When I explain to friends my love of Kendo, most typically respond with incredulity, skepticism, or at the very least mild bemusement. The reason for this response still eludes me, however I have learned to smile and accept that some are just not ready to listen or understand how this art has contributed to the change that has happened inside of me. Kendo is The Way “Do” of the Sword “Ken”. The way? The way to what? The way to love, naturally. Ko Ken Chi Ai means Knowing Love/Friendship by Crossing Swords.
To master the art of Kendo, we must master Shikai – “Shi” meaning “four”, and “Kai” meaning “prohibition”, so the four prohibitions of the way. Shikai is also known as the four sicknesses of Kendo. These sicknesses or prohibitions are those that we impose on ourselves that limit our growth not only in the art and practice of Kendo, but also in our daily lives living by the way of loving kindness. These four sicknesses are known as kyo-ku-gi-waku.
“Kyo” is surprise. What happens when I am surprised? Physically, I tense up, usually my pectorals, biceps, trapesius, rhomboid and other smaller neck muscles, protection of my vital organs. I inhale sharply for maximum oxygenation. My eyes widen to take in more light. Surprise is the state of being taken unaware. In Kendo, we need to understand that our partner can and may use all methods of technique to break our kamae (guard) or seme (pressure) to enter a strike. I should not be surprised when my partner’s eyes graze kote (the wrist), and they instead strike men (the head), or do (the gut). I should not be surprised when my shinnai is pushed to the side to create an opening. If my kamae and seme are strong, if I am using my entire field of vision to recognize a tightening of a particular muscle or look in the eyes to understand the whole picture, I will not be surprised when the strike comes. The same is true in loving yourself. It is important to not be taken by surprise. You have time. Wait for it. Are you feeling the need to defend yourself? Are you constantly under attack? Are you able to be relaxed, or do you feel the constant tensing of surprise and need to protect that which is vital? Perhaps you may rethink to whom you are sharing your love with. When my neck and back muscles are tight, and I am protecting my vitals, I get migraine headaches, the kind that induce paralysis, vomiting, lost days of work. Even the anticipation of a headache can bring one on, and has in the past developed a dependence on daily marijuana use or overuse of ibuprofin. As anticipation is the opposite of surprise, in kendo we must neither be in a state of anticipation or surprise. To rely on either is a crutch that inhibits our ability to take correct action when the opening occurs. In love, are we preparing for a blow, or are we reacting rather than responding to one? Herein lies the lesson of neither preparing for nor being surprised by anything. Love accepts all in stride, and does not anticipate being harmed. If either of these two are present, we are not ready to give or receive love, and we will have difficulty taking correct action.
“Ku” is fear. What happens to me when I am living in fear? My blood pressure rises, and my heart beats very fast. My breath becomes quick and shallow, limiting full oxygenation of the blood or expulsion of carbon dioxide. My vision narrows, quite often resulting in tunnel vision or hallucination. My temperature rises, and as I am not a particularly sweaty bastard, I tend to get overheated and have on occasion have become light headed and passed out from the experience. Fear is the aversion of discomfort. What is it that we typically fear? In Kendo, I was afraid of getting hurt physically. I understood the concept that if everyone was acting correctly, I would not get hurt, and I was reminded often to trust my armor. Armor in Kendo consists of a helmet (Men), gloves (Kote), Chestplate (do), tare (a skirt that while not valid for points does protect tender vitals), and a small plate at the base of the front of the Men that protects the throat (Tsuki). It did not matter that I was surrounded in what I lovingly referred to as my snowsuit. The strikes that I received regularly were hard enough that I would have a headache and trouble concentrating for days, or I would need to take a week off of playing violin to recover my wrist. There was one time where my teacher was demonstrating what it might be like to have someone very inexperienced and overzealous keiko with me, and it resulted in a shinnai being shoved forcefully up the right sleeve of my gi. The first time, I turned and cursed, and became very fearful. I took a second to calm myself, and tried to control my fear by taking a breath. I set my kamae once again, determined to finished the match despite the surge of adrenaline that consumed my body. When we began again, the same technique was used, resulting in a burn and enormous bruise on my arm, but worse, on my heart. I retreated backwards, and wanting to insist on distance, attempted to strike do. I fell, landing on my backside, all the while enduring the public humiliation from the reprimand from my teacher. I was shamed. I was so fearful of disappointing my teacher and my fellow classmates, yet was in enough pain from the injury to my arm that I could not control the flow of tears or the shaking of my body. I did my very best to gain my composure, and was told that my lesson for the day was completed. The old me might not have ever gone back to class, but I learned something. In order to not be in fear of something or someone, I needed to face them calmly, directly, and purposefully. I went back to class with a renewed vigor and determination to show my teacher and my fellow students that I was not afraid to get hurt, and I was not afraid of being shamed or reprimanded or corrected. This was the beginning of my practice of enshrouding myself with emotional armor. Before putting on my bogu, I mentally put on each piece of indigo by reciting this mantra:
Steady and strengthen and open my mind.
Steady and strengthen and open my spirit.
Steady and strengthen and open my heart.
Steady and strengthen and make true my sword.
The same is true in love. In order to proceed in love without fear, we must understand our own minds, know the shape of our heart, have confidence in the integrity of our spirit, and be confident in the truth our intent. We must love ourselves and have the mental armor so that we do not allow ourselves to be thrashed about, however be willing to create openings to allow our partner to come close. We must also allow ourselves to open to draw close to our partner. If we cannot do these things and love without fear, then we are not ready to share or experience the true joy of love. If there is a part of ourselves that we wish to keep armor over, perhaps we should ask ourselves what sort of strike we are preparing for, what is it that we are so unwilling to let go of that we need to be in emotional armor at all times.
“Gi” is doubt. What happens to me when I am feeling doubt? I experience anxiety. Anxiety typically manifests in my gut. I am either perpetually loose or tight, and have constant tummy troubles. It appears as a band around my diaphragm, and I cannot take a full belly breath as if I am wearing a tight belt or size too small jeans. In doubt, my mind is in a constant state of indecision and panic. I cannot focus on one thing for any amount of time. In Kendo, doubt leads to indecision and inaction. When coming out of sankyo, your body should flow fluidly, balanced, ready to assume correct kamae and seme. If you are in doubt, you will be off balanced and shaky, unable to take a proper deep belly breath. In doubt, you will view your partner instead as an opponent. In doubt, you will be unable to make a decision on a target and therefore unable to enter into a correct strike. What happens when we are in doubt in love? We cannot breathe. In music, it is important to be able to play the rests so that you stay in time with other musicians and so that the intent of the melody or harmony is expressed correctly. If in love, we cannot breathe or cannot play the rests, we become anxious of that which we may lose. We cannot trust in what the next step might be and it leads to grasping. We develop aversion to change, and cannot exhibit grace or dignity. In doubt, we cannot willingly accept any challenge that may come our way, for fear of failure. In doubt, we lose confidence in the ability for others to accept and love that which in ourselves is profane. In doubt, we are prone to aversion to the truth, so much so that it manifests itself in the flesh. In doubt, we accept the lies we tell ourselves as the truth, and learn to accept the lies of others as the truth as well. Love cannot be based on doubt. Love must be based on trust and truth. If I feel like I cannot tell my partner the truth about myself, it may be a combination of toxic shame and aversion of my own truth and fear of acceptance, or it may also be a fear of exploitation or having truths used as a weapon to flog your partner with. When it becomes the sum of all of these, it creates a toxicity that no seed of love can ever grow in. Doubt or trust is the seed in which love is sewn in.
“Waku” is confusion, or being disturbed. What happens to me when I am feeling confusion? My brow is constantly wrinkled. I cannot complete a thought or make a quick decision. The tiny muscles in my face tense. I have a hard time remembering details and sequence. I lose focus, and have to take a lot of time to ensure I have the facts straight. I question my own sanity when I am told one thing and then another, and then see actions of yet another. In Kendo, being confused leads to indecision. If I cannot come to a decision about what to do next, I can never do what comes next. Am I sitting there waiting for an opening, or am I creating one? Am I allowing my partner’s stance, gutterals, shinnai taps, or stern look to intimidate me? Or, am I taking them in no consequence to the matter at hand, which is to deliver a correct strike? In the last practice I had with my teacher, I delivered a quick feather strike to men. My classmate, the romantic young warrior, did not want to believe that it was a correct strike, however my teacher did confirm that it was correct and valid ippon. I remember evaluating what was different that day, as I can remember only a choice few times where I had gained ippon on my teacher. The first, we were practicing outside on a stage with cement floors. I remember the cool and smooth touch to my feet, the scent of the fresh air and feel of the ever constant breeze. I remember my teacher’s excitement that we were practicing at the park. I felt relaxed and at ease, as I always feel when I can spend any amount of time out of doors. I feigned a men strike, and struck do. If I remember anything, it was the incredulity on my partner’s face, his mixture of pride and love and bewilderment and determination, and his verbal promise to never let that happen again. I was in my own state of bewilderment – a mixture of pride in my progress, and the hopes that my teacher would be thrilled and encourage my progress and repetition of the maneuver until I could repeat it flawlessly. I took the words instead as a challenge, and in practice, attempted to recreate that scenario only to have it thwarted every time. I was not discouraged, however I was confused as to why it was that my partner would not want that particular opening to be claimed.
To create an opening for do in Kendo kata, one must raise the shinnai over the head. This exposes the heart. Quite possibly, the way to the heart is the do in Ken-do.
In relation to Ko Ken Chi Ai, to know love, we must be willing to cure ourselves of all of the sicknesses or prohibitions to love. To not allow fear, doubt, confusion or surprise master our actions, and to not deliberately cause or to allow harm to others by using these tactics to manipulate or control. To know love, we must be willing to be courageous in allowing joy to permeate our hearts, understanding that all things change, all things end, all things die, and all things can begin again.
There are very few people in this world that I would consider my friend. People whom I will discard the emotional armor for any day of the week and allow them to peer into the depths of my soul. I approach each potential friendship with an open mind, open heart, and open spirit, but have learned that I may need better kamae and seme when it comes to those who may try to assume they are my opponent. In Kendo, the distance to which you place yourself in proportion to your partner is known as maai. This is the distance from which you can make a correct strike without risking a strike from your opponent. For short people like me, the maai I assume is typically closer to my partner. To reach the top of a head of someone 6’3″, I need to get in pretty close, however for someone closer to my height, I can step back a little, and relax the angle of my shinnai, trusting in the power of my left leg to launch my body the distance it needs to travel. What I have learned is that kamae, seme, and maai all have to coordinate together to have correct distance to my partner, and that I must adjust my own maai, taking also into consideration that of my partner’s.
I can love someone closely, and I can love someone from a distance. I can love someone intimately and intensely, and I can love someone by wishing them well and understanding that their suffering is not much different than my own, for we are all one. In the sister art of iaido, we learn that there is no opponent other than ourselves. This is true in loving our lives, and this is true in a life of love.
Doumo arigatou, gozaimashita.