105. Traditions in a Traditional Art
The Classic Budoka by wmuromoto
One of the characteristics of traditional martial systems, in particular the koryu of Japan, is the emphasis on traditions. That would be almost without saying. After all, “koryu” means “old style,” so quite naturally the older martial systems retain not only martial techniques from the past, but surrounding traditions, concepts and mental concepts from the past.
Depending on how you look at it, that’s either a very big plus or a very large negative. An aficionado of very modern eclectic martial practices might look at all the surrounding traditions as useless relics of a dead past, of little practical use for modern applications. Lest I sound harsh in my depiction of such an attitude, I can understand it, if your main purpose in studying martial arts were for ringed sports competition or pure “self-defense.” It can also put a damper on enrolling new students if you told them to give up the form-hugging Spandex tights, surrounding mirrors and New Age mumbo-jumbo in lieu of the boring discipline of white keikogi and the silence of a dojo without sound system blaring out the latest Euro-techno pop music.
Most martial arts “studios” in America run somewhere in between the two extremes of strict traditionalism and Spandex and tights modernized fight club (or exercise spa). For such studios, I would like to offer a nudge in the direction of tradition. Or, at the very least, give them something to consider, which might set them apart and offer something different from every other studio that offers cardio kickboxing, kiddie ninja classes, MMA, karate and “jujitsu” classes around the clock.
For me, what attracted me to the koryu was the entire package, wrapped around tradition. I had gone through several more modern systems, such as judo, karatedo and aikido, with side trips to other systems of Japanese and Chinese origins. Technically and sportively, they all had something to offer, given their strengths and limitations. What I found, however, beguiling in the koryu were the traditions. I had developed a reasonable dexterity in athleticism in those arts, and a certain amount of knowledge conceding the “self-defense” aspects. I enjoyed the training and conditioning. Yet, what I found more compelling was the deepness of the traditions in the koryu. That’s just me, so if you still enjoy a modern shinbudo form, hey, that’s great. Whatever rocks your boat.
And, over the years, I’ve come to a relaxed conclusion that traditions can be found within oneself, if you look hard enough, and within your own respect for the lessons of the past. Within different koryu groups, too, there are different levels of adherence to tradition. By the word “tradition,” I mean not only the forms, the practice and the regime, but also the surrounding events, ceremonies and rituals.
At this time of the year, my thoughts turn to the traditions of the Japanese New Year, celebrated in general by Japanese society and also in particular by traditional koryu dojo. Perhaps some of the traditions can be celebrated and become part of your own dojo?
In Japan, New Year’s is one of the biggest holiday festivals of the year. The end of the old and start of a new life is not just cause for celebration and partying, but also for self-reflection, family get-togethers, and treks to temples and shrines for blessings.
A koryu dojo will close its doors to allow its members time to attend to family, work and friends’ parties. The bonenkai is a characteristic of Japanese organizations. It’s usually a dinner or luncheon party where you get together, ostensibly to remember the past year and wish each other luck, prosperity and happiness for the coming year. You can have bonenkai for work, for a club, for, yes, your dojo. And why not have a bonenkai, as it will fit right into the party atmosphere anyway that we Americans have for the New Year’s?
Other traditions from Japanese culture may be more esoteric, but they can be fun, and can also lend a sense of how even modern traditions, like aikido, can be embedded as part of Japanese cultural practices that can be shared and nurtured outside of Japan.
For example, on New Year’s Eve, traditional families would visit a Buddhist temple to pray, and to wash away the ills and troubles of the old year. When I lived in Japan, friends and I visited Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto at midnight and it was as busy and crowded as a Tokyo subway. Visitors crowded the sub-temples of the sprawling religious complex to receive blessings from Buddhist priests chanting sutra. We climbed up a rickety ladder to get a chance at ringing a temple bell, the sound of the bell and our offered prayers were supposed to wash away the 108 ills of our body and mind that had accumulated over the past year. The ringing of the bells on the last night of the year is called Joya No Kane.
Early New Year’s morning meant a visit to a Shinto shrine, called Hatsumode. We went to Kamigamo shrine in northern Kyoto and then braved the crowds at Yasaka shrine in the downtown district. Again, as in our visit to Daitokuji, the crowds were as tight as sardines in a can with visitors seeking blessings for the New Year. We washed our hands and rinsed our mouths with water drawn from a spring, to symbolize purifying our inner and outer selves. (Speaking of which, I’m drawn to some similarities in practice between, of all things, Shinto, early Christian and older Jewish traditions.
Certainly some of the symbolism, such as water to purify (baptize) may be universal, common denominators. But some other particular symbolisms and traditions are very odd, and very strange indeed that they are quite similar. But I digress…) Then we entered the inner shrine area and cast coins into an offering box to ring the bells and receive our blessings (again) for the New Year’s.