Budo training is often lauded for promoting virtues like self-confidence, self-control, self-respect, determination, and resolve. It helps people stand up to bullies and be better people and to get along better in society. Budo training is actively promoted as being good for developing these valuable traits in children and adults. It’s just an all around good thing, right? Unfortunately, where there are virtues, there are usually vices as well. There are all sorts of bad lessons and characteristics that can be learned in the dojo.
As wonderful as I believe budo training can be, it is not without pitfalls, dangers and tempting looking diversions that lead to dead ends. Just looking at the list of virtues makes me think of their closely related vices. How can self-confidence be a vice? I’ve known plenty of regular folks as well as martial artists who had such an over-abundance of self-confidence that they were arrogant. These people couldn’t imagine not being capable and correct. That’s bad enough in someone you have to deal with in a business or social setting. Now picture that in someone training in a martial art with other people.
When you train with other people, you need a relatively realistic estimate of your own ability. If you are arrogant, you’re not just socially painful to deal with, you can be physically dangerous to yourself and those around you. Arrogance gets people hurt. Even people who aren’t arrogant, but just over-confident are a danger to others and themselves. If you spend enough time around the dojo, it is inevitable that you’ll hear the fateful words “Oh, I can do that.” When overconfidence is in play, the words are almost always followed by someone crying out “Ow!” Either a technique was attempted ineptly and hurt the person it was being attempted on, or the poor guy (why is it almost invariably a guy?) failed to defend himself from an attack he was sure he could deal with easily. Not to mention that arrogance is unpleasant to be around.
Ego is another thing that causes a lot of injuries, both to people whose ego’s are too big, and to the poor folks who have to deal with us. Ego is a special risk for martial artists, because we deal in physical power. The temptation to believe that because we can do these things makes us special is huge, and anything that denies that can trip us up. Every once in a while my ego gets out of the trunk I keep it locked in and causes me problems. It’s sure that I’m better than whoever I’m doing randori with, or that I can still keep up with that 19 year old guy, or any other fantasy that is just out of my reach. My ego is happy to convince me, and when I go along, I usually end up slumped against a wall, holding a bottle of water and wondering who took all the oxygen out of the air, because as hard as I’m breathing, I don’t seem to be getting any. This side of ego can drive us to try things we really shouldn’t. It’s different from arrogance. Arrogant folks often can’t imagine that they might not be able to do something. With this particular ego problem, we are denying our own limitations. It’s fine to push your limits and to stretch them. It’s not good to deny that those limits exist.
A different problem is getting too attached to a goal. I have seen people who were blindly determined to achieve a goal. I say “blindly” because they couldn’t see clearly the obstacles and pitfalls in front of them. Someone so attached to a goal that she can’t see what is required to get there is a scary thing to see, especially in a martial arts setting. It’s easy to damage yourself and others just from training too hard. If you keep training past the point where your body can maintain reasonable physical control, it’s inevitable that you or your training partner will get hurt, just because at that point you don’t have the fine control required to protect yourself and your partner. That’s a simple judgement problem.
Additionally, when a goal becomes all someone can see, they become blind to everything but that goal. A martial artist like this can be dangerous to themselves because they will try risky or even outright hazardous training practices. When the goal becomes that big in someone’s eyes, it can get in the way seeing your training partners as anything more than tools for achieving your goal. I’m not arguing against goals, I’m just saying goals need to be kept in perspective.
Respect is critical in a budo dojo. If someone doesn’t respect the people they are training with, they aren’t going to be considerate of them. Part of showing respect for your training partners is taking care of them, making sure they don’t get hurt. People who don’t respect you aren’t likely to care if you get hurt and can’t train anymore. Without respect for you, your training partner won’t take you into consideration. When you train together in something with as many potential dangers as budo, you want your partner to respect you so you don’t get hurt.
On top of that though, you also want their respect when it comes to your training. Whatever level you’re at, you need partners who will respect that and train with you so you get what you need out of the training. A partner who doesn’t respect you is not going to bother thinking about giving you the energy and intensity that is appropriate for your training. They will just toss off whatever they feel like. If they’re feeling sloppy, you’ll get a mushy, sloppy partner. If they are feeling annoyed or upset, you could get slammed around with more energy than you can handle. Plus you get to deal with the clear impression that this person doesn’t respect you and doesn’t think you are worthy of their time or attention. There is little that annoys me faster than someone who doesn’t respect their training partners.
One vice that I see all too often, especially on the internet, is budo tribalism. The attitude that “What I do is the real thing, and everything else is weak and corrupt and worthless to practice.” I have seen this from judoka talking about BJJ and I’ve heard it from BJJ guys talking about judo, and I hear it from from folks in Karate and Taekwondo talking about each other. I hear it from MMA people talking about everyone. The most vicious of these exchanges though are usually by people in one branch of an art talking about other branches of the same art. This true whether it’s Aikido or Karate or Tae Kwon Do or Tai Chi or just about any other art.
For too many people, whatever they are doing has to be the greatest in the world. I’m not sure why this is. There is no such thing as the ultimate martial art. Every art makes it’s own assumptions about what kind of attacks to train against and what is the best way to do so. What is it about budo that brings this sort of attitude out so strongly? So many people want to knock down the training of anyone who doesn’t train the way they do. It’s sad to see, because the people who adopt these tribal attitudes cut themselves off from one of the greatest sources for growth as budoka, outside perspectives.
I train in Kodokan Judo, Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai, and Shinto Muso Ryu Jo. I love getting outside perspectives. They keep me from getting too full of myself. They also help me maintain a realistic perspective of what my arts’ strengths and weaknesses are. No art does everything, and any art that claims to do everything is unrealistic. By talking with people in other arts, and occasionally training with them, I get the benefit of their experience and perspective. My judo has grown immensely from interacting with Aikido and Aikijutsu practitioners. My understanding of iai has been expanded, and my appreciation for the limits of my training, through the experience I’ve gained meeting and training with people who do Hoki Ryu and Suio Ryu and many other sword arts. Jo is a wonderful weapon, but like all weapons it has limits. Those become clear when I train with folks whose background is different from mine. A little yari (spear) or naginata (glaive) practice will really open your eyes. I don’t like to think about some of the chain weapons. They’re just brutal.
The folks who go tribal and declare that everything else is inferior cut themselves off from all the things they could learn from outside perspectives. Worse, they have to continually delude themselves that all those other guys have nothing to offer them. It’s must be tough to live like that. Every piece of evidence that someone else’s training might offer something theirs does not has to be discredited and destroyed. Nothing else can ever be truly worthy of praise. Us versus them just isn’t a good way to live, and it’s certainly not a good way to train.
The last vice I’m going to talk about in this post is jealousy. This one is pernicious and sneaky. It creeps up on you. I’ve seen people get jealous over lots of things in the dojo. Some people have natural talent (I’m not jealous of them. Really. I’m not...Well, maybe just a little). Some people have cool toys. Some people just have more time to train than the rest of us. What seems to cause the worst jealousy I’ve seen is success. Whether it is success as a student developing good technique, or success in competition, or success as a teacher, all of these things can generate jealousy. In the dojo, the worst things I’ve seen have been over success as a teacher.
Teachers are the leaders in the dojo. When one teacher starts to be jealous of another teacher, for whatever reason, the dojo is in trouble. This is one of those things I really don’t understand, even though I’ve seen it. One teacher becomes jealous because another teacher is more popular with students or is able to achieve better results developing students. Instead of doing the proper budo thing and trying to figure out how to improve their own teaching, they become jealous and upset at the other person, leading to arguments, fights and almost invariably, an irreparable fracture in the dojo. The jealousy leads to fights, arguments, accusations and end in two dojos that don’t like each other, not to mention all the students who just quit because they refuse to put up with the poisoned atmosphere before the split. I hate seeing this happen, but that green eyed monster is all too much a part of us as humans, and it happens far too often. Jealousy doesn’t just hurt the individuals involved, it hurts everyone around it, and can destroy the dojo.
Just as cultivating the budo virtues makes individuals better and improves the dojo environment for everyone, letting budo vices develop hurts you and it makes the whole dojo a less pleasant place to be. Arrogance, ego, disrespect, tribalism and jealousy can ruin individuals, groups and dojo. We all have to watch out for them within ourselves with the same sort of diligence we put into developing the budo virtues of 知 wisdom, 仁 benevolence, 義 righteousness, 信 trust, and 礼 rei.