Zen Aesthetic Principles in Budo
In the training halls that come from the Japanese martial lineage we find what was once simple and crude acts of violence elevated to a a high art form that transcends the physical techniques and moves us towards a far deeper practice. These arts that have sprung from Japan emerge from a rich and formal artistic tradition. The formality of Bushido culture, the Zen artistic aesthetic and the rich religious and social philosophies of the East all shape the character of the fine arts that comprise 武道 budo - the martial way. Fredric Lieberman wrote, "To Occidentals, the physical world was an objective reality--to be analyzed, used, mastered. To Orientals, on the contrary, it was a realm of beauty to be admired, but also of mystery and illusion to be pictured by poets, explained by myth-makers and mollified by priestly incantations. This contrast between East and West had incalculable influence on their respective arts, as well as on their philosophies and religions."
武道 Budo was birthed from the Japanese artistic tradition and is directly shaped, like so many of the Japanese arts, by 禅 Zen aesthetic principles. Aesthetics can be seen as an attempt to define principles concerning what is ‘beauty’. I distinctly remember during my time in Japan a calligrapher telling me that in the art of the brush, one must often be taught "what beauty is." I feel strongly that the process of the study of aiki, we are not only learning a martial skill, we are being shown, "what beauty is." We are being educated in a physical embodiment of a philosophy. Everything from the formal training dojos, to the uniform, rankings, calligraphy on the walls, and yes, the character of the techniques themselves are in some large way shaped by the Zen artistic tradition.
Sokyu, in my opinion, writes the most succinct description about the Zen process and how it emerges in the practice of budo.
“Japanese Buddhism teaches the attainment of detachment by the removal of self-consciousness through spiritual concentration. A technique for this is the repetition of a kata (form)…. In essence…practicing an action a certain way, time after time, so that in the end we come into contact with our true nature.”
Despite Sokyu's wonderful insight, I still want to go deeper down the rabbit hole and take a look at the work of Hisamtsu Shinichi , who more clearly defines the characteristics of the Zen aesthetic. Hisamtsu Shinichi (久松 真一 June 5, 1889 – February 27, 1980) was a philosopher, Zen Buddhist scholar, and Japanese 茶道 tea ceremony master. He attempted to break down the aesthetic principles of Zen. These principles can be seen in all of the major classical 道 - do, spirituality through art form. Shinichi Hisamtsu wrote, “The seven characteristics (of Zen aesthetics) are not limited to art in the narrow sense, but rather they include the whole of human existence.”
Zen Aesthetic Principles
不均齊 Fukinsei - creating asymmetry "dynamic relationships"
簡素 Kanso - simplicity
考古 Koko - austere yet bare essentials, basic, weathered
自然 Shizen - naturalness, absence of pretense
幽玄 Yugen - subtly profound grace, not obvious
脱俗 Datsuzoku - unbounded by convention, free
静寂 Seijaku - quiet, calm
不(un-; non-) 均 (average; level) 齊 (alike; equal) - creating asymmetry
In bonsai the principle controlling the balance of a composition is always asymmetrical. Its division of space, in either the second or third dimensions of spatial organization uses an irregular division.
In budo there are a myriad of asymmetry we create. The inequality of our compositions comes in how we shape the spatial organization of our partners. In the dynamic relationship of the budoka we attempt to create unequal power dynamics between partners typically by creating misalignment in the posture of our partner. Typically budoka call this principle 崩し kuzushi - 'to crumble, to level'. Spatial position is everything. Kuzushi is almost a magic word to many budoka, and is seen as a core and vital principle. The principle can be seen in unbalance, mis-alignment, distraction, misdirection, and crumbling of the human postural structure.
簡 (brevity; simplicity) 素 (plain, white silk) - simplicity; plain
Bruce Lee reminds us, "to me, the extraordinary aspect of martial arts lies in its simplicity. The easy way is also the right way, and martial arts is nothing at all special; the closer to the true way of martial arts, the less wastage of expression there is."
When I first encountered the Japanese martial arts I had been a student of Chinese external systems. We learned form after form. We learned to move like animals and to wildly swing scores of different weapons around the room. I was struck as to how simple Japanese arts seemed in comparison. There were few forms and relatively few techniques. The forms were more about how to walk and move properly, rather than how to move like a dragon or crane. The dazzling results the teachers I trained under had came from mastery of basic exercises that are grounded in solid bio-mechanical principles. I am still working on the simple exercises that I learned in my first months as an aikidoka.
Saying something is simple can be a misnomer. In my estimation the arts of the Zen aesthetic are infinitely complicated in their simplicity. Take chess for an example. I learned the game in 15 minutes. On the surface level it is a simple game really. However many people have gone mad trying to master it. The near infinite variables that springs from it's simplicity take a life time and great discipline to understand. Budo is very much the same way. A great juggling teacher once told me "Great artistry comes with simple technique, Complex technique leads to poor artistry."
While living in Japan I attended a 書道 shodo, calligraphy display. Hundreds of artists contributed to the exhibition. Amid all the complex lines and forms, one artist had a piece with a single stroke. It was the character for '1'. At the moment it's simplicity was sublime and it's form exquisite. That is when I thought of the phrase "infinitely complicated in it's simplicity." Like many truths, kanso's nature is a joyous paradox.
考 (consider; think over) 古(old) - austere yet bare essentials; basic; weathered
The morning of snow-
all alone, I chew yuki / no / ashita / kitori
dried salmon meat karazake / wo / kami / etari
-Basho Maysuo 松尾 芭蕉
This haiku is said to be an excellent example of wabi-sabi in poetry.
Although koko is an aspect of of the concept of wabi-sabi, I think exploring wabi-sabi helps us to understand koko. Wikipedia describes 侘寂 wabi-sabi. Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, roughness, irregularity, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes.
In looking at the concept of koko in budo I start with the literal translation. "consider the old." Much of classical budo is looking towards the past for inspiration for the future. The technical understanding, philosophical inspiration and even costume we wear comes from a by gone age. But to be sure we are not simply reenactors or martial historians. We study the wisdom of the past because we are custodians of a way. We study so we might live in the now more fully. In my shodo practice I once copied a poem for a month that read "Study the old to know the new". Indeed.
In further reflection on what koko could mean in budo, my mind turns to the men we call sensei. Sometimes austere, they gain their powers through mastery of bare essentials; weathered by life and training - who could not marvel at these men? Even better than their mastery of skill, is their willingness to share it with those that are worthy to receive the spirit and skills they have cultivated. They are temporarily a link to the past and all the teachers they have gotten to share space with.
自 (oneself) 然 (nature; in that way) - naturally; spontaneously, naturalness, absence of pretense
- Tomiki Kenji
幽 (profound) 玄(mysterious) - subtly profound grace, not obvious
Yugen is an awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and mysterious for words.
Yugen is at the core of the appreciation of beauty and art in Japan. It values the power to evoke, rather that the ability to state directly. The principle of Yugen shows that real beauty exists when, through its suggestiveness, only a few words, or few brush strokes, can suggest what has not been said or shown, and hence awaken many inner thoughts and feelings. source
"Yugen is to watch the sun sink behind a flower-clad hill, to wander on and on in a huge forest without thought of return, to stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands, to contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds."
Like all of these principles, we can find it in many aspects of our budo training. For me yugen is the feeling I first have when I step into my dojo, a sense of grateful return to a place I love. It is the awe I continue to feel when return to a state of creating consistent aiki. I find yugen when explaining the mechanics for a technique and I realize what I just said is really a metaphor for life and love. I also find yugen at the hands of a master whose technique is so sublime I burst into laughter at the surprise of total loss of control. I especially see yugen when I watch an iai master, while I clumsily fumble with my own weapon.
Iai master that evokes yugen in me.
脱 (be left out;escape from) 俗 (customs; manners) - unbounded by convention, free
|from Palazzo Barolo exhibition|
The challenge while doing shodo is to transmit the spirit, the sense, and feelings on the sheet of paper, so that each drawn character is showing the expression of the artist. The artists uses yet transcends the convention.
In budo we train in techniques, principle and form. Mastery does not come until skills become so internalized that they become automatic. Only then form turns into formlessness. The budoka moves freely like the calligrapher splashing ink across the page. The artists are so versed in technical principle the body effectively organizes behind the creative process. Challenges are solved in opponents and in self and body and mind move freely.
静(quiet) 寂 (death of a priest; loneliness;quietly) silence; stillness; quietness
"The spiritual aspect of ikebana is considered very important to its practitioners. Silence is a must during practices of ikebana. It is a time to appreciate things in nature that people often overlook because of their busy lives. One becomes more patient and tolerant of differences, not only in nature, but also in general. Ikebana can inspire one to identify with beauty in all art forms. This is also the time when one feels closeness to nature which provides relaxation for the mind, body, and soul." source
Although Zen has influenced many of the classical arts, there is really only one practice that is critical in the practice of Zen. The act of zazen, the practice of sitting. It is the act of quieting and weeding the garden of the mind.
|Hozumi Roshi at Shofuku-ji|
"Everyone is tempted by the eloquence of speech
but I am a slave to the Master of Silence."
~Maulana Jalaluddin Rum