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Old 01-22-2013, 12:07 PM   #18
Ellis Amdur
Location: Seattle
Join Date: May 2003
Posts: 809
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Re: On Kanji, 「武」, and Memes

Peter, first of all, I've revised that passage in the essay, making conditional what was absolute.

More generally, one of my favorite quotes from Maurice Merleau-Ponty is "words are sublimated flesh." Sublimation is originally a term from alchemy, meaning something that is dried - all moisture removed - so that only the essence remains. This is certainly applicable to a discussion on kanji.

To cite an example, we have a kusarigama kata in Toda-ha Buko-ryu (THBR), washigaeshi - 鷲返. Nitta sensei misread the first character as Ougaeshi 鸚返, which means "parrot reversal." I do not recall if the document she was reading was a blur, or if she was simply careless that day, but for many years, ougaeshi it became. We retained the correct kanji, but misread it and misunderstood it.
THBR kata names have encoded (sublimated) images that help understand the meaning of the kata, how it is executed, etc. This, however, was bewildering. The character is Chinese in origin, to be sure, but there are no native Chinese or Japanese parrots. There are parrots in the South Pacific, where China traded. At any rate, there are no logical connections between parrot behavior and the kata that we could see, and given how unusual such a bird was, what a strange choice for a kata name!

Our oldest scroll in the Tokyo line of THBR, is clearly 鷲返. The first character means "black eagle" or "vulture" in Chinese, and simply, eagle in Japanese.

Years later, I researched all of our remaining makimono - and looked carefully at those from the Chichibu line of THBR, where the ryu was born. Here is the actual writing in one of the oldest makimono we have. Here's a more modern transcription. I could not find it in any Japanese or Chinese data bases. A scholar of old Japanese informed me that it was probably a variant on Kiji And the closest kanji we could find was 鷕, which in Chinese means, "The cry of the female pheasant." (NOTE: We've had a female pheasant visiting daily - actually a ring-neck, which are from Japan, and I've been studying it. Very cautious, but when harassed by a squirrel, chases it away, and suddenly blasts upwards into flight).

The kata we are concerned with is part of our betsuden, sets of kata that were revived after a hiatus of perhaps 100 years. (For those curious how this was done, see my essay, "Renovation and Innovation in Tradition," in KEIKO SHOKON, V. 3) Because these kata were revived, we had to make an "executive decision" on which kanji reading we should use. A close examination of the kata showed that what was required was a rapid plunging downward attack, rather than an explosion upwards. We act like an eagle rather than a pheasant. Therefore, we retained the reading from our Tokyo line - 鷲返 - "Eagle reversal."

Some might find this quite pedantic - and I suppose it is, though I personally find it all quite fascinating. However, beyond that, the image "enlivens" the kata, by a method that I refer to as "shapeshifting," in which one attempts to embody the image. From the experience of practitioners within the ryu, the names are truly sublimated flesh, holding vital information on execution.

NOTE: It is a fair assumption - though we will never know - that the kata of the Chichibu line, kijigaeshi, was different in execution. However, one may cavil that it is quite possibly the result of a misreading of the kanji. If Nitta sensei could see "washi" and read "ou," then it's certainly possible that all this is merely an error. However, just as 武 has attained an errant life of its own as "stopping a spear," so too, it is possible that the error in reading that led to the kata becoming washigaeshi created the waza in its current form. In short, technique evokes imagery, but imagery becomes form, just as the sublimated powder of the alchemist, moistened, takes substance based, not only on the alchemist's intent, but also due to the impurities within the substance.

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