Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The flowers of Yagyu: coded language and layers of meaning

It is the beginning of April, and cherry blossom is just appearing. In a week or so, it will be falling, which brings to mind this verse from Yagyu Jubei’s Tsuki no Sho, a verse which, incidentally, Jubei credits to the priest Takuan.

The fine rain that dampens my clothes
Is invisible, yet I see it;
The blossom that falls earthwards
Is inaudible, yet I hear it.

This is part of the ‘secret’ teaching of the school – teaching which was revealed only to advanced students. Like most secrets, it means little if you don’t have some understanding of the concept it is illustrating. In this case, it is describing the kind of awareness necessary for performance of the more advanced techniques.

A Yagyu tsuba: hanaikada design (flower raft)
In modern times, intellectual understanding, the ability to talk about or explain, is common currency; even beginning students of martial arts can read up on information and often consider themselves to be (rightly or wrongly) as well or better read than their teachers (though whether this knowledge is accurate is another matter.)

In traditional ryu-ha in the pre-modern era, knowledge and skill, were far more closely connected.  Knowledge was closely guarded; not only was it given out with the care now reserved for industrial secrets, it was often hidden in code, some of which was simply obscure phrases that had no apparent meaning to outsiders (the waters of the West River from Yagyu Shinkage ryu is a good example) or using alternative characters or pronunciations to give yet more meanings. In addition, meanings could be layered, so that deeper meanings of concepts were taught the further one progressed in a ryu-ha.

Another way in which teachings were structured was to widen the scope of their application; Miyamoto Musashi’s writing on small scale and large scale strategy is comparatively well-known, but as information on traditional ryu-ha becomes more widely disseminated, it seems that this was the norm – many schools included higher level teachings on military tactics, strategy, and a range of other applications that extended beyond hand-to-hand combat. Very few of these would appear to exist in usable form nowadays, and the quality must have varied from school to school, even in those days. This kind of teaching was reserved for students of higher social and or military rank, as well as the most advanced students of the ryu-ha. (Many of these worked in advisory capacities, and thus while they would offer their services, their deeper teachings were kept secret).

It is likely that the nature of these advanced teachings also informed the lower levels of the curriculum, and may account for the somewhat arbitrary seeming nature of techniques at these lower levels.

Some of this language is jargon – professional language to refer to concepts that are out of the normal run of things; some is specifically meant to hide or obscure meanings from the uninitiated.

The Yagyu Shinkage ryu offers many examples of both types in its documents and teachings, but it seems particularly given to hiding meanings. (Compared to Miyamoto Musashi’s writings which, for the most part, are fairly straight-forward.) Perhaps the most well known are setsuninto and katsuninken – the killing sword and the living sword. Nowadays, these are generally given moral/philosophical implications connected with using a sword to kill or using non-lethal means to end a conflict. Indeed, Yagyu Munenori did refer to them in this way; the original and primary meaning, however, was technical, and (roughly speaking) referred to the extent to which one controlled the opponent’s technique or allowed it some freedom.

Other terms are introduced and explained in increasing detail in documents. One example in Tsuki no Sho is the concept of suigetsu, which merits a number of sections including ‘The true suigetsu’, denoting deeper levels of meaning regarding the concept.

The Yagyu Shinkage ryu also had specific ways of writing or pronouncing common terms. Heiho (), commonly pronounced hyoho, and used to refer to bugei or martial arts in a general sense (as well as strategy and tactics), was written as(heiho) when it was used in reference to attacking with the sword; it was pronounced as iwato, which can be written with the characters for one, eight and ten. The strokes used to write these characters are the same as the lines of the strokes used for the principle attacking sword cuts:八十Furthermore, the characters for heiho/hyoho could be pronounced yokehazusu, which meant to avoid/slip aside, as this was a major part of the strategy of the style.

Other ryu-ha might use the same terms, but with different connotations. The Tenshin Shoden Katori ryu also writes heiho using the characters , but the meaning is ‘art of peace’ rather than ‘art of war’, denoting the philosophical stance of the school with regards to the use of  its teachings.

Confusing to say the least. The Yagyu Shinkage ryu was a very public one: as principal sword instructors of the shogun, as well as spymasters and advisors, their teachings were widely disseminated, and so the need for secrecy was likely greater than for many other schools, but it seems that ryu-ha with much lower profiles employed similar means to encode their secrets.

To take but one example, the Katayama Hoki ryu included among its teachings the short scroll entitled Heiso Jirinden Furoku, written by Katayama Hisayasu in 1647, which explicitly explains concepts of individual iai kata as they relate to issues of behaviour concerned with the administrative roles many bushi had. (https://archive.org/details/HeisoJirindenFurokuenglishVersion)
Other documents in the tradition also explain the meanings of kata name with respect to tactical and behavioral considerations, and make for interesting reading.

Although I am wary of allowing such intellectual enquiry to effect my actual practice, it can allow us a deeper understanding of the thoughts and ideas of earlier generations of practitioners of bugei and the way they regarded their own arts.