Koryu Literature, part 2 of my 5-part series on HEMA and Koryu focuses on some of the most common questions I get asked by HEMA enthusiasts. For example; “I’m a HEMA practitioner who wants to learn the katana. Do you have any websites, manuals or translated manuscripts, like the Fiore or Lichtenauer treatises?”
In this article, I'm going to give you a definitive answer on this. :-)
In Koryū bujutsu, most schools, known as ‘ryū’ have documentation in the form of “makimono” and “densho”. More often than not these documents, these pieces of Koryu Literature, simply list the names of the techniques. They may be accompanied by some basic stick figures, or an image relating to the mythology of the school. Such images feature people standing on one leg atop a charging boar, or a bird demon known as a Tengu holding a stance. These are not instructional images. In some of the more detailed scrolls, there may be poems or brief passages.
Here's the thing - within the Koryū bujutsu - it is impossible for anyone outside of the ryū, any ryū, to understand the mechanics and philosophy (Mu = Way) based on the documents of Koryu Literature. The reason for this is very simple. Koryu Literature was written in such a way so as to be deliberately vague, to obscure the meaning to outsiders and only allow those initiated through the physical mysteries of the ryū to understand what the technique being referred to is and how it was performed. These documents are more obscure and vague than the Liechtenauer zettel. No amount of documents, images and video can truly transmit Koryū bujutsu.
For example here is some Koryu Literature on the Eishin Ryū, one of the Koryū schools of Iai that I study in the form of "tanka" (a type of poem):
Neither of those poems will make any sense whatsoever to anyone outside of the ryū. But they make sense to those who have trained in the ryū. The first explains the movement, speed and timing of a particular form. The second explains the nature of the draw of a particular form and the decisive cut, but also illuminates the timing, distance and speed of that form. But without the context - it's impossible to develop the correct technique from these writings of Koryu Literature.
Stick figure drawings found in Koryu Literature cannot show the transitional movements. This is true even with HD photographs and video. Today there are several modern manuals on Japanese swordsmanship. They are packed with hundreds of photographs, over multiple angles. Accompanied by detailed descriptions and they don’t even come close to explaining Iai or kenjutsu. They are useful references, but not one of them can show the subtle transition of weight from one hip to the other, they can't show you the timing of tenouchi or articulate the movement of the centre nor show you how to cultivate and deploy inner power. They cannot let you feel seme (pressure) or it’s absence, or the capture of metsuke (a type of vision). They can describe them, but unless you see it and feel it from someone who actually does it, someone who can show you those subtle moments, the ebb and flow of power, the transitions...there is a reason people dedicate their lives to the study of these ryū. If it was as simple as following the dance steps in a book, you’d have it down in a weekend.
And speaking of instructional manuals, let’s talk about the most famous piece of Koryu Literature in the world, the Go Rin no Sho, or Book of 5 Rings. Oftentimes I am confronted by people randomly inquiring about my dojo, who tell me they have studied the famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi’s art of kenjutsu deeply…it turns out more often than not all they have done is read a translation of his book, the Go Rin no Sho. But this famous text was not written as an instruction manual for the general public. The Go Rin no Sho is an internal work, written for Musashi's students and intended to be burned on his death.
The simple fact of the matter is that you cannot "recreate" or invent an accurate interpretation of any Koryū school, even with the documents of Koryu Literature, if you have not trained in that art and developed the kinaesthetic awareness, body organisation, neurology and philosophical outlook developed through rigorous physical training under an experienced practitioner of the ryū.
Musashi himself fundamentally believed this. For example the Hyōhō Sanjū-go Ka Jō ("Thirty-five Articles on Strategy"), written specifically for Lord Hosokawa, sees Musashi frequently refer back to actual physical training in the ryū;
Of course Musashi himself only gives the briefest of explanations in the Go Rin no Sho on any matter as it was not written for a general audience. It was written for ONE student, Terao Magonojō.
In fact, it is important to keep this in mind with all of Musashi's texts. They were written for specific people, to convey specific ideas to them, based on the fact that they had been training with Musashi sometime.
Musashi's texts are not a how-to manual but more of a crib notes reminder series for his students from which they can extract the greater teachings taught in the school itself. These are teachings that have been taught in the dojo through oral instruction and countless hours of physical training.
The Oral instruction here is key. This is called kuden.
Of course this is an immediately understood principle of EVERY genuine Koryū. Koryū is about the transmission of an oral history, a lived history; Technique, strategy and insight passed physically, kinesthetically and orally to the next generation. It's about hard practice, shaping the body and mind to the demands of the ryū. Not adjusting everything to suit yourself.
The private nature of these texts means very few are available outside of family, libraries and specific collectors. Most are not translated into English and are of little help when they are to those not in the ryū itself. The texts of Koryu Literature are often little more than a list of names, sometimes there are brief images, but they are little more than shadows on a cave wall. It is impossible to learn the dance from watching the shadows alone, you need to be trained in the dance which casts those shadows. Without initiation into the physical and oral teachings of the art, the documents are worthless. Even detailed modern manuals offer little to those not already familiar with teachings that cannot be written down, photographed or video, only physically experienced.
Coming back to Musashi's teachings, put forth in the Go Rin no Sho and as practiced in Hyōhō Niten Ichi Ryū. They can be understood only through the rigorous training of the body. It is this training, not book reading, that organises the body, physically, neurologically and psychologically to perform the techniques of the ryū. This too is something Musashi talks about - in fact, close to 80% of the text finishes a specific bullet point with -
As such, the documents of a Koryu Literature offer little in the way of practical knowledge to a HEMA enthusiast. And this brings me neatly on to the techniques...
Join me for part 3 of this 5-part series as we explore the equivalent to longsword cuts like krumphau and schielhau in Koryū kenjutsu...and discover how the techniques of Koryū can impact HEMA...