This is a great mystery in life and martial arts. One of the most mysterious secrets is that of 神妙剣 Shinmyoken or the life giving sword. At its most basic level it is a technique for overpowering your opponent without injuring him with the sword. This simple idea contains many mysteries, the first being, why would you endeavor NOT to kill your opponent?
This lesson comes to us in the form of a sword, but it could be any weapon. The sword clarifies the feeling of life and death because it is a very fine (and sharp) edge between the two. Hatsumi Sensei constantly reminds us not to kill. It takes a lot of control with such a dangerous weapon to use it without killing. Sensei tells us that the Ninja understood that ultimately no one is victorious in war. Everyone loses. Hatsumi Sensei says the Ninja's idea of Shinmyoken was born from this understanding.
"Good weapons are unfortunate instruments.But Hatsumi Soke doesn't suggest we become pacifists. Wrapped up in the mysterious sword of shinmyoken is also a strategy for combat. Shinmyoken is used for judging the crucial point on the body and it can be where the tip of the sword settles and finds its target.
People hate them. So someone with Tao does not rely on them . . .
Weapons are unfortunate instruments, and not the wise man's instruments.
When he uses them because there is no other choice,
he stresses straight-forwardness and, in victory, does not praise himself."
Lao Tzu, Section 31
There is an interchange of tai and ken. Sometimes you present the attitude of your body as the sword and the sword as your body. But you must also see this exchange in the opponent's body and sword. So your observation (見ken) finds the correct point on his body. The mind must be in perfect harmony with the body and sword.
Shinmyoken is also a part of understanding this admonition Soke often tells us,
"Hell gapes beneath the upraised sword... Step in! And Heaven is your reward!"That's nice to think about, but how do you step in? With shinmyoken! Entering with
shinmyoken means entering with a free and natural body, and free and natural mind, mind
and body and sword as one.
Shinmyoken was deeply promoted by Yagyū Munenori 柳生宗矩(1571-1646) a Japanese swordsman who was appointed official sword instructor to two Tokugawa shoguns. Yagyu’s style is known as the Shinkage-ryu, for centuries the official style of the Tokugawa dynasty. His spiritual mentor was Zen priest Takuan.
Munenori proposed the idea of a “life-giving sword” - the notion of controlling an opponent by the spiritual readiness to fight, rather than during the fight. This may end a fight before it ever begins. But it also is the ultimate sutemi, because you must be willing to stake your life on it. This is how the old cat wins in the Neko no Myojutsu story.
"If you want to strike at your opponent, let him strike at you first. The moment you succeed at having him strike at you, you have succeeded in striking him."This really gets to the heart of the idea of no separation between attacker and defender. You kill him and you are killing yourself. Something Hatsumi Sensei often reminds us. The shin of shinmyoken can refer to the divinity, core or spirit of the combatants. This shin gives rise to the mystery, or myo, of the outward appearance of the clashing swordsmen. Even if you slice him open you will not find his shin.
I was in class with Hatsumi Sensei when he told the Jugodans that were present that they are always taking the godan test. They are also always giving it. Taking the test is like dying, and giving it is killing. But the killing happens through you. Soke said it is kami binding with kami. Shinmyoken as divine sword.
This transforms the nature of killing into the natural flow of life and death.