chinese swordsmanship, japanese swordsmanship, musashi, book of five rings, go rin no sho, kenjutsu, kendo, ryuha, koryu, munenori,
When choosing a sword, avoid precious or important weapons with a distinguished history or attractive fittings. Choose the sword that won’t let you forget its purpose; choose the sword that can be carried and used without worry or undue attachment. Respect the swords as a tool applicable to all levels of your life, but never let it dominate your mind for any reason. A precious or valuable sword, while providing a certain type of satisfaction, risks becoming an obstacle to one’s expression of swordsmanship and the cultivation of one’s virtue. Often, valuable or precious swords are kept in order to cultivate favorable opinions in others, rather than for reasons that are relevant to our swordsmanship. Given two similar swords, invariably most will choose the one owned by someone famous, or the one that is older, or more beautifully adorned. Why is this the case? We want to associate ourselves with the deeds of others, but these are not our deeds. We want to have a sword that impresses others, but those are not our impressions. Such motivations are selfish and work against our path of cultivation. It is often said that the sword of a superior swordsman must itself be superior, but a superior swordsman is comfortable with any weapon, or even none. To fixate upon ‘favorite’ weapons is a recipe for disaster, since it adds yet another attachment to the vast sea of attachments we already drown in. It is difficult enough to let go without adding to the problem with mere objects. A sword is a functional tool for the purpose of efficiently killing, nothing more, and only when we can truly see it as such does it become a transcendent object of cultivation as well. The only possible exception to this is when a Teacher has given you a sword for the correct reasons. A perceptive Teacher will give you a sword that has a particular purpose for you, and it is your job to find the lessons that it has to give.
"It is said by the old Taoists (and consequently rediscovered by those that deeply inquire) that the ‘natural’ state is preferable to one that is contrived or artificial. To them, Mastery was defined by one’s proximity to a state of complete accord with the tasks one performs, which is to say everything occurring in the present moment. What is complete accord with the present moment? Simplistically, one might say that this accord is full participation in the reality of the moment without recourse to fantasy, projection, anticipation, regret, or any of the other things that take us from what is Now, and drown it out with the future or the past. In the present moment, fear and self-doubt don’t exist, there is only what IS. This is the reality of ‘nature’: the things that are happening by themselves at any given moment. All of these events are in relationship with each other by the simple virtue of being parts of the Universe itself, in other words the Tao or the Great Relationship." Arrow Mountain Tengu
by Jason Deatherage
The problem with most sword training is that people approach it with fixed ideas of what a sword is and does. They have a certain ‘look’ in mind, and the portrayals of the physical use of the sword in various media are generally not faithful to what happens when the swordsman is really trying to kill and not to be killed. Unfortunately, these preconceptions are driven deep, and are passed to subsequent generations of students and teachers largely unexamined. Preconceptions are understandable, as we no longer depend on our sword skills to survive in the world (and really, few ever did), so we have no place forced upon us in which our understandings of the sword are truly and deeply tested. It is because of this lack of ‘reality’ that we must be especially careful about how we think when we train and how we think about what we train. Even those of us who are involved in learning a sword art with a long, venerable lineage are vulnerable to ‘fixed ideas’ of the sword, and perhaps are in an even more dangerous position because of the authority with which we accept the teachings of those who have come before us in our art.
Why are fixed ideas bad? Don’t we have to learn specific things to be able to do specific things? After all, we know that it is essential to learn a vocabulary in order to be able to well spoken with a language. We start with meaningless sounds, learn words, then sentences, then the more comprehensive rules of language, all the while talking to people and attempting to communicate with them. And if we really pay attention to the process, we learn a few very interesting things that are entirely relevant to our study of the sword.
The problem lies in the identification of the true goal of such learning. In the case of language, we don’t learn a language to have the largest possible vocabulary of words that are pronounced with exacting precision, we learn a language in order to express ideas to each other clearly and transparently. In a conversation between people, exceedingly complicated words and fussy pronunciation is often a barrier to communication rather than a vehicle for it. We run the risk of sacrificing the central goal of language by becoming lost in the forms of language. Of course we can take pleasure in the learning and doing of language, but we must always remember that the whole point is to communicate. All other goals are secondary. We know this because there are so many layers of communication between people: facial expression, tone of voice, gestures, body posture, and so much more. This is speaking without speaking, and if we only focus on the actual language, we lose a great depth of ability to communicate. Sometimes we don’t know the word for something but we can point to an object, and the idea has been fully and completely expressed without language at all, even to people who don’t speak or speak a different language entirely. Of course, just grunting and pointing at things gives us some difficulty in expressing more complex ideas, so we have some obligation to learn the forms of language to some extent if we are truly interested in communicating with people.
How does this compare to sword training? With the sword, we must learn basic postures and techniques, eventually stringing them together into forms or kata, applying these techniques in choreographed drills to illuminate various concepts, and finally, though more rarely, expressing our ideas to each other through free sparring or in actual combat. Much like language, swordsmanship is a tool for the expression of ideas, and exactly like language, we must be careful that our central goal remains clear (more on this later). By viewing our swordsmanship as a form of communication, we can start to penetrate into the deepest potentials of the sword.
What is communication? Dictionary definitions aside, communication is when an idea is successfully passed between people, intent and content intact. In order to truly communicate with someone, to converse with them, there is a connotation of positive engagement, of willing participation; we have to want to accomplish something together. To have a difficult but important conversation that one might rather avoid is a courageous act that requires a certain open-hearted acceptance of whatever might arise. To enter a conversation with everything one might say already pre-planned and ready is not true communication, but rather just two people reading scripts at each other. To truly converse, we must be prepared to truly listen, not just wait our turn to talk. The difference may seem subtle, but this quality of putting aside our preconceived notions and opening ourselves to information so that it seems new is a critical part of both communication and swordsmanship. If a close loved one said to you, “We really have to talk. I have something very important to tell you,” you might start to imagine a million things the message could be. You might think of cancer, or divorce, or winning lottery tickets, or the death of a child, but you really don’t know, and when they start to speak, you open yourself completely to be sure you hear what they are going to say as fully as possible. This quality of listening is critical to be able to truly communicate, and it is critical to the use of the sword. If your mind is full of what this conversation might be about rather than listening to what is actually being said, little true communication can take place, and your responses will be based on your conjectures rather than actual reality.
In swordsmanship, this quality of listening is immensely important. Swordsmanship is a deeply intimate form of communication in that if one fails to listen effectively or speak clearly, the consequences are injury or death. Obviously, this listening is not done (only) with the ears, but rather with the body. That quality of opening the mind to what’s actually right in front of you without preconception or judgment, just like in a deep conversation, must also be present.
How does one listen with the body? In Chinese, there is a concept called 听劲, which is pronounced ting jin, and roughly means ‘listening energy’ (literally the characters mean "the listening using the connected work/function of a whole body's tissues"). While some might get carried away and think this is some sort of actual energy that you cultivate, it is rather a form of paying attention with your whole body and mind. It is just ‘being there’ (or rather here) instead of off in our imagination, trying to anticipate and strategize. Let’s look at a practical example with swords in our hands.
One of the ways that a swordsperson can be cut is if the opponent successfully feints, drawing a response that creates an opening that they can enter and strike with their sword. This is a false attack designed to take advantage of our reactions, but in reality it takes advantage of the exact opposite of a reaction; it takes advantage of an anticipation. If the fake works at all, it means that we moved too early and based our understanding of the situation on information that had not fully developed. In other words, we didn’t listen to what the opponent had to say and we started to speak over them before they were finished speaking, assuming wrongly that we knew what they were going to say. On the other hand, if we treat this encounter as a conversation, we really want to know what they are trying to say to us so that we might formulate a truly appropriate response, a response that takes into account everything they shared with us and the true intent of their statement. To put this into the language of sword, we must be able to know exactly the full intent and nature of their attack, so that we can properly meet and neutralize it (or ignore it entirely) then press our own attack if necessary. To do this effectively, we need to be able to courageously observe their attack until the last possible moment. We need to listen to the situation until they have spoken their piece, and then respond with exactly what the situation requires, nothing more, nothing less.
Understanding the critical nature of what communication with the sword really is brings us back to the central goals mentioned before. Just as the goal of language is not speaking for the pleasure of hearing ourselves, the goal of swordsmanship is not clean and beautiful technique strung together in beautiful forms. The goal of using a sword is to kill an opponent, or at the very least stop them from killing us. Even though we are not truly interested in killing, and will be unlikely to find ourselves in true combat with a sword, if we hope to learn the way of the sword, we must have deep respect for what the tool is designed for. This design principle has been the root of everything that followed from the very first sword to the one in our hand right now. Furthermore, the point of swordsmanship is not even the actual sword, but is again to kill the opponent or at least not be killed by them. Similarly, it doesn’t matter what language one uses as long as one can communicate ideas and information. In many arts, the sword has become a tool of higher expression, a way to shine a light on the deeper principles of the art, but the danger is that the real goals and principles become too mundane and obvious and are therefore more completely neglected.
The stark reality is that the sword was made because it’s easier to kill someone with a sharp blade than it is to do so with a stick or a fist. It is designed not only to kill, but also to do it efficiently, with less effort than other methods. If we aren’t constantly cross-referencing our techniques with these central goals and principles of the sword, respecting its inherent properties of edge and point (among others), then we are engaged in an empty practice with a low and impenetrable ceiling of understanding and skill.
Just as someone only interested in killing with the sword is damaged and unsavory, those only interested in cultivation are equally imbalanced and limited. They are not well-spoken people that can hold interesting conversations because they are not interested in communicating. A truly satisfying conversation is a free thing that has pleasant unpredictibilities in it, and new turns of phrase can be created by the circumstances and interactions between the participants. The use of language in such a conversation is not inhibited by preconception, it flows freely to serve the goal of expressing ideas. The physical reality of swordsmanship is just like this; trying to choose just one aspect or another of the sword (killing or cultivating) is ultimately inhibitory to the use of the sword. Circumstance picks what is needed, because that what is real. Your ideas of what should or might happen are not real at all, and while you might be able to force them onto the situation, by doing so you are separating yourself from the free and natural use of the sword. If we really want to kill or to cultivate, we must be as free and natural as we can be. Do want to argue with or smugly ignore our opponent, or do we want a free and natural conversation with them that leads to true resolution of the conflict?
All of our vocabulary, our clever phrasing, and our ability to hear and listen must serve the central goal or our swordsmanship becomes a clever recitation of a pre-written script rather than a living conversation. The dead and stilted result of this sort of approach becomes glaringly obvious if we attempt to have a spoken conversation with someone in this manner. Try to write out a whole conversation with someone, imagining what they are going to say and formulating your responses, then actually go talk to them and stick only with your script. Very shortly the conversation will break down into something that is most definitely not communication. Why do we see swordsmanship as any different?
When we look at how swordsmanship is generally taught and understood, we realize that this scripted approach is exactly how most people are trying to learn and teach the use of the sword. There is no reality, only imagination and guessing; no listening, only speaking over; no communication or conversation, only much sound and fury signifying nothing. Instead of seeing separation and conflict, if we open-heartedly welcome our opponent into the conversation of the sword, we can begin to approach mastery of the sword and mastery of our relationship with the whole world.
The Danger of Predictability
The Arrow Mountain Tengu
It has been already been written in previous discourses that one must have some form of danger present in one’s training in order to have a chance at true learning and improvement with the sword. Without the conditions that give rise to true fear, we cannot hope to properly accord our Minds to fear and learn its true role in our use of the sword. Fear must be lightly grasped in our mind and allowed to combine with all of the other aspects of our training to create spontaneous expression with the sword, both in the realm of the actual clash of blades, and also in one’s larger strategies and approaches to conflict itself. But danger in our practice is not enough, because it is usually limited to direct physical use of the sword, and can easily be neutered by the insidious influence of predictability.
Predictability is a deeply human pursuit. Nearly all of our activities seek to increase the predictability of our surroundings. We eat at certain times of day, live and work on flat floors, navigate, keep time, record history, speak languages, reproduce, ad infinitum. Each of these activities understandably attempts to ensure the continuation of past or present events into the future but, while many are unavoidably necessary, they are in fact resistances to Change itself. We carry on thinking that we know what is going to happen based on guesses drawn from our memories of past events, and if we are perceptive and diligent we can often make very accurate predictions. However, in many cases we are not acting on the basis of the actual reality in front of us; rather we are acting based on suppositions and inferences. We begin to operate on wishful thinking rather than actual circumstance. While this type of prediction allows for powerful organizations of human effort, it does not truly prepare one for the reality and inseparability of life and death. Sadly, predictability is most often used as a way to pretend that we are not in fact impermanent, that we have control over the future, that we are somehow separate from everything else. In the realm of the sword as in a full life, this type of self-delusion is dangerous and counterproductive.
When training the sword, one must take seriously the spirit of the discipline they study. They must realize that they study the art of killing people who will do all they can to kill in turn. As any serious student knows, this focus on death is absolutely critical to having any hope of using the sword to preserve and protect life. However, only by becoming proficient at the methods of killing can we make not-killing a true and deliberate choice, rather than being condemned to one path or the other. By having true choice, we have the opportunity to create a true peace around us in which violence has no power. It must never be forgotten, however, that the dark heart of this peace is the ability to face any opponent and cut them down without hesitation, regardless of their skill or style. This ability certainly includes the physical skills of violence, but more importantly it requires certain attitudes of the mind.
It is one thing to train with one’s Brothers and Sisters, refining our techniques, building skill and power with choreographed drills and exchanges in which we can begin to fully express the techniques shown to us by our Teachers. In this context, we can have the necessary danger by pushing the envelope of speed and power. We can also avoid ‘safe’ weapons, instead choosing weapons capable of causing real injury should a mistake occur. Much progress can be made in Schools of this sort, but there is a flaw in their training that hinders further Learning and Improvement. Their ceiling of Understanding is lower than it might otherwise be due to the almost complete absence of Unpredictability. They forget the reality that their art was designed to be able to face a real person with a real blade, even if this opponent will never more than theoretical. To train with this end point in mind brings real Quality to the pursuit of one’s art. Training without it leaves our art drifting and aimless, prone to error and misunderstanding.
When one faces a real opponent, one often does not know their true capabilities. This opponent is a person who has not been training with one for years, learning the same techniques, agreeing with the same Teacher, or following the invisible rules of one’s style. One doesn’t know what they’re going to do (or not do), and one must now realize that one’s training has not in any way accounted for this incredibly basic reality of swordsmanship. One may have tricks and positions that help protect one from many possible attacks, but the fact is that one’s mind has rarely, if ever, been truly tested with things that one doesn’t at least subconsciously expect. Even the most ferocious choreographed drill, done at full speed and power, is completely predictable to the mind and thus the mind limited to this sort of practice never has to experience the fear of the unknown. In many cases, the very reason choreography is done is to reduce the fear inherent in unpredictability and create a safe context in which to practice one’s techniques. Of course controlled training of this sort has a vital place in the cultivation of our basic skills and technique, but what are those techniques for, if not to serve one spontaneously and correctly in circumstances that are emergent and dangerous? If they were predictable, they wouldn’t be an emergency.
The goal of our training is to create a Mind that is calm in all circumstances, from the most tender caress of a lover to the very moment of our death, and all points in between. It should be obvious, however, that we can never specifically train all circumstances and assign them certain techniques, living our lives by mental and physical muscle memory. Why then do we train our martial arts as if this were the case? Instead, we must begin to accept that Change is the only reality, and learn to accord ourselves seamlessly with it. If our minds and bodies are not trained with acceptance of this reality, we are fundamentally unable to respond naturally and properly to what is right in front of us. While there is certainly a place for choreography to refine the fundamental vocabulary of the beginning student, we must not lose the courage to step into the unknown with our explorations of our art as our skill deepens. We must be able to push the boat away from shore and get ourselves safely across the river, rather than stay on the shore rehearsing some imagined version of the crossing. Only by feeling real winds, currents and waves can we learn to guide a boat. Of course we don’t start (or even have to end) in a hurricane on the ocean, but even a calm pond in the forest has immensely more to teach the person in the boat than the shore does. Sadly, most arts pay only lip service to this level of training, never having the courage to progress into and beyond it.
How, then, does one begin to explore this unpredictability in the context of their own training, perhaps even under a Teacher who doesn’t understand the importance of the Unknown? Firstly, one can begin to empty themselves of expectation and anticipation, even during choreography. It is important to properly Wait for an attack to actually happen before performing the correct response. Too often, students learn a complicated set of movements and begin to anticipate the next move, even subtly, thus draining the real essence of the exercise without even knowing it. A student interested in inquiring deeply into this Waiting can wait more and more, exploring the element of time and keen observation even while practicing their techniques. Much can be learned by those who seriously inquire, even in this relatively limited fashion. In this way, one can begin to respectfully explore and test their art, while staying entirely within the usual curriculum and instruction from their Teacher.
Another method is to let the choreography operate for a few moves, then leave the next move completely open for the attacker to decide. The receiving partner will have to truly wait and see what comes, learning undeniably that if they anticipate, will be very vulnerable to feints and missed blocks. The attacking partner will learn much as well about the reactions that expectation can create, among other things. It doesn’t profit the reader to have these things laid out in specifics, when personal experimentation will yield a far more valuable direct experience. This sort of work might require an understanding Teacher, so be careful how you approach it.
Eventually, by not projecting our fears and expectations upon our opponents, we begin to see them very clearly. Their techniques become transparent to us and we are much better able to deal with their attacks. Their tricks become obvious and futile in the face of our unshakeable Calm. We begin to be able to see the roots of conflict itself in just the same way, allowing us to stop it from growing and consuming us. We begin to see difficult circumstances with curiosity and openness rather than avoidance and fear. We welcome our opponents into the Conversation of the Sword and use our power and skill to protect us both.
Wu Wei and the Sword
In swordsmanship, one sees the common hackers attacking one another with abandon, fighting sword against sword with little understanding of the deeper principles that will forever be obscure to their cluttered minds. Even those who do not fight are like magpies, collecting shiny forms, practicing poorly and excessively, coveting expensive weapons and costumes, and chattering at each other from the treetops, trying to establish some sort of false dominance over one another. This disgraceful state of affairs is inevitable when the mind is focused only on the Yang, the obvious, the distracting. The foolish are always focused on ‘doing’ something, ‘making’ something happen, being ‘proactive’, ‘taking’ initiative, and being in control of their false view of actual reality that they insist on filtering through their expectations and desires. It is no surprise that they are doomed to remain at low levels of skill and understanding, because their cups are full, with no room to receive the nourishing tea of true reality, of Now.
If one makes the choice to follow nature’s example, to adapt and flow with circumstance as if one is cast into the middle of a wide and powerful river with no hope of reaching shore, then one has a chance to truly begin to Learn and Improve in their pursuit of the essence of swordsmanship. Only by letting go of our desires and expectations can we hope to truly enter the moment that is right here, right now. Since we are a part of reality, we are subject to it in every moment. This reality cannot be changed, only accepted, though do not mistake this for helplessness. If we are in a great river, being swept inevitably downstream, our choices are not simple to swim directly upstream or float helplessly downstream; rather we are best served by working with the current in all of its subtle eddies, undertows, rapids, and calm depths. Only by surrendering to the reality of the river can we begin to understand how we can use its power to assist our movements; we have stopped fighting and ‘doing’ things, and begun to let the river move us, guided by the strategic overview of our mind. In this way we ‘do nothing’ and yet things are accomplished with power and efficiency, leaving no trace behind. In the words of the old Taoists, this is Wu Wei.
In the realm of the sword, when faced with an opponent bent on killing, it is critical that we operate in this state of Wu Wei, ‘doing’ nothing that is unnecessary, allowing the opponent to dictate the movements of our sword and body. The lower level hackers and slashers will sneer derisively at this ‘reactive’ approach, but they fail to understand that this reactivity is in response to true reality itself, rather than their proactivity, which is also essentially reactive but only in response to their projections, fantasies, conjectures and guesses about reality. While one can develop strong predictive powers with training and observation, one must understand that one is always working with false information, and if the guess is wrong, the result is catastrophic. The reactive swordsman can never be faked, while the proactive swordsman is easy to draw into all sorts of terrible positions and cut down with ease. It requires true courage to follow this path, which requires that one Wait and See what the opponent is actually doing rather than guessing at what they might do. By doing this, we are not interfering with reality, but are rather adapting ourselves to it utterly, and using its currents to accomplish our own ends. In this way, one must only Wait, and the proper course of action will become immediately clear, assuming one has trained their martial vocabulary diligently. Only by Waiting, just as the universe itself waited to be born out of the Big Bang, can this unlimited potential give rise to the correct action spontaneously and naturally.
This natural spontaneity was the central pursuit of the old Taoists, before their philosophies were hijacked and twisted by the alchemists, priests, and magicians. Their pursuit was the direct opposite of the immortality that later ‘Taoists’ became known for coveting; it was instead the immediate and direct experience of each moment, naturally and spontaneously, which is the mirror image of immortality. Their Way meant that each moment was a whole incarnation unto itself, and each choice lead to the next incarnation in the next moment, in constant succession until one’s death, which was accepted with no more or less joy or sorrow than life itself.
By seeing what is desirable and obvious, we can see that there must be another side to things. By operating in these dark spaces between things, the swordsman begins to be able to swim with the river by flowing with Yin. By using what is not-sword, one begins to have fine and subtle mastery over what is-sword. By not doing what others do, we begin to be able to do what they cannot, precisely because they are trying to do it so hard.
To diligently study the Way of Swordsmanship requires that one listen not only to one’s Teacher, but also to one’s sword and the Natural lessons it teaches to the perceptive. Because the root goal of our study is one of removing all impediments to Natural action, we must likewise be perceptive of the demands of circumstance, and seamlessly change with the changes that surround us. Only Natural action can function in all circumstances; only Natural action is the true evidence of a truly Calm mind.
What is meant by Natural action? Natural action is action that is truly in accord with the demands of circumstance, and doesn’t seek to impose conditions which are not appropriate to the moment. Ideally, long and serious training builds a deep vocabulary of technique and a flexibility of mind that can adapt and change those techniques according to the requirements of the moment. Unfortunately in these days of lifeless adherence to the rigid forms of the past in order to convince the gullible of one’s ‘traditional’ credibility, the study of the sword has fallen into technical tricks or spiritual fantasy, having neither true completeness nor ability to truly cultivate and effectively fight. The other Schools seek to force their long preserved techniques upon the circumstances that confront them, acting from fond memory or wishful thinking rather from what is Here and Now. Their actions can never be Natural because they are unchanging. It is self evident that Nature is nothing other than Change, occurring with no guiding hand except the relationships of the inherent virtues of its constituent beings. If we refuse to listen to and understand the essence of Nature, thus rejecting our inevitable part in this grand Relationship, we can only participate by forcing our way in from the outside destructively, and are severely limited in the scope of action available to us. Much like swimming in a river, if we refuse to listen and adapt to the current, we are doomed to a futile attempt to resist the river’s power - to swim upstream - and are soon exhausted and drowned.
While the ancient Masters no doubt had great skill and understanding, we will not achieve those same skills and understandings by copying only their methods. We must rather seek understanding in the way that they sought it, as if their heads were on fire, chasing down and examining each insight without bias or preference. Those Masters did not learn the styles that are attributed to them; rather, they created them anew from their own understandings and previous vocabularies. Even a student of the most venerated ryu-ha never truly learns until they are reinventing the traditional forms for themselves, comparing them to reality, changing them subtly to suit the demands of circumstance or finally understanding the mechanisms for change that lurk within the seemingly unchanging forms.
At this point, the principles that are the true message of one’s style begin to surface for the inquiring student, and can be pursued in and of themselves, stepping beyond mere technique and form, but still standing upon a firm foundation of technique and form. It is only at this point that one can even aspire to pursuing truly Natural action, as one’s whole body of knowledge has been entirely artificial up to this point. Just learning the techniques is not enough, though it is essential to further progress. For most, at this point in a student’s progress, their ‘style’ changes from a guidepost on the Path of Swordsmanship to an endless maze of distraction and misunderstanding. The very tool of learning that brought them to this point becomes the most dangerous and invisible obstacle to further learning and improvement. When this point has been reached, if one wishes to penetrate further, one must begin to seek deeply for principles with little thought for the traditional forms of their styles. One must be willing to begin to destructively test their own lessons in order to find their true value. One must begin to look into even their own teacher’s authority on the matter and see if principle is operating consistently there, invisibly testing the validity of their lessons at every moment. This approach requires much of the serious student of the sword. One cannot allow even a moment of self-congratulation or self-delusion; only deeply intense honesty, devoid of self-interest, can be used to further penetrate to the heart of the matter. The most deceptive and hostile force resisting this honesty is one’s own self-interest. Our desire to improve, to be better, to learn, can all be turned completely against our own efforts if we remain unduly attached to those desires.
The use of principle, once properly identified, is much like the use of a map by a skilled traveller. When travelling, one gets nowhere unless they actually put one foot in front of another and travel over the land. This is the form of travelling. With a map, one can look ahead along one’s route, and even change one’s route based on the information on the map, making the most out of every footstep. By combining diligent, persistent walking with careful understanding and use of the map, one can travel most efficiently. The Sword is no different. Our inquiries in the truth of the matter must be combined intelligently with our physical practice to create a complete method of learning the sword.
Once we begin to penetrate into the real principles of Swordsmanship, we begin to identify very simple rules that govern our chances of success and failure. In this discourse, we will examine what is known to the Piercing Cloud Method as “The Rule”. It is easily demonstrable that if even a beginning student of the Sword adheres to this rule, they can readily defeat a great many opponents of greater skill if those opponents do not know this principle.
This rule is simply that one must keep one’s sword between themselves and their opponent. While the logic of such positioning might seem exceedingly obvious, it is not consistently present in much of the sword work done these days. The absence of conscious understanding of such a fundamental principle in other Schools seems to indicate the dangers of relying on form and tradition as one’s only path of learning.
Of course one must not be too literal in their implementation of the Rule, because, naturally, there are many ways to define what is our opponent. In the case of an incoming blow, we may need to place our sword between their blade and ourselves. Our opponent in this case is their weapon and direction of their intent. If our opponent is out of position, and their sword can’t reach us, we might ignore their sword entirely and press the attack inwards toward their body. Our opponent in this case is actually the body of the opponent. If we are to work on the level of the opponent’s mind, it is extremely effective to allow our sword to interfere with their perceptions of us and the larger situation we share. The very idea of the sword is a compelling distraction to most, so it is quite sensible to play upon this weakness in the opponent in various ways.
No matter what school or style the serious student of the sword is a part of, a deep understanding of the Rule will greatly increase their understanding of the use of the sword. Study the Rule diligently.
The Sword as Distraction
by the Arrow Mountain Tengu
Inevitably, as we inquire into the deepest aspects of swordsmanship, we encounter those who are shamefully enchanted with the sword and all that it represents. One can smell this sort of attachment from a great distance, and can feel it in every thought and action when swords are crossed. Swordsmen of this sort are so besotted with what they’ve learned from their venerable teachers and ancient lineages that they can barely see the opponent in front of them, and certainly have no hope of seeing themselves. They collect techniques and fancy weapons as if somehow these things matter one whit when one is faced with emergent circumstance; but, as we know, these things are in fact distractions from the true work that swordsmanship demands.
What does it mean to be enchanted with the sword? It means that the mind is focused entirely on the sword in their hand, but not in a way that promotes analysis and learning; rather they are focused on the shiny blade, on the shiny ideas of swordsmanship, and on the shiny feelings of self-satisfaction they have dreamed up in their quest for importance and mystical meaning. To one such as this, no amount of practice can help them pull out of the trap. They are mired in their own desires and projections, searching for more and more, never realizing that the path of the Sword is one of less and less. The great Masters of Old knew that only by dropping, releasing, accepting, absorbing, opening, and letting go could one begin to accord oneself properly to life and therefore the sword. When faced with mortal threat, the Ancients didn’t puff up and fight, rather they relaxed and opened their Hand, letting the sword fall where it may, without concern for gain or loss. By treating all circumstances as if they were life and death, they began to apply these deep principles to every aspect of their lives, to the betterment of all beings.
In these shallow days of misunderstanding and profit, the pursuit of the deepest aspects of the sword is almost entirely absent, and those that consider themselves to be inquiring deeply are splashing in a puddle in the road. Why can’t their vision penetrate the clouds of self-delusion? Their sword is in the way just as if they held it over their eyes. They see the sword as a transcendent tool of self-cultivation, but refuse to look into the stark face of the sword as tool of killing. Conversely, others see the sword as a tool of recreational violence and prestige, never seeing the light it shines on all that surrounds them, never seeing the paths it opens to the mind. They shrink from critical analysis of what they are being taught by their teachers, never daring to test and analyze their own skills. Their own perceptions and judgments of the sword limit their understanding. They refuse to see the essential nature of Yin and Yang at play; without one, there is not the other. By attempting to only understand the cultivating aspects of sword without truly understanding how it kills, one cultivates a false dream of heaven, ignoring the truth shining on our face. By learning only the mechanics of fighting and killing without tirelessly inquiring into the true Communication that these practices illuminate, one rages alone against a hostile universe in futility. Under these conditions, even hard practice and training can be entirely misdirected and leave one worse off than they began.
All things Change, and all things are let go without exception. Why, then, should we wishfully dream that swordsmanship is any different? The sword is there in our hand, yes, but if our mind is constantly focused on the sword, it is not truly free to act. Because of the dangerous nature of the sword, the temptation is to control circumstance with rules and forms. As beginners, we require this structure in order build a working vocabulary for later creative expression. As we find things that work in reality or in our imaginations, we are tempted to solidify our expressions with the sword into set techniques. Unfortunately, real circumstance is infinite Change, not choreography.
With rigidly codified techniques, we attempt to force our techniques onto every circumstance uncreatively, speaking over the situation rather than listening to it. We change our perceptions of reality to fit what we understand of our techniques. Our memory of what worked before and what we’ve been taught invents a false reality for us instead of teaching us to effectively accord ourselves to what is actually there in front of us. If we aspire to true freedom of action, we must change our techniques to fit the circumstances that actually confront us. We can’t truly act appropriately in a circumstance without being responsive and sensitive to what the circumstance demands. Our desperate desire to look tough and dangerous makes the idea of reacting to circumstance into some sort of weakness, but we are never doing anything but reacting to circumstance, whether real or imagined. Even those that have excellent predictive abilities will eventually reach their limit; everyone loses at dice after enough rolls. They are only guessing at what might happen, not truly seeing what IS happening.
We are all floating down the river, but some chose to resist the current, while some work powerfully with it. Swordsmanship is nothing other than flowing with the current of circumstance. In order to do this, one must first let go of their ideas and desires and let the current take them. Only by listening to the current and feeling it can we understand the direction and strength of its flow. In order to listen in this way we must quiet ourselves and wait for circumstance to speak.
If an opponent is cutting at us, we can guess and predict what they intend, and maybe we’ll be right, but if we’re wrong we are likely to be catastrophically educated. To operate in this way is speaking rather than listening, and we are not being truly sensitive to anything except our egotistical hopes and fears. We should rather Wait for the opponent’s intentions to become clear, so that we can deal directly with their true attack. Only by waiting can we have the time to see what they’re actually doing. Once we can see their true intent, we can do exactly what is necessary to resolve the situation, and paradoxically, we have more time in which to do so. By letting our minds be distracted by the minutiae of the sword and its techniques and style, we can’t see into the truth of what’s before us and our mind ends up fluttering around like a panicked bird that flies into the temple and can’t find its way out.
In the extremity of a contest of swords, the time for all of the fripperies is past, and only the calm mind can have true freedom of action. Sadly, few understand this Calmness to be the true Sword with which one can cut through any illusion. The common swordsman’s styles, their techniques and tricks, their famous teachers and their close held ‘secrets’ are merely jewelry for the ego and obstruct the mind rather than assist it. Only by letting go can we grasp the sword.
A brief overview of some implications of paying attention
The Chinese have a martial concept known as Tsing Jin, which means ‘listening energy’. This sort of listening is not done with the ears, but with the whole body and mind of the martial artist. It just means ‘paying attention’ to what is actually there, rather than imagining, pre-conceiving, or wishfully thinking. It also means that there are ways to learn things other than by looking and watching, which seem to provide the majority of input as we learn. This concept is most often encountered in ‘sticking hands’ practice, in which one fights an opponent while always remaining in touching contact with them.
When we touch an opponent, if we ‘listen’ carefully to the information we receive from the point of contact with them, we begin to be able to perceive their actions in a variety of ways. On the most basic level we can feel if that point of contact is moving and where it is moving to. As our perceptions are trained through practice and experience, we begin to ‘hear’ actions in other parts of their body and can even start to divine their intent to a limited degree through small, subtle body movements. It’s an easy thing to try: simply touch someone’s arm, and have them perform various movements, such as punches with either hand, kicks, etc. You can invariably feel these actions through the point of contact, and with practice, the amount of information passed this way increases greatly.
For most, even this amount of ‘listening’ is not something commonly taught or understood. For the student of the sword, who practices an art that can result in death within seconds of an encounter being joined, it is critical to develop this ‘listening’ in all aspects of our training. As swords come into contact, this ‘listening’ becomes a critical component of one’s ability to read the opponent’s movements, even when they are too fast for visual processing. By listening we are able to know what is happening in an encounter, we can touch and guide the opponent’s sword, and we can learn their capabilities to a deep level. Through this point of contact, we are able to feed false information to the opponent as well. Almost everyone is ‘listening’ on subconscious levels, so we must address the opponent on every level of perception.
For example, let’s take the most basic of sword techniques: the overhead cut and the block. When one definitively and powerfully blocks a strike, they are delivering a very clear message to the attacker: “Your attack has failed. Now you must take another approach or try again.” Naturally, even the novice opponent senses this message subconsciously and will obey its logical imperative. However, if one does not disturb the attack, meeting it and making contact but guiding the attack along its original path, the attacker does not realize the attack has not had the predicted effect until just that little bit too late, leaving them vulnerable. It is by ‘listening’ that we are able to communicate with the opponent on many levels.
Listening has other implications as well. Any weapon possesses inherent attributes that dictate what it will be capable of in the hands of the wielder. By ‘listening’ to a weapon, we are able to learn what these attributes are. For example, if we hold a sword in our hands, we can absorb a great deal of information instantly: the weight, the number of edges, the shape of the blade, the type of guard, the pommel and point, and more. Each of these attributes tells us something about how to use the weapon most effectively. The weight and length will give us an idea how fast or powerful the sword is; a single or double edge immediately tells us if there are 8 different cuts or 16 available to us; the shape of the blade dictates if the blade is best used for slashing or thrusting; the type of guard lets us know how safe our sword hand(s) will be in certain positions. For most people, a sword is a sword, with little distinction in usage, but to the student who ‘listens’, the sword can be wielded to a much greater fraction of its potential. By ignoring the inherent attributes of a sword, we risk wielding the weapon in a manner that is less effective than it could be. Some attributes are very obvious; few would try and wield a heavy 2 handed sword one-handed and expect to fight effectively. Other attributes are more subtle, however; having 2 edges completely changes the techniques available to the wielder; a guard that turns up may be excellent for trapping and twisting, a guard that turns down deflects sliding attacks outwards effectively.
The ‘listening’ approach can be extended to any weapon. The spear is long, telling us that it works best at range. The spearhead is not just a point but also features sharpened edges, and even a rear facing edge, telling us that it is not just a thrusting weapon, but a highly efficient cutting and slashing weapon as well. The rear edge lets us cut as we retract the spear, giving us even more combative options. A flexible shaft might allow for attacks around blocks that aren’t usually expected. A heavy shaft allows for a great deal of power to be exerted from any point along the length of the spear, increasing its usefulness, even in close quarters.
By listening to our weapon while we practice our usual techniques and forms, we can learn a great deal about what our forms and techniques really mean, and sometimes even find things that have been lost along the way. Because of this, listening is a critical feature in any weapons training that aspires to being a living, effective style.
Listening in this manner sounds mystical, but it’s not. Listening to our opponent is just using more information than only our vision when we encounter them. Listening to a weapon is just taking a logical, intelligent inventory of what a weapon can do based on its features and feel, and then just allowing the weapon to do those things with as little interference as possible from the user. And like any technique, listening, too has its time to be grasped and its time to be let go. The goal of developing extremely sensitive listening is to eventually be able to just ‘know’ what is going on with no mind whatsoever for analysis and clever strategizing. We begin to be able to listen even without touching; we can hear the opponent’s intent, their spirit, and feel their movements with no physical contact. Again, these are not mystical powers, but the result of becoming sensitive to the vast amount of data around us, and working with it as efficiently as possible rather than ignoring or resisting it.
Fear of the Sword
by the Arrow Mountain Tengu
Many people practice with swords and think they are swordsmen. There are fancy forms and partner drills, choreographed applications, and even fights with padding and bamboo, but few of these practices really deal with fear. Fear and its effects can be easily seen in a sword wielder’s body, jerking their eyes about, pulling up their shoulders, knocking their blade out of position, pushing them back from their opponent, and sabotaging their technique. Fear blocks our counter-attacks, ruins our defenses, and neuters our attacks. In order to assuage our fear, we wear more armor when we train, we make our weapons conform to narrow standards, we ‘stick to our style’, we reduce free confrontation to rigidly choreographed partner drills or to contests bound by rules carefully calculated to give advantage to our favorite forms. By giving in to our fears in such fashions, we destroy the martial content of our training and deceive ourselves about what we are capable of doing with the sword.
Let’s step back a bit now. There are times in training to do all of these things, but they are means, not ends. Beginners who have not learned control must be able to safely continue training even in the face of potential accidents. Safe swords and padding are a place to start until one’s skills start to protect them. Beginners must use a ‘typical’ weapon until they learn the characteristics of the weapon they’re training with. Choreography serves to provide structure within which the student can explore the techniques being studied without distraction from unpredictable actions and reactions. All of these activities are designed to bring a student safely from the beginning of their training to the point in which they can begin to really start to learn the sword. However, in most traditions, the training never progresses beyond this point, and all the work hits an invisible ceiling that stunts further improvement. We can never progress past a certain point with this type of ‘safe’ training alone. We start to ignore dangerous holes in our guard because our padding or armor has never allowed us to feel the real consequences of our mistakes. We can become frozen in the face of attacks that aren’t part of our choreographed repertoire. Our mind, due to the hidden limitations in our training, can harbor false expectations about what the opponent can or will do, hindering our ability to respond properly.
In order to really begin to study the sword, we must be able to face unpredictable attacks from opponents that are really trying to hit us. We must develop the courage to stare at the unknown and wait to see what emerges. We must be able to operate at the speeds that the sword is actually capable of, and be able to deal with as much real danger as we can reasonably provide in a modern training environment. This danger is what fuels our practice, and our practice inevitably fails without it. Without danger, we don’t have true incentive to perform the necessary actions at the right time. Without some danger, we aren’t provided with accurate feedback regarding the effectiveness of our techniques and concepts. The sword is a binary system: you are either cut or you’re not. Proper practice that includes contact makes it harder to lie to yourself about what you’re learning.
Our training is one-sided without some risk. Our body teaches itself a great many things in the face of danger, and by providing that danger, our training grows evenly and robustly along many parallel tracks. There are ways to train more than just the technique we are concentrating on. By providing some perception of danger in our training, our body can learn without intercession from the mind. Much of our learning can become自然 ziran, or self arising (natural, spontaneous, self-so), with this content included in our training.
On the other hand, we must also allow the mind to participate in this process, as it is not truly separate from the body. We must also give and receive danger in how we think about our training. We must train as if life and death hung in the balance. When giving an attack to our training partners, we must provide them with a feeling of our intent. Our attacks, while given at the agreed upon speeds and power levels, must have our minds behind them, as if we were going to kill. Those who receive the techniques must operate as if they mean to kill in turn. While we abhor violence, without this killing focus foremost in our mind our training is empty and does not give our training partners good information from which to learn. They must feel the danger and learn to operate calmly within it.
Risk doesn’t have to mean full speed, full contact, live-blade sparring. It can be a gentle as actually touching the opponent, rather than ‘understanding’ that you ‘could have’ touched them. It means accurate targeting when performing and receiving techniques. It means developing our courage to stay engaged with an attacker, even when the attack is intimidating and dangerous. It means learning to lose, and investing in our losses so that we can truly improve. We must learn to let go of our attachments to success and failure. We need to let go of our fear by turning to face it and confronting its true purpose in our training.