Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 3)

This is the third part in a five-part series that translates a lecture made by Morishima Tateo. To see the rest of the published series plus a bio on Morishima sensei, please click here.

Pursing the spirit and modern kendo


(2). From “technique kendo” and “power kendo” to “spirit kendo”

The steps of kendo pursuit (剣道修行)

So, how do we change this “defensive” kendo into an “attacking” one? I mentioned before about the problem of instructors; this is one point that needs addressing. One more point is changing the content of kendo from “technique” and “power” based to “spirit” based kendo (心の剣道). This is very difficult to do, but if you are prepared to do it, then it can be done.

From now I will explain the 3 steps to pursue kendo correctly. The first step is:

elementary level people* – those from beginners until around 3dan who should focus solely on training drills and kihon.”

If people at this level practise this way, they will make a solid base from which they can build on. Nowadays basics are neglected and people are suddenly doing shiai here and there. Being taught is a hassle for these people and – no matter how they do well at shiai – there will come a time when they find themselves unable to advance without difficulty.

* Note that in Japan this usually (but not always) covers primary school children up until university aged young adults. Watch some university level shiai to get an idea of what your kendo should ideally look like at that end of the elementary point.

Look at the famous words by Mochida Seiji:

Until the age of 50 you must do your upmost to study and make the basics your own. You might think that you have already mastered the basics when you were still a beginner, but this is completely wrong. There are many people who think in this wrong manner. It took 50 years for my body to acquire the basics.

The famous Mochida Seiji said that it took him 50 years to acquire the basics of kendo! I was lucky to have done keiko many times with Mochida sensei at Keishicho and Noma dojo. After keiko I would be sitting in the teachers room drinking tea when someone more senior than me would ask “Was my left foot twisted out?” Being humble in this way allows us to grow. Undoubtedly, the most important part of your kendo life is the time when you are focusing solely on basics.

The next step is the:

Intermediate level – at this stage in your career you can improve rapidly, and it usually comes around 4, 5, 6 dan. Above and beyond drilling in the basics, you should work on utilising techniques and your power to the most, and temper your confidence through wholehearted hard training”

This is the most painful and difficult part of your kendo career. Because it is the most difficult part you must do kendo so much that your body becomes lean and strong. Wherever you go for keiko, whenever you do shiai, you must do it with full strength so that everyone says “wow, that guy is strong!” People who keiko like this during this period and those who are negligent are easy to tell apart after the fact.

The last level is:

Advanced level – people 7dan and above who aim to achieve completion in the physical (technique) and mental (spirit), as well as the human factors of kendo training.”

In this period, the technical, powerful, speed-centric kendo that you have been doing to-date must do an about-turn and change to “spirit kendo” (心の剣道). What I mean by “spirit kendo” is the ability to “show that you have won with your spirit through the techniques you execute.” When we were young there were many sensei like that, now, however, I rarely see anyone with this ability.

Looking at “spirit kendo” from the teachings of Shirai, Mochida, and Saimura sensei

In the Bakamatsu period, there was a renowned kenshi called Shirai Toru. He opened a dojo at the age of 28 and taught around 300 students. In spite of this, he had a worry about his own kendo. In the fencing world at the time, there were many fine kenshi up until the age of 40 around. After 40, however, they weakened and became a mere shadow of their former selves. “I wonder why that happens? I guess that will happen to me too…” And so he left his dojo and 300 students, went back to his home city of Edo, and sought out his (itto-ryu) sempai Terada Goroemon. Terada sensei didn’t use a shinai for sparring, but a bokuto. Terada was a buddhist priest and Shirai studied sazen under him. He also underwent Terada’s severe training methods and, before long, brokedown. At that time he unexpectedly discovered the Zen master Hakuin’s story “Yasenkanna” (Quite conversations on an evening boat). After reading this he tried harder at following Terada’s sazen instruction and introspection methods. “Introspection” is where you stare deep into your heart. After doing as best as he could he became a swordsman that even his teacher (now Terada) could not find fault with.

Mochida Seiji said:

When you become 70, your entire body becomes weak. At this time, I focused on keeping my spirit unmoved. If your spirit is unmoved your opponents spirit will be reflected in it. I worked to make my spirit quiet and unmoving.

I believe Mochida sensei didn’t suddenly begin to work on the task above when he became 70, but long before. He was always a technically superb fencer, and on top of this he worked at polishing his spirit. Its because of this that he became so famous a fencer it was said that he was unrivaled.

If your spirit is unmoved your opponents spirit will be reflected in it…. I remember facing Mochida sensei and thinking idle thoughts – “I wonder if I can win…. maybe I will lose…” – before the match was even decided. How many times was I defeated by Mochida sensei!?!?! I was probably 2 or 3 times the physical strength of him (due to age difference) and still got beaten by “that old guy!” Of course, it was wrong of me to think like that. Mochida sensei’s spirit had become a clear mirror – if you thought about striking him that thought would be reflected in his heart and in that instant he would strike. This is because he pursued kendo with his spirit.

The final sensei I want to talk about is Saimura Goro. His taught that:

If your spirit has been moved then – without even being struck – you should admit defeat.

Techniques must be practised until they become part of you, and you strike instinctually at the instant where an opening appears.

Nowadays, sensei like this have become rare. Even today I bet there are many of us that think “I wish I could become a sensei like X.” Now, many sensei believe what they are doing is correct but, there is a much higher level of kendo to aim for; because they haven’t seen those sensei, nor even heard about them, they can’t understand. Due to this, I feel sad for the younger generation.

Don’t run away from the first strike (shotachi)

One of the important methods we can use to change “defensive” kendo into “attacking” kendo is to concentrate on winning the first strike. This has been a part of the kendo pedagogy for a long time, and we have all learned it. Japanese kendo was born from “shinken shobu.” In a real life fight with swords there is no second strike, only one. In modern kendo we try to do this with shinai. “Shotachi ippon” isn’t so difficult as to require your full force, however challenging difficult things is part of the pursuit of kendo. As you are training hard to discipline yourself into seeking shotachi, and trying various methods (kufu), you will see a change: what you have been doing until now, that is, striking randomly with no rationale, with no opening, doing techniques that don’t result in ippon… this mudauchi (striking for no reason) will become less and less.

About The Principles of Kendo

In concrete terms, the “principles of kendo” is the method of drawing out maximum efficiency based upon the elements of “posture, breathe, vigour, eye contact, spatial distance, chance, body movement, tenouchi, striking the right spots, zanshin and so on.” The method of drawing out this maximum efficiency is SHIN-KI-RYOKU-ICCHI (mind, spirit and power in unison). The highest principle of kendo is this shin-ki-ryoku-icchi. If we breakdown shin-ki-ryoku-icchi into three sections we have “mental/spiritual control” (心法), “manipulation of the sword” (刀法), and “physical movement” (身法). If we break this down further we get the aforementioned elements of “posture, breathe, vigour, etc.” When all of these factors come together at the same time, we have finally achieved Shin-ki-rokyu-icchi.

The difficult thing about achieving shin-ki-rokyu-icchi is that you are facing an opponent. Trying to overcome your opponent is surely the most difficult part of kendo. Depending on the amount of kufu you do (over time) you can achieve shin-ki-ryoku-icchi. Once you have achieved this, the natural progression is to “shotachi ippon” (the first strike) and “winning by striking simultaneously” (see the final part).

1. Posture and breathe

In kendo, disciplining your spirit though hard training is important. That is to say, shin-gi-ittai (心技一体). Technique (技) is important, but what makes technique come alive is spirit (心). How do you train your spirit? Well, its through “breathing.” Kendo breathing is chokoki-tanden-kokyu (長呼気丹田呼吸): using the tanden you exhale at length, and inhale briefly. Doing this reduces the overall number of breathes you take. Where a normal person would breathe 15 times, using this method you would need only 4 or 5. Let me explain the benefit of this type of breathing. Beneath your solar plexus is where the autonomic nerves gather. Breathing from the belly (i.e. tanden) your diaphragm goes up and down and stimulates these nerves, specifically the sympathetic and parasympathetic nerve systems. As the parasympathetic nerves ascend, it causes you spirit to remain calm. Thus, calmness is the benefit gained from breathing from the tanden.

2. Ki

The universe was said to created by “ki.” As we breathe, we inhale and exhale this energy into and out of our bodies. I talked about Terada and Shirai sensei before. It was said that from Terada sensei’s bokuto “fire” emanated, and from Shirai’s “rings.” That is to say, depending on how advanced your breathe control is, this energy can be transported from your diaphragm, through your fists, into your shinai, and finally this “ki” can be expressed on the kensaki.

As much as possible your “spirit should be correct and calm, and your ki strong.” There is a saying “pressure with your ki, overwhelm him, break his kamae and spirit, and seize the opportunity you create.” In both these teachings, spirit and ki hold the most important meaning. To cultivate ki the best method is *seiza (sazen). Depending on how you do this you can train your breathing. If your discipline your breathing, your spirit will become calm and your posture correct. If your posture is correct, your spirit will become correct, and you will be able to execute techniques correctly. In this way you can see that there are many interconnected things here, but the root of them all is breathe.

* “seiza” refers to “quiet meditation through sitting” (静座) and should not be confused with the homonym (in English at least) “seiza” (正座) which refers to the method of sitting down we often use in budo. Same pronunciation, different meaning and kanji.

The best way to achieve “spirit kendo” is to practise seiza. You can’t practise zazen without the help of a specialist but seiza anyone can practise. However, if you don’t approach the practise seriously then there will be no benefit gained from it. It can give you a correct posture, correct breathing, and put your spirit in order. If you practise tanden breathing, then you will cultivate tanden power. From seiza-cultivated tanden power comes mental concentration and the ability to confine the ego; from these limitless boundaries you can acquire exquisite skill. Practising seiza will free you from “idle thoughts and delusion” and allow you to “strike naturally from a state of nothingness.”

Continued in part 4…



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I'm the founder and chief editor of kenshi247.net. Amongst other things I am a high school kendo club coach, an avid practitioner of classical swordsmanship, a history student, and a vegetarian.

14 thoughts on “Pursuing the spirit and modern kendo (part 3)”

  1. Hi George,
    Thank you for the excellent series. I personally love the works of Morishima sensei; I was reading through one of his books (剣の心 神の心)the other day, and he really goes into explaining complex details in very simple yet entertaining fashion.

  2. This chapters are just excellent (well, like all this blog). Can i make a suggestion? It could be nice if you can make a .pdf archive whit all the information to download, in case of an internet or blog shut down.

    Greetings from Chile.

  3. It surely was an excellent lecture. The transcript will form part of various very valuable Kendo Fundamentals readings, instruction and practice material. I am really glad that someone is making a serious effort at saving spiritual Kendo from the easy path of “I’m doing it for the enjoyment of beating people up” or just simply winning matches.

  4. Dear George McCall, thanx a lot for this wonderful translation. You have done ready a great job translating all this and I´m sure many people will be very grateful for it too. Really very important thoughts about kendo I see here, so much useful for my future practice as far as I´m only a beginner. I should translate this to my trainer into russian as he doesn´t speak english at all )

  5. Thanks guys, glad people are finding it a good read! The last 2 parts will be released this month. When they are all published I will sit down and re-examine the lecture as a whole again, and perhaps re-edit it.

  6. This is the best by far I have ever read about Kendo on the net. The Sensei is so honest in telling that a lot of deep understanding of Kendo is all ready lost today. But by sharing this wonderful knowledge there is hope that new dai sensei will rise and stand as an example of human mind and the cultivation of the human heart. Thank you!

  7. Cheers Nik!!! kenshi247 aims to be the best kendo website on the net …. we have loads of other articles on here for you to check out to. Please tell your kendo friends about the site (if they don’t already know).

  8. The concept of shu (守) ha (破) ri (離) goes will with your explanation.

    Beginner level (0-3dan) – shu (守) – “protect”, “obey” — traditional wisdom — learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs

    In this beginning stage the student follows the teachings of one master precisely. He concentrates on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. If there are multiple variations on how to do the task, he concentrates on just the one way his master teaches him.

    Intermediate Level (4-6dan) – ha (破) – “detach”, “digress” — breaking with tradition — detachment from the illusions of self

    At this point the student begins to branch out. With the basic practices working he now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice.

    Advanced Level (7dan+) – ri (離) – “leave”, “separate” — transcendence — there are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms; transcending the physical

    Now the student isn’t learning from other people, but from his own practice. He creates his own approaches and adapts what he’s learned to his own particular circumstances.


  9. Thanks for your comment.

    Shuhari kind of works but its too hard to put a ‘dan’ value to it. If I did, then shu would probably extend until 6dan for most (i.e. very early 30s for a professional kendoka), and ri would be at least 8dan or something that should happen after it.

    Thats my opinion anyway, fwiw.

  10. Yes, I also agree that it is not fair to put a Dan value on it. After posting my previous comment I read your article on Ikeda-Yuji Sensei. And the quote:

    “Shu-ha-ri” is something you repeat over and over. Whatever grade you become “shu,” whatever grade you became “ha,” its not “once you get to x-dan” then you are now in the “ri” stage, at least this is what I believe. It doesn’t matter what grade you are, you must always return to basics.

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