Philosophy of Iaido
By Keith Rose
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin and asked: "Is there
really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired
"I am a samurai" the warrior replied.
samurai!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you in
his employ? Your face is as dirty as a peasants."
angry and began to draw his sword, but Hakuin insulted him
"So you have a sword! It is probably far too blunt to cut
off my head."
Nobushige drew his sword, but at that moment hakuin
called out: "Here open the gates of hell!" On hearing this
Nobushige, perceiving the masters discipline, sheathed his sword and
bowed. "Here opens the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.
[ Zen story]
The relevance of Iaido in modern society is not easy to define
and is certainly open to individual interpretation in terms of its
aims and benefits. It is a paradox; a modern day beauty, in it's
origins a beast!
Physically, Iaido is a specialised section of classical Japanese
swordsmanship concerned with the actions involved in drawing the
sword from the scabbard, performing various cuts and thrusts and
then returning the sword to the scabbard. In it's historical context
Iai was originally a clinically efficient method used to defend
against or attack an opponent in an instantaneous fashion and in
that sense some comparison can be drawn with the fast draw method of
gunfighters in the American wild west era.
However, in modern times Iaido has become a formalized mental
and physical discipline and where swordsmen in feudal Japan were
once, quite understandably, most concerned about drawing the sword
as quickly as possible in order to defend their life, now the
purpose of the practice of Iaido has ceased to be aggressive in any
way and is instead a means of cultivating an individuals mind, body
and spirit. Where speed was once the goal, now emphasis is placed
upon the smooth and controlled execution of the various kata
[prescribed patterns of movement] and through the repetitive
practice of the kata a high level of concentration is reached and a
sense of using the mind, body and spirit harmoniously as one becomes
the objective. The kata themselves are often aesthetically
attractive and are heavily influenced by 'Zen', this influence
manifesting itself in the refined and minimal movements and
particularily in the calm, self controlled way they are performed by
an experienced practitioner.
Today the philosophical tradition within Iaido is an aspect that
takes priority, the flowering of a seed that was planted in the
early days of formal training in swordsmanship when the samurai
class were encouraged to polish their skills not only as a means of
self preservation, but also as a way of improving their general
character; the concept of the sword as a 'life giving instrument' as
well as one for life taking being well established even in the
feudal period of Japanese history. Now, in these relatively peaceful
times, we no longer have to consider the sword in it's 'life taking'
image and as a result the ideals of swordsmanship have been able to
come to the fore; and so as difficult as it is to define Iaido one
thing is sure, to look at Iaido as simply a physical activity would
be to not understand the practice and experience of Iaido at