The Iaido Journal  May 2014
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What does Iaido (居合道) mean literally?

copyright © 2014 Kefu Zhu, all rights reserved.

Iaido, or 居合道, as conceptualized by common people who do not do budo (武道), might be a practice of drawing out one’s sword (拔刀术). Actually, Iaido appears as a way of drawing out sword because of the appearance of kata. Nonetheless, Iaido can have a deeper meaning. The abundance of the interpretation even lies upon its name. Assuming that the naming of Iaido by its first master is not arbitrary, that the meaning of Kanji characters used by Japanese does not deviate from ancient Chinese characters, the origin of Kanji, and that the philosophy of Iaido is still following Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, this paper attempts to do an etymological phenomenology on the name I-ai-do in order to discover its literal but concealed meaning.

The “I” of I-ai-do is “居”. is dwelling, and is the everydayness of a man, as it is recorded in the Chinese etymology dictionary1. Originally, it is an act of sitting and it is also written as “踞”. To distinguish with the kneeling position “跽” in katas, “踞” is a general name for sitting in people’s everyday life before Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907) when chairs were widely accepted. Since “踞” is a general name only, it might refer to many ways of sitting, such as crouching, lying, kneeling, and kneeling with a upright body, before the age of chair. In fact, “跽”  ( ji,, kigi) indicates the kneeling with a upright body which is used in Iaido. Particularly, its component “已” portrays the kneeling of a person as its bending bottom part has shown. Also, “已” is being empty inside one’s body, as its encompassing upper part has manifested. Being empty inside is the “non-self” in most eastern philosophy schools. Together, it shows someone who kneels and empties oneself (towards something)-that is (Jin, けい) translated as respect in daily language. But it is actually to serve, in the sense of non-self and being volitional. Hence it is already an “etiquette” which Iaido emphasizes and which is the usual translation of “禮” (礼, li, れい). Moreover, also relates to one’s attitude, since “心” (xin, こころ) is also its component. is normally translated as mind, spirit, and heart in daily language. Yet, originally, it only indicates the place in one’s body where fire dwells. Fire always rises itself to a certain direction. Hence, fire signifies one’s being volitional to do something. It is an attitude. It is an intention of something. Then it can indicate consciousness, since “consciousness is consciousness of something”-being intentional, thus directional and then volitional (Sartre, 23). Only after that can it refer to mind, heart and spirit in daily language, since they, as mental acts, function only with the presence of consciousness. So in a etymological context, , can be said to be a kneeling with the upright body and being highly conscious of one’s intention or volition toward something. That is , to serve. That is one of the virtues emphasized by eastern philosophy in general.

However, is not alwaysfor common people, since to practice , requires virtues. But it is also true that common people would not be virtuous always. Only “士” (shi, ) is said to be virtuous in the ancient time, not only because they manifest themselves as virtuous beings, but also because their self-discipline makes them virtuous. Generally, a might be a scholar-official (Confucius and Slingerland, 32). He is someone who is involved (or wants to be involved) in state affairs or war affairs, receives good education, concerns and devotes himself to the future of the academy, society and country in ancient China. But, more fundamentally, in some ancient classics, such as the Analects, a shi “has set his heart upon the Way” (Confucius and Slingerland, 32). And a shi “must be strong and resolute, for his burden is heavy and his Way is long. He takes up Goodness (仁,ren,じん) as his own personal burden-is it not heavy? His Way ends on with death-is it not long?” (Confucius and Slingerland, 80). And, Confucius also said, a shi “of noble intention…would…[never] pursue life at the expense of Goodness, and in fact some may be called upon to give up their lives in order to fulfill Goodness” (Confucius and Slingerland, 177). In short, is someone who has a vision and the capacity to discipline himself on the way towards that vision. But to be noticed, the self-discipline here can be understood in two senses. On one hand, it can be the intention to discipline oneself with some norms, such as “not to do something”. However, this intention should not prevail, since the intention is already put on his visioning and his Way. On the other hand, self-discipline of a shi is actually not an intention to discipline oneself; rather, when focusing on his vision and building his personality, he simply has no intention on the other unnecessary things at all, since the intention of something can be the intention of one thing (or things as a whole) at one time only.

Actually, in Japanese context, becomes (さむらい)-that is samurai-when the “to serve” is emphasis. But samurai does not deviate from its Chinese origin, since to serve, in the sense of being volition and non-self, presupposes that intended vision and the self-discipline for non-self. Then for both and , is their everydayness. Everyday life, originally, is also one of the analogical meanings of . Hence, , the “I” of I-ai-do, in the context of Iaido, as the practice of samurai, refers to the everydayness of both as having a vision, being purposeful, and practicing self-discipline, as Warner and Draeger also have pointed out (96).

, the “ai”, originally, is the gathering of (,, ki, qi, chi)2. , the triangle arrow-like upper part, signifies the going in a direction. It will also signify intentionality analogically this time. The at the bottom of is a hole. For a human being, it usually means the mouth or the nostrils where breath happens andflows through. To put together, is thegoing out from oneself and gathering at somewhere outside. Moreover, Fire, mentioned above, apart from referring consciousness as well as other mental activities, is in fact one of the symbols of, For has five appearances, wood, fire, soil, metal and water, and when concerning consciousness as well as other mental activities, it is fire in ancient classics3. It can infer thatis also intentional. Even more than that, as a thread which connects body and mind and which makes a man feel himself alive, is indeed consciousness itself when concerning not only mental aspect but also bodily aspect, accompanied by intentionality always (Sartre, 23). then can be said to be the inner process and practice for both shi and samurai. Further, as Warner and Draeger have mentioned, signifies the capability of one person to adapt quickly to “any and all circumstances that occur in life” (96). Fundamentally, it is the capability of consciousness to transcend to a being/thing-that is the capability of to gather at that being. Hence, it is a responsive attitude that requires one’s flexibility (Warner and Draeger, 96). At this juncture, it can be said such flexibility is one of things that the Iaido practitioner trains himself for.

Particularly, since consciousness, or , is a flow, such capability which Iaido practitioner trains himself for is that which lets the consciousness flow flow freely-that is without obstruction. Since consciousness as a flow is capable of retention, such obstruction means that when any new circumstance occurs, the consciousness of samurai is still attaching to the previous circumstances and hence the samurai cannot have responsive attitude toward the new circumstance. So the goal of Iaido training can be said to be the training of non-retention. When there is no retention of the past for consciousness, it can transcend itself to the happening circumstance freely. Then such non-retention is actually Nothingness/Emptiness, /(xu/kong,こくう, Kokuu), since when consciousness transcends itself and gathers to those beings-in-the-world, there is nothing inside itself (Sartre, 16). Then we can know that the non-retention, or better to say, that Nothingness/Emptiness, is that which Iaido training is for.

As Warner and Draeger have also pointed out that at the threshold of satori (perfection, ), Do is attained (97). Actually, the happening of satori is that Nothingness/Emptiness which is mentioned in almost every Buddhist sutra and Daoist text. As Zhuangzi (荘子) has indicates, “The Way gathers in nothingness”. The Way is the “Do” of Iaido. The Way is the way to somewhere, or in Warner and Draeger’s word, it also leads to self-realization (97). But since it is a Way rather than the “somewhere”, shi is on the way rather than being at somewhere. “Somewhere” seems to be a vision of shi ahead out of reach and cannot be attained-it seems to be there but it is always remaining a vision. But it is indeed the on-the-Way itself essential. On this Way, only can shi keep doing self-cultivation: building his being, and building for himself a place for Everyday life dwelling (), since he dwells in his being, and his being is his everydayness. In fact, the Way to “somewhere” is rather the Way to No-where, in the sense of satori. For when attending his vision and cultivating himself, the consciousness of samurai transcends itself and might eventually leave Nothingness for him. In this way, satori is attained, and the Way is to the No-where, since it is Nothingness gathers that Way.

The Way gathers in nothingness (Heidegger, 216). The nothingness gathers in the transcending of consciousness (). dwells in the being of man. The being, the everydayness of a man, is the dwelling () (Heidegger, 350). The dwelling of shi is being conscious and self-cultivation, including the self-discipline and a vision, that is (ki/gi), (Jin, けい), to serve. They serve in their everydayness, (). When they draw out the sword toward enemy, it is nothing but only guarding and preserving their everydayness, for only in their everyday serving, there is the chance to attain the Way.

Works Cited

Confucius, and Edward G Slingerland. Confucius Analects : with Selections From Traditional Commentaries. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co., 2003.

Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought. 1st Perennical Classics ed. New York: Perennical Classics, 2001.

Heidegger, Martin, and David Farrell Krell. Basic Writings : From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964). 3rd, Harper Perennial, 2008.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Hazel Estella Barnes. Being and Nothingness : a Phenomenological Essay On Ontology. New York: Washington Square Press , 1992.

Warner, Gordon, and Donn F. Draeger. Japanese Swordsmanship : Technique

and Practice. New York: Weatherhill, 1982.

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