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Archive for the ‘Kendo Philosophy’ Category

Matsumoto sensei copyI practice regularly with people who are training to achieve 4th, 5th and 6th dan and I am often asked for my opinion on what they need to change to effectively make the step up. Most of these students can demonstrate good technique and footwork and given clear opportunities can make effective waza. Often though the element they need to work-on is more internal than external.

Nearly all kenshi are familiar with the term kamae, meaning posture. Fewer of us are aware of ki-gamae, which the ZNKR’s kendo dictionary describes as “the state where one’s whole body is alert and ready to react to the moves of the opponent’s body and mind that precede a strike”.  Whilst this may sound unnecessarily complicated as a concept, in reality it is simple. A cat looking for the best opportunity to pounce on a mouse does not intellectualize the process; she just strains every sense to find the perfect opportunity to attack.

Ki-gamae is a state of being both calm and settled and having a heightened perception of your opponent’s intention, and being in a position where you can strike in an instant. We can’t achieve this by strength of mind alone. We need to have good footwork, constantly bringing the left foot up to the correct position as we move forward, and even more importantly we should have the ability to control our breathing so that we are able to exhale at the point of attack.

We have discussed this before, but the general outline is that we breathe in through the nose and hold our breath by tensing the abdomen. We then expel part of the air as kakegoe and then use the remainder of that breath to explode on making the strike. If the opportunity to attack is not instant we need to retain the breath until we see the chance to strike (tame).

Obviously ki-gamae is not reserved for grading examinations and shiai, we should be in this state of awareness every time we visit the dojo and in each keiko from the opening to the closing rei. By keiko I also mean kihon-geiko, so every drill should be undertaken with full spirit. In this way we make strong ki-gamae an integral part of our kendo. Given enough practice ki-gamae and ki-zeme move from being terms in the kendo dictionary and become as natural to us as they would to the cat looking for dinner.

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Samurai with scrollI am always grateful to the people who take the time and trouble to send in comments to this blog. I am also impressed by the level of knowledge and insight shown by these contributors from around the globe. No matter how esoteric the area of kendo covered there is always someone happy to share their insight.

This perhaps sounds slightly ungrateful and churlish, but sometimes I briefly wonder “are you talking from knowledge picked up from books and YouTube, or are you able to perform this technique or demonstrate this concept on a physical level?”

Kendo is different from many other martial arts in that we can continue to train for most of our lives and we can spend much of that time gaining a deeper knowledge of kendo techniques. Most people would agree that true knowledge is based on your own repeated practise so that a technique becomes second nature. At the same time you need to understand the purpose or “riai” of each technique on an intellectual or even philosophical level.

In my youth kendo instruction was  very much a “monkey see, monkey do” affair based on demonstration and repetition, only after you had trained for a considerable amount of time would  your teacher think about buying you a beer in your “second dojo” and explaining the rationale behind the aspects of kendo that you had been working on.

Now days with the proliferation of English language books, blogs and videos on the internet, we almost suffer from information overload. For some reason kendo tends to appeal to bright, educated, intellectually curious people. Many of these students are able to quickly understand the finer points of kendo without necessarily being able to perform them. Perfect examples are the concepts of kigamae  and kizeme. You can read about these endlessly, but only when you have developed your kendo posture, breathing and attacking spirit to the required level can you demonstrate them.

In kendo we talk about bunbu no ichi or bunbu ryodo, “pen and sword as one”. This was a maxim that urged the samurai to become cultured human beings by making the most of formal education as well as studying the arts of war. For the modern kenshi  who has 24/7 online access to the worlds knowledge, it is perhaps easier to search for the answers to questions on theory than it is to ingrain the physical elements of correct kendo. As ever this is nothing that can’t be corrected by a significant amount of kihon geiko

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Musha-shugyoAldqueiroz made an interesting comment on my recent post on refereeing, “Article 12”. In essence he said that if a player dodges or moves the angle of his head to avoid a legitimate strike, then the strike should (at least in spirit) count as ippon. As I mentioned in my brief reply, I have heard this from senior sensei at various seminars, but never seen it applied in major shiai. Nor have I been instructed to take these unfair misses into account when refereeing. The rule that the correct part of the shinai should strike the correct part of the bogu invariably stands.

Dodging is just one element of the behaviour demonstrated by kenshi who are afraid to lose. Blocking strikes to the men with the shinai above the head or using more normal blocks without the intention of responding are other examples of the same behaviour.

I have frequently heard members of various dojo and kendo associations say that they practice “traditional kendo”  by which they mean that they face their opponent in the spirit of “life or death”, “kill or be killed”, with no compromise made to winning or losing shiai. I know some kenshi who will not take part in shiai because the feel that the focus beating their opponent will detract from their shugyo.

To turn this argument on its head, shiai is the nearest experience we can have in kendo to a life or death situation,  that is of course unless you are a psychopath. The challenge is having the strength of mind to face your opponent with the correct posture and attitude. This is often summed up in Japanese as “utte hansei utarete kanshya”, (reflection on hitting, gratitude on being hit).

That some people will try to bend the rules does not detract from the fact that the ZNKR constantly reinforces the message that “The concept of kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana”. This is evident through most of the official instruction material and some of the questions in the Japanese Kyoshi exam.

Kendo has gone through numerous changess, from the art of war, to a zen discipline to a form of entertainment and as it stands today an educational sport that is meant to aid physical, mental and moral development. Whether it was always viewed as wrong to duck, I couldn’t say, but if we were back in the sengoku period and someone was running at me with three foot of razor sharp sword, I might be tempted to move my head to the side.

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zen monks2One of the few times I witnessed a Japanese kendo teacher lose his temper was when he was told by a local kendo instructor that “I do kendo for other people”.  The general thrust of his response was that kendo is a shugyo, a way to hone your own mind and body through hard keiko, so regardless of whether you are involved in teaching, refereeing or running a dojo or federation, you should first and foremost focus on your own kendo journey.

This may sound like a very self-centred approach, but essentially kendo is all about the self, or if you want to be specific, supressing it. Kendo is introspective. We train to develop to a level where action becomes instinctive, but to get there you have to think about it. The only person who can change you is you. At the same time we need others as training partners and opponents. The sheer unpredictability of other human beings makes kendo both interesting and challenging.

The chance to test ourselves in keiko is not all we expect from our dojo mates. We offer each other support and encouragement. More experienced kenshi pass on their knowledge to junior members and we work together to improve our technique. Even for the most senior practitioners teaching and learning should be a two way street.

As an example, when receiving kakarigeiko, if you put the same amount of focus into creating the attacking opportunities as your partner needs to respond to them, you both gain the same level of benefit from the process. In hikitate-geiko we should strive to take the first point or shodachi whatever the grade difference. Only after establishing control should we offer points to the student and even when doing so we should work on our own seme.

Unlike many sports that have an “if you can you play, if you can’t you coach” ethos, we expect people to continue to be involved in every aspect throughout their active lives. As a result some of the great competitors have gone on to be amongst the best teachers and continue to prove themselves in the All Japan 8th dan Championships and the Kyoto Taikai.

Whilst we focus on our own kendo, we do it together and friends made through hard training continue to be friends for life. So although we each follow our own path, we need those paths to regularly cross with the paths of others.

Best wishes to you all for 2016.

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inoue-yoshihikoI was asked by Kendo World magazine for a few words to sum up the obituary I wrote for Terry Holt-sensei that will appear in the next issue together with obituaries for Inoue Yoshihiko-sensei, Mochizuki Teruo-sensei. Thinking about my summary and reading the words already written for the other two sensei made me reflect on what we gain from a lifetime of kendo practice.

Inoue sensei would have made the point far more eloquently, but to my mind kendo is the path to becoming a complete human being –to learn to accept others with all their idiosyncrasies through our contact in keiko. By imposing mental and physical discipline on ourselves through constant hard training we learn about our own limits and weaknesses and start to empathise with others who are facing the same challenges

Nearly all of the strong kendo teachers who I have met during my 47 year kendo career are friendly, likeable, self-effacing and big hearted. Whether these characteristics are built on the true confidence that comes from developing a skill to a superior level or whether it is a matter of them being aware of their own inadequacies is open to conjecture.

Our keiko is a barometer of our state of mind at any given moment. If we are nervous, we rush and attack at the wrong time. If we are over confident we rest on your laurels and leave ourselves open to attack. Our objective is to develop a still mind that reacts in real-time to changing circumstances. If we can do this we are not being controlled by others, but allow ourselves the luxury of taking charge of our own actions.

Perhaps this is why kendo is so addictive and why many of us keep training to the end of our lives. If we can achieve this mental balance then it is much easier to take a benevolent view of your fellow men, inside and outside kendo.

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HeijyoshinChris Meyer from Thailand sent me a question on Facebook about the four sicknesses of kendo as the answer is required for the written test of his coming yondan examination. He asks:

“It would be really appreciated if you could elaborate on each of the sickness, their consequences, and in overcoming them, the difference between Mushin and Heijoshin? They seem rather contradictory, the presence of mind and absence of thought, yet both I think could be the fix for shikai.”

I am sure Chris has asked because his intellectual curiosity has been roused and not because he wants an answer to cut and paste, so I will try my best.

“Shikai”, “the four sicknesses”,” kyo-ku-gi-waku”, “surprise, fear, doubt and hesitation” are terms that we often hear in kendo, yet as far as I know, there are very no in-depth explanations available in English. This is therefore my own guess at how these emotions might affect our kendo and there are numerous other scenarios that are equally valid

Taking them one by one: –

  • Surprise will happen when someone breaks your mental composure or kamae or both. If an opponent makes strong seme, either physically, or by showing a strong attacking spirit (kizeme), then you will be off-guard and they will have an opportunity to strike. An unexpected technique such as a katsugi waza may have the same effect.
  • Fear – The obvious example is when you are drawn against someone in shiai who is either significantly higher grade or who has a serious record of success in major competition. If you are conscious of their superiority then you are as much defeated by your own fear as by the stronger opponent. Another example is if you frightened of losing, all your time will be spent on avoiding being hit and you will miss the chance to strike.
  • Doubt – is perhaps the other side of the coin, if you are unsure of your ability or the effectiveness of your technique, then there is a tendency to not commit to an attack. Unless an attack is made with “full spirit” it is doomed to failure, therefore doubt has to be suspended.
  • Hesitation too is about lack of commitment. If when you see a chance, you stop to think about the merits of attacking or not, the moment will have passed.

The antidote is usually given as heijoshin which is often translated as “normal mind”, but it can be read as calm, constant mind, or unfettered mind. This does not mean clear of conscious thought as in mushin, which typifies the moment when you make a perfect strike without knowing that you have done so. Heijoshin means that your mind should run smoothly without fixating on your thoughts, therefore allowing you to react naturally to circumstances in the keiko or shiai as they occur.

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confuciusWhilst it is hard to equal the feel of a book, Kindle has many features that add to the convenience of modern life. It’s open 24/7 and if you don’t know what you want to read, a cunning algorithm will make suggestions based on the stuff you bought last. In this way I was told that I would like to read a book titled “Modern Bushido” by Dr Bohdi Sanders, an alternative therapist and student of Shotokan karate. In this book Dr Sanders attempts to parallel Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido, by explaining how the modern warrior can live the life of a “superior man” by adopting the principles of the martial arts. He quotes the virtues of rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. Not far from the Confucian values “jin, gi, rei, chi, shin – makoto” (benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, faith and sincerity), expressed  by the pleats of the kendo hakama. He goes on to say that there are some 30 principles that the modern bushi should live by. The emphasis of this book is that we should lead a consciously considered life based on analysis of what we do compared to the values of the samurai. I commend the writer for drawing peoples’ attention to the values of the martial arts, but wonder if this level of introspection serves a purpose. In my own simplistic view, which is based on absolutely no scientific evidence, we take our core values from our parents and education and the rest of our character is forged by experience in and outside of the dojo. It is hard to learn courage by thinking about it, on the other hand regularly forcing yourself to go past the pain barrier in kakarigeiko adds to your store of fortitude. In the same way we learn to relate honestly with people through our keiko without having to consciously think about it. In our kendo practise we strive to achieve munen muso, the state of no intention, no thought. This condition is also referred to as the “unfettered mind” where worries and attachments are banished so that you can respond instantly and instinctively to changing situations. Some of the nicest people that I have met in kendo are the least philosophical; they take pleasure in their keiko and in helping others, but seldom get involved in discussing character, reinforcing the saying that “it is not what you say, it’s what you do that counts”. So rather than add to my library I will stick to the idea of doing my best in the dojo and try to follow the examples of these very positive role models.

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ChristineAs a lifelong kendoist  I am guilty of thinking that our philosophy is unique. I started to question this the other day when my wife pointed out an article that she was reading about the Olympic athlete Christine Ohuruogu in a women’s magazine. Christine made the point that she tries to “maintain humility through successes and dignity through failures”. This reminded me of the kendo adage “Utte hansei utarete kanshya” – reflect on your successful strikes, show gratitude for the strikes against you.

Curiosity prompted me to look at what other sportspeople had said about success and failure and I found that I was spoilt for choice. Here are just a few relevant quotes. You may have to substitute kendo for the named sport, but I think that most of these quotes have relevance to the way we think about our keiko:

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed”. –Michael Jordan


“To me, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Sport is all about playing and competing. Whatever you do in cricket and in sport, enjoy it, be positive and try to win.” –Ian Botham


“Tennis is a perfect combination of violent action taking place in an atmosphere of total tranquillity.” –Billie Jean King

“The hardest skill to acquire in this sport is the one where you compete all out, give it all you have, and you are still getting beat no matter what you do. When you have the killer instinct to fight through that, it is very special.”Eddie Reese

“Always have the situation under control, even if losing. Never betray an inward sense of defeat.” Arthur Ashe

If you can react the same way to winning and losing, that’s a big accomplishment. That quality is important because it stays with you the rest of your life.”  – Chris Evert-Lloyd

What I believe sets kendo apart from sport is that It’s not about scoring points for fame or money but more about using our efforts to make ourselves the best we can be. It is often been said that kendo should be approached with a feeling of “life or death”, taking us back to the “concept of the katana” and I wholly agree with this, but at the same time we can still benefit from the wise words of others outside the world of budo.

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winter reflectionsYedsterday’s keiko at Mumeishi  dojo seemed to have a very  thoughtful reflective feel to it. We did nothing different from the usual kihon geiko and jigeiko routine, but as you might expect from the last session of the year, people were thinking about the improvements made over the last twelve months and starting to set objectives for 2016.

For some of our members this is going to be a momentous year. The UK Kendo squad are about to announce the selection of the athletes who will be going to Tokyo for the 16WKC and I can imagine that this process is happening, or has just happened in dojo throughout the kendo world, so there are a lot of proud kenshi with a big job and a tough training programme ahead of them. For others there is the equally big challenge in just making the changes required to continue on their upward path as they follow the sugyo of kendo.

Some of us who are at the senior end of the kendo age range will be putting thought into how we change our kendo to maximise on our experience and strength of mind whilst compensating for a weakening body. It is also the time of year when thought turn to kendo friends who are no longer able to train through illness or infirmity.

The Japanese term “keiko” implies that we train reflecting on the wisdom of past generations, so there is nothing unusual in this self-searching. The year-end however and for some, the increased time to sit quietly and think magnify the opportunity to reflect on our place in the kendo universe.

On a personal level I am doing all of the things that I mentioned. Looking forward to meeting kendo friends from around the world in Tokyo next May and planning how in the short time available to make sure that I am the best I can be both as a kendoka and a referee.

However before I become too thoughtful and introspective there is still the chance to do some more kendo before the New Year.  Sanshukan, my local dojo in Camberley will be open from 8.30 p.m. this coming Tuesday and the following Tuesday, so I can avoid the usual holiday kendo withdrawal. If you are within travelling distance and have  a spare evening come and join us. On the other hand if I don’t see you before, have a great Christmas.

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Courtesy of Eurokendo

Courtesy of Eurokendo

I was asked for my thoughts on how best to influence the future development of British kendo and came to one simple conclusion – ensure that our dojo leaders are equipped to pass on practical and theoretical knowledge to their students.

Traditionally the transmission of kendo knowledge is from teacher to disciple. A novice would seek out a master and place himself completely in his care. Usually no outside influence would cloud the relationship until the student had grown into a capable swordsman; in effect completing the shu stage of shu-ha-ri.

Such an important relationship was based on mutual trust and kendo history is peppered with stories of would be deshi waiting for days outside dojo doors or being made to undertake months of menial tasks before picking up a sword. In return the teacher was expected to know all there was to know about the practice and philosophy of kendo.

Today’s reality is very different. Newbies can join “taster” classes at their local sports centre or sign up for kendo amongst a list of other activities at “freshers” when they start at university. The chances are that the leader of these classes may also be at a relatively early stage in his or her kendo career, so it is a matter of learning together. Come to think of it, some of the great Hanshi confess that “teaching is learning”, but back to the point, it is not unusual for dojo leaders outside Japan to need occasional help in filling gaps in their own knowledge to enable them to give the best to their students.

The syllabus for the ZNKR’s Kyoshi examination concentrates on transmitting correct basic technique information through shinai keiko, kata and the bokken ni yoru keikoho. It also focuses on correct reiho and attitude and most importantly talks about the instructor as a role model. I have been particularly privileged to have studied with several senior teachers who have influenced not just my kendo but how I want to live my life, but very few of us can even hope to emulate such positive influencers. Instead we have to do our best with what we have.

It is said that you can identify an instructor through his student’s mistakes, so it is important that as instructors we continue to seek knowledge and develop our own kendo. Of course we can brush up on theory with books and on-line resources, but to improve technically and to really understand how the philosophical elements of kendo connect with the physical we need to find our own teacher. Few of us can put our lives on hold while we travel “to sit at the feet of a master”, but we can attend seminars or invite teachers to visit our dojo.

For students and teachers alike kendo is nothing without continual learning.

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