Japanese martial arts developed and evolved over hundreds of years of wars. With the unification of the nation of Japan, there was no longer a need for so many samurai and samurai arts to exist. There are very few of these unbroken lines of transmission of those arts alive today. Some people in Japan recognized some unique and positive characteristics within the high class samurai that emerged through the nature and type of training that they underwent to become samurai. Many people refer to the strict, intense nature of that training as “Shugyo” This training helped the emerging warrior to recognize the life and death nature of their way of life. It created in many a deep sense of appreciation for one’s immediate existence. This deep respect for the moment helped to create some beautiful art forms and other forms of creative expressions, along with some very deep and profound thinkers. These individuals were viewed as confident, yet not arrogant. They were capable of deep thinking, while acting decisively without having to ponder one’s actions before taking them. They were willing to die in pursuit of their task, while holding a remarkably profound appreciation for a moment of life. They appreciated the beauty and frailty of life like few people could.
The great challenge became taking the personal transformational nature of martial arts training away from the life and death struggles of the battlefield and use it in a peaceful society. Modern martial arts emerged as the best attempt to both carry on the importance of parts of martial arts training and to utilize the nature of the training as an important tool for positive, personal transformation. This was a difficult task, with an uneasy balanced that led to mixed results. Today, we are left with fewer and fewer dojos where the nature of the training represents a level of authenticity of the martial arts and enables a unique opportunity for positive, personal transformation.
I believe that there are three distinctly separate paths of departure from the high aims of those whose martial arts developed directly from their warrior ancestry. These paths represent little more than dead-end roads. The first path has been the transformation of the martial art into a competitive sports. The founder of Judo warned his students that the greatest threat to Judo was too much emphasis on competition, which would destroy the heart of the martial character of his newly synthesized art. Almost all of Judo taught today is for the competitive sport of Judo. If the founder of Judo were to come back alive today, He would be horrified with what his vision devolved into. The most popular fighting sports today is called Mixed Martial Arts. This is little more than a gladiator contest that consumes many young, strong bodies in order to entertain the many and enriching a few. Mixed martial arts is for the most part, rough, quick, brutal training from a variety of martial arts and fighting sports traditions. The fighters then get to battle it out within a set of highly defined rules. Heck, I like watching MMA on occasion to see what they are doing. This fighting sport does change and it is interesting to me to see these changes. I do not pretend that they are anything more than gladiators with a short time span in which they have to live in the limelight. This dead-end road is a short-path that leaves behind many damaged bodies and little in terms of future growth in the path that they dedicated their lives to. I have yet to see how this path has contributed anything towards positive character development after these people have retired from active competition.
The second path has been the myopic distillation of a martial art into a vapid, empty shell. Many people in the martial arts world today would place much of Aikido under this umbrella with holes….. To hear people refuse to test their skills against practitioners of other arts and styles, because it is somehow beneath them is comical at best. To see people within Aikido believe that the stylized nature of the training represents real attacks and real responses simply defies rational explanation. If you have seen someone fall down dead from a wrist grab or watch a seemingly half-paralyzed body throw a punch, or knife hand strike work in a bar fight, please enlighten me…. Those same people who are somehow disturbed by what I just said, should look back at the founder of Aikido. This great martial artist did not make excuses to not face challengers. He also succeeded when challenged. How many of us have the same track record…. I will not simply single Aikido out as the only martial art that has gone down this dead-end road. There are many more, but since I am writing as a professional Aikido instructor, I will keep the focus on an area that I have direct responsibility for trying to address. This dead-end road leaves people to hide within their closed organizations in order to feel good within their fictional, martial arts world. Within that world, enlightenment is easy to revel in… When what you do, does to pan out in the world at large, I do not see how that can translate into positive character transformation that is enacted in this larger world.
The third path has been the crass commercialization of martial arts. I simply refer to those places as McDojos (franchise opportunities do exist for those who want to be seduced by promises of riches). These schools for the most part, prey on parents whose idea of good parenting is to involve their children in different activities which leaves them free of having to directly spend that time raising their children. These parents sincerely want to develop the next generation of princes and princesses who will take over their gilded traditions….. Just think that toddlers can within several years and approximately $15,000- $20,000 can become black belts! These children have accumulated more accolades in the forms of garishly decorated belts, than most Heisman Trophy winners! These children can break board in dramatic fashion. Of course the boards would break by almost any force directed at them, due to the nature of the wood and the direction of the grains in the wood, but whose counting…. Other schools teach acrobatic movements that gymnasts and baton twirlers could enjoy watching! Some of those dojos do bring in a substantial amount income, but it comes at the cost of feeding into a narcissistic tendency while teaching skills that would get most people hurt if they tried to use them in most fighting situations. People who follow this dead-end road have lighter bank accounts and unrealistic, narcissistic beliefs about themselves and their abilities which adds little to a sense of real character development.
I am very, very lucky to have an Aikido teacher whose skills are genuine and truly do work. I came to Aikido as someone who was looking to leave my fighting past behind, while still pursuing my personal development within the world of martial arts. My teacher is genuinely like a father figure to me. He has helped guide me to change my life in profoundly positive ways. I have been able to do so without developing false illusions and skills as a martial artist. These positive, personal changes led me change the direction of my life and become a professional martial arts instructor. Training under him is true Shugyo in training. The longer I train under him, the harder I work at insuring that all of my own training and teaching experiences retain a core element of Shugyo. I have experienced what this type of training can do and strongly believe in it’s continued value today.
As a professional martial arts instructor, I do not use the sales line of telling people that they will become invincible warriors and/or capable of great skills in self-defense. In fact, when people tell me that their big concern is self-defense, I use that as a starting point for a discussion. The first thing that I point out is that most people will NEVER have to defend themselves against a physical attack in their adult lives. If they are really at risk, I advise them to obtain and maintain very good firearms training, keep a shotgun at home, obtain a carry permit and carry a loaded pistol with them when they are in places of great risk. Low and behold, almost nobody, outside of law enforcement and military fall into that category. I tell them that martial arts is really an anachronistic term and that real martial arts and sciences today exist in the military. DARPA is an awesome program for the development of martial arts and sciences! What I tell students is that we will be working slowly, sincerely, and intensely in a fun atmosphere (okay- truly politically incorrect atmosphere) to learning skills that take a very long time to develop. I do believe that Shugyo can exist in an open atmosphere with good humor. Poking fun at ourselves (and others) is a great way to separate our ego from what we do and what we are trying to do. These skills do enable a person to do some pretty remarkable things when having to defend one’s self in a hand-to-hand encounter. I point out that the real value in the nature of this training is in how it can positively influence you as a person. This type of training should help a person appreciate the gift of being alive right now. This type of training dispels ideas and believes of invincibility which helps us to make better choices as to living in the moment. This type of training opens you up to more effective and honest communications with those you work with. This type of training helps you to see the value in developing and protecting a strong community of loving, caring individuals. This type of training helps you to be in the moment and appreciate all that is involved in it. This type of training always leaves room to further develop and hone one’s skills. This path leaves hope for positive change, regardless of your age. To me, when there is nothing left to learn, nothing left to improve on, you are ready to have dirt thrown on top of you.
I have had the distinct honor of being a sensei long enough to see real positive growth in the character of the students who have training in our dojo over these years. To see this change and be part of this change continues to inspire me to become a better and more sincere teacher. My dedication to improve at creating Shugyo in our training environment pushed me to insure that my own training is always becoming more deeply imbued with Shugyo. I hope and wish that this path continues like I observe in my own teacher. As I get ready to embark on opening another school, I look forward to seeing two communities (on each side of this country) grow together with Shugyo to create loving, caring individuals of great character and fine martial arts skills.
Marc Abrams Sensei