The Iaido Journal  Feb 2006
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The Skill of the Masters

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

    After a hard day of martial arts practice, while enjoying a cold drink with training partners, we sometimes share stories of the masters of old.  These are stories of men and women who were able to perform feats of martial skill that seem almost magical to us today.  The stories are an inspiration to train harder, and they hint at what might be possible if we keep practicing long enough.  The images are so compelling that whole systems of study have grown up around certain masters, men like Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido, who was said to be able to throw his students to the ground with the strength of a single finger.  Ueshiba could casually drop two, three, or even ten attackers.  At the same time, there was more to the old master than mere physical skill.  Considered as an enlightened man, Ueshiba was known for such sayings as "Love is the highest principle of the martial arts," and "To injure an opponent is to injure yourself."

    According to the stories, there was always something about these masters that resonated beyond their great skill.  Mifune Kyuzo, perhaps the greatest technician ever to come out of the Kodokan (the original judo institution),  was known for the softness of his techniques.  He was able to defeat students twice his size while barely seeming to expend any effort.  People who trained with him later said, "It was like fighting with an empty jacket."  Mifune was a great historian of the martial arts, and developed theories of physical interaction that are still studied by judoists. 

    There have been swordsmen in Japan's samurai history who reached a point in their training where they were able to say, "I cannot be defeated by anyone in the world."  The legendary Miyamoto Musashi and Yamaoka Tesshu each reportedly made this claim - in different eras, of course - and nobody was ever able to prove them wrong.  Other swordsmen who engaged these men would face them and be unable to detect any opening for an attack.  Both men were great artists with a brush, and Yamaoka was a preeminent statesman.

    A similar story is told about a martial artist named Matsumura Sokon, one of the pioneers of Okinawan karate.  A skilled opponent, determined to fight him, tried three times to mount an attack, but each time was driven back by the sheer physical energy emanating from Matsumura.  The actual physical battle never took place because Matsumura's challenger was unable to gather himself to strike.

    It would be easy to dismiss these stories as legends, exaggerated by the admiration of students for their teachers and by the passage of time, had I not witnessed similar feats by living martial arts masters.  These were not the kind of tricks you see when you watch a martial arts movie; any well-motivated and talented athlete could learn the spinning kicks and flips you see on film.  The feats I saw were impressive not so much as physical skills, although such skills do require years of practice to master, but as reflections of inner strength.  If you saw these masters in action, you wouldn't necessarily be impressed by a show of great physical strength.  Instead, their proficiency and presence would cause you to think that something profound was taking place before you.

    One living example of such modern masters is a man named Sato Shizuya, a judo and jujutsu teacher.  Like his own teacher, Mifune Kyuzo, Mr. Sato has an uncanny ability to throw his students around the mat like rag dolls.  Further, when he does it, he is relaxed, apparently thinking about something else.  I know that he hardly uses any physical strength because he used to toss me around when I trained with him in Japan.  I was thirty years old at the time, and he was around sixty-two; this was over fourteen years ago, and he is still a source of great energy and wisdom.

    Another of my teachers, Yamaguchi Katsuo, is a swordsman known around the world in martial arts circles.  He underwent treatment for stomach cancer in 1993, and is very elderly now, but between 1988 and 1992, watching him perform formal exercises with the sword was an almost religious experience.  During demonstrations in Japan, hundreds of swordsmen and women will perform in groups of four or five at a time, and the audience often loses interest after an hour or two, even when watching some of the most famous swordsmen in the country.  When Yamaguchi-Sensei began his sword cuts, however, everyone was rapt.  A calm would fall over the audience and the air would become charged with a feeling of reverence - and these were people quite used to seeing swordsmanship demonstrations.

    At a special event held at the American Embassy dojo (martial arts hall) in Tokyo, a group of twenty-five or thirty North American kids had a chance to see Yamaguchi-Sensei perform.  These kids were holy terrors; we worked hard to keep them busy and to tire them out during their one-hour judo lesson each week, but they were never quiet and never still.  You can guess who was more exhausted at the end of each class!  Even this rambunctious group, however, fell silent when the old master began to swing his sword.  There were absolutely entranced for the entire fifteen minutes of his demonstration.  The only sound they made was an occasional gasp when his sword whooshed through the air. 

    The physical ability of all these men is indeed impressive, but there is something more to them.  They have a rare presence, a kind of calm strength which some would say has a spiritual source.  Indeed, many of these men would themselves say that the source of their unique skills is in the spiritual realm, and an important part of Japanese martial arts philosophy is that students learn to let nature, or "spirit," generate their techniques.  Even if one doesn't believe in such concepts, however, one can watch the masters and see that they are extraordinarily focused, their movements are very efficient, and that they radiate a quiet inner strength.  They express martial spirit in every motion, real martial spirit, not the kind you pay to see in the movies.

    How do they get to be so exceptional?  This question has fascinated martial arts students in the West ever since students started returning from Japan with incredible stories of their teachers and the legendary masters.  Asian martial arts have become widespread outside the Orient in the past sixty years, yet there are very few Western teachers who merit the title "master" in the same way as do the elder teachers I met in Japan.  Even outside the martial arts, Japan seems to have a surprisingly large number of these calm, quiet, and deep older folks.  There are some crucial elements in the training and culture of the Japanese masters not easily transplanted to foreign soil.  What these enlightened people have in common, at least those I have met, is that all were involved in one of the traditional art forms of Japan, and had been involved in their practice for at least of couple of decades.  Besides the martial arts, some of the well-known traditional arts are tea ceremony, calligraphy, classical musical instruments (such as the shakuhachi, or bamboo flute), and the practice of Zen.

    While I lived in Japan, where so many people are improving themselves through different types of traditional activities, I began to believe that there must be some useful characteristics shared by all these arts, particularly the different forms of budo (the general Japanese term for martial arts).  Maybe, I thought, it would be possible to extract these characteristics and make them available to those who wanted to become better martial artists.  In fact, in nearly four decades of practice, I have learned that most of what once seemed mysterious or esoteric about budo is actually fairly simple and practical.  My teachers have shown me that the principles of one martial art are usually found in the others as well.

    All this suggests that the principles underlying these different arts are common to an even wider variety of physical arts, but since I am no expert in tea ceremony or traditional brush painting, the descriptions and explanations in this book will center on martial arts. Thoughtful readers could apply them to other areas of life, however, and I encourage them to do so.

    The real secret to becoming an expert in martial arts is realizing that training is a process of self-discovery.  Further, it is a means of modifying one's personality to make oneself healthier, more well-balanced, and more efficient.  Outside of Japan, this idea has for the most part been lost, and the budo forms are typically taught as nothing more than specialized fighting methods.  This approach is wasteful, however, for in the short term there are much more efficient ways to teach fighting than the highly ritualized practice of traditional martial arts.  Only when an art is considered as a whole system, including its "internal" aspects, can all the cultural content be justified.  Ironically, taking this larger view, the "excess baggage" of ritual and spiritual components in these arts makes them better, more efficient tools for personal cultivation even while complicating the process of learning how to fight.

    This apparent contradiction is not as troublesome a problem for serious students of budo as it would seem, since there is not much real need for most of us to learn how to fight.  In contemporary society, we have a much greater need for calm wisdom than for efficient killing skills.  The budo forms, having been created or molded during a time when Japan was deciding that it had a similar need for a higher sort of person, are ideally suited for developing human beings with those characteristics.

    This doesn't mean that everybody who reads this book and tries to follow all the advice found in it is going to become a great master or guru.  To become really great at something requires luck and talent, as well as the same long years of practice that everybody must put in to become merely good.  Following my suggestions for learning a martial art should help you become better at it.  You will become more efficient at your chosen art, and hopefully get more enjoyment out of it.  If you keep at it long enough, you should find that other areas of your life are improving, too.

    If you want to go further, however, if the spiritual and philosophical accomplishments of the people I have described appeal to you, then you will have to give serious thought to the deeper issues that are raised here, and probably do a lot of other research as well.  As I advise in later chapters, students who want to become great martial artists must read everything they can get their hands on, train fanatically for an extended period of time, and reflect deeply on the relationship between budo training and their lives.

    Some material that relates to the inner aspects of budo will be too esoteric from a few readers.  I have tried to present it in a straightforward manner, without too much religious or spiritual content, for those who think such issues less important.  It is, however, well worth anyone's time to give serious thought to those matters as well as the practical matters inherent in martial arts training. 

    Real budo mastery is not for everyone.  The path is too hard for most people, and some of the rewards are less than obvious.  Traditional martial artists do not make a lot of money, and there is little recognition of great budo practitioners, even in Japan.  Most who idolize martial arts teachers are needy people who require a great deal of attention themselves.

    If you want to find a path with heart, however, and are sure that money and praise are not too important to you, budo may be the right place to look.  Even those who practice budo as a hobby will realize many of its benefits.  The rewards - better health, increased confidence, calmness, and insight - are evident even in the short term.  The benefits of a lifetime of practice are deeper than those more material rewards that come from common pursuits.

    Once you start making progress along the martial arts path, you will find that the things you learn allow you to prosper in your work, your hobbies, and in relationships.  You will find that your ability to handle crisis improves, and that your satisfaction with life increases.  These improvements can be brought about if you immerse yourself in the study of real budo and commit yourself fully to the ideas found in it.  The triumph which you may have thought would come through defeating others, you will find comes instead from learning to love the training itself, and from living honestly, without self-delusion, in the real world.

    The person to whom this book is most likely to appeal is one who believes that, in some way, he or she could be a little better, physically, mentally, or spiritually ("better" here meaning closer to what one expects for oneself).  Such a person must believe that improvement is possible, and that success, in some form, is worth striving for.  He or she must believe in something larger or more important than him or herself, such as the dojo, family, God, or country, be willing to work to benefit that larger concept, and to take satisfaction from doing that work every day.

    The bottom line is that almost everybody wants to make his or her life better in some way, and this book is both a practical guide to one way of accomplishing this and an exhortation to undertake the task with as much commitment as possible.  Budo is a pursuit that provides infinite opportunities for growth; it gives back as much as you put into it.  Even if you don't have five hours a day or a lifetime to devote to practice, you can enjoy training and reap some of its benefits.  The simple key to realizing those benefits is throwing yourself into practice with great enthusiasm.

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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TIN Feb 2006