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Means and Ends

John Donohue, Ph.D.

There’s an old Zen tale about the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng commenting that the finger pointing at the moon should not be confused with the moon itself. In this context, he is warning against a focus on scripture that leads to a loss of awareness of what scripture is meant to be used for—it is a tool that can help in leading us to enlightenment; it is not enlightenment itself. It’s an important admonition for those of us walking the martial path as well.

Consider the various forms of “swords” I use in training. The shinai of kendo is only symbolically a sword—its longer, has different weight and balance, and is, in effect, a hollow tube. Yet we ply it in the Way of the Sword because it is a tool that permits us to engage repeatedly in keiko. The shinai is purposely designed to be a sword-not-a-sword (and I think that the Zen master and swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu would approve of the description). The shinai is designed to remove the element of lethal danger that is inherent in the use of a real sword, but also permit us to engage in high-stress real-time sparring that simulates the experience of combat. As such, it’s a tool to help us foster clear perception, calm under pressure and a lack of distraction that are characteristics we seek to develop through training.

Or we can look at the iaito. It’s designed to be shaped and balanced like a sword—to have the dynamics of a real blade. But it’s not sharp. And it can’t be sharpened. Here’s another sword-not-a-sword. The purpose of iaido, the art concerned with drawing, cutting and sheathing the sword—focuses on integrating awareness and action in the solo demonstration of sword technique. It is meant to be a distillation of the techniques of swordsmanship that harnesses them to a higher purpose—mental and physical integration and mental clarity and focus. Whether the practice blade is sharp is neither here nor there. The important thing being pursued is an esthetic of awareness and performance. The tool used—the iaito—has the esthetic characteristics, the beauty, of the traditional katana, and the design of the iaito, its furnishings, etc., can be quite elaborate because the art being pursued is one concerned with both action and appearance. A quality iaito—like a good musical instrument—should have visual qualities that honor the art. Bu the only “cutting” here is the cutting at the fog of confusion and distraction that prevents us from being fully present in life.

Then there is the shinken, the truly functional katana. It’s both a beautiful and fearsome weapon. We use the shinken in cutting exercises that demonstrate our ability to really execute the techniques we practice in kata. In doing so, we pay homage to the insight and skill of generations of master swordsmen who passed on their art. We emulate them not because we are planning to decapitate someone (and if you are, please seek professional help immediately), but due to the ethos of the bugei that stresses the fact that cultivation of a disciple and its related techniques—even those connected to the gruesome role of the kaishaku—have an impact on our personality and our character. By honoring tradition, we acknowledge the importance of community and transmitted knowledge. By refining technique, we practice a type of self-mastery and self-awareness that have important ramifications for all aspects of our lives.

So note that what I am proposing is that no matter the “sword” we wield, the only legitimate purposes for such activity concerns the lessons we learn about ourselves and the world, and the dignity and sincerity with which we walk life’s path. We may be pointing with different types of fingers, but my hope is that we stay focused on the moon.

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