Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Budo Practice and the Way of Change

At The Budo Bum blog, there was a very good post on Budo being the Way of Change. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

I talk a lot about the benefits of budo. We go to the dojo and we sweat.  We work at improving some aspect of our skills every time we enter the dojo. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been training or how old we are.  My iaido teacher, Kiyama Hiroshi, was still training in his 90’s. A friend of mine pushed himself to improve his jodo to challenge for 8th dan when he was 90.He didn’t make it to 8th dan, but he was pushing himself to improve until the day he died.

Budo, much like other Japanese arts such as chano yu and shodo, makes three assumptions about practice and us. First, that perfect technique can be imagined. Second, that we can always work to come closer to perfection. Third, that we’ll never achieve perfection, but that’s no excuse for not continuing to grow and improve.

All of the streams of thought that come together to form budo assume that human technique and character can, and should, continue to develop throughout one’s life. Confucius, Lao Zi, Zhuang Zi, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), all provided strands of thought and ideas to the cultural stew of China and Japan. All of them assumed that people could change, grow and improve at every stage of life.

The Zhuangzi is filled with stories that emphasize taking your time and learning things. The idea that learning and development never end is intrinsic to the all of the lines of thought in ancient China that used “way” as a metaphor for their school of thought. There were a lot of them.

On the other hand, there is a common idea in Western thinking that we each have some sort of unchanging, immutable core or essence. I’ve heard many people say “I can’t change. That’s just the way I am.” or “I don’t like it, but that’s who I am.”  Once they finish high school or college, many people seem to think that they are done growing, changing and evolving as a person. Thankfully, there is no evidence to support any of this.

Everyone changes, every day. Whatever we experience changes us. Little things change us in little ways, and big things can be, as the saying goes, “life changing.” Life never stops working on us, changing us, molding us. We are not stone. We are soft flesh that changes and adapts to the stresses it experiences. An essential question is whether we are going to be active participants choosing how we change and what we become, or are we going to be passive recipients of whatever life does to us..

A central concept of the idea of a Way, michi or do is that there is always another step to take, another bit of ourselves we can polish, a bit of our personality that we can improve, and that we can direct that change. This is true whether we are talking about Daoist thought or Confucian thought or something in between. The idea of a finished, unchanging human really doesn’t come up. 

Budo constantly reminds us that we aren’t finished growing, developing, improving. Rather than declaring that we can’t change, budo is a claxon calling out that we change whether we want to or not, and that we can direct that change if we choose.  Budo is about choosing to direct how we change instead of just letting the circumstances of life change us.

We are making the choice to take part in how life shapes us from the moment we enter the dojo, although I doubt many realize how much budo can influence who we become when we make the decision to start training. Good budo training should, and does, change us. Physically we get stronger, more flexible, improve our stamina and develop the ability to endure fierce training and even injuries. That’s the obvious stuff. More importantly, budo changes who we are. It should make us mentally tougher and intellectually more flexible. It should help us to be more open to new experiences and ideas. It should teach us that we can transform ourselves. It’s a cliche that budo training makes people more confident, but it’s also true of good budo training. You go to the dojo and you get used to people literally attacking you, and as time goes on, you’re not only okay with that, but you look forward to it. I don’t know anyone who started budo training because they enjoyed being attacked, but it doesn’t take very long before that sort of training, whether it is done through kata geiko or some sort of randori or free sparring, becomes something you look forward to with a smile.

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