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Picking Up the Sword

John J. Donohue, PhD

There’s a point in one of my martial arts novels where the main character, a reluctant hero by any measure, is balking at the likelihood that he may have to actually use his martial arts skills in a real and potentially lethal fight. His wise old Sensei, who has spent years training this man and nudging him along the martial path, simply looks at his pupil and asks coldly “what did you think when you picked up the sword?” It’s a good question for any of us to answer. What is the point of training in the bugei for modern women and men? It’s a conversation that is as least as old as the conversations between the Zen monk Takuan Soho and the sword master Yagyu Munenori, but it’s a discussion well worth renewing on a regular basis.

Why do we train? There’s skill acquisition, of course. And it is martial skill that is related to fighting. However, we are not in danger of being drawn into an actual sword fight any time soon (and if we are are, we are hanging out with the wrong crowd). While rooted in fighting, training in the bugei can’t be considered an efficient way of gaining self-defense skills—it takes too long to acquire the skills and the weapons we use are archaic ones. So while the frisson of danger inherent in bugei training is admittedly present, it’s a psychological element, not a truly physical one.

So why train? There are a number of reasons. Following the martial path is a means for preserving a rich and complex aspect of a fading culture. It’s also inspired by performance esthetic shared in common with sport, dance and music, and speaks to a human desire to acquire and display a of mastery (however transitory) over our bodies, to not only be able to do things but to do them well.

Which leads us to some other considerations. The very Confucian concept of the merit of hard work and discipline on the human character is not to be neglected. To walk the martial path is to commit to an apprenticeship in self-reflection, challenge and growth that should, ideally, seep into other aspects of our daily lives.

This is, in part, the rationale for the modern development of budo—martial ways—as systems with an overt focus on philosophical and ethical concerns. But the popular contrast between bujutsu and budo as being one of pure fighting efficacy versus a watered down system more focused on self-perfection is, at best, simplistic and, at worst, misleading. Practitioners of koryu have long been engaged in thoughtful reflection on how their systems connect to larger personal and societal concerns. And gendai “do” forms are capable of producing highly skilled thugs with no social conscience (hello Master Ken). In other words, all systems, whether traditional or modern, can be abused. On the other hand, they also have the capacity

to assist people to seek greater insight, integration and the courage to live a more authentic life.

What makes the difference?

It depends what you are thinking when you pick up the sword.

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