Posted by: B Gourley | August 29, 2012

Bunbu Ryodō: Literary and Martial Arts as One

Bunbu Ryodo means the way of both literary and martial arts. This concept goes back to the Warring States period. The idea is simple, a warrior shouldn’t be a mindless thug. Instead, he or she should cultivate skills in cultural arts as well as martial arts. Being broadly educated is important because it’s essential for a warrior to be able to recognize truth, and that skill can only come from being able to intelligently and critically evaluate one’s situation. While it’s true that loyalty was a highly valued skill among samurai, one doesn’t want to become a tool for evil because one is not astute enough to recognize what is true. So, for example, while Kusunoki Masashige was drawn into a futile losing battle at Minatogawa by his loyalty to the Emperor, he was not one to be manipulated.

Besides allowing us a better understanding of our world, many cultural arts help us to keep up the attention to detail that we develop in the practice of martial arts. Even though we think of literary arts as cerebral, often we need to quiet our mind to succeed in them. I have found that martial arts and writing have a great deal in common, and so their pairing apropos. For the rest of this post, I will consider a few of these common characteristics.

1.) Etiquette: In both budō and writing, one always displays politeness. In budō, we begin and end our training by showing respect to our training partner, and we begin and end class showing respect both to the teacher and the lineage. One might not think of a stream of respect flowing through writing, but grammar is nothing more than a kind of etiquette. While it may seem that grammar is just a set of boring rules designed to torment school children, in reality grammar is how we tell our readers that we care about their ability to understand our message. Even if we are writing something rude or controversial we are still being respectful.

2.) Hard Work Matters: In both writing and the martial arts, there is a fun part that everyone wants to do and there is a work part that most find to be an agonizing slog. In martial arts, the fun part consists of learning to do new, cool-looking techniques or succeeding in sparring. In writing, the fun part is the creative part where one thinks up an interesting idea. If all there was to these two fields was the fun part, dōjōs would be overflowing and slush piles would be even higher than they are (part of the reason slush piles are so high is that many ignore the work part.)

In budō, one has to conscientiously work on that new, exciting technique over and over again until it’s far from new or exciting. Plus for every exciting technique you have to practice dozens of mundane manuevers. As for sparring, you’ve got to take a lot of beatings before you begin to give better than you get. In writing, once one has poured forth one’s interesting idea, one has to go line-by-line and word-by-word analyzing whether each line or word is needed; and, if so, if it’s in the right place; and, if not, where it should go. Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

3.) Taking One’s Lumps: In budō, there is no way to succeed without the experience of taking a beating – of one’s body, one’s ego, or both. This is why, despite the fact that there are massive numbers of people who think it would be cool or sexy or awesome to be a martial artist, there are relatively few martial artists. Writers, unless they deal in shocking pulp, don’t usually take physical beatings, but they subject their work to editors, agents, and critics who provide thorough and frequent ego shellackings. In both cases, one has to take that beating, say thanks, and thoughtfully evaluate what one needs to do to succeed the next time. Sometimes one needs to do this over and over and over again.


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