Physical Training Mar 2006
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Budo Culture

copyright © 2006 Nicklaus Suino, all rights reserved
Excerpted from "Budo Mind and Body: Training Secrets of the Japanese Martial Arts"

People who practice budo are members of a special group.  They are seekers after truth, people who want something more from life than a paycheck and a nice home.  Their abilities allow them to make unique contributions to their communities and to the world.  Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about budo, held both by non-practitioners and by those within the ranks of martial artists.  Because of the incomplete or poor education of many of our so-called "masters," martial artists are often seen as aggressive people, overly concerned with fighting and winning.  While these stereotypes may often by true, they are not reflective of the ideal martial artist.

We need regular reminders of the high standards which we must set for ourselves.  Since we set out to learn unique and dangerous skills, we must have a code of behavior to ensure that we do not use those skills for wrongful purposes.  Such a code, bushido (literally, "the way of the warrior"), has existed in Japan for centuries, but it is sometimes difficult for modern Westerners to understand how the antiquated and sometimes odd-sounding rules of this code apply to them.  In the few places where they have been written down, these rules are enmeshed in an enormous amount of information about the culture that gave birth to them, which can make it difficult to understand their practical value.  It is helpful to study how they are applied and to determine their purposes if we want to know how and why we should follow them today.

Many Western students of budo believe that a moral or social code is a waste of time, assuming that physical practice is the only thing that will help them make progress in their chosen art.  In fact, the non-physical qualities of good martial artists - such as sincerity, politeness, loyalty, honor, and courage - are qualities that actually help them succeed.  Martial arts practice, like most human endeavors, is a social act, and none of us can succeed without a great deal of contact with other people.  The rules of bushido govern our interactions with those people, our teachers, our peers in the dojo, competitors, and junior students whom we help.  Our egos are exposed in practice by encounters with fear and pain, and bushido helps to provide a buffer against the conflicts this might create.


In martial arts, as in life, you are expected to mean what you say.  This is simple to understand when it is a matter of expressing your intention.  If you say, "I am going to practice technique one thousand times," then everybody who heard you say it will think less of you if you quit after six-hundred fifty repetitions.  The simple rule in such a case is: If you are not sure you can do it, don't say anything.

In all matters in the dojo you are expected to be sincere.  This extends to the smallest action or word.  When you bow to show respect for the masters, it will an empty gesture unless you know something about them and why they are worthy of respect.  If you are thinking about your work when you bow, the bow is insincere.

Similarly, using the word sensei has an important role in your training.  Your teacher gives you all the most important building blocks in your martial arts career, but many students forget this after a few years.  These students begin to imagine that their ability is entirely due to their own greatness.  You should always use the word sensei with respect and affection in your heart.  This will help you remember your relationship with your teacher in the proper light.

You must monitor yourself to make sure that your training aims are appropriate.  Training just to earn a promotion or to impress someone in the dojo will cause you to veer off the path.  No teacher can read your mind, but eventually your actions will demonstrate where your heart lies.  The sweat and intimacy of training guarantee that sooner or later you will reveal your true intentions to your teacher.  Before you begin to act upon these incorrect goals, they will have begun to develop in your mind.  The time to root them out is early, when they first appear.

Sincerity is a powerful tool in your training, because it allows you to act without hesitation.  Insincere actions and words destroy confidence and cause hesitation; these problems are deadly to a martial artist.  Mental weaknesses translate into physical shortcomings.  Next to prolonged training, simply deciding on a course of action and carrying it out with total commitment can improve your skill in the dojo tremendously.  I have seen this over and over again in my students.

Sincerity means matching word and deed, but in budo it means more than that.  It means matching word and deed with state of mind, or with the intentions of your heart.  We are not often taught this, because it is a much harder way to live, but the satisfaction of acting with a unified mind, body, and spirit cannot be compared with any other reward.


The dojo is a place where there are many chances to hurt other people, physically and emotionally.  Uncontrolled punches and thoughtless words can both cause injury, so all students must learn caution in these areas.  Good manners smooth the rough edges of practice, and good control of technique is nothing more than the extension of the same principle into the physical realm.  You must show regard for your training partner at all times.

What may seem like an empty ritual is more often an important component of training.  For example, we do not allow our students to walk between two other students who are talking or practicing together.  The physical awareness of the personal space of others is crucial in budo, and it makes no more sense to unconsciously walk between two training partners in the dojo than it would to carelessly get between two people who are fighting on the street.  If crossing between them is unavoidable, we extend our right hand out and down, which is the non-verbal Japanese equivalent of saying, "Excuse me."  By borrowing the Japanese hand gesture we are linking a rule of common courtesy to a physical movement, which helps students to remember it.

The rules of almost every dojo require that students who are bowing in a line wait for the senior students to rise from the bow first.  This follows the rules of respect for rank, but also helps develop awareness, peripheral vision, hearing, and tactile awareness.  It is a mistake to think that the training starts only after the bow is complete.  Every action in the dojo, from paying dues to free sparring, should be a training exercise. 

Wear a White Belt

Whenever you go to a new dojo to train, wear a white belt.  This shows that you have a sincere desire to learn, and that you are willing to put aside your preconceptions.  This point of etiquette is fairly widely known, but many people ignore it, either by actually wearing a colored belt or by failing to enter the dojo with an open mind.

The best possible impression you can make by wearing a belt showing your rank from another school into the dojo is that you are confident in your rank and would be willing to participate in all of the activities expected of people of that rank at that dojo.  If these activities include kumite or randori (free fighting), you may be expected to spar with others of equal or greater rank.  Don't be surprised if a special sparring session is arranged just to see how good you are.

A more likely interpretation, however, will be that you are poorly trained, because you do not know the rule about wearing a white belt.  If your skill level does not match that of the students in that school (and how could it, unless you have trained in exactly the same martial art they do?), then you will also be seen as unskilled.  Any protestations you make about your training having been different will sound like whining.  You can avoid all this by following the white-belt rule.

A closely related problem, more serious than wearing a colored belt, is the student who enters a new dojo carrying all the baggage from his or her past training.  This student wants to learn what the new school teaches, but does not want to put aside the ways of his last teacher.  The end result is that both sets of skills, the new and the old, suffer in quality, and the new teacher wonders why the student is asking for instructions but not following them.

Another similar problem can arise among students who stay in one dojo to achieve high brown-belt or black belt ranks.  They come to think that the relatively high rank they possess means they now know everything.  They stop listening to their teachers, forgetting that it was the teachers who gave them the tools to get as far as they have. 

In truth, every student must wear a white belt, either actually or internally, at all times in the dojo.  The act indicates a willingness to learn, which is our purpose in studying martial arts.

This article is an excerpt from "Budo Mind and Body" by Nicklaus Suino. It is due to be shipped to bookstores on March 14, 2006, and will be available from,, and any other purveyor of fine books.

Nicklaus Suino's website is

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Physical Training Mar 2006