Budo is about a lot of things, but one of the least discussed is responsibility. The longer we practice the more important it is that we consider this. At a very fundamental level, in it’s rawest form, budo is about power. We who have that power are necessarily required to use it wisely. As Stan Lee said so very eloquently through the lips of Peter Parker “With great power comes great responsibility.”
This isn’t just about superheroes. As we practice budo we really do become more powerful. Under normal circumstances very few people would consider a 5’6” (168 cm), 135 lbs (61 kg) woman a significant physical power. Ronda Rousey has been practicing budo for 15 years though and is an amazingly powerful individual. Her skills give her power. It’s a very simple equation. Although many of our social rules and customs exist to keep individual power in check and prevent its abuse, there are plenty of people out there who abuse physical, social and economic power. There is the office manager who uses his position to bully and take advantage of those under him. There is the rich business owner who uses the power of her wealth to bully people who do business with her. And we all know the physically strong guys who use their power to physically intimidate and hurt people around them.
One of the great things about the power of martial arts skills is how equalling and equal opportunity they are. Martial arts skills make the difference in power between a 135 lb women and 235 man disappear very quickly. I have many vivid memories of small women reducing large guys to lumps on the floor of the judo dojo where I practiced in college. Quite often, I was one of the lumps, whether it was from a powerful throw, a choke or an armbar, those ladies impressed their power upon me.
Skill doesn’t belong to those who are born faster or stronger or more talented. Skill belongs to anyone who puts forth the dedicated effort necessary to develop it. Once you make that effort though, you get not just that power, but responsibility as well. At the most basic level once you have power you have to decide what to do with it. I’ve seen people become skilled and then become bullies in the dojo. I’ve seen them subtly bully people outside the dojo as well. They learned only that they have power. They haven’t learned anything about using it responsibly. The difference between just learning a skill, and studying a way, a michi, a do, 道, is learning the proper, responsible use and application of that power.
This may be the biggest lesson of budo, larger than than all the lessons about technique and ma’ai and timing together. Sadly, it’s also the most commonly missed lesson. How do we use the power we have? As a martial artist we can easily intimidate and hurt others. After all, inflicting pain and damage is what we are practicing on each other in the dojo.
In the dojo we spend a lot of time learning when it is appropriate to use and practice what we know and when it isn’t. Japanese martial arts are loaded with ritual that regulate practice so you know when it is ok to try to toss your friend across the room or for her to work on choking you unconscious or for the new kid to try the cool armbar she saw Ronda Rousey do in one of her fights. All that meaningless etiquette and ritual turns out to have some very practical reasons for being there. During practice there are times when it is ok to work on a technique and times when it’s not. There are times when it’s dangerous to step on the mat and others when it is safe. There are also considerations of how we treat each other when we are practicing. We learn to treat each other with respect and honor and dignity regardless of how skilled someone is. We are all on the same path, so there is no reason to look down upon someone because they haven’t taken as many steps along the path as we have. As we gain skill our power to hurt and damage increases. That means we are more responsible for not abusing that power by abusing others.
There are other kinds of responsibility in the dojo as well. I am not one of those who believe that everyone who advances in rank has a responsibility to teach. There is plenty to do around a dojo besides teaching. Everyone can look at their personal capabilities, their powers, and figure out what they should be responsible for.
Responsibility changes as we grow. Once we have the violent power that martial arts training bestows and we recognize the responsibility to act wisely and responsibly, then we become responsible for mastering something else. We are responsible for learning the real consequences of using our skills, and not just the myths and irresponsible nonsense like “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.” That’s just a flashy cover for the fact that someone doesn’t know the real legal consequences of their actions and choices. Knowing those is our responsibility.
This is one of those lessons that stretches out of the dojo and into every area of our lives. What are our responsibilities? There are plenty of things that we can do that it would be best not to do. Even if it would be entirely gratifying to apply a joint lock and tie that obnoxious jerk in the next cubicle into a pretzel, or choke that self-righteous jerk into silence, and it would be a simple and easy application of what we do at practice, we know we shouldn’t and we don’t. There are lots of places in life where we have power and we should consider if and how to use it.
We have lots many different kinds of power beyond the physical power that budo practice endows: economic, social influence, parental, business, and others. We don’t often spend time thinking about the responsibility to use the power we have wisely, yet how we wield social and economic and parental power might be more important than how we wield the physical violence of the martial arts. WIth the power that martial arts gives us, the responsibility not to abuse it is very clear, with other, more subtle forms of power, matters are not always so clear. Sometimes it’s too easy to use power to shoo our kids away when they need some attention but we’re a bit tired. It’s all too easy on the job to use power to dump work on people or to get out of doing things we should be doing.
This is power too though, and it should be used with consideration and a sense of responsibility as well. If we’re really serious about budo, we have to recognize that the lessons extend beyond the door of the dojo, and impact every aspect of life. Budo is about physical power in it’s rawest and most basic form, but the lessons about considering when and how it is appropriate to use that power can inform everything we do. Budo teaches many lessons, but how we handle the responsibility of power is one of the biggest.