Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Budo And Who We Are


Kiyama Sensei emboides budo for me. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2006


We start budo for a lot of reasons. Some people want to learn how to fight better. Others are looking for a form of exercise that’s more interesting than the treadmill or aerobics class. Some are looking for a challenge. Some are looking for an active form of philosophy (don’t laugh, a few of us really did start because we wanted an active philosophical practice).  Once we’re in the dojo though, we get all of budo, not just the bit that brought us through the door.  The tough guy who wanted to learn to fight better gets doses of budo philosophy. The lady looking for an exercise class more interesting than what was happening at aerobics learns to fight better. That geeky guy who was looking for arcane Asian philosophy? He learns how to exercise and to fight.

Whatever our motivation for starting, we all get the same things when we start, a heavy dose of kihon. We practice improving our structure and posture.  We do endless paired exercises to develop mastery of spacing and sense for timing.

Once we understand some basics, we’re attacked with hands, sticks, chains and other weapons, thrown across the room and choked unconscious. We become accustomed to being attacked.  We know where our center is, and it’s a lot harder to knock us off it. As our understanding and mastery of spacing and timing increases, we learn the difference between when someone is posturing, and when they are actually in a position to attack.

If we are doing our budo right, we are also learning about ourselves. It’s fine to learn physical techniques and how to control spacing, but if we don’t learn to master ourselves, our minds and emotions as well, we are still weak.  It does no good to have incredible physical balance if someone can destroy our mental balance with a word or two.

Practicing technique is great, but we cannot forget to practice being the person we want to become as well.  Budo is more than just physical technique because it has to be. The mind directs and controls the technique. If the mind isn’t trained to have a good structure and balance, any opponent who can off-balance you mentally can defeat you, regardless of the quality of their physical technique.

In Japanese budo circles, you’ll often hear about seishin tanren 精神鍛錬, or “spirit forging”. The goal is to develop mental strength and balance. Scenes of martial artists standing under waterfalls in winter, calmly chanting in the freezing cold are a staple of samurai movies in Japan. This is an obvious form of seishin tanren. Buddhist monks, Shugendo ascetics and budoka all use this as a means of learning to transcend physical limitations through mental and development

Over time, budo has to go deeper than just something we play with. If it’s going to be budo, it has to be more than just a sport or game we play. It has to soak into our core and change us. The physical changes are usually visible to everyone. Those lessons about structure and movement change how you move outside the dojo. You get annoyed when you find yourself slouching forward or leaning back on your heels. People can see the effect, even when they aren’t sure what it is.

As we practice budo, the mental effects sink deeper and deeper into us as well. One day it stops being enough that you can hold your temper and ignore your frustration during sparring so you don’t make an emotional mistake. You start letting go of the pride and things that opponents in the dojo use to off-balance you and create frustration and anger. You’re sparring gets better as your mental state remains calmer and smoother. You let things come and go without clinging to them. You start to touch fudoshin from time to time.


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As you travel along the budo path, the lessons sink deeper and deeper into your being. You start noticing things outside the dojo. That’s when your training starts happening all the time. What your mental state is at home, at work, on the freeway and everywhere becomes important to you. The quality of your mental state becomes important, and you start letting go of things that hurt it. Letting other people’s actions influence your mental state become increasingly unacceptable.

The clear focus and imperturbable, fudoshin, mind of the dojo is your goal all the time. My daily commute provides one of the finest venues for practicing this I can imagine. Detroit freeways are filled with people who are grumpy, grouchy and angry, and take out their unhappiness at having to go to work like everyone else on the road.  Being tailgated and cut off by aggressive drivers and then being blockaded by oblivious drivers in the fast lanes is great mental training. It’s easy to get angry at people who are rude, dangerous drivers, or at people who toddle along without paying attention to the effect they’re having on the world around them.

It’s easy to get hung up on the bad behavior around us, especially on the freeway where that bad behavior is dangerous. We learn to let go of the stupid, aggressive, foolish things our partners do in the dojo rather than holding on to them and the emotions they engender. When the guy in the black sedan roars up on our bumper, then swerves around us on the left and forces us to brake as he cuts across three lanes of traffic to get to the exit, getting angry and focusing on the other guys idiocy is all too easy.

Good budo is hard to learn. Remaining calm and present and focused on the action at hand isn’t just something nice in the dojo when you’re sparring. If you don’t let go of the idiot that nearly wrecked your car cutting across three lanes of traffic you might miss the fact that the guy in front of you just swerved to miss debris in the road and run straight over it. Or miss the guy braking suddenly just ahead of you and plow into him.

The more our budo practice seeps out of the dojo into the rest of our world, the better we get at not holding onto the things that upset and off-balance  us. Really successful, old, budoka have calmness about them that seems impossible. Nothing seems able to upset their mental stability. They’ve learned the lessons in the dojo and practiced applying them everywhere. They don’t hold onto things that hold them back. They don’t lose their temper and they aren’t impressed or upset by people who do.

When we are open to the lessons of our training, they seep out the door of the dojo and show up all over our daily lives. That’s really the point. Budo isn’t like basketball, where the practice stays on the court. Budo is supposed to change how you perceive and interact with the world. Getting accustomed to people trying to hit, choke and throw you should change you. Especially when your friends succeed from time to time in hitting, choking and throwing you.

After some time practicing budo, socially aggressive folks shouldn’t seem like much of a problem. The pushy ones don’t seem as pushy anymore. The more you practice, the more those special, strong postures for the dojo show up at the office or in the mall. Turns out good, solid budo posture is useful for turning down the enthusiasm of pushy salesmen and obnoxious coworkers. It’s downright amazing what a zanshin filled stare will do.

The longer you train, the more natural and unconscious budo kihon becomes. You stand more solidly. People will notice that you move differently. They may even comment on how gracefully you move, particularly when you’re not thinking about budo. These are signs that you are absorbing your budo practice and it is becoming a part of you.

All that  practice breathing and staying relaxed while people attack you with big sticks turns out to be useful for maintaining mental and emotional balance during those sorts of attacks too. As budo practice is absorbed deeper, you notice when your emotions are making you tense and unbalanced. That’s when you discover that the same breathing exercise and other practices used to control physical tension are effective on mental and emotional tension as well.

Long before you are aware of the changes, people around you will notice the effects of budo practice working on you. You don’t get as worked up about things. As long as no one is actively trying to hit you with a stick or choke you, they cease to be threatening. You stay relaxed even as pressure mounts.  All because you’ve learned to dislike being tense because it ruins your budo, and you’ve learned how to breathe to control some of the tension.

Budo lessons sneak up on us. Budo practice doesn’t transform you into a master of calm and peacefulness in an instant. Early on, the lessons and practices of the dojo show up in the rest of your life as a surprise when you’re not looking. Over time the strong posture, steady movement and calm, clear mind becomes more and more normal for you.

As you absorb your budo practice into yourself, step by step, repetition by repetition, it becomes less something you practice, and more something you are.  That’s what budo does.

1 comment:

Charles Quimby said...

Absolutely outstanding post - thank you! This is by FAR the best of any blog article that I've read in the last 12 months. I'm going to ask all of my students to read it (and then re-read it again), for there is much wisdom to be grained from it. Wonderfully done!