Saturday, January 31, 2009


When you are as enraptured by roof work as I am, you find yourself becoming familiar with a lot of triangles, mostly of the right-angled kind. Stare at them long enough, and one starts to see triangles everywhere - even thinking in terms of triangulation in unrelated fields.

One triangle I want to talk about today, comes to me from the Japanese martial art world, a place where I spent a fair amount of time at one point in my life. This triangle doesn't have a strict geometry as such, but, like all triangles - or tripods - remove one leg and the whole show comes down. I think this triangle bears on the question of the Master Builder tradition, 'mastery' in general, and the effects of specialization looked at in previous postings.

This triangle applies to more than martial arts, it applies to any 'way' of practice, or path in life. This triangle goes by the name Shin-Gi-Tai, the three words defining the three individual parts of this particular triangle.

The first of these, shin, is written with a Sino-Japanese ideograph (kanji) that looks like this: 心 

This character in fact derives from a pictograph of the human heart, which looks like this:

Hopefully it is fairly obvious that this is a picture of the heart muscle, if not, please take my word for it. This character has a range of modern meanings, stemming from the idea that the heart is the place where the deepest feelings are concealed, such as: mind; breast; center; core; thought; consideration; meaning; taste; spirit; sincerity; emotion; feelings.

In the case of Shin-Gi-Tai, the character shin takes the meaning of both 'mind' and 'heart', and relates to the aspect both of engaging completely with one's heart into what one is doing, and to engage the mind fully in contemplating the path both in detail and in a big-picture view. The person with shin is sincere in their efforts, considers their art deeply, and engages their intellect. They do not approach their work casually or without connection to it. They study everything they can relating to their art. They realize the depth of the art and find both humility and profundity in that.

The next character, gi, is written in Japanese as '技'. This character is a little more complex than the previous one described, and is in fact composed of two separate characters put together, namely '手’ (seen in an abbreviated form on the left side of '技'), and '支' which is on the right side.

Digging at the roots a little more, we find that 手, a very common element in Sino-Japanese characters, stems from a pictograph which looks like this:

This pictograph, though it may not be obvious, is a representation of a hand with the fingers spread out, the middle finger curled. When it shows up as part of other characters, it therefore is telling you that the character has something to do with the use of the hands.

The other piece, 支, also has a distinct meaning of its own, existing as a character in its own right, and comes from a pictograph which looks like this:

The bit at the bottom is another hand, a right hand, holding the forked upper bit, which is a branch. This character on its own has the meaning of "branch", "support" (i.e., to prop something up with a branch), and "hold (in check)" (i.e., using a forked stick to keep an enemy/animal at bay).

Combining the pieces to get the character '技', the meaning becomes, "handle a stick or wooden object with the hand", which implies in this case, "complicated artistry", which in turn gives the character an overall meaning/sense of "technique", "skill", and "accomplishment". In the phrase shin-gi-tai, this character gi relates to the use of the hands to do something skillfully. In the context of woodworking, it is the skill to produce a sharp blade, or set up the plane to produce a thin shaving, cut joinery cleanly, to saw to the line, to create strong and efficient structures, and so forth. The Japanese word for 'technique', by the way, is 'waza'.

The last leg in the trinity is tai, given by the kanji '体’. If you thought the previous kanji etymology was a little complicated, well, this one is far more involved, despite its relatively benign appearance. The character is in fact a simplified substitution for a more complicated older character that looks like this: '’, which is composed of an element on the left, '' meaning 'bone', and an element on the right, '', composed of a bunch of food (the upper bit), piled on a table、'豆' (the lower bit)- - it means " abundance", and "plenty". Thus, that which has an 'abundance' of 'bones piled together', is a reference to "the body", a place with an abundance of bones (or an abundance of flesh on bones, depending upon how prefer to remember it). So, tai refers to 'the physical body', and in relation to woodwork, this means a good sense of balance when walking along a beam in the air, the strength to lift stuff, swing an axe or hammer powerfully, to drive a hammer squarely onto the nail, to fit pieces together adroitly and without making a mess of everything, to have the endurance be able to hand-plane for hours on end, and so forth.

Tai can also refer to the physical body of what objects we make, that they be soundly constructed, nothing missing, nothing to excess, and have pleasing proportion and line.

The complete artisan has shin-gi-tai elements in balance. The Master Builder or the Master Potter embody shin-gi-tai in their art. It's holistic, all-encompassing, rather than specialist in nature.

A carpenter or furniture maker who can only work from plans prepared by others may well have gi and tai in abundance, but shin is lacking. The craftsperson who has lots of skills but is careless and unconcerned about what they do also lacks shin. The designer or architect who never actually builds stuff with their hands may well have shin in abundance, and has gi in a narrow sense only, and comes up way short on the tai component.

To even hope to be a Master of one's chosen craft, in my view, requires devotion to all aspects of the process described, as denoted by shin-gi-tai. While specialization may well result in a hypertrophy of one aspect of development, the other parts are retarded, and thus the finished product is also short of what it might be otherwise. Carpentry as an art can be as cerebral as any other discipline, and requires the same devotion to study and development as any other (and I include medicine, architecture, engineering, pro Athletics, and so forth) if one is to fully grasp it.

If you've been focusing purely on technique and the physical skills, churning stuff out, its time to round out your base by engaging the mind a little more. If you only build from plans drawn by others, start considering design more. Study layout, history, botany, architecture from other countries, structural engineering. If your engagement in your field is primarily with your brain however, get out there, learn to wield the tools, and build your designs, as that provides far greater feedback than anything else might. The secret to producing great work I think lies in having good balance between elements, and a well-rounded approach to one's art.

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