The following blog is not intended to offend anyone. I could have just as easily focused on the similarities, but, everyone can do that. I wanted to show a different perspective.
If you read this, and you seriously study a sword art, I welcome you as a kindred spirit.
Often, we find, we are more alike than different. This is intended to provoke scholarly thought on what we spend much of our time doing.
Surveying the differences between Gumdo and the root arts of the Japanese sword.
For the layman, at first glance, the Korean art of Gumdo seems to be analogous to the root arts pertaining to the Japanese Sword. For certain, many onlookers from outside the community of serious kenshi will not see the differences. This is fine, but as a community it is a subject worth discussion. In recent years, Korean Gumdo has been utilized with great efficacy in international kendo tournaments. Speed, power and a direct mental connection to winning the contest have made the path clear for them at blinding speed. In the upper echelon of kendo authorities, there is a discussion of whether or not kendo is a sport or an art, and whether or not the practice of kendo can be both. I can tell you, there are clear divisions of thought in this.
As an outsider of the kendo community, I can’t choose a side as it is not my place too. So, why am I bringing this up? Well, it is like this. I do not practice kendo, or muso shinden ryu. These are the world’s most common Japanese sword arts. That said, the lines that divide what I do and what these folks do are really only so much minutia to the rest of the world. So, we all get lumped into the same category. As such, in America anyway, the paths are constantly diverging and converging in relative terms to one another. So, I find it is important to point out, at least to myself, the things that make what I do different from everyone else. After I am through, as folks who practice the derivatives of the root arts of the Japanese Sword, these views will hopefully make sense to you in your own practice. So, on to the differences, and how they affect one’s practice.
The Japanese sword is first and foremost among swords. It is far from merely a sharpened piece of metal fitted with a particular type handle. The nihonto is designed to endure the rigors of combative application as well as fit the human body and spirit. It is true that thin, flat , hard, sharp swords cut targets well. But, to tailor a sword for cutting targets (in my small view anyway) can take away the essence of the katana by altering it’s design. Think about this. If the only thing that is important is cutting targets, then the katana by definition, must change. It is an instrument designed to withstand the punishing forces that are unique to a sword battle. Lesser instruments were never up to the challenge. So, it is safe to say that they did not have tatami in mind when the design was finalized. They had the warrior and the particular skill set that came with.
Also, the real Korean swords were straight and had a tradition all their own.
Kendo was “pasteurized” so to speak, to allow the teaching of the spirit in the public school system of Japan. Kendo before this was different. Some kendoka do try to hold onto the old way though, some succeed. The study of swordsmanship became something of a spiritual pursuit long before this happened. It was noted in ages past that some swordsmen had attained a quality particular to their level of expertise in the art they were studying. Those qualities were good, and they came from an honest pursuit of budo regardless of school. Kenshi of the past were expected to be able to rely on their skills as a means of survival in some cases, and as a means of keeping order, both social and personal in other cases. It is my opinion, that if we are to gain the attainment of the kenshi in the past, it will come from keeping the understanding of the combative techniques of the art as the primary focus. This is what Gumdo lacks. It is also, incidentally, what many kendoka lack today as well. As we cut targets, we hone skills. We don’t hone skills to cut targets do we? That is the difference. Sports contests will never show the true hasuji, the true block, the true cut. They will never show the calmness required to survive a real situation. Block poorly with a sword and you are cut. Cut poorly with a sword and you are cut. Cut with a sword and you are cut. The futility of violence is never explored in the sports arena.
That brings me to my next point, spirit. A strong spirit can sustain hardship, bring strength to the weak and raise opposition to tyranny. The art of the sword is the art of leaders. In my school, there are two swords, the one in you hands which you learn to master first, and the one in your mind which you come to realize is the most difficult to master. There are processes put in place to help us get there and folks along the way who know the path. It is this honest pursuit that we strive for isn’t it? That’s the reason we choose to continue training in Japanese swordsmanship. A thousand years to develop this stuff, the last 400 or so to give us what we know today. Haidong Gumdo is less than 30 years old.
….970 to go before I will listen.