For many western practitioners of budo (Japanese Martial Arts), budo is viewed as a form of spiritual practice. The idea that budo is a form of shugyo (ascetic exercise) is quite common, with several books, and numerous magazine articles published every year about how the practice of various budo can improve one as a person, or take one closer to enlightenment. This is true of all budo, from karate-do to iaido to judo to aikido.
Aikido is a good example. To Ueshiba Morihei, its founder, Aikido was both a martial art as well as a form of intense religious practice for spiritual development. Ueshiba was part of a culture where such things were not unheard of. It was however, very, very unusual. Although Takuan Soho makes a valiant effort to transform swordsmanship into a spiritual exercise in the Fudochi, translated by William Scott Wilson in The Unfettered Mind there is no evidence that the idea became widespread in Japan. It still strikes most Japanese as an unusual, though not impossible, idea. So how did the idea of budo as spiritual practice get started in the west? The idea can be traced back to one major source, D. T. Suzuki and his Zen and Japanese Culture. This was the first time that the two ideas were linked together for Western audiences, and it remains the principle resource for the idea outside of Japan, with the principle exception of the writings of Ueshiba and modern practitioners of aikido. So are the martial arts, budo, spiritual arts and ways? There seems to be a belief among many western budo practitioners that merely by practicing Japanese budo they will gain spiritually, or at the least, automatically develop into better people. This may be because people are reading the works of Japanese thinkers outside their native context.
For example, Ueshiba practiced spiritual exercises, not just Aikido, rigorously, and daily. In Japan, pretty much any activity can be seen as a form of ascetic practice, if it is practiced with that intent. In this way, not only martial arts, but also flower arranging, calligraphy, and making tea can become a spiritual practice. But only if they are practiced with a focus on that idea.
Most martial arts practitioners don't go to practice every time, seeking to perfect themselves. There are in fact a number of reasons given by practitioners for their continuing practice. This has been examined in one study of Aikido practitioners (Boylan, 1999). Being part of the social group is one of the most common reasons, but within Aikido circles the spiritual and personal development aspects are also strong motivating factors for people, with nearly two-thirds of practitioners seeing their Aikido practice as a form of spiritual or religious practice that helps them develop as human beings. Given that this large a percentage of people who do Aikido see it that way, the next question becomes, is Aikido really a means for them to develop themselves? That question hasn't been studied yet, but I think the answer has to be a qualified yes. What is actually studied and practiced in any budo, are combative techniques, tactics, and strategies. In Aikido, these are techniques such as joint locks and hip throws, tactics such as irimi and tenkan, and strategies like harmonizing and blending. These are all effective combative elements, and these are what practice in the dojo consists of. So how can they promote personal and/or spiritual development? If these things are only practiced in the dojo, they can . People are often amazed when a high ranking martial artist turns out to have at least as many foibles as the rest of us. We fail to remember just how often those who specialize in spiritual and personal development, priests, doctors, psychologists, monks and teachers, fail to achieve their own goals of personal development and do things like have affairs, or hold petty grudges. These are things that in others are looked down upon, but are accepted as human mistakes and shortcomings. We expect our martial arts teachers to be more perfect than we are, not just as martial artists, but as human beings as well, and all too often we are stunned when yudansha and teachers display familiar human shortcomings. Is it realistic to expect martial artists, even those who have been training for decades, to be above our human frailties? Not really. There isn't any sort of organized program for teaching personal and spiritual development within any of the martial arts, even those with the greatest reputations for it, Tai Chi Chuan and Aikido. The way practice in the martial arts is structured is for technical, not spiritual, development. 20 years of practicing nikkyo will give you a great nikkyo, but it won't necessarily make you a better person.
This is not to say that the lessons of all budo, not just Aikido, are not highly transferable to life, it's just that without active work on each persons part to make these lessons a part of their non-dojo life, actions, and heart, it won't happen. It has been my observation that most people don't make this effort, even those who have studied and practiced for decades. It's very unusual for people to make the effort to apply these lessons to their lives.
The reason for this is probably quite simple. It's a lot easier to take criticism of a technique you are doing than a life you are living. To apply the lessons of your art to your life is a lot harder than just learning the art. Just as you take criticism of your techniques and understanding of budo every day when you practice, you have to be ready to criticize yourself, your reactions, and even your values if you want to really develop and progress as a person. This is vastly more difficult than taking criticism about your technique. It means accepting that the very fundamental elements of who we are may not be as good as they should be. Considering how much time I spend rationalizing my actions, having to stare at myself, those actions, and my motivations, without the comfort of a few rationalizations is a scary prospect. It takes frequent correction, sometimes from people I like to believe I'm better than, just to keep me from getting worse, much less to improve.
It the same for everyone, whether they are accomplished budo masters, great chefs, or average people trying to get through the day. Spiritual development is not an easy road, even for those people such as priests and monks who make it their life, and many of them fall down at it frequently, even as they keep on trying. It's even more difficult for people who are living regular lives. And I suspect that being an accomplished martial artist makes it more difficult, rather than easier. When you're good at something, you have a lot of pride in what you do, and people compliment you on your skills. It a lot easier to focus on the compliment than it is to face those areas of your life where you aren't skilled, and may even be a wretched failure. If martial arts in general are going to be ways of personal and spiritual development, than we have to work just as hard at fixing the weaknesses in ourselves as people, as we do at fixing the weaknesses in our techniques.
Boylan, Peter W. Aikido As Spiritual Practice in the United States, M.A. Thesis. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1999.
Soho, Takuan. The Unfettered Mind. New York: Kodansha International, 1986.
Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959.
Ueshiba, Morihei. The Essence of Aikido. New York: Kodansha International, 1993. -----. The Art of Peace. Boston: Shambala, 1992.