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Lessons of the Sword
Lessons of the Sword
by Ross Robertson
Lessons of the Sword

Last night I was teaching my class at the University, trying once again to convey the experience of non-doing. As usual, I encouraged the persistence of uke in attacking, and as usual, I encouraged the persistence of tori in not throwing. Just surf the energy. As usual, people were getting decent results, but clearly not grokking in fullness.

So I decided to turn to the sword, something I don't do very often in these classes. I took the group through three exercises which illustrate three of the main principles of swordplay bequeathed to us by the late Rod Kobayashi Sensei, founder of Seidokan Aikido.

Kobayashi's weapons approach is very different from what I've typically seen in other aikido systems. He emphasized a very close-quarters style of engagement. With the bokken, the elbows rarely straighten fully, rarely ever stray from close to the ribs. In an overhead guard, the hands stay close to the head. Cuts and thrusts are done mostly with the body, and not with the arms. On the occasions where the arms might be more fully extended, the body quickly moves so the elbows can again relax, the sword not being so much wielded as cradled. Moving the body in thusly keeps the tip extended without retreat or opening -- unless such is tactically desirable.

Lesson One illustrates this. I asked students to experiment thrusting with arms fully extended, and then thrusting with the body while keeping the sword well-cradled. I encouraged their partners to parry with arms extended and then with arms cradled. Once fully extended, there is very little for the arms to do except retract. From the fully extended position, it's harder to follow up with a whole-body advance. By advancing with the body first, it is then quite easy to fully extend the arms if necessary.

Kobayashi Sensei would explain:

"Always keep something in reserve."

For Lesson Two, I chose a simple kumi-tachi. Defending from a committed shomen-giri, tori slides to the attacker's right side and deploys an overhead guard. The blade is positioned such that uke will cut their own forearms on tori's blade if they continue their strike. Rather than allow this, tori steps in with the left foot and swings the bokken through with the motion of a reverse yokomen-giri (or, for the pedantic among us, "yokomen-uchi," since the bokken cannot actually cut.) The blade of the sword comes to rest alongside uke's right jugular.

Kobayashi Sensei was a great proponent of the idea of katsujin-ken, or "life-giving sword." Katsujin-ken is one expression of banyu-aigo no seishin, or "the spirit of loving protection for all things." Kobayashi's voice echoes clearly in my mind:

"Any time, I can kill him. But because I can kill him, I don't have to."

The idea is to maintain control of the situation at all times, and to preserve a full range of options. Having a full range of options frees us to choose the wisest course.

Lesson Three illustrated two approaches to a yokomen attack. The first is to use your sword to block your opponent's. Although this can work, it may clearly be shown that the energy you put into the block can easily be used by your opponent to hit you with reverse yokomen. A simpler, more direct approach is to step in and point the tip of your blade at the attacker's throat. If the timing and distance is proper, then the attack will be checked.

Time and again, Sensei would tell us "Do not fight weapon against weapon." Instead, control that which controls the weapon.

In all cases, we see an element of restraint. "Restraint" is perhaps the wrong word, since the practice is liberating rather than restrictive. Rather, we seek potency well-managed and never wasted. When applied to taijutsu (empty-handed encounters), the value should be clear.

Although we engage the world with our hands and arms, they should continually keep returning to their lowest energy state. Hands should keep relaxing into their "pocket zones." Elbows should stay near the ribcage whenever possible. From these positions, one can always extend. But once fully extended, we can only retract, and this will often open us to vulnerabilities. Faced with the choice of moving our body versus moving our arms, it's almost always better to move the body. Doing so allows us to "always keep something in reserve."

The discipline of non-doing aikido means that we should practice not throwing, not locking joints, not breaking balance, not choking, not sweeping, not striking, and not necessarily even leading. All this, while still preserving our own safety and functionality and freedom. This can be terrifically difficult for those who have cultivated many years of dependence on standard forms of technique. However, it's essential to remember that we are not really giving up on all these things, we are simply freeing ourselves from the reliance and fixation on them. In generalizing Lesson Two, we should be able to confidently say "Any time I can. But because I can, I don't have to.

This segues very nicely into Lesson Three. If for example, you use your arm to do ikkyo to your partner's arm, it is the same as "fighting weapon against weapon." Even if you do it smoothly and skillfully, you are using your arm to manipulate theirs. This has its place, but is not part of the non-doing of aikido which I like to emphasize. Rather, put yourself in the assailant's place. What action might they take that would cause them to put their own arm in a pronated, ikkyo-like position? Now, as tori, simply notice the many times this occurs. If they are connected to your body, simply keep moving your body toward the empty places. Quite often, ikkyo will occur entirely of its own accord. When this is so, there is no need for you to do it. With some study, you can notice the postures and positions that you adopt that might induce uke to self-ikkyo. This can be extremely useful, right up until you fixate upon it as a prize.

You can try to control the opponent's weapon, or you can control that which holds the weapon. Better, you can control that which controls the controller. And the thing that most determines the action of attack is the placement of the target in space and time. As target, you have distributed influence of all elements in the system, if you can remember to operate from the proper locus.

Of course, Kobayashi Sensei had many other exercises and lessons. Not just of the sword, but also of staff, knife, body, mind, and energy. Many of these related directly to the doing of aikido. Although I find it particularly useful to highlight the non-doing of aikido, each is necessary in a complete and balanced practice.

There is the old saying from Japanese warrior schools: "A sword in the scabbard is a jewel beyond compare." This has multiple layers of meaning and interpretation (including a delightfully Freudian one). To a young initiate, it probably signifies the glimmer of power over life and death. To a seasoned veteran, it likely means that such power is best when sparingly deployed and wisely reserved.

We can, and should do aikido. We should diligently practice its techniques and forms. At the same time, we should not do aikido. However sparkly and lovely and valuable this rare jewel, it is cut and polished and set within a fitting of preservation and tasteful understatement.

As with peace, as with love, as with beauty, aikido flourishes as an emergent property of organic balance and right integration. Each of these things can be manufactured, fabricated, synthesized, and there is no better occupation. Yet the wisest craftsmen, like the wisest warriors, observe the way of nature, and let natural processes teach the path to best outcomes.

August 31, 2011
Ross Robertson
Still Point Aikido Systems
Honmatsu Aikido
Austin TX, USA

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Old 09-23-2011, 07:21 PM   #2
Dojo: Aiki Shoshinkan, Aiki Kenkyukai
Join Date: Oct 2001
Posts: 813
Re: Lessons of the Sword

Nice. Essentially expounding from 1. Move using center. 2. Control uke's centerline. Don't you think?

Draw strength from stillness. Learn to act without acting. And never underestimate a samurai cat.
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Old 09-23-2011, 07:48 PM   #3
graham christian
Dojo: golden center aikido-highgate
Location: london
Join Date: Oct 2010
Posts: 2,697
Re: Lessons of the Sword

Indeed. Why do what is already done? Thus something can be nothing but that nothing is never nothing at all.

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Old 09-24-2011, 03:14 PM   #4
PhillyKiAikido's Avatar
Dojo: Philadelphia Ki-Aikido / New Jersey Ki Society
Location: Philadelphia/PA
Join Date: Oct 2009
Posts: 56
Re: Lessons of the Sword

Thanks for this good post, Robertson sensei!
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Old 09-26-2011, 01:35 PM   #5
jbblack's Avatar
Dojo: Aikido of Roseville
Location: Carmichael, CA
Join Date: May 2009
Posts: 81
Re: Lessons of the Sword

"Better, you can control that which controls the controller." Well said Ross. Perhaps all we ever control is ourselves...
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Old 09-28-2011, 08:45 AM   #6
Dojo: Greensboro Kodokan Aikido Dojo
Location: North Carolina
Join Date: May 2011
Posts: 20
Re: Lessons of the Sword

Very nice article, good lessons to be learned.

Though only one enemy calls you out
Be on your best guard.
To deal with one adversary in the spirit of facing ten thousand
Is the Way of the Warrior.
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