Saki yakitachi o nukeba, masu masu masurao no kokoro wo togu bekari keri “Before you draw the tempered blade, first temper and purify your own soul.” — Old samurai proverb
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.
In this world today, we must understand more than “not killing.” In the loss of another’s life (in our minds only), if we do not save our own lives at the same time, both physically, mentally and spiritually - it is only another form of killing.
Although one may learn to cut with a sword, the spirituality of the sword is critically important to understand first and foremost. “Cutting” with a sword is not a good thing. It is bad — because we must end up taking a life. It is bad because it symbolizes “killing.” It is bad because it means violence. There is no way to get around this — it is the reality of the sword. However, it becomes a good thing or a spiritual thing as in katsujinto when we use it as a straight edge by which to live our lives.
At one’s highest level of skill or perfection in swordsmanship, one can realize that the greatest lesson is to put down the sword and to not kill which is referred to as shinbu fu satsu or “The divine martial technique does not kill.” If we can perfect this ultimate goal of the sword — the sword would disappear and with it all the violence and fighting in the world in this moment. If we cannot do this then we have no right to use the sword at all.
In order to bring out our greatest self, we, like the polishing of the sword, need training. This training typically comes in three different forms: physical, mental and spiritual.
Iaido simply is just drawing the sword, cutting and re-sheathing the sword. This simple movement has so many layers and is so precise that it can take a life time to perfect.
In traditional Japanese training, we first experience the art through the act of doing without trying to understand it. One must master the basics of the body before one can truly “understand” the art. Therefore, there is a great emphasis is placed upon practicing first and gaining knowledge and understanding much later.
There are many techniques in Iaido done in three different stages depending on one’s proficiency level: shoden (初伝), chuden (中伝) and okuden (奥伝). Some of the techniques are done from a seated position while others are practiced while standing. Each level has a set of skills to master which build upon each other. Students should not move on to the next level until they have gained a strong level of proficiency.
The Japanese sword is a precision weapon, which necessitates that the proper method of handling the sword be mastered in order to execute the techniques properly.
Achieving proficiency over the basic fundamental skills of Iaido aren’t difficult, but they won’t come easily. The use of the sword must become “second-nature” which then requires constant and consistent repetition. With constant and consistent, and correct practice anyone can easily master the fundamentals of swordsmanship and from there the rest of sword training will come effortlessly and naturally.
Most of what we see in television or movies or in competitive swordplay is that the movements lack energy and are overly dramatic. All the techniques in Iaido also must be full of energy or ikioi (勢), but yet display the warrior’s aesthetic of jimi (地味) which is a “quiet or hidden” unadorned beauty in the movement which demonstrates a simple, but dignified type of strength.
Essentially, the fundamental skills one needs to master before moving on to higher levels are:
- Proper grip Te no uchi
- Proper stance Kamae
- Suburi Practicing kiri-oroshi or the overhead cut
- Drawing and sheathing the sword Nukitsuke and noto
- Balance and posture
- Footwork and foot placement Ashi-sabaki
- Spacing Ma-ai
- Proper attack
As stated before, each Iaido technique basically follows the “simple” act of drawing and cutting with the sword and then returning it to the scabbard. One’s hands move in a very specific technique toward the sword and then draw the sword from the center of the body and then project the power into the monouchi, or cutting area of the blade which penetrates it into the target area while maintaining a specific mental focus, timing, spacing, ikioi and breathing pattern.
From this brief description, we can see that physical Iaido is much more than just swinging the sword around as hard or as fast as we can.
It may look easy but this seemingly “simple” task is very exacting and demands a great deal of precision which cannot be realized without proper training. Every tiny movement, even the tiniest, has a rule to follow in Iaido. Every movement must be complete and full and, at the same time, be filled with one’s energy and have an awareness of the present moment.
In Iaido, it is not so hard to learn the basic movements. What is hard is getting accustomed to handling the sword. There is no “intellectual” way to understand this. One must practice the sword constantly and consistently over a long period of time until they become accustomed to it, however long it takes.
After achieving proficiency over these fundamental skills, the skilled practitioner refines and deepens the movements by focusing on their timing, breathing and ikioi before, during and after the technique. To reach this higher state of awareness or ability, it requires that the skilled Iaidoist achieve the proper mental state.
The art of Iaido is very difficult and requires the correct mental attitude in order to grasp it and this attitude is consistently emphasized throughout the student’s training. The student with the right attitude will display an honest, open and willingness to learn — without these three-character traits, it will be very difficult to truly master Iaido.
The correct mental attitude is imperative in learning Iaido because Iaido is taught in an old traditional manner called mi-narai or “to observe and imitate.” Furuya Sensei used to often say, “Watch, imitate, remember” when talking about learning Iaido. In Iaido practice, the student should not try to analyze or interpret the instruction — the best way is just try to follow and observe carefully without any kind of internal comment or analysis - most of Iaido is learned by observation and copying a good model of the technique. It seems like a simplistic formula to just “watch, imitate, and remember” and learning this way will be difficult if the student does not have the right attitude to begin with.
Imitation is the first skill to catch in learning Iaido — it is the essential method of practice in traditional swordsmanship. As the student repeats the same exercise over and over, they will also develop a stronger sense of focus and concentration which is essential to the mastery of Iaido. Being able to focus and concentrate is necessary so that the Iaido practitioner can focus on “absorbing everything” and “not missing even the tiniest detail” so that they can master the art of swordsmanship. The details of the movements of Iaido are like a sword. We can easily see the curvature, the length, the width, the temper-line, its style and on and on but we cannot see the sharp edge. It is too fine. Yet, the part that we cannot see easily is the most important heart of the sword. In Iaido, in the same manner, it is usually the part we cannot see which is most important. Actually, we can see it, we just have to be alert and aware and constantly looking for it.
With focus and concentration comes awareness, being in the moment, ready to move at any moment, knowing everything around us, and being centered or becoming perfectly clear — this is swordsmanship. Even when one is not moving they should be able to sense the sharp edge of the sword. This sharpness is not only the “awareness” and “alertness” in our training, but it is also an important matter of safety. In traditional Japanese martial arts, there is a concept called yurumi which means “slack.” If the mind is too tight — thinking of defense all of the time then the mind will crash. At the same time, if the mind is too lax, one can get caught in a moment of unawareness and be cut down. In swordsmanship, the mind must reach a state where it has a “natural tenseness” meaning awake and aware, but, at the same time, relaxed and loose.
In every moment, the mind of a Iaido practitioner is supposed to remain flexible and pliant like the branch of a willow, but it must also be like a thick iron bar, which will never bend to outside pressures or influences. It seems like almost a paradox to be flexible yet firm but this ideal state of mind can be found in many other martial arts and sports. The sword itself can also be a metaphor for the Iaido practitioner’s mind. The Japanese sword is perfectly straight but at the same time its shape is perfectly curved — this is why it cuts so well.
When we have the right attitude, learn correctly, have focus and concentration and have developed a “naturally tense” mind then we can reach a state called hishiryo or “thinking without thinking.” The Iaido practitioner trains to get to this mental state where they move without conscious thought — this is hishiryo. It is a mental state which is “beyond death” but it is more than just total fearlessness of a “no opponent, no enemy” mindset. Furuya Sensei used to say, “Lose everything! Let everything drop away, even your own mind and body.” When we can “let go,” we, at that moment, gain everything. It is our primal state of mind of pure thought and awareness without all of the baggage, mental obstacles, distortions, illusions and prejudices. Thinking without thinking — we experience this all of the time when we become absorbed in something we are doing and, at other times, when we are totally relaxed and doing something but not really thinking of anything. Of course, this is a difficult mental condition to perfect — it only comes with lots of practice. We call this state of natural tension to think without thinking — the ideal state of a swordsmen’s mind.
When we perfect our bodies and cultivate our minds then we can to put our spirit into every aspect of each technique which is the basis for all spiritual training.
There is a saying in Iaido, “Technique over strength, spirit over technique, mindfulness over spirit and compassion over mindfulness.”
More than anything else, Iaido is a spiritual practice. Iaido is a practice which can unify the body, mind and spirit and create a magnificent human being.
It is said that the first step in spiritual training is “to watch your step” (from an old Zen saying). We must first become aware ourselves — how we move and how we think. As we learn to become aware of ourselves more deeply and much more seriously, we must learn to direct our energy in the technique according to the technique. As we learn to direct our energy, we must then learn to center our energy within ourselves. As we begin to center our energy, we must then learn to circulate the energy everywhere and express it like a shining light. As we practice, we will soon realize this. This is one of the first steps in our spiritual training. Drop everything in our minds, and just give ourselves to the training. By devoting one’s self in this way, we will somehow be rewarded — but in a way that no one will know or see or recognize. This is the meaning of spiritual training - everything is from within.
Learning Iaido is a spiritual process. Training the body is the first gate through which we all must pass. To reach the entrance of the “house” (the art) is through one’s heart. Here, the only obstacle is the calculating brain. Once inside, it is another world. However, learning the correct moves are not enough in Iaido, there is also learning the correct mental posture, attitude, and moving with a strong spirit. If we cannot move with the proper mental attitude and spirit, it is not Iaido, no matter how slow we go or quietly we move.
In Iaido, we are always trying to correct and develop every aspect ourselves. This is often a difficult and painful process of self-reflection and constant vigilance over one’s self. Iaido practitioners are mindful of their thoughts, words and actions - this is the basis for all spiritual training.
When we are living the spiritual way of swordsmanship, the movements, the spirit and the mindfulness begin to permeate throughout every aspect of our lives. This is not simply an “idea” to play with but a Way to live life fully and completely. It is understandable then that the true purpose of swordsmanship is not to take lives but to save lives. The life we are saving is not only our own, but for the benefit of others — the preservation of life. The sword is the “soul of the warrior” it is not used for cutting “things” like a butcher’s knife. The sword is used against another human being - in the sense that it is a weapon of the highest respect and dignity and only used for the highest cause - the destiny and fate of another person. Because of this, it must always remain pure and untainted. Not only the sword itself must be pure, but the person using it — this is the real starting point of the spiritual journey of the warrior. Of course, many say that there is nothing more important than “me” in this world. At the same time, to have the “me” recognize something that is at a much higher level allows “me” to transcend one step higher. This is the paradox of the goal of sword training, understanding how a weapon of destruction can be transformed into a path to preserve life. And this is the bottom-line of all spiritual training.
Because of all the rules and protocol in Iaido, we have to behave very correctly — this is good because this is what builds us into better, caring and more thoughtful people and this is what these rules and instructions are exactly for. We are in the spiritual world when we are in a moment of selflessness. At the moment, we think and care for others and put them above ourselves — this is the spiritual world. To go out of our way for strangers, to do something without the desire for merit or reward, to be caring and sensitive to a higher cause such as Iaido, to be devoted to one’s training and accepting all challenges — this is what is meant by true spiritual training.
Iaido training is “spiritual practice” because there are no tangible benefits, no rewards, no glory or fame and no money. Iaido has no use but it has many great benefits. The spiritual aspect of Iaido, I think, involve a great amount of self-reflection and awareness of what we do and who we are. It is easy to attain physical skill and measure our progress by our practice with others. In our spiritual pursuit, we only deal with all these demons within us — demons which no one can see but ourselves and demons which no one will comprehend but ourselves. The sword then in this sense is used to cut these demons down. This is not an easy task indeed! It requires honesty and courage and wisdom.
If one wants to learn sword, one really has to commit one’s self to the sword, there is no other way. As difficult as swordsmanship is to attain, there is nothing more profoundly beautiful and subtle. To commit one’s self to a spiritual pursuit, one must in a sense “forget” their self. Forgetting the self is difficult to understand in this day and age of materialism. To quote a poem from Nakayama Hakudo, the great Iaido master:
“The floating clouds are themselves not aware of the floating clouds. The flowing waters are themselves not aware of flowing waters . . . . ”
Fame and fortune come and go like the floating clouds (old Zen saying). We should just embrace our practice and continue to polish ourselves. Although a good sword remains in its case where no one can see and touch it, it is still bright and sharp. This is a great part of the sword’s beauty, nobility, and mystery and ultimately the spirituality of Iaido. Iaido is spiritual training because we are pour our hearts and souls into something just for the sake of doing it and for something in which there is usually no tangible return, motive or benefit. We do Iaido because it is what we do and thus there is no end to Iaido training. As we train, the spiritual aspects and benefits of the art only get deeper, wider and more profound.