Went to my first sword fighting class last night.
I walked in. The dojo is awesome. Just so you have a point of reference, the only other dojo I was ever in was a converted cafeteria. This place is a palace, built for sword fighting. Built for me. There were people kneeling — all wearing their hakamas (aka BIG PANTS) their swords out in front of them. It was like walking into a kung fu movie. I looked at the focus on the students faces. The sensei’s face. And I thought to myself…I am not alone. There are other urban samurai out there.
They chanted, did a quick meditation, in the same zazen pose I was taught to do yesterday. It was silent. Intense. When they drew their swords, honestly, something moved inside of me. Like I knew I should be here. I belonged. The shine and movement of the blades. Just thinking about holding a samurai sword gave me the chills. I felt so drawn into it. Sucked into it.
What I realized a few hours before I went, was that this class wasn’t Kendo, which is combat training. It was iaido, which I knew was sword fighting in some way, but I had no idea what it was. It didn’t matter. At this point, ten minutes in, seeing the discipline, seeing the real swords (they don’t use real swords in Kendo obviously, or people would die) seeing the passion in the students’ eyes, I swore off Kendo and was going to concentrate on iaido.
The whole practice of iaido is based on 12 moves. And each move has a series of movement and cutting of the sword. The one similarity in every one is that at or close to the beginning of every move, you take the sword out of the sheath. And at the end of every move, you put it back in.
So, finally, the class really began…and it was like a record scratching.
The movements were simple. The students all looked robotic. And slow. And unathletic. And bad. It looked like something I could teach my kids to do in ten minutes. Look, this may sound over critical. And I’m sure these students work very hard to get to where they’ve gotten with respect to skill level. And there are a million things to remember with respect to where to put your sword, and your hands, and your feet. This discipline of iaido is about precision. And I know there are subtleties that I’m not picking up. But it was bad in execution.
The most disheartening thing of all was that the sensei didn’t look much better. I have no doubt the sensei could pass any written iaido test. And probably any technical skill test. But that’s there’s a big difference between people who can pass a test and an artist. I want to be an artist. And learning from someone that is not, how would I possible reach the levels I want to reach? Mr. Miyagi said it himself, ‘No such thing as bad student. Only bad teacher.’ If Mr. Miyagi was terrible at Karate, Danielsan would have gotten his ass kicked all over again.
But that wasn’t even the worst part. I try to forget sometimes that everything is a business. But I had to watch as the sensei was giving a new sword over to one of the students. The student is there, struggling to rip the price tag off, like it was bought from Walmart. Nothing sacred about a Walmart sword. And nothing sacred about watching him struggle to get the tag off for 4 minutes. And then the sensei told him that this was a ‘new vendor’ and that these swords are now some steel-aluminum allow mix (or something like that) and the old sword was stainless steel. Sure, if I thought about it, I would know that not everyone in the class was swinging authentic $7000 samurai swords, but it would have been nice to have that a mystery.
As if that wasn’t enough, at the end of class, when I was talking to one of the disciples and I was asking him what I needed to get started. He said loose clothes and anything that can fit knee pads under them. Then he raised his big pants…and blue knee pads were underneath. It capped off a very eye-opening, bad experience. Nice guy though. If that counts for anything.
I will observe a kendo class. If that’s equally as disheartening, I may switch back to the ‘urban beer drinker and sports watcher’ I was before I started this.