Sunday, May 23, 2010

Martial Arts and the Art of Shodo

“Shodo” is the Japanese term for the art of calligraphy, or the “way” (“do”) of the brush (“sho”). Anyone who’s ever attempted the study of Japanese/Chinese calligraphy will attest to the tremendous difficulty of this traditional art but aside from that, how can shodo be compared to the practice of traditional martial arts and their accompanying forms?
When a youngster first picks up the brush and begins to learn the most fundamental strokes (we might compares these to the basic techniques of our arts) he practices on very thin rice paper, which is placed directly over copies of strokes made by renowned masters of the art. The student does his or her level best to copy these strokes – essentially “tracing” them, as it were, onto the rice paper.
This stage must be practiced until the young student is able to easily “trace” the strokes as they were made by various masters. It cannot be completed in a short time and there are no short-cuts. Can we not compare this to striving to imitate the basic techniques and forms exactly as one’s instructor performs them?
Let me tell you, if you’ve never been initiated into the practice of shodo you cannot imagine how much is really involved. It’s much more than simply “painting” certain strokes onto a piece of paper. Much. More. Your posture and breathing must be correct. You must calm your mind and unify your spirit. The brush must be held just so and you must learn to manipulate it this way and that so as to move the very tip of the bristles in certain directions. The pressure used to write one part of a given stroke is often very different than that required for another part.
You don’t write by moving your wrist as we do when writing with a pencil or pen. Rather, the whole arm moves – but it moves only as a part of the dantien (“tanden” in Japanese), so that you are actually making the strokes with your whole body and mind.
When first learning the basic techniques and form(s) of our chosen martial disciplines, are we not told that we must maintain a certain posture, breathe a certain way, and put spiritual strength into the dantien? At first we are overwhelmed by so much instruction; we feel that it’s simply too much to remember! But, of course, with lots of practice over time, we become accustomed to these many details and they become second nature. We are able to accurately imitate our teacher’s movements and it is at this point that we are ready to proceed to the second stage.
The calligraphy student will now write on paper that is laid beside, rather than over, the master’s works. This is a difficult stage because the student must practice to be able to imitate the writings of the masters in a “freestyle” manner, as it were. He or she cannot simply “trace” them. Moreover, the aspiring calligrapher must learn to pay attention to small details; how the vital force (“chi” in Chinese and “ki” in Japanese) of the old masters was expressed through their strokes. It is said the one who is skilled in this art can see into the very heart of someone who has brushed several strokes.
In time, the student is able to freely copy the works of the past masters and he or she is now ready to enter the third, and final, stage of training.
The third stage involves learning to find one’s own “way” of writing. The student must understand that the thousands of copied strokes he or she made up until this time had no real life in them. They were purely mechanical constructs; empty imitations of the real thing. Now, he or she must give “life” to the strokes and characters and find his or her own “way” of expressing them. All of the necessary mechanics will be correct, all of the principles involved in brushing calligraphy will be observed but they’ll be adapted to the writer’s body, mind, and spirit. This means that they may appear to be different on the outside but on the inside, the principles are always the same. If you look at the same characters brushed by two different high-level practitioners they will look considerably different, but they are easily read by anyone familiar with the written language of China or Japan.
Is it not the same with martial arts training? After years of imitating the instructor’s movements to the smallest details, the student eventually finds his/her own “way” of executing them, according to his/her own physical, psychological, and spiritual structures. Each student breathes life into the techniques and forms and makes them their own. But because each student thinks and feels differently, so their (performance) of their forms will vary a bit. This is why two high-ranking students of a particular teacher will perform the same form somewhat differently. Each student has adapted the form to fit his or her body, mind, and spirit. Both forms are essentially correct – for the person performing them – but when presenting them to their own students they will demonstrate the movements exactly as they learned them from their teacher. This allows their students to follow the same developmental progression that they did.
Nowadays, novices sometimes try to find their own “way” of performing techniques and forms much too early. They have not yet mastered the underlying fundamental principles and their spirits are in disarray. The result is almost always a poor attempt at imitating martial arts. Like the aspiring calligraphers, they should take their time and savor the details of their arts. Real skill does not come easily or quickly. It happens of its own accord and cannot be hurried. In fact, the harder you try to achieve it, the further from it you get. Only when you throw away effort can it be realized.

No comments:

Post a Comment