Physical Training Jan 2011
 
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From the Teacher's Corner 13:
Absolute Power Corrupts... Absolutely

copyright 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

Case Study

I was 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.

We 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 Socratic method 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??”
Quite unexpectedly, he blurted out, “Because I want to!”
I looked at him, “Why?”
“To show him who’s boss!”

Everything 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…

This is 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)
Power. Strength. Anger.

To show him who’s boss!”
The need to intimidate, to dominate, to conquer, to crush the enemy.

Some 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 win.”

True 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 here...”
Why did I think this? And it was a spur of the moment thought that had popped into my head at that very moment.

For those 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.

Having 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.

The point 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.

For those 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.

But later, 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”.

The danger 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.

That is 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.

Killing is 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.”

(Source: Sato, Hiroaki (1985). The Sword and the Mind. New York: The Overlook Press. p.56.)

Let’s go back to what our student said: “To show him who’s boss!”

For those 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 promote life.

(* “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 sword:

1. “katsu ken” (literally “victory sword”): sword for winning and killing. But when you kill them, there will be hatred left behind…

2. “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.

Moral of 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:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, first Baron Acton (1834–1902)


Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.



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