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?