The Many Sides of the Martial Arts
By Gary Gabelhouse
The debate has gone on and on for as long as I can
remember. Which art or discipline is strongest, what
kind of training is best, are pure or eclectic arts
best, tournament versus budo karate, are martial arts
The other day I was reading one of these lively debates
in a discussion forum on a martial artist versus a
fighter and it made me think back to the day before
when I was cleaning one of my Japanese swords (nihonto).
There is a practical parallel here between Japanese
swords and the martial arts (beyond the obvious).
The Japanese sword epitomizes and is "defined"
as a number of different "things" by different
people throughout the world . . .
Many collectors of Nihonto regard such blades (as
does the Japanese Government) as "art."
There are thousands of people -- many within organized
nihonto appreciation groups (Token Kai) -- who consider
the Japanese sword to be a piece of art -- clear and
simple. They spend years and thousands of dollars
to distinguish the smiths' artistic trademarks --
wild, artistic hamons (patterns) -- wonderful steel
grain accomplished through unique foldings of the
steel -- bits of nie and nioi on the blade that serve
no other purpose other than that of art -- wonderfully
intricate and rich koshirae or mountings and furniture.
Thousands if not ten's of thousands of people who,
for themselves, perceive the Japanese sword to be
a wonderful object of . . . art.
The kenjutsu (classical sword arts) practitioners
and Iaido-ka (art of sword drawing) see the sword
as an extension of their own physicality to be "used"
in the practice of their martial art. Oftentimes the
sword is judged on its cutting capability, while sometimes
it is judged by its weight and "feel" or
the blade's "life." Regardless, these people
define the sword as something they USE. This often
puts them at odds with the art collectors. To use
an old nihonto for ANY practice is considered asinine
and ignorant by the art collectors. The art collectors
place their blades in humidity-controlled safes, mounted
in "resting" mounts or shira saya. On occasion,
the blade is drawn as one would pull a curtain across
a Renoir. To even think of USING the blade is as unspeakable
as paneling one's den with a Mattisse. But many Iaido-ka
I know practice using old koto-period nihonto--and
the functional distinction here is the word "use."
A friend also recently suggested to me that while
that a good sword can be admired through looking or
touching, he personally finds that the ears are what
one should experience it with. In the hands of a true
master, the sword creates a distinct sound as it cuts
the air and stops instantly. It is the blending of
the expert practitioner and the perfect sword in action,
where the true beauty lies.
There are those who define the Japanese sword as
embodying the very spirit of the Japanese people --
and an extension of the smith's spirit -- and as a
representation of local kami and spirits, as well.
One often saw the central points of many Japanese
shrines to be nihonto -- "blades of spirit."
Many times the smiths are, themselves, priests and
the making of each sword entails copious quantities
of religious regimen. So, for some, the Japanese sword
is a very spiritual thing -- a religious object.
Some of the modern metal workers see the Japanese
sword as a challenge to their own metallurgy. They
study blades and practice their own techniques of
folding and quenching. Since they oftentimes sell
the blades they make, they have no problem with forging
a blade for money, and some do so as their livelihood.
They integrate the new technology of today with the
traditional methods of yesterday, and . . . sell the
Military historians as well as W.W.II GIs and/or
their widows see the blade as a weapon -- clear and
simple. The historians study its significance in the
history and culture of Japan and the GI's and widows
have altogether different memories. It is extremely
common to have a widow answer an ad of "Will
Buy Japanese Swords: Top Dollar." The widow just
wants the thing out of her household--doesn't like
it. For the old GI, he may remember where he was when
he liberated it, or the circumstances that led to
him taking it off the dead body. Yet, for the militarialist
and the GI, the Japanese sword is a deadly and very
real . . . weapon.
And so, too . . . those who practice martial arts,
practice for different reasons -- personal reasons.
And from where I stand, training kata and fighting
NHB or point tournaments are not mutually exclusive
activities (sure, you can't do'em all at the same
time). However, I believe everyone has a "personal
intent" for training martial arts -- for me,
personally, I refer to it as "the path of my
heart" -- and that intent may be the expression
of many or only one personal factor(s). In my opinion,
this is one of the GREAT things about the martial
arts -- its individuality. The art, just like a mirror,
reflects the purpose or intent of those who practice
it. Those seeking fighting techniques, will FIND fighting
techniques. Those seeking good health and physical
fitness, will FIND that fitness. Those seeking confidence
by being able to defend themselves, will FIND that
confidence. Those seeking a strong and calm spirit,
will FIND that spirit. As my teacher would say, "ALL
the answers are found . . . on the floor."
Another Viewpoint: Emulating
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