Spencer brought up some interesting points when he discussed the controversy over training with live sword blades (see essay titled “Respecting Live Swords”).
To be honest, during most of my formative years of training I wasn’t aware that such a controversy existed. I was under the delusional assumption that everyone trained with “live weaponry,” just like my teacher made us do.
How wrong I was.
Spencer stated that the reason he trains with a live blade is because I tell him to, because that is how I learned. Yet, there is more to it than just making my students practice they way I did. Clearly, I’ve changed many teaching methodologies that my teacher employed, such as hitting students with bamboo canes when they do things wrong, so the “I had to and so will you,” argument is not the sole reason.
For the most part, I equate training with a wooden sword, or unsharpened alloy sword, with learning to fire a gun without bullets. It’s just not the same physiological mindset or real world preparation as one gets dealing with the real thing.
I can point and fire my empty gun all day long without ever imagining I’m missing the center of the bull’s-eye. All I end up teaching myself is that the gun is a toy, and I’ll never fully realize the true lethal potential the gun possesses. Without bullets I have no need to learn to respect my gun, or consider all the aspects of gun safety. I merely pretend to learn marksmanship.
The same analogy can be made about archery. If I never shoot an arrow, how do I know I can? I can pull the bowstring hour upon hour, but until I shoot some arrows I’m doing nothing more than going through the motions. I have no idea whether I’m a real “archer” or not.
The funny thing to me is that this controversy doesn’t seem to apply to other martial art related weaponry, especially those found in many Karate systems. Don’t the sai, tonfa, kama, bo, nunchaku, also posses some inherent danger, both to the practitioner and his or her training partner?
What about the jo (short staff), the sticks used in Arnis, or even the cane as taught in many Korean systems? I’ve seen people hurt with these weapons many times, and know of one person who was struck in the head and lost an eye.
Furthermore, didn’t Musashi fight and kill people with a bokken?
To me it really doesn’t matter what weaponry one uses. The truth is all weaponry should and has to be respected, and treated as a dangerous lethal tool. They are not toys, and were developed for one purpose, one intention: TO KILL. Whether you slash, cut, poke or bludgeon the intended results are all the same.
The only difference between the various martial art weaponry taught in most schools is the degree of skill one needs to be successful with them, and I will admit that a razor sharp sword has more immediate damage potential than most others. Of course this is one of the reasons for this controversy since in the hands a of a novice a sword is much more deadly than a stick, jo, sai, tonfa, bo, kama, or nuunchaku, especially in the early years of training.
In my formative years of training I’ll admit I didn’t always use live weaponry when practicing. Not because my teacher didn’t want us to but because none of us could afford to purchase weapons, if we happened to be fortunate enough to even find a place that offered them for sale.
In fact my first bokken, which I used for several years, was nothing more than a sawed off broom handle. However, I had to treat that broom handle like it was the real thing, and when I didn’t I was severely punished.
The truth is that sword etiquette and proper usage was so ingrained within me that by the time I finally had a real sword to use, it made no difference. Except for adjusting to the weight differences between wood and metal, I made the transition without ever really realizing the switch had been made.
The only notable difference was when we practiced two man forms. Clearly, using live swords for exercises such as these requires modifications, but one instantly develops a keen sense of timing and distancing you cannot, or at least don’t need to cultivate with wooden swords alone.
One also learns to really respect the lethality of the sword, and how fractions of fractions of an inch can make a world of difference between survival, debilitating injury, life, or death.
Furthermore, one learns to really gain control of their body as well as their hand to eye coordination, while at the same time developing and heightening their focus. These are very important elements for the true swordsman.
Training with live swords also eliminates excessive movement, unrealistic feinting, and wide-open postures often seen in many sword schools. Movements that may look pretty, but serve no realistic purpose.
Lastly, training with live swords, especially in two man forms, immediately demonstrates why large elliptical cuts, wide swings, and the heavy hard-hitting blocks were never really utilized by true swordsmen.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe training with a live sword is for everyone, nor do I advocate such practices. Over the years I have met and trained many people I don’t want to see anywhere near a live blade. I would never trust them with the responsibility, or have enough faith in them not to hurt themselves or someone else.
Then again I don’t consider these people serious students anyway, and they are not the type who should be learning a real sword fighting art in the first place. Fortunately, most don’t last at my school long enough to make this an issue.
Of course I can say the same thing about wooden weaponry. I’ve had many more people injured practicing with wooden weaponry than I ever have had with sharp metal ones. Most of these injuries, though minor, resulted from lack of attention, or people making a game of what they are doing, an unfortunate byproduct of not training with the real thing. It is very easy for people to get silly, lazy, or careless when there is no real threat of injury.
In my opinion, the worst thing to happen to the field of weapons training has been all the padded weaponry that is available nowadays. I, for one, see no use for these. They degrade the entire martial arts. In my opinion they are a real insult to those martial artists that came before us.
As awful as this may sound, without the fear of injury, any practice with foam or padded weaponry will eventually deteriorate into nothing more than a game of give and take–like playing tag. There is no such thing as “give and take” in a real battle using weapons.
I myself would rather use a live sword and move at a snail’s pace, than use a padded weapon and move in ways that have no bearing on reality. I have no interested in learning to play martial arts. Leave that to the kids who want to be Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers.
In Spencer’s essay he stated that I do have my students work with live blades in partnered drills sometimes, although extremely rarely. To me, whether the sword blade is live or not when doing sword work should be irrelevant. If one uses proper form, and respects the blade nothing bad should happen. It is all about demonstrating control, paying attention to details, and having precision reflexes–which I fully understand have to be cultivated over time. That’s why even I, unlike my teacher, don’t let beginners practice in this manner.
No insult to Spencer, my other students that have cut themselves or others that I know of that have, but injuries normally occur when one gets sloppy, doesn’t pay attention to the details, or gets lazy about how they are moving their own bodies. They have no one to blame but themselves. (This of course referring to people who cut themselves, not those injured due to the mistake of others, which seems to be the rarer of the two injuries.)
I’m not being harsh or insensitive either. I feel sorry for those that hurt themselves, and I make every effort when I teach to see that these things don’t happen. But the truth of the matter is, if one trains seriously with dangerous tools one will eventually get hurt.
In other words, dangerous endeavors can lead to dangerous consequences. Snake handlers get bit, lion tamers mauled, butchers cut themselves, welders burn themselves, bullfighters get gored, and race car drivers crash.
So why do we as martial artists fear live blades? Why is there this controversy? Training in the martial arts whether armed or unarmed is inherently dangerous to begin with. Why is training with a live blade perceived to be so much more dangerous?
It’s not! It’s just the mindset of people, and how they are taught to perceive things. Yes, a live sword in lethal, and in the realm of martial arts weaponry it can cause more severe wounds than other types of weaponry. No argument there.
However, it is this lethal nature of the blade, and its power to cut that we revere. The sword is not, nor was it intended to be some spiritual icon, or even a path to spiritual enrichment. If anything, those have always been mere byproducts of training.
The sole truth is the sword was invented and designed to kill. That’s it!! Just like a gun, they serve no purpose in life except to be used in life or death battle. Don’t be persuaded to believe otherwise. The romantic ideals may sound enchanting, even mystical, but our ancestors didn’t learn to use swords to make themselves better people. They learned to use swords to survive and protect themselves first and foremost.
Training with replicas, wooden copies, has its place, but it will never ever replace the real thing. Students will never achieve a sense of true swordsmanship until they use a real sword, feel how it moves, and discover how exacting and respectful they must be in order not to hurt others or themselves.
The difference of course is what one’s goals are. If you want to be a swordsman, then be a swordsman; use a real sword. If you want to say you’re a swordsman and go through the motions you might as well get your own broomstick.