20 years since shodan – reflections on gradings, mastery and imposter syndrome

Shodan Certificate in Aikido

Today (5th August 2021) marks twenty years since I first graded to shodan (the first black belt grade) in a martial art. It might come as a surprise to many non martial artists that there are multiple black belt grades, and that a black belt does not represent the end of a journey but more of a proper beginning.

I dug out my shodan certificate recently when I realised this milestone was approaching. It was carefully stored in a filing cabinet since I’d taken it out of a frame when I replaced it with a nidan (2nd dan) certificate. That was a mistake, but probably born out of the circumstances.

I started training in aikido on the 16th August of 1999, with a bit of a rocky start, but eventually I built up some momentum and attended all the classes and weekend courses I could, taking up iaido as well at the same time. I was probably taking instruction from around six people in two martial arts, which generally was a good thing, as I learned that different people had different talents and approaches some of which my own personal style resonated with more than others.

In the August of 2001, I was at the Summer School of our Aiki No Michi association in Galway, intending to grade for 1st Kyu – which is the last grade before the black belt grades. My uke (partner) for the main part of the grading, was a gentleman I’d never met before but in much the same position. We were grading alongside those who were challenging various black belt grades and the late Alan Ruddock sensei led the grading, under the watchful eye and opinions of the late Henry Kono sensei. About half way through the grading, Alan made some comment that while he knew we were grading for 1st Kyu he just wanted to watch us for a bit longer. I can remember thinking that I couldn’t consider the possible implications of that and so I just decided to carry on as if it had not been said.

The grading continued, and eventually we each did our minute or so of multiple attackers, I think with six each. It’s something of a simulation obviously but there are real challenges in dealing with six people when you are already pretty tired and you’re trying to land each person in a safe spot.

Afterwards, as Alan announced the results I was stunned that he’d decided to award me with shodan rather than the 1st Kyu I was attempting, and I was in excellent company with many friends who had been grading for shodan that year. The result however, was that I had an even bigger slice of imposter syndrome than many people who first get their black belt. At the same Summer School I interviewed Alan and Henry, and when speaking to them about grading Alan made some comment about how when one gets to black belt you realise you still don’t know that much yet – and I feel he looked pointedly at me when he said it. It provided quite a bit of relief. I told myself many times that Alan had a choice not to award me shodan, but still the feeling of uncertainty persisted.

Just over a year later (18th August 2002) I obtained my shodan in Muso Jikiden Eishen Ryu Iaido in Leeds, England, under a panel led by the late great Nishimoto sensei, though Iwata sensei’s name is on the certificate. I remember that grading keenly – it was a very hot day and drips of sweat fell on the wooden floor when we bowed in at the start. That shodan certificate has stayed on my wall.

But when I got my nidan in aikido a few years later I replaced my shodan certificate in the frame. I think nidan had been important to me to reassure me the shodan had been legitimate, but in retrospect it was a terrible mistake to remove that shodan certificate from the frame and from the wall. Obtaining that grade from Alan Ruddock remains one of the most important moments in my life. So I have placed it freshly in a new frame to go back on a wall somewhere, and today will be a good day to do that.

Shodan Certificate in Aikido

Incidentally my yondan (4th dan) certificate in aikido signed by Anita Bonnivert sensei is on my wall, having seen Anita’s aikido I was very honoured to receive that grade, and I’ve just realised my nidan (2nd dan) in Iaido (from Stephen Bentham et al.) has no certificate on the wall, so I have some homework to do checking the dates and details of that – it was a long time ago.

Martial arts are about a lot more than physical technique, the suffix “do” on the end of many traditional Japanese martial arts means “way” (as “tao” in Chinese). They usually have a deep culture of mental introspection. I have certainly learned a lot about myself in the last 20/22 years, and a lot about other people, and a lot about human interaction in both physical and non physical spaces. I’ve applied a lot of that learning in many other facets of my life.

A lot of us wrestle with imposter syndrome. I sometimes feel that it’s a good sign to do so. It can be linked to our expectation of “mastery” as a destination, but the concept of do/tao is that mastery is a continuing journey and never a destination. This concept is explored in a lot of detail in George Leonard’s book: “Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment”, and I’d really recommend this book to anyone interested in the challenges of self improvement in any sphere.

Gradings are funny things, and I’ve written more about them elsewhere, they shouldn’t really define us, but they do mark important milestones on our continued journeys and so they are worth remembering and celebrating.

Grading in the Martial Arts

dan-kanjiLast week Donal and I got involved in answering some questions about grading from folks in our aikido club. I thought I would put some of my thoughts here. Other people’s thoughts will vary and I’d welcome other perspectives in the comments.

These are perspectives on grading in Japanese martial arts, but particularly aikido. They of course have analogues in other martial arts and even other human endeavours. But they may not. Most Japanese martial arts have black belt or Dan grades, and white or other coloured belts or Kyu grades leading to that point.

In a lot of cases when people are wondering about grading, they are wondering about the path to the first “black belt” grade or shodan, so that will be my main perspective, but many comments are general.

So, here are some thoughts that may or may not be useful.

It’s all made up

First thing is first. All martial arts are man made systems and someone appointed themselves in charge. Those people then graded other people and are often above the grading system themselves, or are 10th Dan. From a certain point onwards there are conventions obeyed, mainly that people can grade only to a certain level beneath them or in committee. People will have a certain lineage that you can consider. So how seriously people take it, is a matter of perspective. The same is true for legitimacy. You will have to make your own mind up, sorry.

This isn’t intended to be insulting or offensive. The same is true of just about every system, they are man made, their authority is derived from a mixture of tradition and peer review. You will have to decide if it matters to you if your grade is recorded in a particular dojo in Japan.

Get grades from someone you respect

As a result, I think it’s important that you grade from someone whose technical form, philosophy and personality you respect. Or if not, you can ask your own questions about the legitimacy of your grade.

Grade doesn’t matter, except when it does

Grade is fundamentally unimportant, but nevertheless grading can be a useful process to guide and measure learning and progression. If you don’t care about grade, there’s no problem with that as such. Sometimes grade is necessary – it is often impossible to arrange insurance cover for training when the instructor is not at least a shodan.

However, gradings absolutely can guide and accelerate your learning, as well as measuring it.

You may reach a point where your own feeling about your own progress needs no external guidance or validation, which is great, in many ways.

EDIT: So I got some good feedback from some people that I should warn readers that lots of martial arts people take their grades very seriously and expect it to alter the way you interact with them both on and sometimes even off the mats. This is very true. Be cautious. I’m also not suggesting you shouldn’t respect the grades of others, far from it. I’m trying to suggest in this section that you should be cautious about taking your own grade too seriously.

Grade doesn’t change you, except when it does

When you finally get shodan you will have to come to terms with just how much you don’t know, and the fact that you are the same person you were the day before. This is true for all grades. Grades can improve you only as a side effect, as you have actively learned to obtain them, or that they allow you to move forwards again.

They can also change you for the worse, if you think they are about dominance over others, or they make you less aware of your own learning, or otherwise complacent.

Shodan (black belt) does not mean expert

Most people outside the martial arts, and quite a few inside, think that the first black best grade, shodan, means “expert”. Not only is this not true, it is far from true. All other Dan grades come from the Japanese numbering system, nidan (2nd Dan), sandan (3rd Dan) and so on. Instead of ichidan (literally 1st degree), the word used for the first black belt grade is shodan, which means “beginner’s degree” or “beginner’s step”.

This is really important, you shouldn’t see shodan as some sort of unattainable level only possible for experts. It’s intended as a foundational level at which point your basics are sorted out, the stabiliser wheels can come off and your journey really begins anew.

Here is the embarrassing truth, the Japanese describe Dan graded students collectively as yudansha, which more or less means, “those that have dan grades”, wheras kyu graded students are mudansha, “those that do not have dan grades”. So it is expected that most serious students will progress to Dan grades.

You don’t need to start with amazing intrinsic skill, you don’t need to be really smart, you don’t need to be amazingly young or fit, you need to be consistent and focused and actively learning.

Not everyone will get Dan grades by any means, but that is mainly because people don’t want to, don’t think they can, or miss some of the points I suggest here (and probably many others too).

The process is often uneven between people

The personal journey and battle of each individual is different, so you will often see curious decisions in terms of allocation of grade. You have to trust the person doing it to have the right motives, see above.

I once read in a great essay, I wish I could find it, someone saying that shodan (the 1st black belt grade) stretches from 3rd Kyu to 3rd Dan. I.e. there are shodans with questionable technical competence, and others who are exceptional. Obviously there isn’t a 0.99 Dan or 1.25 Dan, but the process has to try and accommodate the different levels of achievement seen.

This wikipedia article also makes the same point.

The process is often uneven between arts

Different arts will have different expectations for shodan. The “syllabus” requirements for a shodan in Iaido are smaller than many arts, and practised in many clubs every single class. You may need careful attention over many months or more in other arts even to see the whole syllabus. On the other hand, Iaido may require written theory tests for Dan grades which can be rare in other arts.

This has consequences, see more below.

It shouldn’t be about ego

It’s not really supposed to be about you feeling awesome, but of course people legitimately feel a sense of achievement upon obtaining a grade, but then it should be settling back down to work, remember, shodan means you have dragged yourself onto the first step.

Try and obtain grades to compete against yourself, not others. On the other hand, some people will shy away from grading from a less obvious pride; they are afraid to fail. This is not a good reason not to grade.

Masakatsu agatsu : ???? : “true victory is self victory” was a favourite expression of Morihei Ueshiba Sensei.

It’s not up to your instructors

I can’t say this enough. It’s not up to your instructors to get you to any given grade. It’s up to you. Yes, you need competent instruction, or most people do, but you have to walk the path. That’s what the do means in aikido or iaido or whatever.

Learning and teaching in the martial arts is much the same as in other endeavours. Someone will do a lot of teaching, but you have to do a lot of learning. It usually goes in both ways, but one direction is more prominent. By being active learners, you also help your instructors to learn themselves. Remember they are students too.

In any case, the point is, it is up to you, if you want to achieve a certain grade you need to work actively towards that goal.

Understand the syllabus

This seems obvious, but you should be looking at your organisation’s grading syllabus and actively ticking things off, become aware of what you know, and retain that, and start identifying what you don’t know. This can be where grading really improves progress rather than measuring it, it provides a signpost as to where your attention should be. This is not to say you should ignore other instruction, but when the class covers something you know you need for your next grade, it’s time to really focus.

For aikidoka in Aiki No Michi dojos, the syllabus is here. Print it out, make it yours. Ask your instructors questions relentlessly, help to improve them too.

Ask questions, take notes

Keep asking your instructors questions, and you may find it useful to put things down in a notebook, take photographs or videos. Please ask permission in those latter cases and don’t distribute these without permission.

Take Correction

It’s a bad sign when you are not corrected by your instructor. It may mean you have reached a point where she or he finds it hard to correct you, or it may be they consider it pointless. Listen to correction and try hard to genuinely work to fix your problems.

The frustrating thing for both students and instructors is that your problems may persist for a long time, you may keep hearing the same advice. Sometimes it takes quite a while for the penny to drop fully, but try with sincerity.

But think for yourself

If you meet an instructor who tells you never to think for yourself, it is probably a good idea to run for the hills. Be respectful, but never stop thinking. You are also your own instructor.

Correct Yourself

It is not for nothing that Alan Ruddock Sensei picked these words for his Aiki No Michi‘s grading book:

“I want considerate people to listen to the voice of Aikido. It is not for correcting others, it is for correcting your own mind.” – Morehei Ueshiba Sensei

This phrase is worthy of deep contemplation. In many ways it reflects the whole essence of aikido, concentrate on sorting out your own problems rather than those of other people.

Be wary of instructing others when you are not teaching the class. If you are training with someone more junior, and if your dojo and instructor is happy with this then be willing and open to kindly and compassionately help if asked, or even politely offer. But you should always concentrate on your own problems.

Be watchful and mindful of your own practice. Remember, it is your responsibility to improve, with the help of your instructor and other senior (and junior) students. Even when training with students who are junior in technical skill, be mindful of what your errors are.

But don’t show it in your face. Save it for a conversation afterwards. Wincing when you make an error is a terrible thing in the martial arts. Why tell your opponent you have messed up? They may not know.

Your training becomes your practice

What you repeat, and what you try to do, becomes your ingrained practice. This is the point of course. Don’t be lazy, don’t be easy on yourself.

And therefore, be mindful not to stop techniques to request another go, always try to keep going or do something else except where this would risk injury to you or others.

You have to train to be as you wish to be, diligent, and mindful, upright and vibrant. Fake it till you make it – a dangerous expression, but the point is you can learn to be confident and calm.

Zanshin and Reiho do not come later

Regardless of your stage of technical ability things like zanshin, the awareness of things around you, should be practised from day one. This is true for etiquette; you may not know all the fancy Japanese words and gestures, but sincerity is more important than accuracy.

You will need some Japanese vocabulary

Having said that, you will need to get your head around the Japanese language used in class or gradings. Start soon.

It’s not all about the body

Martial arts are physical, but they are also mental, it is the way that your mind works that will shine through the movements of your body. Working towards calm and assured practice is for me, the hallmark of the difference between 1st Kyu and 1st Dan. Both should know all the relevant techniques, the shodan should show greater composure under pressure, and deal with errors gracefully.

Having said that, it can be vital to understanding to feel and not just to see, since sight can be deceptive. Ask your instructor to throw you to feel what is going on.

It will take as long as it takes, but…

When people spot a black belt on you they often ask how long you have been training, what they often mean to ask is how long will it take them to get a belt like that.

The time it takes varies from person to person and art to art. But one thing is for sure, if you don’t start walking along the path actively and with mindfulness, it will take you a lot longer, or more likely it will never happen, especially if you have already decided at some level within you that you aren’t capable.

Much has been written about how working to get grades faster makes it take longer. Yes, that can be true, as I wrote in this older article, you cannot be unrealistic either. You can’t be in the present while your mind is always on future grades. As in so many things it is about balance, after reading Allen Baird’s book, his use of language helped me come to a realisation how important the middle point of assertiveness is, between passivity and aggression to aikido practice. This is true for grading as well.


We are all students, those who teach and those who do not. We are all practising to improve. You need to do so with dedication, patience and motivation. Build momentum, keep improving. Polish all the impurities away.

It doesn’t matter how much you do everything else suggested here, if you don’t practice. Remember that practice isn’t just in the dojo with formal instruction. You can practice exercises at home. Even iaidoka can practice body movements without a sword while the kettle is boiling, you can practice zanshin and body movement all day long.

These are just some thoughts, I hope that they may help you. Just remember your instructors are on the same journey, help them to help you, and train with sincerity and mindfulness.

Remember these are my opinions, you should interpret them with care and speak to your own instructors.

A review and response to “The First Jedi”

A few months ago, Allen Baird wrote to me courteously to tell me he had written a book about some experiences running a Jedi Course at Queen’s University, that I was tangentially involved in. I discovered the book was available about a week ago, and obtained the Kindle copy and read it over a few days. This is partly a review of the book as I see it, and some ideas the book triggered me to discuss.


The book “The First Jedi“, due to its title, runs the risk that the course did of instant derision and dismissal, but that would be a mistake. This is not some sort of fanboy gushing excess, but some quite serious content lurking under a whimsical title. It contains significant quantities of psychology and philosophy than can be applied to daily life, delivered in a vehicle of story telling based in real events surrounding his training courses in Northern Ireland and alluding to the “jedi / sith” archetypes from the Star Wars universe. Big ideas in a sugar coated pop culture shell if you will. You don’t have to be a geek to read it, or to fully get that dynamic, but I would imagine it helps to fully get it. It is both funny, educational and serious in appropriate measure, and I imagine most people will very much enjoy it.

Still Here?

Allen runs his own training, writing and coaching consultancy business alongside his partner Dawn. Some years ago he ran a “Jedi Training Course” as a one day event at Queen’s University, Belfast. Again, note that this whimsical title belies some serious content. This is a tactic I fully approve of, and one I have used myself. My own talk titles tend to be a bit whimsical too. There’s plenty of dry stuffy, self-important nonsense already. The world doesn’t need more. Allen relates the story of running this course, and the media frenzy the title caused within the book. He also manages to get across much of the material.

As I mentioned before, you don’t need any detailed knowledge of the Star Wars universe to get this. I think Allen would be the first to acknowledge that plenty of people know more detail about that universe than him. Indeed, checking again, I find he describes himself in the book as a “Minor Star Wars fan”. This is a vehicle, a metaphor. And of course it’s exploring the fact that the Star Wars universe did not grow in a vacuum. You can find likely inspiration for its ideas littered all around in classical philosophy, and sometimes religion too.

Allen approached me for some help in bringing a martial arts element to his successor course. He covers his initial meeting with me in his book, and I’ll perhaps decline to comment on that overmuch. I wasn’t put off by the whacky title, because I bought into the usefulness of the underlying material, and I could see the linkages to aikido very clearly. Plus, I was supportive of his ideas to bring people to continuing education who would otherwise not think twice about it. I may have been more enthused, but cautious, than he realised ;-).

The book is semi-autobiographical in the sense that the plot is based upon real events, but with some added fictional aspects. Early on in the book Allen talks about a technique called the “Gollum Effect” to describe how one can have a conversation between the two halves of the brain. Largely you could describe this book is being delivered by that conceit. There are two characters who give a “jedi” and “sith” perspective on the events and concepts being discussed. One voice is the largely factual voice of Allen – to what extent this aspect is fictionalised I cannot tell – while the other is presumably largely fictional. I could say that I cannot tell to what extent this other character represents factual thoughts and feelings too, if at all.

Having established this groundwork, the main portion of the book explores the course, its genesis and construction, which is both amusing and interesting. A fair amount of time is given to the media treatment of the course, and this is worthwhile and amusing, though it does inevitably lead to some minor amount of repetitive information being conveyed. I think this has been done to help anchor the book in the evidence of the original course being a real entity. He links this in nicely with the Jedi census phenomenon in the UK, which aside from the humour of it, reveals some underlying attachment to these ideas at some level. Star Wars, like it or not, is a major cultural influence, resonating with other more ancient ideas from both Western and Eastern thought.

Sensitivity and Flow

The book then moves on to the initial course, and submerges the reader in it. You get the course itself for free with the price of the book. It talks about the idea of the Highly Sensitive Person, and the psychological idea of Flow which is integral to education and which I have delivered talks on myself. This idea of flow is, incidentally, alive and well in aikido (and other martial arts no doubt) where it is often described as “moving meditation”.


Here again we move into territory that underlines why aikido was an excellent choice to convey the concepts of the course. Assertiveness, as an important part of every day life, is a vital part of aikido, and obtains a good treatment in the book.

As an aside, and response, I will note that Aikido is often described as a defensive martial art. I think that’s fair. However, many will conflate the ideas of defence and passivity. In fact, to become an excellent aikidoka, one has to learn that point of assertiveness that is beautifully described in the book as lying between aggressiveness and passivity. Neither of these latter states will help in aikido, one’s mind must remain clear and free of aggression (since otherwise, neglecting any other aspects than the physical for the moment, the adrenal response will rob the body of fine control and the mind’s ability to see the whole situation clearly), while passivity will rapidly end in disaster. You must enthusiastically meet your opponent with neither reticence or an urge to dominate them.


Allen next explores the Jungian idea of synchonicity exploring how the mind has a tendency to conflate events that are not causally linked. I’ve explored this a little in another long article on perception and especially how it can link to the martial arts.

He discusses practical ways to overcome fear. He misses, I feel, a golden opportunity to link in another great Sci-Fi franchise, covering the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. Perhaps the Bene Gesserit training course will be next. The similarities of idea are huge, and possibly even more aligned to Allen’s content.

This material reminded me somewhat of ideas I have taught in aikido classes to deal with pain. When pain is inflicted upon you, there are two aspects, the physical underlying pain, about which you can do little, but there is also an overlay – the mental expectation of pain. Learning to relax into that can greatly reduce the amount of apparent pain felt.

Control over one’s mental state, and attempting to overcome adrenal response, is a big part of aikido for me. While aikido is not Chinese in origin, Chinese martial arts masters have described aikido as an internal martial art for that reason, and I agree with them. The late Alan Ruddock describes in detail in his memoirs how the ancient story of Monkey is a parable about how the various aspects of one’s mind can be brought into harmony, even if control is too strong a word. The Star Wars generation may know this story better from its TV series, which might just occasionally have been light on philosophy and heavy on action. The book is well worth a read (both Alan’s Memoirs and Monkey incidentally).

Fear turns to Anger

It would be hard to talk about the Jedi/Sith dichotomy and not write about anger. Allen treats it well, working in some Aristotelian Ethics which is hugely pertinent to life, and reinforcing the importance of assertiveness as a midpoint. I cannot recall if this is the point where he also introduces a bit of Stoic philosophy, perhaps the school of Roman thought that resonates with me most. Marcus Aurelius, one of my favourite philosophers gets a pertinent mention. You can read his meditations at a browser over lunch time.


And so we come to mindfulness. To me, this is the concept most obviously born out of Buddhist philosophy. Buddhism is in many ways more of a philosophical system than a religion as we often describe it, but in any case, there is no need to consider the whole cosmology and religion to cherry pick some its good ideas. Though, in passing, when I first watched the Phantom Menace, I was very taken with the idea that Qui-Gon Jinn was somewhat based, in name and concept, on the Bodhisattva Guanyin.

References to Jedi being exponents of compassion reinforces the feeling that some Buddhism is behind the scenes. I have written before about the apparent dichotomy of compassion in a martial setting.

Anyway, mindfulness brings us back to those ideas of Monkey, and Meditation (whether in movement or not). I think the book implicitly emphasises a truth often overlooked by the want-to-be-spiritual; that mindfulness can be practised as you sit in the lotus position in a silent dark room, but it doesn’t really matter a damn if your thinking all goes to pot as soon as the outside world becomes disturbed. One can practice mindfulness anywhere. Indeed, it’s the only practice worth doing in my opinion. (Much to learn, I still have).

For some more thoughts about this in the martial arts, you can look at my article on the concept of fudoshin.

Shadows and Darkness

The book explores, the again, Jungian idea of our Shadow selves, and the extent to which our failure to acknowledge the truth about them can lead to greater problems.

It also explores the ideas of attachment, which is one of the bits of Buddhist philosophy I think is the most interesting and emotionally understand poorly. I would be interested to chat to Allen about this bit some time.

The Sequel

Allen then deals with his attempt to produce a more ambitious version of the course, along with Rory O’Connor and myself. Rory to bring some thoughts about the “Force” into it (or at least real-world parallels) and myself to bring some aikido and potentially some kumi-tachi work too (sword to sword). This isn’t as weird as it sounds since many of these ideas are present in both physical and “normal” interactions and confrontations between people, and sometimes some people can learn through the body more effectively. I roped in John Donaldson, a far superior swordsman to myself, and also something of a Star Wars fan. This was years before John would take to dressing up as a storm trooper or the best Captain Jack Sparrow this side of the Atlantic. Possibly Allen’s second course would have been more successful otherwise.

We did a certain amount of planning for this new version of the course, and everything was good to go, but it was not to be. Things did not proceed as we had foreseen. Allen talks about this and wraps the story to an interesting conclusion, taking the Jedi / Sith conversation to its final conclusion and bringing a nice sense of closure to the proceedings.

But of course, I won’t give away the ending, you’ll have to read the book!


I wrote this essay almost eight years ago. I’m just republishing it in a web format.

In many eastern religions, and indeed their occidental counterparts, great emphasis is placed in reaching states of personal enlightenment or self-improvement. In Zen, this is often approached from several angles (See D.T. Suzuki [2]), but perhaps the most well known is that of zazen meditation. In this practice the mind is encouraged to have no attachments, it may move freely, neither forced to consider thoughts, not forced to leave them.

This state of mind could be described by the word mushin meaning literally “no mind”. In this state the mind is truly focused on the present moment, not anticipating the future and not pondering on the past. The martial arts of Japan have long been looked upon as an alternative, or perhaps at least parallel, means of progressing to this goal. In Budo this can be thought of as a form of meditation in motion, always acting in the present.

This prevents fearful anticipation of the future and also misinterpreting such future events. Although the idea of a budo is that of a way without destination, this goal of mushin should be constantly striven for. Perhaps an intermediary goal is that of fudoshin. This means “immovable mind” although this translation fails to carry the positive implications in this word. For me this means that the mind is immovable by outside influence, or to put it another way the mind can only be “moved” when one desires it.

As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture
or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop any-
where within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he
simply meets the attack without anything in mind.
As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of
how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and how where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike at an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted.
Later, as days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his
practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.

extract from the Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho

So here in “The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom”, a letter written by the famous monk Takuan Soho to the equally famous swordsman Yagyu Munenori, Soho advises that a person with no martial experience may be better off than those who embark upon such a path. The person with no such training at least behaves naturally, even if possibly foolishly.

Their mind may be affected by many outside influences, but at least they themselves do not cause it to “freeze”.

When one begins training in a martial way, one often begins by learning basic skills and body movements and then, of course, waza. When attempting to refine performance of a kata or waza, one’s mind may focus on the future – in the hope of attaining the perfect form – or it may focus on the past, in the recollections of past successes or failures.

Unfortunately these moments of locked focus, the states of “fushin” or frozen mind, however brief cause the body which is forever locked in the present to be deprived of command. In severe cases then, fushin is manifested by the locking in position of the whole body.

How then can we move towards this state of fudoshin, and thus ultimately to mushin? At this stage in my journey it seems that the following are true, whether during the execution of a kata, waza or a more free action.

  • One most resist the urge to anticipate the future except by observing the present. It follows that ultimately waza should not be “selected” but eventually will arise without conscious thought (mushin).
  • One must avoid lingering in the past. Recollections of past encounters and their success or failure are false as the past moment will never truly match the present.
  • One should not let your eyes and mind become locked on the opponents eyes, their weapon, fist or any other point. Gaze should take it the whole person as well and the mind should observe all things.


    Some teachers say that you should always stare at the
    enemy’s weapons, or at his eyes, or at his feet. This is not
    a good idea because it fixes your spirit in place and is easily
    read by an experienced fighter.

    – extract from the Book of
    Five Rings – Minamoto Musashi

  • Forced aggression may cause the mind to focus too greatly on the future desire for victory and thus ironically deprive the body of the mind in the present to help obtain it. One should not delay the cut, or throw, but neither should one rush it in too great a desire to bring the future more quickly. Indeed it seems from the books “Zen and the art of archery” (see [1]) and the “Unfettered mind” (see [4]) that we wish to obtain a state in which the cut happens because it is natural or the throw happens because nothing else can happen.
  • Such considerations occur outside the dojo when considering our progress along the Way or in other matters. Of course we must always strive to improve and progress, but if we are too desperate we risk placing our mind in the future and not the here and now. Similarly we must have the patience and some tolerance about our state of current imperfection. Focusing too much on the failures of the past denies us the chance to observe ourselves in the present to make us better in the future.

These comments are of course, immensely subjective. However these thoughts map my current way of thinking a short way into a long journey and at this time it seems the best way for me to continue to refine myself.


[1] Herrigel, Eugen: Zen in the Art of Archery, Arkana 1988.
[2] Suzuki, D.T.: Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, Double-day 1996.
[3] Musashi, Minamoto: The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings, (trans. Stephen F. Kaufman), Tuttle 1994.
[4] Soho, Takuan: The Unfettered Mind, (trans. William Scott Wilson) Kodansha 1995.

Compassion in the Martial Arts

I recently had a conversation with some people who wondered if there could be any place for compassion in the martial arts in general, and certainly in Iaido, or Japanese swordsmanship in particular.

It may be useful to start by considering the idea of Bushido, or “the Way of the Warrior”. A lot of people have heard about Bushido, but often through a very distorted perspective. This is not least because the ideas have been smeared by the inexcusable behaviour of some Japanese in the Second World War. These individuals were not, by the way, samurai. That class had long since been dissolved in the Meiji Restoration.

The closest analogous concept for us in the West is that of Chivalry and the word has similar linguistic roots. Now, we do not believe that Christian knights always behaved in a way that was above reproach, do we? Certainly not, but we do not throw out the baby with the bath water. The legend of Arthur is a romanticised and idealised idea of chivalry but one that has inspired many to better conduct.

Bushido lists seven virtues (some say the seven folds in a hakama represent these), which I will borrow the listing of from wikipedia rather than mess with the kanji myself:

Do you find any of this list surprising? It might temper your view of how a warrior might see himself. Perhaps you did not expect respect and benevolence to make such a list.

I think it’s a nice list to consider with a martial art like aikido which is a modern budo that seeks to avoid gratuitous damage to the “opponent”. For the practitioners of such an art, it provides a compass for our behaviour. I constantly emphasise the importance of compassion in aikido when I teach, and strive to embody it in practice. There are actually pragmatic and selfish reasons why this behaviour is martially more effective; you do not damage joints you need to effect control; you do not provoke responses you need to contain and so on. Some might argue if compassion with self-interest is still compassion. The concept of cause and effect, or karma provides a strong incentive for acting appropriately, isn’t it a bonus that it is not merely “right” but also effective?

But the sword is not a weapon designed to control or subdue but to kill. There is a Japanese word katsujinken, the sword that gives life. What can that mean? It can have many meanings. It could mean to not use the sword when not necessary, to fight without fighting.

Compassion requires the love of others. I feel I have long understood that. It has taken me longer to realise it also implies the love of one’s self, and I still struggle with the consequences of that. Compassion can manifest itself in many ways. Exercising compassion may require hard and apparently brutal choices to avoid greater suffering caused by another path. Such choices can be be traumatic for the one who acts as well as to those whom it appears to affect the most. Reconsider the list of seven virtues in that context if you will. The samurai were required to take quick, just decisions, and see them through, with all that entailed.

To assist another as they commit Seppuku was (it is now illegal in Japan) an act of respect, benevolence and compassion. There are many stories of samurai acting as seconds for both their closest friends, and their defeated enemies to shorten their suffering. To regretfully, but decisively take a life to protect one’s own can be an act of compassion (to one’s self), and in many cases as an act to protect the lives of many innocent others.

A final thought from the modern era. If you found yourself in a hijacked plane post 2001, with the split second opportunity and means to kill the hijacker, would it not be a compassionate act to swiftly and decisively kill that person before they could take any action to kill so many others? Might it not even be an act of compassion towards that person and their family?

If you seek mastery of the sword, seek first sincerity of the heart, for the former is but a reflection of the latter.

Iwakura Yoshinori

Jedi training in Belfast?

Ok, ok, bear with me here :-).

Allen Baird and Rory O’Connor will be offering a personal development seminar in Belfast on the 17th October, but with a twist. Like a previous event that Allen has offered, the whole thing is steeped in metaphors related to the Star Wars movies, in order to put over some serious ideas in an accessible and fun way.

The event will explore lots of concepts like non violent communication, body language, assertiveness among others. I will be offering a slot at the end with a little aikido, to explain how it physically embodies some of the other concepts in resolving conflict with a minimum of force. And I’ll be helping John Donaldson demonstrate some iaido, and finally we’ll have some fun (I hope) with the lightsabers Allen and Rory are giving out to to the delegates as part of the package.

And then, we will go home and rethink our lives. 🙂

Sword ban comes into force

It seems that on the 6th April the long awaited ban on Japanese swords came into effect in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I don’t know what the situation is in Scotland.

Remarkably, even in the jurisdictions that enforce the new ban, there is considerable confusion about its extent. UTV have reported, totally erroneously, that that all such swords are now illegal. The BBC reported that swords over 100 years old from Japan were exempt.

The Northern Ireland Office stated in their press release that “Following consultation, the ban incorporates exemptions for collectors of genuine Japanese swords and swords used by bona fide martial arts and historical re-enactment groups.” which is extremely welcome.

I looked on the parliament website and found a draft order, and more valuably, an extensive discussion of the issue.

I am not a lawyer, but my reading of these documents (read them for yourself) is that

  1. genuine nihonto forged under license in Japan are exempt
  2. there is an exemption for “sporting activities” requiring the use of such swords, e.g. Iaido provided appropriate public liability insurance is held.

So it seems that Iaido may continue for now. What’s not clear, having spoken to someone at Nine Circles yesterday is how such training weapons can be acquired. It may still be illegal for them to sell the weapons, even to those who might legitimately buy them. They have promised news on their front page when they work out the situation.

I think it would be a good idea to seek proper legal advice on these matters, but I think it would be very prudent for students and instructors of martial arts to

  1. be even more careful about keeping insurance and membership fees up to date;
  2. keep your license and/or insurance with your weapon at all times when you are traveling;
  3. ensure your weapon is safely stowed and not easily accessible (e.g. in a bag in a locked boot);
  4. take legal advice before purchasing an Iaito or other training weapon until the implications of the law are more clear;
  5. think twice about traveling to and form any other jurisdiction with your weapon, for example, students of ours from the Republic of Ireland should think twice and seek advice before traveling to the North with their sword, the tarrif for the importation is 7 years!

Sharp Steel Sword (SwordStore.com) redux

My sword arrived from the USA and got caught in customs for a while, I went to collect it and pay the import tax on the 2nd January. Since then I’ve been looking at it quite carefully. I was relieved customs had not opened it (not because of any legal concerns, it is all perfectly legal, but because in the past I have witnessed people all to keen to play with these items, to potentially distastrous consequences).

First of all SwordStore itself handled everything excellently, with perfect courtesy throughout, and seemed genuinely eager for feedback on the new arrival. These swords are constructed in Japan with, I think, parts from both Japan and China. The sword was carefully packaged.

I carefully checked all the fittings before removing the sword from its saya (scabbard); they were all of a good standard and fitted well, there was no damage apparent from shipping. The tsuka (handle) is longer than my current sword, which is good, since my hands are quite large, the same (shark skin) is nice, and the ito (wrap) is extremely tight and well finished. It is blue silk and so the handle feels a little less bulky than my current sword that is wrapped in cotton (incidentally that sword, from Tozando in Japan, still has exceptionally tight wrap after 7 years). I am very pleased with the cherry blossom tsuba.

So, on to the blade. I drew the blade carefully (not Iaido style) to ensure everything was in good order. The blade is beautiful, with a nice pattern in the steel, the hamon is pretty, and could be polished up even more beautifully at some later stage. This sword is 2.5 shaku, a little longer than my old 2.45 shaku sword, and is heavy. Obviously it’s a little longer and made of steel, but the blade has a lot of meat, the sword is fairly thick and the thickness doesn’t diminish much (or maybe at all) until it reaches the boshi, just before the kissaki (tip). The balance feels further along the blade than a regular iaito, and perhaps it will be too much to wield. Having said that, every time I pick the sword up it feels lighter to me now. The blade is very sharp, and when I tried to place it back in its saya, again carefully for now sliding the mune (back) carefully into the saya, and found that the blade bound up in the saya very slightly when about 10 cm of blade was still out. After a few more insertions this problem has gone, the blade has literally cut a little of the material in the way free. The sword locks tightly in its saya when pushed fully home (importantly), and I next carefully cleaned the blade, applied fresh clove oil, and fitted the scabbard protector that had been awaiting its arrival.

Sword comparison. Alumium alloy iaito on top, carbon steel below.
Sword comparison. Alumium alloy iaito on top, carbon steel below.

I placed my two swords down side by side as you can see here (click for a larger image), the new sword is below. You can see its fittings are generally silver. The new sword has a longer hi (groove) that goes right under the habaki. The new sword has silver lilies as menuki, the other fittings are chrysanthemum except for the tsuba which is, I think, iron, fairly small, round with a large cherry blossom pattern. The meguki (bamboo peg) holding the blade in is tight, and trumpet shaped, looking a lot less like the dowel of my old sword. Also, both ends are easily accessible, where in my old sword the peg is partly obscured on one side by the ito.

Grain pattern on steel iaito
Close up, artificial halogen light

Paddy very kindly brought down his superior camera power so we could capture some pictures of the grain in the sword. Again, these are thumbnails you can click on for larger images. The structure of the steel is very pleasing, and one of these photos even shows tiny pits in the steel in the centre of the frame.

Another close-up, flash used this time.
Another close-up, flash used this time.

I’ve used the sword for training for about four hours now. It is heavy. I checked it against John’s sword which is the same length, also from swordstore some years ago. The two blades are quite different, mine appears to be folded, where John’s is perhaps not. Mine is much heavier and the balance is further along the blade. In all the time I’ve used it I’m rapidly growing accustomed to the weight, and as I’m bigger than most perhaps I can more easily wield a heavier sword for now, but more time will tell I think. At first I found I could not perfectly get the cutting angle of the sword right, but I seem to have adapted quickly to the new sword, and if anything cutting more correctly (with more left hand for example) seems to improve the angle.

All in all, I’m very pleased. The service from swordstore was excellent, the steel is beautiful and the hamon although beautiful could probably be improved even further at some future time with a further polish. It seems like it would be a spectacular sword for test cutting, and indeed SwordStore sell two variants of these, one for such test cutting without a hi, and one for Iaido with a hi. My only minor worry – the blade may be too heavy and thick near the point for ideal Iaido training. Time will tell, as I said, I’m getting more used to it all the time.


Today (15th January 2008) I got an interesting email from SwordStore that confirmed a number of things:

  • the steel blades can only be made under license in Japan, as in a fully fledged shinken, so the blades are made in China and the whole thing is assembled in Japan to keep the costs down;
  • the tsuba is not made of iron, but of “patinated jewelers bronze” which doesn’t have the rust problem, can more easily take the details from the antique originals and will also mellow with use attractively;
  • the blades are not fully polished since this would put the cost up substantially (polishing is a very time intensive, skilled activity), also the emphasis is quite rightly on an affordable, functional sword;
  • the blades do come in a number of weights, and a heavier one was specifically requested for me in order since I had mentioned in an email that I would probably use the sword for cutting as well as for standard iai practice.

So there you are, if you were thinking of buying a sword from SwordStore I would strongly endorse them, and be aware that they can select from weights of blades somewhat (each one will be unique) for your requirements.

“Imitation” Samurai Swords Banned

So, it finally has been confirmed, the Home Office will ban “imitation” samurai swords in England and Wales, and I expect the rest of the UK will soon follow suit.

First of all, most students of the martial arts hate the “samurai sword” name, so let’s call them Japanese swords. I understand that attacks with these weapons are very high profile, and although in the past I wrote in support of the sale of these weapons by Battle Orders, I am becoming uncomfortable of seeing them on sale in almost every gift shop in every town, often upside down or back-to-front. Having said that, in the main shopping area in Barcelona, every other shop sells them. It’s a shame no-one can legitimately appreciate even these cheap swords as a work of art.

My appreciation for swords is now a bit more refined I suppose, and I prefer the zen-like minimalism of real Japanese swords, and my current training sword reflects that, as does the new one on its way, but where will the dividing line be cast?

“Real” swords, shinken forged under license with appropriate paperwork and signed tangs cost thousands of pounds, and are both well outside the price range of beginning Iaido students, but are also far too dangerous to train with since they are razor sharp. The “iaito” most Iaido students train with are, by very definition, imitation swords, made of non-steel alloys and either fully blunt or “semi-sharp” (not filed flat, nor polished to a razor sharp edge), and cannot be sharpened. These are around £300, will they be banned? If so it will destroy Iaido.

And what about my new sword, still on its way, which is in the middle ground, just over £1200, made of unfolded steel, sharp but not signed and licensed. Will I now need to buy a real shinken to be able to train?