Date: August 15th-23rd, 2000
Instructor: John Isaacs
Organization: International Kendo Federation
Club name: Ken Shin Kai
Location: Brisbane, Queensland“You can’t learn martial arts from books or videos.” Monstrous, chaotic debates have raged from this statement. Most martial artists believe this to be true. Others don’t necessarily agree with the statement on it’s own, but strongly believe a lot can be learned from books and videos. In-between the two are those people who believe books and videos can act as excellent reference guides for those who have or once had a proper martial arts instructor.
John Isaacs has practiced Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido with the Australian Kendo Federation for over 16 years now. John initially began his Iaido career with another Australian who once lived and trained in Japan for three years. After a short period of learning Iaido under this man's tutelage they separated, rather, the man moved.
That was when John had to use books and videos to continue to learn the curriculum of Eishin Iaido. Of course John was assisted by the once a year visits from Japanese contingents of Iaido teachers, but by and large the man's Iaido has been, for more than ten years, self-taught.
"How could watching videos teach a man a series of forms like the inner techniques of Okuden? Where is the 'transmission' of Iaido between student and teacher? I bet his Iaido is empty."
Quite the contrary, despite his own unique interpretations of certain sections of the forms, John’s got a very focused, powerful, and technically sound Seitei Iaido. I know little of the Eishin Iaido, but looking at John and another local instructor fourth dan David Kolb, also an Eishin practitioner, convincingly led me to believe that John’s Eishin forms are just as good as his Seitei: Not bad for a guy without a teacher for the last decade.
Besides, John’s a very motivated, charismatic teacher who pushes a serious amount of detail on himself and his students. When John instructs it’s with a sincere and passionate desire to improve. Along with his charisma there’s energy in his pursuits. That energy is much more channeled than it once may have been, John admits. In the past John’s energy, motivation, and concern sometimes got ahead of himself, leading him to hot waters with his peers. On the other hand, passion has made John a proficient Iaidoka: passion is needed to learn from books and videos.
John’s outlook in life, which includes his approach to Iaido as well, is without a doubt unique.
The new age psychologist Iaido facilitator
In short, John views life from the perspective of the new age movement. Words like chakra, astrophysics, reincarnation and metaphysics are part of John's everyday vocabulary. According to John, people live and act in their lives through vital sources of life energy. This energy works through a series of 'chakra', (a Sanskrit word for wheel). The chakras are spinning vortexes of energy within the body.
“They are (chakra) centers of force, located within the etheric body, through which we receive, transmit and process life energies. There are seven chakras throughout the body, each one serving different functions, and having their own colour bandwidth. A colour bandwidth represents a different function of life energy.”
John likes purple because it is the 'third eye' or 'eye of the mind' chakra. This chakra is located between and slightly above the eyes. John claims that the third eye chakra is ‘in touch with the universe and the higher self.’ John’s club--the Kenshinkai, has a purple background on the tenugui (head wrap used in Kendo).
The psychology part of John’s approach to training involves dealing with personal issues in one’s life. John believes that through training, people have to see who they really are. When people see who they really are, they’re forced to deal with past problems that have never been resolved or healed. John notices that when his students reach a critical point in training--where they can see themselves, they become too afraid of what they see and end up leaving the club. John’s role involves trying to read problems his students may be facing, and then get them to deal with those issues.
John believes in plenty of positive reinforcement, but he is demanding.
“Sometimes I push people too far because I’ve read into their problems accurately. An obstacle to successful training are the self-protection measures people create to block their true selves from coming out. The resulting personal defenses are critical factors in a person’s ability to successfully train in Iaido and Kendo.”
The core essence of proper training, according to John, is getting to the root of oneself and the student.
I asked John what Iaido can do for people.
“Iaido helps people to locate their center and maintain that connection with their center. In doing so one is also in 'connection' with the universe. This relates to the meaning of Iaido, which is the relation to one's surroundings. Through Iaido training one learns to direct the energy from the center to deal with different situations in the most effective and efficient manner.”
Iaido can be seen as the working analogy for dealing with circumstances that come up in everyday life. Ultimately John sees Iaido as the road to Pacifism. In learning how to deal with the enemy in Iaido one learns how to deal with the real, but not so tangible enemies in our lives, by stopping them before they start.
Spending time at John's house and sharing ideas with him brought many of his thoughts to the open. He admits that he doesn’t normally bring these concepts to his students until long after they’ve been training, and a certain amount of trust has been built. But when John teaches he gives plenty of hints at his new age outlook. He talks well about the importance of the 'hara' in Iaido training, along with sprinkles of his belief in 'center' and 'energy' in the chakras.
Let’s learn more about John Isaacs from his interview…
How long have you been doing Iaido?
I have been training in Iaido for about 15 years. Only Seitei for the first 3 or so and then began koryu with Greg Mapstone.
What made you start Iaido? Why did you start Iaido?
I had been studying Kendo for a few years and watched Doug Milton practicing Iaido. After discussing Iaido with Doug it became immediately apparent to me that the two arts complimented each other. Doug should really be credited with starting Iaido in Australia. He did a great deal in the early days to promote the art with emphasis on Seitei.
How did you initially train in Iaido?
Initially, I did a few sparse sessions with Doug Milton. I purchased Draeger’s book very early on and basically worked from it. It still is a good guide to Seitei and gives a concise history of Iaido. When Greg Mapstone returned from approximately 3 years intensive training in Japan, he came into our Dojo one night to sell some kendo bogu. I struck up a conversation with him and we have trained together and become good friends ever since. This was approximately 12 years ago and it was Greg who introduced me to koryu, in particular, Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu. Greg trained with Hata Sensei from the Shimpukai in Osaka. His knowledge and understanding of Iaido and Japanese swords is very impressive. I was indeed fortunate to have befriended such an individual.
Have you done other arts before/during Iaido?
My martial arts experience began with Rembukan Karate for a very short time. At that stage I was a big Bruce Lee fan so I turned my attention to Kung Fu. It was during my University years that I first saw Kendo and I immediately took to it. I believe very strongly that kendo compliments other martial arts very well in that it teaches us about ma-ai and Zanshin. When I use the term Kendo I do not separate it from Iaido - to me they are the modern manifestation of Japanese swordsmanship. After all, kendo means the way of the sword not the way of the shinai.
What is your training / teaching approach to Iaido?
My approach has always been to be an intermediary between the students and real Sensei who have much greater depth of knowledge and understanding than I. I understand that my role is one of guidance and to that end I try to be the best guide I can be. This helps me to excel in my own training, as I am the main role model for my students until they have an opportunity to seek out true teachers. My focus is on the small things as much as the broader picture. I try to instill in the students a feeling for the way in which energy flows through them in the context of the kata experience. We try to vary our training so that there is opportunity for structured learning as well as free practice. We also try to include tameshigiri, although this has not happened in recent times due to the shortage of cutting blades. I think it is important to experience the feeling of actually cutting something to appreciate what it means to have a "real" target in front of you. This is the great benifit of kendo for Iaidoka. Ma-ai is a figment of one's imagination in Iaido training alone. Kendo and tameshigiri allow one to practice and experience ma-ai and its ever-changing nature.
Who have been your Iaido instructors?
Doug Milton was my first Iaido teacher. Greg Mapstone has had the greatest influence on me. Apart from that, I have had little direct teaching from Japanese Sensei. I have had infrequent but nonetheless important, opportunities to practice with some Sensei. Our Dojo has a history of training with Daikenkyo in Osaka and probably this group has had a significant impact on what we do. However, I have not spent large amounts of time there or specifically with any particular Sensei. This is a double-edged sword in that, on the one hand I have not had the wonderful opportunity that you have had in training with the best and highest Sensei. On the other hand, this has forced me to be very critical about my technique and look behind it always to understand the application. I remember that Nakakura Sensei once said that I was lucky in this regard as I could look at many Sensei and different styles and develop from a multitude of influences. Sometimes when a teacher heavily influences one there is a risk of simply being a clone of that person. It matters not how great a practitioner that Sensei is if you are only a parrot. That is why I admire the journey you have undertaken to broaden your knowledge base being open to differing viewpoints.
Where did you grade and what grade are you now?
I am currently 3rd Dan which was obtained in Australia last year. I received 2nd Dan at the World Kendo Championships in Toronto in 1991. I have not specifically gone out of my way to advance in grades. This has been as much because my resources have not permitted it as that it has never been a high priority for me. The most important thing for me is to be sincere in my studies and ensure that what I am practicing and teaching is valid and honest. I hope that I am on the right path in this regard.
What can Iaido offer to people?
To quote one of the great martial artists of our time, Morihei Ueshiba founder of Aikido said, "Misogi is practice of developing one’s true spirit. What is this true spirit? The Sword, a divine gift to man which is unblemished by the events of material existence. Misogi is necessary to enable one to return to the beautiful spirit which is innate in man and thus experience ones true self." Iaido is a means of developing self-awareness. It is a practical method in understanding the way in which energy flows. It teaches us how to become aware of our center and then how to maintain a continuing connection to the life force, which is our ki. To me, no other endeavour is as important. The understanding of self should be a priority in our troubled times. Particularly when one uses a shinken, one feels the life force flowing. Iaido is a road to peace through understanding our true nature. It is the nature of humans to generate conflict. When one understands how to take life, one can decide not to exercise such a skill. This must be the ultimate in self-control. The highest goal of Iaido is to defeat the opponent without drawing the sword. Surely this is the best analogy for all of life's conflicts.
What's the most important thing about doing Iaido?
Center. Find it and stay in it. It is through the maintenance of center that all Iaido happens. Iaido is the harmonious connection with ones surroundings. By definition this must be continuous as any break represents a suki through which the enemy may enter. After this, all else operates from a multi-dimensional perspective. All points are important and require appropriate study. Each point in Iaido contains as much depth as one cares to consider. All points are inter-related and therefore equally important. Every session I find I realize something that was not apparent before. One can never understand it all; therefore no one point is more important than anything else. The common theme running through everything is center.
What is the current purpose of Iaido? What are your purposes for doing Iaido?
Iaido has a place in modern society as it allows us to experience our true nature. Some may call that nature barbarian but that is human nature - it is barbaric. Iaido lets us get in touch with this aspect of ourselves rather than try to pretend it doesn't exist. By getting in touch with it we know ourselves. From this point we can then move on and upwards. It is a starting to point on the road to enlightenment. That is why I practice Iaido - to try to understand what it is that makes me who I am.
What is the connection between the new age philosophy you hold and Iaido as you instruct it?
The center of our being is our hara. This is the second chakra in reference to the seven main energy centers in the body. This energy center is the distribution point for our ki, or life force. This ki enters our body through our skin and specific centers and flow directly to the hara. It is from here that it is then re-directed throughout the body as and when it is required. Iaido teaches us firstly how to find and maintain our center. It then shows us how to direct the energy flow to achieve a specific result. We actually direct the flow of energy outside our body to affect something or someone else. Once this situation has been dealt with, we then bring the flow of energy back into the body and re-connect our natural harmonious flow with the Universe. Continuous connection in this manner is the road to inner peace and spiritual enlightenment. This is what Ueshiba Sensei was refering to. The sword is a direct connection with a higher spiritual plane however you look at it. I try to bring these concepts into our study of Iaido and Kendo in a non-confrontational manner. I realize that these issues are very contentious and open to wide debate. Far be it from me to force my views on others. I merely propose them to open students up to different viewpoints that they might not otherwise consider or in fact be exposed to at all. At times in the past I have dived in a bit too deep in these areas, which made people uneasy. The study of sword forces people to look in the mirror. Many find this process too difficult and confronting and one needs to be careful and very discerning as to how far to take a discussion of this nature. However, being the personality I am, I figure it can't do any harm to bring it in from time to time to keep them thinking. I believe that is why people are attracted to these arts in the first place, because they have reached a point where they need to look at these issues. Some are more ready than others as is the nature of this experience. The beauty of kendo is that it works on this level regardless of any actual discussion of the process involved. This seems to me to be the reason why many people give up their kendo and Iaido studies - that at some point they begin to truly see their real reflection in the mirror and it scares them deeply. If one accepts this as a natural effect and one considers it to be a high goal in life, one cannot go past the wonderful learning opportunity that the study of the Japanese sword arts represents.
“Chris, I have enjoyed meeting you and having had the opportunity to share some life with you. I commend you on this important journey and hope that you inspire many others to likewise explore their human nature.”
Yours sincerely,John Isaacs
Thanks John! It was wonderful meeting you and the crew at the Ken shin kai
More of Chris’s writings can be found on his website http://www.geocities.com/iaigilham/