The Iaido Journal  July 2006
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Iaido wa Hitotsu: Kokoro

Copyright © 2006 Chris Gilham, all rights reserved

By Chris Gilham

Many years ago after having hitchhiked much of Japan and trained with many Iaido sensei across the country, I arrived back in Tokyo for some final training with my sensei before leaving for Canada.

He was immediately dismayed by changes in my Iaido.

He asked me where I had learned these things: I told him from other sensei in Japan.

Eventually, after several classes of this he scolded me harshly.

“You do not understand budo. You do not have a budo heart.”

My desire to learn more about Iaido was sincere, and I did not intend in any way to upset him, but indeed I did.

I left Japan for a short time, returned for a grading, passed my test, apologized sincerely to sensei after a long talk, and returned once again to Canada.

I left Japan feeling tired in many ways, and I left frustrated with my sensei and my club in Tokyo. For some time I said I would never return to Japan, and I battled over Iaido as an important part of my life.

I continued to train on my own. I trained at the major seminars in Canada. I visited some Canadian sensei for training as well.

Eventually, I found my way through stubbornness, over eagerness, and my troubles with Japan. I started a club in Calgary and truly renewed my love for Iaido and all I had learned from Japan.

But the way was not completely smooth from there on.

The lesson I learned of loyalty has come to play a monumental role in how I present Iaido to my students, and how I accept and use the teachings of others. This is what I wish to share mainly.

Across Japan and Canada, the world really, all members of the International Kendo Federation and the All Japan Kendo Federation practice a standardized basic set of forms known as the Seitei or ZenKen Iai. These twelve forms act as the basis for gradings and tournaments. In most dojo these forms also act as the foundation for learning basic Iaido techniques.

Throughout every dojo I have trained in, and truly this is a significant number to act as a sample, there are sensei teaching Seitei Iai differently, if only slightly, in interpretation and practice. This includes Japan: regional differences in Seitei Iai are strong in Japan, actually.  However, throughout all these clubs, not one appeared to be so markedly different as to be fundamentally misguided or ‘off-track.’ The essence of the forms, as practiced across these clubs appeared the same. Minor variations did exist, and it seems we are forever challenged by minute changes to the set as visiting sensei come along, or as some of us go to Japan for training.

Because of the natural variations and interpretations, bound to exist because of our uniqueness as individuals, as teachers and students of iaido, it is senseless to believe and persist in claims that we must all be doing the exact same things. Yet, there are those who believe this, and make it their mantra for training and teaching. Some of these people go so far as to tell other students from other clubs that they are ‘wrong’ and they should change to the ‘right way’.

People who make such claims might not understand budo completely.  Running deeper than technical universality, the concept of loyalty and respect for other dojo, teachers, and their students is fundamental. Furthermore, insistence on ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’ within a very strictly defined way of exhibiting a technique does not display a reasonableness and flexibility in understanding people, teaching, learning, and importantly, iaido.

When I left Tokyo to visit different dojo I was in search of higher levels of technical interpretation and competence. This was a misguided approach, I believe, and in doing this, I learned a great lesson about personal hubris, and budo.

I believe Iaido is, by its kanji interpretation, the striving to be a better person by becoming more reasonable and flexible, and in so doing, more understanding and accepting of people in general. Thus the general mantra to be ready at all times for all things: no easy task indeed. As an aside, one can ask me how this applies to working with troubled youth whom have severe behavioural and emotional difficulties (my current work) – it applies in the most testing of practical senses.    

Very recently, six years after leaving Japan, I returned once again for a two week visit.

I am deeply contented with having returned, and have found a much greater peace within me: Sensei and I have reunited as we had once been years ago. I have ‘calmed’ in my life, and in my Iaido training and beliefs. I left Japan this time with a settled, fundamental belief in the importance of loyalty to one’s teacher as the core foundation of budo training.

This now settled belief comes from several experiences, a primary ones being recent conversations had with sensei and senior students in our club in Tokyo as well as the experiences I explained in the above paragraphs.

Let me share some of the content of those conversations in Tokyo.

The frustrations of having experiences with people in iaido who insist on having the ‘right way’ became the topic of one important conversation. Sensei calmly noted how ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ words should not be terms of use in Iaido training. There is poor and great technique of course, but not exclusive and inclusive terms. More importantly, sensei shared the need for seeing iaido as only one concept. Iaido is not winning or losing, or right or wrong, but rather, heart, or spirit: “Iaido wa hitotsu – kokoro.” Tournaments and gradings can shift us towards iaido as winning and losing, right and wrong. However, Iaido is not sport. The dojo should be our place of focus. The dojo is about spirit.

A few words about this ‘spirit’ are necessary now, since the word can manifest multitudes of meanings and as many diverse reactions to those meanings.

If a person’s character has proper spirit, that is, they truly respect their sensei, their fellow dojo members, other people around them, and the greater community around them, and train sincerely and diligently, then that person is practicing Iaido on its proper path. A student could have amazing technique, but if they move about the world persisting in their way, and not respecting others, then they only have a path of technique – an empty shell of movements on a road seemingly smooth and successful. 

Iaido has come to mean much more than Japanese Swordsmanship, for me. Iaido is a vehicle for character training, for Life Skills.

So it is that when students come to me from other clubs or have seen something different from other sensei and are concerned, I tell them of the range of flexibility needed in understanding Iaido, and how one should never say things like ’right’ or ‘wrong’. We should move within a certain framework of understanding, which is provided for us in our Iaido handbooks and in videos and through proper, respectful sensei. But we are not training to bring everyone to an exact same page, through the uses of body language, terminology, and tones of voice that speak to disbelief, ridicule, incorrectness and humiliation. The latter are signs of an inflexible spirit troubled and frustrated by those around them who do not meet their unrealistic expectations defined by black and white messages.

Iaido is not a jutsu, nor a complete fighting system. Iaido is a way that all can be part of.

Let’s talk briefly about loyalty and its importance in Iaido.

As Iaido teachers and practitioners it is our challenge to understand we have entered into an agreement to trust our teachers. In so doing, we respect others who come to us who are different because we understand they have put their trust in other teachers. We should be able to share our learning in respectful ways, and not impose our learning on others. If there is one lesson for us all, it is this concept of loyalty as a stepping board for understanding iaido as circles of respectful learning and sincere character training. What better iaido practice than to meet members of other clubs and celebrate in our different learnings! Sad that such meetings can become places of criticism and indifference!

To move from sensei to sensei in search of a ‘better’ or ‘right’ way to learn and practice iaido is often a sign that one’s belief systems in Iaido are more focussed on technique and less on developing the spirit, as it was the case for me so many years ago. This art we do is so much more about relationships and trust than it is about finding a truer swordsman, or swordsmanship.

A student recently asked me if there are those in Japan who train in Iaido and do not understand Iaido as I have tried to explain it here. My answer to him and to all is a resounding “Yes!” People are people, regardless of culture. This is not an essay on western difficulties with understanding Iaido. This is an essay for all. Of course, it is not the final word, and never should be. My word is the word of my sensei, and the words of his sensei before him and so on. It is not the gospel, but it is the word I have committed myself to trusting in and giving to those who will listen to me. I do not struggle accepting this word, since it fits with my inner sense of what is true and respectful. 

Finally, some last thoughts on what can be drawn out from this writing:

Seek out authentic sensei but be wary of teachers extolling too much on the trueness of their lineage, or the age of their style of iaido. Seek out those who are accepting, humble, flexible, and who will teach to your particular needs.

Iaido is ‘seishin tanrin’: spiritual forging. This comes from having, or developing the proper attitude. Once you have the heart to cut your ego and re-build it in a softer, more adaptable form, then you will be able to apply this technique to settings outside of the dojo, like relationships with family, co-workers, and others.
Gradings, tournaments, seminars, and visiting sensei’s instructions are very valuable parts of the learning process in iaido, but they are secondary to loyalty to one’s sensei.

The student’s challenge is to understand and believe in loyalty wholeheartedly, without doubts. This is not automatic, nor should be. The loyalty in its purest form will come as your ego opens to sensei’s teachings, and your relationships in the dojo develop. Although iaido is mainly individual kata, it occurs within a social setting, a particular one at that.

Coming to this unification in understanding and belief is not easy.

Those who come to understand this have arrived at a fundamental level in Iaido, and I might add, in martial arts training.

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TIN July 2006