Physical Training Oct 2009
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Why is Seitei so Changeable: A Response

copyright 2009 Chris Gilham, all rights reserved

Indeed, the very notion of standardization must be accepted as a concept that could never be the same between any two human beings. All human experience is interpretive even if we may agree by and large on most things. Perception only allows so much interpretation to occur and perception is different for each of us, mainly and simply because we all are in different positions, in every sense of the word. So it is important for students who practice the seitei of any set to understand that there is no, nor will there ever be, full and complete consensus of a standardized set. Change is the only constant.

Although our comments reveal the struggles we have made for ourselves over the past few years, I have now come to understand that we are talking about the modern and the traditional: Success and duty. The modern is the grading – the measure of success; of progress; of production and status; of authority. With increased knowledge and skills comes power, and it is clearly demarcated by rank – by status. The grading is the western standard – the exam, the normalization and categorization of human beings. We may argue well for it as a different kind of practice, and I would agree in large part with the benefits of this kind of practice, however, the benefits only continue to produce and sustain the concept of success so entrenched in so many aspects of our society. So when we say things like “…do X this way when there and do X this way when here”, we refer to grading because we believe that for most gradings we must conform to the majority practice of the national organization, if we wish to maintain positive grading status and progress within the organization. On the other hand, tradition is duty to other human beings – relationships that promote the social welfare and existence of one another. I would argue that the greater function and purpose of iaido is to build, maintain, and nurture relationships with one another.   I am acutely aware that we are talking about a sword art – derived from sword combat systems. The sword, the ultimate symbol of power and the realities of human nature, was (and is) at once the arbiter,   and broker, the very thing that produces, peace between one another. Today, it is the vehicle through which we improve ourselves in relation to one another – we polish one another, as one saying goes.  

Above and beyond the conversation of the elite, beyond the conversations of what interpretation is best, or most applicable, or necessary for the student body, is the duty to one’s instructor, at least in the martial traditions of Japan. This is the primary conversation to be focussed on, in my opinion. Other conversations abound indeed. Ultimately, one’s instructor decides which conversation he will attune to, and this in turn becomes his student’s conversation as well. It does not matter whether or not one’s sensei listens to the newer conversations, or decides to stay concrete in his older, original conversation, unless of course one is more inclined to be concerned with grading and learning lots of different interpretations of an art form. The greatest irony of Iaido, I believe, and its greatest strength, at once, is its solo kata practice which cannot occur genuinely and authentically without the deep and complete trust in one’s sensei.  Iaido is an exemplar of building trust and respect between human beings – especially with those who are our senior in experience, and often, age: Because in turn, those to follow us will gain from our relationships with one another, and so it goes from generation to generation. For me, this is the greatest lesson Iaido has and continues to offer and despite my wish to listen to the conversations of those at the top – and I do necessarily when we are amassed in seminars, it is my duty and my privilege, the two intertwined as condition of healthy human interaction, to honour that which has been given to me – given to me by another human being.  This is the prime conversation – between student and teacher in the budo. All other conversations are mere references for learning and tools for grading. In many senses outside iaido, this should be our prime conversation as well, though this is difficult to do in a society that often seems to no longer treasure its mentors and teachers.

Seitei changes – yes. Koryu changes – yes.  Conversation or matriarch regardless, budo’s heart is in our relationships to those around us, especially those who lead us on the path. Our reality is our choice in this regard – we wish to both be a part of the modern and the traditional. I am at a place now where I hope to continue with the modern by sustaining the traditional. If this cannot be the case, the traditional will prevail.  

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