Wednesday, November 28, 2018

圧覚Akkaku (Sense of Pressure)

圧覚 Akkaku (Sense of Pressure)

Pressure- bearing down on me, bearing down on you...
Under Pressure
Queen/David Bowie

Ichi Go Ichi E
One Meeting, One Chance
Japanese Proverb

People are occasionally incredulous that not all combative methods hinge on 'sparring*,'  (the assumption seems to be that this sole component is more critical than any other in creating useful skill-sets).  As mentioned in previous entries, the primary means of transmission for many older-style Japanese arts (including the one that I study and practice) are kata ([two-person] forms) in which the senior takes the role of the  Uke/Uchitachi/Uketachi (/打ち太刀/受け太刀receiver/swinging sword/receiving sword), the 'loser'.  As practice progresses, the speed, maai (間合いinterval meet, the nexus of distancing and timing), contact strength, connection, etc. are all subject to change, sometimes radically.  What often gets lost in written descriptions is just how unpredictable things can get within an individual form.

In learning any two-person form, both partners' are trained to initiate, receive and counter certain specific actions in certain orders- and for a while, this happens exactly as learned.   However, once the junior can replicate the gross format, the senior begins making alterations.  Before you know it, the senior partner can end up next to (or behind) you, while maintaining the format, forcing the junior to adapt and extend his/her awareness beyond his/her own space to include wherever aite (合手meeting hand, one's partner) is at that moment (keep in mind, this is all without losing focus on greater spatial awareness). 

The cutting, grabbing, crushing or striking in these forms might seem (almost) symbolic at first; shortly, though the danger becomes clear. Maintaining the attention and concentration required to avoid being struck, cut, bound or immobilized is taxing, especially when it feels like no matter where or how much you move, that aite is uncomfortably close... or just slightly too far away for your cuts, thrusts, kicks, punches or grabs to land, while s/he always seems to be able to reach you with ease.  Akkaku (this sense of pressure) is a distinguishing feature of effective kata keiko (形稽古- form consider the old, or, practice) on both physical and psycho-emotional levels and keeps us working at or close to the edge of our skill** while reinforcing the maintenance of core body and tool-use mechanics.

Among other things, akkaku prevents kata keiko from degenerating into merely tapping tools, striking the air near aite or grabbing/contacting in some namby-pamby way.  It provides a sense of urgency while helping to shape appropriate responses, built on the framework of kihon (basics) and gensoku (principles) native to our arts**.   In sets with matched tools (sword to sword, spear to spear, 'unarmed,' etc.), we are presented with what appear to be symmetrical, force-on-force exchanges that make variations on kihon.  As we progress, those kihon become more robust and useful thanks to an understanding derived through the alterations found within one's kata.  Training with akkaku also gently reinforces for shitachi (仕太刀performing sword) or tori (取りthe taker or 'winner' of a technique or form) that merely repeating the form ‘correctly' is no guarantee of a positive outcome.

Through consistent akkaku, it becomes clear that doing kata exactly the same way every time, even if it appears 'technically right' is an empty exercise (and poor training, which a good aite will make obvious rather quickly).  When done with proper intention (well designed) kata aren't fragile museum pieces to be treated preciously and put back on some shelf, nor are they observed at a remove.  Good kata are robust, meant to be inhabited, thoroughly dissected, digested and internalized***.  By bringing participants into the present to share a completely unique expression of principles in a setting that varies slightly depending on each person's level of experience, power generation, friction, etc. This is an excellent example of the expression Ichi Go Ichi E, the idea that even in the familiar each iteration will be unique.

Of course, there is 'free play' in Japanese arts; much of it quite hearty (up to and including inter-school challenges.)  With that said, there is a direct benefit to working at the fullest extent of one's speed and power against someone capable of leading you to make the 'appropriate' (to strategy, level, etc.) tactical choices through kata.  It is a means of transmission that alters the practice in progressively subtler ways, evoking some of the same psycho-physical responses as being in 'live fire' situations, with fewer of the bad habits and almost none of the feelings of invulnerability that 'winning' at sparring can induce.  And, as if by some strange coincidence, it turns out that many of the skills from properly trained kata translate to 'free' exchanges rather nicely (almost, as if these silly old training methods make provisions for real-world use...)

Yours in appreciating pressure,

*It is my contention that concentrating on sparring without a firm foundation in basics and body method can lead to bad habits, sloppiness, reliance on too few responses, and, can reinforce the assumption that force encounters ought to be symmetrical, a profoundly dangerous notion.  Also of concern is becoming too used to the built-in accommodations required to not die in robust exchanges. In other words, working one-on-one, barehanded, on level ground might lead to an inability to adapt to additional opponents, a challenging environment, or tools being deployed.

**Not safety though, that's dumb!  Which is why it works best to train with someone seasoned enough to know where on the continuum between level-appropriate stress, adrenal response and 'likely to die'-level panic we, the juniors, ought to find ourselves at any given moment.  Good aite are constantly pushing each other, not by trying to show the other person up, but through honest, connected and present interactions.

*** This is one reason that it makes no sense to 'shop' for forms from other arts and ways- those worth their salt exist to reinforce skills specific to one art's transmission.  Beyond the very real likelihood of misunderstanding the meaning of a form or its applications, it can lead to incongruities.  The kind that can be difficult to overcome when it matters, e.g. under duress (the very most wrong time to discover that a skill only works intermittently or not at all outside of the laboratory conditions of class...)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

称号 Shogo (Name Titles)

称号 Shogo- Titles

Please note:
This essay is a slightly modified version of one that appears in the recent update to the
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo Gakusei Benran 学生便覧 (student handbook)

Displays of deference have, from time immemorial, served as a means to reduce the friction of interpersonal interaction.  This was particularly critical in feudal societies, but examples carry through to our modern era; to imply through behavior or speech that one thinks oneself more important, experienced, skilled, etc. than the person with whom s/he is speaking, can, in itself, be perceived an insult.  Here in America, introducing oneself using honorifics may not receive a second thought; in Japan, however, it is a faux pas that will lead listeners to assume that the speaker is, at best, too young (in practice), inexperienced (at relating to humans IRL), insecure, or mentally deficient to be taken seriously; at worst, it's a quick way to catch a beating.  To that end, introducing oneself as "Nani-Nani Sensei (or worse yet, "Sensei Nani-Nani*") is a fairly easy error to avoid- just don't do it! 

Sensei. O Sensei.  Waka Sensei.  Renshi.  Shihan.  Hanshi.  Sempai.  Kohai.  Iemoto.  Soke.  Japanese traditions are rife with titles, most of which suffer from severe misuse.  What those words mean and how they are used matter, especially if you are expected to use them as forms of address.

Very few Japanese words are as widely known and carry more portent (and baggage) for English speakers than, 'Sensei'.  Most simply, it comprises two kanji (non-phonetic Chinese ideographs used in Japanese) sen, and, sei. Sen means before and appears in many compounds, including Sen no sen 先の先 (initiative of initiative- a timing concept) and sente 先手 (before hand- an attack, attacker, forestalling or making the first move).  Sen carries an idea of leading, in part because the kanji represents a person (two legs on the bottom) coercing a cow (legs and horn on top)- implying that rather than contend directly with a physically stronger animal, the human compels the cow or bull along by the horn or nose.  The notion at its essence is that the power of intellect, experience, and tools can overwhelm and control brute force.

Sei (or Sho) is existence.  Together, they make born or existing before... that's it.  Someone whom you respect (without regard to the field of endeavor) or whose counsel you seek might be called, "Sensei."  On a film set, the director is, Sensei, in a kitchen, it is the chef.  Dentists, researchers, lawyers, and school teachers can all be Sensei.

Okay, you may be saying, but what about O Sensei- that's almost always translated as 'Great Teacher,' so that's on the level, right?  Well... no.  O Sensei (大先生/翁先生) doesn't imply awesomeness- it's a means of clarification.  When folks of the same family name (usually father and son, but it can/has been otherwise) work in the same field, keeping straight which 'Jones Sensei' you mean can be a hassle.  Add Waka (young) to Sensei and it's no longer in doubt that one is talking about the junior relative.  Same with adding (large) or (old) "O" to Sensei, you aren't saying, 'most beststest teacher evah,' you're simply being clear that you mean the elder 'Jones'.

Sempai (before) (generation/companion) points to someone (or ones) senior to you, but, perhaps, not in quite as august a role as sensei.  It's been suggested that while the term sempai is clearly applicable to anyone with more experience, it is ideally used only for the person or people whose influence you feel strongly enough to want to follow around like a duckling trailing its mom.

Kohai 後輩 (rear generation/companion) is also a relative term, but one that is not ever used as a form of address.  To refer to younger students, diminutive honorifics are used (for boys, family name or occasionally, given name, followed by [kun]; for girls, family name, then ちゃん [chan], as opposed to family name, さん[san]).
Shogo are, in general, written 'titles' and not meant to be used as direct forms of address and doing so makes no more sense than using a full title in English, "thank you, Dr. Brown, Licensed General Family Practitioner..." That means that people addressing their teachers as "Shihan" or 'Hanshi*' are incorrectly applying shogo; '(name) Sensei' is what you call her/him (although one could use the shogo to talk about a teacher to another, it would, again, tend to be used as distinction from someone with a similar name).  This is true no matter whether Renshi (錬士- practice gentleman/expert), Shihan (師範- master paradigm) or Hanshi (範士- paradigm expert)- they may write shogo on meisho (明証 -certificates), but they should not expect you to call them such because it's goofy.  Despite their frequent misapplication, shogo, when used correctly, point to people who exemplify the teachings of a Ryu (- flow, a school or style).  In order to discuss lineage titles, just a bit about how Ryu are structured.
Ryu exist for many types of endeavors in Japan, from Ikebana/Kado 生け花 [flower arranging] to Cha no Yu/Chado 茶の湯 [tea ceremony] to etiquette, music, and theater.  Every member of a ryu is expected to mold him/herself to his/her ryu, first, by adopting group dynamics and reishiki (例式- formalities), then through the practice of Kata (- forms).  Initially rote and prescriptive, kata are designed to introduce clearly structured skills in certain orders to develop and integrate specific psycho-physical attributes.  Eventually moving beyond emulation and repetition, the practitioner finds him/herself appropriately manifesting gensoku (principles) innate to his/her ryu as acquired through the practice of kata and deepened through oyo (application).  It is in the transition from imitation of physical format to incorporation of the gensoku paired with immersion in the tradition that characterizes the oft-maligned (though, rather unsurprisingly, not often by those who are 'products' of) pedagogical methods of ryu.

Many ryu**, use lineal transmission (usually within families and/or around a location significant to the tradition) to ensure an active connection between the founder, the earliest students of the method, and subsequent generations.  Inheritors serve as a bridge between the (sometimes distant) past, present, and future with duties ranging from mooring the transmission symbolically (fulfilling ceremonial tasks without involvement in day-to-day operations) to much more hands-on.  Direct oversight can include everything from selecting prospective members to actively teaching, depending on the ryu. 

The two most common titles for those charged with the oversight of a Ryu are Soke (宗家- sect house) or Iemoto (家元- family foundation), although in some traditions Shihan indicates generational responsibility (for others, Shihan are responsible for technical transmission) and similar to other official-sounding titles, these are frequently misused in the West.  Implied by both is a willingness to carry their ryu's gensoku into the future with an odd combination of reverence, investment in their method's technical underpinnings and the fearlessness to encourage others to discover the 'truth' contained within the teachings.  As with other shogo, it is unusual to hear them used as a direct form of address (although one does occasionally hear Japanese speakers refer to the inheritor of their art as 'Soke Sensei' if s/he actively teaches.)

Two final notes:  when referring to one's own teacher to someone outside your group, it is déclassé to call him/her 'Sensei'; instead, standard politeness suggests that one to refer to him/her by family name (or whatever you use regularly) only.  However, when referring to other people's teacher(s), it is normal to use Sensei (this may seem overly deferential, but again, reduces 'social friction'.)                            

So there you have it- a snapshot of shogo and their proper use.  As with any component of training, the specifics may change depending on circumstance; in general, anyone teaching a Japanese-based art who wants you to call them by any title 'fancier' than Sensei on the tatami [ mat] demonstrates a lack of knowledge about (or indifference to) the culture, leading one to ask, 'what else might be odd?'

Best regards,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

* Just to reiterate, if you're gonna misuse these titles, at least do it in the correct order- titles after name!!!
**It must be said that there are some ryu without a centralized family or locale at all.  Rather than some (potentially distant) authority, these ryu rely on Menkyo Kaiden (complete transmission), at which point teachers have total discretion to move the ryu forward as they see fit, e.g. Araki and Kiraku Ryu. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

誠 Makoto (Truth/Honesty)

Makoto (Truth/Honesty)

Very few of us are as good as we'd like to be at the things that we find important.  There are two very distinct approaches to coping with this:  1)  Wait passively for long enough, spending time with someone we believe to be a good instructor, attending classes, doing the minimum to progress, believing all the while that skill will strike; like lightning.  Magical, magical lightning.  Or, 2) Work- struggle with failure and mixed success; to, through practice, slowly erode impediments and build-in means to understand and express the principles of our art(s)*.  If one opts for the first, nothing more is required- good luck and Godspeed; for those who take the second, there are few traits that enrich the process as deeply as Makoto.

It would be easy to leave Makoto (often translated as 'honesty' or 'truth') open to interpretation, but in this is meant to address a specific type.  It is not what we often think of, that is, being a 'pretty stand-up person who tries to do the right thing and sticks to his/her word.'  Makoto in training is only very rarely about what is said aloud; it is about actions and one's relationship to objective reality; the willingness to work from wherever we find ourselves and to train as we are without pretense**.  Training in that way plunks us down nakaima (literally, 'in the middle of now,' fully experiencing and inhabiting the present) and suggests, strongly, that we exist 'in the moment' rather than envisioning another present, longing for the past, or anticipating the future.

Training with makoto makes feeling insulted by reality seem a bit silly (e.g. gravity isn't a referendum on whether you're a saint or a jerk; being off-spine, out of structure and/or balance are fixable***, but only if experienced honestly- the same is true for any making a good cut, strong strike, etc.).  Through prolonged exposure, we find opportunities to be more aware (and to then act upon that information).  We can actively foster Makoto by receiving feedback, with an eye to developing the capacity to feel for ourselves where we need to make adjustments.  This presents us opportunities to pare away unhelpful and unnecessary habits with each repetition,  aggregating over time into more physically robust and powerful practitioners.  Beyond that though, Makoto in training offers insight into long-standing patterns of mind.  By coming to grips, often in a visceral and unmistakable way, with how individual choices and reactions are a microcosm, we can start to look inward, not with anger, impatience or expectation, but with genuine curiosity. 

Projecting who we think we are (or are trying to be) is personally dangerous in the early stages of training, both on and off 'the mat'.  At no point does that benefit society nearly as much as perpetuating a willingness to experience and interact with the world honestly.

Now, lest that start to sound inviting, it should be stated unequivocally that developing an honest practice can be unpleasant:  boring, irritating, terrifying, and harsh, by turns (or sometimes, all at once, and it a given that you will discover things that you don't want to). If the opening statement is true though, that very few of us are as good as we'd like to be, then makoto is one arrow in the quiver of improving.  Not by magic, but through an active, mindful and rigorous application.  Ultimately, you may even find makoto leaking into other parts of life- even when not wearing pajamas/shorts/sweatpants and punching, throwing or attacking people with sharp tools or blunt instruments.  For those of us drawn to 'martial' culture, we just happen to do that one punch, breath, throw, kick or cut at a time.

Yours in striving for Makoto,

Jigme Chobang Daniels, instructor
Aoi Koyamakan Dojo

*One of these approaches is fruitful, the other is consistently unreliable...  The chief issue with 'waiting' is that proficiency isn't binary (nor is it osmotic) even for those with 'talent.'  Yes, it may be possible to make some progress initially, just receiving pointers and corrections from a mentor at early stages, but sustained growth doesn't happen without sustained effort.  Taking agency as individual practitioners for our own development and, if inclined, the survival of the arts or ways that we practice is a necessary step (it's nobody's fault nor is it anyone's responsibility outside of ourselves).  Pretending that it is, fundamentally lacks makoto.

**Pretenses include things like failing to accept mistakes and/or take responsibility for oneself and one's improvement.

*** As you can imagine, the more minor or subtle the fu antei 不安(instability), the more honed one's perception and instantaneous the fixes need to be, particularly when interacting with other bodies that might not be interested falling down or being struck without... coaxing.