Week 27: Kendo

Week 27: Kendo

Take it from the samurai. Yagyu Munenori, a legendary swordsman, spoke these words in the early 17th century: "The essence is not a warrior putting his sword to use, but rather his ability to refine his spirit."

I stand at the entrance of the dojo, breathless and legs-dripping sweaty. I'm in Kyoto, and the Japanese air has a way of retaining water under the midsummer sun. Having forgotten my phone at the Hacker Paradise coworking in Osaka, I resorted to my own sense of direction to lead me to the right place. Which has led to me being 15 minutes late for my 2-hour kendo lesson.

"Wait!" the sensei booms from his place in the center of the floor when I start to walk into the dojo, or martial arts training hall. He holds up his palm in the air, an indication for me to stop. Nine pairs of eyes turn to look at me. They belong to my fellow peers.

Kendo begins and ends with bowing. Gratitude and respect for the place of practice, one's teachers, one's master, one's opponent(s), the upper seat (the shrine, essentially), and the opportunity to practice are essential to the practice. I did not bow when I entered the dojo, and after the sensai calls me out, he indicates for me to do so.

This guy is not messing around. Tomoyoshi Yamanaka is the great-grandson of one of the last Japanese samurai. He has reached the level of 7th dan, one tier below the very-rarely-achieved 8th level. The upper echelons of dan are no longer awarded in our present age, they belong to the highest ranks of masters (9th) and the masters of the masters (10th).

In the history of kendo, only five warriors have achieved the 10th dan, and their deep insight into the practice led them to says things like: "The primary secret to reaching the inner depths of swordsmanship is found in the cultivation of the soul and the spirit.”

The last 10th dan, who passed in 1974, said it took him 50 years to learn the basics with his body, and in his fifties he started practicing the real kendo: kendo with mind and spirit.

The origins of the practice date to around the 11th century, the age when the Japanese sword, considered the soul of the warrior, was born. In the 1700s, we find kendo's direct origin: the practice as we know it is an outgrowth of bushido, or the samurai code of how to be a good human being, as these warriors were the top tier of Japanese feudal society.

Kendo is, externally, the practice of sword fighting. Instead of real swords (or light sabers...), bamboo swords called shinai are used, so a fighter can live through a match to keep practicing. Matches are fought with a 3-point system: the first person to win 2 of 3 points wins the match. A fighter merits a point through four methods: a blow to the head, a blow to the waist, a blow to the wrist, or by jabbing the sword at the opponent's neck.

However, for a point to be won, the condition of ki-ken-tai-ichi must be in place: this Japanese phrase indicates the unity (ichi) of spirit (ki), sword (ken), and body (tai). For a valid strike, all three elements must marry into a single entity. The perfection of kendo lies in the unified fullness of heart, body, and weapon.

This concept of ki-ken-tai-ichi points to the undercurrent of kendo, one that renders winning a match useless if one does not attain the goal. Hitting people with a stick is what kendo turns to when externally understood; the inner meaning of kendo is to train oneself in spirit, not to train oneself to win.

The sensei explains this philosophy and history of kendo in the dojo. Everyone is already in their gear, aside from the helmet, all of which I am sure provided the inspiration for Darth Vader's appearance. I, in my neon orange running shorts and white t-shirt, am certain that I won't have the opportunity to participate when we stand up to practice the "middle stance," because in the lesson prep I read that those who are late will not be able to wear the traditional outfit, and the outfit is - lo and behold - not just a costume, but the protective that ensures we won't be hurt. Hence no gear, no participation. 

Gratitude surges from me when he permits me to participate in this initial learning of the basic movements, though, and even more when, while everyone is taking a water break, he uses his time to help me don the gear that everyone had put on before I unceremoniously ran into the dojo. All ten of us put on our helmets after the water break, because now, we team up to practice our strikes with each other.

I pair with a middle-aged Brazilian man supported from the dojo seats by his wife and two daughters. He treats the practice with reverence. We are taught that a true warrior feels gratitude in being provided a growth opportunity by their opponent, understanding that they achieve mutual benefit by crossing swords.

After a half hour of sensei-supervised practicing with each other, we have a sensei-supervised match. We each take a point, and then my Brazilian partner strikes me on the head and wins the match. It's over in less than two minutes. We take three steps backwards and, maintaining eye contact, bow to one another.

The practice ends in meditation. We take off our helmets and sit in silence. 

Kendo is, in essence, the training of one's humanity. And this is why I love it. It is the examination of one's own existence that calls for a lifestyle of daily perseverance, because overcoming oneself is the deepest essence and highest objective of kendo. One must face her fears in order to overcome them, and overcome them in order to grow.

This aspect of bushido, the samurai code, remains a major precept in kendo today, for it is the true quest of the warrior. In order to refine oneself, above and beyond swordsmanship, the inner spirit is paramount.

Week 28: Hiroshima

Week 28: Hiroshima

Week 26: The Narrows

Week 26: The Narrows