Tanren-ho is part of a Way (2)…

– – – by Peter John Still

“In aiki keiko,  the most important things are practising ki-gata, and doing tanren-ho…”…

A few months ago I renewed my practice of doing a hundred cuts a day, because I was beginning to suspect that the way my jo seemed to float upwards on the up-swing might be relevant to my practice of aikido (!)…

I’m talking here about a hundred  jo-dan to chu-dan cuts with a jo or an iai-to  (thus: shomen-uchi),  and in reality I’m talking about two-hundred cuts:   a hundred stepping forward alternating with a hundred stepping  back.   More recently I determined to – one time in a week – do 500 cuts (actually 1,000),  or even 1,000  (actually 2,000):  because historically that was the practice of our ryu and I was curious as to what I would learn from that…

…and I think I should set down some effects that I noticed – and benefits that I would recommend  – that I have not seen mentioned in print elsewhere.

Saotome Shihan eloquently states the classic rationale for this kind of suburi – which I would absolutely affirm to be true – :  “What you have observed, you must polish by repetition. Repetition is a great teacher and will show you your mistakes. For instance, if you are practicing suburi, or repeated cuts, with the sword, you do not have to swing the sword well if you only cut five times. To do a thousand cuts poorly is impossible; your body will tire long before you have completed them. But if you persist in your determination to do a thousand cuts without stopping, you will eventually learn the correct and efficient way to use the sword, for to perform the movement properly is the only way it is possible to accomplish such a large number of repetitions. Only through practice will your level of comprehension of techniques increase. Your teacher cannot answer through your intellect the questions of your body. To learn Aikido, you must perform the movements you are shown again and again until your own body teaches you the natural wisdom of movement and allows you to absorb the knowledge that your instructor gives you.” 1)

Saito Shihan briefly lays out the ki-aspect of many of the suburi  he was given by O’Sensei 2):  which is to say the in-yo-ho aspect,  but without  extensive exegesis, or elaborate directions for practice… and without emphasizing the effects on the mind.  Of course, the nature of  traditional practice is to do, not talk…

…but, nevertheless,  I am going to say that 500 (actually 1,000) cuts, as practised by the swordsman and Zen-master Tesshu, did, in fact, kick me into a very special flavor of mushin – different again from what I have experienced in meditation and in year-round river misogi.  This happened at up around 320 cuts (so actually 640 as far as the mind is concerned).  And what I find fascinating about this is that in statistics,  600-700 is the minimum number of samples you need for statistical laws to come into play with a useful degree of predictibility.  And practising 1,000 cuts  (so:  1,000 repetitions of the complete physical motion:  one cut forward, one cut back),  it was at around 640 that my body completely relaxed and I experienced an almost chiropractic adjustment!

Now, continuing on past the point where mushin kicks in, is training the body-mind to kick into mushin as a response to this physical movement:  in other words, your body is learning to respond to  shomen-uchi  like a mudra, like kuji-ho…  so that in future,  the mere fact of initiating a technique with a shomen-uchi strike will click your mind into mushin.  This functions with empty-handed shomen-uchi te-gatana, too,  and  I’m pretty sure that this is why this unusual, un-streetwise attack is so common in the early learning of aikido.  All the way back to the Budo manual of 1938 : where, immediately foll0wing the “preparatory exercises”, are five waza from a shomen-uchi  attack.

I suspect, too,  that alternating down-swings that follow the line of gravity with up-swings that  feel like the jo is moving upwards by itself (this happens spontaneously after enough repetitions) are the beginnings of what O’Sensei famously referred to as harmonizing one’s physical movements with the functioning of the universe.

And putting one’s mind into a meditative state that accesses Storehouse Consciousness is, by definition,  a tuning of one’s ki to the functioning of the mind of the universe.

The ki  that links body and mind, I’m guessing,  is  about that feeling of wholeness  that comes from hooking up to the functioning of the autonomic nervous-system:   meditative breathing practices do this,  but so do,  also,  the sort of repetition practised in tanren-ho and suburi.  And especially, I think,  if one practises suburi in the spirit of inquiry so encouraged by O’Sensei and Saito Shihan.

Just  for the record:  places that I have put my mind, while practising a hundred to 1,000 cuts of shomen-uchi :

  • smooth flow of “levitating” up-swing to “with-gravity” down-swing
  • shoulder relaxation
  • holding the sword or jo precisely in the palm-chakra
  • keeping the feet in choku-sen  (which requires extension of the ham-string)
  • keeping the ki-connection between sword and hara (easy on the forward step, harder on the back step)
  • moving ki forward on the back step, so that one is cutting forward while stepping back.
  • being aware of the yang feel in the up-swing, the yin feel of the down-swing (ideally just like the “going-to-the-ground” arm of ten-chi-nage )
1)  Mitsugi Saotome Shihan, The Principles of Aikido, pp.3-4
2) Aikido It’s Heart and Appearance p.40 et passim;  Traditional Aikido vol. 1,  p.23 et passim.

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