Posts Tagged ‘Kendo and Zen’


Matsumoto sensei

This document was written in Japanese by Matsumoto Toshio sensei and translated in 1976 by Yamamoto Hisami. The original translation was for my benefit; and at the time Matsumoto sensei was not satisfied that the document was of a high enough standard to put his name to. Unfortunately neither the author nor the original translator are with us today; and feeling that this document is worth sharing with other kendo enthusiasts, I have taken the liberty of rewriting it in more colloquial English. Any errors and inconsistencies are mine.

The aim of swordsmanship in ancient days was to overcome opponents through the application of sword techniques and physical power, but this has changed with the progression of time. Even so, kendo was born from the art of fighting with swords and even though today it is played with bamboo swords, it cannot be said to be kendo if it is practised without the concept of being a fight with real swords. You must train for kendo with the understanding that if you cannot cut your opponent, he is going to cut you. In other words, in its essence, kendo must be practised with the extreme instability of mind that would occur if you were facing life or death.

There is no doubt that the art of kendo is to strike down your opponents and not to be struck down by them. However, in order to be always ready to give an instant strike without missing any proper chances to attack whilst still keeping a perfect defence position, you must master the techniques and skills of kendo. These however, can only be well performed when you maintain a calmness of mind which enables you to fully display your trained technique.

Therefore, it is the true aim of kendo practise not only to try to improve your technique, but also to train your mind and spirit to find the rightness of mind (“no mind” / mushin), so that your mind, which is the source of the technique; will not be bound by anything.

In the practice of kendo, it is most desirable that the training of mind and technique should always progress hand in hand. A strike should not be made recklessly, but you should strike when the opponent’s mind is disturbed. Ineffective or hurried strikes are the causes of self destruction. The following are cited as good chances to attack:-

  1. Not to attack when your opponent is in replete condition, but try to attack when he is unaware and off guard
  2. Attack just before your opponent starts to take (initiates) his action
  3. Attack when your opponent is settled
  4. Attack when your opponent has exhausted his tricks
  5. Attack at the time that your opponent has doubt in his mind
  6. Urge your opponents action and attack the created off-guard position 

The three points that would be inexcusable to overlook are:

  1. Just when your opponent initiates his action
  2. When your opponent parries
  3. When your opponent has exhausted his tricks

These are again times when your opponent is off-guard.

In kendo there are four mental states that must be overcome. These are dread, fright, doubt and perplexity – all of which are disturbed states of mind. When your mind is disturbed, your posture is also disturbed leaving you off-guard and allowing your opponent the chance to attack. Unless you are constantly in full spirit, keeping your mind calm and open you cannot instantly strike your opponent off-guard, even when his spirit is no longer alert. If your mind is innocent (free of preconception), you can see through all your opponents actions and strike freely without any hesitation, catching every available chance.

In Zen Buddhism “voidness” is sometimes explained as “The true way of life is to always keep your normal mind”. It is considered to be a state of mind which has no preconceived ideas, free and active without being bound by egotistic interests. You may think that it is extremely difficult to have an innocent mind and that it is the highest condition of mind and impossible to attain, but one who is experienced in kendo to a considerable degree should achieve a similar mental state

When reflecting on a keiko or shiai, one sometimes realises that he has unconsciously made a very fine strike, although such experiences are rare. It is because the perpetrator was in full spirit and “innocent”, enabling an unintended and unaware strike. You must make every effort to increase these opportunities.

From a reversed perspective you need to maintain an undisturbed “ordinary” mind in order to defend well without being struck by your opponent. To keep disturbances from your mind you must:-

  1. Master the basic forms of kendo
  2. Understand and appreciate the theory of kendo and try to improve kendo techniques
  3. Have a firm belief that you are perfectly invincible against any assault

As stated above, the ultimate way of learning kendo is, both in attack and in defence, is to have a constant ordinary state of mind through the theory of the way of kendo. I believe that it is a virtue of kendo to bring to our social lives this developed ordinary mind, rich and level without egotistic interest and emotional influences.

Making best use of such an attitude, you will be able to take good advice from other people and clearly differentiate right and wrong, allowing for effective conduct in your job and at the same time working towards self perfection.

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In the course of the normal disjointed after keiko conversation, someone mentioned that Google had developed a new application where you can send a picture of an object from your smart phone and Google would tell you what the unknown object is. Kicking this idea around, we decided it might be more useful if you could take a snap of yourself and ask Google the question “who am I”. This app would be of immense value to enthusiastic partygoers, philosophy students and of course Zen practitioners.

I wrote sometime back about the connection between kendo and Zen, talking about the importance of keeping a natural, level mind (heijoshin), unmovable mind (fudoshin), or aiming for the spirit of no mind (mushin) in kendo practice. I have experienced all of these, not simultaneously or constantly in my keiko; but have enjoyed brief flashes of feeling that my mind is in the right place. What I am not sure about is whether these inner elements of kendo have made any lasting difference to me as a person. Yamaoka Tesshu’s assertion that the “Sword of no-sword” is about killing the ego, is an ideal that I subscribe to, but that I find difficult to prove if I have made any real progress in that direction.

I am fortunate have been around for long enough to be on speaking terms with some of the big “third generation” sensei and have met a number of the second generation greats. Although to a man they have all been exceptional people and role models, I have met no-one who is not, or who has not been conscious of his position in the kendo hierarchy and who did not show some sense of rivalry with his peers.

Perfect beings or not, I find it much easier to relate to fellow kendoka than to people that I know from other areas of my life. We have a shared legacy and set of experiences, so even on first meeting we have lots to talk about. Perhaps not so much needs saying between old kendo friends and colleagues. Having known each other for many years, much of what needs to be has already been said; nevertheless we continue to repeat the same conversations. Perhaps this is the most one can hope for: a comfortable if somewhat grumpy view of one’s place in the universe. Either that or another 40 years of practice is needed to reach satori.

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