From the Sword to Wisdom – Theology Essay
Kendo, the Way of the Sword is a uniquely Japanese expression of Zen and its ultimate principle in rational reality. It was believed that the principles and practices found in the daily elements of the swordsman where not only principles of a chosen career but actual expressions themselves of Zen.
In the ‘Way’, the Samurai’s art of combat was not just the application of Zen principles learned from a master, but was itself a living expression of the pure mind transmission of Zen. For the swordsman, obstacles like strategy, death, and technique where all intrinsically bound in the nature of Zen. As such Zen was not a philosophy for combat but was combat itself, combat against the mind, combat against the opponent, combat against oneself. It is in this intrinsic nature that the Japanese ‘Ways,’ not only of the sword, but also of Tea or Calligraphy, are reflections of Zen and Zen is a reflection of daily life.
In Japanese culture, the expression of Zen is intertwined in daily life. This expression is reflective of the subtle yet intrinsic link between the spiritual and mundane world unique to the Japanese. Like Zen, the Japanese see no distinction or separation between the Buddha-mind and the elements of daily life. This unique world view is expressed no where better than in ‘Do’ translated as the ‘Ways.’ In these Art forms, simple daily tasks express the principles and spirit of Zen itself. In these ritualistic practices, the enlightened mind is cultivated and expressed in the Ways. ‘Do’ comes from the Sanskrit term ‘marga’ which means ‘path to enlightenment.’ For the Japanese ‘Do’ has come to define a group of practices which are all considered ‘Ways of Life.’ From “Sado: The way of life of those who practice the tea ceremony, to ‘Kado: The way of life of those who practice the art of flower arranging ” these practices are paths to reach Zen enlightenment. “Expression of Zen inspiration in everyday activities such as writing or serving tea and in knightly arts as fencing, came to be highly regarded in Japanese tradition. In the end, some of them where practiced as spiritual training in themselves. ” The practice of Zen found a natural reflection in the practices of certain arts, the Buddha-mind of Zen was the same ultimate mind in ‘Do.’ As a result, the pursuit of Zen enlightenment in Japan, was not just one of monastic endeavors but because of the nature of Zen, found its reflection and pursuit in the different ‘Do.’ The practice of ‘Do’ is one of experience, and like Zen can not be realized by study alone. ‘Do’ was the active embodiment of Zen in all aspects of the practiced art. ‘Do’ is not any practice like that of politics or fighting but what separated ‘Do’ apart is the principles by which it is practiced. The intent is not the immediate results of victory or skill but is the cultivation of purity of ones mind, a focusing of action to express the active state of enlightenment itself, reflected in the art. When observing Kendo, one may focus on the practitioners speed or style of attack, for one who does not know ‘Do’ the technique is all that can be seen. The mindset to be cultivated in the ‘Ways’ is the same mindset of Zen. Like Zen, the Buddha-mind can not be grasped by shear memorization but must be cultivated. In Kendo, the Buddha nature is a realization through a balance between practice and mind, technique and realization.
‘Do’ is the cultivation and realization of oneness of the mind and body that is an intrinsic part of Zen. As such, practicing the ‘Ways’ serves as a real world embodiment of the divine reality. Zen focuses on seeking the spirit over that of truth, which could only be done through direct transmission of the Buddha-nature from one mind to another. Only through real experience was one able to know reality with the Buddha-nature. As a result logical truth like that of science was as empty as a cup without water. For Zen, one had to attain the understanding of reality of the Buddha-nature. Practice was like the empty cup, Buddhahood was that which fills the cup. “It came only through the disciples own experience and insight, usually viewed in Zen as a suddenly dawning awareness of the true Buddhahood within ourselves. ” This element of realization in the disciple, not through reading or discussion of ideas, but the realization of the living idea was an important connection. It was not only the authority through practice of ‘Do’ but also embodies the link between the peaceful arts of Zen and that of fighting. Zen did not focus on scripture or images but was experiential. In the fighting arts this is an intrinsic element. The Samurai faced death at every turn and their technique involved the sword. For the Samurai the daily reality was death and as such there was no place for dwelling on words or statues. One fought and either lived or died. Truth and salvation lay in one’s own capabilities. Truth was active and existential. Zen, because it was of the same nature, was undeniably applicable to the reality of the swordsman. For the Samurai, as well as Zen, words on pages where empty symbols which had no significance in of themselves. Sutras could not win a battle, only proper cultivation of the mind and body could result in victory. “To free themselves from the instinctual attachments to life, the samurai turned to Zen as a religion of will rather than learning. ” The cultivation of Zen in the ‘Way of the Sword’ embodied the ideal of oneness of mind and body. When this is perfectly and truely attained then tension, fear, falsity, and even technique are replaced by the balance of calmness and alertness. The goals of both Zen and the sword are the same and have found in each other a unified expression. Zen and Kendo are unified because the realities of both are not found in words but action.
The balance of mind and body which is found in both Zen and Kendo does not come about by constant practice and gaining of skill. Balance like Zen itself, must be cultivated through experience and practice. In Zen as well as Kendo there are stages that the disciple must pass through. In these stages one gains but at the same time must loss in order to advance. This simultaneous gain and loss is the process of the Zen experience. As one practices, knowledge and skill is gained. One becomes familiar with the practice and adapts to it. In Zen, practice, through meditation and Koans, results in familiarity and learned concepts. A student may read a Koan and dwell on a possible answer, intellectualizing the question and preparing an answer. The same happens in Kendo. Through practice, the swordsman learns ways of swinging and footwork, which he uses in developing strategy. Though these skills may help to intellectually understand the physical forms, it is only an intellectual interpretation in which there is no ultimate value. For in Swordsmanship. Skill does not dispel death, it does not dispel fear. Skill can only get one so far. “When the opponent strikes, he instinctively struggles without calculation. But as soon as his training starts, he is taught how to hold the sword, where to place his mind, and many other techniques, which make his mind stop at various places. Thus he loses his freedom of movement. ” When someone is taught how to hold the sword then they will try and use this technique in the future. When they were not shown a technique they reacted without concentration on how they where holding the sword but only on using it. This is part of the stages that not only the samurai must pass through but also the Zen practitioner must break free from in order to perfect the art. In the beginning the disciple does not poses technique, the student reacts by instinct, not skill. In the second stage the disciple reacts with technique but has lost instinct. In the third stage the disciple must react with instinct using skill. To truly know the true mind of Zen, one is not limited by intellectual structures of understand but experiences and reacts unencumbered by fear of death or strategies for victory. The Buddha-nature sees untainted by these limitations and the master comes full circle and reacts with the mind of the beginner.
In order to master Kendo, the practitioner must face daily realities, which are not only relative to his art but are intrinsic obstacles in realizing the Buddha nature in Zen. In Zen, the way to cultivate true understanding is to know without knowing and see with out seeing. This approach, to the western mind may seem strange and dualistic, however the reality of this understanding is a central theme in both Zen and all of the ‘Do.’ The concept of Mushin is one of the central most important elements in the different ‘Do.’ Mushin is best characterized as ‘without heart, without mind. ’ it is the cutting off of all unnecessary thoughts. By stopping all unnecessary ideas and perceptions, one is free to act instinctively using the experience they posses unfettered by misconceptions and misinterpretations. “When thinking disappears there is not nothing but awareness of something which was in a way known all along. ” We must cease to see things by what we have learned and know. These finite perceptions have not reality in the world itself and are a false reality of what we believe the world to be. When we look at something with out stereotypes or beliefs, that spring from our mind, then we will know the nature of things in of themselves. When we focus on small elements of each situation we fail to see the situation as a whole. We believe that the small part we possess is actually the whole itself. In this seeing we believe we are seeing the whole when we are only seeing a part. The concept of Mushin is to see something unfiltered by desire or fear but to see with out seeing, to know with out knowing. We must direct our mind with the true mind, the mind of Zen, not with the mind of techniques like those learned in the martial arts. The secret of the martial arts, Zen and all the ‘Do’ is to learn to direct the mind and transform it into a mind directed by action. Mushin has been compared to a sneeze, when you sneeze, you do not contemplate it or intellectualize how you are sneezing but just sneeze. In the Shun Jin Mei, Mushin is described as thus “The highest way is not difficult but you must not make choices. You must entertain neither affection nor distaste. ” As in Zen, Mushin is the concept by which the mind breaks through human thought and sees things as they truly are. Mushin is to act without desire for a certain outcome, to live life fully without delusions. It can best be seen as absolute passivity in action. The body reacts but the mind is still.
In Kendo the practice of no mind allows the swordsman to react without focusing on anyone element of the combat. If the mind is distracted by anyone element of the situation then another more dangerous aspect may be ignored. For the samurai, the risk of death was assured in every combat. If one worries about how to swing the sword or whether the opponent will use a specific technique then the mind is focused. The point of Mushin is not to focus on any one element of the situation but to react naturally and instinctively. To hesitate could mean death, so it was important that one perceived all elements of a situation instead of just one. The true understanding of no-mind allowed the samurai to practice his art free of entrapment in delusions or tied down by intellectual desires. No-mind goes beyond finite concepts like death and birth and instead allows the practitioner to perceive the infinite in every situation. By not focusing on one element the practitioner can react to any one part because all parts are with in their conscious. Takuan best describes this in his concept of ‘Immovable Intelligence.’ In his discourse, Takuan addresses a student’s questions on what the most important aspect is during combat. “When your opponent is at the point of striking you, let your mind be fixed on his sword, and you are no more free to be master of your own movements, for you are then controlled by him. This is called stopping, because you are made to stop at one point. ” Takuan demonstrates how one can be defeated if they place their attention on one specific aspect of combat. By focussing on the opponent’s sword, their mind is ‘stopped’ at one point and so is not perceiving infinitely, but only one aspect of the entire situation. When death is at stake, No-mind becomes the armor that will protect you. This holds true for any single aspect, focusing on techniques of swinging ones sword will cause the mind to only focus on the sword and not the opponent. If one must focus then it should be nothing at all. This emptiness as Takuan puts it is the ultimate goal of both Kendo and Zen. The practitioner must empty their mind. In this state, the opponent is empty and the sword is empty. There is no one part of the whole, but is itself a whole which con only be perceived as such. To try and perceive only part of the whole is to fail to perceive it at all and for the samurai this ultimately meant death. In emptiness the practitioner’s mind is not moving from one element to another, it is calm yet never at rest. “The moon has no intent to cast its reflection anywhere, nor does the pond design to lodge the moon. ” The practitioner of No-mind-ness is like this analogy. They are like the moon, fixed in the sky but the reflection constantly moving back and forth on the water. The moon is a harmony of being never still and never moving all at once. It is this nature that one strives for not only in Zen but in all the ‘Ways’ as well. One must never be locked into one way of thinking or stopped on one aspect of something, in this constant of emptiness the practitioner is constant.
The concept of ‘stopping’ is ultimately the nature of our deluded conscious and the result of suffering in Buddhism. When our mind focuses on one specific part of the whole, we fail to see the whole. This ‘stopping’ is the result of the perception of death and birth. Death and birth are perceived as constants when they are actually only part of a larger whole. We believe that death is a finality and thus our conscious places an extreme weight on it. However in Zen, death is not the ultimate part of our nature, but because we do not see with no-mind-ness we mistakenly believe it to be an ultimate end. All intellectualizing aside, death is a very important concept in all cultures, even that of Japan. It is perceived as a great barrier, which we can not break through. Death exists in the mind as something to be feared or questioned. For the samurai death was faced everyday and as such had to be overcome. If the samurai could not overcome the fear of death then his mind would forever ‘stop’ at death and he could never attain no-mind-ness. “To be always ready to face death, that is, to sacrifice oneself unhesitatingly when occasion arises. To do this, much mental and spiritual training is needed. ” A samurai’s life was one of combat and as such death was assured. Death would come to one or both of the participants. The samurai had to overcome death and all the things that can result from it in the mind in order to succeed. Fear of getting hurt could keep the swordsman from giving his full attention or energy while swinging. Fear could result in hesitation and thus result in his death. Of all the ‘Do’, Kendo is most truly a reflection of the ultimate principles of Zen. In Zen one must let go of the concepts of death as ultimacy and perceive all aspects of life. For death is only one part and is not it’s total. The ‘Hagakure’ which means ‘Hidden under the Leaves’ exemplifies the importance of the samurai to be able to sacrifice his life at any moment. “When the unconscious is tapped , it rises above individual limitations. Death now loses its sting all together, and this is where the samurai training joins hands with Zen. ” The ultimate secret in the way of the sword is the ability to truly be unmoved by death and to make it as unimportant as any other fact in your conscious. To do this the samurai had to place death in his mind at all times and treat it like all other parts of the whole. Death was in the swordsman’s mind every morning and every evening. It was necessary to have it in the mind at all times so that every moment was treated as the last and as such, not even death could stop the swordsman. It is this fact that is key to Kendo. For the intention of Swordsmanship is to commit yourself completely to the job of killing the opponent. In Zen this act of committing oneself completely and wholly, free of moral concepts or rituals is it’s essence. In this, Zen and Kendo are of the same mind and nature and as such greatly appealed to samurai. “Those who cling to life die, and those who defy death live. The essential thing is the mind Look into this mind and firmly take hold of it and you will understand that there is something in you which is above birth-and-death and which is neither drowned in water nor burned by fire. ” By living by the principles of Zen, concepts of life and death dim in the face of true perception of reality. Values placed on death like any other part of the whole of true reality loses it’s hold on the mind. By living each day as the swordsman’s last, the samurai did not fall to fear or hesitation in the face of danger but acted without question by ones instinct. To the samurai death was only a mental stumbling block to be overcome. In their practice of Zen the swordsman was trained to die the ‘Great Death’ of the delusionary world and be reborn to the true nature, the Buddha nature, which existed above death and life.
Through Kendo one cultivate absolute strength as well as absolute wisdom, where every fight can be fought as if life where at stake. In order to cultivate this balance of strength and wisdom one must practice wholly the way and for all ‘Do’ that way is in Zen. The practice of Zen is found in the aspect of meditation, which is the practice by which emptiness is achieved and cultivation occurs. By practicing Zazen meditation, one can cultivate the proper attitude of mind, which is called ‘Hishiryo.’ Meditation occurs, not only sitting in the lotus position, but ultimately for Zen is the same mind in walking, breathing as well as fighting. For the samurai who must face death in everything at all times, Zazen is the embodiment of the cultivation. For the mind cultivated in Zazen is the no-mind, the mind that grasps the whole and is not stopped in the delusionary aspects. “In Zazen, every breath out is the one now, and it never comes again. ” Zazen is not only the cultivation of the mind but is the reality of the Buddha-mind, which exists in every aspect of the practitioner at every moment. To practice Zazen is to face death all the time, in combat or sitting in meditation. One can not rest during Zazen as well as during training because both are to be done wholly with out holding back. At the end of practice there should be no energy left, nothing at all left. To hold back would fail to live each moment as if it is your last. Zen meditation transcends the ego focused mind by redirecting it’s power to no-mind-ness. Zazen like the way of the sword is not just something to be practiced but is itself a reality that pervades everything. To practice Zazen is to never stop perceiving the whole, to never stop at death. It is itself ultimate reality. “Kendo meditation follows the same rationale observed in Zen: the anticipation of instant realization, e.g. enlightenment, through meditation is a delusion. The goal of both is to build a new mental configuration. ” Zazen is not a practice which ends with enlightenment but is itself, not only the process of awakening to the infinite, the infinite consciousness. As such there is not end to the practice of Zazen, for to cease Zazen would be to ‘stop.’ In Kendo this ideal is the same, the art of the ‘Way’ is itself the realization of the Buddha mind. To cease practicing the way would result in ‘stopping.’ In this aspect both Zen and Kendo seem to have not only the same ultimate goal but are also of the same nature. As such Kendo in all its aspects of Mushin, death and practice is itself an act of meditation. In Zazen, one sits to gain enlightenment and to live in ultimate reality. The practice of Kendo is itself Zazen, there is no distinction between Zen and Kendo. For Kendo is active meditation following the same path as Zazen and both grasping for the same mental understanding.
In Japan the ‘Way of the Sword’ is not just a philosophy for combat. It is rooted in Zen so deeply that the boundary between the two seems to blur. This blurring is not coincidental or even accidental but is reflective of the subtle and important nature of Kendo. The ‘Ways’, not only that of the Sword but of Tea and calligraphy are themselves Zazen. The mindset cultivated in Zazen is the same as that cultivated in the ‘Ways.’ Kendo is defined by the same principles as Zen from the cultivation of Mushin to the facing of death in every aspect of consciousness. Kendo’s subtle nature of the connection of Swordsmanship and Ultimate reality is reflective of the subtle nature of Zen itself. For Zen is not a philosophy which is applied to daily life. It is not a separate ideal by which life is modeled or molded to. It is itself the reflection of the sacred aspect that is life itself which is reflected in every single nuance and turn in the sword of the Kendoist as well as the making of Tea. For the Japanese the ‘Ways’ are not reminders or pointers to sacred reality but is sacred reality itself.
Leggett, Trevor Zen and The Ways. Charles E. Tuttle Company. Vermont, 1978
Sayama, Mike Samadhi: Self Development in Zen, Swordsmanship, and Psychotherapy. SUNY Press, New York 1986.
King, Winston L. Zen and the Way of the Sword. Oxford University Press, New York 1993.
Suzuki, Daisetz Teitaro. Zen Buddhism and its Influences on Japanese Culture. The
Eastern Buddhist Society, Otani Buddhist College, Tokyo, 1938.
Musashi, Miyamoto. A Book of Five Rings. The Overlook Press. New York, 1974.
Kiyota, Minoru. Kendo: Its Philosophical History and Means to Personal Growth. Kegan Paul International, New York. 1995.
Random, Michel. The Martial Arts. Peerage Books, London 1977.
Deshimaru, Taisen. The Zen Way to the Martial Arts. Penguin Group, New York. 1982
Ed. De Bary, William Theodore. The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan. Vintage Books. New York, 1969.