There is a lot of philosophizing that goes on in budo circles. I know that I am in the first rank of those guilty of it. There is far too much of philosophizing about budo by a lot of people who don’t have the depth to do a good job of it. This might be a symptom of the internet age though. Everyone who trains should be thinking about the ethics and values of Budo, but not everyone’s thoughts are ready for prime time. With the advent of the internet bulletin board and personal blogs (like this one) any fool (like me) can expound to the world. That’s probably not a great thing. However, budo without a philosophy of well considered ethics and honor is just another way of hurting people, so I’m glad to see there is so much time and effort being put into thinking about it.
Having said that, I think you need a ratio of at least 100 to 1 ratio of practice to philosophy, although it might need a lot more practice than that. Consider that the Tao Te Ching can be read in an hour, and then you can spend years discovering new stuff from it. All the good budo that I have encountered has been deeply thoughtful and filled with philosophical content, but the bulk of that content is written in the kata and application, not in words. The kata and application are structured so they teach nearly everything about an art, whether it is a koryu bugei such as one of the branches of Yoshin Ryu jujutsu, or a modern art like Kodokan Judo or Aikido.
The kata and applications practiced don’t just teach how to do a technique. They teach what the art values and thinks as well. If you haven’t studied the kata and application of the art deeply, any written or spoken lessons about the art will be meaningless. In Kodokan Judo there are 9 sets of kata, and they teach a full range of techniques for throwing, pinning, joint locking, choking and disarming. But the techniques taught are just the beginning. The kata teach how to apply them from a variety of ranges and attacks, so you can also learn something about when to apply the technique.
When studied properly the kata teach a student to see how close someone has to be before they are dangerous. The kata also teach an arts philosophy on how strongly to respond and what level of damage to inflict on an assailant. Some arts believe in preemptive strikes (Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu and Muso Shinden Ryu share the same assassination kata Tana No Shita. One of the first kata in Araki Ryu is an assassination kata). Other arts don’t include surprise attacks but are willing to strike first once they have been threatened (Shinto Muso Ryu’s Tachi Otoshi). Still others refrain from action until actually attacked (Kodokan Judo). This is philosophy at a fundamental level that is embedded in the kata of the particular systems. These kata all make an ethical statement about what is acceptable behavior in the eyes of the people who crafted the system.
Studying an art’s kata teach you what the system approves of and disapproves of. It also teaches about things such as how strongly to respond to a given situation or provocation. Some systems always respond with lethal force (see pretty much any koryu bugei from before 1604 c.e.). Others have a variety of responses that range from killing or crippling an attacker down to simple restraint. Shinto Muso Ryu has a variety of responses in the kill, cripple or seriously injure range, while arts like Kodokan Judo and Aikido tend to focus on the range from causing injury down to simple restraint. These are all philosophical statements, but without deep practice of the art, the philosophy of the arts cannot truly be understood.
Most arts also have written or verbal teachings that supplement the physical training, but the physical training is the core of the system and really teaches what they system believes. The associated writings help one to better understand the art, and provide some guidance in the form of things to think about while practicing. However, without intensive training in the systems kata and application, the writings and verbal teachings are nearly meaningless because they lack the proper context for understanding their intent.
Kano Jigoro Shihan, the founder of Kodokan Judo famously crafted two guiding principles for his art:
自他共栄 Jita Kyoei often translated as Mutual Benefit And Welfare
精力善用 Seiryoku Zenyo often translated as Maximum Efficiency Minimum Effort
These are simple statements, but the true depth of their meaning and intent can only really be understood through intensive practice of the system that embodies their meaning. Mutual Benefit And Welfare sounds very nice, but actually practicing it in the dojo while you train is much more difficult that the simple phrase suggests. The dedicated student has to learn how to do this even when they don’t like their training partner, even when they are tired, angry or annoyed, and even when a partner may have actually harmed them in some way. The principle is not easy to implement, and it isn’t meant to be applied just during keiko.
Seiryoku Zenyo is even more difficult to understand, though perhaps it less emotionally difficult to implement. It starts out in technique, but grows quickly after that. All Kodokan Judo students soon realize how important the principle is for doing the techniques of the system properly and effectively. That is quickly obvious when you see a 60 year old judoka doing randori with a 20 year old, and you notice that the 60 year old is relaxed and breathing easily while the 20 year old is stressed, stiff and gasping for air. Same techniques, same art, but the 60 year old is doing a much better job of applying Sieryoku Zenyo. While the 20 year old tries to use strength and youthful energy, the 60 year old is doing only as much as is really necessary, resulting in the 60 year old being fresh and relaxed after a few minutes of randori while the 20 year stands next to him exhausted and panting for breath. The difficult secret is that you are supposed to be able to scale the application of Seiryoku Zenyo to everything else you do in your life. It’s not meant just to be hidden in the dojo. Without dedicated practice in the dojo though, the real depth of the concept will never be revealed though. There are lots of things that seem efficient at first but that the trial and error of practice reveal to be mistakes.
As a student advances deeper and deeper into a budo school, they slowly discover more and more depth to the teachings, both the practical, physical teachings of the system and the written teachings. The core of any budo system is the physical teachings of the art, the kata. The writings associated with the art help a student to understand what is embodied in the kata, but without extensive practice of the kata and deep appreciation for their contents, the writings will just be so many scratches on paper. This is true whether they are Kano Jigoro’s writings about mutual benefit and maximum efficiency, Ueshiba Morihei’s writings about the circle, square and triangle, Shinto Muso Ryu’s shiteki bunsho about the nature of the jo, or some of the esoteric teachings of other styles like Yagyu Shinkage Ryu or Araki Ryu or Miyamoto Musashi’s writings for Niten Ichi Ryu. If you haven’t studied the physical portion of the curriculum deeply, the philosophy will be meaningless.
Now get out there in the dojo and study your art’s philosophy.