[-empyre-] Butô: Pain Body - Empty Body

Michael Weiss michl.weiss at utanet.at
Sun Oct 30 18:14:55 EST 2011

Dear all,

being able to join (y)our ongoing discussion again at its last phase, I first of all thank you indeed for your comments I am currently reading. Given their vast range of insights and aspects, I like to join the theme of your last and wise essay on pain with regard to butô, Sondra, which touched me deeply. 

In the following, I would like to share with you some personal thoughts-and-feelings about a dance-and-research experience in the studio of Ohno Yoshito, based on and inspired by Sondra's essay, by particularly asking about the dynamics of grief as a reaction to experiences of suffering and pain within Ohno Yoshito's butô transmission. Therefore, this consideration is entirely within the realm of butô and rather specific - with hope it still might be of interest for some of you, along with my excuses (again) for a lenghty text...

Ohno Yoshito once said to the dancers in his studio during one of his weekly butô evenings, often and in their essence grounded on modes of deceleration: "Each step should contain pain and should be mastered thoroughly; otherwise it cannot be butô." [1] Why does he explicitly invite and accompany dancers to integrate and manifest their (un)conscious dimensions of suffering ("each step should contain pain"), thereby intending an existential transformation ("should be mastered thoroughly") while constituting the very dance of butô itself on such a process ("otherwise it cannot be butô")? On other occasions he told the dancers coming to his studio: "The essence of art is to find who you are. From that you can create your art. [2] If you look for 'I am', 'I', 'I', 'I', it's not good. [...] You need to look at your self." [3] How might the pain body - as Sondra put it so appropriately -, a decelerated pain body,  relate, or even more so, guide one to one's self as one's real body-mind? How might then the answer to pain and suffering in the gestalt of grieving be part of this process? And how might all this finally go together with Ohno Yoshito's reflection: "If you keep your body empty then everything can come out. If you fix it and fill it with one thing everything will stop there. So, when it’s empty, the very firm, very strong and very delicate, very tender - all together can come out." [4] The following consideration within the context of the aforementioned research, is an attempt to search for some answers.

I learned that Ohno Yoshito accompanies the dancers within a unity of dance and (daily) life on a transformative path of insight through performance rituals developed by him, based on the teaching of Hijikata Tatsumi and his father, Ohno Kazuo. As the last of his reflections on the empty body suggests, the intention of his butô consists of a body-mind-focussed realization of the non-duality of emptiness (in Japanese: kû). This means an existential awareness of the mutual conditionality and dependence of all phenomena (engi; referred to by Ohno Yoshito e.g. as "one heart"[5]) as well as their impermanence (mujô). Such recognition - as Ohno Yoshito's words on not focussing on the dimension of 'I am' highlight - is based on the realization of ego-lessness ('self'), in contrast to ego-centeredness, which therefore relies - from a butô’s perspective - on non-conditionality, non-dependence and permanence. The dancing process ought to occur from and within such a non-dualistic understanding and shall lead to the creation of a genuine butô of each dancer. 

The focus of the mentioned participatory and phenomenologically oriented research - embedded in own grieving experience - concentrated  on trying to understand the ritual development of the ability to grieve within Ohno Yoshito’s butô transmission to the dancers in his studio. I would argue that unsuppressed grief is an emotional ability; based on a resource-oriented and ritual development, it can lead towards an empathic integration, manifestation and transformation of experiences of loss and suffering. Thus grieving can become a process of insight. Let me try to look at it further.

I came to understand that great significance in Ohno Yoshito’s butô lies on the exploratory introspection into the dimensions of the experience of suffering (in its association with grieving emotions) and the development of empathy. Both dimensions may be associated with a change in the ego-centered, dualistic mind which is marked by an assumption of a separation and permanence of phenomena. Experiences of suffering (manifested in grieving) and empathy development (manifested in empathizing and sympathizing) are to my understanding among those areas of experience in which a person requires the presence of others in the most immediate way, turns towards her- or himself and others in the most immediate way, and is touched in her or his most direct areas of being. Therefore, dimensions of the experience of suffering and a development of empathy contain a potential for transformation of an ego-centered, dualistic mind which, by its construction of identity, seen from a butô perspective as offered by Ohno Yoshito, creates an illusion of autonomy, independence and permanence. The process of transformation, formed by these two dimensions, consists in what I propose could be named as a ritual development of an ability to grieve. 

In Ohno Yoshitos butô, I found this very ability to evoke into being a process of insight, founded on empathy and compassion which is able to touch a dancer’s personality in an existential and integral way. Through grief and its development under resource-oriented preconditions as they exist in Ohno Yoshito’s butô, spaces of personal experience, transformation and insight can be developed into which I saw him accompanying the dancers. These are transit areas, capable of deriving towards a non-dualistic realization of the conditio vitae of life-and-death in their entirety versus its dissociations amidst the unity of dance and (daily) life. According to Ohno Yoshito's butô cosmology, such understanding is expressed in the non-dualistic awareness of mutual conditionality and unity of all phenomena as well as their impermanence. I therefore would propose, grief could be seen as an ability, and its development as a ritual art of grieving in butô in its decelerated modes can turn into an existential resource of transformation, insight, and empathy, offering pathways of learning to dance with/as pain body towards realizing it as an empty body: and this very body-mind is "very firm, very strong and very delicate, very tender".

Thank you very much indeed for your patience. With warm regards and wishes, Michl


[1]  Workshop by Ohno Yoshito. July 28, 2004. Kamihoshikawa. Interpreter: Hashimoto Keiko.
[2]  Ibid. July 28, 1999. Interpreter: Okamoto Emi.
[3]  Rehearsal for 'The Precious Person' [Taisetsu na Hito]. June 30, 2004. Yokohama. Interpreter: Hashimoto Keiko.
[4]  Workshop by Ohno Yoshito. July 7, 2004. Kamihoshikawa. Interpreter: Hashimoto Keiko.
[5]  Rehearsal for 'The Precious Person'. June 26, 2004. Yokohama. Interpreter: Hashimoto Keiko.

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