Showing posts with label life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label life. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Budo: The Art Of Living

I was watching an otherwise excellent documentary by NHK called “Real Samurai” about modern practitioners of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. It’s a very nice look at the modern practice of a great koryu budo. One thing bothered me though. The narration kept referring to budo in general and Katori Shinto Ryu in particular as the “art of killing”. I think this may be the biggest misconception about budo as it has been practiced since the Pax Tokugawa took effect in 1604.

The documentary repeatedly talked about Katori Shinto Ryu as an “art of killing” and emphasizing the potentially lethal aspects of what is taught and studied. It seemed unable to deal with the  contradiction offered in nearly every frame and comment by the practitioners themselves, that Katori Shinto Ryu practice informs and transforms their way of life.

For me, the fact that the skills we study can result in killing is outshone by their usefulness in living, and living fully. I find it hard to imagine that even during wartime the focus of bujutsu study was killing. Despite a few folks like Yamamoto Tsunetomo who were obsessed with dying, budo has always been about living.The reason for studying these arts, even five hundred years ago, was less focused on killing than on surviving horrible circumstances and going on living. Perhaps budo is not really an art of killing. If it’s not an art of killing though, then what is it?

Without the constant threat of warfare, there would be little reason to study arts of killing. Peace encourages us to consider not just living, but how to best live. Budo as an art of killing isn’t relevant to a life of peace. But budo is just as  much about living. Life is filled with conflicts of all sorts, and all forms of budo are intense studies of conflict, both physical and non-physical.  Methods of dealing with  conflict can also be applied throughout life.

 In budo, the first things you practice are things you’re already doing all the time. You learn how to hold your body, breathe well and move powerfully. What’s more essential to living than breathing? The building blocks of good budo turn out to be the same ones used to build the foundation of a good, healthful life. 

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Enjoy the blog?  Get the book!
Budo reminds us, every practice, of our limits. We stare death in the face with every kata we practice. Most koryu budo kata are paired, and being off just a little for either person can result in a nasty whack that would be deadly with live weapons. Crucially, someone always loses in these kata, and losing equals dieing. In the paired kata we learn to see just how narrow the difference between success and failure, life and death, really is. Learning this is solid preparation for life outside the dojo. The lessons about moving enough, but not too much, emphasize the need to respond appropriately to whatever happens. I can think of many kata in Shinto Muso Ryu where action is essential to not getting hit in the head with a weapon, but where overreacting is nearly as bad as failing to act. When uchitachi thrusts during Sakan, if you don’t act you will be stabbed in the gut. If you overreact you block the thrust but leave yourself open to a number of follow-up attacks that flow smoothly from your excess movement. If you do everything right, you move when uchitachi has committed to the thrust and you deflect the sword tip just enough to miss but not so far that the sword can come in through a new opening. Action must be appropriate to the situation.

I’ll say this again and again. Breathe well.  

Remain calm and relaxed. Budo practice emphasizes this. It doesn’t matter if someone is trying to throw you across a room, split your head open, or choke you. You still have to be calm and keep breathing. It’s amazing how often people in the dojo have to be reminded to breathe. Under stress they start holding their breath. It happens so often I have to wonder that people aren’t passing out right and left in their everyday lives. Budo practices teaches us to relax into stress.

Tightening up only makes things worse.  Stiff arm a judoka and the result is a beautiful throw or an elegant armbar. Tense up while holding a sword and you’ll be much too slow to respond to whatever your partner chooses to do. A lot of practice is required to overcome our bodies’ natural tendency to tense up under stress so we can relax into difficult situations. Someone yells at us at work. A deadline gets moved up. Our uncles get into an argument over politics at the family dinner. Things that can cause us to tense up are everywhere.

Breathe. If you find yourself getting tense, let go of the tension. Don’t cling to it. Budo practice is the only place I’ve found that practices the essential art of relaxing into stress. Having someone try to throw or choke or hit you is stressful. If you can learn to stay relaxed and calm under this pressure, you can do it anywhere. When life tries to hit you over the head, relax, breathe, and move just far enough to avoid getting hit, but not so far that you can’t hit back.

As a kid, I always thought that being “grown up” meant that you were finished becoming you. Budo has a way of reminding me that I will never be finished becoming myself or becoming a better person. I’ve been at this budo stuff for over 30 years and every day I make new discoveries about myself and how much I can improve. It is often said, and always true, that budo is a path, not a destination. We’re never done learning. We’re never done polishing ourselves.

It’s easy to forget that we’re never done changing, so the opportunities for improving never cease. We can keep working on our technique, and ourselves, until we die. My iaido teacher is 94. My jodo teacher is in his 80s. When Real Samurai was filmed a few years ago, Otake Sensei was 88. One of the saddest things I hear people say is, “That’s just the way I am,” as an excuse not to change and improve. It’s the way you are today. Whether you want to or not, you will change and be a little different tomorrow and each day after that.

The difference that budo makes in my life is that it teaches me over and over again that I don’t have to be satisfied with what I am today. I can influence how time changes me. I can passively receive the way life molds and shapes who I am, or I can actively participate, choosing how I want to change and who I become. This is the art of living that budo teaches us.

I’m not finished. My teachers aren’t finished. They still practice. They are still changing and improving. That time spent refining my kirioroshi and my hikiotoshi uchi is not just time spent learning an obscure skill with an archaic weapon. It’s also about refining who I am. That practice breathing calmly and deeply is useful wherever I am, whatever I am doing. Teaching myself that my default condition is calm and relaxed even when someone is actively attempting to throw me across the room, and especially when they succeed in throwing me across the room applies to dealing with “all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Budo is not an art of killing.  Budo is an art of living.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Budo Isn't Life

Young lady walking through a train station in Japan with a sword across her back.
Photo Copyright 2015 Girgoris Miliaresis

Budo Isn't life.  It's training for life.  

I was reading an article about a writer who became a carpenter, but didn’t stop writing, and it made me think about the mistake I sometimes see people make with budo.  Budo is a Way, and as ways go, I think it is a great one.  You can explore strength and conflict, peace and stability, action and quietude, moving with things without being moved by them, and many other points that are important in life. For all that, budo is not life.

I’ve see a number of people over the years who become so involved with training in budo that they let the rest of their lives go to hell.  They often become fabulous martial artists, but their personal lives are train wrecks, with disasters everywhere. These are people who make the mistake of putting budo training above everything else in their life. Budo is training for life. When you let the practice become so large that it squeezes out everything else, including the application of the training to your real life, you have completely missed the point. In fact, you’ve failed as a budoka.

Budo only has meaning in the context of a complete life.  When your training gets in the way of a complete life, you should be asking what’s wrong. If your only friends are people you train with, why don’t you have time for anyone else? If budo has replaced all your recreational activities, why are you becoming so one faceted? If budo is the only thing you enjoy, why is that?

Budo is difficult. Training is hard work. That’s fine, it should be. If you are training so hard that your only relationships are with your training partners, maybe something’s wrong there.  One of the lessons of budo is not that training is hard work. The lesson is that life is hard work, and if work hard at it, you can do good things. Good relationships take hard work. If you’re spending all your time in the dojo, you’re avoiding the relationships that you need to be working on. Good relationships with friends, family, coworkers and partners takes at least as much hard work as training in the dojo.  

Letting budo training squeeze all other relationships out of your day-to-day life is a sign that there are things you need to work on. The problem can be lots of different things. You could be avoiding difficult situations that you’re not good at and you don’t feel comfortable with. You could be focusing on doing something that makes you feel good and gives you a sense of accomplishment to the detriment of maintaining healthy relationships.  I admit, maintaining healthy relationships isn’t something you can brag about. You don’t say “Yeah, I put my wife’s wishes ahead of my own and did those dishes instead of an extra set of kata last night.”  It just doesn’t sound as cool as “Dude, I pushed myself and squeezed in two extra kata sets last night.  I was completely wiped out!”  Maintaining good relationships just doesn’t work as bragging and ego building material.

Budo training is hard work and the returns are slow and difficult.  If you are letting budo training muscle everything else out of your life though, what are you really getting out of your training? If you are learning it for self defense, but you’ve given up every other part of your life to train, what’s left to defend?  Make a full life so you have something really worth defending, friends and relationships and people who love and value you. A life with nothing but dojo training in it doesn’t build anything of value, and all that training never has a chance to contribute to the world. Budo is a Way, a Do, 道, that reveals better ways to travel the path of life. You can’t travel that path in the dojo. You have to go out the door and interact with all parts of life, even the boring ones, the ones that don’t do anything for your ego, and especially the ones that are hard for you.  The lessons of the dojo aren’t really learned until you start applying them.

Girls heading to Kyudo practice in Japan.
Photo Copyright 2015 Grigoris Miliaresis

Budo training should help us conquer our egos. Budo training is an ongoing lesson in doing the hard work that doesn’t have quick returns and isn’t glorious. I’ve been beating my head against the wall of kata that make up Shinto Muso Ryu lately.  It’s not easy to remember all those kata, and to keep each branching straight in your head so you don’t accidentally slip from one kata into another at a juncture that is similar in more than one kata. On the other hand, this is so fundamental to the art that nobody is ever going to pat me on the back and tell me “Good job Pete.” just because I remembered the proper sequence of steps. If I can’t remember those, we can’t get to the real practice.

I don’t get any ego polishing from this. It’s just part of the training.  In fact, the longer I practice, the less ego polishing I get from any of the training.  It’s something I do because of the way it informs and improves the rest of my life. Budo is about dealing with conflict in it’s rawest, most straightforward form.  The same strategies and tactics and practices apply to life though, both in the way we train in budo, and what we are training.

We go to the dojo and we train. Training feels good and I enjoy it just for its own sake.  That’s a lesson right there.  Enjoy things for their own sake. It’s something that’s easy to forget to do.

The training teaches me to deal with the discomfort and pain and exertion required to get good at budo. This is perhaps the most basic lesson we should be getting out of budo practice. It’s also the easiest to ignore. It’s a lot easier to put forth the exertion, to put up with the discomfort and the pain, for something I really enjoy doing than it is to apply that lesson to something that doesn’t have the immediate reward of being something I love to do. Having cultivated that ability to endure pain and discomfort though, it becomes an ability I need to make use of nearly every day outside the dojo.

The effort necessary to maintain good relationships isn’t easy. Sometimes it is downright uncomfortable, and even emotionally painful. If I can exert myself in the dojo, than I can put similar effort into being a good human being with those around me.  It’s not easy.  I know there are several people in my life that I would love to smash, or at least be rude to and then ignore.

That’s not good budo though. Good budo extends those lessons everywhere in your life. You take that ability to exert yourself, and you make effort to endure emotionally uncomfortable and even painful situations and treat people well. Every practice we work on remaining calm and undisturbed while people attack us physically. Shouldn’t we be making the same effort to remain calm and undisturbed when people attack verbally and emotionally? Is it any wiser to allow someone to manipulate you verbally or emotionally outside the dojo than it is to let people manipulate you physically in the dojo?

If your focus is only on getting better at your budo so you can defeat others in competition, you’ve completely missed the point.  Budo training isn’t about defeating others in any sort of competition, it’s about improving yourself.  If your reason for training is only to defeat others in a game, you have already defeated the purpose of the training. The lessons are not lessons about winning a game.  They are lessons about life.

If you’re only applying the lessons about structure and ma’ai and timing in the dojo, you’ve missed out. All situations have structure and ma’ai and timing. A good life really requires that we apply the lessons of perseverance and endurance and continuous effort for improvement to all aspects of our lives, not just the ones that we are comfortable with. In fact, that’s probably a good clue about where you need to apply the lessons you’ve learned in the dojo. If there is an aspect of your life that you’re not comfortable with and that you keep avoiding, it might be time to apply the lessons of budo to that area of your life.

The newly revised and hugely expaned edition of Old School by Ellis Amdur
If you’re doing budo all the time because it’s what you’re good at, I’ve got bad news.  You’re going to to have to get good at other things to be a good budoka.  Even in ancient Japan people recognized that someone who is only good at budo isn’t a well-developed person.  The phrase 文武両道 bunbu ryodo stretches back to at least the Kamakura era. It means roughly “martial and academic are both of the Way.”  Even then it was recognized that a person who only mastered martial arts was not complete.

In the dojo, we train to be able to handle someone trying to crush us with their strength. We practice remaining calm as our partner is trying to hit us with their hands, a stick, a chain, a sword. We strive to remain cool and relaxed while people attack. If we can do that in the dojo, but we can’t do that in stressful, uncomfortable situations outside the dojo, we’ve completely missed the point our our training. To be true to the training of budo, we have to strive to apply the same lessons we practice in the dojo to every corner of our lives.

Budo should compliment all the other aspects of our lives, and help us improve them. It should never become so dominant that it squeezes the rest of life out. Even professional martial artists need a life beyond the dojo. It’s worth noting that one of the greatest martial arts teachers of all time, Yagyu Munenori, was known not only for his budo, but he was also known for singing and performing Noh theatre. Many budo teachers in Japan are known far outside budo circles. Kaminoda Tsunemori of Shinto Muso Ryu is recognized for the excellence of his calligraphy.

If you do budo right, it is very much that dangerous road that Bilbo Baggins told Frodo about ““It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  It will creep into every corner of your life and force you to face those parts you aren’t confident about, and work to polish them just as much or more than it demands that your polish your strikes, cuts, and throws.

If you’re serious about doing budo, you have to get out of the dojo and have life. You have to work at making that life a good one, and making yourself better in each aspect of your life. Real budoka don’t hide from the world in the dojo. Real budoka train, take a shower, and then go out and engage their life and the people in it, while applying the lessons of the dojo to all the difficult, uncomfortable parts to make them better.