Shinken, Practicing Presence at the Tip of a Sword.
When I asked my teacher if I could use shinken (sharp sword) during practice in the dojo he agreed immediately. It surprised me. He didn’t have a great deal to say on the subject but gave me the best advice I think was possible. He said, “Don’t feel like once you start bringing shinken to practice that you have to practice with shinken every time.” This advice, while simple and to the point, shows my teachers understanding of the internal struggles that all people following a “way” have to contend with.
Months later, it’s Friday and I am at home for Lunch, checking my Practice bag. Everything appears to be here. Hakama,Gi,Juban, obi, and Knee Pads are all neatly folded and tucked into my bag along with two spare Tenegui to mop the sweat from my brow. I check my sword bag. My boken and two shinai are there as usual. Attached to the sword bag via a small carabiner is the small, zippered bag that once held a calibration gauge for respiratory therapy equipment. Now it holds oil and sword cleaning supplies. I look at the sword Stand. Resting there silently, unobtrusive, plain but beautiful is my Shinken. My eyes dart to the sword rack on the wall. Eight other examples of these ancient weapons sit on the rack. Most are in the Japanese style. Two are different; one being a European inspired blade while the other is Chinese. All but three are razor sharp. My iaito (practice sword) sits in its cradle, third from the bottom. Despite the fact that it’s not a sharp sword and never will be with a zinc/aluminum alloy blade; I have to admit, I love that sword. It’s long to match my stature with a high degree of curvature (sori) and simply furnished. I call it “Bean Pole” for its length and because of the bean pod menuki (ornament) tucked beneath the silk that wraps the handle. The silk is well worn from thousands of suburi and kata. I knew the instant I held this iaito that it was for me. It is an old friend by now.
The handle of the shinken is also worn but not to the same degree. It is a bit shorter but slightly heavier. The high carbon, mono-steel blade has no bohi or fuller cast into the blade. This would weaken a blade that was never intended to be used strictly for Iai. This is a cutting sword. It is sharp and deadly as can be. I call it Kuma because of the distinctive cuts in the tsuba that are reminiscent of claw marks and the heavy, solid construction of the sword and its fittings. Kuma is simple but beautiful. It is also an old, trusted friend. I obtained this shinken before ever attending a formal iaido class, teaching myself from books and videos for over a year before I found a dojo. I wonder, “Can I be present enough for practice tonight to use shinken?” If I am not present for the blade, it will remind me. It has before. Gentle nudges to be “here” during noto (resheathing) and not to let my mind wonder to the bills, work, or relationships. I keep a supply of band-aids with me now for just such nudges. I also have my dojo mates to be concerned for. Swinging a razor sharp piece of steel around in a room full of people is inherently dangerous. If I take Kuma tonight, I also take on a certain degree of responsibility for the safety of those around me.
Thoughts start to fill my head. This thing is heavy; I’m hungry, angry, tired, etc. I take a deep breath and notice how quickly I have started to make up excuses for why I should take Iaito rather than shinken. I nearly talked myself out of practice all together. Here is another small test of my integrity. I’m going to practice tonight. Of that, there can be no argument. I take up Kuma. The tsuba is cold when I put my thumb on it. The weight is instantly noticeable. I wonder; what sort of burden could this beautiful weapon truly be?
Later at the dojo, Kuma waits for me in its plain, black cloth bag sharp and ready to help me learn. I take the weapon into my hands and check the fit and finish of the sword. It’s clean and all the fittings secure. It’s as safe as it’s going to get. I sit in seiza and tell myself, “Be Here.” Being with my breathing, it becomes deep and regular. The floor is cold and hard. The sun’s last rays are bright as they shines through the windows. It will be dark soon. The sunlight is warm on my back, but does little to warm the floor. I can hear my dojo mates as they shuffle about behind me, stretching or warming up. The distinctive, sharp, whistle of Sensei’s sword punctuates his cuts as he practices a standing kata across the room. Familiar smells fill the air. The sharp smell of choji oil, the laundry detergent I washed my clothes in, sweat, dust, and other less definable scents waft by and are left to pass with each breath. My mouth still tastes of the tea I drank before class.
I think I may have tied my obi too tight. My foot is cramping. I’m getting hungry and thirsty. My knees hurt! I may need to use the bathroom. I start to wonder why I even came. This was a mistake. I’m getting too old for this kind of thing. I could be at home with a beer or tangled up with a beautiful woman or listening to live blues at the brewery. I breath and realize how quickly and totally my mind has grasped and been carried off with these thoughts. “HERE.”
“Here.” I let those thoughts go. They aren’t serving me. I’m here, with Kuma and there is only one way this evening is going to end. I perform seated reiho and tuck the slick, lacquered saya into my belt. “Here. Breath and be here.” I start Ipponme Mae. The first form of the Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei kata set. The first I ever learned. I keep my mind open but aware. “Here,” I tell myself again and again. Each time my mind wanders to my achy knees or my car that is past due for an oil change, to my plans for the weekend or the other stress from the world I left outside the dojo, I tell myself: “Here,” and practice goes on. Kuma and I work well together. No “reminders” to be present tonight. I’m lucky to receive multiple corrections from Poitras Sensei. More challenges. I need to make the corrections but can’t let thoughts of these corrections carry me away. My ego wants to chime in and wants my mind to run off on vacation with it.
Practice passes quickly just like it always does. Tonight, like many nights that came before, I have done more than train my body. I have cultivated an energetic yet mindful state and been as present as possible for a much loved and valuable part of my life. The additional responsibility of practicing with a deadly weapon has not only made me a better swordsman, but also a better human being. Tonight, Kuma has been more than a weapon it has been an invaluable tool to aid me along my way. I leave the dojo and step out into the chilly night air. Breathing, in the soft light cast by the moon and the street lights, I can be “Here” and appreciate each moment as though that’s all there is.