By Nguyen Thanh Thien, article published in Karaté-Bushido, February 2011, as a presentation of Iwami soke’s interview
Translation by Jouanah Ghori
The encounter with a sword master occurred a while back, in the early days. Then comes hope, which drives the child to become a sword master himself. The next step is to take up a martial art. So begins a lengthy journey, the one that leads his steps one day to the Land of The Rising Sun to meet the descendents of the samurai. One November morning, around ten years ago, I took my first lesson from the Great Master.
Among the rice fields, in the mountain coolness, there stands a small hamlet, a few quiet courtyards and a dojo. As I sat in front of the altar, next to the Master, I mustered my energy and my determination. The Master, Iwami sensei, ranks second after Imai soke, the 10th successor of Miyamoto Musashi, the renowned 17th century samurai. Imai soke decided to put me in the trusted hands of Iwami sensei, the 11th generation soke to be. He clapped his hands twice and bowed. He then turned to me and said:
“Musashi is with us. Let us begin”.
“How to look at the opponent…”
While holding the wooden sword, the training started by studying the footwork. First we concentrate on how to step forward, before even learning how to hold the sword. For one hour, my feet slide, hit the surface and press down on it. I have time to absorb the atmosphere of a place devoted to effort, all in wood, with its racks of swords, sticks and spears. Then we focus on the breathing, the deportment and the look. The hours tick by. An occasional break allows us to admire the garden in front of the dojo, and far beyond, the mountains. The master takes the opportunity to show us how to look at the opponent…
Master Iwami became the 11th successor of Musashi in 2003, Imai soke having chosen him. His endeavour is to “dedicate [himself] to training and to prove to his contemporaries, through his example, that the teaching and the kokoro (heart-spirit) of the founder are absolute and authentic”.
That day, the future soke encouraged and corrected me. Without giving any technical indication, his demonstrations were full of energy and he encouraged me to imitate him. Of more interest to him than precision was the energy I expended over one hour, fours hours or seven hours. Should I show signs of weakening, I knew I would be met with his disapproval. If I began to be distracted by details, he would look elsewhere. Ikioi! Extending the breath, the ki! For fifteen days I mustered my energy.
“I feel Musashi’s energy…”
The Master encouraged me, all the while observing me and looking out for weariness or impatience, signs of inaptitude to study Musashi’s sword art. By looking carefully at the Master, I perceive cracks that threaten the structure of my initiation. The exercise is repeated until he tells me to stop. Sometimes he goes out in the afternoons. I pursue the same movements while he is away. It would be an understatement to say that on the flight back my muscles were weary.
During my first visit I only just touched on the art of Musashi’s swordmanship. Of course I had practised the sword before, for many years, but this had nothing to do with what I was now undertaking. Through the katas, which in this art are called seiho, “to channel the breath-energy”, I feel the founder’s energy and meet his wish to pass it on. Iwami soke later said:
“Practise Niten to meet Musashi”.
Half way through our strenuous activity, the Master took a break and we sipped tea. The sounds carried far over the acres of rice fields; we could see herons when they lifted their heads pausing in their fishing in the mud of the paddy fields. The Master turned towards the painting of a kingfisher painted by Musashi, decorating the kamiza – the Dojo altar – and gave us a lesson on mind readiness. Here, nature binds together the elements of the sword.
“Keiko, an explosion of will-power”
One morning, we took the way that led us to the mountain close by and through the curtains of bamboo, we reached a burbling stream trickling through the moss and the pines. A few stone figures, a flat space at the foot of the kamis (spirits of the Nature that belong to the Shinto vision); we bow, and sword in hand, a new keiko (training) starts. We practise de-ai, the encounter, or “unite-hand”, as I like to read it. It is now impossible to falter; keiko is an explosion of attention, energy, will-power, here in front of the spirit of the mountain that pervades Musashi’s art.
Then comes the time for meditation. We sit on the rocks in zazen – the Zen silent seated position – and our attention sharpens, yet without tension. Some assimilate kenjutsu, the art of the sword prior to 1868, to meditation. The opposite sometimes is more meaningful. The historical Buddha Siddhartha, from the Gautama family, was a kshatriya, “warrior” in sanscrit.
Since modern martial arts stem from kenjutsu, I thought I would find rough techniques, turned towards efficiency. It is said that Musashi was known for his uncouth ways and his aversion to elegant manners. Legends and historical essays depict him as a rough character, seldom washing, whose appearance was somewhat repulsive. Musashi may not be properly known without tackling his main piece of work directly, his art of the sword.
In the dojo, one must see the soke (Grand Master) “show and prove that he possesses the mindset and practice that are specific to Niten Ichi Ryu”. This is the Way of the Budo, the martial Ways: learn to know only through practice, avoid any controversy, which only scatters the seed and when energy would be more fertile within keiko itself.
“I went to see by and for myself”
So I went to see by and for myself. A few trips later, I was among the members of Nihon Kobudo Kyokai, the main organisation of the koryu – the old traditional schools. We were in Itsukushima Temple, one of the most sacred in Japan, and a place of grace and beauty. One master, a soke, came up to me and said: “Your soke is one of the greatest in Japan”. I do not say this to showcase the greatness of my school but to demonstrate the respect that koryu masters hold towards one another.
Respect is precisely what one feels in keiko itself. The emotion grips us when we move forward ahead of the sword, each staring deep into the other’s eyes. When Imai soke, who was 88 – some ages can truly reach heights – stood in front of me and urged me to push forward, “Ikioi!” and again “Ikioi!”, I let myself be permeated by this gentle drive which adorns the will of the master to see us join him in the command of his art.
Now, when I take hold of my sword, I stand opposite him and move forward. Just as one had to go to Africa to discover what an Oliphant looked like, we likewise need to receive the seiho directly from the soke to see Musashi. This means we need them to seep into us through the knowledge hereby transmitted and enriched by eleven generations of masters.
“Courtesy resides at the heart of the technique”
The lesson starts with a bow. We learn the etiquette that Musashi himself received from his friend the Daimyo Ogasawara. The Ogasawara School taught court customs and was adapted in order to soften the traditional behaviour of the samurai. This way of bowing is different from the one ordinarily seen in Judo or Aikido, and the same goes for the way of standing and sitting. Courtesy resides within the technique. Sharpness lies in the accuracy of the stance.
I began with Itto seiho, the one-sword technique. I have practised it for several years and… am still practising it. The left hand takes hold of the sword like a hammer and the edge of the right hand is placed on the upper side of the sword. And then… one has to get on with it! When handling a sword, there is the risk of getting trapped in a superficial form of practice. Each step is both repetition and forward thrust. Musashi’s sword is led by a united body, eyes and tip of the blade, breath and hara (the body’s centre), toes and fingers. The body is led by the spirit.
In this kenjutsu the student must display Musashi’s energy, while being guided by a teacher whose knowledge has been handed down to him. The students range from 7th dan Aikidoka to high-level Karate practitioners to adepts of Iaido and Kendo, Judo champions, Western masters of arms and beginners. Whatever their background, they all have to start anew, beginning with the way to take steps, up to the work of the spirit.
The conceited and lazy find satisfaction in the apparent facet of this art, and only touch on Musashi’s distinctiveness while reducing all kenjutsu to a mere technique – their own – thus preventing themselves from fully comprehending the koryu.
Iwami soke said:
“We must use our swords through the means of our spirit, while guiding our spirit”.
Guiding the spirit requires the assistance of a certified master. Musashi was not only an expert swordsman; the realm of the spirit animates his art. This can be revealed through the effort to bring it to life, spending time on the essentials and on absolute concentration.
“Once the Master has been found, then the difficulties start …”
The most astonishing thing when teaching Niten is that the first technique, Sassen, is studied with precision but at each visit, it is presented to us differently. Ueshiba sensei and Takeda sensei were known never to show the technique in the same way. What is constant in a technique when it varies? Is this not the very approach found in the koryu? In this case, what exactly is being taught to us? Among the techniques, there are 12 Itto (one sword) seiho, 7 Kodachi (small sword used inside the house) seiho and 5 Nito (two swords) seiho. Like the founder himself, these techniques are dense and deep. They create the illusion that one can master them without difficulty but these techniques demand to go beyond a superficial approach. Kodachi opens up to a more condensed use of the body. Nito was put forth by people outside the school, but Nito is based on a united body and spirit. Itto is indeed the first step.
Once the master has been found, then the difficulties start. The student must look for the student within him. A student looking for the master is logical whereas the student looking for the student does sound strange. However, the encounter with the masters only happens when the applicant has found his own place, the student’s place. In exchange for the best possible lesson, one needs to demonstrate sincere commitment. According to what Iwami soke wished, Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu opens its teachings to the whole world, with no restrictions of origin and with the sole constraint, that the soke be the lead.
“Earnest heart, True way”
Applications are accepted when the applicants adhere to the exigencies of the koryu. Musashi’s lesson is comprehensible to one who knows how to receive it, to seek its depth and to retain the lesson. Higashiyama sensei from Kurama Ryu, 7th dan in Kendo from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police once told me: “Niten is very hard!”
Masters can be moved when they see the efforts of a student. Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu engages in an easy relationship with its student, yet with no familiarity. The effort, the perspiration and the courtesy open onto mutual consideration. Throughout my visits I discovered Japanese practitioners, attentive and dedicated, and during workshops in Europe many of the European practitioners were both studious and kind.
At the heart of the seiho there resides a vehemence within the fight that Musashi calls on us to master. Transcending all teachings, Musashi can be summed up as follows:
“Seishin Chokkodo”, “An earnest heart leads to the heart of the Way”.
Nguyen Thanh Thiên, Representative of Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu in France.