The COVID-19 crisis has revealed many things: how people engage in wishful thinking and denial, how reality intrudes on our self-constructed illusions, how selfishness spreads harm to others, and most significantly how little control we can exert over life.
As martial artists we’re as guilty as anyone else. You’d think we’d know better.
For we’re supposed to break through illusion. A basic facet of our training is one that stresses pursuit of an objective standard. The skills we learn and the techniques we master are ones that challenge our limits as well as our perceptions. What we think we know how to do—breathing, moving, seeing—is revealed as illusory. In my dojo, even something as simple as swinging a sword straight is a lesson in humility. We think we’re doing it correctly, but very often we’re not. The whistle of tachi-kaze, the aural signal that the blade is, in fact, moving through the air at a correct angle, is often elusive. God gave us a sword, I tell my students, to show just how faulty our perception is.
And we’re training in fighting systems that are archaic and/or technologically backward. I’m spending my time in the dojo dressed in clothing from another place and time practicing to use a weapon that was rendered anachronistic centuries ago. There’s a picture of me when I was five dressed in vest and chaps and a cowboy hat with a cap pistol slung at my waist, leaning against a tree in Queens, NY. I realize I haven’t changed much. And I wonder just why I do the things I do.
There’s supposed to be a higher point to our training, but I often find myself mired in the minutia of technique. I sometimes lose sight of higher purpose. At least the samurai had a clear rationale for their training. The fighting arts were meant to be put to use in the service of society. The transformation of satsuninto (the death-dealing sword) to katsujinken (the life-giving sword) was one that was based on rising above selfish concerns and devoting yourself to the greater good. In modern dojo, most of us don’t have that rationale. As I’ve often told my students, if you’re training with the sword with the expectation that you’re actually going to use it, you’re hanging out with the wrong people.
So what’s the point of this exotic and self-absorbed activity? Are we as foolish as partygoers on the crowded beaches of Miami during a pandemic, self-indulgent threats to larger society?
I certainly hope not.
For me, the saving grace of my training is not that it will make me an invincible lethal weapon. Because that’s a delusional and self-centered goal. No technique is perfect. We all age, grow ill and die. As the COVID-19 pandemic shows us, there are things in life beyond our control. The best side thrust kick is no match for a virus.
But the bright blade of my sword can help me create an approach to life that is fully present, aware, and cognizant of my own shortcomings (at least most of the time). By training, I try to forge a mind that is uncluttered and a vision that is unclouded. In uncertain and scary times, our ability to not surrender to self-centeredness and to be fully engaged and appreciative of the moment and the people in that moment may the greatest gift the dojo can provide us.