Sunday, September 30, 2007

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Oftentimes one finds—at least I do, though I think the experience can't possibly be confined to me—that a simple sentence or statement, apparently innocuous and perfectly sensible, nudges this thought and that, often only days or weeks later, and then, bang!, it suddenly isn't so 'sensible' and/or innocuous anymore; because you realize that in the context of this this and that, when you reconsider this 'perfectly sensible' thing, it becomes not just questionable, but outright wrong, dangerous, misleading and just plain un-thought-out.

Here's one of them, coming from the context of martial arts. Superficially it may appear specific to our sub-specialty, Samurai sword craft, but it really isn't. And it harks back to something I've said in some blogs (1 2) way back in 2006; and as was almost inevitable, it's coming back to bite. Don't it always?

The rituals associated with the practices of martial arts are as varied as the arts themselves, and very often have the quality of religious ritual. In this particular instance I'm talking about the rituals of a) bowing to the sword, b) bowing to the dojo, c) bowing to the images of salient past and present 'masters' of the style, d) going through an elaborate pre-training ritual which involves (a) and (c) in some way, together with elaborate poses and movements in between these critical points.

Our style's headmaster considers said initial ritual as important as, say, the style's more obviously relevant sword-forms. Also, the students were told—not by me, I hasten to add—that all that bowing to everything and everybody and sundry is an essential element, required to express our respect for dojo, style and the 'masters' who gave us all this martial knowledge alike. Respect to history itself, as it has been expressed.

All of which isn't a bad thing, since it serves, for the duration of the training, to focus the mind of the student—as much as it can be. 'Student' being, at least to my mind, everybody; including the teachers.

You can see the 'but' coming a mile off, right? Well, yes. Of course. How could I help it? And it probably would be better if you read these two other blogs I linked to above, just to get the framework; but it isn't necessary.

Things is this: I'm one of those people who thinks that ritual has a place, but that it should also be kept in its place. Ritual is for those who need whatever ritual we're talking about—be it 'daily life rituals' or elaborate church or dojo practices. That's my take anyway. It expresses nothing at all, but said need of those who use it. The elaborate pre-training ritual involving persnickety motions that someone invented for purposes lost in the mists of history obviously fulfills somebody's needs, but I think it by and large a waste of time, especially if people get so damn serious about it. That, by the way, is always a sign of a ritual being past its use-by date.

There's only two aspects of the ritual I subscribe to:
  1. Bowing to the sword.
  2. Bowing to the dojo.
(1): The sword is at the heart of all this. By what is is and by what it does it represents the fine line between being alive and being dead. It also reminds us, insofar as an inanimate object can, of that, entirely self-imposed, thing called 'duty'.

(2): The dojo is a place of learning. By showing it respect we show respect to learning. Not a bad thing to reinforce.

When we, however, are told that to bow to the teachers who have brought us these teachings is to bow to history itself... that respect for the style itself is in effect respect for history... that everything we do, we do only because we are standing on the shoulders of giants who have shown us the way and brought us all these skills, which they have labored to learn, develop and transmit...

True enough. Probably beneficial for the students as well. It is helpful to have a sense, if you're doing this kind of thing, to feel yourself connected to a long venerable tradition and all that—not just to some fly-by-night loonie system of teaching, invented by John Doe or Peter Piper at the spur of the moment and promulgated as some cool kick-ass martial art. That probably also applies to the 'mature' student; with 'student' again being just about everybody, including the teachers, for this is supposed to be a context of continuous learning. It's amazing, the strength of the desire to feel connected to some tradition like that. Not surprisingly, of course, since all 'meaning' is ultimately derived from placement of whatever 'meaning' is being provided for into a larger context.

So, indeed, nothing wrong per se with making people aware of the connection to the past, if you will; though I see it more as a history of something not unlike the history of life on Earth, in which certain things have survived, because they just were the best adapted to survive. Doesn't matter whether it's an organismic property or a skill. What didn't work is no more. What did, continues to be around. (That, by the way, makes 'religion', which is mostly if not all bullshit, a real bummer to explain away; unless one considers it in terms of its function for the continued survival of the species. There is evidence to suggest that this is precisely why it has survived.)

Back to martial arts and that tradition we're supposed to bow to.

Whose skills are we actually talking about here? Anything we learn today in the context of Japanese ryu—traditional martial art schools, as opposed to newly created ones—is taught by people who have almost certainly never wielded a sword, or any weapon, to defend the lives of either themselves or anyone in their care; who have never put their life on the line, knowing it was going to be dependent on their swords. The worst that could have happened to them might have been a loss of 'face'; which, admittedly, in some contexts is serious and consequential, but can hardly be considered anything but a cultural quirk and can't hold the water to the seriousness of life-and-death combat.

Despite their not-infrequent claim to 'lineage'—either physically/genetically or else, and here's a favored term that means exactly nothing at all, 'spiritually'—and in spite of their earnestness of practice and intention, the best these people can ever lay claim to is as 'preservers', if you will, of skills developed by people who had to develop those skills, because otherwise they would not have survived; would not have survived, one might suggest, for long enough to breed—not necessarily just in real terms, but with regards to transmission of the knowledge of their craft. Like ourselves in the dojo today, these people were effectively playing games. Taking themselves very seriously, of course.

Don't we all? And isn't that basically about the same kind of thing I have discussed before, and which crops up, in various disguises, in my novels? And not just mine, but every story that tries to go below the surface and reach to the core of what we are? Isn't is really all about us losing, in the context of our 'urbanity', sight of what is really important and what 'matters'—and what, when it comes to the crunch, meaning when the comforts and cocoon of urbanity is stripped away, turns out that it does matter? We conflate in importance the seriousness of people who play games with that of those for whom these things are not games.

But, or so one might argue, isn't it more civilized—more advanced, more heading toward a purpose over and above the seriousness of what amounts to bloody conflict and behaviorisms humanity should leave behind if it is to become more than it currently is—to practice these things, whatever their origins might have been, in a spirit of, say, self-improvement and to develop certain of its aspects into 'style' and indeed, a form of 'art', practiced, if for no other reason, but at least for its own sake? Just because it has a beauty and that beauty itself is sufficient justification for doing it?

Well, apart from me disbelieving that beauty is anywhere but in the eyes and minds of those who behold it, I have no argument to offer against the notion that such behavior is indeed more 'civilized'—for this is indeed how 'civilization' tends to define itself; and that's all the attribute 'civilized' will ever be: entirely self- referential and grounded only in its own view of itself. From a General Semantics point of view a classic example of a semantic void. There was a nice example of that in my favorite noir flick, Lucky Number Slevin—and pointing it out earned the one who pointed it out a bloody nose. There's a lesson for you. Don't know what it's about, but it's got to be about something!

The bottom-line is that I can't buy this thing, because it makes no sense to me. To substitute 'style' for 'substance' is just the kind of thing that gets my hackles raised every time I spot it. As an absurdist/existentialist—whatever label suits better at any given time—I consider it the epitome of inauthenticity.

So, one might wonder, how do I cope with this issue in my martial arts practice? For it is with me every time I draw a sword, or even just don a gi. Or when I enter the dojo and bow to it—and, above all, when bowing to the sword before and after practice. When I force myself to ignore the mummery and instead...

...look down... see who are the giants on whose shoulders I'm standing; or if there are any at all.

Well, there are, but they're not the ones we bow to. The ones whose shoulders we're really standing on are covered in blood, their own and that of others. Some of them were good people, who did the best they could. Others weren't and did their worst. Some were noble; other were thugs. Some of them conquered; others, despite their best efforts, were conquered. Just about all of them qualify as having been 'warriors', whatever their motivations and urges might have been. Very few would have died of old age; and if they died on their bedsteads, they were probably murdered there. Many of them you really wouldn't have wanted to have known personally, or been affected by, directly or indirectly.

Despite no doubt having a 'civilized' face, these giants also would have had another, that was savage, fierce, uncompromising, brutal, lethal. (Though last night I saw an episode of Terry Jones' Barbarians, and it made me ponder the wonders of 'civilization' or 'advanced culture'—and oftentimes it makes me think that maybe 'civilized' might be more justifiably used as an insult.) To 'honor' some of them strains one's capacity for dissimulation and denial of the truth of what they were.

But we're not doing this—well, I'm not—to honor their flawed existences, but to be picky and choose that which we can honor. In this case, apart from their nobler attributes—that being a matter of personal taste and judgment of what is 'noble'—it's the skills these giants developed in the courses of their sometimes woefully short lives. Their martial skills. Not how good they were at bowing or tea ceremony or politicking; but what they knew about using a sword to do what a sword is designed to do.

Some would say that it's a package deal and that I can't just pick and choose which part I want. Everything's connected and all that. You can't have this without that, or that without this. That's a matter of opinion, and I beg to differ. So sue me.

Insofar as I can honor them—flawed though they might have been—there is only this: to do my best to always place substance above form and/or style and never to confuse the two. Do that cut right this way, not because it's the way you're told to do it, but because this is the way to do it right—and if someone teaches you to do it wrong, then go do it right anyway, and screw them.

How do you know this is right and that isn't? Well, you don't; but you can think about it carefully, and you'll figure it out. You will. Eventually. But do use your head. Above all, do that! And call no man 'master' unless he's proved to you that he is. Call no man 'giant' unless you can look down and see that he's not looking tall merely because he is standing on the shoulder of a giant. And you may judge his character by whether he's able and willing to admit this, rather than pronounce himself to be, and expect others to see him as, a giant.

This quality is sometimes labeled 'modesty'. It's in damn short supply.

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