Posted by: B Gourley | September 11, 2012

10 Budō Concepts You Should Know

There are many strategic and philosophical concepts that one may not have time to discuss in detail in the dōjō. Here are ten such concepts that you  may want to reflect upon both for training and for your everyday life.

1.) Aiki-ha: This refers to being like a willow branch which bends under the weight of the snow, allowing the snow to fall off. The more general idea is to not resist force in a head-on-head collision, but rather to be flexible. It should be noted that this basic concept is known by many different names across different schools. The term I used is often associated with the Yagyu Shinkage-ryū, but it’s fairly widely known. The concept of kajo chikusei that is usually associated with Tōgakure-ryū and which refers to having the heart of a wildflower and the spirit of bamboo is similar.

Take-away question: Can I do this with less effort?

2.) Enryo: This is often translated as “contempt for death.” This doesn’t mean being eager for death or embracing it. Instead, it means that if one is neither fearful nor controlled by the thought of one’s death, one will perform much better. For many, achieving Enryo came hand-in-hand with their practice of Buddhism. There’s a Buddhist belief that impermanence is the world’s one constant, and that those who desire otherwise are doomed to be frustrated. The concept of “transcending death” (Seishi-o Choetsu) is related.

Take-away question: If I were to die tomorrow, would I be satisfied with the life I’d lived?

3.) Go-no-Sen (also, Ken-no-Sen, Tai-no-Sen, etc.): Seize the instant of the opponent’s attack. There’s a saying, that I believe is often misunderstood, about counter-attack being faster than attack. (There was a Mythbusters episode that dealt with this.) In reality, it’s not about being faster but about having the freedom to respond to the opponent’s committed attack. The counter-attacker has an advantage not because he or she can move faster but because the attacker is committed to a movement and can’t easily change, whereas the counter-attacker can adjust to how and where the attacker moves. However, the greater the delay in response from that initial instant, the more the advantage shifts to the attacker.

Take-away question:  Am I ready to seize the initiative at any moment?

4.) Jita-kyoei:  One should act not only to pursue one’s own prosperity and advantage, but also to assist others in achieving their goals. That is, one should act with reciprocity and mutual benefit in mind. One may not think of this concept by name in the dōjō, but it’s an ever-present issue. If one looks out only for one’s own development, one’s training partners may not grow. In turn, one’s development will be limited if those one is training with are not getting better. Overly competitive behavior and a willingness to injure a training partner rather than accept the application of a technique are unappealing qualities in the dōjō.

Take-away question: Does my behavior help or hinder the development of others?

5.) Mushotoku: As with many concepts in Japanese martial arts, this one is borrowed from Zen Buddhism. Acting with mushotoku means that one does what one does not for the reward. This doesn’t suggest one should go jobless. What it does mean, I believe, is that being too consumed with external reward can stunt one’s personal development.

Take-away question: Would I act virtuously if their was no chance of recognition or reward?

6.) Mutekatsu: One can defeat the opponent without fighting. The samurai Tsukahara Bokuden is probably most closely associated with this idea. It was said that he was once in a boat with a hot-headed young fighter, and the youth, skeptical of Bokuden‘s “no-sword” school, challenged him to a duel. Bokuden suggested that they get off at the nearest island for the dual. When the kid jumped out and waded ashore, Bokuden took the oars and rowed off, introducing the young man to defeat by his “no-sword” school.

There are also many historical examples of duels that ended either as draws or with both sides acknowledging a victor – despitee there being no exchange of blows. Such duels get to the heart of this concept, which also speaks to the idea of go-no-sen. If both sides can see that there is no first attack that doesn’t get the attacker killed, then there is no need to attack (incidentally, a similar logic kept us from nuclear war throughout the Cold War.)  Alternatively, if one side acknowledges that the other has left them no path to victory, there is little reason to incur the damage.

Take-away question: Must I fight?

7.) Shin-gi-tai: This refers to the qualities of mind [shin], technique [gi], and body [tai.] The idea is that these components be in effortless harmony. If the mind wanders, one will be ineffective. If one’s technique is poor, one will be ineffective. If one’s body is not adequately fit and conditioned to perform the technique, one will be ineffective. Athleticism without clarity is play. Clarity without athleticism is Zen. Budō requires these factors merge in the performance of technique.

Take-away question: Do I work on all three aspects of my art?

8.) Shu – ha – ri: This is the three-phase progression of study of a martial art. The first part, Shu, refers to practicing the basic form in a manner that is as true to how one was taught it as possible. One must practice the basic form of a technique over and over until one has a firm grasp of it. Among the greatest problems seen in martial arts today, at least in the West, is that few have the perseverance to stick in this phase for as many years as it takes. Individuals want to feel they have progressed to the second and even third stages way too soon.

The second phase, Ha, means to begin to look at how the form changes under differing attacks and differing types of opponents. One breaks up the fundamental form. Often times, this phase  gets an even shorter shrift than Shu. However, it’s important for the practitioner to learn to vary the form.

For those who achieve a high degree of skill, there is a third phase, Ri, which involves leaving the form behind. If this is your primary mode of training after a decade or two, there is a small chance you are a martial arts genius but a quite large probability that you are a low-level practitioner.

Take-away question: Am I practicing in a proper manner for my level of development?

9.) Sutemi: Practitioners of most schools of jujutsu and judō will be familiar with “sacrifice” throws such as tomoe nage or yoko guruma (yoko nagare.) In these techniques, one throws oneself to the ground in order to take the opponent’s balance and get them to the ground. These are risky manuevers which may put one in an inferior position. Sutemi has a far broader meaning. Any technique in which one risks one’s life in an attempt to defeat the opponent is sutemi. There are times in which only bold moves stand a chance of winning.

Take-away question: Am I willing to put it all on the line without a moment’s hesitation?

10.) Wa: Wa is harmony. It can refer to harmony within oneself or between oneself and others. It means that one should be polite, and avoid behavior that is rude and obnoxious. One can think of harmony in a broad, universal, sense but it all begins with one’s behavior.

Take-away question: Do my actions increase or detract from harmony?


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