“Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance.” I’ve heard this proverb many times over the years. Nobody seems to know who wrote it or what it actually means. Most contrast the joy and beauty of dancing to the brutality and violence of the sword. But why are swords always getting such a bad rap?
Being an important ritual implement in Freemasonry, I pondered what the phrase would mean to a Freemason. The sword is a familiar tool, not only preserved in the blue lodge rituals, but in some of the higher degrees and degrees of chivalry.
Could it be that the link between dancing and sword bearing has to do with skill? I am not so sure. This mysterious little phrase got me to wonder what the sword might represent as a symbol?
We are taught, objects of ritual usually symbolize a truth. What would that truth be?
The sword has been known to symbolize strength, authority, protection, and courage. It is also a symbol of knighthood and chivalry. There are numerous biblical accounts of angels with swords; swords that were used in spiritual warfare, and swords drawn as military weapons.
The history of the sword is full of contradictions. It has a classic duality to it. On the one hand, a sword was used to destroy and kill and represented battle and destruction. On the other hand, a sword was used to protect and was seen a sacred symbol of chivalry.
In many Deity art images, the sword represents wisdom cutting through ignorance. Simply, the word sword means to cut at a foe. Just like a physical sword can kill or maim your opponents, wise words can act like a sword to slay ignorance.
This made me think, is there anything significant that can be learned from warriors who wielded their swords truly, as weapons?
The Unfettered Mind of the Samurai Warrior
I started reading a book called The Unfettered Mind by Takuan Sōhō (1573-1645). Soho was a great philosopher, artist, and teacher of the famous samurai warriors. He had several samurai students who he was teaching the craft of swordsmanship to, but through the means of mindful meditation. His mind was so still that he could bring a swordsman into an entirely different mental state, where time was slowed down so much that the student could respond with absolute precision.
It was perplexing to me what a Buddhist monk, who has vowed to bring about enlightenment and salvation to all sentient beings, was doing writing about sword fighting. The answer lies in Japanese culture. In their history, the sword is a symbol of life and death, of purity and honor, of authority and divinity. All these in some respect relate to enlightenment.
Soho says to his students:
Completely forget about the mind and you will do all things well. The unfettered mind is like cutting through the breeze that blows across the spring day.
To achieve an enlightened state, Soho suggests that the mind must remain forever free. The thing that detains the mind most of all is the ego or self-importance. As soon as we get caught and fixated on any type of emotional charge — we’re lost. When the ego is subdued, there is nothing to bind the pure awareness of our creative potential.
The Virtuous Mind of the Freemason
The training of the mind is also important in making progress in the masonic science. For masons, the cultivation of virtue is said to give that steady purpose of the mind, or courage in the face of pain or adversity. We are all driven in life. I wonder what drives us? Is it greed? Anger? Desire? Beauty? Love? Peace?
W.L. Wilmshurst writes in his book Meaning of Masonry:
Advancement to Light and Wisdom is gradual, orderly, progressive. The sense-nature must be brought into subjection and the practice of virtue be acquired before the mind can be educated; the mind, in turn, must be disciplined and controlled before truths that transcend the mind can be perceived.
What Wilmshurst is revealing is that the real measure of power is not about savage force, not about Olympic weight lifting, but rather the ability to restrain one’s own mind and thought impulses. Perhaps “restrain” is not the right word. Restrain implies too much repression, containment, and pushing down. The idea is more like skillfully transforming one’s vices.
Some say the worst enemy we fight is the darkness in our own nature — the ego or selfish self. The ego is real. The ego claims all, clings to all, wants all, and demands all. It is the Gollum character in the fictional movie Lord of the Rings. There can be no peace, no unity, no justice, no virtue until the selfishness is purged, burned away.
The darkness in us is why there is always a Tyler (or tiler) outside the door of the Lodge with a drawn sword to defend his post. None may pass the Tyler who have big egos or selfish motivations.
Carl Claudy in his Introduction to Freemasonry remarks that we are all Tyler’s of our own life.
Let us all wear a Tiler’s sword in our hearts; let us set the seal of silence and circumspection upon our tongues; let us guard the West Gate from the cowan as loyally as the Tiler guards his door.
Only by such use of the sword do we carry out its symbolism.
How excellent a thought to wear the Tyler’s sword in our heart. Possibly the greatest symbolic message the sword offers is about death. Facing death teaches us important lessons. A knight in battle knows, perhaps as well as anyone, the immediacy and preciousness of life. And, after he is gone, did he live well?
As masons, we learn to treat each day as if it is our last. If we do. When we do. We will be fully perfected. And then, just maybe, we can truly dance.