Sunday, February 22, 2009

An Iaido Story

A few years ago, there was an earnest student who learned swordsmanship from a kindly old master. The master was well past his heyday, and his body was weak. His arms and legs shook if he practiced too hard or too long. Neither his hearing nor his vision were quite what they used to be. Nevertheless, he was devoted to his art, and practiced as much as he could. When he wasn't practicing, he researched the history of the art, and wrote down pages and pages of notes.

The student was happy to have such a master. Because he was old, and lived far away from the city, the master had few students, so most of the time they practiced together, just the two of them. The master was strict, but fair, and after seeing that his student had reached the point where he was ready, he began teaching him the local koryu that he had learned from his own master.

Sometimes, the student would attend practices in the city. In the city there was a large group of people who did the same koryu as his master. When they found out that the student was learning koryu, and who his master was, they laughed. "That old fool? He has no idea what he's doing! He does this wrong, and that wrong, and he's too stubborn to admit that he's wrong. He used to train together with us from time to time, but I suppose he got tired of us telling him all of the problems with his techniques!" The student asked them how they were so sure that they were right and he was wrong, since their original teacher had died many years before. They answered, "Because we have a videotape of our teacher, made before he died. This tape is the final authority on what is right in our koryu. We tried to show this tape to your teacher, but he said he doesn't need to see it. He's so stubborn, he doesn't care about right and wrong technique!"

The student was hurt and angry to hear people talk about his teacher in this way. He went back home and at the next practice, told his teacher what the others had said about him.

"Yes, it is true that there is a tape made by our master before he died. I have seen it, and in fact, I have a copy of the same tape. But what the others don't know is that my teacher always considered those others to be too arrogant for their own good. He sent me a letter - I have it here, with his personal seal on it - detailing all the things that are wrong with his performance on that video. He has gone through step by step, point by point. For example, the others always told me that I do this part too slowly. But in the letter, my teacher explained that he is doing the motion too quickly - it's not good budo to do it in that way. None of the others knows about this letter."

"Master, did your teacher perform the techniques wrong on purpose?" asked the student.

"Not at all, but he was human. Our actions and our intentions are rarely the same. He did the best he could, and then he analyzed his own techniques and found this long list of problems, which he passed on to me, but not to the others."

"Well, then, you have to go to the city, and show the letter to the others! Then they will realize that they were wrong about you all this time, and they will have to respect you!"

"Why do I care whether what they are doing is correct or incorrect? It has nothing to do with me. I'm old now, and you're my only student. I only care that you do it the right way, and that you try and teach your students the right way."

"But master, don't you care about the Truth?" asked the student, who was getting quite upset. "Don't you have a responsibility to make sure that the Truth gets passed to the next generation?"

The master said: "Don't confuse telling the Truth with being recognized by everyone for telling the Truth. You want to be rewarded and respected by everyone because you know better than they do. This is vanity, and vanity is self-deception. It is enough to know the Truth, and to do what you think is right."


And that's what the student told me. As you may have guessed, it's a true story, which is why it's hard to pull out any clear morals. I sometimes feel that, in the koryu arts, (like in religions) Truth is treated like a commodity to be bought and sold. "You want the Truth? Get it here, and only here! Only from me, everyone else is wrong!"
What about the master? Is he just as bad as the others in the city, jealously guarding his secret knowledge, content in knowing that he has a higher version of the Truth? Or is he enlightened, knowing as he does that, in the end, he's going to die and none of it will ever really matter?


Blogger Frederic Lecut said...

I love this story. Actually, the question of proper transmisssion of knowledge has been in my mind for quite a while. Take Karate katas for example, some of them are very difficult to understand. I can see several reason why the meaning of the move is so hard to understand :
- Because they never were properly explained by the creator of the Kata
- Because although they were properly explained they were later forgotten by students
- Because later students decided to modify them to fit their own body, or preference.
- because they are complicated and had to be stylized in order to be properly executed without a real person attacking you (I am thinking mostly of throws or joint locks such as some can be found in Seisan or Chinto)
- Because the creator deliberately decided to not show them to everyone, for reasons he would only know.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Frederic Lecut said...

I would like to post this story in my own blog. Would you let me do this ?
Thank you to let me know.

8:12 AM  

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