107: Why Do You Train?

Why do you train in budo?

I don’t think there’s one (or even two) right answers, really. There might be better ones, silly ones, stupid ones and awe-some bodacious ones, but one, or two right answers? No. But there are two paths a student can take when motivated to begin martial arts. One road ennobles, another adds insult to injury to a broken, crooked spirit.

As a student, and as a teacher, and even as a student who has trained long enough to be asked to help instruct, that’s something you have to consider when approaching a student to offer instruction.

You need to consider this when, perhaps, trying to figure out why a person may be hesitant in performing a particular kata, or stumbles this way instead of that way, or is too eager to learn too many kata instead of focusing on improving what he already knows, or is much too involved in attaining (or, in the case of a teacher, charging money and giving out) rankings.

Even as I say this, I’m actually not quite sure what kind of answers I’d get from my own little group of students. What they tell me may be markedly opposed to what I really want to know, because people learn to be good at giving “right answers” in a social environment.

“I want to learn how to better myself, to develop my health, and to learn about budo philosophy…” Yeah, sure. Then you watch them and they are all over the place, stumbling over themselves, not pushing themselves after classes to learn for themselves, and engaging in some pretty un-healthy lifestyle choices. Hmmm. There’s some cognitive dissonances going on there.

I write this because my wife, bless her heart, wants me to better organize my budo paperwork for my club. “What is your mission statement? What are you DOING?” she asked. “Why do you train?”

“Uh…because it’s…fun?” I answered.

“Not good enough,” she replied, putting down her pen and looking at me. “Why don’t you ask your students why they train?”

I do, and did, I replied. Whenever a new student joins, I ask them why they want to train.


Well…I get answers all over the map. Because they want to learn koryu: the history, the theory, the philosophy of classical martial arts. Because they enjoy the training but can’t do competitive training anymore. Because they want to learn how to twist wrists and throw people around.

She sighed. That’s not going to help. You need a concise, precise five-sentence statement.

I’ll try, I said. But really, ask five different people, and you may get five different answers or non-answers (like a shrug of the shoulders and a, “I dunno. ‘Cuz it’s fun!”). And even at that, the answers may not truly be why they train, in their heart of hearts. You often have to watch them and observe their attitudes and performance when they train to get at the heart of what their goals are.

The other reason for my musing on purposes for training is because I was just at a street celebration for Chinese New Year. As is the tradition in our Chinatown, a parade full of dignitaries, politicians, military marching units, high school bands, and assorted crowd favorites walked down the main street of the Chinatown section of Honolulu. Along with those folk were quite a number of local martial arts groups. There were Chinese martial arts/lion dance groups that livened up the festivities. And there were a lot of tenuously Chinese-y or totally non-Chinese martial arts groups walking down the street, in their training outfits and running shoes, stopping to perform mini-demonstrations midway.

All the groups looked to be McDojo types (I say this more in a descriptive way; not as a pejorative): lots of tykes and teenagers in ill-fitting outfits, lots of younger people in various stages of grunginess, as if being unshaved and without a visit to a barber in months lent more street cred toughness to them in their white, blue, black or combination of all the above plus red, white and blue colors.

I watched with some amusement (my wife dissected my gaze and said, “You’re just a snob!” to which I will admit to) and then told her that we didn’t have to stay and watch the martial arts very long. We could go find a stand that sold jai, noodles and gau to take home. The demo’s were bor-ing. Same old same old punch and kick, or some half-okole “ju-jits” moves stolen from legitimate Gracie systems.

One thing I’ll say though, I thought I understood why many of us, and many of the students I observed, took up martial arts. It was to appear (note that word, “appear”) tough. Join a dojo, wear some cool pajamas, learn a couple of killer moves, and then think you are a tough, badass assassin. Be “strong.” And you don’t have to work too hard at it, from the looks of their techniques. It’s an alluring incentive, especially for youngsters (think of how they channel themselves into being dinosaurs, monsters and wizards), and for young men and women seeking to find some self-confidence as awkward adolescents, but without trying too hard. I would hazard that even I started off in budo that way: I was tired of being beat up in schoolyards so I joined a judo club to get physically stronger and tougher.

The “Be Strong” allure is a powerful one, and I suspect that’s what brings a lot of people into budo training (and a lot of other martial arts besides Japanese budo). Attaining a sense of physical dominance is a natural impulse across cultures.

One of my students served in military intelligence, and he noted that modern combative training emphasized MMA-style grappling. When he complained to the drill instructor that they wouldn’t encounter nearly naked grappling fights on a modern-day battlefield, the instructor replied, basically, that he knew that was true, but with only a few days for hand-to-hand training in between cardio and marksmanship, at least the raw recruits would develop a SENSE of competency in hand-to-hand, even though they really weren’t going to learn much of anything. At least they’d FEEL more confident.

When my student served overseas, he analyzed captured terrorist videotapes used at their camps. Funny thing, he wrote. There’s a lot of stuff where the new recruits in those terrorist camps are being taught en masse to punch and kick, like a karate class. When was the last time you saw a terrorist attack a mall, bus or building using karate? Never, right? But the training itself lent a James Bondian sense of being a killer elite to the terrorists recruits who would probably sooner strap a bomb to themselves than attack someone with their bare fists. So it’s all about creating an imagined, if not a real, sense of physical strength.

There’s a lot of “churning” going on in those factory-style dojo, however, for various reasons. Sooner or later, a student’s self-delusion about being the next James or Jane Bond, secret agent, is dashed when he is beat too many times in a contest or tourney. Or he realizes through a fog of self-delusion that there are a whole lot of people better than he is, and he is hampered by a mess of obstacles (physical, social, mental, and congenital) along the way to being Batman, Superman, Kwai Chang Caine or the next incarnation of Bruce Lee.

When that happens, the student inevitably drops out. He learned enough to be dangerous to himself, full of inflated self-confidence. Now he can brag about being a yellow belt to his drinking buddies, but he doesn’t have to do more work to get any higher, because, hey, his hands are deadly “fists of fury.”

On the other hand, one shouldn’t diss all such beginnings to become “strong.” I was like that too. I did become physically healthier. Doing judo opened up a whole new world for me, a bookworm: that of athletics. From judo, I went on to high school football, a bit of wrestling, then aikido, karate do, and finally ending up in koryu.

In my case, I didn’t quit because what supplanted my quest to “become strong” was a quest to learn more about the whole nature of budo, and how it could become a part of my body, my mind, and my life in ways that went beyond physical brute strength, combativeness and “looking tough”  to actually “being tough” mentally.

For me, I think the problem is when some people enter the martial arts seeking such outward, superficial machismo and never grow out of it, moving on to becoming seniors and even teachers without ever deepening their understanding of their own nature and that of other people. When their own physical limitations, old age, infirmities, etc., stymie them, they drop out, sometimes sooner, sometimes later.

Several of my own teachers have noted that this attitude can be a problem. There are many kinds of martial arts, they admonished me. All of them can lead up to the top of a mountain along different paths, but they all have the same goal, technically, physically, and philosophically. So don’t be so critical of other schools or their approaches if you understand that they are attempting to reach the same goal but in a different way.

On the other hand, they also noted that there ARE some paths that lose their way, that go downwards into a dark valley instead of a mountaintop, that become not a path for self-cultivation to becoming a better individual, but a dark road to selfish brutishness. And that can include any kind of martial arts, modern or classical, eclectic or traditional.

“That is the way of the Demonic World (of Buddhism),” one sensei told me. “People act like vicious, violent animals, selfish, greedy and self-centered. That is hell on earth, which comes about from ignorance about one’s true humanity.”

The goals of training, therefore, lie along those two paths: to one’s betterment (however it may be, such as physical, mental, spiritual and so on) or to the negative path of being prone to violence, pride, self-centeredness. The tools (budo training) are the same. It’s how you approach the budo and use it that makes all the difference in the world.

The teachings of the Yagyu Shinkage-ryu heiho, and even one of the okuden in one of my own school of koryu is the concept of “Satsujinto, Katsujinken.” In discussions with other people with more experience, I’ve been told that the concept has several levels of understanding, from the personal to the tactical, to the political. A full discussion of all the meaning of this phrase, meaning “The Sword that Kills, the Sword that gives Life,” is beyond the scope of this short blog essay.

However, I am led to understand that one of the meaning is that the sword symbolizes one’s training in martial arts. Like a sword, martial arts by and of itself is neither inherently good or bad. It is how the practitioner uses it, and approaches it, that creates either a weapon that is used either for good or for evil, for the development of positive physical and mental virtues, or for the creation of a thug.

Why do you train? Ask yourself this. And/or ask your students this. Watch their lips move, but then observe how they train, and decipher their true motivations from how they act, not what they say. Becoming stronger is admirable. Becoming healthier, wiser, smarter, better. But beware of fostering the flip side of the coin: by becoming “stronger,” does that mean becoming meaner, crueler, stronger without compassion, powerful but more selfish? Whatever the answers, is the student looking for a Sword of Life or a Blade of Death?

15 thoughts on “107: Why Do You Train?

  1. WOW! So much to say, such a vast subject. The other day I watched a video some guys made doing their martial arts and I realized how different my experience is. Their reasons for training are going to be very different from mine on the surface … but deep inside maybe they’re not all that different. Aren’t we seeking change through cultivation? I can say that I am. Perhaps the young punk who wants to appear cool is also seeking change through cultivation of sorts. But the follow through is the big difference. I agree with what you said about the humbling stage realizing that are dreams are far different from the reality, and it’s all confused being “hampered by a mess of obstacles.” That goes for the young punk who quits karate after yellow belt. It also goes for me as I continue practicing kyudo and iaido. I very much agree with your wife saying that you should come up with a five sentence charter of sorts, because I love figuring out why I train in the martial arts … but one of those sentences may have to account for all those reasons we can’t explain, that great void of a reason where we really don’t know why we do the things we do. It’s funny I just wrote about generally the same subject, why do we practice the martial arts? on my blog. This quetsion seems to be at the center of most martial artists path. Check it out for a much less thought out and confusing version of this fine article.

  2. Good question. At the suggestion of my Chinese doctor, I’d started taking tai chi following recovery from a torn rotator cuff and a knee injury. I enjoyed it, but after about three months I began wondering if I should try something more demanding. I then found out the instructor of our tai chi class was also a karate sensei with his own dojo. He invited me to come ‘watch’ a class: but within the hour I was wearing a borrowed gi and was on the floor learning the heian shodan. It was fun, but no recreation class either: I struggled so much in the first weeks, I wondered if I had made a mistake signing up for something so physically and mentally challenging. It was even harder when Sensei suggested (gently) that I might have an easier time if I trained in the youth class. Being the one adult white belt next to six-year-olds in yellow belts and extremely skilled teens in brown belts required a willingness to humble myself. Looking back, I probably needed to be humbled: I was used to being the best in grad school, at work, and in other amateur sports. Suddenly realizing there was a place where I wasn’t “best” at anything was a huge learning experience.

    I now have a yellow belt, but of course, my younger classmates have moved up to green, purple and brown belts. Karate continues to be difficult for me, and I still struggle with basic technique. Being over 50 and officially diagnosed with arthritis in the hands and knees hasn’t helped. Learning how to be a beginner again has made me mentally young, however. Instead of thinking, “I can’t do this, I’m too old/hurt/staid”—a lot of my friends in my age group believe that middle-aged people shouldn’t be rolling on the floor and shouting kiais because it’s not dignified—I just do it, over and over again until I have some resemblance of mastery. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to a brown belt, let alone a black belt. Maybe that’s not the point.

    1. Jim, yep. It started off as an easy question for me…and then like all such questions, I still can’t figure it out!

    1. Ha. Many a young lad (including myself) started something thinking we could pick up girls, and fortunately, while it may not have improved our nerdiness negativity factor, at least we learned something!!!

  3. I began training in 1958 after watching an episode of “M Squad” w/Lee Marvin when he had a battle w/a Karate guy…although the Karate guy lost the style infatuated me…bought Mas O’Yama’s book as well as Hidetaka Nishiyama’s Karate book as well built a Makiwara and went for it…now 56 years later [still at it] w/both wonderful and terrible experiences [ i’ve collected broken bones and other various damage from ‘Cobra Kai’ type instructors] and have received wonderful enlightening training from other really amazing sensei…one of whom is an 80 yr. old Aikido Hachi-dan in Wakayama Japan who is refreshing/old fashioned/strict and very open as well as kind and is the closet thing to the sensei you wonder if really exists in this world…so as a youth i pursued the power and toughness of a Karateka and over the years passed thru the fire and trials as well as the joy of Budo…and have come out the other end as a sempei who works hard to keep the spirit alive in my students w/out the drama and confusion that seems to be an unfortunate aspect of training…my most enjoyable remembrance was when i taught DT at the state police academy and years later encountered one of my students who mentioned he was able to deal w/the suspects of a crime using convincing language and gentle focused movement to complete the arrest…so every time i enter the dojo i am looking forward from the teachings i will get from my students.

  4. I couldn’t have admitted it even to myself at the time, but in retrospect I realize that I started training to exorcize the memories of being smaller and weaker on the playground in elementary school. Now, I’m well aware that the real dangers I face don’t have personal combat solutions, but interestingly, I have less physical fear reactions, and less general anxiety in my interactions in the world now that I have some minimal competence in aikido and BJJ

  5. It is hard to describe. It is not about having fun, although I enjoy the experience each and every time. It gives me a sense of peace. It in all likelihood stems from my dominant sense mode of touch because I can feel in my body and mind how it effects me when I practice and train. I would have to say that it gives my mind a more moving meditative experience that brings me that sense of tranquility. (Note: it is hard for me to describe. It would be like breathing, if I stop it would have some strange effects on my psychie 🙂

  6. In the words of Shakespeare (loosely transliterated) “no one can really know why they do the things they do”.

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