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Defining Budo:
Evolution of Spirit

by Christopher Caile

Budo is the inheritor of classical Japanese warrior spirit and military technique, but it has evolved in new directions and towards new purposes. While it is a direct descendent of samurai heritage, modern Budo's philosophy, spirit and purpose would hardly be recognizable by the warriors of ancient Japan.

Budo means "martial way" and refers to those martial disciplines whose ultimate goal is spiritual, ethical and/or moral self-improvement. Thus while budo diciplines were (technically) based on the previous warrior arts (bujitsu), they developed a new emphasis, one that separates the martial spirit and mind from an external focus on war and killing (and service to others) and redirects them inwardly towards self-improvement. The characters "Bu" and "Do" in budo are rich in meaning and have many secondary meanings (see below). In earlier periods of Japanese history, however, budo had a different meaning. It was used to define the ethical and moral principles that motivate or guide the practice of bujitsu, the military way or doctrine. This military way later became known as bushido.

"Do" is the Japanese pronunciation the Chinese term Tao (for Taoism) meaning the way to suppress violence and return to the way of the universe. It is a composite of two characters integrated into one, the first signifying movement and the second head or chief. Combined, the characters have the meaning of the chief means of direct movement, or the main road, a term figuratively used to mean the way, as to enlightenment. Implied also are Taoist concepts of non-resistance, goal-lessness, and loss of ego (not surprisingly shared by Zen since the formation of Zen in China was derived from Indian meditative Buddhism strongly influenced by Taoism). But while Chinese Taoism developed strong otherworldly or religious connotations, the Japanese had a more practical, less abstract interpretation, one more focused on the pragmatic dimension of human relationships. This led to the concept of the way or road toward self-development. This could lead to a spiritual awakening, but to a Zen one of intuitive perception, insight and enlightenment.

"Do" martial disciplines were not practiced for fun or lightly undertaken. Training was rigorous, hard, austere - a long process of dedication and discipline. The focus was on the process, the internal fulfillment and joy of just doing rather than being goal oriented (such as a focus on winning). Emphasis was on learning through doing, not words. Ideas and concepts were seen as short lived and shallow. Real learning, it was believed, took time and was slowly accumulated from experience - as the body gained its own knowledge and reactions without the mind needing to knowing why. But the body could not freely move and react or be open to intuitive perception if emotions, fear and thoughts clogged the mind and confused perception. That's where "do" draws on Zen training to free the mind through development of no-mind (Mushin) and an unstaying mind, the mind that may glance at something but not stay (Fudoshin). The nature of unending study of "do" is summed up in the old story of a young disciple who approaches his Zen master and asks how long he will have to study Zen before he learns it. The master replies, "Until you die."

Budo is an ougrowth of those Bujitsu arts that were perfected during a period of almost constant warfare in Japan stretching from the 8th to the 16th century. During this time "budo" referred to the ethical ideals, or ways of the warrior most popularly known as Bushido, and included such concepts as obedience, loyalty and respect. Budo as a system of fighting ways, however, evolved during the feudal period of peace that followed, the Tokugawa era (1600-1867) (better known as the Edo era), that preceded the modern era. To bolster stability the Tokugawa military authorities instituted a rigid class structure and system of political controls over is populous while externally the nation was isolated from foreign contact. But these measures could only mask deep currents of change (economic and military) that would shake the feudal system to its foundation and and spur the beginning of the modern age. Economic power, once based on land (agriculture) and feudal relationships (rights to work land in return for obligations), was being challenged by the rise of a prosperous and strong and merchant class. At heart of this feudal structure was the professional warrior who provided loyalty and service in return for stipends or the right to work land. But their role had changed and their military viability (power and predominance) was beginning to be called into question. Seeking to reduce the potential for violence, the government politically subdivided the bushi, and their efforts were re-directed into arts (as poetry, drama, tea ceremony) and education. Training in martial skills was tolerated but as huge numbers of bushi were transformed into bureaucrats, accountants and administrators (especially in urban areas), their motivation to train martial skills suffered. Another and more ominous challenge was rising on a technological level. Government conscripts with guns called into question the very viability and/or superiority of classical weapons and tactics. Moral was low.

These changes led to efforts by some bushi, bolstered by strains of Confucian thought, to re-create the experience and preserve spiritual and ethical ideals of the past (classical warrior) but in new form (budo disciplines) and with a new emphasis - on serving the individual and society as a whole. This spurred development of new schools of armed and unarmed martial disciplines (ways) that arose during the Tokugawa Era of peace in Japan (after 1600) based on bujitsu (the professional fighting arts of professional warriors developed in previous times) but where combat skills were practiced to perfect the self, the discipline itself used as a vehicle to preserve the traditional warrior spirit (including their ethical and moral precepts). Classes were also opened to the public. Much later these new schools have been collectively referred to as Classical Budo. And as in earlier Bujitsu, Budo also shared a pervading Zen influnce. Meditation was used to focus the mind (without thought or ego) and hard, repetitious training (including kata that mimicked the danger and reality of combat) created a process of spiritual forging that produced discipline, technique and intuitive perception. Technical mastery was seen as one step along the road to ultimate spiritual awakening, self-improvement and insight. In short, budo redefined bujitsu. While bujitsu's goal had been to master violence through development of superior technical skill in order to kill other professional warriors, budo's aims were to control violence (self-defense) and improve the self. Effectiveness of technique became secondary. Codes of conduct or etiquette also changed in the transition. Once defined by the necessities of self-defense and the potential for combat, etiquette was often transformed in Classical Budo into modes of social courtesy, manners, respect, correct form and means to demonstrate both non-ego as well as the individual's role within the larger group. The transition from bujitsu to classical budo saw kenjitsu (sword art) became kendo (way of the sword) and the art of the halbred (type of lance) naginata jitsu, became naginata-do, etc.

But the trasnformation had not yet been completed. Bujitsu and classical budo disciplines, in turn, helped inspire yet another generation martial disciplines starting in the 1850's and continuing today known as Modern Budo. These diciplines often include competitive formats such as kendo (sword), judo (throws/grappling) and karate-do (strikes/kicks) but not always as with most styles of aikido. As with classical budo, modern budo emphasizes the personal, ethical and spiritual development as the ultimate goal of training. Combat skills are practiced to perfect the self, the discipline itself used to as a vehicle to preserve the traditional warrior spirit (including their ethical and moral precepts). Classes are generally also opened to the public. Modern budo is also often classified under the term Shin Budo.

What gave rise to this newest generation of budo: dissatisfaction. Critics believed that something had been lost in classical budo, that reliance on kata and repetitive practice in training produced shallow technique. They argued that the disciplines had become more form than substance and full commitment was held back - neither the technique nor the people were really tested. These views were the impetus for the development of many modern budo disciplines. Many adopted competitive formats designed to revive the rugged confrontations of warrior times, but remained mindful of the larger focus of serving the individual's spiritual and self-development. Budo's (as well as Classical Budo) emphasis on personal development, it should be noted, stands in contrast to the practitioners of Bujitsu who gave personal service and absolute loyalty to others. In recent times some have argued that modern budo has itself gone too far, that emphasis on competition and winning have corrupted the "do" roots of the disciplines and that these disciplines should be described as "martial sports," not "martial ways." While some modern budo as aikido, kendo, judo and karate-do have become widely practiced and popularized the total number of modern budo schools has diminished dramatically due to consolidation, neglect and loss of interest. Another term for modern budo is gendai budo, gendai meaning "modern," the term usually applied only to those martial diciplines with a wide following.


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

Budo, martial way, bu, do, bujutsu, bujitsu, bujutus, classical budo, Modern Budo, martial arts


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