Matters of Life and Death:
Essays in Budo


Not About Self-Defense

What is the purpose of swordsmanship? The context is decisive.

Some ancient masters wrote that it is to win. Some proposed that it is to die well. Many say swordsmanship is all about self-defense; but this is a fundamental reversal of principle. This may not be a new change, brought on by crass commercialism; it probably took place before the opening of foreign trade between Japan and the rest of the world, while martial training was still the exclusive province of the feudal warrior class.

After more than two centuries of military-imposed civil order, in the transition to modern hardware, the need and wherewithal to support large private armies was diminished, leaving a surplus of unemployed swordsmen. Merchants had more money than unemployed Samurai, and less appetite for fisticuffs. Offering the public strenuous and dangerous martial arts training would not have kept body and soul together for long. Addressing their fears, however, almost never fails.

Consider what it is to be in a sword fight. To stand before a person armed with the sharpest cutting edge ever made. It will cut through flesh and bone like a whisper. The chance of surviving without a very bad wound is terribly small. Death is almost certain for both parties. What would this kind of situation require of a person?

Today it is no easier to sell the kind of rigor and austerity that marks old-school Japanese training. This is a way of life, not an exercise program. Students do not acquire knowledge, they lose it, moving into a world much less certain than the comfortable illusion in which most of us dwell. And it is hard. In feudal Japan it was designed to drive away all but the most ardently determined prospective students, and their lives were already harder than most of us can imagine. Those who remained were not being trained to defend themselves, but to serve their community at ultimate cost to themselves, like ants crossing water on a bridge of their own bodies. They were training to be able to die on command. In the strict tradition of swordsmanship the fundamental question of training is brutally simple: how to meet death without preference or hesitation.

The third Shugun, Iemitsu, wrote: "...a Samurai, high or low, can do nothing but grasp how to control his mind."* In this there is general agreement from Bokuden and Musashi to Takeda Sogaku and Yamaoka Tesshu: it cannot be accomplished through efforts to strengthen abstractions like "security" or "self-defense." But, under the constraints of the prevailing Business imperative to gain profit before all else, many quite old and venerable schools are built around precisely those elusive abstractions. They propose an entirely different question: how can I make myself and my loved ones safe in a dangerous world? As a field of study this question presents vast and fertile ground for complex and innovative solutions. As the basis for a martial art it is a foundation of loose sand.

It is clear that self-defense was never part of swordsmanship when the sword was at the bleeding edge of military technology. Defense was something reserved for the community, not for the mere individual. The way of the sword was developed by and for people whose only possible choice was a life of service and self-sacrifice, whose only hope and aspiration was for a good death: a death reflecting the total selflessness and commitment embedded in the meaning of the word, Samurai.

What the Samurai created and left to us leads to a Way that transcends time and place. It addresses the brevity of a human lifespan and the futility of most human aspirations. It designates a path, and provides indications of where best to place our feet. It is all a pointer, a signpost, a reference to something not to be encompassed in language, and not subject to abstract interpretation: a reality independent of the interpretations we mistake for our world.

Nothing can ever make us safe, just as nothing can ever make us happy. Safety and happiness isn't an attainable condition, but an assumed attitude. In a traditional Dojô it is an unspoken prerequisite for admission to the building. We are not training to become good at doing something. We are training in a way of being.

We must leave self-defense to others; it's nothing to do with us.

* "The Sword And The Mind", trans. Hiroaki Sato, Overlook Press, 1986

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