102. On Becoming More Human

While this blog is about my take on classical martial arts, permit me a story about photography which, I promise, has implications for the subject of budo.

I recently attended a lecture given by a famous professional photographer. Over the years, at computer graphics conferences, I had always made it a point to attend his lectures and workshops. I’ve been at his feet, metaphorically speaking, for some 12 years, having listened to his presentations at least five to six times, as near as I can count. To me, his technical understanding, his ability to explain his vision and his craft, are without peer. At the end of any of his talks, my notebook is full of little nuggets of knowledge: Photoshop Layer techniques over a photograph, using the Histogram, rendering to grayscale using color curves, using light and focus for composition…

As far as the art, science and craft of digital photography, I thought he was a true master. He was also funny, acerbic, witty and could ad lib jokes that kept the audience in stitches. I learned as much from him about public presentations as I did about digital photography. Yet, I thought he had flaws. Huge ones. He was certainly helpful when people had questions, and never lost his temper. But I sensed a tremendous ego. Like all artists (and, my wife says the same about me), he had a huge amount of self-centeredness, all the better in order to focus on himself and his art, I suppose. But in some ways, it made his edges seem somewhat jerky. There was a part of him that seemed an act,  a theatrical performance, and not something heartfelt.

Nevertheless, I kept on attending his lectures whenever I could. He was that good.

Recently, he came to Honolulu to give a lecture and series of workshops. I encouraged one of my best photo students to go to his public lecture because I felt he would really inspire her and help her technical growth, and I had made his book mandatory reading for her. We both went to the evening lecture, got there early, and sat in the front row. I had warned her. “The guy is one of the best technical masters of digital photography, in my opinion,” I said. “But I gotta warn you. He comes off as a bit of an asshole.”

Nevertheless, when we sat down and I got a look at him as he talked with the organizers of the lecture, I sensed something different about him. After 12 years, he had aged. Yes. Physical appearances do change. He looked older, with more hair on his chin than on the top of his head. Yet, there was something else that had changed in his demeanor and whole spirit.

He strode up to the centered podium and fiddled around, making small talk with the audience before the start of the lecture. My student took the time to ask  him to autograph her copy of his book. He did it with gracious good humor, and a touch of sarcasm directed only towards himself.

Then the lecture started, and I was, again, intensely scribbling notes about his technical concepts and conceptual theories, page after page. He had the same incredible range of knowledge, expanded even more over the years, he had the same jokes, easy repartee, and brimming self-confidence. Yet, there was something else I hadn’t seen before…a warmth to him? He projected image after image to demonstrate particular methods. All wonderfully shot photos, as usual. At the end, though, things changed. He offered to show a couple of slide shows of his work, with little monologue, just to show the sum total of his technical and artistic theories to date.

And then he prefaced the slide shows with a story. One of his most recent freelance jobs had been to photograph a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who had just been released from years of detention by the military junta that ruled her country. The experience humbled him. He had been used to shooting famous celebrities and movie stars, actors and fashion models. He wrote to her, citing his resume, and at first she turned him down. “I am not a movie star or model,” she wrote bluntly. It floored him. Who WOULDN’T want to be famous for fame’s sake?” he must have thought. He kept at it, sending more requests, until finally he received a tentative positive reply, and a cryptic requirement: He had to “do right.”

In the country, he saw poverty, suffering, and a nation that seemed to be facing a new burst of freedom and democracy for the first time. He encountered people with few material possessions who seemed happy and content to share their laughter and friendship with him. Then he met the laureate. He had to talk through an interpreter because, while she knew English perfectly well, the junta still ordered that she not talk directly to any foreign correspondent or photographer. So the communication on the first visit was roundabout.

Yet, he did communicate. And he asked this and that, and always said, “Please,” and “Thank you,” trying to act humble. He asked the laureate, as a “by the way,” how one would say thank you in her native language. The reply stunned him. She said, through three people, “In our language, we do not have  words for ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ unless you are asking or doing something that requires extraordinary effort, beyond the pale. In our everyday life, we do everything with thanks and mindfulness, so we do not need to say it. We do it.”

The words must have struck him like a bolt of lightning. He had tried to act humble, but he realized he was still acting. It dawned on him that “do right” meant that words are one thing, but actually doing actions in the right manner (as in the Buddhist Eightfold Path of “Right Action”), was different from just ACTING or talking the right way. And to do right, his mind had to think right.

The revelation churned in his head for days, perhaps months. Now, he said, he was going back to that Third World country for a follow-up shoot. But also, he was planning a photo book about the country and its people, and he didn’t know how but eventually, he wanted all the profit from the book to go towards building a school for that country’s children. Somehow, some way, he was going to do it, because he wanted to do one right thing in his life, something outside of his own life, for others. Rather than just harvesting images of other people and creating beautiful pieces that showed how good he was, he wanted his photographs to touch people’s hearts. Because, he said, isn’t that what sharing photographs should be all about?

And at the end, he used the Hawaiian word for thank you, “Mahalo,” that he was taught by my Native Hawaiian student. And it sounded like he meant it.

My student, her husband and I walked to our cars together. In the parking lot, she said she was blown away by the presentation. The photographer, she said, was “like a Zen master of photography.” In reply, I said I had never felt that level of humanity and greatness in him before. He was always a master technician and artist. But now…he was something more. By believing in something outside of his own self-centered career, he was like…a sensei.

I say this because in any endeavor, in any field, you have those before you who have technical and artistic skills. In the budo, you have teachers who may have the greatest knowledge and technical ability. Couple that with teaching ability and you have incomparable mastery of martial arts…at one level. There is more than enough that you can learn from such teachers. But there is another level, and if the budo aspire to be more than just sports in white pajamas, or redundant ways to cause harm to others, then the other level of mastery is important to note. The budo should make of us better human beings. That is the promise and mystique of Asian martial arts, but all too often, it is woefully abused, overly mystified, or debased, even in the countries of  their own origins.

One of my friends thinks that martial arts don’t necessarily make people better. It just brings out people’s inner personalities, so you can more clearly see whether they’re thugs, normal people, or extraordinary human beings. I tend to think that IF the budo are pursued as a shugyo, as a discipline that encompasses physical, mental and spiritual training, they DO offer a path to inner training, but only if the budo student seeks it. But then again, there will always be people who have different opinions about everything, including life, social relationships, work and creative endeavors. For some, budo or photography are nothing more than just ways to make money, or in the case of martial arts, to better beat up other people. For others, it can be a path of humanity.

In that way, I count myself lucky to have studied under several teachers who exemplified the best traits of a budo sensei, not just technically, but in their personalities and demeanor. They will always stand out as role models for me to emulate. Were they perfect? No one is perfect. They had personality flaws and human weaknesses, but given that, warts and all, they stood out as wonderful human beings. They were the ones who put aside their egos when teaching, and helped us students out, not to show off what they knew, not for more money from dues, not for fame or fortune, but because they truly wanted to help the students get better. They thought of us. And we could tell it wasn’t faked. Their concern for others were truly genuine. Like the photographer’s tale, the best sensei don’t have to act like good teachers. They ARE good teachers.

15 thoughts on “102. On Becoming More Human

  1. Wayne, maintaining humanity in the face of some really horrible stuff is one of the core functions I see in the koryu bugei. But we get into some tricky language when we start talking about a particular pursuit’s ability to make “better people.” Who determines what is “better”? Are the end results greater than that of other lifelong pursuits? Will all students become “better” through the practice, or only those who are self-selected enthusiastic adherents? Or will many of those even fail?

    This is apparently the thesis question for my minor, and an overarching theme within the work I’m doing for the major. I don’t expect to have it resolved any time soon . . .


  2. Is not true humanity a singular human endeavor? Is not “better” a sole pursuit, not a social interaction event or model? Are there actually “end results” or is it a matter of degrees, degrees of the present moment?

    Failure is not an option, it is a teaching tool. If one fails and accepts that they are teaching themselves, a singular way of humanity, yes?

  3. My teachers and peers have given me a peek to how they feel about war combat. They have “seen the elephant” countless times. One friend told me he is amazed he survived at all, he said he should have died long ago. He hoped I would never have to use any of the skills I trained in.

    Finer folks you would ever like to meet with talents that let them overcome others who wanted to do them in. Skill and or luck?

    I think of them as “better” people who happen to have combat survival minds. The faced the “ugly” but retained humanity.

    1. Interesting comments, all. I don’t have a pat answer for any of the follow-up questions. I think we have to acknowledge that even the bugei are not, nowadays, a particularly efficient training tool for combative training, especially for military combat. They use archaic weaponry and a particular cultural mindset, after all. On the other hand, they do encapsulate one particular social group in one particular society’s notions of how to live with and deal with surviving an un-ordinary encounter. Much as the poems of Homer fashioned the discussions and thoughts of British upper class who had to lead men in combat for a good part of the 18th and 19th, and even early 20th Century, the bugei can be a practice that can give a “frame” to dealing with such situations. Or how the officers learned their soldierly duty and morals “on the playing fields of Eton.” Maybe. Most of us will never have to face that awful encounter, ever, or we may face conflageration in different ways, such as being a caregiver, a rescuer, a parent (!). I can say that, like John, I know someone who entered a combat zone and he felt bugei training helped him mentally, if not physically, to weather the situations.

      As for whether or not it really does efficiently address spiritual growth in a person…Well, I would LIKE to think so, but a lot of times, I end up thinking like my friend: it helps expose people who are already on a path to find the tools to grow spiritually. But for some others…well, growth is either slower or not at all part of their goals. I was just reading another blogger’s research into the early history of aikido in Hawaii, and even with the “pioneers”; a lot of the people who became highly ranked teachers didn’t care much for “spiritual” growth. They just wanted it to work as a martial art. Their approach was practical, efficient, surely, but devoid of what we often think aikido is as a budo and as a philosophy. So…well, the answer is still out, I guess…

  4. This are the thoughts the blog invoked in my head. The Japanese are not known for their humanity, especially up to the end of world WWII. They Japanese philosophy on life is complex, and yet can be summed up simply by life and death are one, and life is hardship and then you die. There is no concept of after-life in the Japanese culture. If you read allot concerning Japanese feudal history you will read that a samurai was walking dead. You will also read the samurai’s life was at the disposal of their daimyo. Many samurai died out of their daimyo’s whims, carless, decisions, and vanity. Let’s jump to the kamikaze pilot whose life had no meaning as well. They had no choice but to die, to be a weapon. In feudal Japan, the act of Seppaku was noble and reserved for the samurai. The practice of seppaku had expanded so much it became a part of the Japanese culture. There isn’t not much room for humanity, and there wasn’t.

    Even today I think on the whole humanity isn’t part of the Japanese culture as other cultures. I was told once by a Japanese nisei living in the US, said Japanese lack a sense of humanity and you see it in their language and behavior. He said it seems to have gotten better. I found what he said next interesting. The explained that there is this suppressed humanity and you see it in Budo. Modern budo founders like karate, judo, aikido keeping one foot in the past and the other in the future recognize the importance of humanity in a modern Japan. My friend felt the lost of WWII of the Japanese allowed those who supported humanity to plant seeds of humanity in Japan. In comparison he added Japan still has a long way to reach the level of humanity as other countries have, but he believed it was possible.

    I personally think in the Japanese psyche especially after WWII really wanted humanity in their culture expecially after WWII, and their long history of warfare. And your blog, Wayne, exemplifies the period of transition Japan now is in. It seems to me that nisei, sansei, have a strong push for humanity, in things Japanese, like budo, because they live in countries that have a stronger sense of humanity..well currently that is.

  5. Just dropping the word, Kamidana shows how extremely important religion is to Budo. Of course there are other indigenous Shinto religious practices we all know of that are observed in the dojo.

    Religion for the samurai when beyond a practice, penetrating every aspect of their life. It is evident with Shinto. but also in Buddhism. The samurai had great veneration for Jizo Bosatsu and considered the symbol of the samurai. A deity that it is said to vicariously receive wounds inflicted on his worshippers. When the samurai where up against a difficult enemy on the battlefield, it believed, Jizo would insure a victory. Historically the deity is most commonly represented as figurine on horse back and in full battle armor. Such an important symbol, the deity is found thought out samurai armor. Jizo Bosatsu is consider the symbol of the samurai then and now. He is also the protector of deceased children, and has become one of the most beloved deities in Japan.

    Humanity as historically defined by western culture is different than that of Shintoism; Shinto does deal with humanity in terms of the western definition. But Buddhism does. In terms of martial arts we can see how Buddhism was treated and looked upon by the samurai; not in its purest form. And the Japanese on a whole are said to be born Shinto and die Buddhist. Historically, with the Samurai culture and it’s warfare dominating Japan in so many ways, the Buddhist humanity really never rose to cultural predominance. The need and observation of humanity was like a soft white noise or hum under the noise of chaotic shouting. That is the need for humanity in feudal and WWII era Japan was there. but not strong enough to be heard.

    It wasn’t until after WWII that the hum had gotten louder in Japan. As a society I feel humanity hasn’t yet penetrated the bones, but is skin deep, with exceptions of individuals such as Ueshiba sensei of Aikido, and such others. Oh the other hand, Japanese born outside of Japan stress the importance of humanity in all things Japanese, because it has penetrated their bones, and they are aware that it isn’t as deep with old Japan or new Japan.

  6. So here is the connection to the blog that is not so obviously seen which I am making. What seems evident always isn’t. In those who seriously treat budo more than it’s mechanics, more than an opportunity to dip into a romanticized past. See an undercurrent of a struggle between the ideal, the perfect; a major element in being Japanese. Verses the actual “doing” of the ideal. The common dojo is a spiritual place, not where gods are worshipped, like a church.

    No, it is a place where the ideal is to be epitomized, taught and cultivated, and is to permeate the student life beyond the dojo. Where the character of the student contributes positively to society, in behavior and manner. Part of that idea, that low hum, is humanity. The dojo overtly instructs the students to develop character, absent of the equal stress on humanity. The dojo stresses student responsible, respectfulness and polite behavior, with a good dose of humility. But lacks the direct attention on the practice of humanity beyond the dojo door. It reason there would be a conscience stress on humanity in the dojo, base on budo philosophy of character. After all it is a place where people learn to harm others. It seems logical that humanity should be epitomized and “done right.”

    Humanity unlike the other practices in the dojo, and in Budo, don’t have traditional rituals or customs that bring to the attention the importance of humanity to the student. Etiquette, for instance is such a custom and ritual constantly practiced and reinforced in dojo, becoming a standard practice in budo. The observation and practice of humanity on the other hand isn’t so obvious, and it can be completely over looked. There are no customs or rituals in standard budo or the dojo as there is for say, etiquette. Clearly, those in the dojo are not made aware of humanity as being part of the dojo or budo.

    Therefore, humanity not being observe openly, it can be said the subject of humanity is treated as a philosophy and not mandated as a part of the dojo or budo, but rather a personal individual venture. Thus, humanity fails to permeate the student if at all, as compared to how budo and the dojo define and put effort toward the ideal of character.

    One relative reason for humanity not strongly observed in the dojo directly is, it is not held as an ideal. Because of that it is a low hum. As a result, it is not easily heard and recognized, it is easily tuned out, or is sloughed off as a bother of little importance in the scope of budo. The drum skin of humanity isn’t drawn tight. Therefore, there is little “doing” of humanity, or even “doing it right” in the dojo or budo. After all budo and the dojo are not known for humanity, but for building character. Budo makes very little reference in or about the dojo that indicates the importance of observing or striving for any measurable level of humanity.

    As I said before, the tightening of the skin on the drum of humanity in budo is the nisei and sansei. I feel that observation is highly important. I realize Wayne is beautifully and masterful explaining in writing budo. It is really seen in this entry. When I read Wayne’s blog, I didn’t only see what he was getting at. I seen something not readily seen, which directly or indirectly, by design or accident a call for a greater focus and practice of humanity universally in the dojo and budo.

    In closing, I will respect the criticism, I might be seeing into things too much. Or overly stressing something in budo. As I said humanity, as I believe and pointed out in my earlier comments, humanity has been a low hum in feudal Japan that has carried over up until the loss of WWII, and doesn’t make too much more noise than as in modern Japanese culture. I fear, if it wasn’t for the Buddhism in Japan humanity would be an almost undetectable hum. In my mind, when I read such things written well as Wayne has in his blog, I wonder how many students when they walk into the dojo, bow, remove their shoes,change into their gi, tie their obi, and bow in and out at any point will concern themselves as budoka, being symbols and advocates of humanity.

  7. ” One the one extreme, there are yakuza; murderers. They kill.
    One the other extreme, there are zen monks; they meditate.
    ‘Jutsu’ falls on that scale farther from monks, ‘michi’ closer to monks.
    You want to develop yourself spiritually? Meditate all day, no need to swing a sword. You want to learn how to kill effectively, then learn violence; no need to worry about morality and whatnot. ”


    One of my favorate quotes.

  8. Niina-gosoke echos traditional Japanese martial thinking, right? There is no grey area, no hesitation, you commit without thought. You don’t fret your mind. You want “X” you do it, it is a matter of resolute. Consequences are not part of the equation.

    The era of the sword in Japan, didn’t have much room for humanity in the quest for power, glory and fame. I think the need for humanity came from those who were at the mercy of warfare.

    1. There’s the Japanese face that is presented by media (Hollywood, manga and other fiction authors) and then there’s the actual people that love their kids and want them to grow up to be decent human beings. That worry about how they look, how they treat others and how they are treated, and what’s for lunch. If anything, there’s less humanity in many very rich western nations today that there was in old Japan.

  9. Humanism and the ideas that developed from it originated, if I recall correctly, in Western-Europe. France I think. This makes the idea alien to Japan at least in the period the idea originated.
    By the by, is it not so that a large part of Japanese history in which all sorts of fighting arts developed was spend by different factions warring on each other.
    As in the former Yugoslavia but then it lasted several hundred years?

    I like to play advocate of the devil. Not to be a pain but more as an attempt to place things for myself in a perspective. All the fighting arts, no matter how wonderful it’s practitioners or how lofty the ideas they come up with, are in essence exercises in violence. We are very good at that and at times seem to do little else with our time here on earth.

  10. I agree the Western idea of humanism is foreign, but universally by definition of Humanism. Placing value on human beings, seeing and stressing the good in humans, recognizing and being attentive to the common human needs. Observing civilly and using rational solving for human conflicts and problems. The parts that define the western definition of humanism is universal to human beings. Then add humanism of Buddhism, and the role it plays in Japanese culture. People do get tied of living under warfare, its cultural of chaos, victimization, killing and death.

  11. What I mean is that humanism as an idea does not have a very long history in Japan and may need some more time to get settled. We still have a long way to go, everywhere on the globe.
    Except in Holland, Holland is perfect as it is.
    I suspect something as a conscience in common to all people exists. Maybe we should stop training in swordfighting and start training in that common conscience.

    On the other hand conscience exists of two parts: con – science.
    Maybe we are fooling ourselves and we should train twice as hard as the others, in swordfighting.

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