Iaido is a non-combative martial art that involves no direct physical contact or combat with other individuals in the dojo. Practitioners perform patterns, called "kata", that represent confrontational situations where he or she is attacked by one or more opponents. Almost all patterns are solo; that is, there is no physical enemy. There are some two-person kata, but these are choreographed, with one person defending against a pre-defined series of attacks. Solo kata involve drawing the sword, making one or more cuts, cleaning the blade, and returning the sword to the scabbard with concentration and focus. (Click here to see a typical Iaido kata.)
Iaido is, perhaps, the most philosophically oriented of all Japanese martial arts, but it is also one of the least understood. One reason for this may be that the practical aspects of the art overshadow its true essence: perfection of character through commitment to martial practice. Iaido is much more than learning how to use a sword. It is, first and foremost, about non-combative physical and mental discipline. The true essence of Iaido is in its emphasis on fostering peace within an individual by learning to use the sword as a tool for self-realization. The following quote from the "Zen Nippon Kendo Renmei Iai" handbook comments on the significance of the true practice of Iaido 1:
Yet greater than technique is spiritual training. Iai does not necessarily mean to cut an enemy but rather to cut the enemy within yourself. Victory in Iai is the non-revengeful heart and the cessation of conflict through not drawing the sword. Thus, you may understand why the Iai of old was called "saya no uchi", invincibility without drawing the sword.
In other words, Iai is a training process towards human perfection, never of murderous intent, but peaceful-minded. The modern significance of Iai is peace and tranquillity for human life. In the larger sense, Iai means the Way of Dwelling in Harmony through endless practice seeking harmony with the Universe.
What this says is that Iaido is not about learning to use a sword on physical enemies but, instead, to use it to develop a strong understanding of who you are and how your actions affect yourself and your environment. With this understanding, comes a more developed ability to identify what elements of your thoughts, feelings and behaviours you can change to improve your interactions with your environment and your understanding of yourself. This idea is shown in the kanji that form the word "Iaido", that is, "i", "ai", and "do".
|I||(Pronounced "ee") Represents the will or intent to adjust or fit into a variety of situations, body positions or life experiences. It represents a unity of mind and body flowing from one situation to another with complete confidence and understanding. More than this, it also represents a strong spiritual intent on the part of the individual to enter into any situation, unfettered by thoughts of success of failure.|
|AI||(Pronouned "eye") Represents a person's ability to adapt quickly to all circumstances the person may encounter in life. It represents a responsive mental attitude characterised by a flexible mind that adjusts quickly and efficiently to every situation it encounters.|
|DO||(Pronouned "doe") Means a road, path, or way that involves dedicated practice to achieve spiritual development and self-realization.|
Though commonly known as the "The Sword Drawing Art", translated literally the word "Iaido" means "The Art of Fitting into All Life's Situations." When we practice Iaido, we focus our minds on the moment and attempt to exclude all interfering thoughts. This intense focus on the perfection of all one's motions, without mental or emotional distraction, in order to achieve calm, unimpeded awareness is the aspect of the art that is easily lost on someone who concentrates only on the physical technique as means to a practical, physical outcome. Iaido is an art of building one's own character through constant practice and discipline, rather than of overcoming others through exercise of physical skill. The struggles we have with ourselves in our daily practice often mirror those we face in our daily lives. Take in this context, Iaido can be thought of as a metaphor for our lives. Those who understand this will find the practice of Iaido a way to change themselves and, ultimately, their lives.
1. This quote is taken from a English translation published in 1973 that contained a section devoted to the philosophy of Iaido. Sadly, the lastest English translation of this handbook, published in 2004, does not include anything on philosophy.