Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Jo Ha Kyu - universal progression of phenomena

Jo - Ha - Kyu 
by Adam Westphal

shishi-odoshi = deer scarer

Any season is a beautiful time to visit the Japanese Gardens but summertime is especially nice.  The warm weather, the lush greenery, and all the sounds that fill the natural space combine to make for a wonderful experience.    Tucked away between what is called the Strolling Pond Garden and the Natural Garden is a curious device made of bamboo called a shishi-odoshi which translates as ‘deer-scarer’.

This dual-purpose fountain and animal chaser consists of a piece of hollow bamboo resting with its heavy closed end against a rock.  A pivot suspends its middle and the open end points up towards the sky as water pours slowly and steadily into it.  Filling up with water causes the center of gravity to change, forcing the open end downward.  This shift dumps its contents, forcing a sudden reversal as the heavy end knocks back against the rock making a sharp sound.  The cycle repeats.

In many traditional Japanese arts, there is a concept called jo-ha-kyu (序 破 急).  The characters can translate in many different ways.  Jo is most commonly means ‘beginning’, ha when isolated can read ‘to break; to ruin; to destroy’, and kyu reads as ‘rapid; urgent; quick’. 

The term jo-ha-kyu first appeared in writings around the 14th century by the renowned Zeami Motokyo, creator of the Noh Theatre.  Similar to martial teachings, his writings were hidden away, shared only within families of the Noh theatre, until they were discovered in a second hand bookshop.  He wrote, “Every phenomenon in the universe develops itself through a certain progression.  Even the cry of a bird and the noise of an insect follow this progression.  It is called Jo, Ha, Kyu.” 

This progression describes how a Noh actor should raise their arm slowly, hold it momentarily suspended, and then quickly drop it.  It also dictates the composition of the music, progressing towards faster and more climactic tones.  Even the acts of a Noh drama follow this form towards climax.  The bamboo shishi-odoshi fills slowly and just as slowly starts to teeter.  It reaches a point where it suddenly purges itself of its water and rushes back to its stationary position, punctuated with a loud noise.
In partner practice in aikido and iaido, there is a build-up of tension as the pair approaches each other, a sudden break in this tension as a technique is executed, and acceleration towards the end of the form.  The solo practice of iaido kata lends itself well to the study of jo-ha-kyu.  One can isolate movements without interference or distraction.  At more advanced levels of practice an onlooker might be able to imagine an opponent being cut down by the strikes of the practitioner. 

What forces work upon the pair or the shishi-odoshi?  It is not simply the bamboo that makes the noise.  Gravity, the water, and the positioning of the bamboo all play their part.
At the beginning of your next practice, you will face the shomen while sitting in seiza.  The calligraphy on the wall is a permanent record of a moment of jo-ha-kyu by the calligrapher.  If the preparation of the ink is not correct, it will be too light or too dark.  If the composition is not considered, the lines and characters will be out of balance.  If the calligrapher lingers or hesitates while writing, ink will pool.  How heavy or light the hand was that held the brush will show in the lines.

How will your next practice begin?  And how will it end?