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

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Budo: The Art Of Living

I was watching an otherwise excellent documentary by NHK called “Real Samurai” about modern practitioners of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. It’s a very nice look at the modern practice of a great koryu budo. One thing bothered me though. The narration kept referring to budo in general and Katori Shinto Ryu in particular as the “art of killing”. I think this may be the biggest misconception about budo as it has been practiced since the Pax Tokugawa took effect in 1604.

The documentary repeatedly talked about Katori Shinto Ryu as an “art of killing” and emphasizing the potentially lethal aspects of what is taught and studied. It seemed unable to deal with the  contradiction offered in nearly every frame and comment by the practitioners themselves, that Katori Shinto Ryu practice informs and transforms their way of life.

For me, the fact that the skills we study can result in killing is outshone by their usefulness in living, and living fully. I find it hard to imagine that even during wartime the focus of bujutsu study was killing. Despite a few folks like Yamamoto Tsunetomo who were obsessed with dying, budo has always been about living.The reason for studying these arts, even five hundred years ago, was less focused on killing than on surviving horrible circumstances and going on living. Perhaps budo is not really an art of killing. If it’s not an art of killing though, then what is it?

Without the constant threat of warfare, there would be little reason to study arts of killing. Peace encourages us to consider not just living, but how to best live. Budo as an art of killing isn’t relevant to a life of peace. But budo is just as  much about living. Life is filled with conflicts of all sorts, and all forms of budo are intense studies of conflict, both physical and non-physical.  Methods of dealing with  conflict can also be applied throughout life.

 In budo, the first things you practice are things you’re already doing all the time. You learn how to hold your body, breathe well and move powerfully. What’s more essential to living than breathing? The building blocks of good budo turn out to be the same ones used to build the foundation of a good, healthful life. 

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Budo reminds us, every practice, of our limits. We stare death in the face with every kata we practice. Most koryu budo kata are paired, and being off just a little for either person can result in a nasty whack that would be deadly with live weapons. Crucially, someone always loses in these kata, and losing equals dieing. In the paired kata we learn to see just how narrow the difference between success and failure, life and death, really is. Learning this is solid preparation for life outside the dojo. The lessons about moving enough, but not too much, emphasize the need to respond appropriately to whatever happens. I can think of many kata in Shinto Muso Ryu where action is essential to not getting hit in the head with a weapon, but where overreacting is nearly as bad as failing to act. When uchitachi thrusts during Sakan, if you don’t act you will be stabbed in the gut. If you overreact you block the thrust but leave yourself open to a number of follow-up attacks that flow smoothly from your excess movement. If you do everything right, you move when uchitachi has committed to the thrust and you deflect the sword tip just enough to miss but not so far that the sword can come in through a new opening. Action must be appropriate to the situation.

I’ll say this again and again. Breathe well.  

Remain calm and relaxed. Budo practice emphasizes this. It doesn’t matter if someone is trying to throw you across a room, split your head open, or choke you. You still have to be calm and keep breathing. It’s amazing how often people in the dojo have to be reminded to breathe. Under stress they start holding their breath. It happens so often I have to wonder that people aren’t passing out right and left in their everyday lives. Budo practices teaches us to relax into stress.

Tightening up only makes things worse.  Stiff arm a judoka and the result is a beautiful throw or an elegant armbar. Tense up while holding a sword and you’ll be much too slow to respond to whatever your partner chooses to do. A lot of practice is required to overcome our bodies’ natural tendency to tense up under stress so we can relax into difficult situations. Someone yells at us at work. A deadline gets moved up. Our uncles get into an argument over politics at the family dinner. Things that can cause us to tense up are everywhere.

Breathe. If you find yourself getting tense, let go of the tension. Don’t cling to it. Budo practice is the only place I’ve found that practices the essential art of relaxing into stress. Having someone try to throw or choke or hit you is stressful. If you can learn to stay relaxed and calm under this pressure, you can do it anywhere. When life tries to hit you over the head, relax, breathe, and move just far enough to avoid getting hit, but not so far that you can’t hit back.

As a kid, I always thought that being “grown up” meant that you were finished becoming you. Budo has a way of reminding me that I will never be finished becoming myself or becoming a better person. I’ve been at this budo stuff for over 30 years and every day I make new discoveries about myself and how much I can improve. It is often said, and always true, that budo is a path, not a destination. We’re never done learning. We’re never done polishing ourselves.

It’s easy to forget that we’re never done changing, so the opportunities for improving never cease. We can keep working on our technique, and ourselves, until we die. My iaido teacher is 94. My jodo teacher is in his 80s. When Real Samurai was filmed a few years ago, Otake Sensei was 88. One of the saddest things I hear people say is, “That’s just the way I am,” as an excuse not to change and improve. It’s the way you are today. Whether you want to or not, you will change and be a little different tomorrow and each day after that.

The difference that budo makes in my life is that it teaches me over and over again that I don’t have to be satisfied with what I am today. I can influence how time changes me. I can passively receive the way life molds and shapes who I am, or I can actively participate, choosing how I want to change and who I become. This is the art of living that budo teaches us.

I’m not finished. My teachers aren’t finished. They still practice. They are still changing and improving. That time spent refining my kirioroshi and my hikiotoshi uchi is not just time spent learning an obscure skill with an archaic weapon. It’s also about refining who I am. That practice breathing calmly and deeply is useful wherever I am, whatever I am doing. Teaching myself that my default condition is calm and relaxed even when someone is actively attempting to throw me across the room, and especially when they succeed in throwing me across the room applies to dealing with “all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Budo is not an art of killing.  Budo is an art of living.

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, April 27, 2016

Demonstration Budo Vs. Training Budo Vs. Doing Budo

Michi - the character for way, path or road.

Budo demonstrations are great fun. I love watching them, going to them and occasionally even doing them. If you go to some of the big enbu in Japan, you can see legendary arts demonstrated by some of the top people practicing them.  The Shimogamo Jinja Enbu on May 4 and the Meiji Jingu Enbu on November 3 each year offer the chance to see rare and great budo demonstrated. And the Kyoto Enbu Taikai every May 2nd at the old Butokuden in Kyoto is an endurance test for the spectators that can run for 10 hours of nonstop budo.

I was going to say “But they aren't real budo.  They're demonstrations.  They are for showing about budo.”  After putting in the time to think about it enough to develop the idea into a post, I realized I was wrong. Those demonstrations are real budo, especially when done with good spirit. They aren’t nearly all of budo, but they are some aspects of it.

Often we think of demonstrations as being scripted set pieces for showing off our art in the best light possible. Not really the time to go out on a limb and do things we’re not completely comfortable and familiar with. Most budo practice is scripted too though.

We do kata, scripted exercises, with a variety of purposes and goals. Granted, in practice we never approach an exercise with the goal of making the audience go “Wow!” but that’s just one more thing we try for in a demonstration.

What else might be going on in a demonstration?  Beside the obvious goal of trying to impress the audience, there are lots of other possible goals. When we demonstrate modern arts such as judo, aikido or karate one goal is often to show the fundamental principles principles of the art, such as kuzushi or blending or power generation. Being able to manifest the fundamental principles of your art at any moment is clearly part of doing budo. If you can’t manifest the principles, there is no way you can do the art, regardless of whether it is practice, a demonstration or in the midst of a conflict.

When demonstrating an art, you want to show it at its strongest and most powerful. Except when you don’t. Koryu budo systems from Japan, arts founded before 1868, have a tendency to be profoundly suspicious and untrusting. Historically, practitioners of many arts wanted to keep the essence of their art secret because facing someone who had seen one of your demonstrations was a real possibility. For these folks, deception was an essential part of any demonstration.  Do a distinctive kata, but in such a way as to lead anyone watching to an incorrect understanding of how your art handles timing or spacing or other essential elements of the ryuha. Deceiving your opponent into unwise action is found throughout budo training. Using a demonstration to do this is just an extension of training into a practical application.

We also conceal our weaknesses during demonstrations. Just as the classical ryuha might change their kata slightly to deceive potential opponents who are watching the demonstration, they wouldn’t have students demonstrate things they aren’t fully competent at either. It makes no more sense to reveal your weaknesses than it does to show all of your strengths. Demonstrations are scripted in part to avoid displaying weaknesses that could be exploited. Students demonstrating things they do well and with confidence shows their strengths without exposing their weakness at aspects of the art they are still learning.

Modern artists don’t generally worry about the potential of facing members of the audience in a fight. For us, often the concern is presenting an interesting and impressive demonstration that might attract a new student or two. It’s also a chance for students to display what they have learned, regardless of their level. The world has changed, and in this case I have to believe it’s for the better. Where once a major concern was not revealing too much about the strength of the art and the weaknesses of the students, modern arts can show nearly everything. Judoka can demonstrate their most impressive and powerful throws. Aikidoka can show off their most subtle and sophisticated blending techniques. Karateka can demonstrate not just their kata, but also the bunkai of the kata, as I saw at an Cherry Blossom Festival a couple of weeks ago. 150 years ago these would have been closely held secrets. Now those secrets are the very things we put on display. I’m thrilled the world I live in is peaceful enough for this to be.

I’ve often seen people distinguish between “budo training” and “doing budo” as if what we do outside the dojo is somehow more real than what goes on in the dojo. Budo training is practicing all the elements budo, not just the ones that we are confident enough to put on display.  We learn the techniques and the kata. Really learn them. Soaking them into our skin and absorbing them into our muscles. In the dojo I am always working at, as my friend Janet Rosen so eloquently puts it “sucking at a higher level.” I can’t think of a day in the dojo where I didn’t work on things that I’m not good at. No matter how long I’ve been on this path, there are still parts of it that are rough going for me. Certain techniques I need to learn (anyone want to help me with my uki otoshi?). Principles I still have trouble expressing on a consistent basis.

Changing ourselves and moving us along the path of budo is what practice and training is all about.. This is where we grow our understanding of budo and develop ourselves as budoka. We learn about spacing and timing and good structure. We practice how we move and learn that we can choose how we respond to a particular situation  instead of just reacting. It’s not “doing budo” in that the practice may not be spontaneous application of budo techniques and principles to life. It is “doing budo” because we are working on changing and improving ourselves, becoming better grounded in the lessons and more fully internalizing the principles of our art.  That certainly seems like “doing budo” to me.

Doing budo is all these things. We don’t practice or demonstrate every aspect of budo at the same time. Budo practice involves choosing what aspects of budo you want to work on polishing on any given day.  Budo isn’t something that only happens in the midst of violent conflict. Budo is a path, a Way, and the principles of that Way should be applicable to anything. Talk to me about cooking, and we’ll be discussing timing. Talk to me about work and perhaps we’ll be talking about using breathing to control our mind and maintain calm under pressure and threats. Talk about play and I’ll surely be talking about a recent round of randori at judo practice.

Budo is the whole path, every place and every footstep along the journey is “doing budo.”  Practicing budo technique and kata is doing budo. What else could it be? Each time you do a technique or a kata you are working on manifesting the fundamental principles of your art. When you do an enbu, a budo demonstration, you are are doing budo. Whether you are showing the highest expressions of your art, or purposely deceiving your audience as to the true nature of what you do, you’re doing budo.

Artificially limiting what budo is becomes an easy trap to fall prey to.  We think “Budo is martial arts, so it’s only budo when I’m fighting” or something similar. But budo training involves the optimal ways to stand and walk and breath, so when we are doing any of those things according to the principles of budo, we’re doing budo.  It’s not just when we’re in a fight. It’s all the other time too.  If budo was only about fighting, it wouldn’t be near to worthy of the devotion and time we invest in it. Budo is about how we do everything. It’s all budo.