Sunday, March 15, 2009

Book Reviews

A couple book reviews, both courtesy of my friend, Keith Vargo.

The first one, which Keith lent to me to read, is "Rational Mysticism" by John Horgan, a former science writer for Scientific American and numerous other publications. Horgan begins with a description of a mystical experience from William James: "Mysticism, James proposed, begins with an experience that meets four criteria: It is ineffable - that is, difficult or impossible to convey in ordinary language. It is noetic, meaning that it seems to reveal deep, profound truth. It is transient, rarely lasting for more than an hour or so. And it is a passive state, in which you feel gripped by a force much greater than yourself. Two qualities that James did not include in his formal list but mentioned elsewhere are blissfulness and a sense of union with all things."
As the title suggests, the book is an exploration of mysticism from the standpoint of science and rationality. Horgan interviews a number of scholars, philosophers, theologists, neurologists, and even pharmacologists, and looks at mystical experiences from a great many angles. What was interesting to me were some of the parallels with accounts of mystical experiences in the martial arts - these are usually couched in Zen buddhist terms like satori or kensho. As martial artists, aren't we all searching for a deeper insight into life?
Read this description of a seigan in John Stevens' biography of Yamaoka Tesshu, The Sword of No-Sword:
Yanagita Ganjiro completed the two-hundred-match seigan on the final day of his thousand-day training period. He then practiced five hundred more days in a row and undertook the three-day, six-hundred-match seigan. Blows received from the short, thick Muto Ryu bamboo sword (shinai) were extremely painful. Yanagita recalled: "After the first day my head was full of lumps and my body covered with bruises, but I did not feel weak. On the second day I began to suffer. I thought I would have to give up halfway. I managed to continue and near the end of the day I experienced 'selflessness' - I naturally blended with my opponent and moved in unhindered freedom. Although my spirit was strong my body was weak. My urine was dark red and I had no appetite. Nevertheless, I passed the final day's contests with a clear mind; I felt as if I was floating among the clouds."
Tesshu used the seigan as a way to make his students confront death - not death at the hands of one's opponent, but rather death due to exhaustion. Completing the seigan forced the student to push past barriers of pain to reach a new level of awareness - a mystical experience characterized by "blending" and "unhindered freedom".
Horgan interviews neurologists who have this to say about mystical experiences:

Newberg and D'Aquili divided all methods for achieving unitive experiences into two categories: top-down and bottom-up. Top-down methods, which included meditation and prayer, achieve transcendence through relaxation, by focusing and calming the mind. Bottom-up techniques, which include dancing, hyperventilation, chanting, and vigorous yoga, approach the same goal through excitation. Each method taps into a different componenet of the body's autonomic nervous system, which regulates heartbeat, blood pressure, respiration, metabolism, and other physiological functions. Top-down methods exploit the so-called quiescent component of the autonomic system, which limits the body's expenditure of energy and maintains its equilibrium. Bottom-up methods exploit the arousal component of the autonomic system, which triggers the body's fight-or-flight response, causing adrenaline to be pumped into the bloodstream, boosting heart rate and respiration.
If either the arousal or the quiescent component is pushed far enough, the one activates the other through a "spillover effect," producing a paradoxical state of ecstatic serenity. At the same time, activity decreases in a region at the top and rear of the brain called the posterior superior parietal lobe. Newberg and D'Aquili referred to this region as the orientaton-association area, since it helps us orient our bodies in relation to the external world. Patients whose posterior superior parietal lobe has been damaged often lose the ability to navigate, because they have difficulty determing where their physical selves end and the external world begins. Suppressed activity in this region, Newbeg and D'Aquili hypothesized, could lead to the decreased sense of subject-object duality and the heightened sense of unity with the external world reported by mystics.
The rest of the book is just as interesting, and is highly recommend for anyone interested in philosophy, mysticism, or religion.

Next up is Philosophy of Fighting - Morals and Motivations of the Modern Warrior. This one really does come courtesy of my friend Keith Vargo; he wrote it. It's a collection of articles published in Black Belt over the last 10 years. Keith has done karate, boxing, wrestling, and most recently has practiced Mixed Martial Arts for a number of years at the Takada Dojo, a leading training center in Tokyo, with such luminaries as Akira Shoji and Kazushi Sakuraba. His bias shows somewhat, as many of the articles are about the MMA world, but there is a great deal of interest to general martial artists; even reclusive iaidoka like myself.
One of Keith's recurring themes is the idea of violence, and its place in the modern world. One of my favorite pieces comes from an article called "The Reality of Violence", originally published in 1999.
In the beginning, we were little more than primates with the potential for consciousness. Like most social primates, we spent much of our time fighting with each other over food or access to females. The first human ancestor with anything like our reflective mind was the first one who felt the sting of regret because of hurting or killing one of his own kind. This caused him to reflect on his actions, giving him an interior life new to our species. Finally, this primordial drama is what we are recreating, to some degree, in every modern dojo...

Mr. Vargo then goes on to explore this theory, arguing that warrior Zen is a necessary attempt to return to a sort of primordial state, where we do not reflect on consequences but simply act at a moment's notice. It's a very interesting idea, and one that I had never considered before.
There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this book that struck me as novel or unique, and that's why I strongly recommend it to martial artists of all backgrounds. Our shelves are already full of style-specific technical manuals; that's what most books on the martial arts really boil down to, even if they claim, at some point, to be something different. Unfortunately, books that analyze the martial arts on anything like a psychological, philosophical, or anthropological level are all too rare. I hope that this book will inspire others to produce similar works.
If the book has a drawback, it's in the format. It is just a collection of Keith's short (one- or two-page) monthly articles. This makes the book's pacing a bit monotonous, and frequently left me wishing that he could have expanded more on what he was saying. But in terms of giving the reader bite-size chunks to chew on, it's great.
One more note: there is one article ("Defining the Warrior") which Keith Vargo didn't write, but which was included due to an editorial oversight. The article doesn't really match Keith's writing style, and so it stuck out like a sore thumb when I read the book. I trust it will be left out of future editions.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Sengoku Jidai Boom!

Apparently there is a Sengoku Jidai (Warring States Period) "boom" in Japan right now. I think it's safe to say that Japan is one of the most craze-prone countries on earth; any kind of boom or fad can spring up, spread quickly, and then fade away to be replaced by the next thing. There always seems to be something new on the horizon, and magazines and TV shows are constantly reporting on what's hot.

I was just in the convenience store and saw a magazine for men called Goods Press. It's aimed at young guys with lots of disposable income, and it tries to tell you what you should be buying this month in various categories: electronics, clothes, toys, watches, etc. This month, they had a feature for people who are into the Sengoku Jidai, probably inspired by the current Taiga Drama on NHK. I must admit, most of these toys and things really brought out my inner geek! (People who know me are saying "Inner geek?")

Some of the items featured: knee-length underwear that is patterned like haidate, or the thigh-armour worn by the samurai. I really want a pair of these!

Also available: mobile-phone straps that look like little bits of armour. Cool!

They mentioned a Sengoku Jidai theme restaurant in Shinjuku. I want to go! Some women from my office who are into Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen went there last year, but didn't invite me (sob).

They also have super-detailed figures of samurai in armour, based on historical personages. Here's Ii Naomasa, and here's Oda Nobunaga. I had this exact idea a few years ago! (I also imagined a Miyamoto Musashi figure ... hope somebody puts that out.) How fun would it be to start a business making action figures? I wish I had had a hundred thousand dollars of start-up capitol, some graphic artists working for me, and even the vaguest idea of how to run a business...

They did an in-depth profile of Marutake, a company that makes Japanese armour. They even did graphs for each suit of armour, ranking them on things like "ease of movement" and "prestige factor".

They had a page about Yagyu Shingan Ryu (see my last post!) on fighting in armour, and went so far as to select some "Choice Techniques".

Finally, they went to Ginza Choshuya, a prominent sword-dealer in Ginza, and looked at some of their real and replica swords.

Part of me gets annoyed at how modern Japanese people seem to think the Sengoku Jidai was such a cool, romantic period, while ignoring how utterly horrible it must have been. They seem to like it just because of how dramatic and spectacular it all was ... but then I think, I'm no different! I originally started iaido because I saw pictures of samurai in books when I was a kid, and was fascinated by how cool they looked. Later, I saw iaido and was drawn in by the aesthetic, while knowing nothing about the deeper side of it. And as you can see, part of me still gets excited when I see samurai-themed toys or restaurants or accessories. I guess it's okay not to look too deeply into things all the time, right?

Nihon Kobudo Taikai, or Buy Me a New Camera

Last month I went to the Nihon Kobudo Taikai at the Nippon Budokan. (This example illustrates the sometimes-confusing nature of Japanese; the modern name of Japan is "Nihon" but traditional things still retain the old-fashioned sounding "Nippon".) I took a lot of pictures and video with my now rather outdated camera, and it really struggled to get any good shots at high levels of zoom indoors. So, most of my pictures are a bit blurry, or have terrible white-balance. I suppose I could have tried to fix them but ... well, by now I think most people who read this thing know how lazy I am. If you want, you can always donate to the "Buy Jeff a New Camera Fund". Anyone?

A report, much better pictures, and (we hope) video will appear on Kendo World soon. If you enjoy seeing this sort of thing, you should subscribe to the magazine to support the ongoing effort to bring you free content like this. What follows are my own not-very-good pictures, and some thoughts.

Everyone lined up at the beginning. It is amazing to think of the combined hours of practice standing in that acre of real estate. On the left is Namitome Shigenori Sensei of Shinto Muso Ryu jodo; on the right is Iwami Toshio Sensei of Hyoho Niten Ichi Ryu kenjutsu. Both have been kind and generous enough with their time to visit us in Canada.

The demonstrators are split up into groups by weapon - archery, kenjutsu, jujutsu, iaijutsu, and so on, and within each group, each ryuha goes by age. Oldest ryuha go first. Ogasawara Ryu kyubajutsu (mounted archery) is just about the oldest continuous martial art in Japan (after sumo, perhaps) so they go first every year. If you ever think that iaido or kendo is an expensive hobby, I shudder to think how much those kimono and handmade bows cost.

This is a pretty bad photo technically, but I kind of like it anyway. Kyoso Sensei doing Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu iaijutsu.

Ono-ha Itto Ryu with its distinctive "oni gote" or large padded gauntlets. They really smack those things.

Iwami Sensei demonstrating the Nito Seiho of Niten Ichi Ryu.

This was amazing. Kobayashi Sensei of Shin Gyo To Ryu is 95 and unable to walk very well, and so came in a wheelchair. He demonstrated seated techniques with his son.

Takenouchi Ryu

Suio Ryu

Katsuse Sensei of Suio ryu shows Masaki Ryu kusarigama-jutsu

Iai in full armour: Shojitsu Kenri Takaichi Ryu

Hozoin Ryu Takada Ha Sojutsu (spear)

Saburi Ryu

Owari Kan Ryu spear ...

... and Kenjutsu; in the background with fukuro shinai and in the foreground with an o-dachi. The first third of the blade seems to be wrapped with paper to allow the user to grip it there.

Yoshin Ryu; definitely the best-looking demonstrators of the day.

Arai Sensei is on the receiving end of Ukan here. A demonstration of Shinto Muso Ryu.
Furukawa Sensei was supposed to demonstrate but didn't. Next practice, I asked him why he didn't demonstrate; was he sick? He said a word in Japanese that I didn't know. I stared blankly. He said it again; I asked him "What does that word mean?" He barked in English, "My - muzza - dead!" And that's how I learned another word for "funeral".

Yagyu Shingan Ryu. It is hard to categorize as it is fighting in armour but they wrestle, use swords, knives, and sometimes even their helmet to clobber the other guy.

I've never seen gunnery before, so this was great. Seki Ryu Hojutsu. Do I need to explain how loud it was? Note the guys crouching in the background with fire extinguishers, just in case something goes very wrong somehow. I heard an anecdote that, a few years ago, all the black powder smoke set off the sprinkler systems in Himeji. Oops.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Now With 50% Less Jerkitude!

If you've ever tried e-mailing me at my gmail address, odds are that I didn't write you back. I apologize. It was only because I'm a big, stupid jerk, and I never check that mail address. So, I have taken the extraordinary step of having my gmail forwarded automatically to an address that I actually check from time to time. No, I have no idea why I thought that would be difficult to set up, nor why it took me ... 4 years? ... to do it.

I love technology!