Art and Violence – A Conversation with Reafsnyder Sensei

Art and Violence 

From the International Post-Dogmatist Quarterly – Volume 1 – Issue 3 – 1994

A Conversation with Reafsnyder Sensei 

Editor, Cecil Touchon talks with his sensei, Mr. Lynn Reafsnyder who is a practitioner of Zen and has studied martial arts since 1960. Mr. Reafsnyder holds senior rank in Yamate-ryu, a classical family style of aikijutsu; instructor’s rank in Itto Tenshin-ryu, a classical system of kenjutsu; and yudansha ranks in Goseki-ryu, Daito-ryu and modern Aikido. Cecil Touchon 1997 

L.R….In classical Zen you start off by sitting properly and usually counting your breaths and in particularly in Rinsai Zen as opposed to Soto Zen you are assigned a koan by the Roshi. Some roshi in Soto Zen make more use of koan than others but in Renzi this is one of the entry level aspects. The koan is supposed to force you out of your intellectual perceptions. The idea, in simple terms, is to provide a question that has no answer. Since most people desire a logical answer they keep worrying the koan in their minds until finally they reach a point where they give up and then the answer comes to them. 

C.T. Kind of like the Buddha when he sat under the bodhi tree. He gave up essentially. 

L.R. Right. Over a period of years you go through these at different levels and over the centuries levels of these koans are recognized, developed and designed to bring you through a series of experiences and understandings each building upon the other. Eventually you get to a state of meditation using either a koan or counting breaths. Then there is shikin taza this is just sitting which is the equivalent to full blown mushin which is usually translated as no-mind but it is not no-mind. It is a separation of the conscious mind from the body and away from everything else going on and the shutting down of the conscious mind as a thought producing substance to that; the wind blows through you, the cars pass through you, the sound of the river goes through you, the sound of birdsong goes though you. 

Now a lot of people like to say, ‘You become the bird’, that’s the same thing but it is a more limiting way of saying it. ‘It goes though you’, you are it but you are not controlled by it. If you become something then you are it and you have left that state. What you want to do is let what ever it is, flow though you, not stay, not pause, you don’t even think about it. That’s real mushin. During that state the physical body, in terms of martial arts, is capable of doing things on its own. In the event of an attack or, for that matter, if you are attacking someone else and if the body has been well trained, you can react with the inherent strength and precision that the body is capable of. The mind has not imposed any limitations so the body can just do what it needs to do. Yet if you have two people fighting of equal training, the one who can produce the more consistent mushin has the edge because that body will be functioning with more precision and strength and his reaction time is faster. He is not constrained by thought processes. Any one who has been in a genuine combat situation will have experienced something of that. The ones who are better at achieving mushin are the better fighters. They separate themselves from concern, any kind of concern, even the concern of winning. It is no longer a factor. This frees up the body to react in the way that it is best able to react. 

We have all heard stories of a mother who is able to lift a car if her child is trapped under it. We can’t do that under normal circumstances. We can’t say ‘I’m going to pick up this car.’ You couldn’t do it. But, when in a crisis, mushin can take place when the mind is forcibly separated because of the situation and the body just goes and does it. 

The key of someone achieving mushin in advanced levels of meditation or someone doing it at advanced levels of martial arts is whether or not you can make it happen. Can you place yourself in that state voluntarily even in a state of fear or when facing a fearful situation can you step back from yourself; trust your self to do that? Applied to art, can you, as an artist, back away and let creation take place without imposing your personal desires on the work? From the artist standpoint there is a difference between an artist and a technician. A technician may be able to copy something perfectly but lacks creativity whereas the artist is creative even if he may lack an equal technical skill. So a great martial arts technician can look great, can do these great, wonderful athletic things and do them with enormous precision and everything else but when you look at them you ask yourself, ‘What’s lacking?’ you can tell something missing. However, when an artist gets out there, there is something else going on that grabs you. I think a good example is the western style circus where you see the performers doing athletic things and balancing and all of this stuff. Then you look at the Chinese circus, there is a great technical skill but there is something that just catches you, that draws you in. That’s the art of it. 

You see for example a tight rope walker in the west. The tight rope walker goes out and will skillfully ‘stumble’ or look hesitant while walking to increase the tension of it. If you look at the same tight rope act in the East they don’t do that. They go out there and just calmly walk and do their thing and you still feel that excitement because you know that they are pushing themselves to the edge but with such control that they don’t need to fake the excitement but it is there. 

C.T. Now there is an interesting conception in itself which is the idea of replacing an authentic skill with an image of excitement. If one cannot produce a genuine effect one will titillate the viewer with technical prowess that is all completely calculated and everybody knows it. In art that happens a lot or in movies where you see a martial artist swing swords around looking very formidable and doing all of these amazing theatrics but the hero makes a single strike and the fight is over before it starts. 

L.R. One of my pet peeves about western gymnastics is the concentration on physical skill and technical ability but no sense of flow, no sense of rhythm. They talk about rhythm but the movements are abrupt. There is no sense of fluidity. Inside of ourselves we are perfectly capable of judging what is really right about somebody’s movement. In the same way you can look at two works of art and somehow you know that one is superior, that it has the right balance, the right form, the right flow and the other one doesn’t. You can artificially create the impression that the one that doesn’t feel right is right by getting intellectual about it and by playing all kinds of games or politics. You can surround a work of art with all of the markers and indicators of authenticity and therefore it becomes art but it really isn’t because it doesn’t feel right. People get too intellectual about it.Instead, if we try to reach out and grab it with our emotion or our sense of self then we can recognize a work of art’s form and flow and it’s viability and it’s energy. 

If we take the concept in Western science of taking a thing apart and dismantling it and then saying, ‘Now I understand it.’ This isn’t it. We want to grasp the gestalt of the thing in it’s wholeness 

C.T. Your looking for it’s it-ness which cannot be discovered by the parts of a thing but only by observing it in it’s wholeness. 

L.R.Yes. For instance, if you build a mobile and you build it well so that all of it’s parts are harmonious with each other, then when you apprehend it, the individual parts don’t stand out. It is a whole. You can be aware of the parts but their individual importance is lessened by the wholeness of the object. 

C.T. To recognize the wholeness of a thing over a mere analysis of it’s parts requires a leap to another level. For instance, in a martial artist, for some one to recognize how technically skilled one martial artist is and yet to notice the superiority of another martial artist even though he may not be exhibiting that technical prowess but at the same time has a more advanced sense of something; movement or… 

L.R. Movement. In a western sense we talk about timing and distance as separate things. Perhaps we see them as side by side but they are still separate. In the Japanese sense there is a concept called Maai which is timing, time and space integrated not separated. For instance, when I move a certain distance from an opponent I am accomplishing several things. I am slowing him down because he must take a finite amount of time to move towards me. That is a function in part, of distance but it is also a function of the psychological sense of time in that, if I get a little closer I may still have the physical time but by my distancing I may actually change his ability to function in his mental time. If I get too far I change the way that he perceives the distance and the time and can actually in some respects, make him move faster because he has to change his tactics. It is very, very subtle and it is dynamic. It is not static. When a person attacks without mushin, they attack mentally first. On some level, they decide that they are going to attack, they make an internal commitment. Once they have made that decision and they begin mentally the act of doing it, even before the body begins to function physically, they are committed to the attack. In maai, you learn to perceive that beginning even though no physical action has yet begun. This is very, very high level. You could get very esoteric here but in a simple sense you perceive this. You perceive the nature of the attack, the target of the attack, and then you adjust your position minutely so that the attacker doesn’t change his attack but you are positioning yourself to deal with that attack. In this state you can figuratively stand back and fold your arms and just stand around waiting for the physical attack to get to the place where you are ready to do something. There is a feeling of time being expanded, of slow motion that gives you lots of time to respond. I won’t say that your manipulating time in the pure, physical sense, though, I think in some ways you are. I think what’s happening is that you are getting to a point where you are recognizing that time is not the finite thing that we want it to be. We have machines that hack out fractions of a second very precisely but those machines are not human. A human seems to be able to change time by elongating it or shortening it in some cases. You will find that if you get tense that time seems to speed up, to move faster than your ability to respond. This is because you are to anxious. When you get rid of that anxiousness, then things flow more freely, more fully. It seems like you have plenty of time to come up with a response and in a sense, that is the art of martial arts, that you have stepped beyond pure, mechanistic actions. If you have two people who are fighting in a purely mechanical way you will see a couple of interesting things. Number one you’ll see that the timing between them is one, two, three, four, five, punch, kick, throw, grab, punch, kick. All very mechanical and choppy in attack and response. When you see them functioning in a more artistic vain there is a flow and a sense of shifts in the rhythmic structure in a way that makes them more effective in what they are doing. 

C.T. It becomes more like music instead of mirroring in the rhythm of it. 

L.R. Yes, like Jazz in the artistic sense of it. Someone can play beethoven and it is very complex, but if it is played the same way every time with no sense of creativity, it may sound for most people, very nice, even beautiful but if you take somebody who can introduce and weave in variations and changes that fit with the flow of the music because of their profound understanding of Beethoven than this is something great, something creative. If you have a pianist who is a great technician and you often hear pianists referred to as great technicians, then that is what they do, they preform the music with technical correctness. They may even be able to preform perfectly, but there is a lacking, there is that kernel of something that is not there. On the other hand, you can have somebody who has the true soul of the music, you will hear the same music but there is a subtlety of timing and maybe even a slight change in a couple of notes here and there that create a feeling about it that is more comprehensive. That’s the artist. He transcends the written notes and sees into the music. 

C.T. Yes that’s right. That’s what it’s about really. I guess that’s why the samurai saw the benefit of Zen. 

L.R. They saw the benefit of Zen, they saw the benefit of tea ceremony, saw the benefit of calligraphy, saw the benefit of poetry. 

C.T. Because those are all acts that bring one to this higher state of transcendence which will only benefit you as a warrior. 

L.R. Exactly, they are interrelated. If you study calligraphy, you develop a fine muscle control that you need that literally translates into swordsmanship. It makes your swordsmanship better. The Tea Ceremony is a form of meditation that is very much like Zen. They share many of the same things, when you are making tea you are just making tea. When you are drinking tea you are just drinking tea. 

C.T. So it is all about being absolutely present in the activity. 

L.R. Yes even though I hate that classical phrase ‘here and now’. I hate that because I don’t believe there is a here and now. As soon as you recognize the here and now it was here and now. 

C.T. You have left the present and you are ruminating on the past. 

L.R. You have locked yourself into what it was. So the real here and now can’t be here and now. 

C.T. It’s only when you have lost you sense of self awareness and achieved a kind of self-abandon into the actual activity that you are engaged in like you were saying about the warrior engaged in the conflict. He no longer has any concern whatsoever about any thing whatsoever. He is merely the thing happening but he is no longer even the thing. He is just happening. It is not him happening. It is not his enemy happening to him. It is not the act of the conflict between them. It is merely this thing that is transpiring and he is sort of going through it some how. 

L.R. And that is Aiki, harmony of spirit. When you are engaging in any kind of interaction between two people there must be a connection. If there is no connection there is no interaction. Aiki, in a martial arts sense, in a combat sense, is an interaction between the two opponents with the opponent that is able to tune in more being the one who will persevere. 

This brings us to kimasubi or knotting ki or spirit is sort of in there, as one of the ways of defining aiki as dominating spirit. It is difficult to understand because the Japanese language has characters which have multiple levels of meanings so ‘ai’ and ‘ki’ as two different characters have multiples meanings within themselves. If fact, if you want to get really into it, the characters themselves are made up of other characters which have meanings that contribute to the overall meaning. Some of these meanings, in usage, can have completely opposite meanings depending on the context because Japanese is a contextual language. When we talk about aiki in a combat situation we are also talking about a person’s ability to reach out and grasp and control the other’s behavior. In very advanced martial arts, the ability to influence the opponent’s attack by the way that one accommodates and draws in the attacker in a way that defeats him. This is the concept of suki, the opening. The creating of an opening which draws the attacker in. In a physical sense this is to open a spot on you body where he says’ “Ah ha, I can punch him there.” At a more advanced level this opening is psychological or spiritual so that an opening is perceived even though no physical opening has been provided. 

Therefore, with true mushin, the mind is not in the way trying to interpret the possibilities and the body can then react as a pure reaction. In mushin you are withdrawing your mental command presence because your thoughts and judgments slow reaction time down. But there is another level of consciousness that you are in, in mushin, that is capable of acting both in a reflective mode and in an active mode at the same time. 

C.T. So I would guess that the active mode is due to the many years of disciplined effort so that by the time that you enter this mushin state in a combat situation, you don’t have to depend on any conscious thinking because you have already trained you whole being over twelve or fifteen or twenty-five or fifty years to have this very complex array of responses and openings to create based on the situation and then your body will naturally make its selection of its own accord. 

L.R. The common example that we all can relate to is when we look up and notice that we have driven ten miles and have no recollection of it. Who was driving? It wasn’t you, you didn’t consciously make all of those turns and slow down and speed up. You can’t do that if you don’t know how to drive a car very well. You will notice that it took you a number of years to attain to such a level of mastery that you don’t have to think about it. You just naturally shift the gears and hit the breaks and turn the wheel, all of the complex actions of driving a car that have to be done in concert with each other, without thinking about it. When it is built into your body, your mind can step away and let the body do what it knows how to do. That’s mushin. 

C.T. So how would you apply a concept like, let’s say, maai, to making art? 

L.R. I think perhaps, by the way you reach into it and manipulate it. If I produce a harmony with an attacker and of course I want to protect myself, that harmony of necessity becomes a harmony in which that attacker is neutralized; is no longer able to attack. 

C.T. So your not interested in a harmony where you lose. 

L.R. Exactly, so in art, that harmony that you create in the work of art is your control, your dominating of the art by producing the harmony. In essence, you are neutralizing the art. We mentioned before, the idea of an artist being able to put a limit. The real artistic capability is in recognizing the limits of the art so that you know where to stop. If, in your dominating of it, you impose that limit upon it so that it is neutralized then it becomes a work of art. If you are unable to achieve dominance and the work gets away from you then it is not art, it’s a failure. So the maai then, is in your approach. The level of mushin that you are able to achieve improves your maai 

C.T. So this is perceptual then? 

L.R. I think that it is dynamic. I think the perception is after the fact when you stand back and realize what has happened. You realize that you have transcended your ego. So as your ego gets back into it you have lost the maai; the aiki of it and you have lost the control of it because the ego that you have is evidenced in the work through lack of control. 

C.T. I think that concept could be very useful in painting and not only in the actual creation of the work of art but could also be applied to the interrelationships within the composition; that they all have a maai to each other. Which would be your own maai in how you create the tensions and how tightly they can be configured without creating a claustrophobic state or without being too scattered. Then you will have achieved the maai of all of the various elements within the composition. It wouldn’t make any difference if it is the color or light or shape or sizes of shapes in relation to each other which could be anything; a landscape or portrait or the figure to ground relationships. 

L.R. In classical Japanese painting where the concept of the empty space becomes a reality, it is that maai between those few strokes and the empty space… 

C.T. That activates the empty space. 

L.R. Exactly 

C.T. It is no longer a dead space but it is functioning with the positive elements that you have placed in it. In other words, you have activated the entire surface with this very essential grouping of elements. 

I once had a teacher in St. Louis, Kim Moseley who grappled with this idea with the terms ‘active area and ‘silent space’. An object creates an active area around it which extends outwardly to a certain distance into the silent space but at a certain point the effect has its limit.At that point he would create another object which would maintain the active area between the two elements. So I suppose that he was discovering the maai of these different elements to each other within this space. This, I suppose, is the art in a Zen painting which is to know the outer limits of creating an active emptiness. 

L.R. Yes, emptiness is active. In our western thinking we tend to think that emptiness or stillness is somehow blank; is nothing, as opposed to a more eastern sense that space is dynamic, active and can even be more active than the positive space or figure. You can have a painting where the ground can overpower the figure or even become the figure; where emptiness isn’t empty. In martial arts there is that same feeling where emptiness is not a negativity or a pulling in. It can often be an extension and an expansion. 

C.T. So achieving harmony with your opponent then, is not a passive act. 

L.R. In the martial arts it is a very active and a very powerful act. This is how you get the idea that aiki is not only harmony of spirit but also dominating spirit. It is a combination of the two. 

C.T. By being in harmony you have the ability to dominate. If you are not in harmony you have no possibility of dominating. 

L.R. Then your just colliding instead of controlling. If you are good enough to take control of your opponent or whatever, then you can neutralize the thing you are controlling instead of injuring it. This is very advanced and from a technical standpoint, very difficult and you must be very finely honed in your skill and timing and the other elements. There is a lot of talk in the more modern styles of martial arts about this neutralizing without injuring but unfortunately they can’t achieve this level because they haven’t learned the basics which is to injure, so that they truly can go beyond that. You have to master how to injure before you can transcend injuring. It would be like an artist who has achieved a high level of technical ability but still has not achieved the ability to enter the creative state. When you create a work of art you are dominating it: you dominate the image and the concept and so completely that the final result effects people when they look at it. 

C.T. So then, to take the art to that next level that you are talking about would be when you have moved past dominating it in the sense of roughly taking hold of it and making the materials do what you want and moving toward dominating the object through being responsive to the needs of the form. You are no longer making it what you want it to be but you are making it what it can be. 

L.R. Yes, like Michelangelo where he says that he takes the stone and releases the image that is in the stone. He just takes away what obscures the figure. It’s that same feeling. 

You can hack away at something and force an image and it may be technically very nice, well proportioned, etc. but it lacks life. But if you reach in to something and pull out what’s there, and you can’t just do that in an undisciplined way. Art isn’t a lack of discipline it is considerable discipline. It requires that your control is total, encompassing… 

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