Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why do a sword art, anyway?

Let's begin at the beginning. Why would anybody practice a sword art in the first place? These are the conceivable reasons I could think of.

1. To learn how to kill someone with a sword.

2. Because it stimulates their sense of fantasy and lets them imagine being someone else.

3. For exercise.

4. For fun; either sheer physical enjoyment, or social interaction.

5. Because it is a form of self-improvement.

6. Because it is a type of "moving Zen". (This may be closely connected with #5.)

7. Because they want to become part of, and to perpetuate, a historical / cultural tradition.

The commenter a few posts back told me to: "... stop making the error of viewing the rest of the world through the window of one overly defined, poorly practiced, narrow example of what a sword art can be." I've tried to do that, and the above list represents every conceivable reason why I could imagine someone might practice a sword art. I've left out other reasons such as "I enjoy cutting myself" or "I look forward to having bad knees when I get older."

Reason #1 seems a bit odd when it is put bluntly. If you want to kill, there are more effective ways of doing it. You could join the army; they will train you, pay you, give you the tools, fly you around the world, and maybe even provide you with opportunities to kill people.

A very small number of historians might be interested in "historical" killing methods. I have heard about historians who look at battle injuries on skeletal remains to determine how those people died, and presumably, what kinds of techniques were used. It seems a very limited area of study, with very limited rewards, in my opinion. And unless you're writing a PhD thesis on the topic, it doesn't apply to you.

Few people would admit to doing a sword art for reason #2, but I suspect that most of us are, at least partly. That was absolutely the reason why I started. I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons when I was an awkward teenager (I've stopped since I've become an awkward adult). I also thought the greatest comics ever were Frank Miller's "Ronin" and the Japanese manga, "Lone Wolf & Cub." I dreamt of enduring the hardships necessary to become a master swordsman. I imagined myself becoming like the stoic, tortured Itto Ogami, a lone assassin on the road to hell. How cool is that?

When I discovered a "Japanese Swordsmanship" club at my university, I was expecting people in karate-gi using wooden swords. Imagine my ecstasy when I showed up and ... Oh my God ... they were dressed up like samurai! And the best part ... they were using real swords! I almost passed out in my haste to sign up for the class.

Not everyone is as immature as I am/was. Either way, the "dress up" factor soon wears off, and people who may have started Japanese sword for that reason soon gravitate to something else, like Live-Action roleplaying, or Society for Creative Anachronism.

But still, there is something about doing sword arts that allows people to play a role. No matter what they are really doing or what they are really getting out of it, it lets them tell themself, "I am a wise martial artist on the path to enlightenment" or "I am part of an ancient tradition" or "I am becoming a killing machine." In other words, this is a sort of "meta-reason" ... the perception of why you're doing a sword art, regardless of the real reason or real result.

Reason #3 was exercise. Kendo is great exercise; iaido much less so. But for couch-potatoes like me, something is better than nothing. When I started iaido, I had been a sedentary teenager for years. Even the relatively easy movements in practice were strenuous. 18 years later, I am not much better, really (knees are far worse) but I am far more active than I used to be, and recognize the need for cross-training. I respect trained athletes. And I'm trying to get into better shape. If it weren't for iaido, who knows what I might be doing now?

But as far as a reason to practice sword arts? For iaido, exercise hardly rates.

#4. All of us, I'm sure, find sword arts "fun" on some level. We enjoy it, or we wouldn't do it. Young samurai may have been forced to practice martial arts - many Japanese school kids are, as well - but nobody is forcing us. We have friends in our dojo, or we take satisfaction in seeing some small improvement in our technique. Doing well at tournaments may give us an adrenaline rush, and a sense of self-esteem. But again, as with exercise, martial arts are not really "fun" when compared to other leisure activities. There are plenty of ways to meet like-minded people that don't involve physical pain, occasional humiliation, and getting up early on weekends to attend camps and seminars.

So, I don't think "It's fun" is a good enough reason.

I'll look at reasons 5, 6, and 7 next.


Blogger Patrick said...

Hi Jeff,

Great post! Looking forward to hearing your desciption of 5,6 and 7.

For me, I'd say chose to watch my first class because of reasons 2, 3 and 7. After watching though, I was enamored with the level of concentration and physical awareness required to pound detail after detail on the same techniques.

The perfectionist in me enjoys the mental and physical tweaks during every class. Iaido is a heck of a lot of fun when you don't let that which you have yet to learn/accomplish overwhelm you. ^_^

9:12 AM  
Anonymous Petr Brezina said...

Hi Jeff,
points 3,5,6 are for me. It is all very good for my mind and body. I feel good after practising, it helps me in life.

5:54 AM  

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