THE 5 RINGS OF A 21ST CENTURY SWORDSMAN
How Black Belt Hall of Famer DANA ABBOTT teaches the Ancient Ways of Combat to Modern Students
Like religions, the sharpest minds in the martial arts often emerge in the harshest environments. Witness the chronicles of the samurai, who waged war for centuries in the rugged mountains of Japan, where bitter cold and scorching heat are the norm. Recall the stories of Korea’s ancient Hwa Rang warriors, who persevered in battle with human enemies as well as with winter winds raging south from Siberia. Look up historical accounts of Mongol fighters, who … well, who lived in Mongolia. Halfway around the globe exists another kind of harshness called Arizona. In much of the state, moisture is minimal, vegetation is scarce and the sun is unrelenting — Phoenix, where I just spent three days, recorded a high of 124 degrees in 1995. In contrast, at the campground where I am right now, located some 5,000 feet above sea level, it was a nippy 31 degrees when I got up this morning, and I’m freezing my butt off as I key this into my laptop. Yes, I’m next to a fire of crackling juniper, and yes, I may have had a sip of sake to take the chill off — thank God there’s no wind chill — but I must seem crazy to be composing an article outside in these conditions. I’m not crazy, though. I’m just overflowing with enthusiasm after training with Black Belt Hall of Famer Dana Abbott to better understand the way he teaches swordsmanship in the 21st century.
As a nod to history, I will delineate the world according to Abbott using the same chapter titles chosen by Miya- moto Musashi, perhaps the greatest swordsman ever, for his classic Go Rin No Sho.
THE BOOK OF EARTH
The interpretation of 21st- century swordsmanship that Abbott conveys to his students starts with stance, the swordsman’s connection to the earth. He tells me to keep my feet under my body and fairly close together with the right one slightly ahead of the left. And that’s about it. My sensei, it seems, is a practical man when it comes to the blade.
Things don’t get much more complicated when you move, he says. “Your knee should be over your foot so your foot isn’t hitting heel- first or toes- first. You can hear the difference — in fact, a blind teacher can tell if you’re doing it right because it sounds like an elephant stepping.”
The aim is to facilitate explosive forward movement while permitting evasive footwork in any direction. That mobility is crucial for two reasons: You want to land the first strike and, as Mr. Miyagi reminded us, “Best block no be there.” Abbott is a bit more eloquent:
“Swordsmanship is like tennis in that you want to win on the serve. You don’t want to volley.”
I confess that I’m a tad underwhelmed by the simplicity of this stance and the way I’m told to keep the sword
in front of my torso with the tip pointing outward and upward, particularly after watching scores of movies in which samurai, once enraged, would raise their weapons and charge their enemies. Or assume a photogenic posture and then bounce around like a gymnast with a blade. “Theatrics!” Abbott declares. “A lot of what you see in movies is. I’m sure somebody at some time did that, but it’s not how you should learn. I like to look at it this way: The sword is the main object in the fight. The person behind it, no matter what he’s doing, just isn’t that scary. Imagine a 4-foot- 8 Japanese guy; he doesn’t look scary. But if he has a sword in front of him and he’s staring at you and not moving, now that’s scary. So if you just assume a steadfast position — for example, chudan no kamae, or center stance — with the sword out in front, you establish your line in the sand. You’re ready for anything.”
Ready for anything until Abbott’s next reveal, that is. He draws a steel blade and instructs me to not move a muscle. First, he positions the tip inches from my groin, and I’m fine with it. Next, he places it inches from my gut, and I’m OK with that, too. He cautions me once again to remain stationary right before placing the tip inches from my throat. I can’t help but lean backward. For a second, I wonder why I was less concerned about my groin, but the thought vanishes when Abbott starts talking.
“As you just felt, when I held the sword point at any part of your body, it was OK, but when I went toward your throat, you immediately had to move back a few inches because it wasn’t comfortable,” he says.
“You want to make sure the other person is never comfortable. That’s what the sword does best.”
His point about being uncomfortable is spot on. He calls it “fear of the blade,” and believe me, it is real. “When I teach people the sword, I start with the center stance so they can set up their base,” he explains. “Your base should be protective so the other person doesn’t want to come in. Your opponent can’t throw himself at you because he would throw himself on your sword.”
Abbott says the biggest problem with beginners — and some advanced students — is they overthink the next phase of training, which is moving the weapon. “From this position, swinging the sword just means lifting it and then bringing it down on the target. It should be as basic as shooting a rifle, which means pointing it and squeezing the trigger, but people tend to complicate things with off-the-wall stuff that doesn’t make sense. Then they develop bad habits. Before you know it, they’re saying, ‘ My sword doesn’t work anymore.’ Yeah, because you’re holding it like a monkey! So what do they do? Swing it harder. When you shoot and miss the target, you won’t improve your aim by gripping the gun tighter. You need to relax. It’s the same with the sword.”
Relaxing, it turns out, is key to gripping the katana. Hold it firmly but not too tight, he says. It’s not unlike holding a hammer. Your forearms shouldn’t be perpendicular to the sword handle; they should be at an angle like when you hit with a hammer. The sword, like the hammer, starts high and then swings down. The weight of the sword, like the weight of the hammer, helps you get the job done.
“The secret is having a constant angle between your forearms and the sword, not bending your wrists during the swing because that can change the trajectory of the blade,” Abbott explains.
“With this cut, most of the motion of the sword comes from your elbows.”
A problem crops up when new students try to hold the sword with the same kind of grip they’d use on a baseball bat, one that has their arms coming in from opposite sides. “It looks like they’re trying to eat a taco while looking at it,” Abbott says.
“They might see their teacher do it the right way, but holding that baseball bat is in the back of their brain, and it tells them to hold it that way. That’s hard to overcome for many people.”
THE BOOK OF WIND
Another of Abbott’s intricacies involves, believe it or not, the use of a singing sword. He hands me a particular weapon with a bo-hi, that longitudinal groove on each side of the blade. Contrary to what some would have you believe, it’s not a “blood groove” designed to make your opponent bleed out after a stab. Likewise, it’s not a way to make the blade stronger, which is nonsensical when you consider that a bo-hi is created by removing metal. It’s intended to lighten the weapon for battle.
The bo-hi’s main purpose these days is to serve as a metronome, Abbott says. “When you swing the sword correctly, you can hear it sing. That’s the sound of the air flowing over the bo-hi.”
After a few demonstrations, he hands the blade to me. Much to my surprise, I immediately coax it to serenade, and it makes me giggle like a school kid.
“You can hear when you do the cut correctly,”
he says. “Hearing it also gives you a better feel for the rhythm of repetition, which is essential for practice. Repetition is the only way to get good.”
Speaking of wind, I ask Abbott what role language played in his 14-year pursuit of sword skills in Japan. “It was important because it determined which masters I had access to,” he says. “When I lived there, I discovered
that I couldn’t do any really old styles of swordsmanship because although I speak Japanese, I can’t understand what was written by people 450 years ago or what their thought processes were. It’s like an American trying to understand old English.
“So I chose to go through Japan’s Department of Education, and that meant I learned the modern way, or gendai. It’s good to be able to see the differences between old and modern, but what you do should be modern or you won’t get any practice with people who know the same art.”
The study of the sword all comes down to practicalities like language and training time, I say to myself. “Of course, if you learn in America, you don’t even need to learn Japanese,” Abbott continues. “What you have to do, though, is find a teacher and a style that work for you. Otherwise, you won’t practice as much as you should.
In learning the sword, the lack of persistence is the biggest problem.
People start and then find reasons not to practice — ‘ I can’t do it anymore because my wife left me and my dog died.’ Or ‘ I have a problem with my fingernail and can’t use my right hand.’
“Too many people have excuses. In the old days, you either showed up or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, your teacher would think, ‘ He better be dead, or he might find that we don’t need him here anymore.’”
THE BOOK OF WATER
When previewing the next phase of my training, Abbott is characteristically practical. “I call it cutting water,”
(Right) At slow speeds, the blade of the katana cuts a splash-free path through the water. he says as he strides over to a filled tub he keeps behind his house, takes up a position at its edge and swings his katana downward. No matter the angle of the strike, the blade slices into the liquid with a unique sound and hardly a splash.
The act gives me the heebie-jeebies because I was raised by a dad who preached never to get fine metal wet. In his case, he was talking about hunting rifles, but the sentiment applies equally to blades, I suppose — until Abbott explains that he’s using a specific old sword for this drill.
“I began using this one because the plastic-leather handle wrap doesn’t absorb water like a cottonwrapped handle would,” he says. “The sword cuts the water well, has a traditional design and just happens to be inexpensive. Some might call it a beater, but it hones your technique to perfection. My teacher would say,
‘That sword was honored above many other swords to cut water and oxidize.’
“When you cut water, it spanks you from day one. It’s so simple and clean. At slow speeds, you want minimal splash and just the right sound. It’s great because of the audio and visual feedback, and you can do it at home — all you need is a trough. Of course, if you live in a cold climate, you won’t be able to train in winter. You don’t want to hit ice.”
His mention of the potential for damaging a blade prompts me to ask for advice on preserving the sword I’ve brought to this training session. “Don’t hit hard objects,” he says in his own Capt. Obvious way.
“Don’t miss and hit the concrete. Don’t miss and hit your foot.
Make sure when you’re test- cutting that if you cut through the mat, you don’t hit a wall. Make sure your sword doesn’t touch anything but its intended target.”
Fair enough, I think, then home in on the subject of targets. “In Japan, most people cut bamboo and tatami,” he says. “There’s a bamboo forest in front of everyone’s house. And there are plenty of tatami mats — you normally change them in your home every three to four years and throw the old ones away.”
Knowing something about the practice of soaking tatami in water before cutting, I ask why that’s the standard. The difference between cutting wet tatami and dry tatami is the target’s weight, which is directly proportional to inertia, its resistance to acceleration, Abbott replies. “Even a nice sword can have trouble cutting through a dry mat because there’s no weight to resist the motion of the blade. It’s like biting an apple in your hand versus biting an apple that’s hanging from a string. The wet mat is, of course, heavier, which means more inertia and more pushback.
“It’s also been said that cutting a dry mat is like hitting a mummy when you want your training to be like hitting a fluid-filled body.
If you cut an arm off a mummy, it would probably fly across the room. If you cut an arm off a human, it will fall to the ground — just like a section of wet, rolled-up tatami.”
When it comes to cutting bamboo, the key is to harvest it at the right time, he notes. “If you get very young bamboo, it’s easy to cut. But that shouldn’t be for cutting; it should be in your soup! If, on the other hand, you have bamboo that’s a couple of years old and is all brown, you’re more likely to bend the blade if you make a mistake. I don’t recommend this for beginners.”
The fact that tatami isn’t free in the West and bamboo doesn’t grow on trees — and could kink your blade — is what drove people here to start cutting water jugs and soda bottles, he says. “Plastic bottles aren’t the best for test-cutting, but people do it. It could damage the blade, but it probably won’t, especially if you clean it to prevent rust.”
The discussion prompts Abbott to cite a general rule of the sword: “The blade will say everything you’ve ever done with it. If you do nothing, it will stay beautiful. If you do a lot of test-cutting, you’ll see lots of scratches. Now, if you start hitting swords together, you’ll see dents, chips and abrasions. That’s not a big deal in the present day if you’re using a cheap old sword, but imagine it’s the 1400s and you’re not fast enough in a battle. You block when you should move out of the way, and every time you do, it leaves a mark. Those marks are seen by you and then your children and your grandchildren because the sword is an heirloom that’s passed down. It might take a generation or two for everything to be repaired. That’s why the Japanese say,
‘Whatever you do with the sword will be registered on the sword for a long time.’”
Later that day, I gain firsthand knowledge of how a sword can become a register. My first attempt at test-cutting took place 10 years ago (see the August 2008 issue), and it was, shall we say, less than stellar. After I explain this to Abbott, he reminds me of what I learned from the water cutting and sword singing. Then I’m ready to give it another go. I swing, and the blade glides right through. My new sensei continues to fine-tune my technique as I slice that tatami like a sausage. But then I get a little too close to the bottom and slam my blade into the wooden peg that supports the tatami roll. The damage isn’t serious, but I get the feeling the mark on my blade will be there for some time.
THE BOOK OF FIRE
Fire plays an integral role in how a sword is created, of course. “These days, all affordable swords come from forges in China, which is where you’ll get yours unless you’re rich,” Abbott says. “A katana that’s made in Japan
might cost $20,000, and the ones that are made here might involve an 18-month wait. If you have either one, then you probably wouldn’t want to use it for everyday drills like cutting water.”
But for the purposes of a 21st-century swordsman, those imported blades are perfect, Abbott continues. “I don’t have any that cost that much, and I don’t need any. An expensive sword doesn’t make you a better swordsman. A Marine will hit the target using a $ 500 handgun while a Harvard boy with a $ 4,000 gun might miss.”
If he did have a $ 20,000 katana, would he use it? “Sure, I’d test- cut with it. What else are you going to do? Let it sit around and then sell it to somebody else?
I would, however, treat it with a lot more respect.”
I seize the opportunity to ask an expert why a sword might deserve respect. “Yes, it’s an inanimate object, but in Japan, shinto teaches that spirits are in inanimate objects,” Abbott says. “If you want to be part of the group, you’ve got to believe — or at least speak and act — the same way. Personally, I tend to view my swords as steak knives, as tools for practical application. But in Japan, if someone was to give you a nice sword, you’d want to receive and use that gift the way they’re expecting.”
The conversation jumps back to the mundane. “For beginners who are learning how to cut, a wide, heavy blade is good, but you might outgrow it soon,” he says.
“People often find that bigger isn’t always better. Think about it this way: If you’re buying your first gun, shouldn’t it be a .22? Yes, you can buy a .45 as your first one, but are you going to practice with it? It’s the same with swords. With a big, heavy blade, you might not use it as much because you’ll get tired, which isn’t optimal because it takes more reps to get proficient with a heavy sword. And if the blade is big, it can be harder to put it back in the scabbard safely. So you end up half-assing it. You sacrifice all the art. You’re just able to pull it out and use it like an executioner.”
For those reasons, Abbott often finds himself recommending what he dubs the classic blade. “That’s a thinner one that weighs around 1,000 grams,” he says. “It’s the average sword size that’s been around for 800 to 1,000 years. It’s the most versatile. It will cover the whole spectrum of things you can do. “Do you just want to look at it? Then leave it up on the wall. “Do you want to get good at drawing it? Get an emery cloth and take the edge off, then draw it 10,000 times. When you’re done, take a stone and put the edge back on. By then, you will have been around a sword long enough so you’re not scared of it anymore. “Do you want to test-cut with it? No problem!” Length factors into your purchase only if you plan to do a lot of drawing and are on the shorter side of average, he adds. “A taller person might want a 30-inch blade, while a shorter person might want a 28-inch blade.
Either one is going to cost you between $500 and $700, which is what I recommend spending. When you invest that much money, you’ll feel good about the blade, you’ll feel like you’re really getting into swordsmanship and you’ll be able to cut safely.”
And just how should you take care of such a substantial investment? Should you oil it once a week, protect it from fingerprints, control the humidity in the room where it’s stored? “No,” Abbott barks. “You’d do all those things if it was an 800-year- old sword. But your $ 500 sword is a tool, so do whatever you want. It’s going to be sharp for a long time because you probably won’t be test- cutting that much. You could cut 500 mats with a sword like that, and the blade will be sharper than you need.
“If you want to practice drawing, every fifth or 10th draw, oil the blade so it slides smoothly through your hand. That’s four to five drops of oil on a cloth. Use clove oil or 3-in- One machine oil. It’s not only for preservation but also for functionality. You don’t want it to pull on your skin when you practice drawing. The slicker it is, the more times you’ll draw it in training.”
THE BOOK OF THE VOID
I wonder out loud what it is about swords that makes them seem almost magical and worth dedicating one’s life to even though we don’t carry them and we don’t fight with them. We don’t think the same way about the battle-ax or mace, for instance.
“The movies are a big part of it,” Abbott says. “A sword creates a connection to the past. If you have a katana, you might think of yourself as representing the spirit of the samurai.
But I think it’s the fear of the blade that makes it seem magical.
Remember when I put the tip of that sword near your throat? Similarly, if I take a sword and draw it from the scabbard by pulling it between my fingers and then do the opposite when I put it back in, people will often freak
out. Of course, the swordsman doesn’t freak out, but to many people, that’s living on the edge.”
His comment rings true, but I think it’s just part of the answer, so I probe for details.
“The Japanese spent a long time making the katana perfect,”
he says. “For 800 years, they were dedicated to creating a design that feels good and works well. They learned to fold the steel to mix a stiff metal with a pliable metal. Add in a rigid spine, and you get a perfect weapon. You can cut through anything, and the blade won’t break.
“And it’s made to be portable. It had to be strong and durable enough to fight lots of people, but it had to be light enough for the samurai to be able to walk anywhere without draining themselves. If they knew they were going into battle, they’d use a spear or a bow and arrow, but when they were walking around, the sword was the best compromise. Through trial and error over the centuries, they definitely figured out their geometry.”
But is there more to it? Could there be a fringe benefit of learning the sword in an era when nobody carries one? “For self-defense, it will make you more aggressive in a good way,” Abbott says. “That happens when you spend your time training with aggressive martial artists, and it will make you aggressive no matter what you have — a stick, a sword or a knife. In a fight, you’ll end it fast, and the other person usually isn’t prepared for that. They don’t expect an immediate response.”
After a minute of introspection, he continues: “The sword teaches you to drive 12 car lengths ahead. It teaches you to pay attention to your surroundings much more. In the past, you had to do that; otherwise, you might end up on the wrong side of the street facing 10 other guys with swords.”
Having gotten confirmation that learning how to wield the katana in 2018 is a worthwhile endeavor, I ask Abbott what being a 21st-century swordsman means to him. “It means polishing all the different sword skills and making them simple so you can be spot on when you need to,” he says, “and that takes a lot of effort and time — which a lot of modern sword practitioners don’t want to invest.”
My mind conjures a series of follow-up questions that I begin firing off. What if I come to you claiming to be a swordsman. You ask, “What do you do?” and I say that once a week I slice water bottles in my backyard and try to get better. Am I a swordsman? “No,” Abbott says. “You’re a backyard cutter.”
What if I say that I get together with friends and we take out our shinai, put on protective gear and go at it? Am I a swordsman? “No,” he says. “You’re a combatives guy who likes playing with bamboo swords.”
What if I say that I go to the dojo, and after class, I take out my bokken and do some kata? Am I a swordsman? “No, you’re a karate guy with a sword doing some kata,” he says.
What if I say that I have a valuable sword hanging on the wall and regularly go to sword shows? “You’re a collector.”
With that in mind, what makes a person a swordsman in this day and age? “Five years after I arrived in Japan — by then, my Japanese was pretty good — people would ask me what I was doing there,” he explains. “I would say learning kendo. They’d say, ‘Oh, how cute! How nice it is you’re doing one of our arts.’ They’re happy for you but a little sarcastic. They might think of their own kids learning it and would ask, ‘ Where do you learn your kendo?’ I would say. ‘ I go to Nihon Taiiku Daigaku.’ They would say, ‘ Uh? You’re serious! I’m sorry!’
It finally clicks. In Abbott’s world, being a swordsman means training regularly in a legitimate art learned under the guidance of a legitimate instructor — and then, ideally, living your life according to the lessons you absorbed.
“That tells people you’re a swordsman. Before that, to those people in Japan, I was just some foreigner playing with a toy. That’s the difference.”
For more information about Dana Abbott and the sword services he offers in the Arizona desert, visit learnthesword.com.