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.