Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Happiness is.....being a modern day Samurai.

In the Times supplement last Saturday there was an article called ‘The nine secrets of contentment’. The article was essentially about those aspects of living that makes us truly happy. I have been struck at the similarities between ‘The nine secrets of contentment’ and the ‘Seven virtues of Bushido’– a Samurai moral code. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that the Samurai must have been a happy contented bunch of guys! Let me explain….

The nine secrets of contentment that psychologists have recently identified are: having a social life, altruism, having a belief system, having a goal or ambition, moderate wealth, listening to music, planning a holiday, being totally absorbed in a hobby and sex. The seven virtues of bushido are: rectitude, courage, benevolence, respect, honesty, honour and loyalty. Associated virtues are filial piety and wisdom. Let’s dig a bit deeper to see how they match up…

A definition of happiness: a state of well-being and contentment and a pleasurable or satisfying experience.

There are many other personal definitions of happiness that have been quoted by various people but what they all have in common is the need for personal action to bring about happiness and the requirement to act in a virtuous way. According to Aristotle happiness is, "the virtuous activity of the soul in accordance with reason": In other words happiness is the practice of virtue.

This brings us back to the Samurai who very much led their lives according to the seven virtues listed above. So, looking at the nine modern secrets of contentment let’s see which virtues are required to bring them about:

1. Social life. To have a social life we need friends. According to research, the more close friends we have, the more stable our happiness. Ten close friends are an optimal number. The definition of a friend is: A person whom one knows, likes, and trusts and is regarded with affection and loyalty. To keep good friends one has to be a good friend. This requires you to show them respect, loyalty and honesty – all Samurai virtues.

2. Altruism. This is about doing good deeds and having unselfish concern for the welfare of others. Research shows that we receive a deeper and longer lasting feeling of happiness when we do good deeds for others compared with getting a quick blast of pleasure e.g. taking part in a fun activity. Altruism requires benevolence (charitable kindness), respect (consideration for others), possibly courage (e.g. work of the voluntary lifeboat men and women) and honour (carrying out the commitments you’ve made to help someone)

3. Belief system. Research has shown that having an internal belief system had a positive impact on happiness. This didn’t have to be a religious belief system necessarily. A strong belief in your work, a hobby, a cause, family and home or a creative outlet had a similar impact on happiness to a religious belief system. It’s about believing in something bigger than yourself. Depending on what your belief is then any or all of the bushido virtues may be required to follow it.

4. Goals and ambitions: research suggests that having specific goals can contribute to happiness and if those goals are altruistic they also contribute to good health in old age. Apparently, what is most important is the journey you go on to reach the goal rather than the end point of achieving it. On the journey you may make new friendships, learn new skills and overcome fears and barriers. These achievements may be more rewarding than achieving the goal itself. Working towards goals in a purposeful and rewarding way which requires the application of many virtues e.g. rectitude (honesty, integrity and morality), courage (to move out our comfort zone), loyalty and respect (to people that help us on the journey), honesty and wisdom.

5. Moderate wealth. Apparently the optimum salary most likely to contribute to a person’s happiness is £45,000 ($75,000). Beyond this emotional happiness does not improve. What’s the point in pursuing ever more money and material wealth if it doesn’t make you happy? It’s just time wasted that could be spent pursuing activities that do lead to happiness, perhaps more altruistic ones? Many a rich person has discovered that the path to happiness is through philanthropy (and therefore benevolence) rather than selfish greed. Frugality and self-sacrifice were the order of the day for Samurai.

6. Listening to music. It is thought that music taps into parts of the brain that produce feelings of euphoria. Even sad music can be cathartic. In fact, people are generally happier when their lives include a degree of culture such as music, works of art or performance, aesthetics etc. These things add to the quality of life experiences. The Samurai knew this only too well and pursued excellence in many arts such as flower arranging, calligraphy, Noh theatre and the tea ceremony. Art provided peace and respite from war.

7. Planning a holiday. The important thing about this is the planning rather than the taking of the holiday that makes us happy. Apparently we are happiest in the 8 weeks before the holiday starts. Clearly our anticipation of having a good time is better than the reality! What is important about this is that planning a holiday represents respite from work – it is part of achieving a good work/life balance. I’m pretty sure that Samurai didn’t plan holidays or think about work/life balance but they did need to achieve a life/death balance – balance the perils of war with activities of peace and calm, hence their dedication to art and recreation.

8. Being totally absorbed in a hobby. Psychologists describe the happiness derived from being totally absorbed in a hobby as a ‘flow state’. Martial artists recognise it as ‘mushin’. In this state you don’t notice time passing and the ego falls away, freeing you of all thoughts of daily problems and preoccupations. The Samurai would have achieved a state of mushin both in battle and in recreation as they pursued their artistic endeavours.

9. Sex. Sex enters strongly and positively in happiness equations. Sex within a loving relationship is most strongly equated with happiness and wellbeing so the virtue of loyalty (as in faithfulness and fidelity) is highly important in sexual relationships.

To be a Samurai was to be virtuous. A Samurai had the discipline to meditate, practice the arts, and live a life of humility and service to fit the demands of a daimyo’s life. To be calm in the heat of battle and to achieve excellence in the arts were the requirements of the day. All this was at the heart of Zen.

If, as Aristotle suggested, happiness is the practice of virtue, then the Samurai must have been happy with their lives. Certainly carrying the burdens of guilt, deceit or total selfishness on our consciences will not lead to happiness.

Perhaps living the life of a modern Samurai or ‘warrior’ is a good thing – a path to happiness.

Are you happy? Are you virtuous?
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Monday, 4 April 2011

Ippon kumite and kata applications

A bit of a brain teaser this one but if you can make sense of what I’m trying to say then I would welcome your feedback……..

This may seem like a strange question to ask for someone who is very close to grading for shodan in karate! My question is: What is the difference between ippon kumite and bunkai?

I thought I knew the answer to this until last Saturday when I went on a black belt/brown belt course with my organisation. We didn’t focus at all on kata or bunkai but spent a lot of the time practising ippon kumite. It was made clear to us that what was being looked for in our demonstration was a clear understanding of the application of basic kihon moves to a one step attack showing particular heed to distance and timing.

Well, that explanation tightened up my understanding of ippon kumite a bit but didn’t offer any new major revelations – I already knew what ippon kumite was about.

Here’s a definition of ippon kumite: Ippon kumite is the practice of not allowing your opponent more than one attack. In other words, due to the evasive and blocking actions of the defender the opponent is prevented from continuing his attack. A counter attack may or may not be necessary. It's all about shutting down your opponent's attack quickly. Ippon kumite techniques are generally learned against a range of pre-defined attacks.

Here’s a definition of bunkai: The analysis of moves extracted from a kata. In other words, a study of the applications of movements taken directly from a kata or an analysis of the meaning of the kata.

These two definitions don’t sound too similar until you delve a bit deeper.

Old karate master, Chotoku Kyan said, “First learn the movements of karate, learn how to strike, block and immobilize, learn the kata and you will then be ready for kumite.” The implication here is that kumite is the application of kata movements. Dan Smith Kyoshi of Shorin Ryu Seibukan adds, “…the kata is designed to always provide an ‘ippon’.”

So if ippon kumite techniques are built from basic kihon techniques; kata are the assembly of kihon techniques into set sequences and combinations, and kata provide us with sets of ‘ippons’ then isn’t the analysis of kata (bunkai) just the analysis of ippon kumite techniques within the kata? Are bunkai and ippon kumite essentially the same thing?

All the bunkai I have learned are effective against a single step attack (bar one*) and are therefore essentially ippon kumite techniques. However, many of the ‘ippons’ I have learnt have not necessarily come directly from a kata. So does that mean that all bunkai are ippons but not all ippons are bunkai?

Not many people will talk about ippon kumite and bunkai in the same breath (or even write about it in the same book) suggesting that they are different things. In fact, some people who consider themselves bunkai experts may even be very dismissive of ippon kumite considering it to be too stylised and people who are proponents of ippon kumite may not even refer to specific kata in their teachings of it.

So, what is the difference between ippon kumite and bunkai? Perhaps they are just different sides of the same coin or perhaps bunkai is a process and ippon kumite a practice? Perhaps bunkai just assumes more realistic attacks and ippons use more stylised 'karate' attacks? I’m just thinking aloud here.

What do you think about this condundrum? Ippons and bunkai – same or different?

* I have learnt a kata application from Bassai Dai which requires the attacker to throw two punches. In Iain Abernethy's Bunkai Jutsu book he suggests that one should not assume that the attacker will act in a pre-determined way and throw a second (known) attack in response to a block. If your bunkai application requires a second predicted attack then perhaps the interpretation should be looked at again.
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