Some thoughts about budo.

If you train every day, by the time you reach the end of your life, you’ll be able to look back and say, “I trained.” That’s really all there is to it.

Kisshomaru Ueshiba, as quoted by Diane Skoss

I’ve been interested in budo, the Japanese martial arts, for most of my life. To be fair, though, it wasn’t an active interest until relatively recently. I didn’t start training until I was in my thirties, mostly because I didn’t think I could. More on that later, though. The point is, I’ve been fascinated by martial arts, and specifically by those emerging from the Japanese archipelago, for about as long as I’ve been aware of them. It probably helped that I grew up with a Japanese step-grandmother who exposed me to the more portable elements of Japanese culture—Edo period dramas and Japanese food among them—and, in turn, inspired a lifelong interest in the less-portable elements. That alone, however, probably wouldn’t have done the trick; my step-grandmother is many things, but a martial artist is not among them. Another contributing factor, I have no doubt, was the physical and psychological abuse I grew up with between the ages of three and seven. My first stepfather, the son of the same Japanese grandmother who introduced me to Botan Rice Candy and Japanese soap operas, was my abuser. That’s probably significant in some way, but I’m going to pass over it in relative silence.

The deciding element was something a little, unexpected, perhaps, and maybe even embarrassing… but I can trust you all, I’m sure.

Like so many other kids of my generation, I was forever changed (some might even say “scarred”) by a seminal cultural event which altered the landscape of my imagination, and ensured that I would never be satisfied within the margins of the ordinary. Quotidian contentment might do me for a spell, as Shepherd Book would say, but eventually I’d start looking out toward the horizon, measuring the inadequacies and aspirations of my own spirit against the systems in which I’d attempted to fit myself, and realize that I wanted something more. More what, I couldn’t say, but I knew beyond sense or reason that there was something greater to which I aspired, something noble and humble at the same time, all without having any real sense of what it was or how to achieve it. And all of this came about, as I said, because of a single culture-bomb: the passions and obsessions of one man, made manifest in glorious color and sound, changing everything forever.

[Image: pre-title card from "Star Wars" reading "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."]
You knew this was coming, right?

I’m referring here, of course, to the release of Star Wars in May of 1977.

It’s essentially impossible to calculate the impact that Star Wars has had on the world: film-making, television, literature, science, and American culture itself were all reshaped and redirected by George Lucas’ wacky space-opera vision of a magical future-past—one which drew in equal measure from Westerns, Flash Gordon serials, WWII movies and, notably, Japanese jidaigeki films—imbued with a goofy optimism that flew in the face of the post-Vietnam cynicism of early 1970s America. However, I think that one of the fundamental ways in which our culture was changed has to do with the values it inculcated in the generation of Americans who were children at the time of its release. Star Wars was a seminal text in our understanding of how the world (or the Universe) worked. In Lucas’ mythopoeic film, Good and Evil were easy to identify (if not always as clearly defined as some might wish), and the fundamental banality of Evil was held up in stark contrast to the inherent nobility of Good. Another contrast, however, and one which may have informed our perspectives more than we knew, was the contrast between the simplicity of Evil and the complexity of Good. Evil is clean, tidy, organized, well-lit, sharply-dressed, and terribly easy… while Good is complicated, scattered, messy, a bit on the tatty side, and very, very difficult. I mean, look at the difference in their bases! The Empire had the Death Star, which was all huge and space-stationy and shiny and black and high-tech like whoa. What did the Rebel Alliance have? A warehouse. A warehouse! In a forest! On some total nowheresville moon of a gas giant that nobody cared about! Hell, the warehouse probably had black mold and termites!

But I digress. My point was that, in the universe of Star Wars, Good and Evil were clearly outlined, and it was obvious with which group our loyalties were expected to lie. And, as tatty and cut-rate as Good’s uniforms were, as sad as their seekrit bases were, as woefully outgunned and outnumbered and plain out-styled as they were, Good had one thing going for it that Evil simply didn’t: the Jedi.

…what? Like you didn’t see that one coming?

The Jedi were the coolest heroes ever. I mean, come on: mysterious badass warrior monks with magical powers who kept the peace in the entire Galaxy for a thousand generations through the sheer power of their awesome, who were then wiped out by the bad guys for being all mysterious and awesome? Oh, and also: lightsabers? What kid wouldn’t be all over that? Sure, you might have to wear a dirty bathrobe and live in an adobe hut on the back end of Fresno Tattooine, but so what? Luke Skywalker, one of the great audience surrogates of modern literature, initially resists the ol’ Call to Adventure, just like Uncle Joe said he would… but as soon as Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru got crispified by the Imperial Stormtroopers? “I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi Knight, like my father!” Hell yeah, you do.

The Empire Strikes Back made being a Jedi even cooler, if that’s possible. Spirit messages from beyond the grave? Training in a wicked, mucky old swamp with a Muppet who can move a whole spaceship with the power of his awesome? More lightsabers? YESPLZKTHXBYE. Even our growing awareness of (I’m sorry) the darker side of the Force (look, I said I was sorry!) didn’t make the whole Jedi thing any less attractive. Au contraire, it lent a certain air of tragedy, angst and noble suffering, a quality that today would be dismissed as “emo.”

Of course, no discussion of Jedi awesomeness would be complete without bringing up the final movie of the original trilogy, Return of the Jedi. Here’s Luke, the audience stand-in, back from getting all trained-up as a Jedi and looking cooler than Mark Hamill ever looked before or since: all in black, composed, poised, and sportin’ a mighty fine cloak. Also, a mighty fine, brand new, hand-made lightsaber! Over the course of the movie, he (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) gets rid of Jabba the Hutt, rescues Han Solo, gets into a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader AND WINS, successfully makes his saving throw vs. Dark Side, survives the Emperor’s Scary Force Lightning, brings Darth Vader back from the Dark Side of the Force, and flies out of an exploding Super Star Destroyer after the Emperor goes all ‘splody-lightshow, and effectively ends the Empire As We Know It… and still has time to celebrate what is apparently the Star Wars equivalent of the Fourth of July, a galaxy-spanning fireworks show and barbeque, only with fewer styrofoam coolers of beer visible.

All personal biases aside — yeah, right — I think that qualifies him for a place in the Top Ten Greatest Movie Heroes Ever. And why was he so awesome? Jedi.

So, yes. The movies also raise a lot of interesting questions about heroism redemption, the nature of Good and Evil, and moral and ethical responsibility in the Star Wars universe, none of which I’m qualified to address, here or elsewhere1. Of course, I’m hardly qualified to address most of the things I take on, but whatever. My whole point here was this: given the ubiquity and the intentionally mythic quality of the Star Wars movies, and given the age so many of us were when we first saw them, there’s absolutely no surprise that so many of us wanted to be Jedi when we grew up. Growing up in the post-Star Wars years, it was only natural that we spent a lot of time playing games that involved pretending to be Luke Skywalker, Han Solo or Princess Leia, smacking playmates with sticks that were supposed to be lightsabers, and playing with Star Wars toys: action figures, spaceships with wings that actually blew off when you pressed a button, and so on. We relived the movies, we changed the endings, we made up new stories with the characters… in short, we made the myths our own.

And then, one day, we realized that those myths were still just stories.

An old acquaintance of mine once made the brilliant observation that the defining moment of adulthood for our generation was the realization that we weren’t going to grow up to be Jedi Knights, join the Rebellion and fight against the Empire — that we had, in fact, joined the very Empire we thought we were going to overthrow. That might be the defining moment of adulthood in any generation, really: the point when we give up our childish dreams, scale our desires down to something manageable and realistic, and settle for what we think is actually possible. We stop rebelling, and instead we try to change the system from within, or even convince ourselves that the system is actually just fine.

All the same, though, some of us never let go of that dream of rebellion or the desire to make the world a safer, happier place… and some of us just never got over wanting to be mystic warrior monks with magical powers of awesome. Some of us out there, walking around in mundane work drag and pretending to be normal, still dream of restoring peace and order to the Galaxy, still dream of dressing in funny robes and meditating and being quietly, peacefully, gently powerful.

And also, lightsabers.

Yes, I'm a sad, pathetic case. Duly noted. Moving on.
Yes, I’m a sad, pathetic case. Duly noted. Moving on.

Which brings me back to budo. (Bet you’d thought I’d forgotten, huh?)

Even after I’d given up on being a Jedi (or thought I had, anyway), I was still fascinated with magic, mysticism, and the martial arts. The image of the Jedi led me, by very short steps indeed, to the iconic images of the samurai, the ninja, and the wandering monk who just happens to be a martial arts master, which in turn led me to studying Japanese culture, as much as a suburban kid growing up in 1980s California and South Carolina could. I played at swordwork to some extent, though I never went anywhere near anything as formalized as a kendo or fencing class. A few friends of mine studied martial arts, but none of the arts they took — karate, taekwondo, kung fu, and so on — seemed like a good fit for me. I wasn’t especially interested in kicking people in the face or smashing my hand against stacks of boards, and I really wasn’t interested in getting involved in a competitive sport where I’d be required to kick people in the face or smash my hand against boards for points. So, no.

I never lost my idle-but-persistent fascination with martial arts, though. The grace and poise with which martial artists moved (the good ones, anyway) and the way they blended art and power into a dance that hovered on the borders of violence and magic was utterly entrancing to me. My interest was largely confined to movies — Shogun, Seven Samurai, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Kill Bill, Lady Snowblood, and the seemingly endless syndication of martial arts films shown on weekends as “Kung Fu Theater” — though I would occasionally see videos of martial arts demonstrations and have my breath taken away, enrapt at the notion that real live people actually did, in real life, the things I saw in movies. (Well, most of them. Wire-fu is a bit much to ask for.)

Some years later, my friend Chris showed me a little of the martial art he was studying, one I’d never heard of before: aikido. I read up on it, and was somewhat mystified: far from being in the kick-and-punch world of taekwondo, karate, or kung fu, aikido was an entirely defensive martial art, one with no attacks. (I later came to learn that wasn’t precisely true, but it’s true enough for the time being.) It was intriguing, but I was in a really busy place in my life at that point, so I never followed up on it.

Some years later, while I was getting reacquainted with Meg (who would become my fiancée and, later, wife), I learned that she had been training in aikido for several years, and our conversations about it piqued my interest. The more she talked, the more my interest was piqued. Part of that was my long-dormant interest in martial arts, and my ongoing fascination with Japanese culture. Another part was a desire to acquaint myself with my own body, in a way I never had. On further thought, however, I discovered a deeper motivation: a desire to address parts of myself I wasn’t comfortable with, engaging with physically combative contact in a safe environment as a means of teaching myself the tools to deal with both the physical and the psychological violence in my past and in my psyche today. Aikido, as an overtly peaceful combative art intended to be a nonviolent means of resolving violent conflict, seemed tailor-made for those purposes. After a little more discussion, we decided to find a school, and pretty quickly found ourselves training at a local dojo (martial arts school; literally, “place of the way”).

From the onset, our relationship with the dojo was complicated. We both really liked the assistant instructor, who we met on our first visit and who was really the one who sold us on the place. We met the primary instructor on our second visit, and our reactions were somewhat more ambivalent; something in the instructor’s manner rang faint alarm bells for both of us, for varying reasons, but neither of us felt so strongly as to warn us off. That ambivalence grew, however, over the days and weeks to follow, as Meg felt increasingly pressured to assume a leadership role she neither wanted nor felt qualified to assume, and as I felt more and more like I was merely tolerated as a student, solely because I was part of a package which included her. We had several conversations about this, but neither of us could reach any answer that didn’t involve leaving the dojo.

Then, after a few months of training, my gall bladder decided to fail on me, spontaneously and spectacularly. I went from sleeping in on a Sunday morning to gasping in pain while waiting for the emergency room to call in the surgeon on her day off to cut me open and take out the offending organ. I spent a few weeks recovering from the emergency surgery to end that toxic relationship, and afterwards, I found I wasn’t all that interested in going back to class. I didn’t run off to another school; I just stopped training, and that was that. For a short while, I believed that I hadn’t really enjoyed aikido; it hadn’t worked out, it just wasn’t my thing, something like that. A little time and distance, however, cleared up the misconception. I had liked aikido… quite a lot, as it turns out. I was just in the wrong school; I was the wrong student for that particular teacher. We’ve parted ways now, and I’d say we’re both better off.

[Image: promotional image from the "Lone Wolf and Cub" films.]
I don’t have a specific reason for this image. It’s just really, really cool.

In the meantime, though, while I was still interested in martial arts, my experience in the dojo left me discouraged. I wasn’t ready to try engaging with aikido again, and I wasn’t interested in most of the other arts available in my area. Also, at around the same time, my life became considerably busier, with a move, a new job, and various other things that made looking for a new dojo a daunting prospect. I hadn’t fully given up, though. I spent a lot of time reading about aikido in various books and on various websites, and this led me by baby steps to discovering the koryu bujutsu, the traditional Japanese martial arts. As the linked Wikipedia page helpfully points out, koryu means “old school” or “traditional school,” as in “school of teaching.” Another, more literal translation would be “old flow,” as in “flow or stream of tradition and teaching.” Breaking it down even further, the “old” (ko) refers to the age of these schools, while the “flow/school” (ryu) refers to a more or less contiguous body of teaching and training, passed from teacher to student on an individual basis. I don’t want to get too far into the distinctions between koryu bujutsu (“old school martial techniques”) and gendai budo (“modern martial ways”), but a loose (and not entirely perfect) explanation is that the koryu bujutsu were developed before the Meiji Restoration, circa 1866-1869, while the gendai budo (which includes most of the better-known Japanese arts, such as karate-do, aikido, and judo) were developed later.

Another frequently-made distinction, which has its roots in the ground-breaking work of Donn Draeger, is that bujutsu developed as explicitly martial combative techniques, used by professional soldiers to subdue or kill opponents in combat, while budo (with their emphasis on being a do, or “way”) developed in the post-feudal era, and are more philosophical and spiritual in nature. In other words, the budo are geared more toward self-development and self-defense than toward, you know, killing other human beings. I cannot pretend to be an expert on this subject, but it has been pointed out by authorities far more qualified than I can claim to be that many schools which technically qualify as koryu bujutsu identify themselves instead as kobudo, or simply as budo. Likewise, far wiser minds than mine have pointed out that, in this modern age of nuclear, chemical, biological, and automated warfare, even the most explicitly martial of the koryu bujutsu are practiced more as self-development than as a skillset intended for modern martial use. As Diane Skoss puts it:

…if one were to use the distinction that jutsu arts are practiced “for real” while the do arts are practiced for self-perfection, you’d find that, in Japan at least, only the police and the military are practicing jutsu. The rest of us, no matter what we might like to think, are actually practicing a “way,” since we have no opportunity to face an armor-clad sword-wielding opponent in real life. And some “ways” (whether do or jutsu) include practical methods of “real” fighting.

I was intrigued by the koryu bujutsu, but I didn’t know if there were any qualified teachers in my area. A little more research, however, turned up multiple references to a koryu sensei teaching less than 30 miles away, one who was highly regarded by everyone who knew him… which, as it turned out, was most of the American koryu community. After reading up on him and on the art he taught, I screwed up my courage and wrote to him. I told him I was interested in koryu, and asked if it would be possible to come and watch a training session sometime. He responded with a very nice invitation to come to a seminar that weekend and see what they did.

I did, and I was utterly blown away. It was absolutely lovely to watch, just as the movies and dreams of my youth had been lovely, but it was also real. True, these men and women were training with wooden weapons, rather than steel, but they still moved safely and with care; a wooden sword may not lop off your hand or slice you in half, but it can surely fracture your wrist, break your ribs, or crack your skull. They were training for real, playing for keepsies. There were no elements of make-believe or fancifulness in their techniques, no frilliness or posturing. They were simply using those weapons as they were meant to be used, with a grace and and an economy of movement that held no pretensions, offered no excuses. They were learning to kill one another, with ancient weapons and techniques that were old when the country I live in was new. It was bracing, intimidating, and, above all, filled with a stark and terrible beauty. I watched, and I was enrapt. What they were doing scared the hell out of me, and I wanted to do it anyway.

The sensei spoke with me periodically during my visit, sounding me out, examining what my motivations for wanting to join the ryu were. I suppose my answers must have been satisfactory, because at the end of the visit I was invited to come back and watch again. A few visits later, I asked to join, and was accepted, graciously and with good humor. Some paperwork followed, along with instruction as to my responsibilities as a member of the ryu, and I was told how to acquire the training weapons (buki) and clothes (dogi) I would need.

And that’s I joined a 400-year-old Japanese school of stick-and-sword-fighting.

Photo by Richard Stonell, 2009. Click for image source.
Photo by Richard Stonell, 2009. Click for image source.

There’s more to it, of course, but that’s the gist of it: I showed up, I was polite and interested, and I kept showing up when invited back. Now I’m a student, and a very junior one at that, of a traditional Japanese martial art. I show up and shoot the breeze with the senior students (my sempai) for a bit, then change into my indigo-blue uwagi and hakama and step into the dojo to spend the next couple of hours confronting my inadequacies, shortcomings, ignorance, assumptions, and fears. It’s difficult, tiring, frustrating, and sometimes painful. It’s also challenging, exhilarating, rewarding, and fun.

One of the ways that training in a koryu art has challenged me is by pushing me into facing the issues that came up while I was training in aikido, and into asking myself some pointed questions about why I stopped. I came to realize that the sensei and I really had been a terrible match for one another, and that my experience was far from an ideal teacher-student relationship, in martial arts or in any other discipline. I also came to realize that, while my poor relationship with the sensei at the previous dojo had indeed been part of the problem, it was only one part. Another part of the problem, one I had to own for myself, was that training is hard. This may sound like whining, but to be honest, there are times when it’s difficult to make myself go train. Sometimes I’m tired, or I feel under the weather, or maybe I just don’t want to be around other people. Sometimes, I’m just lazy, and would rather sit at home and watch a movie than force myself to get up off my lazy arse, dress up in strange and debatably-comfortable clothing, and engage in combative physical activity with other people for a couple of hours. It’s difficult, it’s strenuous, you get sweaty, and sometimes you get hurt… and when you combine that with personality conflicts with the sensei, it becomes easier and easier to justify flaking and, ultimately, dropping out.

Looking back at that period, I realize that I wasn’t really prepared for how much work it would be to train. I’d like to think that I would’ve continued going, if I hadn’t gotten on poorly with the instructor, but it’s impossible to know. What I do know is that I get on quite well with my koryu sensei — I both respect him and genuinely like him as a person — and my feelings about going to his dojo are quite positive. While training is still hard, I make myself go anyway, unless I’m genuinely not feeling well. Training isn’t easy… and that’s kinda the point. If it were easy, it would be Xbox, not budo. The cliché that anything worth having takes work really is true, to an extent; not out of any intrinsic moral, but because that’s just how human beings work.

In aikido, it generally takes several years before one is considered for promotion to shodan, a first-degree black belt. In the koryu art in which I’m training, it’ll be at least that long — maybe ten years, maybe more — before I would be considered for promotion to the first rank. Meg once asked me if that was any kind of deterrent to my training. I thought about it, then answered that, no, it didn’t affect my desire to train in the slightest, because it’s not about rank. I’m not trying to gain recognition or be awarded titles. Rather, I want to learn the set of skills that comprise this art, and to be the sort of person who has trained to learn those skills. Ultimately, the reason I train is that I’m teaching myself to be a particular kind of person, one who is able to do difficult things well, who can face hard realities and accept failures with grace and strength. In doing so, I am pushed in the ways I need to be pushed, and forced to learn the things I need to learn, stripped of pretense or wish-fulfillment. “Training is the way,” as Diane Skoss sums up in her beautiful, inspiring essay which captures so much of what I’ve flailed about here trying to say. Try, fail, try again, fail again. Lather, rinse, repeat. I work my way closer and closer to success, knowing I will never perfect myself, and learning to live comfortably in that tension. I suppose you could still say I want to “learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi,” though I don’t really think of it in those terms these days, what with not being six years old anymore.

These days, I’m not training to be a Jedi, or a samurai, or a wandering vigilante badass. I train because, as a much wiser person than I once suggested, I want to be able to look back on my life and say, “I trained.”

That’s really all there is to it.

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