Friday, January 29, 2010

Mastering the Sword

One of the profound differences of opinion dividing me and many 'sword' martial artists is their attitude toward the whole relationship between the sword and the one wielding it. This, difference, oddly enough—or maybe not so 'oddly', because there's some fundamental life-philosophy involved—also applies with many of my fellow 'writer' and 'film-maker' buddies—though 'buddies' is a definite misnomer here.

With regards to the sword it is the notion of 'mastery' of the weapon as a major goal of whatever discipline is being practiced. In some schools, like MJER, this translates into the use of swords—and also a focus on other weapons, like the Naginata—that are too large for the practitioner ever to establish a relationship with the weapon that makes it into an integral part of the practitioner's body.

I've seen this trend close-up, and I've seen what it does to the mindset of the practitioners subscribing to it. Once you know what you're looking for, once you've asked the right question, the signs are everywhere, and they're not even subtle. Maybe one should also add that it's difficult to say which one is the chicken and which one the egg: the mindset; or the choice of sword and what to do with it.

Like the Needledick that I noted a few blogs back, the obsession with trying to 'master' ever larger swords has a definite phallic element about it. And mastery of ever-larger objects as an indication or proof of one's prowess with regards to whatever, results in diminishing the person doing it. Reminds me, in a way, of many Australian drivers' obsession with cars with noisy exhausts, that signal anything from "here I come" to "look at what a powerful engine I've got".

Of course, I do appreciate the desire, especially with many koryu schools, to preserve traditions, and these may include the use of large weapons, like Naginata or Bo (6-foot-long staff). But that's something completely different, for many of these weapons had a definite fighting tradition. As did long swords, of course, but these had very specific fighting purposes; which applies to the European versions as well. And in the truly 'martial' context, it wasn't ever about 'mastering' a weapon, but about learning how to use it well enough to competently dispatch enemies.

This is not the case today, where koryu teaching isn't done for real-life fighting, but, in countries like Japan, for mostly 'cultural' reasons. In other words, it's play-fighting at best; mixed in usually with, especially in the West, 'self-development' stuff and some semi-serious self-defense 'application'. And because it isn't really everyday-life 'practical' or necessary—because true 'warriors' are few and far between in the urbanias of today all over the world—the pshycological elements of 'sword mastery' are far more important than the practical ones.

Indeed, big swords are highly impractical. As Otake Risuke, of TSKSR, points out, it's about speed. Watching Otake Risuke do the TSKSR kata, one cannot be helped but be dazzled by the lightning-fast and deadly-precision execution.† He never gives the impression that he has 'mastered' the sword, or that he has a mindset that includes the notion of 'mastery'. Instead, his sword—a short and manageable one!—appears integral to his body, requiring no thought about how to use it. This is, no doubt, also a result of many years of daily and intense practice. But I have also seen other 'masters' from other koryu do demos, and it just looks different. I find it hard to put a fingfer on it, but maybe it's about the separation of sword and body being just so much more in evidence. There's 'mastery' there, but there is no integration.

I'm all on the side of 'integration'; of Sword and Mind as One. It's not about 'mastery', but about one-ness. Familiarity, to the point where the sword feels like a part of you, no matter where it happens to be: in the scabbard lodged in your belt; in the draw itself; in the cut, its hasuji and trajectory; the flow of its movement from one cut to another; its feel and balance as it is being held while at rest. Even if it's standing in a corner or resting on a stand, the look of it should have that 'familiarity' element, as if it weren't distant at all, but right there, in one's hand. A totally trusted friend—if anthromorphic terms are required—but not a servant or slave. An inanimate object with a close connection to one's own mind.

It doesn't have to be a particular sword, though that is, of course, an extra element of the intergation thing. As long as another weapons bears sufficient similarity in terms of size and handling, the feeling is there. It is, in other words, an intimate connection between a person and a whole class of objects, not just a particular instance of that class.

I doubt that all that many sword practitioners have thought about their relationship—physical, mental, emotional, philosophical—with the sword to the degree required to aid with integration. Not in today's world anyway (with there probably being a lesser degree of such reflection in the dojos of the West; but that may be an overly hasty generalization); not with todays weapons-of-choice; not with today's attitudes toward the martial arts as what in effect is a mix between 'sport' and 'combat' training. Either that, or it's about infatuation with some other culture and its 'traditional' ways; which is all wrong as well and doesn't do anybody any good.

It's a pity that this is so. Still, it is unsurprising, I guess.

Actually, I noticed that even TSKSR seems not to practice this philosophy throughout the organization. On a demonstration DVD issued by the school, very little of Otake Risuke's explosive technique remains. It's all become rather flattened and ritualistic; which might well have been intentional because of the desire to demonstrate the kata in a decorous, rather than Otake Risuke's highly charged, manner.

1 comment:

Haszari said...

Whenever I see "sword", I am reminded of a play in which a teenage playwright tries to rhyme "sword" with "word".

Anyway, this is kind of appropriate: Till you're a bit of a swordsmith and wordsmith.

Sparks in the Park is the play.

On the topic of literary teen angst: RIP JD Salinger.