The second that I hefted the new student’s bokken (wooden practice sword) I confirmed what my eyes were telling me. Just by looking at it, I thought that the length, shape and balance of the sword was going to be off. I held it in a seigan no kamae (middle level position) and its weight in my hands confirmed my visual inspection. I said, “Nope. Better not to use it. Its balance is off. If you keep on using it, you’re going to develop problems in your shoulder because of its bad balance, and your technique will suffer as you try to counteract the bad balance by straining your muscles.”
I showed him the balance point of other, cheaper bokken made in Japan. Their balance, as well as an iaito I had nearby, were similar. The odd one out was his bokken. I knew his former teacher specified that style of sword, I said, familiar with his old sensei. But I disagreed with his old teacher’s self-formulated concepts and methods. Not only that, some of his assertions ran counter not just to my own teachings, but made no sense against all the sensei I studied under, and all the technical books I read about traditional Japanese swordsmanship. The newbie’s former teacher was flat out wrong, any which way I could look at it, as long as he claimed to be teaching some kind of weapons work based on traditional Japanese swordwork. If the teacher doffed his hakama and Japanese-style katana, then I wouldn’t say anything. “New Age knife fighting” is out of my league, and so I wouldn’t comment on anything he’d do thereafter. But Japanese swordsmanship; that’s another story. I’ve studied under several different sword systems, from among the oldest, to the most modern, with several different methodologies, and learned to accept what each teacher was teaching me, as I searched for the best answers to fit my own situation and training situation. And my conclusion, after all those years and training, was that this wooden sword was going to wreck his shoulders.
Now in fact, there is no real monolithic edifice, no singularity to “Japanese swordsmanship” outside of modern kendo and the standardized modern iaido systems. Alongside these large organizational structures and methodologies are a bevy of styles, or ryuha, especially among the existing koryu (classical Japanese martial arts). Each koryu, I found, has slightly different variations on handling a bladed weapon. So I can understand variations. I can also understand, however, when something is so totally out of left field, it’s not even in the ball park of “Japanese swordsmanship.”
Anyway, with that in mind, and short of practice weapons that night, I said, “Well, you can use it tonight but you should bear in mind my opinion, and try to get a cheap bokken that has a better balance later on. It will save your shoulders from getting all messed up, believe me.” I left it at that. But the student came back the following practice, carrying the same sword, even after I told him it was not balanced properly, at least for my dojo.
It’s an odd habit among some newbie students who have prior martial arts training. They can’t let go. If they can’t let go of old habits that don’t fit in the new environment of my dojo, why even train with me? It’s like the old saying of having their cup too full, they can’t absorb anything substantially new.
It’s also symptomatic of a problem among many young and gung-ho students, who are taken up by some charismatic teacher or system that they think answers all their martial arts problem forever after perhaps only a year or two of training. They don’t have the quality of nyuunanshin, something every student should have from the first day of training to their last days as a master teacher.
Nyuunanshin roughly translated means having a “flexible, pliant, generous spirit.” It’s having an attitude of being open to one’s feelings, environment, and situation, and trying to adapt instead of trying to be like an unmoving, solid block of wood. It’s sort of a contrast to the notion of fudoshin (being immovable, like the implacable god Fudo-Myoo); but fudoshin concerns a spirit of facing adversity. Nyuunanshin is not so much about a combative mind as it is about being able to grasp or accept concepts in a learning environment. It’s not about being a pushover; you do have convictions. But you are flexible enough to look at all sides and then make a conclusion.
There’s lots of examples for nyuunanshin. Let’s say you’re a highly ranked black belt in karate, but you realize you lack enough grappling skills. If you have nyuunanshin, you may seek out a judo or grappling school and willingly put on a white belt and start at the beginning to learn how to ‘rassle. You don’t need to put on airs about your karate rank. Or if you are a grappler, you realize that you may need to understand the mechanics of throwing a punch better, so you seek out a pugilistic school, or at least find someone who can give you the rudiments of punching and kicking, if only to learn how to defend against such attacks better.
I remember once training with a master teacher of my jujutsu school. His techniques were incredibly fast and whiplike. How did he do it? He showed me some exercises that he devised to develop strong hips, legs and arms. I told him that they reminded me somewhat of some tai chi ch’uan exercises I had learned. He said, “Of course, that would make sense, because I also studied tai chi ch’uan and aikido, and adapted some of what I learned that helped me to understand my jujutsu better. Wouldn’t you do that too? You take every experience in your life to understand everything else. You don’t isolate and compartmentalize your learning.”
He explained one of the sayings of our school. Although it is well over 450 years old, and stands a great deal on tradition, the saying was: “It is important to protect and pass on the true traditions of your teacher and the teachers before him and her. But it is not enough to only preserve the old. You must extend it and add to it.” In other words, you have to constantly seek to improve the tradition by fine-tuning it, based on your own experience and accumulated wisdom, while keeping to the tradition.
You have to have nyuunanshin, in other words. You have to be able to be open minded enough to see how something else can add to your understanding of the techniques.
So I watched how a student in my school who’s a top flight chef and restaurant owner handled his short sword, because he really had experience slicing things apart with a sharp knife. The best session I had in terms of learning standing dislocation techniques was when I worked with a teacher whose real occupation was as a chiropractor and bone-setter. He brought his work experience with him when it came to figuring out how to work with joints.
In what I consider one of my biggest technical challenges, I met up with a fellow student of my late iai teacher a year ago and he showed me how he had changed his techniques based on how our sensei started to teach before he passed away, and how the best iai teachers in the ryu began to teach, going back to what they thought were more “koryu-ish” roots; abandoning the prior kendo-influenced techniques. It was up to me, he said, to stick with the kendo-influenced seitei style or change over. He wasn’t going to make up my mind for me. But I thought I had to be flexible enough, have enough nyuunanshin to weigh the pluses and minuses, the technical and political implications of the choice I had before me, and then I abandoned what I had previously learned and taught for the new way of cutting and moving, because I thought technically and organizationally, what he was now espousing was better. I had to start all over again, but once I felt the “new” old way was better, I couldn’t go back to doing it the old “wrong” way.
These are all examples of what nyuunshin could be. Having nyuunanshin is NOT about dropping one art for another, willy nilly, without careful thought and consideration. It’s not about having no backbone or convictions. It IS about having an open mind and an ability to sort through things on your own, without relying on prejudiced and uninformed dogma.
Nyuunanshin is also about being sensitive and open to the environment and the equipment, and that comes only from years of proper training. For example, it’s like a good judoka who has the ability to “feel” an opponent’s attempt at a throw before he fully executes it. A lot of mental and physical attributes go into this ability (such as being able to assess the opponent’s plans by sensing the tenseness of his muscles under the sleeves that you are grasping), and so on, but you can generalize all those characteristics by saying “nyuunanshin.”
It’s the sensitivity of a tea person who can, in the middle of a complex ritual, intuitively judge the temperature of the hot water in the kettle and make a bowl of tea neither too hot nor too cold, too thick or too thin. The tea person will gauge the water’s temperature by the room temperature relative to the steam rising out of the kettle, the sound of the simmering water in the kettle (called “matsukaze,” or “wind in the pines”), the season of the year, the moisture in the tea powder.
Nyuunanshin is the ability of a sushi chef who can look at you and say a few words, and then figure out what kind of sushi you would enjoy, without you telling him.
And, eventually, it’s the ability of a swordsman to pick up a sword and being experienced and sensitive enough to use it like an extension of his body, as long as the sword is balanced right.
How do you get nyuunanshin? Well, practice is the main road to that goal. But it’s purposeful practice. Or as Vince Lombardi, that great sensei of the NFL football team, the Green Bay Packers, said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” In other words, if you train properly, you will naturally develop a sense of nyuunanshin. But that’s a big “if.”
The “ifs” include: if you have the proper open minded attitude, if you have the willingness to set your mind to trying to grasp the conceptual as well as technical skills behind the raw motor skills you are learning, if you have a proper teacher, and if you are learning the right system.
Finally, a concluding anecdote: a few weeks ago I wandered into my favorite budogu shop in Japan after a morning of sightseeing, quite on the spur of the moment. I ordered a new hakama to replace one that I had damaged, and while I was waiting for the receipt, I glanced at the rack of iaito swords. Bad idea. I was intrigued and asked to see a couple of the swords. I mused about replacing my present practice iaito. It was several years old, getting a bit worn at the handle, and perhaps I thought that at my doddering old age, I should move up to something with a bit more durability and quality. I started with the higher priced swords at the cheap end. I took one out of its scabbard, felt its balance. Not bad. Just like my old sword.
Then the clerk took another sword off the rack. It was slightly more expensive than I would have liked, but she put it down on the glass display case, on top of a felt blanket right in front of me.
“You really should try this, though,” she said, noticing my hesitancy. “All the sensei here recommend it, and many of them use this model themselves.”
Why is that, I asked? What would make it that much different in price? Was it the fittings and the handle wrapping, which looked a bit more high quality? She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Why don’t you try it?”
I pulled the iaito out of its saya. Cosmetically, it looked just a tad better than the standard issue beginner’s student grade sword I had been looking at. Okay, so it looked more like a real sword. Then I held it in my two hands. Immediately, it FELT right. The balance felt perfect, like no other iaito I had ever bought or used. I held it in one hand. I moved it around. It was heavier than my current iaito, but it moved as if by itself, it was so well balanced.
“Why don’t you try swinging it outside in our courtyard?” the clerk offered, opening a glass door to an inner garden.
I stepped out, took a jodan no kamae stance, and then swung it down a couple of times. The sword felt like it was doing all the cutting. It was so perfectly balanced and curved. “This is great!” I said, but I regretted it, because I knew it was going to put a dent in my credit card. But then again, I realized that such a well-balanced sword was going to be much better for my aged and creaking shoulder joints, which already had some calcification due to old football injuries. I walked back into the store, tilting my head, figuring out how long it would take to pay off the credit card bill if I bought it.
“I thought you would like it,” the clerk smiled.
“The balance is excellent!” I said.
“The reason why so many sensei recommend that sword is the balance,” she explained. “It’s an iaito, but an actual swordsmith finishes each blade, balancing it as if it were a real sword. That’s part of why it’s a bit more expensive than your baseline, mass produced iaito. But I wanted you to feel it for yourself.”
Out came my credit card.
I thought, well, one thing I discovered was that after all these years, I’ve developed my own sense of sword balance, and it must have been developed the right way, because I’m in synch with all the top sensei in that city in Japan, at the least. That’s good company.
Then I thought of that newbie student, whose badly balanced bokken and own stubbornness was going to hamper him from developing a proper feel for well-balanced swords. He would never develop the ability to immediately grasp the balance and feel of a good sword because of his lack of nyuunanshin. And that’s closing up a whole world of experience and sensitivity. Then again, there’s always room for change in young people. I remain the perpetual optimist.