The Warrior Spirit in the 21st Century
By Marty Kubicki
What is Budo?
What does it mean to you? How do we adapt this somewhat elusive and nebulous concept from not just another era, but from a unique and foreign Asian culture, to our own lives, and to our own familiar Western culture?
In order to more fully comprehend the concept of modern Budo, we must look to the past; to the early stages in development of the “Warrior Spirit”.
Although similar concepts appear in other Asian martial arts, since we are practitioners of traditional Japanese Karate-Do, my focus will be on the emergence of Budo in Japan.
Between the 8th and 12th Centuries, organized formal systems for training warriors were gradually developed in Japan. By the 12th Century, the classical professional warriors; the Bushi, had risen to an important role and in fact, helped define the very character of Japan. Their social status and their importance in national and regional defense allowed them the freedom and time to perfect their systems of combat. At first, the main goal of the Bushi was simply to develop their battlefield fighting skills to the highest degree. But gradually, with time, these warriors began to incorporate a moral framework into their training regimen.
Although other forms of Buddhism existed in Japan since the 8th Century, it was the introduction of Zen Buddhism about the 12th Century that had a significant impact on the lives of the Samurai; who were one of the many different classes of Bushi. Their integration of spiritual ideals in parallel with their already highly refined martial teachings led to the development of the Warrior’s Code of Bushido. Now, for the first time, the warriors’ studies were to reach beyond killing and maiming to such lofty virtues as justice, courage, loyalty, honor, benevolence, humility, and politeness. Ironically, sometimes even the defense of these very ideals led to violence, but it now reached for a higher meaning; a moral backbone.
Throughout the Edo Period, from the 16th to early 19th Centuries, the Tokugawa government isolated Japan from the outside world. Consequently, fewer wars were fought, which led to a decline in the need for martial skills. The Bushi were encouraged to participate in non-military activities, such as poetry, calligraphy, acting, paining, and other creative Arts. The influence of Chinese Confucianism even further expanded their spiritual awareness, and the recognition of the need for balance in the Warrior’s life. Now it was clear that one’s responsibility to society reached beyond merely his abilities to fight. Those obligations now must include the cultivation of higher forms of thinking and, most importantly, higher forms of behavior, for the betterment of his fellow man.
Gradually, there was a fundamental shift in emphasis from the previously weapons based battlefield disciplines to empty handed systems, or systems with less outwardly lethal weapons. This was propagated in part by the gradual disarmament of the Samurai by the Tokugawa government as well as other changes in Japanese society. With this shift in emphasis, what is considered modern Budo gradually emerged. It embodied many of the same moral principles of the warrior’s code; honor, loyalty, courtesy, respect, humility, selflessness, etc. But the most important distinction between the intent of bushido and budo was that the earlier arts were developed for life and death situations on the battlefield, while modern budo is applied in a more civil context; to stop or restrain assailants rather than maim or kill them outright.
Along with this shift in emphasis from killing to restraint came the cultivation of the concept of the budoka’s interaction with society as a whole. Now came the realization that with such capable skills came an enormous responsibility; that they must now rise above their own desires and focus instead on what is good for those around them, and not just themselves. As the saying goes, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is imperative to rise above one’s base instincts, to not misuse the power that one has trained so hard to achieve. Deshimasu wrote: “The Secret of the Sword is to not Unsheathe It.”
Through these various influences over the centuries, the bushido evolved from battle hardened killing machines to veritable Renaissance men of the Rising Sun. They were cultured, sophisticated, polite, artistic, yet deadly when called upon for their skills.
As we wind the clock forward to our era, it is undoubtedly a different world we live in. Most of us living in these technologically advanced “First World” countries are not physically threatened on a daily basis, with the exception of some of the rougher urban areas. But 400 years ago, common folk faced challenges to their survival every day, whether from sickness, failed crops, fractional fighting, bad weather, conquering warlords; the list goes on. Laws and attitudes were also different. In many societies, dueling to the death to defend one’s honor was not only accepted, but expected! We equate the opposite concepts of “civilized” and “barbaric” with our development as a society: the higher the level of civility, ostensibly, the less barbaric and cruel our behaviors are expected to be. So how, in our civilized, cultured, kinder, gentler modern world, does the contemporary budoka apply the code of Bushido in his daily life?
Well, despite the fact that death may not be looming around every corner, many of us still struggle in our daily lives. Now, our threats may appear less sinister: that nasty cow of a supervisor, that maniac in front of you on the freeway, your crazy cousin, even that long line at the bank when you are running late. They may not be capable of lobbing our heads off with the flash of a blade, but they can still cause us considerable aggravation. This is when we can call upon our training to help us. All those years of sweating and straining and struggling to overcome our obstacles on the dojo floor help develop a sense of determination that we would likely not have otherwise. Only through years of vigorous, sincere training does one cultivate a state of “fudoshin”; the Indomitable Spirit in the face of adversity. Bushi Matsumura once wrote that “You must win the battle with the calmness of your own mind.”
The influence of Zen in Budo is undeniable. However, we must understand that the word Zen means different things to different people. Zen itself, paralleling the development of martial arts, evolved and branched out over the years. Classical Zen is a branch of Buddhism that relies largely on meditation to attain enlightenment. Meditation has played a large role in Asian Martial Arts for centuries, but the meditative aspect of Zen has been largely deemphasized in recent times, particularly in the West. However, its legacy is still with us in the dojo, twice during each training session, when we pay homage to this tradition by sitting in Zazen position, and performing Mokuso for a short time. The word Mokuso literally means to meditate, so during that time, we clear our mind of the concerns of our day, we sweep aside our worries and distractions, and a single minded clarity emerges; a pure state in which we can train with focus and intensity. For many of us, it is one of the most rewarding aspects of our training; how the worries of the world utterly evaporate for that hour while we focus on our art.
Although Zen may have many interpretations, for the martial artist, Zen is fundamentally about control. It teaches us to control our emotions as well as our bodies, so we can be rational and make intelligent choices decisively, whether it is while under physical attack, or simply in our daily lives. Years of dedicated training allow us to reach the Zen state of thoughtless reaction, that amazing moment when, while under attack, we naturally and unconsciously move swiftly and decisively to neutralize or destroy our opponent. Zen and Budo are inextricably enmeshed. Budo is about balance and harmony; on a higher level, harmony with the lofty virtues of humanity: humility, equanimity, compassion, balance, generosity, peacefulness, and a form of selflessness where our own needs are secondary to our contributions to society. But returning to the “martial” aspect of Budo, it is about harmonizing ourselves with our opponents in order to overwhelm them. The great Chinese strategist Sun Tze in his milestone book, The Art of War, once wrote,
“Know thy foe and know thyself, had you a hundred battles to fight you would emerge a hundred times victorious.
Know not thy foe and know yourself; you may lose, you may win.
Know neither thy foe nor thyself, every battle you reckon up will be a loss.”
Amazingly, he wrote these words about 2500 years ago, and they still ring so fundamentally true. We must know our opponent. We must harmonize with him to emerge victorious. This harmony can be reactive or proactive, but nonetheless, it is imperative for victory.
In Judo, we sense our opponents balance, harmonize with it so we may steal his balance and topple him; Kuzushi.
In Kyudo, much time is spent meditating on the target, and indeed the most accomplished practitioners describe a sense of being one with the target.
Aikido is based on the principles of non-resistance, and harmonizing with one’s opponent in order to gain control over their momentum and either neutralize or even reverse the energy of their attack.
In our own Karatedo, the first level of harmonization with our opponent is represented by Sen no Sen; when we decisively attack at the precise moment that he attacks, but stronger and faster. But the ultimate in karate harmonization is represented by Sensen no Sen; when we sense an impending attack, and in that infinitesimal interval between our opponents’ mental commitment to the attack, and the moment when his body responds to the command; in that precise moment of weakness, we strike. This is the ideal Zen Karate moment, and one which we rarely experience. It takes years of diligent, serious training to attain this level. It is a cumulative product of intuition born from years of practice, observation, experience, and tireless repetition which gives birth to that unconscious thoughtless reaction from somewhere deep in our cerebral cortex.
Each of the traditional Martial Arts has its equivalent moment, and to reach it, one must apply oneself with utter commitment and dedication.
Another hugely important aspect of Budo that still rings as true for us today as it did in the ancient villages of Japan and Okinawa is the development of courtesy. It was once said that, “Where ever human beings meet, there is friction, and courtesy is the lubricant that eases the friction.” For the budoka, courtesy is the counterbalance to his fighting abilities, for what good is it to make war, if you are incapable of living in peace? It is something we must integrate into our training, and into our daily lives. The use of etiquette cultivates humility, which can counterbalance and hold in check the growth of vanity and arrogance. In the dojo, etiquette is instrumental in creating an atmosphere where serious training can occur. It provides the structure which allows us to focus entirely on the task at hand. It allows the teachings, insight, and the wisdom of our senseis and sempai to naturally flow downstream, like a great river. The clearly defined framework of the etiquette system forms a solid foundation on which we build our character as well as our karate skills. Along with etiquette, Giri, very simply translated as our obligation and appreciation to our sensei and each other, guide us to interact with each other with honor and respect.
Ueshiba once said that Aikidoka carry their dojos with them in their heads. This simple phrase clearly illustrates how the etiquette of the dojo does not stop when we bow and walk out the door, but it must be carried into our lives as well. On a practical level, we might look silly if we bow deeply with an “onegaishimasu” to the clerk at your local supermarket, but a polite, “excuse me…” would go a lot further than, “Yo! Where’s the beer...?” Within the microcosm of the dojo, we have transplanted a small cutting from the vast tree of Japanese culture and grafted it onto our own Western ways. Though not perfect, our courtesies are indeed more Japanese in application when on the Tatami. Yet, even as we move through our Western world, we must still cultivate these same virtues in the spirit of the great warriors that came before us, but within the framework of our own society. “Please...” and “Thank you...” can cut through mistrust and uncertainty like a fine Katana.
Though the world is enormously different, we still breathe the same air and walk the same Earth that our predecessors did. Though our problems have changed, they still affect us much the same way as they did millennia ago. Many of the same ideals developed with the sweat, blood, and contemplation of those that came before us still hold true through the test of time. We, as modern Budoka, can still strive to uphold the virtues that make mankind rise above our mere biological origins. Through Budo, we can better ourselves, and at the same time, we can make the world a better place as well, if we train, study, observe, and apply our learning throughout our lives.