Physical Training Jan 2010
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Why Do a Sword Art Anyway?

copyright 2010 Jeff Broderick, all rights reserved
This article was originally published in four sections.

Let's begin at the beginning. Why would anybody practice a sword art in the first place? These are the conceivable reasons I could think of.
  1. To learn how to kill someone with a sword.
  2. Because it stimulates their sense of fantasy and lets them imagine being someone else.
  3. For exercise.
  4. For fun; either sheer physical enjoyment, or social interaction.
  5. Because it is a form of self-improvement.
  6. Because it is a type of "moving Zen". (This may be closely connected with #5.)
  7. Because they want to become part of, and to perpetuate, a historical / cultural tradition.
Someone once told me to: "... stop making the error of viewing the rest of the world through the window of one overly defined, poorly practiced, narrow example of what a sword art can be." I've tried to do that, and the above list represents every conceivable reason why I could imagine someone might practice a sword art. I've left out other reasons such as "I enjoy cutting myself" or "I look forward to having bad knees when I get older."

To learn how to kill

Reason #1 seems a bit odd when it is put bluntly. If you want to kill, there are more effective ways of doing it. You could join the army; they will train you, pay you, give you the tools, fly you around the world, and maybe even provide you with opportunities to kill people.

A very small number of historians might be interested in "historical" killing methods. I have heard about historians who look at battle injuries on skeletal remains to determine how those people died, and presumably, what kinds of techniques were used. It seems a very limited area of study, with very limited rewards, in my opinion. And unless you're writing a PhD thesis on the topic, it doesn't apply to you.

A sense of fantasy

Few people would admit to doing a sword art for reason #2, but I suspect that most of us are, at least partly. That was absolutely the reason why I started. I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was an awkward teenager (I've stopped since I've become an awkward adult). I also thought the greatest comics ever were Frank Miller's "Ronin" and the Japanese manga, "Lone Wolf & Cub." I dreamt of enduring the hardships necessary to become a master swordsman. I imagined myself becoming like the stoic, tortured Itto Ogami, a lone assassin on the road to hell. How cool is that?

When I discovered a "Japanese Swordsmanship" club at my university, I was expecting people in karate-gi using wooden swords. Imagine my ecstasy when I showed up and ... Oh my God ... they were dressed up like samurai! And the best part ... they were using real swords! I almost passed out in my haste to sign up for the class.

Not everyone is as immature as I am/was. Either way, the "dress up" factor soon wears off, and people who may have started Japanese sword for that reason soon gravitate to something else, like Live-Action roleplaying, or Society for Creative Anachronism.

But still, there is something about doing sword arts that allows people to play a role. No matter what they are really doing or what they are really getting out of it, it lets them tell themself, "I am a wise martial artist on the path to enlightenment" or "I am part of an ancient tradition" or "I am becoming a killing machine." In other words, this is a sort of "meta-reason" ... the perception of why you're doing a sword art, regardless of the real reason or real result.


Reason #3 was exercise. Kendo is great exercise; iaido much less so. But for couch-potatoes like me, something is better than nothing. When I started iaido, I had been a sedentary teenager for years. Even the relatively easy movements in practice were strenuous. 18 years later, I am not much better, really (knees are far worse) but I am far more active than I used to be, and recognize the need for cross-training. I respect trained athletes. And I'm trying to get into better shape. If it weren't for iaido, who knows what I might be doing now?

But as far as a reason to practice sword arts? For iaido, exercise hardly rates.


#4. All of us, I'm sure, find sword arts "fun" on some level. We enjoy it, or we wouldn't do it. Young samurai may have been forced to practice martial arts - many Japanese school kids are, as well - but nobody is forcing us. We have friends in our dojo, or we take satisfaction in seeing some small improvement in our technique. Doing well at tournaments may give us an adrenaline rush, and a sense of self-esteem. But again, as with exercise, martial arts are not really "fun" when compared to other leisure activities. There are plenty of ways to meet like-minded people that don't involve physical pain, occasional humiliation, and getting up early on weekends to attend camps and seminars.

So, I don't think "It's fun" is a good enough reason.

Martial Arts and Self-Improvement - A Self-Fulfilling Goal?

I'm writing this a bit reluctantly. It's the next item on the "Why practice sword arts" list, but it's probably the hardest one to tackle. "Self-improvement" is difficult to define. We have to define a "good person" before we can decide what it means to be a "better person", and the first one has eluded philosophers for centuries. We can't really measure self-improvement either, except subjectively, and there is certainly no way to prove if it has happened.

Of course, we all have anecdotal evidence. "Before I started martial arts, I was spineless, cowardly, weak, selfish, and morally bankrupt. Now, 20 years later, I am somewhat less so." Not exactly scientific, is it? How much did martial arts have to do with it, and how much of it was merely "growing up" a bit? We each have to answer that one for ourselves.

I want to take a look at Kendo. Kendo is an art that is practiced mostly for the purpose of self-improvement. Nobody is out there taking kendo for self-defence. And as I said before, it's good exercise, but it's a lot easier to do 40 minutes on a stairmaster while watching TV, than to go to the dojo and get whupped for 2 hours twice a week. Which leaves the idea of doing it because it makes you a better person. According to the All-Japan Kendo Federation;
The concept of Kendo is:
To discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.

The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
To forever pursue the cultivation of one's self,
And through correct and rigid training, to strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.

Therefore from kendo we hope to learn:
Proper ways to interact with others.
Continuous concentration as we aspire and reach towards goals.
Total commitment to what is right.
How to become contributing members of society.
Kendo is hard. I can definitely agree that it molds your body while providing you with mental toughness and powers of concentration. By adhering to strict etiquette, it teaches courtesy. At higher levels, you must become aware of your opponent/partner's intentions, which makes you sensitive to others. But what about the other points? "Total commitment to what is right?" How does that happen?

I think this is kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. People come to kendo because they are already interested in self-improvement - "becoming a better person" - which means that they are already thinking about what it means to be a "good person". Kendo attracts and keeps ethical people who are receptive to these ideas. It's kind of like church, particularly in this day and age when fewer and fewer people are raised with religion. The people who drift back to church are the people who are interested in questions of morality, right and wrong, good and evil. Even if they don't agree with every tenet of religious teaching, they find themselves part of a group of like-minded people.

Telling people "By doing kendo, you can make yourself into a better person" is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Kendo provides people with a specific type of social interaction, with juniors and seniors, and rights, and responsibilities, over a backdrop of physical challenges and pain. The way you cope with the pain, while still maintaining your responsibilities, teaches you something which, because you've been made aware of the possibility, you then extend to your life outside the dojo.

If you practiced another activity - let's say bowling - with the same kind of attitude as kendo or kyudo or iaido, I think the results would be the same. "Clear your mind before you bowl. Extend your ki towards the pins. Bow to the pins slightly, acknowledging that they are one with you. Begin your approach and release the ball in one fluid motion ..." I think the self-consciousness is the important part: finishing a practice, feeling exhausted, and asking yourself, "Why did I put myself through that? Is it making me a better person?" We look for changes in ourselves, signs of improvement, and it is that process that changes us.

Is there anything inherently beneficial about martial arts? I don't think so, any more than there is something inherently beneficial about waking up on Sunday morning and singing hymns with a bunch of other folks in a building somewhere. But if we are self-conscious that we are doing it for a reason, and that reason is that we want to become a better person, then the potential for improvement is there.

Moving Zen

My iaido teacher, when asked, sometimes tells the story of how he got into the martial arts. He was originally drawn to Zen, but was unable to find a Zendo in the area, so he figured he'd start martial arts, thinking that they were kind of the same thing. Turns out he was right.

My sixth reason for "Why Somebody Might Study a Sword Art" was that it could be a type of moving Zen practice. I've hesitated writing this piece because I'm simply not qualified to say much about it. (I know being unqualified has never stopped me before...)

Of course, like everybody else out there, I've read some books on the topic, but I've also read opinions that the links between martial arts and Zen are overstated; that there really is no deep connection. People sometimes state that martial arts are much more closely connected to Shinto, Confucianism, or Shingon Buddhism. I can't comment intelligently on any of that, so instead, here are some random thoughts.

I think Zen has had such a deep and wide-ranging effect on Japanese culture as a whole that it is impossible to deny the influence of Zen on any Japanese art. To my mind, it would be almost like denying the influence of Christianity on Western culture. Historians of the future might argue, "Oh, so-and-so was an atheist, so his works were not influenced by Christianity." But that would show that they failed to recognize the extent to which the culture as a whole has been shaped by Christian beliefs, so even someone who was not specifically a believer, or who never went to church, would still have been educated and brought up surrounded by Christian values.

Moreover, I sometimes get the feeling that people who deny a historical connection between martial arts and Zen are just trying to be contrary, or stirring up controversy. But at the end of the day, I'm not a historian, so I just don't know.

What is clear is that in the modern era, martial arts have been imbued with a connection to Zen that may or may not have been there historically. Kendo and Iaido practices usually begin and end with a period of mokuso, or meditation. While it is often brief, it is a time to clear the mind and focus on the present.

When we are practicing, we are encouraged to remain in the present moment; not to intellectualize. Although questions during iai practice are fairly common in the West (in my experience) they aren't asked much in Japan. It's just "do it ... now do it again". You're not supposed to think about it too much, but let it seep into your bones through repetition.

Zen tells us that everything is one; there is no difference between "this" and "that". When we practice iai, there is no difference between our state of mind when we are sitting quietly and when we are slicing our imaginary opponent in half, nor when we are looking out over his bleeding corpse. When we practice kendo, we have to "become one" with our opponent - the ideal is not that we move in reaction to his movements - cause and effect, attack and defense - but rather that we move at the same time, or even slightly before he knows he is about to move.

Increasingly in the modern world, we are able to spend hours and hours in a purely intellectual world. We stare at computer screens, thinking about abstractions, writing to people who aren't present, while our legs fall asleep. Practicing the martial arts, we remember to breathe; we feel the pain in our knees and ankles, the floor beneath our feet, the sweat trickling into our eyes. We look into our partner's face, and when everything works right, we reach the end of a kata and realize, "Hold on ... What just happened? I must have done it correctly because he didn't split my head open, but ... I honestly don't remember the last 5 seconds at all!" It is as though we ceased to exist for an interval, before our brains slammed on the brakes and brought us screeching back to the present.

In "Opening the Hand of Thought", Uchiyama Roshi talks about how Zazen practice is not really the act of sitting there with an empty mind, but rather the act of stringing together short little intervals of "empty-mindedness", interrupted by random thoughts that bubble up from our brains like gas from a swamp. Zazen is exhausting because you have to constantly struggle to let go of those random thoughts, to obtain brief windows of silence - of nothingness. I believe I have experienced nothingness in the middle of kata practice.


The last reason is that we might want to be part of, and help perpetuate, a rich cultural and historical tradition.

Tradition is very important to some people, to the extent that it seems as though they chose to do the martial arts they do, completely on the basis of how old it is, or how "pure" its lineage is. Perhaps they started with a popular "modern" martial art like kendo or iaido, but were drawn to the ryuha that formed the basis for these arts.

On the other hand, some people don't care about tradition at all. If, for example, iaido was something that was invented in 1982 in a basement, it wouldn't make a difference to them, because it is their practice of iaido in the here and now that is important to them.

The problem, I think, is when people try to have their cake and eat it too. There are some people out there who have invented their own style, or heavily modified an existing style to suit their own way of thinking, and yet claim that it is "traditional samurai swordsmanship" or something. This just seems dishonest to me, as well as egotistical. They are saying, in effect, "I know more about how swordsmanship should be done than the people I learned it from. But I don't expect you to take my word for it. Let's pretend this was all invented by sword masters hundreds of years ago, and passed down to me through secret channels."

This is not to deny that, in the process of learning an art, everyone adapts some things to make the art their own. But I think it is right that we should emulate our teachers as well as we can.

To give you a personal example: I'm a big guy, about 195 cm, (6'5") 110 kg. My teacher, Kim Taylor, is also a big guy. One of our very influential Sensei was Haruna Matsuo Sensei. He was perhaps 5'4" and rather slight. While neither Kim nor I could ever move in exactly the same way that Haruna Sensei did, Kim (being a lot stronger) comes much closer to copying him. With my flabby physique, I just sort of flop around in a pale imitation of them both. Physical reality means that my iai is not the same as my teachers' iai ... but I try, and trying is key.

Deliberately introducing changes to techniques, however - particularly where those changes concern the speed and feeling of how a technique is done, or fundamental things like where the enemy is, what he is doing, and how you respond - twists the original tradition.

I went to an art exhibition in Tokyo a few months ago. The featured artist, Ai Wei Wei from China, is a very conceptual artist who deals in ideas. One of his artworks featured three photographs, taken in quick succession, of him holding a Tang dynasty (618 - 907 CE) vase, him releasing the vase, and the vase shattering on the ground.

Another one of his works was to take another ancient vase, and then paint the Coca Cola emblem on the side of it.

I don't claim to fully understand the meaning of this artwork, but obviously he is commenting on our role as curators to the past. On one hand, a 1300-year-old vase is something to be treasured and preserved simply because it is old, rare, and connects us with a past which we can never revisit. But on the other hand, he makes a valid point, I think - these objects exist in the here and now, and who has the right to say that an intact vase is more beautiful than a collection of shards, or that writing Coca Cola on the side of a vase doesn't make it more relevant to our modern era?

Mr Ai's work is controversial, and there must be many people who see it as nothing short of vandalism. I can understand this point of view, certainly.

When it comes to the martial arts, I don't have anything against people creating new styles, because doing that does not effect extant styles. My problem arises, I think, when these new styles - by virtue of being flashier or more slickly promoted - draw people away from older arts to the point where the older arts die out. Or, another danger is when people lie about the art's origins, and teach hundreds or even thousands of students a false version of history.

You might not like Mr Ai's art; you might think shattering a priceless vase is mindless and meaningless destruction. But at least he documented it, and took credit for what he did. The same cannot be said for some modern martial artists.

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