In this training Sensei uses three words again and again: Contact. Communication. Peace. The students pair up, raising sword tips to touch. Now instead of solo kata, they will move together under his guidance. He has come to provide the narrative behind their disciplined solo work.
The swords touch. Contact. Now what? It’s an improvisation—one moves, the other intuits a response. But this is not fighting. “Communication,” says Sensei. He takes one of the students in his hands and moves him gracefully across the dojo floor. This improvised duet looks for a moment like dance class. “Communication.” The students return to sword-on-sword action, moving forward and back, the paired kata resolving ritually as one student’s weapon stops just above the other’s skull or to the right side of the neck.
Then peace and noto (the return of the sword to its saya, its scabbard). This sheathing of the weapon is no casual gesture. It is the goal of all previous exertions, and it is alarming to watch. One hand surrounds the very mouth of the scabbard. The other hand extends to its farthest while holding the tsuka, the handle of the weapon. The blade’s tip gets inserted into the scabbard mouth. Then the sword, its razor edge up, runs swiftly home just centimeters from the hand of the warrior.
Sensei Bob explains, “The essential thing is to take all that energy and put it away. So you know it’s waiting there until you pull the sword again.” He adds, “The next level is to win with the sword still in the scabbard. Win through negotiation.” He shares the following as a typical saying of Sekiguchi Sensei: “The sword is a tool by which the warrior can judge himself, by his disciplined effort to nurture and show respect for others. Wearing a sword is an outward expression of the warrior’s preparedness in all circumstances.”
Sensei moves through his training time fluidly, without apparent formal instruction or plan, responding intuitively to the students. After a break, for example, the advanced students sit in a row watching as Sensei sits on the dojo floor shoulder-to-shoulder with Michael, the college-bound lad. With gestures, Sensei dares Michael to attempt to grab and steal his sword. For the next half-hour without speaking a word, Sensei presents a fascinating sequence of simple moves that thwart his “opponent”: a twist of the scabbard and the torso that turns the opponent directly onto the open blade; a spin that squeezes the opponent’s arm in a vise grip; another easy turn which has the opponent tumbling across the dojo floor.
“Very important,” Sensei says. “From outside, looks very violent. But inside, about communication and peace.” Then Sensei brings another student forward to attack him all-out. They both have bared swords drawn. Sensei neatly deflects and reverses every one of the student’s lunges. Then Sensei exchanges his sword for a short knife and still manages to defend himself gracefully against the student’s sword. Finally Sensei stands weaponless and barehanded, and he succeeds in defusing strike after strike from a swinging samurai.
After the display there is no applause, no explanation. Sensei ends by saying simply to the students, “So now we just do kata.” Then he turns to look at me and says, “Human communication.”
At the end of the training session, the students talk freely about their experiences. The sixth-grade teacher, whose name is Sarah, says, “I was a very clumsy kid, always falling down the stairs. So this wasn’t easy for me at all. When I first started coming here a year and a half ago, I would confuse right and left. I’m so much more flexible now, more relaxed. Everybody’s so nurturing here, so willing to show and to teach.” In fact, one of the five tenets of Komei-juku training is this: “We the students … will be cooperative and will endeavor to bring benefit and prosperity to each other.”
As a relatively new student, Sarah prefers to work with the wooden practice swords, avoiding the holy terror of live steel. But she admits that the lethal steel has an amazing ability to make a person alert, present and honest. Ironically, though, instead of turning the dojo into a violent, competitive place, the swords demand a reverse response. Says Sarah, “The dojo is a quiet place in this noisy world. While I’m here, that whole other world is gone for a while. It’s meditation time. Me time. I get energized coming here.”
That energy seems to come through and from the swords themselves. Sensei Bob has me hold one. The long, mirrored sword slides forth, silver extending from the black scabbard, the tsuka ample enough for both hands, the weight of it not much more than a nine-iron golf club but the arcing blade keen enough to nick the wings off a flying moth. I mention the paradox of it all, that such a weapon of war could become an instrument of inner peace. Sensei Bob’s face wrinkles into an enthusiastic smile. “That is,” he says, “one of the more challenging and interesting things about it.”