Monday, December 27, 2010

Holiday Hiatus

Tomorrow morning I am leaving the snow packed ice box of Kurobe for "the garden island" of Kauai for two weeks to meet up with my dearly loved and sorely missed girlfriend, Jolene!
(See hot chic in picture above)
It's time for a bit of a break from budo and blogging, though I'm pretty sure just because I'm on a beach with my loved one doesn't mean the words in my head or my strange martial intent movements through the air will stop. There's no escape once you've seen it, is there?
If any of you become frustrated in your winter training, nursing your bruising bones in freezing dojos after you've had to split wood in the snow for an hour ... know that one gaijin got away and found a tropical beach in the sun!


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas da yo!

First of all, I'd like to apologize about the troubles I had in making the last post which was a book review of "Japanese Buddhism." Premature postings I made by mistake made for a hardly intelligible read, but it's all fixed and final now. If you read through it all in the past day, then you probably don't need to go through it again, the quotes I cited from the book are what I wanted people to see anyway.

Perhaps the confusion was a sign of a well-needed break from the investigation of Japanese religion. These book reviews have been some of the most difficult posts I've written, and has thoroughly jumbled my brain as to what religion is, does, and manifests. I'm moving on "Miyamoto Musashi: His Life and Writings" by Kenji Tokitsu, and it looks like it's going to be a great experience reading the book. I've only just finished the introduction, and could have written 20 blog entries on it's content! I'm also reading the Penguin Classics' "Buddhist Scriptures, but maybe I'll just put up interesting little blurbs instead of trying to analyze it all on the blog.

Again, apologies for the messy posting ... and oh yeah ... MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Book Review: "Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History"

In my quest through Japanese religion, I have just finished reading "Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History", written by Yoshiro Tamura. The book discusses Buddhism in other countries, Buddhism in Japan, Japan before Buddhism, other religions in Japan, Japanese history, Japanese anthropology, and modern perspectives, all in a book that's only 232 pages. For such a daunting task, Tamura has done an excellent job in making such a long and complicated subject approachable to those wishing to learn about Buddhism in Japan. The book begins with a wonderful perspective on the pre-Buddhist Japan and how it affected the future growth of Buddhism, progresses to bring light upon the key figures in Japanese Buddhist history, and then flourishes with it's explanations of Buddhism during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, which is where we find what we may call the most Japanese of expressions of Buddhism. Ironically, it is at this point in the book where we discover the decline of innovation in Japanese Buddhism at about the Tokugawa period, as well as a decline in the content of the book, in my humble opinion. At the beginning of the Tokugawa period, according to the book, it seems Buddhism was for the most part a tool to be usurped by political rivalries, and so the descriptions in the book thereafter are more about historical dates and times of those concerns instead of Buddhist belief. I believe the book's strength lies in the first 100 or so pages, but it's fault lies in providing limited information where more thorough explanations of Japanese history and Buddhism are needed. So, in this entry, I will cite Tamura's interpretations of how the Japanese adopted and innovated Buddhism, the particularly Japanese Buddhism that emerged during the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, and the transition of Japanese culture from Buddhism to the arts.

So first, how did Japan greet Buddhism?

"When considering the development of Buddhism in Japan, we must always ask ourselves how Buddhism responded to the pre-Buddhist Japanese way of thinking and how the Japanese perceived and assimilated Buddhism. In the course of Buddhism's long travels from India through Central Asia to China and on to the Korean Peninsula, it adapted to a variety of civilizations and was modified by the various peoples who adopted it. Yet a common Buddhist spirit or way of thinking remained as a strong undercurrent, nourishing and guiding each of these developments. Our question is whether, upon arriving at its final destination in East Asia, Japan, this common undercurrent of the Buddhist spirit continued to flow. In other words, was Buddhism in Japan completely Japanized, transformed into a unique religion different in essence from original Buddhism?

"...Buddhism arrived in Japan as a fully developed, cohesive system with a great volume of scriptures and commentaries. Japan, which already had its own patterns of culture and thought, was faced with all the paraphernalia of a great world religion. To learn what these patterns were, we must review the nation's origins and the first traces of Japanese culture and thought."

(page, 17)

Tamura then begins explaining that Japan continued a hunting and gathering lifestyle longer than most other civilizations around the world at the time, despite equal technological advancements.

"Thus there were no crops to be stored, and there was no accumulation of wealth; as a consequence, social classes did not arise, nor did social groups form around authority figures. A low social consciousness and undeveloped material civilization were characteristics that remained with Japanese society for some time. That does not mean, however, that the Japanese were 'primitive.' Indeed, these very characteristics have sometimes proved Japan's greatest assets. The long dependence of the Japanese people on hunting and gathering is what made them so responsive to the natural world and led to the development of such rich aesthetic and emotional vocabularies."

(page, 18)

Like most other ancient civilizations around the world, animism (belief that spirits dwell in animate as well as inanimate objects) was the religious view held by ancient Japanese, and was eventually developed into modern Shinto.

"It is fascinating to note that animism has remained part of the Japanese religious tradition down to the present. Buddhism rejects animism in principle, but the current of animist belief runs so strongly and continuously through Japanese culture that Buddhism was influenced by it almost immediately upon its introduction to Japan. This is one manifestation of the Japanization of Buddhism. The persistence of animistic beliefs in Japan leads some people to infer that the Japanese religious consciousness is undeveloped. It is the ancient inclination of the Japanese to live in close accord with nature, pointed out above, that has sustained animistic worship of nature to modern times. But to conclude from this alone that Japanese religious consciousness or thought is undeveloped is premature."

(page, 19)

It is through the synergy of indigenous animistic beliefs and Buddhism that we find a very Japanese religious something.

"In general, the Japanese affirm the world and humanity as they are and do not seek a realm or a state of existence that rejects or transcends the natural world. Several reasons can be given for this mindset. For one thing, though there have been many prolonged and bloody contests for power and authority among the Japanese, the nation was never successfully invaded or ruled by another people before the twentieth century, so that the Japanese never had to face the bitter reality of occupation by a foreign power or submission to foreign beliefs."

(pages 25, 26)

Here's where it gets very interesting to me, but also very brief and vague.

"For another, Japan's climate is temperate, and the country has no vast spaces for people to wander in. The Japanes tendency to remain firmly grounded in the natural world has been at times a strength, at times a weakness. This was the environment of thought, feeling, and belief into which Buddhism was introduced, a religion that rejects reality as it is - the phenomenal world - and teaches a way to transcend it."

(page, 26)

Raised in temperate islands myself, I've found it remarkable that I have always been drawn to other similar environments around the world like the British Isles, Greece, New Zealand, and obviously Japan. I would love to read or write more on some connection between small island nations and their effect on the human psyche.

Tamura then begins to chronicle the arrival of Buddhism into Japan during the Nara period and it's progression over a few centuries. During this period we start to see Buddhism's affect on poetry in the Manyoushuu (collection of ten thousand leaves) written some time after 759 AD.

"If I could be but happy in this life,
what should I care if in the next
I become a bird or a worm?"

"All living things die in the end:
So long as I live here
I want the cup of pleasure."

(page, 54)

From a Buddhist's perspective, isn't this very un-Buddhist?! Buddhism is about transcending our current illusory state and leaving sensory pleasure behind isn't it? I think this is where we begin to see a specifically Japanese interpretation of Buddhism; one that seeks to find enlightenment in the moment we are in, regardless of your situation or karma even.

"Instead of expounding the truth of Buddhism in terms of rhetoric and logic, the Japanese prefered to express their understanding in the language of feeling."

(page, 55)

But it's not just feeling. It's something about one's relationship with reality. The hermit is a common theme in Buddhism, and present all through India, Tibet, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia, but what about those in Japan?

"These recluses seemed to wander, rootless, in the world, but they did not seek a realm beyond the human. They were in retirement not away from the world but in it."

(page, 53)

Another interesting trend Tamura points out, is that in ikebana (flower arranging), it is desirable to put flowers that are just blooming next to those that are wilting and dying. The wide array of life and death in a vase of flowers.
"To search for enlightenment in contrast to nonenlightenment is to cause confusion."

Mentioning this prevalence of Buddhist notions in flower arranging, let's see how Buddhism has affected other arts in Japan.

"In the Muromachi period many activities were cultivated and developed beyond their original functions into arts: the tea ceremony, flower arrangement, and incense appreciation are prime examples. As Eisai's famous work Kissa Youjou Ki (Tea Drinking for the Cultivation of Life; 1211) attests, tea was first appreciated for its medicinal properties. Only later was it drunk for its taste, and finally its preparation was developed into a ceremonial function. Flower arrangement had its origins in the decoration of Buddhist altars. Gradually its religious import lessened and it was practiced to beautify daily life and, eventualy, as an aesthetic pursuit in its own right.

"The same tendency toward aestheticization was seen in medieval painting and architecture. Ink paintings, for example, were originally the work of Zen priests, and Zen personages or anectdotes were frequently their subjects, making them, in a sense, religious paintings. But in the Muromachi period landscapes and other secular subjects were increasingly depicted, even by Zen priests."

(pages, 114, 115)

"The arts of medieval Japan developed and spread in the context of the daily life of the people, and as these arts were refined, their enjoyment and appreciation became a pastime of the Japanese in general. The arts of the medieval period - Japan's Renaissance, in some ways - affirmed life, sang the praises of the world, and aimed to bring pleasure; and Japanese Buddhism evolved in response to this spirit.

"It is widely held that the foundation of Japanese culture and art as we know them today was laid in the Muromachi period. In that regard we must note that this period was also a time of systematization in Japanese intellectual life, and that this systemitization contributed to the development of culture and art. It was Buddhist practice that supplied the apparatus for the systematizationof both thought and art. One striking example is the oral transmission of the secrets of an art. Oral transmission was originally the means by which the Tendai doctrine of original enlightenment was passed from master to disciple, and the tradition of the oral transmission of essential teachings soon spread to other sects of Buddhism and to Shinto. In imitation of this practice, secret oral transmission from master to disciple evolved in many of the arts, as well."

(page, 116)

Perhaps we are getting closer to finding the root of Japan by studying its relationship with Buddhism, but it appears to me to be only a temporary tool we can use to catch a glimpse of this mystery, and Japanese religion is not the end-all-say-all point we must stop at. However, Buddhism is everything and is everywhere; it's statement of "impermanence" is just as much religious as it is scientific as it is artistic. There is no black and white, but the wide array of colors of the rainbow and all shades of grey. I believe Japan's greatest contribution to Buddhism is the application to all facets of life, Buddhist or not Buddhist.

How can anyone possibly write anything that is totally accurate to Buddhism?

With belief?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book Review - "The Catalpa Bow" - Part III: Suigyou

Here is Part III of my book review of "The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan", written by Carmen Blacker. This is a continuation of the discussion on the three important practices, or gyou, that are carried out by Japanese shaman ascetics: fasting, cold water austerities, and mantra chanting. In the last entry I described the importance of fasting for Japanese shamans. I will not spend much time on mantra chanting, but it is ubiquitous in all the shaman's practices, and is the one practice adhered to in most all Japanese variations of Buddhism, Shinto, and Shamanism. Mantras are believed to be special words and phrases that when chanted, will increase one's spiritual power. In Japanese shamanism, these are usually Buddhist sutras, most often the Lotus and the Heart Sutra, but also ancient Shinto names and scriptures. Here, I will discuss the presence of water austerities, suigyou. To me, this is the most fascinating gyou of the three. Let's read Blacker's introduction to this particular gyou:
"The next category of ascesis which is considered indispensible to the acquisition of power is cold water. To stand under a waterfall, preferably between the hours of two and three in the morning and preferably during the period of the Great Cold in midwinter, is believed to be an infallible method of gaining power. If no waterfall is conveniently to hand, the practice of mizugori, by which wooden buckets of cold water are tipped over the head and body at stated intervals of time, is considered almost as efficacious."
(page, 91)

If the shaman's goal is to increase spiritual power and communicate with spirits, what benefits does this gyou bestow on the practitioner?

"Clarity and concentration of mind are the virtues frequently cited as resulting from both fasting and cold water. It is true that, as several ascetics pointed out to me, these practices often weaken the ordinary physical strength. I have heard more than one confession that the midwinter waterfall brought on an attack of pneumonia, and that the digestive system was not only 'purified' but disorganised, if not shattered, by the long absetentions and fasts. But ordinary physical strength is of a different order from reiryoku, sacred power, which cannot be acquired without hazards. Miss Kataoka, whom I met in 1959 undergoing a solitary period of gyou in the Honguu shrine at Kumano, told me that the week of total fasting to which she regularly subjected herself every spring and autumn left her always with an unparalleled clarity of mind and clairvoyance of vision. Likewise the water austerity which she performed every Great Cold - ten three-gallon tubs of icy water poured over her head and shoulders three times a day - no longer felt in the least cold to her. It rather promoted an unrivalled concentration of mind, seishin-ittou, which formed the very basis of her ascetic power."

(page, 92)

Interestingly enough, subjecting oneself to such severely frigid temperatures enhances one's abilities with heat.

"Cold thus becomes paradoxically, a means of rousing heat. By enduring cold the shaman in Japan is able to activate in himself that magical heat which with the shaman in so many parts of the world is the proof that he has risen above the ordinary human condition. By demonstrating that he is in the grip of this interior heat, the shaman shows that he is possessed of power, particularly of that power which Eliade singles out as distinctively shamanic in character, mastery of fire. When suffused by this mysterious heat, the shaman is impervious both to external heat and cold. He is capable alike of standing under a midwinter waterfall and of walking over burning embers, and emerging untouched."

(page, 93)

I have always been vaguely familiar with images of these kinds of practices, be it from fictional stories or movies, but let's look at some specific examples Blacker has encountered in Japan.

This first example is of a gyouja, one who practices gyou.

"This powerful woman gyouja was first called to the religious life by a vision of the archetypal ascetic En-no-Gyouja. Ringed staff in hand, he stood by her bedside and adjured her to take it upon herself to save those suffering form sickness in the world. Thereafter for three years, always under the direction of En-no-Gyouja, Mrs Hiroshima undertook a regime of austerities in which the local waterfall figured prominently. Often, her daughter assured me, she would stand under the waterfall in the middle of winter for the length of time it took her to recite a hundred Heart Sutras."

(page, 172)

To be honest, I'm not sure how long it takes to recited a hundred Heart Sutras, but Blacker also cites an example of a particular waterfall that is so strong and cold, one cannot stand under for longer than the recitation of three Heart Sutras. I would be interested to know the durations of these recitations, but for now am satisfied and amazed at this severe practice. Earlier we mentioned that this suigyou, cold water austerity, helps with concentration and clarity, but that seems to be more of a bonus for these ascetics in relation to the goal of these particular gyou, which is communication with spirits. As a modern day American, my belief and interest in such practice stops at the benefits of increased concentration, but for the ascetics who so devotedly practice these gyou, the implications are much larger. Let's look at what else Blacker has to say about Mrs Hiroshima from the paragraph above.

"At the end of three years, these strenuous efforts culminated in a terrific divine seizure. For a whole week, without a single pause for rest, she was in a continuous state of divine possession. She neither ate nor slept, and only salt water passed her lips while deity after deity from all over Japan came into her body and spoke through her mouth."

(page, 173)

Blacker also cites many examples of teenage miko, blind female shamans, who in their training, are awoken by their teachers periodically throughout the night, to feel their way to nearby rivers or waterfalls where they are to practice suigyou while chanting certain mantras.

Let's look at one more example from priests in the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. This is Blacker's most extreme example of cold water austerities in her book.

"Like other ascetics in Japan, the Nichiren priests have to undergo a preliminary period of austerities before they are believed to be endued with the necessary power to deal with inferior spirits. For them, however, the regime is a particularly excrutiation one. Known as the hundred days aragyou or rough austerities, it is carried out every winter either on the summit of Mt Minobu, the mountain not far from Fuji to which Nichiren retired in his old age, or in a secluded remple in the precincts of the Hokekyouji in Chiba prefecture.

"As related to me by Hotta Ryuushou Shounin, the incumbent of the Kanazawa temple, the hundred days aragyou start on November 1st and continue throughout the coldest days of the winter until well into the following February. The regime is as follows. The days start at 3 a.m. with a bout of cold water mizugori. The exercitant priests, wearing only a loincloth, tip over their heads tub after tub of cold water. This excercise is repeated every three hours until 9 p.m., making in all seven times a day. Only two meals a day are allowed, and those consist only of thin rice gruel. The rest of the time is entirely taken up with the chanting of the Lotus Sutra and with practice in the use of the bokken or magic castanets. This peculiar instrument, a flat piece of wood with a ball attached, makes a sharp resonant click held to have a powerful effect on spiritual beings.

"The last spell of Lotus chanting ends at 11 p.m., so that four hours sleep a night is all that is allowed to the exercising priests. Shaving and cutting the hair are prohibited throughout the hundred days, so that those who endure the course emerge on the last day with long hair and straggling beards. From the commemorative photograph which the Shounin showed me I could see that his hair had gone prematurely white with the strain of the penances. And indeed, what with the appalling cold, the reduced diet, the lack of sleep and the extreme pain caused by the correct straight-armed manipulation of the bokken, the Nichiren regime is one of the most taxing and exhausting still to be found in Japan."

(page, 302)
Here is a link to a video showing the Nichiren priests during aragyou.
Most of Blacker's examples are drawn from the regions of north east Japan, the Kii peninsula, and Okayama prefecture, but I have personally found a remarkable existence of this practice here in Toyama Prefecture. There is a temple/shrine (think Tateyama shinkou (religion/belief), not Buddhist or Shinto) where stone waterfalls in the shape of dragon heads have been built for the practice of suigyou for the priests. It is said that the priests sit under these waterfalls in the Great Cold (which is particularly severe here on the Sea of Japan coast). In fact, the other day, I found out that the old obaachan (woman) who cuts my hair, travels to the shrine along with many other people on New Years and will sometimes see the priests in the middle of their practice. I will have to make a trip this winter to see for myself.
Here are some photos I took of Nisseki-ji Oiwa-san last summer.

What initially drew me to this book, "The Catalpa Bow", was an interest in yamabushi, mountain ascetics who regularly practice these three gyou, in addition to many other strange practices. They officially belong to the Shugendo sect of esoteric Buddhism and have been documented in Japan for at least 1,000 years. Accounts are made in medieval Japan describing them as strange beings who dwelled in the forests of mountains honing their supernatural powers. They are often believed to be in close connection with tengu, Japanese goblins which are combinations of crows and people and are responsible for mischief. Everyone I've mentioned yamabushi to shake their heads and give me strange looks calling them crazy. Because my Aikido Sensei is a Buddhist priest of the Jodo Shinshu sect, I've mentioned my interest in yamabushi, and he replied with a very enthusiastic proclomation of how crazy they are. Even Tame the tea man whom I met last August, a very strange man traveling the country in a tea house he has built on the back of his pickup truck stopping for long periods in the woods, called the yamabushi crazy. One of my English teachers at school gave me the mildest reaction to my mention of yamabushi, but even he said they were crazy.

With the exception of absentions from particular foods during certain sacred times, and mantra chanting which is practiced by the majority of Japanese clergy, the examples we find of people who practice these particular gyou mentioned in Blacker's book in their most severe and empowering forms are very rare, and often belong to what are considered supernatural or "crazy" belief systems.

Let's look at one last concluding remark from Blacker on the topic of ascetic practices.

"Here we are surely confronted with the underlying reason for gyou. Performed within a sacred context, with the prospect of a transformed life ahead, ascesis may open the mind to an influx of spiritual strength. By breaking down the ordinary human habits of living, by drastically altering the rythms of sleep and eating, and above all by subjecting the body to extreme degrees of cold, the system is reduced to a point where mere collapse would usually ensue. Where the sacred world lies before one, however, these stresses become the means of opening a crack or vent in the hard carapace of human habit, enabling a new source of power to stream in."

In conclusion of my review of Carmen Blacker's, "The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan", I found it to be a captivating read with a wide variety of experiences Blacker has accumulated from long study and many personal first hand experiences with these very strange Japanese religious persons. For one seeking to better understand Japanese religion, and even modern day Japanese culture, I would highly recommend this rare work. I believe one must study the furthest reaches of strangeness and imagination of a subject in order for enlightened understanding to ensue, and this topic of the Japanese shaman certainly lies far in the polar extremes of Japan.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Book Review - "The Catalpa Bow" - Part II: Fasting

Here I will begin addressing topics specifically discussed in Carmen Blacker's book, "The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan."

This book covers a very broad subject in shamanism with a wide variety of investigations, but what I have been most interestested in is the ascetic practices in Japanese religion, and in this case, those done by the shaman. Generally speaking, a shaman is someone who has the special ability to communicate with realms of spirits that ordinary human beings cannot. Blacker shows us there are different means to this end:

"We shall find that two modes of entry into the sacred life are open to the medium and the ascetic in Japan. Either he is 'called', summoned by a deity in a dream or a possession to leave his old life and begin a new one, closer to the sacred world; or he may of his own volition, with no supernatural election or persuasion, decide that the life he has hitherto led is meaningless and insupportable, and that he must seek another kind of life for which new powers and gifts are needed. Whether the impulse comes from his own will, however, or from some apparently external spiritual being, whether he is what Hori calls the 'quest type' or the 'vocation type', he can only acquire the special powers he needs to bridge the gap between the two worlds by certain ascetic practices.

"There measures are known in general as gyou (religious training). In so far as they are painful, exhausting or wearisomely repetitive, in so far as they remove both body and mind from their accustomed habits, in so far as they require very great strength of will to accomplish, they may properly be described as ascetic. ...

"These disciplines can be broadly classified into three: fasting, cold water and the recitation of words or power."

(page, 85)

Here in this article, we will deal with the first of these ascetic gyou: fasting.

"Dietary restrictions, the avoidance of certain foods believed to be antipathetic to the acquisition of power, have been recognised as a potent austerity since the earliest appearances of the ascetic in the eighth and ninth centuries. Nikudachi or abstention from meat, shiodachi or abstention from salt, kokudachi or abstention from the Five Cereals, hidachi or abstention from cooked food, all these are described in the tales and biographies of celebrated ascetics in the early medieval period. They are still essential prescriptions in teh shaman's ascetic regime today. Faith in the efficacy of these absentions, therefore, has persisted for more than a thousand years."

(page, 86)

These practices interestingly enough derive from traditions in mainland Asia as they were brought with religious ideas. Nikudachi, or the abstention from meat, originates in Buddhism. And kokudachi, abstention from cereals, originates in Taoism. Blacker then begins to describe the diet adopted by fasting shaman, but makes no direct reference to influence from other foreign traditions. Perhaps here we may begin to see traditions adopted, but then modified to become peculiarly Japanese.

"To fill the gap left by the abstention from cereals there arose the practice known as mokujiki or tree-eating. Give up rice, wheat, millet and barley and you substitte nuts, berries, bark or pine needles. The title Mokujiki Shounin, Saint Tree-eater, has been applied to a number of ascetics since medieval times, its most celebrated bearer being the eighteenth-century carver of wooden images whose work, since its discovery in 1923 by Yanagi Souetsu, has achieved wide acclaim. Mokujiki Shounin died in 1810 at the age of ninety-three, having passed some fifty years of his life in continuous tree-eating. Thirty-eight of these years, moreover, were spent in constant travel on foot throughout Japan, in the course of which he left behind him at least a thousand carved wooden Buddhas. Many of these figures, with their characteristic archaic smile, have become prized collector's pieces."

(page, 87)

Interestingly enough, this "tree-eating" diet was not just adopted and maintained as a practice, but was only a transitional means to a far more severe level of complete abstention.

"During the first part of the discipline their diet consisted of nuts, bark, fruit, berries, grass and sometimes soy in fair abundance. The quantity of these things was then reduced, until by the end of their allotted period they had undergone a total fast of many days."

(page, 88)

So what is the reasoning for this practice? How does this facilitate a shaman's spiritual experience and abilities? Here's where it gets really interesting.

"Ideally, if the discipline were properly calculated, the man should die from starvation, upright in the lotus posture, on the last day of his avowed fast. His body should have been reduced to skin and bone, all flesh and visceral contents having long disappeared. He was then placed inside a wooden coffin, and buried underground in a stone sarcophagus for a period of three years. When exhumed at the end of this time he was found, if all had gone well, to have become a mummy. Such skin as remained on the body had not decomposed, but had desicated into the brown, scaly substance familiar to us from the mummies of the Egyptian tombs. Unlike the Egyptian mummies, however, no chemical embalming agents of any kind were used in this process."

(page 88)

Wow. Never before had I heard about such an extreme practice of fasting. But isn't it the logical end? If you fast, what's the point in marginal fasting instead of going straight for the final goal? This seems far more related to Hinduism, a belief-system that often describes the desire to "kill the body" in order for the spirit to become free. This seems to be far different than the "Middle Way" of Buddhism. But here, the Buddha is specifically cited within the fasting practices of Japanese ascetics.

"It was alleged ... that such people did not suffer death. What appeared to be death is in fact the state of suspended animation known as nyuujou, in which condition the soul may await the coming, millions of years hence, of the Future Buddha Maitreya."

(page 89)

Buddhism? Shinto? Shamanism? Hinduism? Taoism? From what established traditions to the Japanese shamans derive their beliefs and practices? From where do modern day Japanese derive their cultural beliefs and tendencies? Is this an "East vs. West" discussion? Hardly. Shamanism as a term and fasting as practice can be found in virtually all ancient, if not modern civilizations. How much does one's own individual experience contribute to all of this? Perhaps all of these religions are catalysts or tools adopted consciously or unconsciously by people in order to find their own selves, which they use sounds and words to best describe as "Buddha".

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Book Review - "The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan" - Part I: Introduction

In attempt to find the root and reasoning for Japanese culture as a whole, I have been directed to this book written by Carmen Blacker, "The Catalpa Bow: A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan."

In this quest to better understand Japan, I have found myself repeadetly focusing on religion as the conductor of belief which manifests itself throughout Japanese history and modern society. But Japanese religion happens to be quite elusive to the objective and reasoning mind. My first mistake in trying to understand Japanese religion was segregating the beliefs of Japan into two seperate groups of Buddhism and Shinto (indigenous religion of Japan). I was constantly trying to discern which part of Japanese society belonged to which religion, and attempting to find the one true belief-system in Japan. To do so is to be innaccurate.

The rest of this entry is interestingly enough not specifically about "The Catalpa Bow", but is rather my own necessary introduction to the book concerning my experience attempting to investigate this quandary of religions in Japan. At this point, I suggest you get your preferred blog-reading-beverage in hand and come with me on a journey to the Tateyama Museum.

Early on when I came to Japan, one of my first adventures was to the Tateyama Museum, which concerns things around Mt. Tate, the tallest mountain in Toyama Prefecture, and considered one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan along with Mt. Fuji and Mt. Haku. (At this point, I am going to refer to Mt. Tate as Tateyama, because yama means mountain, and is naturally added to the name of the mountain to make it Tateyama. To say Mt. Tateyama is repetetive, and to say Mt. Tate is just weird, so we say Tateyama. In fact, I find it weird to use "Mt." as a prefix to any mountains in Japan, because the Japanese name always includes the connotation of mountain, whether its adding yama, san, or dake to the end. For example Mt. Tate is Tate-yama, Mt. Fuji is Fuji-san, Mt. Haku is Haku-san, and Mt. Tsurugi [which we will talk about later] is Tsurugi-dake).

Before I left, I mentioned my plans to one of my fellow teachers at school who said that an ex-teacher of Sakurai High School (where I teach) is now working at the museum. This was in fact my first experience in trying to go on a casual solo adventure, but instead being given a strict itinerary of plans and meetings by Japanese people trying to help me. In this instance, I was very lucky to have this happen to me. The man I was to meet, Sawada Sensei, met me at the Tateyama train station and drove me to the museum where he would be my guide for the next six hours. In fact, if I hadn't arrived at Tateyama so early, and hadn't had the benefit of a car, there was no way I would've been able to see all of the museum.

The museum was split into different parts which were about five minutes away from each other by car. The first part is a small movie theater where you watch two films about Tateyama. One film is about the flora and fauna and the changing of the seasons on the mountain. And the other is about the spiritual history of the area.

It starts out as an animated film depicting a prince who was hunting in the forest at the base of the mountain with bow and arrow. He came across a bear which he shot, and followed it's trail of blood as it ran off in escape. The path lead into a cave where the trail of blood led to a golden Buddha-like image. At that point the prince has a great epiphany. I asked Sawada Sensei a question that seemed very simple in my mind: "Is this Buddhist or Shinto?" He made confused Japanese sounds and left me with long explanations. I was frustrated and tried to tell him that all he had to do was answer "Buddhist" or "Shinto", but he couldn't. The video depicted a few other legends of the area, and eventually turned into an 80's looking claymation about a priest who died and went to a cave where his fate was judged by menacing demons who sent him to hell to be tortured in many various ways by more terrorizing demons. Then somehow it transitioned to post-apocalyptic Tokyo, representing the future hell-on-earth we face in the future. Crazy. It was early in the day and we had much more to see, so I decided to let all the strange imagery sink in and venture on with an open mind, trying to discern what was Shinto and what was Buddhist.

Next we went to the next part which was two seperate exhibitions: one depicting heaven, and the other hell. According to belief, both heaven and hell can be found in the mountains in this area. Specifically, Tateyama is heaven, and Tsurugidake is hell. Tsurugidake (Mt. Tsurugi) is considered one of the most dangerous mountains to hike without extra gear, and is famous for its sharp and jagged appearance. In fact, before WWII, the Japanese map had a blank spot where Tsurugidake was, because no one had been able to climb up and properly survey the area. (The recently released movie, "Tsurugidake: Ten-no-ki" is about the successful summit and surveying of Tsurugidake. I highly recommend this movie for so many reasons, but doubt you can find it in English. Also, check my earlier post from July titled, "Hiking Through Heaven and Hell" for my experience climbing Tateyama and Tsurugidake with my brother and fellow aikidoka.) These mountains are also famous for mandalas. The mandalas are large two-dimensional depictions of the moutain range, with sharp spires and large tortuous demons around Tsurugidake, and Buddhas floating on clouds around Tateyama. So, with our discussion on Buddhism and Shinto, the Buddhas depicted seem to clearly mark this Buddhist, but the use of local legends and spirits mark it Shinto. If this was an important spot within the Buddhist universe, wouldn't it be important to all Buddhists universally?
View of Tateyama

Shrine at the peak of Tateyama

A closer look

Tsurugidake from base camp
See the person in the middle of the picture? If you want to get to the top, this is what you do.
View from the top
A couple of scenes from the mandalas

Here I approach my limits of knowledge about Buddhism, but I did recently read about a very interesting characteristic of Japanese religion that seems to contradict itself:

"It is fascinating to note that animism has remained part of the Japanese religious tradition down to the present. Buddhism rejects animism in principle, but the current of animist belief runs so strongly and continuously through Japanese culture that Buddhism was influenced by it almost immediately upon its introduction to Japan. This is one manifestation of the Japanization of Buddhism. The persistence of animistic beliefs in Japan leads some people to infer that the Japanese religious consciousness is undeveloped. It is the ancient inclination of the Japanese to live in close accord with nature, pointed out above, that has sustained animistic worship of nature to modern times. But to conclude from this alone that Japanese religious consciousness or thought is undeveloped is premature. ...

"In general, the Japanese affirm the world and humanity as they are and do not seek a realm or a state of existence that rejects or transcends the natural world. Several reasons can be given for this mindset. For one thing, though there have been many prolonged and bloody contests for power and authority among the Japanese, the nation was never successfully invaded or ruled by another people before the twentieth century, so that the Japanese never had to face the bitter reality of occupation by a foreign power or submission to foreign beliefs. For another, Japan's climate is temperate, and the country has no vast spaces for people to wander in. The Japanese tendency to remain firmly grounded in the natural world has been at times a strength, at times a weakness. This was the environment of thought, feeling, and belief into which Buddhism was introduced, a religion that rejects reality as it is - the phenomenal world - and teaches a way to transcend it."
Tamura, Yoshio. "Japanese Buddhism." Pages 20, 25-26.

So I looked to my guide while pointing to a mandala and asked again, "Buddhist or Shinto?" Sawada Sensei shook his head back and forth replying, "Chigau!" (wrong, or different).

Anyway, we first entered the museum's exhibit of hell, which could be described as well done haunted house without the midgets running around in costume trying to scare you. You walk through narrow hallways that get progressively smaller, and suggestive rock formations and other structures half concealed in shadows are revealed with a lot of red and white flashing lights. There was an invasive soundtrack that wasn't quite music or screams, but sounds that really grated against the human imagination. I wouldn't say I was scared, but certainly affected and struck with hellish feelings. Good job to whoever created this.
Sawada Sensei entering hell

Next, we entered the heaven exhibition, which was a complex dislpaying art exhibits made from students and faculty from the Tokyo University of Art. These were equally as ambiguous as hell was. The exhibits were large 3-D sculptures displaying both complex and simple geometric images with a lot of light and water, which to me represented form and transcendence.
Some exhibitions of heaven

The last part of this complex, which seemed connected to heaven but also seemed to be its own entity, was a large dimly lit warehouse-like room with a tremendous white orb in the center, and four small white pods in the corners. I have to mention that throughout all of this, Sawada Sensei was a very pleasant companion, letting me wander on my own, trying to answer my strange questions that were often in incoherent Japanese, and pointing out things of importance I may have missed along the way. Here he was essential to explaning this area. First, we went to the pods in the corners, which had curved arching white half-shell open compartments about 7 ft tall that displayed very faint images and designs of color. Below it was a large white orb with similar images. Sawada Sensei told me to listen to the orb, so I put my head to it and heard faint sounds to accompany the images. Each of these four sections represented the four seasons. If I could put a color to each season, winter was blue, spring pink, summer green, and fall red. As for sounds, fall and winter were similar in that it sounded a bit like dripping water, and spring and summer had more melodic sounds. To be honest though, all of this stimuli was incredibly faint and ambiguous, and so this is just my interpretation.
Sawada Sensei in front of the stimuli
Then we went to the large white orb in the center which looked like an egg. Sawada Sensei told me it represented the womb, and had a space in the middle that we could enter, so we did. We took our shoes of and dove in, and laid ourselves down in the concave middle and looked at the ceiling which had stronger, but even more ambiguous lights and images, with an irregular bass we felt through the walls and floor.
Buddhist or Shinto?

What does this have to do with anything?

How could you define the movie, heaven, hell, and the seasons/womb exhibit I had just experienced? Perhaps here we find a key to this puzzle. Whatever it is this museum is about, it is something to be experienced, not studied or analyzed. It is not to be divided into categories of religions, dates, and times, but rather the universal stimuli that are represented in this local region needs to be individually processed.

It was soon after that we finally found the magic word to make sense of all of this: shinkou (belief). All of these things we were seeing were not Buddhist or Shinto, but a natural synergy of the two which made Tateyama-shinkou. At first this made me very proud to be in such a wonderfully independent region of Japan with its own unique belief-system. At that time, I thought there was Buddhism, Shinto, and Tateyama-shinkou. But is another inaccurate view. Finally, after another year in Japan, I have finally after all this time realized that it is like this all over Japan. Every region has a significant and ancient local belief that is some combination of Buddhist and Shinto and other things (as we may see from "Catalpa Bow").

Why has this phenomenon of mixing, matching, assimilating religions been so difficult to understand for me as a Westerner? And why does modern Japan distinguish between Shinto shrines (jinja)and Buddhist temples (otera)? I have a few ideas of my own, but the answers are far too many to list here. There are volumes upon volumes of academic writing attempting to answer this question. To give one small example very briefly here, during the Meiji Era in the 1860's when Japan opened up to the West and started a mass transition to the acquiring of Western ideas and items, Buddhism and Shinto began to be categorized as religions and thusly divided. During WWII in order to increase nationalistic fervor, Buddhism was placed lower than Shinto because it was shared among other "inferior" nations of the world like China, Korea, Southeast Asia, and India, and an emphasis was placed on Shinto as the source of Japan's nobility and superiority, allowing the country to convince thousands and maybe millions of kamikaze (the wind of the gods) pilots to kill themselves for the gods. Perhaps you should try and ask someone Japanese about the seperation of the two belief systems. However, often times you will find that they don't know exactly and don't particularly care either. You worship your ancestors during Obon festival in early August, go to a shrine for New Years (Oshogatsu), and go to a Buddhist temple when someone dies. Beyond this information, I have found little help in trying to understand Japanese religion by asking Japanese people. Perhaps you have heard of the saying: "Japanese are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist."

Anyway, back to the museum, Sawada Sensei and I progressed to the final part which was the actual "museum" part of the whole museum complex, and displayed many of the ancient mandalas depicting Tateyama and Tsurugidake as heaven and hell. Sawada Sensei said he could give me a ride home because he lived fairly close to Kurobe, but I would have to wait for an hour. I of course accepted the offer, and he pointed me in the direction of a nearby grove of cedar trees that surrounded many small Shinto ... wait ... Tateyama-shinkou shrines.

Japanese cedar trees (sugi). Like American ones, but different.
Though it was very early on, this stands as one of my most memorable experiences in Japan to date.

Perhaps after this story, we can proceed to the book, "Catalpa Bow" better prepared to understand the experience of Japanese religion as found in its most exotic forms of shamanism.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Freedom of Capoeira

About one month ago, I was required to go to a two-day Mid-Year Seminar for my job as an English teacher where I along with the other ALTs (assistant language teacher, aka, English speaking dancing monkey) presented and watched various speeches and classes on teaching English in Japan. There were many informative and interesting bits, as well as boring and awkward ones, but perhaps the most interesting part of the whole seminar was an hour class that was given about capoeira, a Brazilian martial art. This hour class was in a list of other "fun" seminars at the end we got to choose from, and I jumped on this one immediately.

The class was taught by a man in his early thirties from Hawaii, who had lived in Brazil where he practiced capoeira. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with a Japanese girl, and now lives here in Toyama where he has a kindergarten, and teaches capoeira classes. Because this was only an hour class to introduce capoeira to a bunch of English teaching gaijin and get them moving, we could do little more than just that, but it was very refreshing. I've never formally practiced capoeira, but in my hometown there are a few guys who like to play around with it, and I ended up joining them from time to time, so I had a leg up on most of the other people in the class because I had already been introduced to it.

Capoeira generally consists of a group of people that make a circle and clap to music while two capoeristas "spar" in the middle of the circle. The players move to the music for the most part, and base their movements off the ginga (back and forth movement characteristic to capoeira). Depending on what capoeira circle you're in (pun intended), there can be an emphasis on the dance aspect of the art or on the martial art side of things; or I guess ideally where both are given their appropriate emphasis. Our instructor described all of the movements in the guise of martial technique (you move here or are in this position because you want to attack/evade effectively, etc), but was sure to present capoeira as a fun game to enjoy. It sounded like a healthy balance to me. (If this article is your first experience with capoeira, I highly recommend you look up some information on the web and search some videos on youtube. If you have heard of this beautiful and strange art before, I highly recommend you look up some information on the web and search some videos on youtube.)

If I were to put my impression of this experience into one word, it would be: "refreshing."

The older I get, the more I realize how important physical movement is to my life. As a child, my favorite thing to do was run around in the woods. As a middle school and high school student, sports were arguably the single most important thing in my life. And ever since I first walked in a dojo at 17, my life has been arguably best enjoyed while practicing martial arts. In this latter more recent stage of martial arts, I've noticed that I've developed some very restrictive ideas concerning body movement. Emphasis is always made to further refine movement to be "most effective" (whatever that means exactly). In every movement, the finest of details concerning weight placement and angles and directions are investigated and adjusted to some "most effective" state, but in doing so, one can start designating all movements into "good" and "bad" categories. (I'm now remembering a huge epiphany I had when first practicing Hawaiian kenpo when my Sensei said that it wasn't a matter of "good and bad", but "good and better.") This session in capoeira greatly helped me to curb my movement-nazi tendencies, and just move. (This is pretty interesting considering my last post on where exactly the knee needs to always be in martial arts.)

In fact, this was a concept that the capoeira instructor used to describe the movements to us. He said that while practicing capoeira with a partner, the most important thing to do when an attack comes your way, is to get out of the way. That's it, it's easy! Just get out of the way. Amidst the ginga movement, if an opponent sends a kick your way, all you really have to do is step back; that's it! But as you can probably tell, that can be a bit boring. So if a partner sends a kick your way, instead of stepping back, you can crouch down, move to the side, or spin out of the way allowing you to counter-attack while your partner is exposed. THAT seems to be good capoeira. After hearing him explain this, and then show us some physical examples of how it worked, it flashed in front of me how capoeira really can be a legitimate fighting art, and one that contains a lot of the same characteristics as Hawaiian kenpo, and especially tai chi chuan, and aikido.

Does that sound strange? It did to me at that first moment of realization. After having a tiny amount of experience in capoeira maybe 7 years ago and practicing these various highly acclaimed far eastern martial arts, I found myself with a lot of judgements and reservations about capoeira that weren't necessarily true. Beware all of you practicing martial artists with your calculating investigative minds! We are ideally searching for some objective truth, not self-constructed delusion.

One remarkable characterstic I found to be similar between capoeira and these other martial arts I have practiced is the tendency to avoid meeting contact with contact. I think the benefits of this theory become especially obvious in capoeira because a lot of the attacks are momentum powered wide arching kicks; one of the most painful attacks to receive directly! To have one of these catch you on the side of the head would surely knock you out and send you to the ground at least! There are also many sweeps that would easily send you head over heels if they were not avoided. With a constant barrage of these kinds of attacks encountered in the capoeira ring, you would have to by necessity learn to avoid power, and like the instructor said, "get out of the way". One great parallel with this kind of competition is push hands practiced in tai chi chuan. One learns quickly it is a bad idea to try and fight back against a skilled push, and rather begins flowing with the push and directing it elsewhere, or becoming empty so the push really ends up pushing nothing. However, it would be hard to find a more different practice to capoeira than push hands, because push hands is often practiced with a fixed-step rule where stepping movement becomes incredibly limited, and you are mostly dealing with hand and arm attacks as opposed to mostly leg attacks in capoeira. While one practices honing one's physical movement to be as small and effective as possible in push hands, I feel it can turn you into a movement-nazi chaining you to the ground. Furthermore, I can't help but think of so many well-experienced martial artists who have practiced for a great many years, that would maybe have a really hard time just moving in the basic ginga movement.

Perhaps aikido works as a bridge between movement-inhibitied tai chi chuan and movement-excessive capoeira. In aikido we practice flowing with an opponent to avoid force on force interactions, but do so often with wide arching movements of the body. I often find myself in aikido asking questions pertaining to the exact angle or direction of a move, and receiving an ambiguous answer that decreases it's importance. Even in ukemi (rolling out of throws delivered by a partner), we are given specific directions on how to do so initially, but after a while, each of our bodies will automatically find their own ways to balance out all of the small unattended-to details performed by the joints and muscles (and mind?). Perhaps a lot of movement in aikido is "just getting out of the way". Also, there is a tendency in tai chi chuan to practice things very slowly and carefully, but in aikido, we move at the actual speed things would be executed the majority of the time. The same can be said in capoeira I think. Therefore, training sessions in aikido are vigorous and constant, which satisfies a lot of my personal preferences in the martial arts. This session I had in capoeira at the Mid Year Seminar took this freedom of movement a huge step further, and was refreshed to just move instead of critically examine everything so much.

Perhaps capoeira is more "natural" than aikido or tai chi chuan! I have grown so annoyed at the contradiction of practicing all of these movements that are supposed to be "natural", but having to spend so much time disciplining myself to remember them and program them into myself. In capoeira, it seems a lot of the smaller details of movement naturally fall into place as you are avoiding and delivering your attacks amidst the movement of ginga.

The capoeria seminar was delivered as simple and easy as well as difficult and complex. Anyone can play capoeira, but only those who practice constantly with strength will be any good. The session was accompanied by kids (the teacher's kindergarten students he brought to help), the music characteristic of capoeira, and with a lot of smiles and laughter. Right now I am putting all of my conscious effort into aikido, but I hope one day to be reacquainted with other arts such as capoeira, because it will help my study of budo, but even more importantly, make me happy.

To finish the class, the instructor ended with some capoeira philosophy that may be able to help us through the tribulations of real life: When met with adverisity, we can ginga out of anything. No matter what happens in life, we have the freedom to move as we like, be it getting out of the way by stepping back, or maybe utilizing some more tactful way.

Monday, December 6, 2010

How Far With the Knee?

This has been my number one demon-question that has haunted me throughout my martial arts experience:

How far forward should we be in a front stance? So the knee is still behind your toes? Your knee is just over your toes? Or past your toes?

In the early stages of Hawaiian kenpo, I was told that in a bowstance, your knee should be over your toes so that if you look down, you can't see your toes (if I'm remembering correctly). I didn't question it much, and I think this would make for the knee being just over the toe.

Then, in tai chi chuan, is where I really ran into trouble. At first, I couldn't find a clear answer, and so began asking my teachers and training partners, and looking at pictures of tai chi chuan masters to see what they were doing. From pictures, I got a wide variety of answers, basically finding enough to conform to each of the three choices. The stances that were far over the knee looked a little too dependent on muscle strength and more committed than I thought fit with the ideals of internal Chinese martial arts I was aiming for. The forward stances that were far behind the knee looked a little too empty to me, as if the person is just standing there instead of being "involved" in their tai chi chuan. (However, this perception is potentially flawed in many ways when considering true tai chi chuan. Nonetheless, it's what I thought and felt.) But then the stances with the knee lined up with the edge of the toes looked balanced and strong enough for me. I began experimenting with my training partners and teachers, and we quickly noticed that if our knees were past the toes at all, we could be easily pulled over while practicing fixed-step push hands.

So there it was, the Golden Answer! You should always have your knee be lined up with your toes in a front stance all the time, because if you were over you were susceptible to being pulled over, and if you were behind your toes, you weren't in as strong of a stance you could be.

But then I started doing aikido in Japan. In one of the very first movements I learned where you do tenkan (tenkan undou?), a movement where you start in a front stance, step forward with your back foot and pivot to swing your other leg back, and back and forth thus alternating your front leg stance with each swing. I was mindful of my earlier found knowledge, and always had my knee perfectly in line with my toes. But from the very first second sensei saw this, he told me to lean forward. I hated it, and ignored it while practicing when sensei wasn't looking. The problem is being in a front stance is a regular thing in aikido, and we practice the tenkan undou every single night with pairs. For months and months, actually probably a whole year, every single fricken time, sensei kept saying, "Motto mae! Motto mae! More forward! More forward!"

Actually, the really frustrating part seems to be that there always seems to be a differing degree of leaning forward depending on the movement. When in your initial ready stance, hanmi, your posture, or kamae, seems that your knee should be behind your toe. When doing the tenkan undou, you should be past your knee. When practicing with a ken (wooden sword) or jo (short staff), you should be far forward(?) It seems to be different in every posture, and different every time I look and ask. The other night, I asked one of the senior ranking students about how far forward the knee should be, and he said forward enough so you cannot see your toes. Well, I go that far, and then everyone tells me to go farther. So that answer didn't help me much, except that it doesn't seem to have such a specific answer, and must be felt and adjusted appropriately to each situation. You may be wondering now, haven't I gone straight to sensei and asked this question? The answer is no, actually I haven't. I've thought about it a few times, but I just haven't had the perfect chance yet. Perhaps its something I need to keep working out for myself. Honestly, I envision being frustrated with another ambiguous answer.

Anyway, so what do I do now? Always motto mae. Nanto naku, I've changed, and now if I'm committed to action with an opponent, I love being more forward in a front stance.

Why have I made this change? Well ...

Perhaps we need to look at some misnomers I've had with my bias against the front stance:

First, I thought that it made me susceptible to being pulled over. Perhaps that is true, but if someone is really giving me a good pull, I'm not going to be able to nullify it just because my weight is back a bit. So, if I'm really being pulled, I should go with it, and go forward with a movement that can put me in the advantage and the opponent in a disadvantage. Perhaps this is one thing to consider: My earlier decision made in tai chi chuan was largely based on fixed-step push hands scenarios were one has to protect against the threat of small pulls to get you off balance, but this scenario does not mirror all movements in the martial arts, and cannot define all-applicable perfect stance.

Second, I thought being forward made it hard to evade to the rear. This may also be true. If you are in a rear stance, you can certainly move easier to the rear; but that's not the direction I usually want to go. After years of practicing, I've finally realized that by going backwards, you may have nullified an attack, but you haven't given yourself much of an advantage. Instead, I would rather move directly towards an opponent if he is waiting, or counter to the side while still moving forward if the opponent is initiating the attack. This is actually a misnomer I've had about aikido. I've thought that it is a reactionary, passive, evasive, and confrontation-avoiding art. Perhaps these adjectives can be used from time to time to describe motions in aikido, but so can action-initiating, aggressive, and invasive to a certain extent. There are moments of contact and times when you are pushing against an opponent in aikido, but only done so if you have the advantage; be it leverage, momentum, or a particular angle.

My third point is connected with the second, which is, leaning too far over the knee makes you only able to move forward effectively. Actually, though it isn't the best stance for moving back, I think it allows enough movement back for me considering it's forward advantage, which started being mentioned in the paragraph above. I want to move forward, take my opponents space, and deal with it however is most necessary. I can't help but think of Bruce Lee's philosophy in this question. Bruce Lee certainly favored a forward stance, and even advocated having is back heel off the ground so that his leg acted as a spring to further enhance his forward mobility. Certainly, Bruce Lee used techniques that were not only forward strikes, and did so sufficiently in his forward stance.

This question has haunted me ever since I stepped in the dojo here in Japan, but I've finally acquired enough legitimizations to convincingly practice the forward stance sensei wants me to. I think the largest motivation that has turned my opinion, is more of a "monkey-see, monkey-do" phenomenon. My sensei is the same height as me, and may be a few pounds heavier (due to a small pony keg he's working on thanks to a love of sake), and I would bet money I could outlift him in any excercise in the weight room, but he has a strength and power that absolutley dwarfs me. He practices with a great ferocity as well as softness, that is utterly dominating. When he does a technique on me, I go exactly where he plans for me to go. When I do a technique on him that isn't perfectly in line, I cannot go further without excerting all of the muscle strength I have to try and out-muscle him. This is not due to his muscle power, but the powerful stances and balance he has and uses in his techniques.

I may not have The Golden Answer to the knee question, but I have a shiny one that's keeping my attention now.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Aikido's Strange Beauty

I have stumbled upon this thought when trying to explain aikido people. More specifically, why every movement between the tori (thrower) and uke (throwee) seems to be so controlled and why aikido may look to be so staged.

In the martial arts I have practiced for significant periods of time (tai chi chuan, Hawaiian kenpo, aikido) all have waza (techniques) that begin and end with a single movement (a push, punch, or atemi) as well as those that have longer strings of movement. Those that have more than one movement rely upon a certain reaction from the partner. In Hawaiian kenpo, movements after the first depend upon the anatomical reaction of the opponent to the strike you have delivered. For example, if the opening movement calls for a strike to the stomach, it is expected the partner will lean forward covering their stomach, revealing their head and back in front of you revealing an opening for the next movement.

In tai chi chuan, there is a partner form called san shou which is essentially a trading of techniques between partners back and forth. One partner attacks, the other neutralizes the attack and answers with their own, which is then neutralized by the parnter and returned, and so on.

In aikido, waza are performed between partners similar to Hawaiian kenpo in that there is one designated attacker or thrower (tori) and one receiver (uke). [But we shouldn't forget kotae-waza where the techniques practiced are counters to particular aikido techniques.] But the difference in aikido is that the partner usually doesn't just receive the strike, but will move strategically to protect themself from the attack. This is similar to the tai chi chuan san shou form, but the tori continues flowing through the various movements of the attack until a proper finish is executed. This adjustment by the uke in aikido can often seem strange because in a practical self-defense situation, it is rare that people will react and move as they are supposed to in a choreographed waza. To practice aikido waza with unncooperative partners, would be to greatly change the look of aikido I think.

Is this method of training in aikido helpful or practical in live unexpected violent interactions? If you only see or think of aikido wazas as practiced in the manner I described, no. To successfully defend yourself in the street, there are other arts more suitable for the quick learning of practical techniques, and you should also read the wonderful book "Meditations on Violence" by Rory Miller for a very sobering and practical approach to martial artsand physical confrontation in our modern day world.

Musing on this seeming lack of practicality of aikido in self-defense situations reminds me of a conversation I had with sensei where he boldly said aikido is not goshinjutsu (self defense(?)), but shutai (independent thinking(?) (Please anyone reading the blog with a greater Japanese ability that can help me discern exactly what my sensei was saying, leave a comment). The purpose of aikido is practicing aikido, not fighting, and not competition. This is said in the context that my sensei is very concerned with physical ability and not just philosophy, and is a practicing sandan (third degree black belt) in Kenpo. Furthermore, I remember asking one of my great tai chi chuan teachers, "Where are the devastating finishing techniques in tai chi chuan? All we're doing is pushing each other around?" The teacher wisely pointed out the clever wording of the phrase, self-defense. There is no necessary attack in this concept. He referenced his experience in judo, and said that it is less important for a judo-ka to know the finishing chokes and arm bars, than to know how to position yourself to nullify an attack. If you can do that well, there is no need for these finishing moves I was so curious about. (But he then showed me pushing can be quite devastating if it's projected towards the right object, or a throw to the ground can very well "finish" an opponent.)

Anyway, back to the discussion at hand; is the method of practicing waza as I have described in aikido useful in live encounters with malicious attackers? Again, if you only see or think of aikido wazas as I have described them, no.

Therefore, we must look to the initial movement and reaction of the tori and uke. Ideally and practically, if the uke did not react properly to the tori's first movement, the techniques would end or transition to a different technique. For instance, in most aikido wazas practiced in my dojo, the first movement includes an atemi (a strike to the partner). If the uke did not react to this initial strike, they would be hit in the face and finished, or the particular technique would change and adapt to the situation. Because the uke reacts strategically and intelligently to the attack, the technique progresses to it's particular end. Though the strike is not landed in this fashion of waza training, it most certainly occupies and puts the uke unocontrollably off-balance, leaving an opening for another atemi, another off-balancing movement, or the final throw or lock.

I now remember a very provacative post on the KyuRyu: Dragon's Orb blog by Sensei Strange who went to great lengths to define atemi and who that they are involved in all of his aikido waza in the tomiki tradition.

One last phenomenon in aikido that may confuse its viewers concerning realistic application is found in its wrist grabs. Often, techniques begin from a wrist grab from the uke (a common scenario found in all martial arts I've experienced). The strange thing in aikido, is that the uke will continue to maintain the wrist grab far longer than anyone on the street would. This is possibly the strangest and most unorthodox as well as frustrating trend I've found in aikido; that is until I learned that the particular technique requires the person to maintain the grab, or else the situation would change and require a different technique. Or how about watching people practice these moves without even touching each other? The uke reaches for the tori's hand, who moves it just before contact, and the uke follows the hand until the end of the technique where the uke is thrown without ever being touched. Surely a very strange sight for someone seeing it for the first time, but I have felt great success if practicing this method a little bit with the right intention.

Perhaps for those looking for the quickest route to self-defense, this is all very non-sensical and a seeming big waste of time, and they would do themselves a great favor to find a more appropriate martial art or teacher for them. But I believe these concepts I have mentioned here gives aikido is sophistication and beauty. Techniques are dependent upon the strategic reactions of the uke and tori in particular techniques, making for long strings of very specific and complicated movements. If they are not adhered to, then a different technique would be used to end the interaction. This drastically changes the view of aikido from a completely staged and unrealistic dance, to a very practical and effective martial art.

Beyond crude antagonistic competitions for dominance lies a poetry of movement that is both practical amid chaotic confrontations as well as pleasantly harmonious. This is the balance and sophistication I seek in the martial arts.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

3rd Aikido Test

The other night I took my third Aikido test: gokyuu. Compared to the other tests, I think I've had more time to practice the tested techniques and had more help with them, but I felt more nervous, and was less happy with my performance in the end. This is certainly a sign of the increasing difficulty in rising through the ranks. Regardless of minor mistakes and my own criticism, Sensei seemed happy with my progress and gave me praise. But he left me with one very interesting and important thing to think about.

In Aikido practice, we are usually cooperating each other, moving through everything very carefully, being nice, and listening to higher ranks. BUT, test time is the time when we are out there on the mat alone, and time to show our strength, confidence, and power standing alone proving we deserve the next rank. Perhaps I was a little hesitant, soft, and overly accomodating for my test partner. I think Sensei wants me to really display my strength and show off how cool the wazas (techniques) are! This is absolutley necessary icing on the cake for proficient martial artists, and the most fun to experience.

Be proud of your well-polished technique! Be willing to stand before the eyes of the world showing your true self!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Silly Words

"If the pen is mightier than the sword,
then how do actions speak louder than words?"


Saturday, November 13, 2010

How to Keep Your Integrity in Japan

(First off, this blog just won't let me seperate my paragraphs the way I want in this post for some reason, but I hope you can see where the seperations are somehow. Prease excuse.)

We are everything, and everything is us. However, sometimes I think it is important to be able to make seperations between ourselves and the environment we live in. I've found that it can be especially tricky at times for a gaijin living in Japan. Listed below are three quandaries I have stumbled across.

First, everything around you in Japan is artificial. Perhaps its the effect of such a large population living in such close quarters on a relatively small island chain. Basically, if there is flat ground in Japan, it has been cultivated by man in some way. Either it is in the form of towns and cities or rice fields. If you go into the mountains, it is nearly impossible to get a 360 degree view of pure nature without the effect of man. Either you see concrete dams (which are in every single river in Japan save three), powerlines, or huts for hikers and workers. But this applies to human behavior in Japan as well. Anything that humans do, think, or say in Japan seems to have "a way to do it." There are accepted ways to do everything in Japan, from greetings, to speech, to cleaning your house, to parking your car, to being an artist, to reaching enlightenment, whatever. This is the trickiest part, and the most violating of free-will.
However, I think a lot of the problem of this has been my perception of the world as either "affected by man" or "pure nature." Maintaining this dichotomy has made me stifled in Japan because I see everything as "affected by man," and look for the "pure nature." So instead lately, I've been looking at man's affect as a part of nature. Everything I see, is "pure nature" manifesting itself through human behavior. In Japan, people just seem to be extra ... mmm ... what can I say ... genki ... or enthusiastic about production and their effect on nature. One way I came across this new-found seeing everything as nature was by looking at the strict form and uniformity behind everything. Surely there are strict rules behind form and uniformity in Japan, but that is only the frame and initial idea; the actual manifestation of this law is not uniformity and perfection, but a wide array of remarkably individual people all trying to conform. It is not perfect, and it can be beautifully strange. Humans may be one of the most interesting things in nature.
Second, Japanese society always seems to be looking up or down. This has been described as a "vertical society" as opposed to a more "horizontal" found in the West. For Japanese, everyone around them is either their junior or superior in some way socially, so you have a society where you are either looking up or down in the social sense to everyone around you. This becomes very obvious in the Japanese language. There are specific forms of verbs and nouns and sentence structures you are supposed to use (keigo it's called in Japanese)when talking to either someone above or below you, which may be just one reason for the famed difficulty of learning the Japanese language. The effect of this is that your conversations in Japan are already pre-dictated at least a little, and puts a lot of limits on what you want to say and how you say it. This makes it often difficult to have an honest heart to heart talk with some Japanese.

However, there is a very easy way to deal with this stifling limitation: treat everyone according to their quality and potential instead of automatically pre-judging them by their appearance or social status. While living in Japan, I do have to mind Japanese social structure to an extent, but also because I'm gaijin, I am also a bit excused from a lot of these social laws. The effect of this is that I can know more about my coworkers personal lives and true feelings after one year than other people who have known them for a decade. Because I am excused from a lot of this, Japanese will often open up to me a bit more and relish in their freedom of expression. Seeing this phenomenon so socially engrained here in Japan does allow me to see it's more universal existence in human nature around the world. And you know what? I'm not impressed. In most situations, I will obey the accepted social rules, but I'll be paying a lot more attention to your actions than your social status.

Thirdly, Japan loves the familiar, and feels ... differently about the unfamiliar. This is similar to my first point, but this is more about the effect of this phenomenon rather than just stating it's existence. So yes, Japan loves the familiar, and if something isn't, like a controversial topic of discussion or an avante-garde artistic display, it's at least in a comfortable and acceptable setting where people may cushion the shock a bit. In all honesty, I have met some of the most generous and genuine people in my life in Japan, but I think credit is due more to their personalities than the Japanese culture. And I don't know any culture that could shower it's upstanding citizens and well-paying visitors as conveniently, comfortably, and pleasantly as Japan, but sometimes one is able to see the sensitive conditionality of it all. A few times I've wandered to it's boundaries and sensed the looming, cold, and impersonal concrete wall that lays just beyond the pinky hello-kitty fog of acceptance. Perhaps forgetting to say the right amount of thank you's and sorry's if you are being done a favor or if you have made a mistake in the system somehow. (For instance, showing up to work late and hung over, or asking for your paid-leave holidays when other people are still showing up to work). As a young caucasian American male, I stand in a great advantage to many other gaijin, but it sure does still feel stifling sometimes.
I have to say, practicing aikido has helped me understand the solution to this iron wall Japan can be: If there's a big train comin' down the tracks, GET OUT OF THE WAY! Get out of the way of the machine, don't fight it because you will lose and it will be unpleasant. Don't spend any more time or do any more favors than you have to in the system. Use your time effectively for your own desires. Rereading this last part I can't help but feel a little strange, as so much I believe in requires standing up against unjust opposition. But in the context of the topics in this blog entry, I feel confident in this answer to threats from the Japanese machine. Perhaps when I have a home and kids and matters are a bit more serious than they are now, things will shift.
Thanks for joining me for more generalizations about Japanese culture from a young aikido practicing English teacher.