By Ryan Wong
Free Scholar - Bankeside Schoole of Defense
The Art of Defense, a general term which refers to both the Eastern and Western Martial Arts. No matter what or how you call it, they both have one thing in common. This one thing is that they are an Art. No matter what style, technique or master we decide to study; the roots of it all still remain. This is an art form. Artist or sword persons are not born but made. It can take a lifetime to learn and another lifetime to master any form of art.
Learning to sword fight is the same as learning any other art. One must start at the beginning with the basics. When I say basics, it may not be what you think of as basics. A person may be taught how to use a sword and sword fight but they have not actually learned how to do it. The first steps to learning starts with the core basics. These basics are not the simple maneuvers that most practitioners refer to as the basics. The basics are in fact discipline, true understanding and humility.
Discipline, the core that holds together all the other principles. This is one of the most important aspects. Without discipline, there is nothing. There is an old adage; the pen is mightier than the sword. In this verse, both the pen and the sword are referred to in the same context; as a tool. These tools are an extension of the hand which conveys a specific thought. Again, we must keep in mind that what we are learning is an art form; the art of the sword. The sword may be considered a tool but we forget its true essence. It is still a weapon.
Keeping this in mind, discipline not only involves how we show our expression but it also involves the tools that we use in our expression. Discipline begins with respect. Respect for your opponent/partner and respect for your sword. Both should be treated with respect.
The sword may not be a physically living and breathing creature but it does feel pain. Every nick acquired from hard hits can be felt. Part of what a sword truly is dies when it endures degrading tribulations, such as when someone uses it to trim their hedges. Laugh as you may but the truth is that this has been attempted. The sword like any other tool needs to be handled with respect and discipline. The more you respect your weapon, the longer it will live and last.
Only when we achieve an understanding of this tool can we gain an understanding within ourselves. To truly learn swordplay, one needs patience. Patience is needed in order to learn the fundamental movements of swordplay. Patience builds muscle memory. Muscle memory will in turn lead to proper technique. There is no such thing as "quick and easy" when learning to use a sword. Attempting to learn in this manner will only lead to injuries due to improper technique. To fully understand and execute each movement takes time. Repeatedly doing over and over again to the point where it is almost second nature. At this point we stop but must continue on. Eventually the time will come when it is in fact second nature. When the time comes, it may not be what you think. The learning does not start here for the learning already started when the sword was first picked up. The first step has been taken on the journey to mastery.
Once a sense of discipline has been attained and the foundation has been set, more advanced skills will slowly be added. This is a very crucial moment as the fundamental movements previously learned are given a new vision of light. The pieces of the puzzle will gradually come together. It is at this stage that an open mind is crucial. While Discipline will always be needed, it will only go so far without the true understanding of what is being conveyed.
True understanding is not defined as knowing the physicality of a particular movement. It is defined as looking beyond the movements and analyzing the reasoning behind them. Whether it is a single stroke or an entire phrase, there is always a purpose. Sometimes the answer is extremely basic and straight forward. Other times it takes continued and disciplined practice with more intense thought to understand the purpose of the movement or phrase.
In situations such as these, the key to true understanding is keeping an open mind. Regardless of what it is labeled as; kata, form, routine or choreography, the journey is still the same. The path of the scholar often has more than one lesson to offer. No matter how trivial it may seem, a true scholar of the sword sees beyond this.
Consider choreographed routines...when done at full speed they look spectacular. Now instead of examining it in detail, let us look at it from a broader perspective. Besides the entertainment value, what else can the choreography show us? It actually offers several things.
When it comes to the apprentice scholar, choreography is similar to the instructions for putting together a jigsaw puzzle. It provides the foundation for putting what has been taught so far into practice by unveiling a better understanding of where to go in certain situations and how to do it. This in turn builds confidence and strengthens the muscles memory. Without this foundation, there is very little ahead on the journey to becoming a true scholar.
Choreography also helps in the conditioning of speed and control. Since it is a predetermined set of movements, all the actions must be made at specified times and in a specific order. Furthermore, control is a major factor. Accidents will happen when one is not where they are supposed to be. Hence control is vital in lessening, if not preventing injuries.
When it comes to the more experienced scholar, choreography will pave the way to the heart of a true scholar. It is in essence a teaching tool which basically teaches a scholar how to teach. Reading and knowing the individual steps of a routine does not mean anything. Repeated practice and guidance is required for true understanding. This true understanding will allow the experienced scholar to guide and instruct the apprentice on how to perform each step. Guidance in the form of instruction leads to furthering enlightenment on the path to true mastery.
Speaking of mastery, the written manuals of the original fight masters offer great insight. Like everything else in life, take them for what they are. The fight manuals are the best source of reference for sword practitioners. They are the closest thing we have to speaking with the masters directly. Unfortunately, the manuals are simply words with pictures on paper. Most have no definitive explanation for the techniques that are expressed.
Modern experts have extensively studied these manuals, deciphering the text to the best of their knowledge and ability. However, there is still the uncertainty of whether what is deciphered is indeed what the Master's had intended. Of course, who is to say that these interpretations are not what they truly intended.
Again, keep in mind that this is an art and all art is open for interpretation by the individual. With that said; modern masters have taken their comprehension of the old texts and have translated them to modern understandings. These translations are by no means exact. Even experts make mistakes at times and are not infallible. One oversight by these modern-day experts is that perhaps the original masters purposely intended for their texts to be vague. There are instances where the manuscripts encourage the scholar to expand on what has been developed. The true scholar should take what is written and improve upon it.
Here is where the underlying secret of understanding lies. The old fight manuals are guides for reference, not "How to" manuals. History has shown us this with the manuals themselves. If one opens their mind, they will notice that there are more similarities than differences between the various techniques.
Take longsword techniques as an example. Comparing the Italian and German methods, one will notice that the guard positions are almost exactly the same. Two highly recognized masters, Fiore dei Liberi and Hans Tallhoffer, from different cultures with small variations of the same movements. Other well known masters include Meyers and Liechtenauer; each teaching variations and adaptations of a generalized style.
Understanding occurs when the scholar is able to take what has been offered by the masters of old and add their personal character to the canvas. This ability to make a style their own is the ultimate proof that understanding has been achieved. It is with understanding that makes the goal of becoming a true scholar attainable.
Now that discipline and understanding have been developed, there is only one thing preventing a person from attaining swordplay mastery. This is by far the hardest of all traits to grasp. It cannot exist without the other two traits and they are meaningless without this one. Humility is the final component.
Humility cannot be learned nor taught. It is found within ourselves. To acquire the final quality the scholar must look in themselves for the answer. The answer in itself is quite simple in nature. It is as simple as basically knowing yourself and your capabilities. To comprehend humility, one needs to understand their skills and limitations compared to others. Remember, there is always somebody better.
Humility is the hardest trait to attain. It matter how many years a practitioner has been training. Without humility, they are no better than a novice for they will never grow in their skill. Growth as a scholar not necessarily comes from time but from being humble. Looking at an A-tiempo session from a different viewpoint reveals lessons to be learned. Lessons that isn't visible unless there is humility.
A true practitioner sees beyond the A-tiempo session. They do not see it as a competition. There is no gain from merely winning in A-tiempo. For that is not the true purpose of the exercise. A true practitioner does not see a need to constantly prove themselves to others. They know deep down how great their skills are. Only once this is realized, can one truly begin to find humility. This is only the first of two parts when referring to the trait of humility. Without this realization, the second part will never be revealed.
The second part of humility uses a trait previously learned on the scholarly path. This is why it is referred to as a basic trait, because it is part of every foundation. Since the competition factor has been removed, we can now see the true insight of the exercise and the essence of humility.
In every A-tiempo session, there will always be one who will come out on top and one who does not. It does not matter who is who. The true practitioner will come away being the victor no matter which they were. The victor is the one who has taken something away from the exercise itself. In its truest sense, both practitioners are the victor. How can there be two winners? Simple, they both walked away being better than they were before they started.
Humility is what holds back the scholar's urge to prove that they themselves are the better swordsperson. Truth be told, only when the binds of vanity are broken can the scholar's path be seen. When there is humility, the scholar's eyes are opened to infinite knowledge. Every match, whether it be skilled or unskilled, offers unique insight on the betterment of ones self. This extends not only to the participants but to the spectators as well, for they benefit from pure observation of technique and style.
Knowledge of the blade comes not only on the field but off as well. Visualizing others helps improve our own drawbacks and fine tunes our strengths. Effectively using humility will lead to this. Failure will only bring failure.
As long as these core disciplines are kept in mind, the defensive arts will continue to flourish and live on. Discipline, True Understanding and Humility are powerful traits by themselves but are nothing unless they are combined together. When the core basics are achieved, the path of a true scholar is revealed. This ultimately leads to the goal of mastery.
John Clements (2008). Masters of Medieval and Renaissance Martial Arts, Paladin Press Books
Daniel McNicoll (2009). Reclaiming the Blade, Galatia Films
Christian Tobler (2004). Fighting with the German Longsword, Chivalry Bookshelf
Christian Tobler (2001). Secrets of German Medieval Swordsmanship, Chivalry Bookshelf
Guy Windsor (2004). The Swordsman's Companion, Chivalry Bookshelf