Showing posts with label Confucius. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Confucius. Show all posts

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Budo Virtues

I saw another list of budo virtues today. These lists always include things like strength, loyalty, righteousness, knowledge, honesty, and such.  In truth, these lists always seem to be little more than another version of the Boy Scout Law: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. We can do better than just repeat some simple platitudes that everyone already agrees on and no one will argue with.

The five virtues that consistently show up on every list of samurai virtue are jin 仁 benevolence, gi 義 righteousness, chi 智 wisdom, shin 信 honesty, and rei 礼 etiquette.  Another that often makes the list is chu 忠 loyalty.  These are fine virtues, and certainly anyone who masters and exemplifies them will be an exceptionally fine person. The only problem with calling them budo virtues or samurai virtues or bushido virtues is that they aren’t. These virtues aren’t even really Japanese.

Calligraphy of chi, jin, gi, rei and shin by Kiyama Hirosi.Photo copyright Peter Boylan 2015

They are Chinese, and they were laid out in 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., about 1900 years before the samurai class came into being. The person responsible for framing these particular virtues was Confucius. Confucius was a brilliant teacher and thinker, and even after 2600 years, it is difficult to find fault with the virtues he emphasized. So please, give poor Confucius the credit he deserves for these virtues. After all, he’s had to suffer from centuries of truly horrible jokes by Westerners. At least give him the credit and respect he deserves.

Japan was heavily influenced by Chinese art, religion, culture, and philosophy. Everyone recognizes that Japan adopted writing from China, and imported Buddhism, starting with the 6 sects of Nara (now nearly forgotten), but gaining widespread popularity with the coming of Shingon and Tendai Buddhism in the Heian Era, Pure Land Buddhism early in the Kamakura Era, and Zen entering later in the Kamakura Era.

Confucian teachings entered sometime in the 600s, and proved to be exceptionally influential. During the Tokugawa Period (1600-1868) Neo-Confucianism actually became officially recognized by the Tokugawa government. The primary virtues though have not changed in more than 2600 years. They are jin, gi, rei, chi, and shin.

Known as The Five Constants, after 2600 years of philosophical development, simply boiling them down to benevolence, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom, and trust doesn’t begin to explain the complex philosophical, social and ethical concepts represented by the kanji characters 仁義礼智信. So if they aren’t special for the samurai and budo, and they can represent a lot more than just simple concepts, what are they?

These are values viewed as optimal in making a member of society. Confucius wasn’t interested in just an exemplary individual, but an individual who fulfilled vital roles in every level of society, from the family to the top levels of government. The samurai of Tokugawa Era Japan were looking for the same things. It might be more accurate though to say that Japanese society was looking for these things from the samurai.

The values are not unique to budo or the martial world.  They are great social values.  In fact the only one that strikes me as being particularly useful in combat is 智 chi, or wisdom. Wisdom in a fight is great. On the other hand, and emphasis on things like benevolence, righteousness, honesty and etiquette seem like good ways to get killed in combat.  These aren’t the values a warrior prizes. They are the values society prizes in all good citizens. Think about things that  might make a good warrior. Benevolence, honesty and etiquette probably don’t make the list.

If these aren’t particular warrior values, why try to tie them closely to budo? Perhaps because budo is a way of developing human beings who happen to be warriors, rather than being a way of developing warriors.  If a society wants to develop great human beings, teachings have to focus on things like benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, honesty and appropriate behavior.

There are two values that are often placed above the others.  One is jin. It encompasses not just benevolence, but also the sense of humanity. People who embody jin care about others and act from that spirit.  Thus they are not selfish or hurtful. They don’t act out to display their power or strength. They act to build up others and to make society benevolent and caring. People who display a great deal of jin are the sort of people you want to be around They are  warm, caring, and empathetic.

Oddly enough, the other value that is held high is rei. Americans in particular can’t imagine how etiquette and bowing could possibly be so important. Originally Confucius was talking about particular rituals being performed. By the time the Japanese got hold of his ideas though, rei encompassed etiquette and social norms.People from cultures where formal social behavior and customs are limited have trouble understanding their value.

I wrote about one aspect of rei in my last blog. In this context it’s a much bigger concept than the limited aspect I addressed last time. Etiquette is not just about the formal, easy to write down aspects like who to bow to and how low the bow should be. It’s about all aspects of social encounters and doing what is right and appropriate all the time. We all know people who seem to move through both casual and formal situations without effort, smoothly dealing with each different person so the everyone feels comfortable with them and no one is slighted or insulted. These people are masters of rei.

Jin and rei together make for pretty great person to be around, and these two virtues make each other warmer and more pleasant for everyone. Wisdom without humanity and benevolence is a lobbyist for sale to the highest bidder. Someone who has mastered socializing and handling people but who lacks jin and shin (honesty) is a dangerous manipulator to be avoided. Honesty might be the best policy, but by itself it won’t go very far by itself. Righteousness, right behaviour is great, unless it is unleavened by wisdom and benevolence. Without those it can quickly turn into stiff necked insistence on one way of doing things without consideration for effects.

Together jin, gi, chi, shin, and rei make for a wonderful human being. Look at any warrior, be it soldier, police officer, prison guard or bouncer. They spend a startlingly small amount of time fighting. They live in society. They need these virtues much more each day than they need any of the virtues I’ve seen held up as unique to the warrior. Things like courage, honor, fidelity, discipline, self-reliance. These are great things, but they really focus on just the individual, not the individual in society.

For the longest time I couldn’t see the point or value of the classical virtues. The stuff in modern movies and fiction about warriors and heroes was much more appealing. When I tried living by those modern values though I was a stiff-necked, arrogant, prideful, jerk. Yes, I worked hard and was loyal, but by emphasizing courage above wisdom I became reckless. By focusing on honor over appropriateness I was an ass, by focusing on discipline above humanity I could be cold and brutal, and by insisting on self-reliance I was a fool refusing perfectly good assistance.

Jin and chi teach when fighting is a bad idea, even if seems like it might be important. A little humanity and empathy can go a long way towards understanding why someone behaves in a way that invites a fight. A little wisdom and appropriate manners can de-escalate things before it becomes a fight. Even better, good rei can help you navigate situations so they don’t get heated to begin with. Honesty and righteousness can get you into a fight, but there are fights that need to be fought. With jin and chi you can figure out which fights need to be fought and which ones won’t be fights unless you do something stupid. Rei helps you avoid doing stupid stuff.

The so-called budo values are really great social values for everyone, not just martial artists. Benevolence, kindness and empathy are all things the world could use a lot more of.  A little more empathy and there would be far fewer fights. People who really understand rei behave well but don’t cause offense. Righteousness means behaving in a morally upstanding way rather than being stiff necked and inflexible.  Wisdom, well, I shouldn’t have to explain that one, so I won’t. The value of honesty too should not need elaboration.

Martial artists need these classic virtues even more than those who don’t study budo. Budo skills are form of power, and understanding and embodying these virtues can help us avoid misusing that power.  It’s easy to be a bully if you lack jin. A little rei will go a long way towards teaching us when not to put our skill on display. And wisdom. You can never have too much of that.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Outside Training

This started as a quick note I was going to toss off in a couple of minutes.  More than an hour later it had gotten a little out of hand.  Sorry about that.

I spent about 3 hours in the dojo this morning. We warmed up with the Seiza No Bu from Shinto Hatakage Ryu Iai Heiho, and then I taught Rick a new kata, Ushiro, from the Tachi Waza No Bu.  After that we did some kenjutsu, and suddenly 2 hours were gone and he had to go to.  Then I worked on some kata from Shinto Muso Ryu alone.  It was good dojo practice.  The thing I haven't been doing enough of recently though is the outside training.  I need to be doing more of this.  That’s my plan for this afternoon.

For me, outside training is critical, but it's probably not what most people think of.  This doesn't include things like practicing kata and techniques at home.  That's still training inside the style and the system.  Outside training is training that happens outside the formal definition of the styles that I study, and it include some physical training, but mostly it's mental.

The physical training is the smallest part of outside training.  That’s just going to the gym to make sure all parts of my body are getting the exercise they need to be balanced and healthy and able to support what I do in the dojo.  A little time in the gym can make the dojo time much more productive, and I do mean a little time.  I’m looking to keep my body balanced and strong, so I spend most of my limited gym time making sure that I’m not getting overly strong in one direction.  I also try to stretch regularly.

The biggest part of my outside training though is reading and thinking.  I read stuff that makes me think about my budo and the principles related to it.  There are some books that I come back to time and time to read and ponder, there are others that I only read once, but they are all part of my training.  My favorite book for the philosophical side of budo, and I absolutely recommend it to everyone who trains in any martial art, is “Dueling With O’Sensei” by Ellis Amdur.   Amdur does a fabulous job of taking some of the great budo cliches and ideas, such as katsujinken and really giving them a hard look under some very real conditions.  He works doing crisis intervention, often with extremely violent individuals, so his starting point is always very concrete and practical.  He’s not taking a theoretical approach.

Right now I’m reading an wonderful biography of the man who influenced modern budo far more than anyone else, Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan Judo, creator of the modern budo rank system, member of the International Olympic committee, sponsor who brought karate master Funakoshi Gichin from Okinawa to Tokyo and introduced karate to Japan, the driving force behind making physical education an important part of the Japanese education system and the person who got Judo included in the Japanese education system.  The book, The Way Of Judo, is loaded with information about budo and Japan during the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.  Ideas about what the “Way” Kano saw students of Judo treading and what that means for how he envisioned Judo.  It gives me insight into the kinds of lessons that kata and keiko are intended to teach.

I’m reading books about the history of different Do 道, such as tea ceremony and calligraphy to improve my understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the concept of Do in Japanese culture.  Budo did not have any sort of national network and discussion until Kano Shihan created Judo.  Before that, all budo was local, though there were some interesting conversations started in old Edo.  On the other hand, tea ceremony dates to the 15th century or earlier, started to get organized into schools under Rikyu in 16th century, and had organizations that stretched across much of Japan by the end of the 1600s.   Tea ceremony styles, calligraphy schools, and flower arranging were having discussions about the nature of training and personal development on a national scale centuries before budo achieved anything close to that level of organization and discussion.  Since tea ceremony and calligraphy were considered essential parts of the training of a true gentleman in Japan, the ideas developed there appear to have quickly found their way into the writings of budo teachers, all of whom were certainly learning calligraphy, and many who were learning tea ceremony.  One surprise for me has been how little Buddhist and Taoist thought has to do with these, and how much Confucian ideas do.
I’m also learning things about physiology and the body under stress that change my understanding of training.  I’ve often heard that competition in the martial arts is supposed to teach you how to react and control yourself under the stress of a real conflict.  I believed it too.  The only problem is that the stress of actual physical conflict is orders of magnitude greater than anything going on in competition.  You don’t get anywhere near the dump of adrenalin and other hormones during competition that you do in a threat situation.  In a threat, adrenalin and other hormones drop into your system, you heartbeat flies up over 170 beats per minute, your fine motor control vanishes, and a number of other things happen.  A good place to start learning about this is Dave Grossman’s book On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.  A lot of things I’d heard in the dojo turned out to be completely wrong at fundamental, physiological levels, so wrong that they could get you in serious trouble.  Grossman does a nice job of pulling a lot of research together, and the bibliography could keep you busy for quite a while.

Of course I’m also reading classics of Chinese thought, especially the ones that have had a significant impact on the ideas and thinking of classical Japan where the arts and ways I’m studying and training in were created and developed.  Be sure to read The Art Of War by Sun Tsu, The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tze,  the Chuang Tze, some of the writings of Confucius are essential too (some of Confucius can be difficult.  Start with The Great Learning and some of the Analects.  He seems boring, but he was writing about the essential relationships in life and how to develop as a great human being.  It’s important if you want to understand budo relationships and expectations, especially if you ever travel to Japan).  

I’m going to be reading more about Japanese history as well, so I can place the various ideas within the budo I study in the proper context to be understood.  Things that developed in the Sengoku era of constant war and the early Tokugawa period when people were still afraid that civil war would break out are very different from things developed in the middle Tokugawa era up to about 1850, when the Pax Tokugawa was accepted and expected to continue.  Beyond that, the budo developed at the end of the 1800’s after the fall of the Tokugawa government and the embrace of modern Western technology and the mad dash to overtake the West is very different from all that had come before.  On top of this, if you don’t understand the impact of the US occupation on modern budo, particularly Judo, Kendo and Karatedo, how they are taught and organized, it’s impossible to understand what they really are, and what was jettisoned in the 1950s.  Much was jettisoned, not to make the Americans happy, but rather to please Japanese bureaucrats who were busy crafting a new image for Japan in the international community.

All of this is outside training, but it is vital for my training in the dojo as well.  I admit it, I’m a budo geek, but I believe a basic knowledge of the history of budo, some of its philosophical ideas, and the real physiology of budo and conflict are essential to full growth and development on the Way.  Budo is not just a bunch of movements and techniques.  It absolutely demands a robust philosophical and intellectual framework to give it its proper place in our world.  The only way to get that is through outside training.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Can You Truly Understand Budo Without Training In Japan?

This blog post is an attempt to give a reasonably complete answer to a question in reply to a post here.

I would say that it is possible to truly understand Budo without training in Japan, but that it is really very difficult.. There are a few teachers out there who might be able to transmit the whole contents, but not many. In the US, I'm thinking of people like Phil Relnick, Ellis Amdur, Wayne Muramoto and Meik Skoss have a shot at doing it, but it's really tough. I'll be brief here, and go into detail in a full blog post. Budo is not the techniques. It's everything else. The techniques are really a vessel for carrying the all the things that are Budo: the values, the customs, the expectations and behaviors, the honor and the duty and the loyalty, the way of thinking about things and the way of interacting with the world as you move through it. These all make up what Budo is, and to think that by learning techniques and kata you are learning budo is a great mistake. Budo is vastly more.

So what is budo if it’s not just the techniques.  The word is made up of 2 characters, “bu” 武 and “do” 道. Often it is a wild goose chase to try and figure out the intention of Japanese words by taking apart the kanji characters they are written with.  Many words are of ancient vintage and actual usage has changed so much that relying on the kanji to give you the keys to understanding is a mistake.  The important thing is how the word is used in the language today and not how it was used hundreds of years ago when the word was first written.

From one angle, this is true of budo as well.  It is often used to simply mean “martial arts” in everyday usage in Japan.  For example, when I check the Kenkyusha Online Dictionary, it gives the following definition:

どう1【武道】 (budo)  the martial arts; military science; 〔武士道〕the precepts of the samurai; chivalry

By this definition boxing is budo, and fencing, and Thai kickboxing, and sambo, and many other martial arts.  And I will admit that it is a definition I have heard used in popular conversation and media in Japan.  Anything that trains one in some sort of combat is budo.  If this is what you are interested in, then you’ve probably read enough and can skip the rest of this.  On the other hand, in conversation within the budo community in Japan, the usage is different, much more complex and nuanced.  This is the meaning that I’m concerned with.

This more complex meaning is one that includes budo with a number of other cultural practices in Japan.  Practices like sado 茶道, kado 華道, shodo 書道, and kodo 香道.  These are known in English as tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, incense smelling respectively.  Yet like budo they all contain that “do” 道.   What we have is an entire class of activities that are “do”, but what is “do”?

“Do” 道 is a character meaning “road, path, way” and it goes back to the ancient Chinese concept known as Tao or Dao.  There are 2 primary sets of writings that provide the foundations for what has become known as Taoism in English.  The first is a small collection of 81 brief poems that can be read in less than an hour. Best known as the Tao Te Ching, there is a decent translation at  These are the foundation writings on the Tao.  The other set of writings are by Chuang Tzu. There are links to several translations on the web here.  

The Tao is a good place to start.  The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching, the oldest writings about it, says (see footnote 1):

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

If “the tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,” then explaining the Tao is going to be tough.  Miriam Webster Dictionary gives us: “the unconditional and unknowable source and guiding principle of all reality as conceived by Taoists “ which is actually a good start.  Tao becomes the source and origin of everything.  So if we can bring ourselves into moving and acting in one with the Tao, then we will be in harmony with the universe and our actions will be correct.

In the story of Cook Ting from the writings of Chuang Tzu (the second great set of writings on Tao) it is shown that any activity can be practiced as a means for achieving an understanding of the Tao.  Ting is a cook in the kitchen of Lord Wen-hui.  When asked about his marvelous skill he replies “All I care about is the Way. If find it in my craft, that’s all.”  Cook Ting uses his craft as a vehicle for finding and deepening his understanding of the Tao.  This is not necessarily an intellectual understanding, for he says “now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and following things as they are.” (Footnote 2)

This is the simplest base upon with all of the various Do are built, whether it is sado or shodo or kado or budo.  The goal is to use the craft you are practicing to come closer to the Tao and to remove the barriers between ourselves and the Tao.   This is what we are trying to do when we practice any Do.  We are trying to achieve a closeness and understanding of the Tao, the universe, the origin of all things, through the practice and development of our craft, our art.

If you watch a really good kendoka or judoka, they don’t seem to be fighting an opponent.  They seem to just move naturally and without apparent aggression and their partner’s actions are nullified.  They move again and their partner is defeated without them having taken any real action.  I know I have felt this at the hands of some of my Judo teachers.  We are moving around the mat and suddenly I’m airborn.  My teacher hasn’t done anything dramatic.  His movement seemed to naturally place him in a position where a technique happened.  He didn’t throw me.  Everything came together so I was thrown more by my own action than anything my teacher was doing.  He was just there and I was moving in such a way that I bumped against his hip and went flying.

This is the little goal of budo.  You strive to be so in harmony with the essence of your art, with the world and the Tao that things happen without your doing anything.  This is a principle concept of the Tao Te Ching known as wu wei 無為.  In action, the master kendoka or judoka doesn’t appear to actually do much of anything, yet is victorious.  In chapter 38 of the Tao Te Ching it says

The Master doesn't try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The big goal is to expand this mastery and understanding of a small, limited field to the rest of life and achieve this same understanding and oneness with the Tao in all aspects of life, so that everything one does is effortless and perfectly in harmony with the world around you.

The idea of the Way is not limited to Taoism however.  One of the classics of Confucian thought, The Great Learning, begins

The way of great learning consists in manifesting one's bright virtue, consists in loving the people, consists in stopping in perfect goodness.

Tao is a critical element of the Confucian and Neo-Confucian thought that was a major influence on Japanese thought throughout Japanese history.  In Confucian teaching Tao was more focused on human affairs and making right action so natural that it happened without thought.  Confucius was focused on society and human affairs, so when he writes of Tao his focus is on its importance at that level.  In Neo-Confucian writings it the focus is more on the cosmic significance of Tao, but in all of them, Tao is a critical and fundamental concept for understanding the world, our place in it, and how we should develop ourselves and live in the world.  In addition, when Buddhism arrived in China, the concept of Tao was appropriated to describe many ideas in Buddhist teachings as they were translated into Chinese.  As a result, everywhere one looks in classical thought you find the Tao and its related ideas.

The Tao Te Ching and The Great Learning are texts that have been fundamental study for the educated in China for thousands of years, and in Japan since writing was introduced from China around the 4th century CE.  They are just the first, and shortest of the many writings that make use of the concept of Tao that were considered essential study for any educated person in Japan up to the end of the Edo Period in 1868.  These concepts were used to explore and conceive everything from ideal social order and relationships to the the cosmos.
Budo, and the Ways that preceded it, sado, shodo and others, were all the province of the educated classes in old Japan.
In a coment, someone said “budo is “nothing special””. I agree that budo is "nothing special". In Japan that is. The techniques you are practicing and the craft one is learning, are just tools for practicing all the "do" 道 aspects. So much of what is the "do" is embedded cultural knowledge that Japanese take for granted as shared cultural and historical knowledge and experience. Outside Japan, we don't have that basic cultural and historical knowledge, so what is ordinary and a given in Japan, is exceptional an unknown outside Japan. This is true whether we are talking about budo or any of the other cultural ways from Japan. The teacher outside Japan must have a thorough understanding of these cultural elements to be able to fully transmit their budo. For a foreigner training in Japan, these elements smack you in the face so often that you learn them almost as organically as the Japanese do growing up. Training outside Japan, the teacher has to consciously include them in the instruction. It can be transmitted across cultures, but the teacher has to understand what elements beyond the techniques have to be taught as well for a student to fully grasp the "do" portion of budo.
In my experience, very few teachers outside Japan have made the effort to educate themselves about the cultural matrix in which budo is embedded within and relies on to give the teachings their full context and relevance.  Budo training that includes that understanding is such a rich and deep experience that is makes the training without seem like eating the paper plate at a picnic instead of the food on the plate.
I’m not trying to suggest that budo teachers outside Japan have to become experts on Taoist and Confucian philosophy.  That is a life’s work by itself, and there are precious few Japanese budo teachers who are also masters of philosophy.  Most Japanese teachers have a native cultural understanding of the concepts that they have absorbed from living in Japan.  For a teacher outside Japan, I think some reading of the classic texts from Taoism and Confucianism along with plenty of quiet thought about how they relate to budo practice is probably enough.  Quiet thought fertilized with the ideas of Lao Tsu, Chuang Tzu and Confucius should bring about some profound realizations on the nature of practice and what the great teachers who created the Ways hope for us, their students, to achieve.

1.  All quotes from Tao Te Ching taken from S. Mitchell translation at

2. Cook Ting quotes from