For many years, I have included mindfulness meditation as part of my daily routine. I initially undertook this practice as a means to reduce stress and fatigue but found it also helped me to maintain a sense of presence and calm awareness that was integral to my practice in the martial arts. Over time I began to research the foundations of this meditative practice and have come to the realization that I have been following a very similar path to that of the Buddhist path of cultivation in my practice of Iaido.
As a rule, I endeavor not to have any fixed beliefs or ideology that cannot be changed when faced with evidence to the contrary. This is not to say that I have no beliefs, only that I do not allow a fixed set of values to rule truth. In my opinion, truth is the ultimate goal of any practice and should never be discarded when it conflicts with long held personal values. I endeavor to assert conscious, logical direction towards my personal development so as to prevent my environment and society from randomly shaping who I am and how I react. As a learned more about the philosophical foundations underlying the notion of the path of cultivation I realized that my practice of Iaido had begun to fulfill the same function.
Traditionally, Buddhism is not really a system of beliefs so much at it is a path, way, or an activity to be undertaken. Generally there are four different notions of “the path” they are the path of Cultivation, the path of Letting Go, the path of No Path, and the path of Service. Here, I will try to explain how my practice of Iaido has become an exercise in Cultivation that mirrors the Buddhist path in many ways.
The Buddhist path of Cultivation can be broken down into what is referred to as the threefold training. This consists of training the attributes of Ethics (integrity), Concentration (presence), and Wisdom (insight). After the basic movements of each kata in are learned, the challenge becomes one of perfecting these movements and applying foundational principals. It is in this environment that the physical and mental stresses of working to achieve a very high standard begin to transform the physical exercises into a vehicle for transformation of the mind, body, and spirit. Through constant challenge, the way of the sword becomes the way of personal growth and transformation.
My first and most enduring challenge in Iaido was an ethical one. I practice with Poitras Sensei on Friday evenings in Brookline, NH. Four, two hour practices each month is not sufficient to develop the high level of skill that I see on display among my instructors. In the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Growth towards a high standard required that I practice on my own and do so regularly. This is where I found my own integrity tested on a daily basis. It is amazing how inventive I could be in finding reasons not to practice. I love my practice and enjoy doing it but would regularly try to make excuses not to. I might be tired, or hungry. Maybe I had just eaten a large meal or perhaps I had a sore shoulder or knee. Perhaps I would find work to fill the time I would normally have used to practice. I realized that I was not being honest with myself and to my practice and began to take note of when I was being insincere about my motivations. I still struggle with devoting my valuable time to practice, but the realization that it was a question of integrity has made it easier to dismiss the excuses and devote time to my practice as an exercise in being honest to myself and my goals.
When I enter the dojo I bow. This simple act of Reiho as I enter the dojo helps me to divest myself of the world outside while demonstrating sincerity and respect to the dojo and to those inside. During Mokuso, I center myself within the walls of the training hall. The dojo, those within, my sword and body are the whole of the universe for a few hours. Leaving the cares of the world outside the dojo and limiting my awareness to the dojo is relatively easy as practice begins, but when the sweat is pouring and my body is screaming that if I sit in Tatehiza once more it will be the end, is another matter. Trying to keep fundamental concepts in mind while simultaneously applying Sensei’s corrections can not only be a test of my integrity towards my practice but can also tax my ability to concentrate and be mindful of the fact that I hold an instrument capable of killing in my hands. I found that Iaido demands that I be present and learn to be mindful of my body, sword, and the space around me. In basic mindfulness meditation you learn to be with the breath and to faithfully return your attention to the breath when the mind wonders. You also learn how extremely active the mind is and how it tends to resist focusing on a single point. In Iaido, focus and concentration are keys to development within the art but these attributes once internalized can be employed in any situation where they might be of benefit. Iaido has been instrumental in giving me the ability to be almost instantly present and to focus razor like concentration on the tasks that must be performed during situations that might previously have been stressful or frightening.
Cultivating wisdom or a sense good judgment is not as measurable a benefit as an increased capacity for concentration or as evident as a profound sense of integrity towards the practice but wisdom or insight is a definite benefit that I see the potential for in my practice. The initial cut in ZNKR seitei kata is always executed in response to an immediate threat. The kata all begin with the hands off the tsuka. The sword always begins in the scabbard because we are not the aggressor in the scenario. The initial cut and all subsequent actions are correct and ethical when it is realized that within the scenario we are not the initiators of force but are reacting to the aggression of another. Each cut, step, turn, chiburi, and noto is correct for the situation. In response to my practice of Iaido, I began to examine how I react to various situations within my own life. As a result of my Iaido practice, I feel that I have a greater sense for choosing the correct course of action for any given situation. The insights gained through my practice of Iaido, also take a more personal form. Through examining my motivations, intentions and how I integrate my practice into my life I have come to know a great deal more about myself as an individual and how I perceive the world around me.
What do I hope to gain through the study of Iaido? The short answer to that question is that whatever I hoped to gain when I started has been forgotten or cast aside as preconception. I am in the process of becoming a better person as a result of the gradual path of cultivation that I follow while practicing Iaido. Through a continued practice of Iaido I have discovered truth within myself, a calm and present mind, and a capacity for taking correct action. Iaido as a practice allows me to cultivate these attributes on an ongoing basis.