Showing posts with label Tao Te Ching. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tao Te Ching. 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

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Feeding The Budo Mind

“Budo is more than just techniques.”  We hear things like this all the time. Then we go back to practicing techniques and kata. If budo is more than the techniques and kata, when do we get to the other stuff? All that other stuff about strategy, tactics, ethics and all the rest? For me the answer is to read.

People were writing about budo for a couple thousand years before anyone started calling it “budo.”  Some great ideas from powerful thinkers and writers have paved the path we call budo, and it’s more than worth the time to read some of what I would call the foundational texts, and what people are thinking and talking about now.

One of my favorites is also among the shortest. The Tao Te Ching. Said to have been written by a legendary record-keeper of the Zhou Dynasty in China in the 6th century BC, it is the foundational text for Taoist thought. Why is this important? Even though it only runs to about 2,500 Chinese characters (it’s shorter than most of my blog posts!), it carries the essential ideas about strategy, power, value, ethics, responsibility and leadership. The idea of the Way heavily influence Confucian and Buddhist thought in China, both as something worth considering and as something to reject. It has been translated more than any book except the Christian Bible. There is no definitive translation because the nature of the work allows for many subtle interpretations, none of which are wrong.  My current favorite English translation is Gai-Fu Feng’s. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print again.  A fabulous introduction in manga form that is fun to read and manages to explain some of the ancient culture that goes into it without being boring is “The Tao Speaks”. It’s out of print, but used copies can be found around the internet. Free translations of it abound on the internet.

A hundred years or so after the Tao Te Ching was put together, Sun Tsu wrote his guide to warfare, strategy and tactics.  Known at “The Art Of War”, it has influenced military thought for 2500 years.  Compact, with only 13 brief chapters, even when many commentaries are included, as in the Griffith translation, it is not long. The Art Of War should be considered the fundamental text on warfare and combat. The discussions of strategy and tactics inform everything from the relatively uncomplicated scenarios of one-on-one classical budo training all the way to modern warfare combining infantry, tanks, artillery and airpower. A lot less has been said with a lot more words many times (yes, I’m guilty as charged).

Donn Draeger was an incredible pioneer for non-Japanese entering into the world of Japanese budo. His 3 volume set “Classical Bujutsu” “Classical Budo” and “Modern Bujutsu and Budo” have been gateways into Japanese budo for people since their publication in the 1970s.  He makes mistakes, and some of his theories are wrong (I have argued against the artificial division of budo and bujutsu in other places), but he was the first! He was trying to figure out this budo stuff and go where no non-Japanese had gone.  Of course he made mistakes! Explorers go out and track down blind dead ends and get lost and found and lost again any number of times. The incredible thing is not the mistakes he made, but how much he was able to figure out and decipher so those of us who came after don’t have to work at those pieces of the puzzle.

Ellis Amdur has written two books that I consider essential reading for anyone who wants to understand where this budo stuff is coming from and where it it sits in the modern world. The first, Old School sets the stage for budo practice in the 21st century. Amdur writes with authority on  the history and culture that produced the budo we practice today, particularly the koryu or “old school” styles the predate modern Japan.  Through detailed essays about particular ryuha, Amdur illuminates much of the common culture and history in which all koryu were born and developed. The chapter about Katori Shinto Ryu alone is worth the price of admission, and the other chapters are all nearly as good.

His other book “Dueling With O-sensei” I consider essential reading for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the ethics and reality of the martial arts they are practicing. There are lots of noble words about katsujinken and arts of peace, about self-development and enlightenment through the martial arts. After 13 years of training in Japan, and decades dealing with conflict, violence and de-escalation professionally have given him a perspective into the true ethics of martial arts and a practical understanding of their genuine limits that few possess.  This is something everyone who thinks about budo should read. Sadly, it’s out of print now.  A revised second edition is due out later this year though. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Karl Friday is unique among the people writing about budo today. He is both a classically trained martial artist with a menkyo in the art of Kashima Shinryu, one of the oldest budo traditions in Japan, and a Ph.D. in Japanese military history. With an insider’s access as a senior member of Kashima Shinryu, and the critical eye of a trained historian, Dr. Friday brings a unique perspective to the hunt for understanding the history and traditions of budo.  His book “Legacies Of The Sword” written with Seki Humitake, the current shihanke of Kashima Shinryu, is an amazing resource digging into the history and development of Kashima Shinryu from its founding to the present day.  This is a wonderful counter to all the folks who think Zen Buddhism is the essence of budo. What about all the wonderful esoteric traditions of Japan? Read this and discover some.  His other books on Japanese military history are wonderful as well, and all are antidotes to the popular myths about the samurai and Japanese history.

But what about budo in the present? These are living traditions after all. What is there about budo, martial arts, combat and violence in the 21st century? One of my favorite writers on budo and martial arts in the modern world is Rory Miller. With a background that includes classical jujutsu, Kodokan Judo, and a career as a corrections officer, he brings a fascinating and practical perspective to questions about budo, conflict and violence. His Meditations On Violence is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Miller’s years spent living and dealing with violence on a near daily basis means he brings a clear eye to many of the myths and legends that have grown up around budo over the centuries. In addition his depth of experience gives him insight into the depths of seemingly esoteric budo teachings.

These are just some of the budo writers and thinkers that get my mind going. Budo has been developing for centuries, which makes putting my place along the path in perspective challenging. The more I understand of the history and development of the ideas and ideals, the better I can understand how they relate to me. Reading the experiences and thoughts of writers who have more practical experience than I would ever want to accumulate helps me to understand the limits of some ideas, and avoid the pitfall of romanticizing what I practice. I am amazed every time I pick up the Tao Te Ching or the Art Of War that books written 2,500 years ago can have so much relevance to the present. Many of the questions and principles Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu  were grappling with are the same ones writers in medieval Japan and modern America continue to contemplate and wrestle with.

This is in no way meant to be anything like a definitive list.  These are just some of the books and writers that I find important and engaging.  I’m sure I’ll talk about some of the many others that I think are important in another blog one of these days.  What works or thinkers do you find engaging and challenging? They don’t have to be books. Intriguing ideas can come from movies, TV, great discussions, and sometimes from the least expected corners.  How do you feed your budo mind?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Understanding the Way: the Tao Te Ching

For anyone interested in the ideas and thinking that underpin the concepts of budo and other Ways, the Tao Te Ching is essential reading. There are numerous translations of this canonical text, each doing it’s best to bring understanding and thought to the translation. Fortunately, it’s not a long book.  You can read it in about 30 minutes.  It’s filled with meaning and ideas to explore.
Because of the difficulty of translating ancient Chinese into modern English, there can be wide differences between translations. The internet is an amazing thing. There is now a site where you can see translation of the Tao Te Ching, and explore the original Chinese character by character to improve your understanding and get a better feel for what the translators are trying to express.  The site is at