Budo is personal. I talked about that in my last essay. Budo practice can indeed transform who we are. If we’re not careful though, that transformation can take on aspects and go in directions that we shouldn’t want it to go. A lot of ink is spent detailing the marvelous benefits of budo practice, and the benefits are great: at the most basic, physical fitness, and moving upward to physical skills and confidence in high stress and conflict situations. Then there are the mental benefits; becoming calmer, more mentally strong and able to maintain an even mental keel even when the world is pushing you towards rash action.
These are all great. But what happens when you take a wrong turn and start acquiring attributes from you training that you don’t want? What if, because of your budo training, you become an arrogant, abusive jerk?
Judging from the many arrogant, abusive people I’ve met in the martial arts, the ones who don’t have any interest in the aspects of budo that have to do with more than just hurting other people, becoming a jerk seems to be far too common an outcome.
I’ve met the arrogant ones who will hurt you just to prove they are better than you, in some way only they understand. I don’t know how being happy to hurt someone so you can say you defeated them makes you “better”. I’ve met the abusive ones who feel entitled to harm those around them simply because they have more powerful technique. I’ve met the vindictive ones who will hurt partners that don’t do exactly as they want, or take out their frustration at missing a technique on their partner. I’ve been to seminars and met jerks who feel entitled to only train with senior practitioners, and pout when they have to train with anyone they feel isn’t “good enough”. Then there are teachers who only pay attention to their favorites and ignore everyone else. There are teachers who abuse their students with extreme training under the guise of making them tough.
Somehow, through all of the training meant to polish their skills and humanity, the jerks only polished their skills, not their selves. The lessons of budo are intensely personal. Instead of learning “mutual benefit and welfare” or “loving protection” they learned only to care for themselves and what they want.
The first lesson in any dojo is etiquette, which is a formal means of expressing respect for your teacher, for your fellow students, and the art you are practicing. Etiquette and respect are fundamental to all of budo. Without it, we’re only learning how to hurt each other. Some people manage to ignore this cornerstone of budo training and continue to think only of themselves. They can usually be spotted because they toss off their bow to the dojo casually and without feeling. Their bows to training partners are perfunctory at best. They don’t realize it, but their lack of respect for the dojo, the art and their training partners is clear to anyone who watches.
The most obvious lesson in budo, and the one that everyone is clear on before they walk into the dojo for the first time, is that budo teaches personal, physical power. The power to protect yourself and inflict damage on others is fundamental to making a practice budo. Less clear to people is that respect, discretion and self-control are also fundamental to making a practice budo. I’ve met too many people who sought to acquire the power without acquiring any discretion and self-control, much less respect for their fellow travelers on the path.
Acquiring physical power like developing skill in budo, often comes along with an elevated feeling of self-confidence. If this self-confidence isn’t tempered with a sense of humility while the budoka is training, that self-confidence can turn into arrogance and disdain for those less skilled or powerful. This arrogance and disdain is a poison that pollutes everything it comes in contact with. Arrogant, disdainful budoka aren’t worried about the health and welfare of their training partners or their students because they perceive that such people aren’t powerful enough to command their respect.
Budo training takes time, sweat and the collection of not a few bruises. For some reason, there is a tendency among budoka to think that just doing the physical part of budo training makes them superior people. There is no magic in budo training that automatically transforms anyone who does it into a spiritually perfected and superior human being. It doesn’t just happen. You have to work at anything you want to improve, whether it’s strike, a joint lock, or being a better you. All of these take work. Without it, none of these skills will improve.
It’s easy enough to forget about working on who you are when you’re busy acquiring powerful physical skills. The first time you realize that you really can dominate someone physically, there is a rush of thill. The danger lies in seeking that rush by dominating other people in and out of the dojo. There can be a thrill when you crank an armbar a bit more than necessary, just enough to make uke yelp a little. If you to go after that thrill, you’ll develop yourself, but not in a way anyone else will like. You’ll become a bit sadistic and dangerous to be around because you want that thrill. What happens when you meet someone you can’t dominate? Do you turn up the strength to fill in for the technique that isn’t good enough? Can you see how this might poison someone?
I’ve seen teachers who brutalize their students because they can. I’ve seen others who are worse, and damage any student who gives them the least resistance. Often this is cloaked as “hard training that will toughen you up”. It’s not. It’s abuse and it is strictly to feed the diseased ego of the teacher. These teachers tend to leave a trail of broken students who gave them a little too much resistance, and they are surrounded by students who make excuses for their teacher. “He’s just teaching discipline.” “It doesn’t hurt that much, and it makes you tougher.” He’s not teaching discipline, and that’s not how you get tougher. It’s how you get broken.
My teachers have done their best to make me as skillful as possible. Not all teachers are like that. I’ve seen talented and dedicated students driven out of the dojo when they became too skilled. These skillful students are a threat to the teacher’s ego, because they might equal, or worse, surpass, the teacher. Anyone who gets too good is perceived as threat that could challenge the teacher’s spot as the dojo alpha. These students could become more popular, or they could start their own dojo and steal the teacher’s students away. These teacher’s insecurities can destroy a dojo, and will certainly mean that the dojo will never develop a healthy group of senior students who can support the teacher and perhaps take over the dojo someday when the teacher is ready to retire. Instead, anyone like that is a threat and has to go. Such a student might get hurt in a training accident with the teacher, or the teacher might start completely ignoring them. I’ve even seen students simply driven out of the dojo and told to never come back. These teachers have become addicted to the adulation and honor they receive as “Sensei” and they can’t risk having anyone around who might draw some of that attention away.
In budo practice, as in most things, you get out of it what you put in. If you work hard at the techniques you can become a skilled technician. If that’s all you practice you won’t be much of a person though. The people who work at all aspects of budo, polish their etiquette and their spirits, these people make themselves into fine human beings.