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TAE Journal, Edition 10, A brief discussion of Ken Suburi 1, 5 and 7. By Lewis Bernaldo de Quiros

FROM EDITION 10 OF THE TRADITIONAL AIKIDO EUROPE JOURNAL – AUTUMN 2023


The following considerations are not intended as instructions for one unfamiliar with these forms but for those who already know them. My intention is to fill out their practice and underscore their value and importance.

 

The 7 ken suburi were created by the late Morihiro Saito Sensei (9th dan) who was a long-term personal student of the founder of Aikido, Morihei Ueshiba (23 years) and was the Dojo Cho of the Iwama dojo in Ibaraki Japan and guardian of the Aiki Shrine.


 

Within Takemusu Aikido the suburi (jo and ken) and the jo kata (31 and 13 count kata forms) are the only part of Aikido that is done as a solo practice.

 

As such this is an important part of our curriculum as it is here that we can concentrate on correcting and bringing order to our physical structure and refine our sense of what stillness and motion means without the added distraction of an attacking partner putting us under pressure.

 

In other martial arts this aspect of solo training is fundamental (e.g., Karate, Tai Chi, etc) and forms the basis for partner work which comes later.

 

In Aikido, apart from weapons training, solo work is limited to ukemi practice, plus solo empty handed forms that are created for the purpose of basic tai sabaki training. The exception that I am aware of is in Yoshinkan Aikido where solo empty handed kata have been developed for the purpose of training large numbers of students in the basic patterns of Aikido movement as practised in that style. [Editor’s note – the Tohei Koichi Sensei system also includes a range of solo tai sabaki forms].

 

Why is solo training important?

 

In Aikido we seek to join with the intent, energy and body of our partners reducing two centres (in opposition) to one (in harmony). In this process of ‘joining’ with another, to create ‘one body’, we must first be in a unified state ourselves. If not, we are divided against ourselves and the meeting with the other will not result in a joining but in a collision.

 

Hence ‘being one’ ourselves is an essential prerequisite to ‘being one’ with our partners.

 

How is this accomplished within the context of the ken suburi?

 

‘Being one’, requires that we direct a unified body from the centre and source all movement and generation of power in our connection with the ground. Furthermore, all force that is absorbed must be received through the body and into the ground. Our intent and energy must be at one with our body such that on all levels there is alignment with the purpose and direction of our actions.

 

When we hold a bokken, it should not feel as a simple wooden object in our hands extending out in front of our body. It should feel as a part of our body, as an extension of our body. We should strive to ‘feel into’ the weapon, and sense it’s nature, it’s weight, it’s balance. We do not seek to control or use it as an object ‘apart from ourselves’, but as an ‘extension of ourselves’. As such we need to also feel the way it wants to be held and the way it wants to move. We seek to align ourselves with the weapon and its nature.

 

Specifically, the weapon is an extension of our centre, and the impulse to move should come from there. Not from the arms alone. Everything should move as one but be directed from the centre and with power sourced from the ground. Whatever pattern of movement the bokken traces in space, it reflects the movement the centre is making. No exception.

 

Morihiro Saito Sensei would often comment that if you were short on practice time that you should at least practice Suburi nrs 1-5-7 with nr 1 being the most important. Below, I will cover some important points in the practice of these three forms.

  

Suburi nr 1

 

This is a simple shomen cut straight down the middle line of the body. In this cut we shift our weight while in right hanmi from a 50-50 weight distribution between our feet to a 100% weighting on our back foot as we raise the sword and allow it to arch behind us and touch the centreline of our back. During the weight shift, the front foot withdraws, the hands and grip become soft, and although our centre rises up, it remains heavy and ‘weighted underneath’. As we cut down, the right foot shifts forward re-establishing the initial 50-50 weighting between the feet at the finish. Hence this is also a study of shifting weight impulses in the feet driving movement in the body as directed by the centre.

 

A ‘map’ that is often used in the martial arts is that of the 6 and 8 directions. This is used as a guide to assist in the training process of attaining ‘true’ balance (as opposed to managed misbalance). The six directions are as follows:

 

-    Front and back (1 + 2)

-    Up and down (3 + 4)

-    Left and right (5 + 6)

 

Once the body is able to ‘fill out’ these six directions, the body can find a sense of balance and calmness at the centre. Then directions 7 and 8 come into play summing up and being inclusive of the first 6:

 

-    Centre and periphery (7 + 8)

 

The first level of working with nr 1 ken suburi is finding balance within the 6 basic directions above. For most of us, when we begin our practice, our ‘balance’ is anything but true balance, it is managed misbalance. Specifically, our sense of spatial orientation and embodiment tends to be dominated heavily by our visual field and hands. That means we tend to be over focused to the front and up, and hence ‘empty’, or weak, in the other directions. This results in chronic tension that is required to maintain our posture and movement patterns.

 

This is the reason for the bokken to reach the back. It is not a ‘functional cut’, as when we move into partner work and kumi tachi but serves to bring awareness and fullness to our back space. When we cut, the back is present in our ‘front’ cut. Front and back fill out equally. If not, the forward momentum of the cut will throw us forwards and we will lose our balance in the act of cutting.

 

In addition to this primary direction of front and back, we strive to raise the sword while dropping our weight (directions up and down). 

 

As we cut the chest and shoulders remain wide. When we finish the cut there should be a sense of space in the chest, shoulders, and elbows (directions left and right).

 

The whole cut from beginning to end should be a reflection of the movement made in the centre. If the bokken moves, it is because the centre is moving (directions 7 and 8).

 

Balance is a very misunderstood term. For most of us simply not falling over somehow implies we are balanced. Not so. To be balanced is to be supported and held up through our structural alignment and connection with the earth itself. This means that with ‘true’ balance there is a sense of deep support and rest. Stillness in the sense of unimpeded presence is the result. If not, we are tied up in knots supporting ourselves against gravity with resulting tension and background unease. When we are able to experience our structures deeply settling, we also experience being uplifted and supported. We should be able to experience a sense of grounded openness through simply aligning with the earth.

 

From this sense of alignment, connection and balance I will be far more functional than if I am tied up in patterns of tension and effort. Since what we seek in martial arts is to maximise our functionality, finding true balance is a must.

 

Through the simple act of swinging the sword from front to back and to the front again, we are seeking to develop a sense of deep balance and from there, motivation of impulse and action from the centre.

  

Suburi nr 5

 

If ken suburi nr 1 is the basis where we develop the above, it is done in the simplest sense of movement: a straight vertical cut. Given that the body is in an asymmetrical position (right hanmi) establishing this connection is not straightforward and involves finding spirals through the anatomical structure that don’t ‘break’. Once the connection is established, a yokomen cut is accomplished through a change in centre work - and not through a change in arm work.

 

And this is the big issue with cutting diagonally (kesa girl): that the connection through the body tends to break and the arms guide the sword independent of what the centre is doing.

 

For this reason, Sensei [Saito Sensei] once (half-jokingly) commented that ken suburi nr 1 “is the mother of all suburi”.

 

In my own teaching I put most emphasis on shomen when teaching suburi and see clearly that if the connection with the centre is weak or non existent then yokomen work results in the circular strike breaking the body integrity though the centrifugal force of the cut - with resultant tension to ‘hold onto’ the weapon and concomitant uprooting during the motion. All places you do not want to go in training.

 

For this reason, a yokomen cut, such as in suburi nr 5, is seen as a modification in the centre work of the basic shomen. If you are having trouble with nr 5 go back to nr 1 and establish a deeper connection there.

 

Suburi nr 7

 

Yokomen plus a thrust.  The primary technique for the bokken is the percussive blow. The secondary technique is to use it as a thrusting weapon. Hence nr 1 is nr 1 and nr 7 is at the end of the series.

 

The key challenge with this suburi is to connect the yokomen cut and finish with a spiral motion sourced in the centre leading into the thrust. This is all about the connection of the bokken through the body to the centre and being able to maintain the 6 / 8 directions in a finish that is deeply asymmetric and hence easily breaks one's structural integrity and balance.

 

Conclusion

 

In the brief discussion above, I have singled out three essential moves within the aiki-ken suburi set, and hopefully illustrated how they are a progression, building upon each other with some basic pointers.

 

Their practice is a practice of developing bodily awareness and balance and from there deepening ground and centre-work. These inner aspects feed directly into our bodily sense and into our empty handed technique. Sensei made it clear that riai (the harmony between empty handed work and weapons work) was in the use of the body. Weapons solo training is fundamentally about unifying our sense of body and self and developing centre work.

 

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