Budo demonstrations are great fun. I love watching them, going to them and occasionally even doing them. If you go to some of the big enbu in Japan, you can see legendary arts demonstrated by some of the top people practicing them. The Shimogamo Jinja Enbu on May 4 and the Meiji Jingu Enbu on November 3 each year offer the chance to see rare and great budo demonstrated. And the Kyoto Enbu Taikai every May 2nd at the old Butokuden in Kyoto is an endurance test for the spectators that can run for 10 hours of nonstop budo.
I was going to say “But they aren't real budo. They're demonstrations. They are for showing about budo.” After putting in the time to think about it enough to develop the idea into a post, I realized I was wrong. Those demonstrations are real budo, especially when done with good spirit. They aren’t nearly all of budo, but they are some aspects of it.
Often we think of demonstrations as being scripted set pieces for showing off our art in the best light possible. Not really the time to go out on a limb and do things we’re not completely comfortable and familiar with. Most budo practice is scripted too though.
We do kata, scripted exercises, with a variety of purposes and goals. Granted, in practice we never approach an exercise with the goal of making the audience go “Wow!” but that’s just one more thing we try for in a demonstration.
What else might be going on in a demonstration? Beside the obvious goal of trying to impress the audience, there are lots of other possible goals. When we demonstrate modern arts such as judo, aikido or karate one goal is often to show the fundamental principles principles of the art, such as kuzushi or blending or power generation. Being able to manifest the fundamental principles of your art at any moment is clearly part of doing budo. If you can’t manifest the principles, there is no way you can do the art, regardless of whether it is practice, a demonstration or in the midst of a conflict.
When demonstrating an art, you want to show it at its strongest and most powerful. Except when you don’t. Koryu budo systems from Japan, arts founded before 1868, have a tendency to be profoundly suspicious and untrusting. Historically, practitioners of many arts wanted to keep the essence of their art secret because facing someone who had seen one of your demonstrations was a real possibility. For these folks, deception was an essential part of any demonstration. Do a distinctive kata, but in such a way as to lead anyone watching to an incorrect understanding of how your art handles timing or spacing or other essential elements of the ryuha. Deceiving your opponent into unwise action is found throughout budo training. Using a demonstration to do this is just an extension of training into a practical application.
We also conceal our weaknesses during demonstrations. Just as the classical ryuha might change their kata slightly to deceive potential opponents who are watching the demonstration, they wouldn’t have students demonstrate things they aren’t fully competent at either. It makes no more sense to reveal your weaknesses than it does to show all of your strengths. Demonstrations are scripted in part to avoid displaying weaknesses that could be exploited. Students demonstrating things they do well and with confidence shows their strengths without exposing their weakness at aspects of the art they are still learning.
Modern artists don’t generally worry about the potential of facing members of the audience in a fight. For us, often the concern is presenting an interesting and impressive demonstration that might attract a new student or two. It’s also a chance for students to display what they have learned, regardless of their level. The world has changed, and in this case I have to believe it’s for the better. Where once a major concern was not revealing too much about the strength of the art and the weaknesses of the students, modern arts can show nearly everything. Judoka can demonstrate their most impressive and powerful throws. Aikidoka can show off their most subtle and sophisticated blending techniques. Karateka can demonstrate not just their kata, but also the bunkai of the kata, as I saw at an Cherry Blossom Festival a couple of weeks ago. 150 years ago these would have been closely held secrets. Now those secrets are the very things we put on display. I’m thrilled the world I live in is peaceful enough for this to be.
I’ve often seen people distinguish between “budo training” and “doing budo” as if what we do outside the dojo is somehow more real than what goes on in the dojo. Budo training is practicing all the elements budo, not just the ones that we are confident enough to put on display. We learn the techniques and the kata. Really learn them. Soaking them into our skin and absorbing them into our muscles. In the dojo I am always working at, as my friend Janet Rosen so eloquently puts it “sucking at a higher level.” I can’t think of a day in the dojo where I didn’t work on things that I’m not good at. No matter how long I’ve been on this path, there are still parts of it that are rough going for me. Certain techniques I need to learn (anyone want to help me with my uki otoshi?). Principles I still have trouble expressing on a consistent basis.
Changing ourselves and moving us along the path of budo is what practice and training is all about.. This is where we grow our understanding of budo and develop ourselves as budoka. We learn about spacing and timing and good structure. We practice how we move and learn that we can choose how we respond to a particular situation instead of just reacting. It’s not “doing budo” in that the practice may not be spontaneous application of budo techniques and principles to life. It is “doing budo” because we are working on changing and improving ourselves, becoming better grounded in the lessons and more fully internalizing the principles of our art. That certainly seems like “doing budo” to me.
Doing budo is all these things. We don’t practice or demonstrate every aspect of budo at the same time. Budo practice involves choosing what aspects of budo you want to work on polishing on any given day. Budo isn’t something that only happens in the midst of violent conflict. Budo is a path, a Way, and the principles of that Way should be applicable to anything. Talk to me about cooking, and we’ll be discussing timing. Talk to me about work and perhaps we’ll be talking about using breathing to control our mind and maintain calm under pressure and threats. Talk about play and I’ll surely be talking about a recent round of randori at judo practice.
Budo is the whole path, every place and every footstep along the journey is “doing budo.” Practicing budo technique and kata is doing budo. What else could it be? Each time you do a technique or a kata you are working on manifesting the fundamental principles of your art. When you do an enbu, a budo demonstration, you are are doing budo. Whether you are showing the highest expressions of your art, or purposely deceiving your audience as to the true nature of what you do, you’re doing budo.
Artificially limiting what budo is becomes an easy trap to fall prey to. We think “Budo is martial arts, so it’s only budo when I’m fighting” or something similar. But budo training involves the optimal ways to stand and walk and breath, so when we are doing any of those things according to the principles of budo, we’re doing budo. It’s not just when we’re in a fight. It’s all the other time too. If budo was only about fighting, it wouldn’t be near to worthy of the devotion and time we invest in it. Budo is about how we do everything. It’s all budo.