23 June 2017

Sword - Discriminating wisdom

Studying Sword may seem an anachronism in our age of frictionless surfaces, but for me has been essential in my development in life and in T'ai Chi. What we study is far from being the negatively charged image of macho hack-and-slay found in gaming and blockbusters, and also nothing like the CG-enhanced ballet of martial arts movies, fun though that can be to watch.

Throughout history, not just in Chinese culture, the sword, correctly wielded, has been the symbol par excellence of discriminating wisdom. This includes the faculty of knowing right from wrong action; cutting through lies, deceit and illusion: removing the inessential. Through meditation, insight, correct practice, contemplation, study, and hard work the mind is made to reflect the sharpness and balance of the ideal sword. Think of the ubiquitous Western figure of Justice, in her hands a sword and scales, or in all the Abrahamic cultures Solomon and his penetrating wisdom. In Buddhist images of Manjushri, transcendent wisdom is represented by his flaming sword. Think of Occam's razor, or the wrathful sword-wielding deities of Hinduism, Bon and the shamanic traditions of northern Europe, remember Arthur, Freya, Boudicca, Joan of Arc. In China the double-edged sword (Jian) was the sword of the scholar, and considered a fine art to study alongside poetry, calligraphy, literature and medicine. John Kells' teacher Dr Chi Chiang Tao had a great sword teacher - Sword Master Hsu, (there is a great photo of them in the Kobayashi Classical Sword book). In our culture currently swords and knives are rarely seen as useful and noble tools but mostly as threatening and evil weapons, used only by madmen and those with a grudge. In Sweden, for instance this is not the case at all, and young children learn the safe use and respect due to sharp blades at a very young age. Demonising swords and knives leads to recklessness, a lack of skill and unwarranted fear. It will ultimately lead to an impoverishment of the unconscious, as the rich ancient procession of images of beneficial sword-wielding archetypes, historical figures and deities seems to have entirely stalled. The side of the sword that we wish to cultivate includes restraint, sensitivity, courage and above all awareness.

You rapidly develop spatial awareness when studying sword. If you don't you get hit. Outreaching, joining, yielding, returning: the great principles - these are all brought sharply into focus when the opponent has over a metre of steel or wood pointing at your heart, even in the gentle, good natured environment of Mark's classes.

Not having grown up as a young boy, I missed out on running around with toy swords, and chose netball over archery and fencing at school. In our era there are no longer age, race, class or gender barriers to learning T'ai Chi weapons, (there certainly were in many earlier times and most places), and I recommend it to all who have a few years practice under their belt. Once, during the nine years I was teaching in Hackney, a man came along saying that he had done T'ai Chi for 5 years elsewhere and that he wanted me to teach him Sword. I said he could come along and do Long Form and Push hands for a while first, as obviously it would be entirely inappropriate for me to arm a stranger who I did not know... Needless to say his pride and haste meant I never saw him again. All the serious students of sword I have met, whether of Iaido, Western fencing, Kendo or T'ai Chi, have been peaceful and skilful people. There are some people to whom one should not teach weapons, and it is abundantly clear who they are when one first meets them. However, as we have seen far too much recently, anything can be used as a weapon: a hire car, beer bottle, kitchen knife. I wish to suggest that we rehabilitate the thoughtful and responsible study of the sword exactly as an antidote to mindlessness and explosive reactivity, both in ourselves and in the wider culture.

Just like the intellect, the sword may be used to good or bad effect. Ignoring the energy of the sword, and the place of the use of weapons generally in the long history of humans will not make them go away. I suggest that the conscious and mindful study of weapons in T'ai Chi is of great benefit physically, mentally and symbolically in the inner life of the practitioner.

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