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“You are the one controlling the handle”

Our appreciation goes to David Pan from 
for the efforts of translating the original post in Chinese.

* * *

“Is Kendo a lonely journey (to you)?”

This was my Facebook Status update on July 5th.

The reason I ask isn’t so much because “I am lonely”. Instead, because I have some experience in translation myself (text in Chinese), when I saw a narrative on Facebook by a professional translator about how lonely she felt in her journey, it resonated with me. As kendo is another important aspect of my life, it is only natural by association that I would pose this question.

I really like blogs, Facebook, and other social media because it is a means for me to “throw a sprat to catch a mackerel”. Even if I was just casually sharing my thoughts or feelings, I can often get surprisingly insightful, humorous, or reflective responses, such as:
  • Being lonely is great!
  • Ko-ken-chi-ai ( To know love through crossing swords )
  • You can only depend on yourself to improve
  • Only you know the goals you seek
  • There is no loneliness when you keep yourself company
  • Hidden loneliness
  • A bitter road with no end
  • I appreciate my companions even more because I am lonely
  • You can improve faster in a group than by yourself
  • I wonder sometimes why I continue to try when it is so hard
  • Cultivate the self to affect others
  • Rei-dan-ji-chi (none but the wearer knows where the shoe pinches )
  • I have not been lazy in training for 61 years
  • I believe parts of it can be lonely…

Really, there is no correct answer for such a subjective question. That said, among the many thoughtful replies I received, I also received a status reply from Morioka Sensei, a Japanese phrase that I did not quite understand:

相手に向けている剣は ( Aite ni mukete iru ken wa )、
自分にも向いている ( jibun ni mo muite iru )。
自分はどのように生きるのかをいつも( Jibun wa dono yō ni ikiru no ka o itsumo )、
試される ( tamesa reru )。

You can plug the Japanese into Google Translate for the literal translation. A looser translation closer to the meaning should be more like:

When you are facing the opponent, while the sword is pointed toward the opponent, you are the one controlling the handle. This is the attitude toward life that I have always maintained.

According to my students that speak Japanese, Morioka Sensei’s statement cannot be translated literally without losing its flavor because it has the layers of nuance like classical writings.

As I read the Chinese translation given to me by sensei, it triggered a conversation I had with Morioka Sensei the second time we met at Christchurch.

“You should still practice by adhering to the correct method.”

The first time I met Morioka Sensei was in 2009 when he came to New Zealand to lead the annual seminar as the main instructor. He really impressed me with his humorous yet thought approach across a range of topics such as the core and the back, the left foot, and the rolling and sinking of the shoulders. During the final lecture, he told us that what he shared with us was what he focused on to prepare for his own 8-dan examination, hoping to inspire us in our own practice.

During that year, among all his teachings, he posed a question that really surprised me:

Why do you strike? (What is the reason behind the timing of your strike?)” Prior to this moment, I really haven’t give this question a whole lot of thought. Thus, this question was stuck in my mind for more than a year after!

Sensei came back the next year in 2010 where the NZKF annual event was held at Christchurch. The syllabus of his course material stayed largely the same. As I have tried to follow the content of his teachings while training in Taiwan and New Zealand for the past year; beyond having the opportunity to learn from and keiko with sensei again, I was hoping he would clarify for me how to practice the kind of kendo where it is not about wanting to win or fearing you will lose?

That year at Christchurch, during the ji-geiko with Morioka Sensei, I could clearly feel how he was using his body to teach me. Although it was only two brief minutes, I truly learned more than I could imagine. It was a visceral demonstration of “the timing of the strike”!

During dinner, I had a conversation with sensei. I said, “Sensei, the things you covered about how you should stand in proper kamae first, then apply pressure with an understanding of the opponent and aiki; I think it’s great and I, for the most part, understand it. However, if your opponent doesn’t understand ‘proper kendo’ and you have to practice with people who just strike randomly or do unorthodox things, how do I practice in that kind of an environment?”

After a second of silent contemplation, sensei replied, “You should still practice by adhering to the correct method.”

This time, after taking a moment of silent contemplation myself, I invited sensei to come to Taiwan, saying, “Sensei, I am working in Taiwan right now, and rarely hear about the kind of subject that you cover. I would love to share this with my kendo friends in Taiwan. I was hoping you would be inclined to come give your lecture in Taiwan as well?”

Thus, with the assistance of Hsinchu Bunbudo, Chen Sensei, and the assistance of many kenshi, Morioka came to lecture in Taiwan for the first time in 2011. He then came back in 2013, 2015, and 2016.

In retrospect, it’s been almost ten years of meeting Morioka Sensei every year or two! Every time I see him and keiko, whether it is in Taiwan or New Zealand, I find myself understanding kendo more.

This time, when he left the words “you are the one controlling the handle”, it triggered a lot of association:
  • During keiko, am I trying to beat the opponent or improve myself?
  • When I face a stronger opponent, am I afraid to lose, afraid to lose face, or cherishing this opportunity to learn?
  • When I face a partner that strikes with no rhyme or reason randomly (bad technique), or an opponent that just want to beat you first and ask questions later (improper attitude), how do I deal with them? Do I play their game? Do I play for the moment? Do I play the long game?
  • Facing those less experienced, am I being a good example? Or am I showing off my technique to satisfy my own vanity?

I remember how Morioka Sensei really emphasise “合氣 aiki”. In New Zealand, we translate “aiki” as synchronise. Not just him, many high rank sensei that comes to teach at New Zealand also emphasise this concept. From his influence and my own teaching experience, the reality is many of us live in our own little box and are unwilling, unable, afraid, or even loathe the idea of having a genuine exchange with others.

In the dojo, I often tell my younger students, the dojo is not the gym. You will not obtain satisfaction from taking a selfie in the mirror. In the dojo, there’s sensei, senpai, kohai, and many other kenshi. Not only will there be people you respect and people you like, there will also be people you dislike or even despise. We are not apps or robots, therefore you cannot just practice kendo just according to your own preference. To make the matter worse, when you are not performing, people will often hit back making you feel unaccomplished in pain and discomfort. But, that’s how you grow in the way of the sword!

If kendo is just a hobby to you, by all means just come often, break a sweat, exercise, and hang out with your friends. That’s great.

If kendo is your stage, that’s great too. Beyond getting the benefit of exercise, you can enjoy the glory of collecting rank and awards as you progress in your study of technique and strategy.

However, if you want to experience more “zest” besides getting the benefit of a sport or competition, perhaps even calling it self-cultivation, how do you go about doing that in kendo to enjoy the inspiration and growth it can offer you?

Clearly, this is a very subjective question where the answer will vary from person to person. That said, not having a perfect answer doesn’t mean there is no answer. I have come to discover that perhaps, there are clues hidden in our tenugui…for example “不動心 fudoshin”.

“Is there a method to attaining mental stability?” 

I don’t know how many kenyu knew that the term “fudoshin” came from Mencius, Gong Sun Chou, Part 1. At least I did not. The first time I saw the term “fudoshin” was on a tenugui. Thus, I could only try to understand the term by taking it literally and try to understand it much like how I would approach other common tenugui terms like “shizuka”, “mushin”, “heijoshin”, “yuishinitto”, and “munenmuso”.

I have tried to make my heart “immovable”, but really, that’s so abstract. What does “movable heart” even mean?

It wasn’t until later that I saw “fudoshin” interpreted this way. Fudoshin” is not about making your heart as silent and still as a rock. Instead, it is about “not being tempted or moved by unnecessary things”. With this explanation, the goal is clear. In other words, it is about not having extraneous thoughts. The most common extraneous thoughts or distractions in kendo are the four sicknesses of surprise, fear, doubt, and confusion.

With this understanding, I could associate the concept of “fudoshin” with “shikai (the four sickness)” in my practice. This is not a matter of win or lose or who hits who. When the opponent press in to attack sharply, whether out of surprise or fear, I could feel myself gripping the shinai slightly more tightly with my right hand, which is enough to make my sword tip veer slightly to the right. In this moment, the opponent’s seme was effective. If he or she is able to take advantage of this opening and attack before I can adjust, he or she could probably win. On the other hand, if he or she did not have the level to take advantage of this opening, I could adjust and reset which would change the whole situation again.

In this way, the joy of kendo for me changed from did I hit to did my pressure work? Moreover, I became more aware of the tiny changes in my mind and body. From here, “surprise, fear, doubt, and confusion” became a place where I must caution myself to notice when I became perturbed in mind or body. It is also from here that I began to understand why various sensei refer to kendo as a kind of shugyo.

Out of curiousity, I looked up the original writings of Mencius:

2A:2. 公孫丑上
公孫丑問曰、 夫子加齊之卿相、得行道焉。雖由此霸王不異矣、如此、則動心否乎。
[2A:2] Gong Sun Chou asked Mencius: “Let's say you were to become the prime minister of Qi and have the opportunity to set up a good government. Even though your power would really not be different from that of a king, in handling this, wouldn't you lose your mental stability?”

孟子曰、 否。我四十不動心。
Mencius said, “No. I haven't lost my mental stability since I was forty.”

Professor Peirong Fu explained that “fudoshin” refers to how regardless of the situation, whether you have found your calling or never found the opportunity to use your talent, your mood is unaffected.

曰、 不動心有道乎。
“Is there a method for attaining mental stability?” asked Chou.

曰、 有。
“There is….” Mencius then talked about how three people developed their courage as a means to describe external courage, internal courage, and great courage. In his book about how Mencius cultivate himself, professor Peirong Fu discusses this.

To put in kendo terms, the first stage of external courage is something you can see, exuberant intention where you are brave to the point of foolishness such that you would fight a tiger with your bare hands or cross the river without a boat; to give it your all and not cower in the face of a stronger opponent.

The second stage, or internal courage, is like the four sickness of kendo. It is about internal cultivation of the heart and mind. “To regard victory and defeat as the same. To gauge the enemy and then attack; to plan the victory and then engage.”

The last stage, or the great courage, is the level where “if I reflect on myself and find myself to be right, then even if it be an army of one hundred thousand, I will go forward.” For this, professor Peirong Fu explain in layman terms, “If I felt myself in the wrong, how would I not be scared of even the average person? However, if I felt myself in the right, I would not be afraid even against tens and thousands of people!”

Do not lose control

When I first met Morioka Sensei, he asked us, “Did you attack because you…”
  • Want to strike before s/he strikes?
  • Are scared?
  • Want to get ippon sooner?
  • Feel good/ready?
  • Want to win?
  • Do not want to lose?
  • Thinks s/he looks weak?
  • Thinks it’s about time to attack…
  • Because s/he is not attacking?
At the time, I answered yes to almost every question. In other words, I did not know what is a true opportunity to strike. I have stewed on these questions for a long time. Really, the answer is not difficult to find. You just need more practice. Morioka Sensei really emphasises how before attacking, you must be in proper posture. For proper posture, he recommended that we examine the core/back, the left foot, and the rolling and sinking of the shoulders. If you do not take proper kamae in ken-tai-itchi (attack and defence as one) and strike only when the timing is ripe, the strike would not be effective or valid.

When I first try to strike in this manner, I really liked it. However, I ran into problems quickly. My opponent often started attacking before I was ready! Or, when I have just achieved proper kamae, and have yet to be able to feel my opponent, they have launched their attack! Do I block? Should I strike to get a shot back so I don’t lose face? At times I would even resent them, thinking to myself hasn’t everyone heard sensei’s lecture? Why are folks reverting to their old ways the moment sensei leaves? How can I practice this on my own?

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers that can immediately solve this for you. All you can do is faithfully follow sensei’s advice and persist to practice correctly.

Coming back to the kendo analogy, “If I felt myself in the wrong” refers to how if you find yourself not ready (core/back, left foot, rolling and the sinking of the shoulders), you must adjust yourself; if the timing isn’t right, you have to bide your time. On the other hand, “if I felt myself in the right” refers to how if you are physically ready and timing is ripe, you must strike with sutemi! This sutemi requires a courage to surpass winning and losing!

Inoue Yoshihiko Hanshi has clearly explained the past the difference between attacking others and reflecting on the self (text in Chinese) as well as the difference between ippon and yuko-datotsu (YouTube with English subtitle). It is as if what Morioka Sensei taught us further explained and annotated these teachings for us so that I can begin to understand the depth of kendo and the fun of it.

Looking back to two years ago when Yamagami Hanshi discussed the meaning behind the 5 shinai nodes (text in Chinese), much like the pleats on the hakama. If we let our sword tip waver because our opponent’s action (external environment) so we lose our advantage, what we really lost is not the sword tip or the centre line. Instead, what we lost are the virtues that we are supposed to hang on to such as jin and gi (internal world).

To view Mencius from my Kendo experience, he is a saint indeed!


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