Martial Musings: Blades - Windows to Life, Revelations of Soul!

My earliest martial memories are of wanting to swing the Katana (Samurai Sword), much like the character of Zatoichi, the Blind Swordsman. Those old Japanese movies never tired me out (much to my parents' disdain).

It was not until many years later, in my teens, that I held a real tanto: Sastri Sensei's tanto. It was sleek, sharp and deadly and to my eyes, it was the most beautiful piece of art ever.

He handed it to me and asked me to attack.

My hands gripped the Tsuka (handle), and felt the silk Iro (binding). The steel blade reflected my face like a mirror and evoked within me a deep sense of awe. Drawing upon some unseen strength and composure, my spine straightened into my Kamae (ready stance). Attack, reversal and I saw my face reflected in the blade again.

I WAS IN LOVE! With cold, sharp and deadly steel.

Two decades later, the affair continues with Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and American blades.

This week was one of cold nights in California and most students stayed away. A few of the dedicated showed up and I decided to work with a combination of Tanto and Yawara holds.

We worked with at least half a dozen yaware holds with the knife. Then we did some quarter speed random flow/free flow knife sparring. The objective was to "not get cut, correctly angle out and deliver your own kill."

Our sessions always end with a summary what we did and a dialogue. "The Knife evokes many different moods. Fear. A feeling of Awe. Sometimes sacred. A sense of something Magickal. If you approach your relationship with the Tanto (blade) with honesty, it is a perfect mirror. The way one holds and relates with a knife reveals a lot. Pay attention, it could save your life and reveal your soul."

One of my students asked what specifically he should pay attention to. I confessed, I do not know of a map or algorithm for all possible combinations. Yet, there are a few things everyone can notice:

  1. How do you/your opponent like to brandish the blade? Is it straight grip, reverse grip or ice pick? Clue in on his/her prefrential Ma-ai (distance) and cutting style.
  2. Is the blade in your face, moving side to side or coiled in like a snake ready to strike? S/He is giving you pointers on their preferred strategy.
  3. Does s/he get hyper or relax into the blade? You now know their comfort with the steel.
  4. Is the blade fresh out of a store or does it have the scars of time? This helps you get a clue if w/he is a recreational user, a collector or one who actually uses this as a tool.
  5. Traditional Kamae or a dancer/fencer? Marking this will give you clues on their mobility, speed and lines of attack.
  6. How tense/relaxed is the body, especially the eyes and shoulders? Those with tensed body/eyes skew as one trick ponies or are prone to nervousness and sudden movement

These are but some pointers and, much like life, the study of the knife is filled with surprises. After most students had left a senior student asked me how the knife is a revelation of the soul.

"Well, let's look at how you move with the knife. You exclusively use the hammerhead grip, try to keep the opponent at bay and bet your life on one strategy. When you spar, you only see the knife and nothing else."

He nodded and I continued, "Where else do you do that in your life...? Everywhere where you have a challenge - you only see that one challenge and nothing else that might be coming your way. It is currently your only strategy, betting the whole house on that one move." He laughed nervously.

We continued going through fighting strategies of some other students. How one student would use "deception as the only strategy" while another relied on "traditional forms" and yet another "did not care a damn." In short, under duress, people tend to revert to their comfort zone using only one key strategy.

Nature aims for efficiency and successful strategy is rewarded when it is hard coded. Does this mean we are doomed to one strategy?

Not necessarily. It takes work.

It takes conscious training to build in new responses. These new strategies then become hard coded in the body-mind, building a flexible fighter. Flexibility brings more choices in how we "choose to respond to life."

This is the meaning of "as in dojo, so in life". If you rely only on one thing in the dojo, you probably do the same in life. Build choices in the dojo, and you train yourself for more choices in life.

And most importantly, building a flexible, pliable ego in the pursuit of understanding those choices is crucial to building a flexible, adaptable fighter.

Oh, before I forget. The knife has traditionally been used in various magical and religious orders, as a way to “cut the veil" and "protect oneself from forces seen or unseen." Think about that.

Over the last few years, I have moved to learning Espada y Daga and Western Rapier. This means new kinds of blades, renewed fascination, and the unlocking of my own inner spaces. It has started to change how I move and respond. It is changing how I dance with and for life.

On my drive home that cold California evening, I found myself smiling ear to ear. I had seen that fire, that awe of knife again - in my students' eyes.

Live your knife. Train. Learn from it. Reveal it and reveal your soul.

Mahipal Lunia, Sensei