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.