Saturday, December 13, 2008

Yaegaki and The Pastures of Heaven

As previously posted, one of the Iaido Waza (form or technique) I demonstrated for my test in Japan is called Yaegaki. I was going to do Hidari, and practiced incorporating it into my routine, but on the eve of my departure Sensei Diamantstein suggested that since I was testing for Nidan (2nd degree) I should perhaps consider demonstrating the more difficult Yaegaki. This was his subtle way of saying “Don’t be easy on yourself. The test is there to test you. Why not test yourself within that?”

That night, I bought a bottle of sake at my local Lucky supermarket to share with a friend on my boat. The brand: Yaegaki. It was sign. I would incorporate one of the longest and most difficult of my iaido curriculum into my testing demonstration. Since then, I have begun to see Yaegaki as a metaphor for my journey in search of the Mask of Satori.

The Onion

Depending on who you ask and where you look and in what context you put it, Yaegaki means variously Yin/Yang, Mind and Body or Barriers Within Barriers. I prefer the latter definition because for me it brings out the idea of the fortress in movement. Responding, reacting but never letting the guard down. In other words staying open to new experiences. Even if it is painful to master the footwork and weight shifts, (I found my feet were bleeding at the end of all my practices in Japan) the reward is great. For me, this waza says “Just when you think its over, something happens. So keep peeling the onion. You may cry, but there’s more layers to go.”

The basic scenario or bunkai for Yaegaki is deceptively simple: You sit in seiza (Japanese style) directly across from someone who may or may not be your opponent. Your face betrays nothing. In a calm manner you respond to the opponent’s attack by drawing and slashing across an area that goes roughly from the chin to the base of the Adam’s apple.

Once the tip of the blade (Kissaki) clears the sheath- a place called the Koi guch , literally “mouth of the carp” there is no turning back. The inevitability of this movement is called Saya no uchi, Literally “The point of no return.” But is it?

You quickly snap the sword over your head in a move called Furi-kaburi and cut, Kirioroshi , sword sweeping in a blistering perfect perabola that comes to a dead stop, the sword handle exactly one and one half fists from your navel.

However, the opponent has managed to evade the brunt of your attack and “plays possum” until you are vulnerable during noto, (re sheathing) and makes a surprise attempt to sever your right leg. You use a second nukitsuke (cross cut) to block this slash and follow with your own kirioroshi, (vertical cut.)
You then perform O-chiburi, flicking the blood off the blade before re sheathing (noto) and returning to your original position like nothing happened.

Omote and Ura

One of the concepts that intrigued me in Japan was the idea of Omote and Ura. The nuances of Omote and Ura are difficult to translate. The first meaning might be as simple as “Front” and “Back.” The next meaning is like the two sides of a coin, say “Heads” and “Tails” or two sides of a blank sheet of paper. They are identical, yet different. But of course this is Japan so there is another meaning:
Omote and Ura can also mean “Apparent” and “Hidden.”
"It's a Yaegaki." I said to myself.
A barrier within a barrier.
Ura is the world behind the screen, the gears of the machine, the work that went in to the ease.
Omote is the mask.

The Mask of Satori

How we cover reveals what we're hiding. So I now have a new criteria for the Mask of Satori. Not only must it be universal, raceless, genderless, stateless and yet infinitely expressive, it must also be the Omote element of a complex and multifaceted Ura crammed into the Mask like a billion gigabytes on the head of a pin. Or the tip of a blade. The Kissaki.

In my search for the Mask of Satori I am convinced I found an unexpected pearl;
All acting styles are simply differentiations in the balance between Omote and Ura.
All Ura and you’re doing Commedia.
All Omote and you’re in Pinter land.
When I teach at the Berkeley Rep, I always do a few exercises dealing with what I call “Non-verbal Leakage.” I experiment with giving the actors secrets that are too difficult for the character to keep hidden. To keep Ura.

So we play with “The Waiter Who Has To Pee,” “The Drunken Pilot,” or “The Real Estate Agent Who Is Really A Terrorist.” Each of these characters wages a private war with Omote and Ura. Nothing better than watching a clown in trouble.

“Great!” is Enough

So I’m home.

Back in the familiar rehearsal hall at the California Shakespeare Theatre in Berkeley California where I am participating in a workshop of Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven, developing a text written by Octavio Solis. The friendly faces of Joan Mankin, Sarah Nealis and Jonathon Moscone and the others are great to see. They ask “How was Japan?” and I say “Great!” and we get to work on the project at hand. There’s no time for me to tell them every detail of my adventure even if they were interested, so my “Great!” will have to suffice. I am offering then, the Omote or apparent description of my experience. The Ura is all the sights and sounds and smells and tastes that I experienced.

My thought is this:
If the Omote and Ura are different sides of the same coin, and each has all the ingredients of the other, then there is an exquisite balance between what is said and what is not said.
And my simple “Great!” Is enough.

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