Showing posts with label Do. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Do. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Budo and the Aging Budoka

I had another birthday recently. So did my iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi. He turned 94.  Aging is just another part of the budo journey. Just like regular practice, eating and sleeping, it can’t be avoided. My teachers, and my fellow students have all accumulated a variety of issues that come with the aging process, but we’re still making progress on the journey.  There are still new things to be learned, concepts to be better understood, and principles that can be more fully applied in our lives.

I began studying Kodokan Judo when I was 19 years old. It was as fascinating and fun as anything I’d ever done. Judo was the first athletic activity I fell in love with.  It was great being 19 and able to train in the dojo 4 or 5 times a week and still have enough energy to do some weight training on the off days. Bumps and bruises healed quickly, and even when I cracked my ribs, they healed easily. The biggest problem with healing my ribs was that I had an excess of energy and wanted to be on the mat and training several weeks before it was safe for my ribs to be doing judo.

A collection o the best budo essays from Peter Boylan, The Budo Bum

We trained hard all the time, because we could. We went to tournaments and fought hard. We won some, we lost some, and we ate everything in sight afterward. No matter how hard we trained one day, we could get up the next day and go at it again.

The summer before my 23rd birthday I achieved a dream and moved to Japan. I had a job teaching in the local junior high schools. When the teachers found out I did judo, they kindly introduced me to the high school judo coach, who invited me to train with his club whenever I was free. The high school club members were great and welcoming. Some of them had been training for twice as long as I had, others were relative beginners. We would train hard everyday and then get up and do it again.

9 years later I was living in Japan and I was still training with the high school judo club. Of course, I was 9 years older and the club members were still 15-17 years old. At that point, when I trained hard, I would get up the next day and think about what Sakashita Sensei would have them do, because I wasn’t doing it two days in a row.

Fast forward - Last night I was at judo practice and worked out with some guys in their teens and twenties.  They play hard, and I’m not sure they understand what I’m saying when I suggest that we “Keep it light”. They want to go 100% all the time. What amazes is me is that they can practice that hard for a couple of hours and they still have the energy to be disappointed that practice is over. By the end of practice I’m just happy to still be standing and wondering who sucked all the oxygen out of the dojo. Then the guys are talking about what kind of training they’ll do tomorrow, while I contemplate nothing more than good stretching to work some of the knots out of my muscles.

I do notice that it’s easier for me to do the sensible things now. It still bothers me when I pull a muscle or something similar and need to sit out, but no one has to tell me to sit down. The boundless energy that some of the young guys have makes it almost impossible for them to sit out of practice, regardless of what they’ve done to themselves. The teachers nearly have to sit on them to keep them from exacerbating their injuries by training before they’re fully healed.

Over time I’ve acquired my share of life reminders, otherwise known as injuries, and I’ve discovered I can hear them talking.  My knees let me know when they are getting to the end of their endurance. It’s an interesting sensation when they start to talk to me. I had to overdo it a couple of times before I realized what my knees were saying, but I did learn. When I hear them talking, I know it’s time to back off my training. I know now that if I don’t, I’ll spend the next day limping around the office and explaining to people that I was too stupid to stop training when I reached my limit.

I also know enough to make my practice count for something more than just working hard. Don’t get me wrong, I still love working hard, but I want all that effort to give me something more than a good sweat. Part of any do 道 is the idea that it doesn’t have a final destination. No matter where we are on the path there is still much to learn. I want to come away from every practice knowing that I have improved at least a tiny bit. That means being focused on doing my practice right. I might not be able to do as many reps as I used to, but I can still use them to polish my technique. I’m working on some left side techniques these days. As I enter, turn and drop under my training partner, I’m still focusing on creating good kuzushi, keeping my back straight and bending my knees deeply enough.

I find it amazing how lessons or instructions that don’t mean much can hang around in my head for years until I reach a point where I can use them. That feeling when some piece of advice that I got 20 years ago finally clicks and the light goes on and I understand! Yesterday it was how to move my legs and body to get into the right position for sumi gaeshi. I’ve known what the right position is for ages, but how to get there was another problem entirely. Yesterday during practice I had one of those wonderful epiphanies that happens in training, and a piece of advice I’d received years ago dropped into place. I could see the shape of the movement I needed and I could do it. It’s annoying to think that I had the key to the technique all this time and just wasn’t ready to see it.

This has happened to me often enough that I’m not sure I fully agree with the old saying that “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I think it’s more like “When the student is ready, he’ll realize the teacher has been there all along.” So many times when understanding has come, it’s been a sudden insight into the wisdom of something my teacher has been telling me all along.

I notice that what qualifies as a good practice for me has shifted. I used to have to be dripping with sweat and so tired I could hardly move. Now I feel like it was a good practice when I have chewed on a problem or idea in the art and learned something new.  How tired I am is irrelevant. How much did I learn? What did I discover about the art? It doesn’t matter if it’s judo or jodo or iaido, the important thing is how much I’ve learned. It’s great to sweat and work hard, but if I’m not learning anything I may as well just be doing push-ups.

It’s this never-ending opportunity for learning and improvement that makes budo fascinating for me even after three decades of study. I know there is always more to learn about the art I’m studying, and always more to refine within myself. No, I can’t do randori endlessly at judo anymore. But I can discover new ways to be a better judoka and more fully embody the principles of the art. My knees don’t like the seiza techniques in iaido as much as they used to, but when they tell me they’ve had enough of seiza, there are still a full set of standing kata to work on.

Now I can easily see why my first iaido teacher, Takada Shigeo Sensei, was so eager to get a new sword when he was in his seventies. He bought one that had a large fuller in the blade to make it light. He had been using a heavy blade from the Muromachi period (1392 - 1573) that would make his wrists hurt after long practices. With the new blade he could go to gasshuku, train all day and still feel fine afterwards. After 60 years of training, he was still excited to learn new things and continue his journey on the budo path. I can easily imagine that when I reach his age, I’ll be excited about getting a new sword too.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Can You Truly Understand Budo Without Training In Japan?

This blog post is an attempt to give a reasonably complete answer to a question in reply to a post here.

I would say that it is possible to truly understand Budo without training in Japan, but that it is really very difficult.. There are a few teachers out there who might be able to transmit the whole contents, but not many. In the US, I'm thinking of people like Phil Relnick, Ellis Amdur, Wayne Muramoto and Meik Skoss have a shot at doing it, but it's really tough. I'll be brief here, and go into detail in a full blog post. Budo is not the techniques. It's everything else. The techniques are really a vessel for carrying the all the things that are Budo: the values, the customs, the expectations and behaviors, the honor and the duty and the loyalty, the way of thinking about things and the way of interacting with the world as you move through it. These all make up what Budo is, and to think that by learning techniques and kata you are learning budo is a great mistake. Budo is vastly more.

So what is budo if it’s not just the techniques.  The word is made up of 2 characters, “bu” 武 and “do” 道. Often it is a wild goose chase to try and figure out the intention of Japanese words by taking apart the kanji characters they are written with.  Many words are of ancient vintage and actual usage has changed so much that relying on the kanji to give you the keys to understanding is a mistake.  The important thing is how the word is used in the language today and not how it was used hundreds of years ago when the word was first written.

From one angle, this is true of budo as well.  It is often used to simply mean “martial arts” in everyday usage in Japan.  For example, when I check the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary, it gives the following definition:

どう1【武道】 (budo)  the martial arts; military science; 〔武士道〕the precepts of the samurai; chivalry

By this definition boxing is budo, and fencing, and Thai kickboxing, and sambo, and many other martial arts.  And I will admit that it is a definition I have heard used in popular conversation and media in Japan.  Anything that trains one in some sort of combat is budo.  If this is what you are interested in, then you’ve probably read enough and can skip the rest of this.  On the other hand, in conversation within the budo community in Japan, the usage is different, much more complex and nuanced.  This is the meaning that I’m concerned with.

This more complex meaning is one that includes budo with a number of other cultural practices in Japan.  Practices like sado 茶道, kado 華道, shodo 書道, and kodo 香道.  These are known in English as tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, incense smelling respectively.  Yet like budo they all contain that “do” 道.   What we have is an entire class of activities that are “do”, but what is “do”?

“Do” 道 is a character meaning “road, path, way” and it goes back to the ancient Chinese concept known as Tao or Dao.  There are 2 primary sets of writings that provide the foundations for what has become known as Taoism in English.  The first is a small collection of 81 brief poems that can be read in less than an hour. Best known as the Tao Te Ching, there is a decent translation at  These are the foundation writings on the Tao.  The other set of writings are by Chuang Tzu. There are links to several translations on the web here.  

The Tao is a good place to start.  The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, the oldest writings about it, says (see footnote 1):

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

If “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” then explaining the Tao is going to be tough.  Miriam Webster Dictionary gives us: “the unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality as conceived by Taoists “ which is actually a good start.  Tao becomes the source and origin of everything.  So if we can bring ourselves into moving and acting in one with the Tao, then we will be in harmony with the universe and our actions will be correct.

In the story of Cook Ting from the writings of Chuang Tzu (the second great set of writings on Tao) it is shown that any activity can be practiced as a means for achieving an understanding of the Tao.  Ting is a cook in the kitchen of Lord Wen-hui.  When asked about his marvelous skill he replies “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all.”  Cook Ting uses his craft as a vehicle for finding and deepening his understanding of the Tao.  This is not necessarily an intellectual understanding, for he says “now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are.” (Footnote 2)

This is the simplest base upon with all of the various Do are built, whether it is sado or shodo or kado or budo.  The goal is to use the craft you are practicing to come closer to the Tao and to remove the barriers between ourselves and the Tao.   This is what we are trying to do when we practice any Do.  We are trying to achieve a closeness and understanding of the Tao, the universe, the origin of all things, through the practice and development of our craft, our art.

If you watch a really good kendoka or judoka, they don’t seem to be fighting an opponent.  They seem to just move naturally and without apparent aggression and their partner’s actions are nullified.  They move again and their partner is defeated without them having taken any real action.  I know I have felt this at the hands of some of my Judo teachers.  We are moving around the mat and suddenly I’m airborn.  My teacher hasn’t done anything dramatic.  His movement seemed to naturally place him in a position where a technique happened.  He didn’t throw me.  Everything came together so I was thrown more by my own action than anything my teacher was doing.  He was just there and I was moving in such a way that I bumped against his hip and went flying.

This is the little goal of budo.  You strive to be so in harmony with the essence of your art, with the world and the Tao that things happen without your doing anything.  This is a principle concept of the Tao Te Ching known as wu wei 無為.  In action, the master kendoka or judoka doesn’t appear to actually do much of anything, yet is victorious.  In chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching it says

The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The big goal is to expand this mastery and understanding of a small, limited field to the rest of life and achieve this same understanding and oneness with the Tao in all aspects of life, so that everything one does is effortless and perfectly in harmony with the world around you.

The idea of the Way is not limited to Taoism however.  One of the classics of Confucian thought, The Great Learning, begins

The way of great learning consists in manifesting one's bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.

Tao is a critical element of the Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought that was a major influence on Japanese thought throughout Japanese history.  In Confucian teaching Tao was more focused on human affairs and making right action so natural that it happened without thought.  Confucius was focused on society and human affairs, so when he writes of Tao his focus is on its importance at that level.  In Neo-Confucian writings it the focus is more on the cosmic significance of Tao, but in all of them, Tao is a critical and fundamental concept for understanding the world, our place in it, and how we should develop ourselves and live in the world.  In addition, when Buddhism arrived in China, the concept of Tao was appropriated to describe many ideas in Buddhist teachings as they were translated into Chinese.  As a result, everywhere one looks in classical thought you find the Tao and its related ideas.

The Tao Te Ching and The Great Learning are texts that have been fundamental study for the educated in China for thousands of years, and in Japan since writing was introduced from China around the 4th century CE.  They are just the first, and shortest of the many writings that make use of the concept of Tao that were considered essential study for any educated person in Japan up to the end of the Edo Period in 1868.  These concepts were used to explore and conceive everything from ideal social order and relationships to the the cosmos.
Budo, and the Ways that preceded it, sado, shodo and others, were all the province of the educated classes in old Japan.
In a coment, someone said “budo is “nothing special””. I agree that budo is "nothing special". In Japan that is. The techniques you are practicing and the craft one is learning, are just tools for practicing all the "do" 道 aspects. So much of what is the "do" is embedded cultural knowledge that Japanese take for granted as shared cultural and historical knowledge and experience. Outside Japan, we don't have that basic cultural and historical knowledge, so what is ordinary and a given in Japan, is exceptional an unknown outside Japan. This is true whether we are talking about budo or any of the other cultural ways from Japan. The teacher outside Japan must have a thorough understanding of these cultural elements to be able to fully transmit their budo. For a foreigner training in Japan, these elements smack you in the face so often that you learn them almost as organically as the Japanese do growing up. Training outside Japan, the teacher has to consciously include them in the instruction. It can be transmitted across cultures, but the teacher has to understand what elements beyond the techniques have to be taught as well for a student to fully grasp the "do" portion of budo.
In my experience, very few teachers outside Japan have made the effort to educate themselves about the cultural matrix in which budo is embedded within and relies on to give the teachings their full context and relevance.  Budo training that includes that understanding is such a rich and deep experience that is makes the training without seem like eating the paper plate at a picnic instead of the food on the plate.
I’m not trying to suggest that budo teachers outside Japan have to become experts on Taoist and Confucian philosophy.  That is a life’s work by itself, and there are precious few Japanese budo teachers who are also masters of philosophy.  Most Japanese teachers have a native cultural understanding of the concepts that they have absorbed from living in Japan.  For a teacher outside Japan, I think some reading of the classic texts from Taoism and Confucianism along with plenty of quiet thought about how they relate to budo practice is probably enough.  Quiet thought fertilized with the ideas of Lao Tsu, Chuang Tzu and Confucius should bring about some profound realizations on the nature of practice and what the great teachers who created the Ways hope for us, their students, to achieve.

1.  All quotes from Tao Te Ching taken from S. Mitchell translation at

2. Cook Ting quotes from

Monday, August 19, 2013

Is it still Aikido (Iaido/Jodo?whatever) if you take away the Japanese clothes, the bowing and the etiquette?

Someone asked on a discussion board “How important (or unimportant) do folks here feel Japanese customs are important to learning Aikido?  It stuck me recently that a lot of the behaviours carried out during training have nothing to do with learning Aikido, but more to do with Japanese culture.  Bowing on entering the hall, learning the names of the techniques in Japanese, folding a hakama in specific way, bowing when picking up a bokken, I'd even add shiko/knee walking to this list or even wearing a gi for practice.  None of these, to my mind have anything to do with learning aikido, its like thinking you have to wear a beret to learn how to speak French properly.  Most of us don't train in Japan and are not Japanese, so I don't know why we do these things any more. “

My short answer is, “If you strip all that away from Aikido, it’s not Aikido anymore.”
A Way, an artform, is more than just the discrete techniques that are taught.  If Aikido is reduced to just the techniques, and the expressions of etiquette and tradition are removed, you’re making something else.  A Way is all the parts that come together to make it a whole system.  The aspects of Japanese culture inform the techniques and the values of the system.   They are as important to learning Aikido as learning ikkyo is.  This is true not only of Aikido, but of all of the Japanese ways.  

A Way, a DO 道、is so much more than just the individual techniques. The etiquette teaches us how what we study relates to other people, and how we should treat them when we interact with them.  I’ll stick with Aikido because that’s the example I started with.  Aikido is about complex interactions between people.  The etiquette that permeates training is all about how we interact with people.  The techniques of Aikido are not Aikido.  They are a means for learning the path and the way of thinking and acting that express Aikido.  To paraphrase the old Taoist saying yet again, the techniques of Aikido are like the finger pointing at the moon. They aren’t the moon, we look where they point to be able to see the moon.  If we get stuck on the techniques of Aikido, we will never learn Aikido.  This is true of any budo, of any Way.  The techniques are tools for learning the Way, but the Way is far more than the techniques.

In the dojo, pretty much everything is a lesson about the Way you are studying.  The etiquette teaches lessons, the techniques teach lessons, the kata teach lessons, learning the names in their original language teaches lessons.  If a person wants to jettison all of these parts of an art, they should really ask themselves if that Way is appropriate for them.  Why should the etiquette be removed from Aikido?  The etiquette regulates action in the dojo and makes it a safer place to train.  It teaches respect and a different way of thinking about human interactions.  The bowing and respect are critical to the ideas of Aikido and the way they are expressed during training is essential to the Way of Aikido.

Aikido comes out of Japanese culture, and the concept of DO 道 that has developed in Japan for more than 1000 years.  To summarily remove all these aspects of Japanese culture would be to create a very different art, a different way that leads somewhere other than where Aikido leads.  There’s nothing wrong with creating a new martial art, but you should be aware that’s what you are doing.  The learning atmosphere, and the higher lessons about life, the universe and everything that are pointed to and taught by practicing a Way are very different when you change the etiquette and the clothing and the language.   

All that bowing and using Japanese to describe what you are doing set a frame for your practice and establish a particular set of expectations about what you are doing, what the goals are, and how you will do it.  Aikido, and other budo, are not ultimately about learning to use a particular set of techniques or how to do a particular kata.  The techniques and the kata are tools for teaching students about principles of the art.  The etiquette, language and clothes are also part of that.  

Mastering the techniques of Aikido, or any Way (Do 道), no matter how good one is at them, does not mean that you have mastered the Way.  The techniques are some of the tools by which you learn the way, but they are not the Way.  It is quite common to mistake mastery of technique for mastery of a Way, regardless of whether it is a martial way or a flower arranging way or a calligraphic way or any of the other ways that abound in Japan.  

The Ways teach lessons about the world and how to live in it, using ordinary activities as their foundation.   Each Way is a complete package, with it’s own etiquette and language and often even clothes that are worn for various activities.  Given the thought and consideration that has gone into these Ways, I would be very hesitant to monkey with one without decades of experience in that particular Way, even if it is one as young as Aikido.

Those funny clothes and funny words and weird behaviors have a lot more to them then just adding another layer of useless stuff to learn that gets in the way of learning the important stuff.
If all you want from something like Aikido is the techniques, you are missing the real treasures of what you are studying.  The techniques of any Way have only very limited application in daily life, but the Way of thinking, of moving, of being, that is something that can be used every moment of every day. 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Creating A Work Of Art Part 2

2 hours on a flower marble and my arms are about to fall off... let's hope the kiln gods are kind... I kinda don't think i nailed this one, but maybe... if you wonder why great marbles are worth the prices they are fetching, this is part of the reason... I can't tell you guys how much work I do that you never see... try... try again... tweak this... ponder a solution to that... try again... repeat as necessary... it truly is a journey through numerous processes to get things dialed in... great marbles and glass doesn't just happen... every single one of us has to put in the blood, sweat and tears... the best part is, once I dial something in, I get to start the grueling process all over again with something new my brain has conjured up... I don't need bondage in the bedroom, because I torture myself all day long in the shop... and I wouldn't have it any other way! LOL
Brent Graber

In my last post, I talked about adding on to ourselves, adding techniques and skills.

The other side of all of this I find more difficult to describe.  It’s the process of taking away, of removing that which isn’t necessary and may actually be a hinderance.  A sculptor removes material to make a sculpture, chiseling and polishing, and in budo we do the same.  We are constantly refining our technique to remove all the unnecessary movement.  It’s interesting that when learning a new skill, we engage all sorts of muscles that aren’t necessary to do whatever it is we are trying to do.  I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to pull my shoulders down away from my ears when I’m learning something new in the dojo (or even when I’m having trouble figuring out how to write something well).

Around the dojo the admonitions to “relax” and “use less muscle” are so common that everyone expects them.  What are we doing when we relax and use less muscle?  We are refining our technique, removing what is unnecessary.  On the first day we learn what the technique is and how to do it.  After that becoming good at it seems to be mostly a matter of removing the excess effort and unnecessary inputs.  

This goes for the rest of what we are as well.  Most of us have images of what we want to be, but getting there is awfully hard.    

Just like in budo, we have to work on removing that which is unnecessary.   We all have traits we’ve picked up that are unnecessary or prevent us from being what we want to be.  Just like all the practice that goes into making a good sword cut or a nice tsuki or a beautiful throw, it takes practice.  Learning to swing a sword is a good example.  On the first day we grip the sword hard with all ten fingers.  Sensei says to do all the work with the last 2 fingers of the left hand, but just because we know what he said, convincing those other 8 fingers to relax and let the remaining 2 do all the work doesn’t happen on the first day.  Each day we get  a little better at relaxing 8 fingers and not putting all that excess energy into the technique.  This is good because that excess energy put into the sword at the wrong place throws the angle, speed and effectiveness of the cut out the window.

As a person, there are lots of places in life that I put energy and effort into that would undoubtedly be better if I would just relax and not work so hard at it.  My ego is a huge example.  It gets all worked up over whether I’m right or wrong on minor issues, and I can put a huge amount of energy into a discussion (I’m trying to convince myself that I’m above mere arguing) that doesn’t need to happen at all.  I can grip my opinion so hard that my knuckles turn white even though I’m not holding anything.  

Over the years I have run into many people who say “That’s just the way I am.  I can’t change it.”  I admit to being unable to understand this way of thinking.  Who we are is constantly changing.  Each day we are a tiny bit different from the day before, and when enough days and their changes have piled up, we are a very different person indeed.  I look back on myself and can’t believe some of the ways in which I have changed.  The question is, do we take an active part in shaping what we become, or do we passively let the world change us?  If we passively let the world change us, we may not like who we become.  We always have the option of choosing what changes we want to make in ourselves.

In an earlier post I wrote about adding to ourselves. For all that,one of the most important ways we refine ourselves, transform ourselves into more wonderful people is by removing parts of ourselves that hold us back or prevent us from improving.  In iaido practice, I am working to let go of some bad habits that prevent my budo from being as good as it could be.  I am trying to carry less with me in my budo so that I can be better.  Outside the dojo I have a host of habits that I would be better off without as well.  The trick is to continue refining myself as a person in the same way that I refine myself as a budo practitioner.  I want to let go of the unnecessary tension and effort and bad habits that color the way I live and act.  Many of these habits make me less of a person than I would like.  As a budoka, I know that I’m never finished practicing, that I can always be better.

This applies both within the dojo and outside of it.  The lesson is learned in the dojo, but the lesson has truly been learned only when it is applied in the world outside the dojo.  I am never finished becoming me.  I am responsible for who I become from here.  As we are are growing up we don’t always have a lot of input into what lessons we are exposed to.  As budoka though, once we have learned the lesson of continual practice and refinement, we aren’t truly treading the Way until we start applying the lesson to our lives.  

Many of the lessons we learn growing up are negative lessons.  Sometimes we learn to be rigid and always fight when challenged.  Sometimes we learn to protect our ego.  Sometimes we learn to be cynical or bitter.  Sometimes we learn to be angry.  There are any number of negative lessons we can learn and apply to our lives.  Just like learning to relax our grip on the sword so that only unnecessary fingers don’t get involved, we have to learn to take the energy out of these lessons and let go of the bad habits they engender.

This isn’t any easier than learning to do things properly in the dojo.  In fact, the training time frames for budo give a good perspective of how refining ourselves will work.  We have a point we know we need to work on, so we start working on it.  Over weeks and months we show improvement on that point.  Then we start working on some other point and slip back a little on the first point.  Eventually we come back around to working on the first point.  By now at least a year has gone by since we started the process, and we’re just in the middle of it.  We’ll keep coming back to the same point, refining how do it, removing some of the tension and relaxing into the technique more and more, until we do it in a relaxed, easy way every time.  This will take years.

Improving ourselves and getting rid of excess and wasteful energy in our day-to-day lives is similar.  We focus on some aspect of ourselves, a habit that we need to stop wasting energy with. Perhaps we want to stop treating everything as a challenge that must be fought.  We’re not going to fix that right away.  At first we’ll be doing well when we realize we got stiff and tense over something that didn’t deserve all the energy that getting stiff and tense took.  With a little effort, we’ll begin to notice when we are getting stiff and tense unnecessarily while we are doing it instead of after that fact.  With more time and effort we can learn to not tense up so much in those situations.  Gee, does this sound like budo practice?  We identify a problem, and the usual goal is to relax and not tense up during the technique.  We do this in a constant cycle.  Over time what was a good level of relaxation will become unacceptable and we target further improvement.

This is part of improving ourselves and treating our whole being as a work in process.  We’re unfinished.  Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we’ve stopped learning and growing and refining ourselves.  It’s really the opposite.  As children we are growing and being molded by those responsible for us, parents, teachers, religious leaders and others.  It’s only when we have learned enough to choose what sort of person that we want to be that we can really start developing ourselves.  Until then we are being developed.  Taking responsibility for who we are is a huge step, and perhaps more than a little scary.  If I say, I’m not the person I want to be, and I am responsible for becoming that person, from that point we have to accept the responsibility every time we do something that doesn’t live up to the person we want to be.  It’s a lot easier to say “That’s just the way I am.  I can’t change who I am.”  

The process of crafting ourselves is never ending.  It may be worse than budo practice in that sense.  At keiko, we can rely on teachers and fellow students to help us spot our issues and find ways to correct them.  Outside the dojo we rarely get that kind of feedback, especially if we’re doing something that really puts people off.  In life, we most often have to rely on our own evaluations, though if we are lucky we have some good friends who will help us be honest with ourselves about our shortcomings.

Every day I try to be a better person than I was yesterday.  I’m happy to report that the feedback from my family and friends is that over the years I have improved and that I’m a much nicer person to be around than I was.  Over the years I’ve had to let go of a lot of things that at some point I was proud of, but eventually realized made me less than wonderful to be around.  I’m still working on that.  The same stillness, the same sense of accepting the world as it is, the same relaxed confidence that my teachers display in the dojo is what I’m working on.  I would like to have that as the basic face that I show to the world, and let things go from there.  I’ve identified the goal, now I have to relax a lot of habits (I’m sure my friends can make quite a list as to which ones need to go).

Budo is a Do 道 because it challenges us to apply the lessons everywhere, not just in the dojo or in a conflict.  Part of the challenge is to learn the skills and practices that make us better.  The other half is to get rid of the things that inhibit good action in the world.  We’re both adding to ourselves and stripping things away at the same time.  The challenge is to put as much effort into being a finer, nobler, more wonderful person as we do into a swinging our sword correctly or making that throw effortless or the strike absolutely precise.  Only then do we begin to become a work of art of our own creation.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Value of Bu and Do

I train in budo.  I admit it, I love budo training.  It’s fun.  It’s exciting.  It’s intense in a way that nothing else I do even comes close to.  I could happily spend a lot of time every day training.  Learning attacks and defenses from sword and staff and kusarigama and empty hand, and, and, and, I never seem to get my fill of training and learning.  Budo is great.  In addition, because it’s not a sport you play for amusement, but training in skills that can be applied in the world outside the dojo, I can easily recommend that everyone get some sort of budo training, whether it is their passion or not.  It’s a useful skill set to have.   

But how valuable is that skill set?  The value of “do” 道、is that it is a way of looking at the world, of approaching the world and the way we live in it.  The Taoists and  Buddhists have written quite a lot on the value of “Do” 道、so I want to look at the relative value of “bu” 武。  In a society where physical conflict is rare, and the vast majority of people get through life without any training in budo, just how valuable is the “bu” half of budo?

If you have a job that places you in the line of physical conflict, of course budo training can be useful, but that sort of job is rare.  So, thankfully, are instances that might require physical responses in modern, industrialized societies, particularly when compared with pre-industrial periods.  But we do still have conflicts.  How we handle conflict has clearly gotten more peaceful over the centuries, but we still have conflicts.  And occasionally these conflicts become violent, so there is still a slim chance that someone might have a literal need for the skills learned through budo training.  Outside of a few, specialized professions though, that need is rare.

So for those of us who can’t get enough of budo practice, how valuable is it really to our lives?  What can it contribute?  The easy one is that budo practice can be great physical activity in an era when we spend more time sitting in front of screens than is healthy.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a very compelling reason to do budo, since there are lots of things that can provide physical activity.  Lots of them are much better overall forms of exercise than budo.

That brings us back to budo training for dealing with violence.  Even though violence is relatively rare, there plenty of reasons for training.  I want my daughters to learn effective “bu” even if they don’t ever embrace my love of budo.  I want to protect them by teaching them to protect themselves.  Many of the facets of budo training that are not directly violent can protect them.  They can certainly use the awareness and confidence that comes with budo training to avoid and handle potentially violent situations so they never become violent.

The above logic though forces me to face one aspect of the value of budo’s primary focus of dealing with violence.  Budo is valuable for what it can protect, not for any inherent value that it possesses. I value budo training for my family because I value my family, and not because I value budo.  I want my children to deal with the world from a position of confidence and personal security, and I think budo is one of the best tools to help them achieve that level of confidence and personal security.

And there it is.  Budo is a tool, not an end in itself.  Budo is valuable for what you can build with it and what it can defend.  Budo is not a beautiful house to be lived in.  Budo is the hammer and saw used to build the house.  Budo, like any “Do” 道 is a method for perfecting the practice of some particular activity, and through the proper practice of that activity, for helping to perfect the practitioners.  

“Bu” 武 alone is not much to practice.  In fact, it’s rather gruesome to spend a lot of time week after week studying ways to control, constrict, disarm, disable, cripple and kill your fellow man.  That’s what we do in budo practice.  It’s not beautiful, and if we are training ourselves honestly, we should not flinch from saying it publicly or to the mirror.   If we don’t start with an honest understanding of what we are doing, there is no way we can honestly value it.

I value a lot of things from my budo practice besides the physical conflict skills that are the foundation of the practice.  I value the understanding of physical limitations, both mine and a potential adversary’s, that make it nearly impossible for me to be physically intimidated in an office situation, even though people frequently try.  I admit it, I find it amusing when the office bully tries his tactics on me and gets confused when they utterly fail.

I appreciate the understanding of spacing that allows me to control distances between myself and people who might actually be dangerous.  If I understand the distances involved in violence, I can prevent it from happening by not allowing the spacing to develop that makes violence possible.  That’s a nice one.

Ultimately though, these are all applications of budo lessons using budo as a tool for protecting something else.  So this leads me to the question of what the proper value and place budo training should have in my life.  When I was in college, it filled huge sections of my life.  I spent hours every day at the dojo training.  I built my life around budo.  It was huge fun and I made friendships that still sustain me.  I know now that these friendships are much more important than the budo practice that nurtured them.  The dojo was like fertile ground where the friendships grew.

Budo is a fabulous tool for my life, both the “Bu” and “Do” portions, but it is a tool and I have to be careful to value it as such.  The dojo is a wonderful place for me, and there are few places where I am more comfortable and completely at ease than in a good dojo.  One of the lessons I’ve had to take away is that being comfortable and at ease is not how I want to be all the time though.  I have used the dojo as an escape and release from stress in my life, and it would be easier than I care to admit to hide in the dojo all time.  

That would require sacrificing things that I find valuable for themselves alone.  My family, my friends, the people I love.  These people are what makes budo such a valuable tool.  It’s great value comes from what it can do for them.  I have to remember that when I want to escape to the dojo every night.  When I go a few times a week, my training benefits everyone involved; me, my wife, my children, the rest of my family, my friends.  An appropriate amount of training is good for me physically and mentally.  I get a great, intense physical workout in the dojo.  It’s amazing how much and how fast you can convince yourself to move when someone is trying to throw you, choke you, or hit you with a stick.  I could get that exercise in a gym, but I like the efficiency of getting exercise and honing skills at the same time.

Then there are the mental benefits.  I’m calmer when I’m training regularly.  The breathing practice, and mental stillness that are required for effective budo are great things outside the dojo, just as much as being in good physical condition is.  We spend some time in our society teaching people how to hold their body and we value good physical posture.  While mental training that is part of the “Do” side of practice in the dojo is just as important as the physical training.  It may be more important, since we don’t have business chains all over the place offering to develop our mental strength and posture.  Practicing the calm, clear, placid, reflecting mind that is required of any “Do” and is especially important for effective responses in “Bu” is also wonderfully useful outside the dojo.

I love being in the dojo, and there are few places where I feel as comfortable and completely at ease as I do in the dojo.  I could easily spend my time escaping from all the pressures of life by spending every available minute in the dojo. If I start spending too much time in the dojo, and sacrificing quantity and quality of time with the people I love, I’m showing with my actions that I value budo over the people in my life.  I’m showing that I value the tool more than the relationships with wonderful people that it can help build and protect.  It’s nice to want to spend my time where I feel comfortable, but that excessively values the tool of budo and undervalues the rest of life.

Budo is wonderful.  It’s a part of life that I love.  It’s only a part of life though.  We have to value it appropriately.  If we allow our love of budo to let our practice take over our life and blot out many other difficult but wonderful things that are part of life, our budo is taking a place in our lives it doesn’t deserve.  I’ve seen people over value their practice and they pay the price in all the other aspects of life.  Budo is not life.  It is a tool for life.  It is a little “Do” pointing at the big Tao.  Don’t mistake the finger for the moon.