Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ni Otorazu (It's No Different; It's Just The Same)

A modern (and largely Western) idea is that, at core, "all arts are the same."  I've heard people say, "put a hakama (culottes worn in many traditional Japanese arts) on 'x' (doing an art not from Japan), and it would look like 'y' art..."    

Before questioning that perspective, it must be said that the impulse behind it seems pure; the (often impressively skilled) folks who speak in those terms mean to be genuinely ecumenical.  And while it's true that there are only so many ways to move the human body (barring adaptive mutation), that 'inclusive*' way of thinking, ultimately fails to account for the innate differences in structure, characteristics, objectives and approaches between arts, even within a single culture.  As a fairly straightforward example- the following links to videos on Kenjutsu (sword tactics- the use of the two-handed Japanese saber.)  Please see below:

Komagawa-Kaishin Ryu Kenjutsu- Kuroda Tetsuzan, Shihan

Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu- Otake Risuke, Shihan (Emeritus)

Yakumaru Jigen Ryu, Togo Shigenori, Shihan

Umm... not that similar to each other**, sure, all have aspects of batto/iai (drawing), all feature two-person interactive forms, but they don't look, sound or feel like each other.  And those are just three of hundreds of Kenjutsu Ryu that existed in Japan.  Now imagine how the influence of different languages, customs, arms, armor, etc. would be an ocean away.

So why, you may be asking, are my knickers in a twist over this?  Because it is really only in the deep practice of an art that we can begin to fully appreciate the peculiarities of tradition.  To love it for its character and begin to 'know the mind' of the founder and previous generations- that the process of  becoming accustomed to and absorbing the 'feeling' of a Ryu will never come from repetition of forms by rote, let alone by watching from the outside and saying what it looks like***. 

As a younger person it was striking and it still comes up- if you've been around for long enough, you've probably worked with high-level practitioners at (in classes or at seminars.)  The toughest thing to watch is when the subject of a session is something far outside the range of that senior's art and s/he wastes time by trying to relate this art to things that s/he already knows.  You see, rather than learning a new skill in its own unique circumstance, people often opt to filter experiences through the prisms of tools that may not be well suited to what they are being shown****.  In so doing, these practitioners deprive themselves of moving beyond a surface-level understanding- that's not to say that they may not derive some benefit to their 'home' art, but they're missing-out on participating in a fully present way.  If 'it's all the same', we only see the similarities, so there's no depths to plumb.

As a final word, although we humans all comprise the same elements in our bodies and share common ancestors, it's seeing and celebrating the differences, often small, periodically vast, between individuals, languages and cultures that make learning about our species so interesting.  To misquote Devo, "Dare to see Differences."

Yours in appreciation,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, Instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*Being 'inclusive' can result in being reductive though, so it's a bit of a tightrope to walk.
**To make matters more confusing, the last one (Jigen Ryu), considered one of the fiercest dueling systems in the Edo period (1603 - 1867) is descended from the art in the clip above that (Tenshinsho-den Katori Shinto Ryu) which is, by contrast, rather gentlemanly.

***Outside perspective, particularly of someone with more experience, can be helpful; quantify what an art is or isn't based on what you see?  That's getting closer to hubris.

****This is, of course, a very difficult thing to refrain from but the work of being an actual student (rather than an adept at something else) is part of the joy of learning.