Kendō and the Pursuit of Perfection

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The presence of a samurai, a completely balanced composite of strength and internal peace. Stable. Silent, yet a presence that roars louder than the largest waterfall or a thousand claps of thunder. Eyes fixed on your own, staring through, completely full, yet bearing nothing other than a reflection than your own reflection. It is difficult to see his breaths.

In the peace, he lets out a scream. It is so natural you question whether it happened. A breath. Falcon-like, so piercing that it seems carried by something entirely different than the vibrating atoms of sound. It slithers between your ribs and strait into your heart like a swift current of electricity. Disarming. So loud and fierce, yet somehow not in the least bit in conflict with the silence of the old wooden hall where you stand. One.

Sword drawn, directed towards you. The samurai, waiting. Peering inside of you like a hawk peers inside of a river at a fish it would like to make its next meal. Listening for the slightest opening of a chance, where he will convert his body into a movement as quick as the lightening of his voice, striking you and tearing through your membrane that separates you from the external world.  He converts himself into something higher than his body. E = mc2.

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The more tense you are, the easier this task for him will  be. If you are like the empty mirror or the pure water of the stream, receptive and flowing, you cannot be cut. Perfect receptivity is perfect swordsmanship. Beginners run back and forth with all of their energy trying to break through one another. Masters spend 10s of minutes in silence standing and circling. Listening.

Its the same heart that is held by the master of any art. The heart that holds nothing other than what is at hand. Drinking tea, painting calligraphy, arranging flowers–it’s all the same.  It would not be in the least bit shocking to see the two masters set down their swords mid-duel to accept a cup whipped green tea. The heart is the same. Sky-like and empty.

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What is the drive? The reason? A tea ceremony sensei explained it to me well: to live beautifully. To do everything in beauty and to strive for a perfection of this beauty; this is the game of our species. Whether you’re placing a flower in the perfect position in an arrangement or embodying the perfected posture of a Buddha seated in meditation, it is all the same. To purify, to eliminate that which separates us from the rest of the world, and to be empty like the sky above the clouds.

My kendō sensei asked me today what it is that I like about kendō. I answered that kendō is most certainly “a way/a road”, as the “dō” in kendō signifies; and that within each individual there is his own mountain to climb, and that paths like this allow us to climb up into the higher peaks of our being. He looked at me deadpan in the eyes with a blank expression on his face, and without needing a moment to calculate, replied: “There is no limit.”

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