If my martial arts readers will forgive me again, I will venture into the world of tea (chanoyu) to draw out a concept that might apply to how we understand budo, especially the koryu, or classical systems. I do not doubt, however, that there may be ample food for thought for the “modern” budo practitioner who practices in a more traditional manner.
I just spent an extended weekend in a workshop, observing training under a master instructor from Kyoto, Japan. He was, to me, unusual in that he prodded and questioned students not only on HOW they were doing their tea temae (sort of like martial arts “kata” forms) but WHY. Why are you doing this movement? Is there a historical meaning to this action that goes back to Sen No Rikyu, the founder of wabi-style tea? What is the meaning of rubbing your fingers that way before you reach for a tea container? Why not do it some other way?
The teacher did his questioning in a gentle, pedagogically inquisitive manner, seeking to draw out ideas and theories from the students themselves before he would chime in. That way, he forced the students to think for themselves.
The word for “master instructor” in our tea school is gyotei. The sensei remarked, “I think of myself less like a gyotei than a kyoshi (a term meaning “teacher” used for college professors), for various reasons. I think because I entered training in my 30s, unusually late for a gyotei, I may have a different perspective of myself and how I want to teach. I want YOU to learn to think for yourself…”
Well, anyway, on the last day of instruction, we went over the upper level temae reserved for only higher-ranked students. These temae are categorized, somewhat, like the three levels of Japanese calligraphy, as in kaisho, gyosho, and sosho. There are shin (kai-) level temae, gyo level and so level. The three terms respectively refer to the way the temae is done, reflective of the levels of calligraphy. In shin temae and kaisho, the form is very strict, angled and linear. The aim in calligraphy is to repeat a standard form as perfectly as possible. Gyosho breaks the form up and is considered “semi-cursive” in Western terms. Sosho is “grass-writing,” i.e., very loose and free.
In tea, shin level temae are the longest, most complex, most formal temae. They are probably the oldest, developed by Sen No Rikyu himself, based on long-lost Chinese and Japanese roots hundreds of years in the past. The utensils are primarily Chinese in origin and of museum-quality vintage and provenance, although in regular practice they are usually cheaper modern replicas. Gyo level temae introduces shorter temae based on variations of the shin level, and so level temae are comparatively shorter and more “free,” in a manner of speaking. The so level temae also introduces more humble, Japanese-made implements, such as a table made of unvarnished wood and bamboo in lieu of a black lacquered stand for shin.
The demarcation is quite closely aligned with calligraphy writing styles.
Shin level temae, therefore, is considered the epitome of the formal art of tea.
Now, several writers on Japanese martial arts have already noticed the implications of this categorization of writing styles on the Japanese concept of teaching forms. Kata interpretation, therefore, can be thought of as “shin” (following the kata as precisely as possible, attempting to mimic some model of behavior and movement); “gyo” (loosening up and rounding out the movements a bit in terms of varying the timing, attack points, etc., but still making the movements quite familiar to anyone familiar with the forms); and “so,” interpreting the kata in a highly individualistic manner, rendering it almost incomprehensible to a layperson who doesn’t have the necessary background to understand what’s going on.
In that way, writers much better than I have always noted that it’s necessary to learn the proper, “stiff” form first (kaisho) before one is able to interpret it properly for oneself. Without proper grounding in a standardized form, you just end up with a total mess, like so much of what we see from self-taught youthful martial arts “masters” on YouTube, who are usually in need of a lot more maturity and a decent hair cut.
But here’s a couple more notions to chew on, inspired by what the tea sensei said, which perked my ears. Think of these concepts relative to how you think about kata.
Many students think the pinnacle of learning all the temae in tea is learning the shin level temae, the sensei said. In a way, that’s true. But consider the gyo and so forms. Another name for so temae, he noted, is “kuzure.” That means, literally, “busted up; torn apart; taken apart.” Kuzure is also pronounced “ran,” as in the Akira Kurosawa movie translated as “conflagration,” i.e., things are just confused and gone to hell. That is, so level temae is taking apart the shin level movements and putting it back together again in what can appear to be a random manner. It may seem simpler and more informal, like sosho script, but like sosho, it is actually harder to do.
Someone writing sosho without the requisite years of discipline gained from practicing kaisho is just going to make stuff that looks like chicken scratch, with no spirit or contained and directed, but free-flowing, energy. Someone doing so level temae without understanding shin level temae will not understand the balance between tight formality and looser, freer movements. It’s like someone trying to literally imitate the movements of the elder Ueshiba Morihei (the founder of aikido) without undergoing similar years of training in the basics. It just looks like a mess.
So level, therefore, is actually harder to do because you have to know Shin level properly first.
But more: the implication the sensei said was startling. There’s a whole different way of looking at the pedagogy of learning in a classical Japanese art or koryu.
We all think that the basics, or kihon, is where we start and then we progress upwards in a linear fashion, towards more and more complex and granulated methods, until we reach the “advanced” kata, the okuden or oku-iri, or whatever it is called in one’s school.
Then, of course, when we learn the whole curriculum, we go back to the basics to refine the individual parts and move back up the ladder, in a revolving manner, perfecting our foundations and therefore making the whole of our temae stronger and more precise.
That is how we learn, but when you think about it, the founders of the koryu actually founded their arts in a totally different manner. They created their systems based on only a few principles, manifested in only a few kata. The Takeuchi-ryu, for example, has hundreds of kata for many different weapons and situations. But the legend has it that its founder learned only five short sword techniques, a couple of rope-binding methods, and one cryptic message from a mystical yamabushi (“mountain ascetic”). The Shinto Muso-ryu Jo was founded when Muso Gonnosuke received a flash of inspiration after days of training in a remote shrine, and it was a one-sentence, highly cryptic oral transmission.
This is not to say that they “made stuff up” (if you discount the mystical connotations). All the founders were warriors, from warrior families, who had decades of training before they realized a new way to organize prior methodologies. But they all encapsulated what their inspiration was in relatively few kata.
For these early koryu, the techniques began with the okuden, the highest level kata. But because that would be like jumping from zero to sixty miles an hour for most students, the founders and their descendants added more kata: the shoden (beginning level) and chuuden (middle level).
One of the stereotypes foisted on the koryu is that their pedagogy is confused and archaic compared to Western style educational theory. But already, early on, the shoden-chuuden-okuden methodology showed a progression of complexity that took a rank beginner at a certain level and systematically trained him for further and further complexity. You usually weren’t taught the most complex methods first. You were gradually “broken in.”
In addition, while the kata may not change all that much, training methodologies do historically change. There is ample documentation, for example, that Shimizu Takaji, a master instructor of the Shinto Muso-ryu jo, created the kihon (basics) for the ryu when he was invited to Tokyo to teach modern budoka and law enforcement. He realized that in the middle of the 20th Century, these non-samurai students had no inherent abilities to hold a sword or staff naturally, compared to bushi in premodern Japan, who were given a sword to wield as soon as they could walk. So he created the kihon to help teach students how to wield a sword or staff, and how to execute single movements.
We think, therefore, of a pyramid of learning, in which the wide base is the basics at the bottom, and as we progress, we learn more and more about less and less until we learn the few and precious okuden at the very tip of the pyramid. But consider the point of view of the founders. Their pyramids are inverted. They knew only a few kata and general theories upon which they could encompass their whole universe of attack-reactions naturally and spontaneously. The fewer, in fact, the better so as to have less confusion of what to do in the heat of actual combat. From that point of view, the few methods radiate outwards, as variations upon variations of kata.
In reversing one’s point of view, then, the okuden (or the shin level temae in tea) become the real kihon! By eventually learning these kata, you see how they are manifested in all the lower level kata, only broken up (kuzure) and/or recombined to show the students the variations that are possible given the “key” to movements from the okuden.
But why not therefore teach the okuden first? The problem with that is that usually the student is unprepared to run because he can’t walk, much less crawl yet. The okuden are usually few and concise. But to do the movements just right requires a body and mind capable of capturing the founder’s concepts perfectly, and most of us are not at that level to begin with. So we learn the various “lower” kata first, before we progress to the okuden.
I do not doubt that students who were bushi some four hundred years ago or more were able to receive mastery licenses much faster. Part of it was that perhaps ryuha had fewer kata per my conjecture. But in addition the bushi were, after all, trained in warriorship from a very early age. They had better a priori training. Plus, they had a life-or-death motivation. If they were bad at martial arts, they could literally die on a battlefield. For most of us living in an urban, modern society, we don’t face such motivations on a day to day basis. We don’t need to master combative arts in order to survive. Doing koryu will not win a bigger stipend from a lord, or win fame, notoriety or a reality show contract. Some of us, through natural athletic ability and/or personal motivation, advance rapidly. Many only go so far because their motivations are less deeply felt and are more superficial and fleeting, or because of our sedentary lifestyle, aren’t as naturally physically gifted. So it goes. Time changes. Perhaps we do need more basic kata because our bodies have a harder time “grafting” the logic of a ryu to our inner core movements.
I noted in an earlier blog that another tea saying by Rikyu was that one’s progress in learning is like going from one to ten, but when you reach ten, you go back to one. In other words, you always return back to the basics after you think you have mastered everything, and then work your way back up again, over and over, as a way of refining and polishing your skills.
The other implication of this saying, therefore, is that when you learn the advanced kata, you actually learn the “basics” of the ryu in terms that they are the actual theoretical foundations upon which the ryu was built. When you go back to the “basic” kata, you will therefore see them with new eyes, and your movements will, in some way, be different. You will see this circular training methodology as a “virtuous cycle” in which all your techniques become further and further refined.
But for those who are advanced enough to have been given a glimpse of the “advanced” kata. Think of this: they may be the “basics.” It opens up a whole different way to look at one’s art.