Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

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 ~

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Optimization and Martial Arts

Below is an excerpt from an interesting article by Toby Threadgill, who is a senior instructor of Takamura-ha Shindo Yoshin-ryu, a koryu bujutsu; that is, an ancient Japanese martial art as opposed to a gendai budo which is a modern martial art like judo, aikido, karate do, etc. The aims and means of koryu and gendai are different. To read the whole article, click on the title of this post.

Recently I was introduced to a gentleman interested in martial arts training. He was not really aware of what I teach or of what constitutes Nihon Koryu Jujutsu. He just assumed that because I taught it, that I must believe it to be “the best”. When I told him I did not believe the art I taught to be “the best”, an uncomfortable silence ensued. I finally broke this taciturn moment by explaining that there is actually no such thing as a “best” martial art. Despite a noble effort to grasp what I was talking about, the gentleman in question eventually regressed, unable to shake the impression that if I was not convinced that what I taught was superior to all other forms of martial arts, that I was somehow unworthy of teaching him. I politely encouraged him to look around, consider what I had said and contact me again if he had any further questions. A few days later I received an e-mail from this gentleman in which he explained that he had indeed found someone convinced that they taught the ultimate style of martial arts. It was called “mixed martial arts” because it embodied only best of all the styles. I just smiled to myself as I politely responded, congratulating him on his fortuitous discovery.

An ultimate martial art, huh? Now there’s an oxymoron for you. Every martial art is ultimately based on assumptions. In fact any training program formulated to address conflict is based on assumptions. It’s kinda like the old joke about bringing a knife to a gun fight. No matter how good you are, your assumptions define your training paradigm. Narrow your assumptions and you specialize, gaining the opportunity to excel at one task. Broaden your assumptions and you might be able address many different situations but at what level of expertise? It’s an intriguing dilemma isn’t it? Specialize, and be defeated by someone outside your strengths. Be a generalist and some specialist will hand you your head on a platter. What’s a martial artist to do?

Years ago my teacher Yukio Takamura taught a seminar which touched upon this topic. The seminar subject was a comparison between sport budo and classical budo. During the lunch break a young karateka & wrestler, I’ll call Donny, loudly dismissed Takamura Sensei’s teachings as antiquated nonsense. In response to this pronouncement Takamura shook his head and chuckled while fiddling with his shoes. Donny, rather brash and full of bravado turned to Takamura Sensei and said, “Now don’t get me wrong old man, your stuff is fun to watch and all but your jujutsu is no match for my karate and wrestling. Takamura flashed a devilish smile at Donny and said, “Okay, show me”. Donny backed off a bit at this unexpected challenge and said “Well, I’m not going to fight you, you’re too old. How about him” pointing at Dave Maynard. Takamura responded “No, you were talking about my jujutsu, not his. I want you to show me.” Rather pensively Donny strolled out onto the dojo mat with Takamura Sensei as a hushed silence overtook the room. At first Donny appeared reluctant to do anything but when he noticed that all eyes were on him he revved up his courage and proceeded to execute a very nice double leg takedown, climbing up on what at first appeared to be a rather startled Takamura Sensei. As Donny attempted to continue his seemingly successful offense we noticed something flick around Donny’s neck. Suddenly, Donny’s tried to pull away, his head turning as red as a ripe tomato. In a few seconds he fell over wheezing. At that point we realized that a shoelace was resting tightly around Donny’s neck. Where had it come from? Takamura had secreted the shoelace in his sleeve and then executed a simple choke with it. As he revived Donny from his impromptu slumber he explained to the stunned witnesses that Donny had missed the point of the seminar altogether and made a dangerous assumption. He assumed that this was a contest with rules and that Takamura sensei was unarmed. The most interesting thing to me about this whole incident was that Takamura had deliberately pulled the shoelace from his shoe, placed it in his sleeve in plain sight and not one of us noticed. What a lesson rich incident this was…..

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Snow Shoveling on a Winter Evening

When once again shoveling snow (to make room for the freezing rain that's on the way), what better thing to do to put one in the holiday spirit than to compose haiku!

Clearing the driveway
Never see the end

Haiku is a particular form of Japanese poetry. Each haiku consists of three lines, of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. Those are the basic requirements. There are some other considerations that can distinguish a fine haiku. If you go here, you can find out all sorts of things about the aesthetics and history of haiku. It's a very interesting sight.

One of the most famous haiku poets was a Japanese gentleman by the name of Basho. Perhaps his most famous haiku was:

ふる いけ や
かわず とびこむ
みず の おと

Furu ike ya
Kawazu tobikomu
mizu no oto

Old pond
frog jumped in
sound of water.

This poem has been translated from the Japanese countless times.

Basho also kept a diary on a long walking trip which is a work of literature all on it's own.

On various forums where I've participated, sometimes the members played a game of a "chain haiku." The challenge is to create a haiku using the last line of the previous person's poem. The person coming after you has to begin with the last line of your haiku. It can be quite fun.

In response to Basho's frog haiku, I wrote:

Basho's frog went plop!
and never heard from again.
A snapping turtle.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Finding the Fit

Friday we got about 8 to 10 inches of snow where I am. Other nearby places got up to 13. Then the cold set in. Last night it got down to 0F, with a wind chill of -24F.

I guess we can safely say that winter is here. Damn that global warming.

What better to do when it’s so cold outside that your flesh will freeze and the wind will tear it right off of your bones than to read an essay on Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu). This one is entitled “Reflex and Reflectivity: Wuwei in the Zhuangzi.” I placed an excerpt below. The original may be read by clicking on the title of this post.

Enjoy and stay warm!

The Snow Shoveling Daoist, 道士 の 雪掻き

Reflex and Reflectivity:Wuwei in the Zhuangzi
Asian Philosophy, Volume 6:1 (1996), pp. 59-72.
byAlan FoxDepartment of PhilosophyUniversity of Delaware24 Kent WayNewark, DE 19716 USA
go to Alan Fox Home Page
"To live outside the law you must be honest..."

- Bob Dylan
It is impossible to understand Philosophical Daoism, that is, Daoism as found in the writings attributed to Laozi and Zhuangzi, without understanding the central practical principle of wuwei, or "non-action." There are many different intrepretations of this idea, many of which seem to overlook both the overall coherence of the text as well as its many subtle nuances. I propose to offer an different interpretation of this crucial notion, one which differs on some key points from the prevailing interpretation and arguably acknowledges some deeper dimensions of the text and its overall coherence.

In approaching the text, though, we also need to keep in mind its characteristic and well-documented resistance to formulaic or forced behavior. Rather than discovering a new or better formula for behavior, the Zhuangzi emphasizes the benefits of becoming sensitive to a broader and finer range of the subtle demands, constraints, and inevitabilities of unique situations. This sensitivity allows us to respond most appropriately to every unique situation in the way that most or best respects subtleties of novelty and necessity.

Therefore the most effective and efficient mode of human experience is to blend or "fit" (shi) into our surroundings in such a way as to allow ourselves to respond effortlessly and spontaneously to any situation or circumstance, which is simultaneously affected by our presence within it. I suggest that this mode of reflective, and unobtrusive activity is what Zhuangzi refers to as wuwei.

I propose to explicate Zhuangzi's conception of wuwei as it is articulated in the image of the "hinge of dao." This image illustrates several key features of the mode of action of Zhuangzi's ideal person, namely: 1) effortlessness; 2) responsiveness; and 3) unobtrusiveness. First, I will look at and discuss the few actual instances of the term "wuwei" in the Zhuangzi. Second, I will point out that the imagery used by the text to suggest this privileged mode of conduct frequently takes the form of some sort of adaptation or reflection.

Third, I will analyze the metaphor of the hinge, and show how centralizing this metaphor can illuminate Zhuangzi's notion of wuwei and the realized person who acts according to this principle. It will be seen that the image of the hinge is used in the Zhuangzi to represent the way in which the ideal person responds to inevitability. In this way, I will argue that Zhuangzi's ideal person could be described as "perfectly well-adjusted."

Finally, I will demonstrate that this reading of the text offers new meanings and textures to materials which have for so long been read in only certain ways. Most of the translators and commentators who have brought the text to our attention have characterized it, somewhat unfairly, as "mystical," "skeptical," "escapist," "purposeless," and so on. I will show that this kind of reading, to a certain extent, misses the point of the text, and so its truly unique contributions are overlooked.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Who Needs Fiction: Pirates

It’s been really hard to read or listen to the news for the last month or so. I can barely stomach getting through the headlines. We have all the insane things happening to the economy and what else pops up in the news with some frequency? Pirates. Friggin’ pirates.

You can’t make this up. What’s next? An invasion of space aliens? Who needs fiction?

Alright. If the topic of the day is going to be pirates, so be it. You’ll find below excerpts from an article on Chinese pirates in history. If you click on the title of this post, you’ll be directed to the full article.

I wonder how you say “Ahoy Matey!” in Cantonese?

Pirates are not only interesting but significant for what they can tell us about Chinese history.
Between 1520 and 1810, China witnessed an upsurge in piracy all along the southern coastfrom Zhejiang province to Hainan Island. This was China’s golden age of piracy. During that time there were three great pirate cycles: first, the merchant pirates of the mid-Ming dynasty from1520 to 1575; second, the rebel-pirates of the Ming-Qing transition between 1620 and 1684; and third, the commoner pirates of the mid-Qing dynasty from 1780 to 1810.

For no less than half of those 290 years pirates dominated the seas around South China. Never beforein history had piracy been so strong and enduring. While in the West the heyday of piracy was in decline by the early eighteenth century – the pirate population at its peak never exceeded 5,500 men – thenumber of pirates in China at its height was no less than 70,000.

On the one hand, pirates brought havoc to many local communities and disrupted the economy; on the other, they contributed to the economic, social, and cultural development of early modern China.

Although many scholars agree that early modern China was becoming more culturally homogeneous, this was not the case among some segments of the laboring poor, whose culture was in many respects the antithesis of Confucian orthodoxy. Pirates, and seafarers in general, existed uneasily on the fringes of respectable society. They were social and cultural transgressors, who stood in marked defiance of orthodox values and standards of behavior.

Forged out of hardship, prejudice and poverty, pirates created a culture of survival based on violence, crime and vice, characterized by excessive profanity, intoxication, gambling, brawling, and sexual promiscuity.

Mobile seamen carried their ideas and values from port to port and between ships. The mobility of crews helped to ensure social uniformity and a common culture among pirates and other seamen. The culture of pirates and seafarers did not share the dominant Confucian values of honesty, frugality, self-restraint,and hard work, but rather espoused deception, ambition, recklessness, and getting ahead by any means.

In a society that was becoming increasingly polarized, restless and contentious, poor sailors and fishermen had to devise their own lifestyles, habits, and standards of behavior to survive. For many sailors, piracy was a normal, rational, and even legitimate means of maintaining minimal standards of living, perhaps a wayout of poverty. Their socio-cultural world was significant because it challenged the mainstream Confucian model and offered a viable alternative for China’s poor and discriminated.

Female pirates represented the most radical departure from dominant society and customs, defying acceptednotions of womanhood, breaking with established codes of female propriety, virtue, and passivity. Unlike their counterparts on Western ships, Chinese women pirates did not have to disguise themselves as men. They lived and worked openly as women aboard ships.

From the perspective of the Chinese state, such women who behaved like men perverted the social order and normalgender relationships, turning Confucian orthodoxy on its head. Indeed, they challenged the patriarchal hierarchyupon which both the state and society rested. For seafaring women, piracy presented opportunities to escape frompoverty and the rigid restraints placed on females. It gave them the chance for adventure and freedom unheard of formost women on land.

Large-scale piracy acted as a state within the state. Pirates established their own regime of military power, taxbureaus, and bureaucracy, which existed side-by-side with, but independently of, the Chinese imperial state and localelites. Pirates and seafarers created their own underworld culture of violence, crime, and vice. It was a survival culturesignificant because it was distinguishable from that of the dominant Confucian culture. For men and especially for women, piracy offered an important alternative way of life.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The 47 Ronin

306 years ago, during the evening of Dec 14th 1702, 47 of the former retainers of the late Lord Asano infiltrated the estate of of his nemesis, Lord Kira, to extract their revenge.

Thus begins the story of the 47 Ronin. The story of the 47 Ronin is one of the most famous in Japan, and has been told in many forms. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the Wikipedia page on them.

The story is about to be told one more time. Keanu Reeves will play in a new movie version of the story of the 47 Ronin. It will begin shooting next year.

Check out the links!

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Understated Eloquence

Shibumi is a Japanese word that means understated good taste. This is an example of shibumi itself as the word actually means a whole lot more. Rather than attempt this on my own, I’ll lean on the words of others. There is a Wikipedia page on Shibumi, and if you click on the title of this post, you’ll be directed to it.

The following excerpt is from Shibumi by Trevanian. Published by The Ballantine Books, New York. Copyright © 1979 by Trevanian. ISBN 0-345-31180-9 Book reviews of Shibumi are available from Books.

,,a part of a dialog ""... "Oh, vaguely. And incorrectly, I suspect. A blundering attempt to describe an ineffable quality. As you know, shibumi has to do with great refinement underlying commonplace appearances. It is a statement so correct that it does not have to be bold, so poignant it does not have to be pretty, so true it does not have to be real. Shibumi is understanding, rather than knowledge. Eloquent silence. In demeanor, it is modesty without pudency. In art, where the spirit of shibumi takes the form of sabi, it is elegant simplicity, articulate brevity. In philosophy, where shibumi emerges as wabi, it is spiritual tranquility that is not passive; it is being without the angst of becoming. And in the personality of a man, it is . . . how does one say it? Authority without domination? Something like that.""

The quote mentions a couple of other Japanese aesthetic terms, wabi and sabi.

Again, from Wiki articles:

The words wabi and sabi do not translate easily. Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society; sabi meant "chill", "lean" or "withered". Around the 14th century these meanings began to change, taking on more positive connotations.[1] Wabi now connotes rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects, or understated elegance. It can also refer to quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction, which add uniqueness and elegance to the object. Sabi is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
From an engineering or design point of view, "wabi" may be interpreted as the imperfect quality of any object, due to inevitable limitations in design and construction/manufacture especially with respect to unpredictable or changing usage conditions; then "sabi" could be interpreted as the aspect of imperfect reliability, or limited mortality of any object, hence the etymological connection with the Japanese word sabi, to rust.
[edit] Wabi-sabi in Japanese arts
Many Japanese arts over the past thousand years have been influenced by Zen and Mahayana philosophy, particularly acceptance and contemplation of the imperfection, constant flux, and impermanence of all things. Such arts can exemplify a wabi-sabi aesthetic. Here is an incomplete list:
honkyoku (traditional shakuhachi music of wandering Zen monks)
ikebana (flower arrangement)
Japanese gardens, Zen gardens, and bonsai (tray gardens)
Japanese poetry, particularly haiku
Japanese pottery, notably Hagi ware
Japanese tea ceremony
Bonsai the Japanese art of miniature trees
And finally, the term “iki.”

Iki (いき, often written ) is a traditional aesthetic ideal in Japan. The basis of iki is thought to have been formed among commoners (chonin) in Edo, pre-modern Tokyo. Among those who are not familiar with Japanese culture, some tend to misunderstand iki as simply "anything Japanese." Iki, however, is one of Japanese aesthetic ideals and requires specific conditions. Samurai are typically thought as devoid of iki (see yabo).
While other Japanese aesthetic ideals, such as wabi-sabi, are almost extinct in today's Japan, iki is widely applied today. An average modern Japanese would find it difficult to translate what wabi-sabi means into English, because its definition relies on certain cultural assumptions. Wabi-sabi continues to influence Japanese culture, although its influence is far less than in pre-modern times. On the other hand, iki is commonly used in conversation or publications.
An iki thing/situation would be simple, improvised, straight, restrained, temporary, romantic, ephemeral, original, refined, inconspicuous, etc. An iki person/deed would be audacious, chic, pert, tacit, sassy, unselfconscious, calm, indifferent, unintentionally coquettish, open-minded, restrained, etc.
An iki thing/person/situation cannot be perfect, artistic, arty, complicated, gorgeous, curved, wordy, intentionally coquettish, or cute.
Iki can be used for almost anything, but especially for people (and their personality and deeds), situation, architecture, fashion, design, etc. It always describes something to do with people, or their will. Iki is not found in nature itself, but can be found in the human act of appreciating the beauty of nature.
Finally a pointer to a MA Thesis on Iki and everyday life

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Traditional Winter Training

It's not quite winter yet according to the calender, but here in SE Michigan it's cold, it's been snowing, and it looks like it's going to stick around for a while. I had to clear the driveway this morning for what I am sure is the first of many repetitions. It's certainly close enough for me to call it winter.

Many traditional Japanese martial arts have or had a special winter training (as well as a special summer training). In some schools, this would be a week long training during the coldest (or warmest) week of the year. There are many variations of this.

When I trained in aikido we used to "end the year right" by doing 365 back breakfalls to finish our training off for the year. If you've done any back breakfalls, you'll immediately get an idea of what kind of effort this entailed.

Below is an excerpt from an article on the special training the author underwent. As usual if you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the entire article.
The Snow Shoveling Daoist
道士 の 雪を掻いて

Traditional winter training in Japan: The Kashima jodo gasshuku

By Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

I was surprised by the cold. I had been warned, of course, to bring extra clothing, to bring layers, tabi (traditional footwear) and, importantly, long underwear, but I had not been expecting its deep penetration, its constant thereness. Like an animal, after awhile all I wanted was to find something - a patch of sunshine on the floor, a hot can of tea - to warm me up.

For those unfamiliar with this martial art form, jodo (lit. "the way of the stick") is a method of non-lethal control of a sword-wielding assailant. Though its antecedents probably go back hundreds of years, jodo became a law enforcement method in the 18th century. To this day, the largest group of practitioners in Japan are policemen, who learn modern jodo tactics in addition to traditional training. In practice jodo involves kata that pits a pole 128cm long by 2.4cm in diameter against a wooden sword. Kaminoda Tsunemori is headmaster of a branch of Shindo Muso Ryu jodo, a very prominent teacher in the most-popular style.

After years of listening to Peter Boylan talk about Kaminoda Sensei's jodo gasshuku (which translates, roughly, as the now much-maligned expression "training camp"), held twice a year in Kashima, about an hour outside Tokyo, I was there. And it was all true - the spartan feel, the simple, hardy food, the long hours of all-consuming practice and the cold, cold, cold.

The 2008 winter gasshuku was held on February 9-12. Since the weekend included a holiday, the regular practice this year began on Saturday and did not end until Tuesday afternoon. We trained in mostly in Shinto Muso Ryu jodo, though also in related koryu budo - kenjutsu (sword partner kata), hojojutsu (rope tying) and for the advanced students, kusarigama (a ball and chain or length of rope attached to a hand-held sickle).

Though the gasshuku followed a set pattern laid down over the years (for a traditional outline, see Sosnowski 2005), this year's holiday schedule meant some variation on the theme.

A gasshuku is not a public training session. One attends by invitation only, and attending one is a privilege. Attendees are expected to keep up with the training, barring any illness or injury. No whining, no complaints; after all, everyone is a volunteer. The good part is that the cost is also low - profit not being the motive for holding an intensive session (a true mark, to me, of a traditional style, as opposed to a business-oriented one). Attendees are expected to be polite and helpful, cooperating with group chores and expressing deference to senior students and teachers.

As a first-time, unranked participant, I was on the very low end of this arrangement, so it was actually pretty simple to comply with all the rules and regs and deferential behavior, since I was oblivious to whatever political undertones such a large gathering can entail. And in fact, there was very little factionalism evident. Whatever people's differences might have been, they were not expressed here. Serious discussions evolved on differing opinions of technique or meaning. To a junior student to be able to overhear such discussions was like gold, but all talk would cease with the appearance of Kaminoda Sensei on the floor. At that point interpretation took a back seat to practice, regardless of rank.

I wondered beforehand whether I could handle the several days of training. I am not particularly young, and like a lot of people who have practiced martial arts for a long time, experience was being tempered with various, though minor, aches and pains. The word "gasshuku" implies intensity. Forget jet lag: my only concern was whether I could keep up with everyone else and not make a fool of myself in the process; or tear anything; or lose anything.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Ranking System of Japanese Martial Arts

Taiki Shisei Kenpo has an pointer to an article by the late Donn Draeger on the origin and meaning of the ranking system used in both traditional and modern Japanese martial arts. An excerpt from the article is below. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the whole thing.

Ranking Systems in Modern Japanese Martial Arts:
Modern vs. Classical

Donn F. Draeger
Lecture on April 1, 1976

It began as far as we know with Kano Jigoro of Kodokan, and the first date probably 1883, about a year after he founded the system. He awarded proficiency ranks to his Judo men, his exponents, on the basis of kyu, which translated as "class" or "ungraded" ranks and "dan". These are, you can say "degrees" if you want and ranks. So that is the beginning of the black-belt system.

The dan are the so called "black belts". The people who have black belts are called, by the way, yudansha. The kyu are mudansha: mu means "nothing", literally.

Now, the black belt system is the product of the peasant class, not the warrior class. The commoners. Dr. Kano was a commoner, a wealthy commoner. His family owned a sake mill. He was a merchant, the lowest social class. Had he taken part in Tokugawa Japan, he would have been at the bottom of the social level. So, any attempt to rationalize dan (black belts) with martial training in Japan is erroneous on the basis of history. You can recognize a modern art by the very fact that it does give black belts and other kyu grades. That is one of the unfailing recognitions. Not all of them. Some of them have deliberately avoided it because of all the nonsense and politics that goes with it.

The classical arts do not use the black-belt system. Now, classical arts you must recall, run between the 8th century and 1877. But what did they use, because the Japanese, like any society, are rank and prestige conscious. As they learned from China, court ranks and so on were important in social structure. So, they used this system which they called the menkyo system. The exponents of classical arts receive menkyo and their evidence is shown on a densho or makimono. That would be a certificate of your proficiency at a certain level.

Now, there are different levels of menkyo but far fewer than black-belt. Black belt is very finely divided as are the kyu below it. The basis of it, the basis of the kyu and dan system is commercial. Don’t think it isn’t. Even in Japan. It was created for prestige and recognition, true, but for commercial purpose to keep Kodokan in business, originally. It has grown out of proportion today, not only in Japan but in the West. Many misuses and abuses, but that is not our thing to talk about today.

The menkyo system has a great integrity. There are far fewer levels. Generally there will be between three to five levels of menkyo over the whole life span. Compare that to modern systems. Depending on the system, there could be as many as ten kyu in some systems and ten different grades of dan. So there is already twenty subdivisions under the present system. The warrior system, from three to five; I have heard of one with nine and I have heard of one with two. So, my experience is, they will range from two to nine levels; far less than the kyu or the dan system. So, what the kyu and dan system means is, no big thing.