Secrets of Iai (Pt. 2b)

Merging Part B final 7

Self-cultivation benefits of employing High-Level EA during iai:

In Part 2a of this series ( Secrets of Iai (Pt. 2a) ) I defined Merging as “a sensation of feeling totally connected to the environment…although it may be more accurate to say it is like being completely not DIS-connected! And actually, both “connected” and “not DIS-connected” are sort of misleading since they imply a duality, but to experience Merging is to feel a loss of self—not a loss of individuality—as one’s surroundings sort of “become” you.”

I also said that this peculiar experience resulted during iai practice from the application of High–Level Environmental Awareness (EA), with High-Level EA defined basically as “being as aware as is possible of all the elements that make up the physical environment you are in”, but that this High-Level EA was different from Situational Awareness because unlike Situational Awareness, Environmental Awareness does not include any “overt, intellectual assessment of the environment in terms of its effects and consequences.”

Part 2a was primarily concerned with the combat-related reasons for utilizing High-Level EA during iai.

What follows here is a discussion of the benefits of High-Level EA for Self-Cultivation.

Now, it might seem that there wouldn’t be much to discuss on that topic, but actually High-Level EA is massively (MASSIVELY) important in terms of using iai for Self-Cultivation.

Why and how this could be is summed-up nicely through some words attributed to the famous, 13th century Zen master Dogen:

“The way of the Buddha is to know yourself; To know yourself is to forget yourself; To forget yourself is to be awakened to all things.”

(btw, I am definitely not suggesting that iai study needs to be done within the context of Zen Buddhism, nor that self-cultivation has to be defined as “spiritual” in nature)

Despite Dogen’s words appearing to be rather esoteric and mystical, in my opinion they are summarizing a simple methodology based upon a profound knowledge of human psychology.

“…to know yourself”

And so let’s begin with what “know yourself” means—in the context of this essay, that is.

It means to know what about your self is your Intrinsic (essential) Self and what part of your Self is cosmetic—and by cosmetic I mean “affecting only the appearance of something [in this case your Intrinsic Self] rather than its substance.” (

What then is your Intrinsic Self? Easy! It is whatever remains when the Cosmetic Self is removed.

Okay then, so what is the Cosmetic Self exactly?

Essentially, it is things like our delusions, our deceptions, our desires, our motivations, our insecurities and even our emotions.

I do very much appreciate that for many people the above leads to a controversial definition of Intrinsic Self since to them much of what I am categorizing as cosmetic are perceived as core components of their individual personalities, and as such part of their Intrinsic Self.

As Star Trek’s Captain Kirk once said…

“…pain and guilt …they’re things that we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. We lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”

For sure it is a matter of definition, however in terms of this essay defining these types of components as cosmetic is appropriate because in my experience they do eventually seem to be profoundly just that—by the way, being cosmetic does not necessarily mean that they don’t have their uses.

To better understand my perspective it may help to think of your complete, psychological Self as a car.

When we think of our car many things may spring to mind. We might think of its shape, its lights, its tires, the upholstery, the windshield wipers, the seats, cruise control, maybe even the A/C, or these days perhaps the fancy media center.

But compare this to dictionary definitions of a car (or automobile)…

“a passenger vehicle designed for operation on ordinary roads and typically having four wheels and a gasoline or diesel internal-combustion engine.”

“a usually four-wheeled automotive vehicle designed for passenger transportation”

“a passenger vehicle, usually four-wheeled, propelled by an engine or motor that is part of it, esp. an internal-combustion engine, and meant for traveling on streets or roads.”

Based on these definitions, none of the parts of a car I listed above are actually required for a car to be a car.

No doubt they all make driving a car more interesting, enjoyable and/or safer, but they are not required parts of any device that wants to be a combustion-engined, four-wheeled transporter of small groups of people on a modified surface. They are all, in fact, cosmetic.

Which is why a 1908 Ford Model T is no less worthy of being called a car than is a 2018 Cadillac.

Similarly, that which is your Self can also be massively “stripped down” without losing its intrinsic function/substance.

Now, it is one thing to broadly define what elements can be considered cosmetic, but it is typically quite another for an individual to discern all that is cosmetic about their own Selves

This is because—essentially—any attempt at discernment will inevitably involve at least some of those same cosmetic elements.

And I say this involvement is inevitable for three main reasons:

First, the cosmetic elements tend to be the primary motivation for us thinking about our Self at all.

Second, as a species we tend to rather love to use cosmetic elements in our thinking, and most definitely want them present when considering our precious Selves.

Thirdly, even when we try to cut the cosmetic elements out of our thinking, doing so can be incredibly difficult. This is because the cosmetic elements are mixed into the “thing” we use to do our thinking: the virtually incessant stream of babble that is sometimes very aptly referred to as our “chattering monkey mind”

But why does it matter if any part of the Cosmetic Self is involved?

Answering that question brings us to the next part of Dogen’s statement…

“To know yourself is to forget yourself”

Why does it matter if the Cosmetic Self is involved? Short answer: the Cosmetic Self is inherently deceptive. Not only does it provide distorted—if not false—perspectives, but in true “monkey mind” fashion its voraciousness serves to divert, distract and obscure the truth.

Think of it as like asking an auto-mechanic a question about your car’s engine and him/her trying to answer your question in terms of the car’s trim—while also at the same time trying to sell you a more expensive trim…while asking your opinion on the trim of the other cars in his shop.

Or, to put it another way: think of it as trying to get rid of a headache by banging your head against a wall. Or asking a blind person which color shirt looks better on you.

Therefore because the Cosmetic Self is going to invariably involve itself in any attempt at awareness of one’s Intrinsic Self, and because 99.9% of the time this involvement will produce flawed data, in order to “know yourself” you have to also first “forget”—or perhaps more accurately, discard—the Cosmetic Self. “To know yourself is to forget yourself”.

That’s all well and good, but what does this have to do with High-Level EA?

Because High-Level EA inevitably facilitates the aforementioned discarding (or “forgetting”) of the Cosmetic Self.

How this happens is actually simple—conceptually at least.

If you are focused on the outside world to a degree that High-Level EA requires, there can be little to no superfluous conscious mental activity.

This means therefore there is very, very little (possibly zero) introspection, subjective analysis, conceptualization, deliberation, emotion.

Why is this the case?

First, because we all have finite mental resources and High-Level EA is a big drain on those resources. Or, in other words, High-Level EA takes a huge amount of concentration. So, depending on the complexity of the environment and the number and frequency of changes happening in it, AND on the psychological make-up of the individual, it is possible that there just won’t be any surplus resources leftover to apply to anything that isn’t directly related to maintaining High-Level EA—think trying to stream a movie while your computer/device is also doing a full system scan.

The Second reason why High-Level EA should lead to an absence of any of the above mental activities (“introspection, subjective analysis, conceptualization, deliberation, emotion”) is because they all require some level of distraction from the physical environment, and are thereby basically incompatible with High-Level EA. Or, to put it another way, essentially, they make trying to maintain High-Level EA like trying to go forward in reverse gear.

A simple illustration of this incompatibility can be seen in the way that many people—if not almost all—have to frequently glance downwards as they walk through a sensorily busy environment.

And I believe that George Jonas was alluding to the same thing—whether he knew it or not—when describing the Environmental Awareness part of his (alleged) Mossad training:

“…agents rarely smiled. In fact, most of them had unusually expressionless faces. It was very difficult to be scanning with your eyes all the time without immobilizing the rest of your features.” Vengence, George Jonas, Harper Perennial

OK, but how does eliminating “introspection, subjective analysis, conceptualization, deliberation, emotion” facilitate the discarding/forgetting of one’s Cosmetic Self?

Because by eliminating all (or virtually all) of these mental processes you are starving your Cosmetic Self of expression. While the Cosmetic Self may still be present in the background, it is—so long as High-Level EA is maintained—invisible…voiceless…neutralized…robbed of its influence.

Okay, so that establishes the role High-Level EA plays in forgetting yourself, but, where comes iai come into this?

It is true that theoretically High-Level EA can be predictably achieved during many types of pre-arranged physical activity. However, it is much easier—or rather, not so incredibly difficult—to achieve High-Level EA while practicing iai.

Unfortunately, explaining why this is the case is a fairly lengthy endeavor, involving all the other Secrets and so I will not be tackling it properly until the final essay of this series.

And so onto the last part of Dogen’s statement…

“To forget yourself is to be awakened to all things.”

How does High-Level EA during iai practice promote being “awakened to all things”?

Because to be awoken to something is to become aware of it. But both the aforementioned introspective processing and “monkey mind” activity can act—perhaps ironically—as obstacles to becoming aware of a wide variety of things. This is because not only do they limit what you are aware of, but also how much you absorb of what you are aware of AND the manner in which you absorb what you are aware of.

Therefore, when the introspection (aka Cosmetic Self) and the “monkey mind” are taken out of the equation (as it were) greater awareness can rush in unhindered—okay, sometimes it less rushes in than peeks in, then takes very small, slow steps through the door, but the point is that understanding is no longer blocked.

The student can now experience iai without pre-conceived notions, biases, fears or desires on any level. Every aspect of iai is perceived as new—as if from “the center of the circle” (to borrow an Oriental metaphor)—without taint or alteration.

So what does the iai student potentially become aware of?

To begin with, let me quickly mention the potential for a greater, intuitive appreciation of the technical meaning and potential martial realities of the components of an iai kata. I know this doesn’t seem very related to Self-Cultivation, but I mentioned it in the previous essay and punted on providing an explanation since it would have meant delving into pretty-much everything I have so far covered in this essay.

1. Unity and clarity

To varying degrees all parts of iai practice can acquire a new profundity which extends far beyond the martial aspects of iai. High-Level EA (with help from the other Secrets) allows many moments in an iai kata to generate a sense of far-reaching completeness and fulfillment reminiscent of the “seeing the universe in a drop of water” phenomenon.

While in my opinion it is not helpful to say any more about what this extraordinary experience feels like, what I can add is that like the Merging this new awareness helps create, the experience is (at least for me) at first as disquieting as it is exhilarating.

I actually think it is very similar to—or perhaps even on occasion the same as—those moments of clarity and/or epiphany that people sometimes unexpectedly experience when under great stress—such as when in combat:

“That there is a potential relationship between danger and spiritual revelation is reflected in the experiences of some combat veterans.

These include feeling like they discovered “the momentous truths about ourselves and this whirling earth to which we cling”, or that their ” ‘I’ passes insensibly into a ‘we’ “, or they feel so much “part of this circling world”, so much alive that, in seeming paradox, death no longer matters to them.””

Flawless Deception: the truth behind the samurai schools ( )

In my opinion this effect is simply the disorientating result of the individual not being familiar with existence when devoid of the influence of the Cosmetic Self and the suppression of the “monkey mind”—metaphorically sort of like how I momentarily felt many years ago when drunk as a skunk I woke-up and rolled out of my bunk in a pitch-black room, only to realize a moment later when no floor greeted my hands that I was actually on the top bunk.

And lastly, these transcendent-type experiences I am claiming can eventually be part of iai practice do not need to be limited to just iai practice.

Once an individual has gained the ability to manifest High-Level EA during iai there are many other non-martial art-related activities it can potentially be integrated into, and this in turn produces some fascinating changes of perspective on everyday living…

2. A whole new world!

I have read that often the reason that babies find great joy in what seems to us to be simple and familiar events is because they have not yet acquired a “mature” human’s blasé attitude to the physics that govern our world. So for example, I imagine that to babies it is still unexpected and extraordinary that when they knock over a cup of milk the milk does not stay “upright”, but miraculously changes shape and transfers itself to the surface the cup is on! Truly incredible stuff.

Similarly, I suspect that could we remember our infant months we would recall the thrill of learning to control our bodies; the hilarity of being able to just want one’s fingers to wriggle and whammy, it happening, or the feeling of amazement at being able to roll-over, sit-up, and finally to be able to STAND!!!!

(I can’t help but be recall Douglas Adams depiction of God in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series of books)

Sadly, as we mature familiarity with such incredible events may not breed in us actual contempt for them, but we absolutely stop thinking about them unless for some reason we are no longer able to replicate them due to injury or illness.

High-Level EA may not always be enough on its own to allow us to return to an entirely naïve appreciation—and consequent exhilaration and wonderment—of familiar uses of our bodies and the physical laws of our world, but in my opinion it is generally an essential component to going in that direction. And the more practice one gets at viewing life while accompanied by High-level EA the more of it becomes again fresh and extraordinary.

While the potential examples of where this can apply are virtually unlimited, beyond the types of examples just mentioned I would add (because it is a favorite of mine) a greatly enhanced ability to perceive the incredible realities of massive and/or distant natural phenomena such as large bodies of water, or mountains, or clouds, or celestial bodies.

To be able to look afresh at these things without intellectual or scientific familiarity, and thus—paradoxically—being better able to “sense” their power, their beauty, their unfathomable weight or distance is a literally awesome experience.

3. Patterns

The next major change in life that High-Level EA brings is an awareness of patterns in your environment. Because, as mentioned, you are able to absorb more external information and also process it more effectively—which includes greater objectivity—it becomes possible to be considerably more aware of when things change—or, to put it another way—to be very sensitive to contrast.

The advantages to this are extremely far-reaching and they deserve their own essay—if not a whole book—but here I shall limit myself to saying how especially impactful enhanced pattern appreciation is in regard to inter-personnel communications.

Knowing things about people of course helps enormously when establishing what is often referred to as rapport. Creating the complementary state with someone that rapport denotes requires a mixture of elements, however it becomes easier and easier the longer you spend with someone IF you are constantly building a database of things like their physical characteristics, facial responses, body language. On the most simple level, you are able to notice and—if appropriate to rapport—point out to them that you have noticed a change. Nothing ground-breaking there, right? Absolutely, but it is amazing how small a database people typically build for those they have interactions with everyday. Sure, they may notice something glaring like a newly shaved head, or a cast, but what about a newly acquired slight stoop, or a persistent increase in the typical width of a smile, or changes in how they walk that indicates a different mind-set? All such things may not mean anything in isolation but they all contribute to the overall communication strategy you adopt with someone.

And the great thing is that while you might choose to consciously ask one’s self if any changes in pattern have been noticed, generally notification of any change comes without request.

4. Cosmetic compromise

And lastly, being able to acquire High-Level EA means that you become progressively more aware of when your High-Level EA is compromised by your Cosmetic Self—which will happen frequently.

Because of this you begin to learn the full scope of influence your Cosmetic Self has on your life—and HAD on your life—if you allow it.

This degree of appreciation is likely impossible without sufficient experience of the contrast in perception of events in your daily life that removing the Cosmetic Self (and a goodly amount of the monkey-mind) allows.

If this phenomenon is difficult to process, imagine that whenever you drove anywhere it had ALWAYS been on a very busy and extremely fast-moving freeway, and that it had ALWAYS been raining heavily and you had ALWAYS been playing music loudly and your car was ALWAYS full of passengers all arguing passionately about a variety of fascinating subjects AND everyone else on the road ALWAYS appeared not only oblivious to the torrential rain but also to your car’s existence—oh, and you had only ever driven at night, and nobody had ever bothered to invent dimmed headlights.

Then think about the scenario without the rain. Then subtract the music. Then make your passengers strangely respectful of your need to concentrate on driving and have them sitting quietly. Then bring the sun up and remove about 50% of the traffic.


Then bring everything back again.

Because of the experience of contrast, your “old” driving scenario is going to be viewed by you differently. Generally it is going to be considerably less tolerable, and as a result you are going to try your damnedest to get the new scenario back —I say “generally” because for various reasons, some healthier than others, we sometimes prefer adverse conditions.

Also, while during all the years of the nightmare driving narrative you might have tried to imagine the new one, if you believed that driving was intrinsically like that for everyone, and no-one had ever conceptualized in any medium an alternative, how accurate would your imagined version be? (Ever had a massage and only afterwards realized you had been tense in some part of your body? If it was long-term, persistent tension, prior to the massage you likely would have sworn blind that there was no tension there…)

And there is one other extremely important aspect to using High Level EA to shut-out your Cosmetic Self: the effect it has on your future. The more of your past is less tainted by the influence of your Cosmetic Self, the less likelihood there is that when you remember past events—whether recent or distant—that they will have the necessary elements to fuel Cosmetic type traits. What I mean by this is that the memories will contain more fact and less subjective augmentation added at the time of acquisition! There is a reason why generally the more emotional a witness was when they saw a crime, the less accurate their testimony will be.

To conclude…

It should be stressed that as with Imposing Threats —and, indeed also with the subject of the next essay—iai practice is perhaps uniquely suited amongst pre-arranged physical activities to serve as a vital pre-cursor to learning how to apply High-Level EA outside of iai. Further, predictably facilitating the just -discussed increases in self-knowledge, knowledge of others and the appreciation of the nature of existence requires the ability to experience life through the crystal-clear lens of High-Level EA.

I also want to reiterate that although for the purposes of clarity of explanation I have separated all the Secrets into their own essays, in reality they rarely—if ever—truly work in isolation from each other.

And lastly, as I said regarding the ability to Impose Threat during iai, a crucial component to infusing iai with High-Level EA is a sufficient involvement of hara. In my opinion, while sheer mental effort may yield some level of success towards achieving High-Level EA (or any of the Secrets), ultimately the ceiling will always remain very low—the endeavor being very much akin to trying to drive a nail into wood using a screwdriver.

Phil Trent (

Coming up…

Secrets of Iai (Part 3): “By your command!”


Secrets of Iai (Pt. 2a)

Merging FINAL

What Merging is, and its combat applications for iai:

Part 1 of this series discussed the unfamiliar practice of imbuing iai with artificial threats (Secrets of Iai (Pt. 1): Imposing Threat)

By contrast this essay deals with a very commonly known concept, however in my opinion this concept merits being labeled as a Secret because of the current lack of understanding of its potential scope and applications…in the words of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

“you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

So, what is Merging?

Well at least for me, “distinctly weird” is what it initially was.

It is a sensation of feeling totally connected to the environment…although it may be more accurate to say it is like being completely not DIS-connected! And actually, both “connected” and “not DIS-connected” are sort of misleading since they imply a duality, but to experience Merging is to feel a loss of self—not a loss of individuality—as one’s surroundings sort of “become” you.

Yes, I am well aware that that description is offputtingly reminiscent in flavor to Louis in “Interview with the Vampire” describing his “turning”…

“The statue seemed to move but didn’t… The world had changed yet stayed the same.”

And yet, as it happens, in terms of its degree of indescribable oddness, that isn’t too far from what Merging feels like—at least to me.

But fortunately, however unusual or trippy the experience of Merging may be, the experience is overwhelmingly NOT what this essay is about.

Rather, what I want to discuss here is what Merging apparently indicates, and that is something that is both accessible and intrinsically practical whether you are studying iai as a martial art or for self-cultivation.

And so what is it that Merging “apparently indicates”? Environmental Awareness.

A certain variety of Environmental Awareness to be exact, since as I intimated above Environmental Awareness itself is not exactly a secret.

In fact, I suspect you’d be hard-pressed I think to find any school of iai—or even any Japanese martial art—that doesn’t strive to employ zanshin during kata…and isn’t zanshin just the same as environmental awareness?   Certainly, while there are variations on how zanshin is defined, they do all seem to include environmental awareness.

But here’s the thing, while everyone who studies a Japanese sword art (or any traditional Japanese martial art) might be familiar with the concept of environmental awareness (as zanshin), it seems very few—very, VERY few—appreciate how far it can be taken during iai practice, and therefore they also don’t know how greatly it can enhance iai.

“how far it can be taken”? What does that mean? Don’t you either have environmental awareness during iai or you don’t? No, it is far, far more complicated than that. There are actually very many levels of environmental awareness, and it is these higher levels that are the Secret to be discussed in this essay.

First, let’s clarify what High-Level Environmental Awareness (EA from hereon in) is in the context of this essay….

High-Level EA is being as close to as aware as is possible of all the elements that make up the physical environment you are in.

I say “as close to as aware as is possible” because not only is it very unlikely that we can ever have 100% EA, but our level of EA generally is almost inevitably going to decrease as an environment becomes more complex, or faster moving and/or less predictable.

This is because our level of EA is of course hugely dependent upon only one of our senses: vision. But given that our eyes are forward facing (the usual predator-mammal set-up) and that they have a fairly narrow field of vision and that we have only the two eyes, there are always going to be “holes” in our EA.

These failings can be somewhat alleviated by constantly moving our eyes, turning our head and changing direction. However, not only is this not a perfect solution but these behaviors are not typically allowed in iai practice—although as with the Imposing Threat skill discussed in Part 1 (Secrets of Iai (Pt. 1): Imposing Threat), High-level EA makes you really want to look around.

It is also extremely important to note that I am using the term Environmental Awareness rather than Situational Awareness. This is because the latter term is typically defined as including some kind of overt, intellectual assessment of the environment in terms of its effects and consequences. Even though Situational Awareness is absolutely critical to any warrior from any era, the type of awareness I am referring to does not attempt to make any conscious judgments or conclusions, decisions or assessments regarding the physical environment.

Why bother trying to achieve high-level EA in iai?

So, we’ve established what high-level EA is in the context of this essay, but why bother trying to manifest it during your iai practice?

Certainly, if you are practicing in a group setting, while in a confined space and with sharp swords then it’s an excellent idea to be as aware of the environment as possible—accidents can happen after all.

However, there are a number of other reasons, regardless of whether you are training alone or with others…

As  with the Threat Imposing of Part 1, and as well as what will be covered in Part 3, for all the following reasons High-Level EA makes iai endlessly stimulating, exciting, challenging and satisfying—way beyond what is possible with a purely technical/mechanical study. Which is why even today, after 37 years of virtually daily iai practice, I can’t wait to don gi and sword(s).

In short, frankly Merging makes iai practice freakin’ awesome!

Also, as I said in Part 1, each of the Secrets are very much connected and influence—or even in some cases perhaps even depend on—each other. So, if you are able to exhibit high-level EA during your iai, artificially imposing threats will be easier—and make the threats stronger—just as, conversely, the ability to impose threats will assist in developing High-Level EA. (Also, both of these “skills” help with, and are helped by, generating the states-of-mind that are the subject of Part 3 of this series)

But onward to more specific reasons to achieve High-Level EA, starting with those that pertain to iai study when it is geared towards combat training.

Reason 1 for achieving High-Level EA in combat-orientated iai:

High-Level EA teaches you to perform iai techniques in a way that is more practical for combat.

Understanding what this means starts with defining a fundamental difference between iai practice and combat:

Medieval warriors in close-combat would obviously be fixated with the utmost intensity upon anyone trying to kill them or that they were trying to kill—typically one and the same people.

While by contrast when you practice iai the lethality is entirely symbolic (and mostly abstract) and so there is no incentive to generate combat-level focus and even if you could, there would be nothing to apply it to. (Yes, as I explained in Part 1, it is possible to feel threats during iai, but that does not in of itself result in the type of focus being discussed here—hopefully the difference will have become self-explanatory by the end of this essay)

This obvious difference between iai and combat is crucial because it means that during iai we tend to learn to perform techniques in a different way and that way is not very practical for combat training.

To explain this odd statement, it is necessary to think about how any technique in an iai kata is physically achieved when done without the influence of High-Level EA…

The answer is not “muscle memory”—because that isn’t a thing in this sense—but rather it depends on the psycho-neurological profile you have created for that technique.

This profile is what generates the physical movement itself, and whatever else the profile includes it is going to include a collection of at least one type of sensory-based cues—these cues probably having been mostly established when the kata was first learned, and which combine to create what I shall refer to as Sensory Templates.

So, for example, if a kata requires that you turn and step in a certain direction, how do you know that you have turned far enough, or that your feet are in the correct position, or that your weight is distributed in the prescribed way? And if you were also required to move the sword in a certain way: how do you know the edge is at the correct angle or if the blade is pointing where it is supposed to?

If you are visually inclined, most of the above information could be determined by assessing the path of the blade if at any point it enters your field of vision, and similarly seeing and noting the relative positioning of your leading knee and foot might be used to guide your stance—if they are within your field of vision.  And if you are in a familiar location—such as a dojo—you may use environmental “landmarks” to help guide you to the right degree of directional turn.

Alternatively, another visual way to reproduce an action in a kata is through visual imagination. This is different to the above in that you initiate and model your movements based on a third-person memory of the action being done rather than just what your eyes see of the movement when you do it. (BTW, I realize that this is technically not “Sensory”, but the effect is the same)

On the other hand, if you are primarily kinesthetically inclined, you could do much of the above by remembering how your body feels during any particular movement in terms of use of particular muscles, or joints  and/or any level of discomfort or strain associated with the movement—or lack of movement.

(So while “muscle memory” is currently considered impossible in terms of the reproduction of actions, memory of muscle feelings is valid)

And even those who are profoundly auditory in nature could still reproduce some actions of a typical kata quite accurately using just sound references. Examples which come to mind are the rhythm of breathing and/or kiai, or the “swish” of the blade through the air, or even some kind of internal monologue such as counting.

So, while I suppose it is possible that in very extreme cases an iai student’s Sensory Template might consist of only one type of cue, for everyone else Templates will be composed of a mixture of types of sensory cues that may also interact and rely upon each other through the course of an action.

(Incidentally, a reliance upon Sensory Templates is one reason why a student may find himself unable to pick-up a kata if it is paused for whatever reason, or if it is done at a very different speed to usual: the connective cues between actions have been disrupted and so the student is left adrift. This is far more likely to happen during partner kata, but it is definitely a phenomenon in iai also, especially with longer kata)

OK, what is it about Sensory Templates as a way to generate actions that makes them impractical in combat?

It is because, as mentioned earlier, such are the existential threats inherent in melee combat that a warrior will be fixated upon the incoming sensory and intellectual data related to his immediate opponents (and possibly other environmental factors/elements in close proximity). Consequently, as a result of these pressing distractions some percentage (if not all) of any given Sensory Template will be unavailable–either because the warrior’s mind is too distracted by the combat or because the required cues have been at least partly obscured.

So, for instance, if during iai you rely to some degree on your direct or peripheral vision to determine the position/angle of your sword blade during certain cuts, during a combat you might not be able to track the weapon because of the vision restrictions the helmet creates or perhaps because during the cut your attention is drawn away by something your opponent is doing and your sword falls out of range of your field of vision.

Or perhaps you have a chronic injury in your shoulder that has been around long enough that the mild discomfort it brings during certain movements during iai practice has become part of the associated Sensory Templates. During a combat adrenaline might make you unaware of your shoulder pain, or the pain might get overridden by some other combat-related kinesthetic sensation in another part of your body—could be an impact from either an opponent’s weapon, or from a collision with  something in the environment.

And what would be the side-effect of any Sensory Template disruptions in a combat?

Basically, the warrior would experience a reduction in one or more of the following athletic attributes: coordination, dexterity, speed, judgement of distance, agility, timing.

It is important to note that reductions in athleticism would not be limited to just when the warrior was trying to perform actions specifically learned during iai kata. If iai has formed enough of the basis of your technical skill, any ad hoc actions attempted during a combat will still be attempting to utilize elements of the same Sensory Template.

The level of reduction in any aspect of the warrior’s athleticism might be very minor or it might be huge, depending on the individual and the demands of the moment.

For me, if I had been in a medieval-like combat any time in about my first 20 years of iai training most likely I would have seen a massive reduction in my physical skill simply because throughout any action I was simply mimicking a very vivid, visual memory of that action—very good tool for remembering kata, very bad tool to use during combat. Consequently, when faced with an opponent(s) I could have either ignored him/them and performed actions that had little bearing on what that opponent(s) was doing and so would’ve died in short order, OR I could have focused on the opponent, ignored the film playing in my head, screwed-up whatever action I attempted because my Template couldn’t be used and died in short order.

These reductions in athleticism could alter a warrior’s actions in a combat in any number of ways:

A sword blade might strike its target with the edge out of alignment or the warrior might lose some of their cutting power and/or accuracy or experience a reduction in balance. Or they might lose some muscle control and end up moving too fast or too slow for the context of the attempted action.

More extreme examples could easily include doing something like tripping over their feet during an action, and on the rare occasion they needed to draw their sword when the combat was in progress they could find it to be much more difficult to achieve—despite doing it thousands of times in iai practice.

So, the question is, how does High-Level Environmental Awareness during iai prevent these Template Disruptions?

Because it makes us learn how to perform techniques differently: in a way that is more reproducible/applicable to combat.


I wish I knew for sure! Well, I only sort of wish I did since I suspect knowing would inhibit the process.

That said, If I had to make a somewhat educated guess I would say that the High-level EA starves the brain of the input it needs to utilize its Sensory Templates—as though you were in a combat—and thereby encourages the subconscious to learn how to perform actions with whatever sensory data is available each time the action is required—creating off-the-cuff Templates, as it were.

Of course, it is likely that the brain always innovates somewhat every time a Sensory Template is being employed. However the “sense” I have had when doing iai all this time is that with enough practice the brain can increase the size of the innovation to the point that actions are initiated and performed as though from no sensory pre-conceptions—which is to say, with no Template to speak of.

But is High-Level EA necessary to provoke this change in how actions are performed if the student/warrior also engages in partner training, whether that partner training is in the form of kata and/or free-play?

Surely such activities would have had the same effect as using High-Level EA so far as reducing the use of Sensory Templates? Maybe. That depends on how dangerous (real or perceived) and/or athletically demanding the partner stuff is—which is to say, whether or not it provoked that “utmost intensity” that I said earlier was the crucial difference between how actions were performed in iai versus combat.

I suspect that in Japan’s past (especially before ~1650) partner kata training and/or free-play would have been sufficiently stressful/demanding. Not only because this would have appealed to the samurai’s warrior mentality (for further explanation see m book Flawless Deception ( but because as I explain later in this essay, it is necessary to utilize a crucial reason for adopting High-Level EA during iai.

However, today that is quite understandably not the case for all but a tiny fraction of schools—such as Karato Ryu (The elephant in the room… ,—so for modern iai students, High-Level EA may be the only way to reduce their reliance upon Sensory Templates.

Reason 2 for achieving High-Level EA in combat-orientated iai:

The less-Template-dependent method that High-Level EA promotes reduces your level of athleticism during iai and thereby creates a profound understanding of the reduction in athleticism that combat will bring.

Yep, that’s right: High-Level EA will reduce the technical quality of how you perform iai—and also make kata feel harder to perform.

The draws especially will be affected in terms of their speed and smoothness, as may cuts. In general there will likely be a feeling of not having quite the same level of precise physical control as previously.

(You are not likely to win any iai competitions if you are using High-Level EA during your demonstration!)

But wait a minute, wasn’t Reason 1 for applying High-level EA that it “teaches you to perform iai techniques in a way that is more practical for combat”? How is the less-Template-dependent method more practical if it still results in a reduction in athletic performance—and therefore combat prowess?

First, while both methods of performing actions result in a reduction in athletic performance during combat, the degree of that reduction is very likely going to be much less with the less-Template-dependent method.

Second, because if your partner-training has not been sufficiently combat-like and therefore Sensory Templates play a significant role in how you perform actions, when you enter a combat you will not be ready for the reduction in athleticism—which could at best be very disorientating, but could also very likely prove to be fatal. However, conversely, the less Template-dependent method ensures that the reduction will be quite familiar and so the reduction will be far less surprising and detrimental to your prowess since you are more aware of what your athletic capabilities are realistically going to be.

Third, because the more reliant upon Sensory Templates a warrior in combat was the lower their level of Environmental Awareness would’ve been…

Reason 3 for achieving High-Level EA in combat-orientated iai:

Practicing iai with High-Level EA teaches the ability to apply High-Level EA during combat.

Did a medieval warrior in combat seriously need to be taught how to apply High-Level EA? As mentioned earlier, the inherently life-or-death aspect of combat results in focus of “the utmost intensity”, and it is the absence of this during iai that I claimed as a fundamental difference between it and combat.

If anything you would imagine that it would be the other way around: that applying High-level EA to iai practice would require combat experience!

The answer to the “riddle” is that in close-combat although focus on immediate opponents will be immense, that focus will be mostly (and quite understandably) ONLY on opponents—rather than your environment as a whole. Consequently, a warrior’s level of Environmental Awareness would typically have actually been very low. This is not conjecture, just a result of our natural tendency to intellectually narrow our attention towards lethal threats—and also physiologically when adrenaline is present.

In many ways this is a very practical response since from an evolutionary perspective the physically closest threats did merit the most resources.

That said, the ability to apply High-Level EA during close-combat would of course been extremely advantageous to the medieval warrior, and increasingly so the more complex the combat environment was.

In terms of the disorder of a melee, High-Level EA would make it far more likely to be able to spot new incoming threats as you were fighting—it might also prevent you becoming isolated when battle-lines abruptly changed. And whether in a melee or a duel, the ability to steer an opponent towards a pothole or to notice when your weapon (or his) was going to strike a nearby obstacle (whether another warrior, or a horse, or a tree, etc.) could make the difference between victory and defeat.

Of course, taking too much attention away from whoever you are trying to kill and/or avoid being killed by would be extremely foolhardy—there is little sense in noticing that you are about to be attacked on your flank if it results in you getting stabbed in the throat by your current adversary.

What I am describing is a type of Environmental Awareness that essentially creates a balanced awareness of one’s opponent(s) and the environment; being neither psychologically fixated upon the former, but not so busy “looking at Mount Fuji” that you can’t effectively fight—essentially allowing the warrior to “have their cake and eat it”…a Holy Grail of environmental awarenesses, if you will!

How then does practicing iai (while employing High-Level EA) achieve this remarkable feat? How does it teach a warrior to override the extreme, but restricted focus that the stress of medieval-like close-combat brings?

Once again, I cannot say for sure, I can only go on the following “insights” based on my related experiences.

The first step is to gather enough experience of High-Level EA.

Incidentally, this experience does not necessarily have to be through iai, or even through martial arts at all. However, for reasons to be discussed later in this series, solo kata practice—and especially with a long-sword—is ideally suited to developing High-Level EA compared to other activities that on the surface might appear more effective in this regard.

Step two in using iai to be able to apply High-Level EA in combat is to use the psychological environment the High-Level EA requires in order to start re-writing/adapting the brain’s reactions to the combat scenarios the iai kata reflect. As a result, the training acquires a new depth of combat-ambience way beyond what is possible from just studying the physical techniques.

(The other Secrets of Iai are key to this re-writing/adapting and therefore also to the subsequent increased combat ambience. High-Level EA on its own will not suffice)

This new combat ambience is essential because the re-written reactions amount (in metaphorical terms) to a basic Formula in sort-of the same way as described in Part 1: Imposing Threat. The difference being that here the Formula is not for psychologically preparing for threats, but for maintaining High-Level EA during those threats.

How does this become so ingrained that during combat, the “default”, deeper responses do not rise to re-assert themselves?

Although not the whole answer, kata partner training is nonetheless essential.

The reason for the importance of partner training is that it provides the opportunity—like with Imposing Threats—to apply the Formula during a more intellectually and sensorily complex activity than iai. And as the partner training gets more demanding, so the student’s brain becomes adept at integrating/adapting the Formula for maintaining the High-Level EA into situations that are closer and closer to combat in terms of stress and athletic demand.—this is the reason I alluded to earlier for why combat-like partner training would have been used in the past.

(However, this does not mean that iai can be eschewed in favor of partner training: like with Imposing Threats, for the vast, vast majority of students the relative simplicity of iai is required for the “basic” Formula” to take root—in this context, partner training is running before you can barely stand, let alone walk!)

But, how do I know that the brain can make the sizable leap from training to combat, in terms of its ability to evolve the Formula?

As I said in Part 1, Karato Ryu training ( does eventually get extremely dangerous and during these times I have found that maintaining High-Level EA is not just achievable but virtually involuntarily, but I would not be so foolish as to say that was proof.

Therefore, my answer is that I have experienced nothing to suggest that the above Formula method for maintaining High-Level EA would collapse during combat, and in deed my reaction to spontaneous, threatening events outside of the dojo gives me confidence that it would endure, however I cannot say for sure.

Reason 4 for achieving High-Level EA in combat-orientated iai:

High Level EA can also help towards a greater intuitive understanding of the potential combat applications of the techniques within any given iai kata. However, explaining how and why this happens is actually better left in the next essay…

Phil Trent (

Coming up…

Secrets of Iai (Part 2b): Merging and Self-Cultivation…


Secrets of Iai (Pt. 1): Imposing Threat


After watching this video of the 20(?) year old me and the 50 year old version doing this kata (, it may seem like the 1000’s of additional repetitions of that kata I did in the 32 years between the videos had little impact on how I perform this kata–no longer slamming my right foot down on the downward cut or letting my hands finish too low are not exactly major changes.

And yet appearances can be deceiving, and in this case extremely so.

For about the last 2 decades there have been crucial differences between how I practice not just that particular kata but any of the approximately 60 other solo kata Karato Ryu ( teaches.

Just why are these differences “crucial”? Because they determine whether or not a study of iai is going to fulfill its extraordinary potential—regardless of whether that study is directed towards combat training or self-cultivation.

The curious thing is that regrettably it would seem that 99.9% of people reading this will have little-to-no idea about this potential.

So, what exactly is it that I am doing differently today, as opposed to when I as was in my twenties?

Well, in this essay I am only going to cover one of the differences. That said, all the differences overlap—something that will become apparent in Parts 2 & 3 of this series.

Also, all the differences have aspects that defy description. AND they all sound suspicious to some degree. BUT they are also very intriguing.

So, without further ado, for THIS essay the fundamental difference between how I practice this kata now and when I was younger is this:

Today I am somewhat mimicking the mortal combat the kata symbolizes in that throughout the kata I am experiencing a sense of both physical vulnerability and of existential jeopardy.

“What the hell?”, you say?

Let me put it another way…

Throughout the kata I feel as if I am being threatened and that I am not necessarily able to protect myself against this threat. Second, during the kata I get a real sense of what (I believe) it would be like to perform actions that are actually ending life and/or putting my own life at risk.

As such, this is how I perceive the kata step-by-step as it happens:

As I am kneeling I feel generally uneasy at not being able to see what is beyond my peripheral vision, and as a result I feel the urge to look around—but I don’t since the kata does not allow it.

Then I perceive an immediate threat directly in front of me—not a visualized threat, mind you, just the sense of one. At that point one of two things happens: either I decide to take the initiative and draw the sword, or it occurs to me that my opponent before me is already attacking and I draw to counter him/her.

Now, my draw—like my “opponent”—is also primarily conceptual. By which I mean, although the draw is done in a strictly prescribed fashion it is entirely born of intent rather than aiming for a particular anatomical target or (when the draw is reactive) to counter a particular technique. And although the aforementioned intent is basically abstract, at its core is the sincerest awareness throughout the action that if successful it will involve taking life—or at least cause severe injury.

Conversely, throughout both the decision to draw and the intent-driven draw itself the vulnerability I feel makes me very aware that my life too is on the line.

This is because, first, I am aware that I am probably leaving myself even more exposed to attacks from other directions.

Second, because of the awareness that even though I am trying to perform the draw with total mental and physical commitment, as in a real combat this will not necessarily be enough to guarantee my safety.

Consequently, the draw is performed with a moment-by-moment mindfulness that I might potentially need to adapt it to any changes of circumstances that should arise as the blade follows its path—even though what those changes might be are not defined or considered.

The remainder of the kata—the advance with the right leg followed by a downward cut and the sheathing sequence at the end—are a continuation of the same psychological elements as just described.

Sounds a little far-fetched, right? But putting aside for now whether or not I’m telling the truth (which to the best of my abilities I absolutely am), why would doing a kata in the manner I’m proposing be so invaluable to using iai for either combat training or self-cultivation?

Let’s take a look at combat first.

The stressors found in mortal combat typically reduce combat effectiveness and consequently also perhaps a combatant’s life-expectancy.

Chief amongst these stressors are the very ones I am claiming can be present in iai kata: a feeling of being vulnerable, fear of both one’s own death and often also of having to kill someone else…and all these factors typically become more exaggerated in close-quarters combat.

This reduction of combat effectiveness (and life expectancy) as a result of stress can be anything from slight to catastrophic.

This is why combat veterans have always been prized: they have already demonstrated that they are capable of “keeping it together” during combat and consequently can more confidently be expected to fight effectively.

Therefore, anything a warrior can do to reduce the impact of these stressors upon them can only be to their advantage.

Repetitive training alone is not going to be enough to prevent stressors from degrading a warrior’s performance.

What is needed is that the warrior’s training replicate the stressors found in combat, and this has always equated not surprisingly for a desire to make the training combat-realistic.

The hope is that while the training can’t (and probably shouldn’t) be so severe that the stressors involved are as powerful as in actual combat, through the warrior experiencing milder versions of these stressors not only will combat be less of a psychological jolt to the trainees, but during training the adept will intuitively set-up psychological coping processes that will prepare them for combat—and thereby allow them to fight effectively.

As far as how in my experience this works in the context of iai, think of it like learning how to do multiplication math problems…

Let’s say the levels of perception of vulnerability and jeopardy you are able to generate in a kata equates (metaphorically speaking) to a problem of this kind of difficulty:

equation 1

And let’s say the levels you experience in combat are more like:

equation 2

As daunting as the “combat-problem” might seem at first glance, if you work out the formula for the iai- problem—carrying numbers, adding 0’s for each additional decimal place, etc.—then the combat- problem can be solved using the same process.

How do I know that the iai-created “formula” can be used in this fashion?

While I am not a combat veteran, and I have never been in a fight where I thought my life was at risk, Karato Ryu partner kata training gets progressively more dangerous both literally and in terms of the student’s perception—which amounts to the same thing for this particular discussion.

As such, in this partner training I have many times felt as though I am both genuinely very vulnerable and also in considerable danger due to the nature of the techniques involved. And although I have of course never wanted to kill my training partner, I have been able to apply the same degree of, uh, abstract intent as I do in any of the solo kata.

And yet despite the danger (both perceived and real) and the level of intent present in our partner training, while I typically feel distinctly uncomfortable/vulnerable/at risk during it, I am able to remain intellectually dispassionate/objective. Consequently, the challenges of the kata never translate into tension, or angst, or stress, and so there is neither an adrenal response nor (apparently) any resulting psychological “baggage”. In fact, to the best of my memory, it has been decades since I had any kind of response to any potentially stressful situation, including those that occurred outside of training where I was knowingly in considerable danger.

(It should be mentioned that the above response (or lack of) to stressors is due at least in part also to the physiological effects of my application of abdominal breathing (


OK, so how developed can these self-generated experiences of vulnerability and jeopardy become? Can they ever replicate the severity of those experienced in combat?

Certainly with the correct training methodology and dedication, the experience becomes stronger over time.

But, I cannot be sure if this approach to iai can ever lead to the complete neutralization in combat of the stressors under discussion.

However, I am convinced what is possible (in my experience) is enough to constitute a very significant advantage in this regard—possibly more significant than any other combat-training program has been able to provide..?

Also, being able to artificially generate the sense of vulnerability and jeopardy (both yours and your opponent’s) through iai has other benefits in terms of its use in combat training/preparation.

First, no changes to the component techniques of the kata are required in order for the student to keep progressing. Nor does anything need to be added to practice: you don’t need either additional equipment or people.

This means an iai adept can if necessary train in isolation for many years (as I have found) and not just maintain but even improve upon at least this aspect of their readiness.

Second, eventually the adept is able to transfer some degree of what they have been able to generate during solo kata to their partner kata practice—this is in part what I meant earlier when I talked about danger “in terms of the student’s perception”.

As such, even the most benign situations in a partner kata—such as facing each other—can be genuinely unnerving. This is in good measure because of the sense of both unseen threats and the potential for unscripted events that are permeating the kata’s official, typically pre-determined “plot”. (The other reasons for this to be discussed in future Parts)

Third, the psychological skills needed to perform the mental gymnastics required to induce these feelings/states of mind are of value to other aspects of martial arts training—not to mention also one’s day-to-day life.

Which leads into the relationship of this approach to self-cultivation.

How much of a relationship there is may depend on the definition of “self-cultivation” to be used. For me (and my Ryu) it is about developing self-awareness, self-honesty and thereby becoming a more effective individual in terms of being able to succeed in whatever you do in life.

Others may argue that doing iai in this manner will bear little in the way of cultivation fruit because a “jutsu” approach doesn’t emphasize ethics, morality or spirituality like the “do” arts.

However there is no evidence that I am aware of that practicing a martial Way such as iaido or kendo or aikido is any more beneficial (or even AS beneficial) in terms of self-cultivation than any “jutsu” art, or even any sport—martial or otherwise.

So, the reason why the skills I have described here (and those that I will describe in 2 & 3) make iai so good for self-cultivation is because “adversity breeds character”!  Basically, iai practiced in this fashion creates perceived adversity and it provides the most useful psychological environment in which to healthily indulge, manage, reproduce and express this adversity.


To conclude…

At this point, one of the obvious questions might be, how do you achieve these feelings of vulnerability & jeopardy during iai practice when in reality there is nothing to physically inspire them? (Assuming of course you aren’t practicing in the tiger enclosure at your local zoo, or on a busy street)

Certainly, if I could explain with more detail how it works it would not only be interesting but also probably give the whole concept more credibility.

But, alas, this is an extremely difficult—if not impossible—task.

First, much of what allows it to happen occurs “behind the curtain” (the sub-conscious), so any explanation on my part would be guess work.

And so far as the parts of the process that are consciously/overtly handled, while you certainly have to deliberately manufacture (not imagine) the senses of vulnerability and jeopardy, the majority of the huge effort (or non-effort!) goes into enabling that intent to make it to the sub-conscious—or maybe it’s the other way around…

However, what makes the whole thing possible (in the fashion that it is) is the involvement of the hara—to use one of the most common names of the dozens it goes by.

Why do I consider this mysterious little rascal invaluable?

Simply because I am entirely unable to create the psychological environment I have outlined here without engaging my hara.

And this lack of engagement means (for reasons to be expanded upon in later Parts), that as the “math problems”/stressors become more complex/intense during training, when the student attempts to apply the basic “formula” the objectivity I discussed earlier will not be present.

Consequently, almost certainly the “formula” will acquire (albeit invisibly) additional pieces that lessen its efficiency—basically, robbing the process of its advantage over the usual ways of combat-realistic training.

Who knows, perhaps for some people the hara is not required, but for me it is a “mechanical” necessity.

A “necessity” because it is through hara that I learn the metaphorical “formula”. And “mechanical” because the hara’s role (as I perceive it) seems to be analogous to the relationship a driveshaft creates between the engine and wheels of an automobile. Somewhat.

(Since the hara apparently plays such a pivotal role in the approach I am attempting to describe—and also will in Parts 2 & 3—it might be expected that this series would include further elaboration on the hara itself. But that is not to be! The enormous importance of the hara is matched by the misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding what it is and how to use it. Consequently, any overview of hara and how it can be integrated into martial training doesn’t really help—and it is for that reason I have begun writing a book entirely devoted to this subject. Sorry.)

And lastly, I want to point out another side-effect of this approach; one that might augment either combat or cultivation training. Namely, doing kata this way makes iai training fun and fulfilling and endlessly challenging to an extent that is hard to describe!  This is especially so if a kata includes reacting to attackers from multiple directions. As I say in Flawless Deception (

“There is nothing like dealing with one enemy while at the same time “feeling” the approach of another from the side or even behind and knowing that you must somehow address the problem in order to survive.”

And as good as vulnerability and jeopardy make iai practice, adding the elements to be discussed in Parts 2 and 3 only increases both the enjoyment and challenge.

Phil Trent (

Coming up…

Secrets of Iai (Part 2a): Merging!

Combat, cultivation, battle or betterment…

with text 4

After almost 40 years of practicing abdominal breathing, I can say with 100% confidence that a persistent, protracted study of abdominal breathing will bring huge benefits to any martial artist—regardless of what their goals are.

So, the following is meant only as a very brief overview of a few facets of abdominal breathing, based upon a combination of associated scientific research and my ( experiences.

First things first, what then is abdominal breathing?

Simply, it is where the abdomen is fully utilized in the moving of the diaphragm—which means, the abdomen expands as you breathe in and contracts to its resting position as you exhale.   Or, to put it another way, it is virtually the opposite method of breathing to that employed by most adult humans even though as infants we all breathe abdominally and it is the method employed (as far as I know) by every land mammal on the planet.

Onto the benefits…

A large body of research has demonstrated that our typical negative reactions to potential stressors can be reduced through abdominal breathing.

It does this by enervating and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which then triggers a massive release of endorphins which causes tremendous calm and a sense of well-being, as well as an increase in emotional disengagement.14

Beyond these inherent effects of abdominal breathing on the PNS, additional effects arise when the abdominal breathing is deliberately slowed and paced.

Control of the pace and duration of the breath brings changes in the individual’s heartbeat in terms of its frequency and smoothness during every inhalation and exhalation, which in turn leads to reduced emotional arousal and blood pressure, as well as—as with the PNS—a general sense of peace and well-being.12

And even though during prolonged, intense martial arts training is impossible to always maintain a slow, regulated breathing pattern, it is considered likely these positive effects will persist to some degree beyond the sessions in which it is practiced—even though the duration of this has not yet been researched, so far as I know.13

Additionally, these enhancements of the heart’s beating produces an “energized and responsive state that is conducive to everyday functioning and interaction, including the performance of tasks requiring mental acuity, focus, problem-solving, and decision-making.”15

That these phenomena (when taken as a description of “mindfulness”) are genuine is reflected in the increased attention paid to them by the military over the last decade as part of their attempt to not only reduce the level of stress felt by soldiers prior and during combat, but also as a way of alleviating PTSD.16

And if the above advantages weren’t enough to make any martial artist—or anybody else—immediately start breathing abdominally, there may yet be additional reasons to do it…

As well as providing the ability to remain calm but alert during times of stress, I know not only from personal experience but from the testimony of others that eventually abdominal breathing produces significantly increased levels of physical energy and physical endurance.

Hold on though, that doesn’t seem right given that as described above abdominal breathing both suppresses the “flight or fight” reaction and activates the PNS and its orders to “rest and digest”.17

Surely, the last thing that should happen then should be for energy levels to increase? This is the reason why it has been noted that, “it would be dysfunctional to have PNS predominance during times requiring high energy and arousal, such as when under threat or attack.”18

What then is happening? Do the increased oxygen levels that abdominal breathing presumably brings and the aforementioned changes in the heart beat, serve to not only nullify the energy-dampening effects of the PNS, but also leave enough left over to boost the individual’s energy beyond normal levels?

It would be fascinating to know what is actually going on!

For some martial artists who experience these elevated energy levels part of the explanation—as well as the source of yet more benefits—might be found in the variations in abdominal breathing they practice.

A potential deficiency of the studies I have seen is that they do not address the differences between “normal” abdominal breathing and the variations on it such as the one that specifically focuses on the part of the abdomen that sits roughly in the pelvis—a variation I shall very imaginatively refer to here as low abdominal breathing.

Low abdominal breathing involves not only a greater movement of the muscles in the lower abdomen, but also a decrease in the movement of the upper abdomen–except during high demand, physical exertion.

So, while I have no supporting scientific evidence, it feels to me like the low abdominal breathing allows for an even more movement of the diaphragm, so perhaps this results in a corresponding increase in oxygenation.

However, another cause may be more psychosomatic in nature…

Advanced exponents of martial arts that practice low abdominal breathing combined with a persistent focus on that area (the hara/tanden/lower dantien, etc) appear to be capable of a greater level of intellectual, emotional and sensory self-manipulation.

Perhaps, these factors equate to an even greater reduction in the physical tension/stress which normally serves to reduce our energy levels and shorten our stamina. Or, in other words, the low abdominal breathing may allow us to liberate more of our innate energy.


So, low abdominal breathing may enhance the effects of the “normal”, garden-variety of ab breathing, however it would seem that by whatever combination of processes, the use of abdominal breathing prior to and during dangerous and other potentially stressful situations creates the ability to simultaneously manifest the useful symptoms of both the PNS and the SNS’ “flight or fight” reaction, while also avoiding the potentially negative aspects of both—essentially allowing an individual to “have their cake and eat it too”.

Because of these awesome abilities—and others—I can’t imagine abdominal breathing not being at the center of every aspect of my martial arts training,

That said, for me, the study of abdominal breathing has rarely been anything even close to easy and I have never known anyone who has pursued it with the necessary dedication to find it less than extremely challenging.

But for so many reasons, for any martial artist—whether they practice aikido or kyokushin, iaido or kenjutsu, tai chi or BJJ—I guarantee the struggle is worth it…so, so, so worth it!

Phil Trent (

(The above essay is adapted from a section of the Kindle book “Flawless Deception: the truth behind the samurai schools.” ( ))


12, 13, 15, 16, 17. Milton Z. Brown, Ph.D., Regulating Emotions through Slow Abdominal Breathing (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy Center of San Diego (

  1. Rick Hanson, PhD, Relaxed and Contented: Activating the Parasympathetic Wing of Your Nervous System (Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom (, 2007)
  1. Monique Moore, PhD, David Brown, PsyD, Nisha Money, MD, MPH, ABIHM, Mark Bates, PhD, Mind-Body Skills for Regulating the Autonomic Nervous System, (Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (, June 2011, Version 2), p7

What is a genuine samurai martial art?



So, what is a genuine samurai martial art?

If we’re talking about those koryu that developed during or shortly after the Sengoku Jidai—and in this essay we are—for anyone that knows anything about the subject the answer is simple:

In the photos above, the guys on the right are doing a genuine samurai martial art, but the jokers on the left aren’t—even though on Facebook they refer to themselves as Genuine Samurai Martial Arts of Dallas (GSMAD).

Sure, on the surface what GSMAD is doing seems to be like what those “genuine” guys on the right are doing—more so, even—in terms of replicating the battlefield combat these koryu were primarily focused on.

But this is what a reviewer said about GSMAD:

“Fake. Not genuine. Makes false claims of being more genuine than the real martial arts schools.” (

Since that happens to be the Page for the school I have had the privilege of training in for 38 years you would perhaps imagine that I would be insulted by this scathing characterization.

But nope, not a bit of it. In fact, I encouraged it.

The reason for the inclusion of Genuine in the name was actually an attempt to provoke (emphasis on “provoke”) discussion about the school’s legitimacy with the hope that this would in turn eventually lead to debates about the meaning of “genuine” as it applies to the extant koryu of the Sengoku Jidai—hereafter referred to as “early koryu”.

I mean, it’s not as though when I chose to put the Genuine in GSMAD that neither I nor my students didn’t appreciate our school’s deficiencies in the “genuine” department.

We’ve often laughed about how mightily suspicious my and the school’s “backstory” are as well as the seeming absurdity of my claim that Tenshu Shindo Karato Ryu (a name I mostly made up) could be a koryu let alone one from the Sengoku Jidai—for more details on that topic see

You might ask then, why do any of the few students I am permitted to have stay with Karato Ryu? Because some do! In fact, I have a very high success rate. Out of the approximately 10 students I’ve had in 20 years, those that have made it through the first few years have stayed 5, 10 and 11 years respectively—and another two might well be still training if I hadn’t terminated their memberships. And it’s not as though membership is a casual or easily maintained affair, rather not only is the training exceptionally demanding, but students are expected to not only attend almost every class but to demonstrate that they are training extensively in their own time.

Well, those that have stayed have definitely not done so because they’re weak-minded or otherwise easily gulled. In my experience and opinion, training in Karato Ryu isn’t for anyone who isn’t psychologically robust, skeptical and ruggedly individualistic…not to mention intelligent…and a tad nuts.

So, one reason for them hanging around is that I give my students video proof that I at least didn’t make up the huge curriculum and that decades ago I had an instructor and we (and other students) were doing what I am now passing on. So, while I might be a fool, my students can be sure that at least in this regard, I am an honest fool.

Another reason can at least in part be, frankly, my high-level of technical skill.

But most importantly, my students see that although what we do contrasts greatly in several fundamental ways with what they can see online or read about in English with respect to virtually every “genuine” early koryu (indeed, koryu as a whole), the training makes them gradually start to re-think what “genuine” means in the context of an early koryu.

And this new definition of genuine and the consequent change in the student’s priorities is recognized by them (as it was by me) as something so much more personally valuable than that which seemingly is offered by the actual surviving genuine samurai martial arts.

But just thinking something is “genuine” doesn’t make it so, right? Or does it?

An online critic of my school who most decidedly views Karato Ryu as a fraud used as part of his argument to support his position a dictionary definition of genuine.

He wrote, “The definition of the Oxford English Dictionary is: “Genuine: ‘Truly what something is said to be; authentic’” (And he was right:

“said to be”? Why not “what something is”? It’s because the definition of what is genuine is frequently not an immutable absolute.

Simple example: while the official definition of an antique in the USA requires the item above all else to be a minimum of 100 years old, I discovered while working in that industry, in at least Texas, to many dealers and members of the public, not only did a genuine antique need to be only 50 years old, but the term could often be acceptably applied using more subjective criteria.

Let’s now look at knighthood…

Modern English knights such as Paul McCartney or Richard Branson are as 100% legitimately knights as any other in English history since all had the title legally bestowed upon them.

This is so despite the fact that their title now requires none of the medieval, martial expectations—there will be no Sir Paul McCartney “in shining armour”.

So what is “said to be” genuine can be subject to change.

And now let’s look at those genuine early koryu—whose members, even more than the medieval English knights, would have had a very high expectation of having to test their martial prowess in battle.

Today, these koryu earn the title of genuine through satisfying a couple of criteria:

First, the date they were founded and, second, that they have managed to maintain an unbroken transmission of their school’s teachings from that date.

The same critic who cited the genuine definition above also listed a few other possible and “less commonly” applied considerations:

Student teacher dynamics.

Being battle tested.

Peculiarities of Japanese Culture

Training syllabus

Training manner.

And, while not a criterion as such, he rightly said, it is extremely likely that a genuine koryu would appear in the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten—a highly respected listing of known koryu (“If it is a koryu, nine times out of ten the style should be listed in the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten” (

(btw, the translation I have of the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten does not include the name that my instructor used for our school—I guess it must be an example of that one out of ten times mentioned above J)

Now looking at the above criteria, what is interesting to me is that as with today’s English (well, British) knights, apparently there is no requirement for the development of combat prowess in the students of these surviving early koryu.

That being said, in the excellent Budo Perspectives ( Meik Skoss (an extremely knowledgeable koryu adept and scholar) provides his own list of criteria that appears to both explicitly state and also infer that developing actual combat skills is a characteristic of a koryu:

“the classical Japanese martial  arts (koryu bujutsu) are usually:… 3. Primarily concerned with developing effective skills for battlefield combat and/or personal self-defense…4. Not amenable to sportive competition, by virtue of the skills and methods used to train warriors for combat…5. …a way of training body and mind in a way similar to that of their ancestors.”

And Diane Skoss in her Koryu Primer essay at ( states:

“A few traditions still exist that were actually used on the battlefields of pre-Tokugawa Japan, and in these systems effectiveness of the killing technique is still paramount.”


“For the most part, however, the techniques of the koryu still retain an element of danger; protective gear is typically not used. Safety is less important than efficacy; though wooden weapons are usually used in place of live steel blades, these can still do considerable damage if an error is made, and one learns to function out at the edge.”

However, I think it is telling that when in Mr. Skoss’ essay he addresses, “What attracts Americans (or Japanese) to the koryu”, he does not include in the possible attractions a desire to become competent fighters in any sense—whether for battle, dueling or bar-fighting. In fact, by stating that “classical martial arts are archaic methods of fighting, with little or no practical use in modern society”, Mr. Skoss is in my opinion clearly reflecting the lack of emphasis on practical skills in the koryu since the skills required to stand a chance of proficiency in a medieval melee most certainly can translate in many ways to other forms of fighting, and I believe Mr. Skoss would realize this if his training had been sufficiently practical in nature.

And while Ms. Skoss says, “in these systems effectiveness of the killing technique is still paramount” there is no indication that these techniques are practiced within a method that is geared towards enabling the students to successfully employ said techniques—“An element of danger” and having to function “out at the edge” while both potentially indicating high levels of risk could also, with respect, mean something far less extreme depending on the sensibilities of the student.

And the argument that these koryu no longer strive for combat-effectiveness is further  bolstered by the impression gained from watching virtually every demonstration available to the public of koryu (both early and later) and by reading 99.9% of the reliable English resources on the koryu.

Consequently, it is my conclusion that developing actual combat skill is of little more importance to the typical early koryu today than it is for the English to have Sir Elton John be proficient at jousting.

Karato Ryu, on the other hand, places huge emphasis on combat effectiveness in its methodology/regimen. Our primary goal is to train in a manner that recreates to a great degree the physical and psychological challenges that samurai would have faced not just in battle but also any other period form of combat.

So does that give Karato Ryu the right to say it is genuine?

For the critic cited above, the answer is obviously an impassioned and resounding “no”, and there are many, many others that feel the same way.

However, being genuine requires authenticity, since as the definition above reminded us:

“Genuine: ‘Truly what something is said to be; authentic’”

And here’s what the same dictionary says when defining authenticity: “Of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine.”

Yep, that means koryu are authentic—and therefore genuine—and that Karato Ryu isn’t either one of those.

But another definition of authentic from the same dictionary is:

“Based on facts; accurate or reliable.” (

And yet another definition listed is:

“Made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original.”

Now, it is inarguable that early koryu are today different from their original forms in any number of ways beyond the emphasis of developing combat proficient exponents.

As I state in Flawless Deception:

“The fact is that from the way the weapons are being wielded to the terminology being used both logic and observation suggests that there is almost nothing about an extant koryu that might not have been changed in some way since the Sengoku, and possibly quite drastically.”


Therefore, no koryu from the Sengoku Jidai (and probably any other period) is entirely authentic and by extension none are entirely genuine either.

So, “genuine” becomes a matter of which definition is applied.

So why not continue using that first definition? I don’t hear anybody in the koryu community grumbling about koryu being defined in this simple way.

For a start I think it is rather disingenuous. I don’t think there is any doubt that when most people hear that an early koryu (or any koryu) is “authentic” or “genuine” there is an assumption of a far greater degree of similarity to their original model than there actually is—especially as regards the techniques employed and the methodology.

However, I am not suggesting that the current need for either proof of age or of lineage/transmission be discarded, instead I am saying that both definitions should be utilized.

With that we can start talking about judging a genuine samurai martial art in terms of degrees of genuine and types of genuine, rather than with what is to my mind a rather simplistic, “yay” or “nay”.

And in addition, when determining any given early koryu’s genuine “score”, we should include whether or not, or how much, that koryu still attempts to make their students hypothetically capable of functioning effectively in a medieval-type combat.

But, hold on just a second! Isn’t this crazy idea of “fixing something that ain’t broke” merely a ruse to somehow justify the claim that Karato Ryu is, as the reviewer said, “more genuine than the real martial arts schools.”?

Well, here’s what our Page actually says:

“…more genuine in that it provides its students with training that is closer to the original model and which is far more able to create battle-ready warriors.”

So, not a general claim of being more genuine.

Yes, I think that Sengoku Jidai, koryu-taught samurai would be turning in their graves if they could see what their koryu have apparently become—martially speaking.

And yes, I think those same samurai if faced with the option of Karato Ryu’s method and regimen or that of other extant koryu (based on their image today), would choose ours every time.

And, finally, yes, if I could provide the required bona fides for Karato Ryu I think it would be more genuine than any other extant koryu that I am aware of—based on what is available to the public of their practices.

However, until I provide proof of both the age of Karato Ryu and that there has been unbroken, direct transmission of its teachings over the centuries, I have to conclude that those koryu that can do both those things will always be more genuine than Karato Ryu.

And yet despite that, I know that the version of genuine that Karato Ryu offers is not only considerably more preferable to myself and my students, but in my opinion the emphasis on combat practicality and prowess is an essential element in the maintenance of what is most valuable about the early koryu.


Please, Like our Page if you think we’re Genuine enough


Koryu: the Agent Smith connection


In truth, I would have very much liked to have called this essay, “Koryu: The Matrix connection” because while just about everyone has heard of those movies, probably fewer are aware of the Agent Smith character in them.

But I thought that title might imply that I was going to say ridiculous things like koryu training could “free your mind” and allow students to do “bullet time” stuff or discover new ways of perceiving existence, and that’s obviously just ridiculous.

Actually, later I will be touching on two of those three things—because, in fact, koryu training will allow the student to do them. However, regardless, because the theme of this essay is overwhelmingly “purpose”, it is on Agent Smith I must focus.

In the first Matrix movie Agent Smith’s purpose is perfectly clear: to protect the matrix as a suit-wearing Sentinel. The movie makes this clear by telling us that Agent Smith was created for this simple purpose and by showing him tracking and killing our heroes throughout—well, until bloody Neo gets involved.

And the koryu’s purpose is just as clear-cut: as samurai “schools” originating from a time of prolonged civil unrest/war and whose defining outward characteristic was the practice of martial arts, their purpose was of course to teach and practice individual combat skills.

OK, so the koryu’s and Agent Smith’s connection is clarity of purpose. Or maybe not…

The reason I called my book “Flawless Deception: the truth behind the samurai schools” ( is because of the number and variety of misconceptions that are associated with the koryu, and while in Flawless I do discuss amongst other things the question of the koryu’s authenticity, their methodology, their effectiveness, who created them and their effects on their students I did not think it necessary to broach the subject of their purpose because THAT at least seemed clear.

However, in his essay “Off the Warpath: Military Science & Budo in the Evolution of Ryuha Bugei” ( Dr. Karl Friday (a world-renowned authority on koryu as both scholar and adept) makes the argument that although koryu training was focused on developing individual combat skills, a koryu’s ability to create warriors that could handle themselves well in a fight was not actually its primary purpose, there being, Dr. Friday states,  “little basis for that hoary assumption, beyond the fact that war was endemic in Japan when the first martial art schools appeared.”(A)


The main reasoning behind Dr. Friday’s thesis seems to be that neither their focus on the long-sword, nor the skills the koryu focused on developing were very applicable to the style of warfare of the time and even if they had been this same style of warfare meant the value of individual martial skills to a samurai was in decline anyway.

Okay, while all these things are true to varying degrees, I do not agree that they are sufficient to support the position that the koryu’s primary purpose was therefore not to make their members more capable fighters, and here’s why…

(You might want to get settled in for a riveting but I think necessarily long ride…think Captain America: Civil War.)



First, let’s examine whether the weapons the koryu trained to use were not suited to the style of warfare of the time—I know that in his essay Dr. Friday focuses on the long-sword, but other weapons popular with the koryu fall into the same category.

It is undisputed that formations of pike-wielding infantry played a progressively larger role in 16th century Japanese battles

However, just as speedball training has no literal place in a boxing match but that it nonetheless enhances the boxer’s performance in a match, so training with and/or against weapons that were unlikely to be found on a battlefield could still be extremely useful as part of a samurai’s combat training—and not just because it is preferable to the relative tedium of pike-fighting.

If we look at three “unsuitable” weapons that can be found in koryu curricula (and which I have spent 37 years training with), it is easy to see how each is especially suited to test and/or develop one or more aspects of a student’s combat-athleticism better than pike practice could.

So, wielding the long glaive (naginata) is generally good for developing physical strength and when it’s held in the middle especially so—not to mention handling it at combat-speed requires that the user learn how to keep their upper-torso muscles relaxed while they are extremely tired and under load. Also, my experience is that as a swordsman “fighting” a naginata in a kata (when it is held in the middle and can therefore utilize both ends very quickly) demands a unique combination of agility, speed and fine judgment of distance.

Like the glaive, the spear can also be handled in such a way as both the blade and butt –end are utilized. However, the spear can require a considerably higher level of dexterity due not only to its greater speed but the ability to rapidly lengthen and shorten the weapon in the hands. Because these factors give the spear the ability to be effective at a wide variety of distances it makes it particularly useful for developing not only judgment of distance but also very fast reflexes in both the spear wielder and his opponent.

Training with and against the long sword does not offer quite the same level of specialized athletic challenge as the other two weapons except perhaps in the rapidity and variety of attacks it can deliver.

Given this, it is not surprising then that the sword is also less effective than the spear or glaive in regard to the other reason for training with these weapons, namely the psychological challenges they offer.

In a well-designed partner kata the aforementioned characteristics of the above weapons can be cunningly manipulated so that depending how the kata is performed there is the potential to generate something not that far (in my experience/opinion) from a combat level of stress.

And nor does this psychological discomfort necessarily apply only to the person facing the weapon, since a kata can just as effectively utilize the weaknesses of a weapon as it can its advantages.

Also, the presence of stress also demands that in order to complete the kata successfully, the student must demonstrate a proportionate amount of courage.


Then there is the matter of whether the weapons actually were anachronistic.

While the long, held-in-the-middle glaive may indeed have become a completely impractical option by the 16th century due to (aside from anything else) the large amount of space it required to wield, shorter versions of the glaive I would imagine continued to see some action during at least the first decades if indeed the nagamaki (a very short glaive or a very long-hilted sword depending on how you look at it) was still present on the battlefield in the mid-1500’s…I read that somewhere seemingly reliable but can’t recall the source.

However, it is the spear that I find the hardest to see dying out during the 1500’s.

I must confess that even after reading everything in English I can get my hands on that might help, I have never really been able to get a handle on how the samurai component of a 16th army was distributed/utilized in battle—with the understanding that this probably changed considerably as armies became larger and more organized over the century. I assume that any cavalry was going to be made up entirely of samurai and there seems to be agreement that the common soldiery were eventually overseen at least some of the time by samurai “officers”.

However, where I am confused is, first, if this then accounted for all the samurai, and, second, if not then what did the other samurai do? And if the battle was not suited to cavalry employment, did the mounted samurai stand idly by? Seems unlikely.

I am assuming that as in Europe there was typically a link between a warrior’s financial (and therefore social) worth/standing and their place in an army’s hierarchy. Therefore, given that there was a wide discrepancy in samurai in this regard (my instructor said to differentiate between the lowest samurai and the peasantry was to separate “pigs from swine”) then did any non-cavalry/officer samurai serve only to support their superiors as part of a bodyguard? And/or did they mix with the pike-wielding common soldiers? Or did they form their own pike units? For what it’s worth, I was told that Karato Ryu exponents typically served on horseback as mid-level “officers”, but I never thought to ask who it was they were commanding!

(Incidentally, I believe my confusion about the samurai’s tactical uses stems from authors frequently not making it clear when discussing “foot soldiers” if they are referring to infantry samurai or common soldiers.)

All this relates to the practicality of the spear (and the impracticality of the pike) because not only was a spear the best non-projectile weapon to carry on horseback, if a samurai acting in an officer capacity over infantry (and assuming that he wasn’t following the Greek hoplite tradition of actually being part of the phalanx) found his unit being overrun, or for whatever other reason he himself being compelled to fight, a spear is again the best choice.

Additionally, just as there were scenarios where cavalry were redundant, similarly there were those where pike formations couldn’t be applied or maintained and as a result battle-lines were less defined and/or combat became more open-spaced—think assaults/defenses and/or unsuitable terrain. During these times, in whatever capacity a samurai was being used he would take a spear (or a sword) over a pike anytime.

And speaking of swords, while wearing the long-sword may have been standard practice for samurai throughout the 1500’s, for reasons touched-on later this does not automatically mean this was a reflection of its popularity/practicality as far as its use in actual combats. As just mentioned, when fighting out of formation, if a spear wasn’t handy, the sword would have been preferable to a samurai over a pike (or of course the longer glaive) so it seems likely that it would still have been employed at least sometimes.


Next, the argument that the skills that the koryu concentrated on developing did not have “a great deal of direct applicability”(C) to the style of warfare of the time.

I couldn’t disagree more with this part of Dr. Friday’s argument.

Not only were the skills applicable, but in several ways the quality of koryu combat training may have been significantly superior to that found in any other culture.

(A far more detailed explanation of all the following skills/attributes can be found in Flawless Deception)

First, the method theoretically had the ability to allow a warrior to maintain his psychological equilibrium during the sensory and emotional onslaught of battle and thereby fight with a much higher level of effectiveness. I say “theoretically” because I have not been in a battle of any type (I am extremely glad to say), however my reaction (or lack thereof) to high-stress situations I have encountered (not least of which being advanced Karato Ryu training) leads me to believe that it would be up to the ultimate test.

Second, and of almost equal importance to maintaining mental equilibrium, was the increase in a battle of what we today refer to as situational awareness—or the ability of a warrior to recognize what the hell was happening around him and how it impacted on him.

Remaining calm certainly played a part in a warrior’s level of situational awareness if only because it prevented the sensory restrictions that the sympathetic nervous system’s reaction to stress brings with it. However, beyond that factor, the koryu method also allowed for even greater clarity of perception due to its promotion of what might be described as objectivity.

And third, there is supposedly the enhanced ability to not only perceive and understand what’s happening around you but to be able to react appropriately. In other words, being aware of the enemy pike coming towards your head AND being able to perform an appropriate action to deal with it.

Fourth, the combined influence of all the above attributes enabled the koryu adept to theoretically increase his physical ability by liberating a higher percentage of his innate potential with respect to speed, timing, judgement of distance, agility and stamina.

And while the above abilities were especially useful in battle, they could also be applied to training sessions, which in turn made the sessions considerably more useful as preparations for actual combat.

The effectiveness of kata training–no matter how sophisticated it may be in terms of kata design or performance–is virtually always significantly reduced by students predicting the kata’s component parts—even when they are convinced that they are not.

The above psychological “skills” were (are!) eventually capable of allowing students to perform kata Spontaneously (as I call it in Flawless Deception). I do not mean by this that they are not thinking about what is going on—quite the contrary—simply that they are in such a state of mind that to them the kata just “happens” to mostly end up in the form of the kata.

The ramifications of Spontaneity are that it makes kata immeasurably (and unimaginably) more combat-realistic, and therefore equally more thrilling and challenging to perform. As a result, training (both solo and partner) is never again anything less than exhilarating no matter how many thousands of times a kata is performed. Yeah, really. It is quite something to watch one of your students finally get a inkling of training in this way and see how it changes his approach to training forever.

A further advantage is that not only are the kata performed with a  higher degree of combat-realism, the degree of that realism can go way beyond what would normally be considered practical due to the danger of serious (if not fatal) injury it would seem to produce.

It should be noted that another of the benefits of these psychological skills is the ability to use them to generate a sense of threat even when it isn’t physically present, so partner kata can be stimulating when done slowly and solo kata practice becomes an exercise in “practiced paranoia” as you respond (both intellectually and physically) to non-existent but felt threats from different directions.

And lastly, even if the above effects felt in training didn’t actually transfer to battle, that they not only make long hours of training enjoyable but instill confidence (whether warranted or not) in one’s prowess are two potentially very significant advantages of the methodology–not only was the koryu-taught samurai likely to be more physically conditioned for battle, but his confidence would have lessened the level stress he needed to overcome.


And lastly there is the question of whether the style of warfare in the 1500’s meant the value of individual martial skills to a samurai was in decline.

The growing dominance of formation-based tactics would most certainly have reduced both the opportunity and need for a samurai to fight independently.

However, as already discussed above, there were still situations where formation tactics couldn’t be applied  and where a samurai could consequently find himself fighting if not alone then with less, or no, cohesive unit support.

Were these conditions sufficiently common that the koryu would have thought they justified a thorough study of individual combat skills? That would seem to be a very difficult question to answer.

However, if it wasn’t sufficient it doesn’t automatically mean that the motivation for developing individual combat prowess could only have been to stimulate abstract psychological change.

Being able to exhibit martial arts skill (in the form of kata training), no matter how unlikely it is that it’ll be used in battle, was potentially important for a couple of other reasons:

Even if the creators of the koryu weren’t seeking military advancement themselves, any students that were could have seen kata demonstrations as a means to attract favorable attention from a superior—not just because of how innovative kata practice was for the time, but because skilled kata practice is excellent at suggesting that it requires and develops the mental attributes needed for military leadership.

Second, all koryu students were from warrior families and so had been brought up in a martial culture that respected and expected individual combat prowess—even if it was acknowledged by them that such skills were now less likely to be literally useful.

Another reason could have been some combination of wishful-thinking and insecurity.  Surely, many 16th century samurai would have hoped that the current dependence on common soldiers would pass and that the samurai would once again become the central figures in a battle?

While such dreams of returning to “the good old days” might appear romantic, naive and irrational, they would have been very reassuring to a warrior class who quite reasonably saw their social and political position being threatened by their decline in martial relevance. Sure, for some samurai the move into less combat-orientated leadership roles would have been an opportunity to reassert and maintain their importance, but not only would this change in roles not always have been appealing, but for how many of the lower-class samurai would the circumstances to allow it have come their way?

So, developing and demonstrating (through kata) individual combat skill might not only get a koryu member noticed by a lord, it could be seen as a warning to the peasantry that their samurai were still a force to be reckoned with, and at the same time simply bolster a samurai’s own sense of importance and worth in troubling times.

And these factors explain why the sword would appear so frequently in a koryu’s kata syllabus, for as Dr. Friday says, “swords achieved a singular status as heirlooms and symbols of power, war, military skill and warrior identity.”(D)

And lastly, though it might seem a small point, I would suggest that regardless of the unrest of the period or its limited military relevance, another reason why many samurai (koryu creators/members or not) would have striven to acquire individual combat skill was because they wanted to. As with any culture, there is always a percentage of the population that is driven to want to learn how to fight even if there is no particular social, political or economic imperative to do so.

Almost certainly the founders of the koryu (and probably the vast majority of their early students) were of this persuasion otherwise they were unlikely to either have been as successful in combat as they were and/or they simply wouldn’t have spent the time developing their methodology.



So, I don’t agree with Dr. Friday that the aspects of the koryu just discussed are necessarily an indication that the koryu’s primary purpose was other than individual combat skill.

However,  I do (perhaps unexpectedly) agree with him that koryu training is excellent for what he argues was their actual goals.

Dr. Friday suggests that the koryu primarily sought to generate in their members positive psychological change in the vein of the various Ways that appeared in the same period(E).

He also suggests that the training led to increased “tactical acumen”, however it is unclear whether he thinks this skill was part-and-parcel of the Ways changes and/or the result of applying tactics learned in the individual combat training to generalship.

Either way, the reasons provided for this military goal are both the declining use of individual combat skills in battle that mass formation-based warfare brought with it and the growing appreciation of, and need for, generalship it produced.(E)

So, Individual combat skill was “a sprat to catch a mackerel”, or in other words, the fact that it made the students better at combat was of less importance than other effects it had on them.

In Flawless Deception I argue that the koryu’s training methodology actually has the potential to be even more effective at stimulating the aforementioned “psychological change” than any of the many Ways designed specifically for that purpose.

It might seem counter-intuitive that an occupation focused on the butchery of one’s fellow-man would be more suited to this than “calligraphy, flower arranging, music, drama, painting”, “poetry composition, incense judging” or “the tea ceremony”(G) .

However, during combat some modern soldiers have recorded feeling things that could be interpreted as being very similar to the ultimate goal of those Ways that appeared around the same time as the koryu.

Discovering “the momentous truths about ourselves and this whirling earth to which we cling”(8), or that ” ‘I’ passes insensibly into a ‘we’ “, or feeling so much “part of this circling world”, so much alive that, in seeming paradox, death no longer matters to them.”(9) . (H,I) sounds to me very akin to the attainment of “universal Truth”(J)  the Ways sought.

In my experience, it is the ability of koryu methodology to routinely reproduce the same, or similar, states of mind (using some of the same stimuli) that sets it apart from not only contemporary Ways but also more martially orientated ones that came later.

As with many other moments of existential epiphany, I would argue that those just mentioned are in good part merely(!) the result of the soldiers for the first time perceiving existence with a perfectly focused and objective mind.

I have found that kata training can eventually routinely reproduce such a state of mind so long as the kata (either solo or partner) are appropriately designed and performed. (btw, that was the “discover new ways of perceiving existence” part I warned about at the beginning)

While the process to facilitate this is complex, the key factor is stress (specifically fear), both real and perceived.

This serves (basically) to silence the student’s incessantly jabbering conscious mind and place his mind entirely in the moment, often with his only concern being whether or not he has the willpower to continue.

This effect can be so powerful before the student learns to adapt (for lack of a better word) that I have witnessed countless times students after a class struggling to remember where they parked their car, or what their plans were for the rest of the day, or even having trouble talking. Often their minds have been so effectively cleared of social, emotional and intellectual context that they barely talk for several (or many) minutes as their minds slowly revert to “normal” functioning.

Where this methodology is superior in my experience to the other Ways is that without this kind of combination of stress-incentive and psychological testing the exponent must rely upon a level of self-imposed concentration and willpower during the “performance” of their art that I believe to be almost superhuman, and therefore certainly not generally achievable.

That is not to say the exponents of these other arts will ever notice (or accept) the difference in the effects of their efforts since it is, in my experience, extremely unusual for a student to be able to conceive the clarity of mind I have very briefly outlined until they have achieved it. Before that time, their “chattering monkey mind” is such a ubiquitous part of their existence that trying to perceive it is like trying to get someone with decades of stress in their shoulders to feel that stress before it is relieved.

The second main advantage the koryu have over non-martial Ways is the added difficulty that combatively-practical martial arts (and especially those utilizing weapons, armor & adverse training environments) bring to attaining “universal Truth” this being due to the multitudes of incessant distractions they create—be they physical, sensory, emotional and/or intellectual. However, this also means that if a koryu student is able to overcome these challenges they will find it relatively easy to apply and maintain in everyday life the psychological experiences that have manifested during their koryu training sessions.

This is why the martial Ways (such as kendo, iaido, kyudo or aikido) do not offer the same level of challenge or therefore the same degree of change: all of them having in some areas either deliberately or inadvertently removed some of the aforementioned “incessant distractions” from their method.

A third advantage that explicitly combat-orientated training has—one which also seems counter-intuitive—is simply that students are going to spend less time thinking about how they are progressing in their journey towards “universal Truth”.

This might be because the student is primarily interested in developing prowess and/or because of the nature of the training, but either way less time is available (whether out of choice or necessity) for reflecting, deliberating, and conceptualizing about anything related to their progress in non-martial matters.

Alternatively, a student that undertakes a Way with self-development as their main motivation will find it extremely difficult to not be constantly assessing their training experiences looking for signs of progress or meaning.

This is significant because much of the benefits of the Ways depends upon the student allowing the changes in him to develop without his conscious interference. Thus, conscious analysis will typically slow progress (if not stop it entirely) while, alternatively, being entirely concerned with the activity itself (rather than its psychological impact) tends to open psychological “doors” more quickly and ultimately “reveal” more of them.


Dr. Friday also raises the question of why there were so few koryu during the Sengoku(K). The inference being to my mind that if developing combat skills was the primary goal of the koryu then there would have been more of them given the unsettled times.

I would argue that if there were as few koryu as it appears then it is because adapting the Ways principles into a combat-practical curriculum took far, far more than simply being a seasoned warrior—of which there were many. Just as it seems only a small fraction of modern soldiers have the profound experiences I discussed earlier, so only a comparably small number of samurai would have had both the combat experience and (most importantly) the vision to see the martial potential that kata training has, let alone to then create the kata and methodology.


And lastly, as the final argument against Dr. Friday’s thesis I would like to take an extremely brief look at the late 14th century, Italian fight-master Fiore dei  Liberi. He taught noble mercenaries primarily battle-orientated martial arts and like the Sengoku-era koryu, not only was he apparently extremely unusual for his time by having a formal curriculum (there are extant copies of his treatise), but also this curriculum was in key ways seemingly unsuited  for the style of warfare that his clients would engage in.

However, Italy had no Ways that can be used as an explanation for Fiore’s technical “deficiencies”, and while the reason for his teaching‘s failings cannot be proved, all the socio-political factors I’ve presented above as rationales in the Sengoku to learn individual combat were present in Fiore’s italy.



As previously stated, I don’t think that the arguments that Dr. Friday uses are enough to determine that the koryu’s primary purpose was to develop psychological skills for purposes other than combat, but that being said I happily acknowledge how capable the koryu can be in this regard.

I also accept that the benefits of koryu training in regard to self-development and generalship may not have been inadvertent and even that these may have been of great importance to the koryu creators. I just don’t think this means they were the primary goal—“hoary” though such a perspective may be.

So much then for the Agent Smith connection I claimed of clear, unambiguous purpose?

Maybe so!

But Dr. Friday’s thesis (if accepted) would create another connection. Not only then would both Smith and the koryu have had their primary purposes taken from them, but the consequences in both cases would be just as drastic, because as Agent Smith so rightly says (albeit slightly edited), “It is purpose that guides us, that drives us; it is purpose that defines”.

That said, although for the koryu the consequences would be “drastic”, they wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic.

In the Matrix movies when Agent Smith finds that he has been “unplugged” from the system clones abound, skies darken, matrix chaos ensues…

By contrast, the effect of changing the koryu’s purpose would be very subtle.

Martial arts study would still be the central aspect of koryu membership, but the re-purposing would serve to assist in de-emphasizing the importance of actual combat training—by which I mean, training that will prepare a student for combat—which in turn would lead to a reduction in the level and quality of the martial character of the koryu.

“So what?” you might say.

Ah, but not only would few argue that a high level of martial character was an original component of the koryu, but the fundamental point of Flawless Deception is that martial character also happens to be crucial to a koryu’s ability to generate certain kinds of psychological change in its senior student’s—change which is incredibly important for two reasons.

First, it is essential to a deep understanding on both a technical and “spiritual” level of any sufficiently authentic koryu, and is therefore necessary to prevent their degradation.

And second, because the psychological changes the koryu methodology can eventually generate—as well as the methodology itself—are in my opinion the most valuable things the koryu have to offer the world, and to lose them would be a great tragedy—greater even than the decision to make the Matrix sequels…especially the third one…which was just horrible.


“We’re here to take from you what you tried to take from us. Purpose.”

Agent Smith

Phil Trent (


Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from “Off the Warpath: Military Science & Budo in the Evolution of Ryuha Bugei”

(A)  P255: “All these questions become much easier to answer if one sets aside the premise that bugei ryuha originated as instruments for teaching the workaday techniques of the battlefield. And indeed, there is little basis for that hoary assumption, beyond the fact that war was endemic in Japan when the first martial art schools appeared. The received wisdom rests, in other words, on what amounts to a post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy.”

(C) P250: “Nor did the skills that late medieval bugeisha concentrated on developing have a great deal of direct applicability to sixteenth-century warfare. In fact, even the earliest of bugei ryuha were, at best, anachronistic in this regard.”

(D) P256: “Viewed in this light, the prominent role of the sword in medieval ryuha bugei is much easier to understand. For, their secondary role in battlefield combat notwithstanding, swords achieved a singular status as heirlooms and symbols of power, war, military skill and warrior identity.”

(E) P256:“More importantly, however, the martial and other arts also ‘”shared a sense of ultimate-true-purpose, defined in the medieval Japanese concept of “michi,” or “path.””. P256: “It held concentrated specialization in any activity to be an equally valid route to attainment of “universal Truth”.

(F) P255: “Why did bugei ryuha emerge when they did-at a time when generalship, the ability to organize and direct large forces, was rapidly coming to overshadow personal martial skills as the decisive element in battle, and the key to a successful military career?”

(G) P255: “During the Muromachi period, virtuosos of calligraphy, flower arranging, music, drama, painting, and the like began to think of their approaches to their arts as packages of information that could be transmitted to students in organized patterns, and to certify students’ mastery of the teachings with licenses and diplomas.”

P256: “Ryuha bugei, emerging within this cultural and philosophical milieu, took its place alongside poetry composition, incense judging, noh drama, the tea ceremony, and numerous other medieval michi.”

(H) (I) Flawless Deception: the truth behind the samurai schools: 8. J. Glenn Gray (Introduction by Hannah Arendt) The Warriors: Reflections On Men In Battle (Bison Books, 1998), p21. 9. J. Glenn Gray (Introduction by Hannah Arendt) The Warriors: Reflections On Men In Battle (Bison Books, 1998), pxi-xii

(J) P256: This construct, born of implications drawn’ from a worldview common to Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, saw expertise in activities of all sorts-from games and sports to fine arts, from practical endeavours to religious practice-as possessing a universality deriving from its relationship to a common, ultimate goal. It held concentrated specialization in any activity to be an equally valid route to attainment of “universal Truth”, asserting that all true paths must lead eventually to the same place, and that therefore complete mastery of even the most trivial of pursuits must yield the same rewards as could be found through the most profound.

(K) P255: “Why were there so few ryuha around during the Sengoku period, and why did they proliferate so rapidly during the early Tokugawa period, after the age of wars had passed?”

The elephant in the room…

Elephant thumbnail cropped

Providing a summary of my koryu experience is tricky and explaining why this is so will take a while, so please bear with me… if nothing else, you may well find what follows curious, maybe audacious and even, I hope, quite amusing.

But first, let me say it is perhaps difficult to appreciate how I could be even close to objective about something that I have devoted my life to for the last 39 years. The fact is that on a personal level I just don’t care much about where and when the training I received came from, in much the same way that I get just as much satisfaction from a reproduction suit of armor as I would an original. Beyond it being sufficiently faithful, I am far more concerned with whether the armor does its job than if it is old. Likewise the “koryu” I am a member of. This is because, first, I am confident that it allows students to quite accurately appreciate the physical and psychological rigors of medieval-like combat. Secondly, and more importantly for me, the training is not only endlessly challenging and thrilling it also inevitably brings about great positive change in its exponents.


It’s not actually impossible that I have spent the last 39 years as a student of a school that was founded (as it claims) just after the Onin war—yeah, the 15th century Onin war. But, it’s also not impossible that what I have been taught dates back less than 50 years

What is most reasonable is that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

That being said, at a glance, the “less than 50 years” scenario appears to be resoundingly (and pitifully) more likely.

First, I’ve never been to Japan and as far as I know neither had my instructor—we’re both English. My instructor claimed to have been taught by a Japanese Soke who was living in England in the 1960’s, but I never met said Soke and have zero proof that he existed. My instructor also claimed that he was in frequent contact with the family that owns the school, but again I have no evidence that that wasn’t a complete fib.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, even the name for the school I use was mostly made-up by me about 20 years ago AND I have never seen the name that my instructor used for the school mentioned anywhere.

Soooo, the school is obviously (laughably?) about as koryu as the name I gave it—Tenshu Shindo Karato Ryu (which is meant to be a pun on its own fakeness, fyi), right?

If only it were that simple! (Or maybe you’ll think it is even after you’ve finished reading this!)

First, if the school is a modern creation, then it must have been created for a reason and of course one reason would be to make money. However, Karato Ryu (KR) rules don’t allow this to happen.

First, it is traditional for the school to limit its instructors to around five students. Second, charging anything more than what’s needed to pay any rent for training facilities is not allowed—I do now charge a nominal fee, primarily to cover the time and materials required for me to build armor and weapons. Third, the keppan does not allow the unauthorized dissemination of any techniques and since I am no longer in contact with my instructor and he was the only link (alleged) to “the family”, I will not be getting any permission soon. [Yes, I have bent this rule by posting class photos & video of what I consider pretty generic technique on our Facebook page (

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