The Warrior’s Concerto

con·cer·to /kənˈCHerdō/ noun noun: concerto; plural noun: concerti; plural noun: concertos

  1. a musical composition for a solo instrument or instruments accompanied by an orchestra, especially one conceived on a relatively large scale.

The etymology is uncertain, but the word seems to have originated from the conjunction of the two Latin words conserere (meaning to tie, to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight): the idea is that the two parts in a concerto, the soloist and the orchestra or concert band, alternate episodes of opposition, cooperation, and independence in the creation of the music flow. — WIKIPEDIA

It’s Tuesday night. The air in the Brookline dojo is hot and sticky. The wood floors have been playing hell with my hakama all night and suri ashi stepping has been a jerky painful experience. Now, my feet are aching from the sticky floor and the constant exertion of staying rooted but mobile. My wits raw from fighting the floor for possession of my hakama, and my hands ache. I’m gripping my faithful old bokken too tight. The wooden sword has been with me for years and shows the signs of having been through this before. I relax and fix my eyes on those of the old swordsman standing across from me. Lou is an aged fellow, polite, friendly, and highly skilled. Right now his gaze is all business and his sword is held at the ready. Lou raises his bokken to Jodan no kamae, sword held high above the head, stepping forward with his left foot. I raise my sword to Jodan in response. He begins his advance and I move to meet him. We stop just within range of attack, swords held high in Jodan no kamae, threatening a blistering fast decent and death dealing cut. I tell myself that I have time. I have plenty of time. Lou’s sword begins its decent. “I have time. Let it come.” The wooden blade drops in a painfully slow arc as my mind races with alarms, options, and reassurances. “I have time.” The blade is on its way. The aim is true. My wrist is going to be severed or at least broken by the wooden blade of Lou’s bokken. “I have time.” I can see Lou’s face, resolute and focused. I see his body moving toward me. I see his sword, dropping in its ever accelerating arc. It’s close and it’s moving very fast now. “MOVE!” The thought echoes through my mind too late. My body has already started to move back, the sticky floor yielding to me like water as well trained muscles take over in place of a slower active mind. I shuffle back a half step, stretching up and back a tiny bit to gain height and distance, lifting my sword slightly higher to move the targeted wrist up and away from the blow meant to sever it. Muscles tensed and pressing forward, yearning to engage, despite moving away from my attacker. I see the opening I’ve been waiting for. Lou’s sword passes close but safely past the wrist he was aiming for and down the front of my body, his missed strike pulling him forward leaving his sword low. The forward pressure in my body is finally unleashed when the tip of my boken starts to move. I take a half step forward, my blade falling. My sword and body stop moving in the same instant, the blade barely an inch from the crown of Lou’s head. He raises his eyes to mine. He should be a dead man right now. He straightens and I lower the tip of my sword to a point just between his eyes. He needs to see the danger he is in. He has lost. Lou shuffles back a half step, gaining distance, searching for a tactical advantage or at least a way out of danger. I’ll not have it. He has lost and this is over. I press forward, the tip of my sword driving forward to his face. He retreats and as we both move I raise my blade threateningly into Jodan No Kamai. The finishing blow is coming. He is done. His concession of defeat is short but formal and we return to our starting points to have the confrontation again, and again, and again. The conversation with no words is complete. The story is told and I have expressed an honest, earnest desire to live and succeed despite the best efforts of those who might stand against me. Another tiny victory in a life filled with a reasonable balance of wins and losses. We switch roles. I initiate and lose while he responds to the aggression and wins. I know there is a lesson there. Sensei makes corrections and encourages us to continue. He prunes away unnecessary movement, distilling the technique to be efficiently effective. He stresses the importance of kendo kata for both Iaido practitioners and Kendo players. He wants us to be better. He wants us to succeed. We continue to practice kendo kata all night. The dojo is quiet but vigorously alive and active. Lou and I work together without talking for the most part. Resolutely swapping roles and accepting our fate. Here I’m the winner, here the loser. There I was attacker, but here the defender. Our timing and distance, once a recurring reason to stop and make adjustments, begins to flow together. The swords are finding the proper distance. The kata is flowing. We have found our rhythm. Wants and needs fall away. There isn’t any more trying. We are practicing with calm determination and love for the art that we share. There is communication but it’s not obvious to the lay observer. The sheer amount of information being exchanged is staggering to contemplate. Every movement, no matter how subtle, has meaning. Nobody is going to die tonight, but life still hangs in the balance. A life spent in devotion to a practice is the life that is being put to the test. Have I been genuine to myself and my practice? Can my truth overcome his in this? There is a meeting in the local government offices downstairs. Shouts and stomping from a crowd of excited swordsmen is the last thing they want to hear tonight so we content ourselves with kendo kata. Little do the officials know the life and death struggles that are being rehearsed just a few feet above their heads. Lou and I know. The danger that we are putting each other in was at the forefront of our minds when class started. These kata are to be performed with intent and strong cuts. We strike at real targets and pull our blows mere inches before they land. We aren’t aiming to harm each other but we also aren’t holding anything back. If Lou or I fail to move or parry a blow in time, serious or even deadly injury could result. The timing and distance errors were as much a result of being over cautious and fearful of injury as from inexperience or lack of practice. As practice continues and everyone relaxes into their roles a change occurs. The adjustments and corrections dry up and stop almost altogether. I look up in between kata and realize that this is more than just a practice hall. This is where stories of life and death are being played out. This is a place where ego meets truth and peace has a home. No blood is ever spilled here but illusions and preconceptions are challenged and shattered. Nobody ever dies here but we all lay our illusions and limitations to rest. This is not a concerto that any musician or conductor would ever recognize, but thoughts and emotions are being expressed in as true a sense as possible. The players and instruments are moving fluidly from opposition, to cooperation. The players strive to accomplish their individual goals, but are still part of a whole that incorporates attacker and defender into a dance that can have only one outcome.

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