Friday, February 17, 2006

A swordsman in his declining years said . . .

A certain swordsman in his declining years said the following: In one's life there are levels in the pursuit of study. In the lowest level, a person studies but nothing comes of it, and he feels that both he and others are unskillful. At this point he is worthless. In the middle level he is still useless but is aware of his own insufficiencies and can also see the insufficiencies of others. In a higher level he has pride concerning his own ability, rejoices in praise from others, and laments the lack of ability in his fellows. This man has worth. In the highest level a man has the look of knowing nothing .

These are the levels in general;. But there is one transcending level, and this is the most excellent of all. This person is aware of the endlessness of entering deeply into a certain Way and never thinks of himself as having finished. He truly knows his own insufficiencies and never in his whole life thinks that he has succeeded. He has no thoughts of pride but with self-abasement knows the Way to the end. It is said that Master Yagyu once remarked, "I do not know the way to defeat others, but the way to defeat myself. ''

Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.

-- From Hagakure, by Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Cited at

Many traditional martial art systems divided their teachings into 3 levels: shoden, chuden, and okuden. Today, vestiges of those divisions remain, even where a system has been modernized. For example, even though Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido awards belt ranks, the techniques are taught in three tiers, respectively called shoden, chuden, and okuden. There is a loose correspo
Linkndence between the ability levels and the states of mind that Yamamoto described in Hagakure.

There are also levels above okuden. When one has learned all the techniques of the system, while one's learning still involves improving subtle aspects of the techniques, most of the development is internal: relating to character improvement. At some point, with extensive time in practice and a little luck, one may reach the "one transcending level" referred to by Yamamoto. This is the real goal of the practice of any traditional martial art, be it aikido, iaido, jodo, jujutsu, judo, karate, kendo, or naginata-do.

Nicklaus Suino teaches iaido and other martial arts at seminars throughout North America. Information about his programs can be found at He teaches iaido, judo, and jujutsu at the Japanese Martial Arts Center in Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.

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