Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Zen again - what a pickle

The subject of Zen and the sword is a perennial chestnut. The 'traditional' view that kendo is a kind of 'zen in motion' seems to have gained great popularity both from D.T. Suzuki's "Zen in Japanese Culture" and from Donn Draeger's writings. It seems to have been quite popular amongst Japanese adherents of kendo during the pre-war and post-war periods, and for all I know still is, and various non-practitioners writing about the martial arts seem to have continued this trend, basically following the same sources.

More recently, writers who have some experience in the bugei have countered this early misconception by pointing out a range of other 'spiritual' (for want of a better word) influences on swordsmanship and related arts. In particular, I am thinking of Karl Friday, Cameron Hurst, "The Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan" edited by Diane Skoss, and probably other worthy volumes that I can't recall just at the moment.

Zen still has a strong hold on the regular martial artist's imagination, if the prevalence of the topic on various discussion forums is anything to go by. And, I must admit, there are a few well-known examples of swordsmen who did have a strong connection with Zen (though whether it was an integral part of their swordsmanship or merely(?) their chosen spiritual discipline, and thus part of their life, is a moot question).

For the promulgators of Zen, any connection will do, particularly the use of 'Zen' terminology. While those unfamiliar with Japanese culture might assume the strength of the connection, anyone who has delved a little deeper will be aware that such terminology was not the sole prerogative of any one group, but was used because it could be used to described certain phenomena for which no better terms existed. Similarly, if we talk about someone being egotistical, it doesn't mean that we are committed Freudians. (I recommend Bloom's "Closing of the American Mind" for more on how much of our language and ideas are based on philosophies we don't really understand...but this is getting off-track...).

An example of this is Suzuki's discussion of the work Fushikihen, which roughly translates as "On the Unknown/Ignorance (in Swordsmanship)" written by one Kimura Kyuhou in the 18th century. Suzuki includes a short extract from his work in his discussion of Zen in swordsmanship, using Kyuhou as an example of a Zen swordsman. A closer examination of the writing reveals that though he uses some Zen terms such as mushin, and 'drinking the waters of the West River', he also refers to Confucius and Laozi on several occasions, and specifically refers to another work on swordsmanship that refutes the idea of meditation as useful for developing skill in the sword. In fact, the work is mostly Neo-Confucian in vein. (For a full translation see my (quick plug) "The Samurai Mind" to be published in March 2011)

So where does this idea come from? One of the reasons is undoubtedly Takuan. The friendship of this Zen abbot with Yagyu Munenori is well-known, not least through the letters he wrote to him. These have generally been mediated (perhaps primarily, but certainly not exclusively, by Suzuki) as Takuan teaching Munenori the deeper aspects of swordsmanship through his deep knowledge of Zen. There is, of course, something faintly(?) ridiculous about this, but it seems largely to have gone unquestioned.

For a more considered approach, try "Zen and the Creative Process:
The "Kendo-Zen" Thought of the Rinzai Master Takuan" by Dennis Lishka.
(sorry for the long link)
His take is that Takuan is explaining Zen in terms that his audience will understand, rather than explaining swordsmanship in terms of Zen - isn't that more reasonable?

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