Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Mon - the gateway

A quick sketch I did the other day - a typical mon in Japan

The gateway (or gate), which is called mon in Japanese, is an inescapable part of the landscape, both in the city and in the countryside. Perhaps it is not odd that such a powerful architectural feature should have become part of the conceptual landscape of the culture, but the way in which it has done so is quite different from what the simple words in English might suggest.

The image of a gate where I grew up, is essentially rural – the traditional five-bar gate so common in the countryside of southern England springs to mind – and even where it occurs in the town, it was usually in the context of a garden or back yard. Of course, there was also the school gate, and had I lived in a more industrial area, no doubt the factory gates would also have figured in my consciousness. But all of these are similar in respect to their essential character… they are barriers, but semi-permeable ones. They have bars, but you can see through them. They may be strong, but even so, they are not solid.
The mon, on the other hand, has a massive quality to it. Like the city gates of medieval Europe, they announce their presence at the same time as denying entry. They are markers as well as barriers, indicating the way in and denoting the passage between two worlds.

Despite their strong presence, their role may be largely symbolic, and other, more convenient points of access are used in the comings and goings of everyday life. They may not even be, as the western gate tends to be, the main point of entry in an encircling wall or fence. Sometimes, and this is especially so in the case of shrine gates (torii) they are simply free-standing, with no attached structures. The entrant is perfectly free to walk around instead of through the entrance-way.

This symbolic function exists on several levels.

From their role as the gateways to temples, the term has taken on the meaning of school, and thus someone who studies under a teacher might be known as a monjin or monsei (literally, gate + person, meaning one who has passed through the gate); to join a school was known as nyumon (to enter the gate); to be expelled from a school was known as hamon (breaking the gate).

Indeed, learning itself took on the mon as a concept. Not only did students have to pass through the gate to begin study, but successive stages had their own gates, and higher teachings were barred from those who had nor entered, with more or less elaborate ceremonies and swearing of oaths as part of the process.

This is something that is mentioned both by Miyamoto Musashi and Yagyu Munenori in their most well-known writings, and points to the prevalence of the practice. Munenori is at some pains to explain that the concept shows that skill is not the same as the methods we use to achieve it. After entering the gate, we proceed further within the temple. The gate is not to be mistaken for the temple itself. In the same way, the forms that are used in studying a fluid, ever-changing art are not the art itself, but a way to develop that art.

Musashi, went further, declaring he had no use for gates (and thus presumeably) for teaching structured in levels that had to be passed through before going on to the next body of teaching. He likened the process to passing through the mountains… although you may enter through one gate, you may emerge from another – passing through, you come to the entrance again - who is to say which is the more advanced teaching?

Actually, Musashi’s comment is likely a criticism of the Yagyu approach – his principal patron in later life, Hosokawa Tadaoki, had trained in that style As the Yagyu had become official instructors of the Shogun, the family’s services were in high demand, and they were required to teach a range of pupils, of lesser or greater ability, despite their often high status. No doubt this required some ordering of their curriculum, and the appointment of subsidiary instructors – not everyone could expect to be taught by the instructor to the shogun – resulting in a somewhat standardized curriculum. On the other hand,  Musashi remained essentially a free agent throughout his life.

Instinctively, I tend to follow Musashi’s opinion on this, but at the same time, I have found the concept of a gate as an entryway from one way of seeing things to another, or the first technique in the process of developing a difficult stage of a skill is an apt and useful concept. Seeing these as gates that open out onto to another area of experience or skill is a metaphor I had not internalized before my time in Japan; I don’t think I have been specifically taught using this metaphor, but Musashi’s use of it must have resonated quite deeply as I have found certain specific techniques or skills fit the idea perfectly. I suppose the equivalent concept in English would be a ‘first step’. You can actually see this reflected in book titles… textbooks with the title “xxx Nyumon” are the counterpart of “First Steps in xxx”.

Still, somehow, the image of a gateway seems more resonant than that of a first step. From my own experiences, I can see how apt the concept can be – it represents the searching for a way out of a learning plateau and into a new period of growth. In this sense, sometimes the way out is quite specific and the gate, with its opening onto new vista’s serves very well. However, for some reason, this seems to be distinctly a mon and not a western gate.

Perhaps it is just my latent romanticism coming through.

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