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Home > Training > Thoughts on Bugei Studies
by Karl Friday <Send E-mail to Author> - 9. January, 2002

Editor's Note: The following was originally posted to the Iaido-L mailing list.

Kim Taylor wrote:
I'm trying to tease out the specific ways in which martial arts produce their unique results while other activities do not... or are there any... yes I think there are indications that there are, according to the research literature anyway.

I'd argue that bugei study ("martial art" is really too broad a phenomenon to discuss coherently here) doesn't produce unique results -- in fact that's the whole point of why you can't learn the bugei without a teacher. What it does do (or is supposed to do, anyway) is guide a learner toward a universal/common result, by a unique and very specific path.

Any given bugei system is just one form of budo, which is in turn just one of a theoretically infinite variety of michi that lead to the kind of universalized state of understanding of Things posited (in one form or another) by Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. In the medieval and early modern Japanese conception of things (which is the crucible in which bugei thought and culture was formed), Buddhist religious exercises, Taoist and other meditation practices, and whole-hearted devotion to any number of other pursuits -- including chanoyu, calligraphy, music, painting, etc. -- all represent essentially co-equal routes to the same place. Hence the metaphor of michi, and the related terminology of the arts that conceptualizes it as a path up a mountain.

Attempting to navigate that path on your own is like attempting to find your way up a very treacherous mountain on your own and in the dark. There are lot's and lot's of routes that will get you to the top, but even more that will lead you off a cliff, or leave you stranded under impassible overhangs.

Hence my point: in bugei learning, it's not the goal, it's the process that's critical. And getting the process correct -- getting on the right path -- absolutely requires a guide. Without one, there's no way to be sure that what looks like a perfectly good route up the mountain -- what looks like essentially the same route someone else has successfully followed -- doesn't actually deadend -- or worse -- somewhere.

Now, again, if you want to define martial art as having fun swinging a sword, or even as acquiring skills that will lead to success in combat, then the role of the teacher becomes much closer to that of the coach in basketball -- and the need for one lessens considerably. In basketball, there is a clear and simple goal, that is readily understood and easily explained: getting the ball into the hoop while preventing you opponent from doing so. There are parameters set by other rules -- the boundaries of the court, the time limits, the prohibition against picking up the ball and running with it, and the like -- but beyond that, getting good at basketball is really just a matter of getting efficient at shooting, setting up shots, and preventing the opponent from scoring. All a coach really adds to this process is hints drawn from experience -- he can teach you moves and plays that speed up the process of learning how to score. But with enough talent and enough time, you could probably get very, very good on your own.

Learning to fight per se is, in many respects, a similar sort of thing: The goal is clear and simple (to kill the other guy, and avoid being killed yourself) and the value of the methods used are determined by how well they work, period. With enough talent, you certainly can become an expert sword fighter entirely on your own. (The biggest difference between this and learning basketball is that the odds are pretty heavily stacked against even the most talented would-be swordsman; it's much harder to survive enough mistakes in lethal combat to learn from them than it is to lose basketball games!)

But bugei study is not just about learning to fight -- in fact learning sword skills is pretty silly, if this is your primary goal. Learning to fight, in a very particular way is a tool used to attain a more subtle purpose. That's why books and videos aren't much good for learning -- other than for polishing up stuff you already know. It's not what you do, it's how and why you do it that really matters. Learning techniques and tactics in bugei study is like learning the alphabet in pursuit of becoming a writer or learning arithmetic in pursuit of becoming a mathematician. It's where you start, but it's only a tiny first step.

Karl Friday
Professor & Undergraduate Studies Coordinator
Dept. of History University of Georgia Athens, GA 30602

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