Reference and Philosophy

"Arts of Strength, Arts of Serenity" (JJSA #80 9/5, May 1997)

by Nicklaus Suino, 1996, Weatherhill. ISBN 0-8348-0376-3. 136 pgs.

Reviewed by Kim Taylor

The opening chapter of this book, "The Skill of the Masters" read a bit like a puff piece for Suino's instructors. We should certainly find a teacher that we can respect and hold in awe, but we must also be careful not to worship that instructor just because we are students. After this first bit of resistance, however, I warmed up to this little volume.

Suino argues as his starting point, that the "spirit" is more important than physical skill, and that this is seen better in Japan than the west, even outside the strictly martial arts. This is largely due to the emphasis on the practice of traditional arts. With this in mind, the author began to look for the underlying principles that produce such people as his instructors.

And the secret? "The real secret to becoming an expert in martial arts is realizing that training is a process of self-discovery. Further, it is a means of modifying one's personality to make oneself healthier, more well balanced, and more efficient." (p. 7) The continuing question of course is, how? The rest of the book seeks to answer that, providing a guide to using the martial arts to improve the self. A worthy goal.

Suino suggests that what we in the west have the wrong idea about these arts (something John Gilbey would agree with). While we may look at them as an accumulation of fighting techniques there are actually more efficient ways to teach fighting. (See Rex Applegate's book for instance). The traditional arts must be viewed as a whole system, "the 'excess baggage' of ritual and spiritual components in these arts makes them better, more efficient tools for personal cultivation even while complicating the process of learning how to fight." (p. 7)

These are sentiments I heartily agree with, and they will likely ring true to most students of the Japanese sword. It is unlikely there are many of us who confuse the study of the sword with "learning how to fight", due to the very impracticality of our weapon in modern society. In this I suspect Mr. Suino is preaching to the choir.

The next section of the book deals with choosing a specific martial art, and here Suino argues that the Japanese arts are most suitable for our purposes due to their structure, and their underlying philosophy. He further argues that the teacher is much more important than the particular art chosen, and recommends spending at least the first year or two looking for that teacher. he gives various factors to consider in the choice and gives descriptions of a few Japanese arts.

After this the author moves on to training the body and investigates the aspects that are most important. These are, 1. a progressive skill development, 2. breaking the skills down, 3. determining the principle being illustrated, 4. repitition of the skill, 5. conditioning the body and 6. purification, physical, mental and spiritual. These are pretty good "adult learning principles" and you won't go too far wrong using them.

Suino brings to this argument, not the usual repetition of stale knowledge, but a genuinely new perspective. The main points are familiar but his way of looking at them was very refreshing and stimulated whole new areas of thought. For example, Suino suggested that training to exhaustion should be done so that the body can no longer resist the mind, bringing about a unity of purpose in the action. The more usual way of stating this is that training to exhaustion shuts the mind down through pacifying the body, and achieving the unity in that way. I prefer Suino's viewpoint.

Another juxtaposition made is the difference between the seemingly identical terms budoka and budoman. I would expect (and did) that the "more spiritual" term would be budoka since budoman is a sort of hybrid "Japlish" word. Again Suino threw water in my face, arguing that "budoka" is too "exaulted" and "historical", too pompous, and the proper term in an English speaking society should be budoman. I don't know if I agree but on further thought I realize I do the same thing when I talk of being a kendo player or an iaido player rather than a kendoka or an iaidoka. It is really a test for the listener, the reaction to the phrase "kendo player" reveals much.

The remainder of the sections in this book are Three martial virtues (strength, courage, loyalty), training the mind, budo culture, and budo as a search for truth. There are also several appendices with information on texts, books, periodicals and budo organizations. Five of eight essential texts are written by Funakoshi, Kano, Musashi, Ueshiba and Tesshu. The other three are the Hagakure, Bushido and the Art of War. These are certainly key books in any English language library of martial arts although I'm sure Suino will get arguments for inclusions or deletions.

Overall I am very pleased that this book is out there. While not earth shattering in its premise that martial arts are taught for self-improvement rather than fighting skill, the perspective is fresh and after a long winter, I appreciate that.

"Dictionary of the Martial Arts" (JJSA #80 9/5, May 1997)

by Louis Fredric. Publ. Allen and Unwin.

Reviewed by Willie Rennison, Australia

Anyone trying to get a grasp of the Japanese language from a martial arts point of view may find this book of interest, I find the words easier to remember when looked at with their full range of derivatives. It also covers technical and philosophical usage in some detail. The book covers a wide range of asian martial arts, but predominately Japanese. A great book to keep in the toilet.

"Zen and Japanese Culture" (JJSA #80 9/5, May 1997)

by Daisetsu T. Suzuki. Charles E. Tuttle

Reviewed by Willie Rennison, Australia

In this book there are 128 pages devoted to swordsmanship and its relationship to Zen Buddhism. Part of the work is a translation of letters sent by Takuan (the Zen abbot and swordsman who counted the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu as one of his students) to Yagyu no Tajima no kami Munenori (one of the founders of the Yagyu-ryu and also a teacher of Iemitsu) discussing the philosophical aspects of swordsmanship in detail, as well as the terms used. This work should be of great interest to any swordsman as it delves into aspects of the art not covered in any other publication I've come across. I've never found Suzuki sensei the easiest of writers on the subject, but always worth the effort.

Zen combat (revised edition) (JJSA #79 9/4, Apr 1997)

by Jay Gluck, 1996, Personally Oriented, Ashiya Japan, distr. by Weatherhill, NYC. ISBN 4-89360- 038-9. paperback, 240 pages.

When I first picked this book up I flipped to the back, as I often do, and had a look at the "further reading" section. Knowing where an author is coming from helps put what he's writing into perspective.

Just about the first thing I saw was the entry on kendo on page 282.

"Kendo: US's top kendo-ka, fabulous pegleg Gordon Warner, 'This is Kendo' and 'Kendo, Japanese Swordsmanship', tho' as historian he's a fine swordsman."

Now, you've got to be old enough to have read your old man's "True" and "Argosy" magazines to really appreciate Jay Gluck's writing style. There's nothing quite like it these days. In fact, Jay (somehow it doesn't seem right to call him "Gluck") was a writer for "True".

I should probably dig out the first edition and compare the two, but I'll stick to this one as if it's a new book. The readers can make their own comparison since I'm sure anyone with a martial arts library has a copy or two of the original.

Jay was not the first westerner to write about the Japanese martial arts, but this is definitely the first "popular history/survey" of the subject in English. The book has had an undeniably powerful influence on the arts in the west. I've probably owned at least four different versions of the first edition over the years, all bought second hand. Not surprising since 400,000 copies of "Zen Combat" have been printed since the first Balantine Paperback edition in 1962.

Here undoubtably, is the source of many of the martial arts legends that float around the community. In the first three pages we hear of Mas Oyama killing a bull in one punch with his bare hands, and we hear that karate guys have to register their hands as deadly weapons with the police. Later we hear that karate was developed in Okinawa to fight invaders, usually the Japanese, and on page 85 we learn that karate defeated the buccaneer barons from Satsuma in the 16th century. In two places, Jay states that Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido, demonstrated bullet dodging for the Imperial Army but refused to teach them how to do it. Perhaps the largest "urban legend" of all, according to some modern writers, is the very concept of "zen combat". It is now quite common to note the connection of zen to martial arts is not nearly as strong as that of other forms of buddhism, and most certainly not as old. In chapter 3, Jay points out that we here in the west are aware of all the techniques of the Japanese martial arts, but we don't treat it wholistically. In fact, "Occidentals have also been unaware of the possibility of a scientific approach, a unified field, thus have made no attempt at an organization or even scientific cataloging of this known miscellany." There may be more argument here from Western scholars. One might look at any issue of Hammerterz Forum and see a lineage of Western martial training similar to that of Japan. The real difference between the East and the West is Zen. Jay maintains that only with Zen can you perpetuate the arts, and unite intuition and learning in a systematic way. In the West we rely either on native intuition or rote learning. Zen technique allows one to condition intuition through the process of learning a skill.

Scholars may find yet other problems in this book. I'm no expert but am somewhat skeptical that the Persian Zurkhane and the Taoist Boxers of China were all part of a coordinated attempt to overthrow the Mongols. Know what? I don't care if it's true or not. There are two kinds of book, scholarly or popular (historical or mythical, literary or oral) and this book is a model for the second. Reading Jay Gluck takes me back to fourteen years old, discovering this strange world all over again. We need these magical stories once in a while. It's good to know the "truth" of things but sometimes we should be protected from the truth. Jay stays true to TRUE form, getting just mystical/conspiratorial enough for fun and inspiration without going far enough to do any real harm.

On the plus side, the discussion of meditation is excellent. It's basic, no-nonsense practical stuff you get for paperback price in the sport section, (rather than three times the price in philosophy for a fancier cover and obtuse language). Through discussion of dance, music and zen combat, Jay gives an explanation of just how the combat forms work as meditation. On the subject of secret teachings, Jay quotes Kato Tokuro, a Japanese potter. "Secrets? ... The sole cause of secrets in craftsmanship is the student's inability to learn!" He then goes on to give the reader a $3500 course in the secrets of firewalking. Even without this good stuff, the anecdote about the meeting of Rube Goldburg and Morihei Ueshiba is worth the price of admission all by itself.

This edition of Zen Combat is extensively re-written so that you get a feeling more like deja vu than of having read the first edition. Zen Combat was always special, not an academic survey but a hell of a description of how we felt on first seeing the arts. Congratulations to Mr. Gluck for keeping his sense of wonder all these years, and thanks for giving us an excuse to read it again.

Page last updated February 25, 1998 by Kim Taylor