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

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tradition Is Tending The Flame. It's Not Worshiping The Ashes

I’ve been thinking lately about how pointless the study of koryu budo would be if we were just preserving the way people trained 200 or 300 or 400 or 500 years ago.  We would all be maintaining museum pieces good for nothing more than taking out and displaying for people along with other artifacts.  While dwelling on this, I ran across this quote from Gustav Mahler, a 19th century conductor and composer.

"Tradition is tending the flame, it's not worshipping the ashes"

This quite nicely  encapsulates my feelings about studying koryu budo.  Many classical arts, not just koryu budo, can wither and die under the pressure from those who want to maintain them in an unchanging form.  Mahler, although now remembered as a great composer, was known primarily as a orchestra conductor during his lifetime.  As a both a conductor and a composer, Mahler ran into people who resisted change and innovation in both the creation of new music, and in the interpretation of classical works. Anything outside what had been done before risked  resistance and criticism as a departure from tradition.

For many, there was only the classical way to perform Bach and other revered composers. The traditional way of performing music, and the established rules for writing new music were difficult to escape.  

This sort of adherence to past precedence is all too common in both koryu and gendai budo. It’s
easy to become so focused on what has come before that we forget to use the past as a platform from which to approach the future. Yes, the great ones of the past were great. This is true whether we are talking about music or art or budo. 

Blindly worshipping what the great individuals achieved though is to forget that they were innovators themselves. They took the traditions they received, and didn’t just accept it as the way things must be done.. Those great geniuses took what they had and moved a step forward.

They avoided the trap of focussing so much on the way things have been that they forgot about the present and the future.  In something like budo, this is a particularly easy trap to fall into. Especially with arts that have storied histories, it’s easy get lost in that rich history and forget to turn and face the future. Too much time spent on an art’s past slowly dries it out and robs it of the vitality of a living art.

The past is the foundation of the future. If all you do is focus on the past, eventually there will be no future.  Spend much time at all moving in budo circles and you will encounter people who want their art to be done exactly the same as the founder of the art did a hundred, two hundred or even five hundred years ago.  This seems as likely and as interesting and worthwhile as trying to do every performance of Swan Lake exactly as it was performed at it’s debut.

These people who imagine that is what studying an art with a long tradition is all about miss the essence of living traditions. These are people who worship those ashes Mahler is referring to. It’s as if no one since the founder of the art has had any insight or new understanding.  All that is left in their minds are the burned up and dried out ashes of what the founder was doing.

Uchi always does the attack in exactly one, and shite always responds in a precisely identical manner. The form and technique become about replicating exactly what someone is supposed to have done decades or centuries ago. In an effort to preserve things just as they saw them, these preservationists drain the life from what they are doing and leave it desiccated and empty of real value. Nothing more than those ashes Mahler refers to.

This can be seen when people start to value something simply because it is old.  There are ancient styles of music and dance in Japan such as Dengaku that have been preserved for 700 years and more. When they were young, this music and dance was a sensation and is said to have caused near riots in major cities. Now the only reason for performing what remains of these once lively and popular arts is that they are old.  There is no life left in them. The people who have preserved these arts have preserved even less than a flower dried and pressed in a book.  There may be be some bits left among the ashes, but there is nothing left that can even inspire the mind to imagine what the dance was like originally.  The only value remaining to it is that it’s old.

This is a danger for all budo, whether koryu art or gendai.  It’s relatively easy to see how the kata of ancient koryu bugei ryuha can be venerated and preserved to death. In an effort to do things exactly as their teacher did something, students can stop treating the kata as living lessons and start treating them as fossils, unchanging and dead. Sadly, if you attend some of the big koryu demonstrations in Japan, it is all too likely that you will see some groups that have succumbed to this temptation.

What might surprise people is that there are aspects of judo, kendo, aikido and karate that can fall into this trap. Even in modern organizations it’s all too common to see people elevating their idea of how a revered teacher did something, rather than seeking the principle and spirit of the practice. The shape of how even the greatest teachers do things will change and evolve over the course of their lives. Choosing one snapshot out of a teacher’s career and deciding that is only valid way of doing things is ridiculous. Which moment do you choose?  How do you know that iteration of the technique or kata was the greatest and is universally  applicable to every person and possible use?

I see this danger in some of the kata in judo.  Judo is somewhat saved because you always have a partner, so at least the surface point of the form is obvious. I’ve heard about karate kata though where people have learned all the motions, but not the bunkai. They don’t really know what the purpose of particular motions are anymore. Already within some lines, less than a lifetime since it was brought from Okinawa, the art has begun to dry out and die.

This sort of thing is more likely to happen with solo exercises such as karate or iai kata, but it’s possible with any system.  Even in paired kata, if both people are simple copying motions without learning and understanding the depth and reasons for the motions, then that too will dry out, burn up and die.

Tending the flame of a budo system, a ryuha, takes effort and thought. Like the Taoist parable of the finger and the moon, the kata and techniques that we practice are the finger. They point us at the principles and fundamental concepts that the founders and those who came after them discovered and developed.

When I study judo, I study all the parts of it, techniques, randori and kata.  Each part informs the other, and keeps them alive.  I know too many people in the judo world for whom the kata have already become museum pieces because they only learn enough to go through the motions without understanding the principles embodied there.  If we truly want to respect the genius of the founders and brilliant teachers who created these arts and passed them on to us, we have to do more.

Those who tend the flame of their art work at pulling the principles out of the forms and then feeding the forms with their understanding of the principles. I’m working on Ju No Kata in judo right now. This is a kata that is very susceptible to being nothing more than a burned out shell. There are no big throws or huge techniques. As I work at it though, I discover things about kuzushi that I feed back into my practice of the kata.  Each time I do it, the kata becomes more alive. Where at first my practice was just about “Uke pushes here and tori turns there, grabs uke’s arm and lifts.” Now my practice looks very much the same as before but it’s about uke pushing and tori creating instability destroying uke’s base with very subtle, almost unnoticeable movements and connections.

The insights that come for figuring out kuzushi in Ju No Kata then feed the flames of understanding and application when I practice individual techniques or do randori.  This exploration transforms what looks from the outside to be a boring, bland set of simple movements into a fascinating exploration of fundamental principle.

The more I understand those principles, the more they come alive outside the dojo and in areas other than randori.  There are all sorts of places and ways to apply lessons about kuzushi, timing, power generation, power dissipation and all the other principles and lessons that an art can teach.

Don’t focus on the outward form leached of all meaning and depth. Look for what the form is supposed to contain and bring that to life.  Don’t fall into the trap of worshiping the ashes of your founders teachings. Use your heart and mind to add fuel to fire their genius.

Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman for the information on dengaku.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

You Thought Being Sensei Would Be Awesome

After hearing me comment about what a great day I’d had at Judo practice, a friend of mine lamented the fact that there is no one senior to her in her koryu budo dojo. At that Judo practice I enjoyed myself and learned a bunch. Because I’m not the most senior person in the room there, I can relax and absorb what is being taught. I don’t have to worry about how to teach a particular point or think about what we’re going to do for the entire practice. I get to learn. Yes, if someone junior to me seems ready to learn a particular point I’ll work with them, but it’s always within the framework of the class someone else is teaching. I can focus on learning and practicing as a happy student.

I understand my friend’s lament. Where I’m at, if I want partners to train iai and jo and kenjutsu with, I have to teach them. There is no one senior to me for quite a ways. I’ve known lots of people who wanted to be the big kahoona teaching martial arts. Having arrived at that position by the simple expediency of moving to a place where I’m the only option if you want to learn the stuff I do, I can let you in on a little secret. It’s not fun.

In fact, I don’t know of anyone who’s teaching that wouldn’t trade in their cold, windy, exposed position on the top of the heap for a nice, cozy spot somewhere down the side a ways. At the top, all the responsibility is on you.  You get to worry about what to teach and how to teach and and why the people aren’t catching the point of your carefully thought out lessons. Plus you get to worry about the dojo have space and enough money to cover expenses and that someone is there on Thursday night to lead practice because you are attending your daughter’s recital and gee, I thought I remembered how to do this kata, but now I’m not so sure….how did that entry go? When you’re on top, it all comes back around to you. This is a particular problem outside Japan where dojo don’t usually have decades and decades of history.

In Japan most of the dojo I train in are lead by people in their 70s and 80s. Many of them have more than 70 or 80 years of budo experience under whatever is left of their well-worn belts.  Imagine a dojo where the median rank on the floor most nights is 6th dan. That’s pretty common.  Training in a place like that is incredible. You absorb lessons without even realizing it because the atmosphere is so rich with experience. Your training partners as often as not started practicing decades before you were born and the head sensei started decades before that.  

You don’t have to worry about what teach or how to teach it. There are plenty of seniors doing that. You just go and absorb everything you can. Some of it you forget and other lessons you don’t realize you’ve learned until they bleed from your bones and muscles and heart when needed. Secure in the knowledge that whatever question you might have someone around you will be able to answer in more detail than you can handle, you can relax and just focus on your training, on improving your budo and yourself as much as possible.

When, for whatever reason, you find yourself at the top of the heap with people around you calling out “Sensei”, that security melts faster than ice cream in an Arizona summer. This is especially true if you’ve only got a couple of decades of experience under your still all too new belt.  I still have loads of things to learn about all of the arts I study, not just Judo. For iai and jo though, most of the year I’m the only teacher around for me to rely on. I don’t have all the details of every kata nailed into my head yet. This is a problem for my training. I can teach my students a lot, but they aren’t nearly ready to work on some of the things I’m doing, so I have no practice partners nearby.

I’ve got a pile of kata that I was introduced to at the most recent gasshuku. Anything I don’t remember and don’t have written down somewhere is lost until the next time I can get together with a senior student or teacher. Of course, the nearest senior for my Jodo practice is at least 600 miles away. For iai, it’s 6,000 miles. I don’t get those checks and memory enhancements nearly as often as I’d like. I can get together with a senior in Jodo a few times a year, but getting to Japan is a lot tougher.  

For my students, I hope our dojo is a great place with a good mix of juniors and relatively senior folks. This way they can learn and grow as quickly as possible. For me improvement is comparatively slower and takes more effort. It’s also lonelier.  

A big part of budo, especially koryu budo traditions, is all the stuff that is not techniques and kata.  There are discussions of history and traditions of the system. Koryu bugei traditions are not just collections of techniques. There are stories and anecdotes that enrich and enliven the tradition.  These are not supposed to be dead, fossilized collections of dried and desiccated memories from ages past. These are living traditions that flow on from the past into the future. These stories and memories provide an important part of the foundation and understanding of how the technical practice relates to the world outside of the dojo. Without seniors and peers, all the responsibility for sharing and remembering this part of the art is yours.

Being sensei sounds great. It’s a fabulous idea right up until the moment it becomes reality. Then you discover that it is lonely and stressful. Every buck stops with you. If you have any questions, there’s no one ask. You’re on your own.  If you don’t know or don’t remember something, you’re just out of luck. You never have the luxury of relaxing and letting someone else handle it. If you want to learn something then you’ve got to figure out how to do it right. You don’t get to ask anyone. You’re sensei, and you’re all alone.