There is a Zen saying that is popular among tea pracititioners that also holds much worth for martial artists, I think. In Japanese, it’s “Nichijo, kore dojo.” Roughly translated, it means, “Daily life is your training hall (dojo).”
In Zen, what this means is that you can find ways to infuse your daily life with Zen training. Therefore, while an acolyte may practice zazen (sitting meditation) and chant the sutras and partake of various ritual austerities, he or she should also be aware that Zen awareness doesn’t stop at the door of the training hall. If you can’t fill your whole life with Zen-ness, then you haven’t really got it.
As that great Zen master, Van Morrisson (“Brown Eyed Girl, ” “Domino,” “Into the Mystic”) said, “Chop that wood, carry water, what’s the sound of one hand clapping, Enlightenment, don’t know what it is.”
Chanoyu, or “tea ceremony” is basically, as Sen No Rikyu (the founder of wabi style tea) said, learning how to boil water and whisk a bowl of tea. It’s just an ordinary, commonplace kitchen work that has been elevated to a stylized ritual. But then, Rikyu added coyly, if you can really make an excellent bowl of tea, then he would be your student.
That is, if you want to create a super-duper bowl of tea, you realize it takes concentration, it takes mindful decisions, it takes grace and timing, knowledge of tea blends and sensitivity to the seasons, temperature, water quality, and an emotional caring for the guests. It takes knowledge, artistry, and interpersonal sensitivity. It takes, in other words, total awareness of what you are doing at that moment, backed up by a lot of intellectual and artistic background, plus extensive training in traditional tea ceremony.
What starts off grounded in a simple, everyday instance of making and imbibing a bowl of tea becomes an artistic and meditative practice only by one’s attitude.
I remember sitting in my first chaji, which is the full-course tea ritual that includes, besides thick and thin green tea (matcha), Japanese liquor, two kinds of sweets, and a full meal of kaiseki (Buddhist-temple inspired food). Rice is served in three portions. The first time it is brought out, it is somewhat soggy because it’s not quite entirely cooked. A few minutes later, the second serving is perfect. Then the bottom of the cooking pot is scraped to gather up leftover rice that is slightly burnt. A touch of salt and hot water is added. Other tea newbies kept oohing and awing at how the rice servings were such poetic reminders of the passage of time. Maybe. I’m sure it meant that. But it also came from simple, practical eating. I remember a time before programmed rice cookers with non-stick pots. That’s how our family had rice, and we used to look forward to having the crispy, crunchy burnt rice at the end of a meal.
Chanoyu, therefore, celebrates the commonplace and elevates it to the artistic. It make us aware that what we take for granted, living the everyday life, is a special thing if we approach the ordinary with new, perceptive eyes that sees wonder all around us.
So obviously, as martial artists, you can see where this is going. Everything I deduced from chanoyu can be applied to budo, the Martial Ways.
Some students think they “go to” practice martial arts at a dojo. Then they pack up their bags and forget about budo training until the next week. The more experienced budoka (martial arts practitioner) realizes that dojo training is really preparation for looking at life in a particular way, and that real training includes your daily life.
I don’t mean that you get paranoid all the time and develop a hair-trigger response that will flatten your spouse if he or she touches you on the back in bed. I mean, you should consider that the mental and physical basics apply equally in the dojo as outside. If you slouch all the time in daily life and only straighten your posture in practice, you’re not really progressing as quickly as you could were you to try to stand straighter more often all the time. By practicing good posture every day, your body will more naturally assume that position, and soon it will become second nature even in the dojo. You won’t have to think about it or force your body to adjust all the time. Then you can concentrate on higher order movements, such as the timing of your punch, the angle of your sword cut.
If you are naturally aware of interpersonal dynamics, of how people distance themselves in social interactions, you will become more sensitive to ma-ai in the dojo. If you learn to pick up something from the ground with proper posture, you won’t hurt your back as much, and you will also naturally be able to go into and rise up from sonkyo or from seiza in the dojo.
Even if you look at the more “martial” aspects of martial arts training, there are relevant ways to develop them in daily life without resorting to punching and kicking or throwing people around in the subways. Take moving and punching in karate, for example. One of the big problems I see with many beginning karate students is their lack of coordinating their punches with the rest of their body, their hips and their forward momentum. When they think “punch,” they think only their arms and shoulders are doing the work. In actuality, it’s the entire body, and the fist only focuses the entire body’s power at one impact point. Imagine, I tell my own iai students, that you are not attacking the opponent with just your arms swinging the sword. You have to think that the momentum, torque and power of your whole body is behind the cut. The weight, movement and strength of the entire body is hitting the opponent, not just your arm and the sword.
Likewise, I know that digging out a tree root with a pick is a lot more efficient if I sink my hips and use my whole body to pound the pick’s tip into the ground. It also is less stress and strain on my old-man’s shoulders, too. Sinking the hips while doing yardwork translates directly to how I use weapons in my martial arts training.
But I find, perhaps, that one of the hardest things to teach is not the physical. It’s mental focus. I can talk about it until I’m blue in the face, but if students don’t get it, if they can’t focus as much as I want them to, I can’t get into their brains and show them how. They have to have the ability to focus as intensely as necessary in budo, or at least the ability to see where they need to go with their mental training. A student can, of course, improve this ability with more and more training, but for a lot of people, this is really hard to do because they don’t usually do this in their daily life. They go through life mentally “grazing,” watching television, eating snacks, doing homework, talking on their cell phones, without much deep attention to any one particular thing. Everything is superficial. I don’t know what they are waiting for in life, what purpose will kick them in the butt and get them to pay attention.
This “grazing” mentality may be great when you have to multi-task (feed the dog, make dinner, wash dishes, answer the phone at the same time), but being distracted is not a good idea if you ever get into an actual self-defense situation. Or more to the point, if you are in any situation that involves perceptual awareness to stave off potential disaster. Like driving a car. Or trying to make your own mayonnaise and having to be aware of the interaction of the raw egg with the acid while you beat them together. Or running a piece of wood through a table saw without getting your fingers cut off. If you get distracted while using a table saw, that’s an instant loss of digits in a split second. So I am always extremely focused whenever I use power tools. I’ve seen how a momentary lack of concentration can really cause terrible injury.
The greatest “skill,” therefore, is a heightened sense of concentration. Of course, you need technique. You need to know how to form a fist. You need to know how to effect a throw, how to cut with a sword, or whatever technical skill you are being taught. But it doesn’t mean a thing unless you can focus your concentration on the task at hand and do it right.
Many long-time martial artists may think, “Well, that’s obvious!” But it’s not. A lot of people will walk into your dojo and not figure this out. A lot of kids will only see the flashy physical parts of budo and think that’s all the skills they need to acquire: spin like a top, lash out punches and kicks like the Warner Brothers’ cartoon character the Tasmanian Devil. Grizzled old martial arts and combatives instructors, however, will boil it down to focus and concentration. Lose your mental focus in a real conflict, give in to natural panic and fear, and all the technical abilities in the world won’t save you.
For the teacher teaching young students, skills development is important. But it should not be forgotten that what youngsters need to succeed in life is not just being a better puncher and kicker (or grappler and thrower), it’s developing skills that will put them in good stead both in the dojo and outside in daily life. That means mental focus, toughness, and the ability to be more aware of one’s physical movements and how it can relate to daily life.
Conversely, the perceptive student will realize that the lessons being taught in the dojo are applicable to daily life. It doesn’t mean you become more pugnacious towards other people. It means you realize that the skills you want to develop in the dojo can be developed also in the world outside the dojo by paying attention to what you do physically and how you mentally focus.
One of my colleagues once quipped to me that “real martial arts were not meant for stupid people.” He likes to make hair-raising statements like this. But he elaborated and explained: you can find your stereotypical low-brow jock in a lot of different martial arts, but in reality, what advanced training in budo, Japanese martial Ways (and I of course include the koryu budo), are meant to do is to develop skills that can only be grasped, at a higher level, by people who know how to utilize their minds as well as their bodies. You don’t have to be an Einstein. But you do have to know how to focus, concentrate, and work through a mental process to arrive at a path of action. That’s why that friend of mine said he wouldn’t teach budo to high school dropouts. There can be a lot of mitigating reasons why someone may fail in our basic educational system. But short of real mental disability or severe emotional problems, dropping out signals a lack of ability to focus long enough to slog it out and finish school. And if they can’t finish high school, why invest your time and effort into them when they will probably drop out from your class as well? (You could argue that maybe budo will help such a slacker to develop a mental focus, but my friend felt that a student should first get his educational and personal life squared away before trying to start up budo.)
Again, as a teacher with decades teaching at the middle schools, high school and college levels, I find that the need to develop such focus and concentration skills are not a given conclusion among a lot of people. How they go through life, I’ll never know, but I’ve come across students at all educational levels who are struggling because such mental skills are stunted. They can’t get their minds to focus long enough at the task at hand to reach a suitable conclusion, whether it’s reading text and analyzing it, working on an art project, or showing enough zanshin in a budo class.
It’s not enough to try to concentrate in a classroom or in a dojo. Focus, mental concentration and attention to details…all these things have to be integrated into your lifestyle, they have to be part of your daily life so that it is second nature.
Like the Zen practitioner, only then can you really inculcate the training into your mind and body. Then “everyday” life becomes your true dojo where you develop your real budo skills. Chop that wood, carry water. Feed the dog. It’s all martial arts training.