6. Step by step and inch by inch

Budo pedagogy: progressive learning in budo

Jeremy Beatty, Yagyu Seigo-ryu Batto-iai
Jeremy Beatty, Yagyu Seigo-ryu Batto-iai

A short while ago, a curious incident occurred in my dojo. Well, it was curious for ME. I’m not sure if it registered at all on the other people involved. Anyway, we had an eager, excited new young student in our iai class. I took him through the first reishiki (forms of etiquette) and the first kata. He was doing poorly at it, but I figure, given time, he’d be fine. He just needed to hone his movements. So I told him to work on what he learned for a while and left him alone.

I turned my attention to another student and tried to correct his techniques for fourth kata. The new student ran up to watch what we were doing, even to the point of trying to imitate some of the form. Ignoring this red light, I walked away and approached another student, who was doing the ninth kata of the series. The new student ran up to us too and watched us eagerly, then he blurted out, “Wow! Can I learn that too?”

I had to pause a beat to even comprehend that on this, the first night he actually stepped on the floor to learn iai, he wanted to jump all over the place. After recovering from my amazement, I could only laugh in disbelief and then replied with a curt, “No!”

I turned away. Then my conscience took the better of me and so I turned back to the crestfallen student and explained to him that in a budo training system, you do the forms in a progressive way, going from the basics and moving up to more advanced sets, only through the guidance of a teacher. You don’t jump around, especially when your basics were still so shaky.

I’m not sure if he understood where I was coming from. When I thought about it, I realize that quite often, the pedagogy of teaching budo (which is very true in koryu but holds no less authority in many modern budo that are taught traditionally) may be completely foreign to modern youngsters and teens brought up in a society of instant gratification, infantile pop culturalism, and denigration of excellence and striving. Then again, the pedagogy is not exclusive to budo. The essence of the way you train in budo is the same in many traditional arts or apprenticeships, and in my old age, I think it may have to do with simply the way humans learn certain things: very slowly, empirically and through many, many years of effort.

That’s anathema to people raised on instant-everything. Learn form 1, move on to form 2. They get the sequence, but their body dynamics, timing, distancing…everything that really makes up the art…suck. Try to tell those people to wait and they get indignant. They may protest, “I can do Ippon-Me Mae! Why can’t I learn the next kata?”

Sure you can do Ippon-Me, sort of. You can do it but your basics suck. If you can’t do a kiri oroshi right in Ippon-Me, what makes you think you can do it right in Nihon-Me Ushiro?  You just end up with someone who can do a lot of things badly.

When I first started doing iai seriously in Kyoto, one of my teachers was famous for making his beginning students do only one kata over and over again for hours on end until he/she “got” it.  You never progressed beyond that until you reached a level that satisfied him, and that level was extremely high. Even my main teacher was firm about having me learn one kata at a time decently before moving on. He was less strict about getting it “perfect,” but he did advise me to focus on quality of the kata I knew, not on the quantity.

“If you just practiced these kata over and over…” and he ticked off a list of only five forms, “Then all the rest of your forms will be fine,” he said. Years later, I am coming to understand what he meant. The basics count. Big time. They are your foundations. If your foundations are based on a hill of sand, you’ll never build anything enduring on top of it.

Focusing on the basics is not something a lot of modern-day students want to hear. But it’s necessary. You don’t have to be 100 percent perfect in doing a front kick, for example (most of us will, after all, never reach “perfection”), but you should reach a certain level of expertise in a basic movement before trying to move on to work on more advanced work. However fancier or complex an advanced form may be, it will still look like junk unless the basic forms that make up the advanced form are at a decent level.

Eagerness and enthusiasm are good things to have. But you shouldn’t have them overwhelm equally important elements of patience and striving for perfection of form. I still like to go back to the first kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and repeat it several times before I get into the specific techniques I want to work on during practice.

And after all, the best musicians still go back to playing basic finger exercises. Tiger Woods still practices his basic swing, ballet stars still work on basic form, form, form.

11 thoughts on “6. Step by step and inch by inch

  1. Perhaps a better answer to the student who blurted out, “Wow! Can I learn that too?” might have been: “In time. Now lets see if you can do what I just showed you properly.”

  2. I’ve found a lot of people from other Ryu come around here that feel because they studied style “A” they must be advanced in style “B”. It’s just not so and it ticks me off to no end. I am self aware, and if I enter a dojo, I try to keep in mind that I am there to learn, not to be a jackass. So far, I have kept my attitude in check when it comes to learning, I am still a jackass though….

    Anyhow, to “the entitled’s” chagrin they find that they must start out like everyone else. That being said, in a way I can understand the “Microwave Cookie generation”, they just need to “get it” and hopefully they will. I would rather have someone with that attitude come along that is open to this lesson. It is frustrating to deal with someone who believes that their “previous training” somehow makes everything moot, and it’s a self-imposed ignorance that is like trying to pick up bubble-gum stuck to a hot sidewalk.

    Recently, we had a visitor to the dojo with that sense of entitlement, coming from another ryu. He could not speak a lick of Japanese, but thought because he knew a lot of Japanese words and placed relative context into them he was special and could advance quickly. So when I would translate something for him, he would quickly add his input to it, for one reason or another. Eventually I just stopped translating and let him squirm because I was really sick of him filtering everything that was said with his opinions. So, he ended up squirming around for a while when I feigned “too busy” for the rest of the lesson. That night I went out and had a beer with him, trying to talk with him about the problem I was having in the nicest way I could. We got into a discussion about why he needed to start from the very beginning and absorb what he was being taught, regardless of his rank or place in another art. He didn’t seem to understand and kept fixating on what he knew. So the next day I relayed this to my sensei and later that day he said to him “okay…you do *all* the kihon today”. This frustrated him, because people next to him were advanced, doing actual kata. This is where he wanted to be, and he thought that he was much better than they were, thus entitled to it. This distracted him a great deal and it had him stopping to gape at them. I was going to bark at him a few times, but my sensei intervened with a coy smile my way. Instead, he would go up and teach him something new from the Kihon, throwing in a spattering of henka keep it interesting. By the end of the 2 hour keiko, his head was spinning and he was not too happy about this, perhaps it was a blow to his ego. The next lesson, we asked him to perform all the kihon in front of the class. He was lost, almost in tears, 15 minutes into it. So instead, we had one of the junior members demonstrate it for him. After 30 minutes of that, my sensei said “do you want to go back to the beginning now?” The answer was a very happy “Yes.” He still feels he is entitled , but I believe he knows that he is not capable of being entitled, so he kind of stopped it up for the time being.

    It’s a little different than the Gen-ME kids, but I feel that there is a like theme in the two. People want to get out of doing the work, they still don’t get how important that it is .

    To that I have a theory…something I have been kicking around: the Kihon are the Okuden. Without kihon, there are no oku.

    1. Russ, I still get that every now and then by the infrequent new students to my club. Sometimes even for the ones who really are serious, it’s really hard to put aside what they learned in another system to “look like” they are doing Takeuchi-ryu or Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu. Sometimes, it still looks like they are doing a weird form of karate or aikido, rather than really doing a koryu. And they’re trying. They just don’t seem to get the differences. Even more so if someone has a full glass and doesn’t WANT to accept new ways of moving, although he/she is training in a new system.

  3. Nishioka Tsuneo Sensei told me, “You can’t have an empty cup… you must have an ‘expandable’ cup. Empty is nice poetry but not possible for humans.”

    There’s lots of good stuff we must keep and stuff we let go… and we must make room for the new while somehow developing the wisdom to know which is which.

  4. Puttin’ on my “philosophizing monkey hat”:
    “Chuck, when does a cup become a pitcher? Eventually, won’t you have to have separate cups to decant from that pitcher?”
    (hiding the hat)
    Just to let you know…I am of the opinion that a subject like this is way over my brain-case and I am not even sure this makes sense.

  5. Chuck, nice comment via Nishioka sensei. Really, we can’t truly “empty” our cup as expand it, and the ones with the hard heads can’t expand their sides to encompass more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies, as Shakespeare would say.

  6. Wayne,

    Yamazaki Sensei at AUSKF summer camp in San Antonio this May was sharing some of his wisdom in developing one’s iai (He called it the “mode vs the style”, which I understood more as telling the story during kata performance, or maybe filling the kata with the substance and moving beyond just rote “dance steps” of the kata), and one of the tools for doing it that he suggested involved repetitions of nuki tsuki, kiri oroshi, yoko chiburi, noto elements. “In my dojo, people preparing for sixth dan test would do these for hours, concentrating on not losing the form”.

    Out of sheer curiosity, which five kata were the “key” ones? From ZNKR Seitei, Omori ryu or from some other set?

    If I had to guess, I’d guess you’re referring to seitei mae (no brainer there), ukenagashi, tsuka atte, morote tsuki, and so giri (and even then, so giri is “new” so maybe something else), but then again, maybe not.


    1. Stan,

      My iai teacher was saying something in reference to five Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu kata. The first four of them were the first ones in the seiza no bu (Ohmori-ryu) section. They are nearly identical save for the direction of the initial draw and cut, but doing them over and over meant doing basic nukitsuke, kiri oroshi, chiburui and noto over and over again.


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