Budo, a Question of Meaning

heiho wa heiho nari. This is a teaching of katori shinto ryu. Translated it means the arts of war are the arts of peace. An other possible translation can also be: the arts of war become the arts of peace. Katsujinken and setsuinto, the life giving and the taking sword are important teachings in yagyu shinkage ryu and many other ryuha. Karate ni sente nashi, in karate is no first aggression is one translation of shotokan ryu karatedo’s rules of Funakoshi Gichin. Jita Kyoei, meaning mutual care and benefit was one of Kano Jigoros aims. And aikido should be a world transcending martial art of love and peace in Ueshiba Moriheis imagination.

All these examples show that budo and bujutsu were understood as more than just simple fighting techniques since their conception. They always aimed to be ways of personal refinement. Many people say martial arts make you a better person. That you can find spiritual enlightenment through them. And many groups regard them in a far higher place then western sports. Especially far higher than combat sports. Such cliché got spread in the normal population through martial arts movies like The Karate Kid, Last Samurai Series like Kung Fu and many more. Where we find the archetype of the wise spiritual enlightened Sensei ans Sifu character.

But if we as budoka start to think about these thinks logically, we should be skeptic about them. And questions one has to ask are things like: What does it mean to be a better person? How do we define words like peace? How did the old Master of old understood these terms? And if we have these answers, do we even be a better person in this sense?

Because the reality of things after taking of the pink glasses of film romanticism is quite sobering. While training aikido I meet people who took quite some enjoyment from giving their partners some pain. And I also heard of people enjoying hurting their partners. Narcissists without and with elaborated titles can be found easily on Facebook and Instagram. And if you have a voyeuristic streak you can easily find message boards were people are washing dirty laundry of different sensei, ryuha, groups, and organizations.

Of course one could say: “ in the times of the old masters this wouldn’t have existed, these guys were from a different kind of wood!” But if we look at the history of different budo we have to realize that even the old masters were only human. And some people drop their jaw.

Iizasa Chozai Ienao was a warrior. That means it was his job to kill people in war. Yagyu Munenori, Fencing Teacher of the Tokugawa Clan, did cut down at least twenty people in an insurrection. The life giving sword of katsujinken could possibly mean to use the life taking sword to cut down ones enemys. Kill the few to save the large. The most basic interpretation of heiho wa heiho nari could mean that of course through a powerful military one could keep the peace in the country inside and outside through violence and fear tactics. Funakoshi Gichin was surely aware that his Son Yoshitaka and some of his other students demonstrated the effectiveness of his karate techniques on war prisoners at the Nakano military academy. Kano Jigoro as politician and pedagogue had to do a balance act to gain favor with the nationalistic government of the times and to keep at least a basic level of control and integrity over his judo. And Morihei Ueshiba keeped close contacts to far right ultra nationalistic groups and gave them shelter in his kobukan dojo were they would hold meetings and plan politically assassinations.

What do the people mean exactly when the say that budo does make you a better person? Is it just a empty ideal or just a lie?

I am thinking about this question for a long time. Especially because I am aware of the given facts. And I believe to have come to a satisfying conclusion for myself. That doesn’t mean of course that it is the only truth or that I won’t change my opinion in the future. But for the time being it’s good enough for me.

How does one become a better person through budo? Through learning to hurt others and to save oneself from violence. And that’s all you need to be a better person in this regard. Because only if you can actually hurt somebody, you can decide not to do it.

Being weak is no virtue. To avoid a fight if you have no other choice isn’t moral. In the best case it’s common sense. In the worst it is just cowardice. The real virtues act is if you’re sure to be able to take somebody easily down but to refrain from it for his sake.

But you have to be able to make that choice in the first place! And to make this choice possible is the meaning of budo. True pacifism is done from a position of strength. Everything else is cowardice costumed as moral virtue.

Cynics will surely say that in most dojo today budo isn’t even transmitted anymore in a way that self defense with it is possible. And this stance has possibly quite some truths today in it. But that would be another topic.

Ki Ken Tai Ichi

Every year the seminar with Yukihiro Sugino Sensei takes place in Leer, Germany. This means 6 days of training in Katori Shinto Ryu, while you have the opportunity to sleep and eat under one roof with Sensei and other members of the Ryuha. For me this is always the highlight of the year.

Last year Sugino Sensei gave a speech, an important one for me. All people at the seminar tried to train slowly and cleanly in order not to make any mistakes under Sensei’s watchful eyes. Too slow and silent like we should find out soon, when he asked us to gather. And he told us all how important it is to train “seriously”. After all, it’s not dancing that we train but a budo! Therefore one should train with the correct attitude of mind, so that we transmit our intention to hit to our partner. Not just going through the moves mindlessly. That is at least what I think I have understood.

What Sensei criticized here was the missing of Ki Ken Tai Ichi. A fundamental principle in Budo. Ichi stands for “as one” or “together”. Tai for body and Ken for sword. Ki, how many surely know is mostly translated as “energy”. And it stands for the power of life and breath that is available to every human being. In movies and comics this is often used described as a “mystical” energy. It helps the martial artist to accomplish superhuman things. Apart from such exaggerated portrayals, there is another translation of Ki that needs to be addressed. Namely those of “spirit”, “heart”, or “attitude of mind”.

Ki[気] is very often used in the Japanese language. Mood is in Japanese Kibun[気分], emotions, feelings and sensations are Kimochi[気持ち] and Sakki[殺気] is blood thirst and/or killing intention and there are still innumerable more such examples.

In this sense Kikentai-ichi[気剣体一] is to be understood as: “Sword, body and mind as one”. But what is the right spirit now? Now in my opinion it is to want to hit the partner. But even that is easier said than done. If we talk about training “seriously”, it doesn’t mean that you should suddenly flex your muscles and hit with the sword violently while screaming your lungs out of your throat (of which I all too often plead guilty to myself). But that you aim where you want to hit and “fire” your technique at this point. The intention must not only be to make “the technique”. But one must want to hit. Which in turn means the partner has to evade for real and there is and should be a controlled element of danger.

This kind of training, underlined by a powerful scream, is good Kiai in my opinion. To avoid misunderstandings: Nowadays Kiai is often synonymous with the word battle cry. But the scream itself is Kakegoe and only a symptom of Kiai. Kiai IS the right mental attitude. Well, of course not only, but that’s another topic.

One last point I would like to add: My own observation is that when I train with Kiai without concentrating on the mistakes of my partner (something I do all too often) and my partner also does his best, the training doesn’t exhaust me too much. It’s more like I’m getting energy back from training. And I think this is quite an interesting thing. Especially when you consider that Ki is energy as well as spirit.

Odd and the Frost Giants, a book review

Odd and the Frost Giants is a story written by Neil Gaiman in 2008 for the World Book Day. Gaiman is well known through the Amazon Prime series American Gods and Good Omens, which are based on his works. But he has also gained fame through the movies Stardust and Coraline based on his stories. I personally only became aware of him when I happened to get hold of his book on Nordic myths.

With only under 100 pages this book is a short story suitable for children. The edition was illustrated by illustrator Mark Buckinham. Even though this story is probably written for children, it also has its charm for adults. Gailman achieves this by making profound connections to Nordic myths and choosing timeless themes.

The story begins in a small Norwegian village during the Viking Age. The spring months have already begun, but there is still an unusually harsh winter. Odd has recently been half-orphaned, as his father was killed on a Viking journey. Therefore, to feed the family Odd’s mother decided to remarry. As many stepparents do, Odd is treated badly by his new stepfather and older stepbrothers and sisters. Unable to endure the verbal and physical violence, he takes off into the woods to his father’s hut, who was a mainly a forester and carpenter. There he meets three animal companions and together they get to the bottom of the origin of the continuous winter.

Gaiman has a deep knowledge of Nordic mythology which he proves in this story and has borrowed many characters from it. The plot is practically a continuation of several different myths. The whole cast of characters is extremely likeable, even the antagonist of the ice giant is not a blunt villain. And even if they give Odd a hand, his companions are no innocent. This gives them all a three-dimensional quality. However, the most interesting thing about Odd is that he is a disabled boy who bravely overcomes adventure not by brute force, but by his bright head.

And in my opinion, this underlines the most important theme of this book: It doesn’t matter what you are. It depends on what you make of it! And I consider this an important lesson. Therefore from me, absolute a reading recommendation!