It started off pretty innocuously. A student in a friend’s koryu martial arts class asked what kind of influence Shinto, the nativistic Japanese set of beliefs, had on their training. My friend composed a lengthy email about the subject, asking me and another peer for further comments. We added quite a bit of our own opinions, which were then annotated further by my friend. In total, printed out, the discussion could have taken several pages’ worth of commentary.
Now, koryu practice is usually not meant to be a sit-down lecture on such esoterica, which is why I think my friend preferred to discuss it via email and printed notes rather than take up more time in the dojo better spent training with a partner in the actual techniques. But it highlights the fact that in traditional Japanese arts (and, for that matter, many arts and crafts of any culture), there are three components to learning the art, not just the “practical” experience of the physical techniques. In Japanese, these are defined as Do, Gaku, Jutsu.
Do is the word for “michi,” or the Taoist path to enlightenment. It means a study of the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the art. Gaku is “academic learning,” so it can mean a study of the technical underpinnings of the methods, the history, lore, organizational structure, and so on of the ryu. Jutsu is the practice and study of the actual techniques.
Note how Do is listed first. It’s the most important. Yet, when introduced to an art, Jutsu, or techniques, are taught first. It’s the most basic. Physical methods are the most basic, root methods of an art, but it’s not the most important goal. Do, or “practicum” training, is followed by Gaku, which is a study of the historical and technical. There follows the philosophical and spiritual implications.
A beginner will have no idea about the physical movements of a particular school, so he has to go through a lot of techniques first, the actual physical blood and sweat of training over and over again to integrate the movements into one’s own body. If the goal is purely for sport, winning contests, or for pure physical health or self-defense, it can stop here, and that’s fine for what it is.
As the student improves his technique, inevitably, however, he has to realize that there’s some kind of technical underpinning. He needs to study. He needs to take his own initiative to read some books and research into WHY the techniques are done a certain way. This may entail a study of different ways that various teachers do a men-uchi, for example, or what a chiburui really means in iai, or how a neck choke works in terms of what we know about human anatomy, or the history and lineage of the ryu which give rise to particular movements and reactions. This may seem unnecessary to the person seeking “pure” martial arts self-defense or sports, but think about it. Even knowing a bit about the history of sport karate will enlighten a karate competitor, just as a knowledge of boxing techniques and strategies of the great legends of boxing would help any up and coming prizefighter pick up techniques and strategies.
So theoretical and historical knowledge adds to the physical capabilities of the student. Gaku and jutsu work hand in hand.
Inevitably, though, deeper questions arise. Like, WHY are we doing it, besides the technical, historical and physical reasons? How does this activity fit into a general philosophy of one’s life? What are the ramifications of how this art deals with violence, and how the art squares self-defense with codes of conduct? How does the art affect the spirit? What is the spiritual goal of such training? This is the Do in Do, Gaku, Jutsu.
To be sure, training time shouldn’t be taken up with too much contemplating of one’s navel. That’s why when you start training in a particular ryu, you break a sweat, you don’t sit down with the teacher to debate philosophy. But the philosophical questions and concepts are there, and are an important part of a traditional gei, or art form. Without any concern for Do, budo training is merely organized training in thuggishness. There needs to be a sense of purpose other than beating up, maiming or killing someone else.
In the case of woodworking, for example, there are many fine amateur woodworkers who can use a hand plane to plane a plank of wood dead flat perfect. That’s not a trivial skill, by the way. It takes practice. But a master craftsman is a woodworker who can also explain what happens with the grain, how the plane blade works on wood, and the history and character of many master craftsmen before her who influenced her work. The master craftsman will know different finishes, their chemical effects on wood, and various kinds of wood and their provenance, strengths and weaknesses. A master craftsman/teacher will, finally, in addition to the above skills and knowledge, will have developed a mindset, a philosophy about woodworking that makes of his endeavor a way of life, a way of looking at the world.
It is not necessary to divide the three as you train. Jutsu is informed by Gaku, and both are enveloped by Do. While in the beginning gaining technical mastery is most important, as one progresses, Gaku and Jutsu also begin to take center stage, although Jutsu should never be neglected. In the end, a balance between the three is struck, where feedback loops move back and forth between the three categories, increasing the knowledge of all three.