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Do versus Jutsu: Which Side Are You On?

By Jeff Brooks

The difference between “Do” and “Jutsu” gets debated a lot in martial arts circles. However, because the perspective of the debaters is often limited to the frame of reference they have from their dojo experience, it is difficult for the debate to progress. Even the terms used in the debate stay murky. If you can't define -Do and -Jutsu it is hard to get any good traction in the discussion of which of those two you do, which of them your teachers or their teachers did, and the merits of one or the other.

If you examine the issue from outside the dojo, the whole thing clears up pretty well.

The main outline of the debate is this: In Japan, when the samurai era ended, the culture changed, technology advanced and martial arts became in one way or another - technically or culturally - obsolete. Many people wanted to continue practicing their martial arts, but had to find a different purpose for practicing. This process happened in swordsmanship and in empty hand martial arts, as it had earlier in many of the traditional arts of Japan. Martial artists adopted a familiar cultural model for the transition of their own practices.

For example, making gardens, doing flower arrangements, or making tea, all had, at one time, a simple practical orientation. After Japanese society became more sophisticated there were people who practiced these crafts masterfully. In their simple commonplace acts, refined to a high degree through practice, these virtuosi began to experience a deeper sense of purpose. They found that the simple movements of their body, the design of space, the forms they created and tools they employed, all seemed to fall naturally into a kind of harmonious perfection. Instead of ending up with just a cup of hot tea on a cold day (for example), these adepts experienced some deeper sense of reality, of humanity, of life.

They wanted to teach others how to achieve what they had achieved. The purpose of this next generation of students was then explicitly to achieve insight, a deep experience of reality, not just to landscape a yard, or to cut down an opponent. This generation begins to practice a "-Do." (The Japanese word Do is from the Chinese word Tao, often translated as Way. It is interpreted as a way, as in a path (meaning a path through life or a path to enlightenment) or the way, as in the way things exist.) The word Do became asuffix to many Japanese traditional arts: Ken-do (the way of the sword), Karate-do (empty hand way), Cha-Do (the way of tea), Kyu-Do (the way of archery), etc. There are many others.

The orientation of these subsequent generations of students, people who undertook practice not as primarily a practical matter (as their cultural ancestors did) but with the explicit intention of self-development or other spiritual interest, changed the nature of the practice itself. And that change was noted: sometimes as a refinement of tradition, and often, by revisionists, as a departure from the original method and intention of the earlier practitioners of the tradition. These reformers attempted to “correct” it.

To some degree this process has transformed the practice of dojo martial arts. This stands in contrast to the experience of practitioners of a "-Jutsu ." A -Jutsu is a technique or a craft. Its objectives are explicitly functional.

If you want to get the job done as a carpenter you learn how to practice the craft. You learn how to use the tools, how to work with the materials, how to select, sort, design, measure, cut, fasten, build. At the end of the day you have done your job, you've earned your pay, you've fed your family. If, after decades of the practice of your trade, you have become a master of the craft, excellent. If by some means, due to your character, your action, the teaching you have absorbed, you are one of the very rare few who manifest and realize some profound truth through your craft, tremendous. But that was not, at the outset or along the way, the objective of your studies or your work life. It is not something you consider to be other than your own maturing life.

-Do and -Jutsu aren’t totally separate, but they are not the same thing. And in the generations after these rare masters transcended the limits of their Jutsu and began teaching disciples a Do, people who are pursuing one often do not cross paths with people pursuing the other.

In martial arts this separation is a detriment of both, because each has a great deal to gain from the experiences of the other, The goal is not to mix or confuse the two objectives - but to deepen and help realize whichever one you are engaged in.

The Do aspect happens in dojos, generally speaking. Regardless of the name of the art (for example whether you practice aiki-do or aiki-jutsu) if the motivation for your training is improved health, improved focus, the improved synthesis of body and mind, improved self-defense ability, and you plan to stay with practice as part of your life for an indefinite period of time, you are practicing a Do. The opportunity for deep understanding of the subtleties of the art, and the deep integration of it into your body and mind, is great. The danger in this approach is that the practice becomes soft, easygoing and so fails to foster the depth of demand and the immediacy of jeopardy that made earlier practitioners of the art leap over the usual limits of untrained human beings and strive diligently to go to the ultimate of their capacity and beyond.

The -Jutsu aspect of martial arts training right now is going on in police academies, in basic training and other special training in the military. Generally the people doing -Jutsu training need a certain level of skill to qualify for their job. They are seeking to pass a test, like an annual qualification in defensive tactics, or P-24 baton. Or, at a higher level of aspiration, they are seeking a level of competence that will help assure them that they will be able to handle a violent confrontation competently and live to make it home at the end of the day and work another shift tomorrow.

The kind of training they do has a vitality to it that is missing from much dojo training. This kind of Jutsu martial training, however, usually does not go too deep. The human body cannot sustain the level of violence placed upon it in this training, day in and day out. The deep muscle memory, the transformation of body and mind, the deep conditioning afforded by a -Do through the performance of the same movement sequences day in and day out for decades, will not happen in a Jutsu. What Jutsu training can and does do is to shock the student or participant into red alert and into an immediate recognition of the swift and violent nature of assault in a way that more modulated, long-term training cannot.

In dojo culture there is often an unspoken assumption that if you know a technique, you can make it work and that therefore you are protected from the specific kind of attack the technique addresses. Police and military training are much less likely to make that mistake. Police defensive tactics training operates on the presumption that you do the best you can to prepare, you bring the tools you need to the situation, you do your best to be aware, backed up, and ready. And also that, ultimately, you cannot assume anything. It's up to you and every situation will present you with unique and unpredictable variables. No outcome can be presupposed.

At the same time, in dojo cultures there are many people who are much more sophisticated and polished in their technical skills than most Jutsu practitioners will ever be.

Do and Jutsu are different. But each can and should learn from the other. Police and military people can learn new techniques from dojo presentations of martial arts, and they can get the kind of long-term benefits of conditioning and consistent training unavailable from annual qualification training and occasional review. Dojo self-defense practitioners can get the vitality of practice that comes from the police or military practitioner's sense of the immediacy of imminent threat and the intensity of response that is required to prevail.

We are not all practicing the same thing for the same reason, but we can all share those dimensions of practice emphasized by the other.

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About the Author:

Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA, with Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of the style, Takayoshi Nagamine, his successor, as well as with numerous others in the Matsubayashi Ryu lineage and related Chinese traditions. His Buddhist study and practice is with Rev. Issho Fujita, resident director of Valley Zendo and Geshe Michael Roach of the Asian Classics Institute. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director of Northampton Karate and Northampton Zendo in Northampton, Massachusetts, offering classes daily for adults and children since 1988. (

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Karate, karate-do, do, jutsu

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