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The Spirit of Yamato in the world of modern Budo

Japanese paper (washi 和紙) is one of the several symbols of Japanese culture and spirit. It is made using fibers from the bark of the gampi tree, the mitsumata shrub (Edgeworthia papyrifera), or the paper mulberry. Washi comes from wa which refers to Japanese and shi meaning paper. The process is very precise and requires skills and knowledge held by a handful of families throughout Japan. However, due to the “modernization” of society and technology, the lengthy process, and declining interest/appreciation by younger generation is slowly causing the tradition to erode.

It was during a discussion about this subject with my Shodo (calligraphy) teacher that I was reminded once again about the importance of Yamato Damashi and subsequently sparked the interest to write this article. Sensei mentioned that although Japanese paper can be made by a more “cost efficient ways” and may look like Japanese paper it cannot be called one. The reason for this is that the traditional way of producing paper is done with the “correct spirit”. This “spirit” cannot be achieved with technology but rather through passing knowledge from teacher to student by word of mouth. This “spirit/attitude” is connected to any action in ones daily life and is especially prevalent in the world of Budo.

Yamato-damashii 大和魂 (“the Japanese spirit”) is a historical and cultural, developed in the Heian period which set the premises of describing Japanese spirit and attitude achieved by following the ‘way’ of the people. This term is often contrasted with the knowledge and scholarship imported into Japan from China. It can be also understood as ‘The Soul of Old Japan’. ‘For this national type of moral character was invented the name Yamato-damashi Yamato-damashii refers to “Japan or Japanese”. The characters for Yamato (大和) translates as great harmony. Wa (倭 or 和) is Japan’s oldest endonym and derives from the Han Dynasty Chinese exonym Wō 倭 “Japan, Japanese”. This character 倭, which graphically combines the 亻 “human, person” radical and a wěi 委 “bend” Japanese scribes replaced the Chinese character 倭 for Wa “Japan” with Wa 和 “harmony; peace”.

Soke has also mentioned “Tamashii”. Most commonly translated as “soul”, we may also acknowledge that in order to understand the duty of fudoumyo, we must accept fully the teachings to understand the soul of bushido
Developing the soul of budo is the aim of the true budoka. This is far more important to me than continually learning new skill sets. While training, we will inevitably learn new waza. However, if there is no soul or heart to the movement, there is ultimately nothing, only an empty shell. This is part of the reason we recite the Ninja Seishin and a special verse every class.
Damashi or Tamashi is closely related to the theme of the year, Sai no Kon Ki. In this theme Utsuwa also can imply a person of high calibre or capacity. A person may have Saino & Tamashii, 魂but must have the caliber to understand, unify, and use these together in harmony to their full potential.

This type of ‘spirit’ is of extreme importance in the world Budo and Ninpo. In essence if you do this type of Budo without this type of attitude you may not be doing Japanese Budo but rather your own interpretation of it. It’s not something that can be seen necessarily or even understood. It is more like being able to absorb it with the whole body over time. To further explain what it is that is being referred to let’s look at air. It cannot be seen, touched or felt yet everyone knows it exists and we need it to sustain life. Another analogy would be that one cannot cook any kind of ethnic food without being able to fully absorb the process, flavour, taste and customs associated. There is a story about an individual moved to Japan to study Japanese paper making and was asked about the subject after training for several years. His reply was that although I have been learning how to make paper for quite some time I have yet to achieve the required spirit associated with it and as such cannot call the paper I am making Japanese. it would probably require additional time to acquire this essence. In Ninpo, when you perform a waza without this type of spirit it in essence loses its flavour and authenticity. Many of the modern Budo and sport martial arts may seem attractive to many but are truly deviating from the source.

This is not an easy concept to understand especially for a person who was not born and educated with this type o
f mentality. It also easy to ignore this type of attitude as it requires in some cases an adjustment to ones perspective and conduct. The truth is not always easy to accept but as practitioners of Ninpo we strive to polish our spirit through training and follow the righteous heart. I encourage you to dig deep and discover the true essence and spirit of our Budo.