Martial Musings: Secrets of the Blade by Mahipal Lunia

Having students who have fifteen plus years of training enables an exploration of patterns that would not be possible with beginners.

We were training with the Tanto (Japanese blade) in our Saturday class (both the AJJ and SEMA groups). After working through the basics, it was time to start thinking beyond the fixed forms, and unlock their conceptualization.

"Blades have a language of their own. Understanding the blade and properly using it can be the difference between whether you travel into the Earth or on it." I chuckled to myself waiting for my joke to land. It didn't.Message to self: stick to the day job.

"The tanto, like most blades of its kind, have four distinct movement patterns. Learning the blade's language will unravel very distinct ways of moving and interacting with the opponent. Lets explore them briefly, especially in relationship to the Tanto, while touching on some of the other blade types as well."

The HA (Edge): This is the cutting edge. It allows for the slashing motions that cuts open the body. Depending on how deep/long you you want to go, you start from one end of the edge moving to the other. The common method is starting from the Tsuba/gaurd and moving towards the tip. This opens the side to side movements, and a lot of side stepping. In our system we we notice this in our diagonal cuts , and in the seppuku (ritual suicide)/disemboweling. In the Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) there are specific drills like Banda Banda, that open this language up. With the American Bowie/European sabre we see this in the attack flow strikes 2 and 3. The Ha teaches the grammar of diagonal movement, slipping in and out, while cutting the target open.

The KISSAKI (Point): is what penetrates deep into the body, meaning to puncture the organs. The movement consists of lunges: both quick-short lunges and well-timed deep, penetrating lunges. This lunge is is done by moving the blade first followed by kicking forward the front foot and propelling the body forward with the back foot. If you want to see mastery of this motion, look at expert foil, epee or sabre fencers. Within the (FMA) we see this with the reverse grip/drawpoint/Earth drills. The Kissaki teaches you the grammar of the straight line, lunging forward and backwards at great speed.

The MUNE (the back/spine): this does three things:

  1. It deflects a blade that cuts through your maai/safe distance before jumping/bouncing off for a reverse strike. Within the FMA this kind of movement is called the Abanico or fanning

  2. The Backcut; the signature of the Sabre and Bowie knife fighting system. A way to disappear one's weapon and hand and use the back edge to cut

  3. Finally much like the ridgehand using the mune to pull the opponent in for either a trap or using the second blade to finish them


The KASSHIRA (a butt cap or pommel on the end of the tsuka.) The butt makes for a great Tetsui (hammer fist strike) and concentrates the stopping power. Much like the tetsui, this is a good way to close the gap and to stop a jumpy person in their tracks. The FMA call this kind of striking the punyo. When held right, the Kasshira can be used to do traps and locks as well. One of the key footwork patterns on this is kokutsusdachi (cat stance) and jumping in especially when a strike has been launched. The grammar here is punching and tearing motions. This is such a powerful method that some Indonesian systems have developed a special blade for this motion: the Karambit.

"This is fascinating! So why is this not more widely known?" inquired one of the students.

"I think the older generation did teach it or at least gave enough hints on it. Most students get caught up in either the flash or the romance of the blade, forgetting the grammar of motion."

"Grammar?" they asked.

"Yes. Grammar is syntax and morphology of semantics. Well, in this case, it is the syntax and morphology of the blade art itself. The syntax of blade motion. We have discussed what I call the Vocabulary of Motion before, so this builds on it. Think about it but more importantly, play with the idea." I let that sink in a bit and then continued:

"Grammar comes from an old French word grammaire, which was a book for casting spells by following a very specific syntax (structure/sequence) of words/action. In the old Scottish it is the word for sorcery. You could see this as the magick of the blade. It's footwork patterns."

They were excited by this. Words too have deep power. As a teaching tool, words need to captivating, enthralling and serving as a means of transcending the limitations of the mind.

"The grammar one can learn from this tanto comes in four movement patterns, four universal motions of the blade. The magic of sidestepping while slashing, the power of lunging forward in the unstoppable thrust, the deception of withdrawing into a cat-step or back-stance only to tear into the flesh, and finally the cat stepping, dropping in to freeze the fast mover. Cat-stepping is one leg weighted while other being super light, so it has two variations. Remember that."

"With ryuha/battle or system strategy one learns the grammar of when to use what. The magick disappears when over specialization kicks in and your entire repertoire is in just one kind of motion. That is kinda sad, that diversity of motion makes us humans rather than..." and before I could complete my thought one of my students jumped in:

"...insects," he laughed, quoted Robert Heinlein. "Specialization is for Insects."

We roared like the sci-fi nerds we can be. The reference was from Robert Heinlien's cult classic Stranger From A Strange Land. "Not what I was going for but it works."

"Sensei, you spoke about the Tanto, but what about the Wakizashi and Katana?"

"Three weapon sizes. To me they teach one how to move in three different ranges. The Japanese arts use the word Maai (the FMA use the concept of suka) which means interval or engagement distance. We have the three weapons which exemplify and teach the grammar of the blade at those ranges. And once you learn that, you can move between them and weapons."

  • To-ma is the long distance. Within the FMA it is Largo. The Katana, Espada and Rapier are for this range.

  • Itto-ma is the middle distance, and in the FMA it is Medio. The Wakizashi, the Bowie and the machette/bolo excel here.

  • Chikama is the short/close distance, or Corto in th FMA. Here we have the tanto, daga and karambit.

"Different weapons move differently, and they specialize in one range/distance. Its very much like photography. Kind of like a good prime lens, the weapon is fashioned for one specific focal range. You COULD buy an-all-in-one zoom, but you sacrifice in quality of image. Much like that, you COULD use any one weapon as an all purpose, but you sacrifice something. For the professional, use the right tool for the right job. If the weapon in your hand and your opponents hand dictate the range, the obe with superior grammar/footwork with timing will prevail.

A lot of other factors affect both blade choice and how the blade moves through space. Some of them include:

  • Straight vs curve: determines thrusting or slicing bias

  • Weight: even, front or back weighted. Weight distribution will determine whether blade pulls, glides or drops.

  • Length: determines maai, kamae (stance) and radius of movement

  • Single vs double-edged

  • Fixed vs folder: affect carrying and draw

  • Environment you find yourself in: Urban, jungle, water, battle field. For example, I would would pick a short dagger over a Katana while underwater, and Katana over a dagger on a battlefield.

Another way to think about it is how the blade wants to be expressed. To me we can learn something from music here. Articulation in music is how one moves between multiple notes or sounds. Similarly, we need to think about how we transition between moves. These smooth/no so smooth transitions define the rhythm of how the blade/man moves.

Music and movement have always been intricately tied. In the martial arts you see it drumming in Japan, SE Asia, Brazil and Africa. You move with the beats. So think of this with relationship to the blade as well. understand the music, understand how that culture moves the blade"

The Staccato man moves in short detached moves, much like hip hop or think of the pumping actions

The Legato man moves in smooth flowing motions, you will likely see more circular patterns.

The Tenuto man exaggerates the strike, making larger lines/circles for effect.

With that, I was looking to end the class and started to walk out. As usual, another question.

"Wait a minute," a student asked, "the rapier and katana, one is straight and the other is curved. Why, if they both are in the same range?'

"Rapier is meant to thrust, the focus is on the point, similar to your Taiji straight sword. The Katana, on the other hand, is curved so it slides easily, especially when one was mounted on the horse. You did not to clothesline an opponent. Your blade was to sever the head and slide with ease even as you galloped forward. The same curved design is on the Indian Samshir, the Mongol and Persian swords: horseback cultures. Think PURPOSE, and understand how it is meant to move, and then move that way. Now you have aligned yourself with the magick, or if you prefer, good physics."

"Now why did you have to mention Magick?" The student, being a science nerd, always gets bothered with words like magick, sorcery or energy work. It always cracks me up especially since he is into chigung and the like.

I roared with laughter at his expected response and then continued.Sci-fi nerds- got to approach this another way: "Remember Arthur C Clarke's three laws.

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

"Blades have played a big part in all magick rituals. An Atheme is the ceremonial dagger used in many Western Traditions. If you look at the SE Asian arts, the Keris is held in awe. I have seen expert practioners do such things with the Keris, that if I told you about them you would call me a liar. Or watch a expert Tenaga Dalam master with their blade, it will change how you think of fine steel."

The blade accentuates the holders intent. It works to directionalise the spirit. As the spirit moves, so does the body. Music again is a great tool to lift those spirits and blade is a way to give it direction. And if there is direction and movement, well then you have footwork, don't you now? That is all I want to say about this at the moment."

He was not about to let me off. He challenged me."Well what about your own Japanese arts, where is this sorcery there with the blade?"

"Are you kidding me? Go study history a bit more! Most mythical beginnings of the arts are in the mountains, learning from gods and demi gods. And somehow the Katana was always there."

Mountains are very sacred in Japan. Each mountain has its own spirit guardian if you will. With the yamabushi and hermits, they would routinely go into the mountains and practice their arts and magick. This was called Shugen-do. Now the old stories go that when some of these powerful hermits died, especially the ones who were not so good, they became the tengu. Many of the yamabushi and monks wanted to embody the power of these Tengu.

"The great samurai warrior Yoshitsune was bought up in a Tengu temple. He would go into the mountains with his sword at night. When he was asked why, he would say to learn from the Tengu. Thats just one example. Blades and magick lore are tied together my friend. I believe this is why the Katana was even called the Soul of the Samurai. Surely you don't believe his soul moved into the blade, do you now?"

I winked.

He was not pleased, in fact, he looked visibly upset. He said, "it's hard for me to fathom an educated man like you talk like this." I laughed out loud again.

I was getting really hungry and wanted to go home to some good basmati rice, palak paneer and my chai. I had to find a meeting ground with him to say good night.

"The sword of enlightenment. Manjushree. Think about that. Or if you prefer your Zen parables, here is one for you. And then I must go."

Once a youthful samurai who was big and arrogant walked up to a monk. He bellowed to him.

"Teach me about Heaven and Hell."

The frail old monk replied “Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn’t teach you about anything. You’re dumb, dirty, a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can’t stand you.”

The samurai was enraged and speechless. He pulled his sword out to take the monks head. The monk calmly looked at the samurai and said

"That is hell."

The samurai was awestruck, and froze. He now had respect for this frail old man who risked his life to teach him a valuable lesson. He put his sword back in with deep gratitude. The monk said

"And that is heaven."

"The blade accentuates the spirit, amplifies it. Make sure you use the steel well, make sure you learn its grammar to unravel its secrets. And as it unravels, perhaps some of this magick will open you up too."

We exchanged bows, for now, it was time for food.

Mahipal Lunia

DAHAM and Mountain View Aiki Kai