It has been ten years since I left Japan, and
left Sugino Dojo in Kawasaki. Though I took very little knowledge away
from that place, I still miss the experience of going there and
practicing with the many skilled swordsmen (and women) who gathered
every Sunday morning to share their knowledge and craft.
Sozen Kusano Sensei was of course one such practitioner. I would have
certainly learned even less from my limited time at Sugino Dojo without
him, for my hapless efforts at Japanese bore little fruit, and Sozen
Sensei's ease with both Japanese and English (all the more embarrassing
to me since neither are his native tongue) helped clear up many
mysteries surrounding the practice of Katori Shinto Ryu. And his
constant good humour and gentle wisdom only emphasized the general
atmosphere of good company and tolerance I always felt at Sugino Dojo.
Tong-sensei arranged for Sozen-sensei to join us this summer for a
special weekend seminar, and despite a bout of food poisoning as
intense as any sickness I've endured, I did manage to drag myself down
to St. Catharines to join the final session.
(First I need to
rave about the Tokumeikan facility in St. Catharines. Set out in the
countryside west of the town itself, the dojo is a lovely long building
set next to hundreds of acres of cornfield. Boasting a polished
hardwood floor, high ceilings, washroom, changeroom, Instructors’
private room, and even a recessed Kamiza
, it is truly one of
the most beautiful dojos I have ever seen outside of Japan.)
Sozen-sensei's lesson this day focused on the difference between what
he termed the "bones" and the "meat" of the forms. Performing the
movements correctly, with proper stances and angles carefully measured,
he called the "bones". One must have good bones as a foundation for
good health, of course. But bones are nothing without meat to move them
and give them life. For Sozen-sensei, the "meat" of Katori Shinto Ryu’s
two-person kata is the interchange between the two swordsmen, the
energy that flows between them and transforms these ancient patterns
into something alive and thrilling.
When swords cross,
as they often do in the Katori kata, there must be energy in that
contact. Not violence, or brute strength, but a sort of
“communication”, which requires presence on the part of the
practitioners. When one acts, the other must react. Without thought or
premeditation; just as the natural flow of the energy in the movements.
A cut downwards is met by a block in ko-gasumi
. The blades
press against one another, and when uke-tachi
breaks the contact and raises the weapon to strike, kiri-komi’s
(the attacker) sword naturally bounces up in response from the release
of pressure, exposing the left side for uke-tachi
to cut do-giri
reaction, the opening is not provided for
to exploit. And part of the wisdom of Katori is
found in that no effort is made by kiri-komi
to block the
opening; it MUST happen. But knowing that it must happen enables kiri-komi
to survive and even take advantage of the opening.
Katori is an endless spiral formed by two figures opening and
anticipating and re-opening. There is no end to its depths, no point at
which a swordsman can sigh in contentment and say, "That's it, I'm
I also saw “meat
and bones” when I witnessed Sozen-sensei entertaining questions from
the audience. Watching Sozen-sensei handle difficult questions and
alternative theories on the interpretation of the kata made it clear
how much richness Katori can truly express. When so confronted, he in
his uniquely Zen Buddhist way welcomed all theories, never shutting
down any possibility.
"That's fun. Yes. That's very interesting."
He responded with energy and an honest presence to all incoming
challenges. His natural flow brought all possibilities back to the
center of all practice.
"Here's how I was taught. Here's what I was shown."
When two minds meet, the individuals can focus on the bones of their
communication -- ensuring that all the formalities are met, that a
veneer of politeness is maintained -- and still experience no meat in
It is only when the meat is engaged, when there is true presence in
those minds, that an energizing, transforming interaction and a real
understanding can take place.
Ten years ago, Sozen-sensei gave me a beautiful painting of the
" -- "No Mind". I finally got around to
framing it this summer, and he gave me a new one, with the character "ken
-- "Sword". I know there is a reason he gave it to me. Perhaps The
Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts might provide a clue to the reasons
why he gave it to me:
"Swordsmanship is also like this. Facing your opponent,
you forget about life, forget about death, forget about your opponent,
and forget about yourself. Your thoughts do not move and you create no
intentions. When you are in a state of No-Mind and leave everything to
your natural perceptions, metamorphosis and change will be conducted
with absolute freedom, and practical application will have no
Witnessing Sozen-sensei handle questions and challenges was witnessing
the same "meat" that his practice with the katana demonstrated. He
offers the possibility of communication beyond the mere bones of
politeness. His honest presence and accepting nature make conversation
a source of transformation. It is a true communication, if only those
of us on the other side can respond in like fashion.
Thank you, Sozen-sensei, for the sword and for No-Mind. For a wonderful
weekend and the good times. For the joy of practice and the words of