Sunday, 20 March 2011

The Inner secrets - Questioning Old Manuals

Issun saki wa yami - an inch ahead is darkness
Of course, here,  the disastrous events of the 11th are on everyone's mind.
With a rising death toll and thousands missing, even for those not directly involved, it serves as a reminder of just how precarious life can be. This is something that has formed a continuous theme in many expressions of Japanese culture, artistic and literary, and has colored many aspects of life here. Perhaps it is why a premium has been put on keeping orderly records of so many things - a surprising number of which still survive despite their frailty.

Scrolls from the Chikubushima Ryu of bojutsu
Preserving Knowledge
The type of knowledge handed developed and handed down by schools of bujutsu was primarily transmitted person to person in a close and trusted relationship between master and student, and learned through long, intense application. Over the years, much of this knowledge has been lost - schools and styles have died out and the teachings seem less relevant with changes in society and technology. Although the passing on of this kind of knowledge and skill was primarily a person to person affair, written texts did play a role as well. And a surprising number of them exist till this day.

As the translator of a collection of old works on swordsmanship, the question of what can we actually learn from these kinds of works is close to my heart. Of course, they have an intrinsic value for those with historical bent, but what we can learn beyond that, whether they contain anything that we can utilise in our own lives and practice is one that, I suspect, is at the back of many readers' minds.

Some of the works in this, and related, genre have certainly stood the test of time and achieved a canonical status. Sun Tzu's The Art of War, in particular has been read widely - for perhaps two thousand years, in fact, and in the late twentieth century, Miyamoto Musashi's Gorin no Sho achieved a wide international readership. This is despite (or perhaps because of) the vagueness or lack of precise detail that allows a variety of interpretations. Though these kinds of works conjure up a feeling, an image of knowledge,  they do not always deliver on their promise, remaining tantalizingly vague and frequently obscure.

So to rephrase the question above, perhaps what we should be asking is whether they contain more than these vague and attractive generalisations, some core of 'deep' knowledge?

If the answer to this is 'yes', we should then ask if we can access that knowledge. With a work like Sun Tzu, the range of notes and interpretations, stretching back a very long way, tell us that not only have many seen it as a valuable work, but that it is one that invites, and perhaps requires, explanation.

The same questions may also be asked of other works. One of the enduring attractions of Musashi's Gorin no sho is the fact that he was a superlative swordsman. The practical value of his work may depend on our ability to interpret it, but Musashi's ability seems to stand as surety of the riches it contains, making it worth the effort to study what he wrote.

We might expand our enquiry to give us the following questions:

    1) Does the original work contain 'deep' knowledge?
        i. Who was the writer? How much did he know?
        ii. To what degree was the writer able to accurately put his knowledge into written form?
        iii. How much did the writer want to reveal?
    2) Is the meaning accessible?   

Who was the writer?
Sometimes this is how we come to the work in the first place - we hear about someone and then find out they have written something. Often, it is the other way round - the written work is what makes the writer famous. How many of Sun Tzu's contemporaries were equal or superior to him?

Of course, a 'track record' is a good reason for reading something in this genre. The notes on Sun Tzu written by Cao Cao, or Zhuge Liang's book on The Art of War, or in the west, Julius Caesar or Napoleon's own works suggest knowledge and understanding that come direct from a master. Whether or not they were concerned with explaining their tactical insights or doing a PR job (as in Caesar's case) might have further bearing on how interesting their writing is.

Sometimes, however, we know little about the writer save what he has written, and it is from this that we must judge his skills. Though it may be unwise to judge prematurely, it is usually possible to gauge something of a writer's skill through the way he writes, the tone he takes, what he mentions and what he doesn't.

To what degree was the writer able to accurately put his knowledge into written form?
There are so many variables in this field, that this question may be almost impossible to answer, relevant as it is. Some, such as Julius Caesar, are recognised as good writers, but this is not always the case. Sometimes a less practised writer may be able to convey the essence of meaning more effectively than  one who is more stylistically accomplished. In any case, although it should be borne in mind that the most skilled practitioner in a field may not be the best writer, it is also true that in this field, authentic knowledge and skill is generally held to be of paramount importance - this is the way these arts were taught and this attitude extends to primary sources in the field. We want to hear what the masters had to say.

How much did the writer want to reveal?
Often these kinds of works were written for a small inner circle of initiates or students of a tradition, sometimes just for one person, and so include references and jargon that only someone already privy to those teachings can readily understand. The Heiho Kadensho, written by Yagyu Munenori, expressly states that it was just for members of the family. Many of the terms used are opaque and not easily understood by outsiders to the Yagyu school of swordsmanship - in fact there is even acknowledgment of this within the text.

Other works give even less information - they are just lists of names of techniques or diagrams that serve to indicate relative importance of particular issues. If Heiho Kadensho is difficult to understand, these might be considered truly impenetrable for outsiders.

There are yet others which use 'coded language'. They might, in fact be quite didactic and even intended for a relatively large audience, but still held something back. Many Taoist work seem to fall into this category, with short-hand or jargon inserted for particular concepts that would only have been explained orally. Works in many other genre fall into this category as well - secrets were valued and well kept in these societies. Though some of them may seem to us to be of little direct value, and others are easily dismissed as being 'merely' this or that, in a world where such things could mean the difference between success and failure, riches and poverty, and ultimately life and death, it ill becomes us to belittle them. In the medieval realm of poetry, one of the most powerful and influential families, the Reizei family, kept secrets that were an important part of its position and power. They included, in this world of hand-copied manuscripts and long memories, copies of poetry collections held by almost no-one else and knowledge of the correct pronunciation of certain words.

Not all writings were meant for such a restricted audience, however, and it is from these that we can expect to gain a greater understanding of the meaning as the writer intended.

Of course, for works in other languages, this is an important consideration. As well as understanding the straight-forward meaning, the technical terms and the specific nuances as they relate to the subject are extremely important; to a practitioner the differences can be small but important, and transform a sentence from a general statement into something with weight and authenticity. In particular, it should allow a seasoned practitioner to be able to understand the intent of the writer, which can be a somewhat different thing from merely transposing the words into fluent English. This is particularly important in the case of terminology for which there is no exact English equivalent, (ki, i, & kokoro spring to mind) and when an inexact choice of words can render a concept devoid of all practical meaning... although sounding fine in English.

And the secrets?
After all that, I must say that I find these works endlessly fascinating. The most interesting of these works are rich in experience and knowledge, sometimes well hidden, and sometimes clearly explained. As with any art or field of study, the advanced teachings are built upon a foundation - the lay person may find them difficult to understand at first, but with a growing familiarity with the concepts and approaches on which they are built, the deeper meanings can become clear. Which is not to claim that I understand everything myself, merely that much of what seems obscure was not meant to be so, and much that is deep, and useful, was not necessarily hidden or secret.

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