Some Thoughts on the Way of the Sword
To attempt to come to grips with the sword in all its implications is to explore peril, fear, and wonder in a fundamental way. The sword is a physical entity whose utilization demands an intense discharge of psychic energy. At the same time that it enhances our power, it also makes us vulnerable to others similarly armed. Because it is a weapon, it confronts us with the terror of mortality and consideration of moral action, often making the linkage between the two painfully real and present.
The sword, as a Yagyu swordsman once said, can both give life and take life. To take up training in the sword, then, is to confront life itself.
- John J. Donohue,
Kendo means literally "the way of the sword", and has its origin in the martial art developed by the samurai in battlefield combat and in duels. It refers to a way of life shaped by the discipline cultivated through its practice, a discipline that produces perseverance, alertness and concentration. Above all, it requires great introspection, or looking into oneself. When samurai face each other, fear inevitably arises. But from where does this fear come? From the opponent? From the oncoming sword thrust? No - fear arises within oneself. To conquer an opponent, one must first conquer oneself - that is, one must first conquer the ego within oneself. The ultimate objective of kendo is to internalize challenges. This is the essence of kendo.
Conquering the ego produces mushin - a Buddhist term most commonly used in Zen. Mushin refers to an altered state of consciousness, a state of mind which distinguishes kendo from sport. Of course, sportsmen must conquer fear, and those in the creative arts also experience an altered state of consciousness. But mushin in kendo requires meditation based upon Buddhist philosophy. This is what makes kendo unique. Kendo is not just an art of self-defense - it is designed to create a new human configuration.
- from the dust jacket of Kendo: Its Philosophy, History and Means to Personal Growth, by Minoru Kiyota
The purpose of practicing Kendo is:
To mold the mind and body,
To cultivate a vigorous spirit,
And through correct and rigid training,
To strive for improvement in the art of Kendo.
To hold in esteem human courtesy and honor,
To associate with others with sincerity,
And to forever pursue the cultivation of oneself.
Thus will one be able to love his country and society,
To contribute to the development of culture,
And to promote peace and prosperity among all people.
- All Japan Kendo Federation
Some time ago, a friend of mine and I were discussing my disappointment regarding the behavior and attitude of a high-ranking karateka
(one who studies karate). This man was a third-degree black belt, so he must have spent a considerable amount of time studying karate. Presumably, this included some time studying the philosophies behind the martial arts. Yet he had been behaving quite rudely and arrogantly toward some younger students. "He should know better," and "Why did his instructors let him reach such a level with such a poor attitude?" were my expressed opinions.
After all, most of the Okinawan, Japanese, and Chinese martial arts have strong Buddhist underpinnings, and include a philosophical position which stresses that one should strive to behave responsibly, courteously, and respectfully at all times.
My friend, who is himself a second-degree black belt in Kyokushin karate, replied, "Michael, you have to understand that 90 percent of black belts are assholes." While I think he was being perhaps a bit too harsh, I have to admit that he had a point. In the United States, it seems that martial arts instructors typically spend little or no time teaching their students the philosophy behind the martial arts. My first kendo instructor, a native Japanese, once expressed outright disgust with the way most martial arts are taught here in the U.S. According to him, the average Japanese sensei
wouldn't even consider
teaching a student how to fight until and unless the student had demonstrated that (s)he had a sufficiently serious, humble, and respectful attitude. And he's by no means the only Japanese martial artist I've encountered who has expressed dismay at how most American instructors seem to ignore the philosophical underpinnings of the traditional martial arts styles.
Well, be that as it may, my admittedly limited experiences have led me to the conclusion that there are four primary types of martial artists. I should stress that these categories are not mutually exclusive, though.
The first - and here in the U.S., the rarest I think - is the philosopher. To him or her, the point of studying the martial arts is self-improvement. As far as the philosopher is concerned, you study the martial arts in order to learn self-discipline, self-confidence, and a "proper" attitude toward life. After all, you cannot hope to master a martial arts style without learning self-discipline in the process. Ideally, that same self-discipline will be used to make yourself into a better person - a more respectful, courteous, and sympathetic person. Plus, the exercise is good for you. Whether or not the martial arts style in question is useful for self-defense purposes is more or less irrelevant to the philosopher, since the point is to learn self-discipline, not how to fight effectively.
The second kind of martial artist is the pragmatist. The pragmatist believes that the primary value of martial arts training is to learn self-defense, and/or to improve your physical health through exercise. The value of learning self-defense isn't necessarily in learning how to fight, but in learning to be alert and self-confident, so that you can avoid
fighting whenever possible.
The third kind of martial artist is the fighter. Some people, in my experience, quite enjoy fighting. Perhaps they enjoy the challenge of it, and look upon fighting as a way to test themselves. Some of these people use the martial arts as a way of channeling their aggressive nature in positive ways. In any event, just because someone enjoys fighting doesn't mean that (s)he is arrogant or bullying by nature, or that (s)he doesn't respect others as equals. Nor does it mean that the person in question has a violent disposition.
Finally, there are the lovers of power. Sadly, there are those who enjoy dominating others, and who look upon the martial arts as a means of gaining power. Such people typically care little or nothing for such things as courtesy and respect toward those whom they regard as inferiors - they may go through the motions when it's required, but their hearts aren't in it, so to speak. There seem to be a lot more of these people in the martial arts community than I'd like to think, unfortunately.
Different martial arts styles (and different schools within a particular style) tend to produce martial artists of different dispositions. This shouldn't be surprising, since some martial arts styles are utterly useless for self-defense, or at least, they're highly impractical if self-defense is what you're wanting to learn. (It's hardly likely that I'll ever have to use a sword to defend myself against a similarly-armed attacker, for instance.) Such styles naturally attract few pragmatists and even fewer lovers of power.
Kendo is definitely one of those styles with little in the way of self-defense applicability. So why study it? In my opinion, the best reason is this: to become a better person.