My friend Kawahara Sadachika is a sword smith in Japan (he's a Buddhist priest too, but that's an entirely different story). I managed to squeeze in a visit to his house in the Shiga countryside during a business trip last month. He is always a tremendous pleasure to visit. His home is on the grounds of the temple he cares for and it is always lovely. It's called Nenpo-ji and was built in 1712. Here are some pictures of the temple.
Kawahara Sensei is gracious and wonderful gentleman. I've known him for about 15 years. Hopefully I'll get to visit him again soon when he is working in his forge.
This time though we looked as some swords he has made, as well as a beautiful Nanbokucho Period blade that he was studying. I always enjoy looking as Japanese swords, because each one is so unique, not just in shape and history, but also in appearance. Each has a unique hamon (temper line) and jihada (steel grain). We looked at a couple of nice blades that Kawahara Sensei had made. They have a wonderful, lively jihada.
It is always a pleasure to watch him work with blades, even just to clean them. He does it with a sense of respect and honor towards the blade he is handling that is truly impressive. In the above picture he is working on a wakizashi that he made. It's a lovely piece, and my picture below doesn't do it justice. I really need to take a better camera on my next visit. The picture is fuzzy, but the blade itself is delightfully clear with a lively, active jihada.
We talked quite a bit about the beauty of the blades, and in particular about the Nanbokucho tachi that he was studying. It's a really fine blade with a wonderful shape and general appearance, as well as beautiful detail.
As we were talking about the incredible craftsmanship and beauty of this particular blade, Kawahara Sensei commented casually that he would be satisfied if he could ever make a blade of this quality. This stuck with me because I have heard similar sentiments from another friend of mine who is also a sword smith. Nakagawa Sensei has said to me many times that he “wants to make a sword that someone will look at in 1000 years and say 'He made a beautiful sword.'”
At first I thought of this just as wanting make something of quality, which is in itself quite a worthwhile objective. Later it struck me that Nakagawa Sensei and I had been looking at, appreciating and talking about swords made a thousand years or more before we were born. Sensei has every reason to consider what someone a thousand years from now will think of his swords. It is quite reasonable to believe that some of his swords will be around in collections in the 31st century and that people will be sitting around looking at them and commenting on the grace, power, balance and beauty of his swords.
It’s quite common to talk about future generations, but how many of us really consider the future that far out? Who seriously considers what someone one thousand years in the future will think about their work? Who among us has reason to think about things that far in the future? But if we practice budo, there is a good chance that a thousand years from now people will still be practicing the arts we practice, and they will be the descendants of what we teach.
If you practice a koryu budo, you are practicing something that is already hundreds of years old. Ogasawara Ryu kyudo is already nearly a thousand years old. Katori Shinto Ryu dates from the 1400s, while Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu trace their origins to the 1500s, and Shinto Muso Ryu dates from about 1610. When we start considering our practice in the scale of hundreds of years rather than decades, that should impact how we practice and what decisions we make. Can we think about the arts we practice with a longer view than just a few years that are easy to imagine? Can we imagine someone a thousand years in the future doing what we are doing and benefiting from it? Can we make decisions about how we practice recognizing that what we choose now may influence how people train in the distant future? Should we?
So what does it mean to practice with an awareness of hundreds of years of tradition leading up to us, and of hundreds of years of practice flowing down from us? To me it emphasizes everything that we are doing, and it explains why teachers can seem so conservative. It places even more importance on me getting it right, so that when I demonstrate for someone, or teach someone, I’m passing on the lesson correctly. If I’m a poor student, I can only be a poor teacher as well.
The fact that after hundreds of years and revolutions in the technology of combat the koryu arts are still practiced and appreciated by people, and people still find so many relevant lessons is testament to the depth and enduring value of the lessons they teach, and the effectiveness of the way they teach their lessons. It also suggests that whatever imaginable and unimaginable revolutions we have in combat, the lessons of the koryu we practice will continue to be relevant. Scary thought there.
We are teaching stuff that will be important for someone hundreds of years in the future. I can see it pretty easily though. The little lessons are the techniques and kata that we practice. Those may or may not be directly relevant to anyone. But the big lessons about movement, posture, timing, spacing, positioning, zanshin, and rhythm, these lessons I expect to be relevant as long as there are beings in conflict. I find the idea of being part of a stream that stretches back hundreds of years, and will flow on for hundreds more to be an incredible thing. It makes me awfully small, but with a huge responsibility.
Knowing that these lessons remain relevant after centuries, and will continue to be relevant is also tremendously exciting. It means I’m not just preserving a fossil. The art is useful and alive and contributing much more to student’s lives than just preserving a memory of things long past. As long as people are people, there will be conflict, and it will involve blunt sticks, clubs, bladed weapons, chains and ropes. The capacity for violence is part of who we are and I don’t think any amount of wishing is going to make it go away.
I’m ok with that. I’m also ok with training that helps deal with that capacity. I find the idea of training in arts that have successfully helped people deal with the capacity for and actuality of violence for hundreds of years reassuring and fascinating. I’ve been studying budo for more than 25 years and I still learn something new every time I step into the dojo. The arts are that deep. From talking with my teachers, the ryuha they train in are deep enough that even after training for 2 and 3 times as long as I have, they are still learning new things and discovering new depths.
This is what we take part in and contribute to when we train in koryu budo. We partake of living lessons about how to deal with some of the most fundamental of interactions. These lessons have been refined over centuries, and now they are very effective and efficient. Our job as students and teachers of these arts is to pass on faithfully what has been given us, but just as faithfully, to refine those lessons where we see a need.
Koryu budo have survived, seen a decline for a few brief decades when nearly all interests in Japan turned to all things shiny, new and modern, and are seeing a resurgence as a more balanced view valuing both that which is modern and new and those things which have shown resilience and worth over time. The growth of koryu budo internationally in the last 2 decades is easily as great, and possibly greater, than that of gendai budo in the first several decades after their introduction the world outside Japan.
Those of us lucky enough to be involved in these arts have the responsibility to maintain the high standards of practice that have come down to us. We also have to help our arts adapt to the changing world, but we must not change the arts just for the sake of change or temporary popularity. Arts that are well-maintained, well taught and well practiced, that adapt wisely, will surely survive many, many more centuries, and continue to have value. We are part of the current of these koryu, and students in centuries to come may well look back and see us as having had some small part in continuing the flow of these arts into their future. If my name is remembered a thousand years from now in some list of koryu teachers, I hope it is remembered as having served the ryuha well, and not for having tried some fancy new trick that lacked sustaining value.