Hidden teachings and pedagogy

Discussion in 'Koryu Bujutsu' started by Christianson, May 2, 2014.

  1. Christianson

    Christianson Valued Member

    A thread in the Ninjutsu forum entitled What's the use? included a tangent in which it was pointed out that koryu bujutsu tends to reserve some of their teachings as "hidden initiations" for their own students. This is generally quite true. Unfortunately, this tends to come across as quite cultish or mystical to Western ears, when the explanation is somewhat more prosaic.

    I should be clear that as in all things related to koryu bujutsu, the full answer is really case-by-case. Some schools believe in boosting the effectiveness of their school with security-through-obscurity; in other cases, the root motivation for a graded introduction was fundamentally commerical. At the same time, what all koryu bujutsu share (by historical and defintional necessity) is an educational framework rooted in neo-Confucian ideology.

    One of the key tenets of this pedagogy is that the behaviour of the mind and body (and ki, but this gets a little beyond the subject) are profoundly linked. If the body is behaving correctly, so must the mind, and vice versa. In practical terms, this leads to a teaching approach in which the student is required to constantly repeat "ideal" physical movements (kata) over and over. This constant repetition of "perfect" motion pulls the mind into the correct mindset: in other words, physical mastery leads to a spontaneous understanding of the underlying theory. The focus is on the physical demand: this is easy to evaluate and regulate in progress. Conversely, theory introduced too early, or in a way that is unclear to the student, is dangerous. Asked to think about something, the student automatically tries to extrapolate with very good odds of wrong conclusions being reached. For anything other than the most trivial of subjects, it verges on the impossible for the teacher to ascertain that the student's thoughts have remained on the proper course. Instead, any error will likely only come up much later, when the bad habits or mental state have become deeply ingrained. In the ideal, then, theory is discussed only very rarely, and it is never used to introduce new things. Rather, the teacher aims with the discussion to bring to a conscious level things that the student already understands.

    To move to a more immediate level, in the context of "talking about martial arts on the Internet," this has two implications when you ask someone who practices a koryu bujutsu a question about the teachings of their art.

    Firstly, you are asking them to teach you wrongly. Now, if you have no intentions of studying the art in question, this is probably a moot point. However, anyone who's ever been a teacher or an academic -- and many of those who've dealt with them -- has probably experienced the discomfort that comes when someone insists on getting an explanation that is accurate as far as it goes but just not right. Even if the answer is sufficient for the here-and-now, it risks putting the recipient in a place where they will be worse off in the future. If they do start studying the art, they will have misconceptions that cause problems. Especially relevant on the Internet, the 'Chinese whispers' effect on that initial not-really-accurate-but explanation could easily lead to some major mischaracterisations of the art.

    Secondly, they might quite literally not know how to answer. In principle, only very senior practitioners of an art will have reached the point at which they have a lucid conscious understanding of the theory which they spontaneously learned. Junior practitioners will often have been exposed to nothing; intermediate practitioners are usually in the state where they are mostly aware of how little they know. So: either they have no answer to give; they have an answer but are pretty sure it's not correct; or they know the answer and probably have better things to do than post on the Internet. ;)

    I don't know if this will be interesting or useful to anyone -- or for that matter, if it is entirely correct, and I look forward to historians or practitioners of other arts telling me all the ways in which I am wrong (sincerely). The prompting for this post is that in general the people I have met and worked with who study koryu bujutsu have been friendly, genial people who at the heart of it love their art and enjoy sharing it. The "hidden initiations" aspect of koryu bujutsu can easily give an impression that runs counter to that, and I hope that this bit of context help makes it a bit more sensible for those without the inside experience.
  2. ap Oweyn

    ap Oweyn Ret. Supporter

    The problem with what you describe is what you correctly identify as "the ideal." Practicing the ideal through things like kata, to the exclusion of less idealized training methods, generally (in my experience) results in practitioners who cannot perform when conditions are not ideal. Like a moving target, at its simplest. The reality doesn't conform with the ideal training method. But there's no changing the reality.

    So, if practicing the idealized version of something is designed specifically to elicit a mindset, the question is whether that mindset can withstand the dissonance experienced when it's NOT an ideal situation. Is the mindset resilient enough to persist when the practitioner is called upon to improvise in the less-than-ideal?

    Over and over again, I've seen examples suggesting no. That's the value of other training methods.

    A lot of the questions leveled at Ninjutsu focus on the less-than-ideal. And my feeling is that the questions aren't always a matter of not being developmentally prepared to hear the answers. Sometimes they're just positing questions that deviate from the ideal that people have settled into.

    Working in the less-than-ideal wouldn't STOP it from being ninjutsu, bujutsu, koryu, whatever.
  3. Christianson

    Christianson Valued Member

    This is a bit of a tangent, but it's a relevant one.

    Unfortunately, I didn't correctly describe what I meant by "the ideal." The ideal movement -- physical mastery of the kata -- means being able to execute the technique every single time under any and all circumstances. Not just with any opponent, or regardless of footing, but regardless of what your opponent does -- any counter-techniques he executes, anything he does or doesn't do. I've linked it before, but here again is a good post by William Bodiford in which he discusses how changes in the kata are a fundamental element of proper kata training.

    However, these breaks from the normal form are not intended to be common. They are, if you want, a pop quiz. There's no warning if one is coming. If you fail them, there's no explanation as to the correct answer. Instead, you go back to the normal form, where (in principle) you need to further refine your physical mastery to bring your mental mastery to a point where you can pass the test.

    (Another analogy that might help clarify the point of kata: if we were to think of a comparison with the instruction of physics, kata aren't theorems or laws. They're the equivalent of word problems. The idea is that by stepping through the solution of the word problems over and over again, the underlying scientific theory that leads to the solutions will be instilled in you. But the pinnacle of learning is not being able to recite the solution by rote; that's just a step in the training. Real mastery is when you're using the theory to re-create the solution, at which point you should be able to deal with any and all modifications to the problem.)

    Where we come into agreement, I think, is that the problem with this pedagogical model is that it is enormously fragile. To make it work, you need a teacher who knows not only when to put forward these pop quizzes, but also what constitutes a meaningful quiz, and exactly what the student needs to be quizzed on in order to stimulate their understanding. Without a teacher of that level of understanding, you won't be able to reach the physical ideal. There are sadly many examples of koryu bujutsu that have lost the underlying theory entirely, and now just practice the "ideal form" in the sense that you mean it. When that happens, they've lost the ability to improvise entirely.

    Just to be clear here: I know nothing about ninjutsu or the training it engages in, and I did not mean for anything I said to be interpreted as being a statement one way or the other about it.

    Again, limiting myself to koryu bujutsu: if what I described as "pop quizzes" above fits with what you mean by "working in the less-than-ideal", then obviously I agree. ;) If you instead mean moving away from a neo-Confucian pedagogical approach, then there is a real risk that a koryu bujutsu would become something else.
  4. ap Oweyn

    ap Oweyn Ret. Supporter

    Well said. The problem with analogies, though, is that--by definition--they aren't the thing you're talking about. If we're talking physics, then that's how physics is learned. But what makes martial arts different is that you (mercifully) never practice the actual thing we profess to be doing. We don't actually cut anyone down with a katana, for instance. It's an abstraction, however you cut it (if you'll excuse the pun). So establishing the ideal is a different thing.
  5. Christianson

    Christianson Valued Member

    Agreed. This comes back to why I said that in koryu bujutsu, you can't really switch away from the Neo-Confucian pedagogy without risking the inherent viability of the art. What lets a student trust in the "ideal" he is being taught is essentially a matter of history. The founder was someone who actually cut down people with a katana. He used his experiences to formulate the training ideals which are now passed down. In the case of most (?) koryu bujutsu, people trained using these ideals by successors to the founder also successfully fought and killed people. In other words, the student can be relatively confident that the ideal, as conveyed by the classical teaching methodology, works. But change the training framework too much, and it is difficult to be certain -- and impossible to prove -- that everything relevant is still being conveyed.
  6. ap Oweyn

    ap Oweyn Ret. Supporter

    That, sir, is a very interesting thought. I'm not a huge fan of the appeal-to-history argument. But in this context, it does explain the koryu fixation on tradition. It's not my cup of tea, but what you're saying makes sense. It's definitely a different mindset than the one to which I've become accustomed.
  7. Dean Winchester

    Dean Winchester Valued Member

    Nothing to add as Christonson has made some excellent posts and is far more eloquent, and I'll guess more experienced, than I but I wanted to thank him for breathing some life back into this forum with such a fantastic topic.
  8. beer_belly

    beer_belly Valued Member

    Only comment I would make is there are at least 2 sorts of hidden teaching embedded in koryu pedagogy - there were the literally hiden / secret transmission techniques like the 5 gomuso kata at the pinnacle of SMR jo only taught to Kaiden level practitioners, and then the embedded but not explicit things that come clear for the practitioner with time, further practice, internalising the manner of moving and being of the school - the later ones being the ones most vulnerable to being lost if the curriculum is altered in the absence of the (potentially lethal) feedback processes in play pre 1868.
  9. Christianson

    Christianson Valued Member

    I would argue that the distinction between these sorts of hidden initiations is less than it seems. In a lot of cases -- though clearly not all, and I don't know whether this applies to SMR jo -- the "secret transmission" techniques are ones that require a high level of mastery before it becomes possible to execute them. If the initiate is sufficiently advanced, then they should be able to perform the technique (recognisably if not well) immediately after having it shown to them. If the technique eludes them, then they need to go back to more basic practice. In other words, the first of your cases of hidden initiations are only reserved for high-level practitioners because they cannot be discussed in the absence of the second type of hidden initiation.

    But again, this is a matter of case-by-case. Beyond the pedagogical, there are two motivations for "hidden initiations" that I know for certain pop up within koryu bujutsu. One is competitive advantage: certain skills, techniques, and strategies give a little too much away in terms of the school's preferred approach to a fight, and so widespread dissemination would make it easier for competing schools to develop counter-strategies. Similarly, the fact that there was no obstacle to students setting up their own rival school provided a major impetus to keep the "best stuff" until it was clear that a student had no intention of doing so. Obviously this is maybe a little less relevant now, but once upon a time it was quite important.

    The other, which we perhaps don't like to think about as much, was commercial advantage. During the Pax Tokugawa, revenue from teaching martial arts became much more important. Obviously, any teaching structure that encouraged students to stay around for two years instead of two months, or ten years instead of one year, is much more compelling in terms of profitability. The reasonable likelihood of duels/assassination attempts/etc probably prevented financial considerations from paying too great a role (students needed to be able to fight and soon, and students dying in sword fights makes for poor marketing), but if nothing else the changes in diploma certification from early to late Edo period suggests that it was also not a non-factor.

    I appreciate the sentiment very much, but I don't know that I'm really that experienced. :) My pedantic writing style aside, I don't have any academic credentials or the like in this subject, and I'd put myself into the category of "I have an answer, and am still not sure it's right." All of which is to say that discussion is more than welcome, and starting with "Christianson is all wrong" is not an unreasonable place to start!

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