Essays from San Shin Kai Students

- The Sword as a Guide for Self-Development -

There is value in taking the proper steps in order to achieve a certain goal. There exists a proper sequence, a fundamental method of approach to strengthening the insights we gain in life. These steps are defined by no greater a force that I have ever encountered than by the rules of conduct within the Japanese martial arts.

As a student, I have recently come to the understanding that training within these arts is to train as a servant. Acquire a sense of responsibility to serve a cause greater than any one individual. The tasks I have faced, fulfilled and sometimes failed in the history of my training have placed me in all kinds of situations that challenged me to move on without agitation. Whether that challenge today is generated by me or from the mentors in my life is still unclear to me. However, I have come to know that discipline for the purposes of self-development is not always as transparent as the steps necessary to achieve it. As a student looking back, I know now that the “inner goals” I once had were not things I could easily express nor were they actually clear in my mind when I tried to aspire to them. Unaware of these mental happenings, I was strangely afforded a unique scope early on with which to see into myself and maintain my sincerity. I became inspired by people I met and the greater community of like-minded martial artists who followed the path I had hoped to walk myself. Their accomplishments provided resonance and a greater semblance of the inner goals I could formerly not articulate.

Feeling that the infantile desire to “want more” was not enough. I endeavored to test myself by seeking other forms of self-development within the martial arts. Iaido became an invaluable resource that I was lucky enough to be a part of, which soon acted as the testing ground for many of the outdated perspectives I once had about myself truths on which I thought I could rely.

The sword, to me, became the embodiment of decisiveness. Cutting through illusions and false attachments I once had, I used Iaido as a kind of mechanism for deciding things I didn’t think I had the faculties to decide for myself. As with in the physical sense, the novelty of a sword to a beginner like myself was extremely seductive. Trying to be too creative with the sword in both physical and metaphorical realms in order hastily overcome certain difficulties was a toxic habit. I realize now pandering to that way of thinking and giving in to desires cut me off from the ability to address reality. The cure for me was in repetition.

Over time I became aware of the hazards of allowing my mind to dull from misunderstanding the purpose of repetition. On days when I felt I had the most amount of enthusiasm or high levels of energy, I became prone to injury. In retrospect, my self-afflictions were due to lack of attention to both myself and to instruction from my teacher. I learned the hard way that preexisting imbalances in my mind were only made worse on my body if I ignored them for the sake of trying to overcome mundane routines. Despite this, I combated great amounts of fatigue, which rarely resulted in acquiring any knowledge.

At every stage of training, there is a history to be reflected upon and a future to be aware of. Speaking as of today, my current mental topic within Iaido has to do with integration of opposites. A quintessential example would be the sword itself. Traditionally consisting of two types of metal for two separate functions acting as one, the sword is truly remarkable to me and yet in itself is a contradiction to the aspect of decisiveness I mentioned before. For example, a sword made of only tough metal will indeed not break but will also not be fit to hold a cutting edge for very long. The converse would be true in that a sword made of only rigid metal would have a very sharp edge but not last long at all against contact with another sword. Dependant on the nature of each other’s best attributes, the sword is a living model of a behavior I am currently struggling with. As if indecisive and not choosing which it wants to be, the sword is proof of how a relationship of opposites can be truly beneficial. People that train like hardened soldiers all their lives may prematurely find that their practice amounts to little substance and that it is too late to go back and recreate it. On the other hand, I imagine that people who train by sensing life forces all the time without testing them may find that they lose physical firmness of the body and probably the mind.

I’d like to conclude this note by affirming I am in no way pretending to make an original statement about swordsmanship. Only that I am publishing my gratitude for participating in the collective practice we all share as San Shin Kai swordsman. Merely speaking about something does not indicate practical understanding. Given that, I look forward to meeting new members and rejoining current ones to practice together wherever that may be. Each of you help me apply these insights and bring to light the many deeply seated invitations of self-development that live within the tradition and practice of Iaido.

- Samuel Kanner, June 2012

Amherst, MA