(Note this is a guest post from Josh Reyer)
After three years in Japan, I went back to the States and back to school, doing a BA in Psychology, particularly focusing on social and cultural psychology. I was quite fascinated at the idea of Japanese and other East Asian cultures thinking and even perceiving the world differently. Returning to Japan in 2005, I had a vague idea of wanting to get insight into that way of thinking, take what I could from it, and integrate it with my own Western way of thinking. The best of both worlds. But I had no idea how to really do that, other than living in Japan and picking it up via osmosis.
Not long after I joined Shinkage Ryu, one highly respected senior showed me a book, and suggested I read it. The book was by Professor Shimizu Hiroshi, and the title was (translating from the Japanese): The Theory of Ba (Place) As Life-Knowledge: the how of co-creation as seen through Yagyu Shinkage Ryu.
Ba 場 basically means “place”, and is also read “jo(u)”, as in “dojo”. But beyond “place” it also means “the set place for something to occur; that opportunity” and “the circumstances and mood of when something occurs”. It’s the word used to translate the concept of Field in physics. Perhaps it might best be explained like this. The Japanese word for “occassion, case, circumstance” is “baai” – a joining of “ba”. The meaning of “ba” used here by Professor Shimizu is essentially that used by Nishida Kitaro, a Kyoto philosopher of the turn of the century.
It’s exceedingly difficult to explain exactly what he meant in such a limited space as this. Please read the encyclopedia entry above to get a vague idea. The important thing is that, a man of the Meiji Era, Nishida was concerned with bridging Eastern thought and Western thought. In his opinion Western philosophy was not without its problems, but no Eastern philosophy could be valid unless it tied into Western philosophy.
Shimizu, a professor of pharmacology and life sciences, became interested in Nishida’s philosophy, and the implications it might have for a number of different fields. For example, artificial intelligence. We understand the rules of logic, and we can input those rules into a computer to create decision trees. That’s a very “subject-oriented” (which is to say, generally “Western”) mode of thinking. The problem is, it doesn’t mimic at all the way living organisms (particularly humans) think and interact with the world. Professor Shimizu makes an analogy: a newly born animal cannot interact with his new environment by trial-and-error, because error will kill him. Thus, the way we process information is not strictly subjective, and not strictly logical. As the organism gets information, it effects its environment, and as the environment changes, so does the organism’s information. We cannot be divorced from our contexts.
So, what does this have to do with kenjutsu, or kendo? Professor Shimizu made the acquaintances of one Nagata Shinya, a doctor of pharmacology and exponent of Shinkage Ryu Heiho. Professor Nagata thought that Shimizu would find the combat theory of Shinkage Ryu relevant to his research, and when he looked into it, Shimizu fully agreed.
Combat is a) completely variable, and b) a matter of life and death. Anything can happen, and the wrong move means you cease to exist. So naturally, the guys who intimately knew the horror of this “ba” would have some interesting ideas of how to interact with it. For Shinkage Ryu, it was expressed in Setsuninto (killing sword) and Katsuninken (vivifying sword). Setsuninto is subjective; it concerns the self. I must be stronger, faster, smarter than my opponent. I must prevent him from fully using his capabilities, and use my own best techniques to finish him. Katsuninken, on the other hand, is concerned with the other. Let the opponent do what he will. I will respond to it, follow it, and win.
At first glance, Setsuninto seems the better way to go, and Katsuninken seems like a foolish pipe dream by people who don’t know what real combat is. It calls to mind delusional aikido fantasy. It’s a tough concept to wrap one’s head around, and yes, done wrong it’s suicide. But done right (and Shinkage Ryu contains a comprehensive conceptual framework to help do it right), it suddenly gives you (some) control over the unpredictable and dangerous “ba” of life-and-death combat.
To borrow an example from Yagyu Nobuharu-sensei: let’s say you’re in a sword fight, and you perceive that your opponent wants to make a cut at your hands. If you go with Setsuninto, you deny him that target. You adjust your position, change your stance, adjust the maai. But now you’ve just reset the parameters of the fight. Now you have to try and perceive the next thing he wants to hit, all while looking for or creating your own opening. This back and forth can go on forever. And no matter how fast, strong, or skilled you are, maybe in the end your opponent will be faster, stronger, or more skilled. But if you practice Katsuninken, then when you perceive he wants your hands, you give them to him. You honestly and truly want him to cut your hands. Because now you’ve reduced the completely variable and unpredicatable “ba” into one, known outcome: he will cut your hands. And when you let him do that, you simply match his rhythm and win. You don’t have to be faster or stronger than him — just fast and strong enough. (Well, of course, easier said than done!)
And so, Professor Shimizu’s research the past decade has been to look into budo, and try to relate these modes of thinking and conceptualization into AI, economics, and any number of fields that, like combat, are 千変万化 sempen-banka, ever changing, unpredictable. And rather than pick things up via osmosis, I find myself in a physical and mental practice that engages the world in a way I’ve never experienced before.