“Muso Madness”: A look at some of the debate surrounding koryu and modern iai through two of the art’s most popular ryuha.
By Rennis Buchner
Copyright © Rennis Buchner, 2009. Not to be used without permission
By this point it is probably beyond argument that Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu are the overwhelming most practiced koryu iai ryuha both in Japan (with Eishin-ryu being the choice of Western Japan and Shinden-ryu being the choice of the Eastern half of the country) and everywhere else on the planet. Their strong influence in the creation of the Kendo Renmei’s seitei-gata, not to mention having of extremely influential teachers in the world of modern iai coming from these traditions insured that the two “Muso’s” (as I will call them here) spread far and wide very rapidly. Some have said too rapidly for their own good. While I suspect this piece could ruffle some feathers, but I think the example of what as happened to these to schools (and the resulting arguments about them one can see online) is an interesting lesson which many other ryuha facing at the moment as well. But first, some background.
Several years ago I wrote a short piece on my old website on the topic of Muso Shinden-ryu as koryu iai. The argument was that despite the common image from outsiders of Muso Shinden-ryu being a modern creation of Nakayama Hakudo, a closer inspection of the teachings, techniques and history of the ryu show that it is very clearly a continuation of and just a slightly different flavor of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu, whose curriculum is for all intents and purposes identical. Even the name “Muso Shinden-ryu” was used within the tradition prior to Nakayama Hakudo’s time. While even in Japan perhaps the majority of people believe that it is a new invention, many people I have encountered that are in a position to know better consider Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and Muso Shinden-ryu to be essentially the same school under “different management” (I happen to agree). And when all of this is taken as a whole, the idea that Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu is koryu, yet somehow Muso Shinden-ryu is not seems rather ridiculous. In both cases, the age is there, the curriculum is there, the tradition is there, the history is there. As far as I am concerned both are koryu. 10 years after writing that piece I still subscribe to that idea.
With that said, and assuming we can get everyone to agree both of the “Muso”s qualify as koryu arts, one can still quite readily find comments from various sources that both of the “Muso’s” are not really “koryu” anymore. Considering all the time I spent defending the koryu position all those years ago, perhaps it will surprise many that I also strongly agree with this opinion. How does that work? Is it or is it not? My answer will be a strong “it depends”. My intention here is not to engage in some politic battle, but rather take a calm and collected look on why despite the fact that both are koryu iai arts, the people claiming they “don’t qualify” anymore do makes some valid points. More importantly I feel this is an interesting topic as it touches upon not only what it is to be “koryu” but also how modern times and modern organizations have affected both traditional ryuha, and how people have come to view them. Lest people complain that I am just picking on the “Muso’s” here, I will quickly point out that the arguments I will try and present here are affecting a large number of traditional iai ryuha including my own. The “Muso’s” just happen to provide a clearer example on a much wider scale than most of the others at the moment, hence their being “targeted”, if you will.
When explaining why many feel that a large number of the practitioners of the “Muso” arts are not really doing koryu anymore, it is probably important to touch upon what it is some groups do that keeps arts alive in a “proper” koryu fashion (keeping in mind of course that the variation between koryu arts can be rather extreme at times and as just what is “proper” can vary greatly, these points will necessarily be only generalizations). Throughout this discussion I will adopt a “fundamentalist” or “traditionalist” approach to the understanding koryu iai. I understand there are others who do not agree with or care about the “traditionalist” viewpoint in their training and that is fine for them. For the moment I am more interested in merely presenting the traditionalists point of view and showing some of the reasons why they think the way they do.
There are a number of issues involved here, the first and foremost probably being issue of licensing and transmission and the information that goes with them. Traditional study in most arts in Japan, including the martial ones, puts strong emphasis on direct student/teacher relationships, with the teacher having been fully licensed in said art. In an ideal world, he is the student’s one and only authority and has all the “goods”. Full transmission is key point here, as anything less and one is not really doing the ryu in question. Without it there are pieces of the puzzle missing so complete understanding is not possible. Someone who is fully licensed (menkyo kaiden is the most often used term for this level of licensing, but it varies, ala Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu’s Kogen no Maki) might be able to do away with some aspects of the ryu, but only he, having access to all of the ryu’s teachings, is in a position where he would be able to safely say that the part being removed is unnecessary to properly transmitting the ryu in its correct form.
Now in a perfect world, everything would get transmitted down complete from the founder and we would all be doing the same thing today that they did back when the ryuha began. Unfortunately life is not perfect and for various reasons things do change and get lost. However there is a fundamental difference between a fully licensed teacher teaching a ryu which has lost something in the past, and an unlicensed teacher teaching what he has learned while there are still fully licensed teachers floating around out there elsewhere, which is the situation that exists in both of the Muso’s and several other iai traditions today. In the case of the former, you could say that the ryu has adapted to a new form in which the lost pieces, while unfortunate, no longer matter to the ryu’s identity. Everything that should be known now is known to the teacher and they are in a position to pass on the ryu as a complete tradition. In the later case, which is the norm for the majority of practitioners I interact with here in Japan, the teachers are simply teaching the pieces of the puzzle they have managed to pick up to date (often from a number of different sources). While their understanding of those pieces can be very good, often they lack the “complete” picture necessary to fundamentally understand the ryu as a whole and are thus simply “not qualified” to pass on the ryu. This loss of “complete direct transmission” is a fundamental break from one of the key things that makes koryu what it is and is one of the key reasons some people claim that most Muso practitioners are not really doing “proper” koryu these days.
In addition to the teacher having full access to a ryu’s teachings, another important aspect of what makes koryu koryu is exactly what is being transmitted and how said transmission is happening. We’ll start by looking at the situation only from a kata/curriculum point of view. The majority of today’s “Muso” practitioners study only the four sets of solo iai kata (shoden, chuden, and two okuden sets). A few lucky groups might also get some of the paired kumitachi, but as a whole the bulk of practitioners simply don’t have access to the entire ryu anymore. Many of them are not even aware that there is significant portion of the ryu beyond the solo iai kata. One might argue that kata form the “textbooks” of the traditional martial ryuha, so if you are missing half your textbooks, what are the chances you will be able to get all the knowledge you are supposed to get from your studies?
Another important point here is how the kata are being taught. The majority of practitioners of iai out there today are members of one of the larger umbrella iai organizations, most often the Kendo Renmei, and just about all students start off learning their organizations’ standardized iai forms. There are luckily some dojo that make a sharp distinction between their koryu practice and their practice of standardized iai forms (again most often the Kendo Renmei’s seitei-kata), but the situation I see most often in Japan is that there is very little distinction made. Students start with seitei kata #1, progress through that set. Often they work in large groups with everyone doing the kata roughly synchronized. Then at some point sensei starts with Omori-ryu #1, then #2, etc, until that set is covered. If the Omori-ryu were relabeled “seitei set #2”, no one would notice any fundamental difference in the training or method of instruction. As it stands now in most groups the only difference in instruction is that the teacher says “OK koryu time” and then keeps teaching the techniques in exactly the same manner as before. Traditionally due to the one on one nature of koryu, instruction tends to be very individualized. While on paper there is usually some sort of ordering of the techniques and as an end result students will eventually all learn the same things, often in practice this “order” is completely ignored. Different students learn different things in different order from different sets depending on what the needs of the student are at that particular time and place. The sort of 1,2,3,4 sequential group synchronized practice so often seen in modern iai training is rather rare if not completely unknown in most traditional training models. So now we have a situation where not only are we missing a lot of our textbooks, but the teacher has adopted a completely new form of teaching and the student/teacher relationship has been altered as a result. This is of course not bad in and of itself. It is however problematic when the general teaching methodology is considered by many to be one of the defining features of what makes something “koryu”.
For better or worse, the modern organizations have a strong impact on how iai is taught and understood by the majority of practitioners today. Of these the Zen Nihon Kendo Renmei undoubtedly has had the most influence and the most members. One of the major changes that has occurred in many groups is the change in kata teaching methodology just mentioned. However the influence can be felt further as the method of instruction and organization in these groups strongly affects how practitioners view iai and the methods and aims of its training. The standardized kata taught in these groups, tend to be a somewhat disparate collection of different techniques to be studied sequentially and refined over years or practice. One learns the techniques to master them. Again, this is fine in and of itself, but it is again fundamentally at odds with how most koryu are organized. The idea that the “kata” are not the ryuha itself is probably well known to many by now but issue is difficult enough to warrant looking at again. Most ryuha have their own “worldview” as I like to call it, or perhaps “personality” might be another way of putting it, which affects how the practitioner views life, budo, etc. Supporting this “view” are various philosophical principles which are integral to and give life to the ryu. These philosophical principles are further supported and expressed in various physical principles which in turn form the basis of the actual techniques of the ryu. These techniques are then organized and practiced in the ryu’s kata. All of this is further supported and reinforced by various oral teachings, writings, scrolls, etc that round out and complete the “package” of knowledge that forms the ryu. While the perfecting of the technique is definitely one aim in koryu, one might say the true purpose of studying kata is slowly lead the practitioner to discover the various principles that make the up the ryu and lead them to a true understanding of what the ryu is and change the practitioner and how the practitioner sees and interacts in the world.
This is more or less entirely absent from seitei-based kata training today, where the student is taught and spends years focusing on mastering the kata as a technical exercise, albeit probably with some allusions to self improvement and the like. Again there is nothing wrong with this and many people find value and satisfaction in this mode of study. It certainly has been effective in bringing together and teaching large numbers of students to an art that was in a dangerous predicament in the not so distant past and has ensured its survival in some form to future generations. That said a large majority of iai practitioners who start with this method of study are never able to mentally switch gears into the method of studying traditional koryu iai, especially since teaching in Japan tends much less explicit and less verbal. The situation has progressed far enough that in many cases we are now a couple of generations of teachers in on this newer model and many people teaching are just simply not aware enough of the gap between what they learned and the traditional model. Some are not even aware there is a gap at all. For many, the idea that the kata are supposed to lead to other principles that lace everything they are practicing is missing. Most, if not all, of the oral teaching have been lost. Faced with the loss of this sort of ryu specific information and philosophy, many groups seem to be “filling the gaps” with a sort of generic all encompassing “iai” philosophy as put forth by the major iai umbrella organizations. The teaching methodology and aims of study have radically shifted and as a result the very nature of the ryu has changed drastically. Some teachers and practitioners even have begun viewing iai as one single universal art with only one common “correct” way of doing things which is universally true across all ryuha.
Last month at the annual Kyoto Taikai I saw an example of this far more perfect than anything I could have dreamed up on my own. Outside at one of the stands for companies selling swords, a teacher had gotten the attention of a group of 6 or 7 younger practitioners who clearly had little experience in the art as of yet. Quite generously he spent nearly 30 minutes of his time educating these people on the correct ways of gripping the sword, drawing the sword, showing various mistakes that are not “correct iai” and the like. Several times he made comments such as “long time practitioners all do it this way. You can tell how long they have been doing iai by whether they do this or not. If they do not it this way, they have not been practicing long, because this is not correct iai.” While I have no doubt this person was well intentioned and I admire that he freely gave so much of his time to what was a random group of people he did not know, his comments made it quite clear that the idea of individual ryu having different approaches had little or no value to him and more often than not could be considered “wrong”. Ironically I had spent the previous two days with a menkyo kaiden holder who is several decades senior to the man I was now watching. This senior member of the ryu had showed me in no uncertain terms that many of the things this teacher was preaching as wrong were in fact the correct and ideal way to do them within the context of our ryu. I am sure this menkyo kaiden holding sensei would be most amused to find out that some of his most important inner teachings were “wrong and only done by inexperienced people”.
It is primarily for reasons such as these you may hear traditionalists complaining that the seitei has had a negative affect on koryu iai today. Whether or not this is true greatly depends on you point of view. Iaido today has spread far and wide due to these changes. More people in more places now gain benefit from training in iai than ever before so it is hard to argue that there have been no positive benefits from the modernization of iai. However from the koryu iai traditionalist’s point of view, it is also difficult to deny that the modernization of iai has shifted a great number of practitioners away from the traditional aims and values of koryu iai training. It is for that reason that you can hear people saying that the “Muso” practitioners (among others) are not really doing koryu iai anymore. I happen to agree that what many people practice today is koryu in name only. That said there are luckily a number of people out there with full transmission in both of the “Muso” arts who are passing on the arts in the traditional manner and learning from those who have access to it all is still possible. These people, I feel, are still doing the arts as proper “koryu” (whatever that may be is a whole other discussion).
While I have taken a “traditionalist’s” point of view in this piece (which is admittedly where my own personal feelings lean on the issue), there are equally valid arguments for the unification of iai as one art, especially in today’s age of internationalization. In the end it is probably best to simply accept that there are now two different trends in iai, one more traditional leaning towards the passing on of individual traditions and one with more modern leanings towards the creation and dissemination of world wide standards in the art. Arguing which is right or wrong is entirely a matter of perspective, but it is important to try and understand the other perspectives to be able to place their criticisms in the proper context and avoid some of the rather silly arguments we see boil up from time to time.