Monday, January 08, 2007

Thoughts of joy and kendo

Most of the people stop kendo within the first year of starting this martial art. There are many reasons for this: kendo was not the suitable martial art, the person didn’t fit in the group and so on. But, what about people who have been training for more than 10 years and for whom kendo has become more than just a hobby? In this case the person cannot say that he didn’t know what it was all about. These people have been in various kendo seminars and competitions in their own country and abroad. Why do some people stop kendo in this phase?

One Japanese sensei has said that when one loses the joy of training, then any excuse is good enough for abandoning the training; professional life, private life and so on. Perhaps it would be good to reflect what can take away the joy of kendo.

Everyone goes through moments of frustration in kendo life. Failing an examination is perhaps one of the most common ones. When that happens, the senseis and more experienced kendokas encourage to practice more as a solution. Of course there is no other way than that, though one wonders what was wrong and what should be improved for the next time. When one fails the same exam multiple times; is it then possible to practice with joy and without stress? One’s own high expectations and at the same time the fear of failing again are constantly present; at least in the sub-conscious. Only a very small portion of people pass the 6 and 7 dan examinations. So, the latest in this moment many people will go through serious thinking about the meaning of all this. One unnamed person said he would change kendo to golf after having failed several times the 7 dan exams. We might wonder how easily the failure in exam, or losing in a competition we could add, impacts on the joy of training.

We are used to rely on our physical condition and we have learned kendo based on that. But, what happens when, for example in an accident a leg or an arm is injured in a way that one must re-learn the physical part and adapt the training according to the new situation? How easy it would be to stop here! It’s much easier to abandon than to face one’s own expectations; one is not able to train as before, the others seem to advance much faster, and so forth.

When we get older the challenges are very similar. A middle-aged person doesn’t have the same physics as a twenty-year old; the recovery takes longer, muscle ruptures and other problems occur more easily. In addition, the older one gets the more responsibilities there are in general; the family needs attention and the professional life takes a lot of energy and time. The challenge is to find and re-find every day the balance with everything as everything is in a constant change. Training with a bad consciousness is an unnecessary burden and also impacts the joy.

It takes really a lot of humility, patience and persistence to re-learn and to re-find everything and to admit that there is no return to the past. It requires re-arranging one’s own expectations and objectives. It’s very difficult to admit that the speed and physical condition, that one has trusted almost blindly, are not the same as before and there is no way back either. To go through such a way builds character and mental capacity; by accepting the new situation and continuing to practice accordingly one wins oneself each time. Passing exams and winning in the competition loose their importance. The practice in itself and the joy it brings become the most precious thing.

People who get older with dignity, such as our own super-Francis (75), are great examples for all of us. For me these kendokas and other people, who, regardless of their challenges and problems, go on within their limitations, are inexhaustible sources of inspiration. They have gone through a difficult path and continue with all their heart whatever they do.

This kind of ideas have come to my mind while kendo has been only shadow-training and at the same time knowing that the way to the next ji-geiko with shinais is some light-years away. Fortunately there are plenty of sources of inspiration; one just needs to keep the eyes open!

Sunday, December 31, 2006

A couple of words about the interview

I spent one afternoon in 2004 with Ichiro Sato Tessen who is a great artist and a good friend. It was really inspiring to discuss with him about painting, kendo, life, Japan,... I tried to capture the essence of the discussion in the interview below. The interview was published in one kendo magazine two years ago.

Ichiro Sato Tessen – Painting & Kendo

“I’m not a zen artist, however I use the training method of zen to create my work. The focus of my paintings is “the Line”. Traditionally, zen uses practices such as discipline and concentration to realize the quality of “the Line”. Although this is also the goal I pursue, I consider myself to be just an artist in his quest for inner truth.

By ridding myself of all conscious effort to draw, I acquire the freedom to release lines with energy, speed, continuity and rhythm. “The Line” therefore comes alive with reflections of personal experience.

The inner image, expressed subconsciously, is transferred upon the viewer and I believe that the successful unification of nature and the artist as well as the audience is possible.”

Talking to us is Ichiro Sato Tessen, a Japanese artist living and working in Brussels. A painter and calligraphist, he also teaches these arts and organises exhibitions. He was born in 1947 in Tokyo and has lived for over 30 years in Europe; the last 15 in Brussels.

His paintings are really exceptional: the more you look at them the more you can find something new and fascinating.

Tessen practices kendo and iaido in the Butokukan dojo in Brussels. I recently met him to discuss the relationship between painting and kendo. We ended up talking the whole afternoon and evening about arts, kendo, dualism, training, personal development, Musashi, and much more. What follows are a few highlights of the conversation.

What are the similarities between painting and kendo? What is the goal?

T: In his later years Musashi, the best known swordsman in the Japanese history, focused in more peaceful arts, namely in painting and in sculpture. All arts, including martial arts, from a certain level onwards are based on zen buddhism. All of them – martial arts, painting, sculputure, etc – are striving for the same target: finding oneself, inner peace, harmony, balance. In the end kendo is also about the same thing. Victory is not the goal.

If you are thinking about attacking in the geiko in kendo, your opponent can feel it and therefore can react to it easily. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to ‘win’ from a person who has found himself because his mind is empty. In order to reach such a state of mind and being, one must go through the spiritual path. Once an artist has reached this, a painter for example, then art manifests by itself without conscious effort.

A good master can only show direction. You cannot transmit experience itself to others. Everyone has to learn through their own experience.

The initial meaning of the word “Dojo”, the place where we practice, was “temple”. “Do” means way -- as in the word kendo, while “jo” means place. Thus, a dojo is a place where we practice the way. Therefore, when we enter the dojo we bow to show respect. If we compare to Western countries a similar place would be a church. We also bow to our opponents as they are also in this same place learning the way together with us.

You are teaching painting with Chinese ink to Belgians. Do you think that teaching kendo and calligraphy to Occidentals is similar?

T: There are a lot of similarities teaching and learning kendo and calligraphy. In both them the students need patience, persistence and determination.

To teach the students to draw a line with a brush is very similar as teaching suburi in kendo. The strike with a brush is done in one phase, similar to a cut with the sword. Initially it takes a long time for the student to understand this and be able to do it. You can explain and show it so many times, and still the students are not able to see or do it. Of course when you break the movement to two or three phases, it’s easier to understand. But the movement is not about that! In kendo the challenges are very similar.

Belgians want to know if something is right or good, but when they ask such questions, it shows that they are missing the point. It’s very challenging to teach because the obstacle is in the basis of understanding and looking at the world.

Could you explain more about that?

T: The occidental culture and Christianity are based on dualism whereas in Japan everything is relative. This very fundamental difference is reflected in everything. For us the same thing can be good and bad, or black and white and so on, it all depends. In the Western countries things are either good or bad; black or white.

For example, when someone wins kendo championships this can be good and bad. It depends on how the “champion” takes it further. If he becomes proud, then it’s bad. If he starts to practice more for better understanding and improve him/herself, it’s good. But even then, if he then neglects other domains in his life, then maybe the victory was bad. And we can go on and on like this. There is no absolute good and bad. If you take this kind of thinking further then winning and loosing do not exist at all. This kind of relativity is part of life in the oriental cultures.

Could you tell me about your painting?

T: As I said, from a certain level onwards, painting and all arts are about spiritual learning.

If I copy something, it is not coming from inside of me. For example if I try to draw a similar line I just did a moment ago, it will not be good because I’m thinking about this other line. When the moment is right and the mind is empty, my hand moves by itself without effort. In these kind of moments I don’t know in advance how the painting will be. I’m one with the brush.

I can make paintings that are technically good, even if my mind is not empty, because I master the technique. But this kind of work is not from “me”. People who are at the same level can feel and see the difference between this kind of technical paintings and the ones that really are from “me”.

To my understanding in kendo it is about the same thing. I’m not at a high level in kendo, so I cannot speak about experience. My understanding is coming from the painting and studying masters.

In conclusion: the most important is to find harmony, peace and balance in oneself and in everything

Saturday, December 30, 2006

About reactions

What would a rich man do if his riches were taken away? What about an athlete whose health was lost? Or anyone who looses something so important to her or to him? How do we react? How do we continue to live?

Of course no many people know their reactions in advance. Even if something important has happened one time it doesn't mean that by experience one can say that the next time one would react in such and such way. That's part of life's surprises.

We all encounter daily smaller events that impact ourselves. We usually react without thinking. Sometimes even small things can cause us quite great impact. For example when a person who we regard as special, is watching us, we can become completely disoriented and we can loose control of our doings.

When you really think about it, we are impacted quite deeply by so many things continuously: teachers, friends, doctors, lawyers, colleagues,... Typically we just react without even thinking why.

Many years ago I suffered quite a bit when I did physical exercise. Finally some years later I was told I had very aggressive asthma of effort; the doctor was really concerned and gave me immediately the inhalator which I should keep with me always. When I left for home I was just thinking why should I change now my behaviour only because I was given the name of what I had. During the years I had learned to breathe correctly and control completely the annoyance. Why should I change now, just because a doctor told me a name? I was still the same person as the day before. This little event taught me an important lesson that I have thought many times.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Another trial of discipline

I just learned today that I must follow again the iodine-free diet for four weeks. This time it'll be for the upcoming tests. I will confirm tomorrow, after lunch(!), when I need to start it. I guess immediately...

This will be the 8th time to follow such a diet. Each time it has been challenging as there are not many things that I can eat. Iodine is everywhere: sea-food, sea fish, sea salt, iodised salt, cheese, milk, and all other milk products, soya products, coconut,... I think the list is getting bigger each time! When I had the first round four years ago I was not told about the coconut nor the soya products.

This diet impacts the daily life; I have to bring my own food to the office, I cannot eat in the restaurants, no trips, no eating at friends' and need to prepare everything by myself. I had to refuse a trip to Madrid in mid-January. La proxima vez!

When you can eat just about anything, you never realise how challenging it is to live in today's world following a special diet. In the end of the day my diet is only for a month and it is also fairly simple. There are a lot of people having to follow much more difficult diets for their whole life. It must be a life-time challenge.

For me it'll be a little one month challenge and yet another trial of discipline.