Budo is about traveling a path. It’s not about being stuck in one place. The road is always there, time is always moving and the world is always changing, even when we are still. Budo is about maintaining balance and integrity (physical, mental and emotional) whether we are in movement or stillness, and having a calm, imperturbable center whatever is happening around us and however we are moving.
The world is dynamic, so attempts to remain perfectly still are doomed, rather like trying to stand perfectly still on a sailboat in a storm. You can be stable, quiet and calm, but these must be within a dynamic world where you are constantly making adjustments, and sometimes your overall and ongoing stability is only maintained through large, dynamic movements on your part.
Budo is not static. A lot of people seem to think that great budo has already achieved perfection in some previous age. Whether it’s classical judo, or Ueshiba’s aikido, a great koryu like Takenouchi Ryu or Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, or one of the famous iai styles like Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu or Muso Shinden Ryu, people craft an image of a budo that was perfect when the founder or great teacher lived, and that they are trying to recreate the perfection that is contained in the kata and teachings.
I’ve run into aikido practitioners who look back on Ueshiba or Shioda or Tomiki as having achieved budo perfection. For many years of my judo practice I felt that way about Mifune’s judo. Among koryu budo people, the idea that the founder of their ryuha was the paragon of ideal budo is common. The thought that there was one, perfect budo that we are trying to emulate or recreate is an attractive one.
It’s also a trap. Budo is a way, a path. In Japanese, the styles are called “ryu” 流. It comes from the word 流れる meaning “to flow, to stream, to run (as a river)”. The road we travel is always changing. Every step we take along the way takes us to a different place. Rivers and streams flow through space and time and are even more dynamic, transforming the world as they move through it. Even if Ueshiba or Shioda or Tomiki or Mifune or Yagyu or Hayashizaki achieved budo perfection, it was perfect for that point in time and space.
Budo isn’t a technique or even a collection of techniques. It’s a Way. As we travel the path, as the world moves through the ages, budo has to adapt to new times and places in which it is practiced. What was great budo in one situation may be completely unsuited to another. The thing about any great budoka is that their budo is always fresh. They don’t try to force the same response, the same solution, onto different situations. They apply the principles of their budo afresh to each situation.
Budo can only ever be perfect for the moment it’s expressed in. What made the great founders and teachers of budo truly great was not only their ability to manifest budo that perfectly suited the situations they found themselves in. What made them great was that they could also pass along a way to learn the same principles that they applied.
Budo is something that is practiced without end. It’s a path that doesn’t stop. If we’re doing it right, we’re not really learning techniques. We’re learning the fundamental principles that make the myriad techniques work. Great budoka reach up and find a way to manifest those principles in training, in conflict, and in life. The greatest figure out a way for others to learn to manifest those principles.
The ideal is that anyone can reach up and touch perfect budo. With practice, I’m convinced we can. That thing about budo being a path and a stream is important though. I think I may have touched perfect budo a few times over the decades I’ve been training. These are times when I somehow manage to perfectly express the principles of budo that I study and practice spontaneously in life.
It happens and then it’s past. It never lasts. For a moment you manage to express your budo perfectly. It’s not a continuous condition though. We reach that peak moment, and it passes. As we get better, so does the chance that we will touch that perfect budo. For judoka, the first time we come close to perfect judo is that day we’re standing there, staring down at some poor uke as we demand “Why did you jump! Don’t jump for me! I want to earn my throws!” The poor uke looks up at us and says something along the lines of “Jump? You buried me with that throw. There was no way I was stopping it!” When we did that throw, the universe aligned in our favor. The timing and kuzushi were perfect. Uke had no choice and no chance to do anything but fly, and because the timing and kuzushi were perfect, it felt like we didn’t do anything. For a moment we touched perfect judo.
Unfortunately, those moments don’t last. As soon as the moment happens it’s over. Uke stands up, randori continues and uke feels like a boulder every time we try a technique. Nothing seems to work. Touching perfection is momentary, but those moments are wonderful and inspire everything else we do. Once we’ve touched perfection we want it again. Then we try to force it, and the more we try to force the further away perfection becomes.
Those moments of perfection feel incredible, but they are moments. We’re not perfect. We can’t maintain a state of perfection. Any time we touch perfection it’s wonderful and incredible and momentary. It doesn’t last. It can’t.
It is perfect in that instant, under those precise conditions. We express the principles of our art in a way that suits that moment. If we try to cling to it, whatever it was we were doing will cease to be appropriate as the moment passes and the situation changes. The goal of training is to become better and better at expressing the principles of what we study in a way that suits the moment.
The journey of life never ceases. Every step is new. The real lessons in budo are not static techniques, but the principles that animate the techniques. It’s ironic that the main way we learn budo is through repetition of prescribed exercises when the goal is to be able to spontaneously express the principles in any situation.
We practice a limited set of techniques and kata that are like the finger pointing at the moon in the story from Chuang Tzu. The finger points to the moon, but if you remain fixed upon the finger you’ll never see the moon. The techniques and kata are the finger pointing to the fundamental principles. If you cling tightly to exactly the way a past teacher did the kata, you’ll never get to the principles beyond the kata. If you insist there there is only one way to do a technique, you’ll miss the million other ways and situations that technique can be used to express the principle. I have books of judo technique in which the entire book examines just one technique, but looks for as many ways to express that technique as possible. Each technique is animated by underlying principles. Our job is to figure out what the principles are and learn to apply them.
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If we only study the technique, it becomes a matter of chance that we will pick a technique that is perfectly appropriate for the moment. If we follow the direction of the techniques we study, we begin to understand principles, and when we follow the principles, the technique will develop naturally out of the action of the principles. No two techniques will ever be exactly the same when they flow from the principles, but they will be appropriate to the moment. It’s like the judoka in randori who does a beautiful throw, then comes off the mat and asks the spectators “What technique did I do?” The judoka was working with the flow of energy from her partner and worked something that smoothly flowed with that energy. Working with their partner’s energy and letting the principles guide her, she ends up with a technique based on the principle.
That’s the ideal. It doesn’t happen as often as any of us would like. If we cling to techniques it will never happen. Go into a situation with the intent to do a particular technique and you have to force the moment to fit the technique. Go in with principles of movement, balance and flow, and the moment will guide you to the appropriate technique.
The more we practice, the more we internalize the principles, the easier it is to touch perfection. We can never hold on to it, but we can learn to get out of our own way and let perfect budo happen more and more often. We progress along the Way one step at a time. We learn to breath and to walk. Then we start learning some techniques. It’s only when we begin to understand what animates the techniques and makes them effective that we get close enough to touch perfection from time to time.
Perfect budo is a constantly moving target though. What worked yesterday won’t work at all tomorrow. Each step along the Way takes us to a different place. Each morning we awake and the world has changed a little. We can’t force the world to stay still any more than we can force the sun to stop in the sky. If we cling to things as they were our budo cannot advance.
Each day we have to find new ways to apply the lessons of the Way that we learn from studying the kata. The better we get at it, the easier it is to adapt to the whirling of the world around us. A novice sailor leaps and tumbles and is thrown around the deck of the boat by the gyrations of the waves. A seasoned sailor calmly walks the same deck, adjusting to each shift and jump of the boat calmly and smoothly. A master can sit calmly meditating on the deck while the ship pitches wildly, adjusting with muscle changes so small no can see them. The master is calm when the seas are calm, and when the seas seem to be enraged.
The world keeps changing, but the principles don’t. Budo gives us a Way to continually adapt. Classical iaido ryuha would be worthless relics if their techniques were what they are really teaching. No one has carried swords like that in 150 years. The principles that classical ryuha teach haven’t changed though, and learning to express those principles in life is what gives classical ryuha their value.
|Photo Copyright 2013 Peter Boylan|
We don’t study techniques and kata in order to learn techniques and kata. We study techniques and kata to learn the principles that animate them. The conditions under which a judoka can do uchimata are limited. The conditions under which they can apply the principles of kuzushi, timing and movement that they learn from studying uchimata are endless.
When teachers talk about forgetting technique, this what they are getting at. The Way is infinite and no one can learn a separate technique for every set of conditions. Each place along the way, every new morning, presents new conditions. We have to learn to see beyond the techniques we study to the principles. Then we can apply the principles in ways that work with the conditions we have rather than try to find conditions that suit the technique we want to do.
Through great effort you might be able to hold your place in the world still and unchanging, but that won’t help. The world will continue changing around you. Even to stay still takes continuous adjustment, just like the master meditating on the deck of the ship. Walk the path. Learn the techniques. Transcend the techniques and learn the principles. Apply the principles and let the principles create new techniques to suit moment.