Defining Budo: Connection to Zen


Definition of Budo

Billy Parker did an excellent job last year of explaining what budo was using some explanations by Gichin Funakoshi and by explaining the kanji. The biggest takeaway, if you do not have the time to read the full article, is that budo is meant to teach students how to end violence and stop fighting and should not be turned into a sport. Today I want to explore the connection to Zen Buddhism and how understanding one will help you understand the other better.

What is Zen

Zen is a school of Buddhism that originated in China during the 6th century. It focuses on the attainment of enlightenment and direct insight into the Buddhist teachings. Zen has less of a focus on knowledge of sutras (scripture) and doctrine and instead favors direct understanding through zazen (meditation) and interaction with an accomplished teacher.

What Does that Have to Do with Martial Arts

Buddhism is a philosophy on living your life in a way that ends suffering by increasing understanding. Budo is a way of stopping spears or ending violence. It quickly seems plausible that these two things could have a lot in common with each other especially since their philosophies were both developed in Japan about the same time.

When we practice martial arts we are constantly focusing on the physical actions we could do to end suffering. When one practices zen, they are focusing on the mental aspects they could do to end suffering. To better explain this, I have found the thoughts of an Aikido insturctor and Zen master.

Excerpt from Sensei Fumio Toyoda

The Japanese Martial Arts Society was kind enough to publish this excellent transcript of a lecture given by the prominent Aikido instructor and Zen master, Fumio Toyoda. Below is an excerpt that talks directly on this topic:

“Zen is Zen, Aikido is Aikido. These are two different traditions. That is why I don’t force regular students or instructors to do Zen training at my dojo. I encourage them, but some of them don’t have an interest or just can’t take it. I understand. Zen training is difficult.

That’s ok. But my uchideshi [live-in students] are required to do it, because they came here to learn my Aikido. If they want to learn my Aikido, then they have to do Zen training…Zen is part of the tradition of Buddhism, but we don’t get stuck on it as a religion in the Western sense. To us, it’s a training method. Even Shakyamuni Buddha said not to believe what is handed down from the past, but to find things out through your own experience. Zen has this spirit. So it doesn’t matter what your religious background or beliefs are. You can still get benefit from Zen training. Just sit, just go to the zendo, just go to sesshin, and you will find out for yourself.

Martial arts training can help you develop intensity and sharpness and a life-or-death urgency. This improves our Zen. Without this urgency and awareness you can’t progress in Zen. At the same time, Zen develops deep calm and insight and compassion. This makes us true
martial artists, the kind of people who can be useful to society.

Sounds Like I Already Do This

If this is your first time ever hearing about zen, you may notice that a lot of your standard martial arts practices like meditation, having martial spirit all the time, and having etiquette could fall under the name zen instead of budo. I know my experiences with karate-do are clearly heavily influenced by these concepts. The more I learn of zen, the more I understand I am not learning something new, but rather hearing about the same idea from people who have a different perspective on it.

Do you think learning this could help your understanding of the martial way and make you a better student of the martial way? Leave your questions and comments below, it is an interesting topic and sure to have some responses, good and bad.

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Theodore Kruczek is the founder and head writer of the Okinawan Karate-do Institute. He is a 4th Degree Black Belt in Okinawan Shorin-ryu with more than 14 years of experience. This site was created as his way of both teaching his own Karate and learning about others.

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