Staring death in the eye


We sat motionless opposite each other. I was suspicious of the man opposite me, but bowed, as protocol required. And then, with lightning quickness, I loosened my sword from its scabbard and in one swift movement cut down my enemy. The blow delivered, I focused my entire attention on the lifeless form slumped before me, flicking the blood off the blade and replacing my sword in its scabbard.

I’m not a murderer, nor a samurai. I’m a practitioner of the martial art of iaido, the exercise of perfect swordsmanship — using a real sword — against an imaginary opponent or opponents. When practicing a waza (set form), the opponent is visualized so powerfully as to seem almost real. Anything less may lead to a lapse in concentration, and in sword fighting, one gap in your defense and you’re as good as dead.

“A katana is a highly efficient killing tool, just like a spear or a bow,” says Esaka Seigen, an iaido master with more than 47 years’ experience, who holds the highest rank of hanshi, 10th dan. “But it is more than just a weapon; it is a means of training the heart and mind so that it takes you beyond cutting to trying to achieve wa, or harmony with others. This is what I am trying to achieve through iaido.”

Like other martial arts, iaido confers both mental and physical benefits: It improves the practitioner’s powers of concentration, and the physical control required develops the muscles. But perhaps the most beneficial and difficult aspect is breathing. This is the reason iaido is often described as “moving zazen.”

“For me learning iaido is predominantly cerebral. Using a katana correctly was one attraction, but the mental challenge was the most alluring aspect of the art,” says Christopher Clarke, a New Zealander who has been practicing for about six months.

As with zazen, many people practice iaido to improve themselves. Mental discipline is required, as is an attitude of respect — not only for the fellow practitioners and other human beings, but for the sword itself.

For disciples of iaido, as for the samurai, the sword is their soul. The sword, whether an iaito (practice sword) or a shinken (real sword), is bowed to with the same reverence one would accord to a person. Stepping over a sword is forbidden — to do so in the feudal era would have resulted in a duel to the death — and a drawn sword is passed to someone with the blade facing toward oneself, so that if it slips it will fall against the clumsy handler, not the other person.

Reverence is the keynote of all iaido practice sessions.

The sensei stands at the front of the dojo. Facing him are the students, standing in ranked lines. All bow together to the shinzen, or spirit, of the dojo. After sitting in seiza (kneeling posture), the sword is placed beside the right knee, and everybody bows to the sensei, their backs parallel to the floor. Next, the sword is bowed to — with the same spirit of mind.

The first part of the practice, conducted entirely in silence, starts with the sensei performing a waza. Each student must observe carefully, trying to glean what inspiration he can from the sensei’s demonstration, then perform the actions him or herself. (There are few women in this male-dominated world. As one of them, Chikako Hattori, admits, “There are times when I am treated a little differently, as if I am delicate because I am a woman . . . though I prefer to be treated just like men are.”)

After the basic waza have been rehearsed, the second half of the session is free practice, in which the sensei directs senpai (senior students) to instruct kohai (junior students). Then the practice ends as it began: Students bow to their swords, then to the sensei, then to the shinzen. The sensei is thanked, and the session ends.

Such etiquette was probably low on the list of priorities for iaido’s founder, a samurai named Hayashizaki Jinsuke Minamoto no Shigenobu (born circa 1542). It is said that when the 18-year-old Shigenobu went to pray at a temple to ask the gods to help him find the man who killed his father, they responded by conveying the secrets of iaido to him. The school he created, Hayashizaki Muso Ryu, is widely accepted as the origin of iaido.

Many branch schools descended from Hayashizaki Muso Ryu, but the only direct line today leads to Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu, of which Esaka Sensei is acknowledged to be the top practitioner. This school has more than 15,000 adherents in Japan, and hundreds more in countries all over the world, including Canada, the United States, France, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom. The schools are united by a single governing body, the Zen Nihon Iaido Renmei, which has more than 20,000 members.

I joined the ranks of iaido disciples eight years ago. I began because I wanted to learn something that would help me improve myself, and in the process I have gained much understanding of the katana, Japanese traditional clothing and the importance of respect. My goal is to maintain my iaido presence of mind at all times, though I have a long way to go before I achieve this.

But as Esaka Sensei says, “Iaido is a path where you never reach your final destination. That’s what makes it interesting.”