|Great day of training. It must have been 95F (35C) in the dojo, though.
I talk a lot about the benefits of budo. We go to the dojo and we sweat. We work at improving some aspect of our skills every time we enter the dojo. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been training or how old we are. My iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, was still training in his 90’s. A friend of mine pushed himself to improve his jodo to challenge for 8th dan when he was 90.He didn’t make it to 8th dan, but he was pushing himself to improve until the day he died.
Budo, much like other Japanese arts such as chano yu and shodo, makes three assumptions about practice and us. First, that perfect technique can be imagined. Second, that we can always work to come closer to perfection. Third, that we’ll never achieve perfection, but that’s no excuse for not continuing to grow and improve.
All of the streams of thought that come together to form budo assume that human technique and character can, and should, continue to develop throughout one’s life. Confucius, Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), all provided strands of thought and ideas to the cultural stew of China and Japan. All of them assumed that people could change, grow and improve at every stage of life.
The Zhuangzi is filled with stories that emphasize taking your time and learning things. The idea that learning and development never end is intrinsic to the all of the lines of thought in ancient China that used “way” 道 as a metaphor for their school of thought. There were a lot of them.
On the other hand, there is a common idea in Western thinking that we each have some sort of unchanging, immutable core or essence. I’ve heard many people say “I can’t change. That’s just the way I am.” or “I don’t like it, but that’s who I am.” Once they finish high school or college, many people seem to think that they are done growing, changing and evolving as a person. Thankfully, there is no evidence to support any of this.
|A curated selection of the best of the the Budo Bum
Everyone changes, every day. Whatever we experience changes us. Little things change us in little ways, and big things can be, as the saying goes, “life changing.” Life never stops working on us, changing us, molding us. We are not stone. We are soft flesh that changes and adapts to the stresses it experiences. An essential question is whether we are going to be active participants choosing how we change and what we become, or are we going to be passive recipients of whatever life does to us..
A central concept of the idea of a Way, michi or do 道 is that there is always another step to take, another bit of ourselves we can polish, a bit of our personality that we can improve, and that we can direct that change. This is true whether we are talking about Daoist thought or Confucian thought or something in between. The idea of a finished, unchanging human really doesn’t come up.
Budo constantly reminds us that we aren’t finished growing, developing, improving. Rather than declaring that we can’t change, budo is a claxon calling out that we change whether we want to or not, and that we can direct that change if we choose. Budo is about choosing to direct how we change instead of just letting the circumstances of life change us.
We are making the choice to take part in how life shapes us from the moment we enter the dojo, although I doubt many realize how much budo can influence who we become when we make the decision to start training. Good budo training should, and does, change us. Physically we get stronger, more flexible, improve our stamina and develop the ability to endure fierce training and even injuries. That’s the obvious stuff. More importantly, budo changes who we are. It should make us mentally tougher and intellectually more flexible. It should help us to be more open to new experiences and ideas. It should teach us that we can transform ourselves. It’s a cliche that budo training makes people more confident, but it’s also true of good budo training. You go to the dojo and you get used to people literally attacking you, and as time goes on, you’re not only okay with that, but you look forward to it. I don’t know anyone who started budo training because they enjoyed being attacked, but it doesn’t take very long before that sort of training, whether it is done through kata geiko or some sort of randori or free sparring, becomes something you look forward to with a smile.
Keiko, the formal term for budo practice in Japanese, is the highlight of my week. The time I spend in the dojo practicing and doing budo never tires my spirit. It exhausts my body, but my spirit always comes away refreshed, recharged, and ready to deal with all the stresses of life outside the dojo. Budo practice isn’t something we “play”. In Japanese you never use the verbs associated with play when talking about budo, and even judoka avoid words that emphasize the competitive and focus on terms like tanren 鍛錬, forging. Budo is about change; conscious, self-directed change.
The wonderful thing is that once we learn how to change ourselves in the dojo, we know how to do it outside the dojo as well. The discomfort we get used to while pushing ourselves in the dojo teaches us how to deal with discomfort outside the dojo. That’s one thing budo doesn’t eliminate - the discomfort of changing. Self-directed change is difficult and pushes us into places and situations that are anything but comfortable. I can remember being a pugnacious jerk, and dealing with disagreement and conflict as a win-lose scenario that I had to win. It took a lot of time in and out of the dojo to learn that just because there is conflict there doesn’t have to be a winner and loser. There are lots of other ways to deal with conflict, and I’m grateful to my budo teachers that I learned something about conflict as something other than a zero-sum game.
Budo has a lot to teach us about life, how we can change and adapt to the world instead of letting the world change us. All the effort that we put into learning the techniques and skills of budo also teaches us how to direct an equal amount of effort into changing any aspect of ourselves that we wish to confront. The budo path has no end destination. We just keep working at it.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, PhD. for her editorial support and advice.