Showing posts with label . Show all posts
Showing posts with label . Show all posts

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

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  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

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.

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

2. Cook Ting quotes from

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Budo and Ego

All the classical “Do” 道, or Ways, of Japan strive to achieve a better understanding of the world and the self.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing tea ceremony, flower arranging, sword fighting, incense smelling (kodo 香道), calligraphy or any of the other common activities that have been organized into form Ways.  You study codified ways of doing things that have roots going back generations, and sometimes centuries.  The goal is not just master one esoteric art form, but through the focused study, master the self and gain a greater understanding of the Way of the universe.

As people practice and study and refine their art, they naturally move up within the art’s hierarchy.   This is the natural progression of beginner to senior student to junior teacher to senior teacher.  There is always the risk that a person can misunderstand the respect that they receive as their skills and status increase.  There are plenty of people who become recognized for the mastery of a particular skill, who someone conclude that because they are skilled and respected in one special field, they should be respected and lauded in every aspect of their lives.  Their egos seem to take over and they get upset when people don’t acknowledge their superiority and innate greatness.

This can happen with anything.  It’s a not uncommon human failing and it is found even in the Ways of Japan where one of the key things we are supposed to be mastering is our self.  To really advance in any of the Ways, whether martial art or one of the more peaceful Ways, we have to achieve a certain mastery over our self and the voices in our head.  All those stories of the serene tea master, or the calligraphy teacher who calmly looks at the paper for a few minutes and then with a sudden flourish creates a marvelous work of art, these all require that you master the voices in your head so you can concentrate well enough to be serene and peaceful and creative.  It’s true of martial arts as well.  If you can’t learn to quiet your mind, you’re never going to figure out how to get out of the way of that incoming sword cut or jo strike.  And trust me, when your mind wanders and you don’t get out of the way in time, it hurts.  Which brings on a different kind of mental focus.

We have to master parts of ourselves to master any of the arts or Ways.  In mastering a Way though, we don’t have to master one important part of ourselves.  We don’t have to master our ego.  It’s easy for the ego to grow even more quickly than our skills do.  It’s amazing how powerful a fertilizer for the ego a little praise and respect can be.

If a Way is to be more than simply mastering the base, physical skills of the art, then we have to do more than just learn to quiet our mind for the time it takes to perform the skill.  We have to apply the lessons broadly to our whole selves, and not let the mastery of one skill enhance our ego to the point that it prevents further growth.   This is a risk for anyone studying any skill.  In a Way, it is a sad thing, because it prevents a student from achieving everything that the Way can give.

For all this, few arts and Ways have the inherent hurdle of budo .  Budo practice actually makes the practitioner more powerful, which can feed the ego with the thrill of the power and the desire for more.  If acted upon and followed, the path of the ego is completely odds with the path of budo, but it is an easy path to start upon, and difficult one to abandon once you have started treading it.

The power taught in budo is real power in the most basic, literal sense.  A student learns raw, physical power over others.  This is a huge trap for some people.  The ability to physically dominate and intimidate the people around you is an alluring drug. In most modern societies, this power is even more seductive because it’s one we avoid socially and culturally we play down the realities of physical power.  We suppress discussion physical power within social dynamics because people aren’t supposed to use it.  We’re wired to react physical power even if it’s not supposed to be a dynamic of polite society.

Power dynamics are a part of most social interactions, and physical posturing is a part of it, even if people aren’t aware of it..  There are people who use aggressive posturing to influence and dominate the world around them.  This works on lots of people, but not on those who are unusually strong, or who have great confidence in their physical skills.  People who do budo don’t react the way untrained people do, and they can in fact become quite dominant because of their skills.  This is another ego trap.  It feels good when people defer to you and let you do things your way.  That’s fine if it’s for a good reasons, but if it’s just because of your martial skills, then it’s probably a bad thing.  Letting this sort of thing feed your ego, and using it to get your way, is another dangerous detour from the budo Way.

Intimidating people, power posturing, and even physically abusing people is an especially dangerous trap in the dojo, because we are supposed to be using and practicing our skills there, and senior students and teachers are expected to demonstrate superior skills.  The lure of power over others because you are physically capable of it can be subtle.  It is easy for senior practitioners to edge from demonstrating superior technique over the line to abusing juniors.  The throws can become unnecessarily hard and brutal.  Joint locks can be go from controlling to inflicting uncalled for pain to physically damaging.  Just because the senior can do it, and they like the feeling of being able to make the juniors react.  This is a subtle trap, because it can start out with simple things, like a throw that’s just a little harder than it needs to be, or a joint lock that is painful when it’s not necessary.  The senior likes how the junior reacts, and more throws become extra hard, and the joint locks get more painful.  From this point, things just get worse, as the seniors ego needs more and more signs of his power and dominance from those below him.

Juniors can unintentionally encourage this behavior by showing greater respect and deference to the person being abusive, because they see this as evidence of the person’s superior skill, rather than as evidence of abuse.  This just makes the ego trap even bigger.

Power is drug for the ego, and in the dojo there is the danger that people will reward you for abusing the physical power that you have.  Just because what you are studying has “Do” 道 in the name, doesn’t guarantee that you will become a better person.  There are pitfalls along the way, and the one labeled “Ego” is perhaps the largest and most dangerous.  This is because it can be so subtle that you don’t even realize you are falling in.  Worse, it feels good.  Having your ego stoked by the people around you feels wonderful, and can be quite addictive.  It feels good to receive compliments and praise, but if you start trying to improve because you want the praise or the power, rather than improving to discover more about the art, yourself and the Way, then you have left the Way and are plunging into the pitfall of ego.