忍 （にん, Romanized “nin,” pronounced “neen”）
This is character for patience, endurance and perseverance. I was going through some calligraphy my iaido teacher, Kiyama Sensei, had done and given me and came across one piece that was just this character. It’s a popular subject for calligraphy in budo circles, and Kiyama Sensei seems to have a special fondness for it. He does it often, and he frequently includes at least one copy of it when he gives me batches of his calligraphy.
We’ve never talked about it, but I’m starting to get the message Sensei is sending me. There is a lot of talk about the important characteristics of a good martial artist. This is certainly one of them. Good budoka all have 忍 by the bucket. They don’t expect to master the art in a week. They keep at it whether they feel like they are progressing or not. These are the students who show up week after week whether the weather is beautiful and practice is comfortable and pleasant, or it’s summer and the only way we survive practice is to drink a gallon of water along the way, or it’s winter and the dojo is so cold that everyone is eager to start just so they can stay warm. It’s not a flashy characteristic. This is a quiet characteristic. It’s boring and doesn’t call attention to itself. It can be invisible because others become so accustomed to seeing those with it show up for practice week in and week out that they stop thinking about them.
Most people with nin don’t think they will ever master the essence of their art, but they still come to practice and work at it. They are patient with themselves and their progress. They keep working at it, grinding away at their technique and polishing their basics. They aren’t inhuman machines that never feel frustrated because they are still working on the same movement they first learned 10 or 20 years ago. They’re quite human, and will often be heard moaning into a post-practice beer “I’ll never get that strike/throw/lock/technique right. It’s impossible.” They show up next week anyway.
These students aren’t always the most talented. Often they are remarkable for being so very average in their talent. Occasionally they are remarkable for their lack of talent. What they do have is perseverance. They come to practice and they work hard. They go home and work hard there too. They don’t let the little things in life get in the way of training. In the words of Nike, they “just do it.” Training happens like the hands of the clock going around and around. It’s just what they do.
They collect bumps and bruises and sore joints, but the keep coming. Like everyone, life gets in the way sometimes. This doesn’t stop the student with 忍 from training. They may not train as much as they like but they train when they can. Other aspects of life definitely can be more important than training. Family and friends are critical. Without family and friends, budo is just play, so when the need presents itself good students delay their training or rearrange their schedule so they can train in the spaces in between other obligations.When these students find themselves traveling down a bumpy stretch of training where progress is elusive and difficult to see, they don’t trade budo for something easier or shinier or newer. They slog away at it, plodding down the path no matter how difficult it seems to be to make progress. There is no final destination on the Way that is budo, so they take satisfaction simply in being on the path.