Thursday, 9 July 2015

The sword that gives life


The Yagyū Shinkage Ryū is one of the most honoured and venerable systems of classical swordsmanship in Japan, with a history that stretches back 450 years. Besides its formidable technique, it is famous for an adage: katsujinken satsujinken 活人剣 殺人剣. The literal reading is “the sword of life; the sword of killing.” A common translation is slightly different: “the sword that takes life is the sword that gives life.” Yet the deeper meanings are not straightforward. The aikidō sensei and Zen priest, Furuya Kenshō, noted that it was regarded as a kōan, a teaching riddle intended to provoke enlightenment through prolonged contemplation.

I am not qualified to discuss the adage seriously in its proper cultural context. But I will presume to take it up in a contemporary Western way, with respect to my own karate practice.

One of the things about the popular discourse of karate that I find distasteful and preposterous is its invocation of the warrior. A real warrior goes to war. A real warrior is professionally trained to kill others who are trained and intent on killing her/him. A real warrior knowingly puts her/his life on the line. You don’t attend a karate class a couple of evenings a week and get to call yourself a warrior. That’s spitting in the face of an actual warrior. Anyone whose combative training is limited to recreational karate would be worse than useless on a real battlefield. A reverse punch that scores a point in a tournament will be rather less effective against RPGs. One reliable sign of a McDojo (a lousy karate club that is clueless about genuine karatedō) is an instructor who refers to her/himself or her/his students as warriors―or, even worse, samurai.

Framing the karateka as a warrior is also ignorant of history. The koryū, the classical fighting arts of mainland Japan, were definitely arts of the warrior, designed and forged on the Japanese feudal battlefield and taught only to the professional warrior class, the samurai. But karate has a very different provenance. It was primarily developed by members of the scholar-official class of Okinawa for the security of the royal family and aristocracy. So while some of the pioneering karateka were professional fighters, karate was never intended for war.

Of course, claiming to be a warrior without justification happens outside of karate, too. UFC fighters are often called warriors, but real fighting is nothing like the UFC. One of the worst things you can do on the street is to assume that you have only one opponent, someone   facing you unarmed (or unarmed and not ready to pick up a beer bottle and smash it to come after you). In a real street fight, your opponent is much more likely to be wild, unpredictable, or drugged up than trained. I like watching the UFC, but it’s nearly as removed from the street as it is from the battlefield. Fighting is not a sport; it’s nowhere as clean or limited or safe. For that reason, professional athletes, while often strong, fast, gifted, and tough, but are not warriors, either. With the possible exception of race-car drivers, they don’t really risk their lives. And real warriors don’t complain about dirty hits or the enemy breaking rules.

None of this means that the UFC fighter, the sportsman/woman, or the karateka is a wimp, although the typical recreational karateka is a lot wimpier than a pro athlete. There is no forced choice between the warrior and the effete. Moreover, the ultimate measure of a human being does not have to be whether s/he is a professional killer―which brings us back to katsujinken satsujinken. One understanding is that the professional warrior kills in service of what we hope are noble ends, especially to save innocent lives. However, the adage can also be used to contrast the warrior and the karateka.

I practice Seibukan Shōrin ryū karatedō. The seminal figure in our tradition was Kyan Chōtoku. He once said, “if you spend your entire life and never need to use the skills in karate for which you have trained continuously for such a long time, you have attained the goal of your karate practice.” So the ideal of karatedō is the opposite of satsujinken. I sometimes point out to my students that his principle structures the meaning of their training. While karatedō is intended for serious street self-defense, we constantly stress that the obligation of the karateka is to avoid fighting, and that avoidance is the only smart option. Rory Miller, who knows much more about violence than I ever will, is succinct and on point: “It’s better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die. The very essence of self-defense is a thin list of things that might get you out alive when you are already screwed.” For most of us, in our comfortable privileged lives, avoiding deadly confrontations is relatively easy. Training hours a day, several days a week every week, year after year, is a stupid waste of time and life if the only goal is to defend yourself in a situation that will very likely never occur.

Then good karate practice must be centrally about something other than surviving an attack on the street. One name for this something else is katsujinken. Practice hones the “sword” of the body for the sake of the life of the practitioner, where life means much more than its biological limitation. In the superficial but still important sense, training in karatedō makes the body stronger, faster, more supple. And healthier. My sensei, Dan Smith, taught me that in Okinawa, the answer to the question, “who is the greatest karateka?” is “the one who lives the longest.” In a time and place where the average body is pathetic, overweight, and unhealthy, the karate body is no small achievement.

Still, the aim of karatedō has always been more than a strong and healthy body. It seeks to cultivate a strong and refined soul, a good, humble, respectful, generous, loyal, educated, ethical, and trustworthy human being. The Japanese believe that there are some crucial ways of being human that can only be achieved through a disciplined physical practice, and, in that way, they hold karatedō to be like shodō (classical calligraphy), kadō (flower arrangement), or sadō (tea ceremony). Yet karatedō is also very different from those embodied practices because of its combative heritage and ethos. The belief in karatedō, like all serious martial Japanese arts and ways, is that the fighting aspect, the practice of training to kill and face being killed, even if you never use your training for that in real life, tempers the soul in a singular way, one that cannot be accomplished without that combative edge. It is this omnipresent sword of combat that karatedō embodies in its practice, and it is that sword that gives the karateka life. Katsujinken.