Lately I’ve been thinking a number of things concerning my attitude towards life and my understanding of the ‘budo lifestyle’. Particularly on my mind has been the nature of necessity and how it’s comforting, but ultimately disingenuous, to view things as needs when in reality they are wants. The absence of some things can be psychologically difficult, but making life difficult is not the same as making it impossible, and that, it seems to me, is the true distinction between a want and a need.
The superior life as I conceive it is composed of simple pleasures. The people whom I believe maximise the worth of their lives do not depend upon complex things but simple ones: nature; exercise; self-refinement; loved ones. I’m confronted with the idea that I would be better to condition myself to live according to these simple things, given that such a lifestyle seems congruent with my (budo-related) life goals.
What I would like then is to reduce my dependency on unnecessary possessions, constant entertainment, and the myriad other things which I might dress as needs which are in fact wants, and instead encourage myself towards more wholesome things. This, I think, is a component of a budo lifestyle. The budo lifestyle as I perceive it can be understood in terms of two components which I’ll address in turn.
To analyse the budo lifestyle we have to appreciate what budo is. Budo is at its core the refinement of body and mind. Budo distinguishes itself from bujutsu in this respect – where bujutsu is concerned with technique only, budo is concerned with character. Budoka – that is to say students of budo – are (or should be) concerned with this development of character, and the principal means of achieving it is through discipline. Discipline is paramount to character development, since what we call character is not an unknown thing – character is the ability to do what one should despite the presence of temptation. The power to resist temptation is discipline, and thus the development of discipline is intrinsic to budo and is a component of the budo lifestyle.
Accordingly, the budo lifestyle is one of a certain level of ascetism. Life has many distractions and many ways of getting in our way – these things complexify life and lead one to entertain oughtn’ts as opposed to oughts. When a person has a need, he has two choices: either he must satiate it, or he must eliminate it. The preference ought to be for elimination, since it is better to have fewer needs than many, but not all needs can be eliminated, and these must consequently be satisfied.
Using this model we can categorise all our needs into ones which are imperative irrespective of present circumstance, and those that depend on it. Addiction is the clearest example: A person addicted to a drug may not be able to go cold-turkey without drastic consequences, but over time they may be weaned off the drug and their future self may have no such need for it. Likewise, things that give us psychological discomfort now may not do in the future; if I have access to a certain luxury, I may well develop a dependence on it, but saying I have a dependence on it is not enough to excuse me from indulging it forever. And what is used to acclimatise to a life without a given luxury? Of course, it’s discipline.1
As it currently stands, I’m still occasionally bothered by trivialities, despite it being explicitly precluded by one of my life rules. By my own estimation perhaps it takes a different degree of triviality to the average, but still I’m not stoical about things which have no great importance in the scheme of things. I am not stoical, though stoicism seems requisite of an ascetic.2 An ascetic, after all, is a person who eschews indulgence, and emotions may be indulged as much as any other thing.
Discipline permits not only the governance of one’s behaviour, but the governance of one’s internal state. The cultivation of certain mental characteristics are common in budo (e.g., suigetsu, zanshin) and these are achieved only through years of concerted effort. A calm mind in a turbulent world seems the crowning achievement of refinement, since it appears simultaneously the most challenging and rewarding ambition in budo. The goal of budo, after all, is mastery of self.
I previously wrote that character is about doing what one ‘should’. There is in character an accompanying component to discipline; although a person may in principle have the ability to choose should over shouldn’t, he or she must know which is the should and which is the shouldn’t. The partner to discipline then is wisdom – both moral and practical.
The question arises of where to acquire wisdom. I don’t pretend that I know any secrets to wisdom, but its acquisition is related to knowledge, experience and understanding. Knowledge is achieved through education and one’s daily life. A serious budoka in my opinion should take his or her education quite seriously, since it critically underpins an accurate understanding of the nature of things. Truly great budoka are autodidacts – they are not wise by accident, but because they consciously sought to foster within themselves an understanding of the world.
Not all knowledge can be gained through the education one receives from books and courses however. Much of what one understands is gained through personal experience. Meeting people and being exposed to things first hand rather than second is as important. It’s therefore advantageous to place oneself into situations or habits which provide new experiences. Over time, a person’s understanding increases, and when it is so significant as to distinguish them from their peers, they may be called wise.
Of particular importance is an understanding of ethics. What I have said so far applies to identifying ‘shoulds’ in a practical sense, but character is deeply entwined with making ethically correct decisions – not just pragmatic ones. There is little advice I can give concerning this except that one should contemplate ethics regularly. In my case I identified a number of ethical precepts which I attempt to live in accordance with, which I would recommend, but it seems in no way required. What is required, I think, is to be wholly honest with oneself. I have over time discovered several things of significance that I now deem to be unethical which I didn’t previously.3 There is no point to concern yourself with ethics if when you discover within yourself a moral contradiction, you do not have the stomach to address it. Character, of course, is exactly what enables one to do so.
I’ve written all this on what I consider to be the budo lifestyle, yet I haven’t mentioned training once. Training is the answer budo gives us to achieving these things. Training is voluntary hardship. Hardship develops character and voluntary hardship even more so. The budo lifestyle is therefore the refinement of oneself through (martial) training, and this is what it means to truly study a budo. The hardship, as it seems to me, is more-or-less arbitrary. One could just as well study the Ways of tea ceremony or flower arrangement.4 What is important is that one has something to commit to – to endure. The construction of the forge isn’t important when the flames are the same.
When discipline is discussed, it is often done so in the context of choice. If a person has a choice between A and B, yet is unduly tempted to preference option B, discipline can counterbalance this and restore the person with the freedom to pick what he or she judges is best. In this light, discipline can be said to enhance agency, but this isn’t entirely true. Whilst in a sense the person is free to not pick B, they were not free in judging A to be best. For a further discussion of freedom, see my article on free will. ↩
I hasten to add that I’m not by any means an ascetic in the traditionally conceived sense, since this is in my opinion far more extreme than is required, and I don’t claim to have that level of discipline in any case. I do however take care to limit myself from indulgence in things not to the benefit of myself or others, and would like to pick up the slack a little insofar as it would facilitate the study of budo. ↩
Though it should be noted that these wouldn’t be martial. ↩