This essay will discuss timing or more properly, rythym in the form, through the concepts known in Japanese as 'jo-ha-kyu' and 'ma-oku.' With an understanding of what these are and how to apply them I believe the iaidoka can avoid 'the dance' by letting this rythym be the framework for beginning to understand and fill in the technical aspects of the form with the concept of zanshin-or what David Hall refers to as the 'psycho-physical dominance.' (Koryu Bujutsu. 1997. p92)
The Technical Jo-Ha-Kyu
This is a simple concept of timing really. Jo is slow, Ha is intermediate, Kyu is fast. Therefore jo-ha-kyu is the timing from slow to fast, much like the acceleration of a steam driven train: It lurches forward ever so slowly, gains speed and momentum, then is launched into it's smooth, fast speed once that momentum has reached it's peak. This 'timing curve' is a controlled one in the case of the iaido form. We can, as in the chuden and okuden forms, move directly from rest into the 'ha' and 'kyu' phases of timing. However, in the seitei and shoden forms, the building blocks of our basic iai, this particular timing curve is paramount.
The Technical Ma-oku
The curve of jo-ha-kyu is directly followed by this concept. 'Ma' is
'interval' or 'space.' 'Oku' is to 'take, occur, happen.' 'Ma-oku' therefore,
is the 'taking of an interval' or the 'taking space' in the form. It is
a 'pause' in the form which helps to balance the jo-ha-kyu and create a
Often times, both Japanese and non-Japanese practitioners of iaido will not only rush the 'jo-ha-kyu' timing but almost entirely omit the 'ma-oku' which follows. The form is then often reduced to a rythymless series of technical moves where whatever psycho-physical dominance the practitioner attempts to 'emit' is largely lost to a 'one-speed' kata. Like a score of music with only one note and one scale. Technically we can introduce the above two concepts to eliminate this bland part of the dance. Moreover, filling in these technical concepts with their corresponding psycho-visualization components will create forms of solid psycho-physical dominance. In other words, use jo-ha-kyu and ma-oku properly, with an understanding of why they are used, and zanshin will not only develop but be powerfully displayed.
The psycho-visualization of jo-ha-kyu and ma-oku
Without moving this essay into the complex discussion of what modern iaido is and why one practices it, I will work on the assumption that most if not all of what we do in seitei and shoden forms do not appear to be combat effective (in reality they may very well be, but we shall save that for another day...). As basic forms they serve, technically speaking, to introduce and instill basic techniques. This is one reason why the 'jo-ha-kyu' exists, to have iaidoka displaying proper and controlled form before they learn to move directly into the 'kyu' phases of form training. Similarly 'ma-oku' is designed to display one's balance and control over the movements in the form. Psycho-visualizationally speaking however, there is much more happening with these two concepts...
This occurs most in the drawing of the sword. Here the iaidoka presents the opponent with the psycho-physical presence 'If you do not cease your movements and/or intention, I will continue with this course of action.' The initial slow draw of the sword contains this message. One's disposition should reflect this through proper eye contact, a calmness of mind and clear intent. This requires a visualization of the opponent and her actions/thoughts. 'Here I come. Stop now before this is too late. I do not want to cut. Really, I do not want to cut.' This is a direct psycho-physical dominance being displayed and transmitted through the visualization of the opponent's actions and intent. The opponent does not cease her intentions thus we continue to increase the speed of our draw and the strength of our intent as the process moves towards the point of full commitment to the action. The blade, now ready for launching, cuts smoothly and strongly across or through an opponent at the peak of our speed.
The placement and timing of ma-oku is no easy task. It must come intuitively, through repetitive practice in which one visualizes the opponent and scenario. How long should it be? Where do I insert it? Generally speaking, ma-oku occurs after cuts and thrusts. The length of ma-oku depends quite often on the strength of one's zanshin and the point within the form at which ma-oku is placed. Some ma-oku are brief intervals, almost imperceptible. Others are pronounced and strong. The psycho-physical ma-oku is one in which the iaidoka maintains a mental dominance over the visualized opponent. I do not wish to convey ma-oku as moments of assessing the situation with the opponent but it is a close approximation. Ideally, there is 'calm/no-mind' within the form and so the ma-oku is more properly an 'intuitive posture' of strength. Here one intuitively assesses not only the opponent but all aspects of the surroundings: Does one sense a 'sakki' or 'air of murder' from other places? Has the opponent been sufficiently dispatched? Again, these are ideas that are not actively thought upon, but simply 'occur' in the 'fudoshin' state of the psycho-physical dominance.
An example: Seitei iai-ippon me-mae
The 'jo' phase has already started the moment one sits in seiza. There are two or three full breaths (depending on teacher) and the natural but controlled taking of the sword and sheath into the hands. Here one 'opens up' the weapon with the thumb of the left hand, this is the start of the physical manifestation of our message. The first third of the sword is drawn smoothly and slowly out. Here a 'transmission' of zanshin should be felt by all present. The sword then is more quickly drawn, in a graded scale of speed towards it's tip at which point, and without breaking the momentum of the jo and ha phases, it is strongly, swiftly released across the eyes of the opponent in the kyu phase. All this while we transmitted a powerfully controlled presence that emitted the ideas that now is the time for peace, and here we can remove this confrontation. This moves into the point of no return when the kyu phase hits and one is both mentally and physically commited to the act. Here we have taken the enemy not only through the technical, but through our 'presence of dominance' or zanshin.
Immediately after this cut there is one of several almost imperceptible ma-oku's. Brief but placed, this point is the further pressure and transmission of our intent. Here too we intuitively assess the position of teki: Has he moved up? Has he moved back? Has he been cut? Again I emphasize that these are not conscious open thoughts. They occur at once, as part of the ideal connection between action and thought.
We follow through with our finishing cut. This cut too is followed by a stronger ma-oku. We move into chiburi. After execution we move up with both feet parallel; here again another ma-oku. This is perhaps one of the strongest in the form. Here our pyscho-physical dominance is clearly transmitted and percieved. One should not simply step up and back. Here one strongly steps up, an interval is taken, and again an assessment of the opponent and one's surroundings occurs. This ma-oku is perhaps the last major one in the form. It is at this point that the form peaks. The interval ends with a strong step back. The form finishes with a couple more smaller intervals. And throughout the entire form, there is the psycho-physical dominance which displays itself through the concepts of jo-ha-kyu and ma-oku.
This has been an easy topic to write about, however, as students of
iaido we can all testify to how easy it is to describe something but light
years more difficult to accomplish it. One can never speak enough about
the importance of repetitive practice filled with visualization of the
opponent and the situation. Seitei iai forms are the 'standard set' with
little room for interpretation but once one moves to 'old style' iaido,
the interpretative nature of the form changes. Here one's intuition plays
a crucial role in the form. This is why the need to train and train some
more with visualization is so important. So, I can talk about jo-ha-kyu
and ma-oku quite easily, two concepts which my teacher constantly emphasized
but, like the rest of us, I've only got one option open to me: Train.