Sunday, February 8, 2015

妙技 Myogi: virtuosity in Kendo and how to approach it.

All of us have done keiko against senior kenshi who have something mysterious and seemingly untouchable about their Kendo. We strive to attain such skill ourselves but it always seems out of reach. Part of the reason for this is because there is no specific way to achieve this mastery in Kendo other than by long years of practice. Great sensei rarely explain in words what it is, or if they do, their explanations remain opaque to us because we do not have the understanding or experience to know what they mean.

However there are ways we can glimpse what it is that constitutes myogi. The hints are everywhere in the writings of our Kendo forebears. And sometimes in areas seemingly unrelated to Kendo.

In Noma Hisashi's Kendo Tokuhon, the great Taisho era kenshi describes how students of the Tea Ceremony are taught to use heavy implements as if they are light, and light implements as if they are heavy.

In the tradition of the Tatsumi Ryu of Chiba Prefecture, the Kato brothers who were 20th and 21st Headmasters were compared in a similar way, "Sadao uses a light sword as if it were heavy, Takashi uses a heavy sword as if it were light."

These are very interesting things to consider.

We do suburi at home in order to swing the shinai like Takashi, to make the movement of a heavy object light. This is the foundation of Kendo in the early years; getting enough strength and co-ordination through muscular training to be able to swing the shinai confidently and accurately.

But there is also a special bokuto made of a wood called kiri, which for more advanced kenshi teaches them how to swing a light sword like Sadao, as if it were heavy: it teaches you to use less muscular power and increases the feeling of ki (気) in your movement. The Niten Ichi Ryu also uses especially light bokuto, and to watch the slow speed and unusual breath control of some of their kata it is clear they work on developing ki as part of their training.

Even though the advanced kenshi is striving for higher things, they also must be able to swing "a heavy sword as if it were light." In other words they must not neglect their basic strength and fitness, especially if they are of small build. It is necessary to be both Sadao and Takashi, so to speak.

One other piece of wisdom I have recently been considering comes from, of all places, the Circus. It unlocks what  I believe is the nub of these sayings. Performers such as acrobats and jugglers practice for years to make their abilities appear effortless. But there is, just like in the Tea Ceremony, a need to sometimes show effort. Hence the saying, "Perform a difficult trick as if it were easy, and perform an easy trick as if it were difficult." What can kenshi learn from this?

An acrobat in the circus often builds up the audience's expectations by exaggerating the seeming difficulty of a particular trick. They will draw it out and even fluff a couple of the initial attempts in an effort to fool the audience into thinking they are at the edge of their abilities. This increases the payoff at the moment of success: the audience thinks they are seeing something extra-special.

At other times the performer will create amazement by doing something beyond the capabilities of the ordinary person as it were nothing at all: the clown slips on a banana peel and instead of landing on his bum does a complete backwards somersault, then shrugs. The cumulative effect of these reversals is that the audience is drawn into the performer's zone of mastery, left guessing, gasping in amazement. They are totally within the performer's control; "in the palm of his/her hand."

This is significant for kenshi because it shows us how to control our opponent. It is the same thing as is hinted at in the Kendo saying, "For you the distance is close, for your opponent it is far." To have your opponent 'in the palm of your hand' is certainly a desirable strategy! Against a weak opponent it may be possible to create this dynamic each time; against a stronger opponent, perhaps only momentarily. But even if only for a moment, if we can seize on the opportunity straight away this is enough.

Undoubtedly the myogi of a highly accomplished sensei is the same as that of any virtuoso: that is, mostly dependent on long training. But it is how that skill is shown, or rather, how it is both shown and not-shown, that is the interesting similarity between Kendo sensei and the performing artist.

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