The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, October 09, 2009

The Style of No Style

I believe that when someone masters something, they'll express it in their own unique individual way. This doesn't necessarily mean throwing out past practices, but seeing them with fresh eyes and understanding.

Take aikido for instance. It was basically founded by one man who taught perhaps thousands of students over decades. There are now at least dozens of recognized "styles" of aikido.

... and then there is Yamaguchi Seigo.

Below is an excerpt from an article about Yamaguchi Sensei and the aikido he teaches. The full article may be read here.

Yamaguchi Seigo

The “No Style” Style

By Ralph Pettman

Yamaguchi-sensei was one of Morihei Uyeshiba’s “third generation” students. Unlike some of the others of this generation, however, he never gave his personal interpretation of Uyeshiba’s art a particular name, in part I guess out of respect for the man who was his teacher, and in part because the kind of aikidoYamaguchi taught was too intangible to be given something as concrete as a label or a name.

This raises right at the start a key dilemma when talking about Yamaguchi’s approach, though it is the same dilemma that dogs any spiritually oriented martial art that tries to transcend the limits that language sets. It is the dilemma of how to teach an art or belief that has an ineffable end, when the means available to do so are effable ones. How is it possible to impart a truly formless form?

This is not a dilemma unique to martial arts. Painters, musicians, creative writers, and dancers all face the same problem. Religious teachers do too. Anyone who has mastered any art, or who has come to practice a particular faith, and who then seeks to teach it to others, confronts the same difficulties. If we insist too much on the “correct” repetition of the physical forms in which an art or faith is expressed (playing the correct musical scales, saying the correct prayers, for example) we risk getting a stereotyped, mechanistic result that is not a true expression of that art or belief. We risk inculcating mere technique, that is, a mere facsimile of what our art or faith involves – one where the outer form is reproduced without real understanding of what this form actually means.

This dilemma is usually resolved by trying to pass on the feeling of the art or belief in such a way as to free, rather than inhibit, the student’s understanding of what is to be done. Teaching becomes a very different practice when this is the aim. It stops being a matter of the teacher insisting that the student copy what the teacher does. Indeed, the teacher stops “teaching”, in the sense of “training” the student, and tries instead to create the opportunity for the student to learn. The teacher educates (“leads the student out”), and the better the teacher, the better these opportunities will be.

This also requires a very personal teacher-student relationship. It cannot be done, that is, by requiring the student to conform to a pattern of performance determined in advance. Nor can it be done en masse.


walt said...


A long, but excellent article! I can't recall ever reading words that were any better at describing the paradoxes and dilemmas involved in trying to "transmit" or master an art, or a faith, for that matter.

To pinpoint the dilemma as being a "dimension" beyond normal perception is correct, I think. That sounds airy-fairy, but I don't mean it that way; nor did the author.

How un-modern to note that such things cannot be taught en masse.

This was classic, at the end:
"It is usually impossible to persuade someone who thinks otherwise to change their mind and heart by verbal means alone. This is why an essay like this is written with great reluctance, and why I am not very optimistic that what I’ve just said can make much sense."

Rick said...

Yeah, I thought it was an excellent find.