There are many philosophical, mental and attitudinal elements in learning traditional, classical budo. More so, I think, when learning a koryu, which is much more intricately tied to traditional Japanese culture.
One of the concepts I think many of my own students still have a hard time wrapping their heads around is the notion of ken and kan, or literally translated, “seeing” and “feeling.”
To elaborate: in learning a traditional Japanese art, such as a koryu, there are things you can learn by “seeing,” i.e., through a visible, clear, rationalistic learning process, and things you need to learn to intuit, or “feel.”
Most of modern budo, although not all and not all teachers of modern budo, are often very good at the former teaching pedagogy. They take apart a kata or a method and in clear, logical terms, talk about the physical and technical structure of the movement and the results thereof. In large part, this rationalism is a reaction against what was perceived as a haphazard, archaic way of training that stereotyped the koryu when the modern budo were formulated.
To a degree, such criticisms of koryu might have been valid. But I have to wonder, after decades of training in both koryu and modern budo, if it’s a matter of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There’s something to be said for developing a sense of intuition in martial arts.
The longer I train, the more I realize that there’s an ineffable, intuitive, inexplicable aspect to budo. I don’t mean the woo-woo mystical “wave your hands and the guy will fall down” mumbo jumbo. I mean aspects of a koryu martial art that are really, really hard to explain in logical, verbal terms, aspects that cannot quite yet be captured and exposed clearly in digital media such as videos, books or photographs. It’s a feeling. A mood. A kind of tension, timing and subtle movement, spacing and distancing that can best be felt, but not yet explained easily in words.
“Ken” comes from another way to pronounce the Japanese verb “to see,” miru. Seeing with one’s eyes is symbolic of logical, rational thought processes. You see a technique, you try to repeat it overtly with your own body movements. It’s all there in front of you to see.
In contrast, “kan” comes from the verb “kanjiru,” or “to feel, to sense.” In koryu, it’s not just a matter of physical aping. It’s a matter of understanding very subtle body dynamics, spacing, timing, rhythm, distancing, breath, angle of entry and evasion. I can explain these terms individually, but putting them all together into one seamless whole requires not just rational cognitive learning skills, but also a “sense” of how they fit. This calls for intuition, “feeling.”
This is not to denigrate the ability to see what’s in front of you clearly. It is to emphasize that the ability to learn rationally and empirically is just one component of the mental training process. The other necessary part is learning to develop one’s intuition.
It may be that the ability to ken and kanjiru are two sides of the same coin; the two are actually fluid terms, and the rational and intuitive need to flow one into the other, like the Yin and Yang of Taoist philosophy complimenting each other. You need both.
Indeed, I’ve seen where students have a hard time grasping the essentials; the basic, signature movements of the koryu school. If you can’t process which foot goes ahead of which foot, then all the intuition and “feel” in the world won’t help you. You need the rational, step-by-step essentials. But I’ve also seen cases where I’ve seen some students in my school and in other koryu demonstrate, and I’d turn to an acquaintance and we’d agree, “That guy has got the moves and order right, but he still hasn’t got it.”
–“IT” being that underlying “feel” of a true practitioner of the style, who can MOVE like a Takeuchi-ryu person, or a Shinto Muso-ryu Jo person, or a Tenshin Sho Katori Shinto-ryu person. Each koryu has a particular kind of fun’iki, or “feel,” and if you watch the really good practitioners, no matter how their own body morphology and personal character shapes their movements, there’s something about their kata that is imbued with the style. They got it. It’s in their heart as well as mind. The person who doesn’t get it may have used half his brain to learn the moves, but he hasn’t used his other half of his brain to intuit the “feel” of the style.
In a way, it’s like listening to a computer voice try to read a line from Shakespeare. Computers nowadays are so powerful they do a decent job of being able to read text and turn it into acceptable audio readings. But computers, and even most people, still can’t compare to a trained Shakespearean actor reading the Bard’s lines. Both can read the text. But only the accomplished actor (so far) can raise the bare lines to heights of grandeur worthy of Shakespeare through his “feel” for the words and his experience, and knowledge of artistic timing, pitch, meter and rhythm.
So the danger some martial artists have is that they see their art as stopping at the workmanlike practicality of robotic movements. They don’t “feel” the art yet. They need to get more Shakespearean.