The Lifesaving Step - A Review of the Myoken Dojo Iaido Handbook
By Batman O’Brien
B.A., N.C.E.H.S., Dip. Acu., Dip. OBB Adv., Dip. CPM, Cert Clin. Med. M.AFPA, M.ETCMA, M.C.Th.A.
Over the last 2 decades I have read many martial arts manuals. There exist hundreds of books in the English language on the subject of Karate, Judo, Jujutsu but not as many on the authentic samurai arts - and fewer still on the subject of authentic Japanese swordsmanship. In fact, I can safely say I have read every book on the topic of Japanese swordsmanship in the English language and have every one of them in my library, be they philosophical texts or rarer still actual instructional texts and never, in all of these have I come across a manual such as written by Peter West Sensei, 7th Dan Kyoshi.
West Sensei, one of the most knowledgeable instructors in the art of Iaido, Japanese Swordsmanship in Europe has released an updated 4th edition, greatly revised, of his seminal text on Iai, the Myoken Dojo Iaido Handbook. And it is remarkable. This is NOT a step by step instruction manual. This is far more valuable. This is a manual revealing the key mistakes and corrections of Iai and of the Seitei forms (the primary grading and assessment forms of the All Japan Kendo Federation - ZNKR), but more so that reveals West Sensei's teaching methods and his philosophical approach to same. The closest I have seen to this level of insight, explanation and understanding is some of the very rare Japanese texts and documents recounting the secret oral teachings of the koryu (old martial arts of Japan) that I have been fortunate enough to acquire. I've just never seen anything like this in English before.
Perhaps the single best example of this level of detailed instruction and insight is in the comparative footwork charts detailing the differences between two standing forms, Morote Tsuki and Gan men Ate.
The bunkai/riai or explanation of Morote Tsuki is to walk forward and sense that the opponent directly in front of you intends to do you harm. You draw the sword and cut to his face, before thrusting the sword through the opponent. On doing so however, you become aware of another attacker directly behind you. You turn on the spot , step forward and cut that opponent down. Then turn back to the original front position and deliver a final cut.
Gan Man Ate is very similar at first glance. You have two opponents, in the same positions one directly in front, one directly behind. The combative aspect is slightly different; the first strike this time is not a cut but striking the opponent between the eyes with the butt of the sword stunning him. You seize upon this momentum and turn to address the opponent behind you. This time as you turn you chamber the sword on your hip and thrust one handed to this rear opponent, before turning back to the front opponent for the final cut.
Now - one would assume to concentrate on the sword work - after that is what appears to be different. The feet turn in the same way, the steps forward and back are the same and the same legs move forwards and back - to all intents and purposes it looks the same way and when you see students performing these two kata back to back the footwork is the same. And that - is as West Sensei so brilliantly explains, is the problem. Because they simply are not the same.
This is nearly impossible to catch from just observation of the forms. Looking at a master you'd likely never spot the tiny movement in the foot work of Gan Man Ate that separates it from Morote Tsuki. Thankfully West Sensei provides detailed footstep charts, directly comparing the two forms and the reality of the footwork becomes apparent - and this tiny detail, a lifesaving step, is literally the difference between the form working or not - the difference between cutting the opponent or missing - the difference between life and death.
This is the overriding theme of West Sensei's book - the revelation of small details, tiny adjustments that separate a form from mere sword dancing and make it actually effective and logical. And he does this for every single form of the Seitei kata.
In a sense the book reads much as West Sensei teaches - it's at another level; a level of finesse and understanding that few teachers of Iaido have let alone express so well. Each page is a revelation. Each paragraph provides enough insight that it changes your previous understanding of the form - or at least that was my experience. I couldn't just fly through the book - I was compelled on reading something to try it, apply it and see how what I was doing was different and how these previously unseen observations and suggestions totally changed not only the way I performed the forms but they way in which they worked - as in, they wouldn't have before - I was off centre, leaving openings and vulnerabilities for my opponent to exploit, or worse missing that opponent completely. Ultimately my performance of the forms was uniformed and thus hollow. West Sensei's advice in this valuable volume gave life and meaning to the movements. (That's not to say I can actually do them well, but at least I can understand what it is I meant to be doing).
If that was all that was in this volume it would be a necessary addition to every student of ZNKR swordsmanship, however West Sensei, much like in his classes goes far beyond just this high level of technical explanation. Included in the 4th Edition of the Myoken Dojo Iaido Handbook, are detailed explanations and suggestions for further reflection of key philosophical concepts within the performance of Iai that are mentioned but rarely discussed and yet explanations of such terms are required on the Dan written exams. Those students considering examination would do well then to have this volume as resource.
But the book doesn't just cater for the beginner or even intermediate students but for advanced students above 4th dan studying the koryu or taking up duties as referees and judges with guidelines and suggestions from West Sensei on how to conduct oneself in these duties.
Finally West Sensei also provides sample syllabuses for Kyu grades and resources for their instructors who do not have the benefit of regular instruction from a Nanadan or Hachidan, guidelines and examples for those with physical limitations and even provides a detailed article on the nature of dealing with the psychological pressures of grading and embu. That simply does not happen in any other text I've read and yet is of such vital importance and practical impact to students of Iai.
This book is a treasure and required reading for any serious student of Iaido (ZNKR or otherwise) who wishes to take their training and practice to the next level.
To purchase a copy of the Myoken Dojo Iaido Handbook you can contact Peter West at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author:
Batman O’Brien, is a fully qualified Acupuncturist and Traditional Chinese Medical Practitioner. He is also a certified in Western Clinical Medicine, Oriental Body Balance, and holds additional qualifications as a Fitness Instructor, Personal Trainer, and Whole Body Vibration Trainer.
He runs a busy private medical practice in Dublin, the Meridian Acupuncture Clinic and is also a Reality Based Combat Instructor, Iaido (Japanese Swordsmanship) Instructor, former President of the Iaido Association of Ireland and dedicated martial artist having studied the martial arts for over 15 years.
He also runs a dedicated martial arts website - www.way-of-the-samurai.com, featuring in depth sword reviews, technique guides, history, philosophy and opinion.
He provides a FREE consultation service for readers of Irish Fighter Magazine in his Dublin based Clinic. For more information or should you have any questions regarding your health or how best to treat injuries and illness you can contact him on 087 901 9627, or through his websites – http://www.meridian-acupuncture-clinic.com and http://www.isometric-training.com or connect with him via: