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.