Sunday, October 23, 2016

Budo and Control

I have this crazy idea that budo is not about controlling the world.  It's not about imposing our will on the world.  It's not about becoming powerful. It's about learning to work with the world as it is. It's about recognizing our inherent weaknesses. It’s about being able to deal with whatever happens calmly, simply and without losing our balance.

Many people seem to think the world can and should be controlled.  One of the lessons of budo is that the only thing we can have any control of is ourselves.  The world is bigger and more complicated than our imaginations can hold all at once. The connections, complexities and consequences of any action or occurrence are more numerous than we can envision.  The danger is fooling ourselves into believing we can control anything beyond ourselves.  

Budo training grants power, pure physical power. If we aren’t careful, we can delude ourselves into believing that the power that comes with the study of budo empowers us to control the world around us. With practice, budo teaches techniques and strategies for fighting, restraining and destroying others. It doesn’t teach how to control the world. It doesn’t really teach how to control anyone except ourselves.

Other people, animals, nature, the entire universe are beyond our control. Even with the most effective restraining techniques we can’t control someone else. A wrist lock or an armbar can only restrain someone temporarily. Even then, someone who doesn’t mind damaging himself can break through. A choke can knock someone unconscious but it doesn’t control them. A strike or throw can break bones and destroy soft tissue, but it doesn’t control anyone. What we can control is ourselves.

Budo asks the fundamental questions about what is important and what isn’t. We each have to answer those questions before we can begin to apply budo lessons well. Once we learn some budo techniques we have to answer for ourselves “What is important enough to hurt someone else over?” Pride? Ego? Love? Anger? Once we have power, we have the responsibility to learn when and how it can be best used. Budo, like any power, used without wisdom, can do more harm to the wielder than to anyone else.

Used on others the power of budo is destructive, allowing us to stop, to hurt, to damage and destroy. Used on ourselves the effects of budo can be positive and creative. That big question, “What is important enough to hurt someone else over?” gets shortened to “What is important?” This question is powerful because if we don’t know what is important, we can be manipulated and influenced over things of no value.

We can’t begin to stay calm and balanced until we know what is important. The thing that surprises me is how short the list of really important things is for me. I treasure people and nature. I value art and beauty. I value knowledge. All of those things are important enough for me to act to protect. Knowing what is important is the first step in controlling yourself. Without it you can be goaded into anger or foolish acts as easily as a child in the schoolyard. Asking what’s important to us is a critical step towards learning to stay calm, in control and balanced.

We practice budo and we learn to distinguish real threats from insubstantial ones, bluster from physical danger. Is what’s happening a real danger? Is it a bluff, a bird puffing up its feathers to look bigger than it really is, or a gorilla making dominance displays before smashing a rival?  Self control, self-discipline and wise action demand that we be able to distinguish between these.

Budo doesn’t just teach a bunch of techniques. Critical is learning to assess capability and range. People do a lot of posturing in the office, but they almost never do anything actually violent. They will try to intimidate by standing uncomfortably close or leaning over someone, but they’re not going to risk their livelihood and career by doing anything. They’ll imply the physical threat. They want you to react unconsciously to the threat.

If you are reacting unconsciously to people, you’re not in control of yourself and you are easily knocked off balance by others. Applied budo is not the art of harming other people, but the art of mastering yourself. You train hard. You go to the dojo and practice taking ukemi so you can be thrown around without getting hurt. Along the way you discover something about what actually hurts and what is just discomfort and annoyance. You learn to avoid injury and choose when to let discomfort bother you and when to ignore it.

Then we start to learn about spacing, at what range you’re vulnerable and where you’re safe. You learn to control the spacing. You can’t control someone else, but you can control their relationship to you so they can’t get close enough to endanger you. You practice attacking and being attacked so you understand the nuances of spacing down to a few centimeters. You learn to choose your action based on understanding what’s important and what’s a real danger.

Then, as you spend more time studying budo, you start applying the same lessons and principles to dealing with things that don’t involve physical danger and the risk of getting hurt. Is that snide remark really a threat to me, or just bluster? Should I take offense and counterattack, or do I practice ukemi with a self-deprecating agreement? We’re social beings and social attacks can be just as painful as physical attacks. Those budo lesson questions and lessons about what’s important and recognizing the difference between a genuine threat and puffed up bluster apply just as well in the office.

Ukemi isn’t just about how to fall down. It’s how you receive an attack. The ukemi for receiving attacks in a social setting are just as important as the ones for when you’re thrown. They might be more important, since social attacks are more common, and if you’re social ukemi is good it can de-escalate an otherwise unpleasant situation. It’s important that you be in control enough that you can choose your action rather than just reacting.

We can’t control the world. We can’t control other people. The only thing we can control is ourselves. We don’t decide how people will act or how they will react. Budo teaches us to relax, breathe and deal with things as they are, knowing the difference between what’s important and what isn’t. Budo happens when we know what’s important and choose our actions based on that knowledge rather than letting the world write a script for us.

Monday, October 3, 2016

”The" Way, Ways, and our Assumptions

The Way that can be told of is not an Unvarying Way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind.
Truly, “Only he that rids himself forever of desire can see the Secret Essences”;
He that has never rid himself of desire can see only the Outcomes.
These two things issued from the same mould, but nevertheless are different in name.
This “same mould” we can but call the Mystery, Or rather the “Darker than any Mystery”,
The Doorway whence issued all Secret Essences.
                        Arthur Waley (1)


The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

The nameless was the beginning of heaven and earth;
The named was the mother of the myriad creatures.

Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets;
But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.

These two are the same
But diverge in name as they issue forth.
Being the same they are called mysteries,
Mystery upon mystery -
The gateway of the manifold secrets.
                D. C. Lau  (2)

These are just two of the many translations of the Dao De Ching that have been done in English. No one translation will ever be definitive. Some are much better than others, but I don’t think any of them is completely wrong. Each carries something thing of original Chinese, but each also carries much that comes from the assumptions and understandings of the person doing the translation, and the language into which it is translated.

Languages and cultures are so deeply intertwined I doubt it’s possible to separate them. Cultural assumptions influence how language is used. Linguistic assumptions and rules frame how culture is viewed. What are our cultural and linguistic assumptions that might contribute to how we think about and conceive the budo we practice?  

We assume this or that, that things are clearly black or white. Japanese culture assumes that instead of “either/or”, things can be “both/and”  Dichotomies make things simple to understand, but that simple understanding masks the interconnected reality of things that can be both this AND that at the same time.

English imposes certain frameworks that we don’t notice until they are removed by learning a language that doesn’t use the same frames. Two examples can immediately impact how we think about the above passage from the Dao De Ching.

Articles (“the”, “a”) mean that for countable objects we have to immediately decide if something is unique, and use “the” to denote this, or just one out of many, and use “a” to denote that.  What if you read the above translations without the articles? Does that change the feeling? For some reason, English speakers long ago decided that singular occurrences of things had to be distinguished from multiple occurrences. When Chinese and Japanese developed, the question of one versus many wasn’t an issue.

So what happens if we change the all the instances where nouns are translated as singular above to plural?  Chinese doesn’t divide objects into singular or plural, thereby forcing the verb to adjust to these categories. Things don’t have to be exclusively “the”.  There is an old saying that there are many paths up the mountain, but they all lead to the same place. What happens if we accept the ambiguity of not clarifying singular or plural?

It’s amazing that so many questions can be raised; so many possibilities, so many things can be changed just by recognizing a couple of the assumptions we weren’t aware we were making.  The language we speak provides a theoretical framework for understanding the world. We absorb that framework as we absorb the language, when we are small children. We don’t question the framework that our mother tongue provides until we start learning a language that uses a different framework.

Learning budo means stepping into a world dominated by a completely different framework, one that comes out of 1000 years of Japanese culture and language. Like American culture though, it has roots that go far deeper and draw on ideas that are far older than Japan. The United States looks to ancient Greece and Rome for the origin of ideas about citizenship, democracy and what it means to be a member of society.

Japan has been drawing upon the wealth of more than 3,000 years of Chinese thought. The works of Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tzu and Yang Hsiung, as well as all manner of Buddhist thought have influenced Japanese culture, language and philosophy since perhaps the 4th century C.E.  Japan has a very different culture from that of China, so just as English speakers impose our unconscious frameworks on Chinese translations, the Japanese have looked at Chinese writings through their own framework. Over the centuries Japanese culture and language have worked their magic and created wonderful new ideas and ways of understanding things.

One wonderful set of ideas and concepts comes to us in the forms of budo.  What preconceptions and frameworks do we bring to budo practice from our language and culture? One of the first examples that leaps to mind is mind, or better, 心 kokoro. This is also the character read as shin in mushin 無心, zanshin 残心, and fudoshin 不動心.

We all know that mushin is no mind, and that zanshin means remaining mind and fudoshin means immovable mind.  The problem is that they do mean those things. We have a tendency to learn those meanings and then stop because we think we’ve got it. Kokoro is more complex than just meaning what English speakers think of as “mind.”

In English, the mind is thought of as the seat of reason and intellect. It’s sheared off from the emotions, which are conceptualized as residing in the heart. If you think about it, this is kind of strange, since we now know that emotions and reason are all tied up together in the brain. In Japanese, they have always conceived of reason and emotions together.  They call it kokoro 心.

Most translators (including me sometimes) just go with translating 心 as mind. It takes extra effort to explain that it really means what is both heart and mind in English. Then you have to come up with a way to express that more complex meaning because English doesn’t have a word for it. What happens if we change the words we use to translate these?

        Mushin   -   no mind    
mushin   -  no heart     
mushin  -   no emotions
        Zanshin  -  remaining mind
        Zanshin  -  remaining heart
Zanshin  -  remaining emotions
Fudoshin - Immovable mind
Fudoshin - Immovable heart
Fudoshin - Immovable emotions

The meanings become more nuanced, more complex. It makes sense that budo deals with the emotions as much as the intellect.  Making someone angry so they’ll make mistakes in the heat of emotion is a tactic as old as humanity. All that talk about the mushin, zanshin, fudoshin  and similar terms addresses the emotional just as much as the rational. It’s not enough to quiet your thoughts if your emotions are running riot. It doesn’t matter if your rational mind is solid and steady as the foundation of a house if your emotions can be tossed about like a dry leaf in the breeze.

One instance where my experience as an independent-minded, independence-obsessed American teenager really got in the way of understanding what was going on was the area of reigi or etiquette. This is a huge topic in Japanese culture, so naturally it is of great importance in Japanese arts like budo.

Americans spent a lot of blood in fights to make sure everyone was equal before the law, and that no one earned special treatment simply by virtue of who their parents were. We work hard to make it clear that everyone is equal. I call all the Americans I work with, from the kid just hired to empty trash cans to the general manager, by their first names.  This was the expectation when I first walked into a dojo.

Japanese people also hold everyone equal before the law, but that’s where concern with equality ends. Culturally, Japan is obsessed with the nuances that make us different. Things like age, who your teacher is, and how long you’ve been training, in addition to what rank you may hold, are all of vital interest in figuring out relative social position. English speakers are worried about whether we’re dealing with one or many. Japanese speakers can’t even conjugate a verb until they know what their conversation partner’s relative social status is.

Verbs are literally conjugated differently whether you are talking to someone of lower status (teacher to student for example), equal status (students or teachers of the same level) or higher status (student to teacher). With social status that intrinsic to the way people think, etiquette quickly becomes a major issue. Using the wrong verb form is one of the classic ways to insult someone in Japanese. Fights can be caused by the inadvertent use of the wrong verb form. The intentional use of the wrong verb form does start fights.

One of the many uses of etiquette is to communicate information about relative social position and understanding. If you don’t know the basic etiquette, it’s clear that don’t know anything else about the art either. Without the etiquette you can be certain you’ll offend someone. I got treated with the indulgence of a small child when I first went to Japan, and thank goodness for that. Small children and big foreigners aren’t expected to know how to behave, but both are expected to pay attention and learn.

I saw many non-Japanese who were satisfied with the social assumptions they arrived with and didn’t make any real effort to learn new ways of thinking about social relationships. They didn’t go very far in Japan. I didn’t either until I gave up the ideas about social relationships that I assumed were natural and best. Once I stopped clinging to what I knew, and accepted the fact that Japanese ideas and assumptions about social relationships and etiquette are just as natural to them as the ones I grew up with were to me, I started to make progress in being part of Japanese society.

It took longer than I care to admit for me to realize that trying to force what my assumptions of what was natural only caused friction and got me gently excluded from social occasions  that I might mess up.. It was only when I stopped asking why people couldn’t see the good sense of my way, and just asked myself “What is their way?” that I began to get any degree of acceptance and respect. It seems obvious from this distance, but when I was in the midst of it, letting go of my own assumptions was tough

We have to make assumptions to get started in budo. If we don’t make any linguistic and cultural assumptions we can’t take the first step on the journey.  We need a framework in which to place what we learn and to link our budo to the rest of our lives. Those assumptions aren’t bad. They’re only bad if we don’t go back and reconsider them as our understanding deepens. We have to be ready to knock a support out of our framework from time to time when we discover it’s interfering with our growth and replace it with a new structure that better accommodates the growing understanding. 

 1.  The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought, Allen & Unwin, London, 1934.

2. Tao Te Ching Penguin Books, 1963