As far as the pursuit of kendo goes (shugyo), the most important thing is keiko, the second most important thing is keiko, and the third most important thing is keiko. You must not put academic learning of the principles of kendo before actual practice. If you do manage to become technically proficient then you will naturally come to understand the theory that lies behind the practice. This is real kendo.
If you start by trying to understand the principles then attempt to apply them to your keiko, well, you will look a bit silly. Deep understanding comes only by forging skill through hard training.
Nowadays (unlike when the writer was young) there are plenty of good kendo books available. However, attempting to apply research from books to actual keiko (without doing lots of training) cannot lead to great success. Kendo is, more than anything else, the pursuit of JI-RI-ITCHI (the unison of technique and principle).
First do the hard practice then, later, understanding of the principles will come.”
– Sato Sadao, hanshi kyudan.
“Keiko, keiko, keiko” – the importance of doing lots of keiko has been repeated to me many times over the years. Also, in pretty much every kendo book I have read by (or about) a renowned kenshi there is always talk about long intense periods of kendo training, and explicit statements that without such a period the kenshi would never have come to be as strong in kendo as they did nor achieve as much in their kendo careers as they have. The result of this hard daily practise over years for these kenshi led not merely to an increase in skill, but also the development of a strong body and mind. These factors allowed the kenshi to acquire what Sato sensei spells out above – deeper understanding of the principles of kendo – and, finally, to ji-ri-itchi.
A caveat to Sato sensei’s quote above (and one that a particular 8dan sensei gave me a few years back) is that any intense kendo period you go through should be done under guidance (of course, the stronger/stricter the sensei the better!). Sato sensei doesn’t explicitly mention it above, but while going through the long, intense part of your shugyo you should simply DO what your sensei tells you… without hesitation or thought (SHU). Eventually you will begin to experiment or discover things for yourself (HA), and finally you will come to your own, personal, understanding (RI).
This road towards deep understanding is a long one, both physically and mentally demanding, even exhausting at times. What’s needed at this time is expressed in Sato sensei’s own hand on the tenugui pictured below: extremes of patience and endurance.
By the way, 2 related terms on this subject you may have heard are HYAKU-REN-JITOKU (百練自得) and HYAKU-TAN SEN-REN (百鍛千練): multiple repetitions (“one hundred times… one thousand times”) pave the way to self realisation.
A short timeline of Sato Sadao hanshi
– 1904: Born Meiji 37
– 1913: Started kendo at age 9 (including Jikishinkage-ryu)
– 1921: enter Meishinkan at 17 years old and studied under Takano Sasaburo (studies Ono-ha itto-ryu)
– 1927: Enter the Imperial Guards as policeman/kendo specialist
– 1931: becomes imperial guards kendo assistant (promoted 1935 and 1944)
– 1954: becomes imperial guards kendo shihan
– 1960: hanshi
– 1964: retires from imperial police guards (remains as honourary shihan)
– 1972: kendo kyudan
– 1985: died (81 years old)