The Tengu amongst the cedars – July 19, 2014, Kim Taylor, Renshi, CI Sei Do Kai Guelph ON, Nanadan

I’m reading the Reinhard Kammer Tengu Geijutsu Ron written by Chozan Shissai in 1729. That twice-translated book of a fellow who goes up to the mountains and listens to the tengu talking in the tops of the cedars. I happen to be amongst my own cedars in my log cabin of cedar with my dojo above my head with floors of red pine (same as Namitome sensei’s dojo in Fukuoka but a lot less dents). I’m not going to sit amongst the cedars outside until late fall after a frost kills off the mosquitos, blackflies, deerflies and horseflies, but I can sit on the upstairs deck and look at the tops of some trees close by.

In all of this budo loveliness you’d think I’d get some sudden enlightenment or at least hear some secrets whispered in my ear. Instead all I’ve got is a sore shoulder from staining railings well overhead and a sore back from who knows what. Well the back and the shoulder didn’t benefit from the tanjo practice we did yesterday I suppose. Still, nothing whispered into my shell-like ear.

I’m half way into the book, after the introduction by the English translator and then the introduction by Kammer and the introduction by Kanda Hakuryushi and then the initial statements by the lesser tengu and some of the comment by the head tengu. What I’ve discovered so far is that I’m probably better off not having secrets told to me. In fact I’m better off having neither secrets nor zen buddhist teachings, as the philosophy of the day in 1729 was neo-confucianism which emphasized getting along in society rather than getting off the wheel of reincarnation.

In the interest of starting my analysis of this book which needs some careful attention and perhaps a few less beers while reading it, I am going to try to explain why I ought to hope nothing whispers to me out of the trees.

First some terms. In the book we have the principle (ri) which is at the core of the form/technique (waza). This principle is universal, think Platonic ideal. Next we have the life force (ki) through which all things happen (including the performance of the waza). Guiding, swimming in, the life force is the heart (I dunno, didn’t catch it, maybe kokoro?). Alongside these we have consciousness (no idea, I obviously need to go back to the introduction with a notebook in hand) which is something you don’t want as it is the chittering monkey of reason which just gets in the way. Now that I think of it, consciousness is what makes it hard for me to understand this book so far, I read ri or ki and figure I know what they mean, of course I don’t, not the meaning that the author gives them, I last read this book twenty years ago and there’s no way I remember the specifics. As these arguments are given by the various tengu there is also a drifting of thoughts to other things, like maybe I ought to be putting a handrail on the front steps, or replacing the back steps, or coating the logs or getting the students up the stairs for another practice or… Stupid Monkey.

The heart is what we use to guide our chunk of the life force. The heart can go bad, although it is originally good. The heart can be influenced. The heart is like a fish swimming in the sea of life force. The meaning of fish swimming in the sea? That’s the principle I suppose, but I’m pushing the metaphor beyond what is given. We’re ultimately looking for the principle but we don’t want to be told what it is, that gives us a shallow, consciousness type understanding that is more harm than good. We must find the principle through the form, the technique of our swordsmanship.

That’s the setup, we acquire a deeper and more vigorous life force through practice of the techniques. This deeper life force gives room for the heart to move freely and calmly. With enough practice we eventually come to realize the principle.

The implication is that a teacher does not give the secrets (the principle) to the student, he gives the techniques and the occasional nudge and the student discovers the principles through perseverance. Last night I thought “spoiled student” as one of them said “I don’t know how do do that” and pouted a bit, expecting me to explain as I usually do. Of course, being a sway-with-the-wind sort of person who is reading this book I replied “I tell you what to do, you go figure out how”. Then, realizing that wasn’t the meaning of the book, I pointed to the heavy bag in the corner and gave an exercise to develop what I wanted to see.

At any rate, principle isn’t something to be read about and memorized for the 8dan test. “Sensei I need kigurai for the next exam, how do I do that?” Well Johnny, kigurai is that which becomes apparent through long practice so what do you think? “Umm, I should walk very straight and stick my chest out?” Aaargh, come here and I’ll show you something by not cracking you over the head with my bokuto.

In all of this heart / life force / form / principle chain it occurs to me that there is no place for the body. The authors (introductions and main text) mention some students who are talented and will get it sooner, and they also mention those who practice a killing sword, all life force, heart and no technique or principle who just go straight in and using their superior strength or size, just cut down the opponent. So body is in there somewhere, and I suggest that it will be in the form. The technique is no more fixed and eternal than the life force or the heart (the principle is universal) so here is where the broken-down old bodies of folks like me fit in. The technique must fit the person, or it isn’t really a technique, it’s just an impossible shape. Technique must have effectiveness in swordsmanship or it is just so much waving the stick around, therefore it must take into account the physical capabilities of the swordsman. If your arms don’t go above your head, a technique from above your head will simply be a way of getting off this cycle of birth and death.

The principle is, but without physical reality. The form gives the principle reality, and through this form the principle is revealed to the student. The form is created anew each time by means of the heart acting through the life force.

Too much heart and consciousness arises, too much technique and the heart / life force is strangled. Too much concern with winning and losing clouds the heart and strangles the life force. The proper chain of events must be preserved for understanding of the principle to arise. Consciousness must be supressed in order for the heart and life force to remain unmoved.

Or at least that’s where I am at the moment, just after making a loaf full of raisin-french-toast for the students and another pot of coffee.

Not a bad start to the day which promises rain and therefore prevents all this painting that is causing consciousness to arise.

Kim Taylor
July 19, 2014

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