Sunday, January 18, 2009

Count to One Hundred

from Dave Lowry's book, Moving Toward Stillness
Count to One Hundred
Recently I was reading an article on the basics of wilderness survival. I don't spend all that much time in the deep wilderness, but I am a chronic worrier. I can always imagine that the airplane I'm on is going to crash on some mountain or my car is going to drive off a cliff way out in the woods and I'll have to survive on my own. So I habitually read wilderness survival articles when I run across them, hoping to pick up some tidbit of information that will teach me to make a solar heater out of my shoelaces or something. Anyway, when lost, stranded. or faced with a survival situation, this particular article I was reading noted that it is a good idea to pause long enough to count to one hundred. This advice seems pretty sound to me. The time it takes to count that far allows your mind to relax enough to absorb the situation objectively and to focus your concentration on the task at hand, which is surviving. A few moments spent occupying the consciousness with a simple, repetitive job can be very beneficial. This is, not coincidentally, a central goal of the Do, the Japanese Ways such as the tea ceremony and calligraphy. When the visitor to the tea hut pauses outside to rinse his mouth and hands from the water basin that is always there, it is a moment for him to clear his mind of the distractions of the regular world. When the calligrapher sits down and rubs an ink stick against the stone wall, mixing it with water, he is preparing his medium, but he is also doing the same thing, calming his thoughts, centering his mind.

We count to one hundred in the martial Ways as well, although too few practitioners take advantage of the natural opportunities they have to do so while training at the dojo. And while survival may have a different meaning in the training hall than it does in the wilderness, the time you take to prepare yourself for the rigors of budo practice can be vital. This moment comes frequently during training, yet it is not a special event. It comes at a very ordinary interval when the practitioner pauses to bow.

It is common - and quite correct - to assume that tachirei and zarei (standing and sitting bow) are courtesies to be observed while practicing the budo. It is incorrect, though, to believe that these movements are nothing more than courtesies. Consider as an example the opening of a karate class. In most cases the students line up, assume a seated position, then bow to the dojo shrine, the teacher, and to their seniors, all in a preset manner that rarely varies from class to class. As the ritual unfolds, the minds of the practitioners are brought into a state of refined concentration; matters outside the dojo are temporarily put on hold. What is important is the lesson, the training, the direct experience of facing yourself through attacks and defenses against others.

Karate-do, like all the budo forms, can be remarkably dangerous. A single error by either participant is likely to result in some injury. As the skill of the karateka increases, the potential threat of inflicting or sustaining damage increases with it. At the beginner's level of yakusoku kumite (prearranged exchanges of technique), for instance, both the attack and the counters are usually weak and poorly focused. There is too much for the beginner to remember; he's concentrating on technical details, and at any rate, he lacks the ability and coordination to make a strong action either offensively or defensively. A mistake by either partner at this level of training may be painful, but it is unlikely to be much more than that. Yet as time goes by the karateka learns to make stronger attacks. The consequences of a mistake become more serious. The advanced karateka must more and more try to enter his regular practice with a complete grasp of the seriousness involved, of the real possibility of harming someone, or being hurt himself. For the exponent at this stage of training, the bowing and other such rituals of the dojo have a greater significance.

Within the older Japanese martial arts, those meant for actual use on the battlefield, the more advanced the training, the more intense the ritual that surrounds it. (More intense but not necessarily more elaborate, I must note. At a basic stage of training, there may be a protracted form of bowing and moving preparatory to actual practice, while at more advanced levels the ritual may be simply a short bow. But there is an intensity to that bow that is much deeper and more concentrated than that which is found at the lower levels.) Most modern budo like karate-do use only a couple of forms of bowing and a minimum of ritual prior to engaging in training. In the older arts, as I said, with their emphasis on battlefield effectiveness, the forms of ceremony are a necessity for getting into the heart of the matter. They may take some time to learn completely and to employ properly in teaching mental control and composure in the face of danger. In this kind of training, participants face one another before practice and may advance and retreat a set number of steps before or after bowing. They may bow, then place their weapons on the floor, backing away and bowing again before returning to take up the weapons and begin their exercise. The elaborate nature of this kind of reishiki (etiquette) surrounding these classical arts suggests that these rituals are not merely quaint anachronisms as nonpractitioners may suspect. They are, instead, a dynamic method for preparing the exponent mentally and spiritually for the rigors that are to follow. They are a way of counting to one hundred. Although the modern budoka might not ever experience these arts and rituals and this kind of training, he should try to adopt a similar serious and focused attitude when preparing for his own practice.

The obvious question is, what about those fighting arts and schools in which the bow is a quick nod and a slap of the thighs with the hands? Well, as I mentioned earlier, the more serious the art, the more important is the ritual. If the martial arts practitioner is content to confine himself to the limited endeavors of sparring and dance routines - which are so often all that is to be learned at certain schools and under certain systems - he has no need of any real kind of ritual. If he wishes to devote himself to serious budo, which demands confronting the essential matters of life and death, then it seems inevitable that the mental preparations he will need to make in his training will be as studied and intense as those required for surviving in mortal combat.