Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Shu Ha Ri: the stages of training

On a cold Sunday afternoon last week, I found myself in the woods, my scarf tight around my neck and a wool hat pulled down over my ears, listening to Michael Wojtech talk about tree bark—me and 29 or 30 other people crazy enough to stand around in the woods as if we too were weathering this first blast of winter like the trees. Mr. Wojtech, pointing out a white birch just off the trail, explained how trees breathe through their lenticels (how I understood it) or more properly how those dark, horizontal striations on the surface allow for the exchange of gases between the inside of the tree and the outside air (though I would never describe my own respiration that way). He pointed out shagbark hickories and red maples and hemlocks and quaking aspens, and explained how the trees grew and how the bark functioned. It was really quite an interesting talk, despite the cold. It gave me a much better appreciation of trees but also a sort of fascination with their “aliveness."

I don’t know why this reminded me of the martial concepts of Shu, Ha, and Ri. Perhaps because I had been rereading a marvelous little book that morning, a collection of old essays by Kensho Furuya titled “Kodo: Ancient Ways: Lessons in the Spiritual Life of the Warrior/Martial Artist.”  Furuya sensei talks of these stages in one’s training using the image of an egg. In the first stage, the student “develops in the shell…learning the form and technique.” The teacher does his or her best to pass on the techniques of the style and the student in turn does his or her best to preserve and protect what is being passed on.

In the second stage, the student “breaks out of his shell,” mastering the techniques. In this stage, the student preserves the technique but also adapts the technique to fit his or her own movement and idiosyncrasies. The kata and execution of the techniques are the same but there are also differences. The minute corrections a teacher might make in the first phase of a student’s training don’t matter as much because the student now understands the technique. The student now knows what the techniques are for, how to use them, but in order to make them work, there may be subtle differences from how the teacher executes the same techniques. This does not mean that there may not be a need to correct techniques here and there—there is always the danger that in adapting one’s technique to one’s own movement, the fundamental principles may be inadvertently ignored or subverted in one way or another. For example, as students get stronger or faster, they may find themselves unconsciously relying on strength or speed instead of technique. In some ways, I suppose, the analogy of the egg and the baby chick breaks down here—there may be a need at times to revisit that earlier stage of learning to “check” one’s technique. Perhaps there is, in fact, a constant reminder to “check” one’s technique in the same way that Kosho Uchiyama Roshi reminds us to “Sit silently for ten years, then for ten more years and then for another ten years.”

And yet there is another stage—Ri. In this stage, the student has “left the nest.” The student has transcended the technique—that is, they are not consciously thinking about the form of the technique or applying the techniques; instead, they are relying on an intuitive understanding of the principles to guide their techniques. The principles have been learned and absorbed through ruthless practice of the techniques. This understanding of the principles behind the formal movements is what guides this last stage of formal training. There are no shortcuts. But there are dangers here. You can’t just arrive at this stage because you want to, not without long hours of practice. And yet, as Dogen says of an understanding of Zen, you can’t get there unless there is a desire. 

The other danger for me comes with how we understand the principles of kata. We may know the form of the techniques, but our understanding of the bunkai—how we are meant to apply the techniques—may be, at the very least, lacking or altogether wrong. How can we understand the principles of a martial system—and the principles are, of course, preserved in the kata—if we are simply guessing about the applications of the techniques? If we don’t understand the principles, there is no “Ri.” If we don’t practice the techniques with the right frame of mind, we won’t discover how the techniques are meant to be applied. And if we don’t discover the original bunkai, we won’t find the principles. And once again, no principles, no “Ri.” 

I don't think this really had anything to do with seeing a small bird’s nest on a branch up in a nearby oak tree. What I was really thinking about on that cold walk through the woods was how we can learn to understand the principles that seem to connect things—how trees, in all of their variety, live and breathe and work at survival; how they take in water and fight off insects; how they grow and adapt to different environments. It was all based on an understanding of the principles involved. The more trees you study, I imagine, the more you see these principles manifested. And really, it all seemed so human. 

Of course, I could be wrong about all of this. After all, I'm no authority on trees either--I just enjoy them. Perhaps there is no difference whether one is working with the "original intent" of kata and bunkai or practicing block-punch-kick bunkai derived from a less traditional approach to karate; with the right frame of mind, one might still work through the stages of Shu, Ha, Ri, I suppose. When all is said and done, there may be no real difference between the formal Japanese tea ceremony—Chado or the “Way of tea,” for example—and serving up a burger and fries at McDonald’s. Or is there?

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Homogenization of Technique

I was thinking about this the other day...our tendency to homogenize things that are similar, how over time we smooth out the edges and look for commonalities until we've erased the differences altogether. That may be overstating the case, but it got me to thinking.

I was out for a walk in the woods, engaging in a bit of "woods bathing," one of my favorite activities, when I found myself thinking about the time my father "borrowed" my rock collection. I think I must have been seven or eight years old. My father was helping out the Boy Scouts with their Klondike Derby. My older brother was in the scout troop--he would go on to become an eagle scout and I would become a scout dropout, never really comfortable with dressing up as a para-military youth gang, though the questionable leadership of our assistant scout master was probably more to blame, either that or the '60s. Anyway, the Klondike Derby was a sort of winter carnival with the scouts dragging sleds through the snow, completing tasks, and accumulating "gold nuggets." Of course, someone needed to supply the "gold nuggets," and that was the job my father took on. He "borrowed" the big Lincoln Log barrel I had filled up with my special rock collection, spread them all out on his work bench, and spray painted them all gold. When I found out, I was distraught. My father didn't understand at the time. He offered to get me more rocks, but this was a collection of "special" rocks that I had been collecting for quite some time. They were just rocks I had found on the road or in the woods, but they were all special to a little kid. And they were all different...at least until they all got a thick coat of gold paint.

I wasn't consciously thinking about childhood events or kicking up "special" stones hidden under the fall leaves. I was just sort of wondering about that unique quality that all things have, especially things that seem similar. You really notice it in the fall, when the trails are covered with leaves. Late in the season, when all the leaves have turned brown, they all seem to be the same unless you look closely. Then, you can't find any two that are really exactly the same. The trails up around Fitzgerald Lake are mostly covered with oak leaves, but still they're all different.

Beginning movement of
the mawashi uke.
I suppose as humans we have this natural tendency to generalize. We need to generalize in order to identify things, even to recognize people from one day to the next. But really what all of this brought to mind--as any good walk in the woods will certainly do--is whether we do this with technique in kata, techniques that may look similar, at least to some extent, but are really different. I think this can be especially true if we rely on appearances rather than how something may function. And it can be subtle, creeping in over time, slowly erasing the differences in techniques until all we see is a redundancy, a repetition of familiar basics.

I'm not at all sure how insidious or widespread this tendency to homogenize may be or how it may have affected kata over the years or generations. Certainly when we name techniques in kata, there is the danger that we may be homogenizing movements that are actually quite different, especially if the names we give the movements are meant solely to describe the look of the movement rather than how it is used.

Beginning movement of
the other one.
Take the mawashi techniques that occur in the classical kata, for example. I believe there are two kinds of mawashi techniques, but I don't think it really helps much to distinguish between them by calling one a mawashi uke and the other tora guchi, as some have done. I will simply describe how they are used. The first of these--one that can legitimately be described as a mawashi uke because it is used as a receiving technique--occurs first at the end of Sanchin kata and then again at the beginning of Suparinpei and again at the end of Tensho. But these three kata, I would argue, are the only time this mawashi uke occurs in the classical subjects. It is distinguishable because it is done in basic stance or sanchin dachi.

The second mawashi-like technique occurs at the end of Saifa, at the end of Seipai, at the end of Seisan, in the middle of Kururunfa and again at the end, and it is shown three times in Suparinpei (interestingly both kinds occur in Suparinpei). Each of these mawashi-like techniques is done in cat stance or neko ashi dachi. The difference is in how they function. This second mawashi-like technique is a finishing technique, meant to twist the head or break the neck of the opponent. These techniques are tacked onto the end of longer bunkai sequences in the classical kata. They function differently from the other mawashi and consequently should be done differently in kata. More specifically, when the mawashi is associated with the cat stance (which itself implies a knee kick), the left hand does not pass under the right elbow or forearm, or, on the other side, the right hand does not pass under the left elbow or forearm. When the mawashi is associated with basic stance or sanchin dachi, the right hand does pass under the left elbow or forearm, or, on the other side, the left hand passes under the right elbow or forearm. What gets confusing, I suppose, is that the end position--both palms facing forward with one hand pointing up and the other pointing down--looks the same, except for the stance.

These are the two kinds of mawashi techniques we see in the classical kata of Goju-ryu, and, on second thought, they probably have nothing to do with rocks and trees and walking in the woods. But when the paths diverge, I can't help thinking of that line from Robert Frost. How does it go?