Last Sunday saw the first iaido class of 2009, an event marked with a wonderful party at a fellow student’s house afterwards. What I thought was going to be just a quick tin of beer and a chat turned out to be a whole afternoon of eating, chatting and watching videos of past iaido competitions and embu. Not to mention the obligatory beer, sake and shochu in good measure. I ended up sitting at the table with my new Argentine friend and fellow iaidoka, F, some new friends in the shape of a young American/Japanese couple and our teacher. As the drink flowed, the conversation turned to the more philosophical aspects of our practice.
Our teacher asked us in turn what had brought us to the study of iaido, as opposed to other arts, and what we hoped to gain from it. That’s not an easy question to answer, and everyone has their own reasons for pursuing this particular path of Budo. But for most people, I think it would be fair to say that they came to iaido not as their first discipline but as a supplement to their core art, be it karate, aikido or whatever. That was certainly the case for me, and also for F – we are both aikido men. Somewhere along the way, it seems that some (not all) people discover the hidden treasures that the study of iaido offers and the pursuit of knowledge of the Nihonto takes on a new, more profound meaning.
Perhaps other martial artists will understand the sense of “being in the moment”, of mushin (“no mind”) that comes with the dedicated study of any martial art. To try and explain it to someone who has not experienced it is like trying to explain the colour red to a blind person. Suffice it to say that there comes a time in most iaidoka’s study when they realise that the essence of the art is not in the physical act of drawing and cutting with the sword, but in freeing the mind from its self-imposed constraints and anxieties; from being able to move effortlessly from peaceful calm to lightning-quick activity and calm again with the mind undisturbed and unfettered. True proficiency in any martial art frees the mind from any thought of technique or pre-conceived tactics. The technique flows naturally and the mind floats serenely above, trapped by nothing and leaving nothing behind. It is therefore – paradoxically –through the study of conflict that one can achieve peace.
There is a saying in Japanese martial arts, Saya no uchi de katsu, which roughly translates as “victory resides in the scabbard of the sword”. One interpretation of this is that at the highest level, it is possible for a warrior to achieve victory through being so powerful that no one dares challenge them. In other words, peace through superior firepower. Such power in the hands of a just and right-thinking person is a powerful force for peace. The ultimate objective of martial arts is therefore peace achieved through a combination of mental and physical power moderated by a spirit of compassion and benevolence.
My teacher views the study of iaido in this way – as a route to peace rather than to war. My interpretation of this is simply that most conflict arises from fear. By removing this fear from our own hearts, through strict training and by pushing ourselves physically and mentally, we remove the need for unnecessary conflict, while at the same time developing an immovably resolute spirit that enables us to move decisively into action when action is required.
In the same way that the perfection of the Japanese sword blade is achieved by countless hours of labour, there is something about the process of continual and sincere practice in martial arts that seems to polish-out the imperfections of the human spirit and leave it revealed in its true beauty. That’s really what iaido means for me.