Budo is personal. This seems like an obvious thing to say, but it is a truth that often is forgotten in a world filled with all sorts of ranks, titles, tournaments and awards. Budo isn’t about those. Budo is about developing your skills, and if you’re lucky, finding a Way that you can follow. Budo, in a way that can seem quite selfish, is about you. We are not ranks, titles, tournament victories or nifty awards. Those are things that hang on us like ornaments on a tree. Take away the ornaments, and it’s still a tree.
I run into people who are so hyped up with worry about their rank or passing their next test that their budo becomes a stress-filled mess. Budo practice should lead one to be calmer and to have a more balanced perspective. It’s easy to forget that when so much time can be directed towards preparing for a rank test, and even more money and effort spent getting to the test site in some far-flung city.
Much of practice can be consumed with getting ready for tests. In the Kendo Federation, there are tests to pass every year when starting out, so it seems like new students are always preparing for a test. Forgetting that iai, for example, isn’t about testing and rank can get lost in the whirl of test preparation and test taking. Rank should be a recognition of how much you’ve learned, instead of a validation of ego. It’s hard to make the distinction though when you’ve worked for a year or more to prepare for a test. Pass or fail, with that much effort invested in the process, the results of the test can overshadow the results of all the time spent practicing and improving.
In budo, as in any do 道, or way, there is no ultimate goal that can be reached. The point is to practice each day, and each day be a little bit better at budo and living. The process of improving doesn’t have an end point. In a world focused on results, where we check off the accomplishment of each item on our task list and where results are emphasized, sometimes to the point of ignoring everything else, this sort of thinking is easily overwhelmed and washed away.
Budo isn’t limited to a finite goal. Implicit in the vision of practice as a way, a path, is the idea that roads don’t really have an end. You can always continue, sometimes in the same direction, and sometimes in a different one. The path doesn’t have an end point. We practice. We train. We polish ourselves. As people, we’re never finished growing and changing. One of the ideas of do is that we can influence how we change. We’re not just stuck with the random influences that life throws at us. We can make conscious choices about how we are going to change and grow. Each day life changes us. Are we simple clay molded by our experiences with no input into what we become? Budo, and all ways, insist that we can choose how we change and influence what we become.
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For each of us, the journey is personal. Practice is personal. The lessons are personal. The changes are very personal. Hang around a good dojo for a while and you will see new students, timid and unsure of themselves, transform their minds and their bodies. If we let it, and focus some effort on it, keiko, training, can profoundly change who we are. The most common transformation is for someone meek and physically unsure of themselves to become skilled and confident in physically dealing with other people. That’s the obvious transformation. How else might budo training transform us?
I find that budo can help change almost any part of me. All I have to do is bring the part of me that I want to change into the dojo. Just as the only way to change my skill with a sword or stick is for me to take what I want to change with me and train with it, if I want to change something that is not as easily seen as a sword cut or staff strike or a punch or a throw, I have to take it into the dojo and begin working on it.
In Kodokan Judo, one of the core principles is the idea of jita kyoei 自他共栄, often translated as “mutual benefit and welfare.” I haven’t seen many people come into the dojo looking to change themselves to consider how their actions can create mutual benefit for them and their training partners, but I’ve seen many people implicitly learn this and begin incorporating it into who they are as they spend time in the dojo. They begin to consider how directly their thoughtfulness or carelessness impacts the people they train with, who trust each other to train together without harming each other. I’ve seen people who were strong, powerful and disdainful of others train themselves to strong, powerful, gentle and considerate of others.
The story of a weak, timid person coming into the dojo and learning to be a powerful, confident fighter is common (and true!), but what other ways can we change ourselves through training? The wonderful thing about budo keiko is that it is a time set aside for changing aspects of ourselves that we want to change. That’s what makes training so personal. We are taking time and effort and directing it towards changing ourselves in some way. The potential for personal development and transformation is tremendous.
We’re not simple clay molded by what happens to us. We have choices to make about what we become and how we change. Those who work at developing their entire self, who work on humility, graciousness, kindness and compassion usually succeed in becoming more humble, gracious, kind and compassionate. Budo is a way of interacting with the world. It’s about how we deal with the world around us. It’s about how handle the stress and mess of life. Practicing budo impacts how we relate with all the people around us.
Budo is personal. It’s about developing and refining who we are. It’s not about the flashy stuff on the outside. It’s not about the ranks and belts and trophies and the awards. It’s about who we are and how we deal with the world and the people around us. Ultimately, that creates a lot more satisfaction than any rank or case of trophies.