Friday, January 27, 2012

Lands and Their Art

Unknown forests of dark cedars stand in a monogamous green. Weather hangs around all; mist, rain, snow. Bold earthy colors remain fixed in quietude. This is not a place in which to be well known to the world. Assimilation into anonymity. The bold lines and colors are real.

Between my two homes of the Pacific Northwest in the U.S. and Toyama Prefecture of the Hokuriku Region in Japan, there are great similarities that are continually being revealed to me. It starts with the land. It is first felt by its inhabitants and then interpreted into art. The land is mountainous and covered with large evergreen trees, surrounded by bodies of water, and frequented by large amounts of precipitation. The people are humble and generally aware of something important about the environment in which they live. The art of these lands is simple and geometric, following bold lines of strength which contain details perhaps unnoticed at a first glance. The two respective arts I am thinking of are the Native American art of the northwest in North America and the Aikido I practice in Toyama, Japan.

 Growing up in the pacific northwest of the U.S., I was raised in a region where the native art is ubiquitous. Anyone living in the area could identify these images, and yet I don't think many people know what it's about. Its like an unexplained theme that runs through society. (I can't help but think about religion in Japan.) As art it decorates the environment and yet sets a very strong tone. Bold and seemingly simple designs, the colors are usually limited to red, black, and natural wood. To me, I find them relaxing. And yet, I'm inspired by their quiet strength. It's not a showy art in my opinion, nor is it one of staggering complexity.

However, within the broad curves so often exhibited in this kind of native art, one finds a great amount of detail contained. A mesmorizing puzzle of smaller geometric shapes. It's the tendency of these lines that inspired me to make such connections between my homes, but I think the comparison will be made greater still by the application of these two-dimensional designs.

I think of pacific northwest carving, particularly totem poles. The transition from 2D to 3D in this art only exemplifies my feelings of the bold and quiet strength of the art even more. If you were to walk through the forest and find totem poles, first you would see the monoliths as standing pieces of wood, but then you would begin to notice the animal figures in them and then you would notice the small details and designs which make up the totem pole as a whole.

At first when you look at Aikido, it seems simple. But after a closer look the details manifest in numbers more than the mind can comprehend.

The aikido I do here in Toyama feels the same as native totem poles. Sensei's movements are large, broad and strong. Simple in that attention to minor details is often subjugated to the holistic movement and affect of each technique.

It may seem strange to compare these two forms of art in this way because Aikido isn't specific to Toyama, and I don't think my Sensei has spent even a second on such ideas as discussed in this blog entry. And yet, there is something special about Aikido that resembles the northwest art of the U.S. to me that other martial arts don't have. But there are also a lot of interpretations and methods of practicing Aikido that also wouldn't fit these specific feelings I have for this place. It's about a tone, and I can't help but feel like the dojo here is expressing the wilderness of Toyama in technique.

When practicing a technique Sensei will give you one detail to fix at a time. So many times this has happened and I'll say, "OH! This is the secret ingredient to the technique. This is how you do it right." But that is not entirely true. There is no one secret ingredient to a technique. There is no one right way to do a technique. There are many details and variations contained within each technique; to try and conceptualize them all at once in the movement is a very slow way to learn I think.

Generally, instead of focusing on the details that would build up to the big picture. It's more like you follow the main lines of the art and the small details will be attended to in turn; either by necessity or by just falling into place. It's like looking at a totem pole.

After focusing on one detail at a time and internalizing them, one day they will all manifest without thought or effort.

Just like a master carver creates a giant totem pole.

Just like the snow falling on mountain cedars across the Pacific Northwest of North America and the Hokuriku region of Japan.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Comfort Behind the Foggy Glass

A life of comfort is one easily disturbed by fear.

A life of freedom is one easily disturbed by necessity.

Why? Because we desire our security so incredibly much. Because we fear limitation; because we fear death.

I fear limitations because my mind sets up grandiose ideals that need to be realized. If they aren't realized, well that's just not good for business, and then that situation requires more something. When we do this, seeking something new or better, we ignore the possibility of something truly new, which is beyond our conscious capacities. Isn't that the meaning of "new"? Something we haven't experienced before. Well, if we haven't experienced it, how can we imagine it? Our greatest ideals and dreams tragically limit the experiences we can have. Not only the number of possibilities, merely because we don't see them while focused on the ideas we already have, but also the quality of a new experience, because our ideas of the goal are limited to cerebral desires, a small factor compared to the holistic experience of reality. Even if we compose wondrous dreams that we do in fact realize, taxation is given to the original idea, limiting the holistic experience of a new experience.

Death? Well, I guess I fear not-me; my non-existence. But what a selfish thing, right? I don't even mean the negative social connotation of selfish, but the kind of selfish that can't experience anything without some credit due back to oneself. There is only ourself, and yet to not understand not-ourself, is to miss everything.

Practicing aikido and exploring mountains have nothing to do with me, and yet I can't think of anything more "me" than those two activities.

I'm trying to look at the outside through my window, but it's completely fogged over. Seriously, I've never lived in a place where this happens everyday, but no matter what, my windows are always completely covered in precipitation. I continually wipe them off only to have it fog over again in a matter of minutes. I'd break it open, but the comfort is too valuable.

This is my situation.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Happiness and Not Being Able to Post Comments

Let's go about this backwards.

I can't look at comments in a regular fashion on my blogposts (though I can find them other ways), but the bigger quandary is I can't comment at all, be it my own blog or others. If anyone knows the answer to this blogging puzzle presented by the anti-posting goblins, please let me know.


In seeking to find the reasons for practicing martial arts, happiness is a concept that never fails to join the conversation, and it usually comes at the end, standing alone as the only tangible reason most of the time. Well, I'm not sure how to connect aikido with the weekend I just had, but I've found some of my highest levels of happiness experienced in the past couple days.

On Saturday I met my 5 closest friends in Toyama City and we departed for a small mountain town called Toga. There, we stayed at this guy's house and had a great shindig remarkably similar to one's I'm used to back home in the States: bbq, fireplace, loud music, booze, close friends, dogs and cats running around, and beds to sleep in. Met a few new awesome people, got a lot closer to the one's I went with, and will be definitely going back to this guy's house many many times in the future in all seasons. This morning we woke up and drove 5 minutes to go snowboarding. No new snow and the lifts at the top of the mountain were closed due to avalanches, so the conditions weren't perfect. But all of us as friends stayed together on the mountain this sunny day, except for a bit where I hiked with my best buddy through the snow for 30 minutes to the lift that was closed, and had a heavenly white 30 second powder rip down. Afterwards, it's onsen and a timely return back home. The words can't express, and I should've taken some fricken pictures to show how awesome it all was. All I have are my emotions on this Sunday night as I crack a Yebisu beer (way to extravagant for my lifestyle and income on a normal night), proceed to watch my recent series of interest (Spartacus), and fall to sleep which will transition me to Monday.

I was thinking earlier this week about what to do with "a lot". So much of our lives, we are lacking something we want, or working for something else, sowing and toiling. This is good I think. But what should we do when we find ourselves with a lot. Having accomplished our goals somewhat and in possession of excess, what do we do knowing that we will soon dip down back into the valleys and have to climb back up? I don't know. Do we need to do something? Say something? Write something? I don't know. Tonight, I think a great way to experience is it is to do exactly what I am: drinking a beer and getting ready to watch my show and go to sleep. That makes me pretty happy.

And Aikido? One of my favorite activities that brings me a great a happiness. I should climb out of this valley that keeps me from practice, and find that mountain temple where I can train to my heart's content with good people.

Happiness is everything. No-Happiness is everything too.

But Happiness is really really cool sometimes, like friends, snowboarding, house parties with animals and fire places, onsen.

Do what makes you happy.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Pottery and Martial Arts

What do pottery and martial arts have in common?

Well, that's what I want to try to explain over the next few posts as I read through Soetsu Yanagi's, "The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty." For a brief introduction to the man, here's what Wikipedia has to say:


In 1916, Yanagi made his first trip to Korea out of curiosity about Korean crafts. The trip led to the establishment of the Korean Folk Crafts Museum in 1924 and the coining of the term mingei by Yanagi, potters Hamada Shōji (1894-1978) and Kawai Kanjirō (1890-1966).
In 1926, the Folk Art Movement was formally declared by Yanagi Sōetsu. Yanagi rescued lowly pots used by commoners in the Edo and Meiji periods that were disappearing in rapidly urbanizing Japan. In 1936, the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan) was established.

[edit] The mingei theory

The philosophical pillar of mingei is “hand-crafted art of ordinary people” (民衆的工芸 minshū-teki kōgei?). Yanagi Sōetsu discovered beauty in everyday ordinary and utilitarian objects created by nameless and unknown craftsmen. According to Yanagi, utilitarian objects made by the common people are “beyond beauty and ugliness”. Below are a few criteria of mingei art and crafts:
  • made by anonymous crafts people
  • produced by hand in quantity
  • inexpensive
  • used by the masses
  • functional in daily life
  • representative of the region in which it was produced.
Without writing a biography on him (or even cutting and pasting one), what's important in my discussion is his glorification of the term mingei. In his writing, Yanagi often draws contrasts between traditional mingei and modern individualistic productions. I don't always agree with him, or at least I don't understand his arguments completely, but Yanagi's words present a great puzzle to me as to what deeply rooted dark source lies beneath the creation of pottery. He is deemed a philosopher, but I'm not sure he'd be content with such a title. A philosopher creates ideas concerning abstract ideas and the physically manifest world. I don't think Yanagi would agree that he creates any of these particular ideas, but instead seeks to follow the natural laws of the world, and from those limitations, creates pottery, which in turn can define and possibly create new realities. Aligned with this philosophy (if I dare use this word I've already deemed inaccurate), he advocates practice before theory. In order to know about a particular subject, one must have an intimate relationship with it through the experience of creation. A potter who has spent their life constructing honest pieces while saying or thinking nothing on the matter will know more than their counterpart who merely philosophizes.
Aren't martial artists just the same?
I haste to say it's up to personal opinion, but just like philosophy, I think opinions lay at the end of the production of art.  Art is an expression of reality; mountainous experiences untouched by the clouds of theory. And yet, it's those clouds that produce the rain which carve lines in the mountains ...
I've dreaded writing some kind of introduction to this topic, and just look where I've gone with it! Let's just get started with the damn thing. Instead of paraphrasing Yanagi's chapters or analyzing every bit of the house, I will attempt to tease out the most provocative bricks and speak from there. Though to have the best discussion all of his words should be considered. Regardless ...
Pattern (using the example of a pattern of bamboo)
"How is it that one sees the bamboo in the pattern? Because the essence of bamboo is there, just as prolonged boiling renders a concentrated flavour. The process of making a pattern out of raw material is similar, it is an extract, so when we look at a good pattern we perceive something of greater content. No bamboo grass in nature can be more beautiful than a bamboo grass pattern. We can never see nature as more beautiful than a beautiful pattern. If we see nature as beautiful, then we are, in a sense, seeing it in patterns. Pattern is the crystallization of beauty. To understand beauty and to understand pattern are aspects of the same thing."
Yanagi. The Unknown Crafstman. 114, 115.
Parallels budoka? In Karate there are kata. In Tai Chi Chuan there are solo forms. In Aikido we have particular waza between uke and tori. All of these are predetermined movements created to simulate the reality of physical interaction, usually implying violent and uncooperative partners. Martial arts are a crystallization of nature, thus a crystallization of beauty ... thus more beautiful? To understand this I think requires us to abandon any concepts of objectivity. There is a bamboo plant. There is a human looking at a bamboo plant. The bamboo plant is not just the bamboo plant anymore, but an experience that involves the viewer. The interpretation of the viewer, be it conscious or unconscious, seems to be more beautiful to Yanagi than the bamboo in isolation. Furthermore, he seems to make a point that the conscious effort of interpreting that bamboo into a work of art is even more so. But perhaps I go to far.

First of all
This discussion however, marks an intriguing debate for martial artists: What is more beautiful? Nature itself or distilled techniques?
Wow! That is not a question to be left by itself. There are some serious issues here to make clear before we go further.
First of all, what is "beautiful" in the martial arts? Actually, what does "beauty" even have to do with martial arts? Should we just throw beauty out of the question altogether when discussing martial arts? In my opinion, at this stage, yes; we should throw beauty out of the question altogether. Like philosophy, beauty is something to consider after the fact, not a reason for necessarily. Martial arts are a utilitarian endeavor. Whoa! Back up to the top of the post and read bullet points found in the wikipedia cite for what constitutes mingei crafstmanship, "functional in daily life." Furthermore, the wikipedia cite states, "According to Yanagi, utilitarian objects made by the common people are 'beyond beauty and ugliness'." Yanagi makes a big effort to show that utility must come before any concepts of conscious beauty in order for real quality in a product to arise. We're not just dealing with "art" as a whole necessarily here when comparing pottery and martial arts, but a specific kind of pottery which emphasizes particular factors that are also found in the martial arts. Conversely, I'm talking about martial arts that have a defined purpose to start from, instead of others that start from the ideal of beauty and work to technique.
Crap, somehow martial arts seem to be more complicated than pottery, just when I thought it was the other way around. Martial arts are not pottery. Pottery, and design, mimic patterns in nature. For example, a design of a bamboo plant. A bamboo plant is a specific entity in nature. Humankind's interpretation of the bamboo plant into design is more beautiful than the plant. However, martial arts are not a design or reproduction of some single entity like a plant, but seek to simulate a situation: physical interaction. So, man's interpretation of physical conflict is more beautiful than physical conflict? These are two very different things I think.

Let's make this simple:
The purpose of a bowl (pottery) is to hold something. 
The purpose of a technique (martial arts) is to ... ummmm ... OK, here I go: To protect oneself in a physical confrontation with a malicious counterpart. Nope, that's not it. I'm not happy with that. Because ... I don't think there is "the Purpose" to the martial arts.
WAIT! I've got it now. So, yes, we can ascertain the purpose of a bowl, to hold something, and martial arts, to protect oneself. But then we're disregarding the concept of beauty, which is what Yanagi is trying to explain. If the only important factor to a bowl was holding something, then Yanagi wouldn't have a problem with crass mass production, but he does. If martial arts were all about self-defense, then I wouldn't be practicing aikido.

There is something in martial arts beyond self-defense or violent capabilities. Self-cultivation? I'd like to find some other words for that. Beauty? Certainly not that alone. This is a riddle.
The distillation of pattern from nature is more beautiful than nature itself. This involves a relationship of interpretation and creativity. It is not some abstract concept nor a static animate object in isolation, but the act of engagement.
The continual process of life.
Which bowl is better? Which martial art is better?
I'll tell you next time!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"I'm already pulled over, I can't pull over any more!"

"...a bird or fish that aimed to move through the water or the sky (only) after getting to the bottom of water or utterly penetrating the sky, could never find its way or find its place in the water or in the sky."
                                                                                         -Dogen. "Shobogenzo"

Welcome to my world! Zen masters emphasize having "One Vehicle" to experience the world. Well, I have one room to experience everything in my apartment! One room for storage, drying laundry, sleeping, working, relaxing, watching videos, surfing the internet, sitting, practicing martial arts.

Well, that's not exactly true. Behind the viewpoint of the camera in the first picture is another area of the same room that is a little smaller. In that space you will find my modest kitchen. Apparently we should not only have "one vehicle", but a very very small one. Look at my perfect tiny sink, and my one tiny perfect burner. The absolute ideal of zen!

Alllll the way across my kitchen about four feet away is my closet. We also hear about the perfect being contained in the imperfect. (Or perhaps it's the other way around when considering "big mind".) It's hard to tell in this picture, but this plastic portable closet of mine is developing a wicked tilt forward. Every month it seems to bend a little more, further manifesting the beauty of the imperfect. When it finally collapses it will be a great masterpiece of zen.

It has taken me a while to become used to my humble domicile, and honestly I'm not there yet if you consider the ideal state to be perfect contentment. I want a bigger place with more rooms, more closets, and a bed. For that I need more money. In order to get more money I need a new job, or at least another one. MORE!

But what would I do with a bigger place that I can't do now? Perhaps my desire for more is insatiable. Upon accumulating that desired more, I may only want more again. I'd like to think I'm a fairly simple guy at the bottom of it all; I just want to enjoy my life. But around that little grove of "enjoying-my-life" is a little elf that encourages me to live my life even more than I'm living my life right now. If only I could get to that one spot he speaks of, then I will finally be able to live. How can I live my life more than I'm living my life right now?

Am I not like a fish or bird that aims to move through the water or the sky (only) after getting to the bottom of water or utterly penetrating the sky?

If only I could accept my state and see it for the perfection it is I could be a happy fish-bird. But we have to do things don't we? Here is a pardox containing two opposites. The flux of the convergence and divergence of these two entities just may be ... something.

Great questions we have. Here and now is no place to attempt explanation of them any further though. For that we will need more time and some specific examples. While I may not be going to aikido as much as I'd like, I've just inundated my library (with the help of Santa) with some new inspiration that will surely be spotlighted in posts to come. Three of which are:

1.) "Shobogenzo", the great masterworks of Dogen, the Japanese priest famous for bringing Soto Zen to Japan in the thirteenth century.

2.) "The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty", written by Soetsu Yanagi, founder of the Japan Folkcraft Museum in Tokyo.

3.) "Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China", written by A.C. Graham.

Well, enough messing around. It's time to ride my bike in the snow so that I can teach some little Japanese kids how to speak English ... or at least keep them from hurting themselves or others or destroying the classroom they visit for an hour today.