(Note this is a guest post from Rennis Buchner)
Like many, my first step into the world of iai and traditional Japanese sword arts was through the Zen Ken seitei-gata and for several years my experiences there strongly colored how I viewed iai, koryu arts and budo in general. Now anyone who has spent any amount of time on online forums or interacting with senior practitioners in various iai and sword related arts, both in Japan and abroad, will know that the seitei-gata “system” (for lack of a better word) can be and is controversial in some circles. The usual arguments typically being along the lines of the kata, being assembled from bits and pieces of various traditional ryuha lack something in technical coherency and depth, or that the technical fundamentals taught by the seitei have a strong tendency to “pollute” whatever koryu the practitioner happens to also practice. In either case, the seitei “system” is seen as being not “traditional” and having some sort of negative influence on more traditional iai arts and people’s views of budo.
While both of the major arguments have some merit, I think that they both also miss the mark to some degree in regards to both its influence and the issue of “traditionalism”. Yes the seitei was for all intents and purposes “assembled” and the range of technique is (to my eyes at least) rather wide with not so much overlap, but often I feel that claims of “no technical depth” perhaps reveals more about the commitment of the practitioner than problems with the seitei in and of itself. People can, and do, spend decades working on refining their art through the seitei so to say that it is just too shallow for long term practice and implying that the practice of it being something of a waste of time is perhaps overstating the issue. And yes, an unfortunately large number of practitioners do carry over seitei habits and seitei movements into their koryu of choice. For some ryu this is more of an issue than others (for example it is fairly obvious that Muso Jikiden Eishin ryu and Muso Shinden ryu have by far the strongest influence on the technical makeup of the seitei, so while there is definitely a difference, there is less of a gap there than with some other ryu), but regardless, for those that do practice both, any “contamination” that occurs is really, in my opinion, a failure of either A: the practitioner, for not making enough of an effort to keep the two separate, B: the teacher, for not being clear enough (or often just not even knowing enough) to allow his students to keep the two apart, or perhaps more commonly, C: a combination of the two. In either case I feel these issues are more “practitioner” oriented and often have little to do with the seitei itself (and for the record I am not seitei defender. I myself discontinued practicing the seitei years ago, but I am well aware that the reasons for this decision came more from my aims and desires rather than with any fundament problems with the seitei). More importantly, neither point really touches on the issue of it not being “traditional” and instead focus more on merely technical issues.
So where does the seitei fall short in the “traditional” department? My own opinion on the matter is that, if there is any real failure in the current seitei “system” of transmission, it is in the area of the student-teacher relationship. More than any questions of technical origin or influence, I fell this is the one area that fundamentally shifts the current “system” of education away from the traditional mindset. Namely the idea that one has only “one” teacher seems to be vanishing quickly. Reading many of the comments from people involved in Zen Ken arts, I am always struck by how often I see phrases like “my regular group of teachers”. While it is obvious that even in the most old school of environments one is brought up through the group effort of all the members of the dojo, the situation was still one of ABC-sensei being the top dog, his word is law and all other opinions don’t really matter. The only relationship that really matters is your relationship to him and vis-versa. The clarity of the “food chain”, as it were, is in stark contrast with the situation in most seitei practicing dojo I have trained in or visited in Japan. My experience (and the experiences of many I have talked with about the issue) is that in most dojo today, while it is usually clear who is above or below you, there is more often than not no clear hierarchy, no clear top sensei and many students end up having to learn multiple versions of the same kata to deal with which ever sensei they are dealing with at the moment. It seems my frustrations at being corrected by A-sensei, then having B-sensei come by and correct A-sensei’s corrections, then having C-sensei walk by and correct it yet again to something completely different were not unique nor unusual in the slightest. It has been my experience that when asked “Who is your sensei?” that many Zen Ken related practitioners do not give me a clear “A-sensei”, with many people listing a number of different sensei they train under. Often they have been encouraged to go out and farm the best from different high ranking sensei and practitioners. Now as a means of studying an art there is nothing wrong with this. It is, however not “traditional”. (I’m sure someone will want to pipe in now how such and such a samurai studied three different sword arts under three different teachers before going on to formulate their own school. There is, I feel, a fundamental difference here though as more often than not these guys A: were fully licensed before moving on to something else and B: these people lived in an entirely different area and literally “grew up” in these arts and C: quite often still had one main-core art. For them the individual student-teacher relationship was still massively important and perhaps the key issue to any legitimacy they had in whatever art they practiced).
So why is this a problem anyway? Probably no one would argue that dedication and commitment are some of the fundamental traits necessary for progress and development as a practitioner of iai or any other art form. In the opinions of several highly respected sensei with whom I have discussed the issue, and who would most likely be considered “traditionalists” by most, the ambiguity present in the current teacher-student relationships in many Zen Ken related dojo shows, more than anything else, a lack of commitment to the “traditional” art and its teachings. The sort of, visit this sensei, meet that sensei, mix and match approach shown in many dojo displays no real commitment to any one set of teachings which is an absolute requirement of a proper one teacher only relationship. The mix and match mindset also probably does more harm to the nature of the traditional koryu iai these people practice than any technical influence of the seitei kata itself ever could and the lack of a proper one-on-one relationship with a fully licensed teacher has probably done more than anything else in causing many “ryu” to slowly devolve into a mere collections of physical techniques with little of the technical and philosophical foundations that once supported it. It may surprise many in the West that a rather large number of high ranking Japanese iai practitioners have been unable to give me a clear answer when I ask them who their sensei is in whatever koryu they practice, nor are they usually able to give me any clear indication of the philosophical world-view at the core of their ryu. (Ironically, the situation abroad in many seitei dojo is often actually more traditional in this regard in that there simply are not as many high ranking teachers to choose from and who one’s sensei is is often a very clear cut matter.) Let me be the first to say that not all dojo suffered from this problem (if you even consider it a problem). There are still dojo that both teach the seitei and manage to maintain a traditional student-teacher relationship in both that and the koryu of their choice. They are however perhaps becoming an increasing minority these days.
So in the end what is wrong with the teaching situation in Zen Ken dojo? Depending on your aims and what you train for, quite possibly nothing. The current methods of teaching and the student-teacher relationship in many dojo are no better or worse than the “traditional” method. It is just different and only becomes problematic when it is used in conjunction with the passing on of a traditional art. If you are looking to improve and develop “your” iai, the modern method may very well be superior. It fails however when used to preserve a traditional environment or traditional arts (usually koryu arts) and can fundamentally alter the nature of a koryu art when used in that context. If you aim is to improve your own iai and your commitment is to that goal, then there is little to complain about. However if your aim is in the traditional vein, can you really claim to be doing a traditional art without the commitment to one sensei and one sensei only in that art?