I was reading where someone was saying they are working to preserve the spirit of budo as it had been 500 years ago. That sounds nice on the surface, but when I think about it, I’m not so sure this is really a desirable thing. Budo is a way, a path, a journey. If we try to keep it exactly as it was, it is no longer a journey, and it loses its relevance to the present.
can understand the urge to preserve a martial art without allowing
anything to change the art and the tradition. The people who created
these arts were geniuses, and what they created has great value. That
value can be destroyed when people who lack sufficient depth of
experience and understanding start playing around with the techniques
and kata which make up the art. It would be too easy to lose the core
of a martial art by trying to constantly update it and make it
attractive so as to compete with every new fad that comes along. One
look at what modern competitive judo has become will show what a mistake
this path can be.
Judo includes everything that can be included under these two
fundamental principles: “Maximum efficiency, minimum effort” and “Mutual
benefit and welfare”. Competitive judo no longer has guiding
principles. It is about being popular, easy to understand and putting
on a good show. To these ends, the rules get rewritten based on
whatever seems likely to increase the sport’s popularity this year. In
order to make competitive judo more popular, the International Judo
Federation recently banned an entire range of throwing techniques. No
good explanation has been given by the International Judo Federation
(IJF) for why they did this, but the strongest speculation seems to be
that this will remove wrestling and modern BJJ elements from the sport.
Judo grew strong accepting challenges from other jujutsu styles and
learning from defeats. Modern judo is just running away from the
challenges posed by other grappling systems, becoming weaker and less
worthy of respect in the process.
than this, in a recent press release, the IJF said that the new rules
are “to promote beautiful and spectacular judo, where ippon becomes the
ultimate goal again”. Except that the aim of Judo is not scoring ippon
(full point win) in a competition. The aim of Judo is to develop an
understanding of the principles of “mutual benefit and welfare” and
“maximum efficiency with minimum effort”. Those are the principles of
Judo. Modifying rules to make Judo more exciting for spectators but
less effective in teaching the essential, foundational principles of
Judo and making it a less effective martial art is a betrayal of the
spirit of Judo. This is chasing popularity for the sake of being
popular. It is also the destruction of Judo. I predict that if Judo
continues down this path, it will disappear in just a few generations as
people switch to arts that remain effective and based on good
we only preserve budo as it was, without ever letting it change though,
it becomes a museum piece. Nice to look at, but not really something
that belongs in our day to day lives. In the past, budo systems were
referred to as “ryu” 流.
This is a character that tells a lot about the nature of budo
traditions. Read “nagare” when it stands alone, means “stream, current,
flow”. This gives the idea that these teachings are flowing through
time. Not static like a fossil, but alive, moving, changing, growing,
as they pass through the years. A great ryuha should not be weathered
down and worn away by time like a rock, but it should grow mighty as
water flows from a narrow stream in the highlands and gathers other
streams into it and becomes a river.
is a living way. If we try to preserve it unchanged forever, it loses
its value and relevance to the world around it. Just as one’s
individual understanding of Budo and its principles evolves as one grows
in the art and deepens their understanding, Budo schools have to evolve
and grow as the world they exist in changes. This change can happen in
variety of ways. One of the most common is for a teacher to become
dissatisfied with the art they are practicing to found a new art, which
we can see around us abundantly in recent years.
possibility is for an art to actively grow and evolve, to remain suited
to the world around it by making changes or additions that keep it
up-to-date with the world. An example of this is happening can be seen
in the art of Shinto Muso Ryu. Shinto Muso Ryu was founded on the use
of a 128 cm staff, called a “jo”. When the art was founded early in the
1600s, it was just the art of the staff versus the sword, with some
sword vs. sword techniques taught alongside, so students could become
proficient in the sword, both to better understand the art of the
staff, and to understand the most common weapon in the world of Japan at
that time, the sword.
decades and centuries went by, the kata for jo were expanded to include
more and more scenarios against the sword. Over the decades, other
weapons were added to the curriculum as well. Jutte, a common police
weapon in Tokugawa Japan, and the tying and binding art of hojojutsu
were added late in the 17th century as Shinto Muso Ryu became
associated with the police force of the Kuroda-Han in southern Japan.
In the 19th century, a school of kusarigama (a short sickle with a ball
and chain attached) was added to the curriculum, expanding the
practitioners understanding of weapons and of longer spaces. At the
beginning of the 20th century, there was a period when walking sticks
became quite fashionable, and since they were readily available, and
similar to the core weapon of Shinto Muso Ryu, one of the senior
practitioners developed a curriculum for the walking stick.
Muso Ryu now offers a student the opportunity to learn weapons that
function at a variety of ranges and that operate on principles of
striking, cutting and flexibility. The art has not stopped growing and
adapting. During the second half of the 20th century, a group of
techniques for dealing with unarmed attackers who grab the jo were
developed. These have not been included in the official curriculum yet,
but they are taught to students as kuden, or verbal tradition of the
art. I know that leaders of some lines of Shinto Muso Ryu are also
developing additions to the art that they see as beneficial to their
students. The most common of these are iai forms, but it is perfectly
reasonable to imagine a senior teacher deciding that Shinto Muso Ryu
should also offer a set of empty hand techniques to go with the art’s
weapons training. It hasn’t happened yet, but Shinto Muso Ryu is only
400 years old. There is lots of time for the art to continue to grow
arts change, grow and adapt. Dying arts have pieces of themselves worn
away by time and are eventually forgotten. This phenomena can be seen
as well. Some styles of iaido that once encompassed not only solo kata
but also paired weapons work with multiple weapons have lost all or
nearly all of their paired kata and they are down to just 1 weapon.
These are fading arts, because in losing their paired kata and many of
their weapons, they don’t get just a smaller curriculum, they also lose a
huge amount of knowledge about timing, spacing and combative distances.
You can’t learn how to judge spacing and timing from solo practice.
You also cannot learn to read a person’s body cues to understand what
they will do next, or what lines of movement they have committed
themselves to. Without a variety of weapons, they are limited in
understanding the distances necessary for a variety of weapons lengths
and types. It is possible that by letting these paired practices fade,
they arts in question have lost the majority of their knowledge, utility
and applicability to the world. This can be seen in Judo as well. The
rule changes mentioned are the elimination of attacks and defenses.
The art is shrinking and losing some of its strength. It is fading,
and if this continues, it will die.
possible for an art to revive, especially if there are multiple lines
of transmission. Then lines that have lost aspects can learn them anew
from lines that have maintained their tradition. This is tough though,
and takes some brutal honesty on the part of the line looking to recover
it’s full breadth and depth. The leaders of such an art have to be
willing to admit that their art is less than what it was, and could be,
and go to someone else and humbly beg to be taught what has been
forgotten. That takes true humility, which is often especially
difficult for someone who has become senior in an art.
has happened though. Members of Kashima Shinto Ryu recognized that a
part of their art had slipped away at some point and was no longer
known. However, they also knew of related arts that still taught
similar practices to those they had lost. Being more loyal to their art
than to their own ego and status, the leaders of Kashima Shinto Ryu
went humbly to one of these other arts and asked to learn what had been
lost by previous leaders of their own art. For all that you hear of
jealously guarded secrets in the martial arts, there is a lot of
openness also, and the leaders of the art approached by Kashima Shinto
Ryu agreed to teach what had been lost. By doing this, the leaders of
Kashima Shinto Ryu strengthened their art and gave it new vitality.
is no reason to assume that once an art has been around for a couple of
generations in one form, that it can never change. In truth, the
opposite assumption should probably rule. That once an art has been
around for awhile, it will change. The question then becomes “How much
change is a good thing.” I have to admit that I tend to think that less
change is more successful. Changes need time to be tried out and
examined for robustness. Those changes that aren’t robust enough should
never be formally included in the art. If they do prove worthy over
time, then they should certainly be included in the formal curriculum.
These changes and adaptations take time, decades rather than years, to
become fully embedded into a living art.
of the senior teachers in classical ryuha that I have met are extremely
conservative about their art. I used to suspect that they were
ignoring the world around them striving to keep their art in the past.
As a spend more and more time training with them, my understanding and
appreciation of their decisions grows. They aren’t trying to make their
arts wildly popular. They don’t want to be the next big thing. The
next big thing is always quickly replaced some other big thing. They
value their art and want it to be strong, with solid enough foundations
that it will survive the changes around it and be able to absorb them
instead of being broken by the changing world. They do make changes.
As I look at classical ryuha, I see that they are adapting to the
world. They have changed the way they take on students and how they
share their arts. Many things are no longer hidden away in scrolls. In
some arts that have grown large enough, the art is presented in books
and on professional videos!
is the student’s responsibility for discovering how their art relates
to the world they live in. I once thought the teacher should show the
student how it relates, but I’m realizing that I don’t live in quite the
same world my students do, and I can’t make all the connections for
them. Each generation of students is responsible for understanding how
their art is relevant to the world around them. The world changes, but a
koryu budo with solid principles will continue to be relevant without
frequent changes, because what the ryuha is really teaching are the
principles. The techniques are just a means to that end. Each
generation has to do the work of learning the principles and applying
practice koryu budo. I practice living arts. I hope the arts my
students practice will be subtly different than the arts I practice, as
the art flows down through time, adds new knowledge and understanding,
and adapts to new circumstances and challenges.