Monday, December 14, 2009

Life and Kendo

I have been thinking of late of how well kendo lends itself to metaphor. Of course, there are any number of activities out there which make fine metaphors for life. One that springs particularly readily to mind is juggling, seeing as I've been down that road before*. Indeed, if one simply takes the trouble to connect the dots and make the right generalizations to any learning activity, one will find that the universe has many lessons, all around us, for those who will but open their eyes.

But I find myself drawn time and again to kendo. I think it lies in its austerity. In kendo, the efficacy of every technique is tried and tested in combat. Garbed in armour, behind the mask, secure in the knowledge that it's nigh impossible to cause any significant harm to one's opponent, one encounters in every training session a kind of tightly focused ferocity that is rarely seen in other martial arts, save in the most intense and dedicated dojos. It is a profoundly liberating experience. And there is a sense of sincerity in seeing your opponent release himself against you. And it is absolutely exhilarating to fight one's peers with all the strength you can muster.

In the crucible of combat, any useless movements are quickly weeded out, leaving behind a small set of techniques, tactics and strategies. They are deceptively simple, yet take years of dedication and training to master. It's a bit difficult to appreciate how simple with words alone, so here are a few samples of kata or forms from selected martial arts.

From Wudang, the real Wudang, not this lot, 8 Immortal Staff:

Cheng-style (no relation) Baguazhang:

Shinshinkan's Chatanyara no Sai, just too pretty not to include:

And finally, kendo:

Some straddle the interesting line between dance and martial art. Others function as a small library of basic techniques, teaching the way they flow into one another. All have their merits and share the same trait of being a form of moving meditation. Kendo's kata is a relatively slow, stately, tense affair. Ideally, the attacker should execute his cut like he really means it, forcing his partner to be very serious indeed about defending himself. This tension between the two kendokas adds a powerful dimension to the practice of kata, demanding a measure of concentration and alertness from both that is quite hard to appreciate until you're actually performing the kata yourself.

Which brings me back to my point of kendo as a metaphor for life. I have, from the very beginning, taken a very cerebral approach to kendo. Before even picking up my first shinai, I'd read books on the matter. Even now, having trained in armour for well over a year (it ain't much, I know), I still consume a steady stream of kendo books. In Japanese, of course, as the ones in English are prone to drift in the direction of mysticism and romanticise about the age of samurai and basically miss the whole point of kendo altogether. The memory of my first time crossing blades with a sensei in free sparring is still very fresh in my mind. For those of you with the JCKL dojo reading this, it was Toyoda sensei. Yes, I know. I'm grateful to be alive.

That engagement made it very, very clear to me what it meant to be completely, utterly defeated before even raising my sword to strike. Before that moment, I had committed dozens of techniques and tricks to memory, devised strategems to break past any guard, theorized how I could transfer the skills of deceit learnt in capoeira to the art of the sword. It all came to nothing when I stood against the sensei. In the sheer fury of his kiai and the resoluteness of his stance, my spirit broke. All my attacks, far, far too slow. My mind raged against the absurdity of it. This man is at least twice my age! I should be faster! But back then, for the life of me, I could not see his sword, and was hammered at least a dozen times, hard, on my head and hand before the sensei let me limp away. By then I was seeing stars, and my right hand was trembling so badly I could no longer grip my sword.

I took that as a harsh lesson that, just as metaphysics and theology could never compare to science, no amount of theorizing can hold a candle to learning by experience. I have since thrown myself into many more engagements and can say with great certainty that though I'm some way from the dearly coveted shodan, I've lot more steel in me than I did back then. It's very strange to think about it now. When I'm there, panting and sweating in my armour during free training, what pushes me to go a little further each time to take a point is not some high ideal to be a better kendoka or sheer pride making me refuse to acknowledge defeat, but just a very simple, humble, mantra mouthed under my breath when the going gets tough:

"Earn your beer, you bastard."

I once calculated that from the first time once picks up a shinai, one must do about 15,000** cuts before you have what it takes to wear armour and really start kendo. 15,000, give or take a couple thousand, depending on your motor skills. With every cut, your body learns a tiny bit more. Then when you get in armour, you start learning all over again. Every training session is an exercise in mindfulness. Every cut must be done to the best of one's ability. And in every engagement, regardless of the disparity in rank, there is something to be learnt. Vita sine litteris mors. Life without learning is death.

I believe there's nothing quite as beautifully human as learning. I've held that belief since I was very young and my dad cleverly left cartoon versions of the Confucian classics in my room. But it is kendo that constantly reminds me of the right attitude towards learning. Knowledge is the brightest of jewels to be treasured and sought. This is to be done with both earnest and vigilance, and at the end of the day, evidence, the crossing of swords in combat, decides all. On the path, there will be passions and urges pulling and pushing us in all sorts of directions. They are not to be fought, because they are a part of what you are. They are to be understood and harnessed. If you doubt, if you hesitate you will lose, not because your opponent is better than you, but because you defeated yourself. Is this not shameful? But it happens to the best of us, and so we learn.

In terms of kendo, I am still young, barely a pollywog in a big, big pond. The mystery of my future beyond shodan is well within the realm of fantasy and speculation. But I know that, as long as I throw myself into the next training session with vigour and really, really work myself to earn that beer, the future can be very bright indeed...

* Note to self: Haven't done torches in a long, long time. Must pick up some kerosene in January...

** Revised from a previous estimate of 10,000.

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