The Warrior’s Path: Wisdom from Contemporary Martial Arts Masters by James Sidney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My upfront apology: Having drafted this review, I noticed that the book comes off sounding like a bunch of old folks being curmudgeonly about the current generation. As I read this book, that wasn’t the feeling I got. Therefore, it may be a matter of the points that resonated with me, and be more reflective of myself than the martial arts sensei (teachers) who have chapters in the book. [That being said, young readers be forewarned that your generation does get blasted upon not only in this review, but by the sensei in question.]
Fifteen prominent martial arts teachers offer their insights in this book. The group is in many ways homogenous. All fifteen teachers are practitioners of Japanese gendai budō (the modern-day martial arts that developed after the Meiji Restoration ; as contrasted with kobudō or koryū bujutsu, i.e. old school martial arts). All of these martial artists were born in the 1910’s and 20’s and began their study of martial arts in first half of the 20th century.
These teachers are a bridge between the founders of these arts and the arts as we know them today. In a few cases, they are also bridges between kobudō and modern martial arts. For example, Hiroshi Tada was a student of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of aikido. While we think of O-sensei (Ueshiba) as a gendai budō practitioner because he founded a modern school, he was brought up on kobudō. Furthermore, students of Gichin Funakoshi (the Shotokan karate founder), Jigorō Kanō (the Kodokan judō founder), Hironori Ōtsuka (the Wadō-ryū karate founder), and Dōshin Sō (the founder of Shōrinji Kempō) are represented.
This book is particularly important in that several of the teachers in it have passed away since the book was published. Time is receding for this generation’s thoughts to be saved for posterity. A cursory google search revealed that at least four of these teachers have passed away: Hidetaka Nishiyama (2008), Tatsuo Suzuki (2011), Keiko Fukuda (2013), and Ron Nobuto Omoto (2013.) However, some were more well-known internationally than others, so there may be a few others that passed on without attracting the attention of English-language websites. However, the youngest of them is 84 (the oldest believed living is 97), and so it’s safe to say there may not be many more chances to hear these people’s wisdom.
I’ve pointed out the homogeneity of this group, but there’s also a diversity about them. Practitioners of karate, judō, aikidō, shōrinji kempō, kendō, kyūdō, and Atarashii Naginata are represented. Despite the notoriously male-dominated nature of Japanese martial arts, at least there are two women’s voices in the mix. While all of the artists are of Japanese ancestry, they’re not all Japanese by citizenry. There are two Americans and two Canadians among the bunch, and one individual who was born in China. There are also individuals who were born in Japan but moved abroad to places like France and Brazil to spread their art.
There are a few themes common across multiple of the commentaries. It might be tempting to dismiss some of these points as the “back-in-my-day” sentimentality of the aged, but their experiences are sometimes too similar to lack veracity.
First, several of the teachers said there was much less doggedness in recent generations than in their era. People come into the dōjō (a martial arts school), dabble a little, and–if they’re not constantly entertained by new and fancy techniques–they quit. As a result, there are many practitioners who possess a vast repertoire of technique, but they aren’t skilled in any of it—and even more who get nowhere. The theme was that there is no fast-track to success in budō, one has to work at it day in and day out. It should be noted that all of these individuals were born before 1930, and yet were still teaching / training in 2003 when the book was published.
Second, this generation devoted considerable effort to developing the mind as well as the body. With the availability of better nutrition, training equipment, and sport science, young martial artists may be physically fitter than ever on average (I’m talking about competitors not those using martial arts as a fat camp), but they are also mentally weaker than ever—with limited attention spans and emotional control. Present-day martial arts students often give little credence to the value of training the mind or carrying a martial arts mindset outside the dōjō. Several of the teachers in this book mentioned practicing Zen or some other form of mental exercise, and some emphasized the importance of carrying the clarity and intention of the dōjō about everyday life.
The problem with this is that the martial arts become a young man’s game, and there becomes a lack of experience. A student does a martial art for a few years and then abandons it because his or her physical athleticism isn’t going to increase. This decreasing physical capacity translates into becoming a weaker martial artist. The only way to grow in the long-run is to become mentally stronger, more self-confident, and having better emotional control.
The problem is that this mental strength and confidence often becomes confused with arrogance or cockiness. But as Nobuyuki Kamogawa (kyūdō) points out, the problem with arrogance is that one can’t see one’s weaknesses—and, thus, can’t grow. While Japanese arts may seem overly-formal (and there can be truth to that), it shouldn’t be forgotten that part of what this formality does is (potentially) build mental discipline and humility.
I think Toshiro Daigo best summed up the problem of not living the art. He said, “But to young Japanese people, judō becomes judō when you put on your judō costume. So without the costume, judō doesn’t exist.”
Third, judō, karate, and kendō teachers bemoaned a shift away from the pursuit of victory by decisive technique (e.g. the the ippon.) Over time, there has been an increased reliance on building up a win by minor points. In judō this may mean trips instead of throws; in kendō it means going for the forearm rather than the head. In other words, competitors have become more risk-averse and less bold. Concern about this is two-fold. For one thing, there’s a worry about the dilution of these arts, but there’s also concern about the sport becoming less interesting to watch and thus losing its following.
Related to the previous two criticisms is a concern about training to build champions, while forgetting to forge good students. This was emphasized not only by some of the sport-oriented art teachers, but also by Hiroshi Tada. Tada, as an aikidō practitioner, is in the unique position being the only one of the teachers to practice a non-sport martial arts system.
Fourth, several sensei suggested the importance of learning for oneself. One of the teachers, Rod Nobuto Omoto, was an uchi deshi (live-in student), and he—as in the old days—spent a lot of time doing chores while getting little to no training. The point is not so much to criticize the younger generation, but to inform them that they must take the reins of their martial arts practice. This may come to a surprise because the educational experiences they are most used to is having information handed to them in as learnable a form as possible.
Fifth, there was a general disdain for the idea of thinking of one’s art as being inherently superior to all others. Masao Takahashi (judō) and Mitsusuke Harada (karate) both made this point. Harada proposed that abject faith in the superiority of one’s art encourages the development of martial artists who cannot defend themselves. If you think your system is inherently best, you may begin to rely on that illusion of superiority rather than on the advancement of your own skill.
Sixth, the importance of mutual benefit was emphasized throughout. Of course, for the judo practitioners, the idea of jita kyoei (self-perfection, mutual benefit) is one of the two Kodokan budōkun (martial arts maxims.) [The other being seiryoku zenyo, or maximum efficiency.] Shigeru Uchiyama said that the belief in Shōrinji Kempō (whose practitioners are also Kongo Zen pupils) is that of “…living half of your life for yourself and half for others.”
A couple of other points that caught my attention were brought up by individual teachers.
Keiko Fukuda expressed concern about women being trained in the same manner as men, and, thus, using too much strength. The 9th dan was concerned about injuries resulting from this over-reliance on strength. This is an interesting point which I hadn’t given much thought. No doubt it’s a controversial point as well. It’s hard for me to comment about whether Fukuda is just old-fashioned and a product of her time and culture (which is, I’m afraid, highly misogynistic) or whether her point is valid. However, I’d be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt as she was an extremely impressive woman.
Lest one think that these are all just traditionalists trying to keep the traditions alive, consider a quote by Yoshimitsu Takeyasu that speaks otherwise. “Not all traditions are good but we have to identify the ones that should be kept.” Rod Nobuto Omoto said simply, “Tradition is not important.” However, I think Omoto’s point is more nuanced than it seems (and perhaps more Taoist) in that what he seems to be saying is that if you make the tradition important it becomes about the tradition and not the what lies beneath the tradition (e.g. values, etc.)
Omoto also offered a great deal of thought-provoking insight into death. It was clearly a topic that he’d reflected on not only as someone coming to the end of his life, but also as one who practices budō.
I think this is an important book for martial artists of all stripes. However, I think that even non-martial artists might learn a thing or two from the insights of these old masters.
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