyone speaks of himself, he nearly always means my physical self, or existence. He knows that his body has weight and shape. Through his five senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch, he is always conscious of his physical self. By contrast his mind has neither color nor form. We wash our faces each morning but how many of us wash our minds as well? Precious few! There are many people who train their bodies but few who train their minds. Apparently few realize that the mind like the body becomes soiled if it is not washed, weak if it is not trained. Another important fact to remember is that actually the mind rules the body. It is the mind that leads and the body that follows.
In the words of a beginning kendo student “a cut is a cut,” meaning any strike that hits the mark should be the deciding factor for a point. Unfortunately there are many that have this idea and even apply this notion to kendo. Cutting is different from the random act of slashing. Of course in kendo we see cutting as a precise action, striking with spirit, body, mind in unison, the intent is what matters. So why is this difference important? It is a difference of the quality of the strike and its perfection. Perfection of form ensures that the spirit, mind and body can strike instantly. Not surprisingly perfection of form is the same ideal in iaido and all other budo arts. Beginners and others often decry the fact that kendo has so many rules about proper striking making kendo more a sport than a martial art. It is this exacting striking standard that helps keep the focus on precise and perfect form. In martial arts perfect form and exacting standards, does not mean one practices a sport instead it is evidence of personal discipline.
Ki is defined by the dictionary in two ways: Ki is the moment when the mind and body react spontaneously and in unison to an opening or the best opportunity to strike, as in the term “datosu-no-koki” (the opponent begins to strike, blocks a strike, moves back, or finishes a strike). Ki is also defined as the basic energy that exists in all matter that is born, develops and dies. In human beings, it is the source of kinetic energy responsible for perception, sensation and instinct. In kendo ki also refers to the environment or basic energy that surrounds the opponent and one’s self. The most common use of ki is in the term ki-ken-tai-itchi, used to describe the perfect strike in kendo, the term ki is the spirit or persons basic energy along with the proper sword and body technique in perfect unison. Ki in kendo also manifests itself in invisible seme, a sort of power to project a force of attack using just your mind causing your opponent to become panicked or disturbed into an actual physical reaction, or the condition of the opponent’s mind is sensed by you. Projecting ki (life force) is within all of us but it needs to be developed using your subconscious mind. Character development is the frame work of developing ki, since a pure mind is a one without attachments and a mind that is fully aware. Ki is one of the principles of mind and body that one understands by “direct transmission” (direct experience) and can not be fully explained or taught with words. It is common to practice for many years and rise to a high rank with only technical ability yet it is the ability to use ki that is the most prized ability in all martial arts. The use of character development to develop ki is a deliberate effort for each person as one travels the endless path of kendo.
The swordsman Yagyu Renya of the famous Yagyu clan (the “no sword” school of swordsmanship) developed several principles based on traditional concepts. One principle in particular is one of my favorites: Greet Your Opponent When an attack does arise, move to meet it swiftly, boldly and fearlessly. Or better still, make your opponent feel welcome to attack, then capture his spirit when he enters your sphere. The notion of meeting or welcoming the attack is exactly how to feel in each circumstance. To welcome someone is not passive waiting it is a momentary opening or successive momentary openings the opponent sees, where you have carefully concealed your intentions and prepared to counter attack, otherwise avoid any welcoming/opening where you are passively waiting in a kamae. To capture the opponent’s spirit when he enters your sphere is to seize the opportunity to counter strike with perfect maai and timing the moment he enters your issoku-itto-no-maai (one step maai).
Kendo exists because the people practicing it have gained the training and knowledge that has been passed on with each generation of kendo masters. We selfishly train and practice kendo yet it is the unselfish act of inspiring and teaching the next person that is the true meaning of kendo and the legacy of kendo. The understanding and awareness that one is indebted to helping the next person is not a trivial matter, it is this selfless and dutiful kindness that is replicated ten fold. We see the physical aspects of kendo clearly from the very instant we enter a kendo dojo, yet it is the unseen aspects and teachings of kendo that can be seen outside the dojo in our personal lives that draws a full circle of the meaning of kendo.
What does it mean to have an empty/calm mind? I have considered this question many times. I have related the empty mind to being in a state of fudoshin translated to mean a state of mind when one is not preoccupied with anything. The empty mind is fudoshin and more, it is your center. Being centered is the quiet place, without being compelled by fear, or desire. From the vantage point of your center or the empty mind we perform at our most absolute best physically. Fudoshin along with the physical mastery or what is called mushin, fudoshin and mushin in its highest level is the combination that allows us to perform perfectly. Without question the empty mind is a total awareness, it is a point where one does not search for meaning but one simply experiences the moment. Each of us must travel the same kendo path eventually rediscovering what others have come to understand.
We use the ‘harmony’ concept as the name for Iaido, its meaning is commonly understood to be rooted in personal development. In kendo the concept of ‘harmony’ is not used, perhaps because its meaning is also not commonly understood. In the book “five rings” by Miyamoto Musashi the legendary master of the sword describes many strategies to defeat an opponent based on his direct experience in fighting using the sword. Musashi explains in his book that his school of swordsmanship is based on the element of water (also referred to as one of the kendo stances or chudan, middle position). His book reveals that harmonizing with the opponent is vital in striking the mind of the opponent. Not surprisingly iaido retains a similiar descriptive name translated as the ‘be/reside in a harmonizing path/way’. I have come to the revelation that the concept of ‘harmony’ and the concept of ‘water’ are the same concept and can be used to describe each other. The element of water (harmony) always ‘accepts’ whatever circumstance it is in and adjusts to fit with the circumstance, changing as the situation changes, this the ideal kendo method. In iaido harmonizing (water) accepts the circumstance of an instant attack by the opponent, realizing that there is no other way but to defeat the opponent with the sword. Musashi states that if one understands strategy one can defeat one opponent or ten thousand, Musashi’s way is the way of ‘water’. Harmony/water as a kendo/iaido term is not about yielding but acceptance of the circumstance, situation or opponent’s actions and either counter attacking or striking just before the opponent strikes or as he begins his attack. Kendo kata uses this idea of water/harmony in that all the kata forms are either based on sen-sen-no-sen (anticipates the attack) or go-no-sen (responds to an attack) the same concept used in iaido kata. In kendo our connection with iaido is steadfast since kendo existed in some form almost during entire development and use of the samurai sword, iaido in turn allows yet another view of how the sword is wielded, and how character development is achieved through a shared physical discipline.
A friend emailed an interesting article link to me about ‘chiburi’ the act of cleaning the samurai sword blade by flinging the blood left on the blade to one side, once you have cut down the enemy. It is a well researched and written article by kenshi247.net, The myth of chiburi?. I believe that the meanings, movements and traditions in iaido and kendo have been faithfully transmitted through out the years, yet there are some techniques that have lost their original meaning over time. Chiburi is translated as “cutting fish” some say chiburi is used as a continuation of zanshin, or to intimidate and make sure others around do not have similar ideas of attacking. The use of chiburi is not clearly explained in ancient writings, leaving modern interpretations to believe chiburi is the act of flinging the blood off of the sword. Chiburi is not practiced as widely by many iaido schools and the act of cleaning the blade after cutting an enemy is actually better done by wiping the blade with the sword cleaning paper you carry for this purpose. I believe chiburi has more to do with superstition and myth than any practical applications. Superstition and myth is so ingrained in kendo and iaido yet many have come to lose its meaning in today’s logical and scientific analysis of kendo and iaido. Widely used symbols of dragon flies and other symbols are easily over looked in their meanings. The samuari sword in ancient times was actually blessed by a religious figure, and in ancient times it is believed that the samurai swords took on the qualities of the owner. I believe chiburi is the act of symbolically cleaning or cleansing the blade of any remaining spirit of the enemy as well as actual excess blood of the opponent you have killed. I do not have any historic or practical evidence other than the subtle yet revealing “cutting fish” translation, it is only my interpretation and intuition. Not everything is scientific or easily seen in iaido or kendo.
The ‘first sword’ refers to being able to see the opponent’s intentions before he is able to discern yours. The ‘first sword’ is important because once the opponent’s intent is known your advantage is only momentary since the opponent is also seeking this same advantage. The “first sword” allows you to keep the opponent guessing and on the defensive and unable to apply a his favorite technique. The “first sword” has nothing to do with thinking rather it is a feeling, it is your intuition. The ‘first sword’ is striking with your mind at the opponent’s mind seeing through the opponent’s movement or lack of movement.
I consider kendo strategy a matter of decision making and choice. Nothing is as futile as continuing a strategy that is not working. In kendo these decisions and choices happen in an instant. Changing or adapting to any situation is really all about accepting that something is not working and deciding or choosing to change. In kendo we adapt by having pre planed or practiced scenarios of attacking, similar to being locked out of the house, try the front door, back door, windows and so on until you gain access. Making quick decisions and adapting is something that takes lots of practice and can only be made in the realm of keiko or free practice. We all have choices and decisions in the method and strategy we use.
Character development is the stated main goal of kendo. Such a curious goal for such a violent and rigorous martial art. Yet it is not difficult to see the connections with character development and kendo. It is not hard to see that kendo has not changed very much in hundreds of years unlike the blending of many other martial arts with a mix of different arts, techniques and weapons. The traditions of kendo are strict and rigid, we bow to thank our opponent and others, we have strict methods of delivering and finishing an attack are understood to have particular meaning and values. Such things such as loyalty to each other, seriousness of the training, never giving up, dedication and more are indeed embedded in our traditions, we should not forget that these are values that make us strong in life as well as in kendo.
In kendo the connection with the opponent is often described as a string between you and the opponent that moves and stretches but must not be broken. Zanshin or translated the “lingering mind” is the conclusion of a kendo strike but not the end of the kendo match it is merely an extension of this connection with the opponent. In a kendo match zanshin when properly done forces one to continue focusing on your next attack without any space for the opponent to gain any advantage if he decides to attack. Your focus, awareness and connection with the opponent continues throughout the match until the match is over.
An interesting facet about a kendo match is how different persons view losing. The definition of losing is “be deprived of or cease to have or retain (something)”, the definition of failure “is lack of success.” Everyone loses a kendo match from time to time yet even so some champions view the prospect of losing as the worst outcome. Losing a match means you have lost on that particular day, nothing more. Viewing losing as somehow a failure does not leave the one that loses any room for future improvement. Anytime you have lost a kendo match one must plan and develop strategies to prevent losing the next time. Discard a strategy that is not working and find a strategy the works for you. Not seeking a new strategy that is different from the one that is not working is truly the failure. Because each day and each opponent is different one can not avoid losing sometimes even for champions.
The easiest way to become frustrated in a kendo match is when the opponent is clearly out of step with your rhythm. Usually if you are the technically better one you will take advantage of their clumsiness. It is common for opponent’s of equal level to battle in a constant and similar rhythm. It is a good strategy to always seek the way to become out of rhythm with the opponent of equal or higher ability, doing so will create doubt and frustration in the opponent. The opponent will strive to maintain their natural rhythm. The moment you sense the doubt in their mind, quickly and decisively strike the opponent using the the out of step rhythm you have established, or quickly change to your normal rhythm.
There are many strategies to attack an opponent. A common method is to wait for the opponent to attack. Simply waiting for an attack is not a a good strategy, however if your mind is intent on attacking or seme of the mind while in a active waiting stance one is sure to win. The attacking mind or seme of the mind is not lead by the attacking body a tactic used by many beginners. Allowing the opponent to attack first while your mind is in seme or intent on attacking will disguise your intentions and give you valuable preplanning to counter attack.
The most powerful ingredient in fueling strong stamina and energy in kendo is deep breathing and control of breathing. Practice deep breathing by quickly inhaling and slowly exhaling through your partially open mouth, extending your abdomen to draw in as much oxygen as possible. Practice breathing carefully and quietly, in kendo we must never show our opponent when we are taking in a breath or exhaling. When completing an attack do not exhale completely but have enough oxygen to attack again, inhale quickly and quietly using your abdomen. The goal is to keep as much oxygen in your lungs as possible to extend the times in which you need to inhale. Once you become aware of your breathing and practice deep breathing your stamina and energy will improve.
Albert Einstein once said “Information is not knowledge.” The legendary swordsman Yagu Munenori once said “the gate is not the house,” declaring that one should not confuse information about something the same thing as knowledge. In kendo we are often taught and often practice many techniques yet when it comes down to using many waza we are unable to use them in a kendo match. Why? Our minds have not yet understood the importance of the information about the use of these techniques as they relate to a specific circumstance. Conversely by using just your imagination and certain information one is able to use a technique never before practiced physically but only in the mind, or practiced without an opponent such as one practices kata in other martial arts when one imagines the opponent in combat. What this means is that our knowledge of something instantly happens becoming intuition not only of the mind, but of the body. Once we have knowledge our mind no longer needs to dwell on how use a technique or when to use it, it is just becomes your natural and normal response to a circumstance. Information is merely the path to particular knowledge, or understanding.
Whether we like it or not the internet has changed the way most people gain knowledge of kendo, its principles, its people, and our connections with others around the world. Kendo’s golden age of information is one where information about kendo can instantly travel around the world, with an untold number of people able to access information about kendo. This dissemination of information has never happen in the history of kendo until the advent of the internet. The internet has made it so that anyone with information about kendo able to make their ideas known, no longer restricted to the privileged or persons of high rank. The great thing about having information so readily available is that for the most part the truth usually shines pure and clear. The truth or essence of something does not fade or become less valid over time it only becomes lost and hidden from view. I believe that sometimes even one person who does not have a high rank is able to find and speak the truth so that resonates with everyone who hears it. If we read insightful information that moves and resonates with us we should not claim it as our own invention. Like a good book, it is always best to read the orignal book rather than read bits and pieces of the same book from others. As kendo people it is our duty to be as truthful as possible, stating our references or sources when writing about kendo is important for all in Kendo’s Golden Age of Information.
A recent friend recommended reading “blink” by Malcolm Gladwell, a book that examines the unconscious ability of humans to instantly determine or know the essence of things. This notion of knowing the essence of something in an instant makes perfect sense as this is the very goal we strive for in kendo. Yet, the unconscious mind does not reveal anything to our conscious mind except a sense of knowing that can not be put into words, more over the unconscious mind is always something that one must be aware of or we will override its wisdom by over thinking. Interestingly the act of instantly knowing the essence of things is directly related to repetitive and structured practice. Yes, repetitive practice develops this ability to know the essence of things that is so much a part of kendo practice. The more experience in a given field of interest also gives our conscious mind a better idea and the nuances of what the unconscious mind is actually saying to us. What seems to be spontaneity in instantly knowing something is not random but well practiced, well rehearsed scenarios and rules. Without a doubt this type of using quick judgments/decisions and instantly knowing the essence of things has a vital role in warfare.
A recent study examined the phenomena of seeing stressful events in what seems to be at an extremely slow speed.Tests have shown that even though everything appears to be visually slowing down the eyes do not have the ability to see things at an either a slower or at an accelerated rate other than what is normal, instead the mind allows more information, more visual detail to be entered into memory. I believe that this flood of visually detailed information allows humans to assess the situation and take appropriate steps during and following the stressful event, and that after the stressful event the mind eventually purges much of the visual details that have no useful information. Although all humans experience this type of visual detail during stressful events not everyone can act on its valuable information while it is happening. Constant kendo training gives us the ability to move and act while seeing in slow motion. An important distinction about kendo is that advanced kendo tends to rely more on intuitive sight rather than visual sight. Moreover in advanced kendo all of our years of training, along with the mind, body and spirit are used defeat the opponent the distinctions are merely used as way to describe only parts of the whole that is “the way of the sword”.
I am sometimes asked about the transition from practice drills which is a controlled sequence of striking and predetermined outcome to keiko where one is not protected by the part of the mind that is full of distraction. How does one become comfortable with the freedom to attack using what little you know? The simple answer is strategy or experience. As one moves from practice drills to keiko the mind is forced to solve a random problem presented by an opponent. This problem of how and when the opponent will strike can be overwhelming even for a master. Only through strategy can this random problem be solved or what is the old axiom “the best defense is the best offense”. Strategy is really a plan of attack for which the randomness of waiting to be attacked is given back to the opponent using your own time frame and method of attack. What strategy? Strategy can simply be a series of attacks for which you gain access to an opening in the opponent’s defense, but these attacks are always tailored to the opponent’s likes and dislikes, always entering through his weaknesses. Strategy is also preplanning before a kendo match this means training, and assessing the opponent/opponents strengths and weaknesses. Strategy also encompasses experience which is really a collection of physical and mental memories of structured and random events and the best solution to handle each situation. To condense what is a very large and complex topic such as strategy one must train hard and observe how the more advanced kendo players solve the issue of strategy. Only by using strategy can one avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. There is no single way to defeat an opponent, but strategy is the point where consistent victory is achieved.
The first years of learning kendo is just learning how to move your body, footwork and striking. Eventually one may learn the meaning of mushin or striking without the use of consciously thinking. Mushin is reached by constant training since it involves precise striking and timing using the whole body in relation to the opponent’s movements. Mushin is expert level striking, it comes before one obtains fudoshin or the indomitable spirit, a mind that at that is not focused in anything in particular but steadfastly “in your body” as stated by Miyamoto Musashi. Fudoshin is a difficult notion to grasp and even harder to achieve since fear, doubt, and other thoughts can high jack your concentration. These notions of mushin and fudoshin like other kendo aspects are combined in varying degrees as one becomes an expert in kendo.
Miyamoto Musashi the legendary master swordsman mentions in his book the “five rings” that one should consider how the opponent feels when in a confrontation. Indeed putting yourself in the opponent’s shoes is useful to quickly determine the strength of the opposition. This and other techniques enable one to see more with our mind and less with our eyes, since we cannot always trust what we see with our eyes. The search for perfection in swordsmanship stretches across every aspect of our lives and does not stop within the confines of our physical being. It is no secret that Miyamoto Musashi’s quest for perfection lead him to religious ideas and even some of the very origins and concepts of kendo stem from Zen Buddhism. It makes sense to view everyone as connected and that everyone experiences suffering. The purpose and goal of kendo is character development and has been since the 18th century. It is this very goal that leads me to believe that we can not dismiss the strong mind connection between ourselves and the opponent in order improve and perfect our kendo.
Kendo is unique among sword arts as it requires a complete spirit, sword and the body unison when attacking. This may seem odd since one with no training in kendo can just slash and even kill an opponent with the same motion and a similar sword. Ki-Ken-Tai-Ichi is translated as “spirit, sword and the body as one” generally the meaning is the perfect cut, the perfect cut encompasses how one approaches a match. Kendo is really a systematic method of instantly defeating an opponent, it takes into account the utter fear one faces in an actual life or death match. In a life or death match our first untrained and natural response is for self preservation at all costs. One with no training in kendo will lack either the spiritual, mental willingness to attack or physical prowess to attack, and such an attack will be a random disconnected effort. To practice kendo correctly fear and doubt such as one faces in keiko must be overcome. Overcoming fear and doubt can also be called courage. It is only by casting away the fear of loss or death that one is able to win and live. The lesson of Ki-Ken-Tai-Ichi a complete spirit, mind and body attack can not be overlooked when practicing.
“KAGE O OSAYURU TO IU KOTO” or “suppressing shadows” is a subject the legendary Miyamoto Musashi describes as determining the morale of the opponent, then checking and thwarting his every move. Once the opponent is overwhelmed and thwarted change your tactics and seize the initiative, defeating the opponent. Suppressing the opponent’s “shadow” or strategy is a useful counter strategy when confronted with a particularly excitable opponent. It is important not to delay in seizing the initiative once the opponent has been overwhelmed by your suppression. ‘Suppressing the shadows’ is a skillful strategy to know.
Kendo has developed over many hundreds of years to be as efficient in dispatching an opponent as humanly possible. One efficient method is moving the sword out its scabbard with the thumb just before an attack, it is said this move is designed to prevent the tightly fitting blade from sticking, I believe that this move also allows and gives you an extra inch time advantage for your sword to completely clear the scabbard. Yet another kendo method is keeping the heel of the left foot raised, it is said this allows for strong push with the left foot, I also believe keeping the heel of the left foot raised before stepping also gives us a fraction of a second time advantage in a forward motion, enough time advantage when both opponents measure a killing strike in fractions of a second.
Miyamoto Musashi the great master swordsman never mentions zanshin in his book “the five rings.” Musashi’s views on swordsmanship was molded by his actual battlefield experience. As with every aspect of kendo everything is connected and related to the whole experience of wielding the sword. Details and notions such as zanshin were actually integrated into strategy or “heiho.” Musashi mentions “holding the pillow down” as ensuring the opponent does not rise up and strike again by being alert even after making a decisive strike defeating the opponent. The enemy may be defeated but may not or has not given up. Not allowing the opponent to rise again has implications in keiko as well as shiai keiko. In keiko there are no judges to stop the match and one must continue to be alert defeating the opponent over and over again. In shiai keiko the same notion can be said as the opponent may not know he has been defeated and called to stop by a judge. Striking and defeating the opponent over and over until he has given up is an important lesson.
I have observed many kendo champions both on and off the court, and without a doubt there are many ways to win. Winning by being a bully or using pure technique is one way but seems limited, yet another way of winning is winning by using your mind/heart, or harmonizing with an opponent in an expansive or unlimited way. Since the body and youth fades, being reliant on pure technique being a bully always leads to eventual downfall. Anyone can be a bully or use purely technique to win, winning the way of a true warrior is through forgetting oneself, forgetting the opponent and becoming a natural harmonizing force. What does winning by harmonizing or winning by using only technique look like? Both types of winning physically look the same, yet one can sense a calm confidence and positive nature in one that wins by using the heart, harmonizing with an opponent. Both being a bully/pure technique and harmonizing with an opponent can lead to victory yet only one is the true way, and only one will always improve both in performance and in mind. Polish your heart and improve your performance by harmonizing with an opponent.
I find it brilliant that many of the writings of the great Japanese swordsmen such as Miyamoto Musashi are so complete and so relevant in practicing kendo today. Strategies such as the recent popular use of feinting, along with many unused methods and tactics are described in the writings of these masters. The ancient writings make it clear to me that spirit and a balance of the mind (strategy) and body (tactics) are at the heart of kendo. The notions of spirit, tactics and strategy are intuitive and yet largely undeveloped unless a conscious effort is made to understand the role each plays. As the opponent’s tactics change your mind (strategy) must change to accommodate and defeat any tactic and strategy, sometimes instantly within a kendo match.
The general definition of suki is an “opening” in the opponents attack or defense. The dictionary defines suki as: “a weakness of the mind” or “a weakness in one’s actions or posture.” In kendo we specifically try to cause or recognize these weaknesses in our opponent. Weakness in the opponents actions or posture is easily caused through constant repetitive training. Recognizing a “weakness of the mind” is very difficult to accurately see in the opponent and takes a constant, and conscious effort to develop. Only through keiko can seeing the “weakness of the mind” in the opponent be developed and practiced, and then only by consciously working at understanding this notion. The four poisons of kendo: fear, doubt, surprise and confusion are the foundations of the weakness of the mind and directly related to the “weakness of one’s actions or posture.”
The definition of Seme is “attack.” There are two types of seme the visible and the invisible. The visible seme where one pressures an opponent with a sword movement or a body move. The invisible seme is a pressure applied to an opponent to strike with or without the sword pointing at the opponent. In application seme or ‘attack’ can be thought of as applying an ‘imminent attack pressure.’ Imminent attack pressure is a real pressure, a determined resolve to cut the opponent that can be felt in the mind of the opponent. The moment you decide to seme or attack you must be ready to physically attack, if you seme and there is no intention of attacking the opponent the equivalent to just stepping forward, your mind or body will not have time to react if the opponent attacks. Your mind must be resolved to cut the opponent, doing so will either force your opponent to strike or you must strike. In your mind the imminent attack pressure is showing and pointing the tip of your sword to the opponent, ready to cut the opponent in the next instant. The seme or attack is part of a strategy that must be formed before attacking, both visible and invisible seme is attacking the mind of the opponent.
The space or distance between opponents in a kendo match is called maai. There are three distinct maai or distances as measured with both opponents in chudan kamae: chika-ma (close distance), issoku-itto-no-maai (one step distance), and to-ma (far distance). These defined distances are fixed and the same for both opponents. The preferred distance is the classic issoku-itto-no-maai (one step distance), in application a short persons step is shorter than a taller persons step making the one step maai or distance different for each opponent, often this distance may over lap just short, or a little longer with how close the opponent prefers to strike in one step. The preferred distance each opponent seeks to strike in one step is a constant battle to maintain. Besides the transitional maai, the preferred ma-ai does not just happen it is most often the distance both opponents nonverbally agree to strike each other in one step, or a distance forced by one of the opponents. A master swordsman will manipulate this distance to their advantage, keeping just far enough that opponent is not able to land a strike yet close enough that they are able to easily strike, never allowing the opponent to dictate what maai to use. Awareness of your opponents preferred ma-ai should never be over looked. Learning to force your opponent to accept your preferred maai while not allowing your opponent to dictate the maai is a subtle but essential lesson in kendo. Keeping track of your opponents preferred ma-ai will give you a masterful advantage to defeat your opponent.
In practicing keiko with a superior opponent, one that defeats you every single time, it is useful to allow your opponent to strike for a short time in the match. We are programed to press an attack without thinking against all comers, this does not allow any room for observing (first hand) the opponents natural preferences for attacking. Without being obvious or him noticing, allow your opponent to strike you while you attack in your normal way. Carefully watch, observe your opponents distance, timing and movements, as well as your own, keeping track of possible openings. Chances are he will attack you in the same way every time. Make a careful mental note of when and how you are defeated. After the match, and after practice assess your observations of your opponent, changing your strategy and attacking methods for that opponent. It may take sometime to discover how to defeat the superior opponent but you will win on another day.
There are a few general explanations for the meaning of kendo kata, I think there is another meaning for why there similar kame and movements for both attacking and responding opponents and why only countering techniques are used to win. Firstly, the sometimes identical kamae movements of both (opponents) shidachi (attacking) and uchidachi (responding) are the ancient kamae responses to the attacking opponents (uchidachi) initiating kamae, each kamae cancels out the other until one attacks. Secondly, It would have been easy to incorporate a combination of winning attack movements as well as countering movements into kendo kata yet none of the winning attack striking methods are included. Emphasizing counter attacks shows the attitude of the “life giving sword” an attitude of allowing the opponent to attack and to win by another means, that can only be reached by transcending the “death dealing sword” or (destroy the opponent by any means) as described by Yagyu Munenori founder of the “no sword” school of kendo and the book “The book of the Shinkage-Ryu Martial Arts”. The same (three to five) kendo kata is practiced by the lowest ranking kendoka as well as the highest ranking sensei, the lesson and practice is clearly of the “life giving sword”.
Ancient sword masters of Japan describe strategy for war and apply the same strategies to individual combat. I have come to realize that the difference between the two strategies is time. The large strategy of war has a time frame of from minutes to hours and longer, the time frame for strategies in individual combat is literally in seconds, from one sword exchange to the next. All the large strategies of war can be used seamlessly in individual combat. Individual combat strategy and tactics are methods instantaneous in nature. Kendo kata gives us a revealing insight into ancient strategy as all the katas start from a distance five paces away from the closest distance we are able to strike. Why the five paces? The reason for starting at a far distance is for a quick assessment of the opponents physical movements, posture, mental readiness and a quick formation of a strategy. An ancient battlefield way of fighting, with a practical application, even today. Continual use and the practice of strategy is important to learn and understand.
Miyamoto Musashi the legendary master swordsman was one of the first to see the opponent in terms of strategy and to define the supporting elements of an attack based on strategy. An interesting passage in Musashi’s book “The Five Rings” states that ‘harmonizing’ or being in rhythm with the opponent is more important than a faster speed. This simple idea of speed not being the true way is fundamental to improving in kendo, a subtle, and yet powerful truth. Of course too fast or too slow is not good. How else can one reconcile the fact that as one gets older and higher in rank that one relies on the mind rather than the physical speed that manifests itself in youth. Speed is important, but must be completely tempered by the opponents movements or rhythm sensed in your mind similar to a notes of a song.
In kendo the mind is a formless part of the body. Many of the great swordsmen of ancient Japan used different metaphors to describe the mind such as the void, a mirror, wind and water. The moon reflecting on the water is a famous metaphor for the mind of the opponent being instantly understood by your mind. This metaphor perfectly illustrates what happens when just a single thought penetrates your mind during a kendo match causing ripples on the water, instantly the image of the moon disappears. The mind that loses its concentration by a single thought is open to being struck down by an opponent. The water metaphor also illustrates how the mind looks, while remaining calm yet what happens below is unseen by your opponent until it is to late. Don’t disturb the water, reflect the moon.
In kendo two hundred thousand strikes is roughly the average number of strikes one will strike in 15 years. The beginner will strike many times before the mind and body is actually able to coordinate with the footwork for a correct strike, it then becomes years before one is actually able to combine different strikes correctly. Friends, wisdom and techniques are added to your kendo training. When you reach two hundred thousand strikes one becomes acutely aware of the opponent. Free from worrying about the sword, a complete calm washes over the mind and body, strategy becomes a matter of instantly recalling what is needed. This is the non attachment to the outcome of a kendo match, concerned with only the present, it is complete awareness. Awareness does not mean that you will win all the time it only means that you are not encumbered by the trappings of a preoccupied mind. Since others may achieve the same awareness sooner it is clearly a level of kendo that can not be forced no matter how long you train. I continue to strike well past two hundred thousand strikes perfecting my kendo.
A technique Miyamoto Musashi the great swordsman mentions in his book is the “in one timing” or the “timing of an instant”. An advanced kendo technique requiring an accurate split second assessment of the opponents mind for suki (an opening) and a complete commitment to the strike. It is striking the opponent within a “hairs breath” before he has decided to move. It is striking the opponent without the benefit of moving your body to reposition, from a motionless state. In one timing is very useful if you have mastered one particularly great strike. The opponent will be very wary of that technique, his mind will be preoccupied, having created doubt in his mind with how to stop you, giving you a good chance for victory, This timing is used by many who seem to just have one shining technique that always hits the mark. Timing of an instant is a strike that is as direct, and as skillful as possible.
Yagyu Munenori was known to be a great rival of Miyamoto Musashi. Yagyu Munenori was the kendo teacher to the shogun, a great and gifted swordsman who was the founder of the “No Sword” school of kendo and just as famous as Musashi. Munenori was known to have favored using an early form of kendo bogu for the safe practicing of kendo. His mentor the the zen priest Takuan Soho was instrumental in forming his ideas for his kendo style and his book that he wrote “The book of the Shinkage-Ryu Martial Arts” currently known as “the life giving sword”. It is unclear how much he knew or if Musashi read Munenori’s insightful book. But it was clearly on his mind since soon after the book was released Musashi wrote his own book on kendo “a book of five rings” the most famous of all kendo books and unmatched in its wisdom. I am only speculating on what motivated Musashi to write his book but it is interesting to note that in the last chapter “the wind book” Musashi expresses his dislike by inference the teachings of Munenori and other great swordsmen? This was very provocative in an age where one wrong word would mean a duel to the death. Great rivals? YES. We are fortunate that both of these great masters decided to write these treasures of kendo books, treasures for all time.
Despite the fact that the kendo routine can be very predictable do not let the training lull you into a sense of mental relaxation. Search for every instance in which to improve yourself, a search for perfection in technique. The mind searches for patterns and once found searches to find and solve new patterns. This is why training can feel boring even in the face real physical demands. Ji-geiko and shiai geiko are equivalent in format and unpredictable patterns to ancient sword duels where only the winner emerged alive. There is no substitute for a real match where there are no guaranteed or predetermined winners and patterns must be solved instantly, ji-geiko or shiai geiko engages the mind as well as the fight or flight response which is very important for progress in kendo. All aspects of kendo training points to an awareness and remaining in the moment.
The purpose of kendo as stated by the: All-Japan Kendo Federation: The purpose of practicing kendo is To mold the mind and body, To cultivate a vigorous spirit, And through correct and rigid training To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo; To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor, To treat others with sincerity, And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself. Thus will one be able: To love ones country and society. To contribute to the development of culture And to promote peace and prosperity among all peoples. In ancient Japan the katana was held sacred, even the making of a samurai sword was conducted as a religious ceremony. The samurai handled the sword and were also held to a high standard of conduct that was passed on to today’s swordsmen. The reverence for the sword as a symbol whether made of bamboo, wood or steel has not changed, even today. The high personal standards molded through correct and rigid training is evident and clearly seen in today’s kendo.
In a contest between two opponents there is a winner and a loser there is an implied acknowledgement that something is given and that something is taken away. In kendo the win implies life for the winner and that the loser dies, a terrible burden for the ego of the loser, even for the winner since when they lose they also suffer. I have lost many times. Adversity was common place in ancient Japan and a highly valued core trait of many samurai was the ability to survive adversity. The training in today’s kendo stresses nearly the same physical and mental adversity as in ancient times. The journey of life is filled with suffering, what better way to discover how to face and survive adversity than following the path of the way of the sword.
There are many notions about exactly where to look while in a kendo match. Some say look at the eyes others say stare or fix your gaze on other parts of the body, or the whole body of an opponent. Myamoto Mushashi the legendary swordsman is known to advocate gazing at no where in particular but to “see naturally” this follows the precept of fudoshin or not stopping the mind on any particular thought. I have practiced gazing both ways and Musashi is of course correct. Seeing naturally, is easier said than done because it requires not only sight vision but a mind that perceives and interprets any movement, or what that movement indicates, instantly! In football it is similar to the quarterback throwing a ball to a player knowing, interpreting where that player will be, the distance and speed of how to throw that ball into the hands of a player, instantly in the mind! (the same can be said for the player running and catching the ball). It may take a long time to discover this type of seeing, yet when I am able to to see naturally, I am almost always successful in defeating my opponent. See naturally.
Kendo can be very routine and it is sometimes hard to get motivated even for those of us that live and breath kendo. What makes me continually motivated is that what I do and how I feel affects all those around me. I have realized that even a small doubt in the minds of your dojo members is a crushing defeat foretelling an individual or team match. It is important to ‘do’ your best, setting a positive outlook for the rest (dojo members). Encourage everyone to a higher level of personal best. It is amazing what you can achieve if everyone is encouraging you. All members in a dojo have a real stake in your success or failure and vise-versa, reflecting the cohesion of the team. This idea of supporting and encouraging all members of a group has been used since the beginning of warfare by all warriors.
Kamae pertains not only to a physical posture but more importantly to an inner kamae. The inner kamae is an alert mental presence and a purposeful attitude that seeks to defeat the opponent. Both the physical stance and the inner stance must not be fixed, but fluid, changing to the circumstance. The inner kamae should be of no surprise to many expert swordsmen, as the inner kamae is vital from the beginning to the end of a kendo match. Miyamoto Musahshi: “Although the positions are divided into five, they all have the aim to cut men.” “No matter which position you take, do not think of it as a position, think only of it as a process of cutting.” The master swordsman Noma Hiroshi (1910-1939): “the aim of all kamae is to defeat the opponent.” “As long as one continues to rely on ones sword and ones stance one is still a long way from becoming an accomplished swordsman. Ones mind must strike the mind of the opponent and with it penetrate through the opponents defense.” It is important to study and practice this idea of the “inner kamae” as it relates closely with strategy and defeating the opponent using your mind first. No matter how fearsome or perfect the outward kamae (stance) without an inner kamae that is fluid, calm and skillful in command the outward kamae is meaningless as a position of attack, as an army without a general.
Sutemi and Zanshin are some of the many parts of an attack that defines kendo as separate and distinct from other sword arts from other countries. Sutemi is defined as: The state of giving (something) one’s all, prepared even to give one’s life, without thinking of the outcome. Zanshin is defined as: The body and state of mind in which, even after striking, one is alert and ready to respond instantly to a counterattack by the opponent. These two components in actual battle with a steel blade comprise a completed cut in which the mind and body of the opponent (if still alive) is given the time (seconds) to realize that he has been cut and mortally wounded by your sword. Sutemi emphasizes a deep cut through the body of the opponent, not a timid superficial cut, or a timid attack as it would be without sutemi, a complete mind, body and spirit attack. Like all Japanese martial arts, kendo in real combat is meant to be decisive and a match may be over in a matter of seconds.
In kendo there is often a feeling of helplessness when being struck by an opponent. This feeling is the experience of seeing or sensing an event in your mind in an instant, with your body lagging unable to move FASTER than a split second. The reason why repetitive physical practice is essential is that the muscles used in doing a particular movement will retain the movement information and strengthen the connection path for doing that movement or technique. The result is that the body can respond markedly faster when needed. This is why most strikes can be blocked easily and naturally, the body is reacting to a visual, sensing signal, independent of the mind. It is important to note that in order to learn a sequence of movement, there must be a desire, a benefit and an understanding in your mind to retain the movement information, along with constant repetition. Only then will you you be able to learn and use a technique naturally and appropriately.
Striking exercise drills are a staple in all martial arts, kendo is no different in where most often the outcome is predetermined. The compliment to the striking drills in kendo is keiko or ji geiko, a type of free sparring, where the outcome is not predetermined. You may have noticed while practicing that the two types of training differs dramatically in the physical and mental requirements. Once in keiko or ji geiko your mind takes over and body takes a back seat, this fact slows down the match somewhat. Although it is tempting to just let your body dominate and continue as in the striking drills, in keiko and ji geiko it is folly to do this, as you know. This free practice is kendo mind training and involves many issues that must be solved in an individual manner, conquering yourself. Like all practice, keiko is fundamental to your training and should be approached for the valuable skills it teaches such as direct cognition, strategy, timing, rhythm, maai and includes every aspect of kendo training. The more keiko under your belt the more calm and less distracted your mind will become, yet your body must be trained to respond instantly with the correct strike at the correct moment (mushin).
In kendo it is important to see the opponents mind, and resolve, quickly. You can determine the opponents mind in the first few seconds of crossing swords, the opponent will react to your seme, or not, his presence will be strong or weak. Since the mind controls the body the opponent can not conceal his mind. Seeing the mind of the opponent means to see his intent his strategy using your intuition. Practice intuition everyday by really seeing what you are looking at and by paying attention to what your intuition is saying. By listening to your intuition you will see your opponent with your true mind not clouded with your ego, do not be distracted by superficial movement of your opponent but sense his mind. Seeing the opponents mind (strategy) happens in an instant, then quickly disappears as quickly as it is seen. However short the insight may be you will be able to strike at his mind giving you a good chance of victory.
I have made it part of my training to review kendo matches from Japan. I am always amazed by how the contestants exercise a great degree of self control and how they respect each other. Since ancient times the samurai were expected to show a great amount of self control, and to set an example of how to live life and treat people. The famous swordsman Yagyu Munenori kendo teacher to the Shogun took this idea further explaining that there are two types of kendo the death-dealing sword and the life-giving sword. The difference between the two is that one does not give the opponent any room to attack while the life giving sword allows the opponent to use his technique and defeats the opponent by another means. Munenori goes on to say that in order to reach the life-giving sword you must transcend the death-dealing sword. It is clearly the goal of kendo to have a life-giving sword attitude while in a kendo match. This shows you can win without being a bully. In spite of the fact that many people in kendo say that sport kendo in Japan is all about focusing on winning kendo matches, a fact I believe was always the case since ancient times. Character development is the core goal of kendo. I believe that character development and the life-giving sword are one in the same and should not be over looked.
Mokuso is defined as: The act of composing one’s breath, posture mind and spirit while in the seiza position. In kendo the mokuso exercise has a greater significance than at first glance. Mokuso is performed in a span of two to three deep breaths with the eyes slightly open so that one is aware of the surroundings, hearing yourself breath and focusing on your deep breathing. The act of breathing deeply infuses your blood with extra oxygen and has a cleansing, calming effect. Momentarily your awareness is drawn inward. It is no coincidence that the mokuso is very short, the short time allows for quick preparation and of composing oneself for battle. The three deep breaths with eyes slightly open can be done at anytime you have a rest period. Mokuso is not a true meditation, but is tailored to have many of the benefits.
Every living being has a rhythm in which they live life, some are fast paced others slow paced. Rhythm in a attack is no different. The dictionary has a few words to define rhythm: 1 the rhythm of the music beat, cadence, tempo, time, pulse, throb, swing. 2 poetic features such as rhythm meter, measure, stress, accent, cadence. 3 the rhythm of daily life pattern, flow, tempo. When you find yourself blocking an attack most of the time it is because you do not sense the oppenents rhythm and are caught off guard. It is possible to merely step out of the way of an attack just by knowing the rhythm of an opponent. Sense your own rhythm and adjust your attack to the oppenents rhythm or changing your rhythm as it suits the situation.
Beginners are aware that all you need to win a match is to constantly attack. What they do not realize is this is just one of many strategies. Higher ranking kendoka will devise a different strategy to defeat you based on past matches. Talented kendoka can devise strategies on the fly, adapting and changing infinitely to the situation of the match. The level of devising strategies on the fly is clearly what true champions are able bring to a match.
I have often been puzzled by the seemingly contradiction of trying to rid oneself of the desire to win in order to obtain mushin, and how do you win without the intense desire to win? Mushin and Fudoshin are both a Buddhist, Zen tradition. The most famous zen master was the priest Takuan Soho, notable for his great wisdom and his famous followers. Takuan states in his writings that “without desire, nothing can be achieved” and “If you act on the basis of the unwavering right-mind, the energy of desire is transformed into the right energy. It is no longer called desire, it is named gi. GI is virtue.” gi means duty. Takuan goes on to say “If you shun desire and become like a rock or a piece of wood you can do nothing. With the help of the energy of desire one can transform desire (yoku) into no desire (mu-yoku). This is the true way.” Takuan’s words explain the samurai notion of the desire to win based on gi and not on greed or selfishness (material riches, or fame).
The kendo three methods of killing are: kill the sword (ken-o-korosu) meaning to move the sword off center, kill the waza (waza-o-korosu) meaning to spoil the opponents waza, and counter with your own waza, kill the spirit (ki-o-korosu) using seme to overwhelm the opponent. I believe there is a connection between the three methods of killing and the four poisons in kendo referred to as: fear, doubt, surprise and confusion. Using any of the three methods of killing instantly produces one or more of the poisons of kendo in your opponents mind giving you a good chance of victory.
There is a saying in kendo that physical training and training the mind are like two wheels of a cart. For me the purpose of ji geiko (free practice/sparing) is to experience mind training such as strategy and other intuitive aspects not easily taught or understood in physical exercises. It is through ji geiko that many of the teachings of the sensei and self discovery are understood and transmitted. It is ji geiko practice that allows all that you have learned physically to be crystalized along with teaching the mind to engage an opponent in a real match. Take every advantage while practicing ji geiko to stretch your mind and sensing the difference in each opponent at that moment in time. Ji geiko is one of two aspects in kendo where the outcome is not predetermined, the other being shiai keiko (tournament match) where the emphasis is to win the match. Because mind training is different from any other exercise using a simple attack forgetting the opponents mind or reaction is a mistake and will cause you to lose, the same can be said for shiai keiko. The significance of mind training can not be overlooked in ji geiko, always embracing the right spirit of learning and respect since winning is not the goal in ji gieko.
The great sword master Miyamoto Musashi advocated using a natural step type of footwork. It is likely that Musashi could strike from any position and any distance as if walking through a park. Once basic footwork is mastered strive to attack from any position or from any distance without the thought of jumping or sliding your feet. Because footwork is the underpinning of an attack, it must be done without the thought of how to bridge a distance, great kendo footwork is done in a seemingly natural manner, complimenting your motion of attack. Kendo is an art that must be practiced regularly, great footwork gives you advantages otherwise missed.
Everyone who follows the path of the way of the sword faces the four poisons of fear, doubt, surprise and confusion. All of the poisons are the products of the false mind, the realm of the ego. Because the poisons are products of the false mind they will always be present the only way to rid yourself temporarily of the poisons is with awareness. Realize that the fear and the doubt exist only in your false mind, dismiss your ego as a product of the false mind so that you can see your opponent with your minds eye and will not be surprised or confused. Telling your self that you are stronger, better, faster than your opponent is also a product of the false mind. It is important in kendo training to pay special attention to these poisons and to be aware that they are from the false mind.
There is more than one way to take the initiative and forestalling in kendo. The dictionary defines initiative as: The power or opportunity to act or take charge before others do: we have lost the initiative and allowed our opponents to dictate the subject. In his book the Book of Five Rings the master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi states there are three ways to forestall the opponent or take the initiative 1. Set the opponent up and attack first with an overwhelming spirited attack, called Ken Sen No Sen 2. Draw in the opponent to attack with the guise of a suki, slowness or fatigue then quickly and strongly counter attacking, called Tai Sen No Sen 3. Swift counter attack at the same time the opponent attacks, called Tai Tai no Sen. We all know these techniques, how interesting they are as a contrast of initiative, forestalling and superb strategy. Taking the initiative is one of the most important strategies in kendo giving you the suki or opening, and timing of your choosing. Using the initiative allows a chance for a quick victory.
As absurd as it sounds there are many martial artists that feel kendo has no relevancy since no real harm can come to yourself or to an opponent that loses. In today’s world there is no martial art that can say the end result is that you or your opponent will be killed at the end of a match. All martial arts practice mock killing, even the police and the military practice in the same way. Like the gun and live ammunition the live sword can not be used to practice striking people, so a simulated sword made of bamboo called a shinai is used. In ancient times even the wooden sword when used freely in kendo was to lethal resulting in serious injury even death! The sword and the gun are both killing instruments. a person trained in killing with a gun cannot kill without a gun, and so it is with the sword. What about the sword as means for self defense? Of course the core question is still about whether you have the killing weapon (gun, sword, knife etc.) or not. Our laws and common sense keep us from carrying these weapons around easily. Gone are the days of killing with a sword, yet the real sword is no less lethal in the hands of a person trained in the way of the sword just as someone trained in killing with with a rifle. Besides today’s semantics, for those of us that care, kendo remains directly linked to the samurai, in strategy, sensibilities, and self control.
“discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana” Development of character is the stated goal of kendo. What is the character and sword connection? I think the connection is both simple and complex. The simple connection is that You become a better human being but another aspect is that your state of mind and your character affects the effectiveness of your kendo. With kendo training the character is changed. The obvious character developing aspect is extreme hard training that molds a quick responses and the ability to function well past exhaustion, a strong spirit. Without character development of a pure heart and clear mind higher levels of kendo expertise is not possible. Character development past the teen years doesn’t stop after kendo practice. The more analogies, and integration you make with kendo techniques and every day events and situations the more your kendo will improve. The reason the legendary Miyamoto Mushashi and other masters were great artists, poets and staunchly religous is that the creative talents and search for the deeper meaning of life resulted in great personal improvements in their kendo. The body is limited but the mind is infinite, kendo to has no limits as far as improving yourself and greater insights into kendo techniques ancient or new, methods and meaning.
It is not surprising that many of the old techniques are lost either because they are not legal to practice in modern kendo. Legends ring with stories many schools of specializing in particular styles of kendo. Kendo kata is a collective memory of how to do some of the best kendo techniques known. So, why practice doing big (waza) motions when striking in kata and daily practice and not small motion striking exclusively? I think it is without a doubt that small (waza) motion striking existed in ancient times. Practicing both big and small waza gives us the option and a striking range to choose from of how hard to strike with armor or without armor. Small waza is also practiced in kendo kata, in ‘Ropponme’ or kata number six is a small kote waza out of place with the big waza in the rest of the kendo kata. For me kendo kata can be directly used in sport kendo because the techniques have been battle tested over the centuries. The key is the context in which to use each technique, this has been lost over the years, many do not know how to use them choosing to stick with what they know. Hidden in the kendo kata is a wealth of information and wisdom, all aspects of the kata no matter how small has a reason, context and history we just need to understand the meanings and to use them. Kendo kata techniques are not museum pieces of old kendo but battle tested, death causing techniques worthy of rediscovery. Kendo kata is the bridge for the old kendo and sport kendo.
The definition of mitori-geiko is: observing the practice of another, learning his or her good points and reflecting and improving upon one’s own kendo. Many years ago our kendo practices at our dojo were very relaxed and not strenuous. Sometimes one of my senseis would sit quietly on the side just watching the keiko. On one occasion I asked him if he was tired, his response was simple but stuck with me all these years. He said there are two kinds of kendo: ‘doing kendo and watching kendo (mitori-geiko)’. I have come to embrace this idea as essential to kendo training. It is a scientific fact that while watching a sport in which you are trained in doing the neuro and muscular pathways involved in doing that activity are reinforced. Watching also strengthens the visual and sensing portions of practicing kendo. Nuanced techniques can be seen and understood easier just by watching kendo. Thanks to my old sensei many years ago I have incorporated this type of passive kendo or mitori-geiko along with my physical training.
As I grow older day by day it becomes increasingly apparent that what I perceive as fast movement in a younger opponent is a normal speed for that age and my speed is normal for my age. How then is it possible to be faster than a younger person? Every action or movement contains a beginning and an end, every person has a natural rhythm that is unique to that person. Through mental and physical training and using your natural rhythm, attack in between the movements of your opponent beating or finishing the rhythm of your opponent. Always remaining just slightly off rhythm of your opponent, more precisely predicting the beginning or ending of any action or movement a fraction of a second before or after the action is launched or completed. Your strike will not be sucessfull by relying on eye sight completely, instead see with your minds eye, sensing the next strike, cycle of rhythm. It is very important to sense your opponents state of mind, hesitant or determined adapt accordingly and attack precisely crushing their rhythm.
I have a great interest in understanding the methods and wisdom of the great swordsmen of Japan and using that wisdom and knowledge to perfect my kendo. It is my thought that kendo as it is practiced today is not just a sport and not a pale reflection of what was kenjutsu. I’m sure this is contrary to current thinking in describing sport kendo. We all know of Miyamoto Musashi and his great duel with Sasaki Kojiro. The duel was decisively won by Musashi with a simple wooden boat oar. Granted, Musashi’s skill was unmatched, but killing with a boat oar? Why? Clearly Musashi was a man who thought outside of the box, a master who did not need a steel blade to destroy his opponent. I do not dismiss his opponents great skill but Musashi could have killed his opponent with a broom stick. Musashi and many other masters put more emphasis in the mind and body rather than what the actual sword was made of. In sport kendo today we also put more emphasis on the mind and body mechanics rather than dwelling on the bamboo nature of our sword. I have come to realize and understand that all the methods of strategy and all of the teachings of the masters are and can be directly translated to be used in today’s sport kendo. In fact the transition between a live blade to a wooden sword and bamboo sword allows the freedom to experience directly the masters wisdom, we only need to have the courage to use the teachings. Still there are many differences the obvious with a real sword it was a life or death match, there was no room for error or even practice, a point system, and the permitted hitting areas. Given the potential for creative insight along with the study of kata, sport kendo can be a great way for cultivating a mind that is laser sharp.
In kendo like all sports alot to emphasis is placed on whose the better kendo player, who wins or who loses to whom. I think that the deeper meaning of kendo is whether you approach it as a real life or death sword match. If you are concerned about the outcome and the outcome is that you lose (you die), it is very hard to continue, the let down is tremendous, you mourn over the death of yourself. But if you see that competition as a battle in which you conquer yourself, it makes it easy to let go of life, if you lose (die) with no attachment to life, with no attachment to the outcome. Focused on the task at hand, unconcerned with the future or the past.
Fudoshin is translated as: immovable heart or immovable mind and stems from the Japanese Buddhist deity: Fudo Myoo destroyer of delusion (attachment). Mushin is a Zen Buddhist expression meaning: mind of no mind. Fudoshin means to have a calm mind an indomitable spirit, flowing not focused on anything in particular, not attached to any physical aspects or mental thoughts, in the midst of calamity this is an ego-less state of mind, free of delusion, free of worrying about winning or losing, a mind not moved by distractions (attachment to any particular thought, emotion or physical aspect.) Mushin is also the same state of mind but it encompasses the physical aspect of not worrying about what technique to use, responding to any opening without conscious effort (no mind), a clear mind. Mushin is purely an intuitive response obtained by rigorous training to an opening in the opponents defense, attacking without hesitation, it is the minds eye that instantly and without thinking sees the correct moment and method of attack, this is the mind of no mind. Fudoshin and Mushin are not lofty, super human powers that only masters experience but experiences we all have had from time to time. Champions and masters are able to sustain fudoshin and mushin consistently.
The translation of maai is: space. The definition of Maai: Proper distancing or timing with respect to one’s partner in a kendo match. In kendo there are three distance catagories: Chikama or close distance, Issoku itto no maai or one step distance and toma or far distance. Issoku Itto no maai or one step distance is the preferred distance because you can see the opponents whole body easily. Toma distance is the generally to far to strike from and few kendoka are able to hit from toma in one step. With practice you will find your comfort hitting distance which may be the same or different for your oppenents. Maai is not a static distance it is always changing from moment to moment, often it is a transition from far to close and back again. Maintaining a maai position is an advanced level kendo so it takes time to develop. Practice maai so that it is second nature and not a conscious effort to dominate your opponent by keeping just out of reach of your opponents strikes yet within easy reach of your strikes. Another dimension of maai is to control “space.” Controlling Space around you is very important when fighting multiple opponents, keeping the space to your advantage. Controlling Space also infers the ability to read and control time (reaction distance from opponent) time in the fractions of a second it takes an opponent to strike from what ever distance (maai) he is at any given moment. A faster opponent will travel the same maai striking distance faster than a slow opponent covering the same maai striking distance. Adjust for slower and faster opponents, avoiding the faster opponents maai striking distance until you are ready to strike and or shorten your kokoro no maai when in striking distance. Kokoro no maai is the term used to describe a distance in which both opponents can easily strike from, yet the opponent can not strike because of an awareness lapse. The term kokoro means heart or spirit, in this context describes an opponent that has a spirit at rest or sleeping. An awareness lapse can be used to your advantage (giving you time and suki) sensing the opponents state of mind, sensing the awareness or lack of awareness of your opponent.
Learning kendo is far more nuanced for the people who practice the way of the sword than for people that do not. Suki translated means an “an opening between objects.” In kendo suki is an integral part of training, many exercises are purposed to take advantage of an opening in the defense of an opponent. To create an opening or seeing/sensing an opening is to distract an opponent momentarily, counter strike in the midst of an opponents attack, strike before the opponent is ready to strike or after a strike. It is important to see these exercises as glimpses to what an opening looks like using your mind (third eye). It is only through hard training, internalizing, and sensing suki, only then you can use it to your advantage.
I have come to understand only now that becoming a better kendo player means to be creative and to find your own techniques. Over the years, I have sensed that it is necessary to find your own path in kendo, I came across a Japanese word for it Shu ha ri. Shuhari: a natural progression of skill in Kendo. Shu is the level wherein the student takes everything taught as sacred and in violable. Ha is the level at which a kenshi begins to add their own understanding to what he learned before. A kendoka has reached rhi level when he takes what he has learned, what he has come to know himself and creates his own unique path in the world of kendo. Some say shu ha ri is for very high ranking kendo sensei only, but this is very myopic. I believe Shuhari has a wider meaning of encompassing creative thought and advanced level thinking something not restricted by rank. It is essential to be aware of this natural progression in order to make your kendo better.