Sozen Sensei is a 5th-dan practitioner of Katori Shinto Ryu, under Sugino Sensei. He is a big man, affable and energetic, with a passion for the art that comes across in all his demonstrations and instructions. Spending a couple of days under Sozen Sensei's expert eye is worth years of practicing alone or with one's peers.
Last year Sozen Sensei emphasized the importance of Responding, as opposed to blindly following the dictates of the kata. This year he spoke about how our practice should not be about trying to "reach" our opponent, but rather training ourselves to end up in the right position.
When one performs the kata with a partner, and has to make a cut, there is a very strong temptation to try and actually reach one's opponent's body as they retreat. Indeed at times I know I myself feel like I've failed if I haven't made contact.
Sozen Sensei emphasized that what's much more important than making that contact is to ensure that one comes to rest in the correct position, ready and balanced, available to make whatever move might be appropriate. Actually connecting with the blow is of lesser importance, and certainly one should never REACH out, extend oneself, in the hope of scoring a "touch". The swordfighting game is not about touching, it is about cutting, cutting deeply, cutting one's opponent down in a decisive blow. If the blow does not come naturally, then one should not reach out in the hopes of making it. Instead, finish the cut, maintain awareness, and adapt to the ongoing situation.
Miyamoto Musashi touches on this with his description of the Chinese Monkey's Body -- "the spirit of not reaching out your arms. Get in quickly, without extending your arms, before your opponent strikes." Sozen Sensei demonstrated how, once the urge to extend is eliminated, the swordsman can move in for a cut or keep a respectful distance, by stepping forward or back. The motion of the cut and the attitude of the body and arms are identical whether stepping in or staying back -- it is only through positioning that we choose between contact and distance.
"Chance favours the prepared mind," said Louis Pasteur. One might suggest that in mortal combat, chance likewise favours the prepared body. In our emotional and social interactions, we could say that chance favours the prepared spirit. In all our affairs, there is a correct manner of conduct, one that brings us to a balanced, stable stance, regardless of how we position ourselves. We may step in deeply, or we may stay clear of entanglement, but either way, the correct conduct remains the same. Acting decisively is a matter of conduct; acting effectively is a matter of position.
Photo by Leia Mendes Cook