Will budo make me a better person? Not necessarily. Maybe. If you want it to. If you train properly.. There is an old idea that training in a Way (budo, sado, kado, etc) will make you a better person. It’s wonderful story. A lifetime of training has made the grizzled old teacher wise, kind and gentle. If we study the art we too will be transformed in wise, kind, gentle people as well.
If only it were so.
You will become what you train. It is entirely possible to study and master the techniques of an art and completely miss it’s essence. This is perhaps most visible in international Judo. If you watch international Judo competitions you can see some spectacular and subtle application of judo techniques and physical principles. The throws and techniques are incredible. The behavior of the contestants is no better than in any other sport though. There are good competitors who treat everyone with respect. There are bad sports who throw temper tantrums when they don’t like the referee’s calls. There are glory hounds who dance and shout and put on displays when they win. There jerks who are disdainful towards everyone around them.
With as many years of Judo training as it takes to becoming a competitor at the international level, if just training in Judo was going to make you a better person, all of these people should be fabulous human beings with grace, kindness, respect and dignity for everyone, especially when on display in an international event. Instead the behavior you see is no better than at any other sporting event. We can see clearly that spending years practicing a form of budo will not automatically transform you into a great person.
The focus of training in the dojo is usually on technique. It is entirely possible to study the techniques of an art, become extremely good at the techniques, and never touch the rich principles that animate the art and make it applicable throughout life and not just in the dojo or in a fight. Focusing on technical practice is appropriate, since the techniques are there to point you in the direction of the principles.
Chuang Tzu talks about the finger and the moon. The pointing finger directs us to the moon, but once we have found the moon we forget about the finger. If we fixate on the finger we will never move beyond it, and we will never find the moon. In budo, the techniques are like the finger. They point us towards the principles, but it easy to become fixated on the techniques and miss their connections to deeper principles and ideas.
We train techniques. That’s how we learn budo. Techniques and kata teach us the fundamentals of the art and how to apply them. The techniques of an art are powerful. In Judo, the throws, joint locks and strangles are powerful and impressive. In other arts there are strikes and weapons to study and be fascinated by. It’s easy to get caught up in learning these techniques. The deeper, more subtle principles that make the techniques work can be forgotten in the race to master the techniques. This is especially true in something like Judo, where victory in competition can become a goal that eclipses and outshines everything else.
The techniques alone can seem powerful. Victory in competition brings glory and personal satisfaction. But these are not the principles of the art being studied, and they have nothing to do with becoming a better person. In fact, they more often lead in the opposite direction. The techniques of budo dangerous and powerful. It’s easy to get caught up with learning how to be dangerous and powerful. Knowing those dangerous and powerful techniques can give a person confidence. On the other hand, a person can become focused on that sense of power and become obnoxious and bullying because they have some power. In arts with a competitive side, such as Judo and Kendo, the focus on winning competitions can consume a person’s focus, so they forget all the other parts of the art. They can stop respecting anything but victory, and cheerfully ignore and belittle any aspect of the art that doesn’t directly contribute to victory in competition.
In both cases, a person can study an art for a lifetime and that study will never make them a better person. It might even make them less of a person. They can become proud, arrogant, rude and unpleasant to been around. Pretty much the opposite of what a well-developed budoka should be.
So the first step to becoming a better person through budo practice is to avoid the pitfalls. The pitfalls are inherent in the practice. Fortunately, the lessons for becoming a better person are there too. If you are willing to work at them to learn the principles the techniques point us towards, you can do a lot with yourself. You have to be willing to work at applying these lessons not only to how you fight, but to how you live.
Each art has a few principles that drive it and give it unique characteristics, but they all have some unavoidable similarities as well (the optimal use of the human body being something that doesn’t change). In any budo you develop stamina and endurance and the ability to suffer through tough training in order to improve. These are certainly not bad character traits. But they are more like a foundation, since they can also support all of the negative traits mentioned earlier.
The big questions are what do you want to get out of your training, and who do you want to become? Budo training will make you a better person if you actively direct your training and apply it to being becoming a better person. If you leave your training at the dojo door every day it won’t have much effect on you. If you take it with you, look around and see the similarities between budo and the rest of life and apply the dojo lessons about dealing with conflict to the conflicts in life, then you budo can be tool for becoming a better person.
Budo isn’t passively effective. You have to actively work at it. It will make you more patient, and less liable to lose your temper, more peaceful, and much calmer, if you work with it. These are all lessons you can pick up in the dojo. You know you can’t tense up when practicing with someone who is attacking you with a big stick. It just creates opportunities for her to whack you and slows you down. Now, can you apply that lesson when you are being attack verbally? Can you keep calm and choose the best response, rather than tensing up and girding for a fight? Can you breathe calmly and peacefully?
Keeping your balance and maintaining a solid foundation from which to act is critical in budo. Keeping those physical lessons in front of you, can you teach yourself to maintain a good mental balance and not go rushing into arguments and not reel back from non-physical aggression? Can a judoka learn to apply the lesson of ukemi and roll with the attack and not stiffen up? Can the aikidoka remember to get off the line of attack and realize that a counterattack may not even be necessary? Can the kendoka lightly deflect the incoming attack so it goes off into unoccupied space?
When you can start to do these things, you’ll be on the path to applying your budo lessons to life and becoming a better person. Learning to apply these fundamentals can lead to the discovery of other budo lessons that you can train at in everyday life.
One of the lessons of budo training is that you become good at what you practice. So, will budo training make me a better person? It will if that is what I train myself to be