Kotodama of Sword and the Power of Words


My first introduction to this word was as an aikidoka, training under a teacher who integrated a little more than just the martial art into practice. At the end of a small class, we sat in a circle and chanted simple, monosyllabic sounds while hovering our hands over various regions of our bodies. “Suuuuu..”, “Ohhhhhh…”, “Ahhhhh…”, “Aaaaaaaay…”, “Eeeeeee…” we would all chant together. I am not one to chant in a group, to recite prayers and the like, but I found it grounding and centering. Possibly a rudimentary group act like singing together but without actual words that each person might have a different take on or attachment to.

Later I thought to find out more about the kotodama and tried to look it up. What I found was that it wasn’t exactly what I had taken or experienced it to be.

Kotodama or kototama (lit. “word spirit/soul”) refers to the Japanese belief that mystical powers dwell in words and names. English translations include ‘soul of language’, ‘spirit of language’, ‘power of language’, ‘power word’, ‘magic word’, and ‘sacred sound’. The notion of kotodama presupposes that sounds can magically affect objects, and that ritual word usages can influence our environment, body, mind, and soul.”

“Kotodama is a central concept in Japanese mythology, Shinto, and Kokugaku. For example, the Kojiki describes an ukei (or seiyaku)…”

“Kototama or kotodama is also fundamental to Japanese martial arts, for instance, in the use of kiai. Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido, used kototama as a spiritual basis for his teachings. William Gleason says Ueshiba ‘created aikido based on the kototama principle,’ and quotes him that ‘Aikido is the superlative way to practice the kototama. It is the means by which one realizes his true nature as a god and finds ultimate freedom.’ Mutsuro Nakazono, a disciple of Ueshiba, wrote books on the importance of kototama in aikido.”

I write about this because I had heard of a Buddhist phrase that went something like ‘The sword of truth cuts through illusion’ and the first thought that came to my mind was the spirit and power of words. I must first confess as a lover of martial arts from childhood, I like swords. As a child I had envisaged myself as a knight of the round table, a samurai or a character in Middle Earth. I even played RPG’s and my favorite character class was a ranger, not a cleric or bard. Yet the potency of the metaphor of a sword of truth, the ‘word spirit’ of a weapon seems resoundingly un-Buddhist. Especially entrenched in the overtly war-like culture in the United States and especially in this post 9-11 world where compassion is an endangered species. There is another metaphor I have heard many times that to me seems more potent, more powerful and yet not war-like at all. That is the metaphor of light, that shedding light in dark spaces will expose the truth. It seems to me that light is one of-nay the most powerful thing in life; we are all completely dependent on it. In fact, if you look at the elements: light (fire included), earth, water, air; none of these things are war-like and yet they are all the ultimate equalizers. We have suffered from extremes of each and yet we are wholly immersed in a combination of each. So if a compassionate being seeks to affect change, why choose a word that has power or potency based predominantly in war and hostility rather than one based on an element that ultimately, dispassionately and without bias, yields to no one?

A morsel for thought.

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