Bokken work

by Bob Whelan, Sandan

What I have tried to do is summarize the instruction I have received from Sekiya Sensei, Inaba Sensei (at the Shiseikan Dojo previously referred to in a Kashima Shin Ryu post), Kanai Sensei, Chiba Sensei (and by extension, with his student Lorraine DiAnne Sensei), Saito Sensei, and Saotome Sensei. Some of this experience is as a deshi while the bulk of it is through consistent attendance at seminars over more than 20 years with the frequency of contact reflected in the above sequence. (It is not intended reflect any judgement of a hierarchy of ability.)

Although there are many nuances of style and application; what I have tried to do is cite only that which all seem to share in common. Consequently, the logic of my personal study is that the "essential points" would be what they all seem to agree upon. These are the things that I am still working on and likely will always need work.

As the sword is a bladed instrument, (rather than a club for example), the goal is to allow the blade to do the work. If free to do so, the edge will find its own path so there is no need for the wielder to do anything extra. Thus the boken is not "hitting" or "sawing" anything, rather it is "slicing". In addition, as one application of sword technique would have been on the battlefield with multiple attackers, this must be done with minimal effort and yet with speed. This would allow the samurai to deal with an indefinite number of opponents rapidly and without fatigue.

Consequently, there should be no tension or strength whatsoever in the shoulders, arms, wrists or hands. The shoulders particularly must stay relaxed in order that they might receive the power that will be generated from the hips and the foundation of a firm center. The hands should grip the boken the way one might hold a live bird; firm enough that the bird cannot escape yet light enough that it will not be crushed in any way. In addition, the grip should be primarily with the little finger and then ring finger with the middle finger somewhat less involved (some note percentages of each but this varies). The placement of the hands on the hilt is in the same manner that one does yonkyo; as this technique is actually an application of the sword grip to the back of an opponent's forearm. Basically, the knuckle of the right index finger is just under where the sword-guard (tsuba) would be and the little finger of the left hand is at the base of the hilt. This leaves a space between the hands which is roughly the equivalent of a hand's width.

The index finger on the right hand could be thought of as "aiming" or directing the blade in a manner similar to how one might point, (although this is more a visualization, as neither index finger should be extended, but instead gently curled around the grip). The little finger of the left hand is used to stop the path of the blade as indicated in each specific cut. (In Kashima Shin Ryu it is actually curled under the hilt to serve as a "stop" during tsuki thrusts, so that the sword doesn't slip back, but this is not the case in Aiki-ken.)

Rather than try and hit something, (like one might with a baseball bat), attempts should be made to extend a clear but relaxed focus (this is hard for me to explain and these words just don't do it exactly but I'm trying) to a point on the blade edge of the boken about an inch or so from the tip. This is where the blade is beginning its cut and will move from here "through" the intended target ,(as opposed to "at" it, as one might hit), until the cut completes itself.

The gruesome reality is that the cut (for example a kesa giri with enters at the juncture where the neck meets the shoulder and exits just above the hip on the opposite side, thus cleaving the opponent in half) must travel through dense muscle and several thick, hard bones. This can't be "pushed". The blade must find its own way.

To maximize power from the hips and maintain the boken as a part, or extension of the wielder, it is necessary to stand erect but not strained. The shoulders are less "thrown back" than the chest is "opened", (again to avoid tightness there). The back of the neck is also straight but not strained, as if you are "holding the sky up with your head". The knees are always bent and "springy". This is both to allow movement of the hips but also to allow the body weight to be transmitted through the "center" to the blade, as the weight shifts with the cut. As the blade falls and "slices", the "center" must also be able to drop in unison with the cut. I have been told (but cannot verify) that in Aiki-ken the turn of the hips into the cut, (from a more perpendicular relationship of hips to blade into a more pronounced hanme) was an innovation of O Sensei. The logic was that, in the event of a "mutual kill" situation resulting in simultaneous thrusts, the swordsman who retreated his hip would avoid the stabbing. In addition the snapping return of the hips to the original position adds extra momentum and power.

The bending of the knees has another very critical and necessary function. It helps unify the center of one's weight with the center of one's height at the "one point". It might be helpful to use the metaphor of how a "range finder" focus works in a camera. In this instance there are two "fuzzy" images that "merge" into a single clear one. In general, the "center" (hara/tanden) is approximately the distance of a fist below one's navel. This is likely be the center of one's weight, but that weight is distributed unequally along the height of the body. Therefore, it becomes necessary to lower one's height, (again in general), to "equalize" the weight distribution and bring the mid-point of one's weight and the mid-point of one's height to a single "focused" point at one's "center". If one keeps the upper torso completely relaxed and pliable then this action will significantly stabilize the hips and add much more substance and "rooting" to one's posture. It applies to ALL technique. Everyone will have to find their own personal center though.

The choice of footwork varies slightly but there seems to be agreement on the purpose. The variations seem to be related to how tight the hanme is (e.g. if you retreat the forward foot does it collide with the rear foot because they are on the same line?) and the timing of the foot placement (e.g. does the step occur during the cut or just before?). The majority opinion seems to be that the step occurs just prior to the cut, however the movement is so close that it is virtually coordinated. The logic is that the blade must swing from a foundation that is "already stable" rather than a foundation in the process of "becoming stable".

The step should never be longer than a shoulder width so that one maintains a "defensive" posture. The feet slide as if one could almost, but not quite, slip a sheet of paper between the sole of the foot and the mat. If one were walking along a straight line, like a seam in the canvas of the mat, then that line would bisect both feet from space between the big toe and second toe (where you would slip the thong of sandals) to a point very slightly to the outside edge of the center of the heel. This will result in both feet turned slightly to the outside and a somewhat narrow hanme. The advantage here is that when you pivot 180 degrees to the rear, as you do in Happo no Giri, you are in exactly the same stable hanme as before and no foot adjustment is required.

Now this is already quite a bit to practice! Training methods used for these details consist primarily of very slow walking along a line with something like a tsuba, or round block of pine, balanced on the top of the head. One first, takes the hanme with awareness of all the factors described above. Then, after checking posture, one places the block on the top of the head on the spot which represents the top of the axis of one's back bone, (as if it extended through the skull). Now, with the block on your head, you practice walking in the method indicated above. After awhile you add the movement of pivoting your relaxed shoulders arms and torso from side to side around this axis, with a very low center and springy knees. This practice progresses to going up and down into seiza while walking, to tenkans, and knee walking added in between periods of walking; all while keeping the block balanced.

If you tie your belt so that the knot is at the spot that you have determined is your personal center, you can add the further refinement of focusing maintaining a hard center throughout the training. This can be initially done by pushing the one point against the knot in the belt. However, one must aim to maintain this focus WITHOUT flexing or straining the abdominal muscles. The visualization is that one EXTENDS from the internal point ultimately to all directions but you can use the belt knot as a starting cue. This is more than a visualization, however, because you actually can get to a point where you can make the center hard and firm. Once one has this ability it is applied along with an exhale to the completion of any technique.

On top of this foundation one adds the cut. The cut actually emanates from the center. The stance is firm, open and relaxed. The center is deep allowing one's weight to be drop down from it (like a "plumb bob" toward the earth) with the weight more or less equally distributed between the feet. The sense is that one's center extends out as the boken rises and then drops as the boken falls. The blade falls virtually under its own power but accelerated by the momentum transmitted to it from the center of a unified body that is "one with the blade". This movement is timed with an exhale as the center also drops with the blade. The weight shifts slightly to the forward foot via the "spring" in the knees.

A diagram with the footwork for Happo no Giri can be found in one of Saito Sensei's books. Basically though, you apply all of the above. In this instance, start in right hanme, and perform a shomen cut (an overhead cut straight down from one's own middle to slice the opponent in half). With feet in place first cut forward (North), then (still with feet in place) you pivot 180 degrees and cut behind (South). Now using the rear foot as a cue as to which direction to step (in other words, your rear right foot is slightly pointing to the right so move it in that direction into right hanme) you move to your right (West from the starting orientation) and cut. Then you keep your feet in place and pivot as before to cut behind (East from the starting direction). This has given you the first 4 directions. From this position to change direction to give you the final 4 directions.

In this position your rear foot is slightly facing the right again. So now step diagonally to the right (South East from the starting orientation) and repeat all of the above for the next 4 directions. The sequence when starting in right hanme would thus be:
North-South-West-East-Southeast-Northwest-Northeast-Southwest. At the end without moving your feet you pivot back to face North into the same right hanme where you started. As you turn the blade of the sword should be facing the direction of the turn.

At the start and finish of each shomen cut the arms are extended in a natural curve (as in they are in "unbending arm") with the hilt extended from one's center and the point aimed at the center of the throat of an opponent your own size. Thus you can practice the initial "aim" in the mirror.

There are three variations of the stopping place of the upward movement. They are: 1.) point straight up towards the sky, 2.) blade horizontally over the head where the blade and hilt protect the wielder from an over head strike, and the point is aimed behind, 3.) the blade all they way over and behind the head where the point aims down towards the earth. However, they all stop at the same place after the cut is complete. That is the starting position described above. The tip of the blade never drops lower then the hilt, at most it ends horizontally, as this provides an opening for a counter strike.

Don't expect quick progress. One teacher told me that if you do all of these things you will BEGIN to notice a real difference after 2 years!