Last year our club held its annual in house tournament. Students of all levels of experience from newcomers to seniors were in attendance. The young students demonstrated the forms they had just begun learning. The seniors demonstrated the forms they had struggled to cultivate up to this point and will continue to work on in their pursuit of good iai. At the end of the night medals were handed out to all students, with one student receiving the ki ken tai no ichi award. Following the awards presentation that student was asked to write an article on the tournament. So here I am, almost one year later trying to write an article worthy of being read by the martial arts community. It is important to note that the ki ken tai no ichi award is not for the best in the club but for the student who showed the best overall iai on that night. I am not the most senior student, nor am I the most junior and I am certainly not the best. I have heard many reasons for the moral and practical applications of our training. I have spent much time wrestling with various views on the practice on martial arts. I figure now is a good time to share my understanding thus far as I have journey on the path of iai.
In our club, our tournament is less a competition of our iai but rather a 'celebration of learning.' We have a chance to display our progress thus far be it a couple of weeks, or three years. We are all considered winners and presented with an award for what we have achieved. This can be seen as an example of katsujin no ken, the sword that gives life. Historically swords have been satsujin no ken, the sword that takes life. In old times ones swordsmanship was tested on the battlefield, now it is tested against others in a tournament. Our techniques have evolved out of combat, where there is no second place or a medal for everyone. You are either better than your opponent, or you are dead. So then how do we apply this to katsujin no ken? Fortunately in modern times we do not have to rely on our swords for protection. Yet I feel that the intensity of combat is something important to all combat based (not necessarily combative) martial arts.
If we forget too much of where our art comes from it will lose its essence, yet arts must also change to suit the time that they are used in. It is easier to experience the pressure of combat in other more combative arts. I remember the pressure I felt when I first wore kendo bogu (amour) knowing that now all those people with big sticks could hit me, and I knew it hurt. I also remember the pressure I felt during my first time demonstrating to the club - as well as my first grading. Last year before my shodan grading I took the opportunity to travel to Japan and train with my sensei's sensei. I remember the pressure I felt being my sensei’s first student to go in front of his sensei. I have never sweated so much during a training night. Sensei was happy with my iai and helped me improve it. I still am truly grateful for the experience and was very relieved that I had honored my sensei and my dojo. During my shodan grading I fumbled my sageo during the opening reiho. Not sure if it would disqualify me I proceeded to finish my kata with composure. Looking back I think that that is the closest I have come to being in the proper mental state for iai. Regardless of the outcome I tried to do my best under pressure.
That was the answer to my question, pressure. Through grading, demonstrating and participating in tournaments we place ourselves in the open to be judged by all. The pressure to do our best, to show our seniors what we have learned in a single moment. I believe that is the closest we can get to experience the pressure of the battlefield. By facing such pressure with a calm mind, as if no one were there we may learn mushin or 'no mind'. This is my answer to what is in a tournament. It is not the opportunity to find out who is the best, or to show off how good we might think we are. It is the opportunity to get outside our comfort zone - where we only have one chance to get it right! We train and push ourselves for one moment where it matters. For that moment we were all awarded for our hard work and effort. To me the ki ken tai no ichi award does not mean that I am the best, or the best overall, it simply means that I won one battle, one of many to come. And I will keep training to fight those battles. To me that is being ready, that is Iaido.