Technical Training as a Means8 min read

When one looks at a high-speed photograph of a ballet dancer in mid-leap, one can get an uneasy feeling. One knows that this figure is not really flying and must come down very quickly. Yet it remains impossibly hanging in the air. It is very unnatural and against the whole spirit of ballet dancing, which is movement. The photograph is frozen movement: it is a contradiction. So it makes some people feel uncomfortable, and I am one of them.

Soon after I began Judo in 1930 at the age of 16, I had this kind of experience in connection with Budo. I was a member of the London Budokwai (yes, this is how it was spelt), the first Judo club in Europe. Every year we had a big public display, which was mainly Judo. I remember the exhibition of ju no kata (basic forms of Judo) by the two Japanese instructors—Gunji Koizumi, an art expert, and Yukio Tani, a full-time teacher. Tani had been very famous at the beginning of the century, as one of the few Japanese experts who introduced Judo and jujutsu to Europe, defeating wrestlers and boxers easily. They are mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes story and |n Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara.

I noticed that after one of the longest ju no kata movements, Tani gave what seemed to be a deep sigh. I watched him carefully and discovered that he held his breath for the whole duration of each of the movements. For a long time I felt too awed to ask him about it. Finally I did so, and he answered briefly, The bujin must keep fullness during the waza\ He never explained it further. His father and grandfather had been jujutsu masters, and he was evidently keeping to a tradition. I was suitably impressed. I felt—as most of us did—that everything Japanese had behind it a mysterious secret of great value.

Achieve the Freedom of Mind

But soon afterwards I had a big surprise. Besides the main Judo display, there used to be short demonstrations of other bujutsu arts. There were some Japanese Kendo men in London. Also at the first display I saw, there was a demonstration of the weight-and-sickle against a swordsman. Later in the programme, a Kendo man came up again, but this time faced an opponent armed with what looked like two round wooden plates with a handle at the back. They looked like very thick saucepan lids. With these he was able to parry the attacks by the sword and finally win by smothering the swordsman’s arms and by hitting him on the face with one of the plates. There was no commentary, and the audience watched in bewildered silence—another Japanese mystery.

Afterwards I asked one of the senior members, who said that the plates were indeed supposed to represent saucepan lids. A famous fencing master, he said, had told his pupils that a true master was not dependent on having a sword. He told his pupils that they could attack him at any time, as a test. So one of them came at him with a sword, while the master was cooking in his kitchen. The master snatched up two saucepan lids, with which he parried the attack and finally subdued the pupil. Then the pupils began to study methods of using saucepan lids, and it became a school of technique.

Only my reverence for things Japanese prevented me from bursting out laughing. The whole point of the incident was to show that a true master could use anything. He must not be dependent on any particular thing. In this case, it happened to be saucepan lids. Tomorrow it would be something else; he would not have saucepan lids.

It seemed to me that the pupils had completely misunderstood. The point was to be able to pick up anything and use it effectively. But they froze at saucepan lids.

If we look at Budo classics, we can see that the masters were aware of this danger. Again and again they say: ‘Technical training is the means to arrive at the state of freedom. When he has mastered the training, the training ceases to exist for him. This is the supreme aim of all the Ways’. We can find this in the Heiho-kadensho of about 1630, which says: ‘Forgetting the training, throwing away all minding about it so that I myself have no idea about it—to reach that state is the peak of the Way. This state is to pass through training till it ceases to exist’.

My impression is that while the Japanese tradition is very strong in assiduous training, it is rather reluctant to ‘give up training’ at the very end. I will give an example from another field.

A Japanese who came to work in London for three years had a daughter remarkably talented in the piano. He asked me to help him find a good teacher. I knew that one of the best teachers, who had been internationally famous, was still alive. We managed to arrange for the girl to play to him. He was impressed and arranged for her to have lessons from one of his pupils. This was good luck, and the father was grateful.

A year later he told me that she was making good progress. But one day he came to me in some distress. ‘I shall have to find another teacher for her’, he told me.

‘Why, what has happened?’ I asked.

‘He told my daughter at the last lesson to forget about playing the notes correctly and try to play purely as an expression of feeling’.

‘They sometimes do this’, I said. ‘It is important to practise jumping beyond concentration on the notes alone’.

‘It can’t be right’, he said, ‘to tell her not to be careful about correct notes’.

‘He is not saying that’, I assured him. ‘But one must be able to master them and then forget them’. He looked doubtful.

Jumping Beyond Skill

I found a clipping of an interview with M. L. Rostropovich, a world-famous cellist and conductor, in which he remarked: ‘I would rather hear a cello piece played with genuine expression, even if there are two or three wrong notes, than a perfectly accurate but soulless performance’.

I also got a recording of Rostropovich conducting Tosca. This opera has no overture, begins with five great chords on the whole orchestra, and then the curtain goes up. The composer gives the tempo: the five chords are about three seconds each, so they continue for about 15 seconds. Then the opera begins. When he conducts this opera, Rostropovich thinks that the bare 15 seconds are too short. He makes the group of chords last nearly 40 seconds. ‘I know this is not what the composer indicated’, he says. ‘But I believe it is more effective as an introduction to the great tragedy. It must be judged by the listeners’.

Of course, it is only some one with a mastery of music who can be so free. Sometimes young stage directors in Britain have tried to alter Shakespeare to make him appear a Communist or something like that. But they failed, because they were not masters of the theatre.

But it is important that when a good level of skill has been reached, one should make a jump beyond skill. Some Japanese teachers of English, who have a wonderful knowledge of the English language, are unwilling to make the jump. They still prepare their English sentences in their heads and then utter them. They want the sentences to be perfect, but the result is that they speak more correct English than Englishmen do. When we talk to them, we feel that we are talking to an English grammar book. Written English ought to be perfect, but spoken English is often very loose, like spoken Japanese.

For instance, recently I heard a government minister answer a question in Parliament. ‘We can only help them if they apply’, he said. What he meant was that the government can help people only if they apply for help; if they do not, the government can not know that they need it. The sentence was understood by the questioner and by everyone else. No one corrected him. But to express this meaning grammatically, the sentence should have been: ‘We can help them, only if they apply’.

The rule is that ‘only’ is placed immediately before the word it qualifies. So in the actual statement, the minister is saying that if people apply, the government can ‘only help’, and that it cannot do more than help. This is the strict grammatical meaning.

This is a typical mistake in spoken English. But in fact everyone understood what the minister intended from the context. We expect such minor mistakes. If someone had corrected him, the minister would have laughed and then apologized, saying, ‘I will take more care in the future’. And everyone else would have laughed too.

So we can come back to the saucepan lids. The master used the saucepan lids to defend himself successfully. It is true that the later technical experts in saucepan lids might be even more skilful in using them. But that is not the point. If they attained great skill in saucepan lids, they would still have no more than that: without saucepan lids their skill would be nowhere. But the Budo master would be able to use the hibashi charcoal tongs or anything else, or even nothing else.

© Trevor Leggett