Ofuda have been exchanged.
New year tameshigiri, delightful and therapeutic, as always.
Dojo bookings confirmed.
Kotodama in the Jo suburi.
A good start to the year.
It is the end of the year and we would not be a real blog if we did not leave some retrospective remarks on the past twelve months.
A year when, more than any other in recent recollection, terms such as unprecedented and decimated have been abused and misused beyond the bounds of tolerance.
From the School’s perspective, it has not been a bad year. We did not gain any new students, but then we did not loose any existing ones either.
For much of the year we have not had access to our usual training space, but it was not difficult for us to adapt to the changing circumstances. This is no surprise, we are, after all, an Aiki School. And, as I have mentioned on other occasions, the outdoor training has been both challenging and enjoyable.
Change is the nature of existence.
I will finish off with a poem, no, not another haiku; rather one of my favourite poems from one of my favourite American poets. It seems a fitting response to the year.
Be Angry at the Sun
That public men publish falsehoods
Is nothing new. That America must accept
Like the historical republics corruption and empire
Has been known for years.
Be angry at the sun for setting
If these things anger you. Watch the wheel slope and turn,
They are all bound on the wheel, these people, those warriors.
This republic, Europe, Asia.
Observe them gesticulating,
Observe them going down. The gang serves lies, the passionate
Man plays his part; the cold passion for truth
Hunts in no pack.
You are not Catullus, you know,
To lampoon these crude sketches of Caesar. You are far
From Dante’s feet, but even farther from his dirty
Let boys want pleasure, and men
Struggle for power, and women perhaps for fame,
And the servile to serve a Leader and the dupes to be duped.
Yours is not theirs.
It is an annoying convention for any sword depicted on television or movies to make a metallic schwing sound as it is drawn. Particularly irritating when it is meant to be a katana, given they have a wooden scabbard, so the scrape of metal on metal would be a difficult sound to achieve in real life.
Scraping the blade as it is drawn is an indication of poor skill; it is very much frowned upon in our dojo and is considered valid grounds for a strike across the back of the head with the instructor’s tenarashi.
The other compulsory noise for a screen sword is a loud whoosh as it cuts through the air. This also seems to be considered an indication of expertise by most beginner students wielding any weapon and is highly desired by them. (I recall a documentary in my youth that showed the whoosh sound for movies being produced by people in a sound booth waving strips of carpet around).
Some common names for actual, non movie, Japanese swords:
Sasanoyuki (笹の雪) “snow on a bamboo leaf” as it cuts like snow slips off a leaf
Sotto hasamibako (そっと挟箱) this refers to clothes falling from a portable storage box, silently and without notice.
Matsukaze (松風) wind in the pines, a sword that cuts as though nothing has happened.
I have yet to come across a traditional sword with a name like, “grates when drawn”, or “whooshes like a bull-roarer”.
Swords and their users were prized for their ability to cut effortlessly, without noise or fanfare. Aside from the aesthetic aspect, it just makes basic tactical sense. Silence is not just golden, it is deadly.
One of my favourite sword names is Hatchō-Nenbutsu-dango-zushi, which has been translated as:
“if you cut somebody with this blade, the person doesn’t notice it because of the sharpness and can still walk eight chō and, apart from that, you can skewer stones with it like dumplings.”
(M. Sesko, Tameshigiri The History and Development of Japanese Sword Testing, 2014, p.250)
Perhaps I should have made the title, ‘Return to the USQ Dojo’, as for the past seven months we have still had a dojo, just one without walls or ceiling.
So, we are now permitted indoor training again, and have just had our first week back. (Technically we had our first class back the week before, but since I was not there, it never happened).
I will admit it was good to have mats to use for an open hand class; to have the freedom to fully engage with the techniques and the energy of uke again.
The formal etiquette and control of the battojutsu class was, without doubt, enhanced by the indoor space.
That said, I have thoroughly enjoyed the outdoor training, the challenges of the uneven ground, imperfect lighting, the ducks, swans, bats and the ire of the curlew. We shall not be giving this up.
We have a nice balance of training environments now, each in harmony with the needs of the particular class.
A good basis from which to start rebuilding our numbers.
Recently we performed our first public Aiki demonstrations since the current plague began.
It was an interesting exercise, since, for the past five months we have not been permitted any open hand training. That is the longest period that either myself or my uke, O’Brien Sensei, have ever gone without any open hand practice, since we began our respective training lives.
As it turned out, all went well.
Apparently, decades of consistent training has a residual effect.
The three groups of grade three students we entertained were delightfully interactive, with often insightful questions and, equally often, not.
I will admit we had some cardio issues, and, lack of regular practice may have meant I was not as gentle with my partner as my reputation expects.
But, nevertheless, it was thoroughly enjoyable to be back doing uninhibited Aiki.
Towards the end, one child asked, why do I do this?
I began with the standard responses of, way of life, philosophy, interaction with the world, etcetera, etcetera, but then, looking at her glazing over eight year old eyes, said, it brings me immense joy.
And it does.
With the latest easing of restrictions, we have returned to open hand training.
We have not, however, returned to our old indoor dojo, and, indeed, may never do so, as the university is unlikely to reopen this year and in addition, are talking about eliminating small clubs regardless.
This opens up a number of challenges.
Do we start searching for a new training space, with all the attendant financial and logistic difficulties, so that we can again use mats?
Or do we continue to train in the open?
Does this mean students need to learn to do their ukemi on dirt and grass?
Should we be exchanging our uniforms for something more suited to a less pristine environment? I stopped wearing my white hakama months ago. Maybe the white gi need to go as well?
Outdoor classes have lacked the ritual formality of the indoor space, but that can easily be remedied.
The lack of a kamiza as a focal point would also need to be addressed.
There is something very appealing about the outdoor training with the flying foxes, curlews and uneven ground.
Do we embrace the current circumstances and extend our ronin school status to our dojo as well?
Under the current restrictions we have been limited to weapons classes only, so suburi is a primary focus.
Actually, suburi has always been a primary focus, irrespective of the plague.
The main difference now, is that students are having to do more of it in class, rather than just pretending to listen to me when I tell them how important it is for them to do it as part of their daily homework.
Aside from the obvious physical benefits of muscle memory, control, precision, etcetera; suburi is the zazen of martial arts.
It is a way of stilling the mind.
A way to coordinate breath and movement.
A way to develop awareness and focus without engaging conscious thinking.
No matter how many shomen uchi one does, each one is the only one.
Without losing any of the physical budo, suburi, when approached correctly, transcends mundane practice to become a form of zen meditation.
It is an ideal way to begin the day as the sun rises.
To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.
It has been a few weeks now of training under the social distancing rules.
We are, in many ways, more fortunate than a number of other martial arts schools. If open hand techniques were all we had, then it would be impossible for us to continue under the current restrictions.
However, we have the ability to run one on one classes, taking each student through weapons’ kihon, kata, kamae and suburi. And we have enough of these to easily outlast the virus.
The students seem to be responding well to the new regime; all are learning new techniques, some even new weapons and there is noticeable improvement in the fundamentals, probably due to the more intense focus required in an individual lesson.
From an instructor’s perspective, while this is all good budo and of immense benefit on multiple levels, it is still, in many ways, just wax on, wax off.
Where is the Aiki?
It does exist in a more subtle form.
It is built into the kata and the very nature of how the weapons are wielded.
But I miss its expression through the dynamic interaction of uke/nage, uchitachi/shitachi.
It takes restraint to teach whilst maintaining a two meter distance.
Nevertheless, we are laying solid foundations for future partnered practice and keeping the School alive during these circumscribed times.