Wednesday, February 3, 2010

When I clean my shinai...

... my mind wanders, and I think about any number of things. When I first started kendo and found out you have to dismantle a shinai completely every so often to check it for splinters and cracks, then repair and oil it as necessary, it felt like a chore. After a while it became routine, a part of kendo as much as kirikaeshi or suburi. Of late, it has become meditation.

My hands will move almost automatically, undoing the knots, pulling off the leather parts and spreading open the bamboo. Then running my fingers up and down the length of each bamboo stave, almost caressing it, feeling for the splinters that my eyes can't see. Each irregularity is sanded smooth, each stave given the same care and attention. Then they are rubbed down with oil, just enough to keep a thin film for each stave to absorb, keeping them a little moist to prevent them from getting dry and brittle. The staves are arranged together again, the leather hilt and tip slid on and the cord tightly bound, making the shinai whole again. A few practice swings later and the shinai is laid aside, waiting for the next trip to the dojo.

Lately, while doing this, I find myself thinking of the 'do' in 'kendo', that is, the '道' in '剣道'. Since I've started, kendo has been permeating every aspect of my life. The line dividing the dojo from the world beyond has blurred. One of the things common to every Japanese martial art is the very rigid, very specific etiquette. There is a right and proper way to do pretty much everything. There is a right way to enter the dojo, to leave the dojo, to bow to the dojo, to bow to an opponent, to bow to your teacher... There is a right way to sit, to stand, to walk, to face, to hold your sword when not in use, to don your armour, to put away your armour, to fold your uniform when not in use...

There are dozens, hundreds of little rituals that, over the course of months, become a part of every kendoka, all contributing in some small way to the ideal of the dojo as a place of learning and discipline. I'm not sure how it looks like anymore, from the outside looking in. These days the world seems more real when I'm in keikogi and hakama.

An interesting thought struck me the other day regarding the line between the dojo and the world beyond. In the dojo, when someone points out a flaw or weakness in your technique, you thank him. It does not matter if he is wrong or right, the fact remains that he has taken the effort to observe you and offer an opinion, and so you bow and thank him. And if you're smart, you do not take his critique at face value, but carefully reflect on its validity. This is a prudent, humble and sincere attitude to learning that I consider standard procedure in any dojo worthy of the name. And the thought that hit me was this: Would I behave in this manner outside the dojo?

I want to say 'yes'.

The realities of the world beyond the dojo do not lend themselves well to the ideals of the dojo. Take evolutionary biology. Between biologists, it's perfectly possible and normal for there to be disagreement. The empirical method and peer review are ideally the mechanisms by which scientific progress is made, with experts in their fields pushing forward their pet theories and, with honesty and humility, debating and refining the theories and helping the march of science as a whole. This can be said to be akin to master swordsmen dueling and bettering themselves in the process.

Now, scientists are human, too, and the history of science is replete with examples of backstabbing, oneupmanship, hubris and plain old narrow-mindedness impeding scientific progress. I liken such incidents to the ugly, awkward engagements between novice kendokas that have just begun to don armour and are as yet woefully lacking in technique. In time, hopefully, they will outgrow such silliness. Realistically, in science as in kendo, one will observe a spectrum between the two extremes.

And then there's creationists, who obnoxiously elbow their way into the scene, chock full of ignorance and dogma, proudly braying their "theories" with nary the slightest inkling of the utter absence of any intellectual merit to their position. Now this, this has no parallel in any normal dojo. This is the dojo getting invaded by a party of drunken yobbos, clad in gunny sacks, speaking in grunts and flinging excrement at any who approach. Hmm.

I don't think I'm all that far off the mark in making these comparisons, and this illustrates just one of many aspects of life in which good dojo etiquette alone doesn't quite cut it (ahahaha...). But looking at the creationist example, I can honestly say I'm not sure how to deal with it. Logic and reason do not work against such people, as many rational atheists would no doubt have experienced.

Every time I read the news I can't escape the feeling that the world is becoming a dumber place. On the one hand, on the wings of science and technology we reach higher and higher, yet on the other hand, the evidence suggests that a greater proportion than ever of the world's population is regressing into ignorance and superstition. Amid this maelstrom of conflicting memes, the dojo feels like the last bastion of all that is good about being human. To me, the dojo represents the highest ideals of the human condition; people gathered together with the sincere desire to learn, with the strength and resolve to earn knowledge with sweat, blood and tears.

I try to take the mentality of the dojo with me wherever I go, but, to be sure, it's hard sometimes. Well, not like that'll stop me from trying. Right, this post has gone on long enough. I'm a-gettin' offski.

Oh, in other news, since I started this post, a LOT has happened in my life, some good, others... well, the less said, the better. But on the upside, I done got triple promoted to 2nd kyu :-) And I'm on the Malaysian kendo team taking part in a big scrap in Hong Kong in March. W00t!


hungrywolf41 said...

Using your analogy, when a bunch of drunken yobbos storm a dojo, it is wise to remember that the people in the dojo carrying the really serious weaponry is not the yobbos.

(Notkieran here)

b00geyman said...

I love your writing. I actually found your blog looking for articles on 'Eeavy Metal, but I see that we have other, very similar interests.

Will follow!

清, just 清 said...

10-q for the comments! Would have responded sooner, but for some odd reason, my hotmail account has decided that notifications from blogger re: comments are all spam. It was just pure luck that I peeped inside the spam folder just out of curiousity...

hungrywolf41: Oooh, the things I could do to a creotard skull with a bokken in the time it takes to say "Evolution is just a theory"... Don't tempt me!

b00geyman: You found MY blog searching for 'Eavy Metal??? That's really flattering, I consider my painting to be quite mediocre! Thanks for visiting anyways, and do feel free to comment on whatever, though it's probably best not to feed the conspiracy theory troll spamming my post on vaccination...

b00geyman said...

You did mention 'Eavy Metal as a reference in your Space Hulk painting tutorial article ;) That's how I dug it out.

Anyhow, I really like your stile and your interests. I used to practice Aikido myself for many years until I badly injured my knee, and you know how similar it is to Kendo [only you have a sword] ;).