Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What is Budo?

I wrote this in response to a question on an email list about "What is Budo?" and thought it was worth putting out for more public comment.

Shinto Muso Ryu, Shinto Hatakage Ryu, Judo, and Aikido all share combative function and technique as their core practices. This gets them lumped together as “bugei” (literally “martial arts”) or “bujutsu” (martial skill). “Do” or “michi” both written 道 is a much more involved idea. While bugei / bujutsu can refer to just the techniques and skills practiced, anything with the “do” 道 suffix implies a class of not just technical activity, but also a means of polishing and developing the whole self and one’s way of dealing not just with the literal techniques of combat, but with how we approach every action and non-action throughout the day. This is both an elevation of martial activity to philosophical/spiritual and a spreading it out by making it apply to everything thing we do from putting on our shoes to sitting in a chair to drinking tea.  Anything that can be done mindfully should be impacted.
       To me, the first thing that is required for something to be budo is that it must be effective at a technical level. If it’s not effective for what it is trying to teach at the most basic level, it can never hope to reach level of a michi. If you’re not practicing to be martially effective, you’re certainly not doing budo. Any michi has to
be grounded in reality.  It’s clear how ways such as sado (Way of Tea) and kado (Way of Flowers) are grounded in reality. You are making, serving and appreciating tea, or you are arranging and appreciating
flowers. I haven’t figured out a way to fake either one of those. Budo unfortunately is rather dangerous to practice, so it easy to deceive yourself about what you are doing. I do Kodokan Judo, hopefully as budo, but it is very easy to do it as nothing more than a sport by forgetting or ignoring the parts that aren’t comfortable to do or aren’t allowed in the sporting context. In iaido, since it is a solo practice, it is easy to drift away from the martial aspects of the practice and let it become just a series of beautiful movements.
With jodo, if you and your partner are not serious, and don’t practice with strong intent, it too can become a pretty, choreographed dance  sequence. Budo requires that the intent, practice, and practicality.
       Effectiveness is only a necessary component of budo though.  Just because something is effective doesn’t make it a form of budo.  Krav Maga is extremely effective, but I’ve never heard anyone argue that it
is budo.  For something to be budo, it has to have the broader application to all aspects of life, and not be limited in its practice to combative situations.  It needs to have a philosophical bent to it that allows this broader application. It must be bujutsu, but it must have an additional facet that is informed by the threads of Taoism, Confucianism and 1000 years of Japanese thought on the issue of individual development through the mindful practice of mundane activities. This is the tough part, and I suspect there is a PhD dissertation in there somewhere.  I’m not talking about religion, but a concept of what it means to be human and how to perfect one’s self. The practices that effective at a technical level for a narrowly defined practical activity have to applicable beyond that, to all aspects of life. There is in Japanese thought the idea that by developing the body to do practical things perfectly, the mind will be developed as well. This is why people revere masters of flower arranging, tea ceremony, and calligraphy. Through polishing a practical skill, they are polishing their whole being, and when they display outer mastery of a skill, it is seen as confirmation of their
inner development.  I’m not sure it always works, but that’s the idea.  The tales of simple people who have achieved true understanding of the Tao through perfection of a common task abound.  The tale of Cook Ting is a great example.  He has mastered the art of cooking and through that gained insight into the nature of the universe.
       If your art can be do that, and be effective, then it might be a form of budo.