Karate and the Sword
I have always enjoyed "good" television programs.
You know the kind I mean.
PBS shows, National Geographic, the History Channel, the kind of programs that not only inform you, but also make you take the time to think about what you have just seen.
Now don't get me wrong, I like a mindless action flick now and again just as much as the next person, but when it comes to wanting to increase my learning curve on a particular subject that interests me, there is nothing like a good book, or good television program on the topic at hand to really set my mind in motion.
Not long ago I was watching just such a program, as I recall it was a National Geographic program entitled, "Living National Treasures of Japan".
The program in essence revolved around a very select group of individuals to whom the Japanese government had awarded the title of "Living National Treasure". Currently only 75 people hold this honour.
This great honour had been awarded to these individuals, who are famous throughout their homeland, in recognition of their having attained the highest possible level of skill in their chosen discipline, and for their unselfish contribution to that particular aspect of Japanese culture.
For example, one lady was a Master famous for her dyed cloth.
One man was a Master potter, renowned for the beauty of the delicate objects that came from the fires of his kiln.
Another man was a Master of the art of paper making, and his paper was in tremendous demand by those who practice the art of calligraphy, and on it went.
Now I must say that while I marvelled at the skill of each of the honourees, as a student of the martial arts I was most fascinated by the skill of the Master sword maker.
From raw material, to a finish sword, the process was truly a thing of beauty.
The Master first took the raw steel and heated it in the fire of his forge until it glowed red hot. He then withdrew the heated metal and placed it on an anvil, where it was rhythmically pounded time, and time again, by his two assistants until he was satisfied with the result, at which time the metal was returned to the fire.
While this process was shortened for the benefit of the program, this can in fact go on for hours, even days. Often when he brought the heated metal from the forge to the anvil, the master would have his assistants cease their hammering, at which point he would cleave the metal almost in half across it's width, and then he would fold the metal on top of it's self, only to have his assistants once again resume their relentless hammering.
It has been said that the steel in a sword of the highest quality will have been folded more than one thousand times.
Finally, when the sword obtained the size and shape that the Master had envisioned, he would heat it one final time, then, when he felt the moment was right, he quickly withdrew the blade from the forge and immediately plunged it into cold water. This had the effect of rapidly cooling the sword into it's final form.
This, however, was only the first step in a very orderly process of creation.
When the program ended I found myself thinking back to how the Master had forged the sword. He had such a passion, and an eye for detail that seemed to allow him to "see" the finished product long before it materialized in his hand.
I could not help but compare this process of hammering, tempering, and repeated shaping, to the art of karate-do, and the overall development of a student, from beginner, to black belt.
The student is the raw material.
The Sensei the fire, and the hammer.
Over hours, days, months, and years, the Sensei like the sword Master hammers away at every little flaw he or she sees, shaping the student through the standards and techniques of their individual style, until that day arrives when they can finally begin see the result of their efforts, in the emerging form of a Sho Dan.
Just as there are many Dan levels in karate, there are also many levels in the process of creating a finished sword. The sword Master may make the blade but essentially there his task ends, and he passes the sword into the hands of another to work on from there.
The sword first goes to the polisher who is himself a Master of this particular art. He works over the rough surface of the blade time, and time again, removing every last visible imperfection until the blade shines like the noon day sun.
In terms of karate I liken this step to the student being once more moulded through further training, only to emerge several years later in the form of a Ni Dan. Better than they were, yet still not all they can be.
The next step in the process sees the sword leave the hands of the polisher and pass onto the hands of the Master sharpener. Once more an man dedicated to the perfection of one singular task takes his place in the process. He will hone the sword time, and time again, until a perfect cutting edge is created along the entire length of the sword. An edge that is capable of cutting through an amazing amount of material.
In terms of karate I liken this step to the student rising to yet another level, the rank of San Dan. Here their skills are no longer generated solely by premeditated thought alone, but instead after more than a decade of training, the students techniques will by now have become much more instinctive in nature, as well as extremely well controlled. A sure sign of progess, but a long way from perfection.
The sword now makes another journey in it's search for final perfection, this time being placed in the hands of the Master engraver. With keen eyes, a skilled touch, and the patience of a saint, the Master will engrave upon the polished, and sharpen sword, an image or perhaps some kanji, worthy of the sword it's self. The engraving may have been selected in advance by the sword maker, or left to the discretion of the engraver, or perhaps it was requested by a specific client for whom the sword was being made.
In terms of karate I liken this step to the creation of a Sensei or teacher. One who has been moulded, sharpened, and polished, and who is now ready with the consent of their own Shihan (Master) to open a dojo of their own, while still remaining under his guidance and association. This then is a student who has reached the rank of Yon Dan. A qualified teacher in their own right who still continues to train on a regular basis, keenly aware of the fact that the need to continually polish their own skills is a never ending task.
At last the sword is returned to the Master sword maker, who can at last see in the finished sword, and the image that for so long was visible only in his minds eye. A true thing of beauty, begun by the vision of one man, yet truly created only through the combined efforts of several Masters, all of whom are "National Living Treasures".
In terms of karate I liken this step to the student passing their final physical grading, and now being awarded the rank of Go Dan, the highest pre-war rank that Master Gichin Funakoshi ever awarded. From here on out what the student learns and what they teach to others, will be a by-product of the hands and minds that created them.
For like the sword, we are all, at any stage in our karate development, the total sum of all that has been given to us, and all that we ourselves have put in, by way of time, effort, energy, and spirit.
Never judge anything by it's appearance,
in truth it is the content that matters.
Part the clouds - see the way.
"The objective of karate-do is to contribute to the evolution
of the human spirit through physical and mental training."
Sensei Peter Lindsay