Efficacy or Enrichment: The Purpose of Budo (a composite of comments by Ellis Amdur)

“There is nothing more beautiful, for example, than a leopard. I think a vegetarian leopard, grazing grass or gnawing potatoes would be a sorry thing to see. And honestly, that’s my reaction when I see far too much that is claimed to be Nihon Budo.” – Ellis Amdur

The following is an aggregate of comments made by Ellis Amdur on the Aikido Facebook Forum regarding the purpose of budo, Japanese martial arts. Finding Amdur’s perspective both fresh and eye-opening, I decided, with Amdur’s permission, to compile and edit the comments into a cohesive blog post format. To read more of Amdur’s writing, which I highly recommend, you can purchase his books HERE or visit his blog HERE.

“Of course, I would hope that anything I write is of value and hence, educational. But the idea that budo is primarily a tool of education – socialization – spiritual -is a relatively modern one. Through most of Japanese martial history, seishin tanren had the purpose of forging the spirit, to be sure – it’s in the name – but for the purpose, of a) surviving and winning combat b) ruling the nation (and the lower classes).

An archaic art can be decried as “not effective’ against modern munitions, for example, but for me, if it is not effective within the context it was created (for example, hand to hand combat using certain weapons in a bladed culture), I have no particular interest in practicing it.

All the teachers I knew amongst the arts I trained and the other arts among whom I associated were concerned about effectiveness above all – and felt that all of the other benefits that budo might offer would be absent without martial integrity. That [some] assert that the vast majority of Japanese do not have that focus on effectiveness in combat and that this is the norm – I am quite prepared to believe [them].

What is interesting to me is that without that focus, beauty and integrity also disappear from their movements. There is nothing more beautiful, for example, than a leopard. I think a vegetarian leopard, grazing grass or gnawing potatoes would be a sorry thing to see. And honestly, that’s my reaction when I see far too much that is claimed to be Nihon Budo.

My goal has always been to be greater than Araki Mujinsai, or Toda Seigen. To be greater than my own teachers. And I’m frankly bored with any student who does not wish to be greater than me. I personally don’t understand the mindset of someone training in budo who doesn’t wish to be surpassingly great. (Yes, objectively, I understand it, but I don’t have much in common with them, at least in training budo). But let’s [look at some] examples:

Kyudo – my limited understanding of kyudo is that its goal was self-cultivation, unlike kyujutsu, which wished to pierce the target. Which makes kyudo something I’ve never wanted to do.

Kendo – kendo is a sport with specific targets that evolved out of the older gekkiken which (well, I’m not going to write a whole history here – I wrote about a lot of this in Old School ) I have very much appreciated my experiences in taryu-shiai, but have never had a desire to do kendo, as it seems to me to be far too divorced from kenjutsu BUT – within its context, absolutely, kendoka are obsessed with effectiveness – at kendo.

Judo – I love judo, I did far too little. And judo has always been concerned with effectiveness. Every throw that didn’t work fell by the wayside. Why is there no yama-arashi any more? Because other throws work better in judo’s context. And once upon a time, judo, Kano included, were concerned about effectness beyond their own dojos – hence the somewhat fabricated account of its victories over Yoshin-ryu.

Aikido? Used to – In one of his early books, Kisshomaru described Shirata Rinjiro winning all bouts against those who challenged aikido, including a veiled assertion that among them was Shirata defeating Hisa Takuma. In Hidden in Plain Sight, I describe Kisshomaru himself teaching a couple of students several throws where one deliberately concusses the opponent, saying that ‘you guys will be teachers some day, and need to handle challenges’ And when other students started to gather around to observe, Doshu shooed them away.

So if you imagine ‘effectiveness’ as total combat mastery, then you should be looking to spec ops, I suppose. Everything has a context. But when martial arts abandon ‘effectiveness’ even WITHIN the context and cultural matrix they were created, then it’s a vegetarian leopard. A much less challenging pet – it’ll never eat your children. But no longer living its true nature.

[H]ere’s my last [comment on the subject]… the question of whether we should be as good as our teachers/tatsujin – I think most modern budoka leave practice happy – bruised, tired, but happy. I enjoy training as well. But if I know that I could have learned more if I practiced more, then I also feel shame and anger at myself for betraying my teacher and my school. I have felt so fortunate to actually be TAUGHT by master instructors, and I, personally, believe that I insult them if I don’t learn what they teach – because I have other interests, or because I’m not motivated enough to put in the grueling hours that THEY put in to master things. I can accept failing due to lack of innate talent – but I cannot accept failing due a lack of diligence or will. People who don’t have that drive may well be very fine people, but their budo is a hobby. That, too, is fine – but I don’t think that, once upon a time, it was viewed that way. Unless some people still do, then martial arts will soon become a martial dance (like the travesty of Chinese modern wushu). Incredible knowledge will be lost forever. (Truly great practitioners disagree with me – Tomiki Kenji, for example, refused to teach the Daito-ryu he learned from ueshiba considering it a-social. He thought the educational value of a budo-for-all was far more important).

One last thought. I do not agree that ‘those teachers, in order to be professional, need students paying them. I do NOT want to be a ‘teacher;’ I do want to teach. Once a professional relationship is founded, the teacher, unavoidably, becomes dependent upon the students. What if he is too harsh. The students leave. He has made budo his job, and his business plan is failing. So he changes things (and not, usually, in the direction of integrity). I have and will take money if I’m asked to teach a seminar, because it takes me away from my actual work. But I do not charge my students anything. I only want to teach those striving to become an elite themselves. And if they don’t like what I teach, that’s absolutely fine with me – down to having no students at all. In my mind, a budoka who teaches is someone who has accomplished something in the world through his or her budo – exerting power upon the leverage points of the world so that it is undeniably different due to his or her power – then and only then (in my world) is the person qualified to teach. And the only reason to teach is to pass on the knowledge he or she has acquired (largely given by his own teacher and that acquired by his own will and body).

All too often, I have seen professional teachers who withhold information to keep students dependent – in a sense, its a predator/prey relationship, because if I teach you and you leave, how will I eat. Or I popularize, and flourish, but the art is watered down. (I’m not only thinking of koryu – consider Tada Hiroshi, and compare the average aikido instructor emanating from the Aikikai today. (And just to be clear, I’m just expressing what is important to me – I’ve got only a very few people studying with me. It’s just my way).”

– Ellis Amdur

Holistic Budo is the blog of Robert Van Valkenburgh, co-founder of Kogen Dojo and Taikyoku Mind & Body

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