Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Demon's Sermon – a swordsman’s perspective

A print by Kawanabe Kyosai (2 panels of a triptych) showing Ushiwakamaru
(later known as Minamoto Yoshitsune) practicing swordsmanship with the tengu.

The Asian martial arts are intimately connected with language and concepts that seem esoteric and difficult to pin down. This is partly exacerbated by the problems of translation, where specific, and sometimes technical, terms become glossed into language that is general and quite difficult to pin down. Typical of this are terms such as kokoro or shin, i, and ki. The problem lies partly with the way in which the term is used in the original language, and partly with our own knowledge of these areas as reflected in our own language.

Take kokoro. This is often translated as mind, or heart, or heart-mind, or spirit. Though this gives us a general idea of the concept, it is quite difficult to conceptualize without further points of reference. When specific instruction on this point is being explained, it can make it almost impossible to grasp the real meaning of a text – all the more so when other terms that refer to related mental or physical faculties are used.

Nearly all the famous texts on swordsmanship include these terms, but I feel that much of the specific flavour and, indeed, meaning, is difficult to grasp without a clear personal understanding of what these terms refer to – a perfectly good translation may or may not provide this understanding.

But that is not all. Sometimes the original writer may not understand what he is talking about. 

Print by Utagawa Kunisada showingg Ushiwakamaru training with tengu
in the mountains of Kurama, outside Kyoto.

Let us take the Tengu Geijutsuron, written by Chozan Issai and translated by William Scott Wilson as The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts. This is a good translation, and worth reading, especially since it appears to have been quite widely read in its time and to have influenced several other works. It is, I believe, the first Japanese work on swordsmanship written for a general readership.

It is not an easy text to follow, however, and the author’s own admission that he was not an expert in swordsmanship may put doubts into the reader’s mind, not least of which might be, “Is it worth trying to understand exactly what he’s saying?” And this is an important point, because he talks at some length and in some detail about a variety of topics pertaining to learning and developing skill in the martial arts. From my own perspective, there are aspects of it that are interesting, mingled with others that smack of armchair theory… and this is just what Otsuka Yoshioka wrote in his work Kenjutsuron, which appeared in the mid 18th century, not so long after Tengu Geijutsuron.

Otsuka himself was a third generation student of Miura Mugan, who created the Mugan Ryu of swordsmanship. He also founded his own school, the Otsuka Ryu, and so his opinions are worth considering. What is more, his criticisms include his own explanations of these quite abstruse concepts and make for interesting reading in their own right. It is also interesting as it is not often that we get to see a master of swordsmanship directly criticize another work on the subject.

In fact, he is critical of a number of points in Tengu Geijutsuron, but to begin with, lets look at how the two writers explain the relationship between mind (kokoro) and ki (which Wilson calls ch’i, following the Chinese pronunciation.)

Tengu Geijutsuron
“Listen, form follows ch’i and ch’i follows the mind. When the mind does not move, there is no movement of ch’i; when the mind is at peace and there is nothing to agitate it, the ch’i is also in harmony, follows the mind, and technique responds to circumstances naturally. When there is something in the mind, ch’i is obstructed and the arms and legs cannot respond with their function. When the mind resides in technique, the ch’i is hindered and is not in harmony.”
The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts p. 97

Otsuka comments on the passage as follows:
“He writes, ‘when the mind is still, the ki does not move.’ To say ‘the mind does not move’ is correct. ‘The ki does not move’ is incorrect. As mentioned previously, the ki must move, up and around, without stopping even for a moment. It preserves the outer circulation. If this energy doesn’t stop circulating even for a moment, it cannot respond to outer influences. Therefore it is called ki. You should think of preserving ki. If it does not move, does not circulate, it is not living ki. Usually, those who discourse on the state of mind and ki, blithely confuse the two.”

As you can see, the first passage closely links the mind and ki, making them, in effect, manifestations of the same phenomenon, as if ki is a slightly more solid version of mind. Otsuka, however, draws a clear distinction between them, envisaging them as complementary concepts. He goes on to explain them in greater detail – if you have an understanding of what he is referring to, this can be understood without too much difficulty; certainly, it is possible to recognize the use of mind and ki from ones own training. Without this personal experience, it might be difficult.

For those interested, I have included some of his further descriptions of mind and ki:

“The movement of the mind holds back the ki. If the ki is still it holds back the mind. When it is held back by the mind, the ki should ride over the mind. When the mind is held back by the ki, it should master the ki. If you cannot use the mind to master the ki, or use the ki to ride over the mind, you will be unable to reach the level where you can respond with complete freedom. This is not limited to swordsmen; among scholars too, there are many who keep their minds fixed and undistracted and have learnt not to stop the movement of their ki.”

This makes sense if ki is understood as something physical; if you think of it as an intangible energy, it might be more difficult to make sense of this.

“To settle the ki is not like a cloud settling on the edge of a mountain. Settling the mind is certainly like the wind stopping and the rain ceasing, when everything becomes calm. Settling the ki is more like settling affairs of state, making good use of everything, neglecting nothing. The ways of settling the mind and the ki are completely different.”

A superb late 18th century suit of armour
designed to look like a tengu.

The Tengu Geijutsuron also speaks at length on settling the mind and the ki, but the images it presents do not really distinguish between the two. The basic message is that if you do something for long enough, even difficult tasks will become natural for you, you will do them easily, thus your mind will be settled. If your mind is settled, your ki can move freely as the occasion demands. The examples he gives, such as a boatman running up and down the deck of a fast moving boat, ignore the one problem that has beset practitioners of fighting arts over the ages, and came to be a topic of contention during the Edo period in Japan ­– it is all very well to develop merely physical skills, such as moving on a boat, by repetition, but how do you train someone to fight, when not only is the situation continually changing, but someone is actively trying to hurt you just as you are trying to hurt them? How do you keep the mind ‘still’ in this kind of situation? How do you have the leisure to learn in such a lethal environment? And how do you develop skills that are sufficiently superior to your adversary’s to ensure a high probability of survival?

These are questions that continue to tax martial artists to this day. Tengu Geijutsuron doesn’t really offer any answers. Otsuka’s comments suggest that he did have answers, and I believe it is this level of insight that the masters of swordsmanship tried to convey in their writings, and what makes them worth reading.

I will leave Otsuka to have the last word for now:

“Even if we outline the method of distinguishing the mind and the ki nevertheless, it is for the most part insufficient - is it not necessary to complete intense training?”