Iaido Principles and Concepts
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While both batto-ho and kenjutsu were taught before 1600, sword techniques became more popular after this date, reflecting the change in the role of samurai from soldier during Japan’s civil conflicts to members of the ruling class.
Samurai wore daisho (lit. “large-small”), a katana (long sword) and a wakizashi (short sword), thrust through the obi (belt or sash) as a symbol of membership in this class (firearms were relegated to infantry). Drawing the sword became more important at this time since duels were common to keep the peace and settle personal grudges or other disputes.
Iaido has been characterized as a defensive art form, owing to the fact that practitioners begin and end kata with the sword in its sheath. Beginning and middle-level kata do emphasize reacting to, rather than provoking, an attack, but higher-ranking forms are often more aggressive, drawing the sword and pushing through a crowd to cut down an unaware opponent, for example.
The Meiji (post feudal period from 1863-1912) government dismantled the shogunal class system (feudal class system) and banned the wearing of swords after 1868. Former members of the samurai class continued to practice sword techniques but the emphasis shifted from dueling to self-discipline and character-building.
Iaido techniques were organized into beginning, middle level and advanced sets, and became affiliated with concepts common to other Japanese traditional arts, including elegance, simplicity, jo-ha-kyu, shu-ha-ri, zanshin, in-yo (yin-yang) koshi, ma-ai, and the use of kata as the principal means of training.
Zanshin is the sense of lingering awareness. Iaido kata foster the development of awareness in solo kata by encouraging the student to visualize the opponent. In kumidachi, students learn zanshin in patterns of attack, defense and counterattack. While mushin (“no mind”) has been considered an esoteric outcome of iaido practice, zanshin is more practical and more realistically attainable.
Ma-ai refers to the critical distance between opponents, a point at which forces are essentially neutral, but where anything can happen. Fundamental to ma-ai is ma, roughly defined as the way something (or someone) moves through space over time. Many teachers have stated that ma “cannot be taught,” either one has this sense of timing, or one does not.
However, ma can be enhanced and developed through training. An iaidoka (a student of iaido) who has a good, well-developed sense of ma has an uncanny sense of time and distance. Combined with a sense of zanshin, it is the difference between a merely competent practitioner and a great one.
As in other traditional martial art forms, the ma-ai of iaido embodies the concept of the sphere of protection, but in this case the circle is extended by the use of the sword. The sphere is realized by sword cuts in eight directions: straight down, horizontally (from both the left and the right), diagonally down and up on left and right sides, and the thrust. Many kenjutsu and some iaido dojo practice the different cuts in arranged sequences, called happogiri (simply, “eight direction cuts”).
Iaido also shares with other traditional art forms the sense of jo-ha-kyu. This is a formalistic organizing principle, which has been variously interpreted as “slow, medium, fast” and “beginning, middle, end.” It is characterized by a sense of rising action; for example, from an initial draw and small cut (or parry), to the larger, “killing cut.” Individual actions which make up a given kata also have this sense of rising action.
In-yo (or yin-yang) is the unity or complementary of opposites. Individual iaido kata contain many instances of in-yo. The most obvious may be that in all iaido kata, the sword is drawn, then returned to the sheath. More philosophically, in-yo can be seen in that, as a deadly art form, iaido is a contemplation of life and death.
Shu-ha-ri is often used to describe a student’s progression through training. “Shu” means “conservative” and is often translated as “tradition.” The beginning student learns the fundamentals of the art form, and all the techniques and kata, essentially as her teacher has shown her. “Ha” means “break” and has been variously interpreted in Western martial art circles as “breaking the tradition” or even “breaking with your teacher.”
However, it could also mean breaking as in “breakthrough in understanding”, i.e., going beyond the mechanics of the techniques to discover their underlying meaning. “Ri,” therefore, which has been interpreted in the West as “founding your own style,” or even “preserving the style but adding to it,” means “freedom” and could instead be interpreted as “owning the kata,” establishing one’s own identity within the traditionally arranged and performed techniques. Iaido at this point becomes very like free-flowing movement. Few practitioners attain this level, though it remains a goal of training, however elusive.You might also like: