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.