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 Hakuin.
"I am a samurai" the warrior replied.
"You, a samurai!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you in his employ? Your face is as dirty as a peasants."
Nobushige grew angry and began to draw his sword, but Hakuin insulted him again:
"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 all.