© 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.
working with a student one day and we were working on a particularly
complex technique, one where you need to have a good sense of
control, blade control and point control. This student who fancied
himself somewhat skilled was hitting my sword too hard and thus was
having problems executing the technique properly. I am not averse to
being hit hard but for this particular technique, good control and
“touch” was needed. But this student was a physically big
man and powerful. He had some skill in executing techniques or
movements that required strength or speed or power. But for intricate
techniques that demanded “touch” or finesse, this was not
his game. I suggested to him to take the power off. Not only once,
but twice, and maybe three times. He can turn the power off. He did
it one time but the next time, he went back to his preferred method.
Naturally, he got increasingly frustrated. So I stopped the practice
and asked him, “Why are you hitting with so much power?”
He gave me a round-about answer and we talked about it and had a good
discussion, nothing heated. But I got the feeling that he was not
telling me the whole truth; how he really thought about it.
practiced some more and tried the technique some more and still he
was hitting with too much power. I questioned him some more, using my
to try to elicit the truth. It got a little
heated as I tried to explain to him why power was not a good thing in
this circumstance and I got around to asking him point blank: “So,
if you agree with me that power in this instance is not a good thing,
THEN WHY DO IT??” He mumbled some answer but I was undaunted
and not about to be thrown off. I made my argument again and asked
him again, more pointedly, “Obviously, it’s not logical.
SO WHY DO IT??”
unexpectedly, he blurted out, “Because I want to!”
at him, “Why?”
show him who’s boss!”
stopped. You could, quite literally, hear a pin drop on the floor at
that moment. I stopped and just looked at him, incredulously. The
seconds ticked by. Tick, tick, tick…
We were on
dangerous ground here…
actually a true case. And what I have related is what happened. Let’s
look at what he said in more detail.
“Because I want to!”
(i.e., I want to hit him hard)
“To show him who’s
to intimidate, to dominate, to conquer, to crush the enemy.
people may say, “So what? You’re fighting with swords.
You have to be strong and you have to want to win; to believe you can
enough. Some of these qualities you do need but there is a crucial
difference. It is a thin line between right and wrong, between good
and evil. Between wanting to conquer (the lust for power, conquest,
subjugation) and wanting to simply survive.
“We were on dangerous ground
Why did I
think this? And it was a spur of the moment thought that had popped
into my head at that very moment.
of you who have read my interview with Sozen sensei (here
he remarked that with the great power that we have as swordsmen, the
power to kill, comes a great responsibility. The responsibility to
exercise that power judiciously, ethically.
power, over life and death, especially since we are training students
and ourselves in techniques of dealing death with a bladed weapon, is
dangerous. One of our students could tomorrow go out and kill
someone. Not with a sword, but maybe with a bokken or a stick. This
is where the fantasy world can merge into the real world, with
deadly, real-world consequences.
is that there is a fine line that cannot be crossed. Yes, in dealing
with a sword art, we want to encourage strength, power, confidence.
In creating swordsmen, we want them to be strong. They cannot be
weak. Swordsmen have to want to overcome their opponents, defeat
them. It is the nature of our business.
who have read my previous interview (here
with Kajitsuka Sensei of Yagyu Shinkage Ryu (Ohtsubo branch), he
remarked that before the era of peace, before the Edo Jidai,
swordsmanship was all about being the strongest. It was about pride
and ego and one’s name. For swordsmen in such a tumultuous
time, it was about survival and being strong and powerful. It was a
necessity for survival. It was not a time for niceties.
in the peaceful times, with the general reduction in fighting,
particularly battlefield fighting, swordsmanship like many other arts
became about the cultivation of one’s character, searching for
greater understanding of oneself and of life. Peaceful times allowed
more time for reflection and with it, refinement. Consequently,
swordsmanship evolved into an art pursued to make one more refined;
the art became “the way to grow a soul
inherent in swordsmanship is that once one develops skill using a
deadly weapon, this is a form of power. Real power. Power to hurt, to
injure, to maim, to kill. And if unchecked or unbridled, this kind of
power becomes intoxicating. This kind of power is seductive. It would
take a strong will, a strong character, not to be seduced. Not to
become corrupted. To eventually come to worship only strength and
power. And finally to enjoy the exercise of this power, the feeling
of dominance over others.
why Bushido, the samurai code of ethics, evolved. To set a standard
of acceptable behaviour befitting the rank and status of the warrior
class since they belonged to the nobility, the upper classes. Samurai
were warriors, yes, but a cut above the rest. Still deadly, but now
elegant, refined, morally cultivated. Trained fighters and killers
but fighters with a soul. A curious juxtaposition: beauty and the
beast. It is poetic in a bizarre kind of way.
part of the job description for samurai. But indiscriminate killing,
without purpose or justification, is still murder. Ethics provided
the basis for self-governance. In the Warring States period with all
the factions fighting each other, it was about power and the power
struggle to gain control of the country. Who is the strongest? In the
Edo period with the country controlled under one leader, it was about
preserving the peace, upholding the Law, maintaining order.
So how did
killing fit in the new scheme of things? Yagyu Munenori put it best:
“Using weapons is said to be
also Heaven’s Way. At times, because of one man’s evil,
thousands of people suffer. So you kill that one man in order to let
the thousands live. Here, truly, the blade that deals death could be
the sword that gives life.”
Sato, Hiroaki (1985). The Sword and the
Mind. New York: The Overlook Press.
go back to what our student said: “To show him who’s
who have not read my first
interview with Kajitsuka Sensei, he said:
“Kenjutsu was originally
just a way to kill people. Learning how to kill people. Techniques
for killing. But in the Edo period, the thinking evolved. It was not
just a set of techniques anymore. There was a philosophy in the
technique. Hidden things, like how you act, what you do. It became
concerned about mannerism*. There is a deeper meaning. You learn a
martial art so that you don’t need to use it. Using kenjutsu to
“how you act, what you do” is ethics. Basically, we are
talking about a code of conduct for samurai. A code of ethics. In
other words, Bushido.)
I will tell you about two types of
1. “katsu ken”
(literally “victory sword”): sword for winning and
killing. But when you kill them, there will be hatred left behind…
“makenai ken” (literally “cannot-lose sword”):
instead of leaving hatred behind, it leaves a curiosity behind.
Because you do not win but you do not lose, there is a sense of
respect left behind. Hence, promoting life…”
We WERE on
dangerous ground. I was seeing katsu ken and it
troubled me greatly.
the story? We cannot neglect to teach ethics when we teach
swordsmanship. Why? Because with the knowledge of killing techniques
comes a sense of power, and power unchecked and without a moral
counter-balance, soon corrupts the weak-minded. Hence the expression:
tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902)
Mr. Tong has a Master’s
in Education in Curriculum Studies.