82. Mugao, Mushin

“You’re getting a little stressed,” my sempai observed. “Smile, even, when you do the kata. It’s soooo easy!”

Well, actually, it was hard for me to reconfigure and fix what I was doing wrong, but my sempai was trying to get a point across: when you do iai, it shouldn’t look mechanical or stiff. It should look like your body is flowing, easy and smooth, like it was the most natural thing in the world to be splitting someone’s head in half vertically. And in order to do that, your face had to be relaxed as well. Clenching one’s teeth, grimacing or glaring would only translate facial tension into whole body tension.

This is a concept widely accepted in koryu circles: the notion of having what we would call a “poker face.” The enemy can’t read your emotions or deduce your intentions. It’s mugao (“no-face”) and mushin (“no spirit”). But the literal translation doesn’t really mean you have NO face, or no spiritual energy. It means, rather, that the surface of your external appearance, such as your body and facial posture, reflects a relaxed, flexible spirit. Your face isn’t set like a granite stone statue, teeth grinding against each other, and your spirit isn’t dead set on only one way; you’re able to react to the situation at hand quickly without mental blockage. You have a relaxed, natural, everyday expression.

As I was learning a new iai form, I had inadvertently and unconsciously gotten a bit stressed out, tightening my wrist too much, thinking too hard about getting the movement right. While still focusing on my movement, I had to also relax my tight muscles, including those in my face.

That explains why our own iai sensei used to almost nearly smile when they did iai. Their faces were so relaxed, and they reflected a calm, engaged spirit that allowed their bodies to move effortlessly with the sword.

I think many of us in the West, and even modern budo practitioners in Japan, sometimes forget or are unaware of this attitude. Certainly, in modern budo tournaments, the often-seen demeanor is one of aggression, the better to scare the competition and/or the better to appear tough and gutsy, as people think martial artists should be.

You can’t win a modern budo tournament, it seems, unless you strut and puff out your chest and project a manic facial expression in kata competition, or act like a supremely overconfident street punk in tourney fighting. So you glare bug-eyed, grit your teeth, lock your knees and puff out your chest. You da man! (Or you da woman!)

Some of this difference is cultural. If you look at koryu budo, they sprang out of the classical Japanese warrior culture, like Noh drama. Noh uses masks for the main actors, and this form of theater prides itself on subtlety. There is no heaving of the body and torrential sobbing as in the more plebian-class theater of Kabuki. Rather, to denote sadness, the head of the masked performer will tilt downwards only ever so slightly, and a single open palm goes in front of the face gently. The depth of sorrow is contained in that stylized gesture, recognizable instantly by a libretto-carrying observer who is following the chanting with an annotated text. You don’t need overt, over-the-top wracked sobbing. One tear supposedly going down a stoic face is all you need to convey terrible sadness.

Again, there are cultures where “let it all hang out” is the way to go. That’s fine for those cultures. But for the classical Japanese warriors, it was more like “still waters run deep”’; bombastic extroverted expressions are not as truly deep as restrained displays. Think of it like the British upper class restraint of ages past, the “stiff upper lip” that controlled waves of feeling. It’s not that they didn’t have strong feelings. It’s that in that stratified society, before tell-all expose gossip newspapers and reality shows, it wasn’t considered in good taste to put it all out in front of the public.

As my sempai remarked, that attitude of restraint is actually hard to do. Based on individual habits and cultural breeding, students of koryu will often carry their emotions on their sleeves because they are, after all, fallible human beings. The bad thing about that is that in a real fight, so the classical warrior attitude goes, if you show all your emotions, the enemy can “read” your mind and beat you. This may not matter much in a battle using longer range weapons, such as rifles, RPGs, cannon, helicopter gunships or ICBMs, but it meant a lot in close quarter combat when you are up and close in sword-fighting distance and you can literally look into the enemy’s eyes.

As one example, there is a set of kata in my jujutsu school in which you are using a short sword against a long sword. It’s a last ditch effort because most of the advantage belongs to the swordsman with the longer-reach weapon. You close the gap and deliberately appear small and intimidated in order to lull the swordsman. Some of us students were having a problem stepping into the low, unassuming stance.

My sensei remarked, “You are trying to lure the enemy in. So you have to deliberately appear weaker than you are. And that’s a hard thing for many budoka to do. All their lives they train to appear tough and strong. So it’s not easy for bugeisha to look weak.”

He was right. The hardest thing to do, and the most deceptive, is to appear unassuming, especially if you’d been training for decades to NOT be weak or defenseless.

And for me, the most vexing opponent would have to be someone whose face and posture I can’t decipher. Pugnacity and aggressive attitude, I can see and adjust for. Fear in an opponent is something that dogs can literally smell, and many human predators can somehow innately sense. But a face that remains the same even if you thought you whacked him a good one? Unnerving. Especially when that opponent comes back with a powerful retort, all with that same unwavering (fudoshin) face.

While I needed a reminder myself to relax my tight jaw, I remember trying to work with a short-term student on relaxing his body. He had previously done some work with a former karate teacher who had cobbled together his own modern iai system, he said. Okay, fine. But whenever he drew his sword over his head, his left hand would flare open, fingers splayed apart, like a kabuki actor’s pose, before theatrically grasping the sword hilt. He would also grit and bare his teeth, and bug his eyes out. I told him that was good for kabuki woodblock prints, and I don’t know what he was taught in his modern iai school, but in koryu, those displays of exaggerated facial expressions and gestures were counterproductive. They also stiffened the rest of his body too much.

Sadly, he either never quite seemed to get the concept of relaxing, or he thought I was feeding him a line of bull, and he soon enough dropped out, unable or unwilling to transition to my way of thinking.

Showing focus and eye-strength (metsuke) are different things, of course, from exhibiting false bravado. It’s not about aggression; it’s about concentrating on thejob at hand. One teacher of koryu remarked that a classical warrior’s expression was much like the dedicated and focused expression of a sushi chef or traditional woodworker. The chef wouldn’t glare or grit his teeth at having to cut a slice of raw fish to slap on some rice or plane the surface of a piece of wood. He just concentrated and did it. So too, the classical warrior wouldn’t expend precious energy on bombastic expressions. He just went and did it.

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14 thoughts on “82. Mugao, Mushin

  1. Preface: Upon completing this lengthy response, I thought it to be rude. Then I rethought it. I came to realize a well thought out blog taken seriously and pondered in depth by the reader, warrants a sincere response or comment by the reader regardless of its length. That is if is done with honest and sincere effort and thought. I hope I reflected that in my comment, despite my amateur writing skills.

    After reading this fine blog, I can remember the same lesson my Japanese sensei would teach. Us, American students full of testosterone and bravado, imbibed in the practice of aggressive intimidation. It’s a practice that is part of our culture seen in things like sports, hip hop music, movies, and politics. In the words of one such successful iconic intimidator, “Mr. Gorbachev tear down that wall.”

    As young martial arts students, such a cultural mentally or spirit wasn’t something easily abandon, or changed despite my sensei’s efforts to teach another strategy. Sensei’s strategy lesson was to look weak, vulnerable, thus baiting the attacker into a trap. With my sensei’s limited command of English, he would act out the lesson he couldn’t accurately describe. He’d verbally highlight the lesson while taking a slight hunched position mocking a cower, pretending to facing an attacker. Then he held both hands up to his face, fingers spread a blind to his true intentions. If you looked carefully through those aged fingers masking his face signaling fear, if you’d see his deception. His eyes where intensely fierce and focused, piercing daggers reflecting telling his true plan which was to attack like an old tiger at any moment. To say it was intimidating was an understatement. Yet, later many of us naively dismissed it as theatrics, spouting the impracticality it had in today’s society among ourselves. We subscribed the strategy may have worked conceptually for the samurai in feudal Japan, but we where not in feudal Japan. For us, the samurai where romanic movie icons like that of the beloved 座頭市, Zatōichi (as ironic as it was), and none of us where into that Hepburn romanticization of ourselves. For us, we felt Sensei’s method didn’t fit the successful school yard aggressive posturing ritual of intimidating the other guy, where simply blinking was a sign of weakness, and thus submitting defeat.

    Funny….how time makes you foolish. We may have humored Sensei then, and over-looked the character of Zatōichi, but I have come to realize that was a mistake. I would learn that dismissing such a sophisticated budo strategy taught that day by sensei was foolhardy. Some years later, I did some ancillary training with a young Chinese immigrate man whose abilities in Gungfu where sensational. He demonstrate successfully many times the importance of feigning weakness baiting the opponent, the same thing taught by sensei. Even then with proof staring me in the face, I wasn’t completely sold on the idea of bogus weakness, it was too much of a gamble. As time marched on, and occurrences of physical confrontations lessened greatly in my life, I still held on to thinking faking weakness to bait the opponent was still not applicable, until….

    I was in a parking lot walking to my car after work when I was targeted by a hostile young gang member looking for an easy victim. For some reason, remembering the my seeing my sensei’s fierce stare though his fingers, and remembering the stories of a prominent figure in my art whose stare was so fierce it stopped men in their tracks, I adopted at that moment such a stare. A stare I trained for only to humor myself. Thinking it would work and imitate the gangster, it didn’t work. In fact, it only aggravated the young gang member’s aggression and intent to be violent. His intent was to intimidate me with slang, body language, slang and posturing. But, by staring at him as I did, I was challenging him. He accelerated his aggressive behavior and was more intense and determined to intimidate me. My strategy simply amplified the situation, I had failed my sensei’s lesson and knew it. As a result the conflict was far more intense then need be. In a street fight you never want to escalate your opponent. The fight harder when that happens. Fortunately, things worked out in my favor, but at a cost that could have been less or none at all.

    I realized later that if I hadn’t made eye contact and tried to stare the criminal down as a means of imitation, but instead had taken to my sensei’s lesson, I would have got the job done faster with less risk, complications, and consequences. By not accelerating my attacker, and baiting him by looking weak once he targeted me would have gave me a greater strategic advantage over the young stronger criminal. He would have easily too the bait. That would have giving me the advantage, the edge. Fighting smarter and not harder is always preferable.

    Back in the day, I took the strategic lessons from my sensei too serious. I failed to see the underpinning, the foundation of his wisdom or lessons. I didn’t think deeply enough about strategy like using weakness as a ploy, or standing with the sun or any bright light source at my back. I calked those and other such lessons of the samurai as archaic history. I blame, youth. I blame my ignorance at age, my ego. I thought back then I knew it all. Lucky for me, my ignorance didn’t cost me my life. Lucky, for me I eventually wised up. But not everyone is so lucky. Some of us go on functionally fixed in our ideas, stubbornly refusing to see alternatives when it doesn’t fit our paradigms or reasoning.

    Maybe people who stay blind to alternatives fear change. People with great insecurity. cling on to only what they know, and are afraid to let go of it. Afraid to walkout side their comfort zone. Or, it simply works for them-at least for now. We all have our own life’s path to walk. We make our own choices in these types of things. We may not listen to the true wisdom of others, especially up through middle age for what ever reason. Well at the least for me, over time, I came to appreciate the wisdom given to me in those ancillary dojo lessons given by sensei so long ago. What a loss it would have been if I continue to ignore those most valuable lessons.

    1. Jon,

      I’m glad you decided to post your comments. Albeit longish, it is necessarily long in order to describe another aspect of this subject that I didn’t quite fully cover. Rory Miller chiron training describes the street fighting mentality in his books about self defense and social violence. He calls posturing and posing, leading up to a street brawl, the rituals instigated by “monkey minds,” that part of our brains that plays dominance games, peer aggression and so on. As a law enforcement and corrections officer, he wisely counsels against being led into such a fight, even if it means “giving ground” and letting the aggressor puff out his chest and follow through on his ape-like dominance rituals. Bad things will happen, he writes, even if you “win,” including possible civil and criminal lawsuits for “defending yourself” if you could have extricated yourself in the first place. Getting out of brawls is always the best strategy; use lethal force only when protecting life and limb and only when it is the last possible avenue of survival, he advises.

      Your entry is a terrific extension of this discussion!!!

      1. Thank you. Your respond is appreciated. I have read every blog you have wrote here, coming late to this site I wasn’t sure if sometimes my comments are not over bearing at times – of course if they are it is unintentional. What I see here is discussions about topics any good, competent traditional Japanese sensei imparts to his students. We as American’s (as you know) who don’t have a traditional competent Japanese sensei (which I am grateful for) are at a disadvantage. If anyone, including Japanese who have had one of those really traditional senseis, isn’t a picnic trying to get the lesson being taught. At times a rubric’s cube would be refreshing. The opportunity to get authentic and accurate Budo etc. information as you put here is difficult obtain elsewhere.

        Because I was taught under a “stone head.” Who was very traditional in his ways, explanations I got where not what I was accustom to or expected. Thus, it resulted in the inability to express them other than how I was taught. Therefore, I get a bit excited when I read your blog, as you have masterfully – stating it as a fact. Your writing have captured and translated most everything I was traditionally taught in an Eastern way. Yet written in a western style that makes is easily readable, understandable and digestible. You balance both East and West without compromise. When it comes down to discussing Budo, etc. honestly, in my opinion your writings are far above your contemporaries’. This blog has aided me greatly in explaining things I went through, I couldn’t before. End transmission.

  2. Another good one!… to add to the list of many. This is one of my things that have caused some folks to call me, “Picky”, about my students. This is just one part of posture… inner and outer. Emotional posture as well as structural posture when controlled really well becomes a tool of strategy. Heiho jutsu. It’s one of the things I can spot in those who’ve had good teachers or those who’ve learned from books and trumped up teachers of fake histories.

    1. Chuck,
      Interesting aside about how you use it to pick out the poseurs. I never thought of that, but you’re right, of course. Inadequately trained or wrongly trained people who claim to have a background in Japanese or older Chinese martial systems often don’t pck up on this heiho…
      –Wayne

  3. Mr. Muromoto,

    This entry reminded me of a scene in the movie Get Shorty, when loan shark Chili Palmer is trying to teach actor Martin Weir how to act (look) like a loan shark:

    I have been a lurker since this blog began; I was also a fan of Furyu. I enjoy your writing style and sense of humor, and learn much through not only reading new entries, but re-reading old ones. I particularly respect how open you are to commentary and discussion. Very refreshing. I’m halfway sorry my first post on a serious topic has to do with a goofy movie.

    Now when you joke about your five readers, you can say six.

    Yas

    1. Yas,
      Thanks for the entry, and humor is most definitely accepted here! If anything, we need humor to balance things out or we’d get too darned serious and depressing for any enjoyment. Sometimes I find that the best teachers, who taught me the most serious technical aspects of martial arts, are often the ones with a tremendous amount of humor. They’d have to have a sense of humor to handle my ineptitude, I guess.

      On a sidenote, in my “regular” day job as a college instructor, we have to hand out instructor evaluations to our students for feedback. Most of the time they are positive, with students commenting that they like my laid-back attitude and folksy talk that laces my discussion about digital art technology. On the other hand, some students write, “Mr. Muromoto has to get better jokes. They’re kind of stale.” Oh well.

      –Wayne

      1. “…who taught me the most serious technical aspects of martial arts, are often the ones with a tremendous amount of humor. They’d have to have a sense of humor to handle my ineptitude, I guess.” Yep. Especially the knock, knock jokes….

  4. Opps…sorry about the last comment. I didn’t notice the last sentence in the quote was included. I would not have a problem if my comment just happened to vanish.

  5. Just wanted to express my sincerest appreciation for your efforts on this blog. I always learn something new every single time I read a new post. Thanks!

  6. Again a great subject! Not sure if it will contribute anything to this discussion but here’s my two cents.
    I grew up in,let’s call it an interesting part of an old town. I learned a lot from an early age on amongst other things about not sending signs which can taken as a challenge by other people.
    This was naturally something totally different from showing yourself weaker than you really are and lure them into an attack which will lead to their doom ultimately. We were not interested in getting attacked, we just tried to get home in one piece. A relaxed natural expression which Wayne wrote about, and showing no signs of anxiety in the presence of toughies was a good way to deal with that. Even at the wrong side of fifty it still is. Ignoring people can also trigger a response so you actually look at their faces ( no eye-contact) during a turn of your head or so as if looking around. So you acknowledge their presence without interferring with them. Since you are relaxed you are also sending the message you do not percieve them as something that worries you.
    Some of the jujutsu kata I learned, while walking along someone, or walking past someone are great to practice this kind of thing.

    Best regards,
    Johan

    1. Interesting note, there Johan. I didn’t touch upon “real world” applications much, but it certainly fits in with my own experiences with bullies and punks in school. Usually they left me alone not because appeared belligerent or meek, but because I was simply there. I acknowledged them but didn’t bother them, or seemed afraid of them (after I started judo); they sensed something, perhaps, and left me alone. Most of the time, this works, unless someone in the street is just whacked out on drugs or alcohol, or really so far gone that he is clueless as to physical cues. Dogs seem to work like that too, unless they are just crazy berserk mad dogs.

  7. It is exactly how it works with dogs I think. Talk about berserk. Recently I was traveling on the subway home from work and teaching. I had something like a 12-hour shift in total that day so I was tired. The wagon was really crammed. All of a sudden someone, Egyptian guy with a beard and weird eyes starts shouting at a woman who was standing near the door. Really loud and he became verbally very abusive. I recall thinking ooh boy I don’t need this now, at the same time realizing it is so crowded that I would not be abel to help her in time if needed. It escalates further and right at the moment that I think he gonna’s jump her, from the loudspeaker the voice of the conductor cracks through the air telling the guy to get his ass the hell out of the car since we have to leave. Guy jumps out the open door on the platform. Everything’s cool.
    Except for the bevavior of the people around that woman during the confrontation. I remember looking at them. A lot of them, big, beefy guys. Probably enough of them around and them being big enough to intimidate this crazy individual. But nobody did a thing. Turned their back to the situation pretending not to notice.
    Made me think a lot about the responsability of a budoka towards society.
    And that is not a thing I have worked out yet.

  8. Johan, as for “responsibility of a budoka towards society,” I think most of us haven’t worked that out yet too. We are all still questioning and searching. But asking questions is the first step. Interesting anecdote.

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