The Concept of Kendo and my Kendo Training
by, 13th December 2009 at 05:15 PM (6602 Views)
For those who are interested in what is required for Renshi... Looking back, it is a little bit corny. But hey, I got a golden certificate to hang on my wall
Submitted for the Kendo Renshi Examination 2006-02-12
The Concept of Kendo
The concept of Kendo is to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the Katana (sword).
Why practice Kendo now, and how relevant is the official Concept of Kendo? What benefits can be gained through training in a martial art which has no obvious self-defence applications? What is the point? These are valid questions for any practitioners of Japanese budo. The benefits of training in any physical activity are obvious, but in the case of kendo, reference is often made to the character-building potential. The educational characteristics of kendo are widely accepted in Japan (if not unquestioned), but many people seem to not understand that just training in kendo is not enough for it to be an effective means of spiritual growth. The practitioner does not become a ‘good’ person by virtue of just turning up at the dojo for training. A conscious effort needs to be made to try and understand the many, often nebulous principles that provide the philosophical basis for kendo.
The physical benefits of training in kendo are relatively easy to discern. As with diligent participation in any form of physical exercise, you quickly notice a boost in energy and vitality. Apart from overall physical fitness, as perfection of form is stressed in kendo, long-time practitioners will naturally develop a straight posture and an air of elegance in movement as well as coordination and muscular flexibility. The mental/spiritual benefits are more difficult to gage. The emphasis on etiquette (rei) encourages the practitioner to treat others with courtesy and respect. We rely heavily on training partners or opponents to improve, and positive cooperation and feelings of gratefulness and humility are encouraged and expressed with rituals of bowing and speech patterns and so on. Also, the quest to master the techniques of kendo requires patience, resilience, determination, discipline, concentration, powers of analysis, vigour, and insight. Anybody who is not blessed with such virtues will be given ample opportunity to develop them as through developing proficiency in kendo. Moreover, the rigour of training and constant yelling (kiai) and attacking in a controlled environment (dojo) is a particularly effective way of relieving stress and maintaining one's mental health.
Kendo is a combat art. Of course, it has little practical application in this day and age as far as learning techniques for self-defence. However, each time you face an opponent, it is a struggle to strike or be struck. Despite the absence of the ingredient of fear and reality of serious death or injury that warriors of old needed to overcome, the actual process and mechanics for engagement remains fairly much the same, and it is this process that lies at the essence of kendo (and indeed other combat arts). In simple terms, the process is as follows:
Facing opponent in on-guard position (kamae) → Mutual probing of defences/applying pressure (seme-ai) → Detection of openings and selection of techniques → Execution of a valid strike (yuko-datotsu) → Physical and psychological composure and alertness after the attack (zanshin). In kendo, emphasis is placed on valid strikes born of “a unity of spirit, weapon and body (気剣体一致) (ki-ken-tai-itchi)”. From a technical standpoint, a valid cut is one in which the practitioner wields the ‘blade’ in the correct manner; which in turn is directly related to the manner in which the shinai is gripped (tenouchi) in fighting position (kamae). In addition, good bearing; smooth technique initiation; and correct strike path (hasuji)—all deriving from correct kamaeare vital elements. Subsequent to the valid strike, physical focus and composure are also demanded. From a psychological standpoint, “striking with abandon”, (sutemi) is required when executing a technique. The ability to strike with abandon, with utter conviction, is essentially a product of the unity of mind, spirit and technique (心気力一致- shin-ki-ryoku-itchi) occurring in a kendo engagement. This unity of mind, spirit and technique is a prerequisite to dominating a match and enables an immediate strike in response to an opening produced during the seme-ai (probing) stage. Moreover, zanshin, or psychological composure following the strike, is concomitant with sutemi.
These are the “principles of the sword”, but how do they contribute to becoming mentally stronger and a better human being who can make a contribution to society at large? Of course, this depends entirely on the efforts and intentions of the individual practitioner. However, through the action of facing off against an opponent who is trying to attack, the kendo practitioner is faced with many difficulties to overcome, the greatest if which is not so much the strength or skill of the opponent, but one’s own personal weaknesses. To be more precise, personal development through kendo is related to overcoming what are referred to as the shikai (four sicknesses of the heart or mind). The four sicknesses are ‘surprise’, ‘fear’, ‘doubt’, and ‘confusion’. When any of these weaknesses are present, openings will result, and defeat is inevitable. For example, when faced with an opponent who is particularly large, has a strong presence, or is renowned for their skill, this could incite fear. If they attempt something unexpected such as a flashy technique, you may find yourself becoming a little surprised. Your opponent may try to entice you into making an attack against your will by leaving a target open for attack. This may cause doubt as you wonder whether it is safe to make an attack. Similarly you may be momentarily confused as to the best course of action or which technique to employ. This confused mental state resulting in hesitation is referred to as kogishin.
If you lose to your emotions, you lose to your opponent. In this sense, your opponent in a match or training is a valuable partner whose cooperation affords you the opportunity to face your fears front-on, with no choice to run away from them. This can be extremely frustrating at first, but consciously tackling your weaknesses in this way is how kendo can serve as a vehicle for continual character development. Thus, your opponent should always be respected for their assistance in your progress. If you are successful in striking your opponent, you are teaching them of their weaknesses, and likewise a successful strike made against you is a perfect opportunity to assess your own faults. Hence, your opponent should be afforded the utmost respect and courtesy. As you become proficient in the techniques of kendo, you will find that when you get struck, it is more often than not a problem resulting from the ‘four illnesses’ rather than a technical deficiency, or something special about your opponent.
An important point to note here is that kendo interaction is based on trust and observance of the rules of engagement. Although both practitioners are vying to strike each other, it is considered weak or cowardly to gain victory through trickery or underhanded means. Of course, learning to develop strategy is an important part of overall development, but at the same time it is considered virtuous to fight ‘fairly and squarely’. You can win sometimes by fooling your opponent, but essentially that is taking the easy route, and only fooling yourself. Having said that, you should be prepared for any kind of opponent, but still strive to deal with them doing kendo as ‘correctly’ and as ‘honestly’ as possible.
As your understanding of kendo develops, you will nurture many attributes and strengths which will serve you well not only in the dojo but in aspects of your everyday life. You will become confident, and be able to remain calm in all sorts of adverse situations. In other words, you will be able to nurture such qualities as ki-gurai, heijoshin, and fudoshin, etc. This is how kendo and “principles of the sword” has aided in my development as a person. I believe I have a social obligation to continue training and growing as a human being, and hopefully have a positive effect on those around me by setting an example.