Simply put, Iaido is to simply draw and cut with a sword and return the sword to the scabbard.
This simple action must be brought to the highest level of excellence where the opponent cannot resist it, cannot avoid it, and is helpless against it. This is Iaido, nothing else. However, to take this simple action to its very highest level, we must also bring our minds and spirits to the same high level too and it is here, that we begin to see the true depth of the art.
True swordsmanship is an art far, far removed from what is seen in popular movies and the “performance” style of sword play of today. It is not entertainment, it is (in its origins) the taking of another’s life - indeed a very solemn and serious matter. The swords original purpose is to take a person’s life, to destroy life or to cause injury. To make a sword which cuts well or to design a weapon which can kill many people is a product of man’s intellect. To take this same sword and turn it into a tool for man’s self-enlightenment is a product of man’s spirit.
If for anything, out of deep respect for the person who will be vanquished, we must then approach our training with a great deal of respect which means careful deliberation, hesitation and propriety.
Learning swordsmanship is akin to the creation of a Japanese sword and often times in Japanese language the words for “forging (a sword)” and “learning” are often interchanged.
Furuya Sensei once remarked about his goal as a swordsman, “Although I’m just a human being I want to model myself after the sword, always straight, always true and very decisive. Something that doesn’t have an outer obvious strength that we look for today, but something that has an inner strength which is hard to see unless you really know it and really can appreciate it.”
The samurai sword begins as nothing special, just an ordinary pile of iron sand which is melted together to form a clump of iron called a tamahagane. The tamahagane is separated and is folded into layers over and over to create a thousand layers of iron which actually crisscross in a mesh and, in the future, will give the sword its great strength and resiliency. The swordsmith works the metal into what will be its final most crude “sword” shape. A sword is not born with a keen edge, only its potential. Its true value and beauty only comes forth with the help of polishing and sharpening. It is under the skill of a master polisher (teacher) that a sword can realize its singular strength, beauty and sharpness — a work of art, whether it is a sword or one’s life.
The sword is a necessary evil in an imperfect world. In swordsmanship, Iaido practitioners strive to understand the duality that exists between studying the sword in order to take a life and studying the art of the sword for one’s own personal development. This duality in swordsmanship is referred to as satsujinken, katsujinto or “The sword that takes away life and sword which preserves life.” Satsujinken, katsujinto is the highest teaching of swordsmanship and without this in our minds at every moment, we will never perfect our training.
The sword is more than an implementation for destruction and this is something that all practitioners of Iaido must try and remember. This is why we always treat the sword with great respect and awe. This is also why we treat the opponent with the utmost care and deference. A student must not want to cut or kill. They must immerse themselves, spiritually, emotionally and physically, with a strong and deep sense of righteousness, duty and compassion. This means that a practitioner of Iaido should only think about doing right, protecting others and using the sword to create a better world in this moment. Therefore, the study of the sword becomes a metaphor for the purifying of one’s self and thus it becomes a necessary evil.
The sword exposes every one of our greatest weaknesses and in this sense, one can begin to see the duality of satsujinken, katsujinto. In swordsmanship, the sword acts like a mirror because “how” we use a sword is a reflection of who we are as human beings — it is the physical manifestation of our inner mental state of being. That is why one great sword master once quipped, “The sword is miraculous, the sword is merciless.” There is no place to hide and there is no one to fool because the sword reveals everything about us. The sword has always been treasured as the ultimate weapon of the samurai. Not because of its beauty or value, but because it reflects one’s mind so clearly. If we are angry and want to kill, the sword will want to kill. If we are hesitant and vague, the sword will be hesitant and vague. If we are defeated spiritually, the sword will also be defeated. If we are clear and free, the sword will be clear and free.