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How to Practice Kendo Without Thinking December 13, 2009

Posted by Alex Sawit in Stuff in General.

By Alex Sawit

13 December 2009


Kendo is now an ongoing topic of pleasant debate at the wine shop.  You see, my old friend and new business partner, Cecile, is a devoted kendoist who insists on reserving her Saturdays for training only.  That means no late nights at Cyrano on Friday and no scheduling of business related activities the following day.

“I want to be mentally prepared for my afternoon sparring matches,” she insists.

I wonder, though, if she puts herself under too much pressure.  She sometimes asks for my advice on how she should prepare for these battles.  As a fellow martial artist, I simply tell her not to think about how good or bad her technique is.  Don’t even think about winning or losing.  Don’t think, period.  That’s what I wish for her to understand. But listening to the way she likes to critique the details of her mock-combat performances, I think my advice still puzzles her.

Maybe this will help.  I remember that I do have something for her to read that completely explains what I mean.  It’s a commentary I wrote years ago about kendo, entitled, “Attaining the Empty Mind: Lessons in Swordsmanship From The Book of Five Rings.”

So I’m posting it here.  I hope she gives it proper thought.  To not think, that is.




The following is my re-edited commentary (originally posted in 2002), which I wrote as part of a book discussion about “The Book of Five Rings.”

Written in the 17th century by the great swordsman Miyamoto Musashi,
“The Book of Five Rings” is a classic reference in Japanese martial arts. In my commentary, I focus on the subject of “Empty Mind.” It is one of the key concepts in Musashi’s book and I fully explain it in the context of the Japanese fencing sport of kendo.   – Alex Sawit





Attaining the Empty Mind

Lessons in Swordsmanship From
The Book of Five Rings



   I was recently watching a documentary whose lessons vividly bring to life ideas from The Book of Five Rings.

   The 1997 documentary is entitled “Kendo’s Grueling Challenge” and follows the events of the Hachi-Dan (8th Degree Black Belt) kendo exam held that May at the Kyoto Martial Arts Centre.  The exam is held twice a year, once in Kyoto and once in Tokyo, and is described as the most difficult test of any kind in Japan (the average pass rate is less than 1%).

   In order to qualify for the exam, a candidate must be at least 46 years old and should have spent at least eight years as a 7th Degree Black Belt.  The exam itself consists of two elimination rounds of matches against other candidates in order to reach the final round.  What is most significant is that passing has nothing to do with winning or losing.  Instead, judges will only acknowledge a candidate if his strikes show that he has truly matured as a kendoist.

   One of the candidates in Kyoto that year was former All-Japan Champion Ishida Kenichi of Osaka.

   When he was still an active competitor, Ishida was feared for his amazing agility and uncanny ability to strike from any angle.  Even at age 48 (in 1997), his skills remained undiminished.  Still, his previous attempts at passing the exam had been a struggle.  On his very first attempt, Ishida failed because he tried to score hits as furiously as he used to do as a competitor.  On the next attempt he tried to deliver strikes with deliberate, perfect form after hearing someone say that style was important; the judges, however, disagreed.  On another attempt he tried to emphasize delivering only meaningful blows, but this only made him nervous during his matches.  After his last failed attempt, Ishida became convinced that his competitive instinct to win, which once brought him so much success in tournaments, had become a wall thwarting his efforts to pass the exam.  This led to a fateful decision: Now on his fifth attempt, Ishida committed himself to effortlessly unleashing his strikes, moving casually in a natural manner.

   “At the risk of sounding grandiose,” Ishida reflected, “I’d say the ultimate goal is to master a strike in which the mind, sword and body are united as one.  When [they] become one, you can strike as freely as you wish.  It’s not something you try to do – it just happens.  That’s what’s difficult about it.  The more you’re self-conscious about it, the less possible it is to deliver.”

   He did exactly that in the first elimination round, striking effortlessly and naturally.  But for Ishida the feeling was unfamiliar.  It did not feel as if he had done anything special.  On top of that, he had faced very tough opposition and could only produce scores that were very close.  After completing the round he assumed the worst.  Indeed he had already showered, changed and packed his bags when it was announced that he had qualified for the second round!  It was the first time in five attempts that Ishida had cleared the first screening.  Encouraged that his approach had been validated, he got back into gear and did as in the previous round, striking effortlessly and naturally but now clearly outscoring and trouncing his second round opponents on his way to qualifying for the finals.

   For all intents and purposes, Ishida is articulating the state of “Empty Mind” that every swordsman strives for.  He speaks of striking spontaneously with undivided mind and sword (or mind and body, since the sword is just an extension of the body).

   The concept of Empty Mind often mystifies students.  Yet this is something we use all the time in daily life.  Take the simple act of typing on a computer keyboard.  Most people learn by “punch” typing, looking at and hitting one key at a time.  Gradually they learn to hit the keys without constantly looking down to see where they are.  Eventually those who get used to it no longer take their eyes off the screen.  Without looking at the keyboard and consciously thinking about it, keystrokes flow freely as the words come to thought.  Mind and fingertips strike as one.  This is Empty Mind.

   But while a keyboard won’t hit back, a sword-wielding opponent will.  The thought of retaliation, of suffering negative consequences for one’s actions, can cloud a swordsman’s mind.  Such a swordsman cannot act single-mindedly.  He will act with indecision or hesitation.  This is what makes attacking with Empty Mind difficult.

   The master swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu believed that a warrior who is like this is subconsciously hoping to escape getting hurt or even killed.  But Tesshu says escape is an illusion.  In a sense, there is no escape from injury or death.  Only if you embrace this idea can you attack single-mindedly.  Only when your heart is resolved to accept injury or death without regret can you attack with Empty Mind.

   The experience of one of Tesshu’s students provides an entertaining example.  Kagawa Zenjiro was undergoing one of his teacher’s ultimate marathons: A seven-day fencing challenge that pitted trainees against each other until each had completed 1,400 matches.  After day one, Kagawa succeeded in completing two hundred matches, yet he received a message from Tesshu informing him that he was slacking off.

   “On the second day,” Kagawa recounted, “I resolved to give it everything I had.  Tesshu had also ordered my opponents to give me no quarter.  By mid-afternoon I was in great agony because of fatigue.  I was somehow able to complete the required number of matches and limped home.  My legs were so badly swollen that I couldn’t stand up to go to the lavatory.”

   “Near the end of the third day, I was staggering around the training hall, barely able to stay on my feet.  It was at that moment that a former student entered the hall, readying himself as one of my opponents.  This guy was a sneaky, ill-mannered jerk, notorious for his dirty tactics.  There was nothing he enjoyed more than seriously injuring his opponents.  My pain and fatigue disappeared.  I was now totally focused on my treacherous foe.  Even if he were to smash my skull, he would be struck down as well.  Raising my wooden sword above my head, I was about to leap across the training hall to intercept him when Tesshu suddenly yelled, ‘Excellent!  Excellent!  Stop now.’”

   The next day, to Kagawa’s astonishment, Tesshu exempted him from the remaining sessions.  Tesshu saw that he had finally attained a state of undivided mind, unperturbed even by fear of injury or death.  Since this awakening was the ultimate goal of the marathon, Kagawa was judged to have fulfilled the challenge.

   As one might expect, in The Book of Five Rings, Musashi expounds on the same idea.  “Generally speaking,” he says, “the Way of the warrior is resolute acceptance of death.  Although [other kinds of people] have been known to die willingly in the name of duty or out of shame, this is a different thing.  The warrior differs from other people because studying the Way of strategy is based on defeating opponents.”

   What Musashi describes is not some kind of death wish.  Far from it, it is merely something that he believes is a prerequisite for all those who wish to study the Way of strategy.  If you seek to defeat your opponent, you must first accept death in your heart.  Once you do so, you no longer become self-conscious about how to act.  Unburdened by worries of what may or may not happen, you strike without hesitation.  Without “thinking,” you just know where to strike, how to strike and when to strike – I should say you can feel where, how and when to strike.  Thinking and doing happen as one and the same thing.  This is Empty Mind.

   There are, of course, those who rely purely on physical strength or technique to win.  Because their advantages allow them to act with impunity, they fight without fear or doubt.  However, this is not genuine.  Such individuals fight casually only when facing an easy opponent, but when suddenly confronted by a superior foe they become demoralized or even cowardly.  This is why Tesshu believed that all students, regardless of natural ability, must be pushed toward a moment of truth – a “do or die” situation so to speak – through relentless training.  “One must depend on spiritual strength,” he wrote.  “This is true swordsmanship.”

   This brings us back to Ishida.  Of the 721 candidates who took the exam in Kyoto that year, only Ishida and five others managed to reach the finals.  Exhausted after two rounds of battling against the best kendoists in Japan, the six remaining candidates had one last hurdle: A written test.  They were asked to reflect on the maxim, “The sword is the mind.”  It was a fitting theme for a challenge that had tested the spirit of each candidate.  In the end all six passed and were awarded the new rank of Hachi-Dan.

   Looking back, Ishida’s undertaking admittedly required a significantly different level of skill to overcome the odds.  Yet there are lessons here for students of all levels and of all martial art backgrounds.  I personally like reflecting on how Ishida packed his bags and almost went home after the first round, perhaps thinking that his approach looked too easy to be true (it’s funny how great players always seem to make things look easy without realizing it).  But that’s what Empty Mind is about.  You stop being self-conscious of whether you will win or lose and just do it.

   Ultimately the greatest lesson is that Empty Mind is a leap of faith that needs to be nurtured through devoted training.  Whether or not it requires the kind of training that provokes a “do or die” moment of truth is the only thing the student needs to think about carefully.

   “The most important thing in kendo is a flexible mind,” wrote Ishida at the conclusion of his exam essay, “which makes one humble enough to recognize one’s own weakness and to overcome it through practice.”

   Here’s to practicing, then, that we may all continue to train with single-minded determination.





[ Read the follow-up post, Kendo Lost in Translation. ]







1. al sawit - April 29, 2010

yes, empty mind it is…great commentary!

2. Alexander Sawit - April 29, 2010

Hmm…we must be related somehow, Al, since there aren’t a whole lot of Pinoys with this surname. I’m thinking that, if there’s a link, it must be a Nueva Ecija connection.

3. Dang Trinh - October 24, 2011

Hi Alex,

Regarding this passage:
“At the risk of sounding grandiose,” Ishida reflected, “I’d say the ultimate goal is to master a strike in which the mind, sword and body are united as one.[…]”

I have just been informed that the word “mind” is the incorrect translation of “ki” in kendo. What Ishida sensei mentioned was ki-ken-tai no ichi, a fundamental concept in kendo, which means the union of spirit/energy, sword and body/movement.

“Ki” is a common idea in Eastern martial arts, which refers to the flow of energy in a body. This idea does not exist in Western sports nor martial arts, therefore it’s hard to find a proper translation for it.

However, I think the word “mind” can be misleading.

Just want to let you know. Cheers 🙂

Alexander Sawit - October 24, 2011

Hi Dang,

Thank you very much for your comment as it is always great to hear from martial artists who walk the noble path.

Regarding the translation of “ki,” I shall offer the following explanation.

In Ki Ken Tai Ichi (気剣体一), the kanji character “ki” (気) is the representation for “energy.” The English translators of the documentary “Kendo’s Grueling Challenge” knew very well that this is the literal translation of “ki.” However, this literal translation is misleading if it is not understood in proper context.

In the context of Ki Ken Tai Ichi, “ki” does not refer to the general circulation of energy in the body but refers specifically to the warrior’s “mental energy” — the clarity of focus that makes a warrior’s mind totally resolved in the face of death even as others around him are descending into fear and panic on the battlefield. It is the warrior’s mental resolve that initiates the strike, therefore if his resolve is filled with doubt then his strike is also in doubt.

This is precisely the reason why the English translators of the documentary interpreted “ki” using the word “mind.” Even Ishida, in the quoted passage about delivering a unified strike, was referring to a mental thing. “The more you’re self-conscious about it,” he pointed, “the less possible it is to deliver.”

To put it simply, “mental energy” is the more precise interpretation of “ki” in the context of Ki Ken Tai Ichi. It is just more succinct and meaningful to translate it as “mind” for the martial artist.

Further, the kanji character in question, “ki” (気), has variations in meaning. In addition to being a representation for “energy,” it is also a representation for both “spirit” and “mind.” This is not surprising considering that in Japanese culture both “spirit” and “mind” can exist as a harmonious concept. Hence, in Ki Ken Tai Ichi (気剣体一), it is absolutely correct for “ki” to be translated as “mind.”

Let’s put it this way as martial artists:


Strong MIND = Strong SPIRIT

You can not have a strong spirit if your mind is weak. You will not have a weak spirit if your mind is strong.

At the end of the day, it is faithful training that expedites this mental resolve. So please accept my best wishes for your training and continued advancement. And since this is a kendo discussion on a wine blog, I guess it’s only fitting that I say…”kampai!”

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