So you do budo? What exactly does that mean? It’s some kind of moving zen right? Or maybe Taoist philosophy? After all, the character for “do” in budo is the same as the “tao” in Taoism. Does studying budo mean you practice a system of killing people descended from ancient Japanese warrior arts? Does it mean we dress up in old-fashioned Japanese clothes and use a bunch of Japanese words that native Japanese don't understand? Does it mean your art has a sophisticated set of moral, ethical and philosophical teachings? Does it mean that your regular practice of techniques for maiming and killing your fellow human beings are supposed to make you a better human being? Purer? Holier maybe?
For most of us, myself included, we’re doing something we enjoy. Stop. End of discussion. We enjoy it. Just like other people enjoy paddle-boarding, bird watching, and exclaiming over the latest super-hoppy beer they’ve discovered. What we’re doing in the dojo is something we enjoy. Unless you are involved in law enforcement or security of some sort, you’re probably doing this because you enjoy it. That’s the main reason any of us keep doing this for 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 or 80 years.
As much as I love all the great, high-minded benefits and lofty ideals that budo training can potentially provide, I have to recognize that what keeps me and everyone else coming back year after year, decade after decade, is the fact that we really enjoy it. Admitting that up front lets us get on to those high-minded benefits and lofty ideals honestly.
Martial arts training provides a lot of benefits. People get out and get exercise. We learn potentially useful fighting skills of various applications, self-confidence, and coordination. These things you can get from any sort of martial art though, not just budo. So what does it mean to say you do budo?
To start with, it means you’re doing a Japanese tradition. Sorry guys, but I would say that arts from other cultural traditions shouldn’t be called budo (except in Japan when the term is being used in it’s broadest possible meaning of “martial art”). If it’s not Japanese, it can’t really be budo. This isn’t to say that budo is some sort of superior concept that only the Japanese have access to.
Budo includes hundreds of years of philosophical development about individual and social responsibility and the responsibility to fully develop the oneself. The majority of this comes from a combination of Neo-Confucian ideas and native Japanese ideas about self and society, but there are a few chunks of Buddhist philosophy, a liberal dose of tea ceremony theory and practice, and a dash of Taoist mysticism sprinkled on so lightly most people don’t even realize it’s there. It is the presence and more importantly, the application of these Japanese cultural ideas that makes something budo. Without them, you’re not doing budo. You’re doing something else.
Not doing budo is not a bad thing. Chinese arts like Wing Chun, Paqua and Hung Gar all have rich cultural traditions of their own, as do arts like Escrima from the Philippines or Pencak Silat from Indonesia. To try to make any of these arts into Japanese budo would be an insult to the traditions, ideas and philosophy that have nurtured and developed those arts. There is no reason to try to force other traditions into the mold of Japanese budo. Show those traditions real respect and let them be the Philippine or Indonesian arts that they are. Respect them, don’t try to make them something else.
This brings up a reasonable question. If Japanese budo is the result of Japanese culture, can non-Japanese truly learn it? The simple answer is yes. That’s part of the brilliance of these traditions. They encapsulate so much of these philosophies and other ideas in their practice that if you train in a well established dojo in Japan, you’ll absorb most of them without even being aware that you are doing it. You’ll learn about properly fulfilling your roles in society as you occupy a variety of different ones in the dojo. You’ll be a beginner, a kohai, a sempai, an assistant, a leader and even a teacher as you stick around longer and longer. You’ll learn about Confucian ideas of self-development for the betterment of society. You’ll discover things about mental development and calm from the training.
This is not to say that you have to go out and specifically study about Neo-Confucianism or Buddhism or Taoism or tea ceremony or anything else outside the lessons of the dojo. The lessons about these ideas are already built into the practice. In many cases these ideas are so deeply embedded in Japanese culture at this point that most native Japanese can’t tell you the origin of the specific ideas and practices. They are just part of the cultural atmosphere of Japan. In budo they are often contained in the expectations that surround how you train. These ideas will show in the way lessons are taught and how members of the dojo are expected to act and treat each other.
Even in Japan it’s possible to just go to the dojo, train and go home without doing anything else, but then you won’t really be a member of the dojo, and you won’t really be learning budo. You’ll just be practicing the physical techniques without getting anything else. You probably won’t even be getting the real techniques. If you aren’t showing any serious commitment to the dojo family, the real members of the dojo aren’t likely to make an effort to teach you anything beyond the surface movements of the art.
I can hear the people saying “OK, so you can learn budo if you go to Japan. Fine, but what about those of us who can’t travel all the way to Japan and spend years living there? Are we doing budo?” Well, if the dojo is a good one, with teachers and senior members who have absorbed the lessons and the way a dojo operates in order to maintain those lessons and ideals, then certainly it is possible to learn budo outside Japan.
The problem in many places outside Japan is that the dojo were not established by people with a rich understanding of all the facets of budo. In the US, often dojo were established by people with enough understanding of the techniques to teach in a limited capacity, but without the depth of experience in the dojo to really grasp all the other things that go into making budo. Budo is a Japanese cultural tradition, and even if we come from different cultural traditions (and hey, I’m a rustbelt America, it doesn’t get much more different) it is possible to learn and even internalize the ideas about relationships and responsibility and the responsibility to develop oneself so you can fulfill your duties to your fullest ability that is wrapped up in the concept of 武道.
Budo is a term loaded with cultural baggage Budo 武道 is a way, as is distinctly shown by it’s second character 道 (michi), meaning “way.” This Budo concept implies a great way of self development, going back to The Great Learning of Confucius. The first 4 characters in Chinese are (very roughly) “Way of Great Learning” 大學之道. That fourth character is pretty familiar. It’s this idea of learning and self-development that budo is an expression of, captured and built around the particular and almost contradictory practice of studying how to hurt, maim and kill our fellow members of society. To be doing budo we don’t have to have mastered all aspects of the martial, philosophical or cultural portions of the particular style of budo we study, but we do have to be working at mastering them.
Budo incorporates a lot more than just broad principles and specific techniques for fighting and killing. It’s build on traditions of thought that predate it by by nearly 2000 years. It incorporates ideas about self-development and fulfilling your role in society (in this case the dojo society) grounded in 17th century Neo-Confucian teachings. The pedagogy teaches fighting concepts specific to conditions in Japan at various times in history. Some arts go back to the 14th or 15 centuries, some were founded in the 20th century.The arts teach and maintain traditions of fighting originating with their founding and some have additions or modifications to adapt to new features in society and fighting that may be only a few decades old. They are all filled with Japanese cultural expectations about how one behaves, learns and grows, the role of the individual in the group and how one develops into various roles within the group.
That’s the path, the way of budo. Budo styles and traditions are Japanese traditions of combat that incorporate ideas and expectations for the development and actions of the individual members of the tradition. If we’re only learning the physical techniques, then we’re not doing budo. If we’re not trying to to learn and implement the ideas about personal development and responsibility in our lives, then we aren’t doing budo. Dressing up in funny looking, archaic Japanese clothes and using some Japanese terms isn’t enough, or even necessary. We have to be working at learning the ideas about self development and responsibility and seeing how they apply to our lives while learning to maim and kill people, then we are doing budo, whether we started yesterday or have been working at it for 80 years, or anywhere in between.