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

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kata's Hidden Wisdom

Practice is always good, even when it’s bad, but last Saturday was exceptionally good. There is a lot to be learned from exploring kata, even when it’s one you think you know well. This morning we were working on the kneeling kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. We had out our usual assortment of training tools and were working through the kata using swords.  Some of us have live blades and some are using iaito (unsharpened practice swords that let you keep your fingers if you make a mistake).

Iaido, unlike pretty much all other Japanese koryu bugei, is practiced solo. It’s difficult to learn essential concepts such as ma’ai (combative spacing) and timing without a partner. On the other hand, it’s tough to find new partners when you are using a live blade, or even a blunt steel weapon.  Mistakes happen.  Wooden weapons leave bruises. If you’re lucky, steel will only break things. One of the key purposes of iaido is to learn precisely how it feels to handle genuine swords. So we compromise and practice iaido solo for the most part, and do paired kenjutsu practice with bokuto (wooden swords, also called bokken).   

We had the swords and iaito out and were working our way through the Shinto Hatakage Ryu Seiza No Bu. There is one kata in the set that is similar to the kata “Kesa Giri” in the Kendo Federation’s Seitei Kata. That one has always made sense to people.  There is another kata in the set that starts the same way, with a rising kiri age kesa cut, but then switches to a perfectly vertical cut, straight down the middle.

The basic scenario isn’t much different than the Kesa Giri style scenario, so what’s going on here?  Just going through the solo kata over and over again doesn’t seem likely to reveal all the wisdom and secrets that might lie embedded within the kata, but then the question becomes, how do we tease out everything there is to be learned from the kata? We can play with the kata at different speeds, but to really get at it, something more is needed.

I’ve mentioned before about learning by investigating kata, and on Saturday we decided it would be good for us to take my advice. So we put away all our metal blades and got out some bokuto and shinai (bamboo kendo swords) that I have for just these sorts of occasions. Shinai are great because the split bamboo stings if you get hit, but it won’t break anything.

We started by modeling the kata slowly and looking for openings and weaknesses in the movements.  The spacing is envisioned slightly differently from a Kesa Giri scenario, and we discovered one thing right away.  Even though the initial cut forced teki back, it wasn’t likely to injure or stop him. My partner could recover and counter attack faster than I could get my sword flipped around at the top and make my following strike. Even with shinai, getting hit in the head is no fun. At that point the first feature that Kiyama Sensei has always emphasized leaps into focus.

In this kata we don’t cut any higher than absolutely necessary.  This means the sword stops with the tip still pointing at teki’s face.  With a partner trying to counter attack this stop makes a lot more sense. With the sword tip right in front of his face, teki can’t recover and attack. He’d either impale himself in the face on the sword, or cut off his own arm trying to bring it down.  Ok, so that stalls teki.  The next move is a sweep around that moves through a uke nagashi position to a big downward cut. 

The reason for the sweep and the particular way it’s done quickly made itself clear. As soon as I lifted the pressure of the sword tip from teki’s face, he could counterattack.  If I brought the sword up past my ear as in some Kendo Federation kata, or dropped the tip too far, the counterattack landed on my head. When done properly, the sweep provides  necessary cover for my skull.  When doing the sweep, if you move the sword as if doing uke nagashi, it smoothly covers you against the counterattack.

Unfortunately, even after you do everything right your position is still lousy.  After you do the rising cut and drive teki back, hold him there with the sword tip and then sweep your blade around through an uke nagashi block to protect yourself, you are still sitting within easy range of someone who is also holding a long piece of sharpened steel and intends to use it to bisect you. This presents something of a problem.  The best you could seem to hope for is to cut your opponent at the same time he cuts you.

My partner tried cutting into me at an angle thinking perhaps he could knock my sword out of the way, but at best we still ended up smacking each other in the head.  When we went straight at each other we ended up smacking each other even harder.  This is not an auspicious way of ending a kata, so there has to be something else.

There is a technique, most famously found in Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, but not uncommon in other sword systems, where you cut straight through your opponent’s sword as she is cutting you. Your opponent’s sword is driven off her target and yours continues smoothly to your target. It’s not an easy technique and it takes quite a bit of work to get right. It’s subtle and looks mysterious if you aren’t familiar with it.  It works quite well in this situation.
My partner swung straight at me and I cut straight through his sword. He missed and my shinai landed on his head.  Problem solved. Expect that then we had to spend some time working on cutting through an opponent’s sword while he’s attacking with it. We work on all sorts of these things like this, and the whole time we are practicing the kata.

Kata are often derided as being outmoded learning tools. I think that comes from fundamental misconceptions about how to practice kata. People seem to think that the only way to practice them is to drill them endlessly, in what basically amounts to rote practice.  I’ve seen karate and TKD schools do this with large groups of students repeating the same kata over and over together, everyone maintaining exactly the same timing and spending more time worrying about running into their fellow students than they do about how variations in speed, timing, and spacing might make major differences in how the kata is conceptualized and imagined for practice.

Kata aren’t rote exercises. One of the keys for understanding that is realizing that there are many ways of practicing the same kata.  Whether the kata is solo or paired, you don’t want to do the kata at the same speed and visualizing exactly the same spacing and timing every time you do it. My Shinto Muso Ryu teacher is great at messing me up by playing with the timing in kata. He’s as fast as anyone I’ve ever seen with a jo, so I’m always racing to keep control when he is my uchitachi (senior who takes the losing role in paired kata). Except that he’s also brilliant at putting a sudden pause in at critical points in the kata. If I’m not really sharp, I’ll move the way I need to for what I expect Sensei to do, instead of what he’s actually doing. Sensei then gently cuts me in two in as he points out my woeful lack of awareness during the kata. That’s a simple way to mix it up within a kata.

If you’ve got what is a solo kata, that’s fine. Practice it solo. You don’t have to though. I’ve never seen it written anywhere that you can’t grab a partner or two or three and work through a solo kata with them to deepen your understanding of the envisioned timing and spacing, and to understand exactly what is going on with those attacks and defenses.

Yes, I’m sure you’ll have to slow some things down. Maybe you’ll have to use different training tools. Instead of a steel swords, maybe wooden ones, or bamboo shinai, or even foam boppers if those are what’s available and most appropriate for what you’re working on. You’re training and those are all tools for training. Don’t forget that at some point in the past, bamboo shinai were the latest in high tech safe training equipment.  This is training, not a major public demonstration. It’s ok to look silly as you are figuring things out.

Take out the appropriately safe equipment for whatever you want to experiment with and start experimenting. You’ll learn a lot from the exercise, and you might surprise yourself with what you can understand about the kata without being told, just by changing the way you approach it. I can’t even begin to list all the neat tools and equipment my students and I have come up with over the years so we can work on various things without hurting ourselves, the dojo space, or some expensive piece of special equipment like a real sword or a live person.

That was the core of our practice Saturday. We practiced and studied the kata of Shinto Hatakage Ryu. It may not have looked like we were practicing a bunch of solo iaido kata, but we were. No, we didn’t always have metal swords in our hands, and no, we didn’t always do things solo. Sometimes we did solo practice, and sometimes we found a partner and explored aspects of the kata together. Sometimes we used bokuto and sometimes we attacked each other with shinai and sometimes we even did the kata just the way it is taught in the system. We had lots of questions about the kata, and lots of different tools for exploring those questions from different angles. We explored the kata and looked at what could be done and what happened when we did things differently.  We learned a lot about the kata and improved our understanding. That’s what I call a good practice.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Budo Virtues

I saw another list of budo virtues today. These lists always include things like strength, loyalty, righteousness, knowledge, honesty, and such.  In truth, these lists always seem to be little more than another version of the Boy Scout Law: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. We can do better than just repeat some simple platitudes that everyone already agrees on and no one will argue with.

The five virtues that consistently show up on every list of samurai virtue are jin 仁 benevolence, gi 義 righteousness, chi 智 wisdom, shin 信 honesty, and rei 礼 etiquette.  Another that often makes the list is chu 忠 loyalty.  These are fine virtues, and certainly anyone who masters and exemplifies them will be an exceptionally fine person. The only problem with calling them budo virtues or samurai virtues or bushido virtues is that they aren’t. These virtues aren’t even really Japanese.

Calligraphy of chi, jin, gi, rei and shin by Kiyama Hirosi.Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2015

They are Chinese, and they were laid out in 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., about 1900 years before the samurai class came into being. The person responsible for framing these particular virtues was Confucius. Confucius was a brilliant teacher and thinker, and even after 2600 years, it is difficult to find fault with the virtues he emphasized. So please, give poor Confucius the credit he deserves for these virtues. After all, he’s had to suffer from centuries of truly horrible jokes by Westerners. At least give him the credit and respect he deserves.

Japan was heavily influenced by Chinese art, religion, culture, and philosophy. Everyone recognizes that Japan adopted writing from China, and imported Buddhism, starting with the 6 sects of Nara (now nearly forgotten), but gaining widespread popularity with the coming of Shingon and Tendai Buddhism in the Heian Era, Pure Land Buddhism early in the Kamakura Era, and Zen entering later in the Kamakura Era.

Confucian teachings entered sometime in the 600s, and proved to be exceptionally influential. During the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868) Neo-Confucianism actually became officially recognized by the Tokugawa government. The primary virtues though have not changed in more than 2600 years. They are jin, gi, rei, chi, and shin.

Known as The Five Constants, after 2600 years of philosophical development, simply boiling them down to benevolence, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom, and trust doesn’t begin to explain the complex philosophical, social and ethical concepts represented by the kanji characters 仁義礼智信. So if they aren’t special for the samurai and budo, and they can represent a lot more than just simple concepts, what are they?

These are values viewed as optimal in making a member of society. Confucius wasn’t interested in just an exemplary individual, but an individual who fulfilled vital roles in every level of society, from the family to the top levels of government. The samurai of Tokugawa Era Japan were looking for the same things. It might be more accurate though to say that Japanese society was looking for these things from the samurai.

The values are not unique to budo or the martial world.  They are great social values.  In fact the only one that strikes me as being particularly useful in combat is 智 chi, or wisdom. Wisdom in a fight is great. On the other hand, and emphasis on things like benevolence, righteousness, honesty and etiquette seem like good ways to get killed in combat.  These aren’t the values a warrior prizes. They are the values society prizes in all good citizens. Think about things that  might make a good warrior. Benevolence, honesty and etiquette probably don’t make the list.

If these aren’t particular warrior values, why try to tie them closely to budo? Perhaps because budo is a way of developing human beings who happen to be warriors, rather than being a way of developing warriors.  If a society wants to develop great human beings, teachings have to focus on things like benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, honesty and appropriate behavior.

There are two values that are often placed above the others.  One is jin. It encompasses not just benevolence, but also the sense of humanity. People who embody jin care about others and act from that spirit.  Thus they are not selfish or hurtful. They don’t act out to display their power or strength. They act to build up others and to make society benevolent and caring. People who display a great deal of jin are the sort of people you want to be around They are  warm, caring, and empathetic.

Oddly enough, the other value that is held high is rei. Americans in particular can’t imagine how etiquette and bowing could possibly be so important. Originally Confucius was talking about particular rituals being performed. By the time the Japanese got hold of his ideas though, rei encompassed etiquette and social norms.People from cultures where formal social behavior and customs are limited have trouble understanding their value.

I wrote about one aspect of rei in my last blog. In this context it’s a much bigger concept than the limited aspect I addressed last time. Etiquette is not just about the formal, easy to write down aspects like who to bow to and how low the bow should be. It’s about all aspects of social encounters and doing what is right and appropriate all the time. We all know people who seem to move through both casual and formal situations without effort, smoothly dealing with each different person so the everyone feels comfortable with them and no one is slighted or insulted. These people are masters of rei.

Jin and rei together make for pretty great person to be around, and these two virtues make each other warmer and more pleasant for everyone. Wisdom without humanity and benevolence is a lobbyist for sale to the highest bidder. Someone who has mastered socializing and handling people but who lacks jin and shin (honesty) is a dangerous manipulator to be avoided. Honesty might be the best policy, but by itself it won’t go very far by itself. Righteousness, right behaviour is great, unless it is unleavened by wisdom and benevolence. Without those it can quickly turn into stiff necked insistence on one way of doing things without consideration for effects.

Together jin, gi, chi, shin, and rei make for a wonderful human being. Look at any warrior, be it soldier, police officer, prison guard or bouncer. They spend a startlingly small amount of time fighting. They live in society. They need these virtues much more each day than they need any of the virtues I’ve seen held up as unique to the warrior. Things like courage, honor, fidelity, discipline, self-reliance. These are great things, but they really focus on just the individual, not the individual in society.

For the longest time I couldn’t see the point or value of the classical virtues. The stuff in modern movies and fiction about warriors and heroes was much more appealing. When I tried living by those modern values though I was a stiff-necked, arrogant, prideful, jerk. Yes, I worked hard and was loyal, but by emphasizing courage above wisdom I became reckless. By focusing on honor over appropriateness I was an ass, by focusing on discipline above humanity I could be cold and brutal, and by insisting on self-reliance I was a fool refusing perfectly good assistance.

Jin and chi teach when fighting is a bad idea, even if seems like it might be important. A little humanity and empathy can go a long way towards understanding why someone behaves in a way that invites a fight. A little wisdom and appropriate manners can de-escalate things before it becomes a fight. Even better, good rei can help you navigate situations so they don’t get heated to begin with. Honesty and righteousness can get you into a fight, but there are fights that need to be fought. With jin and chi you can figure out which fights need to be fought and which ones won’t be fights unless you do something stupid. Rei helps you avoid doing stupid stuff.

The so-called budo values are really great social values for everyone, not just martial artists. Benevolence, kindness and empathy are all things the world could use a lot more of.  A little more empathy and there would be far fewer fights. People who really understand rei behave well but don’t cause offense. Righteousness means behaving in a morally upstanding way rather than being stiff necked and inflexible.  Wisdom, well, I shouldn’t have to explain that one, so I won’t. The value of honesty too should not need elaboration.

Martial artists need these classic virtues even more than those who don’t study budo. Budo skills are form of power, and understanding and embodying these virtues can help us avoid misusing that power.  It’s easy to be a bully if you lack jin. A little rei will go a long way towards teaching us when not to put our skill on display. And wisdom. You can never have too much of that.