All the classical “Do” 道, or Ways, of Japan strive to achieve a better understanding of the world and the self. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing tea ceremony, flower arranging, sword fighting, incense smelling (kodo 香道), calligraphy or any of the other common activities that have been organized into form Ways. You study codified ways of doing things that have roots going back generations, and sometimes centuries. The goal is not just master one esoteric art form, but through the focused study, master the self and gain a greater understanding of the Way of the universe.
As people practice and study and refine their art, they naturally move up within the art’s hierarchy. This is the natural progression of beginner to senior student to junior teacher to senior teacher. There is always the risk that a person can misunderstand the respect that they receive as their skills and status increase. There are plenty of people who become recognized for the mastery of a particular skill, who someone conclude that because they are skilled and respected in one special field, they should be respected and lauded in every aspect of their lives. Their egos seem to take over and they get upset when people don’t acknowledge their superiority and innate greatness.
This can happen with anything. It’s a not uncommon human failing and it is found even in the Ways of Japan where one of the key things we are supposed to be mastering is our self. To really advance in any of the Ways, whether martial art or one of the more peaceful Ways, we have to achieve a certain mastery over our self and the voices in our head. All those stories of the serene tea master, or the calligraphy teacher who calmly looks at the paper for a few minutes and then with a sudden flourish creates a marvelous work of art, these all require that you master the voices in your head so you can concentrate well enough to be serene and peaceful and creative. It’s true of martial arts as well. If you can’t learn to quiet your mind, you’re never going to figure out how to get out of the way of that incoming sword cut or jo strike. And trust me, when your mind wanders and you don’t get out of the way in time, it hurts. Which brings on a different kind of mental focus.
We have to master parts of ourselves to master any of the arts or Ways. In mastering a Way though, we don’t have to master one important part of ourselves. We don’t have to master our ego. It’s easy for the ego to grow even more quickly than our skills do. It’s amazing how powerful a fertilizer for the ego a little praise and respect can be.
If a Way is to be more than simply mastering the base, physical skills of the art, then we have to do more than just learn to quiet our mind for the time it takes to perform the skill. We have to apply the lessons broadly to our whole selves, and not let the mastery of one skill enhance our ego to the point that it prevents further growth. This is a risk for anyone studying any skill. In a Way, it is a sad thing, because it prevents a student from achieving everything that the Way can give.
For all this, few arts and Ways have the inherent hurdle of budo . Budo practice actually makes the practitioner more powerful, which can feed the ego with the thrill of the power and the desire for more. If acted upon and followed, the path of the ego is completely odds with the path of budo, but it is an easy path to start upon, and difficult one to abandon once you have started treading it.
The power taught in budo is real power in the most basic, literal sense. A student learns raw, physical power over others. This is a huge trap for some people. The ability to physically dominate and intimidate the people around you is an alluring drug. In most modern societies, this power is even more seductive because it’s one we avoid socially and culturally we play down the realities of physical power. We suppress discussion physical power within social dynamics because people aren’t supposed to use it. We’re wired to react physical power even if it’s not supposed to be a dynamic of polite society.
Power dynamics are a part of most social interactions, and physical posturing is a part of it, even if people aren’t aware of it.. There are people who use aggressive posturing to influence and dominate the world around them. This works on lots of people, but not on those who are unusually strong, or who have great confidence in their physical skills. People who do budo don’t react the way untrained people do, and they can in fact become quite dominant because of their skills. This is another ego trap. It feels good when people defer to you and let you do things your way. That’s fine if it’s for a good reasons, but if it’s just because of your martial skills, then it’s probably a bad thing. Letting this sort of thing feed your ego, and using it to get your way, is another dangerous detour from the budo Way.
Intimidating people, power posturing, and even physically abusing people is an especially dangerous trap in the dojo, because we are supposed to be using and practicing our skills there, and senior students and teachers are expected to demonstrate superior skills. The lure of power over others because you are physically capable of it can be subtle. It is easy for senior practitioners to edge from demonstrating superior technique over the line to abusing juniors. The throws can become unnecessarily hard and brutal. Joint locks can be go from controlling to inflicting uncalled for pain to physically damaging. Just because the senior can do it, and they like the feeling of being able to make the juniors react. This is a subtle trap, because it can start out with simple things, like a throw that’s just a little harder than it needs to be, or a joint lock that is painful when it’s not necessary. The senior likes how the junior reacts, and more throws become extra hard, and the joint locks get more painful. From this point, things just get worse, as the seniors ego needs more and more signs of his power and dominance from those below him.
Juniors can unintentionally encourage this behavior by showing greater respect and deference to the person being abusive, because they see this as evidence of the person’s superior skill, rather than as evidence of abuse. This just makes the ego trap even bigger.
Power is drug for the ego, and in the dojo there is the danger that people will reward you for abusing the physical power that you have. Just because what you are studying has “Do” 道 in the name, doesn’t guarantee that you will become a better person. There are pitfalls along the way, and the one labeled “Ego” is perhaps the largest and most dangerous. This is because it can be so subtle that you don’t even realize you are falling in. Worse, it feels good. Having your ego stoked by the people around you feels wonderful, and can be quite addictive. It feels good to receive compliments and praise, but if you start trying to improve because you want the praise or the power, rather than improving to discover more about the art, yourself and the Way, then you have left the Way and are plunging into the pitfall of ego.