#3 The Idea of the Body in Japanese Culture and its Dismantlement

continuation of #1 and #2. The Idea of the Body in Japanese Culture and its Dismantlement  by Hiroyuki Noguchi  published in 20041.

The Idea of the Body in Asceticism

Hiroshige,_The_moon_over_a_waterfall_512With the arrival of Buddhism fifteen hundred years ago, the era of kings, symbolized by the great tombs, came to an end, and Japan was ushered into a new era, ruled by religion. As with the Meiji Restoration, the lifestyles of the Japanese people were dramatically transformed. Curiously enough though, in contrast with the Meiji Restoration, the changes that occurred with Buddhism’s arrival actually seemed to clarify the distinct nature of Japan’s culture.
Fortunately for Japan, Buddhism was not transmitted directly from India, coming through China instead. During its travels in China, Buddhism had no choice but to merge with the antecedents of China’s indigenous Taoism, such as the va-rious practices of mysticism including fangshu, and the philosophies of Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu. These practices, which were later integrated into Taoism, all involved ascetic practices for the purpose of cultivating longevity. Therefore the Buddhism that arrived to Japan was one already baptized by the Chinese, meaning that it was characterized by a strong emphasis on Taoist-like ascetic practices [Sekiguchi, (1967)].
Although its purpose may have differed from Taoism, Japan’s native religion, Shinto, was also a religion fundamentally centered on practice rather than doctrine. Both were religions that emerged as spontaneous occurrences more than anything else, with neither possessing any founding person. And the two have much in common, such as their sense of pure and impure Ki or energy and their methods of utilizing Ki. They also shared the fate of being forced to present distorted images of their practices by arming themselves with awkward theories in attempt to resist being overtaken by Buddhism. This however, was only because both religions, by nature, valued expe-rience over speculation, perception over theory. Taoism’s pursuit of longevity and immortality was entirely different from the pursuit of healthiness by people of today. Taoists proclaimed “Tao” as the Source that brought harmony to all things, and sought the genuine experience of being one with it [Maspero, (1983)]. Meanwhile, Shinto was not the animism that became the favorite label for all primitive religions. It was a religion that did not seek the divine outside of one’s self, instead taking the inner experience of Kashikoki (reverence or awe) and cal-ling it Kami (the divine) [Kageyama, (1972)3.
Such religions, which place importance on inner expe-riences, will inevitably arrive at various practice methods that use the body as intermediates for their aims. In the case of Japan, these methods, called Gyo, became the common denominator that would enable the Japanese to accept the essentially academic and speculative religion of Buddhism, and let it take root in its culture.
At first, Buddhism was established as an official religion during the Nara Period (710-784) through the diligent effort of Shotokutaishi (574-622). However, because it leaned heavily towards politics and placed little importance on practice, it did not capture the hearts of the Japanese people. The increasing population of monks and nuns became a financial burden for the government, while the successive building of provincial temples and the construction of the great statue of Buddha at Todaiji Temple impoverished the people. During this time, it was not Buddhism, but rather Shugendo, a blend of Shinto and Taoism founded by En no Ozunu, that was wholeheartedly welcomed by the people of Japan. In Shugendo, practitioners isolated themselves in the deepest wilderness of the mountains – an area feared tremendously by the general population – in order to test their discipline and receive power from the mountain deities [Wakamori, (1972)]. It was not so much a religion as it was a set of ascetic practices, or Gyo, which sought a specific kind of religious experience. The great respect given the mountain ascetics by the people of the time demonstrates how religion for the Japanese was fundamentally not about religious texts and doctrines, but was based on veneration and awe for Gyo. And it was not the seeking of reward in this life that resulted in this sense of respect. Rather, it stemmed from the historic inclination of the Japanese towards inner observation.
It was the widespread popularity of Tendai and Shingon, two sects of Mikkyo (esoteric Buddhism), both founded during the Heian Period, that pointed out this inclination in clear terms. The Shingon sect, founded by Kukai (774-835), placed its headquarters on Mt. Koya, and proceeded to gain great popularity among the public with its heavy leaning towards esoteric and ascetic practices not found in previous forms of speculative Buddhism during the Nara Period. Furthermore, it possessed a philosophy – lacking in Shugendo – to back its faith in supernatural mysteries, and thus fulfilled the conditions for gaining official recognition as a religion from the government, despite being a teaching that centered on Gyo.
Meanwhile the Tendai sect, founded by Saicho (767-822), established its headquarters in Mt. Hiei. Saicho’s tenets incorporated the four studies of En (also Hokke, the Lotus Teachings), Zen (meditative disciplines), Kai (Buddhist Precepts), and Mikkyo or esoteric practices. But sensing that his study in the esoteric aspect of Buddhism could not stand up to Kukai’s, he attempted to create a system of esoteric Buddhism distinct from Kukai’s Shingon. His wish would finally be realized through his disciple, Ennin [Katsumata, (1972)]. The Tendai sect selected the mountains as its training grounds and sent many excellent disciples into the mountains. As a result, the Tendai practitioners mixed with the mountain ascetics of Shugendo, who were still revered by the general population, to such an extent that it eventually became difficult to distinguish between Tendai and Shugendo practitioners. Even with Saicho’s first-rate knowledge of Buddhist teachings, the Tendai sect had to emphasize aspects of the teachings that went beyond language and speculation – the esoteric practices – in order to gain popularity among the general population.
As for the reason why religions centered on asceticism were preferred, and why they emerged in the first place, some say that it is because the people of those days believed in, and feared, supernatural phenomena such as curses and evil spirits. But such things are also of religion. Religion is, simultaneously, the source from which curses and evil spirits arise, and the power that releases people from those things. The presentation of a certain set of values necessarily includes the act of defining the obstacles that stand in way of its realization. This is not li-mited to religion. When we discover new possibilities, we also define our limits. In establishing what is normal, we define abnormality at the same time, which is why the number of di-seases always increases as new cures are developed. The issue, then, is not what the Japanese people feared, but what they felt reverence and awe for. It was not belief in the Buddhist doctrines or love of incantations that moved the people of traditional Japan. What they had was simply a feeling of reverence for ascetic practices. It was the focused intensity involved in Gyo and the non-ordinary experiences it brought about that they worshipped.

Vieil Ainou
This special adoration of the Japanese for Gyo further crystallized with the development of the Zen sect, which began with Eisai and Dogen during the Kamakura Period. Zen – the focusing of one’s awareness in sitting meditation until entering a state called Shikantaza (just sitting) – perfectly matched the sense of Gyo sought by the Japanese, and was a religious teaching that was deeply assimilated into Japanese culture.
Zen was more than a religion that centered its practice on Gyo. It was Gyo itself. Its doctrine explained that which it sought through the use of a single word – Mu (nothingness) – and its denial of all thought and speculation possessed a sense of purity similar to Shinto. While Shugen and Mikkyo demanded worship and total reliance on the spiritual or sorcery powers of the ascetics and priests, Zen refused reliance on anything other than the self. This religion, which suggested the possibility of deliverance through nothing but the cultivation of one’s own powers by means of one’s own practice of Gyo, strongly appealed to the inclinations of the Japanese people. In the end, Japan’s culture was so deeply influenced by Zen that it has become impossible to separate Zen from the concept of “Japanese” that we hold today. Its style, its doctrines, and its practice of Gyo did not remain within the bounds of religion. The Zazen mind was directly assimilated into the everyday life and work of the general population, greatly contributing to the formation of various Ways or Do, such as Kendo, Sado, and Kado, and furthermore to the Waza, or art, of the craftsman.
The underlying current of Gyo seen in Shinto, Shugendo, Mikkyo, and Zen reveals not only the Japanese view on religion, but also tells us of the inner experiences cherished and sought by the Japanese people. The mighty tranquility of Shinto, the supernatural experiences of Shugendo, the viscous undulating quality of Mikkyo, the cutting purity and somberness of Zen – the Japanese people delighted and cherished these inner experiences at a distance of one step from the religions themselves, and through this, were able to furnish their culture with a sense of depth and expansion.
The above four systems of Gyo can be divided into two categories. The practices of Shugen and Mikkyo aimed to acquire powers beyond the ordinary, seeking the transformation of the self from a state of powerlessness to divine strength. The existence of adverse conditions is a given here, and what we see is the powerful conviction to overcome all adversities. The Gyo of Shinto and Zen, on the other hand, was of clearly different nature. Their practice was not for the sake of supplementing that which the practitioner lacked, nor was it for driving growth towards a more powerful state of being. They were rather for the return to one’s original nature by the shedding off of all that is extraneous. Theirs were Gyo of subtraction rather than addition, of returning the colorful to the transparent. The inclinations of the former two are for invigoration; they are Gyo of the Sun. The latter two have inclinations towards detachment and placation; these are Gyo of the Moon. Both went through repeated ups and downs in accordance with the times and helped to establish the underpinnings of Japanese culture. For example, Kabuki, which derives its name from the word “kabuku” (to tilt/slant), was born out of the discovery of beauty in being off-balance. Its underling tone is one that can be found in the Gyo of Shugendo and Mikkyo. Meanwhile, the aesthetics of Yugen established through Ze-ami’s Noh, shares a common ground with the Gyo of Shinto and Zen.
In the end, the stream of Gyo from Shinto to Zen refined the Japanese concept of ascetic practices and contributed to the formation of the Japanese idea of the body. Although each of the four religions possessed distinct views on ascetic practices, a common thread can be found when seen through the idea of the body.
misogi ueshiba ascétismeIn Gyo the body is utilized as a tool to break through volitional concentration. Its method is to focus one’s awareness on certain perceptual occurrences in the body, and to switch the attention, for a while, from one’s thoughts to one’s body. The various ways in which the hands and fingers are held during meditation, known as Inso, are a typical example. The delibe-rate forcing of the body into conditions of stress, strongly associated with the practice of Gyo, is another. By repeatedly imposing great burden onto the body, the practitioner’ s attention is forced to switch from mental concentration to bodily concentration.
In the next step, the aim is to separate the self from the body, to which we normally suppose it belongs, in order to encounter the body that is apart from the self; or in other words, to encounter pure Body. This is the body that belongs only to Nature itself: the body “as is”. To encounter the body “as is” means that all sensations of the flesh disappear. What emerges instead is a body of mist or air-like quality. The nature of this newly emerging body is one of total passivity; it can fluctuate with the true sense of being “alive” only after inviting or welcoming into one’s self what is not of the self. The practice of Gyo sought the entrance into this sublime state of passivity. The contrast between the two categories of Gyo then has its roots in exactly what they decided to “invite”. For the practices of Shugendo and Mikkyo, it was Unwavering Mind, while for Shinto and Zen, it was the Source of all things. In this way, when the practice of Gyo is understood as a phenomenon of  the body, it then becomes possible for four different religions to emerge while sharing the same structure of ascetic practice.
One could say that this inner state of “inviting” or “wel-coming” was the essence of the idea of  Nature held by Japan’s culture. The Japanese word, Kangaeru (to think) was originally Ka Mukaeru (to welcome in that which is there). Thus for the Japanese, the thinking process itself was a passive activity, lite-rally meaning the “inviting” or “welcoming” in of its object. And it was this “inviting”, this entering into a state of passivity or receptivity, which the Japanese called “natural”. They placed more value on the “seeing” or “coming into sight” of things while one was in a non-self state than on the volitional act of looking or observing. They valued the receptive state of “hea-ring” over the volitional act of listening. And such states were to be reached by means of concentration through Gyo.

Jeune femme jouant du Shamisen (détail) Kitagawa Utamaro – 1805

The Tsugaru jamisen is a musical instrument, a three-stringed lute, from the northeastern parts of Japan. What is demanded from its players is to acquire an original piece of music that they can call their own. Traditional Japanese music, unlike Western music, does not boast a great variety of musical pieces. Rather, performers are to cultivate the improvisational ability to play the same single piece in varying ways according to the time and place of the performance. The late Takahashi Chikuzan, master Tsugaru jamisen player, carried out a Gyo, in which he played his instrument for eight days and eight nights without rest. According to Chikuzan, by the eighth day, all awareness of his own playing had disappeared. He could no longer hear the sound supposedly coming from the instrument he was playing, and he began to see his body as a field of white light. From the depths of this whiteness, he heard a song he had never once heard before. It was this song that was to become Chikuzan’s original composition. In this way, musical pieces in the art of Tsugaru jamisen were not creations by the artists, but something the artist invited into his or her self, something that arrived from somewhere unknown. The practice of Gyo gives birth to different outcomes depending on what the practitioner invites within. In this case it was music.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that the idea of the body in Japanese culture was shaped by the practice of Gyo. For the Japanese, the body was not merely a tool to be utilized for daily life. It was a place in which the abstract was to be received. Unlike the Western view of the body, it was not something that could be managed by the person’s will, but could be brought to a state of harmony through the focusing of Ki, which occurs when one breaks away from a state of volitional concentration. Furthermore, the workings of such a body are not of machine-like automaticity. By nature, it can only improvise its every movement. It fluctuates in resonance with the vibrations of life, in a world where everything is alive. And when it moves, through the receiving of a force from outside itself, its movement is not the self-oblivious trance-like movement of the possessed – its center is never lost.
To reiterate, the body for the Japanese was a place for receiving life. Life, in this case, is not the life of the individual person or creature, but the Life that flows through all beings in a world where everything is alive. This Life has never died. If the union of sperm and egg is the beginning of individual life, then Life is what makes that union possible. Both sperm and egg must be alive to begin with for their union to occur. Thus Life exists beyond the individual. Life is a formless current that never ceases, and the individual’s body is but a boat riding this current. The boat cannot move on its own. The body can move only because it is riding the current of Life at large.
The concept of Gyo, which underlay the four religions of Shinto, Shugen, Mikkyo, and Zen, penetrated into the daily lives of the general population by the time of the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods. This should not be understood as the spreading of religious teachings, but as the dissemination of Gyo itself. The practice of Gyo then was able to break out beyond the field of religion to become the foundation for a certain view of the body, and would further give birth to the concept of Kata, or form. Kata is the symbolic expression of the Japanese view on the body, born from Gyo. The Japanese reve-rence for Gyo would eventually shift into a sense of respect for Kata.

Next chapter : #4. The Philosophy of Kata

1Journal of Sport and Health Science, Vol. 2, 8-24, 2004. http : //wwwsoc.nii ac jp/jspe3/index.htm.

Sources des images

  • Estampe : La cascade au claire de lune  Auteur : Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).
  • Vieil Ainou  extrait de « Japon »  de Fosco Maraini.  1959 Ed. B.Arthaud
  • Morihei UESHIBA avec son fils Kishomaru, pratique sous la cascade
  • Jeune femme jouant du Shamisen (détail) Kitagawa Utamaro – 1805