Sunlight dashed across the field as the day came into being. The two warriors sitting quietly slowly opened their eyes, flexed their fingers, and then drew their focus upon each other. It was completely silent, not even a small breeze to rustle the fall leaves on the ground, or softly whistle in the ear of either Samurai. They were alone and had agreed upon a period of meditation before sunrise, and their duel.
They slowly walked toward each other, then drew their katana. Standing ready, they inched their feet forward until just out of range, then dropped into stance. Their bodies relaxed, their minds still, they began to wait, each knowing they would have only a millisecond to react, strike and win. With eyes like hawks, they immersed themselves in the moment.
One Samurai noticed a drop in concentration from the other and pushed forward to strike. He pulled his sword back and drove to carve his opponent from neck to navel. But it was a baiting strategy. His opponent darted beneath his arms, quick as a flash and drove the handle of his sword toward the face. He followed it with a cut across the neck, and the duel was over.
Although all of the students at the seminar had a chance to murder pool noodles with swords, which is just as much fun as it sounds, as well as practice a number of cuts, it was the philosophical lessons that I took the most from. With only three hours to practice, it would be quite difficult to develop any real skill, but the words used to describe this particular martial art will stick with me for some time.
Sensei Ardestani explained one aspect of Iaido as “living under the sword.” The reason is quite simple; when someone raises their sword to strike, if you evade, by backing away or dodging to the side, then you give them the opportunity to strike once more. However, if they move to strike, there is one place you are guaranteed to be safe, and that is beneath the sword, or more specifically, beneath the arms that hold it. In this space, there is no room to bring the sword down to hit you. The techniques we looked at used this concept, by either deflecting a sword strike, or redirecting it such that the defendant ends up in a position away from harm and able to strike back.
We were also told of the way in which many traditional Budo (Japanese Martial Arts), are not so much about self-defense, but self-development. Iaido requires you to be focused, completely, for long periods of time. There is so much one could say about this topic, about the different ways that practicing Iaido can benefit your life, but on this particular day it was the expression “live under the sword” that resonated with me.
When we have a problem in life, our instinct is often to run away. We dodge by ignoring the problem, by escaping from it, by backing away and thinking that we can out-smart it, or try again another time, or get some help from someone else. But, perhaps avoiding problems isn’t so smart. Perhaps it is better to “live beneath the sword” when it comes to confronting our problems. When something arises in your life that could hurt you in some way, perhaps moving close, close enough to smell its breath, to stare it in the eyes, to listen to its heartbeat is a better way to go. From this range, you are distanced from its blade and can knock it off balance, strike back, then move on.
Living under the sword does not mean to go looking for trouble, or to engage with problems with force or anger. It simply means to acknowledge the presence of a threat, and move to the best possible space to deal with it. It requires courage – you have to move toward that which will harm you! It requires precision, as an inch or two in the wrong direction could leave you dead, and it requires speed, as you must move before you’re hit. Practicing engaging with problems in this way will have its own reward, in a number of ways, beyond simple avoidance of discomfort.
As per usual, exposure to an alternate martial art has given me pause for thought. It is in these moments that I am truly grateful for the opportunities that come my way within the world of the martial arts. It is in these moments that I realize how similar most martial arts really are, not just in technique but in philosophy. I can see the true application of Iaido and walk away from this seminar with a great appreciation for the benefit of this particular traditional art and some inspiration to seek out more lessons.
“Under the sword lifted high, There is hell making you tremble. But go ahead, And you have the land of bliss.”
~ Miyamoto Mushashi