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.