What we do in the dojo needs to be real. It’s budo, not sport or athletics or some kind of game. We are practicing the serious art of controlled violence. This an art where mistakes have consequences. As Ellis Amdur points out so well in his essay The Real Importance Of Reishiki In Koryu, even the little things are critical. Even in arts that don’t seem to have any direct application in the 21st century such as naginata or kenjutsu have to be treated as real or the true value and lessons that the art has to teach are lost. What does it mean though, for budo to be “real”?
For budo to remain real, and not devolve into rhythmic gymnastics, a mindless dance or a meaningless competition, we have to remember what it is we are training ourselves for; at the most basic level, real budo training treats life seriously.
Proper keiko constantly reminds you how serious it is, even in the little things. All those nit-picky little requirements about how a bokken or other weapon is handled, about never stepping over weapons and how you interact with everyone in the dojo all reflect that seriousness. Weapons, whether they are shinken (live blades) or wooden practice pieces, are treated with full regard for the damage they can do. Wooden practice weapons are handled just like the real thing, because you don’t want to have sloppy or careless habits when handling the real thing.
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Live blades are merciless. They don’t forgive mistakes anymore than a firearm does. For all the care I take, I’ve still cut myself a couple of times. Those were just shallow cuts that reminded me what I do is very serious, even when we’re not actively doing kata. Those nitpicky teachers insisting that there is only one proper way to handle your weapons and that even wooden swords should always be treated like they are live are not being pedantic. They know how much damage the weapons can do and do not want you to learn the hard way.
Humans are liable to distraction and hurry. If we always do something the same way, it becomes an unconscious habit and the way we do things even when we are distracted. If you start out with a bokken or iaito and always handle it like a shinken, then you will handle the shinken properly when your teacher hands it to you. When I started iai, I did so with an iaito. A couple of years later we had a new student join the dojo who didn’t have his own iaito yet. While he was waiting for his iaito to arrive, Takada Sensei walked over to me one day, undid his sageo, took his shinken out of his obi, handed it to me and said “Give your iaito to him and you practice with this until his iaito arrives.” Sensei didn’t give me any special instruction about how to handle his shinken, he just handed it to me and went on teaching the new student. Sensei was confident that I had absorbed the lessons about proper weapons handling from training correctly with the iaito.
Takada Sensei was confident that his teaching had prepared me to handle a shinken without giving me any additional warnings. The kata teaching method works well. I handled Sensei’s shinken the same way I handled my iaito and didn’t have any issues with it. The proper technique was ingrained to the point of unconscious competence and came forth from my hands naturally and easily.
Even when it is not shinken shobu, budo must be treated with the seriousness of a shinken. We train seriously with wood and bamboo weapons so that when the moment comes and we find ourselves holding the real thing, when it’s not kata but life, the right things happen without conscious effort. The little things are the big things.
Reishiki, the etiquette that starts and ends each practice and regulates behavior during practice, is filled with little lessons that turn out to be big lessons. Paying attention to these details is the first step in keeping budo from degenerating into a pleasantly distracting sport. All those details that your teacher spends time on aren’t decorations of the important stuff that is practiced. They are important in their own right. Treating your teachers, your training partners, juniors, seniors, properly is filled with lessons for how you deal with real life.
Treating people with genuine respect and honor is an elemental lesson of real budo. This isn’t the casual respect of sport. This is serious. Look at the bow between training partners in arts like Shinto Muso Ryu and Tendo Ryu. In these arts the bow is respectful not only of the partner, but also of the partner’s ability and potential as an adversary. Training partners bow to each other, but they never give up their ability to move or take their attention from their partner.
Not paying attention is not just another way of not showing respect. It also creates the first opening in you. This may not seem as real or important as the actual techniques, but if you’re not giving proper attention to people, you won’t be ready for any sort of attack.
Showing respect is a way of showing to those around you that you take them, and what you are doing, seriously. Budo deals with some of the most serious subjects; conflict, how we live and how we can die. I don’t think it gets any more serious than this. But if you only treat your budo as serious when you’re doing the techniques, you’re missing the most important lessons. Yes, those techniques are serious, but how you handle life is at least as important as how you handle your sword.
In budo, we learn how to handle weapons, how to handle conflict, how to treat others, and how to handle ourselves. If we’re not treating those things with respect, our budo isn’t real. Weapons handling and dealing with conflict (including, of course, “fighting”) are obvious components of budo. How we treat others and how we handle ourselves may not be so obvious. How we deal with these lessons is what makes the difference between real budo and play budo.
It’s the little things that make budo real, as in bowing to our partner with sincere respect and not just because some old custom says we have to. How many conflicts and fights could be avoided if only people treated others with sincere respect? Fights happen not because people disagree, but because of how they disagree; often because people are, or think they are, being disrespected. This makes learning how to treat people with respect one of the most important things we learn in the dojo. Sincere respect is a powerful technique for preventing disagreements from escalating into violent fights where you have to use the techniques you’ve been sweating over at practice. Most people would prefer to not find out if their technique is up to the challenge if they don’t have to.
Real budo focuses on the little things, technical or otherwise. Learning to focus on the little things includes watching what’s going on around you and being aware of what people are doing and feeling. Is Sensei heading for the broom closet after practice? Show you respect him and the dojo. Get there before he does. If you see a new student struggling with the etiquette or proper dojo behavior, don’t wait for Sensei to show them. Talk with them before or after class and help them figure it out. Show respect for the new student and for what Sensei expects from everyone in the dojo.
Real budo isn’t just being aware of the spacing between you and your training partner, or understanding the timing for an effective counterattack. Real budo is being aware of what makes the dojo a good place to be, and helping to make it so without being asked or encouraged. Real budo is being aware of the feelings and needs of those around you, and responding appropriately. What better way to defuse conflict before it can start than being aware of rising tension and dispelling it while it is still only tension in the air?
It’s a paradox of budo. Arts that teach the most effective ways destroy life are immersed in teaching how to create better lives. This is the heart that beats at the core of real budo. Not brutal techniques of violence, but the subtle art of living.