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Saya No Uchi De Katsu

June 18, 2009

Pete Starr (left) in action

Pete Starr (left) in action

The following is the third installment in Pete Starr’s monthly column. A practitioner of the Chinese martial arts for nearly 50 years, Pete is the author of Martial Mechanics and The Making of a Butterfly. Also, check out Pete’s upcoming summer 2009 release, Martial Maneuvers.

The title of this lecture can be translated as, “Victory is in the scabbard”; a snippet of sound advice from the era in Japan when swords were worn daily and put to their intended use not infrequently.  This short saying clearly infers that victory (katsu) is actually determined by the potential of the blade before it is drawn – while it is still seated inside (uchi) the scabbard (saya).  Numerous martial arts teachers have expounded on the true meaning and spirit of this saying and most of them place considerable emphasis on the importance of resolving conflicts peacefully so that one need not (figuratively) draw one’s sword.  And there’s a good deal of merit to this idea.

One of my favorite martial arts authors, Mr. Dave Lowry, devotes an entire chapter to this idea in his newest book, “The Karate Way”.  He reminds us that in ancient Japan, the samurai were constantly armed.  One would no more walk out of one’s house without one’s swords than one would step into the street without clothing.  Many non-samurai also carried swords although only samurai were permitted to carry both the long and the short swords.  Imagine living in a place where every other (male) member of your caste was armed, as well as many other members of society.  You would be constantly aware of the weight, both physical and psychological, of the weapon(s) you wore at your side.

Police officers and military personnel can vouch for this idea.  I know I can, having served as a peace officer in more than one capacity during my lifetime.  I was always acutely aware of the weight of the handgun I carried (both on and off duty) and the implications of its use should I ever be forced to empty my holster.  Wearing that weapon was a terrible responsibility that I both enjoyed and loathed.  Whenever I was called upon to enter into some difficult situation, whether it was to resolve a dispute or make an outright arrest, I would do my level best to diffuse hostilities and do my duty without having to resort to drawing my weapon. Like the sword of the samurai, my weapon was never drawn to threaten anyone.  It had only one function.

But I digress.  My personal rendering of the spirit of “Saya no uchi de katsu” is a bit different from that which is presented by the most other martial arts enthusiasts.  To me, it means that one’s spirit and shengxin (in Japanese, “zanshin”) should be strong enough that the enemy is unable to resist them when you enter into a conflict.  The (figurative) sword is sheathed but you will not hesitate for even a microsecond to draw it and cut the enemy down if the need should arise.  If your spirit is strong enough, your opponent will be rendered incapable of resisting you.  Victory is achieved at the instant that you determine to enter into the conflict, long before your sword is drawn (if it is, in fact, ever drawn at all).

Developing this kind of spirit and shengxin is not something that can be deliberately achieved.  In fact, the more you reach for it, the further it slips away.  It will come to you in time if you train hard and with a true heart.  So look at it, consider it, and then forget about it.

To read Pete Starr’s previous columns and related articles, please click here.

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