Dawn. I lay for a time coming back to the world: the warmth of a blanket, the cool air of a day yet unborn touching my face. The hitch of old injuries. The tug of memory.
A Tibetan monk once told me I walked a path as narrow and dangerous as a razor’s edge. As in many situations, he could see far and well. That monk wasn’t just concerned with peril in the normal sense: life is, after all, suffering. He was worried, instead, about things of the spirit.
I look across the room where I have slept alone: even in the half light I can see a table against a wall. My swords rest there in a wooden rack that I made by hand. The stand is nothing fancy; merely the functional product of the whine of a saber saw, my hands’ guidance, attached to the familiar aroma of cut wood. The weapons had become so much a part of me that I felt they deserved a holder that was equally personal. I’ve read comments about the cold steel of a blade, but they’re written by people who are strangers to my art. The blade isn’t cold; it is warm, a thing alive like the cycle of breath or the pulsing of blood.
The old adage is that the sword is the soul of the samurai. I used to dismiss it as equal parts hyperbole and mystic mumbo-jumbo. I’m no longer so sure. When you spend hours, days, years with a thing, surely a connection of some kind is shaped. The wrapped cloth of the katana’s handle, the nubby ray skin beneath, no longer feel like things that are external to me: they fit. They fill the void of my curved fingers as if my hands were shaped to hold the weapon.
It’s a tool of sorts, of course; a means to an end. But there’s more to it than that. Maybe I’ve been in the dojo so long that things Japanese have become part of me; form and function, beauty and utility, merged into one. The swordsman’s art is a curious alchemy: a synthesis of steel and spirit where the outcome is more than the sum of its parts.
The old timers tell stories of swords that were finely wrought and yet cruel: setsuninto, killing swords. They were weapons whose inmost essence drove their owners mad. Other blades were as cruelly beautiful, but imbued with a spirit that inclined to do good. They sang in their scabbards to warn of danger; they were bright and clear and miraculous things and, in the right hands, could be katsujinken, life-giving swords.
In the right hands… how to tell and who is to judge? I’ve made decisions in my life and done things I am not proud of. And yet they seemed necessary. Like a pebble tossed in a pool of still water, each action sent waves in many directions. Some I anticipated. Many I did not. And I wonder.
In the half-light of each starting day, I lay in silence, alert to the swords in the rack. Hopeful. Fearful.
In the silence of dawn, will the blades moan to me or will they sing?
The things we remember best tend to come to us in special ways—often linked to extremes of emotion like joy and fear. Or pain. My teacher had been shaped in a tradition where both fear and pain were constant companions because, the old masters believed, an authentic life was one that didn’t deny these most inevitable of experiences, it just learned to transcend them.
Yamashita is a sensei, or teacher, of the martial arts—the bugei—of old Japan. The bugei are many things—ways of fighting, of physical training, aesthetic disciplines forged out of the most horrific of practices. My teacher is a master of the form and the essence of these systems, a lethal man whose spirit is as keen and polished as the blade he teaches me to wield. He is simultaneously demanding, exasperating and amazing. I’ve been banging around the martial arts world for almost thirty years now, and I’ve never seen anyone like him.
I use the word banging literally. Lots of people today think they know something about the martial arts—black belts and Zen, ninja in dark pajamas jumping across a movie screen doing cartwheels that would make an astronaut toss his lunch. The death touch. Wispy masters who never sweat and are never defeated. But Grasshopper, this is all an illusion.
To train in the martial arts is like being apprenticed to frustration, to the burn of effort, and the unattainable criteria of perfection. There’s no glamour, no reward beyond the ones you create in your own heart. You struggle along the path and your teacher goads you or challenges you, always three steps ahead and always waiting, his eyes betraying nothing but demanding everything. And you try to give it.
In the process you take some lumps. I’ve broken my fingers and toes more times than I can count. Some ribs. Until a few years ago, my nose was intact, but that’s a thing of the past. It’s probably not a huge tragedy—I have a relative in Ireland who once said I have a face like a Dublin pig. When I do my warm up stretches in the morning, I can feel the tug of years of muscle damage all over me and the buzzing reminder of an old dislocated shoulder. There are small white scars on both my hands from a morning when I tore through jagged undergrowth, focused only on the fight to come. I have a long slash of a scar down my back that I got in a sword fight on the night when I began to truly understand what all this training had turned me into. And there are other, less visible marks.
Late in the night images sometimes come unbidden, and I’m pulled back into a whirl of adrenalin and heat and blood. But you cope. You learn to breathe deeply and wait for the sweat to dry. You wait for morning to come and with it the light to remind you of the present. My scars suggest where I’ve been, not where I am. Most days, I’m in Yamashita’s training hall, honing my technique in closer imitation of him and putting his lower ranked students through their paces.
The dojo—what Japanese martial artists call their training hall—is a big space, with high ceilings and a polished floor of tightly fitted hardwood strips. There’s a mirror on one wall that we use to check ourselves for correct form. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of my features while I prowl the room, and the face is both familiar and strange. For at times it appears to me that my eyes have become as hard and flat as my master’s.
That day, I was grinding some swordsmen through a particularly tricky exercise. My teacher has started to hold seminars lately for martial artists who aren’t his regular students, but who study related arts and are looking to deepen their skills. We get people who are trained in all sorts of systems. They enter the training hall in uniforms that have been worn into supple functionality. Some are in the karate or judo uniforms known as gi and have tattered and faded black belts riding low on their waists. Others wear the more formal pleated skirt known as a hakama and tops of white or blue or black. They all stand quietly, people who are centered, balanced, and coiled like steel springs ready for release. They don’t impress Yamashita too much, because just to be accepted as one of his regular students you usually need black belts in a few different styles, recommendations from some seriously advanced teachers, and an almost infinite capacity to suffer. But I watch the seminar students carefully and treat them like dangerous, barely domesticated animals.
It’s not paranoia on my part. The presence of outsiders at our dojo is new, and at first I was puzzled about why Yamashita would allow this. My teacher doesn’t advertise anywhere and just to find the converted warehouse where we train, you have to know where you’re going and be willing to thread the obscure backstreets of the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. But a small stream of fanatics do make the journey along the hard cement and past the harder eyes of Red Hook’s less desirable element. It took a while, but ultimately Yamashita’s reasons for sponsoring these seminars became clear: he wasn’t interested in letting people in to see him; he was letting them in to see me.
I’m his senior student, although when you say it like that it doesn’t begin to get at the core of our relationship. He has forged me into something, a version of himself, and we are tied together with filament so fine and so strong that the link is as invisible as it is undeniable. I struggled against it for a time, but I’ve come to learn to accept it. I move just like him now, and if my footsteps take me along slightly different routes, I know that in essence we travel the same path.
So these seminars were Yamashita’s way of letting people know who I was and that I would one day assume leadership of the dojo. We have both been scarred by our pasts and now, imperceptible to most, my teacher’s movements tell of his wounds. It’s something I try not to think about: it’s bad for my head and my heart.
But I’m not just being sentimental. My teacher has taught me better than that. I watch the trainees with slightly narrowed eyes, judging them, measuring their skill, and trying to divine their intent. They look back in much the same way. Bringing a bunch of highly skilled fighters together, pointing someone out and implying that he’s better than everyone else in the room, is the martial arts equivalent of pouring chum into shark infested waters.
These seminars have the feel of those old Westerns where a bunch of new gunmen stalk into town looking to take on the local prodigy. You can hold up your hands and protest you’re not interested in a fight, but people just smirk in disbelief and you know, deep down, that you’d better go get your weapon.
In the martial arts, we meditate and talk about the nature of training as a Do, a path, to enlightenment. But there are lots of ways to accomplish this end that don’t involve pounding on people in the way we do. Ultimately, no matter how hard we deny it, there’s part of us that likes that aspect of the bugei. The heat. The contact. The fury, trapped and funneled into something truly dangerous. No matter what the particular martial art system is called or what the techniques look like, there’s a basic pattern to advanced training: you get pounded and you pound back. The easily bruised should not apply.
I’ve taken my lumps in the dojo and in places far more terrifying as well. I prefer to approach training as a way to fine-tune my technique. I save punching on the afterburners for the real thing. But no matter how calmly I speak to people at these seminars, no matter how much I stress that we’re here to learn from each other, I can see that deep down they don’t buy it. They wait and watch, hoping for an opportunity to prove to Yamashita that there was a better choice for his top student than the guy leading the exercises. I brace myself to prove them wrong.
And, I‘ve come to realize, this is also part of Yamashita’s plan. Everything in my master’s world is a means of training. The fact that someone at a seminar may take a run at me is not necessarily a bad thing. From Yamashita’s perspective it’s more like icing on the cake, or a pickled plum in the middle of a rice ball.
It’s not all tension, of course: a few participants at the seminar weren’t strangers. Some of the dojo regulars were there to help out. A while ago, Yamashita and I had met a woman named Sarah Klein who practiced kyudo, the Japanese art of archery. We had both been attracted to her, although for different reasons. Yamashita had been intrigued by her focused energy, and while I had been drawn to that spirit, I was intrigued by so much more. What she saw in me was anyone’s guess, but I was glad that she saw something. And I was glad she was at the seminar today.
Sarah’s not a big person, but when watching her slight figure move, you got a sense of grace and strength rare in most people. It may have been that suggestion of physical potential that made Yamashita take her on as a student. She was dark-haired with big eyes and a heart shaped face. Just seeing her across a room usually made my stomach flip. Today, as I moved around the seminar participants, she’d occasionally catch my eye for a split second and I’d see a hint of the smile I knew she was suppressing. Sarah has a great smile.
I kept my sensei face on, however, and resisted the impulse to wink at her. For now, I had to keep the seminar participants in check. We were executing a series of moves that in the beginning look a lot like the mae routine in your basic iaido kata. Iaido students focus on practicing a series of connected techniques known as kata that involve the art of drawing and cutting with the Japanese sword. In the first kata that they typically learn, students sit in the formal kneeling position, their swords sheathed. As they sense an attack being launched from the front, they rise on their knees, then draw the sword from its sheath and cut in a wide lateral arc across their front, planting their right foot forward so that only the left knee remains touching the ground.
In the sequence as traditionally practiced, the lateral swipe is followed up with a vertical cut. The idea is that your attacker, kneeling before you, starts to move. You swipe at him, but he jerks back just out of range. You follow up by drawing yourself forward with your right leg and then cutting down in what is meant to be a decisive attack to the head.
As I say, it’s pretty standard. Except in Yamashita’s dojo. He doesn’t think it’s particularly realistic that someone who has dodged your first strike would remain seated and waiting for your follow up. Much more likely, he says, that the attacker would rear up and then back away, well out of range.
Which means you have to chase him.
It sounds simple enough, but Yamashita is always as interested in finesse as he is in functionality. In many ways, he doesn’t even consider them two separate things. So in his dojo, after the first cut, the swordsman has to lunge far forward while remaining crouched. Your opponent is standing up by this point and expects you to rise as well. So, my teacher explains, you do the opposite and pursue him from the lower position, driving forward while remaining alert to the possibility of counterattack.
It sounds easy, but is difficult to pull off. The crouching position is awkward, and it takes time to get the knack of using your muscles correctly. If you rely too much on the left foot to propel you, you tend to topple forward, providing a dangerous gap for your opponent to exploit. Too much right leg, and you drag yourself forward and can’t move fast enough or far enough to be effective. In years past, when Yamashita demonstrated the technique, it looked as if he was being jerked across the floor by an invisible wire: a feral gnome bent on your destruction. His posture was impeccable, and his hips drove him forward while his legs worked smoothly together to close the gap between him and his opponent, his eyes intent and his sword boring in for the kill.
The visual memory of that attack burns in my brain like the afterimage of a lighting flash. I work every day to replicate it. That day, I had demonstrated the basic idea and a less terrifying version of the move itself to the men and women at the seminar. They watched me coldly, nodding as I shot across the floor. I could see the thought flash across their eyes: if he can do it, I can. Then I began what for those people was probably one of the most unpleasant hours of their lives. Because the only way to begin to learn something like this is through repetition.
I had them lurch back and forth across the dojo floor. The line of trainees completed the awkward trip. “Good,” I commented flatly. “Again.” They churned across the floor once more. When they got back, more than a few began to stand to take some of the strain off their legs. I shook my head but didn’t say a word, just swept my arm back in the direction that they had come. Off they went.
After thirty minutes or so, their faces were flushed with effort, their palms sweaty on the handle of their wooden training swords. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Sarah blow a strand of her fine brown hair away from her eyes, draw a focusing breath, and stoically continue. She needed no prodding.
Breath control was second nature to most of these people, but even so I heard some gasps. I knew that their leg muscles felt as if they were on fire. But I kept them at it. It wasn’t just that as long as they did this exercise I didn’t have to worry about what else they might try to pull on me. It was because my teacher and his teachers before him and now, I suppose, even I, believed that the best learning takes place at the white hot juncture where the body and mind are thoroughly fatigued. And as I looked at the trainees, I sensed that some of them were starting to make the move their own.
That’s what training in the martial arts is about.
After a few more tortuous minutes, I called a break. I wanted to burn these people, not break them. They stood up gladly and walked around the room, blotting their foreheads with their sleeves, waiting for the muscle cramps to ebb a bit. I edged over to Sarah.
“How’s it going?” I asked quietly.
“I don’t know what you had planned for later tonight, Burke, but dancing is definitely out of the question.” She smiled.
“The Irish don’t dance,” I informed her.
“Come on,” she protested, “I’ve seen those girls in those fancy little dresses jumping around. What’s it called?” I had recently taken Sarah to a feis, a festival that featured Irish step dancing, bagpipes, and other forms of Celtic torture.
“Step dancing,” I told her. She nodded silently at my answer, as if her point were made. “But did you ever notice,” I continued, “that when they dance, they keep their arms pinned to their sides?”
“That’s because in the old days, when the English lords would make the peasants dance, the Irish knew that they had to do it, but they decided that they would refuse to enjoy it.”
Sarah looked me up and down, quietly pensive. “It explains so much about you, Burke,” she concluded. Then I saw the laughter in her eye and knew I was being teased.
The seminar wound its way through the morning. We worked hard with bokken, the oak swords that are the basic training weapon here. We also did some empty-hand techniques, stressing joint locks and pressure point techniques that made the nerves jangle. It wasn’t totally new stuff to most people in the room—trainees in arts like iaido or aikido or kendo can see some faint hint of their styles in what Yamashita does. But there’s a difference: a harder edge, a more concise motion—it’s difficult to explain in words. To see it revealed clearly, you have to experience it. Which can be a problem. In the Yamashita-ha Itto Ryu, my master’s system, a full-bore demonstration usually leaves someone moaning on the ground.
The demo had to come eventually, of course. It was what they were all really here for. They’d heard about Yamashita; they wanted to see the real deal. But so far, all they got was me. I could tell it was bugging them. Yamashita Sensei was there, of course. He drifted along the edges of the room, silent and contained, but you could feel him and sense his energy. Martial artists at a certain level of training can pick up the psycho-kinetic energy called ki . We all emit ki, but it viscerally pulses off someone like my teacher. You can suppress it somewhat or, if you’re really good (and Yamashita is) you can ramp up the energy projection until even the dimmest pupil can feel it.
He was doing it on purpose.
As the men and women here today trained, they felt the pulse of Yamashita’s ki, his energy, washing over them. Yet he stayed in the background, content to let me run the class. And what did they sense from me? I’m not sure. Most of them were probably too caught up in trying to master what I was showing them, in trying to look good in front of Yamashita. That kind of thing tends to dim peripheral awareness. In any event, they were glancing occasionally between the two of us as if comparing. Average looking white guy versus Asian master whose energy field was pinging off them like sonar. Who would you watch?
Eventually, Yamashita looked at me and nodded. It used to be that he gave me a great deal of verbal direction. He said he was compensating for the damage done to me by all that studying for my Ph.D. in Asian History. He didn’t need to say much to me anymore.
I called the class to order. They sunk attentively to the left knee, which permits everyone to see the instructor and hear his words. “OK,” I said. “You’re looking good.” Many of them looked like they had been soaked with a garden hose, but they were all hanging in there. I liked that. “Relax for a minute.” They settled in a rough circle around me and sat with crossed legs on the hard floor.
“We’ve been working this morning on various things—movement, sword work, some nerve points. In lots of ways, it’s a sampling of a continuum of aspects in the system we train in here.” I winced inwardly at the word continuum. Over the years, I’ve tried to lose some of my pointy-headedness, but I guess Yamashita is right—I have been damaged. I saw one guy smirk slightly at my choice of words. I didn’t respond to it, but an idea was forming in the back of my mind.
“Most modern martial arts forms tend to focus their training on a limited range of techniques,” I told them. It was nothing new to them. I could see that in their eyes. “At the higher level—where many of you are—you’ve got to expand your practice to include the integration of other techniques, other perspectives.” I held up my hands, fingers splayed, and then joined my hands together. “Meld them.” I began to walk around the circle a bit, making some eye contact with individuals.
“The exercise we practiced this morning that was based on mae,” I continued, “is a case in point. Depending on how you play it, it’s got elements of sword-drawing and weapons use, of aikido-like entering techniques, and then the potential for an almost limitless series of applications using strikes or locks or throws.” I watched them carefully as I spoke. There’s a well-honored dictum in the martial arts world that people who talk about technique can rarely do technique. First, I had used an egghead word like continuum. Now I was going on and on, making some points that had to be patently obvious to people with their experience. So I watched their eyes.
Most of them were expressionless, but I saw one guy—the same person who had smirked—looking at me with just the type of aggressive skepticism that I needed.
“Now let’s take a look at the application, OK?” I saw a few satisfied nods around the circle and got the message—it’s about time. When I gestured to my smirking friend, he rose eagerly to his feet in a smooth, powerful motion. His look told me that he had been waiting for something like this all day.
I made the rest of them back up and widen the circle. There was no telling how this would go. My opponent and I sat about one and a half meters apart from each other, just out of attack distance. As we settled down into the formal sitting position known as seiza, I held up my hand. “You want to wear kote?” I asked my opponent. They’re the padded mitts that protect the hands and wrist in arts like kendo. They come in handy sometimes.
He looked at me pointedly. “I don’t see you wearing any.”
He smiled tightly. “I’m fine, then.” He was probably in his late twenties. His hair was cut short and you could see powerful cords of muscle anchoring his head to his neck. This guy was built. He was also taller than I was—not a surprise, since most men are. He thought that when I offered the kote that I was asking him a question. Maybe he thought I was being overly conscientious. Or perhaps I was trying to needle him. There was probably some aspect of all these things at work. Mostly, however, I was just playing for time, getting a good look at him, registering the length of his arms and legs, and figuring out my options. It wasn’t a particularly fair tactic. It’s what Yamashita calls heiho—strategy.
We took our places and prepared. Usually, the senior person serves as attacker, but since I was demonstrating the full application of the technique, my partner would start. We sat for a moment, breathing quietly, wooden swords at our left sides. The man sitting across from me on the floor seemed calm. Confident. Contained.
His sword began to move. I had been watching him and the others all morning. They were all pretty good. So I knew that if I lost the initiative here, his sword would have swept across me. At his first twitch, I had already begun to move.
My bokken swept in an arc across his face, forcing him to pull back. I scrambled forward in the crouch we had practiced and he shot up and backwards to avoid the pressure I was bringing to bear. This much was standard, almost scripted, and everyone in that room expected it. But now the interesting stuff was going to happen.
Because once my opponent stood up and got slightly out of range of my sword tip, he had a variety of options. His attack could come in many forms. The trick in doing something like this wasn’t just in mastering the awkward series of scrambling motions we had practiced, it was in being able to cope with what would happen once your moves brought you into the radius of your opponent’s weapon. Like now.
I tried not to give him the option to think too much by continuing to jerk myself forward in that low crouch, my sword seeking a target. He parried and backpedaled, and I could see the awareness in his eyes, his realization that whatever he was going to do would have to be lightning quick, because I was moving in, and if he didn’t do something I was going to churn right through him.
He moved slightly to his right as I came forward and he snapped his sword down at my left shoulder in a quick, hard motion. I whirled in toward his blade, simultaneously moving my left shoulder out of range and bringing my own sword around to beat down his weapon. The wood shafts barked on contact. But he was pretty good: he held on and kept trying.
His impulse was to get the sword’s blade back up for another try at me. He went with the force of my parry, sweeping his bokken down and then up in a counterclockwise sweep that was designed to bring his weapon into the high position, ready for a strike.
As his arms came up, I shot beside him in what the aikido people call an irimi, or “entering” movement. Now we were both facing in the same direction. I used my left hand to grab his neck from behind. I squeezed hard. It’s not that I was going to make much headway against those muscles; it’s that people hate to have their head or neck held in any threatening way.
He jerked his head to his left as if trying to look over his shoulder—it’s a reflexive action—but he also moved to try to break my hold at the same time. As movements go, it was OK, and perfectly understandable. But for that one split second he had lost focus on his sword. I was still beside him and his right arm was stretched out, gripping the haft of the wooden sword.
I lifted my bokken, the point straight toward heaven, and then brought it down vertically, slamming the butt into the cluster of nerves on the inner edge of his right forearm.
It’s a funny feeling. Sort of. I heard him gasp and then the bokken fell out of his hands. I dumped him on the ground and put the tip of my own sword about an inch from his nose. He wasn’t stunned by the fall and his eyes crossed slightly as he focused on the tip of my weapon.
I moved away carefully, taking three steps backward to bring me out of range, and bowed formally to him.
Yamashita strode forward. He picked up my opponent’s sword and looked around the room. “So…” he commented to the watchful trainees. “Application is always more interesting than rehearsal, neh?” I saw some heads nod ruefully. In more than one face, I saw a dawning gratitude that someone else had been selected to serve as a training partner. Yamashita moved toward the man I had put on the floor. He got up, but I knew that he wasn’t going to be able to use his right arm for a while. His eyes bore into mine. For the first time that day, I let my own eyes bore back into a trainee’s eyes. Shoulda used the kote, bud.
Yamashita watched the silent exchange. “What we have seen here is a lesson with two aspects. Like a sword blade, there are two sides, omote and ura, the front and the back, the obvious and the hidden.” He canted the wooden sword in his hand to show one side of the blade, now the other. I saw some frowns from the group as they failed to follow his logic.
Yamashita saw it, too. He sighed. “Omote. Burke Sensei has clearly demonstrated how the technique you began to train this morning can be finished in a match. It is not the only application, perhaps,” he said and paused to give me a subtly arch look, “perhaps not even the most elegant. But certainly effective.”
Heads nodded, and Yamashita stood there for a minute, saying nothing. The lights of the dojo made the wooden floor gleam and, if they seemed to make his eyes deeper and darker, they also made his shaven head shine in imitation of the hard surfaces of his world.
Finally, someone raised a hand. “Yamashita Sensei,” the question came. “What was the second lesson?”
My teacher looked up and regarded the expectant circle of trainees. He smiled slightly. “Ah. The hidden lesson?”
He looked around. “You spent all your time waiting for me. Doing what Burke Sensei said, but waiting for me. The wise warrior keeps himself hidden, in the shadows. Kage. You know the word?” Heads nodded.
“Just so,” my master finished. “My pupil keeps himself in shadow. Like most people, there is more to him than meets the eye.”
The lesson was over.