Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Artist and the Artwork

My friend and colleague, The Rogue Scholar, did me the honor of responding to my post about Creating A Work Of Art.  I had argued that we are each a work of art that we are crafting, and her very well considered reply argues that we are the artist, not a work of art.  I hope I am not misrepresenting her view when I say that she sees the martial artist as expressing herself through the performance of the kata.  She also makes a good point about self-improvement by itself not making one a work of art.

There are a lot steps along the way, and I may be using the idea of the self as a work of art more broadly than the term can support.  I’ll try to unpack my meaning and intention and see where that leads.  I agree that that are many paths to self-improvement, but I would argue that the goal of budo training is not simply moral improvement, but refinement of all aspects of one’s self.  Developing one’s moral understanding of the world is a fine, but limited goal.  Budo 武道 teaches, as do the Daoists, a goal of refined simplicity.  It is not just a moral refinement, as Cook Ting demonstrates.  The Way transcends the physical, but is manifest in physical action.  The Way of Budo is not merely moral improvement.

I have to admit that my use of the term “art” runs very closely towards what the Rogue Scholar is talking about when she describes the classical artist.  The Rogue Scholar says “a classical artist creates something that is unique but also serves her tradition.”  My view of what is happening with budo training is very much in this line of thought.  We are creating a work of art in the service of our tradition.  To me, the work each of us is creating is our self.  

No matter how beautifully we can perform the kata, no matter how expressive we can be within the boundaries of the kata, this is not the art of budo.  The kata are like the finger pointing at the moon in Zhuangzi’s writing.  It is a tool that directs us where we want to go, but if we focus on the finger, we will never see the moon.  If we focus only on the kata, we may never understand what they are pointing us towards.  The kata teach us proper breathing, posture and movement.  Budo practice also teaches us to relax our minds and bodies and to respond to the world as it is rather than as we want it to be.

Mastery of the kata, no matter how beautifully it can be demonstrated, should not be the goal of budo training.  The kata are teaching tools.  The question then is, what are they tools for teaching?  Kata are tools at the most basic level for teaching us skills useful in a particular sort of combat.  They are not tools for learning to do kata, though I admit, simply learning to do the kata well is a wonderful experience and feeling.  The skills necessary to perform the kata well should be the same skills necessary for success in that particular type of combat. They are also skills that are wonderful to have in regular day-to-day life.  It is not what we express when performing the kata that is goal for me.  

For me, the goal of budo training is to be able to express what budo teaches in the kata in everyday life.  At the physical level this means that I move in a manner that expresses the principles of my budo all the time, not just when I am in the dojo.  I want to move with the same control over every bit of my action, with the same fine balance and controlled, relaxed power that I use when I am in the midst of a Shinto Muso Ryu or Shinto Hatakage Ryu kata.  I want to eliminate the unnecessary tension from my body and present the world with a presence that expresses and displays all that my budo is.

At a mental level, I want my everyday mind, my heijoshin 平常心, to be as relaxed as my body.  I don’t want to meet the world with a mind that is stiff with preconceived ideas and expectations,  rigid with assumptions of how things are.  I want a mind that is calm and peaceful as a forest stream.  I want there to be not a ripple the surface of my mind that will distort how I perceive the world.  My goal is to be as peaceful and calm in my readiness to greet the world as I am standing in tsune no kamae as I await the actions of my partner in the dojo.  

I don’t want to keep my budo in the dojo.  The dojo is where I practice what budo is.  Outside the dojo is where I actually perform it.  I know I’m not very good at it, but I try to express my budo in my everyday life.  Most of the time I don’t need the extreme level of readiness that I train at in the dojo, but there are times when even in everyday life I reach moments of intensity similar to the levels I reach when I am training in the dojo.  I’ve been in intense negotiations with people pounding on the table and trying to intimidate me.  I’ve had to deal with crying and screaming and yelling.  If I can draw upon my budo training at these times, and keep my mind calm and body relaxed, then my budo training is showing signs of success.  If I lose my temper, or become rigid with tension and stress and aggression, than my budo training hasn’t been successful yet, and I need to spend more time working on it.  

For me, what we do in the dojo is always practice, even the big demonstrations.  Budo only happens when I am outside the dojo, moving in the world.  It is in the world that I think of myself as a work of art.  In the dojo, The Rogue Scholar is entirely correct.  In the dojo, I am an artist, working to craft my heart, mind and body into something beautiful.  In the dojo I am working on learning to calm my mind, to respond as things really are rather than as I would like them to be.  I am training my body to stay relaxed under the pressure of having someone far more skilled than I am trying to hit me with a really big stick.  The dojo is the place to practice and refine, just as the ballet dancer practices and refines in the dance studio.

The difference between a classical Western artist and an artist of the Way is that the art of the Way is what we do all the time.  It’s how we sit down and how we talk to people and how we eat dinner and how we are gracious and gentle to someone who is verbally attacking us and how we walk down the street and how we eat breakfast and how we deal with that unpleasant fellow at work and how we treat our family even when we aren’t feeling very nice and the million other things we do throughout the day, every day.  Budo is the martial way, but it is only really budo when it informs and transforms every aspect of who we are and how we interact with the world.  If it doesn’t do that, then it’s not budo.  It may still be bu, martial, but it lacks the Way.  This is what I mean when I talk about being a work of art.  Since this is a Way, and not a destination, we are always works in process, but hopefully we become more refined and more polished with each day.

We go into the dojo to train.  What are we training? Our self.  We are using budo to train and refine and polish our self.  In the dojo we sculpt and and polish and refine ourselves.  Outside the dojo that incomplete work of art that is us is on display for the world to see and interact with.  The better the our budo, the more beautiful the mind and body we show to the world.  We are the artist and the artwork.

1 comment:

Jesse Nichols said...

Peter:

very beautifully written and, par usual, thoughtful and usable.

Jesse