The essence of things

The Essence of things? Everybody has his style but the essence is common. There is not one fixed method, and there is no method which would not be included. The basis is no fixed method, even if there is some method, it should be empty too. (Wang Xiang Zhai – Yiquan)

Words can express very beautiful an idea, a concept. But a concept is always only an approximation of reality. By becoming an observer of our moving body, maybe we can experience a glimpse of reality. Martial arts are techniques to become aware of the movements of our body and mind. The movement of the body is a result of the “mushin” mind. The understanding of this body/mind experience depends on the translation from one culture into another because each culture has a different thruth of the “empty” mind (mushin). It is also very obvious there are many thruths for a wellknown word: Budō. We can make a whole list of words describing the essence of things.

Tomiki Aikido in this case is not an exception, it has concepts with beautiful words. Take for example:

From: The statute of general incorporated association, International Tomiki Aikido Federation [ITAF]. The philosophy of incorporation An abstract Master Kenji TOMIKI has devised an Aiki-randori method, (a kind of free sparring method in Aikido, which was later turned into an Aikido competition). The nature of his methods lie in total practicality, which is acquired by integrating technical principles of budo (Japanese martial arts)……….. …….The methods of our character building are found in a long time training of Aikido techniques in kata and randori. A competition itself is not Aikido practitioners’ primary goal but merely a way to measure how much one has achieved one’s aims of training. We respect Olympism, and aim at creating an Olympic sport event, in which the educational nature is inherent, as mentioned above. We aim at keeping the current traditions of budo culture…………

What is the meaning of “technical principles of budo” and “ the current traditions of budo culture“?
If we can find an answer to these questions, we can find the essence of the words in the ITAF text.

Martial Art & Budo

Budo in general is translated as “martial art” and the system is in general defined as a physical, mental and/or spiritual training method, practised in a Japanese socio/cultural environment.


On the other hand there are martial arts without the concept of Budo.
Boxing, The Art of Manliness is a Western concept of a combat method. Another one is classical fencing. Sword fighting schools can be found in European historical records dating back to the 12th century. Some fencing schools claim:

As with any true martial art, our goal is not just to defeat the opponents or become the first place champion in a particular discipline but rather to be better than we were five minutes ago.

Budo in the West

Western society is inclined to classify everything and martial arts are no exception. How to classify and describe martial method in words which accomodate the essence of your art from the point of view as a practitioner in the West? Because we try to describe a method from the point of view as a Western educated person, our classification cannot be based upon the concept of Japanese Budo or other Eastern concepts mostly inspired by Bhudism, Taoism, Confucianism or other philosophical system. Nevertheless many Asian martial arts are practised in the Western society. Once a Japanese teacher told me about understanding Western people, you just have to study the Bible. Maybe there is some truth in this. The motivation to practise Budo by most of the Western people is based upon some imported ideas which are missing in our contemporary Western culture. In the past there was some time to “meditate” in the church during the services. There was also a certain “code” of our functioning in society. To be clear, I don’t want to go back to the good old time. For some of us, Budo is a replacement for our “Christian” involvement. But do we understand the essence of the words behind the Budo concept with our heart? Let’s go back to classification.

Classification of martial arts

Martial Arts scholars have tried to define Asian martial arts, and some of these approaches are in some way practical to use. As with most so called solutions there are “pros” and “contras”.

Three different approaches to Asian martial arts practice in the West have been described by Theeboom, De Knop, & Wylleman, 1995: (a) traditional, (b) efficiency, and (c) sporting.

Traditional Approach
In this approach, participants strive for unity and coordination between internal (e.g., spiritual and mental) and external (e.g., physical) elements. According to this view, physical excellence in martial arts will not go without spiritual or mental cultivation (Kleinman, 1986). This approach can also be described as “holistic”. Back and Kim (1984) described four criteria that need to be fulfilled to keep the status of a traditional Asian martial art: (a) recognition of national or cultural origin, (b) development of fighting skills, (c) presence of artistic aspects, and (d) spiritual development.

Efficiency Approach
The efficiency approach emphasizes effectiveness and application of the techniques in a fight. Martial arts in this approach are mainly practised for self-defense reasons. Although one might argue that this approach actually goes back to the origin of the martial arts, that is, to know how to protect oneself, in Asia this function has lost a great deal of its importance, as other functions became more important (e.g., aestheticism, health and fitness). For example, distinct changes in form, content and function have characterized the development of the Chinese martial arts (Theeboom & De Knop, 1997). In the West however, the efficiency approach is very popular. According to van Bottenburg (1994), this is the result of a growing commercialization among martial arts schools. Often, the value of these schools is measured by the degree to which fighting skills are used efficiently by their students. As a result, many martial arts schools are constantly looking for harder and more efficient fighting techniques to offer. van Bottenburg (1994) has described this evolution as the “hardening” of martial arts.

Sporting Approach
The sporting approach does not focus primarily on the acquisition of fighting competence, but rather regards martial arts as sports with positive effects on the physical, mental and social state of its participants. Unlike the efficiency approach where “anything goes”, in this third view the variety of fighting skills is restricted to what is allowed according to specific competition rules. Although it is important to mention that recent evolutions in martial arts competitions, such as the introduction of so-called “ultimate or cage fighting” where only a very limited set of rules is used, raise doubts about whether these activities can still be referred to as sport. Consequently, some have described this trend as a “desportification” of the martial arts (van Bottenburg & Heilbron, 1996), as these extreme fighting systems have a very limited set of rules and consequently show more resemblance to real combat than to sport. One can refer here to the definition of sport as described by Steenbergen and Tamboer (1998), who defined sports as “physical games” in which players are confronted with movement problems (e.g., running faster or jumping higher than others). These problems can only be solved by overcoming a number of “unnecessary obstacles” (limitations or rules). With hardly any of these obstacles (forbidden techniques), most of these extreme fighting forms cannot be regarded as sports. Förster (1986) even described this trend as the “brutalization” of the Asian martial arts.

Warior and civilian

The difficulty in this classification, there is not any difference between a warrior method and a civilian method. A warrior is a professional fighter (soldier, police….), while a civilian practitioner has a profession mostly not related to martial arts. Although some traditional schools are referring their method to combat on the battlefield, most of the Asian Martial Arts can be categorized as a civilian method, a tool to stop people assaulting you.

Also interesting is the reference to the socio/cultural context or in some cases the absence of it. Though various civilian combat systems are referring to a socio/cultural context, this reference in the non-Asian groups has only a kind of a superficial socio/cultural layer in comparison with most Asian groups.

Take for example the ITAF group, a Tomiki Aikido group with Eastern and Western participants. The text is mainly written by people of Japanese origin. Reference to Budo culture is for most non-Japanese people an alien concept. In the ITAF text reference is made to the current traditions of budo culture.

The maze called Budo

The ultimate goal in the ITAF text :

We aim at keeping the current traditions of budo culture.

What is the meaning of “budo culture”? Budo is literally translated as the “Martial Way”, and may be thought of as the “Way of War”. Further, in this context, it is also necessary to distinguish budō from the Westernized martial arts. Studies have shown that Westerners encounter difficulties to fully understand the underlying principles of a traditional approach due to distinct cultural differences. Anyway there are attempts to use Budo in a more globalization context. Budo was featured in the Summer Olympic Games demonstration programme in 1964. Budo is used as generic term for (Japanese) martial art like kendo, jujutsu, aikido, judo, karate,……. Question arises”Is Budo a functional method outside the Japanese cultural and social life?” or “Can we keep Budo culture in an Olympic Sport?” There are many martial methods and each method has a different view on the meaning of Budo. In fact the expression “keeping Budo culture” is only beneficial for people living in Japanese society because the ideas behind Budo are similar to the ideas behind the way of living in a Japanese cultural environment. Budo has an origin in the cultural heritage of the Japanese people. Any attempt to promote Budo in the Western society creates conflicts with the way of living in Western society. The evolution of Olympic Judo gives an impression about the many difficulties to merge a traditional Japanese concept into a universal method. Of course there are attempts to create a martial art which can be used in the context of globalisation method. The word Budo is used in a different context than the traditional Japanese.

Recreational combat system

Most of us are involved in aikido as a ‘recreational” practitioner and Most of us are involved in aikido as a ‘recreational” practitioner and although there is some interest in Japanese society and philosophy. We are not becoming a Japanese person. Kenji Tomiki recognised this dilemma and created a method accessible for Western people. He just wanted to create a martial art with the purpose to build character based upon Samurai traditions. These traditions are the origin of the so-called current Budo culture without the risk of dying or gravely injuring during training. By eliminating dangerous actions, the training method became a physical education system which can be used by everyone.There is not any restriction on age or gender. That is the theory.

The clash between East and West

The application of the theory became different when Western ideas influenced the training method, especially the competition side. The modifications of skill sets and physical fitness attributes, achieved by focusing on power and speed training of the body are the main functions in this training method. A healthy and fit fighter who is less skilled in the strategy of aiki-randori may still hold an advantage against a fighter not physically strong with better strategy skills. The elimination of lethal tactics, if they exist, during randori (free play) works in favour of power and speed. Power and speed training replaces the skills of the professional warrior which is moving beyond the training of power and speed. A skilled warrior needs an intensive daily training. It is his job! The training method of the average practitioner became a recreational combat system eventually with a philosophical background. Of course there are professionals in the field of recreational combat systems, but most of them are teaching a recreational method and are not really practising like a warrior Most of martial art training fall into a category of gymnastics or physical education. Concepts and their applications like “ju and go” or “kuzushi” are replaced by muscle power and/or momentum generated by using leg muscles. Demonstrations or “kata” competitions are mostly more acrobatic displays. The essential concepts of the method are hereby replaced by esthetical and acrobatic movements.

Health and combat, hand in hand?

To become a champion in a combat sport we have to bring the body to a higher level compared to the average practitioner. It is very rare to find a martial art champion without injuries from their training and competitions. And most of the so-called “professional or semi professional” champions have a team to take care of the physical and mental problems as a result of the high expectations of the spectators, friends, family and members of the group.
Importing “champion style” of training into the practice of the average practitioner is looking for health trouble in a long term view of martial art t

To become a champion in a combat sport we have to bring the body to a higher level compared to the average practitioner. It is very exceptional to find a martial art champion without injuries from their training and competitions. And most of the so-called “professional or semi professional” champions have a team to take care of the physical and mental problems as a result of the high expectations of the spectators, friends, family and members of the group.
Importing “champion style” of training into the practice of the average practitioner is looking for health trouble in a long term view of martial art training.

Kenji Tomiki modernised koryu (old schools) into a modern Japanese martial system useful as a physical education method. He tried to create a “universal” type of aikido that can be practised by Japanese and non-Japanese without reference to Eastern philosofical systems.

Kenji Tomiki modernised koryu (old schools) into a modern Japanese martial system useful as a physical education method. He tried to create a “universal” type of aikido that can be practised by Japanese and non-Japanese without reference to Eastern philosophical systems.
Can we practise his method for health purposes or is it solely for some kind of self-defense and the game of randori?

By eliminating dangerous actions in the practise of Aikido, the risk of having injuries will be brought to almost zero.
But if we eliminate lethal actions, the mind setting of the practitioners must also change in a direction of a physically and mentally healthy way of movements. Unfortunately the sportification with the included competition acts as a spoilsport.
As in a previous paragraph, Western influence is basically geared to build up muscle power and/or generating momentum. This is clearly a preferred method by younger practitioners. If they have an injury, the healing process is relatively short. However, for 50+ it is not anymore evident.
If you become older our view on martial arts changes because our body in general is changing and cannot cope any more in the same way as when we were younger.
Kenji Tomiki didn’t really specify how our training can change when we get older. Of course we can change to do more kata instead of randori. But is it possible to participate into randori when we are older?
And what about the concept of “kata”? Do we understand the meaning of kata or is it just a series of techniques demonstrated in a certain order and performed as an acrobatic display.

2 kinds of practitioners

After many years of training, the toll of abusing the body comes to the surface. Old injuries will refrain you from practising in the old way. Other methods of training have to be developed. Training can be soft and energetic at the same time. By utilising the concept of “movement” training instead of fighting training based upon muscular power, training can become an activity for all ages. There is of course another problem, 50+ practitioners with a long career of Budo and the 50+ beginner. Both have a different understanding of “the essence of things”, and even if you belong to the skilled category there will be differences in the understanding. Bringing the mind of the beginner into the game can have a big impact on the training process.

Shoshin – Beginner’s mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Suzuki, Shunryu, 1904–1971

There is 1 important idea I learned from Akira Hino. How to become again a beginner without deleting my previous experience. When you become an observer during your training as a practitioner or teacher, making a judgment is not present. The body is taking over and will act according to the circumstances. Of course old not so good habits will interfere, but by making a mental note we can work on this during our next training sessions. With an open mind we will find out a potential beyond imagination. Ganbatte


About shobukaidojo

A passion for Martial Arts since 1964

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