Shibumi and Kigurai – October 17, 2013, Kim Taylor, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph, Nanadan

Yesterday I got a question on shibumi. I had to go look it up, I do remember the word but I haven’t heard it for years. According to Wikipedia it is something like plain, simple, unadorned skill. If you’ve got it you make what you do look effortless. The example discussed yesterday was someone who learns a movement quickly and can soon perform it better than the person he learned it from. That’s the effortless part.

In that sense, I am tempted to call that shibumi but I’m not sure it’s all that valuable as budo. Of course it’s a great advantage to be able to pick up techniques quickly, I was pretty good at “stealing” movements myself, having been one of the chief rag dolls in Aikido for several years will get you the ability to pick up not only what a technique looks like, but the balance and timing of it as well. In iaido I was able to extend that to being able to feel what was happening in a technique I was looking at. All of which (combined with the habit of reading ahead in the textbooks so I knew the rough shape before being taught it) combined to make it look like I was easy to teach. I suppose that would be shibumi.

But from a perspective of decades now instead of years I know that’s not all that important. You learn fast or you learn slow but in 20 years you learn it regardless. In fact, learning something easily is not always the best way to understand what you’ve just learned. People often confuse form for function, even in arts like Aikido where you’re throwing someone else, there seems to be an idea in most beginners that if you just do the technique right the throw will work. It sometimes does, but it sometimes does not. There’s another person hanging off your arm and he isn’t always in the position you think he is. Iaido and kata based partner arts like jodo are especially prone to the trap of technique, of thinking that being able to perform a sequence of movements without thinking about it is some sort of end point to the training. “I know kata number 5 and I can do it really fast with my partner”. Umm, no. I watched a video of some kids who were doing koryu jo kata really really fast. The comment was that they were “really good”. Well they “knew” kata that I don’t, and they obviously practiced the movements a lot, there was no hesitation going to the next step and all that stuff… but that was the problem. They were doing two halves of a shape, their timing and balance was not there, one person responding to an attack before the attack was made. You know the sort of thing, it’s mindless alright, but it’s not “no-mind”, it’s the repetitive motion of the assembly line, or of typing. Give them a new keyboard and there’s a problem.

Learning a technique is a multi step process, the first step is to be able to do it without thinking about it, to memorize it, but that’s just the first step. Later you have to learn how to use that technique in all the various ways it could be used. To use it against people who aren’t cooperating, against big folks and little folks, when you’re not quite on balance, when you’re struggling to keep up. In other words, no matter how talented a mimic you are, there’s a need to practice for a dozen years.

That’s kigurai, the ability that comes from long practice. Students ask “how do I show kigurai” and it never fails to amuse the sensei. You can’t “show” kigurai, you can only have it, like you have a beard, it’s something that grows. So when it says in the grading manual that you have to show kigurai to pass your 6dan it really means “has this student practiced hard for 15 years?” It is something that you can see, but it’s not something that you can learn, its something that you earn.

So making a pot effortlessly is shibumi, if you make a whole bunch of pots of the same shape and you have talented fingers you might have shibumi in making that pot, but you might not have shibumi as a potter. If you make pots for 30 years and someone asks you to make a new shape of pot, you just make it. That’s kigurai, that’s also shibumi.

Am I right on the terminology of Japanese culture? I dunno, but I am quite certain that a talented youngster may show effortless technique, but still be at the beginning of his learning. The old master has an entirely different kind of effortlessness.

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