Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tradition Is Tending The Flame. It's Not Worshiping The Ashes

I’ve been thinking lately about how pointless the study of koryu budo would be if we were just preserving the way people trained 200 or 300 or 400 or 500 years ago.  We would all be maintaining museum pieces good for nothing more than taking out and displaying for people along with other artifacts.  While dwelling on this, I ran across this quote from Gustav Mahler, a 19th century conductor and composer.

"Tradition is tending the flame, it's not worshipping the ashes"

This quite nicely  encapsulates my feelings about studying koryu budo.  Many classical arts, not just koryu budo, can wither and die under the pressure from those who want to maintain them in an unchanging form.  Mahler, although now remembered as a great composer, was known primarily as a orchestra conductor during his lifetime.  As a both a conductor and a composer, Mahler ran into people who resisted change and innovation in both the creation of new music, and in the interpretation of classical works. Anything outside what had been done before risked  resistance and criticism as a departure from tradition.

For many, there was only the classical way to perform Bach and other revered composers. The traditional way of performing music, and the established rules for writing new music were difficult to escape.  

This sort of adherence to past precedence is all too common in both koryu and gendai budo. It’s
easy to become so focused on what has come before that we forget to use the past as a platform from which to approach the future. Yes, the great ones of the past were great. This is true whether we are talking about music or art or budo. 

Blindly worshipping what the great individuals achieved though is to forget that they were innovators themselves. They took the traditions they received, and didn’t just accept it as the way things must be done.. Those great geniuses took what they had and moved a step forward.

They avoided the trap of focussing so much on the way things have been that they forgot about the present and the future.  In something like budo, this is a particularly easy trap to fall into. Especially with arts that have storied histories, it’s easy get lost in that rich history and forget to turn and face the future. Too much time spent on an art’s past slowly dries it out and robs it of the vitality of a living art.

The past is the foundation of the future. If all you do is focus on the past, eventually there will be no future.  Spend much time at all moving in budo circles and you will encounter people who want their art to be done exactly the same as the founder of the art did a hundred, two hundred or even five hundred years ago.  This seems as likely and as interesting and worthwhile as trying to do every performance of Swan Lake exactly as it was performed at it’s debut.

These people who imagine that is what studying an art with a long tradition is all about miss the essence of living traditions. These are people who worship those ashes Mahler is referring to. It’s as if no one since the founder of the art has had any insight or new understanding.  All that is left in their minds are the burned up and dried out ashes of what the founder was doing.

Uchi always does the attack in exactly one, and shite always responds in a precisely identical manner. The form and technique become about replicating exactly what someone is supposed to have done decades or centuries ago. In an effort to preserve things just as they saw them, these preservationists drain the life from what they are doing and leave it desiccated and empty of real value. Nothing more than those ashes Mahler refers to.

This can be seen when people start to value something simply because it is old.  There are ancient styles of music and dance in Japan such as Dengaku that have been preserved for 700 years and more. When they were young, this music and dance was a sensation and is said to have caused near riots in major cities. Now the only reason for performing what remains of these once lively and popular arts is that they are old.  There is no life left in them. The people who have preserved these arts have preserved even less than a flower dried and pressed in a book.  There may be be some bits left among the ashes, but there is nothing left that can even inspire the mind to imagine what the dance was like originally.  The only value remaining to it is that it’s old.

This is a danger for all budo, whether koryu art or gendai.  It’s relatively easy to see how the kata of ancient koryu bugei ryuha can be venerated and preserved to death. In an effort to do things exactly as their teacher did something, students can stop treating the kata as living lessons and start treating them as fossils, unchanging and dead. Sadly, if you attend some of the big koryu demonstrations in Japan, it is all too likely that you will see some groups that have succumbed to this temptation.

What might surprise people is that there are aspects of judo, kendo, aikido and karate that can fall into this trap. Even in modern organizations it’s all too common to see people elevating their idea of how a revered teacher did something, rather than seeking the principle and spirit of the practice. The shape of how even the greatest teachers do things will change and evolve over the course of their lives. Choosing one snapshot out of a teacher’s career and deciding that is only valid way of doing things is ridiculous. Which moment do you choose?  How do you know that iteration of the technique or kata was the greatest and is universally  applicable to every person and possible use?

I see this danger in some of the kata in judo.  Judo is somewhat saved because you always have a partner, so at least the surface point of the form is obvious. I’ve heard about karate kata though where people have learned all the motions, but not the bunkai. They don’t really know what the purpose of particular motions are anymore. Already within some lines, less than a lifetime since it was brought from Okinawa, the art has begun to dry out and die.

This sort of thing is more likely to happen with solo exercises such as karate or iai kata, but it’s possible with any system.  Even in paired kata, if both people are simple copying motions without learning and understanding the depth and reasons for the motions, then that too will dry out, burn up and die.

Tending the flame of a budo system, a ryuha, takes effort and thought. Like the Taoist parable of the finger and the moon, the kata and techniques that we practice are the finger. They point us at the principles and fundamental concepts that the founders and those who came after them discovered and developed.

When I study judo, I study all the parts of it, techniques, randori and kata.  Each part informs the other, and keeps them alive.  I know too many people in the judo world for whom the kata have already become museum pieces because they only learn enough to go through the motions without understanding the principles embodied there.  If we truly want to respect the genius of the founders and brilliant teachers who created these arts and passed them on to us, we have to do more.

Those who tend the flame of their art work at pulling the principles out of the forms and then feeding the forms with their understanding of the principles. I’m working on Ju No Kata in judo right now. This is a kata that is very susceptible to being nothing more than a burned out shell. There are no big throws or huge techniques. As I work at it though, I discover things about kuzushi that I feed back into my practice of the kata.  Each time I do it, the kata becomes more alive. Where at first my practice was just about “Uke pushes here and tori turns there, grabs uke’s arm and lifts.” Now my practice looks very much the same as before but it’s about uke pushing and tori creating instability destroying uke’s base with very subtle, almost unnoticeable movements and connections.

The insights that come for figuring out kuzushi in Ju No Kata then feed the flames of understanding and application when I practice individual techniques or do randori.  This exploration transforms what looks from the outside to be a boring, bland set of simple movements into a fascinating exploration of fundamental principle.

The more I understand those principles, the more they come alive outside the dojo and in areas other than randori.  There are all sorts of places and ways to apply lessons about kuzushi, timing, power generation, power dissipation and all the other principles and lessons that an art can teach.

Don’t focus on the outward form leached of all meaning and depth. Look for what the form is supposed to contain and bring that to life.  Don’t fall into the trap of worshiping the ashes of your founders teachings. Use your heart and mind to add fuel to fire their genius.

Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for the information on dengaku.


Unknown said...

What is Art? This is a question I asked all of my advanced art students, just what is art? Small words are always tricky in the English language, they cast so many nuances. Peter sensei finds me humorous sometimes, because I like Iai, and have resisted expanding into Jodo. I like Iai, because in many ways it is a performance art.
Art is more than that thing created, it is the string of decisions made by the artist. It is the looking at the thing by the viewer, it is the reactions to that thing and the ideas that the thing hints at in those minds. It is a communication between the artist and the viewer. Art is a human activity, it is not a static thing.
When you are learning kata, when you move through the positions, it changes you. When you learn, it is important to perfect the accepted standards, so you KNOW the performance. Neurons fire, muscles move, sounds are heard, myelin is laid down to create the neural pathway of the perfect movement. Only when you know the path, can you veer away from it productively. Unless you understand the movement, how can you improvise upon it, how can you move with it.
In our digital age, we are conditioned to think of “on or off,” good or evil, light or dark. Life is not digital though, it is never just right or wrong, the dark side or the light. Living means a continuum, a lot of gray areas that are perhaps a little more right or a little more wrong, adding up eventually to the final destination. The finger may be pointing accurately at the moon, or it may be pointing more towards venus. Only long practice can hone the skill at pointing so that you reach the moon, and not a random point in space.
The difference is the human who is experiencing the movements. The difference is what he or she thinks while doing so. The difference is the effect it has on the other humans that witness the act. This is why we travel a path, this is why we follow a Way, and why we are not just manufacturing a product. Attitude is everything. Humans make it Art.
Rick Frye

Draven Olary said...

If you ask 100 persons, you will get 100 meanings for "koryu". What is common for both (armed or empty handed), is the knowledge passed down regarding efficiency in a fighting situation. I agree with the fact that some meanings of movements in karate kata are lost due to transforming this martial art in a sport. It is politically incorrect to say that X sequence means that you grab your opponent jewelleries with your hand and you pull them - detaching them from the body - when in sparring you are forbidden to do this. And this meaning is lost for the practitioner who is doing karate as sport. Or that ippon nukite has the purpose to hit pressure points and soft tissues like eyeballs when you are not allowed to do that in competition. Funakoshi thought that just practicing kata is enough to learn how to fight - if I am remembering right, he brought 15 katas and his idea was that 1 kata needs 3 years of training before passing to the next. He even said you don't need to know all the katas, but you need to know how x links with y to make you efficient. And to know how x can be linked with y means you should know the effect of x and y have on you and your opponent. Koryu in empty-handed martial arts - for me - comes with a very good knowledge of human body, something that is not stressed that much in "who get the point first" MA. In iai, koryu stresses on this knowledge AND an added component - the sword. In my opinion, the old guys cut down all the unnecessary movements that will cost your life in a real fighting situation and gave you the essence of efficiency with the katana sword. They gave you knowledge, how you apply it is your problem. BUT we don't do exercises to increase our reaction, our talent in using body language, our equilibrium, our breathing, our senses at the end. Since we don't use a sword to make a living, we are destroying the flame and play with ashes. And we are lucky if someone is keeping some embers for us.

PS I know you verify this. Please feel free to not post it at all.