Stories of the way

The Way of the Sword

Stories of the Way

The Way of the Sword

A talented but young deshi, as both sat in seiza on the tatami floor, was questioning his Sensei about the big picture of the keiko done in their koryu. While Shu – Ha – Ri is the correct answer, Sensei broke it down into a version he thought might be more helpful to his young deshi and explained the following.

Deshi is the Japanese for a student who seeks something higher than just a blackbelt or physical skill – there is some spiritual flavor to it. To learn not just how to fight but to learn life skills. Gakusei  is the Japanese for one who is simply a student without higher aspirations to excel or to excel in only a very limited way. Similarly Keiko is to train but with an underpinning of spiritual growth as well. Renshu is to train for only the physical aspect. Thus a wrestler would be a gakusei whose training would be called renshu. A sincere iai practitioner would be a deshi and his training called keiko

There are 4 levels of training we all go through. Each deshi need not spend the same amount of time in each level, levels will overlap some with the next and there is no guarantee about making the next level.


Level One: Sword, Not Seeker.

This is the level where the student begins to learn physical aspects of wielding a sword. While there are seeds planted and habits set that will serve the deshi well in the next level – this level is about training with the sword. It is physically challenging. All the deshi’s concentration, all his energy is focused on the sword. As uchi deshi one might rise at 4 am – sit zazen (mediation) then do soji (cleaning) before breakfast. One might start with basics then move to linking a few basics together. With each step one continues the repetitions until, one does not just get it right but until one can’t get it wrong. Kata will be learned, drilled, refined and drilled some more. These are wonderful times. Simple times, just lots of hard work under Sensei’s critical eye and always the sword.  Hard – yes. Painful – yes. Bloody – sometimes yes. Knees bleed from seiza or a missed block with a bokken yields a bloody nose, but there is a clean joy to it all that most have never felt before.

Level Two: Seeker, Not Sword:

Perhaps the best flavor to this level is passed on by the saying…

The sword and the mind are one.

When the mind is right the sword is right.

When the mind is not right, the sword is not right.

Those who would study the sword must first study the mind.

During this time the deshi turn within and focus their concentration on understanding the mind and how it leads the body. Everything changes but nothing changes. The training seems the same from the outside. There is still much time working basics and kata. Fitting what you know to the attacker in front of you but the kata becomes almost moving mediation. It is at this level one begins to know and practice the words of Yamaoku Tesshu, ‘From day until night, find calmness within motion’. This applies to walking, eating, running – whatever one does. Unfortunately most folks will never make this second level. Perhaps because they have a poor teacher. Perhaps because they don’t see the skills and joys that lay ahead. Perhaps because they are scared of not being able to do it. Who can say, but this is the Way of the Sword.


Level Three: Not Seeker, Not Sword.

This is a difficult time for deshi and sensei. The sensei can only point the way but the student must pass through the gate. Sure there are some tricks and having a good guide greatly improves ones chances of achieving kensho but still this level is the most difficult to achieve. It is at this level the deshi has their first kensho. Kensho means the initial insight or awaking – to see into oneself and the universe as they are. These are short bursts of insight.  One must still continue to train to deepen the insight so one might see things as they are and make this understanding a part of one’s daily life. For the deshi, his art becomes effortless. His sword seems to move itself and know just where to go and where to be. Creativity comes out as one does what needs to be done without conscious thought. The practitioner and the kata are one – which is doing the motion is no longer easily understood. This is the first step toward satori (enlightenment), where the world seems to crumble down around one or disappear all together. One transcends the Art.

Of course this is all mumbo jumbo – sounds silly, so mystical; foolish chat about Nothingness or Mushin or Satori. It is all rubbish! Don’t believe a word of it. That said, it isn’t that it’s not true, but rather it is the best my words can do to tell you about it. It is like describing an apple to someone who has only eaten an orange. It can give you a vague idea but only tasting for yourself, experiencing will allow you to know.  Therefore don’t simply take my words at face value, but know that through your own efforts you can experience higher levels.

Up to here this is really Shu-Ha-Ri. The fourth stage is often not listed or forgotten.


Stage Four: Seeker and Sword

At this level Sensei throws you out in the world and sends you on your Way – to create good and send out your own ripples that spread throughout the universe. It ends when you die. While Sensei is still Sensei – the relationship has changed but not changed. There is still the respect but perhaps more of a friendship or collegial taste to it. This last stage is just about the here and now. Living life fully and being present moment by moment. It is enjoying the texture of udon or the signals of hunger, the shadows of the moon or its gravitational pull. It is giving back or if you like… ‘paying forward’ to the world for all you have been given. Here it is not so much what you do but how/why you do it; the care, the love that goes into each motion, each moment.

The Way of the Sword has nothing to do with doctrine or associations or rank. The universe is too vast a place to try to understand it by piling one piece of information upon another. It is cutting through all that to the very basis of being, the grounding of experiencing life as it is. It is to wield the sword beyond the life-taking sword, beyond the life-giving sword, but to wield the Sword of No Sword (this is reference to Takuan’s work).

Of course all I am saying to you has little to do with the Way of the Sword. All I have said is just a sign post along the way; a map of the terrain, not the terrain itself. It is for these reasons ours is a heart to heart transmission. For the Way is totally personal, it must be directly experienced or it has no meaning. I can only point out the path. You must learn to walk it.

The deshi made a bow to sensei, which Sensei bowed in return. The deshi said not another word and went off to train.