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

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Budo and "The Way"

In every system of budo in Japan, there is one, and only one, correct way of doing things. This seems arrogant, but it's not. A large subtext of Japanese culture is the simple idea that there is a best way to do something. That's not controversial. Clearly, for any activity, there is a best way to do it. To get there though, you have to decide what that way is. In each system of budo, in fact, in pretty much any group in Japan, there is an accepted best way to do things. This "best way" can be different for every group that does something similar. That's not the point. The point is that if you don't have an ideal to try and achieve, you can't advance. By having a "best way" each group, each budo, each ryu, each tea ceremony group, each flower arranging group, has an ideal they are trying to approach. With an ideal method and technique in place, they can work to polish and improve their own technique. The potential pitfall is to blind yourself to the possibility that someone else's ideal may actually better than yours for accomplishing you goal. The balance is to have an ideal and work to improve yourself so you get closer and closer to that goal, without becoming so attached to the ideal that you feel threatened by anyone who does it differently, and begin to attack or belittle them. If you do that, you betray the goal above your ideal, which is to become as good as possible. If you discover a flaw in your goal, the true Way is to improve and refine your goal, and then continue refining yourself. Sadly, most of the people I encounter are too busy proving that their way is the best, the one true way, and they never look at how much finer they could become by being open to refining their ideal technique as much as they are to refining their personal technique.