Monday, February 19, 2018

Discipline and the Martial Arts in Japan

Martial arts and self-discipline are nearly synonymous in modern American culture. The benefits of developed self-discipline are heavily touted in advertisements for many martial arts, from karate to judo to Brazilian jujutsu to kung fu and Taekwondo. Popular images of ranks of martial artists performing technique after technique in perfect unison; “Senseis” who bark commands and students who leap to comply.

This is the image of discipline in U.S. martial arts, and if you travel to Japan, you’ll easily find more examples of this sort. Gendai budo culture was forged in the first half of the 20th century in the heat of Japanese nationalist fervor that saw the martial arts as a means of instilling “samurai values” into the masses of Japan. Modern budo that were systematized during this period often are run in a strict, formal manner. This is most clearly seen in karate and kendo dojo, especially in school dojo. These arts were molded to the service of the military culture of the day, and so they adopted many practices that are suitable for large numbers of people to train together.

Pre-modern budo, or koryu budo, in Japan weren’t designed or intended for training large numbers of people at the same time. They were, and are, about individual transmission, teacher to student.  As such, they don’t really lend themselves to large group instruction, and so the military tended to ignore the classical budo.

But there is one crucial difference between US budo practice and practice in Japan: Regardless of whether the art is classical or modern, students in Japan are expected to have self-discipline before they start. I can’t imagine anyone trying to get their child into a koryu budo so they could learn discipline.  It’s even more difficult to imagine any koryu budo teacher accepting a student in those circumstances.

In modern budo as well, Japanese students are expected to arrive with self-control. Teachers of modern and classical budo in Japan expect to be teaching their art, and helping their students forge themselves, not working on developing the basic self-control and focus students need to get through class. Learning self-control and focus starts at home in Japan, and it starts early. Children are encouraged from an early age to sit with a stillness that seems unnatural to an American. Behaving well in any public situation, whether it is riding the train, sitting in class at school, or practicing a sport, a martial art or a hobby, is emphasized and socially enforced from from the age of 3 or 4. It’s not that parents enforce good public behavior, but that society does it.

Japanese groups are self-regulating. School children are allowed to regulate their own social interactions, and they can be harsh. Kids who don’t play well soon find themselves ostracized and alone. Peer pressure isn’t just a thing in Japanese society.  It’s the only thing, and children learn to behave in public very quickly without much interference from adults. Teachers don’t usually need to enforce discipline, and from what I’ve seen they really don’t know how enforce it when it is needed.
Japanese society is quite ruthless about excluding anyone who can’t follow the norms of good behavior. There are stories of seeing children being allowed to fight or quarrel among themselves over toys or some such, and later, when the observer returns, he discovers the child who had been aggressive and pushy is ignored and alone while the rest of the children play together.

Even when students start budo at an early age, there is an expectation of self-control. The judo dojo in Omihachiman always had a few toddlers just out of diapers running around in dogi. The toddlers were gently encouraged to copy the older children, but if they went off script and sat in Sensei’s lap, that was greeted with an indulgent smile. By the time they were about 4 years old, they were capable of taking part in class, sitting at attention when called for without anyone having to yell or make a fuss. They learned self-discipline within the culture of the dojo and society at large.

In Japan, by the time most people start a martial art, usually in a junior or senior high school club, they are expected to have self-discipline already. Anyone without it won’t last. It won’t become an issue the sensei has to deal with. Their fellow students won’t put up with them. Japanese groups won’t tolerate undisciplined members. For self-discipline, it doesn’t matter whether the budo is old or new in Japan. Students are expected to enter the gate with self-discipline.

Discipline in the traditional dojo is modeled by the members, not dictated by the teacher. All that is required of a new student is that she sincerely work to learn the proper etiquette and behavior. I’ve been in dojo in Japan long enough to have been through the process myself and to have seen new Japanese students enter the dojo and learn.

Enjoy the blog, get the book! The best essays from the Budo Bum! Signed copies at

New students in Japan don’t come into the dojo with arrogance, or even an air of confidence. New students are expected to enter the gate with sincere humility and a sincere desire to learn. As long as the student is sincerely working at learning the way things are done in the dojo they won’t have problems and mistakes will be forgiven and gently corrected. One thing you will NEVER hear from a new student or guest is “In my dojo we do it this way.” If you’re in a dojo, you’re there to learn, not show what you know or how you’ve done it somewhere else.

This applies not just among Japanese children ostracizing kids who won’t play well, but also to large, socially awkward non-Japanese as well. I’m surprised at how generously I was tolerated as I blundered around the judo dojo when I first moved to Japan. I think I was regarded much as one of the toddlers in dogi running around the dojo were regarded; I was too lacking in proper learning and development to know how to behave.

By the time I moved to Japan, I’d been doing Judo for 4 years, so I’d sort of learned the basics of good dojo behavior. But in the years I spent in Japan I absorbed much more. I learned to really appreciate the simple respect and expectation of self-discipline that was embodied by everyone in the dojo.
Arriving in Japan fresh out of college and quite full of what I thought I knew, I made more mistakes than I can bear to remember in these sorts of things. I lacked the awareness of what everyone else was doing and what they would think of me that is an essential part of learning and entering the dojo as humbly as students in Japan should. The patience which my teachers and fellow students showed me as I slowly learned humility and emptied my cup amazes me still.

If dojo in Japan enforced discipline in the harsh way movies often imagine I would have been beaten into silence any number of times for my cocky, heedless behavior when I first arrived in Japan. I was greeted with calm patience instead. I did eventually learn to sincerely try to see what was going on around me, but it took longer than I care to admit.

The big, bearded gaijin was treated with much the same sort of indulgence as a toddler when I first showed up at the dojo.  I knew the some of the basics of dojo behavior, like when to bow, but I was completely lacking in the finer points of good behavior, of good self-discipline. I didn’t know how to properly receive an answer to a question or a particular point of instruction. I remember Hikoso Sensei teaching me about footsweeps one day. I had asked something about the timing, and Sensei carefully showed it to me once. Then he turned to someone else.  I was disappointed because he hadn’t gone into the details and spent time working with me until I “got it.”  What I didn’t understand then was the expectation between teacher and student that the teacher would show it, and then the student would go off on their own and work on the particular point rigorously by herself. The teacher or coach doesn’t expect to stand there making endless small corrections.  The student is expected to woodshed the point until she understands it deeply and fully.

My endless questions about things that I could have figured out for myself with enough work on my own were handled with what I realize now was a touch of disappointment that I was 23 years old and still so immature. I’m lucky I didn’t find koryu budo until I’d been in Japan for several years.  By then I had started to absorb some of the Japanese ideas about personal dedication and effort. I learned that if I asked a question about maki otoshi in jodo one week, I’d  better show that I was listening to the answer by putting in a few hours of polishing the technique before the next practice so Sensei could see that I was paying attention. Japanese children learn to apply themselves in that way very early from their parents. If a child is taking piano lessons or shodo class or karate, she is expected to be as dedicated in her practice away from the teacher as she is when the teacher is standing next to her.

The common image of the Japanese sensei yelling and berating their students isn’t false, but it’s not as common as the mythology would have it, and it’s missing the necessary context.. A Sensei doesn’t start yelling and berating students until she feels the students are dedicated to the practice already. Most of my teachers in Japan have not been fond of yelling.  They just don’t give you any energy if they think you won’t do anything with it. Whatever you do is “good” because they don’t want to waste time on you. When the teacher starts paying attention to you and tearing apart your technique you know you’re doing something right.

I do have one or two who like yelling. The funny thing is they never yell at new students. They seem to base their attention on who they feel is the most dedicated, and one sure way to show dedication is travel six thousand miles to train with them. Then you really get some attention. It can be disconcerting and downright frightening to have a senior teacher yelling at you with this kind of intensity. He expects you to have the self-control and dedication to knuckle down and do what he’s demanding.  If you don’t already have it, you’re not going to survive in the dojo. Those who don’t have it tend to leave at the end of the night and not come back.

The English idea that discipline is, as the Cambridge Dictionary defines it “training that makes people more willing to obey or more able to control themselves, often in the form of rules, and punishments if these are broken, or the behaviour produced by this training”. In Western society, discipline is something imposed from outside to train   Discipline is assumed in budo in Japan, whether it’s koryu or gendai. It’s just there when the student enters the dojo, or they aren’t welcome. The situation in the USA is vastly different. Society doesn’t assume children can have discipline. There is no real expectation that everyone will learn to follow the group and behave accordingly. This puts a different requirement on budo teachers in America if we want students.  We have to be ready to impose a certain amount of discipline from the outside because we can’t automatically assume that our students come with it built-in.  What’s thought of as “teaching discipline” in the US just doesn’t exist in Japan.  Japanese students learn that sort of self-control and develop the ability and maturity to apply themselves with dedication very early. Martial arts teachers don’t have to teach that; they expect discipline to be there before the student knocks at the gate.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

In Memoriam: Nakagawa Taizoh Sensei

Nakagawa Taizoh Sensei at his forge circa 1997 photo copyright Peter Boylan 1997

My dear friend and mentor, Nakagawa Taizoh passed away on November 16, 2017. He was 85. Nakagawa Sensei was an artist and teacher of the first rank. He was a swordsmith who made swords that were exceptionally beautiful, and exceptionally functional. He was also one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met regarding Japanese art and culture. I want to share my memory of this wonderful man.

I met Nakagawa Sensei in the spring of 1992 while working on the Jet Program in Japan. My sister and I were riding our bikes home after getting haircuts in Yokaichi, Shiga, Japan, where I was living,when I noticed someone sharpening something on a huge, old fashioned grinding wheel It was the biggest grindstone I’d ever seen. We stopped and stared at the grinding wheel for a while when it occurred to me to look at what was being sharpened. It looked like a sword. Of course that couldn’t be, because guns and swords were illegal in Japan, weren’t they? As all of this was going through my head, the guy doing the grinding looked up and noticed us. He waved for us to wait for him.

He finished what he was doing shortly after that, and introduced himself as “Nakagawa”. Then he invited us upstairs for tea. He lived on the second floor of the two story metal building behind the workshop where he’d been working; up a steep set of metal stairs on the outside of the building.. Inside was a small room filled with books and antiques and yumi (Japanese bows) and posters for sword exhibitions and cats - and swords. Mostly it was filled with swords. He had a pile of unfinished blades in one corner of the room that quickly convinced me that swords must actually be legal in Japan. 

Nakagawa san made some tea for us and we started to talk. He took out a finished sword and started pointing out some of the features. Other than the fact that this sword was amazingly beautiful, I couldn’t appreciate it because I didn’t know what I was looking at. Remember that, up until a few minutes before, I’d thought swords were illegal. He showed us a couple of other blades and pointed out the pile of blades that were his experiments as the cats walked across the unfinished swords and flicked their tails against the finished ones.

Nakagawa Sensei cleaning one of his swords photo copyright Peter Boylan 2018

I don’t remember nearly enough of that first meeting, partly because I’d only been in Japan for a little over a year, and conversations were still difficult for me. I was still looking up a lot of vocabulary in my cool, new, electronic dictionary (a godsend after hauling around a paper dictionary all the time). I do remember that he gave me one of his business cards, which helped my understanding and gave me his first name, “Taizoh”. It also confirmed for me that he was a swordsmith! I was still quite green at figuring out Japanese etiquette on the fly, but I decided that a guy who was licensed to make swords deserved more respect than to just be called “Nakagawa San”, so I upgraded the honorific I was using to “Nakagawa Sensei”, which seemed more fitting. When we left he invited us to come back any time (at least that’s what I understood). As a parting gift, he gave us a pair of antique soba cups from the Edo period.

Nakagawa Sensei's business card

After that, I started visiting Sensei whenever I could. I was teaching English in the local junior high schools, so I’d visit after work and on the weekends. Sensei’s patience with my poor Japanese amazes me to this day. If he was working in his forge, he was happy to let me watch, and I was thrilled to be able to. I got to see a lot of incredible swords through Sensei. People would often bring him swords to look at and appraise. Sensei was friends with many sword collectors in the area and sometimes we would visit them together. I wanted to understand more about all the beautiful swords I was seeing and handling I found a copy of Leon Kapp and Yoshindo Yoshihara's The Craft Of the Japanese Sword and started reading. Our conversations about swords quickly become much more interesting and complex as I added to my sword-related vocabulary, but Sensei was still very patient with me as I looked up words in every other subject we discussed.

I had been training in Judo since 1985, but Sensei introduced me to the world of koryu budo as a result of our discussions; and the opportunity to handle so many fine blades made me want to understand them even more. I eventually decided that to fully appreciate these swords, I would have to understand how they were used.

Nakagawa Sensei was always happy to meet people and share his love for Nihonto. I introduced him to administrators at the local extension campus for Michigan universities (JCMU). The students were very interested in meeting Sensei, and learning about his art, and he was completely open to the idea. We arranged for a group of the university students to visit Sensei’s workshop to see him work and learn about swords, and Sensei arranged a side trip to see the collection of a great sword collector in the area. He happily shared an amazing experience with them that very few people anywhere can have.

Sensei shared his knowledge and passion for Nihonto with anyone who was interested and respectful. He also freely shared his swords. Shortly after starting iaido with Takada Sensei, I mentioned to Nakagawa Sensei that I was thinking about grinding a blade to use in trying tameshigiri. Nakagawa Sensei was dismissive of the idea. Instead he got up from where we were sitting on the floor of his front room and disappeared for a minute. When he came back he had a long, purple cloth bag in his hand. He handed it to me and said “If you want to do tameshigiri, use this.”

I opened the bag and took out a heavy sword in a shirasaya. As I drew the blade from the saya, Sensei told me “I made this but I won’t sell it. I think the steel is a little too soft. It’s good for you to do tameshigiri with though.” I protested that I couldn’t possibly use the beautiful blade I was holding for tameshigiri, but Sensei assured me repeatedly that it was fine for me to cut with this sword. I let Sensei convince me that it was ok.

At the next practice, I talked with Takada Sensei about doing tameshigiri and explained that I had a sword we could use without fear because it didn’t matter if I damaged it. Takada Sensei was excited by the idea and we started planning. A couple of weeks later we had everything we needed put together: sword, tatami omote rolled and soaked, some bamboo stalks, and stands to hold everything. Oh - and Nakagawa Sensei.

Nakagawa Sensei offered to come to keiko on the night we did the cutting. He picked me up in his car and drove to gym where we trained. Just in case there were any problems, Sensei brought along a couple special tools he had for straightening bent blades. Takada Sensei had a stand in which we could stack rolled mats horizontally. We set up the stand and stacked mats three-high on it. Takada Sensei went first, swung a big kiriorishi and cut through the top two mats with ease. Then it was my turn. I had only been doing iai for a few months. I raised the sword up and took a huge, muscular swing into the mats and managed to cut through two of them. I also managed to put a rather extreme bend in the blade. Fortunately, Nakagawa Sensei told the truth when he said it was ok for me to cut with the sword. He just smiled, took the sword from me and started straightening it out with tools he had brought. Then he handed it back to me and we did some more cutting.

Nakagawa Sensei had very high standards for what made a sword good enough to leave his forge. The sword we had used for tameshigiri, for all its beauty, strength and flexibility, did not live up to his expectations. He felt the steel in the blade was a little too soft for a proper sword, so even though he went to the expense to have it polished and mounted, he would never consider selling it. The sword wasn’t quite good enough.

As I got to know Nakagawa Sensei, he began to let me help around the forge. I did all sorts of little things like cutting charcoal to size (I never dreamed that charcoal has to be the proper size for various operations in the forge to go well. I still have a scar on my index finger where I managed to cut myself instead of the charcoal once.) Even though he had a power hammer that was mechanically precise, he would have me swing the big hammer for him from time to time, as much for me to experience doing it as for the pleasure of working as a team, I think. The big hammer differs from a western sledge hammer in that the haft is offset in the head. Instead of coming into the middle of the hammer so the head is balanced on the end of the haft, it comes in on one end of the head. This makes the hammer unbalanced and more difficult to control, but the offset head almost swings itself, making the strikes stronger with less effort. I wasn’t very good, but Sensei never seemed to mind my lack of skill, and I did get better over time.

In 1998 Nakagawa Sensei established a forge in Ihara-cho in Okayama prefecture. I was beyond honored when he asked me to help out with the dedication ceremony. The ceremony was to include a Shugendo priest and anoffering of traditional dance by a young boy. In addition, offerings would be made to the deity of the forge. Sensei would also ritually smelt and work the first piece of steel assisted by a group of deshi swinging the big hammers. Sensei asked me to be one of a pair of deshi swinging the hammers for him. No power tools would be used for the ceremony.

The new forge decorated and fired up during the dedication ceremony. Photo Copyright 1998

In the days before the ceremony, we prepared the new forge by sweeping it repeatedly and hauling up chairs for people to sit on. Ihara-cho is on top of mountain in rural Okayama Prefecture, and the forge was difficult to get to - up a steep slope that defeated some cars. We set up a platform for the altar with offerings, including kagami mochi (rice cakes), fruit and sake. We also hung traditional rice paper and erected standing green bamboo around the forge.

The shugendo priest blessed the forge and we hammered away at a fresh piece of ore. It’s difficult working the hammer by yourself but working in a man team also requires cooperation and coordination so only the hot ore is hammered and not anything else. Sensei directed the deshi where to strike and in what rythm by tapping with his hammer. After we had worked the ore into steel by hammering and folding it a number of times, Sensei quenched it in some water and we placed it on the altar as an offering. Then the young boy performed a traditional dance for the gods. The ceremony finished with us cutting up the kagami mochi and opening the sake for everyone to share.

Working the first steel in the new forge with Nakagawa Sensei Photo Copyright 1998 Peter Boylan

Sensei loved to discuss art and politics and culture and history. Because of my passion for martial arts as well as for swords, we spent a lot of time talking about the relationships among traditional arts in Japan, budo and swords. Being surrounded by swords while talking with a master swordsmith who also practiced classical Heki Ryu kyudo and was also very familiar with many of the classical sword arts and much of their internal politics didn’t leave much room for me to hang onto illusions about the world of swords and martial arts. I traded my myths about unbreakable swords that could cut through anything for the fascinating truth of swords carefully crafted by smiths, polished so finely that the grain of the steel becomes visible, and wielded by people who may be masters of the art of swordsmanship but are still quite human.

What else can I say about a man who was a talented sculptor and a university professor before he became an incredibly skilled swordsmith? As a skilled practitioner of Heki Ryu kyudo, Nakagawa Sensei had participated in some extended endurance shoots. Though he never tried the 24 hour shoot, he successfully completed some of the shorter ones. He owned a Ming Dynasty bowl while living with three cats. The bowl got broken. The cats were excused and forgiven.

Nakagawa Sensei in his living room, the pile of swords in front of him, and his Ming bowl on the bookshelf. The cats were hiding. Photo Copyright Peter Boylan 2018

He enjoyed Japanese green tea and soba noodles. He worked in a charcoal dust covered forge and got absolutely covered in charcoal dust himself when working. Nonetheless, when he cleaned up to go out, he was one of the most stylish people I have seen, with a personal sense of elegance that was wonderful to the eye. We would visit art museums in Kyoto and the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya to see the paintings and sculpture as much as to see the beautiful swords they often had on display.

Nakagawa Sensei was a great smith. I once watched him turn down a commission for five swords because it was a boring commission. The buyer wanted five matching swords, and the idea of making five nearly identical swords didn’t interest Sensei at all. On the other hand, he made a beautiful omamori tanto and gave it to my wife and me to commemorate our wedding. He could tell you the carbon content of a piece of ore by looking at it (really! I challenged him on this once and he fired up his grinder, handed me a book with spark patterns for steel and proceeded to accurately identify every piece that he sparked on the grinder).

One of the things he allowed me to help him with was gathering old steel to use in making swords. When old temples and shrines were being renovated we would go and gather up the old nails and iron fittings with a huge magnet. Then we would go through and sort the pieces into traditional Japan-made steel and western-made steel. With a little study, you can tell the difference between the two easily. I spent many pleasant hours collecting and sorting steel while Sensei did things that took far more skill than I ever acquired.

I will always treasure my memories of helping Sensei in the forge and sitting with him in his living room surrounded by swords and cats and yet more swords, talking about everything under the sun.

I miss you Sensei.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Budo: The Art Of Living

I was watching an otherwise excellent documentary by NHK called “Real Samurai” about modern practitioners of Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu. It’s a very nice look at the modern practice of a great koryu budo. One thing bothered me though. The narration kept referring to budo in general and Katori Shinto Ryu in particular as the “art of killing”. I think this may be the biggest misconception about budo as it has been practiced since the Pax Tokugawa took effect in 1604.

The documentary repeatedly talked about Katori Shinto Ryu as an “art of killing” and emphasizing the potentially lethal aspects of what is taught and studied. It seemed unable to deal with the  contradiction offered in nearly every frame and comment by the practitioners themselves, that Katori Shinto Ryu practice informs and transforms their way of life.

For me, the fact that the skills we study can result in killing is outshone by their usefulness in living, and living fully. I find it hard to imagine that even during wartime the focus of bujutsu study was killing. Despite a few folks like Yamamoto Tsunetomo who were obsessed with dying, budo has always been about living.The reason for studying these arts, even five hundred years ago, was less focused on killing than on surviving horrible circumstances and going on living. Perhaps budo is not really an art of killing. If it’s not an art of killing though, then what is it?

Without the constant threat of warfare, there would be little reason to study arts of killing. Peace encourages us to consider not just living, but how to best live. Budo as an art of killing isn’t relevant to a life of peace. But budo is just as  much about living. Life is filled with conflicts of all sorts, and all forms of budo are intense studies of conflict, both physical and non-physical.  Methods of dealing with  conflict can also be applied throughout life.

 In budo, the first things you practice are things you’re already doing all the time. You learn how to hold your body, breathe well and move powerfully. What’s more essential to living than breathing? The building blocks of good budo turn out to be the same ones used to build the foundation of a good, healthful life. 

Enjoy the blog?  Get the book!
Enjoy the blog?  Get the book!
Budo reminds us, every practice, of our limits. We stare death in the face with every kata we practice. Most koryu budo kata are paired, and being off just a little for either person can result in a nasty whack that would be deadly with live weapons. Crucially, someone always loses in these kata, and losing equals dieing. In the paired kata we learn to see just how narrow the difference between success and failure, life and death, really is. Learning this is solid preparation for life outside the dojo. The lessons about moving enough, but not too much, emphasize the need to respond appropriately to whatever happens. I can think of many kata in Shinto Muso Ryu where action is essential to not getting hit in the head with a weapon, but where overreacting is nearly as bad as failing to act. When uchitachi thrusts during Sakan, if you don’t act you will be stabbed in the gut. If you overreact you block the thrust but leave yourself open to a number of follow-up attacks that flow smoothly from your excess movement. If you do everything right, you move when uchitachi has committed to the thrust and you deflect the sword tip just enough to miss but not so far that the sword can come in through a new opening. Action must be appropriate to the situation.

I’ll say this again and again. Breathe well.  

Remain calm and relaxed. Budo practice emphasizes this. It doesn’t matter if someone is trying to throw you across a room, split your head open, or choke you. You still have to be calm and keep breathing. It’s amazing how often people in the dojo have to be reminded to breathe. Under stress they start holding their breath. It happens so often I have to wonder that people aren’t passing out right and left in their everyday lives. Budo practices teaches us to relax into stress.

Tightening up only makes things worse.  Stiff arm a judoka and the result is a beautiful throw or an elegant armbar. Tense up while holding a sword and you’ll be much too slow to respond to whatever your partner chooses to do. A lot of practice is required to overcome our bodies’ natural tendency to tense up under stress so we can relax into difficult situations. Someone yells at us at work. A deadline gets moved up. Our uncles get into an argument over politics at the family dinner. Things that can cause us to tense up are everywhere.

Breathe. If you find yourself getting tense, let go of the tension. Don’t cling to it. Budo practice is the only place I’ve found that practices the essential art of relaxing into stress. Having someone try to throw or choke or hit you is stressful. If you can learn to stay relaxed and calm under this pressure, you can do it anywhere. When life tries to hit you over the head, relax, breathe, and move just far enough to avoid getting hit, but not so far that you can’t hit back.

As a kid, I always thought that being “grown up” meant that you were finished becoming you. Budo has a way of reminding me that I will never be finished becoming myself or becoming a better person. I’ve been at this budo stuff for over 30 years and every day I make new discoveries about myself and how much I can improve. It is often said, and always true, that budo is a path, not a destination. We’re never done learning. We’re never done polishing ourselves.

It’s easy to forget that we’re never done changing, so the opportunities for improving never cease. We can keep working on our technique, and ourselves, until we die. My iaido teacher is 94. My jodo teacher is in his 80s. When Real Samurai was filmed a few years ago, Otake Sensei was 88. One of the saddest things I hear people say is, “That’s just the way I am,” as an excuse not to change and improve. It’s the way you are today. Whether you want to or not, you will change and be a little different tomorrow and each day after that.

The difference that budo makes in my life is that it teaches me over and over again that I don’t have to be satisfied with what I am today. I can influence how time changes me. I can passively receive the way life molds and shapes who I am, or I can actively participate, choosing how I want to change and who I become. This is the art of living that budo teaches us.

I’m not finished. My teachers aren’t finished. They still practice. They are still changing and improving. That time spent refining my kirioroshi and my hikiotoshi uchi is not just time spent learning an obscure skill with an archaic weapon. It’s also about refining who I am. That practice breathing calmly and deeply is useful wherever I am, whatever I am doing. Teaching myself that my default condition is calm and relaxed even when someone is actively attempting to throw me across the room, and especially when they succeed in throwing me across the room applies to dealing with “all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

Budo is not an art of killing.  Budo is an art of living.