The mythology of Kendo

The Japanese ‘Way of the Sword’

Kendo is a story of the East. It comes from a legendary and captivating Japan that has its roots in mythology. It’s said that the Land of the Rising Sun was born from a coral blade that pierced the sea, giving rise to the four distinct islands that form the continent.
The people of Japan are descended from a lineage of warriors loyal to the code of honor, the samurai, who fought with a weapon in hand to ensure the unity of the Empire. In the etymology of the verb “saburau”, which means “to serve”, an ethical code in the true sense of the term lies hid- den: the life philosophy of a samurai is not related to the art of war, but to caring for the spirit, and there is a deep bond between the lifestyle of these warriors and religious spirituality.
The ethics of the samurai take shape through the Bushido code, consisting of a mixture of honor and calm, courage, strategic thinking and decisive action. The samurai code is focused on dying, the message that is passed on consists of an essential rule:

“When faced with the dilemma of whether to live or to die, it’s only a matter of choosing the moment to die”

The samurai placed their soul in their sword, but as a symbol of their warrior class they chose a flower: the sakura, the cherry blossom, a Japanese icon. In the frailty of those petals, destined to wither away with the arrival of winter, we can catch a glimpse of the emblem of the human condition. What the art of the samurai really wanted to convey was not a technique to defeat the enemy, but to defend oneself against the dangers of life, against which we are often not sufficiently well armed.

The name Kendo literally means “Way of the Sword”: the purpose of this training isn’t to learn a combat technique, it’s better described as a path of personal growth. Gripping onto a sword not to strike, but to rediscover one’s balance. This is the fundamental rule of Kendo, the oldest martial art, born in 1185 under the Kamakura Empire. The classic samurai weapon, the notorious katana, has not been used for a long time. It has been replaced by the shinai, a sword made of four bamboo slats and a leather handle. In a duel, the best masters say, no one ever.

Once Bokuden, one of the most picturesque seventeenth-century samurai, said that the ultimate purpose of the sword was “to kill one’s ego. Killing an opponent has become less important.”

The true objective of using a sword is to discipline the mind, to render it a “pure sword-mind” that knows no impediments. The kendoka is in fact invited to abandon selfish and obsessive thoughts – indeed, to go beyond any thought. This is perhaps the most difficult lesson to transmit to those who have a western lifestyle, completely focused on the cult of individual ethics and on the achievement of one’s goals. True warriors are not troubled by anything, the sense of victory lies in this sort of moral superiority.

Today Kendo has become an activity practiced indiscriminately by women and men, the old and the young, because it doesn’t require any particular physical endowment, but only willingness to learn. In Japanese schools it has even been established as a compulsory subject. One of the principal characteristics of Kendo is meditation. In this regard the moment of mokuso is important: this is seated meditation, at the beginning and at the end of every lesson. Mokuso, closely associated with Zen meditation, aims to increase concentration and can be juxtaposed to a kind of prayer that helps each person find his or her true self.

The concept of self is closely linked to identity and should not be confused with what we think we are, nor with the way others see us: it coincides with what we really are, our essence as mortal creatures.

It is a method that allows us to rediscover our inner calm, and detach ourselves from anger and negative thoughts. The world of the samurai could have disappeared in the Meiji Era (1868- 1912), when the use of the sword was banned, in favor of greater westernization. A harsh blow to the warrior class, which found itself deprived of just what it related to most closely. Martial arts, however, have survived the passage of time and teach us that the samurai code is also applicable to the modern world. It might seem like a cultural challenge; in reality, it is an attempt to establish an axis of communication between two worlds that are not so very different.

One of the fundamental lessons in Kendo says to always look the opponent in the eye; it’s not just a way to foresee their moves, it’s a precept, a deep-seated attempt at rapprochement. The fourth commandment of the Bushido states: “Feel compassion and act for the good of others.” The samurai believed in the importance of giving their word, in loyalty to their peers and in respect for the enemy – principles that our so-called evolved society is losing. In the western world, the black tide of senseless rage and unjustified hatred towards others is mounting; perhaps now, more than ever before, there is a sense of need for a discipline of the spirit. True knowledge of Kendo, however, cannot be taught, but only acquired through long hours of practice and training.

With exercise through kata, techniques
that include balance, strength, speed, coordination and self-discipline, the disciple learns to “constantly correct the mind”.

In Japanese history it is said that the Master Mifune Sensei managed with a silk handkerchief to divert the trajectory of a rifle bullet fired at him. “What is the highest degree of Kendo, Sensei?” asked Darrell M. Craig in his book The Heart of Kendo. “Walking hand in hand with one’s own God,” replied the Master. “Your Kendo seems exactly like a religion,” commented Craig.


PH David Ryle

IG @gemfletcher

TEXT Alice Figini

March 11, 2020

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