The Meaning of the Sword
By Sifu Ken Zaborowski
Her swinging sword flashes like the nine falling suns
Shot by Yi, the legendary bowman;
She moves with the force of a team of dragons
Driven by the gods through the sky;
Her strokes and attacks are like those
Of terrible thunder;
And when she stops, all is still as water
Reflecting the clear moonlight.
-Tu Fu (712-70), on Madame Kung Sun’s swordplay
The sword is straight and sharp. It’s balanced and is quick. It’s tempered with fire and water to make it strong and flexible. It needs constant honing to remain at its best. The Sword cuts both ways. Its use requires a perceptive eye and a dancer’s footwork. It takes constant practice and a deep dedication to daily training to master the art of the sword. Let’s look at these points in detail.
Straight & Sharp
The idea of being straight and sharp can be interpreted on many different levels. Mentally, straightness means to be truthful and sharpness symbolizes perception and our ability to analyze and think things out. The martial artist must always be honest and truthful, especially to the self. A warrior who misjudges the opponent’s intentions is in dire straits. Historically, many battles have been lost due to either not perceiving the enemies intentions, or seeing them, and interpreting them incorrectly. The warrior must see things clearly, even those things he doesn’t want to see, perhaps because they’re emotionally painful. To do so requires an ability to accept what’s there, whether you like it or not.
Spiritually, straightness means to be morally principled, coupled with the sharpness to cut away those things that we no longer need. Basically, this means doing the “right thing”. Everyone knows right from wrong. It’s a matter of being strong enough internally to stick with your principles, and not go along with the crowd or take the easy way out, or thinking you have to do something because “they” says so. Whether it’s the authority of “the church”, the State, family, television “experts”, or even teachers, or the desire to be part of the group, in the end you’re the one responsible for your own actions.
It’s also important to let go of those things that hold you back. We all have a will towards life, and sometimes that love of life keeps us from releasing those things we don’t need. We don’t want them to die. But we must. There’s an old Sufi saying: “To live fully every day, be willing to die every day!” It’s not talking about actual bodily death, but the death of old, out-moded ways of thinking and acting. To live fully means to grow, adapt and change. When there’s no growth, decay sets in and things begin to deteriorate. Physics calls this The Law of Entropy. In nature, there is no stasis. Things either grow and expand or contract and die. The trick is to find that balance between expansion and contraction. Accumulating and letting go. Living and dying.
Physically, straightness means “having a spine”, and the willingness to stand tall and believe in ourselves, while simultaneously “looking sharp” and being an example to others. As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to stand up for that in which you believe. Sometimes that can be hard. When we lose the support of those we respect or love, it can be hard to stand tall, all alone. But we must trust in the universe. Gandhi couldn’t have accomplished the things he did if he was worried about trying to please everyone! If you’re doing the right thing, then your actions are supported by the weight of the universe behind you. Weaker people will sneer. But others will look up to you. Maybe your example will give them the strength to stand up for their beliefs.
Balance is important, especially in Taijiquan, and brings much support to our everyday life. Sometimes we can get a bit overwhelmed, and we start to feel like jugglers trying to walk a tightrope while the Ringmaster keeps tossing us another ball. I try to always remind myself of the analogy of bamboo, which doesn’t fight the typhoon, but bends, and because it bends, survives. Of course, bending doesn’t mean we cave in to any and all outside pressures. The bamboo remains rooted to the ground. This rooting symbolizes the basic tenets that we base our lives on; they’re the solid cores, the centers around which we move. Even when our lives alter drastically, like losing someone who means a lot to us, changing careers, say, or moving to a new city, our inner selves remain, no matter how different we may appear to others (or even ourselves). This relates to what I said earlier about our principles and morals. All else may change, but if we remain true to ourselves, then no matter what chaos storms around us, we have something to take refuge in. If we lose ourselves, then we have nothing.
Bamboo also symbolizes the physical principles of Taijiquan, and not just the technique. If we keep to our three basic principles: rooting in the earth, expanding to the heavens and breathing to the dantian; then whatever new situation we find ourselves in, we’ll be able to cope. That’s why keeping to the principles - the internal - is the focus of Taijiquan practice. And that is what differentiates it from the external practice of plain technique.
Quick & Decisive
The quickness of the sword symbolizes decisiveness. A warrior must act without falling into the trap of fretting or worrying over the possible outcomes of action. But how can we be quick without being impulsive or making rash, and therefore wrong, decisions. You have to cultivate an intuitive sensitivity. Laoshi Everett calls this “acting previous to”. The master senses his opponents attack before even the opponent, him or herself, is aware of it. Long, long hours of rolling arm and other partnered exercises are necessary to cultivate this kind of sensitivity.
You also have to allow yourself to make mistakes. All the great generals of history became famous because they knew how to take calculated risks. And when they were wrong, they had to get up, dust themselves off, adapt to the situation, and try again. It’s especially hard in our culture to admit to our mistakes. Even more so for men, who are often raised to hide their feelings and believe that to admit to any error is a sign of weakness. We need to learn not to look at everything in black and white terms. There’s a lot of gray out there. Making a mistake doesn’t make us bad people, only human. We need to be self-confident enough to admit when we’re wrong. This relates a lot to what I said earlier about being honest to the self. If, at the core, you are a principled and moral person, and believe yourself to be good, then it’s easy to admit a mistake because it doesn’t change who you really are. It just offers you a chance to learn and grow.
Well Honed & Cared For
Honing is the daily dedication to practice and study that is necessary to advance in this art. Continual heating and cooling tempers a sword, but too much heat for too long a time ruins the blade. And if you keep the sword in water too long, it rusts. Being a good swordsmith requires knowing how much pressure to apply and for how long. I think of the master gardener. Over-prune, the plants die, or are stunted and can’t bear fruit. Under-prune, then the weeds take over, and you get no harvest either. To get a good harvest, you need to have a balance between action and letting go; intervention and letting be.
Timing is important also. You should prune in spring. If you prune in the summer, when the heat is at its greatest, the plant will wither, but weeding and care is important during this time of growth. In the winter, pruning is pointless. And autumn is harvest time; pruning takes you away from the important work to be done, reaping the rewards of the year’s hard work. In the beginning of the training process, it’s very important to lay down a good framework for development and make sure the basics are strong so that you don’t end up reinforcing poor technique. As training progresses, it then becomes a matter of refining and weeding out bad habits. There are also times when it’s best to let it lie fallow and gestate, so that the material becomes sublimated, causing the next growth cycle to be at a higher level.
I like to consider this analogy when dealing with my students. I encourage and praise them when they do well, and encourage them to keep trying if they fail, offering them constructive criticism, and some idea of how they can do better. If they seem overwhelmed, then I hold back a bit until I think they can handle it. I have high expectations, but try not to get emotionally involved if they fall short or drop out. I follow the Zen adage and “let the grass grow itself.”
That the sword cuts both ways is of deep philosophical meaning. Because of its two edges, a sword can cut on the way into an attack and on the way out. This makes a sword in the hands of a skilled practitioner a very fearsome weapon. But the hands of the inexperienced are in danger, because it also can cut back into oneself! Many of the movements in the form reflect this reality. That’s the major reason why the sword takes so much longer to master than other weapons. Even just learning how to hold the sword, so that an opponent can’t force it back into you, takes a long while.
In this respect, the sword can symbolize all violence and force. The sad truth is we live in a world where violence happens, and being able to protect yourself and those you loves is important. But taking up arms should always be a somber occasion. We should think of violence as only a last resort, to be used when all else fails and when retreat is no longer an option. Violence begets violence, and we should never wish to increase the world’s pain in this way. And especially today, with weapons of mass destruction, any escalation of violence is a step towards total destruction of the entire planet! Think of the saying: “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”. As a martial artist, I don’t believe this to always be the case. I know many dedicated warriors who are equally dedicated to the causes of love and peace. But one must always be vigilant. It’s just a matter of understanding the ramifications of ones actions, and not allowing the sword to cut back into you. Good intentions are not enough. You also need the wisdom to see that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and avoid, at all costs, the negative outcomes that may result from rash and poorly considered actions.
Sometimes, it can seem that trying to achieve so much is unrealistic, but I think that if you aim high and fall short, you can still end up higher than if you set your sights low! So many times now, I’ve been surprised by what my fellow students and I have been able to do with this art. You can’t really know your limits until you try to push pass them! This is another aspect of Taijiquan training that’s important to share with students. I think of this a lot when I’m practicing the Chen Laojia form: using strength but remaining soft, deepening the stances by relaxing into them, stretching the body out long but remaining balanced and poised, finding the speed in slowness, and the slowness in fast movements. When I try to understand this rationally, I can’t. It’s something that you just have to feel, and keep practicing. I’m reminded of the words of Robert Anton Wilson, “I will live forever, or die trying!” You have to be able to accept your faults and shortcomings while still trying to push past them. Personally, I’ve come a long way and I’ve still a long way to go! And I hope to continue to grow, and share what I know with others, so that they can continue to grow themselves, with me, or on their own separate paths.