69. Shugyo: The Neverending Road

How much have you sacrificed for your martial art?

We live in a world where money is made by creating a more convenient product, service or experience. The easier, the better. It has gotten to a point where another old adage, “no pain, no gain,” is anathema if you want to make money operating a for-profit dojo. You need to make things easy. Easy black belt rankings in a few weeks. No pain, no ache practice sessions.

Yet, in studying a koryu, there has to be some amount of sacrifice. You have to give up the easy path for a harder, steeper climb, in order to progress.

Competitive athletes know this. You can’t sit on a couch and eat potato chips and expect to beat the other guy in the next match again, because he’ll be working his ass off to beat you.

As I write this blog, the civilized world is in the midst of celebrating athletic excellence with the 2012 London Summer Olympics games. Most of the athletes, save for those with large viewer audiences, train and compete in obscurity, sweating with little fanfare or social rewards, for years on end, until, if they are good enough and lucky enough, they have a moment or two of Olympic recognition. Or not. Then they go back to the incredible rigors of training to be an Olympic-calibre competitor all over again. Or they retire.

When I was privileged to have been a volunteer training dummy (and literally, I was just a training dummy. I wasn’t at all on the level of the official team members, but they needed more bodies to throw around) for the 1976 US Olympic Judo team, I overheard a couple of judo Olympians explaining to some kids what it took to get to their level. They mentioned all the training, of course. –Full time training, hours and hours every day. Of course. One of them put his dental profession on hold. He had to train full time, so his wife had to support the family while he pursued his Olympic dreams.

“A lot of us have very understanding spouses and families,” another Olympian said. “Without their sacrifices, we couldn’t be where we are.” Especially then, the United States adhered to a very restrictive interpretation of amateur athletics, more so than many of the other countries, and especially compared to the state-sponsored athletes of the former communist countries.

Trying to reach that level of competitiveness, therefore, came at a price that entailed not just the hard physical training regime of the individual athlete, but his/her economic hardship, and the hardships therefore imposed upon their families. It was a struggle to become as good as they were. These athletes knew that nothing came from anything too easily won.

However, for many amateur martial arts students, or for parents dropping their kids off at the local mall’s martial arts center, this sense of shugyo, of undergoing physical, mental, and spiritual hardship in order to temper oneself and become a better budoka, is foreign. They want their dojo to be air conditioned, within easy access from home, with mats softer than your bed’s mattress and training content that’s a whole of FUN and games.

It may be necessary in order to pack ‘em in and generate a lot of revenue for a lot of for-profit dojo (and I will be quick to add that a lot of profitmaking dojo do have very high standards of integrity…I’m just picking on the ones that let greed supersede training integrity). But making it too easy is not shugyo. It’s not going to temper the mind, heart and spirit to learn to endure and persevere.

Now, I’m not talking about deliberate masochistic training where you beat each other into the ground just to see who’s the last person standing. I’m talking about realizing that you have to put in a lot of hard work, and some unavoidable bruises and aches and pains in a controlled, sensible training regime.

Shugyo also doesn’t stop at the dojo doors. As noted, the greatest athletes know this, especially amateur ones. Often derided by comparison to professionals, amateurs often bear a heavier burden of shugyo because there are no huge windfalls awaiting them if they succeed. They train as an end in itself. They may be, at times, just as admirable because they endure and suffer because of their sheer love of the game or martial art. They spend hours training without remuneration. They give up their time to improve their techniques without any hope of getting an endorsement contract. They spend money to travel to workshops, and put up with cheap hotels that fit their budgets. They have to make sure that their spouses and significant others are willing and supported enough so that their time away from home training will not be resented.

Once I was sitting next to one of my koryu teachers when he was interviewing a prospective new student. The student was complaining somewhat that he had to ride his moped all the way from the opposite side of town, south from the Arashiyama area, to get to the dojo in the north of Kyoto. Without missing a beat, my sensei said, “That, too, is shugyo.”

The young college student was taken aback. Perhaps he was fishing for some amount of sympathy. Or he wanted the teacher to offer some words of praise. Instead, he got a statement that might have taken him a while to figure out. His journey itself, long and tedious, if he looked at it a certain way, was part of his training to learn endurance, stick-to-itness, and patience. If he really wanted to do koryu budo, he would go through the travel time involved and accept it as part of his training.

Even for me, to get to the dojo, I had to bicycle up a very steep incline to reach the dojo in a hillside suburb. It would take at least an hour of grueling, mostly uphill pedaling. Then, to get to my iai class, I had to bicycle for two hours to and from my apartment on alternate nights.  I dropped over 30 pounds after several months of such a schedule, through the low-animal protein diet, bicycling all over Kyoto and training three to five nights a week. I knew I would never have the same opportunity and freedom once I returned Stateside, so I tried to keep on this schedule as much as possible to get as much as I could out of my stay in Japan.

This was my own personal shugyo.  It was hard, yes. After finishing graduate work, I put a hold on my life and spent the year studying in Kyoto before entering the work force. I lived on a modest tea ceremony scholarship and whatever income I could make sometimes teaching English or writing short freelance articles. I lived frugally.  I was away from most of my family and friends in a strange country, often missing my home. My days were filled with training in tea, then my evenings were busy with budo training.  I was in my late 20s, and still had the youthfulness and optimism to think that I could and should do this when I was young.

But lest one thinks shugyo is all doom and gloom, it was a shugyo that I voluntarily entered into, and one that I still look upon as the most amazing, incredible year of my life. That time and the experiences will never come my way again. So there is also a joy in shugyo, in knowing that you endured, persevered, and survived, and in reaching levels of expertise in your art you never thought you would have been able to attain. It is a joy that can only come when you earn something that is difficult to attain, that takes effort and sacrifice.

Whenever we take a journey, be it of the mind, the heart, or an actual physical trip away from the womblike safety of home, to be tested and pushed, we are embarking on a shugyo that will change us forever. That is, as Joseph Campbell would say, the journey of the eternal hero. The quest for self-knowledge, the child growing into an adult. And it is a neverending journey until the day we shuffle off this life.

There was one incident in tea that also reminded me of how Japanese look at shugyo. When I was studying tea, we had a monthly go-aisatsu (honored greetings) with the head of the school, called the Oiemoto. At Urasenke, there is a school for tea students which is registered with the Japanese Ministry of Education. For Japanese tea students, there are established curriculum and requirements that satisfy government requirements for trade and arts schools. It’s taken very seriously, and the three year program for the Japanese is a fast track to gaining a basic teaching license. Many of the graduates move on to teach in public and private schools, or they do things related to tea, such as becoming tea implements dealers, confectioners, craftsmen, and even tea teachers. Just prior to one of our go-aisatsu, one of the Japanese students had withdrawn from the program after completing two of her three years. She only had one more year, but she received a marriage proposal and had decided to get married right away.

Now, it should be noted that besides the above options for graduates of the tea ceremony school, it’s often stereotyped as a kind of finishing school for women students because they learn things that would make them more attractive as upper class brides. They learn how to wear a kimono. They learn flower arrangement. They learn traditional etiquette, how to cook classical kaiseki dishes, how to make tea sweets, how to pick and choose traditional implements for use in tea (and daily life) such as scrolls, ceramics, lacquer ware, and bamboo and wooden utensils. They learn how to manage and maintain a Japanese-style tatami mat room. They learn about traditional Japanese wooden architecture.

The Oiemoto, the head of the school, was aware of the allure of tea for women of marriageable age. I don’t think he was upset about that so much as the young lady had devoted two years of her life and only needed one more year to complete the program, to get her certificate. Instead, she just chucked the whole thing quickly, as if studying tea was just a holding pattern for her. That pissed him off royally.

Usually, the former Oiemoto was a fatherly figure, like a doting grandfather to his students. At this go-aisatsu, he stormed in like a daimyo ready to go to battle with an implacable foe. He gave the Japanese students an earful, and we foreign students knew enough to lay low and be as inconspicuous as possible in times like these.

But I guess we didn’t lay low enough. He noticed us.

He had been raging at the Japanese students for not understanding what shugyo was all about for half an hour while we all sat quietly in seiza.

“You’re Japanese but you have no idea about shugyo, about sacrifice!” he boomed. Then he looked at us and his eyes softened. Most of us had only been able to come to Japan and study in his school due to scholarships he gave out.

“But you think about it,” he told the Japanese students. “That’s just money. That’s nothing. They left their families and friends. They came from thousands of miles to live in a strange culture and eat strange food. They endure loneliness and poverty. They learned a new language. And why? Because they value tea so much! They sacrifice because they know it doesn’t come easy, so they endure their shugyo! How many of YOU would do as much to study tea, or any other thing that you would want to excel in? They know the value of tea. They endure the hardships, the tears, the pain.”

Oh, boy. All of us foreign students who understood enough Japanese to know what he was saying didn’t feel any pride. We always worried whenever the Oiemoto held us up as models of behavior because we didn’t want to cause any jealousies or resentment that would make it hard for us to make friends with the Japanese students. For most of us, we were embarrassed for being singled out.

Later, after the lecture, I talked to a Japanese student who was a friend of mine and apologized on our behalf for being held up against them. We didn’t want to cause any ill feelings. The friend assured me that the Oiemoto’s caustic comparisons weren’t taken personally. “We had it coming. Plus, whenever he goes on rant, most of the students just tune him out anyway.”

Anecdotes aside, that is shugyo. It’s entered into willingly (else it would be self-abuse), and it’s endured and celebrated. It’s hardships but it’s joy. It’s tears of pain and tears of laughter. In a full, memorable life, shugyo is really one’s whole life lived well: the pain and sorrow, but also the happiness and accomplishments; the ups and downs. A life worth living. And a life worth living is not an easy life, it is not a life without some sacrifice and suffering balanced with small but significant victories.

Looking back on my own life, it’s been a journey. It’s been a shugyo. My martial arts training has been part of the shugyo. And as a shugyo, it’s been an eventful, rich, rewarding experience. But it didn’t come easy. It never did.

So when you dress up in your keikogi, are you yourself looking for the quick and easy yourself, as many martial arts students seem to want, or are you training as part of a real shugyo?

There’s a road
Calling you to stray
Step by step
Pulling you away
Under moon and star
Take the road
No matter how far

Where it leads
No-one ever knows
Don’t look back
Follow where it goes.
Far beyond the sun
Take the road
Wherever it runs…

“The Road Goes Ever On,”

From The Lord of the Rings

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10 thoughts on “69. Shugyo: The Neverending Road

  1. A scholarship to study tea…..one almost wants to say “Only in Japan!” Still, there are lots of customs here in the USA where something that only seems simple can be elevated to a high art. And as a former student of one very expensive culinary university I can appreciate that even small things have details in them that makes them difficult, maddening, beautiful, and worthy of careful study.

    I like my country, and I like my culture. But I do wish we had just a touch more reverence for traditions and “old ways”. Then again, perhaps iconoclasm is our biggest tradition…

  2. Well done Wayne. This is one of the most difficult aspects of practice for many students in my experience. Your tea stories are wonderful and enticing as I’ve always had an interest in chado. I always look forward to your next entry here.

    – C. Clark

  3. Great post with some wonderful insight into shugyo. This is a great read for anyone interested in budo and related arts. Thanks for sharing and I am looking forward to any training anecdotes from your recent trip!

  4. Great post! Sometimes it becomes so frustrating to see people begin something, only to quit their journey after treading along for some time. I often think of instances where people with natural talents in various fields just give up before seeing their skills truly blossom. As a runner on my high school and college track and field and cross-country teams, I often came across runners that were initially better than me, but they would quit and I was soldier-on and eventually surpass the levels they were at. My Bujutsu training has been the same way. I’ve never had the “natural talent”, but I don’t give up. I’m almost 40 now and have been training for nearly two decades and see no end in sight to training to improve my overall self. Throughout that time, I have undertaken numerous Shugyou.

  5. A greatly appreciated post showing how Shugyo is way over used and how it is used too lightly. I studied under a sensei who was referred to as a “Kyushu dangi” It is my understand that means “men from Kyushu.” A term for men from Kyushu who have passion and toughness, truly manly. A man’s, man. My sensei went beyond that, with the exception he didn’t drink. I was told on many occasions, the meaning of Shugyo. He would refer to Olympic Marathon runners who would run to exhaustion, collapse yet still crossing the finish line, barely crawling, as Shugyo. He would point out, such runners never gave up, they never surrender. Regardless what their mind told them to give up, or despite the body failing. No matter what the conditions or situation, you never give up. He add that Shugyo also had levels of intensity. The minimum expectation of Shugyo was “lots of sweat.” It was the Olympic athlete training 110% going beyond the state when your mind tells you to give up, not giving into the pain of over using of the body. A minimum, Shugyo that is expected every time you stepped into the dojo. The most praised highest form of Shugyo was everyday rain or shine, no excuses without fail. Making Shugyo a life style was the highest form of Shugyo. “Real” Shugyo, is making your training your life style, continually going through a Navy SEAL hell week for a life time. Real Shugyo was the most praised form as it lead to the attainment of 実力 (Jitsuryoku) “real ability.”

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