Budo Secrets: Teachings of the Martial Arts Masters

Budo Secrets: Teachings of the Martial Arts Masters

Ed. John Stevens 
Boston, MA: Shambhala, 2001. Hardback, xii + 109 pages.

Budo Secrets is not a picture gallery of bearded septuagenarians gracefully launching their opponents airborne from one side of the dojo to the other, nor is it a recipe book of 101 ways to slice and dice your opponent before he can say "ginsu knife." John Stevens, who lives and teaches in Japan, has compiled an eclectic assortment of texts on the martial arts- including philosophies, principles, and instructive stories meant not only for the practitioner of the arts but for the layman with an interest in the Martial Way, called Budo.

Stevens has culled this admirable collection from a diversity of training manuals, transmission scrolls, and modern texts, many of which are available only in the original Japanese. Stevens keeps his own commentary sparse and economical, preferring to let the precepts and teachings speak for themselves. His Spartan use of commentary, however, is enhanced by the inclusion of elegant brush calligraphy attributed to the hands of various martial arts masters.

Just as learning the technique of playing the piano or the violin does not in itself elevate a musician to the level of the artist, so too, the mastery of wrist locks, arm throws, and flying side kicks does not make a warrior. One can be a technician without understanding the meaning of the Martial Way. There is an ethos that must be learned and lived. Being a warrior has nothing to do with belligerence, intimidation, and vulgar displays of self-promotion. It has everything to do with self-control, respect, and intelligent use of force. This is made clear by the number of injunctions and precepts listed here, which form a universal warrior ethos, regardless of whether one's discipline is judo, karate, aikido, or jujitsu.

Legendary figures quoted include Kyuzo Mifune, a modern-era judo master who could easily defeat opponents twice his size, although he was only 5 feet-4-inches tall and weighed less than 140 pounds. One of Mifune's tenets “the soft controls the hard") has a distinct Taoist flavor. His favorite teaching principle was that of the sphere: a sphere never loses its center and moves swiftly without strain. Another luminary is the famed sixteenth-century swordsman, Miyamoto Mushashi, whose austere code of conduct shows striking similarities with Buddhist thought. Mushashi's life was brilliantly depicted by the incomparable Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki's 1955 cinematic classic, Samurai Trilogy.

In an age of culture wars that has seen the erosion of traditional male role models to the point where even feminists such as Pulizer-Prize-winner Susan Faludi (Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Manbecome alarmed, there is much to be said for the study of the mental and moral disciplines of the martial arts tradition. Both men and women can, of course, excel in any of these disciplines, but the tradition is based on qualities generally considered masculine in nature, such as strength, courage, restraint, and perseverance. According to Budo, the warrior is not one who is ready to throw a knockout punch at" the drop of an insult, nor is he the weepy-eyed effusive type who sobs at the slightest hint of pain or suffering. Those who faithfully follow the ways of Budo will find that, at the highest level, martial arts and spirituality converge. But that culmination is based on years of hard physical work, tolerance of or indifference to pain, and practice, practice, practice.

So what is the secret of Budo? In the words of twentieth-century karate master Kanken Toyama, "Secret techniques begin with basic techniques; basic techniques end as secret techniques. There are no secrets at the beginning, but there are secrets at the end."


January/February 2002