Collecting Knowledge

Because Hatsumi-sensei has produced so many videos (dozens, if you include over 20 years of Tai Kai and Daikomyosai), and because he’s written so many books and granted so many interviews over the years, it’s tempting to buy up everything that you can for your own studies. So you watch the videos and buy the books and search for interview transcripts. You scour online for people recounting their conversations with Soke and look for any clue that will be a gem to nudge your training in the right direction. You assume, naturally enough, that the more you watch and read, the more you’ll understand of this art.

Because Hatsumi-sensei has produced so many videos (dozens, if you include over 20 years of Tai Kai and Daikomyosai), and because he’s written so many books and granted so many interviews over the years, it’s tempting to buy up everything that you can for your own studies. So you watch the videos and buy the books and search for interview transcripts. You scour online for people recounting their conversations with Soke and look for any clue that will be a gem to nudge your training in the right direction. You assume, naturally enough, that the more you watch and read, the more you’ll understand of this art.

You would be wrong, of course.

As it turns out, the videos are exciting to watch and hugely inspirational, but also subtly misleading. The videos are a 2-dimensional representation of an art that exists in 4 dimensions. Inherently, much of what is shown on the video is lost. Complicating this further is when the video is incomplete for various reasons — for example, when Soke doesn’t want certain techniques shown to the general public, or when certain elements are changed for technical purposes (lighting, space, etc.). Overcoming these problems can be overwhelming.

The problem with reading Soke’s books and interviews runs along similar lines. If you don’t speak fluent Japanese, then you’re relying on a translator’s skill, experience, and (sometimes) arbitrary choices about how to convey Soke’s words in English. Naturally, there can be historical or cultural nuances that are lost in the translation. The problem of understanding Soke’s words is compounded by the fact that he often speaks on many different levels, so that the meaning of his words can be very difficult to understand, even if the translation is clear. Quite frankly, there are times when native Japanese speakers can be confounded by what Soke is saying.

Videos and books are excellent reminders and fantastic sources of information and inspiration. But ultimately, they feed into your brain, not into your body. Learning Budo with just your brain is like learning to play an instrument without using your hands. The process is doomed to failure.

There are times when I see people who teach something — a technique or concept — that they have read or watched or received third- or fourth-hand, and whatever it is they’re teaching way off base, or simply wrong. The only way to learn a technique or concept in this art is by doing. There are no shortcuts.

Within martial arts, there are considered two pathways to transmit knowledge: written (called shoden or hiden) and oral (kuden). Often, written knowledge is considered the most fundamental way, the natural way in which beginners start to learn. Secrets of an art are reserved for oral transmission.

But we can turn this entire concept around on its heads. Someone who learns directly from a teacher and never reads a written word about the art will undoubtedly have a better understanding of how the art should be practiced, compared to someone who has read everything about the art but has never learned directly from a teacher. From this perspective, oral transmission of knowledge is more fundamental than written transmission. The teacher is thereby able to guide and correct a student’s techniques and understanding, which no written words alone can do.

I have nothing against collecting Hatsumi-sensei’s videos or books. But there are some people who spend far too much time or resources in this endeavor, whose physical understanding of the art is nowhere near their mental understanding. I don’t believe that such people can be called true budoka, since their focus is on the collected knowledge, rather than the practiced action. And as an American friend of mine in Japan likes to say, “Budo is action.”

Less collecting, then. More action.

(Originally published in Muzosa Journal 12/09/05. Author retains all copyrights.)

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