This blog post is an attempt to give a reasonably complete answer to a question in reply to a post here.
I would say that it is possible to truly understand Budo without training in Japan, but that it is really very difficult.. There are a few teachers out there who might be able to transmit the whole contents, but not many. In the US, I'm thinking of people like Phil Relnick, Ellis Amdur, Wayne Muramoto and Meik Skoss have a shot at doing it, but it's really tough. I'll be brief here, and go into detail in a full blog post. Budo is not the techniques. It's everything else. The techniques are really a vessel for carrying the all the things that are Budo: the values, the customs, the expectations and behaviors, the honor and the duty and the loyalty, the way of thinking about things and the way of interacting with the world as you move through it. These all make up what Budo is, and to think that by learning techniques and kata you are learning budo is a great mistake. Budo is vastly more.
So what is budo if it’s not just the techniques. The word is made up of 2 characters, “bu” 武 and “do” 道. Often it is a wild goose chase to try and figure out the intention of Japanese words by taking apart the kanji characters they are written with. Many words are of ancient vintage and actual usage has changed so much that relying on the kanji to give you the keys to understanding is a mistake. The important thing is how the word is used in the language today and not how it was used hundreds of years ago when the word was first written.
From one angle, this is true of budo as well. It is often used to simply mean “martial arts” in everyday usage in Japan. For example, when I check the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary, it gives the following definition:
どう1【武道】 (budo) the martial arts; military science; 〔武士道〕the precepts of the samurai; chivalry
By this definition boxing is budo, and fencing, and Thai kickboxing, and sambo, and many other martial arts. And I will admit that it is a definition I have heard used in popular conversation and media in Japan. Anything that trains one in some sort of combat is budo. If this is what you are interested in, then you’ve probably read enough and can skip the rest of this. On the other hand, in conversation within the budo community in Japan, the usage is different, much more complex and nuanced. This is the meaning that I’m concerned with.
This more complex meaning is one that includes budo with a number of other cultural practices in Japan. Practices like sado 茶道, kado 華道, shodo 書道, and kodo 香道. These are known in English as tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, incense smelling respectively. Yet like budo they all contain that “do” 道. What we have is an entire class of activities that are “do”, but what is “do”?
“Do” 道 is a character meaning “road, path, way” and it goes back to the ancient Chinese concept known as Tao or Dao. There are 2 primary sets of writings that provide the foundations for what has become known as Taoism in English. The first is a small collection of 81 brief poems that can be read in less than an hour. Best known as the Tao Te Ching, there is a decent translation at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html. These are the foundation writings on the Tao. The other set of writings are by Chuang Tzu. There are links to several translations on the web here.
The Tao is a good place to start. The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, the oldest writings about it, says (see footnote 1):
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
If “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” then explaining the Tao is going to be tough. Miriam Webster Dictionary gives us: “the unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality as conceived by Taoists “ which is actually a good start. Tao becomes the source and origin of everything. So if we can bring ourselves into moving and acting in one with the Tao, then we will be in harmony with the universe and our actions will be correct.
In the story of Cook Ting from the writings of Chuang Tzu (the second great set of writings on Tao) it is shown that any activity can be practiced as a means for achieving an understanding of the Tao. Ting is a cook in the kitchen of Lord Wen-hui. When asked about his marvelous skill he replies “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all.” Cook Ting uses his craft as a vehicle for finding and deepening his understanding of the Tao. This is not necessarily an intellectual understanding, for he says “now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are.” (Footnote 2)
This is the simplest base upon with all of the various Do are built, whether it is sado or shodo or kado or budo. The goal is to use the craft you are practicing to come closer to the Tao and to remove the barriers between ourselves and the Tao. This is what we are trying to do when we practice any Do. We are trying to achieve a closeness and understanding of the Tao, the universe, the origin of all things, through the practice and development of our craft, our art.
If you watch a really good kendoka or judoka, they don’t seem to be fighting an opponent. They seem to just move naturally and without apparent aggression and their partner’s actions are nullified. They move again and their partner is defeated without them having taken any real action. I know I have felt this at the hands of some of my Judo teachers. We are moving around the mat and suddenly I’m airborn. My teacher hasn’t done anything dramatic. His movement seemed to naturally place him in a position where a technique happened. He didn’t throw me. Everything came together so I was thrown more by my own action than anything my teacher was doing. He was just there and I was moving in such a way that I bumped against his hip and went flying.
This is the little goal of budo. You strive to be so in harmony with the essence of your art, with the world and the Tao that things happen without your doing anything. This is a principle concept of the Tao Te Ching known as wu wei 無為. In action, the master kendoka or judoka doesn’t appear to actually do much of anything, yet is victorious. In chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching it says
The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.
The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.
The big goal is to expand this mastery and understanding of a small, limited field to the rest of life and achieve this same understanding and oneness with the Tao in all aspects of life, so that everything one does is effortless and perfectly in harmony with the world around you.
The idea of the Way is not limited to Taoism however. One of the classics of Confucian thought, The Great Learning, begins
The way of great learning consists in manifesting one's bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.
Tao is a critical element of the Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought that was a major influence on Japanese thought throughout Japanese history. In Confucian teaching Tao was more focused on human affairs and making right action so natural that it happened without thought. Confucius was focused on society and human affairs, so when he writes of Tao his focus is on its importance at that level. In Neo-Confucian writings it the focus is more on the cosmic significance of Tao, but in all of them, Tao is a critical and fundamental concept for understanding the world, our place in it, and how we should develop ourselves and live in the world. In addition, when Buddhism arrived in China, the concept of Tao was appropriated to describe many ideas in Buddhist teachings as they were translated into Chinese. As a result, everywhere one looks in classical thought you find the Tao and its related ideas.
The Tao Te Ching and The Great Learning are texts that have been fundamental study for the educated in China for thousands of years, and in Japan since writing was introduced from China around the 4th century CE. They are just the first, and shortest of the many writings that make use of the concept of Tao that were considered essential study for any educated person in Japan up to the end of the Edo Period in 1868. These concepts were used to explore and conceive everything from ideal social order and relationships to the the cosmos.
Budo, and the Ways that preceded it, sado, shodo and others, were all the province of the educated classes in old Japan.
In a coment, someone said “budo is “nothing special””. I agree that budo is "nothing special". In Japan that is. The techniques you are practicing and the craft one is learning, are just tools for practicing all the "do" 道 aspects. So much of what is the "do" is embedded cultural knowledge that Japanese take for granted as shared cultural and historical knowledge and experience. Outside Japan, we don't have that basic cultural and historical knowledge, so what is ordinary and a given in Japan, is exceptional an unknown outside Japan. This is true whether we are talking about budo or any of the other cultural ways from Japan. The teacher outside Japan must have a thorough understanding of these cultural elements to be able to fully transmit their budo. For a foreigner training in Japan, these elements smack you in the face so often that you learn them almost as organically as the Japanese do growing up. Training outside Japan, the teacher has to consciously include them in the instruction. It can be transmitted across cultures, but the teacher has to understand what elements beyond the techniques have to be taught as well for a student to fully grasp the "do" portion of budo.
In my experience, very few teachers outside Japan have made the effort to educate themselves about the cultural matrix in which budo is embedded within and relies on to give the teachings their full context and relevance. Budo training that includes that understanding is such a rich and deep experience that is makes the training without seem like eating the paper plate at a picnic instead of the food on the plate.
I’m not trying to suggest that budo teachers outside Japan have to become experts on Taoist and Confucian philosophy. That is a life’s work by itself, and there are precious few Japanese budo teachers who are also masters of philosophy. Most Japanese teachers have a native cultural understanding of the concepts that they have absorbed from living in Japan. For a teacher outside Japan, I think some reading of the classic texts from Taoism and Confucianism along with plenty of quiet thought about how they relate to budo practice is probably enough. Quiet thought fertilized with the ideas of Lao Tsu, Chuang Tzu and Confucius should bring about some profound realizations on the nature of practice and what the great teachers who created the Ways hope for us, their students, to achieve.
1. All quotes from Tao Te Ching taken from S. Mitchell translation at
http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html on October 14, 2013
2. Cook Ting quotes from