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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Budo and the Aging Budoka

I had another birthday recently. So did my iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi. He turned 94.  Aging is just another part of the budo journey. Just like regular practice, eating and sleeping, it can’t be avoided. My teachers, and my fellow students have all accumulated a variety of issues that come with the aging process, but we’re still making progress on the journey.  There are still new things to be learned, concepts to be better understood, and principles that can be more fully applied in our lives.

I began studying Kodokan Judo when I was 19 years old. It was as fascinating and fun as anything I’d ever done. Judo was the first athletic activity I fell in love with.  It was great being 19 and able to train in the dojo 4 or 5 times a week and still have enough energy to do some weight training on the off days. Bumps and bruises healed quickly, and even when I cracked my ribs, they healed easily. The biggest problem with healing my ribs was that I had an excess of energy and wanted to be on the mat and training several weeks before it was safe for my ribs to be doing judo.

A collection o the best budo essays from Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum


We trained hard all the time, because we could. We went to tournaments and fought hard. We won some, we lost some, and we ate everything in sight afterward. No matter how hard we trained one day, we could get up the next day and go at it again.

The summer before my 23rd birthday I achieved a dream and moved to Japan. I had a job teaching in the local junior high schools. When the teachers found out I did judo, they kindly introduced me to the high school judo coach, who invited me to train with his club whenever I was free. The high school club members were great and welcoming. Some of them had been training for twice as long as I had, others were relative beginners. We would train hard everyday and then get up and do it again.

9 years later I was living in Japan and I was still training with the high school judo club. Of course, I was 9 years older and the club members were still 15-17 years old. At that point, when I trained hard, I would get up the next day and think about what Sakashita Sensei would have them do, because I wasn’t doing it two days in a row.

Fast forward - Last night I was at judo practice and worked out with some guys in their teens and twenties.  They play hard, and I’m not sure they understand what I’m saying when I suggest that we “Keep it light”. They want to go 100% all the time. What amazes is me is that they can practice that hard for a couple of hours and they still have the energy to be disappointed that practice is over. By the end of practice I’m just happy to still be standing and wondering who sucked all the oxygen out of the dojo. Then the guys are talking about what kind of training they’ll do tomorrow, while I contemplate nothing more than good stretching to work some of the knots out of my muscles.

I do notice that it’s easier for me to do the sensible things now. It still bothers me when I pull a muscle or something similar and need to sit out, but no one has to tell me to sit down. The boundless energy that some of the young guys have makes it almost impossible for them to sit out of practice, regardless of what they’ve done to themselves. The teachers nearly have to sit on them to keep them from exacerbating their injuries by training before they’re fully healed.

Over time I’ve acquired my share of life reminders, otherwise known as injuries, and I’ve discovered I can hear them talking.  My knees let me know when they are getting to the end of their endurance. It’s an interesting sensation when they start to talk to me. I had to overdo it a couple of times before I realized what my knees were saying, but I did learn. When I hear them talking, I know it’s time to back off my training. I know now that if I don’t, I’ll spend the next day limping around the office and explaining to people that I was too stupid to stop training when I reached my limit.

I also know enough to make my practice count for something more than just working hard. Don’t get me wrong, I still love working hard, but I want all that effort to give me something more than a good sweat. Part of any do 道 is the idea that it doesn’t have a final destination. No matter where we are on the path there is still much to learn. I want to come away from every practice knowing that I have improved at least a tiny bit. That means being focused on doing my practice right. I might not be able to do as many reps as I used to, but I can still use them to polish my technique. I’m working on some left side techniques these days. As I enter, turn and drop under my training partner, I’m still focusing on creating good kuzushi, keeping my back straight and bending my knees deeply enough.

I find it amazing how lessons or instructions that don’t mean much can hang around in my head for years until I reach a point where I can use them. That feeling when some piece of advice that I got 20 years ago finally clicks and the light goes on and I understand! Yesterday it was how to move my legs and body to get into the right position for sumi gaeshi. I’ve known what the right position is for ages, but how to get there was another problem entirely. Yesterday during practice I had one of those wonderful epiphanies that happens in training, and a piece of advice I’d received years ago dropped into place. I could see the shape of the movement I needed and I could do it. It’s annoying to think that I had the key to the technique all this time and just wasn’t ready to see it.

This has happened to me often enough that I’m not sure I fully agree with the old saying that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think it’s more like “When the student is ready, he’ll realize the teacher has been there all along.” So many times when understanding has come, it’s been a sudden insight into the wisdom of something my teacher has been telling me all along.

I notice that what qualifies as a good practice for me has shifted. I used to have to be dripping with sweat and so tired I could hardly move. Now I feel like it was a good practice when I have chewed on a problem or idea in the art and learned something new.  How tired I am is irrelevant. How much did I learn? What did I discover about the art? It doesn’t matter if it’s judo or jodo or iaido, the important thing is how much I’ve learned. It’s great to sweat and work hard, but if I’m not learning anything I may as well just be doing push-ups.

It’s this never-ending opportunity for learning and improvement that makes budo fascinating for me even after three decades of study. I know there is always more to learn about the art I’m studying, and always more to refine within myself. No, I can’t do randori endlessly at judo anymore. But I can discover new ways to be a better judoka and more fully embody the principles of the art. My knees don’t like the seiza techniques in iaido as much as they used to, but when they tell me they’ve had enough of seiza, there are still a full set of standing kata to work on.

Now I can easily see why my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei, was so eager to get a new sword when he was in his seventies. He bought one that had a large fuller in the blade to make it light. He had been using a heavy blade from the Muromachi period (1392 - 1573) that would make his wrists hurt after long practices. With the new blade he could go to gasshuku, train all day and still feel fine afterwards. After 60 years of training, he was still excited to learn new things and continue his journey on the budo path. I can easily imagine that when I reach his age, I’ll be excited about getting a new sword too.



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)

Or

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






Monday, October 21, 2013

Can You Truly Understand Budo Without Training In Japan?

This blog post is an attempt to give a reasonably complete answer to a question in reply to a post here.

I would say that it is possible to truly understand Budo without training in Japan, but that it is really very difficult.. There are a few teachers out there who might be able to transmit the whole contents, but not many. In the US, I'm thinking of people like Phil Relnick, Ellis Amdur, Wayne Muramoto and Meik Skoss have a shot at doing it, but it's really tough. I'll be brief here, and go into detail in a full blog post. Budo is not the techniques. It's everything else. The techniques are really a vessel for carrying the all the things that are Budo: the values, the customs, the expectations and behaviors, the honor and the duty and the loyalty, the way of thinking about things and the way of interacting with the world as you move through it. These all make up what Budo is, and to think that by learning techniques and kata you are learning budo is a great mistake. Budo is vastly more.

So what is budo if it’s not just the techniques.  The word is made up of 2 characters, “bu” 武 and “do” 道. Often it is a wild goose chase to try and figure out the intention of Japanese words by taking apart the kanji characters they are written with.  Many words are of ancient vintage and actual usage has changed so much that relying on the kanji to give you the keys to understanding is a mistake.  The important thing is how the word is used in the language today and not how it was used hundreds of years ago when the word was first written.

From one angle, this is true of budo as well.  It is often used to simply mean “martial arts” in everyday usage in Japan.  For example, when I check the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary, it gives the following definition:

どう1【武道】 (budo)  the martial arts; military science; 〔武士道〕the precepts of the samurai; chivalry

By this definition boxing is budo, and fencing, and Thai kickboxing, and sambo, and many other martial arts.  And I will admit that it is a definition I have heard used in popular conversation and media in Japan.  Anything that trains one in some sort of combat is budo.  If this is what you are interested in, then you’ve probably read enough and can skip the rest of this.  On the other hand, in conversation within the budo community in Japan, the usage is different, much more complex and nuanced.  This is the meaning that I’m concerned with.

This more complex meaning is one that includes budo with a number of other cultural practices in Japan.  Practices like sado 茶道, kado 華道, shodo 書道, and kodo 香道.  These are known in English as tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, incense smelling respectively.  Yet like budo they all contain that “do” 道.   What we have is an entire class of activities that are “do”, but what is “do”?

“Do” 道 is a character meaning “road, path, way” and it goes back to the ancient Chinese concept known as Tao or Dao.  There are 2 primary sets of writings that provide the foundations for what has become known as Taoism in English.  The first is a small collection of 81 brief poems that can be read in less than an hour. Best known as the Tao Te Ching, there is a decent translation at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html.  These are the foundation writings on the Tao.  The other set of writings are by Chuang Tzu. There are links to several translations on the web here.  

The Tao is a good place to start.  The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, the oldest writings about it, says (see footnote 1):

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.


If “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” then explaining the Tao is going to be tough.  Miriam Webster Dictionary gives us: “the unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality as conceived by Taoists “ which is actually a good start.  Tao becomes the source and origin of everything.  So if we can bring ourselves into moving and acting in one with the Tao, then we will be in harmony with the universe and our actions will be correct.

In the story of Cook Ting from the writings of Chuang Tzu (the second great set of writings on Tao) it is shown that any activity can be practiced as a means for achieving an understanding of the Tao.  Ting is a cook in the kitchen of Lord Wen-hui.  When asked about his marvelous skill he replies “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all.”  Cook Ting uses his craft as a vehicle for finding and deepening his understanding of the Tao.  This is not necessarily an intellectual understanding, for he says “now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are.” (Footnote 2)

This is the simplest base upon with all of the various Do are built, whether it is sado or shodo or kado or budo.  The goal is to use the craft you are practicing to come closer to the Tao and to remove the barriers between ourselves and the Tao.   This is what we are trying to do when we practice any Do.  We are trying to achieve a closeness and understanding of the Tao, the universe, the origin of all things, through the practice and development of our craft, our art.

If you watch a really good kendoka or judoka, they don’t seem to be fighting an opponent.  They seem to just move naturally and without apparent aggression and their partner’s actions are nullified.  They move again and their partner is defeated without them having taken any real action.  I know I have felt this at the hands of some of my Judo teachers.  We are moving around the mat and suddenly I’m airborn.  My teacher hasn’t done anything dramatic.  His movement seemed to naturally place him in a position where a technique happened.  He didn’t throw me.  Everything came together so I was thrown more by my own action than anything my teacher was doing.  He was just there and I was moving in such a way that I bumped against his hip and went flying.

This is the little goal of budo.  You strive to be so in harmony with the essence of your art, with the world and the Tao that things happen without your doing anything.  This is a principle concept of the Tao Te Ching known as wu wei 無為.  In action, the master kendoka or judoka doesn’t appear to actually do much of anything, yet is victorious.  In chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching it says

The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The big goal is to expand this mastery and understanding of a small, limited field to the rest of life and achieve this same understanding and oneness with the Tao in all aspects of life, so that everything one does is effortless and perfectly in harmony with the world around you.

The idea of the Way is not limited to Taoism however.  One of the classics of Confucian thought, The Great Learning, begins

大學之道、在明明德、在親民、在止於至善。
The way of great learning consists in manifesting one's bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.

Tao is a critical element of the Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought that was a major influence on Japanese thought throughout Japanese history.  In Confucian teaching Tao was more focused on human affairs and making right action so natural that it happened without thought.  Confucius was focused on society and human affairs, so when he writes of Tao his focus is on its importance at that level.  In Neo-Confucian writings it the focus is more on the cosmic significance of Tao, but in all of them, Tao is a critical and fundamental concept for understanding the world, our place in it, and how we should develop ourselves and live in the world.  In addition, when Buddhism arrived in China, the concept of Tao was appropriated to describe many ideas in Buddhist teachings as they were translated into Chinese.  As a result, everywhere one looks in classical thought you find the Tao and its related ideas.

The Tao Te Ching and The Great Learning are texts that have been fundamental study for the educated in China for thousands of years, and in Japan since writing was introduced from China around the 4th century CE.  They are just the first, and shortest of the many writings that make use of the concept of Tao that were considered essential study for any educated person in Japan up to the end of the Edo Period in 1868.  These concepts were used to explore and conceive everything from ideal social order and relationships to the the cosmos.
Budo, and the Ways that preceded it, sado, shodo and others, were all the province of the educated classes in old Japan.
In a coment, someone said “budo is “nothing special””. I agree that budo is "nothing special". In Japan that is. The techniques you are practicing and the craft one is learning, are just tools for practicing all the "do" 道 aspects. So much of what is the "do" is embedded cultural knowledge that Japanese take for granted as shared cultural and historical knowledge and experience. Outside Japan, we don't have that basic cultural and historical knowledge, so what is ordinary and a given in Japan, is exceptional an unknown outside Japan. This is true whether we are talking about budo or any of the other cultural ways from Japan. The teacher outside Japan must have a thorough understanding of these cultural elements to be able to fully transmit their budo. For a foreigner training in Japan, these elements smack you in the face so often that you learn them almost as organically as the Japanese do growing up. Training outside Japan, the teacher has to consciously include them in the instruction. It can be transmitted across cultures, but the teacher has to understand what elements beyond the techniques have to be taught as well for a student to fully grasp the "do" portion of budo.
In my experience, very few teachers outside Japan have made the effort to educate themselves about the cultural matrix in which budo is embedded within and relies on to give the teachings their full context and relevance.  Budo training that includes that understanding is such a rich and deep experience that is makes the training without seem like eating the paper plate at a picnic instead of the food on the plate.
I’m not trying to suggest that budo teachers outside Japan have to become experts on Taoist and Confucian philosophy.  That is a life’s work by itself, and there are precious few Japanese budo teachers who are also masters of philosophy.  Most Japanese teachers have a native cultural understanding of the concepts that they have absorbed from living in Japan.  For a teacher outside Japan, I think some reading of the classic texts from Taoism and Confucianism along with plenty of quiet thought about how they relate to budo practice is probably enough.  Quiet thought fertilized with the ideas of Lao Tsu, Chuang Tzu and Confucius should bring about some profound realizations on the nature of practice and what the great teachers who created the Ways hope for us, their students, to achieve.


Footnotes
1.  All quotes from Tao Te Ching taken from S. Mitchell translation at

2. Cook Ting quotes from