Interview with Zen Bu Kan Chief Iaido Instructor Jason Hankins: Iaido’s Holistic Benefit Part I

After studying Kung Fu for several years and moving from Dallas, Texas to Salt Lake City, Utah, Jason Hankins was looking to continue his training. By chance, he found a flier for iaido at a local store and took a chance, eventually learning from Jules Harris, helping establish Zen Bu Kan. In 2002, Harris left for Pennsylvania, leaving the dojo in Hankins’ charge, not without imparting some kendo knowledge. At the time of this interview, Hankins was preparing for a nanadan exam in iaido; he discussed the training for that event, how iai has expanded in the United States, and how the art experienced a revival among kenshi. This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Hankins Sensei! We are glad to have you here!

Jason Hankins: Thanks for having me!

MAYTT: How and when did you come to find yourself in both kendo and iaido? What aspects about both of those arts continue to motivate you to train in them today?

Jason Hankins. Source: Ken Bu Kan.

JH: I practiced martial arts growing up constantly – the classic, strip mall karate dojos and that sort of stuff, until I settled into Kung Fu. I practiced that for several years in Dallas, Texas. Later on in adulthood, I moved states and at that point, I started looking for a Kung Fu dojo to start into and I just happened to be at Wild Oaks, sort of a holistic type of store. I saw a flyer on their community board that strangely mentioned Japanese swordsmanship. Of course, growing up as a youth, who doesn’t want to do Japanese swordsmanship and martial arts? [Laughs] That piqued my curiosity and the flier indicated that classes were just starting soon, so I followed the information on the flier and fell into Zen Bu Kan. They were just getting started, like they didn’t hold any classes yet, just putting together classes. I started there around 1998, which is the same year I started the fire department, and the rest is history.

Zen Bu Kan is a dojo that was started by Jules Harris. He was fourth dan in kendo at the time and either nidan or sandan when the dojo was first starting. He had practiced in New York at a place called Ken Zen, a very respected place. He had moved to Salt Lake City, Utah to focus on Zen practice. At the time, there was a really renowned Zendo in Salt Lake City, and somewhere along the line, somebody found out that he practiced iaido and talked him into teaching iaido here. That’s kind of where Zen Bu Kan started.

The personal growth, the personal discovery, and the self-discipline are some of the factors that continue to motivate me. Of course, it’s very enjoyable. Iaido tends to attract very unique individuals. I was doing an interview for iai with somebody, and the interviewer asked, “Iaido usually attracts these nerdy individuals; how did you get into it?” [Laughs] Which cracked me up at the time, but the art does attract an eccentric group – usually a lot of engineers; a lot of very technically-minded people. I think that aspect draws them because iaido is a very technical art, as well as kendo, of course. There’s just something there that appeals to certain types of people. I guess I’m one of those people, even though I’m a little bit atypical in that because I’m not an engineer type, I’m more of a get your hands dirty kind of a fella. Both of those arts are very challenging, and they demand that you look at yourself; in order to continue to grow in that art, you really have to go through a certain process. Neither of the arts, iaido or kendo, are easy and they both offer a lot of frustration. If you don’t find ways through that, you won’t make it.

MAYTT: What was the training like when you first began and how have you seen each art evolve as time continued on? In your opinion, are these changes for the betterment of the art?

JH: Just starting out, Zen Bu Kan was an iaido only dojo. Even though Jules Harris Sensei was a fourth dan in kendo, he wasn’t teaching kendo at the time. Because his emphasis was more on Zen, he had to be talked into teaching iai. I think he wanted to keep it really simple and iaido lends itself to Zen and the introspective thing. While kendo offers some of the same, it is a much more physical art. Because you have a live opponent, you can get a little fixated on me versus him and who’s better. Whereas iai, you’re only dealing with yourself and the imagined teki, or the imagined opponent. Coming into that, where Zen Bu Kan was iaido dojo only, it was an old building with a nice long wood floor – very long and narrow with not a lot to it. Jules Harris was a very demanding teacher. He would tell you that he teaches in a very Japanese kind of way – not a lot of praise – “This is what I expect. Do this.” “You’re not doing that; fix it. Do it.” Not a lot of explanation. A lot of drawing the sword, cutting, certain movements, and a lot of that traditional Japanese teaching as I know it. Not a lot of explanations; not a lot of reasons why. Just, “Watch me. See my example. Follow that. Do that. Do what I’m doing. You’re not doing that. Watch me.” It was a very interesting thing to come into and to have to start to learn that way. I think we as westerners tend to want to learn with a lot of explanations. “Why am I doing this? Why do we put our foot here? Why do we hold the sword this way?” You have to kind of get past that, get out of your head a little bit and just be, just watch, and try to do what you’re asked to the best that you can.

It immediately appealed to me, and it wasn’t until later that I started in kendo. Kendo requires a little bit more equipment, in a way, than iaido. I think there were multiple reasons why Jules Sensei didn’t want to teach kendo at the dojo at the time. Eventually, a couple of years into practice

Kendo also appealed to me also. I didn’t know much about it at the time, but I had seen it done before and I had seen it done in movies. Eventually, I bought my own bogu. I kind of showed up one day and showed Jules Harris Sensei like, “Hey! I got bogu!” He kind of smiled and was like, “Herrm! Herrm!” [Laughs] Eventually, as I got higher in rank, we started to do private sessions for iaido at his home. Zen Bu Kan was and always has been a once-a-week class – it was on Saturdays. To help elevate a senior level in iai, we started to do these private sessions at his house and that led into a few, every once in a while, private kendo lessons – since I had bogu and he had bogu. He taught mostly the fundamentals – that’s the way our dojo has always been – fundamentals first. So that gave me my taste of kendo.

As the years went on, Jules Harris Sensei moved away, back to Pennsylvania. This was around 2002, when I was just graduating paramedic school. To his credit, he was able to start his own Zen practice there and was running a Zendo there. At that point, I was the highest-ranking person, so I took over Zen Bu Kan with one other good senior student who is still with us today. He and I kept things going at the dojo. Right about then, we transitioned our dojo to a new building. The original was owned by a Kung Fu school where the gentlemen who owned it was also from New York, where my sensei had originated. They moved into a new building, therefore we moved into a new building. He was very good to us, even after Jules Harris Sensei moved away. We moved into a new building, and I really had, even though I only had dabbled in kendo, the desire to practice it and to get somebody else that wanted to practice it as well. At the time, I had an iaido student who had access to a place and had a little bit of desire. He ended up buying bogu and we didn’t do it in the dojo at the time, he was doing Olympic archery and he had access to this Olympic archery place. It was a perfect place to let him and I dabble in some kendo.

After about three or four months of that, myself and this other gentleman happened to be at a national iaido seminar. We were talking one evening after the seminar was over – you kind of hobnob around the hotel lobby, meeting and greeting different people – there was one particular high-ranking sensei that was talking with us, and he happened to ask, “Do you guys do kendo also?” I wasn’t highly ranked in kendo then, and I’m not highly ranked in kendo now; I didn’t have any rank in kendo, outside of the few formal sessions I had with Jules Harris Sensei. But I told the sensei that we’ve been practicing a little bit, me and John. He said, “I’m not too far from you and I’m in Salt Lake a lot. Why don’t I come by, check out your kendo and see what you’re doing?” Nervously, we said okay. He’s a respected, high-ranking sensei. We had him come to the dojo. John and I demonstrated our fundamentals and showed him what we were doing. At that point, he said, “Yes. You guys should absolutely start kendo in this dojo.” That was the first formal permission to practice and actually do kendo. This is the United States, and anybody can really buy bogu online and start up a practice. But unless you have some official backing – Zen Bu Kan has always been a member of the All United States Kendo Federation (AUSKF), but even then, there’s structure to it. You don’t, all of a sudden, with no rank, start teaching stuff. You have to respect and follow the structure that’s there – to keep the art going. To keep it pure, keep it quality, and keep it true. For the first time, we had official permission to start teaching in a formal way, with Zen Bu Kan actually doing kendo with the AUSKF kendo. That gentleman started to visit us every once in a while, checking in to make sure we weren’t starting to do things askew and keeping our fundamentals strong. That’s where kendo started for Zen Bu Kan. That was 2004, around that time, when we started officially teaching kendo in the dojo.

MAYTT: You mentioned previously that you are currently preparing to test for you seventh dan in iaido. Could you elaborate on how you have created a training regimen that will best prime you for your test? How do you feel this test will be different from other tests you have participated in?

JH: I think training in the dojo, in uniform, with the sword physically as much as possible. You have to start to make sure that you’re on the dojo floor more than ever. It’s not going to be an easy test and they are going to look at the smallest things. They’re going to look at that depth of practice – the kind of stuff you can’t really label that well. I know for myself, I have to get more time on the floor, in uniform. At times, completely on my own with no distractions and at times, with a full dojo with people there so you’re getting exposure. You’re practicing amongst the group and a hand on your own as well. In addition, I’m trying to make sure I really continue to look at my peer examples that are that rank or higher and be talking with them; letting them see my swordsmanship, letting them see where I’m at, and give me feedback.

One of the things I’m doing with my iaido sensei right now is that we are looking at examples of iaido in Japan of hachidans, kind of digesting what they are doing and talking about it, noting what’s his timing and what’s my timing. This hachidan is pulling his left hand on the saya at this point and then he’s turning his head. Are all the hachidans doing that kind of timing or is there a difference somewhere? Does that match my timing? Looking for those minutiae details of technique and timing and just the way that they embody iaido and checking that against yourself. If I’m not doing that, how do I get there? That right there is a tall order; to try and look at yourself compared to hachidans and honestly evaluate yourself and wake up to what they’re doing. You can watch iaido, good practitioners – nanadans, hachidans – and go, “That’s really good iaido!” and not get much deeper than that, but you have to get much deeper than that if you’re going to really take from them what they’re showing you. What is his back foot exactly doing? What is his exact timing? Why is his timing different from mine? What is it about his cuts that resonates with me that I can perhaps glean something from.? It’s a tall order, but those are the kinds of things I feel like I have to do in order to better prepare myself for a nanadan exam.

Prior to Covid, a big step in preparing for the nanadan exam would be getting to Japan. I had my first trip to Japan in 2019, which was my first invitation to the Kyoto Taikai and to present my swordsmanship on the floor of the Kyoto Taikai where you get other senseis looking at you; you get Japanese hachidans looking at you. You’re there, you’re seen. There’s some training that goes on before and after and those trainings really go a long way. Unfortunately, of course, Covid robbed away those experiences. Once you get an invitation and get to go to the Kyoto Taikai, the idea was, previously, once you get into that, you do that every year. You get to Japan as often as you can so that the hachidans there, who inevitably will be sitting on your grading panel, they’ve seen you, perhaps they talked to you, and they have a little bit of, “I recognize that guy. I know the efforts that he’s putting in. Let me now watch him and see if he’s truly ready.” Covid, of course, changed all that. You can say that’s a disadvantage, but you could say it changes the way you have to approach it. Hopefully, I will go to Japan when I am more prepared.

MAYTT: To clarify, you have to travel to Japan and test over there?

JH: Yes. Once you get to the nanadan level, you test in Japan. There’s no way to do it here in the US. I think it’s a beneficial thing that the Japanese want to keep an eye on kendo and iaido and make sure things are being practiced and taught well. In that regard, I think it’s fantastic that at some point you have to get to Japan in order to test in this Japanese art. Of course, it’s just in of itself, just having an art where you’re required to travel to such a degree, that creates its own difficulties. But it’s certainly beneficial. I’m proud to be a part of arts that are controlled and regulated to a degree that when you do have a rank of such and such a level, it really holds some weight – it holds something.

MAYTT: Can you tell us little about Jules Harris’ background before he started Zen Bu Kan? about the history of Zen Bu Kan? How did it come about?

JH: Jules Harris Sensei is a psychologist. African American gentleman. A great man. He was very inspiring to me. He spent a lot of his early days growing up in New York and that was where he started practicing at Ken Zen, in New York. Ken Zen dojo is a respected dojo in New York that practices kendo and iaido. That was during the 1980s and 1990s. He also practiced Zen Buddhism in New York in a formal setting, but really wanted more of it. It was kind of interesting that he moved to Salt Lake City, Utah to get better exposure and practice in Zen. But like I said, at that time, Salt Lake had a renowned Zendo. So, when he moved here, he continued to keep his relationship with his Ken Zen instructors strong. That opened the door for myself, eventually, to also develop a relationship with those teachers and be able to keep that connection going. If Jules Harries Sensei hadn’t kept his connection to Ken Zen strong, having his instructors coming from there to here, I don’t know if I would have been able to have the support to get where I’ve gotten so far. Because certainly, at some point, being a dojo out on its own would be like an island. At the time, other AUSKF dojo in the Salt Lake area, certainly, with no one teaching iaido. Certainly, if I had not had that relationship with Jules Harris established, then I think I would’ve been a little bit lost, not sure how exactly to keep a quality of iaido and kendo practice going.

MAYTT: When you began teaching, how did that experience change your perspective on kendo and iaido? What aspects did you find you needed to improve on and make modifications on? What new responsibilities surprised you when you assumed the role of instructor?

JH: We had thought about teaching kendo beforehand. In fact, I had a conversation after we got the new building – because it was a bit bigger and was a bit nicer – with Jules Harris Sensei that we have this new building and thinking about starting kendo. At the time, he was very positive with it and encouraging with it. He had encouraged me to reach out to his home dojo in New York and see if that sensei would support me teaching. But I had never met that gentleman. After thinking about and being unsure how often I would be able to get out to New York to get input and feedback, it wasn’t quite right at the time. I talked to my senior cohort who, at the time, didn’t want anything to do with kendo. They thought, “Oh no, we don’t need to do that.” I talked with him and he expressed his concerns, and I didn’t disagree. I didn’t want to be John Doe randomly teaching kendo and be teaching stuff that’s out in left field. But it was around 2004 or 2005 that I got the official “okay” from the high-ranking sensei that saw me and John demonstrate our kendo for him.

I took over teaching iaido as soon as Jules Harris Sensei left in 2002. It was several years in the making, his departure. It started in 1998 and by 2000, he was talking about going back to Pennsylvania or to the New York area sometime soon. So, we had a couple of years to figure out what to do. At the time, he started to talk about his departure, I was the most senior student. A couple of the other students who had started right as when Zen Bu Kan was forming had already left. A couple of gentlemen that were possibly going to be higher than myself when they were starting, they had some disagreements and departed the dojo and left me there. I was one of the first ones to go, in 2000, when Zen Bu Kan, as a dojo, traveled to the first AUSKF seminar – the first national iaido seminar where I tested and passed my first exam. I started to stand out as the most senior person at that point. So, by 2002, I was the most senior person in the dojo. I kept teaching and testing and working on rank. Eventually and officially achieving a sensei-level rank. So, there’s a few years where you’re teaching and doing things with support from other dojos; support from the New York dojo, Ken Zen, and support from the people there. But having to now get to national seminars to be observed and get information and get to hear what the latest things are and see what you yourself should be working on. That repeated annual AUSKF iaido seminars was critical for me to make sure I was staying in line with what the AUSKF wanted to teach as good iai.

Iaido and kendo are very related to each other and at the same time, so very different from each other. Once we started to practice kendo, there was a definite correlation that stood out. The fundamentals of footwork, the fundamentals of handling the sword; those things that are similar really stood out and, of course, the things that weren’t similar stood out as well. Starting kendo, that first time when you face a live opponent and have to deal with what that means and what that brings up in you as you practice and are striving to do well in the art when you have that physical opponent bop you in the head or strike you are you’re going to make a move. That’s the whole new thing that iaido doesn’t offer you; that whole interpersonal relationship of another human or relating with them and working with them. Absolutely essentially and incredibly beneficial. If you only practice iai, you don’t get that. At the same time, if you’re doing kendo, and you’re not doing iai, there’s a certain way that the real sword moves that a light, very straight bamboo sword does not feel the same. How you handle it is not the same, how you draw it, how you put it away. There’s not a lot offered as far as a relationship with the sword. There’s a lot that’s not offered in kendo that is offered in iai, specifically when you’re talking about the Japanese sword – the Japanese katana versus a shinai. Practicing both gives you a better picture of Japanese swordsmanship in its entirety. Iaido, I think, really forces you to stop and forces you to dissect your movements and really look at things where, I think, any martial art where you are interacting in a physical combative competition type style with somebody, you can get a little bit lost in that, even though there is a ton to learned and gained. It is easy to fixate on beating that other person and being better than that other person. Practicing iaido, makes you come back to, “Ah! Really, I got to be better than myself. I got to be better each day – push and strive to find that internal thing.” They both offer so much.

This is the first part of a two part interview. Read the second part here.


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