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Old 03-05-2002, 11:24 AM   #14
Karl Friday
Join Date: Mar 2002
Posts: 1
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Re: RE: Professor Friday's Reply

I don't really have the time, or the inclination, to get into a long conversation on this issue--especially since I'm not an Aikidoist, and therefore not a regular reader of this forum. But, since Chuck called this to my attention, I do think that it's worth taking a minute to clear up a few points, in response to David Valadez' post.

First, a couple of simple points of fact: The post Mr. Valadez is arguing with here was written as part of a thread, in another forum, discussing the need for a teacher in bugei training. Kim's (who's a he, not a she, BTW) question was framed in the context of comparisons between learning martial art and learning activities like sports, not comparisons between bugei and "classical Zen training, or living the life of a Carmelite monk, or being a yogi," which represent fields of endeavor far too scattered and unrelated in goals or methods to be discussed together.


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I think one could better address the points made by Professor Friday by returning to the question posed my Kim Taylor - a question which raises the issue of whether or not there are any results unique to martial arts (or "bugei," used by Professor Friday) in comparison to other non-martial arts or non-bugei activities.

Professor Friday believes the answer to this question to be "no". . . .

I am made immediately curious to know what Professor Friday means by "very specific path."
First and foremost: I don't believe the answer to be no. Japanese bugei (and other traditional art) culture believes the answer to be no. My post was primarily about drawing out the implications of the medieval Japanese concept of "michi" and other aspects of the cultural mindset governing martial art training in Japan for the issue of training on one's own (and/or training on an ad hoc basis, using some combination of books, videos, and work with teachers of multiple systems of martial art). The main point I was trying to make, is that the Japanese view of what martial art training is about, and how it works, is fundamentally different from modern Western ideas about various kinds of education and learning.

I'm approaching this question as a historian attempting to elucidate what the Japanese have believed (and still do) about the nature of bugei training. The actual physical/psychological changes that students experience as a result of bugei training (as viewed by modern psychologists, physiologists or education specialists, such as Mr. Valadez' friend) are an entirely different issue--and one on which I'm not qualfied to speculate.

The notion of michi was premised on the combininative--and eclectic--nature of medieval Japanese art and religion. For the most part, Japanese did not clearly separate Buddhist from Taoist from Confucian from nativist (ie "Shinto") practices and cosmological theory. Instead, they viewed the world through a lens that combined parts of all these doctrines. This led to a widespread belief that all these doctrines were pointing to the same place. And this, in turn, led artists and some religious scholars to develop the idea that ultimate understanding of reality (one of the most easily understood goals of medieval religious practice) could be achieved by following any of a number of paths (michi).

This is not an argument advancing some notion of religious universalism, except within the very specific context of the traditional Japanese worldview. Yoga, Christian monastic practices, and even Chinese philosophy/theology--as practiced in China--are beyond the pale here because premodern Japanese thinkers didn't include any of these in their speculations (although some modern Japanese have attempted to work non-Japanese theologies into the mix). To the extent they thought at all about religions outside Japan, they believed the Japanese adaptions of these ideas to be identical to the original ones.

Martial art, in any case, represents one kind of path, one that embraces specific goals, motivations and rewards of its own (relating to proficiency in combat) while at the same time leading to the same ultimate place as other Japanese michi. But the concept of michi doesn't just relate all of the various bugei (as a collective whole) to other, non-martial paths, it also operates within the bugei. That is, the particularism--the specificity--of the path doesn't just distinguish martial arts from other kinds of arts, it also distinguishes different approaches to the bugei from one another. Traditional Japanese martial art (as it evolved during the Tokugawa period) is not eclectic. It is divided into dozens of differing systems--ryuha--each of which is held to represent a unique, specific approach to the art of fighting.

In other words, the construct of "michi," as it evolved in Japanese martial art culture, argues simultaneously for universalism and particularism. That is, it says, on the one hand, that all martial arts are ultimately alike, in that they all lead to proficiency in combat, and beyond that, to the broader forms of enlightenment that we in the West characterize as spiritual development (at which level, martial art is ultimately identical to other arts and religious exercises). But, on the other hand, it also says that every path--every ryuha and every art--possesses its own, unique structural integrity that differentiates it from all other paths.

This "michi" construct further presumes that only someone who has mastered one or more paths can safely deviate from them. That is, that only those who have already traveled the entire path know the whole of the terrain well enough to determine which shortcuts and alternative routes are safe and which will lead to dead-ends or circle back on themselves.

The foregoing, then, has a number of implications for the study of Japanese martial art. First, it makes it different, in goals and methods, from pursuits like modern Western sports (such as basketball) and from the broader field of fighting arts in general. Even at the most basic level, Japanese martial art is not just about acquiring the ability to be successful in combat, it's about learning to fight in a very specific way--one that relates to a very specific philosophy of strategy unique to each ryuha (which in turn grows out of specific ideas about the nature of reality and ultimate Truth). There is, in other words, a fundamental difference between pursuing a Japanese martial art, and simply learning to fight.

Second, and because of this first point, learning the bugei becomes as much about how you study and how you ultimately do things as it is about what you become able to do. This is not true of all martial art. Nor is it true of modern Western sports, such as basketball, which are about acquiring proficiency in achieving results (and, ultimately, about the character-building properties alleged to attach to hard work and competition): it doesn't matter if you prefer to do your hook shots like Wilt Chamberlain and your jump shots like Michael Jordon, so long as that combination works for you. But Japanese bugei, as a cultural phenomenon, is built around the idea of learning (at least initially) to do everything in one particular way.

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I know Professor Friday has read his Grapard, and so he is fully aware that much, if not all, of the religious landscape of medieval Japan was "combinatoric" in nature. That is to say it was like a big salad bar - a little bit of this, a little bit of that, all mixed together with little concern for the modern notion of authenticity via the purity and maintenance of origin and lineage. . . . When Grapard posits, or hints that Shinto is a modern invention, in that it is indistinguishable from the Buddhist-Shinto combinatoric practices that preceded the Meiji Restoration, his logic begs the question of what exactly was combined.


This is a caricature of Grapard's position. In the first place, the term he uses is "combinative"; there's no such word as "combinatoric." More to the point, he doesn't "posit or hint that Shinto is a "modern invention"; he argues that ancient, locally-based spirit cults--whose ideas and practices collectively form what we now describe as "Shinto"--were melded into Buddhist ideas and practices throughout the premodern era, and were only artificially separated by the modern Japanese government, when it found it politically expedient to be able to identify a "pure" Japanese religion and distinguish it from "imported" Buddhism and the institutional corruption thereof. Few, if any, contemporary scholars of Japanese religion take issue with him on this point.

His argument has nothing whatsoever to do with notions of authenticity of lineage. These were, in point of fact, very important in medieval and early modern Japanese religion (as well as in other arts). In fact, arguments over authenticity and lineages consumed far more time and energy from premodern Japanese clerics than did disputes over doctrine. This too, is a matter of consensus among experts on Japanese religion.

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And my point for bringing this up here, and for the detour into Grapardian historiography, is to show whatever this "very specific path" is, it certainly was not shaped through or via a will for specificity.


This rests on a misunderstanding of both Grapard's points, and mine--as well as on a common misconception about Japanese religions. The fact that medieval Japanese religion can't be cleanly divided up according to the sorts of doctrine-based categories through which modern audiences tend to distinguish religions does not mean that medieval Japanese religion was an undifferentiated hodgepodge. Lineage and specificity were central to premodern religious ideas in Japan. Grapard's argument is not that there was no particularism, but that lineage and specificity were based on geographic location much more than on doctrine. And, again, this is the concensus view of scholars in the field.

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The confusion arises from his use of the mountaintop/path metaphor (which clearly suggest paths that are not equal to each other though their destination may be the same) and his use of the word "co-equal" to describe the various "do" traditions.


What's at issue here is not what the mountain-and-path metaphor might suggest to modern audiences, but what it meant to those who first applied it to describe the metaphysics of traditional Japanese arts. For them, it was meant to describe how varying paths can seem to be utterly different from one another and yet be of equal value in the larger scheme of things because they all lead to the same place--and, at the same time, why paths that seem to be essentially the same may not be, since they may diverge sharply after a while. "Co-equal" doesn't mean identical.

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In short, what is the relationship between authenticity and steps actually taken by the student? Does authenticity ensure that steps are taken? And if not, does inauthenticity ensure that no steps can be taken?


With respect to the issue of student development per se, "authenticity" is a red herring, if by "authenticity" Mr. Valadez means the possession of legitimate credentials within a verifiable tradition (ryuha). Authenticity of this sort is an externally-imposed recognition of proprietary rights to a particular body of knowledge. It obviously doesn't always coincide exactly with true mastery of that body of knowledge. Legitimate heirs to recognized bugei traditions are not always budo masters. And budo masters are not always authorized representatives of some recognized bugei ryuha. Authenticity--legitimacy--is important within bugei culture for other reasons--which I've discussed at length elsewhere.

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Historically, and traditionally speaking, after the hodge-podge sort of settled down, eventual bugei masters trained a little here, a little there, or a little with this person or a little with that person, BUT a lot on their own.


This is historically inaccurate. In the medieval period, when ryuha bugei was a new and emerging phenomenon, samurai military training was largely informal and often involved picking up bits and pieces of knowledge from a variety of sources. Things changed during the Tokugawa era, when bugei instruction--and the bugei themselves--became much more elaborate, and much more structured. Teachers began to require longer apprenticeships and greater commitment. Ryuha became more exclusive and more cabalistic.

This is the Japanese martial art culture that has come down to us today. Hopping from system to system and studying "a little here, a little there, or a little with this person or a little with that person" is, at best, a kind of throw-back to earlier practices, ones that have been superceded by other developments. Japanese martial artists stopped training this way more than 300 years ago, and embraced a very different paradigm for what bugei training is about and how it should be undertaken. Although it was still common for very advanced students to engage in limited cross-training in other systems (particularly as ryuha began to specialize in a single weapon), even this was heavily conditioned by the belief that instruction must be thoroughly centered on a single ryuha.

If, therefore, you want a justification for picking and choosing bits of this system and parts of that one in your martial art training, you'll have to look outside the rubric of "tradition." Cherry-picking of this sort involves the revival or re-creation of a long-gone approach to training, albeit completely outside the context--regular participation in battles--that gave rise to it. It's not the continuation of a tradition, it's the invention of a new one.

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Why does it seem to be such a part of the mindset of Westerners who train in the koryu (for example) to preserve or conserve, to authenticate or to denounce as fraud, to draw a line between this and that, etc.? Clearly they are not in the museum business, and yet they adopt curator practices quite easily - why?


Concerns with legitimacy and the preservation of the kabala of arts like the bugei in a form as close as possible to that in which one received it are central and fundamental components of the bugei (and traditional Japanese) culture. They are not the invention--or the special preoccupation--of Western martial arts students.

The simple reality is that there is no practical reason for anyone today to acquire expertise with traditional Japanese weapons for its own sake. No one in this day and age has a pressing need for sword skills. Whatever value the bugei retain for the modern world stems from some combination of their utility as tools for personal development and from the appeal of being able to reach out and touch a piece of the past. Practitioners of Japanese koryu today are curators of living museums. To lose sight of the responsibilities this puts on all of us, is to deny the essence of what bugei study is about.

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In the end, Professor Friday says: "Learning and techniques and tactics in bugei study is like learning the alphabet in pursuit of becoming a writer or learning arithmetic in pursuit of becoming a mathematician. It's where you start, but it's only a tiny first step."

Herein lies my closing question.

5. Can we really be led, let alone guided, past these tiny first steps? Is this point as far as a teacher can take us? Are the steps past the tiny first steps the steps we make alone?


Yes to the first question; no to the second and third. That's why a good teacher is important.

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Why not? Why can I not make these steps on my own - errors and all? Or the more pointed inverse: Why can you make these steps for me? Or why can you help me make these steps at all?
No one can take any of the steps toward mastery of anything for anyone else. No one can make anyone learn anything. Learning comes from within. All a teacher can do is act as a guide.

Having said that, however, let me hasten to add that the first two questions are really beside the point. Is it possible for someone to become an expert swordsman largely on his own? Possibly. Is it possible for someone to achieve the sort of "spiritual" enlightenment sought by students of traditional Japanese arts without a teacher? Maybe.

On the other hand, it's probably also possible to become a world-class swimmer without ever taking a lesson or working under a coach. But what would be the point of going this route?

The odds of success are dramatically lower for someone trying to reinvent the whole art for himself like this than they are for someone who waits until he's mastered what others have already worked out about swimming techniques and tactics--or about martial art--before venturing off on his own. And even more to the point: exploring martial art on your own is not the same activity as studying a Japanese martial art. The latter involves, by definition, apprenticing yourself to a teacher and a system. (The former may very well be a worthwhile and rewarding activity for some people; but it is a new and different activity.)

For the very best students of the bugei, there does come a point at which they move off their teachers' path and begin to explore entirely on their own. But those who have to ask whether they're ready to do this (or why they're not), are nowhere near even coming into sight of this point. And those who are sure that they are ready, are even further away.

Karl Friday
Professor & Undergraduate Studies Coordinator
Dept. of History
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602
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