Showing posts with label Tao. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tao. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Feeding The Budo Mind

“Budo is more than just techniques.”  We hear things like this all the time. Then we go back to practicing techniques and kata. If budo is more than the techniques and kata, when do we get to the other stuff? All that other stuff about strategy, tactics, ethics and all the rest? For me the answer is to read.

People were writing about budo for a couple thousand years before anyone started calling it “budo.”  Some great ideas from powerful thinkers and writers have paved the path we call budo, and it’s more than worth the time to read some of what I would call the foundational texts, and what people are thinking and talking about now.

One of my favorites is also among the shortest. The Tao Te Ching. Said to have been written by a legendary record-keeper of the Zhou Dynasty in China in the 6th century BC, it is the foundational text for Taoist thought. Why is this important? Even though it only runs to about 2,500 Chinese characters (it’s shorter than most of my blog posts!), it carries the essential ideas about strategy, power, value, ethics, responsibility and leadership. The idea of the Way heavily influence Confucian and Buddhist thought in China, both as something worth considering and as something to reject. It has been translated more than any book except the Christian Bible. There is no definitive translation because the nature of the work allows for many subtle interpretations, none of which are wrong.  My current favorite English translation is Gai-Fu Feng’s. Unfortunately, it seems to be out of print again.  A fabulous introduction in manga form that is fun to read and manages to explain some of the ancient culture that goes into it without being boring is “The Tao Speaks”. It’s out of print, but used copies can be found around the internet. Free translations of it abound on the internet.

A hundred years or so after the Tao Te Ching was put together, Sun Tsu wrote his guide to warfare, strategy and tactics.  Known at “The Art Of War”, it has influenced military thought for 2500 years.  Compact, with only 13 brief chapters, even when many commentaries are included, as in the Griffith translation, it is not long. The Art Of War should be considered the fundamental text on warfare and combat. The discussions of strategy and tactics inform everything from the relatively uncomplicated scenarios of one-on-one classical budo training all the way to modern warfare combining infantry, tanks, artillery and airpower. A lot less has been said with a lot more words many times (yes, I’m guilty as charged).

Donn Draeger was an incredible pioneer for non-Japanese entering into the world of Japanese budo. His 3 volume set “Classical Bujutsu” “Classical Budo” and “Modern Bujutsu and Budo” have been gateways into Japanese budo for people since their publication in the 1970s.  He makes mistakes, and some of his theories are wrong (I have argued against the artificial division of budo and bujutsu in other places), but he was the first! He was trying to figure out this budo stuff and go where no non-Japanese had gone.  Of course he made mistakes! Explorers go out and track down blind dead ends and get lost and found and lost again any number of times. The incredible thing is not the mistakes he made, but how much he was able to figure out and decipher so those of us who came after don’t have to work at those pieces of the puzzle.

Ellis Amdur has written two books that I consider essential reading for anyone who wants to understand where this budo stuff is coming from and where it it sits in the modern world. The first, Old School sets the stage for budo practice in the 21st century. Amdur writes with authority on  the history and culture that produced the budo we practice today, particularly the koryu or “old school” styles the predate modern Japan.  Through detailed essays about particular ryuha, Amdur illuminates much of the common culture and history in which all koryu were born and developed. The chapter about Katori Shinto Ryu alone is worth the price of admission, and the other chapters are all nearly as good.

His other book “Dueling With O-sensei” I consider essential reading for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of the ethics and reality of the martial arts they are practicing. There are lots of noble words about katsujinken and arts of peace, about self-development and enlightenment through the martial arts. After 13 years of training in Japan, and decades dealing with conflict, violence and de-escalation professionally have given him a perspective into the true ethics of martial arts and a practical understanding of their genuine limits that few possess.  This is something everyone who thinks about budo should read. Sadly, it’s out of print now.  A revised second edition is due out later this year though. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Karl Friday is unique among the people writing about budo today. He is both a classically trained martial artist with a menkyo in the art of Kashima Shinryu, one of the oldest budo traditions in Japan, and a Ph.D. in Japanese military history. With an insider’s access as a senior member of Kashima Shinryu, and the critical eye of a trained historian, Dr. Friday brings a unique perspective to the hunt for understanding the history and traditions of budo.  His book “Legacies Of The Sword” written with Seki Humitake, the current shihanke of Kashima Shinryu, is an amazing resource digging into the history and development of Kashima Shinryu from its founding to the present day.  This is a wonderful counter to all the folks who think Zen Buddhism is the essence of budo. What about all the wonderful esoteric traditions of Japan? Read this and discover some.  His other books on Japanese military history are wonderful as well, and all are antidotes to the popular myths about the samurai and Japanese history.

But what about budo in the present? These are living traditions after all. What is there about budo, martial arts, combat and violence in the 21st century? One of my favorite writers on budo and martial arts in the modern world is Rory Miller. With a background that includes classical jujutsu, Kodokan Judo, and a career as a corrections officer, he brings a fascinating and practical perspective to questions about budo, conflict and violence. His Meditations On Violence is one of the most thought provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Miller’s years spent living and dealing with violence on a near daily basis means he brings a clear eye to many of the myths and legends that have grown up around budo over the centuries. In addition his depth of experience gives him insight into the depths of seemingly esoteric budo teachings.

These are just some of the budo writers and thinkers that get my mind going. Budo has been developing for centuries, which makes putting my place along the path in perspective challenging. The more I understand of the history and development of the ideas and ideals, the better I can understand how they relate to me. Reading the experiences and thoughts of writers who have more practical experience than I would ever want to accumulate helps me to understand the limits of some ideas, and avoid the pitfall of romanticizing what I practice. I am amazed every time I pick up the Tao Te Ching or the Art Of War that books written 2,500 years ago can have so much relevance to the present. Many of the questions and principles Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu  were grappling with are the same ones writers in medieval Japan and modern America continue to contemplate and wrestle with.

This is in no way meant to be anything like a definitive list.  These are just some of the books and writers that I find important and engaging.  I’m sure I’ll talk about some of the many others that I think are important in another blog one of these days.  What works or thinkers do you find engaging and challenging? They don’t have to be books. Intriguing ideas can come from movies, TV, great discussions, and sometimes from the least expected corners.  How do you feed your budo mind?

Monday, March 14, 2016


Kyoto Butokuden Dojo.  Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2015

 Something happens when I take off my shoes, stick them on the shelf by the door, bow and step onto the dojo floor. For me, it’s like coming home after long trip, even if I was there yesterday. My stomach relaxes and my feet feel like they extend deep into the floor. My breathing deepens, and a smile seeps out from the corners of my mouth and flows all across my face.  The dojo is my favorite, happy, peaceful place.

Dojo 道場、is an old word borrowed from Chinese Buddhism. When Buddhism entered China, the Chinese language was already rich with Taoist and Confucian spiritual terms. Buddhism borrowed freely from this trove of language to describe ideas from sanskrit. Terms related to “way” 道,  “michi” in Japanese are frequently used for Buddhist ideas.  Dojo is one of them. Written with the characters for “way” 道 and “place” 場, the term came to mean the spot under the bodhi tree in India where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. From there it was applied to halls where the  Buddhist teachings, sutras, are studied and where monks chant and meditate.

Somewhere in the early Edo period (1604-1868) people began calling martial arts practice halls “dojo.” The Edo period was preceded by several hundred years of fractious war in Japan. During that time martial arts training related to military activity and generally took outdoors. Martial arts instructors traveled with the armies, which didn’t tend to have long term barracks. Training happened in the field.

It was only with the establishment of peace that permanent training halls became a practical option. The armies were mostly decommissioned, and the much smaller forces that remained were serving in peacetime. Troops were based in the castle towns and weren’t likely to experience the battlefield. Under these circumstances, troops, officers, and anyone who claimed the status of bushi, would need to train somewhere.

Instructors connected to the local daimyo, or lord, became established in most castle towns. It was probably not uncommon for training early in this period to take place in the dojo of Buddhist temples. These would have been the largest indoor spaces available initially. When purpose built budo training halls started to appear, they were built in a similar manner and carried the name with them.

The tradition of the temple dojo doubling as a martial arts dojo didn’t end when people started building dedicated martial arts dojo. The temple dojo hall, much like a church hall in the West, served as a sort of community hall, and would be used for many things in the community. The most famous instance of a temple dojo serving as a martial arts dojo is the place where Kodokan Judo was founded in 1882 in at the tiny, neighborhood Eisho Temple in Tokyo.

It doesn’t matter what the dojo is like, or even if it’s just the parking lot in back of my first jodo teacher’s house. When I bow to show my respect for entering the special space, even if the only thing making it special is my bow, I transform that space for myself. That bow I do before stepping into the training space marks it off from the rest of the world. The dojo is special because we make it special.

The dojo is a wonderful place where people are encouraged to grow and push themselves, to develop themselves as much as possible. Much of what happens in the world isn’t concerned with who we are or what we become. That’s not the world’s fault. Mother Nature is a tough lady, and sometimes personal development seems like a luxury when there are immediate needs of meals and mortgages.

For me though, that time I spend in the dojo is essential to being better at fulfilling those requirements of food and shelter so I can work on other things. The dojo is the place where working on myself, becoming better at being me, is allowed and encouraged. I know it doesn’t always look like that, especially when Hotani Sensei is yelling at me, but it is.

Sensei can yell at me all he wants, because he has proven that I can trust him. Training with him is as hard and as fierce as it gets, but not abusive. The dojo is filled with people I’ve learned to trust through the experience of training with them. That sense of trust makes the dojo a uniquely comfortable setting for me. I go to judo and people throw me around the room and try to choke me. I go to jodo and everyone tries to hit me with sticks. It’s odd, but, this makes these dojo more comfortable and secure to be in, not less.

That trust shows up in the respect everyone feels in a good dojo too. I respect people for overcoming their fears and worries and coming through the door. It takes a lot to decide you want to do something where getting banged and bruised is less a distant possibility and more a near certainty. Budo hurts sometimes, but so does life. Learning to handle it and distinguish between hurt and harm is one of those budo lessons that is useful all the time. It isn’t a fun lesson in the learning, though learning it makes you seem tough to people outside the dojo.  The respect is simple. If you have have what it takes to show up and bow in, we respect that.

Stepping onto the mat in a good dojo isn’t like going home.  It is going home. Everyone there wants to improve themselves and they want to see everyone else in the dojo improve too. The amount of care and concern is remarkable for something the world usually sees as just a hobby or pastime. These people will push me and pull me and drag the best out of me, and I’ll do the same for them.

When I first moved to Japan, and spoke about 10 words of conversational Japanese, I asked the people I worked with to introduce me to where I could practice judo. I’d been doing it for 4 years in the college before I moved to Japan and had a brown belt. One of the junior high teachers made some calls and got me introduced to the judo coach at the local high school, Sakashita Sensei.  I was invited to come over and join the practice. I could barely introduce myself in Japanese, but it turns out I spoke fluent judo. I knew how to bow properly. I knew nearly all the general dojo terms and commands. In a land where I didn’t speak the language or know the culture, I discovered a place where I was welcomed and where it turned out I knew the rules, the etiquette and the language! 

Yokaichi High School Dojo. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 1991

9,000 km (6,000 miles) from home, and I am welcomed into a dojo and invited to practice. That means these people invited me to try to throw them around the room, pin, choke and arm lock them. What wonderful hospitality! Of course, I offered them the opportunity to do the same to me, and believe me, they did. It really was a homecoming for me. As soon as I bowed in I was treated like every other player on the mat.  They weren’t sure what a brown belt meant, since they only use white and black for adult ranks in Japan, but they were happy to throw me around and assure themselves I could take it while I got a feeling for just how far into the deep end I had jumped.

It really doesn’t matter where the dojo is, or what it looks like.  Once I’ve bowed in, the air becomes sweeter, I stand a little better, and my step becomes more comfortable. When I’m in the dojo, I’m where I belong.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Outside Training

This started as a quick note I was going to toss off in a couple of minutes.  More than an hour later it had gotten a little out of hand.  Sorry about that.

I spent about 3 hours in the dojo this morning. We warmed up with the Seiza No Bu from Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho, and then I taught Rick a new kata, Ushiro, from the Tachi Waza No Bu.  After that we did some kenjutsu, and suddenly 2 hours were gone and he had to go to.  Then I worked on some kata from Shinto Muso Ryu alone.  It was good dojo practice.  The thing I haven't been doing enough of recently though is the outside training.  I need to be doing more of this.  That’s my plan for this afternoon.

For me, outside training is critical, but it's probably not what most people think of.  This doesn't include things like practicing kata and techniques at home.  That's still training inside the style and the system.  Outside training is training that happens outside the formal definition of the styles that I study, and it include some physical training, but mostly it's mental.

The physical training is the smallest part of outside training.  That’s just going to the gym to make sure all parts of my body are getting the exercise they need to be balanced and healthy and able to support what I do in the dojo.  A little time in the gym can make the dojo time much more productive, and I do mean a little time.  I’m looking to keep my body balanced and strong, so I spend most of my limited gym time making sure that I’m not getting overly strong in one direction.  I also try to stretch regularly.

The biggest part of my outside training though is reading and thinking.  I read stuff that makes me think about my budo and the principles related to it.  There are some books that I come back to time and time to read and ponder, there are others that I only read once, but they are all part of my training.  My favorite book for the philosophical side of budo, and I absolutely recommend it to everyone who trains in any martial art, is “Dueling With O’Sensei” by Ellis Amdur.   Amdur does a fabulous job of taking some of the great budo cliches and ideas, such as katsujinken and really giving them a hard look under some very real conditions.  He works doing crisis intervention, often with extremely violent individuals, so his starting point is always very concrete and practical.  He’s not taking a theoretical approach.

Right now I’m reading an wonderful biography of the man who influenced modern budo far more than anyone else, Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan Judo, creator of the modern budo rank system, member of the International Olympic committee, sponsor who brought karate master Funakoshi Gichin from Okinawa to Tokyo and introduced karate to Japan, the driving force behind making physical education an important part of the Japanese education system and the person who got Judo included in the Japanese education system.  The book, The Way Of Judo, is loaded with information about budo and Japan during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  Ideas about what the “Way” Kano saw students of Judo treading and what that means for how he envisioned Judo.  It gives me insight into the kinds of lessons that kata and keiko are intended to teach.

I’m reading books about the history of different Do 道, such as tea ceremony and calligraphy to improve my understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of Do in Japanese culture.  Budo did not have any sort of national network and discussion until Kano Shihan created Judo.  Before that, all budo was local, though there were some interesting conversations started in old Edo.  On the other hand, tea ceremony dates to the 15th century or earlier, started to get organized into schools under Rikyu in 16th century, and had organizations that stretched across much of Japan by the end of the 1600s.   Tea ceremony styles, calligraphy schools, and flower arranging were having discussions about the nature of training and personal development on a national scale centuries before budo achieved anything close to that level of organization and discussion.  Since tea ceremony and calligraphy were considered essential parts of the training of a true gentleman in Japan, the ideas developed there appear to have quickly found their way into the writings of budo teachers, all of whom were certainly learning calligraphy, and many who were learning tea ceremony.  One surprise for me has been how little Buddhist and Taoist thought has to do with these, and how much Confucian ideas do.
I’m also learning things about physiology and the body under stress that change my understanding of training.  I’ve often heard that competition in the martial arts is supposed to teach you how to react and control yourself under the stress of a real conflict.  I believed it too.  The only problem is that the stress of actual physical conflict is orders of magnitude greater than anything going on in competition.  You don’t get anywhere near the dump of adrenalin and other hormones during competition that you do in a threat situation.  In a threat, adrenalin and other hormones drop into your system, you heartbeat flies up over 170 beats per minute, your fine motor control vanishes, and a number of other things happen.  A good place to start learning about this is Dave Grossman’s book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.  A lot of things I’d heard in the dojo turned out to be completely wrong at fundamental, physiological levels, so wrong that they could get you in serious trouble.  Grossman does a nice job of pulling a lot of research together, and the bibliography could keep you busy for quite a while.

Of course I’m also reading classics of Chinese thought, especially the ones that have had a significant impact on the ideas and thinking of classical Japan where the arts and ways I’m studying and training in were created and developed.  Be sure to read The Art Of War by Sun Tsu, The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tze,  the Chuang Tze, some of the writings of Confucius are essential too (some of Confucius can be difficult.  Start with The Great Learning and some of the Analects.  He seems boring, but he was writing about the essential relationships in life and how to develop as a great human being.  It’s important if you want to understand budo relationships and expectations, especially if you ever travel to Japan).  

I’m going to be reading more about Japanese history as well, so I can place the various ideas within the budo I study in the proper context to be understood.  Things that developed in the Sengoku era of constant war and the early Tokugawa period when people were still afraid that civil war would break out are very different from things developed in the middle Tokugawa era up to about 1850, when the Pax Tokugawa was accepted and expected to continue.  Beyond that, the budo developed at the end of the 1800’s after the fall of the Tokugawa government and the embrace of modern Western technology and the mad dash to overtake the West is very different from all that had come before.  On top of this, if you don’t understand the impact of the US occupation on modern budo, particularly Judo, Kendo and Karatedo, how they are taught and organized, it’s impossible to understand what they really are, and what was jettisoned in the 1950s.  Much was jettisoned, not to make the Americans happy, but rather to please Japanese bureaucrats who were busy crafting a new image for Japan in the international community.

All of this is outside training, but it is vital for my training in the dojo as well.  I admit it, I’m a budo geek, but I believe a basic knowledge of the history of budo, some of its philosophical ideas, and the real physiology of budo and conflict are essential to full growth and development on the Way.  Budo is not just a bunch of movements and techniques.  It absolutely demands a robust philosophical and intellectual framework to give it its proper place in our world.  The only way to get that is through outside training.

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

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.